08 December 2008

Oregon, going, gone?

[vines at Bella Vida winery, Willamette Valley, Oregon]Marketing. It’s really not my thing. I’m mostly immune to it, and though I am as frequently awed by its most adept practitioners as I am repelled by their best work, I’ve no discernable skill at it.

So it’s somewhat amusing to me how often I get asked, by those who make and sell wine, for an opinion on how they might a better impression on the market. Usually, but not always, it’s a foreign concern wishing to sell more – or at all – in the States. In fact, I just got back from South Africa, where this question was much on the minds of many of the winemakers with whom I swirled and spat.

While I was traveling, Thad over at Beyond the Bottle invited my comment on a piece he’d written, itself a follow-up to a winemaker’s thoughts on how to market a decidedly non-foreign wine region: Oregon. Since this is a place I’ve actually been, and a state that produces a rather larger number of wines that I like than is the norm for other domestic sources, I took a special interest in the topic. Herewith, then, a few thoughts from a someone who knows nothing about marketing. And what could be more valuable than that?

The contrast between the two essays to which I’ve linked is interesting, even though they cover some of the same ground. On one hand, we have a winemaker talking about wine as a niche (some would argue luxury) product and how to market that product to a knowledgeable audience. His idea is to find the hook, the mnemonic, the attention-grabbing uniqueness that will move his state’s wines into the public consciousness. And he suggests their fundamental “Oregon-ness” as that hook.

Thad Westhusing, on the other hand, takes a broader view, examining everything from wine tourism to price points in an effort to wrestle the problem to the ground. But neither he nor Hatcher really question the latter’s assertion that Oregon and the associations to be made with that place are the path to sales glory.

That may be, and I find thoughts with which to agree from both, but I think they’re missing the key point. The problem is pinot noir.

Oregon, for better or worse, has hitched its wine fortunes to this supremely expressive but finicky and expensive grape. Though there’s pinot gris, chardonnay, pinot blanc, a little sparkling wine (question: why not more?), and the occasional outlier variety, the consumer is, first and foremost, presented with a range of pinot noirs as the representatives of Brand Oregon. It’s a sort of marketing monoculture, and while it’s taken for granted in the Old World and frequently codified in Europe’s stringent appellation laws, it’s somewhat of a rarity in the anything-goes New. Most New World regions plant a diverse range of varieties (many of them, alas, painfully unsuitable for the terroir) and then let the shifting winds of popular taste do the marketing…or, when necessary, the winnowing.

The problem with doing it the other way – the Oregon way – is that success or failure are entirely subject to the public appetite for one specific product. Now, it happens that we’re still in the boom years for pinot noir, and whether one identifies it as a continuing post-Sideways effect or something else, the fact is the public loves its pinot. However, it must be noted for the record: not nearly as much as it loves its chardonnay or pinot gris/grigio.

Given that, shouldn’t Oregon be going gangbusters, since they’ve got pinot noir to sell and an allegedly avid market to sell it to? Maybe, but…well, see, there’s a problem. Oregon’s not the only modern monoculture in town. There’s the Central Coast of California, which has been around for a while but which has really exploded into the public wine-drinking consciousness over the past few years (and that is attributable, in large measure, to the aforementioned movie). There’s the Central Otago in New Zealand…and in that same country, Martinborough and the Waipara/Canterbury region.

So what’s the calling card of the Central Otago? Pinot noir. The Central Coast? Pinot noir. Martinborough? Pinot noir. The Waipara? Pinot noir (and riesling). What’s previously-monocultural Marlborough, widely known for it’s sauvignon blanc, planting a lot of these days? Pinot noir. How about Germany, the still-beating heart of rieslingdom? They’re making a big name for themselves these days among a subset of the wine geek set with their spätburgunder…a/k/a pinot noir. Meanwhile, the Russian River Valley, long a source for succulent pinot noir, hasn’t gone away. Nor has the Anderson Valley. And there’s still that other place…what’s it called?...oh, yeah. Burgundy. They make just a bit of pinot noir there, still, and despite centuries of fame and reverence, many commentators think it’s only getting better.

But why should pinot noir be a special problem? It’s not like people have any trouble selling chardonnay from pretty much every grape-growing region in the world, right? Didn’t I just say that there was an ever-escalating demand for pinot?

