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February 05, 2009

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Ah, the age old American identity crisis: everything's better in Europe, even if they all suck. We can never quite get away from those two poles of opinion here. Beating up on Europeans rhetorically and making fun of them is practically a national pastime. But is there anything more insufferable than an arrogant douchebag in a Peugeot?

I remember my first experiences as a 21 year old sitting at Hogan's Hideaway's bar. I wanted wine because I thought it was cool and sophisticated. I wanted red because it just looked cool. I went for the most expensive glass I could afford, preferably if it was from ANYWHERE other than the United States. To say nothing of the Finger Lakes. So, I can understand if you can talk someone into spending $10 for a single glass of wine with dinner, the impetus is there to keep on stocking the expensive out-of-towners. I think that's probably the bottom line for most restaurants.

The trick, I think, is to make local wines seem exclusive, thus worth a fairly hefty price. We just love expensive stuff, man.

And it wouldn't be too hard to do if you did it right. There are obviously so many different wineries, some making extremely limited runs of highly complicated and even convoluted processes from rare or exotic varietals. THATs what needs to be focused on: the story. If the story of the winemaking seems exotic, then the fact that it's local only enhances the exclusivity.

And oh, yeah: I want one of those posters.

DFE,

Very nice points. I recall my father's friend who worked in consulting for many years; he charged X, and wanted to cut down his work schedule, so he changed his pricing to 2X. And then he got three times the work. Apparently, many clients felt that if he was raising his rates, well, he must simply be WORTH it!

This model does not always work for wine, but it's an interesting concept. A good example is Red Newt's two new single-vineyard Gewurztraminers. They fit every criteria you just mentioned, DFE, and they clock in at $42 (for a bottle of the 2007 Curry Creek Gewurz) and $36 (for a bottle of the Sawmill Creek Gewurz). Very limited production of each, and even Wine Spectator scored them 90 and 89 points.

For the wider consuming market, I'm not sure that concept is a smooth one, but certainly for some producers and with some wines.

I think the first poster is strong but both cute and effective; the symbolism in the second looks like a call to action for a communist student uprising in Europe. Most probably won't take it that way, but it's still aggressive-looking in comparison.

So, the first poster all the way!

As for this issue in general, it's very complicated, and I think time is the probably the most important ally, which is always frustrating. I do think that not enough work has been done in the upstate cities, but that's my own observation and I'm sure there are lots of variables at play. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that these markets are not always as open-minded as they should be, which is unfortunate.

Jason,

I think there are two very separate issues in play when it comes to restaurants and local wines. First, restaurtants' only obligation is to make money. They are not abrogating their responsibilities if they choose not to offer local wines. They are beholden to the bottom line, and if they can't sell local wines, well, there would be no reason to carry local wines.

But there's a difference between not being to sell wine and not knowing anything about wine. Too many restaurants have no clue what is available locally, and they're not making an effort to find out. How could they sell Finger Lakes or NY wines if they don't believe in the product or even have an interest? So my view is that there's nothing wrong with a restaurant that demonstrates an inability to sell local wine; but there's something wrong with dogmatic, simplistic approaches to wine.

In other words, hey restaurtants, we get it: Blackstone California Merlot is smooth and soft and blah blah blah. And it costs you next to nothing. But an open mind to local wines might actually help your bottom line, if you care to learn.

I would also not ignore consumer behavior. No need to rehash the consumer who wants the tried-and-true, but what about those who like Finger Lakes wine who simply don't order it in a restaurant?

Case in point: When I dine in Syracuse, I don't automatically order the Finger Lakes wine that is available. Why? Sometimes, I'm not interested in the limited amount of wine offered. On many occassions, however, I've noted the price and simply rolled my eyes. Why should I pay $30 for a Finger Lakes wine that I can buy for $16.99 at a local wine shop (or at the winery itself)? I'd rather get ripped off buying a wine that I don't come across as often or one I can feign ignorance about the true price.

