Growing DTC Wine Sales Locally and Digitally: An Interview with Sandra Hess, Founder of DTC Wine Workshops Consulting Agency
06.05.2018  |  by The Copper Peak Team

Sandra Hess is the founder of DTC Wine Workshops consulting agency, based out of Castro Valley, California, and also past president of Women for WineSense – Napa Sonoma. She is an industry veteran who brings to workshops her expertise in a wide range of areas, including DTC strategic planning, staff training, wine eCommerce, and CRM best practices, as well as proven methods and workflows for developing effective Consumer Engagement Strategies. For our third Expert Series interview, our team sat down with Sandra to talk about these topics, and more.

CPL: Sandra, for those that might not know you yet, tells us a little about yourself and your DTC Wine Workshops, please.

Sandra: Sure—and thanks for the opportunity to speak to your readers! I’ve been in the wine industry for about eight years now. I supported clients while working at The Winery CRM, a Microsoft Dynamics Integrator, and supported wineries that included Opus One, Gallo, and Far Niente. My background in marketing and technology sales allowed me to work with a variety of consumer packaged goods clients. I saw a real need for direct wine sales consulting and training services in 2010 as direct-to-consumer wine sales was just building momentum in the US. I helped launch the first-ever DTC Wine Roadshow Program in 2012 and through that process knew that I was ready to open my own business to best support winery teams in a variety of ways.

So, I founded DTC Wine Workshops in 2013, and we have grown into an international services business supporting winery teams throughout the US, Canada, and Australia. Nine direct wine sales specialists make up the DTC Consultant Network and provide onsite and online professional services. Also, I have spent a lot of time helping my husband pour wine at events throughout California and Nevada as he has been with J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines for 24 years as their Northern California Sales and Marketing Manager. I have had first hand exposure to how consumers engage with wine brands in a variety of situations and have really enjoyed my involvement in the wine industry.  

CPL: Let’s talk about your workshops a bit. Can you tell us what differentiates your curriculum from other organizations in the space?

Sandra: I recognize that Lesley at WISE Academy is a pioneer in the winery training space out of Napa and I have great respect for her. Our clients tell us that we differ by offering proven methods based on our support of a variety of winery teams representing brands of many sizes and in a variety of regions throughout the United States. We have real-time access to our client’s data sets and help conduct member satisfaction surveys to stay on top of consumer trends. We cross-reference what we know on a regular basis against industry reports that include the annual DIRECT, Wines & Vines/Sovos Report as well as the SVB on Wine DTC Survey.

We have built our success on the belief that wine brands need to implement the ideal blend of talent, tools, and technology to best engage with today’s wine consumer and to stay relevant. While some training programs apply best to brands in iconic Napa Valley, our methods are not a “one-size-fits-all” approach as size and region play greatly into individual training needs of most wine brands today. We introduced online training programs in 2014 to wineries nationally and now globally. The demand for more online training services continues to grow.

CPL: So when you say tried-and-tested methods, what are some examples?

Sandra: For example: a full 80% of wine club sign-ups take place in the tasting room (versus 20% online). So, if a wine brand wants to increase club sign-ups, the sign-up process needs to be as seamless as possible and also reflect the brand voice. A good way to start is by ensuring tasting room staff has the tools and training needed to be successful. For example, does tasting room staff have a mobile POS solution, not only for on-site purchases, but to also help guests sign up for the wine club? That’s an easy way to increase club conversionright at the point that people are most likely to have positive feelings about the brand.

CPL: That makes so much sense. And it’s a good segue to my next question. You spoke about tasting room versus online subscription sign-ups but also about leveraging technology. Myself, I am constantly hearing about how wineries need to engage in digital marketing to grow their DTC sales. Can you give us some good example of how they can do this?

Sandra: Certainly — this is something that is becoming increasingly important. First, there’s the matter of managing your online brand reputation and voice. For example, what are people saying on platforms like TripAdvisor and CellarPass? Or on more general platforms, like Google reviews or Yelp? Online ratings and reviews are a wine brands’ online reputation. Wine brands need to encourage positive reviews while also making sure you respond (in a kind, professional manner!) to the negative reviews. And those responses need to happen quickly, within 24 to 48 hours.

Consumers may also reach out to wine brands directly through social platforms as this is becoming the new normal for customer service interactions. Again, responding quickly and professionally will go a long way for a wine brands reputation. Both great responses and horrible responses can go viral, and we all know which we’d prefer!

Besides just being reactive on social media, there is the proactive side as well. Brands must be smart about how they tell their DTC story. Put that story out there. And keep relevant, updated information comingall connected back to that story, of course. One of the biggest missed opportunities I see in the digital space is that most winery teams talk mainly about their brand and don’t allow the customer to tell their story socially. When a brand loyalist posts a picture of a wine brand they admire, they are also sharing that story with thousands of social followers, thus extending brand reach to new audiences in a very positive and effective way.

CPL: Good stuff, Sandra! Let me ask you about the second big trend I’m hearing about [after social media], and that’s eCommerce. eCommerce sales seem to be a large area of opportunity for wineries to grow their business. What do you see are the most important factors in growing this channel?

Sandra: First, it’s important to remember that online sales are often different from club sales. You’ll read a lot of articles talking about 20% to 25% growth in their eCommerce channelsarticles from the big publications like Ecomm Today, Internet Retailer, Practical eCommerce, Digital Commerce 360, etc. And these publications do have their fingers on the pulse of the latest trends. But the buyer purchasing a bottle of wine or two as a gift for someone has a different set of needs than the person joining a club or subscription service. Always keep that in mind.

