Carlo DeVito in his tasting room at Hudson-Chatham Winery (Photo courtesy of Scott Langley Photography)
By Lenn Thompson
Two weeks ago, Carlo DeVito -- book publisher, wine book author, blogger and New York winery owner -- published a post "Who Will Save New York Wine?". It's a great question and an even better post that publicly raises questions and issues that until now have mostly been pondered and discussed behind closed doors.
At the NYCR, we don't think New York wine needs "saving," per se, but it does need help -- help to grow, to get the attention it deserves and to reach its full potential.
We want to keep this discussion going and will do so with a series of posts under the umbrella title of "What New York Wine Needs Now." Each week, we'll interview or speak to a thought leader in New York wine -- winery owners, winemakers, sommeliers, retailers and distributors. Usually, we'll ask them a series of questions and publish the answers in a Q&A format.
But, for this first post with Carlo himself, we've decided to publish an essay that he sent to us instead:
It's Time We Had a Conversation
By Carlo DeVito
The New York Wine & Grape Foundation (NYGWF) is in trouble. The New York State legislature, that cesspool of the democratic process that has screwed up the running of this rich and great state beyond all recognition, is about to pull the plug on Jim and his staff -- if not to close it down outright, then to fund it so little money, that it would essentially be crippled.
But, that only half the state’s wineries are actually paying members of the NYWGF makes one understand that there is a problem far beyond how grotesquely the state is treating the Foundation and by extension the state’s wine producers.
Jim Trezise is the head of the NYWGF. People seem to forget, he represents two constituents, with remarkably different goals -- wineries and grape growers.
As a friend recently wrote me, “One thing about all of this that often goes unspoken -- the Foundation is the wine and GRAPE foundation...most of the grape acreage in NYS is still in juice grapes. These are 2 groups with completely different marketing goals and customer bases. After all -- grape juice was developed by a fellow who was fundamentally against alcohol.”
The NYWGF, in the meantime, has presided over the most prosperous growth of any wine region east of the Mississippi. It has performed the duties of an organizer, a directory, a yellow pages, and a publicist for the New York wine industry for 20 years. When I started a winery Jim and the NYWGF folks were encouraging, obliging and welcoming. They gave me people to talk to, seminars to attend and introductions to many folks. New York wineries owe a debt of gratitude to Jim Trezise and the NYWGF.
As wineries, the question before us is -- will you support the Foundation? Yes? Or No? But in actuality, that is not the question at all. The fact of the matter is a fundamental question before us -- what is the New York Grape & Wine Foundation? What is its job now? What do its various members want? And what service and materials can it provide that it would take to attract new members?
The NYWGF’s original mission was to promote grape growing and winemaking in New York State. It did just that. But that is not what this column is about.
And I don’t know that the NYWGF is worth saving or not. I’m not attempting to answer that question here. I suppose it’s worth saving, especially to help assist other aspiring winery owners -- but is it the organization to take New York wine to get to the next level?
You see, the issue made me think. The New York wine industry has matured, into a family of five.
The eldest, largest, biggest, and most formidable child is the Finger Lakes. Second child is Long Island, somewhat smaller, no less smart or brilliant, but definitely smaller. And then there are the triplets -- the Hudson Valley, the Niagara Escarpment, the Chautauqua-Lake Erie region -- noisy and small, with tons of potential.
I think there is a bigger issue in front us. Here’s where I do have an opinion on what the New York wine industry needs.
New York City and London have been the two great capitols of wine in the world. Any wine, from anywhere in the world, can be gotten in either city. These are the great trade corners of the globe for the wine industry. When neither region surrounding those two cities could support them with good wine, the merchants of those cities set out to import the best wines to satisfy that demand. Backed by solid demand and great wealth, they imported all the best wines they could find to supply an ever hungry population for wine.
Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal... all supplied New York and London with the best wines they had to offer. The result today is an educated consumer base, who likes imports more than he or she likes local products, much like sports car aficionados prefer BMWs to Mustangs. And that’s our problem.
We have not made New York wines sexy enough for wine writers and consumers. We are not yet even a Corvette in our consumers’ eyes. Who’s fault is this really? The NYWGF’s or the wineries? In my mind it’s the wineries.
