from Vineyard & Winery Management (some months back)

Toto, I’ve a Feeling We’re Not from Kansas Anymore

It’s a reasonable enough solution; you’re trying to start a winery and you need grapes. And let’s say you live in the Midwest. You could choose some unfamiliar hybrid grapes from a local farmer you just met or…go shopping in California. Or Washington. Or Pennsylvania. Or any place that has proven grapes with familiar names like Chardonnay or Cabernet.

Maybe it would be better, if you were an intrepid Midwest winemaker to, say, learn about Valvin Muscat, how it’s flavorful but has a name that sounds part grape, part machinery. Wait, the TTB now lets you label Valvin Muscat as just plain Muscat?? Okay, bad example. Say it’s Traminette or Ravat 34. Who the hell wants to sell a wine called Ravat 34? If you have the option of buying some Zinfandel, why would you go to the trouble of learning about Ravat 34, finding a grower that knows the first thing about growing it, talking to ten different neighboring wineries in the vain hope of finding someone who will share with you their yet unreported success with Ravat 34 and then coming up with a name for your wine other than Ravat 34?

It’s not an unusual choice. But decisions have to be made if you are to run a business. Perhaps the name of your wine should be “Hobson’s Choice”, perhaps not. Perhaps you should take the easy road and buy some grapes or even some wine from someone else and name your wine “Cabernet Sauvignon”.

So you see why wineries have so frequently chosen the latter course. Today the bulk trade is growing aggressively, not only in the U.S., but throughout the world. According to The Drinks Business, the bulk wine category accounts for 38.6% of global wine exports, while bottled wine represents 54.3% of global exports and sparkling wine is at 7.1% (even as fizz continues to sparkle in sales growth). There’s no duplicity in shopping for wine or grapes to supplement your own production; if nothing else, it’s a natural development of a burgeoning global marketplace for wine. As that market grows and the number of players increases, there are efficiencies to be achieved when differing players find and hone their particular strengths, each bolstering others in the chain.

But wine is not a chain or a widget; everyone knows that. The history of American wine sales is replete with examples of large beverage companies that assumed making and selling wine was little different from, say, selling Pepsi. For Pepsi (or Coke or such others), it was a hard-earned lesson and they quietly retired the field.

When we buy a bottle of wine, we like to believe that we are buying something real, something authentic. The very basis of the Denomination of Origin system is to provide a buyer a sense of authenticity; that the wine is truly from a place. The DO concept (or AOC or AOP or AVA or GI or what you like) exists throughout the world in versions that may be draconian or that may be little more than window dressing, it is true. But the message inferred is the same to a consumer: by printing a place name on the label you are telling me that this comes from a special place, and the wine should carry specific characteristics as a result.

Which requires us to venture rather farther out on the limb, where things get wobblier. Roquefort cheese is a particular thing from a particular place and, according to French law, it must embody those particulars in its production, its origins, its smells and tastes. When we say that a Zinfandel comes from Paso Robles, we are making the self-same claim. It’s generally warmer there than in many other coastal California sites, but it is near the coast nonetheless. So its character should reflect those climatic influences in ways that make that Zinfandel special in specific ways, and different from a Zinfandel grown a hundred-fifty miles to the northeast in Modesto.

But climate is as mercurial as the latest election poll; and the wine industry bases its hierarchical pricing upon the notion that certain places tend to make good wine year in and year out not only because of their climatic situation but because of their soils too. We will merely snake along that slippery slope for today (to mix our metaphors) by saying that reasonable people disagree on the issue of soil influence. I’d like to kick a couple of boulders down the slope by pondering how centuries of experience, offering us specific soil characteristics in wine can be summed up as mere winemaking tricks. How is it that Chablis’ remarkable oyster shell aromas are due to sulfur usage, as some narrow-minded pendants are wont to insist, but who am I to say?

Let’s just agree to pretend for a moment that certain places on the planet give us certain kinds of wine. If mere winemaking trickery were enough to create hundred-dollar wines, well, surprise, everybody would do that. It is not so. Certain places are special for a myriad of reasons.

And the last fifty years have seen new wine from new lands around the world offering proof that we have not yet exhausted the possible combinations of vineyards and grapes. Only a few miles from Rome, outside the little town of Montefiascone, is a plot of Merlot that makes delicious, remarkable wine. It was planted about twenty-five years ago by one of the geniuses of Italian wine, Ricardo Cotarella, so winemaking has something to do with it. But the land that is modern Italy has been dedicated to wine for three millennia or so, and they’re just now finding a spot that makes great Merlot? I would state it thusly: if Rome still hasn’t figured out where its best prospects lie for certain highly regarded grapes, why are we so critical of early efforts with, say, Geneva Red or Brianna, two of the Midwest’s potential winners? Give it time; give it time.

