Danene Beedle is Marketing Director for the Missouri Wine and Grape Board (MWGB), one of the conference sponsors. Missouri Wines is funded by the state’s 12 cents a gallon tax on wine sales and is responsible for coordinating marketing and public relations for the wine industry in the state and underwriting research by the Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture & Enology (ICCVE). As we perched at a table in the middle of the busy trade show floor, Danene started by telling me that she was pleased with the conference turnout and the opportunity it presented for wine makes to learn more about their craft, get new ideas and build their businesses. We also discussed perceptions about Midwest wines, distribution issues and a range of related topics relevant to the industry. Here’s our conversation…
Danny: Maybe ten years ago Californian winemakers might have turned their noses up at a Midwest wine conference like this. But is that changing?
Danene: You know it is changing. We’re doing a lot of things really well in the Midwest. We have some varietals that are unique to us.
We’ve also been leading the business for a long time in sweet wine production and as we know a lot of folk like to talk dry and drink sweet. But you know the great thing about Missouri is that we have all kinds of wines so that anyone, anywhere in their palate can find something, we have a variety whether it’s sweet, dry or anywhere inbetween. So I think Missouri continues to be leading the way as far as innovation and growth. Our industry is now up to 114 wineries, just 7 years ago we had 54, so we’ve more than doubled in the last seven years and that’s exciting for our industry. And people are also taking notice of the economic impact that we’re having on the state and how we’re able to provide jobs, and you know this is agriculture. And, when people start talking about “local” they want to eat local and also we’re trying to get people to drink local. Sometimes people forget about the wine, but I think there’s a huge interest now in regional wines and that’s really one of the banners that we’re really flying high right now.
“the great thing about Missouri is that we have all kinds of wines whether it’s sweet, dry or anywhere in-between”
Danny: That whole topic of eating and drinking local is interesting. I have a very generous mother and father in law who take me and my wife out to eat in nice places in Kansas City and it’s so rare that you see a Missouri or a Kansas wine on the wine list. The wineries I’ve spoken to sound very frustrated by this. They don’t expect to sell a lot of wines in restaurants but view them as ambassadors for their wine that can help people to get to know about them. What can you do or what are you doing to help that?
Danene: Well we’re trying to work with restaurants and different distributors. One of the things about the Missouri industry is that the bulk of the wineries sell on their premise and so they don’t necessarily distribute, so distribution can be an issue, but really at the end of the day, a lot of the time we find that restaurants want to go and do what’s easy, work with their one distributor, just check the boxes. We want to challenge restaurants and bars and wine bars to really think about doing the next “local” thing because we’re convinced that local foods do taste better with local wines. That’s not something that we dreamt up, that’s been around for many, many years and really started in Europe. We would like people to start voting with their pockets and really getting out there and asking for the wines. The only way we’re going to see a change in restaurants is for folks to start asking for it. A lot of times people are intimidated when they go to a restaurant and they don’t know what to ask for so they just let the server be the expert and they say, “Oh well, what do you recommend?” And whatever the server recommends is what they go with. So the way that we feel like we’re really going to make an impact is through people asking and then hopefully the restaurants will understand that and start embracing Missouri wines more.
“The only way we’re going to see a change in restaurants is for folks to start asking for it”
Danny: Do you have a campaign that is doing that? Do you have a restaurant campaign?
Danene: We will most likely pursue that in the future, we don’t currently. We work on a really limited budget and the last year we’ve really focused on the tourism aspect and getting people to the wineries. We have a passport program that helps support that and so we’ve been focused on wine tourism and getting people to see where these wines are made. But I would imagine that you’re going to see a restaurant change.
Danny: I know you’re a bit of a winer and diner. Can you name a few places that do actually have Missouri wines on their wine lists?
Danene: Absolutely! Here in St Louis the best place to get Missouri wines – actually there’s a whole list of Missouri wines - is Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield. Glenn Bardgett, their wine director is a big advocate of Missouri wines and he’s been really great. There’s Robust Wine Bar in St Louis and right here in St Charles there’s Little Hills Winery & Restaurant. I’m from Columbia and there are some really great places I know there like Sycamore, they have some top Missouri wines on their list, as well as the Wine Cellar & Bistro on Cherry St. As far as Kansas City goes, I don’t get over that way nearly as much, I think The American has some.
