With big budgets and bulk orders, corporations and other businesses have long been lucrative wine sales targets. But over the last three years, amidst the shift to remote and hybrid work, corporate wine sales have flourished—even as they’ve largely gone unnoticed and untracked statistically.
This B2B phenomenon is serviced by three distinct sectors of the wine trade: individual wineries, online and brick-and-mortar wine retailers, and business concierge services. The three have jointly cultivated a community of major corporations annually purchasing millions of dollars of wine and services for planning, staging, and conducting virtual, live, and hybrid tasting events at what appears to be an unprecedented level.
“Last year we sold more than 12,000 bottles of wine and 1,300 of spirits for corporate gifts and events in 76 countries,” says Alexandra Schrencengost, who founded Culture With Us, a concierge-style event-planning and fulfillment business, two years ago when she saw an unfulfilled business need.
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Gary Fisch, the CEO and founder of the New Jersey-based retailer Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, says, “We find that companies love to delight their employees or clients with a well-curated wine and gourmet food gifts, particularly if the gift includes a customized aspect, such as company branding or a personalized gift note.”
Individual wineries are also quickly discovering a whole new sales opportunity beyond direct-to-consumer (DTC) and distribution to on- and off-premise trade. “Last year, corporate accounts generated about as much revenue as one of our tasting rooms,” says Vida DeLong, the VP of DTC sales for Far Niente in Napa Valley.
Surprisingly, these individual wineries, retailers, and concierges all appear to be serving the same tier of business clients—companies that constitute a who’s who of corporate America, including Amazon, Meta, Google, Twitter, Pfizer, Netflix, and Intel, to name a few. “Industries we serve include banking and financial services, telecom, construction and building materials, software, cybersecurity, and medical fields,” says Kimberly Whistler, the VP of marketing for premium Napa Valley producer Cliff Lede Vineyards.
Virtual Events Continue to Drive Corporate Wine Sales
While online events sprung up out of necessity in the early days of the pandemic, they’ve persisted even as businesses have reopened and in-person socialization has returned. This has created a lasting opportunity for concierge companies, many of which offer virtual events and corporate gifting. They almost never ship wines themselves, instead partnering with wineries or retailers to do that.
“We have two corporate targets—what I call human resources culture for gifts and employee retention and sales culture,” says Schrecengost. “Lots of corporations are still employing a hybrid culture, and we have had hybrid event orders for as small as 20 employees or as large as 500. One event in Finland involved 200 people in person.”
Although Culture With Us does not rebottle or ship wines, it tracks all event shipments, including food products. Many producers provide specialty bottlings. “Some of the wineries we work with include Hall, Laurent-Perrier, Longmeadow Ranch, and McBride Sisters,” she says.
Another wine concierge company, Confetti, attracts customers who want to buy tasting and other event kits and prefer ordering online, with lots of options to choose from.
“Our platform is self-serve, so they can customize and get an instant price quote, ordering what they want in just a few clicks,” says Jessa Bock, the community and communications specialist for Confetti. Bock says Confetti started in 2014 as an in-person events company and has since grown to 50 employees servicing around 500 companies. “We have done up to 800 events in a single week during holidays,” says Bock, “and we also have a gifting collection.”
B2B is big business, says Jamie Cegelski-Gaebe, who launched Priority Experiences in 2020 as a virtual outgrowth of Priority Wine Pass, which provides winery visit deals for customers. “Our niche is we help companies use virtual experiences—wine and otherwise—to sell their products,” she says. “I’m teaching them to sell virtually—a huge business opportunity.”
Working with wineries and third-party retailers, events such as blind tastings, blending exercises, and trivia contests may use one- to four-ounce bottles of wine. Cegelski-Gaebe urges wineries to retain customer lists to promote sales and winery visits, and wineries can always provide follow-up hospitality if corporate customers visit in person. In one instance, she says, “I billed the client a million, but they made $23 million.”
Maximizing the Potential of Corporate Gifting
Although many retailers have been slow to cultivate even local corporate accounts, those with a strong online presence have become major players, especially among companies wanting wine gifts for employee incentives and as marketing tools. These buyers generally need fewer services, although they may ask retailer assistance in providing remote tutorials.
Wine.com, for example, provides an online gifting platform for clients with 25 or more recipients, and it ships individual bottles and gift baskets nationwide. A gift specialist is available, but the company warns it may take two to three days to respond.
“It was not until 2020 that we really began to consider corporate gifting its own business line and focus on its growth,” says Fisch, of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace. “We began offering virtual wine tastings for organizations, and we positioned ourselves operationally to handle corporate bulk orders of all types.”
“Our most popular categories for corporate are California Cabernet Sauvignon, Champagne, and Italian wines,” he continues. “We also see many companies choosing to include specialty, gourmet items in their gifts, and we also offer fun add-ons for corporate gifts, such as branded corkscrews and bottle stoppers.” Although not offering the same range of services as the concierges, Gary’s Wine and Marketplace conducts virtual events, as do many other online retailers.
Schrecengost says Culture With Us’ sweet spot is companies that need guidance. “A big complaint by companies in the past is that they couldn’t get advice, and they love [that] we provide that,” she says. “We give white-glove service.” For gifting, a typical Culture with Us order would be a red, white, and sparkling three-pack, all from different producers.
Whistler says Cliff Lede typically has at least 20 to 30 companies placing major wine orders annually. During 2022, she says, an average gift was about $140 for wine before shipping, often one red and one white. “But some corporate buyers have been generous this holiday,” she adds. “We had one customer gift our Cliff Lede Cabernet Sauvignon, Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard magnums to an entire executive team, and another sent library Cliff Lede Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District magnums to colleagues.”
“Our business is about fifty-fifty between gifting and events,” says Far Niente’s DeLong, “although events have fallen off a bit. A key segment for us, and one that is growing, is realtors. There were a lot of houses being sold in 2022!” Companies located close to wine regions, as San Francisco is to Napa Valley and Sonoma wineries, also like to have events at wineries or gift winery visits, DeLong says.
Relationships Are Key to Growing Corporate Accounts
While there are few barriers to entry for new startups, having strong relationships within the wine trade is key. “Our wine club manager has gotten to know hundreds of members and knows when to reach out to them about their annual corporate orders,” says Whistler.
The major challenge for corporate accounts, she adds, is rising shipping prices—also a problem for the DTC channel. “Corporate orders can get complicated very quickly, so it’s important to have procedures and an organized system to facilitate the process,” cautions Fisch. Controlling shipping costs and deciding how to incorporate them into billing remains a headache.
But, in spite of inflation and increased corporate layoffs, none of the companies interviewed see any major slowness in growth—at least not yet. “COVID propelled virtual experiences, and we haven’t seen a slowdown in corporate business,” says Cegelski-Gaebe.
“It helps that lots of corporations still have hybrid work models,” adds Schrecengost.
And DeLong thinks the growth in competition is an indication that the corporate market remains healthy. “2023 promises to be very busy,” she says, “and we keep testing new ways to stay ahead of the game.”
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Roger Morris is a Delaware-based writer who for the past 20 years has contributed articles on wine, food, and popular culture to about a dozen publications in the U.S. and Europe. Currently, he writes for World of Fine Wine, Drinks Business, Meininger’s, VinePair, Wine & Spirits, and Global Drinks Intel, among others. In prior years, he taught writing at Arizona State University and the University of Delaware and was an industry marketing executive.