But my circuitous argument lands here: unless you plant grapes of your own, in your own place, how will you ever know if there is such potential? How will you ever discover something great? Those wineries which rely upon purchased grapes from elsewhere cheat themselves, their neighbors and their children of a future all their own. And should California fall into the sea, as predicted by Hollywood, where will they turn for their source material? Having starved their own state’s farmers of the grape business, those farmers will have moved on to more lucrative crops, and the opportunity to conjoin a particular farmland to a particular grape, hopefully conserved and watched over by succeeding generations, each learning from their predecessors, this too will be lost.

It’s not an idle or trivial matter. Midwestern winemakers often find themselves short of grapes, at least good grapes from varieties that have a consumer market, and that are grown with these winemakers’ stylistic goals in mind. Why? Because not enough wineries are shopping for those grapes consistently. Farmers aren’t stupid. They grow what people want to buy. When Midwest wineries buy their grapes from the West Coast, the farmers there start planting more grapes for bulk purchase (with the attendant qualitative implications of that statement) while farmers nearby move on to soybeans or kale.

Many of the wineries that I speak to about this issue are evasive; few want to admit that a bit of purchased juice can coax more out of their own state’s grapes. Federal law allows 25% non-Missouri wine in a wine labeled as Missouri; in certain difficult years, they are allowed even more leeway. And Kansas wineries, particularly those who utilize purchased grapes, managed to gut the Kansas Farm Winery law; before 2014, if you had a Farm Winery license, at least 60% of your grapes had to be Kansas grown. Today, that number is 30%. How does that help Kansas growers and farmers? It doesn’t. It helps those who seek a short-term fix to a long-term problem. And wine production will always best be answered by long-term solutions.

Growing grapes to make fine wine is a problem that can only be answered by time. If your business model is to be a wedding chapel and event space, then it is likely that your goal is to make serviceable wine. My decades in the industry have convinced me that those who seek to make fine wine set aside all other goals in an effort to reach that pinnacle. Fine wine may or may not happen, but fine wine does not happen by accident. It is a remarkable confluence of luck, tremendous work and thought.

Serviceable wine has a thirsty market; make no mistake. But serviceable wine is a commodity; the ocean of Australian wine with cute animals on the labels languishing in close-out bins over the last five or more years is proof of that. Historically speaking, the cheapest wine wins. Over the last five years, Aussie Shiraz has been supplanted by Argentines making tasty, cheap Malbec. Soon it will be the Chinese, planting hundreds of thousands of acres of vines intended to provide the world with more serviceable wine. If I were writing a business plan today, I would not want it based upon serviceable wine, but upon something special. Something unique to who I am and where I live. In that way, people who live around me would value what it brought to my community and to my region. Others far away might want to taste my wine because it is unique to my place, and perhaps I would grow a market for what I made, a market the Chinese (not to pick on them, but you get the point) would not be able to imitate and supplant at lower and lower prices.
Today there is some dissembling about all this. It seems unfair to pick on a winery in these pages, so let’s consider the travails of one distillery, Templeton in Iowa. For years, they insisted that they were making their own amazing rye whiskey, and it’s inarguable that their rye whiskey was damned delicious. But the truth comes out in our social media era; it turns out that Templeton was buying rye whiskey from MGP in Indiana, like most smart rye whiskey producers. Some have not forgiven them for this lack of candor.

There should be truth in labeling. We often look to our government to protect those names, as other governments often do. But there are many who would rather keep government’s nose out of their business. The TTB is currently promising to take a closer look at veracity in wine labeling; wines sold only within their state’s borders have been labeled in ways that would never pass muster if submitted for COLA approval. Some companies might prefer the government to go sniffing someplace else. And with the TTB still reeling from the “sequester” cuts of 2014, they haven’t the manpower to police these matters adequately.

So it falls to the wineries to do what is right. And while everyone winery has the right to conduct business in its own best interests, its long-term prospects are ruled by one imperative: what is your unique proposition? Instead of being just another winery, shopping from the same California broker, why not reflect your own place and your own community. Instead of pretending to be from Kansas and selling them California, why not just be from Kansas? I live in that state, so I know it can be embarrassing at times to admit you’re a Kansan, but how else will we create change?

A wine label is a marketing tool. The most powerful marketing message that your label can employ is to tell people who you are and where you come from. We are in an era in which transparency is rewarded and any semblance of duplicity is likely to be ripped apart by the pack of angry vultures collectively known as social media. How much are you willing to offer them your red meat?