Thursday, January 22, 2015

WINEMAKERS, THIS SUMMER, BRING THE GOOD STUFF!

 
It’s winter now, and many of us winemakers are happy to enjoy a few months of relative peace, before the spring comes, and farming and festivals and crowds again take center stage. But let’s use this time to talk.
 
I have mixed feelings about wine festivals in summer. On the one hand, as a winery owner, you lay out a  lot of money (the table, the trucking, the set-up, the staff, the gas, and sometimes hotel rooms), and on the other hand you get to deal with, inevitably, a lot of rude, drunk party-goers.
In my time, I have had a woman fall down, flat on her face, passed out drunk, with her dress over her head and naked buttocks showing for all the world to see, right in front of our stand. I had another woman come up eating a pistachio ice cream cone and complain that all our wines were sour and tasted of pistachio ice cream. I have had several gum chomping aficionados tell me that our best wines tasted like Bubalicious or Trident Spearmint. I had one A-hole proffer his cup, shaking it in my face, saying, ‘Just gimme your best.” “White or red?” I asked politely, through my gritted teeth. “Don’t F&%$ around Just gimme your best wine.” And of course, there’s the classic, “What do you mean you don’t have any stickers?” to women pasted over with cute sayings, like “I swallow!”
I’ve seen bridezilla led bridesmaid showers, half-naked groups of 20-somethings, bikers, and loads of drunks who made it look like they were walking on the deck of the Pequod just as Moby Dick arrived.

So I get the drill. I work 15 wine festivals a year. And I probably visit another four or five during the year where I am the guest. What can I say, I am a glutton for punishment.
Also, when I first started learning about east coast wineries, I, like thousands of others, went to festivals. It was the speed dating of the wine world. I got to see who the better producers were, among those who showed up, and learned what was going on. I met more winemakers and owners in one weekend, than I could in a whole summer. Was it deep knowledge? No. Was it a good introduction? You bet! Thousands of the uninitiated still do.
Now, not to scare off consumers, because on the other hand we’ve made lots of money at festivals, we’ve met lots of nice folks who have eventually come to our winery and become case club members, and I’ve actually made some really good friends! I actually look forward to a great many of these events, both as a seller and as a buyer. There's lots of fun to be had, and lots to taste and learn!

 
I have been to wine festivals in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. So before you tell me I don’t know what I am talking about, I say to you, “Shut up, and listen!”
 
This last year I noticed something. Something I am very keen to share with winemakers, sales people, and wine media types. I speak on behalf of other winemakers and the consumer.
I understand you want to bring your inexpensive wines and your sweet wines. I understand there’s a large portion of the audience who like these wines, and that will sell, and that make you money. I get ALL that.
 
But the first thing I heard about it was at one of the bigger wine festivals in New York. Several wine people, very good, wine appreciating customers and wine media types, who complained bitterly. They came to me. Several very good wineries were at the event, but they had brought their inexpensive blends, and not one of their really good wines. There was huge disappointment.
Now, as a producer, I have always brought a solid mix of wines across the board. I might charge extra for the better wines. A special tasting fee. Or might only pour them for select customers. I may only bring three or four cases of my best wines to a show. But I always bring them. And the writers and better wines customers always come because they know we bring the good stuff.

I had this happen several times this year. The same scenario, with people complaining that the wineries who were getting 90s, and who were there, weren’t bringing their good stuff. And on the other side, I had fellow winemakers who only brought their sweet stuff complain that the show was not a good one. That sales weren’t there. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true. It was more of a dry wine crowd.
And then I went to the Garden State Harvest Festival, and several of the best wineries brought two or three cases of each of their best wines. And you know what? People were thrilled. Yeah, they had their less expensive and their sweet wines, but they also brought the cream of the crop, so they could show off their best efforts. It made a HUGE impression on me. A a consumer I can't tell you how disappointed I am countless times to find your favorite winery at an event, especially a really good winery, and they don't bring their better wines.
Yes, you may play to the lowest common denominator at large venues. There’s LOTS of money to be made. I understand that. But there are plenty of appreciative, educated wine drinkers who are looking to find new wines to savor and collect and tell their friends about. And they are walking away disappointed.

WORSE, they are walking away convinced the east coast is not producing world class wine. You may say they are unaware, but I ask you? Whose job is it to educate them? To paraphrase the great theater writer Walter Kerr, if you serve tripe, they will think you make tripe. These festivals, while a great opportunity to make real dollars and promote the industry, for better or worse, are the place where we are making our reputation!
I am not targeting only my home state. All the above states have suffered from the same affliction.
These events were originally set up to promote the local wine industry. They were set up to educate and promote. What are we promoting these days? I say to you now, we are perpetuating our own fallacy. We are furthering the misconception that the east coast only makes sweet wine.
Now, I am not down on sweet wine. I am not bashing those who make it. California makes more sweet wine than the rest of the world put together. That is not what this rant is about. There is a place for all kinds of wines at my table. Sheath your swords.
All I am saying is, when you go out this year, whether you re in New York, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, Connecticut, or wherever, to the festivals, bring a case or two of your best wine. Promise yourself you will pour one bottle of your best stuff for the truly discriminating wine drinkers. Impress some people. Show people what it is we do.
The east coast has become a powerhouse of great wine. This coast has a great number of AVAs and regions that are making fantastic wines. Wineries from Maine to Virginia have received scores of 90 or better. However, we are keeping it a secret. We are. Let’s show people we make great wine.
This summer, bring the good stuff!