Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wine Comparisons: Building Unrealistic Expectations or Making Unfamiliar, Familiar

Brad Post:

Not long ago I received a phone call from a public radio news reporter who was in the process of writing a story about an up-and-coming new red wine grape cultivar (Marquette) gaining in popularity.  Echoing an earlier comment, he referred to this relatively new wine grape as the “Cabernet Sauvignon of the Midwest” which struck me as a bit of an exaggeration, to say the least.

Great hype for a new wine grape but is it a realistic comparison?

As new wine regions continue to build it is important for us to pause to consider the consequences of short-term marketing gains over long-term brand success.  For this example, is it in the best long-term interest of a wine region to compare Marquette to Cabernet Sauvignon?  More to the point, is it a realistic comparison?  And if so, in what ways are Marquette and Cabernet Sauvignon similar?

Hyperbole aside, is the comparison constructive to building a new wine region?  Granted many wine consumers are probably familiar with Cabernet and it may be a way to bring them in to our wineries as a way of making our local wines seem more familiar.  But what about knowledgeable wine fans – they will immediately notice that our Marquette is not very much like Cabernet Sauvignon and may get turned-off in the process.

Frankly, a more apt comparison, if a comparison is warranted may be with the bracing, young wines of Italy.  Food friendly, acidic, and delicious!

Mental Short-Cuts
In our haste to build a new wine culture it is tempting to compare the unfamiliar to the familiar.  I’m guilty of that myself.  In a busy tasting room with many bellies to the bar, I’ve relied on mental short cuts to help my customers relate to our unfamiliar wines.  “If you like Muscato, you’ll like this one…If you like Pinot Grigio, you’ll like that one…and if you like Cabernet you’ll like this one”.

The ‘This is Like That’ approach to wine tasting is efficient, in terms of expediency, but does it help us build brand identity for wine grapes like LaCrescent, Norton, or Seyval if we keep comparing them to other, traditional vinifera?

Perhaps we have yet to fully develop the language to describe our wines; common sensory descriptors that allow us to share with our customers our excitement for the wines we make!  This is prime real estate for our wine science, wine service programs and state wine industry associations.

Growing Pains
The problem with building high expectations comes with fulfillment.  In other words, if we fall short in our delivery, then the disappointment is felt more potently than if we managed expectations more modestly. That’s not to say that our wines are not great – they are!  It is a matter of properly framing and shaping expectations so our customers understand our wines are distinct and to help them appreciate the uniqueness.

Not lost on me is the comparison of the potential prominence of regional wine grapes.  California is awash in Cabernet Sauvignon and maybe, one day, the Midwest landscape will be dotted with Marquette.

The “This is Like That” approach, a heuristic, does provide a short-cut way of introducing our wines to tasting room visitors.  It is particularly helpful during busy periods but probably undercuts the notion of building brand identity.  In the long-term, I’d like to see us move away from the familiar comparisons to a more cultivar/varietal-centric approach of new wine introductions.

The process of building a lexicon of common sensory descriptors for our local wines, shared among wineries, and conveyed through a thoughtful marketing program and disseminated widely should, in the long-term, bring about the kind of brand recognition we seek when comparing our wines to traditional vinifera.

We look to industry leaders: wine science programs, state wine/grape associations, tasting room trainers, and affiliated wine marketing advocates to lead the way.

Add your voice to the discussion on the Winedustry Forum:  http://www.winedustry.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=47&t=70

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Food, Wine and Food Again...

Terry post:

To me it is axiomatic that wine is best when paired with food. Over my lifetime the moments of dining pleasure which are closest to my heart are those which feature fine food combined with fine wine.

At Citronelle in Washington DC, I was brought to tears by a Morel bisque with seared Foie Gras served with a Sauterne.

At Restaurant 213 in Fruitland MD it was white asparagus topped with a soft poached egg and sauce b├ęchamel served with a French Montrechet.

And, in Paris so many years ago in a sidewalk bistro it was fresh local sausage, hard cheese, warm bread and a very ordinary red from Burgundy.

In these cases, and many more like them, there was an almost mystical combination of food and wine which reinforced the other creating a product far greater than the sum of the individual parts.

How is this?

Great food and great wine are often enjoyed in the company of friends which provides an additional dimension to the experience beyond the taste buds, beyond the nose and deeply and directly to the heart. There is a primal need to share food among friends and family. Why else are our primary celebrations enjoyed around the dinner table? Neither Christmas nor Thanksgiving would be so deeply ingrained in us were not the sharing of food, and wine, an integral part of the ritual.

The family ritual regarding food may explain why there are so many cookbooks to be found in the bookstore and the blossoming of cooking show on television. But like so much of popular culture, both the books and television shows miss the mark entirely: they are focused on the visible - the production of food and that is precisely where the ritual IS NOT.

The ritual of sharing is about the "why". It is about, "why we cook", "why we share" and, "why we love".

Cook books and television shows may show us how to cook but the utterly fail to explain why we cook.

It seems simple: we cook because we love our friends and our family. And wine. Well, wine just makes it a little more special.

~ Terry

Saturday, December 4, 2010

What Keith Richards and Mick Jagger Have to Tell the Wine Industry About Endurance

Terry Post:

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have worked together for almost half a century composing and playing music. Theirs has been a creative collaboration of enduring longevity in an industry where disagreements have dissolved many musical groups during their extended tenure.

Small wineries are not that dissimilar to Messrs Jagger and Richards in that essential element of the enterprise is creativity. Creating music and creating wine takes imagination and a lot of work.

Many small wineries are formed by a small groups of individuals who bring different qualities to the business such as winemaking and business: good teams bring complementary skills.

Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards bring differing qualities to their creative relationship and are greater than the sum of the parts. Each has had an on-again, off-again solo career. What do you remember most - their solo efforts or their combined efforts in the Rolling Stones?

They also have a lot in common having known each other since they were boys - at aged 66 and 67 they have a 50+ year relationship. And, perhaps most importantly, they are good friends.

Ownership teams of wineries should ask themselves if they have the same sort of chemistry, background, and relationship as Jagger and Richards. Are they friends? Do they have a lot in common? Do they have a long relationship?

What then can a small winery do to engineer its management team to ensure success for the long run? Here are my suggestions:

#1: Founding members should all have "skin in the game". That is, they should all have a financial stake in the success of the business side of the enterprise. This usually means that multiple individuals put cash into the business.

#2: Founding members should bring complementary skills to the enterprise. You don't need four winemakers - you need one. There should be a sufficiently wide-array of technical and management skills on the team.

#3: Founding members should already have a long term relationship. I don't mean to imply anything intimate. They should already know one another and should have a long, and I mean LONG, relationship.

Bottom line: Long term success in the music industry or wine industry requires that the senior management team have common goals and complementary skills. If yours does not - it might be time to reform that team with the goal of sustained performance.

~ Terry

Photo credit: uncredited liner art from the 1992 Keith Richards solo album, "Main Offender"