I have come across many people in the area who do buy Finger Lakes wine for home consumption, but who do not necessarily order it at a restaurant. I think this is due to the scenaior described above, or even the notion that, no matter the price, a special treat out to dinner should involve experimenting with a wine from an exotic location.

There's not much harm in either situation, but they do complicate the problem.

Jason,

Great points. You and I are less likely to buy FL wine in a restaurant because we have it for far less $$ on a regular basis.

What I'm hoping for is a wider range of FL wines available in a wider range of restaurants -- to appeal to consumers who don't often drink FL wines. It's a long, slow battle.

I love Joanna's new posters. She is also the very talented graphic artist behind Fox Run's Ruby Vixen and Fox Trot Red labels. I will definitely track some down for display in the New York Wine & Culinary Center's Tasting Room, where we are currently promoting value-priced New York wines.

As far as getting wines into restaurants... my family lives in Saratoga Springs, which has proved a tough nut to crack for New York wines. One restaurant in particular, The Beekman Street Bistro, whose menu is designed completely around local food, has NO New York wine. Many members of my family have gone to the restaurant and requested New York wine repeatedly. When my husband, who is the winemaker at Lamoreaux Landing, made a sales call there last summer, the owner told him "nobody ever requests New York wine."

Funny, since a restaurant a block away happily placed an order and reported that "customers are always asking for local wines."

Quality is obviously an important component to getting people to buy local wine but price is very important as well. Especially for people with little familiarity with local wines. They usually don't want to gamble on an unknown $30 wine, but would do so for a $15 wine.

Until consumers get more conversant with local wines, they are less likely to buy the pricier wine. But if they have tried several value wines, they may then move on to a pricier one, more confident that their money would be well spent.

I think Finger Lakes wines can do this, as they certainly seem to have some good value wines to show consumers the potential.

Richard,

Any thoughts on how to lead consumers to be more conversant with local wines? I think you're right that it's likely much easier to ask consumers to spend $30 or more on local wines when they're already convinced that they can get high quality at $15, but the difficult part is getting more people to try those $15 wines.

Shannon,

It's easy to say that no one asks for NY wines when 1) Many wine drinkers have little familiarity with NY wines to begin with and 2) The restaurant does not have even one on the menu to stir the imagination.

Interesting contrast with the two restaurants.

All you have to do is make consistently good wine. The reality of east coast winemaking(and I live in the east, have made wine in the east, and still work with vineyards in the east). Is that the quality is very inconsistent. The best wines are very good and and the worst wines are embarassingly bad. As I tour NY, NJ, VA, PA wine trails I would say that 1 out of every 10 has a special wine. 2 additional wineries have a decent product and 7 of them are pretty bad. I am always polite at these tasting rooms and always buy a "pity" bottle. Unfortunately when I get home my cellar now has 2 cases of pity bottles where I try to choke down a glass and pour the rest down the drain.

No poster or ad campaign will make sales go up when the quality isn't there and no poster is needed when the quality is. The good east coast wineries will always have their reputation tarnished by the bad ones and until the overall quality of the product from their area improves sales outside the tasting room will not.

David,

Hard to disagree, but I wonder: What do you think the ratio for special / decent / bad wines is in a region like, say, California?

Perhaps above anything else, I think better growing standards will help elevate the quality of FL wine. And that is starting to happen more widely.

I don't want to sound like a typical New York Stater who thinks that the state government should take care of all of our problems....but shouldn't this be the kind of thing the state thinks about promoting? Think about it -- the Finger Lakes is only 4.5 hours from the wealthiest city in the world (at least until last September) and you can't find FL wines on city lists at all! And obviously it's more glaring with LI wines which are only 90 minutes away.

I bet there's some kind of "nudge" (I'm not sure why that phrase hasn't caught on like "tipping point" and "black swan" after that Sunstein book) the state could take to get more restaurants to put FL and LI wines on their lists. Maybe waiving some kind of taxes (say sales tax) for NYS wines at NYS restaurants. That wouldn't amount to much money but it might get restaurants to think about putting more NYS wines on their lists.

