Sunday, June 14, 2009

An Interview With Jim Trezise

Jim Trezine is bigger than life. A well-dressed gentleman, a man who can talk to farmers and winemakers as well as with Senators and Governors and state legislators. He is the Director of the New York State Wine and Grape Foundation. He is constantly spreading the "good news" about New York state wines. He is both tireless and ubiquitous. A great ambassador for our state.

This is a first in a series of interviews with regional directors about wine on the east coast and about local wines in their regions.


What is the biggest challenge facing wine in your state today? The economy, which drove a big excise tax increase and threatened the New York Wine & Grape Foundation’s funding base, and has thrown our normally dysfunctional state government into outright chaos. In addition, the distribution system is still a major hindrance to the vast majority of New York wineries, which are very small producers.

What is the difference between wine in your region from ten years ago to today? A huge increase in the number of wineries (about double), and the creation of wineries in places never envisioned, like the Thousand Islands, the Champlain Valley, Brooklyn, Queens and New York City. In addition, there is much broader recognition of New York wines for quality both nationally and internationally.

Where do you think wine in your region will be 10 years from now? Bigger and better. Absent a total economic meltdown, I see continuing growth in the number of wineries, and continuous improvement in quality due to all the research we sponsor at Cornell in viticulture and enology.

What’s the trend in wine in your region that has surprised you the most in the last 2-5 years? The strategic intelligence with which most new winery owners are approaching the venture. There’s lots of information out there—about growing grapes, making wine, laws and regulations—and most are taking good advantage of it. For example, the folks in the bitter cold (winter) Thousand Islands and Champlain regions are planting “Minnesota” varieties, and making really good wines from them.

Is there a new trend you expect to see in the next 2-3 years? I think the “local” trend will expand and accelerate, which is very good news from New York’s small wineries, but it’s their job to help make this happen.

Do you find liquor stores and wine shops have been a good partner for your state grown wines? What have been some challenges? The New York Wine & Grape Foundation has had some very successful “New York Wine Month” promotions involving liquor stores, and there are several who do a consistently good job on their own all the time. However, there are also many who do not carry New York wines, and don’t know much about wine at all, from anywhere.

Regional wineries sometimes find it hard to sell wines outside of their state. How easy or difficult is it for your wineries to export their wines to other states…countries? It’s as difficult as for wineries in other states, which means very much so; and few small wineries have the staff, time, or resources to do all that is required for selling their wines at half of retail. That in part explains why the vast majority of New York wines are sold locally.

How big a part do festivals and farm markets play in your state‘s wine distribution? They are both very important because both involved direct sales to consumers, which has many benefits. First, it’s the most profitable sale, involving no middlemen. Second, direct sales connect the consumer with the winery through people-to-people contact. Third, direct sales help establish brand identity and loyalty so when people return home they’ll ask their local retailer or restaurant for the wines. Our program in New York City’s Greenmarkets has been a phenomenal success, and by the far the best way to penetrate that super-tough market.

What are the challenges of getting your wines covered by local press and the wine media? There’s no problem at all with the local press, which in many instances has fed off the popularity of the wine industry to start their own wine web pages or blogs. The national wine media have been more resistant, partly because few New York wines are in national distribution, but that is coming along.

Are their any media streams that you have found that are more effective than not? Local and regional media are very important because they help to generate tourism to the regions, which is vital for the industry. The social media are becoming increasingly important, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty on where they will go.

Are there any fears you may have too many wineries in your state? No. We now have 260, and we could easily support 500 (which could occur within a decade). New York is a big state, and with new wine regions like the Thousand Islands, there’s still a lot of room and opportunity for the synergy that numbers provide. Even in the more crowded wine regions, there’s still room.

Do you have any wine trails in your state? If so, how effective have they become? If not, why? How do your wineries effectively market themselves in groups? Or not? If not, why not? We now have a dozen wine trails from border to border, and they are one of the most effective marketing tools our industry has. The first (Cayuga) started about 25 years ago, and our organization encouraged the creation of others through matching funds for their brochures, events, and other activities. One winery is a local curiosity; a wine trail is a destination. From 1985, when our organization was created, tourist visits to wineries have increased more than 12-fold from 340,000 to over 4,100,000, and much of this is due to wine trails.

Are you finding there are enough grape growers to fill the demand created by wineries in your state? Yes, plenty. In fact this year we are trying to market New York grapes to wineries in other states.