Devil’s Advocate: How to Charge More for Your Wine

Last week, Robert Joseph suggested that wineries need to do more marketing, but that the prices of too many wines are too low for them to be able to do so. He also promised to provide some thoughts on how to raise prices. Here, in a highly personal piece, he includes a few suggestions based on his own commercial experiences.

Reading time: 5m 30s

Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

We’ll assume that, for the sake of argument, you make a European red, white and rosé that all sell ex-cellars for €3, which would be around $12-15 on the shelf in the US. Their quality is already pretty good – and better than many a €4 or even maybe €5 wine from a more illustrious region - but evidently not sufficiently US-critic-pleasing to have picked up the 95-point scores that might have made a price hike easier to justify.

In any case, like everybody else, you have almost certainly had to raise your price recently to cover increased costs of energy and dried goods and, given the current economic climate, the chances of securing an additional increase seem small.

So, what to do?

Change your routes to market

This may be uncomfortable, but one of the main things holding you back could be the way you distribute your wine. As the Argentine producer Jose Zuccardi discovered nearly two decades ago, selling large volumes through price-conscious UK supermarkets to their similarly price-conscious customers was good for cashflow but bad for profits. So he stopped - like the Champagne house Billecart Salmon which was also once a familiar sight in large retailers. Obviously, moving out of these stores and into more specialist retail and restaurants can lead to a loss in sales volumes, but the higher profits and more premium brand image might be worth it.

More uncomfortable might be the decision to change your agent or importer – quite possibly one you’ve worked with for a long time and think of as a friend. But if their sales team have grown used to yours being a ‘value for money’ product that’s overshadowed by more ‘premium’ wines on their list, it may be hard to alter that way of thinking.

Another answer might, however, lie closer to home. When an Australian winery asked my advice over how to reach an apparently ambitious target they’d set for their export performance, it became clear they could achieve the same financial result simply by selling 10% more of their top wines directly to local consumers.

And lastly, on this theme, you might have to look at the atlas. Maybe there are other countries that offer more opportunities than the ones on which you have been concentrating. I’m British and based in the UK, but Vietnam is currently a more interesting market for my French le Grand Noir wines than my own backyard.

Change your packaging

Once, not so long ago, in more environmentally ignorant times, this would have involved investing in heavier bottles. Like it or not, most consumers still subconsciously associate them with higher quality - and prices. But, today, that argument is harder to justify, and you are going to have to be more creative. We switched our Languedoc Rosé from a clear Bordeaux bottle to a Provence-style model of the same moderate weight and saw an instant uptick in sales. At the same or higher price. After its purchase by EPI, Charles Heidsieck similarly benefited hugely by switching to a more premium-looking bottle.

Create Cuvées

Having just one wine puts you in a cage, especially if you are in a European appellation region. Making a reserve and a second wine gives you some invaluable flexibility, but so does being able to offer slightly different alternative styles, quite possibly including ones that step outside the appellation. Look around France today at the number of premium and super-premium Vins de France. It may be easier to sell a Vin de France orange wine or a Pet Nat for €5 than the €3 AOP still white you’ve been making in the same vineyards – and without spending any money on oak to mature them in. Of course these ‘alternative styles will sell in far smaller quantities, but their presence in your portfolio at €5 or €6 might help you to add another 50 cents or so onto the AOP wine. And your Vin de France doesn't have to be an 'alternative' style. There are plenty of examples of the same wine being sold as IGP and Vin de France, depending on the customer.

The idea of selling the same wine under different designations is happening increasingly frequently. Again, from my own experience, we had to choose between labelling a reserve wine as AOP Languedoc or AOP Minervois; both were legally appropriate. Some markets prefer the former; others the latter. We chose to go with Languedoc, but there’s nothing to stop us from bottling an alternative version as Minervois if and when importers in a particular market asked us to.

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Having a super premium wine can make it easier to sell volumes of cheaper fare that basks in its reflected glory. The $33 Domaine des Heritiers du Comte Lafon Mâcon Blanc certainly benefits from being from the same stable as a Montractet selling for over 100 times that price. The same, of course has always applied to Bordeaux ‘second wines’ and, more recently, Sacha Lichine’s Whispering Angel which was launched more or less alongside his Garrus, then the priciest rosé in the world. Today, Lichine makes a range of pink wines at Château d’Esclans, and his loyal customers debate online whether or not they prefer his les Clans ($70) to Garrus ($120), rather than wonder how they came to be happily shelling out at least $70 – a price they’d once have found unthinkable  - for a rosé.

Could you make a few barrels of €10 wine and one of super-premium €30 fare to set alongside your €3 stock-in-trade without diminishing that wine’s quality? This would depend on the size and quality of your vineyards and your viticultural and winemaking skills, but many producers have found that creating small quantities of a flagship wine that may be irrelevant to their financial bottom line has done wonders for the image of their brand, while helping them to raise the image and the price of the wine on which their business relies. Ignore the critics who love to pour scorn on the idea of ‘icon wines’ and devote a bit of time to studying the history of producers like Gerard Bertrand in southern France. Bertrand is a master when it comes to reaping the financial benefits of promoting appellations, but you could learn too, from Californians who are increasingly exploiting their region’s growing number of AVAs.

Get rated

The voices that tell you not to make an icon wine are often the ones that will proclaim that scores are a thing of the past. Don’t listen to them. You may not get a 95, but we just received a 92-point rating from the Wine Enthusiast for our $12-13 Le Grand Noir Chardonnay 2022. Is that wine dramatically better than the 2021? No. But did that score instantly help us to boost sales of that wine in the US? Yes.

So, enter competitions and send samples to critics, bearing in mind the audiences they are likely to attract. And, given the costs involved, do so judiciously. If your red or your reserve is more likely to get the medal or the points, then that’s the wine to submit. But, on the other hand, if your white or pink regularly fails to gain recognition, maybe it’s time to reconsider whether it’s really as good as you think it is. Competitions, in particular, are a pretty cost-effective way to benchmark your wines.

Lastly… marketing

So, you’ve got a gold medal, or a listing in a top restaurant, or a great review. Who knows about it? Your US importer may be uninterested in your Michelin star listing in Belgium, but it might just help their sales team grab the attention of an ambitious sommelier in Denver. Producing a newsletter that goes out to all your distributors that offers news, stories and background information to your wines will cost almost nothing. But it may add to their value. As will adding this kind of information to your website (most of which are far too rarely updated) and posting it on social media like Instagram, Linkedin and – in some markets – Facebook or another locally popular platform.

None of this is easy, but it’s worth giving at least some of it a try.


Robert Joseph believes the wine industry could learn from the way successful movies are marketed.

Reading time: 2m 30s



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