As for quality, Finger Lake rieslings -- at least the dry ones -- are, on average, much better than California chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. I don't think anyone who's had a lot of both would dispute that.

The reds are not as good on average as, say, the average CA zinfandel. But they're also cheaper and more food friendly, by and large.

I was happy to see a Lamoureaux Landing cab franc on the list at Good Luck here in Rochester last week. But this shouldn't be the kind of thing that's a surprise! For its price points -- $7 a glass -- it was probably the best thing on their by-the-glass list.

Evan:
I think that any efforts to get more consumers to try local wines has to be multi-part, using any and all available avenues.

One important avenue would be free/nominal charge tastings. Let consumers try local wines so that they can see how good they are. Promote local wines at special tastings at wine/liquor stores.

Get bloggers involved, helping to spread the word. I think NY does a much better job than other states in this regard, though I am sure there is more they could do. I should never underestimate the influence of a blog, especially locally. For example, I know a recent post on my own blog about a local apple ice wine has garnered a lot of attention for the winery.

A poster isn't going to do the job. What will work is if restaurants offer local wines as part of a pairing with their dishes. A great pairing can make even a mundane wine shine when combined with the right foods.

It would be a win/win for everyone concerned. Local wineries might offer a special wine by the glass program to spur this process.

John,

I like the thought about food pairing; I don't think anyone believes one poster is going to change everything. It's a small piece in a large effort.

The posters look great and I'd like to see them up here in western ny. Reminding people of a recession may not be the best way for them to shell out extra dough for local wine though.

I think the local wine movement should take advantage of the carbon footprint that it takes to ship wine around the world and market mass produced wines.

I always make a not so funny joke about most of California manipulating water supplies from poorer areas so they can irrigate their vines. No one I know up here irrigates and I'm sure most NY wineries are the same as we take what nature gives us. Most people think water will be the new oil in the future.

So the benefits of drinking local becomes more of a moral choice, not a wallet influenced one.

If the buy local movement needs another bullet in the chamber, perhaps it is this:

http://www.organicwinejournal.com/index.php/2009/01/why-the-trip-kills-it/

Far fewer worries about the condition of wine bought locally. Very interesting read.

(Hat tip: Vinography)

This is an awesome discussion that I'm clearly a little late coming too, but here are a few thoughts:

I always buy local wine in a restaurant if they have it. Even if I know I'm paying too much for it. Why? Because unless those of us who DO know how good the wines are buy them, the restaurant won't sell enough of them and won't keep them on their lists. I'm not saying I'm willing to pay $60 for a $20 bottle, but I'll pay 30-45 if it's something I know is good.

The key to turning the tide of getting these wines on lists is simple at its core -- EDUCATION. I have co-workers who aren't aware of Long Island wines. Or if they do know that there are wineries on Long Island, they've only ever had the junk stuff that is (sadly) widely distributed. How do you build mindshare? Lots of hard (and leg) work. I don't think you can rely on events that get people to your tasting room. You need to go to them. You need to get to them wherever they are going. Do tastings at big, popular shops. Give restaurants huge (short-term) price cuts to get your wines on lists and try to get them on the by-the-glass lists if you can. People are more apt to experiment with a local wine by the glass than by the bottle.

Of course, then you get into the "how long has that bottle been open" problem, but we'll save that for another day.

As to using the "green" marketing angle, I think it's great and all, but does the average person care? I think that can only be a part of a larger value prop. I like the idea of promoting local wines just because vineyards and agriculture are good alternatives to condos and developments of other kinds.

Shannon: It's baffling (or worse) that a restaurant focused on local food wouldn't have local wines. That says to me that the owner is lazy or stupid. His/her clientele are just the type of people who want local wines, I'd think.

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