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April 07, 2009

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As I said on Facebook, "No. no. no."

I can't imagine this helping NY wineries sell more wine through stores... at all.

Imagine you're the "average consumer" (I hate that term, but it is what it is for this discussion):

You walk into a wine shop and you may or may not be looking for a particular variety/blend. Let's use merlot for this example.

You go to the "Merlot Section" and look at the shelves. What do you see?

You see wines from Bordeaux, Washington State, California etc....and Long Island. What do you do?

You probably look for shelf talkers with ratings on them first. Is anything over 90 points? (rare for NY wines). Do yo look for the cheapest available (almost never a NY wine). Do you look for a winery name that you recognize, either from a bottle you've had before, or maybe from a restaurant wine list? (Unlikely to be a NY producer).

What is one of the only ways that someone is going to pick the NY wine in this situation? I think an affection or interest in "the local." To me, that means that you're better off with a local section in the shop.

What would REALLY help is if the average "Local Section" were populated with some of the states better (maybe not best) wines instead of the plonk that usually fills shelves. How do we make THAT happen?

Hmmm. My first thought was: where do the wines go that aren't varietally labeled?

Then, my next thought was about the volume of mistakes that the store clerks are probably going to make when shelving wine.

Then, I wondered how the attack on the senses of the 'average' consumer would go over on them.

Then, I wondered how the wine geek would like having to run back and forth to pick up a few bottles of, say, California wine (in fact, this running back and forth might be the top reason against the concept of varietal shelving).

Then, I realized why this hasn't been done before!

Of course, I've never placed much value on searching for wine mainly by varietal. I'd rather wine be searched by region and producer. But I'm flaky about those things.

To Lenn's point:
What would REALLY help is if the average "Local Section" were populated with some of the states better (maybe not best) wines instead of the plonk that usually fills shelves. How do we make THAT happen?

From what I know about that situation, it is tied in with what retailers think about NY wine in general, and how little effort retailers generally like to put into justifying a high price for what they already don't think deserves it.

I'm talking generally, of course. I've sold to many retailers who haven't had this problem--but I've sold to many more who have.

Tom and Lenn,

I start with this premise: Most liquor and wine stores don't know much about NY wines and don't seem to care enough to learn. Again, there are wonderful exceptions, but I think this is accurate. That's why the wines earn pariah status and when someone asks about them, they're often told that "Dr. Frank and Bully Hill are the big sellers."

If we can change that, there'd be no need to entertain this discussion.

I wonder if Morgen has thoughts, given that she sparked the discussion.

Evan,

That's right, and that's what I meant to say--but more politely ;)

Let's not forget that lots of NY wineries produce more than just vinifera wines. Not sure too many people would seek out the "Baco Noir" or "Delaware" section of the store... "Excuse me, where is your 'Hybrids' section?"

Note to Evan and Lenn - I am working on in-depth response to the question, hopefully in the next day or two.

The question can not be answered in a couple sentences or even a few paragraphs. I am not talking about distribution within the 100 mile local radius of the wineries but rather how do we bring Finger Lakes and New York wines out of the shadows of the bottom shelves. How do we truly bring New York wines to the world stage?

Morgen,

Yours has been a question for at least 25 years now. It seems to me that a few factors need to be considered.

The first is the woeful state of true promotion. In my opinion, high ratings isn't the answer--it might be part of a composite answer, but I believe the Spectator, et al. no longer command the lofty status of earlier days.

The second, and probably more important problem, is that there isn't enough wine produced for national distribution plus, there aren't enough wineries hungry enough to leave the comfortable home turf and spend some money on national promotion. The way tourism is going right now, this could be the year that proves to some wineries the error in relying solely on one marketing outlet.

Finally, that old saw about a prophet not being appreciated in his hometown holds true. The New York retail and restaurant trade collectively has little interest in its home grown wines--the only answer I can come it with on that one is that the distribution system is weak, but that takes us back to product volume, which isn't large enough for wholesalers to become interested.

Did you know that the old Taylor Wine Company was once the second largest winery in the U.S.? Even while producing plonk. How do you suppose the winery accomplished that feat?

I have never been a fan of shopping by varietal, especially because of blends, which are very common. Where do you put Tuscany IGT blends, Cote du Rhone, Bordeaux, Meritage, etc.? Do you then have a Sangiovese section and an IGT section? In a perfect world with tons of retail space, maybe it could work. Maybe. But I like going into a store deciding on the country I want the wine from and then narrowing my search further the closer to the shelves I get.

As an educated wine drinker, I like to see wines by region in a large wine shop or on a wine list. It helps me to find what I'm looking for quickly.

But I'm also very interested in the concept of Best Cellars and some other places, where wines are grouped by style (which is like doing it by variety but allows for blended wines too). The styles are given phrase descriptors like "fresh and lively," "rich and earthy," etc. This can work well at a store or restaurant with a limited selection. I think it's very creative, approachable for the novice, fun for the connaisseur. You can find what you like and be encouraged to try a new varietal or region.

With styles like dry Riesling, which have well known profile, I think it could be helpful to market them as a varietal instead of by region.

Shannon,

Best Cellars went ahead and trademarked many of those descriptors. People have been threatened with law suits for using the trademarked words.

But, yes, it is a good concept. I've seen the results. Best Cellars was a privately owned business in Manhattan but grew well enough to expand into a few states and then to sell to a large corporation--I think A & P owns it or did own it.

