Looking for a wine importer in Russia: 2019-2020 outlook

Moscow wine scene (and St.Petersburg’s, for that matter) definitely feels different from what it used to be just 3 years ago.

There’s a new breed of younger people to start and they are now managing fashionable venues and funky wine lists. The lists have evolved themselves: there are much more unfamiliar names in there. Chances are that if you go to a newly opened hip place you won’t recognise 50% of wine producers on the list (at least!). Unless you’re a professional, of course, having all these biodynamic and natural wine producers’ names on the tips of your fingers. And it’s not just talking – the wines really sell. Take pet-nats (Pétillant Naturels) — these easy, low-alcohol wines sell like hot cakes today.

With this in mind it became both harder and easier to find a wine importer in Russia. Easier because there are more smaller importers. Easier because many retailers and even restaurants started importing wine themselves. Easier because people are more price sensitive rather than brand-driven today. It’s actually a kind of a mauvais ton to even ask for these commercial brands. Among specific audience, of course.

It also became harder — the consumer buying power is not going up en masse, so it’s mostly bad news for big producers who have to push volumes. Price sensitivity is hilarious — the importers will squeeze you till you bleed (many people are quite happy about been squeezed, I must say).

That said, for many wineries from different countries Russia has in the recent years become a major market. It really moves me to hear that kind of news.

Importers landscape

Historically wine importers in Russia are balancing between the bad and the worst: market regulations are not a piece of cake here. The alcohol-related laws inside the country are not very nice for business. Nevertheless companies with the right attitude tend to deal with these circumstances and take this market’s volatility well. If runner’s idioms are close to your heart, this is, like, endurance building. Iron Man of a kind.

There has been a significant shift in wine importers (distributors) game in 2019. Big brands have been changing hands a lot, especially due to larger vodka-related companies coming into the wine-importing and distributing game. Take a look at Beluga Group and Ladoga Group — they are two good examples. Offering a lot of shelf power, they are not the same in HoReCa presence, clearly there’s a different strategy. Beluga has swiped brands like Torres, Masi and (speculatively) could get Antinori, which has been stuck with MBG Impex for many years now. Others, like Roust, Inc (the Russian Standard division) has lost its wine power altogether.

On the other side of the spectre there’s a trend of emerging small-scale importers operating with small teams of 5-10 people. These companies are able to deal with niche brands but also — with quite established names like Gosset in Champagne or AdVini’s Maison Champy in Burgundy. There’s definitely a HoReCa trend of increased interest in Grower Champagne. We will see, how far it goes in 2020.

Restaurant market

Both Moscow and Saint-Petersburg are dominated by successful restaurant groups — but this is changing too. Some of them, like the Novikov Group, Dellos Group, Ginza Group, Alexander Rappoport’s restaurants and others, are quite old, while younger and trendier examples include White Rabbit Family, Perelman People, Twins Group and Probka Family. Most groups have a chef-sommelier overseeing the overall concept of the group; Ginza, Dellos, Perelman and Twins are managed this way. Others, like Novikov Group and Rappoport, give more autonomy to each individual restaurant.

Restaurants in general has become less pretentious. There’s more life in them. Wine bars are opening (and closing) every day. And the wine lists are way more interesting.

For wineries this situation means one thing: there are plenty of top brands in the market, that don’t have a good representative. Many wine brands are looking to find new importers. Wineries drop those importers who can’t pay anymore, they drop those who fail to deliver even the bare minimum of what they’d promised. As one major distributor told me in a private conversation: “You can’t imagine what kind of wineries I’m talking to. It’s all top wineries looking for a good distributor”.

The strategies

One thing for sure — one has to understand what they want and what kind of distributor they need. Cold-calling the landlines and sending e-mails are good old tricks that don’t really trick anybody anymore. You can’t spend time on that if you don’t know the players personally. Of course, I’m talking less known wineries. Or wineries that need, mostly, off-trade sales. HoReCa is getting really small and really busy with competition. On the positive side — HoReCa needs value wines more than ever. What’s value in Russia these days? Depends on the city greatly — Moscow prices being the highest, but Russian regional cities are poorer in every aspect.

If you’re a winery that doesn’t need to push millions of bottles, you’re in better position as of today. Moscow and Saint-Petersburg are two major cities to focus on with occasional visits to Ekaterinbug, Novosibirsk, Rostov and others. It’s all perfectly good.

Anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 RUR (€26-€66, at the rate of 75 RUR/€) can be considered “value” in today’s restaurants, depending on their concept. I’m talking about the final price in the wine list. Consider your ex-cellar price multiplied by 3-5 times and then multiply this by 2 to get an idea of how much your wine will cost in Russia.

Strategical thinking is important in Russia — especially when the market is volatile and fragile like today. It can drive your sales if you pay proper attention to it. Visiting every two years? Forget about it, this market doesn’t tolerate that.

Is it worth taking part in wine exhibitions in Russia?

Yes — Vinitaly is out there for you getting better and better, not so much for Gambero Rosso, which is, honestly speaking, a mess. I’ve been there, I know. Still, you’re lucky if you’re an Italian winery. Yes, there’s more competition in some segments, but trust me, there’s a lot of soul-searching about even the basic things like Piedmont and Tuscany. Prosecco I’d call the hardest and most competitive category of all.

Portuguese wineries now have an annual Wines of Portugal event that takes place in April. German wineries have several events during the year now, with Wines of Germany back on the market. For French wineries not so much choice, unfortunately, but some French tasting do pop up here and there. Still, French haven’t been great promoters of their wines in Russia during the last several years.

Getting to participate in exhibitions doesn’t get you to your goal if you don’t work hard before and during the event. Promoting the winery before the event is vital — articles and buzz help to inform the trade, so they know what they are facing even before they arrive. From personal experience, it’s been doing magic: sometimes one publication is enough to get noticed.

Advertising and promotion options

Wineries have abilities to promote the wines via professional channels (tastings, trips to wineries), but, as one can imagine, those are limited by number of people that can be invited to such events and by the focus of wine importer, who has many brands to manage. What are the options then, to promote better and increase brand recognition?

  1. Creative independent content: articles, interviews, localised videos — all of this is possible with people like me. Honestly, not so many independent people share interesting and original content these days. Most people are stuck in their Facebooks and Instagrams, avoiding interesting thoughtful texts that conveys the image of wineries, their people and wines.
  2. Sommeliers in social via events. This normally works when importers bring you a group of their clients. But even here, the communication is normally limited to standard selfies with winemakers and bottle shots, fast decaying in the social media content roll.
  3. Opinion leaders in social media. It takes time to work out a program for such people: fist, you have to identify them. True, they can bring a lot of value to the brand, but the program has to be very carefully managed.
  4. Wine exhibitions. Arguably more important for those who are looking for importers than for those present in the market. There aren’t so many of them: Vinitaly, Gambero Rosso, SoloItaliano, Prodexpo, MetroExpo (only for Metro Cash and Carry clients), Guia Penin tasting, Spanish Wine Salon, Wines of Portugal and Wines of Germany yearly tastings (from 2018 and 2019 respectively). There are some smaller events too, for regional appellations.

Questions, collaboration inquiries? Reach out on LinkedIn or e-mail me here anton.on.wine (at) gmail.com

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