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01.14.2009

Good Time to Get on Those Winery Mailing Lists

velvet_rope.jpgBuy low, sell high, the saying goes. And don't forget to take advantage of the downturn if you can. I wrote two months ago about how now is a good time to buy wine. The auction markets continue to soften, as my buddy Eric Asimov noted recently.

It also occurs to me, however, that if you were in the habit of or aspire to buy high-end wine, now might also be a great time to get on top winery mailing lists.

The most sought after wines in America are sold almost exclusively to their mailing list customers. Getting on these lists is an exercise in patience and determination, as there is often a long waiting list before you get on the list itself, which gives you the option of buying the wine.

Here's how these lists work. The longer you are on the list, the more wine you are offered to buy. But in order to stay on the list, as well as to get the opportunity to buy more wine (or to buy the specific wine you want) you generally have to buy the wines that are offered to you. The more you buy, the more you are offered next time, and the more chance you have to buy what you really want.

But if you fail to buy your allocation, you slip in the rankings, or sometimes are even booted off the list entirely. Then someone from below you gets offered your wine, and then someone below them moves up, and so on and so forth until you get to the bottom of the list and, presto, someone gets on from the waiting list.

Getting the opportunity to buy highly allocated wines off of a mailing list can take ages. However, because moving through the waiting list onto the main list generally happens only when people fail to buy their allocations, the chances are much better in times when people aren't buying so much expensive wine.

Which, of course, would be right about now.

I'm guessing that there will be more people than usual deciding to skip their biannual purchase of big ticket wines (which assuredly have not dropped in price), which will mean that lots of people will be getting the opportunity to buy that haven't had that opportunity before.

Of course, for the really sought-after wines, it's not people that sign up now that will be getting to buy wine, it's people that signed up a year ago, or two years ago, or in some cases 5 years ago.

But if buying such wines is your thing, you'll move along the list a lot faster, I'm betting, if your name is on it right about now.

If you take my advice and jump on a list and get access to some fabulous wine, feel free to send me a bottle.

Comments (13)

Mike wrote:
01.14.09 at 11:05 PM

Word from the wise, indeed. Harlan Estate, anyone?

Now, if I can just figure out a way to get more Kistler Chards without getting any of the other stuff.....

Greg Dyer wrote:
01.15.09 at 8:57 AM

I'm going to be a devil's advocate for a moment. You recently wrote about the misguided association between wine and social class. But wouldn't the existence of exclusive mailing list-only wines only serve to confirm that wine confers status? Or at least that there is an implicit class stratification amongst wine drinkers? There are those that have the expensive highly allocated wines, and then there are the have nots.

On the other hand, mailing list allocations might well be the best way to distribute cult wines. If sold through typical retail channels, undoubtedly distributors and retailers would mark up the wine significantly at each distribution tier. Mailing lists at least give the serious enthusiasts who've waited an opportunity to get the wine at the winery's "retail" price. Standard distribution would make these wines only available to the wealthiest enthusiasts.

Sherry wrote:
01.15.09 at 4:36 PM

Hello - I have never heard of this mailing list scheme to obtain wine. Can you please respond with a site that does mailing lists or even email me?

About buying low and selling high, does this favourable condition ever appear with top end wines?

ndog wrote:
01.15.09 at 5:55 PM

Like the Kistler Chards but the Kistler Pinots are fantastic and I would love to get a recommendation of other Pinots that are like it. If you have any that you think are similar I would really appreciate the recommendation.

Alder wrote:
01.15.09 at 8:45 PM

Greg,

Just because something is scarce in the marketplace and costs a lot of money doesn't mean that you are special if you happen to be the one who can afford to buy it.

That's the problem I wrote about earlier in the week. People think that somehow because they can afford to buy really expensive wine that somehow makes them cool.

Of course there's a class stratification among wine drinkers -- the wine drinking population isn't immune from that any more than the regular population is. What I object to is anyone making value judgements based on that class structure.

Mailing lists are a great way to distribute wine if you have a wine that is highly sought after in the marketplace. This is true first and foremost, as you indicated, because as the winery you can sell direct to consumers and keep all the profits, as opposed to selling at a discount to some wholesaler or distributor who then marks up the product.

It's also a nice way of keeping a closer relationship with your customers and rewarding those who have the biggest impact on your bottom line.

Your points about the fact that mere mortals can get on the list with enough patience is right on.

Alder wrote:
01.15.09 at 9:45 PM

Ndog,

I'm actually not particularly familiar with the Kistler Pinots, having mostly had their Chardonnays. So I'm afraid I'm not much help.

