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Wine Events and Their Role in Finding a U.S. Importer – Attracting a Partner is Not about Colorful Plumage

There are many routes to market in the U.S. This post is about wine events and their role in finding representation.

It never ceases to amaze me that a foreign winery – and this applies to a wine brand owner from any country – will often willingly splurge on an extravagant wine fair, trade show or tasting event without the slightest understanding of what will happen, who is attending and whether it is a beneficial, or even viable, path to finding an importer. I do empathize. If information to the contrary is not readily available to them, the idea of a wine event on U.S. soil seems like a good idea if someone is interested in attracting a U.S. importer. Especially

if it appears to be well promoted or is endorsed by a government trade agency. But after event fees, wine samples, shipping, customs clearance, air fare, hotel and food costs, they very often return to their home country with a fistful of business cards and little else. It is a broad brush approach to something that requires focused, careful attention in the planning and equally meticulous follow up.

Let’s take the government sponsored event, for starters. Trade organizations representing countries or regions can be very helpful in sourcing business, pointing the winery in the right direction or providing tips on the U.S. market, but they can also be much more focused on promoting the whole country than the individual winery. Foreign trade organizations on U.S. soil often represent their locally produced food as well and their knowledge and experience within the wine industry may be limited. As such, the event may include seafood or specialty foods, be loosely organized around a collective national identity and not necessarily attracting the right audience. It may fulfill marketing objectives within their annual budget, but end up with event goals that conflict with a winery exporter. On the positive side, they are non-profit and should be more affordable and, if they have been listening to their constituency or consult with experienced marketers with good connections, it could be a well-attended event.

An independent wine fair will often be splashier, extensively marketed, well organized, in a desirable location and EXPENSIVE. I’ve seen one show charge as much as $48,000 for an exhibitor’s ‘pavilion’. Even a booth is around $3,000. Whether they attract the right audience and a range of potential partners for a new exporter’s products remains in doubt. Even less certain is whether the exporter will ever recoup the expense for such a costly event in wine sales.

There are wine events, fairs or even conventions that are worthwhile, but it requires investigation and preparation. You cannot assume that if someone in the U.S. is organizing it they must know what they’re doing. You cannot assume their goals align with yours. 

How to import wine

As a winery interested in coming to the U.S. for the express purpose of finding representation for your wines, the questions to ask yourself, or event planners, are these:

When is the event held?

Ideally, it should be on the cusp of seasonal buying times and not directly in competition with high profile events in the same week that will draw trade away

Where is the venue? How expensive is it?

It should be somewhere that attracts attendees, but not so expensive as to make it prohibitive to both exhibitor and attendee. Many events are free to the trade to attend.

Who is invited? What is the caliber of invitee and level of interest?

The organizers should ensure that importers and distributors with interest in adding to their portfolios are the main invitees. These are your customers. Without an importer, you cannot be distributed, but often distributors also have their import license. 

Can you get the list of importers and distributors?

Being able to contact them beforehand to let them know you will be exhibiting and where you will be located is the first step in determining interest. Researching their qualifications will also allow you to make some decisions about whether they might be a good fit for your wines.

How many wineries are exhibiting?

There should be sufficient number and diversity to make this an attractive event and a draw card for invitees.

Are consumers included? What is the trade/consumer ratio?

Sometimes a charitable portion is included, or consumers are invited at higher entrance fees, to help defray costs. You must be gracious and pay attention to this segment but this is not your customer and their enjoyment of your wine will not sell it to a wholesale partner. Your entire objective must be to find an importer, whether it’s someone for one state or fifty. Without that, this is a wasted exercise. Anyone else who tries and loves your wines will not be able to find them for sale and will forget about them shortly after the event, or at least long before you are able to ship wine and establish distribution. A wine show is just one way to market. There are many others. However, a winery that relies on this venue as their only way to an importer, without doing their homework, is bound to be disappointed. 

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