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July 21, 2010

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I feel strangely ambivalent about this post, Bryan. In one sense, it certainly deserves respect for attracting thousands of people. But in another, ask yourself if this event improves or detracts from the Finger Lakes' image as a wine producing region?

I heard two separate winemakers describe the event as "wine hell." One told me, "They stand in line, they wave a cup at you, they swig, they walk away. All day long." Several people asked me if I was going to the "Finger Lakes Drunk Fest."

Now, I realize that your point is to dispel the notion that the festival is all about over-drinking. But you concede that the video you captured didn't suit your story's point of view, so you didn't include it. And I spoke to one winemaker who brought some high-end wines on Sunday to a special event. "No one was interested," he told me. "It was a waste."

But I wasn't there this year. I appreciate the sentiment, and I hope you're right, but I tend to think that the negative outweighs the positive at this point.

Evan

I understand the concern that this event may detract from the image of the Finger Lakes as a wine producing region. Luckily the positive press the region has gotten from mags like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits and our own NYCR is reaching more and more serious wine drinkers and this one festival shouldn't ruin those impressions.

As far as opinions of winemakers, this may be one topic where there opinion doesn't matter much. Ultimately the owners could give us a better understanding of the festival being a positive or negative for their businesses and the greater industry.

It reminds me of the presentation at Fox Run by their winemaker Peter Bell. As a bus unloaded outside the doors were he was speaking to the Tastecamp attendees, he had to pause for the commotion outdoors. When he joked that he would wait and wasn't sure what they were doing out there, the owner joked back with "They're paying your salary."

I know several industry people do read this site and I hope they can comment on the sales impact the festival has and whether they think it hurts the winery's reputation for participating.


Bryan:

My story for tomorrow is about the VIP experience and how the organizers of the festival are trying to resolve this dichotomy so the festival has something for everyone.

There is a fearfulness among wineries that if they avoid consumer tastings, like this one, that they'll be missing something - or that somehow they'll lose tons of business by being absent. That is totally false.

I've done twenty years of these tastings and I can tell you they generally sell nothing, cost a lot, waste a lot, promote little, and are as fleeting as a hangover.

My policy has evolved to trade tastings primarily, and consumer events only on behalf of a trade partner. Positive contact with a trade member, like a retailer or a restaurateur is worth a thousand consumers - the reasons are obvious.

I think Bryan's post deserves more respect. Tasting experiences like this, however marred they might be by drunken revellers who drown out the serious wine tasters, help promote the region and the wine. How I wish our wine tasting experience in NYC was as crowded and over run with enthusiastic local wine buyers as this.

This is no different than going to your local liquor store - they have sweet reds and blushes I don't particularly care for. I didn't stop at their booths - I didn't want to waste my or their time; I didn't want to waste their wine. It's like television or the radio - if you don't like it, shut it off. No reason to shut off a whole outlet because you don't like some of the fare.

Events like this:
1. Promote the Finger Lakes wine region
2. Promote New York State wines
3. Draw people from all over the state as well as Pennsylvania and New Jersey (both of which have state festivals of their own)
4. Help new or young wineries establish a group of dedicated dinkers more swiftly, and help extend a company's brand
5. Offer a large amount of wine to taste and experience in a short trek (Let's face it, on Friday, I could only get around to a 1/2 dozen wineries - at the tasting tents I tried 12 solid, quality wineries without hassle).

Yes, the crowd is young, likes predominantly sweet wine, and certain elements get rowdy. But you can see that at the local mall, bar, or restaurant.

As an interested taster I found the experience, as usual, fun, loud, and exciting. I found several wineries, from the Finger Lakes and from the Escarpment, that I would never otherwise get a chance to taste - wineries making serious wine. I was thrilled.

As an exhibitor, I took the time to tell people whom I thought might be disappointed in my wares (we don't do a lot of sweet wines outside of serious port) that I dind't have a lot for them. Oh, sure, there were the glass waving morons, who didn't care, and who wanted to get drink, but you can't screen for them. That's what the troopers are there for. On the other hand, we sold a lot of $25 and $20 bottles of serious wine; and made new friends who'll want to visit our winery.

Is it financially successful? That's a different set of questions. Do you see it as successful promotion? Do you see it as profitable? Each winery has different reasons for going. That's a different question.

But for the consumer, these shows are an absolute treat. And for the industry as a whole, there is no better way to celebrate the state and the region with one of the largest wine festivals on the entire East Coast.

