Mary Kay Meets Merlot

Boisset opens California wine marketing channel with in-home tasting parties

by Paul Franson
in-home wine sales
Boisset Family Estates is trying a new ambassador program to expand awareness of the company's many brands.
St. Helena, Calif.—Forget Tupperware and Mary Kay cosmetics; Boisset Family Estates has been quietly testing home parties for selling wine since May 2012.

The umbrella company for Jean-Charles Boisset’s California wine companies already has grown from eight to a few hundred “ambassadors” arranging parties and telling attendees about Boisset wines made in California.

Ambassador framework
The Boisset Wine Living at Home program is being run by Melissa Lynch, who started Wine Shop at Home after creating 1-800WineShop.com in 1998.

Leaders at Boisset like the idea of selling wine and building visibility for the company’s brands. It’s well known that personal recommendation has a powerful impact on buying wine. It’s not a new idea in wine sales but is unusual for a major U.S. wine producer.

At present, 80% of the Boisset ambassadors are in California, but others are found in the 28 states the wine company can ship to legally, including Texas.

The program includes primarily domestic Boisset brands because of shipping issues, Lynch notes, and includes eight Boisset brands such as Raymond Vineyards, Buena Vista, DeLoach, Lockwood, Lyeth and JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset.

Emphasis on small lots
To avoid conflict, the wines sold are smaller production and higher end wines that aren’t sold through distributors; they include special bottlings from the wineries as well as wines made for direct sales in tasting rooms and through wine clubs.

They also include Frenchie Winery, a direct-to-consumer brand named after owner Boisset’s French bulldog.

Lynch cites a special blend winemaker Stephanie Putnam assembles from top lots of Napa Valley Cabernet, for example, that Raymond doesn’t sell through distributors.

Likewise, Boisset Wine Living at Home sells a Raymond North Coast Sauvignon Blanc rather than the Raymond Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc sold at retail and through the company’s website.

Organizational structure
Two groups of people participate in the program: ambassadors and party hosts.

The ambassadors solicit friends to host parties (conducted by the ambassadors) and receive a 25% commission on wine sales and 30% discount on personal purchases.

Boisset sets up websites for ambassadors to act as independent marketing agents. Ambassadors can also recruit other ambassadors under them, and they get team coaching commissions of between 2% and 7% of those sales in the manner made familiar by Tupperware and Mary Kay. The company is a member of the Direct Selling Association, the organization of such efforts.

It costs $199 to enroll as an ambassador. This includes the “founding ambassador” starter kit and benefits, which the winery values at more than $475:
• Set of 12 Riedel wine glasses
• Five wine bottles for tasting
• Personalized e-Commerce website setup
• Wine accessories, product catalogs and business supplies

Boisset also says that ambassadors can get a 30% industry trade discount at most wineries with their business cards.

Tools of the trade
Boisset uses videos and other materials to educate the ambassadors about the wines and wineries. “We tell the stories behind each wine,” Lynch notes.

The ambassadors can also use social media to market wines. They have minimum annual purchase requirements, which can include wine for their personal consumption.

The hosts buy wine at special prices to hold parties for their friends. (Ambassadors can also host wine parties.) “It gives people an opportunity to try the wines before they buy them without visiting wine country,” Lynch notes.

To encourage people to host parties, Boisset changes its offerings periodically.

The basic wine-tasting package accommodating up to 15 people consists of five wines for $79; other packages including high-end Cabernets can cost up to $389. Hosts can get a 50% discount on wines they order.

Who is in charge?
At the parties, the ambassadors conduct the tasting, talk about the wines and their backgrounds and assist attendees in ordering. The orders are made using a Boisset website, and the ambassador isn’t directly involved in the transaction.

Lynch spent a lot of time with her own company making sure the scheme met legal scrutiny, and she says it’s been approved by the ABC in California and other regulators.

Boisset and Lynch have been moving slowly to make sure everything works smoothly. Lynch observes that it’s very expensive to get into this channel. “You need to invest in expensive technology and make sure you get it right.”

Lynch also thinks it’s difficult for most businesses including wineries to adopt new ways of selling. And she claims Boisset has a big advantage over most wineries in offering so many brands. “People are looking for variety. We can offer that.”

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