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Backyard Diamonds

Posted on  | May 22, 2014   Bookmark and Share
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In the mid-1990s, Washington wine was best known—to be polite—as the place two states north of California, and it was almost impossible to find a bottle of Washington state wine in a restaurant. Today, Washington’s wine is critically and popularly acclaimed, it’s the second biggest wine state in the U.S., and one study found that as many as three-quarters of Spokane’s restaurants have Washington state wine on their lists.

The point for retailers and restaurateurs? Not that they should carry Washington wine, which is something almost everyone does these days. Rather, that the 21st century equivalent of Washington state wine is regional wine, be it from New York, Texas, Virginia or the other dozen or so states that are where Washington was 20 years go. Owners and operators who dismiss their local wine as irrelevant could find themselves ignoring the next big thing—and at a time when local is one of the biggest trends in retailing.

“Anyone who doesn’t understand the appeal of local isn’t taking advantage of that proximity to sell more wine,” says Michael Warren Thomas, the co-founder of New York Wine Spotting, which promotes the state’s wines to restaurants. “Most don’t realize how much local has improved, and how important local has become.”

This does not mean that local sells itself; don’t expect distributor case stacks, discounts and rebates. But if local was that mainstream, it wouldn’t offer the potential that it does, says Michael Wangbickler, the president of Drink Local Wine, a non-profit whose goal is educating consumers about local.

“It’s about what the retailer believes in.” says Wangbickler. “What’s it worth to the retailer to make the decision to support local?”

Loco For Local

Ironically, local has been trendy for so long that one might argue it has entered the mainstream, having appeared in the National Restaurant Association’s annual chef’s survey as a hot topic since at least 2010 in one form or another. Local took the top spots in 2014 in a variety of food categories, and local wine was the second biggest alcohol trend.

And wine is made in all 50 states, and the number of regional wineries in the United States increased almost 12% between 2011 and 2014, almost doubling since 2005. Quality has improved dramatically as well, and wines from regional producers regularly win medals at the country’s most prestigious competitions.

Equally as important, local wines are better integrated into the three-tier system. Distributors—including the country’s biggest—have added these producers to their portfolios because they understand the importance of local; in Texas, for example, most of the state’s top wineries are distributed by either RNDC or Glazer’s.

Still, that doesn’t mean getting local into the store—or selling it—is easy, says Wangbickler. For one thing, it’s often difficult to gauge demand for specific local products, as opposed to local in general. For another, local products are hand sells, and that’s something that still terrifies many retailers, leery of making the effort for a product they don’t understand.

But it can be done, as Washington state demonstrates—and the new regional wine centers like Texas and New York could be next.

“A lot of it is just integrating local into the store,” says Catie McIntyre Walker, who owns the 1,000-square-foot Wild Walla Wine Woman wine shop in the Washington state city. “Your customers are going to be looking for something different, and local is different.” About one-half of the SKUs in Walker’s shop are from Walla Walla wineries, with the rest split between the Pacific Northwest and imports. California wine, she says, doesn’t sell. Her customers include tourists visiting eastern Washington, and they don’t seem fazed by the prices, often $30 and more, for local wine.

Sku After Sku

That focus on local has also paid off for Marketview Liquor in Rochester, NY. The long-time independent carries 800+ New York wine SKUs, and that’s not a new thing—the store has invested in local since it opened 33 years ago, says Marketview’s Mike Martin. “There are two reasons for our success with it,” he notes. “Number 1, people come in looking for it. The second reason is that the wine industry in upstate New York is going in the right direction; that creates a demand for the wine.”

In this, Marketview has learned how to turn what seem to be disadvantages into selling tools. The need for hand sales? That’s about educating staff about New York wines, so they can explain the difference between Hazlitt’s Red Cat, the sweet red that is the store’s biggest New York seller at about $8 a bottle, and the Finger Lakes’ famed Rieslings. Also important: not competing with local wineries, which usually sell at suggested retail. “It’s not any secret that the wineries are careful not to under-price retail,” says Martin.

That attention to local has worked for King’s Liquors, a three-store chain in Fort Worth, Texas, says Ray Raney, a Kings vice president and certified sommelier. Raney’s Kings, near the TCU campus, carries 100 Texas SKUs. The section is marked as Texas wine, and a sign points to it from the front of the 3,000-square-foot store.

“It’s about what’s new, what’s different, what’s going on in Texas that would appeal to our customers,” says Raney. “Yes, it’s not as easy to sell, and yes, it’s a hand sell, but it’s not something that it’s in all the grocery stores, and it gives us an opportunity to put our imprint on our customers.”

Vive Le Difference

Regional wine is not supposed to taste like California wine. Or French wine. Or like any wine other than where it is from. It’s OK for regional wineries to make wine from grapes that aren’t Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. In fact, one of the things that held regional wine back over the last decade is that its producers were caught between a rock and a hard place. California had done such a good job educating consumers about these varietals that regional producers had to make them because they could sell them—even when their terroir wasn’t exactly suited to them.

Selling local wine calls for outside-the-box thinking. Consider the following resources:

LOCAL WINERIES THEMSELVES. New York Wine Spotting’s Thomas points out that local wineries, because they’e local, are close to many retailers. Hence the idea of field trips—a retailer and employees visiting the point of production is something they can’t do for most of the products in the store.


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