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.