Why “guild”? Seventy-five years ago, why did the founders of the Wine and Spirits Guild of America choose this term for their newly formed industry group? Rather than, say, “association”?
“When they were first starting out, they thought that calling it a ‘guild’ might help it stand out better than any other name they could use, because the thought was you were going back to Medieval times, when there were guilds,” says Jack Farrell, CEO of Haskell’s in Minneapolis, and Guild member since 1970.
It’s reasoning that speaks to the very core of the Wine & Spirits Guild of America: The simple, effective power of strength in numbers.
“The Guild was originally put together to exchange marketing ideas,” Farrell says. “Remember, this was pre-Zoom, pre-all that electronic stuff. The Guild was and remains a wonderful way to do that: share ideas. The retail business is a tough, tough business. It’s tough to figure out any way to have a leg up, to be a little ahead of the game. Being in the Wine and Spirits Guild, that’s the best leg up you can have in the wine and spirits industry.”
Reflections like Farrell’s highlight the rich history and consistent value that the Guild has offered members since the group first started in 1948. As the Guild celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2023, we reached out to members for their thoughts on the past, present and future of the organization.
“Jack Holloway, who founded ABC Fine Wine & Spirits [in Florida in 1936] had a saying about attending Guild meetings,” Farrell says. “That saying was, ‘If you walk away with just one idea that makes you money, then it was worth it.’”
For instance, Farrell recalls Holloway suggesting that members start selling ice.
“He said, ‘We’re already buying it from the ice company, so why not sell it ourselves, too?’” Farrell says. “And he was right. We all made a lot of money selling ice. All these guys, they’re individual marketing geniuses. Idea sharing at the Guild has always been excellent.”
This is a common refrain among Guild members. Attending the organization’s twice annual conferences is an investment well worth the result, which is coming away with new ideas and information helpful for business. This has always been the primary purpose for the Guild’s in-person get-togethers: sharing best practices, along with what has not worked quite as well. And thanks to Zoom and our Digital Age, this invaluable information swapping can continue every day.
“There are so many things that I have learned from attending meetings that have proven to me the value of being a member,” says Chan Cox, owner of Wine World in Destin, FL. “Whether sitting around the roundtable during meetings, or just talking at the breakfast table, everyone is communicating and continuing to learn.”
“And there’s always opportunities later for a member who has questions to reach out to other members,” he continues. “If you’re changing your website or your POS, you can always ask someone else about their experience first. That’s a huge value in this business.”
In terms of improving his business using Guild suggestions, Cox brings up the two engraving machines he purchased at the urging of incoming Guild President Mitch Herman, of BottleBargains, Northport, NY.
“Mitch was doing engravings in his store, and brought in the company that made the machine,” Cox recalls. “I bought one, and it paid for itself in three months. So I bought a second machine with more capacity. They’ve both already paid for themselves, producing dollars every day.”
Due to staffing and other issues, Wine World was slow to incorporate alcohol delivery. So while attending a Guild meeting in Washington, Cox connected with fellow member Marques Warren, of Downtown Spirits, who had already incorporated delivery services.
“He gave me and my sales manager a seminar on delivery,” Cox says. “How valuable is that! We got to skip all the mistakes we would have made. And Marques said, ‘Anytime you need refreshing, give me a call. I’m happy to help.’”
This level of education extends to sources from outside of the Guild, as well.
“Presently, we have more expert speakers from both inside and outside the industry that make presentations at meetings,” says Herman. “Our tradeshow, expertly run by Mark Herman, is now geared toward tasting new items, and meeting and learning from new suppliers, not only from the wine and spirits industry, but also from other areas of retail and business. We review the productivity of the tradeshow at each meeting and give immediate feedback to suppliers.”
“We hear a lot about out of state chains and warehouse membership stores that have vast sales volume, but when you look at the Wine and Spirits Guild of America’s sales volume, you see that combined we are among the top sellers,” Herman adds. “The WSGA member stores are where brands are built, and strong local relationships are developed and maintained with wholesalers and suppliers and our customers.”
Cultivating these connections is critical for individual businesses and the industry at large.
“Communication is fundamental to the guild,” says Guild President David Jabour, President of Twin Liquors in Texas. “Being in a regulated industry, it’s incumbent upon us that we’re all communicating. In absence of that, we’re getting siloed and separated. Instead, our communications and relationship-building have fostered the growth of the industry and the brands that we’ve developed for the last 75 years.”
“Communication is relationship-building,” Jabour adds. “The essence of the Guild from the outset has been to foster communications among all three tiers of the industry. And that holds true through today.”
