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Waiting for Mailing Lists: Absurdity or War of Attrition?

Recently, Forbes Magazine published one of their common articles-cum-slideshows entitled "Exceptional Hard-To-Find Wines" in which they outlined some of the hardest to get and most expensive wines of the world. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that such an article belongs more in the Robb Report than it does in Forbes, the article offered an impressive for the aspiring, or merely curious, businessperson to print out and hand to their secretary along with their American Express Black card.

The wines, which included many of the usual cult suspects (Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, Krug) were listed with their current release prices and case productions / US import allocations (very high, and very low, respectively).

One other interesting fact was on offer -- the length of the wait in order to get onto some of their mailing lists to purchase wines upon release. Here are some of those figures:

Bryant Family Vineyards: 7000 people on the waiting list
Colgin: 3000 people on the waiting list
Harlan Estates: two to three years wait to get on the list

There are plenty of other California wineries whose wines aren't quite as expensive as those in this Forbes article, but whose waiting lists run just as long, from Sine Qua Non to Turley Wine Cellars.

The question, of course, is whether the folks who actually jump onto these lists as #70001 or #3436 are totally insane. Or not.

I'm the kind of guy who doesn't like to wait for a walk-in table at most restaurants for more than half an hour, and I could come up with about nine million things I'd rather do than stand in endless lines at places like Disneyland. Although I will admit I did stand on a three hour line to get into the Japan Robotics Expo in 2000, that was an anomaly, and a feat I most certainly wouldn't undertake again, now that I'm seven years wiser. So it will come as no surprise that the idea of being thousandth in line for the chance to purchase a bottle or two seems like a pretty ridiculous idea to me.

Of course, the nice thing about these waiting lists is that you don't have to actually stand on line, or constantly speed-dial repetitively like a diner desperate for a two-month-out French Laundry reservation. You simply put your name on the list, and when it's your time, they send you a mailer and tell you which wines you have the opportunity to purchase.

For those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of highly "allocated" winery mailing lists, here's how it works. Most such wineries sell the majority of their wines directly to individuals and to a very few select restaurants, and more rarely, retailers. After pulling aside those wines that go to businesses, these wineries make them available to their mailing list customers, starting with the best customers and moving downwards to the least best. What does it take to be a winery's best mailing list customer? It's simple: you have been buying every wine they have offered you for as long as possible. Most of these wineries have folks who have been on their mailing lists since Day One, and who have bought every possible bottle they could get their hands on. It is to these rabid fans that wineries offer both their greatest selection of wines to purchase (if they make more than one wine) and also the opportunity to purchase wines in the greatest number.

When releasing wines, wineries simply work their way down the mailing list in chunks, making offers to each group of customers. If you buy your full allocation of wine, you maintain your relative place "in-line." If you purchase less than your allocation, or especially if you decline to purchase, you can sometimes slip downwards in line, which is also how people who DO purchase their full allocation move up in line, and also how you eventually get onto the mailing list off of the long waiting list. It's a war of attrition.

Most of these highly allocated wineries have more people on their mailing list than they have wine to offer, so it's not uncommon for folks who get on the mailing list but who hesitate to place their order sometimes don't end up getting any wine. I'm only on a couple of mailing lists (not for anything fancy, I promise you) but just the other day I waited a couple of weeks after getting my mailer before going online to buy a couple of bottles from one of my favorite Sonoma wineries and lo and behold, the wine I wanted was no longer available. Snoozed and lost, I did.

But let's get back to the question at hand. What purpose would be served by me jumping on the Harlan Estate mailing list, for instance? If things "work out" perhaps in three years I might get a little brochure in the mail saying "Welcome to the Harlan Estate Mailing list. Your allocation for 2011 is: One (1) Bottle. Please send your check for $450 to us as soon as possible." That is, provided I haven't changed addresses or fallen out of love with California Cabernet.

Even though it is discouraged, many people simply turn around and sell their allocations of highly valuable wine like Harlan for a tidy profit, which is what I could do, theoretically if I ever did get on the list but didn't end up wanting the wine. Some wineries even monitor the secondary market and reduce the allocations of folks who simply resell, though this is tough to police, as Anne Colgin points out the Forbes article.

I think at the end of the day there's nothing wrong with getting on these long waiting lists, just as long as you're not doing it with a desperate desire and hope. As for me, I can't be bothered, simply based on principle: there's far too much good wine in the world that anyone can buy to waste the time, energy, and hope on a queue that stretches into years.

