Sunday, May 1, 2011

Barriques: Finn and Matt bring great wine to Madison’s masses – Part III of III

MadisonWineScene (MWS) recently interviewed Finn Berge, co-owner of Barriques, (, @barriques on Twitter, at the Monroe Street location (1831 Monroe Street, Madison, WI 53711, 608-284-9463) about their wine business.

Previous posts discussed Barriques’ place in the Madison wine market and how Finn’s tastes affect Barriques’ selection of wines. This posting discusses the role of wine importers and wine distributors.

MWS: If I am a small producer of excellent wines in Italy, how would I get my wine on Barriques’ shelves in Madison?
Finn: It goes through a couple of different tiers.  

The importer – someone like Kermit Lynch or Eric Solomon – while touring the area will research the market, or will ask their current winemakers (if they are willing to have their offerings be challenged within the same portfolio) to give up some names of who is doing good stuff in the area. Then the importer will go knock on the door, introduce themselves, tell them of their interest in the product, and then arrange for the product to be shipped.  They have to be able to supply enough – picking it up, putting it on a ship, marketing it – there has to be enough to market. You can't be too small a producer – at least a couple of thousand cases.  Then they present it to the in-state distributor who sells it to retailers like Barriques for sale to the final consumer.

Importers are not interested in one-time deals – they want assurance that the grower can provide the same quality next year and maintain the reputation. If the product starts to take off does the winery have the growth potential?

MWS: What about Madison wine customers who want you to get them a certain wine?
Finn:  What I call the hail-Mary wines – a customer walks in and says “I had this great little Vernaccia in San Gimignano – can you get it for me?” My first question is “Have you bought it in the US?” If it hasn’t gotten into the US it is a dead subject.  Even if it has gotten into the US, but is only sold in a different state like New Jersey, it is still a dead subject because of the state-by-state regulation of wine, which is considered a controlled substance.

A wine has to be locally distributed in Wisconsin for Barriques to be able to get it in Madison.

Another problem is that the labels may not be consistent – the same wine may have a different label in Europe than the one used to sell it in the US.

MWS: Are there certain wines you can not get access to – because of allocations?
Finn: Oh yes.  

There are certain wines where you have to pay to play. Guigal would be a prime example.  You have to move a lot of Cotes du Rhone and other wines if you even want a shot at their better wines like La Mouline, and usually those wines are sold to the same customer every year like the American Club at Kohler, or individuals with large cellars.

MWS: How many different importers/distributors do you work with?
Finn:  Solidly --  about 14.  The game changes every year – who is carrying what, who has got what? Wineries get mad at distributors, and distributors get mad at wineries.

The distributors have a lot of clout – all the cards are in their hands. Wisconsin distributors are probably the second most powerful liquor lobby after California’s.

Unlike the larger states, we have been seeing a fragmentation of distributors in Wisconsin with lots of smaller distributors popping up.  It will be interesting to see how long they survive in the current economy with their needs for credit and for bonding. It is a high-risk business.

MWS: How often do distributors come by with wines for you to taste?
Finn: Bi-weekly on Tuesdays

MWS: How many wines do you taste on those days?
Finn: I taste between 100 and 125 different wines in one sitting.

I had to start limiting the distributors. Some of them would show up with a case and a half to two cases of different wines for me to go through.  I have come down to the theory that I don’t want them throwing mud at the wall. I want them coming through the door thinking “I have six wines that I have chosen wisely and that he will end up buying all six selections of mine.”  

At each tasting, about 65 % will be new offerings and the rest will be new vintages of what I have sold before. So I will be tasting, tweeting, putting information in my database, and talking to the distributor and the winemaker if they are there.  

The biggest difference between what I do with my tasting notes and most other wine stores, especially the big box stores is that their note cards are written by the different distributors and there is no consistency, and they are trying to spin-doctor it, and the point score is the largest thing on the card.  

Also, they might make less effort in learning the wines, because once the few cases of that wine are gone, they will not be replaced, so they don’t invest the time in learning their wines.

MWS: What are you looking for in those tastings?
Finn: When I write my tasting notes I base it on what I think the typical profile should be.  

I rarely get influenced by the label or the bottle or the producer.  It’s more: in my mind this is Barolo and therefore it has to have this typical profile come through, and so you find yourself looking for that profile.

MWS: To what extent are Barriques customers driven by wine ratings?
Finn: Some are.  

I have had customers get mad and say “How do I know what to buy since you don’t have any points on here?” My answer is that I want you to learn what you like, not what people tell you what you should like. Trust what you like.  

Another interesting case was this guy who really likes Cloudy Bay – which is owned by Veuve Clicquot – and really does a ton of marketing.  So one Friday, when this guy had confirmed his attendance, we did a blind tasting and Cloudy Bay was one of the wines in the lineup, and it turned out that that was the wine he disliked most!

1 comment:

  1. I really had no idea about the wine distribution in WI - or the power of liquor lobby. Nice work MWS.