Whether you are looking at eCommerce sales or club sales, you really need to understand your customers. Learn where they arenot just geographically, but online. Learn what they like, what they talk about. Especially your “super fans” who are more likely to engage you and others. Then cater your digital content to them.

You can also use Google AdWords [and PPC in general] to target new prospective members in your key audience. Again, learn where your fans are and what they like, and then target them specifically. The idea is to reach the right NEW audience.

CPL: So, “know thy customer,” so to speak. Again, though, how do we square this digital engagement with the fact that 80% of subscription club sign-ups happen in the tasting room?

Sandra: Excellent question. In-person sales and tools and digital engagement can actually work hand-in-hand in some wonderful ways. A good way for wine brands to increase visitation is to host interesting and fun events at their property. Winery teams can host or otherwise get involved in local events and leverage national press buzz to reach a large audience of prospective customers. BottleRock Napa is a good example.

But the brand engagement shouldn’t be limited to that local event. First, a winery should build up the event beforehand with links, videos, and other content. They should then follow up after the event to reach those people and turn them into customers. Miner Family Winery, for example, is a sponsor of BottleRock Napa, and they leveraged the news and videos, as well as created their own content pre-event. Post-event, they made sure to reach out to new customers and continue driving traffic to their website and social networks. [To get a sense of this content, check out Miner’s publicly available videos.]

To do this well, winery teams will need a few things. The website must have optimal speed and security, and must be mobile friendly. The path to purchase must be easyno more than a 2-or 3-click turnaround for purchase. And it’s a good idea to have flat rate shipping or other shipping deals for those onsite purchases. You might have to pay a little bit to make that happen, but look at it as marketing budget being spent to acquire new buyers (using shipping deals). When you look at it through that lens, it’s very worthwhile. [Readers interested in using shipping deals as a marketing tool might be interested in our piece “How Should Wineries Structure Their Shipping Deals? 8 Awesome Ideas”]

CPL: Switching gears a bit: With both the SVB and DTC 2018 industry reports out recently, everyone is focused on benchmarking data. What do you consider to be the topline takeaways from these reports?

Sandra: We have seen an increase in responses from about 850 in 2015 to 1000 in 2016 and about 1200 in 2017, so we are getting more information, but not conclusive information. We need to understand where most responses are coming from and the type of wine brands being represented in the survey responses. We advise our clients to use the annual SVB Wine DTC Survey as a reference point but not the “be all end all: when making strategic decisions.

As for takeaways:

  1. Seated, reservation style tastings result in an average order value of 5-6 times greater than walk-in’s to the tasting room bar at $490 verses $75.Allowing well-qualified consumers to self identify through online reservation tools is a smart way for any wine brand to connect high-touch experiences to high-end buyers.
  2. There’s a definite customer journey. So don’t (for example) aim for a club conversion right at your event. Just focus on inviting qualified guests to opt-in to receive a meaningful invitation to come back. Busy events aren’t always the best place to position club and expect high conversion rates. It is a best practice to begin forming a relationship with prospective members at events and then invite them to a VIP tasting as a follow-up activity. The high-touch tasting experience will allow staff to better connect with prospective members and convert at a higher level.People don’t want to be sold to—they want experiences! And they will interact with you if you provide them.
  3. Don’t get stuck with processes or technologies that limit you. Get out of your comfort zone!

CPL: Lots of great ideas here, Sandra. To close, do you have some general thoughts about our industry?

Sandra: I think I can sum up a lot of these thoughts by outlining three critical windows that wineries need to nail when it comes to DTC sales and engagement:

  1. The collection of consumer data, both in the tasting room and in all points online, is key to building a foundation.
  2. Developing a customer engagement strategy around that data is essential for growth.
  3. Update. Today, it is more important than ever to invest in staff training and incentives. Get both up-to-date. This will drive growth and success.

CPL: Thank you, Sandra! There’s an incredible amount of good information here. Best of luck with your workshops!



Sandra Hess shared a lot of good ideas and examples during our interview. Here are 10 practical pieces of advice we can take away from it:

  1. Give your tasting room staff good tools, and then train them to use those tools. At the very least, they should have a mobile POS system, which can also subscribe visitors to your wine club.
  2. Control your online brand voice and reputation. Start by claiming your profiles on TripAdvisor, CellarPass, Google, Yelp, and any other platform that might do reviews. Respond to reviews within 24 to 48 hours.
  3. Respond when customers engage you on social media—again, within 24 to 48 hours.
  4. Use social media and PPC advertising to reach new audiences.
  5. Understand your best customers, and then create content that caters to them. You should always be collecting data, both in the tasting room and online.
  6. Leverage local events. Provide content before, during, and after. But do not go straight for the club conversion. Use local events as a way to get contact info, and then invite attendees to have another (more intimate?) experience in your tasting room.
  7. Seated tastings are important—they are more likely spend more, convert, and have a longer “shelf life.”
  8. It’s always a good idea to train your staff. The more they understand the process you are building, the better they can implement it.
  9. Incentives do matter. Shipping deals can be a huge incentive. It’s worth spending a little money to offer shipping deals if it means you can get a good, loyal wine club customer. (And Copper Peak can help you construct those deals in a way that will maximally benefit everyone.)
  10. Don’t get stuck with processes or technologies that limit you. Get out of your comfort zone!

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