Of course those desperate to taste these wines can always just go to the big auctions with a well lubricated credit card, or a very diligent and patient secretary.

Read the full article.

Comments (8)

Screwcap wrote:
04.09.07 at 8:45 AM

Let them drink Yellow Tail.

Arthur wrote:
04.09.07 at 9:49 AM

While I appreciate the principle of Allocation lists as a 'democratic' way of selling wines, I cannot overlook it as a marketing tool. If there is no demand, create one. Granted that many of these wines deserve their following. Urgency and exclusivity motivate the buyer, nonetheless.

Jack wrote:
04.09.07 at 8:19 PM

"What purpose would be served by me jumping on the Harlan Estate mailing list, for instance?" None, because you're not a bottle-chaser nor a cult-wine fanatic or wanabee. I'll go on - many/most of the wines you'd like to purchase (and have the funds for) are fairly easy for you to acquire. Simply put, you're just not a mailing list guy.

Also, I think you're almost misleading people into thinking there are MANY wineries with mailing lists/wait lists; that's not true. There are many, many more US wineries with Wine Clubs (a huge step below Mailing List status)...these are the guys whose wine isn't as in demand - in general, they haven't been annointed by Parker or Laube and/or don't make super minisclue amounts of wine.

Small side note: I do not believe Harlan allocates just 1 bottle...Colgin and Williams Seylem have done that, though.

Jack wrote:
04.09.07 at 8:22 PM

"Most wineries have more people on their mailing list than they have wine to offer,"

No, few wineries have that enviable position.

Also, there are really two things here: Mailing Lists with Small Allocations and Mailing Lists with Big/Unlimited Allocations.

Alder wrote:
04.09.07 at 8:25 PM


You're right to correct me - my comments were really meant to be restricted to wineries that are highly allocated and have waiting lists for mailing list membership. It certainly is true that many wineries have mailing lists that are easy to join and that offer ample opportunity for their members to purchase as much wine as they wish.

The Corkdork wrote:
04.09.07 at 9:05 PM

Ah, Alder, you've touched a nerve for me! I have a couple tales to tell to show the absurd side of the allocation process. The first is just weird...I signed up for the Turley list in 1997 and got right on. I have gotten a small allocation, still bigger than I can drink, store, or afford, so I spread it around my friends. No big deal, but my brother signed up at the very same time, and never got on to the list. Even when I spoke to them about it, they never relented. It was as if they thought I was trying to scam two allocations. Umm...we're just brothers that both love wine. Here we are, ten years later, no Turley for him! (OK, he gets it from me anyway). Weird.

The frustrating thing, is that I keep up my Turley allocation by buying ten or so bottles for myself every year, and occasionally, I see the same bottle, for less money, in my local wine shop. Ooh, that makes me feel so special!

The list I gave up on is the Williams Selyems list. The last time I ignored their allocation, they sent me such a snooty letter, saying in effect, " Don't you realize how special this is that we allow you to buy our wine?" Forget it. there is way too much wine in the world for their attitude.

I'll trade you some Turley for one of them Eagles!

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
04.11.07 at 4:48 PM

Based on the above comments there seems to be this common notion that wineries start out with exclusive mailing lists. The truth is most wineries do not. The mailing lists begin as a means to contact would-be consumers. Many people are added, some drop off. Only in rare cases does a winery get to the point where it sells most of its wine from a mailing list and more rare is the winery with a wait list. Above, Arthur suggests that creating an exclusive mailing list somehow creates demand for your wine. This could not be further from the truth. Many wineries are founded on the 'build it and they will come' dream, in most cases reality delivers a sharp slap in the face. It is demand that gives birth to the exclusive mailing list. This demand arises from shrewd marketing not vice versa.
The point that is really being missed is that a vast majority of wineries do not want to sell thier wines to retailers and to lesser extent restuarants, they want to sell to you directly. This is the most profitable means of distribution and mailing lists are the easiest way to accomplish this ( followed by wineclubs and tasting rooms ). As a winery, getting to the point of allocated direct sales is where we ( all ) want to be.
Feel free to hate the big boys for being snooty and exclusive but understand most wineries are wishing each day they could do the same thing.

Arthur wrote:
04.11.07 at 5:25 PM

You arguments are solid, Jerry.
It would have been better, on my part, to ensure that none of my words implied that an allocation list alone will create demand.
Would you agree, Jerry, that allocation lists can be part of that shrewd marketing which capitalizes on demand and ensures that a winery will sell all its wine from a given vintage?

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