As for NY wine in its Manhattan store: The few times I was in the place I don't recall seeing them, but it's probably harder to home in on them if they are mixed in with other regional varietal wines.

This is a fascinating discussion so far - and near to my heart because I've been selling to retailers and restaurants for nigh on 20 years now. Plus I have the benefit of having been a retail buyer (6 years) and a restaurant buyer (6 more years).

You guys are making good points, but I feel strongly that under the current conditions, NY wines would benefit GREATLY by being offered in and amongst the California and Washington wines. To me, since 98% of consumers entering that store will begin their search for a wine by looking at that section, our odds of selling Long Island Merlot placed near Pride Mountain Merlot or Stag's Leap Cabernet goes us exponentially. The so-called "Local Sections" would certainly benefit from being better stocked with great wines from our respective areas (as Lenn posits), but let's not forget only the THINNEST sliver of customers to that store entered actually looking for a New York wine specifically. Remove the percentage of those folks who entered looking for Dr. Frank, Bully Hill, or Pindar, and we're talking about a truly small share of the customers. Just making NY wine available in those stores is a half-measure - while intrastore marketing is the whole measure.

Tom is absolutely correct that the problem with distribution of NY wines is, frankly, distributing them. There's limited availability of product and limited demand from their accounts. Being the small fry in a large distributor's book is a tough spot, but that's not the distributor's fault, nor is it their problem. Just being in the distributor's book is marvelous step forward because the world is open for business if you can reach it.

Remember the two consumers who we do face everyday: The one who drive up to the door in his car and enjoys the winery and takes our wine home and the experience too. Then there's the other customer - the one who buys wine professionally. These are VERY different types of customers with uniquely different priorities. The latter's priority when introducing a "new product" is "how hard is this wine going to be to sell, or will it sell itself?" Sorry kids, that's the truth. While 5% of the retailers out there hand sell and interact with their customers (and consider wine on its merits), the vast, vast majority do not. For them the WINE SPECTATOR is still important - always has been. A 90 means the wine will sell without help, without effort. Often for the retailer there isn't enough time or enough staff available to do our marketing for us. Sometimes the store's buyer likes having the confidence that a good score brings.

If you think a 90 from Wine Spectator isn't important, get one sometime (and soon I hope). What a difference a point makes! (Especially if the wine is at a reasonable price point and made in reasonable enough quantities.)

Bottom line, I think we've got to avail ourselves to the retailers at every opportunity, give them the tools (like shelftalkers, etc.) that help them do their job, and they'll help us. Advertising to the consumer is way too costly (and it's difficult to judge the short term results) so perhaps we should promote directly the professionals who we want to handle our products. You know if one store likes your wine and puts it on display, that's like advertising to 5000 "average consumers" a week. 5000 consumers who drink wine and are ready to buy it now.

If you think a 90 from Wine Spectator isn't important, get one sometime (and soon I hope).

AND BY THAT I MEAN I WISH WE WOULD ALL GET MORE 90s FROM THE SPECTATOR. IT'S TIME ALREADY!

Jim: Thanks for the comment. You obviously have varied experience in this realm, and thus a different perspective.

I still don't see WHY a Peconic Bay 2001 Oregon Hills Merlot is going to be chosen over a Stags Leap Merlot if a shop does move to varietal-shelving. Care to expand on that?

Does a 90-point score help if the wine is very limited and expensive? (You know where I'm going here.)

Lenn: I'd love to expand on that! Seeing a Peconic Bay Merlot next to Stags Leap Merlot, or a Ste. Michelle Merlot gives the consumer confidence in the Peconic Bay. A winery people, we want to see our wines on the great wine lists of the great restaurants in Manhattan for a reason - because the customers see them there, and it becomes a recommendation. Your wine's presence on the list is a recommendation by that restaurant, whether you choose to order it or not. Back to the shelf in question: A NY wine that is exiled to its own Siberia section of the store limits its exposure to customers ALREADY pre-disposed to buying NY wine, while adjacency to established brands gives your brands credibility. In marketing it's called "Adjacency Placement". I would say that proximity to Beringer Merlot give Peconic Bay Merlot a 15-times better chance of being selected - all other factors being equal. Maybe more.

Does a 90 point score help if the wine is limited and/or expensive? Yes. Imagine the opposite: An expensive wine with NO scores, for example. Which would be your choice if it were your winery? Any score with a 9 in front of it give the consumer confidence when he makes the difficult choice to INDULGE in an expensive wine once in a while.

ON the other hand, a limited wine is just that -l Limited. In the case of Musee from Bedell, one of the best wines from LI, that wine was 80% sold out by the time the review came out - so reputation is just as good as a score, I would suppose.

I have to say that Jim makes a good point when he talks about what seems to me like a 'bring along' factor. People looking at an unknown label that happens to be next to a known one might think the unknown one has merit and then give it a try.

That said, I still think that until NY wine has true national exposure, retailers and restaurants will remain resistant or in the dark. NY generally isn't a place where trends begin these days. The majority of retailers and restaurateurs exploit the trends.

Our home state wines have a bad rap. And in a liquor store that means too much risk to the consumer of wasting your fifteen bucks unless you know the wine already. Local cheese means "it must be good" Local wine means "how can it be good". If you make great local wine you need to be at the store every Friday night pouring it. My ideal wine superstore has everything split in half, new world, old world, then subdivided by style, eg, dry red wines, unoaked whites. A really perfect store a babe in a bikini is offering tastings in each section, but thats probably pushing it in upstate New York.....

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