Morton Leslie wrote:
01.16.09 at 9:02 AM

Story from a guy on the Harlan list told to me. He has been buying his allocation of six bottles every year. Every year he keeps three and sells three to a friend. This year his friend opted out of the deal and, times are tough, so the guy decided to pass on his whole allocation. He was then surprised (actually not surprised after reflection) to see that his "allocation" had now become "no limit."

Dylan wrote:
01.17.09 at 7:30 AM

That connection is rare to most purchases we make today. What I enjoy most about the concept of the mailing list is how it embraces the relationship between producer and consumer, and really rewards them based on their level interest.

Britt wrote:
01.19.09 at 6:22 AM

As a member of several wine lists, I found this thread compelling. I've actually been re-evaluating my membership in many lists. Why? Not because I don't love the wine, but with the struggling economy, I've found that many of these wines can be had at a much more reasonable price if you're willing to do your homework and watch the various auction sites.

Sure, it's a little more work, but how much fine is writing checks?

John wrote:
01.21.09 at 11:53 AM

Good post - I was just debating the same issue with friends the other night. Maybe THIS is the year I get that email from Scarecrow :) Of course, I'm in no position to buy right now ... so in a sense, that would be kind of a bummer.

Tere Lyndon wrote:
01.21.09 at 12:40 PM

This can kind of bite you in the butt. I tasted a DuMOL chard a few years ago in a class that knocked my socks off. This was especially noteworthy because I'm not a big fan of chardonnay - I don't care for *any* big, overly-oaked wine, as most chards at the time seemed to me. This one, however, was sublime, and nothing like any other chard I'd ever tasted.

I looked into getting it and found that there was a supposed 3 to 5 year wait just to get on their list. Filled out a form and completely forgot about it.

In December, they sent me an email saying they were upgrading their website and email systems, and found my address from that long-ago inquiry, and was I interested in being put back on their waiting list? I said sure, why not, maybe in 3 years I'll have more money than I do at the moment.

Two weeks later I got a call from their sale rep and was told I would be getting my first shipment in the spring and how did I want to pay for it? LOL I'm thinking that "3 to 5 year waiting list" is a bit of wishful thinking, and perhaps canny PR on their part.

ScottS wrote:
01.24.09 at 4:32 PM

Many wineries lie about their scarcity by maintaining a mailing list that is actually not that hard to get on. There is no reason to fret about Kistler, Radio-Coteau or Pax just to name three, it seems to me that you can hop on and off as you see fit. Frankly, the Kistler Chards are overrated when you consider how easy it is to buy Peay, Peter Michael, Varner, and others who offer more QPR and less oak without obnoxious one case minimum orders. I might have waited 6 months to get on Aubert and was thankfully offered 2005 Chards and that was about the time that some article was written describing the mystery of Teresa Aubert's mailing list management. I'm not convinced (although 3 vintages of super high scores might mean that I got in at just the right time). Aubert is expensive but the release price to the mailing list is far less than any you might find reatil or in the secondary market and this is actually rare. Pax, among others, have quietly sold some wines on auction sites (winecommune) for 1/3 less than the mailing list price which I found to be rather irritating. So... Alder's advice is sound, but temper it by remembering that there are many great wines out there that sell via mailing list only some of whom are really all that scarce and extra-special.

Here is what you should not do: put up with mailing lists that demand loyalty but offer none, who require you to buy wines you don't really want in a bundle, or who demand minimum purchases that amount to thousands of dollars. Sometimes snobbery is part of the business model -- down with that.

Unsurprisingly, the lists with the longest waits are the true cults like SQN, Marcassin, and various Napa Cabs and those who offer great value like Carlisle, Turley, and Copain.

Bottom line: this is a good time to get on lists, but not all lists are created equal. I've dropped tons of lists this year, but I'm happy to be offered Rhys, Carlisle, and Rivers-Marie, the last of which is entirely due to Alder's recommendation.

Scott K wrote:
01.26.09 at 7:16 AM

I would argue that it is probably a good time to get on ANY winery mailing list. Under difficult financial circumstances, even the smallest and most "regularest" wineries are realizing the necesseties of gaining and retaining the attention of potential customers. Some are replacing the loss of wholesale sales with an increase in online or direct sales as "econ-busters". They can reduce the retail price offerings for their wines yet still make more money on those wines then they were selling at FOB prices to distributors. There are some pretty good deals out there even on (normally priced) $20 - $30 bottles.
It will be interesting to see how many wineries will come out of this economic slump as smarter, more customer-friendly businesses that realize the wines they used to sell on the wholesale market can be sold to people who are much more interested in having those wines then their old wholesale customers were.

That is, if they make it through the slump

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