Sure, but the grape carries some baggage. It’s notoriously fickle on the vine, and when it does grow well, it requires careful shepherding and lowish yields to show its quality. That means that wines made from it are almost always going to be expensive versus other varieties. Cheap pinot noir is, with very, very rare exceptions, either dismal or – pumped up by the steroidal winemaking much-employed by the industrial set, and yet the primary source of cheap pinot – grossly unrepresentative of the variety and its qualities.

Moreover, its nearly unparalleled (among red grapes, with only nebbiolo as a serious contender) ability to reflect site-specificity results – as it always has in Burgundy – in a small blizzard of single-vineyard bottlings, regular and reserve bottlings, and/or differently-named blends. In other words, where cabernet might be responsible for a wine or two at a given winery, pinot noir can sometimes fill a case. Without duplication.

So where does that leave the pinot noir producer? Holding a dozen fairly expensive wines, each produced in relatively small quantities, and having to convince an already-saturated market of their quality when they’ve got similarly-priced options of quality from all over the globe, plus a few centuries of wine culture nagging that for the same amount of money they could be drinking “the real thing”: Burgundy.

In Oregon, or in fact anywhere the grape is grown, I suspect the urge to “buy local” trumps other factors (and the ability to visit and taste before purchase helps this along). Certainly that’s what they do in Burgundy, as well as all the other regions I mentioned earlier. But selling the wine at home…that’s not the marketing challenge, is it? The challenge is selling the wine elsewhere.

For example, consider Boston, this author’s current hometown. It’s a very Europhile market, as I’ve noted before, and a lot of very good New World producers have unsuccessfully beaten their skulls against the seemingly closed door of our avid wine culture. But even for those local consumers who are willing to explore beyond their beloved Burgundy, the available options quickly move beyond staggering to merely bewildering. Felton Road or Belle Pente? August Kesseler or Arcadian? Ata Rangi or Patricia Green? Not to mention the fact that there’s always the “…or d’Angerville?” option lurking in the background. They’re all pretty much the same price here, after all, and while they all have enticing qualities, only the truly pinot-obsessed will want to fully explore the full range on a regular enough basis to qualify as a reliable source of sales. That subgroup, repeated across hundreds of communities, may be enough to escalate a few wineries’ sales, but it’s not enough to accommodate all of them.

So what’s the solution for Oregon? I don’t know (remember: Marketing ’R’ Not Us). I don’t think that grubbing up pinot noir and planting…I don’t know, lagrein…is the answer. Because the wines are quite good, or at least they can be in capable hands, and if they think selling pinot is hard…. I’m not sure that selling “Oregon-ness” is the answer either. New Zealand tried that with their “the riches of a clean, green land” campaign, and I don’t know that it made much of a difference in their wine sales (though it has helped tourism, by all accounts…and it would probably help more were New Zealand not a zillion miles from everywhere). Further, I’m not sure this is the differentiator some might want it to be. Vermont – much closer to my market – is full of crunchy earth-mother environmental goodness and beauty, not to mention a wealth of fine agricultural products, but it doesn’t make me want to drink their wines, and I don’t think the stuff they are really good at (e.g. cheese) is pushing Vacherin Mont d’Or off, say, New York shelves; it remains a niche product for a niche, local market that knows and has regular access to that product.

Also, I’m not sure tourism is the answer. Wine regions everywhere point at Napa and ask, “why can’t we have that?” Well, first, I think much of Napa would very much enjoy it if someone else would take the tourists for a while. But the obvious thing is that Napa benefits almost immeasurably from its proximity to San Francisco, just as the newer California tourist hotspot of the Central Coast benefits from its proximity to Los Angeles. Portland is a nice city, but it’s certainly no San Francisco or L.A.

The best thing a wine region can do – and this is the advice I’ve always given, when asked – is to get into the desired market and really work it. That means sending the best and brightest to whatever places have been targeted and keeping them there for a while, or at least promising they’ll be back every few months. Work the retailers and the restaurants, and maybe even the press (most of the non-national wine press doesn’t really move much wine, but sometimes every little bit helps). Do some public dinners, which I think are absolutely critical in creating demand and name recognition. Plant representatives at stores’ regular wine tastings. Do the big wine fairs, and while there do tutored tastings.

And make it about more than just the individual producers. Yes, by all means, sell the names on the labels. But everyone who makes wines from its grapes benefits if some critical mass of people who know how to pronounce “Willamette” correctly is reached, and for that to happen everyone – or at least a large enough subset of everyone – has to work together to push all the categories that need pushing: pinot noir, Brand Oregon, whatever appellations are involved, and individual wineries’ products.

This is all marketing 101, I’d think, and yet it’s surprising how hard it is to get people to leave their wineries and saturate their target market. The farmer mentality, maybe, and non-corporate winemaking doesn’t leave a lot of down time for travel. What helps is government money, but in its absence wineries – many of which make much less money than the average consumer might think – have to do it themselves. If that means voluntarily pooling resources, then that’s what it means.

Otherwise, I see little hope. Major critics have been giving perfectly fine ratings to Oregon wines for years, and yet not enough has happened. There’s going to be no Sideways 2: Wasted Weeks in the Willamette. California – hopefully – isn’t going to tip its vines into the ocean and make beachfront out of Fresno, nor are New Zealand (and Germany, and Burgundy) going away. Words, print ads, flashy handouts…they aren’t going to get it done. The wines need to be under the noses and in the mouths of potential consumers.

Oregon needs a hook, yes. But the hook it needs is the one in a hotel room, on which its best winemakers and marketing gurus hang their jackets as they make their case to a new market, customer by customer.

3 comments:

wnissen said...

To tie several of your recent posts together with a tangent, there's a reason everyone buys Tide detergent. Proctor and Gamble tries to make their products literally habit-forming. Febreze was initially a failure when targeted toward infrequent cleanup of smelly clothes. The marketers hit on the idea of making it a daily ritual to finish off cleaning a room, and voila!

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/13/business/13habit.html?fta=y&pagewanted=print

It seems that consumers of wine are subject to the same rules as any other good: universal availability, constant exposure and a consistent product such that you get in the habit of consuming it are needed. Mr. Garretson was doing his part, but I don't think even the most dedicated promoter can compete with floor stacked cases and fancy displays and glossy advertising in GQ. The true artisan is always going to be more focused on perfecting the product, and will never produce enough to interest a distributor on a national scale.

It's sad, but I don't see much that can be done about it except through communities like the wine boards.

thor iverson said...

Thanks, Walter, and I think you make good points. This is one of the additional hurdles that artisan wine from Oregon faces, and of course it's going to be amplified as everyone starts cutting back on their wine purchases.

And you also make a good point that I glossed: it's possible to build an audience online if your inventory is small enough, and you pick the correct audience. Joe Dressner would have as much trouble building his business on eBob as Brian Loring would on Wine Disorder, for example. And it would have helped neither of them very much if they had zillions of cases of wine to sell. Even then, though, I don't think L/D has ever been rolling in riches, and it took a while before Brian -- who has been about as successful as any online self-promoter ever (I don't mean that as an insult) -- could walk away from his other job.

Walter said...

Mr. Loring has done a phenomenal job (even the local frou-frou restaurant pours him by the glass from time to time, thus saving me from having to buy a bottle to confirm that it's not my style), but he's the exception that proves the rule. That guy spent so much time on eBob it must have been a part-time job. According to his site, he made 4400 cases this year, which is reasonable to sell through his mailing list and a little distribution to the savviest retailers and restaurants. He's got gobs of personality and the interest in promotion, and most people aren't like that.

To look at a specific Oregon property, you and I both like Van Duzer. A few years ago they could not sell all their wine, I found some at Trader Joe's. They get reasonable scores from Wine Spectator, but they also have true professional promotion and marketing muscle behind them now. Pretty much every time I get a newsletter it highlights distribution in a new state and wine events in Palm Beach. The newsletter is expensively produced, etc. The whole apparatus seems to support $45 price tags for their single-vineyard wines and a new 20,000 case winery. I can't really afford $45, so I don't buy without tasting, but I'm happy for them.

Fundamentally I think you're right that it's marketing 101. Even in the rarified air of $20 bottles of grape juice, advertising sells, not quality.