Winery mailing lists live at the crossroads of privileged access and blind consumerism. High demand, limited release, and cult wines combined with unnavigable distribution challenges to spawn a “mailing list” culture that left some wineries with powerful sets of marketing and distribution crutches. At its most functional, direct to consumer marketing makes it easier for small wineries (short on leverage in traditional distribution channels) to move wines into the hands of eager consumers. And at the surface, the system appears to work for consumers and winemakers alike:
- Consumers: steady access for devoted fans willing to purchase every vintage at non-discounted prices while absorbing distribution expense
- Winemakers: direct-to-consumer distribution channel builds consumer loyalty and and eliminates revenue sharing with the (minimally) 3-tier distribution system
Multiple year waits for closed lists became commonplace with consumers willing to cue up for access. Once consumers qualify for mailing list membership, they better purchase every single vintage or watch their hard earned allocations shrink or, even worse, disappear in future releases. This is where the mailing list marketplace requires a style of blind loyalty that can ultimately fail consumers.
Buying the same auto manufacturer’s mini van for 25 consecutive years despite design changes, occasional manufacturing failures, or shifting family profiles is analogous to winery mailing list patronage
Last month’s gathering of our Boston blind tasting group underscored the advantages tilting mailing list membership in favor of wine sellers and away from wine consumers. We tasted six delicious Muscadets in the first flight, and followed up with a short vertical of five Williams Selyem zinfandels and a 1993 Ridge Lytton Springs. This tasting highlighted 5 reasons winery mailing lists can fail consumers:
- 2008 Williams Selyem Forchini
- 2007 Williams Selyem Papera
- 2006 Williams Selyem Forchini
- 2005 Williams Selyem Feeney
- 2003 Williams Selyem Forchini
I am certain there are people that will like or love these wines. Robert Parker did, awarding all these vineyard designated zinfandels between 90-92 points. I hated them. Alcohols ranged from 14.8%-16.2%, and while there was some varietal berry and often prune flavors, they were hot and bold wines sans finesse or interesting nuance. So how did they end up in my cellar?
I joined the Williams Selyem mailing list in the 1980’s when Burt Williams’ and Ed Selyem’s pinot noirs ranked as some of the most interesting and hard to get domestic wines. I regularly purchased the wines made by these two regular, suspender wearing, down to earth, attention shunning, homespun wine personalities. It was a privilege, in all ways, to have access and to drink their wines. The burden of their exploding business, nothing even similar to the conditions that existed when they launched in a garage, lead them to sell in 1998 for almost $10M to a wealthy New York politician who immediately expanded the program, cranked the alcohol, and debuted with a few less than desirable releases.
When I didn’t buy my first vintage, a letter arrived from Williams Selyem. They suggested I rethink my vintage-skipping strategy or face banishment from the list so some newbie, sitting impatiently on the waiting list, can release their pent up spending energy with a brand new celebratory allocation. I was kicked off the Leonetti mailing list for this same reason, missing one vintage, even though I had purchased regularly and religiously during the years when they really needed me most. So I started buying Williams Selyem pinots again, now at inflated prices of $60-$90 after shipping and tax. To protect my coveted and credential-rich Williams Selyem mailing list member number that is tossed around wine geek crowds just like a right-of-passage mention of a 1959 Latour drank 5 years back, I started buying the winery’s zinfandels. I had found better pinot for less money all over California and Europe. So for years, simply to protect my ability to buy one more Williams Selyem wine, I bought the zinfandels blindly without opening even one….until this tasting.