In the multibillion dollar wine distribution industry, VinoPRO Inc. serves as a long-term, strategic partner, helping producers reach customers with direct-to-consumer sales, marketing and technology solutions.
Based in Santa Rosa, California, VinoPRO sells wine on behalf of its winery partners, building lasting customer relationships and doing it all with the most antiquated technology on the planet – the telephone.
“We created VinoPRO to be the most professional and successful direct-to-consumer wine sales and services organization on the planet and our customers are ‘who’s who’ in the wine business – Treasury Wine Estates, makers of Beringer, Penfolds, Chateau St. Jean, St. Clement, Iron Horse, Ferrari-Carano, Gloria Ferrer, Benziger, Schug and several other very high profile winery brands,” shares Jeff Stevenson, founder and president of VinoPRO. “We differentiate ourselves from our competitors with the application of our values, processes, technology, professionalism, sales skills and best practices with the telephone being our primary focus.”
Stevenson established the company in 2008, following his 10-yearlong career as an award-winning winemaker. “I was always looking for a way to enter the sales side of the business, which is much different from making wine,” he recounts. “As a winemaker, our Pinot won first place out of 267 entries at the SF Chronicle Fort Mason Pinot Shootout in 2002, so I knew I was onto something.”
“However, winemaking is more about farming and biology than anything else,” adds Stevenson. “Selling wine is another beast entirely, and like making wine, it really takes professionals to figure out how to sell it effectively.”
Seizing the opportunity, state by state
Stevenson says he saw an opportunity with the proliferation of the Free Commerce Clause between states. “For many decades, the wine industry had been neglected in terms of marking and technology, limited by shipping laws,” he explains. “What really made VinoPRO possible is more and more states standing up to allow distribution across state lines.”
After many years on the other end of the business, Stevenson saw his opportunity to move in on growing open trade between states and cut out the many middlemen in the lengthy distribution chain.
“In the old days, if I sold a $100 bottle of wine, traveling from California to New York, distribution would drop the price to $34 on the bottle,” he measures. “It would have to go from seller to wholesaler, packaging, get put on a truck and sold to a retailer, where it finally reaches the consumer. That’s just too many tiers in the distribution channel where everyone takes a bite out of the apple.”
However, Stevenson points out that completely disassembling the distribution channel, something that’s existed since the early 1930s and Prohibition, wasn’t going to happen overnight.
“One company like VinoPRO is not going to break relationships that have existed for decades right off the bat,” he explains. “Our biggest hurdle is simple educating our client base and once they see the stakes and profit margins, it’s a no brainer, especially for new brands.”
A bold but worthwhile move
While Stevenson was certainly onto a great idea, starting a company in the onset of a recession was no small task. “When we started VinoPRO in 2008, it was a terrible time to get bank financing,” he tells. “I’d done startups, public IPOs, all venture capital funded. This time we wanted to own the business and we needed financing to make that happen.”
Risky or not, Stevenson and his wife, Lori, came up with the funds to launch VinoPRO out of their own pockets initially. That was until Stevenson met Steve Herron at Exchange Bank.
“Steve knows the wine business and he understood how our direct-to-consumer sales program could boost wine club revenue and build brand value,” says Stevenson. “He got the bank to take the risk and it’s been good for everyone.”
Business is so good that VinoPRO has made the Inc. 500 list, not once, but twice, with a current standing at No. 236. “We’re now selling millions of dollars of wine for our partners,” shares Stevenson. “We’re growing so rapidly that we literally can’t hire fast enough. One day I even had t-shirts made for the entire staff that said, ‘We are hiring now,’ on the front and back. We all went downtown to the Santa Rosa Farmers Market with clipboards and collected 60 names of prospective employees.”
But Stevenson assures in order to be a VinoPRO employee one must possess extraordinary customer service skills. “We build our clientele by developing long-lasting, close relationships with wineries and consumers,” he says. “There are two things that drive the business; the product [wine] and the customer contacts [names and phone numbers]. To have both, customer service comes first.”
Finding innovative ways to grow these relationships through technology is another strong suit of VinoPRO. “We’ve created the VinoPRO tasting room kiosk that collects names and phone numbers in the tasting room, so as soon as a customer tries something – we’re there,” explains Stevenson. “That’s what’s groundbreaking; no one else is really taking advantage of this.”
The company has also partnered with the Hello Vino wine app. “This app has 3 million downloads and counting,” shares Stevenson. “It gives the customer the ability to touch a single button for an expert opinion. We’ve been making thousands of calls a day for years, but with this extension of our business, now we’re getting hundreds of inbound calls.”
Stevenson says VinoPRO couldn’t be in a better positon. “The U.S. has now become the single largest wine consuming country in the world, surpassing even European countries,” he measures. “Within the industry, the direct-to-consumer segment has experienced double-digit growth.”
In October 2014, the company had its first $1 million month in sales. For VinoPRO Inc. success is just a pour and a phone call away with technology-based, direct-to-consumer marketing that satisfies producers and customers alike.