I had a feeling this post would inspire some comments -- which is always welcome.

I told Bryan when I first read this that I think it was some of his best writing he's ever for the site. I stand by that of course, but do I agree with his assertions? Not really.

I shouldn't have an opinion on this actually -- I've never been to the festival and likely never will be -- but I've been to similar tastings (though on smaller scales) and the marketing guy in me thinks the value is dubious at best.

Carlo: You say that this "promotes NY wine" and I think on the surface it does, but again, is there any lasting traction? Can you prove that will on-going sales?

Yes, your wine is in front of a large group of people -- obviously a great thing. But once they leave the festival, drink your wine...are they going to call your winery to order more? Even if the answer is yes for a small sliver of the attendees (likely) does selling that individual a bottle or two a year justify the cost of attending? I'd have to be convinced.

Bryan: You have a point about owners vs. winemakers and yes, Scott did make that funny comment. It's true, absolutely. But I have a feeling that at least some of the winemakers Evan is referring to are also the owners.

This it the largest event focusing on New York wine so it's important for us as a publication to cover it, but let's not act as though this event is going to have other region's shaking in their boots that "New York is coming!"

Again, I think there are two different points on the table:

Is it profitable for the winery?
Does it promote NY wine?

The second question is easier to answer - YES, the FLWF promotes wine like no other show on the east coast. Do the events gain traction for NY state wine? Yes! As a consumer and a blogger I know more about NY state wine for having gone to FLWF. Do they gain traction for our winery? Yes, they have. More people know about Hudson-Chatham in the Finger Lakes than they do of many of our sister wineries. That's good for us.

Is the fstival profitable is a question each and every single winery individually asks itself each year. Why to exhibit? And the answers are long and complicated.

Does a winery do it for promotion, as a way to project their name into a new market? In the end, it's certainly cheaper than advertising in many ways. It gets word of mouth going. At the festival, now after three years, we have people who return each year, to buy $20-25 bottles. And they bring friends. We have no distributors in the Finger Lakes. It's going to be a long process, but eventually we want our name in that market, just like the FL wineries come down to Hudson Valley wine festivals and events. It's for the same reason.

Some do it to make money. Wineries that sell inexpensive, sweeter wines, clean up like crazy. They make money! They've figured out a promtional packages that enable them to market and sell wine at a profit.

Let's face it, Island wineries have never embraced festivals. That doesn't mean they don't work.

Bryan:

Interesting article, and I certainly understand the trouble finding a way to write about the festival, I've been postponing writing a review of this year for the same reason. Each year I start sharing more and more feelings similar to those of Evan and Lenn regarding the festival.

Its become a tradition for my girlfriend and I, and our return each year, for me at least, is the experience we share together, not the experience I share across the hundred tables of borrowed labor for the day.

At the same time, each year I inevitably am suprised by a new vineyard I had previously not held high on my radar of favorites.

Thanks for the comments everyone.

There are so many ways to view the festival as being successful or unsuccessful.

I have to think that wineries like Glenora, Dr. Frank and others that rent 8 tables to pour their wines are seeing enough sales as to continue with the same approach every year.

This discussion also reminds me of a lyric from the band Sloan. "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans."

Good Finger Lakes wines will not get a bad rap because of the dress or behavior of those that drink it at a festival. The wines are too good for that.

I appreciate Carlo's perspective and it just so happens that I would have never tasted his wines (that I first heard about on the NYCR) if I hadn't been to the festival this year.

I'm not saying that the festival is for everyone, especially those with a history with fine NY wines, but I do think it is newsworthy and we are doing a disservice to NY wine by not acknowledging it.

Good article, I have been going to the wine fest for the last 6 years and I really enjoy attending. What I really like the most is that there are wineries that I normally ignore. For instance this year I bought a few bottles from Keuka Lake Vineyards that I thought were great. Yes there are a lot of people who are there just to pound wine but it is the variety of wineries that makes it valuable to the trail. There is a lot of value in the FLWF that should definitly not be ignored even the exposure to people who just come to get drunk is important. The more money the wineries make by selling sweet wine the more money they have to expand and/or make less profitable wines. I see it as a positive.

Bryan,
Great post. While I have never been to this event, reading it makes me want to be there just to experience it. I am intrigued by what Tom will talk about in regards to the VIP experience.

I know that there is an event, I assume, like this one called Brooklyn Uncorked -- I have never been to Brooklyn Uncorked. While it may not be on the same scale -- to those who have attended, does it compare or is apples and oranges?

