In May, Wine Industry Network (WIN) hosted the first-ever 3-Tier Wine Symposium, which brought together key players to address the challenges and opportunities within the existing three-tier distribution system. Inspired by an article written by Laura Webb of Okos Partners (pictured, she also moderated the day), WIN founder and President/CEO George Christie organized a full day of panel discussions that reframed the relationship between suppliers (wineries) and wholesalers (distributors). Webb served as moderator, steering discussions toward actionable answers and successfully avoiding finger-pointing and potential animosity.

The day started broadly, with an overview of the U.S. distribution landscape, before quickly drilling down to finer points, such as how technology is both redefining “retail” and accelerating change within the distribution world. Online shopping has created an “infinite shelf,” explained Cheryl Durzy, founder and CEO of LibDib, and the best way to attract customers is for suppliers and wholesalers to work together.

Representatives from distribution companies, large and small, shared the stage with lobbyists, consultants, winery marketers, and public relations professionals. The mix of vantage points created an effective, well-rounded picture of how the middle tier works—and, sometimes, doesn’t. Topics included how to vet a distributor, successful contract negotiations, and optimizing market visits, but another topic dominated the day.

The theme of partnerships recurred often across the symposium, and much time was spent defining the roles each tier should play. “A distributor isn’t a marketer. That’s your job,” admonished one panelist to the audience, more than 80 percent of which represented small-scale wineries (producing 25,000 cases annually or less). “You create the demand and we deliver the product.”

Another speaker advised wineries to, “Bring a plan to your distributor. Know who and where your customers are.”

“Marketing isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” added another. “Not everyone is destined to be in all 50 states on major retailer shelves. Maybe your niche is by-the-glass in restaurants or boutique wine shops in urban metros. Bring an open mind [to distributor meetings] and be realistic.”

By speaking openly and honestly, and by clearing up misconceptions about what distributors can and can’t do, attendees left with a better idea of how to develop and maintain a strong distributor relationship. “Be a willing partner,” said one speaker. “Bring your ideas and resources to the table, so we can meet you in the middle with our additional resources, and together we can strategize.”

The ultimate message can be summed up by the title of the day’s final panel: “Success Is Not an Accident.”