Danny: Yes they do – is that the one in The Crown Center Complex? Yes they have a few .
Danene: Yes Jamie Jamison is their wine director, he’s a sommelier and he’s also an advocate of our industry and he does believe in local and wants to provide that for folks.
Danny: My final question. Midwest wineries basically sell their wines at their winery, in grocery stores or in liquor stores and you’d be very hard pressed to find a Midwest wine in a liquor shop in Sydney, London or even California. Is that because production isn’t there yet?
Danene: That’s correct it’s a production issue. We simply don’t produce enough at this point. There are a few wineries that have one or two wines in New York or California, but really, throughout the Midwest we have some top wineries that you can find in pretty much all of the Midwest States but the distribution is not there and wineries have different business models. Not everybody is about being widely distributed. For a lot of people it’s about the experience, “Come to the winery, enjoy the wine as it’s meant to be, right here on our property, see the grapes that you’re drinking…” So it’s not in everyone’s business model and that’s one thing that some folks take for granted, that everyone wants to be big and out all over the place, that’s not everybody’s business plan and that’s okay!
Danny: My final, final question. I’m Australian originally and when I came to live in Missouri a few months ago I had never heard of Missouri or Kansas making wine – and I thought they were probably going to be horrible – but I’ve found some really classy ones. And yet the industry as a whole represented by Decanter, Wine Spectator and California wine clubs can have a certain snobbery towards Midwest wines, a bit like the French attitude towards California’s wines 30 years ago. Is it important for you to overcome or is it just not really necessary because you are not yet selling to those places?
Danene: I think that really is a great question that depends on each winery and what they’re wanting to do. We’re not working hard or campaigning to overcome that. Our current campaign promotes Missouri as the country’s first wine country and the reason for that is because the very first AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the United States was in Augusta, Missouri and then the second AVA was Napa. So we have multiple AVA’s in our state that are recognized as having great soils and it’s a great place to grow grapes and make wonderful wines and so we want people to know that about our heritage and we want people to know that before Prohibition we ranked second in the nation in wine production. But what we’re doing is building our future about what is going on in the industry now and really whether people like it or they don’t, I think that’s up to them, we’re not going to fight that. But what we are doing is embracing embracing our region and saying this is what we have here in the Midwest and it’s really great. It doesn’t mean that it’s better, or that Californian wines aren’t great, it’s just simply a different experience.
“the very first AVA in the United States was in Augusta, Missouri”
Danny: And yet while most winemakers here grow the Norton and the Vingnoles and the native grapes, there are some winemakers like Amigoni who manage to grow the Vinifera, the European stuff. Is there a place for them in this model?
Danene: I think there’s a place for everyone in the model. The great thing about the Missouri wine industry is that it is not a one size fits all. There are all kinds of people doing all kinds of different thing and it’s really about each winery’s story and their experience. I know Amigoni is doing some wonderful things with Vinifera and then there are other people who are just trying to embrace what we do here naturally. I think we’ve come a long way with Vinifera in Missouri, the weather is always an issue, we have incredibly hot summers and very cold winters, so that can make it a challenge to grow certain grapes, but I think there is room for everybody.
Danny: This will be my last question.
Danene: You keep saying that!
Danny: I know! Missouri Wines is working on some research at the moment. Can you tell me what it is designed to find out?
Danene: It’s consumer behavior and trends and we’re working on gathering more information about how we can grow out industry and what our consumers want and what we can give to them and we’re currently going through that research and so as we wrap that up and get our plans together I think you’re going to see some great things come out from our office in the next year.
Danny: Is there a due date for it coming out?
Danene: Not currently. We’ve had some meetings but we are still having more meetings.
Danny: So imminent but it could be weeks or months?
Danene: Could be – but not years!
Danny: Thanks a lot.
Danene: You’re welcome!