Highly allocated bottles—those for which demand outstrips supply—are the unicorns of the wine world. Whether offerings hail from a stellar vintage or from a boutique winery with a cult-like following, these sought-after wines can have wine professionals scrambling to place them on menus and shelves. But what’s the secret sauce to snagging, keeping, and positioning allocated wines? And is it all worth it?
Fostering Relationships Is a Marked Advantage
“Securing allocations is not about tricks or strategies; it’s about continued support and being a good, respectful partner with your suppliers,” says Andy Fortgang, who along with Sergio Licea owns Flor Wines, a retail shop in Portland, Oregon. Maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship via continuous sales throughout the year can yield the opportunity to purchase more difficult-to-acquire wines.
While Braithe Tidwell, the beverage director for the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group in New Orleans, agrees with the philosophy of always being polite, on time, and kind to sales reps, she believes getting your hands on allocations starts with a little sleuthing. “Reach out to your distributor’s sales teams and find out what’s available in your market,” she says. She also suggests managing expectations; some wines just never make it to certain parts of the U.S. because larger, more populous markets end up with the lion’s share. Moreover, laws dictating the rules for allocations vary among the states.
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For example, depending on the vintage, there are only 250 to 450 six-pack cases of Castello Banfi ‘Vigna Marrucheto’ Brunello di Montalcino—the Tuscan winery’s single-vineyard release—imported into the U.S. These are allocated to each region based on the percentage of business as it relates to the sales of Banfi’s Brunello portfolio, explains executive marketing director Lauren Marano. However, there is some flexibility built in to ensure that loyal customers also have access, regardless of market size. “Banfi relies on their distributor partners and the discretion of their sales team to determine the channel mix and accounts where these wines are sold,” says Marano. “It’s most often the best and longest-standing Banfi customers who purchase these wines because ultimately, they are buying for end consumers who are familiar with the portfolio and actively seek them out.”
There is one form of networking and relationship-building that buyers might overlook: going directly to the source. “Reaching out to a wine producer to share how much you love and care about their wines can help ensure that you receive allocations,” says Natalie Tapken, the wine and beverage director for Bluepoint Hospitality Group in Easton, Maryland. “Producers want to know their wines will be placed at restaurants [or in shops] where there is great care and respect.” Contacting a producer directly as well as signing up for a newsletter, following them on social media, and attending their local tastings all show loyalty to a favorite brand—and may keep your restaurant or retail shop top-of-mind for allocation opportunities.
Playing the Allocation Game
Still, Fortgang believes the process can often be distilled down to math. “For some wineries and importers it’s a direct equation: you buy X amount of A, you can get Y amount of B,” he says. While this may make wine seem more like a commodity prone to pay-for-play tactics, it has the intended consequence of parity: assuring there is enough of a really popular wine to go around by also requiring a buyer to stock one that’s much more readily available. And, he says, just as it’s within the rights of an importer or distributor to force your hand, it’s also within your rights as a buyer to bow out.
At Bas Rouge, Bluepoint Hospitality Group’s 24-seat contemporary European restaurant, Tapken is able to receive allocations in part because the wine program supports multiple wines within a given portfolio. “The distributors want to work with trusted people who have taken the time to build a small relationship over time,” she says.
According to Tidwell, distributors and importers will often require a by-the-glass placement or a long-term buying commitment to receive certain allocations. The former can be a great method to encourage experimentation—and a way to appeal to fans of more mainstream, wallet-friendly selections. But signing an agreement to stock or carry certain wines over the long term only works with honesty. “Be transparent—let your reps know the direction of your program and how much you can buy,” she recommends.
Beyond market preferences and stocking requirements, other challenges exist. “Some wineries only want, or mostly want, their wine in restaurants,” Fortgang points out. “Then it’s up to the distributor to honor the request of their supplier, while still keeping their customers happy.” Tidwell and Tapken agree that on-premise placements are seen as more prestigious for some producers. But Rich Martini, a key accounts manager for Tri-Vin Imports in New Rochelle, New York, believes the appeal of on-premise versus off-premise can depend on factors including the amount of business an account does with a supplier as well as how large (and prestigious) they are. The uptick in direct-to-consumer sales also takes a slice from the retail portion.
An unsaid expectation dictates that buyers accept their allocation each year. “If you don’t take it, you can lose it,” says Fortgang. If a buyer opts out, another one will step in who may be upset the following year if you take “their” portion—it’s the wine industry’s version of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Vintage variables also factor in if a region loses a portion of the harvest due to hail, rot, disease or fire.
Still, Tidwell believes exceptions exist. During the pandemic, she was offered an extra allocation of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Though she knew it could jeopardize future offers, she turned it down as the restaurant group was being conservative with every purchase. “Because I was transparent, we were able to stay on the list.”
Are Allocations Worth It?
Once these wines find their way into a shop or a restaurant’s wine cellar, it’s up to the wine professional to market them as a treasure—or a treat. For reasonably priced wines like Château Rayas’ ‘Château des Tours’ Côtes du Rhône, Tidwell takes one of two tacks. “It can either be marked up to match its rarity and therefore boost your cost of goods, or let it be a hidden gem on the menu.” She relishes the chance to see guests get excited about the latter. Tapken also puts an unexpected allocated option on the menu to build loyalty among connoisseurs. While it makes financial sense to hold back higher-end bottles to appreciate in value, she prefers to list all of them to drive up enthusiasm for her program.
On the retail side, the staff at Flor Wines is mindful of not selling an entire allocation to a customer just because they walked in on the right day; instead, they would rather spread the word and open a dialogue. “It’s an opportunity to drive the point home that wine is an agricultural product and there is only so much to go around,” says Fortgang. That also becomes a way to educate disappointed repeat customers when their new favorite wine is gone from the shelf.
An allocation can be a great boost to a wine program, but is it ever worth fighting for? It can be for coveted bottles, Tapken says, but not at the expense of purchasing others you won’t be proud to offer. But Fortgang believes “fighting” isn’t worth it. “It means you’re going about your relationship with the supplier wrong, working against either other and not with each other,” he says. And with so many amazing global wines and the unknown factor of how vintages will develop over time, Tidwell has never fought for an allocation. “It’s best to move on and develop other parts of your list that need work.”
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Kelly Magyarics is a wine, spirits, travel, and lifestyle writer in the Washington, D.C. area who holds the WSET Diploma. You can reach her on her website, kellymagyarics.com and on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.