Some folks from ProWein were in San Francisco last week to gain some insight into the perception of the show among the trade in the U.S. Eva Rowe of ProWein, Adam Levy of the New York International Wine Competition and I collaborated to bring together a cross section of the trade including retailers, somms, distributors, importers, ecomm and trade media for an informal lunch meeting with Hans Werner Reinhard, EVP of ProWein’s parent entity Messe Dusseldorf.  That’s me, Eva Rowe and Hans Werner in the photo.

Prior to the lunch I had set up a meeting with Craig Wolf and Jo Moak of WSWA with the ProWein folks to explore mutual opportunities and discuss the U.S. Drinks Conference.

Some interesting observations came out of both those conversations. First among them being that ProWein has emerged as the leading global wine and spirits trade show, particularly as a result of its focus on the trade, unlike shows such as Vinexpo, Vinitaly and the London International Wine Fair, there is no consumer component of the show. I attended ProWein in Dusseldorf this spring and can attest to the scale (4,000 exhibitors, 40,000 attendees), scope (78% international attendees, more than 50 countries represented) and sheer size (something like 5 giant halls full of people) and ProWein’s focus on making business deals for import, export and sale of wine and spirits.

Secondly, an American presence was notably scarce. Sure, there were importers attending as well as some exporting American companies, but their number paled in comparison to the international contingent and was totally in contrast to the U.S.’s sheer size in terms of consumption. And significantly less than the number of Americans attending Vinexpo and Vinitaly

What’s going on? I think it has a lot to do about the U.S. being perceived as a “challenging” market. And particularly so in comparison to the potential and relative simplicity (not easy though) of entry and growth in the Chinese market. I heard again and again from exporters, media, generic wine trade associations and international marketing folks, that the U.S. market is too expensive, too constrained (in terms of importer and distributor receptivity to taking on new brands), too restricted and too complex in terms of regulations and the three-tier system. Given a supplier’s limited resources it makes more economic sense to focus on Asia rather than America.

That is NOT a good thing.

I think it’s safe to say the three-tier system is not going to fundamentally change anytime soon, recent events in Washington state notwithstanding. But one thing we can do is a better job in teaching prospective exporters about the realities of bringing their brands to America. Yes it may seem difficult, expensive and resource intensive, but it is being done successfully. Just look at brands such as ChocoVine, Sobieski and the whole Moscato and Prosecco categories.

There’s an old ad tagline in the NY market I’ve always liked from Sym’s clothiers… “An educated consumer is our best customer.” At BAT, we feel the same way. That’s why we developed the U.S. Drinks Conference in conjunction with MHW and Next Level. And it’s why we partnered with the WSWA to create the US Beverage Alcohol Forum. We’ve found it’s in the best interests of everyone in the system to make sure prospective suppliers understand and appreciate what’s worked and not worked in the past. That frees us all up to find creative ways to work within the system and bring new brands to market.

So mark your calendars to attend the U.S. Beverage Alcohol Forum at next year’s WSWA April 28- May 1, 2013 in Orlando, and stay tuned for plans developing for ProWein 2013 Mar. 24-26 in Dusseldorf.