Posted on | March 1, 2011
Written by | Jack Robertiello
Will 2011 be Austria’s year in the U.S.? Once a rare sight at retail stores, bottles of Grüner Veltliner, the wine universally associated with Austria, have started showing up on more and more shelves, helped along by the expanding American wine palate, and the wine’s reputation as a zesty and food-friendly alternative to insipid, high-alcohol or overly oaked whites.
But there’s an odd twist to the growing interest: Grüner, for years the most obscure of the wine-geeky wines, developed its reputation based on the affection of many sommeliers who’d grab what little they could of the allocated wines, hard to source since the Austrians drink about 80% of what they produce. Places like Aureole in Las Vegas stocked well over 100 labels, and Grüners became the best wines nobody could find.
But lately, retailers are finding success via a modest packaging innovation. Crown-capped liter bottles of Grüner and other varietals offered by such major producers as Burger, priced below $15, may be opening the door for the higher-priced versions.
The Hand Sell
Grüner accounts for the vast majority of exports to the U.S., but increasingly Riesling, and the red varietals Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and Blauer Burgunder have started to move beyond their niche as the sommelier’s favorite to become more widely accepted wines, especially at retail.
Importers like Terry Theise, whose portfolio is widely credited with establishing the country’s reputation in the U.S., have worked hard to build the quality image of the wines.
But lately, the wave of less expensive bottles has brought a new story from Austria: that of value and convenience.
There’s also the change many wine shops have undertaken as big box retailers expand into more markets. “The successful independent retailers have had to seek out categories and wines like these that require a passionate hand sell and evangelist approach to bring value to their customers, since they can’t go toe to toe with the big guys on price or in buying volume,” says Erin Grace, brand manager, Austria, at Emerald Wines—a division of wine and spirits importer and distributor, Winebow. The value is not only price-based but also quality, she says. With most Austrian wines being sold by fine wine houses, retailers who focus on less common wines are getting interested.
Eye on Austria
The U.S. is now Austria’s third largest export market, making up only about a tenth of what’s sold in Germany and Switzerland. But the numbers were up more than five percent in volume during the first half of 2010, according to figures from the Austrian Trade Commission in New York, after years of growth slowed in 2009.
Impressively, all this happened with very little organized commercial or marketing support by producers or the country as a whole. Stephanie Artner, project manager for Austrian wine at the Austrian Trade Commission, says the increase in U.S. activities, while small, has been significant. In 2010, more than 100 wineries participated in the first trade and consumer tastings, “Austria Uncorked,” in New York and San Francisco, and current plans call for a repeat in New York and Los Angeles in May of this year, as well as more focus on reds and Rieslings.
Recent promotional efforts have included large consumer and trade tastings, which will expand next year, and a broad effort to engage social media, sommeliers and wine bloggers to elevate the awareness of the wines, says Constance Chamberlain, public relations manager, wines, for the agency Brand Action Team: “Austrian wine is still a growing entity that is not held back by funding and, instead, is working to optimize the money they do have, hence the focus on social media marketing. The category has the potential to reach a large scope of people, faster and more personally.”
Follow the Sommelier’s Lead
As noted, sommeliers have always been big boosters of the wines. Sommelier Alan Murray at Masa in San Francisco carries many labels. Why? “These are quality wines, some of the purest in the world. Their elegant and fine qualities make them world class, and they are simply delicious,” he points out.
Murray says the general characteristics of Austrian wines make them a perfect fit for fine dining, and according to importers and marketers, have helped make San Francisco a major market for Austrian wines in the past few years.
Jamie Koren, European wine buyer for the Wine House in West Los Angeles, says that even though selling whites other than Chardonnay is still a challenge for wine shops in his part of the country, liters of Grüner have been a success. While the Wine House stocks many wines from Brundlemyer, Prager, Pichler and other well-known producers, they still require a hand sell while hundreds of cases of Burger and Hofer in liters move through the store.
Retail sales have surged compared to on-premise, says Grace. Although in New York City, long a stronghold for the country’s wines, Grüner is still primarily a fine dining event. In these markets, a wider variety of Austrian labels at higher prices can be featured, and even more than a smattering of by-the-glass offerings.
Whatever the growth, there are still numerous issues with getting Austrian wine up to speed, says Monika Caha of Monika Caha Selections: “Austrians are not big marketers, period. They’re not into spending big bucks on marketing no matter what the type of product.” With most of the quality wines coming from small family-owned wineries and few of the larger producers interested in promotion, little is expected to change in
Austrian reds tend to appeal to insiders, she says, but the country’s Grüners, Rieslings and Pinot Blancs are easy to understand once consumers realize they are not German. Retailers who bring the wines off the bottom shelf and provide some strategic signage have been, anecdotally at least, having better results, Caha says. In fact, with Austria closer to Burgundy in climate than Germany, getting retailers to move the wine away from the many German powerhouses in the store, and closer to Northern Italian whites or other wines where sweetness isn’t an issue has been a triumph.
But for now, even in stores where Austrian wines have made an impact, it’s still a hand-selling story. With major importers more interested in large volume countries, many wineries are hard-pressed to find a portfolio home. And this year will provide a major challenge, with price pressure on producers to balance the very small 2010 harvest of Grüner. But as long as the wines continue to range beyond the sommelier’s pet, a good harvest in 2011 may set that right.