Austin-based Twin Liquors has continued to grow, opening more than 20 new locations since we covered the Guild’s 70th anniversary in 2018.
The Guild Evolves
While the role of the Guild as a critical tool for communication remains unchanged, the organization has since evolved into other areas of opportunity. Often, this has reflected external developments in the industry, as well as our broader social/economic landscape.
“In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, with the consolidation of suppliers and wholesalers, it changed what it meant to be a retailer,” says Charles Sonnenberg, Owner, Frugal MacDoogal in Nashville. “And that continues now, with our trying times with Covid.”
“The Guild has gone through a metamorphosis,” Sonnenberg adds. “Thankfully, we now have women members, along with fourth-generation members.”
The Covid-19 pandemic required rapid ecommerce adaptation — now a source of strength for the Guild.
“Since joining the Guild, the biggest change has been embracing technology,” says Gary Fisch, Founder and CEO, Gary’s Wine and Marketplace. “Guild members are among the most progressive wine and spirits retailers in the country as it relates to technological innovation. Whether it’s sharing ideas for preferred technology vendors, or sharing strategies for engaging with customers through today’s social media platforms, the idea sharing that occurs between Guild members is invaluable.”
This is echoed by many members in light of modern market developments.
“It’s a totally different business environment today,” says Sonnenberg. “We have consolidation of global suppliers, further consolidation of wholesalers, blurring lines between types of alcohol, wholesalers seeing their roles become primarily distro, online selling where there’s no longer borders or boundaries, nontraditional merchants online creating a new environment, a national marketplace forming online — given all this, it’s incumbent upon independent retailers to be fully informed.”
Another area where the Guild has grown is its transformation into a buying group. This allows the collective members to purchase in quantities that otherwise would be impossible for an independent retailer.
“The Wine & Spirits Guild has always helped Gary’s source unique brand opportunities that would not be obtainable otherwise,” says Fisch. “This allows family-owned businesses like Gary’s to better compete with Big Box wine and spirits retailers.”
Guild meetings regularly host representatives from major suppliers, such as Diageo. The fall 2022 meeting in Napa Valley included a gathering with Gallo executives at the company’s local properties.
Operating as a collective, and communicating about best practices, has also helped expose members to brands and opportunities that allow independents retailers to differentiate in their markets.
“Beyond the friendships, best practices and learning new ideas from some of the best independent retailers in the country, it has been a great place to build new brands with a higher margin than mainstream products,” says Ron Vaughn, Co-owner and COO of Argonaut Wine & Liquor in Colorado. “The first rule is that the product must be a buy that makes the consumer believe (rightly) that they got more than their money’s worth. Part of that is visiting wineries and distillers to hear the story of the products, and learn how they are made and how they taste.”
Members hope for more of the same as the Guild progesses past its 75th anniversary.
“I’d like to see the Guild continue to bring in products that can help us compete with Big Box stores,” says Todd Randall, Vice President of Randall’s Wine & Spirits in Illinois. “I’d also like to see us bring in more members, including finding areas of the country where we don’t have members. As an organization you’re only as strong as the members you have, and we have a really good core of people.”
Gary’s Wine & Marketplace opened its first west coast location in Napa Valley in late 2019.
Increasingly, that core includes membership that extends back multiple generations. Many retailers that make up the association have become family legacies — passing on leadership both in the business and in the Guild itself.
“The executive board is now mostly second-generation Guild members, and it is amazing to see the third and fourth generations making their first presentations,” says Herman, Incoming President. “The future of the Guild is bright, as the next generations start to lead their family businesses, while bringing fresh ideas to both their stores and the Guild.”
The outgoing President agrees.
“The Guild has an exceptional bench of strength to lead it into the future,” Jabour says. “In the past several years, we have made sure to have a good succession plan and to foster stability, so that the Guild model remains relevant and focused on the needs of independent retailers in the evolving business environment.”
“I see the Guild continuing to survive the test of time,” Jabour continues. “With 75 years of amazing history, the Guild must continue to focus on what has made it work. We all recognize the value of making each other better. The uncertainty in the business world does not slow down; it only intensifies. That’s why it’s important that this group continues to communicate. And it’s important for those who dedicate their time and efforts to the Guild to know that they are dedicating their commitment to the future of independent retail.”
Kyle Swartz is editor of Beverage Dynamics. Reach him at [email protected]. Read his recent piece, Winetasting: Forever Learning at Bodegas Bianchi.The post The Wine and Spirits Guild Celebrates 75 Years first appeared on Beverage Dynamics.
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Author: Kyle Swartz