Bryan's first sentence says it all. If every winery that was pouring that day could turn one person on to a particular wine and have that person buy a bottle of wine somewhere down the line -- than it is a success. If one person who attended, in six months from now saw a bottle of Schulze Vineyards wine, for example, in a wine shop and remembered tasting it at the festival and purchased the bottle, than it was a success. Both of those statements are in my opinion.

Sure, I could see folks walking from table to table waving a glass in your face, waiting for one more pour. I could see how that is a bit rude for the staff, but I would think something like that would be expected. While it is not becoming, it is part of the festival. It has been for years and it will be.

Think of the opportunities for people to expand their palate at an event like this. To hear that wineries were pulling out some expensive wines is fantastic. It is a great way to help folk move up the palate scale.

One thought I had was this -- Do other major wine regions do the same type of event around the globe?

I would consider buying a VIP ticket to an event like this. In my mind it seems it would be more controlled and more educational. As opposed to the standard ticket.

Ultimately, I think the true test to see if the festival is a success is to see what the return ratio is from one year to the next. How many wineries that went last year to pour did not this year and how many wineries will not go next year that went this year. That my be the true litmus test.

I've been to wine tasting festivals and it really can't be avoided that it can be a destination of some drunkards than actually wine tasting enthusiasts. Anyway, I still would like to share this post to my friends in Foodista. If you dont mind just adding the foodista widget for wine at the end of this post, and that should do it. Keep on posting :)

You can find the wine widget here:

The widget will direct readers to this post when they go looking for wine blog posts. http://www.foodista.com/food/3SXXWKLW/wine/widgets

Cheers,Amy from Australia

The weekend of the FLWF is the best time to go to the actual wineries. There is hardly anyone in the tasting rooms, (certainly no bus groups!) and you can get lots of attention. The festival serves it's purpose of allowing consumers a chance to try a lot of different wines in one place. Unfortunately there is no way to control the people who are there more for the party than to actually taste wine.

I don't mind a good debate, but let's not attack straw men. No one is saying this isn't a financial success. Obviously someone is making piles of cash off this event, but certainly not all participating wineries are making money up front. Their ROI is tied to more long-term relationship success with these new customers. Carlo indicates this is a worthwhile endeavor, which is good news.

But I'm confused about why Bryan suddenly thinks we "do a disservice to NY wine" by not caring to attend or cover this. That's a strong charge to make, and I don't think it's backed up in this piece.

Let me sum up the wine festival: Huge crowds, lots of fun, some craziness, sweet wine lovers, hot weather, lots of wine flowing, lots of drunk people, big party. Nothing wrong with that. But the implication Bryan seems to have is that we hurt the NY industry itself by not covering it in a serious way. Well, why would we? Are people unaware that the fest is going on? Is there a new angle to take?

Furthermore, Bryan's story last year only damages his premise this year:

http://www.lenndevours.com/2009/08/flwf-love-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-fruit-bomb.html

And it's important to keep in mind that Bryan attended the event as part of a winery staff that makes serious vinifera. Of course they'd want the event viewed more seriously!

But that doesn't make it an event for serious wine drinkers. Lenn is right: I was speaking to winemakers who are also owners.

Again, I'm glad it's a successful event for many participating wineries. I'm glad people have a blast. But I just don't see why we deserve flak for treating the event for what it is: a fun wine festival, not a mecca for serious consumers.

I think you have to look at this from both sides of the table, and perhaps we are, but I'm missing something. From the back side of the table, I'm saying this festival style of wine tasting is NOT good for relationship building, NOT good for finding new customers, NOT good for appreciating wine in any serious manner, NOT a safe and sound environment, and NOT good for the industry as a whole.

If, as Michael put it, if one customer is made by each winery, I would call that a stunning failure. We should call this what it is: Fun. Pure fun. But fun isn't always good business, and fun isn't always good for you. The relations being built in ten second sound bites, and smiling transactions across the tables are fleeting and mostly false (mostly).

I took all of the money I've "invested" in the past in festivals, free giveaways and donations, consumer events, etc. and turned it into an employee: A salesman, who makes relationships for me at bistros in Manhattan, and retailers in Brooklyn, and shops in Albany, every single day. Who's getting more business done?

Jim

Your opinion is greatly appreciated and most likely shared by other producers in your area as I didn't see any LI wineries participating.

I'm curious to hear from the Finger Lakes wineries as to why they participate in the festival too. I know many read this site and they could shed some light on what they get out of the weekend's activities.

