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Friday, November 23, 2012

Unity in the wine world

Unity is perhaps the second most important aspect of the wine world. Quality would of course be number one, but working together is a close second. Think about about the world's greatest wine regions. They all have at least two things in common. They all produce quality wines and they all have a common identity. That common identity did not happen on its own and did not arise from each individual producer working selfishly by themselves. This idea of unity is certainly more important as the wine world continues to flatten in the global economy and competition continues to increase every day.

Forty years ago America was still considered the backwater of the wine world by industry elites. Yes, Ohio and Missouri wines were internationally known in the 1800s, but a little something called Prohibition cut America's wine industry off at the knees. In the 1960s and 1970s, several concurrent events led to California (and by proxy America) putting itself back on the world wine map. Perhaps most important were the efforts of Robert Mondavi. Mondavi split from his family and started his own family in the Napa Valley in 1966. He not only worked his tail off to build one of the most famous American wineries, but he put selling California and the Napa Valley ahead of his own namesake winery. He knew that if he consumers considered California and Napa Valley wines amongst the best in the world, his brand would benefit as well. He understood the importance of unity.


When I was in Santa Rosa, CA last week, I saw the continued spirit of cooperation first-hand. I visited two "wineries" that did not have a brick and mortar home of their own. Both produce wine in custom-crush facilities. Eric Kent Wine Cellars (more on them soon) calls Punchdown Cellars home. Punchdown is located in an industrial park in Santa Rosa and houses 35 different wineries under one roof. Here, the wineries share equipment that small boutique wineries may not be able to afford on their own. Sorting tables, presses and tanks, and pumps are all used cooperatively. Each winery has its own space and barrels, but by just walking through the facility it is difficult to tell that 35 different vintners call the building home.



Cooperative marketing is perhaps even more important than making the wine together. So many European regions have organizations that are in charge of regulating the production, the quality and the marketing of the wines. For better or worse, in the United States there are no regional associations that have the same oversight as in Europe. Have you ever tried telling an American winemaker what kind of wine to make? I wouldn't advise it. And to steal a quote from an industry leader, I'd rather tell a winemaker his or her 13-yr old daughter is pregnant than inform them that their wine is flawed. As such, most of the regional associations in the U.S. are only charged with marketing efforts. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily an easy task to brand heterogeneous regions with a common message. Getting wineries to agree to a shared goal and marketing method is somewhat akin to herding feral cats. Established regions, like Napa, Sonoma and even the Willamette Valley in Oregon have spent decades building their identities. And while legacy wine publications may say that the quality of the wine from those regions is the reason for their extensive coverage, the cohesive marketing efforts of those regions probably plays a big role.

To see how this can work for an "emerging" wine region, look no further than the Finger Lakes region of New York. New York is one of the four largest wine producing states in the U.S., yet until recently it received no more attention by the big wine glossies than states like Colorado and Virginia. Now, Finger Lakes wines regularly get 90+ scores and harvest reports in Wine Spectator. Have the wines suddenly improved in quality? Nope. What happened was that the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance made promoting its wines to Wine Spectator a top priority. By strategically and consistently submitting wines for review Wine Spectator started to pay attention. Last year, the Alliance also decided to start an official Riesling release celebration. Now, rather than individually releasing the new vintage, the wineries work together to for a month-long celebration of the region's keystone variety. Through a series of media events and real and virtual consumer tastings the wineries combine their efforts to promote region as a whole. While maybe not as big as the Beaujolai Noveau phenomenon, This effort of unity amongst the Finger Lakes wineries has been far more successful than any of the individual wineries could have accomplished alone.

States like Colorado need to take a look at some of these examples if they are to ever become more well-known. The cooperative efforts I describe above aren't driven by top-down approaches that regional or statewide associations mandate on the wineries, but by individual wineries realizing the power of unity. Colorado has a handful of regional associations and two statewide agencies that could be more effective if their constituent wineries understood that a rising tide raises all boats. Unity and cooperation can be a powerful tool.

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