Saturday, June 20, 2009

An Interview With Richard Leahy


Richard Leahy is one of the most influential people in the east coast wine business. East Coast Editor for Vineyard & Winery Management and the author of Richard Leahy’s Wine Report at www.richardleahy.com/blog. He is also the organizer of Wineries Unlimited each year. He sees a lot of trends as they are happening on east coast wine. Richard is a tireless and affable and enthusiastic promoter of the east coast wineries and their constant upward surge.

RICHARD LEAHY

What is the biggest challenge facing wine in your state today?
Quality consistency, a reliable grape supply and profitability.

What is the difference between wine in your region from ten years ago to today?
A higher level of quality especially in the reds, and more sophisticated red Bordeaux blends; also the rise of new varieties like petit verdot and traminette.

Where do you think wine in your region will be 10 years from now?
Virginia has already established an international reputation with viognier. Advances in red wine quality should make a reputation for Virginia with regionally distinctive red Bordeaux blends based on merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

What’s the trend in wine in your region that has surprised you the most in the last 2-5 years?
The move away from low-acid, barrel-influenced viognier. Producers are realizing that better balanced white wines in warm climates should block malolactic fermentation and avoid obvious oak. The better acidity and fresher style is a positive change and should help keep Virginia viognier competitive on the international stage.

Is there a new trend you expect to see in the next 2-3 years?
It will be interesting to see if the newly legalized custom crush channel takes off for both commercial and private customers.

Do you find liquor stores and wine shops have been a good partner for your state grown wines? What have been some challenges?
Generally private and chain grocery retailers have been supportive. The problem is how to compete in a de-personalized environment with cut-price wines from all over the world. Most Virginia wines are not competitively priced except in the ultra-premium segment but people often prefer a more recognized region like Napa or St. Emilion when paying $20 for a bottle of wine.

Region 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?
We’re fortunate in Virginia in that we’re developing promising markets in the U.K. thanks to the work of the Virginia Wine Experience in London two years ago and the work of Christopher Parker with New Horizon Wines. Virginia wines resonate well with the U.K. palate. Some wineries like Horton have been distributing some wines (viognier) in select California markets, but the most profitable channel for sales outside the state is through direct-to-consumer shipping, now legal in 36 states.

How big a part do festivals and farm markets play in your state‘s wine distribution?
We have to distinguish winery-specific events from regional festivals. The smaller wineries may not want to participate in the super-large festivals where they pour a lot of tastes and make relatively few sales compared to loss of total volume. Events at the winery are important for bringing people to the tasting room and creating an experience for them that adds to the value of the wine. The Virginia wine calendar is packed with events, both for individual wineries and trails and state-wide.


What are the challenges of getting your wines covered by local press and the wine media?
Newspapers are in trouble, and many wine writers have been let go; many papers aren’t even covering the wine scene anymore. Blogging is filling that vacuum. The “wine media” are no longer just the Wine Spectator and Parker’s Wine Advocate; there are hundreds of wine blogs that are democratizing the wine media. Many wineries still spend way too much time trying to get covered by either Parker or the Spectator but ignore the new wine media.

Are their any media streams that you have found that are more effective than not?
Not all wine blogs are created equal. Dave McIntyre who blogs but also writes the wine column for the Washington Post, and Jeff Siegel the “wine curmudgeon” now have a website called “drinklocalwine.com” which features lots of writing about local wine across the country.

Are there any fears you may have too many wineries in your state?
Well, existing wineries may fear that! There is not only a competition for sales but also for the grape supply. Too many growers open their own wineries and those grapes are no longer available to other wineries. Competition for the limited supply drives up prices. Generally though more wineries creates a critical mass of presence in the market and consumer awareness, which raises the tide for all boats.

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?
There are a number of wine trails in Virginia with a local focus; throughout the East wine trails are great vehicles for promoting awareness of a very specific region while keeping publicity costs affordable for all members.

Are you finding there are enough grape growers to fill the demand created by wineries in your state?
As per my comments above, that is a concern. Some larger wineries worry about the sustainability of the industry if all growers only have a couple of acres and try to grow the most expensive grape varieties. All major wine regions (including California) rely on independent growers to supplement their top wines with commercial grade grapes which make competitively priced wines for the public; if every grower is an artisan, all wines will be priced accordingly which is bad in an economy like this.