The Do’s and Don’ts of Bulk Wine Sampling, a Step-by-Step Overview

One of the most friction-filled aspects of bulk wine and shiner sales is the sampling process. Given that virtually every such transaction we’ve facilitated begins with a buyer requesting a sample, this process is, in our view, an under-appreciated competency that can set your winery and bulk wine sales program apart. Likewise, as a buyer –particularly if a first-time buyer—it’s advantageous to better familiarize yourself with the sampling process. This know-how will help you streamline your decision-making and potentially avoid logistical and financial headaches.

Step 1: Sample Requests

Whether from an existing network of sellers, or from a resource like WineBusiness.com or GrapeConnect, buyers will typically reach out for samples via email, phone, or on GrapeConnect: via tailored sample-request functionality (shameless plug). Sellers will almost always cover the full cost of preparing and shipping samples to qualified buyers, more on this later.

Before requesting a sample, buyers should be (at least roughly) cognizant of a seller’s minimum order requirements –particularly if seeking a relatively small quantity. For reference, most bulk wine sellers on GrapeConnect specify a 275-gallon minimum order requirement, a common plastic tote sizing option for transport.

Once the buyer is ready to request a sample, they should proactively provide the following information in the initial request (streamlined in an easy, step-by-step wizard if using GrapeConnect):

  • Which lot/lots of wine they’re interested in sampling
  • Buyer’s name and winery name
  • Shipping address
  • Bonded Winery Number (BWN): most sellers will not (and should not) ship to unlicensed buyers; buyers should also be aware of potential laws in their state that would prevent a successful bulk wine transaction from materializing
  • Number of samples desired: the buyer should understand how many samples to request based on who will need to taste the wine as a part of the decision-making process; it is most courteous of the seller’s time and incurred shipping expense to ask for additional samples upfront as opposed to over multiple shipments.
  • Quantity desired, in the event that the sample fits the buyer’s program and both parties can come to terms.
  • Sought price range, if pricing of the sampled product is not provided upfront. If the buyer’s expectations are far off from the seller’s acceptable range, best to avoid the wasted time on both sides.
  • Any timeline constraints that the seller should know about regarding the consideration of the sample or the final bulk wine purchase.

Step 2: Sample Fulfillment

Sellers should be mindful to embrace some type of system to track their sample requests, as management exclusively through email, text, or phone can become quite difficult when dealing with a high volume of inquiries and will inevitably lead to errors or lost opportunities. On GrapeConnect, sellers leverage the Sample Requests tab and respective Sample Request Managers to stay on top of the process from start to finish.

Samples can be pulled on a monthly basis, prior to an advertising effort, or on an as needed basis. Once a seller elects to send a sample to an inquiring would-be buyer, winery lab personnel (if available) typically process the sample request. The requested wine is recorded, the tank is identified, and the sample is obtained and labeled. When labeling the sample, sellers would be well-served to include the following information on the sample itself, or on a package-insert:

  • Varietal/s (helpful to include % of each if a blend)
  • Vintage
  • Region/Appellation
  • Total quantity available
  • Price
  • Seller name and contact info
  • Lot ID/Code, if applicable

Ideally, the sample will be representative of the lot of wine for sale and be collected and presented in a time frame that is in line with the age and stage of the wine.  Filtered, stable wine samples will last longer in a bottle than wine at other stages or levels of preservation (Sulfur Dioxide).

The most successful sellers will also be consistent in their material selection and process to obtain and package samples. We understand that it may be tempting to reach for whatever extra glass you have lying around but having a repeatable procedure will come off more professionally to the buyer and avoid errors. We see this as especially true with choice of closure –an all too common error we see are buyers receiving empty sample bottles, realizing that all the wine has leaked out! This is an easily preventable error that demands additional time, expense and might even ruin the chance of a successful deal.

Samples are then packaged (possibly with tasting notes) for shipping with UPS, FedEx, GSO, etc. to the requesting winery/winemaker. From our experience, sellers almost always cover the expense of drawing and shipping the sample, provided the requester is a viable potential buyer (see above regarding being properly licensed, able to meet seller’s minimum order requirements, etc.). We have, in a minority of instances, seen sellers request that buyers cover the cost of shipping the samples if they have not worked together in the past. As a buyer, you can assume that there will not be a cost associated with requesting samples unless the seller tells you otherwise.

The most successful sellers then supply tracking information to the buyer. Considering that shipments of alcohol must be signed for, this information allows for schedule preplanning as well as the ability to track a sample down if it has ended up in the warehouse versus the tasting room or vice versa, for example. Regardless of the given scenario, on GrapeConnect, this tactic has shown to expedite the sampling process and increase the likelihood of a successful transaction.

Step 3: Sample Request Management & Transition to Order Processing

After the requester receives the wine, the seller needs to follow-up, generally around a week later via phone or email (for those without GrapeConnect, as our platform has automatic and action-based follow-up notifications built into the Sample Request Manager). Follow-up contact typically yields a “yes”, “no”, request for an additional sample, or something along the lines of “reach out again in ‘x’ days”. These results should be tracked and recorded somewhere, as previously mentioned.

Throughout the sampling process, the buyer should proactively communicate with the seller, even if the sample has not yet arrived or is still under consideration. Do you need a lab report, breakdown of the oak regiment, or other pertinent information prior to finalizing a purchase? Successful buyers keep a healthy stream of dialogue open with the seller, including feedback if the sample is not a fit for their program. We see many buyers shy away from providing this needed feedback, as it’s understandably uncomfortable. However, out of respect for the seller’s time, it’s a critically courteous action that will be appreciated. It’s fine to keep your “no” generic and pleasant, however –you might be surprised by the result of sharing more information on why it’s a “no”…we’ve seen numerous deals materialize after an initial “no”, as the seller might have other lots for the buyer to consider.

What about if it’s a “yes”? Once an order is confirmed, the details of price, wine, quantity, billing and shipping information, payment terms, transport method/responsibility/cost, target SO2 levels, and delivery timing need to be determined, recorded and edited as the process moves along. Many of these can be outlined on a pro forma invoice/simple bulk wine sales agreement. One of the biggest challenges for sellers in this part of the process can be taking care to ensure that the wine that was sampled and approved for purchase is the same wine that eventually gets shipped. There can be considerable time and cellar movements/operations that take place between receiving the order and shipping the wine. Anyhow, that’s a topic for another day!

What else? Have any feedback or other insights to share on bulk wine sampling? Leave a comment below!

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