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business of wine, World Wine

If You Owned a Winery …

… What would you do differently?

Matt Kramer
It’s a common fantasy among wine lovers: What would you do if you owned a winery? We’ve all watched one or another winery succeed, stumble and succeed again as it marched toward ultimate acclaim. Too often, however, the progression turns out to be more of a limp toward mediocrity. Inevitably, we think, “I could do better than that.”

Maybe we could. Then again, maybe we couldn’t. It’s always tempting to look at someone else’s business and conclude that you know more and better than they do. With that humbly acknowledged, I would like to submit the following: Here’s what I would do if I owned a winery.

I Would Tell the Truth. This may seem overly simplistic. But I’m here to testify that it’s nothing less than astonishing to see the number of times a winery sidesteps, obfuscates, or flat-out lies about its practices in the winery or its reasons for pursuing a particular course of action.

A good example is alcohol level. Too many wineries are reluctant to provide a precise alcohol level for each of their wines. Now, many wineries do offer such a thing on their websites. Bravo to them.

But an awful lot of wineries conveniently round-off the stated alcohol level of their wines, on both label and website. They submit that most consumers don’t really care (which may or may not be true).

They say that they are interested in “balance” and that their wine would be judged unfairly if viewed solely through the lens of a precise alcohol level. All of this may be true, but let’s not kid ourselves: it’s self-serving.

Not least, an unknown number of producers, especially in California, conveniently fail to mention that they achieved their “lower” alcohol level by adding water to the fermenting must. “You see, we make lower alcohol wines,” they trumpet, conveniently sidestepping the fact that the wine came from overripe grapes that would have created a higher alcohol wine if left “unadjusted.”

Alcohol is but one area, however glaring. Winemaking is food processing and many producers have resisted the kind of processing- or ingredient-labeling that consumers have come to expect with other food products, fearing that we won’t “understand.” You might call it an “omission of convenience” that you’re not told of chaptalization, adding water, eliminating water or adjusting acidity. “Where does it all end?” cry the producers. My reply? When does it even begin?

If I owned a winery I would adhere to the simple motto “Tell the truth.” If I were using a vacuum concentrator or spinning cone or micro-oxygenation, I would say so. And if I had to make a case for why this made my wine better, I would do so. After all, if I was ashamed of any of these practices, well then, I shouldn’t be using them, right?

Telling the truth may not seem all that radical, or even game-changing. But the truth is that telling the truth is rarer in the wine world than you might think.

I Would Speak Up. This is a corollary to telling the truth. Too many of the world’s most admirable and highest-integrity wine producers today don’t recognize that they’re in a bit of a war. They’re up against not-so-fellow producers who are using (and hiding) every trick in the book to make their industrial wines seem artisanal. Meanwhile, the true artisanal producers are laboring under a real disadvantage.

It’s time to speak up. I would declare on my back label and website that this wine is not made with oak chips or sawdust, spinning cones or vacuum concentrators or any other technique that I, as a producer, deem inadvisable or inappropriate. You don’t chaptalize? Say so. You don’t irrigate? Say so.

And if you do choose to employ one or another of these techniques that you normally wouldn’t, say that as well. This is the “truth telling” referred to previously. Winegrowing is farming, after all. Sometimes you’ve got to do things that you’d really prefer not to.

I know a lot of winegrowers who don’t irrigate, but have drip lines in their vineyards just in case. (They were originally installed to get the young vines going.) If you had to irrigate in a drought year, and normally you proclaim that you don’t irrigate, say so.

I recently met a biodynamic grower who had to use a spray against persistent mildew, a spray not “approved” by the biodynamic orthodoxy. It was that or lose the crop. What would you do? I’d do just what he did—and I’d say so.

The key point is not to hamstring yourself, but rather differentiate yourself from those who want your artisanal image but are not willing to pay your price.

I Would Recognize That My Label Is Really a Portal. Recently, I had a conversation with a winery owner who asked me what I thought of his wine label. I told him that there was nothing about either its design or the information it conveyed that made it stand out. I added, by the way, that this was a pity because I thought his wine was outstanding.

I was asked what I would do differently. I said that the most important thing wasn’t so much a re-design as re-thinking the very concept of a “label.” I submitted that modern wines labels should be seen as a portal, and that the vast majority of wine labels today—pieces of paper glued to a glass bottle—could as easily have come from 100 years ago as from the 21st century.

“Wine label as portal” revises the very purpose of the label. I would redesign it in recognition that the label is—or should be—an invitation to the prospective customer to acquire yet more information about what’s inside the bottle.

This, in turn, would require you to re-think your entire electronic presence, from your website to social media, in recognition that your label is a portal: If they go through that portal, what will they find?

A 21st-century label would embrace what’s known as QR, or quick recognition codes, which are little black boxes with squiggles. You point your smartphone at the QR and, voilà, you are instantly linked to a website specific to the wine you are considering.

I would also always employ a back label which, incomprehensibly to me, some wineries disdain. Excuse me, but why would you pass up the chance to make your pitch to a prospective consumer? That said, if all you’re going to put on your back label is drivel about how you’re a family winery or how you’ve got “hot days and cool nights,” or some other such banality, then probably you are indeed better off not offering a back label.

I Would Always Hire Wine People. There’s a trend, especially among very big wineries or small producers seeking to break into the luxury category, to hire people from fields other than wine.

I know one high-end winery that brought in as general manager someone who knew literally nothing about wine. He had achieved success selling a different luxury food product, and the winery owner believed that this experience was transferable to luxury-priced wine. It was not. The guy was gone in just a few years, having made no discernible positive impact and, probably, if anything, setting back the winery because of the time-consuming learning curve required.

Gallo has gone from strength to strength. You know why? They are wine people in their very bones. Look at what happened to Robert Mondavi Winery when it lost its “wine marrow” and turned to corporate types to woo Wall Street.

I Would Ask Myself, “Am I A Me-Too Winery?” This may be the hardest task of all, as it requires an unflinching honesty. If I owned a winery I would ask, when tasting my wines, “Is this just another me-too wine?”

Most wines, from most places in the world, are me-too wines, interchangeable with other wines of their type. It’s inevitable. Only in Lake Woebegone is the entire population above-average.

The only way to become above-average is to impose a demand that what you offer is indeed superior. Too many winery owners do no such thing. Either they can’t taste the difference (which is more common than you might suppose) or they’re content with merely equaling their neighbors (ditto).

If I owned a winery I would strive to summon the necessary strength to do what it takes to stand out. For example, I would make the move to screw cap, as I am convinced that screw caps are a superior closure compared to cork. I would lower my yields. I would buy a vineyard with old vines and nurse them as necessary in hopes of creating a superior wine.

The former pro golfer Ken Venturi defined this effort perfectly: “I believe that any player who is a champion would be a champion in any era he lived in, because he would get himself to the level he has to attain to win.”

It’s no different with “champion wineries.” Think of the greatest wines you know and you’ll see that all the producers share an unrelenting drive toward self-improvement. Above all, you’ll see one commonality: It always starts with the owner.

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