The world wine industry, as a whole, has advanced. Italy, France, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, California, Washington, Oregon and Virginia, all spend more money on promoting their wines in New York, than New York state does. And they are spending their money and effort in a way much different than what the New York wine industry is today. They have teams of people -- sales people, advertising people, publicity people, all of whom represent their trade commission.
They court the press. They sponsor professional and consumer tastings. They have unified marketing plans. And they have coordinated point of purchase displays. New York lacks all of this. Not only are we not involved in the discussion, we’re not even in the room. The needs of the majority have changed.
This is the attack I think we need to make a sizable dent in the marketplace:
- Tastings: Sponsor grand tastings twice a year in New York -- one in the spring and one in the fall. Both would let in press and industry professionals (liquor store owners, restaurateurs and distributors for the first few hours, and then allow in the public for a price. And sponsor smaller but similar tastings in Albany, Schenectady and Buffalo. All the above mentioned wine regions do this exact same thing. In fact there are two or three wine tastings a week in NYC, none of which feature New York wines.
- Press Dinners: Offer a series of dinners pairing winery owners and winemakers with the press. Do these regionally and outside the region.
- Sales Initiatives: We need someone to lead a state wide sales initiative. If April really in New York wine month, then the industry should be offering sizable displays with marketing materials and several extra discount points to be competitive. And that sales effort has to be backed by a concentrated publicity effort to promote the wines. And there should be some kind of event, held in NYC (Not the Finger Lakes) to help promote those wines.
- Marketing Materials: The wineries, especially the smaller wineries, need formatted materials for in-store promotions -- bottle tags, shelf talkers, table toppers or posters, that help them push their brand and the state’s message. They need templates to fill out that work, that carry the state’s wine logo.
- Go National: We need a planned, coordinated effort to target two or three major wine-buying U.S. cities to help establish a foothold in cities outside New York. Little New York wine is sold outside the state’s borders. Maybe it should be two-tier -- places like Boston, Denver, Orlando and Dallas and then places like Portland ME, Trenton/Princeton NJ, Philadelphia PA and others.
- Strength in Albany: We need someone at the table with the legislature who represents all our needs, who can find a clear and fair compromise to the grocery store issue that protects current liquor store owners (and provides a plan for them not only to survive, but to succeed), and that opens up real new markets, not just for the larger wineries, but for the smaller ones too.
- Leadership: We need someone to lead these conversations. And we need someone honest enough to allow all five children an equal place at the table. And we need that person to be placed in New York City, where everything is happening. All the trade commissions operate out of the city, but not New York wine. How is that?
There are people who would blame the NYWGF for being lacking where these needs are concerned. I would disagree. These issues were never part of the NYWGF mandate. These issues didn’t present a problem for New York State wine until about 3-5 years ago. The conversation has changed.
Wineries are like sheep -- they follow blindly until their throats are cut -- then they bleat. No one wanted representation. The larger and the smaller wineries didn’t want the NYWGF’s help/interference for numerous reasons. But now, there are stresses on the system. Not enough cooperative liquor stores, competing interests, no demand outside our borders…the list goes on.
Maybe we need two organizations -- one to help people start wineries and one to help the New York wine industry get to the next level. I only know that there is currently no organization that addresses the issues above. I know the NYWGF is not currently charged or empowered with such things. And I also know the state is not going to provide that help -- so even if the NYWGF wanted to, they couldn’t make these things happen anyway.
I come to praise New York wine, not to bury it. New York produces great wines.
No matter what I write, it’s the wineries that will write the next act. It seems to me it’s time the wineries acted in their own best interest, and created an organization that will address these issues, or consider redirecting or widening the mandate that the NYWGF to supply these services. Either way, the dues need to be paid. No one else will pay them for us, and the wineries won’t get the money from the state. The person or people they hire need to be focused and targeted. I personally have enough dues with local, regional, and state organizations, retail taxes, excise taxes, and other fees. But if we don’t have someone representing us in the fashion above, we will continue to be marginalized at best.
New York wine is the best kept secret in New York state. No kidding. What an awful thing to have to write.