Sunday, February 15, 2015

I Just Want to Be Your Everything - How Many Wines Are Too Much?

I, I just want to be your ev'rything
Open up the heaven in your heart and let me be
The things you are to me and not some puppet on a string
Oh, if I stay here without you , darling , I will die
I want you laying in the love I have to bring
I'd do anything to be your ev'rything....

                      - Barry Alan Gibb, I Just Want to Be Your Everything

Can one winery be everything to everyone? When is too much, too much?

This is the problem a lot of burgeoning wineries must deal with. Especially if you are a new winery in a burgeoning region, how many wines are too many wines? Small winemakers are often, to quote Elvis Presley, caught in a trap.

On the one hand, unless you are a former or current hedge fund manager or Wall Street Master of the Universe, running a small winery is not an easy task. And a very expensive one. Many people will eventually come. But they don't all have the same tastes. Some like quality, dry wines, and turn their noses up at pink, semi-sweet blush wines, and semi-sweet whites. They want serious, barrel-aged reds and whites, and quality stainless wines too. They want them as dry as they can get them, and they tend to like vinifera, i.e. Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. These can be some high falutin' folks, but if they like what you're laying down, they will pay for the good stuff, whatever it is you demand.

On the other hand, given that your are in an undeveloped or relatively new wine region, most of the locals probably aren't wine snobs. They are probably good folks, most of whom are beer drinkers (nothing wrong with that, I LOVE my beer). They prefer the semi-sweet pinks and whites, and sweet reds. I call those picnic wines. They're great for backyard sipping, and they go with BBQ, Mexican food, and they make terrific sangrias.

Now, here's the dilemma. Quality wine folks come into your place and see the inexpensive sweet stuff, and they blanche. How do you get serious wine folks to try or wines, and not be put off by the picnic wines? How do you get reporters, and especially wine writers, journalists, and bloggers to take your serious wines - well, seriously?

It's tough.

And to all my fellow journalists, wine writers, and bloggers, what's your tolerance level? Can you tune out a wide selection to try and appreciate the good wines that this winemaker is laying down? Can you appreciate the fact that the winemaker, in order to make a living, needs to appeal to more folks than just you?

As the craft beverage business continues to explode, how do we find a balance between the two?

As I often point out, Robert Mondavi didn't get rich selling $125 Cabernet Sauvignons. He made his millions by selling White Zinfandel and semi-sweet Chardonnays. And without throwing stones, I would also remind everyone that California (which has a great reputation for quality wine) makes more sweet wines than the rest of North America put together. Probably the largest producer of them in the world, actually. Yet, California enjoys a reputation for quality wine.

I find that writers and bloggers are less forgiving and less easily persuaded by local wineries that offer a vast array. But what is a winemaker to do? Stay in business? Or only make the wines he or she likes to make? Or that wine writers like to drink? And just because a winemaker makes a series of picnic wines, does that tarnish the reputation of the quality of the wines he or she is making?

I would have to say, the best answer, to me, is that there is no limit to the number of wines you can make, as long as you have customers who will buy them. If your wines are selling through, then what's the problem?  Hmmm....

What then becomes the essence is branding. And the best example of branding I have seen in a local or regional winery is Boordy Vineyards, in Maryland, who has stratified their wine labels to fit their three basic programs - High quality, high crafted wines; popularly priced affordable table wines; and picnic wines. Heritage Vineyards in New Jersey has also done a very good job with this. But branding is a whole other essay. And I really feel it's an important issue the east coast needs to embrace more fully.


In my talks with other winemakers there is always the gap - between making quality wines you like, and making broad, popularly focused wines that will shoot through the tasting room and cash register and pay the bills so you can keep the lights on, the employees coming back, and your creditors happy. I have heard them lament that their sweet reds and pinks pay their bills, and that their more expensive wines move more slowly and are a tougher sell. But those same, quality wines, are why they got into the business.

The simple truth is America talks dry, but in the main, drinks sweet. There is a whole new strata of red wines, sold like dry ones, that are at 15% alcohol, and are as almost as sweet as port, but backed up by big tannins. They are essentially sweet wines. But thousands of Americans have deluded themselves into thinking they are drinking dry.

And while many who get into the business are among the dry contingent, they are beset by the demands of the semi-sweet crowd. These sweet wines are often looked down on by writers and journalists, so that is a difficult conversation.

But how many wines are too much? And can a small winery, who depends on local sales, be everything to everyone? It is an answer many local wineries deal with, from Maine to Virginia. I've even seen it in California, and Missouri as well as know that it's also the case in Michhigan and the Texas Hill Country. It is an issue no matter where you are in the US. From the smallest to the largest it remains a difficult question to answer. And even the finest producers on the east coast have found themselves making semi-sweets to feed the masses.

But when is too much too much? Or is there no end? Mondavi produced dozens and dozens of wines. But what kind of confusion do you cause yourself if there are too many?

Each winery must find it's own way. There is no set answer. I think it's a lesson sometimes in economics more than in taste level. At one point, if you are offering too many wines, then there are the other questions - would stream lining help? Fewer wines mean concentrating on the bottom line. Focus? It's a delicate balance.

As an adult, you begin to realize that if you are courting someone, the Bee Gee's mantra of "I want to be your everything" can be a difficult thing to live up to. You can adapt your personality to ingratiate yourself with whomever you seem to be falling in love with at the time. But eventually, who you are catches up to you...and comes through. It's not possible to be someone's everything. It's an unreal promise only fulfilled in maybe two or three marriages in ten. It's not the norm.

Can or should the same thing be said about a winery?

And can a journalist deal with a winery who needs to deliver to these different market segments in order to stay in business? Forging an identity that can deal deliver to both is a hard question to answer. In any event, most local or regional wineries find it impossible at least not to attempt being the next Barry Gibb. Or Andy Gibb for that mater. It's hard being a Gibb - but the world demands it...