The marketing engines of the wine industry love to promote the ideal that happy little winemakers make wine from around 10 a.m. until just about lunch time and spend the remainder of the day lounging on their redwood decks (or in their châteaux or villas or bodegas depending on their country of origin) looking over neat, green rows of vines.
Sorry to remove the varnish, but while the wine industry may have a kernel of love and passion deep within it, it’s about moving cases. Wines of any consequence are conceived, produced, packaged and priced to hit your dinner table in sufficient numbers to sustain the operation (and any number of intermediate businesses). If a wine can’t successfully navigate its way through the distribution matrix, failure is assured.
And you would not immediately think such unromantic visions of winemaking when you meet the attractive, toned and smiling Suzanne Phifer Pavitt, but she is acutely aware of the bare-knuckled realities of the wine business.
“My decision upfront was no distributorship and all the unpleasantness and compromises involved,” said Phifer Pavitt, owner of Phifer Pavitt Wines based in Napa Valley, Calif., on a recent visit to Atlanta. “We decided we would sell direct…. I know that it is a very slow path, direct to consumer, but we wanted to maintain as much control as possible over how our product was sold.”
That was five years ago when Phifer Pavitt started the Date Night label with her husband Shane Pavitt. Her methodical tortoise v. hare strategy worked. Between its sauvignon blanc ($30) and cabernet sauvignon ($80) labels, the winery produces 1,000 cases of Date Night, quadrupling its initial offering. Every drop is lapped up by Phifer Pavitt’s 2,000-member mailing list.
Standing on the precipice of a significant expansion, Phifer Pavitt has opened the door ever so slightly to more traditional distribution channels. The Ringgold native will soon see her wines in select restaurants and even more select retail outlets in Georgia. Clearly animated when confronted with the loss of some control over distribution, she jabbed the air with her finger and said emphatically (within earshot of her Georgia distributor): “I will not ever see my wines in the discount bin!”
Unlike most wineries, Phifer Pavitt will likely get her way. Her Georgia distributor courted the company relentlessly for three years. In the wine business, it’s better to be the pursued rather than the pursuer.
“We were flattered by the attention,” said Phifer Pavitt, who holds an MBA from the University of Southern California. “But I had a lot of questions. Is there a fine wine market there? Are there consumers sophisticated enough to accept a name they have not heard?”
Looking to expand, which may include planting three acres on their Calistoga property in northern Napa Valley, Phifer Pavitt tries to put Date Night’s initial success into focus for the long term. “I know I can sell direct. So it comes down to where do we want to be?”
During her whirlwind tour of Atlanta in June, it seems the Atlanta market is enthusiastically embracing its local girl. “Everyone loved the wines. My family has been so proud of the project from the get go and I am cautiously optimistic. … I’m trying to be methodical. What I wanted was for people here to fall in love with the wines. The local story just sealed the deal.”
Gil Kulers is a sommelier and maitre d’ for an Atlanta country club. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog