License to Steal 2012: Lessons from the Lake

Dr. Kent Glaus was the Founding Director of the Enology and Viticulture program at Kent State University, Ashtabula Campus. Dr. Glaus passed away on December 20, 2012, after a short battle with cancer. We recently came across this article that Dr. Glaus penned in April of 2012 after attending “License to Steal.” We found his words on the Ohio wine industry thought provoking, and hope you will also. Saturday, April 27, would have been Kent’s 59th birthday. Please join us in reading this article and raising a glass in honor of Kent’s memory.

 License to Steal

Lessons from the Lake

Kent R. Glaus, Ph.D.

I am a teacher, not a marketing person, but I know I am never too old to learn, and I do recognize good ideas when I hear them.  I recently sat in on a couple of presentations at License to Steal, a National Wine Marketing Conference held each April in Geneva-on-the Lake, Ohio.  Two presentations were of particular interest to me and relevant to a long held and uncomfortable feeling I have had, that the Ohio wine industry seems to be “lost in the wilderness” when it comes to a search for a State wine “identity”.  A few weeks ago, I was attending another meeting when I heard a very prominent industry representative describe the “Ohio wine industry” as little more than an offshoot (albeit an important one in terms of economic impact) of the Ohio entertainment and tourism industry. I was shocked in hearing such a blunt assessment from an industry insider, but when looking carefully at the statistics provided in the Ohio Wine and Grape Commission’s 2008 report “The Economic Impact of Wine and Winegrapes on the State of Ohio” it is difficult to come to any other conclusion.  Ohio has dropped from 5th to 11th in US wine production in the last 10 years; other states are growing their wine production (and vineyard plantings) but Ohio has been static, despite an almost doubling in the number of wineries during that same time frame.

There is nothing wrong with being an integral and major part of the entertainment and tourism industry in Ohio.  My family owned a small farm winery in Ohio in the 80’s and 90’s and we too, depended on entertainment and tourism to pay the bills.  The point I wish to make, though, is that we often rely too much on developing ancillary revenue streams to support our businesses, and we don’t spend enough time figuring out how to grow our wine production by increasing underlying consumer acceptance, demand, and per capita consumption.  We often produce and offer over 20 different wines in our tasting room, from often as many varietals, instead of focusing on just a few wines that we can do extremely well.  I guess the problem I had in my years as a winery owner (I was guilty of it), and the problem that I still have today, is that the Ohio wine industry seems to be trying so hard to be everything to somebody that it falls short of being something to everybody.

The First Lesson: “Understand, Embrace, and Cultivate”

The first presentation that provided me with new insights was by Tim Hanni.  Tim is a respected WineMaster, teacher, researcher, and author and is part of Sonoma State’s Wine Business and Marketing School.  Tim talked about something that any Ohio winery owner knows from experience but doesn’t talk about too publicly:  wine consumers will always talk “dry” but “buy” sweet.  Sadly, the American wine consumer is grossly intimidated by well-known publications and spokespeople who only speak to a marginal 1% of wine drinkers in the country (the “drys”).  Jim Hanni is refreshingly, and finally, a champion for the other 99% of the wine drinkers in the country.  Yes, 99% of potential wine drinkers prefer off-dry and sweeter wines; it has to do with our biology and taste buds, our phenotypes: what Tim calls our vinotype.  But too often in Ohio, we devote enormous winemaking and marketing efforts trying to satisfy that small 1% of wine drinkers, and ignoring, or treating as 2nd class citizens, the other 99% majority, even as they today already represent our bread and butter sales.  In Tim’s words, it is really time to “understand, embrace, and cultivate” the tastes of the silent majority. That means embracing, featuring, and promoting our semi-sweet and sweeter wines, instead of “apologizing” for them! They can be and will be our “cash cows” for the future, and those wines will offer our best hope for producing a phenomenal growth in Ohio consumption and wine production.

Tim presented another enlightening idea that is also very disturbing to writers and publications that cater to that “1%”.  Tim contends that current trends and accepted norms in wine and food pairing are absurd and arbitrary and have no relation to research into the biology of our taste buds (i.e., the traditional norms of dry red wines with red meats, etc).   Ohio wineries must begin marketing all of their wines as a beverage for any food, any occasion, any meal, with only a single qualification:  if you like it, drink it!  There is nothing wrong with drinking a semi-sweet Riesling (or even a sweeter Catawba) with a filet mignon, despite what the 1% might say, if that is what you enjoy most!   We must educate our consumers to ignore the pronouncements and denunciations of the “1%”; enjoy a sweet concord with Walleye?  Go for it!

Tim shared a story about a consulting client from California who sold 100,000 cases/year of an off-dry Moscato wine. In an effort to make the wine more acceptable to a wider potential consuming audience, Tim convinced the winemakers to raise the residual sugar in the wine by at least 1%, to better balance the acidity and floral character of the grape.  In one year, sales went from 100,000 cases to 3,000,000 cases!  Today, sweeter Moscatos are the rising California stars among American consumers. If we want to grow our wine production and sales, then Understand, Embrace, Cultivate!

The Second Lesson:  Identify

The second presentation which helped clarify my thinking a bit was by Katie Roller, an Ohio native. Katie is currently the Marketing and PR manager for Wagner Vineyards, in New York; and previously worked for the Ohio Wine Producers Association.  Katie discussed the success she and her colleagues had in developing the Fingers Lakes 2010 Riesling Launch with the Fingers Lakes Wine Alliance last summer. The goal of the project was to create an ” identity” for the Finger Lakes region, centered around a single grape variety that has produced world class wines for the regional growers and wineries, Riesling.  The program was a nationwide effort of phenomenal success, and has provided the foundation for the Finger Lakes growers and wineries to cement their image as one of the “world” capitols of fine Riesling production. When consumers think about Riesling, they will immediately think Finger Lakes.   Katie also led a “virtual” tasting of several Rieslings, later in the evening, to provide some understanding of the scope of the high tech marketing and technological tools that can be used to promote such a program.

This type of regional “varietal identity” is not new to Ohio; it is something that Ohio wines once enjoyed in the early to mid-1800’s with our world renowned sweeter Catawba wines. I have to believe it could be of immense benefit to the Ohio (and US) wine consumer again today if we can identify those varieties we are best at growing and producing (Chardonnay, Riesling, the lambruscas, and some hybrids come to mind).  The approach to “identity” simply involves groups of wineries in the different wine producing regions in the State, working together to develop their own, world-class, varietal and then marketing that varietal as a cohesive group. This has to be a wine that can be produced consistently and as high quality as anywhere in the country or world.

This was a concept that was actually begun recently in Ohio in March, by several wineries in the Lake and Ashtabula County area, with the focus on a growing collection of Ohio’s excellent Ice Wines. Wineries on the “Ice Wine” trail reported unexpectedly high crowds and great interest and sales!  Think ice wine: think Ohio!   If Ohio wineries begin to “embrace, understand, and cultivate” the untapped potential of the “99%” perhaps it is not outside of reason to think that one day Ohio may again have a well-known, and world respected, Catawba wine trail.

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