Speaking of salesmen, I've seen one or two bottles of Peconic Bay wine at the Premier Group stores in western ny. I'd love to see some of your Cabernet franc up here.

Ironically I just went to your site and had to click through a pop up window promoting a North Fork Rock and Roll Festival that your winery sponsored to get to your homepage. :)

First, Howard is 100% correct. I was in town for the festival last year (didn't go) but did enjoy the quiet tasting rooms all weekend. The only downside was that in some cases the "A Team" from the tasting room was down at the festival and the people in tasting rooms didn't know a lot about the wine.

Carlo: You know that I like and respect you and your business, but I think you might be confusing short-term awareness for actual traction. Yes, more people are aware of Hudson-Chatham Winery for yo having poured at the event. Great. I don't consider that traction, however.

Traction would be if those attendees actively seek out your wine (which isn't widely available in shops in the Finger Lakes area or northern PA, correct?) and become life-long customers who are buying a few bottles a month for however many years.

I'm NOT discounting the overall value of the event, don't assume that for a second. Clearly the retail aspect of the festival is a huge benefit. I wish more public tastings offered wine sales -- very very few do or can. That the organizers have made that possible is great. But, I don't want anyone to mistake that benefit for something larger. The "awareness bump" you get from the festival is short-lived I'm betting.

That all said, it's probably a lot of fun to go, drink all day, hang out with your friends and other people and have access to so much wine in one place. There was a time in my life that events like this would have been right in my wheelhouse. Now? I'd rather visit the tasting rooms of one or two wineries on a Saturday instead of battling crowds to taste wines from 20.

Bryan, thanks for noticing, that is a benefit event happening here in the vineyard.

I'd love to have my CF up at Premier - you should tell them that! They do an amazing job.

I know I should very much anti-festival, and that's because I really am. After years and years and years of attending these, and experiencing them from both sides, I can tell you plainly - they waste time. Mark and Amy may be having a great time, and that's terrific, but you don't have to sell to those guys, they are already sold. Good wineries will get found out without pouring off their stuff for free...

Evan - I defintely used the word "traction" where I should have used "awareness" - agreed. As a winery, our long term goal is awreness first, traction second. But what I am not confused about is that we are loking for long term presence in the Finger Lakes region. Without going into great personal detail, the FLWF has played already and will play a part in that strategy.

Regardless, I think you and I (and Bryan) will have to agree to disagree. There's plenty of serious wine to be found at FLWF. As a consumer it's a great way to sample as many wines as possible in the shortest amount of time. And as a winery, especially a new one, it's a great way to build awareness about your brand. And we make some profit. Better than placing an ad in the local paper or on a regional website, the FLWF is slowly creating a loyal following for us amongst locals (we had many, many repeat customers this year).

Answering your question - why should you cover the FLWF? I'll say this - because it's the biggest wine show on the entire east coast, and for better or worse, it represents your area. You seem embarassed by it. Not everyone in New York state enjoys the access you have to the wineries or the winemakers. You abhor the crowded tents, and the groups of loud patrons, but I'll tell you what, I think the Escarpment and/or the Valley and even Long Island (obviously not you, Jim) would love to host as big a wine event. For better or for worse, the FLWF is a solid cross section of the wines of the Finger Lakes. And whether you like it or not the FLWF has in fact helped to grow the region's reputation with consumers all across the board.

Not all festivals are worth attending. On that I agree with Jim. I've been to places where I poured well more than I sold, and lost money on the day or weekend. But overall, the FLWF has served me well as a consumer and as a vendor.

I enjoy this discussion on the FL wine festival and wineries choosing to participate or not. I think, more than anything, those choices highlight an increasing schism in the FL wine industry. The shotgun approach of presenting dry and sweet wines is both an obvious approach to winery retailing and a sign of a wine region searching for an identity.
However, it cannot be denied that the assortment of wines poured at the festival will have several far-reaching consequences: dry wine drinkers, who perhaps drink wine more regularly than sweet drinkers, will leave with the impression that the wine region still needs to "grow up" and second they will not leave with a sense of regional identity.
While this might not be a big issue to wineries hoping to sell most of their wines in the tasting room, it absolutely hurts the sales of drier wines all over the state. While we could all use the "easy" retail sales of the festival, it would be dangerous and foolish to ignore the long-term consequences of presenting such a picture to wine drinkers from around the state and elsewhere. To this day, no wine region has been able to achieve success in the open market with sweet wines.

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