Here’s the full Kansas City Public Television (KCPT) half-hour show about regional wines and their absence from Kansas City wine lists, plus the big grape showdown where Missouri and Kansas wines take on the French and Californians in a blind tasting – and win!
It was an unusual Sunday at Belvoir Winery. I jauntily wandered in along with co-worker Chelsea expecting the place to be empty – but the Ride Like the Wind bikers were in town and we found our boss Rachel heroically tending to their insatiable appetites at Belvoir’s sartorial bar all alone. The bikers, who predominantly ride Harley motorcycles, led by Missy, were doing a group ride that would take them to Excelsior Springs then Smithville and Ladoga Ridge Winery.
They were a really nice crowd and in their leather outfits, bandanas and tatoos they gave the bar something of the atmosphere of Easy Rider mixed with The Warriors. I just wish I hadn’t been taking the rubbish out when they rode away – it would have been a great photo. I’ve settled for the substitute below.
Soon after the bikers left, another biker turned up! Jim, who said he was also called James, which confused me a little because he made it sound like he really used those two names together, like he was called Jim James – which is in fact the case if you take a look here. Jim, a photographer, also turned up on his motorcycle and he told us about a memorial ride and film he’s involved in to remember a friend of his – Lance – who, sadly, was killed in a Navy SEAL skydiving accident. There’s a film in post-production about this memorial ride made by Lance’s friends like Jim, that should be out soon. We swapped riding stories and then Jim went on his way.
Then we had to get to work, preparing for a wedding that took place later in the afternoon. The flowers were great and the couple and their friends a nice, entertaining crew of people but they seemed to forget about the twenty bottles of champagne they had on ice. I left work at 830pm and never solved this mystery.
For the last four years, the Missouri Wine Technical Group’s Norton Workshops have taken place behind closed doors with no media present and no in-depth media coverage. For the first time, the newly elected President of the Technical Group, Jacob Holman, winemaker at Les Bourgeois Vineyards, has agreed to talk to Regional Wine Taster in detail about the workshops and about what happened at the latest one held last Tuesday.
The Norton workshops take place at least once a year and invite winemakers from across Missouri and the Midwest to share their issues and knowledge to help improve the quality of their wines. Winemakers bring unfinished and problem Norton wines for a blind tasting followed by constructive criticism. The initiative was started in 2008 by the newly founded Technical Group based on the idea of one of its members, New Zealander, Andrew Meggitt, winemaker for St James Winery, who brought the concept from his home country. At last Tuesday’s workshop, thirty winemakers representing ten wineries attended to blind taste and discuss ten different Norton wines.
Regional Wine Taster: Can you explain exactly what goes on at your Norton Workshops?
Jacob Holman: What we do is three workshops a year, each focusing on a varietal and because of Norton’s importance to the Midwest, we always include it every year. We’ve also done Chambourcin, Vignoles, Lambruscas, Concord and Catawba. The way our workshops function is you submit wine – we prefer it to be an unfinished wine, not in the bottle – and we will flight those wines and sit down and taste them blind and then we break up into groups of six to eight. Everyone will evaluate the wines on their own and then you go around the table and your nominated scribe will take the group’s collective evaluation and then the moderator will call on that group to say what they think of wine 1A, or whatever it is. Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is “outed” and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.
RWT: In most industries, it’s hard to picture competitors critiquing each other’s products in order to help improve them. What is it about the Midwest wine industry that allows for such cooperation?
JH: I think most people in the industry recognize that the quality of Midwest wines hinges on our knowledge and this is a good way for small wineries to sit in the same room with bigger guys who have gone through this sort of stuff. I learn something every time even though I work for one of the bigger wineries. The basic idea is that while there might be reasons that one Norton is better than another, there’s no reason to have flawed wine. I think that within the Midwest we recognize that and are willing to help each other out and also recognize that we are a growing industry and this sort of thing helps us to compete with California wines, Oregon wines and all those other ones in the grocery store. Overall we need to have a perspective that is good for Missouri as a whole.
“Once all groups have spoken the winemaker is ‘outed’ and that winemaker will have to stand up and talk about what he did, good or bad.”
RWT: How unique is this workshop? Do forums like this exist in other parts of the United States?
JH: When we started this four years ago I couldn’t find any similar workshops but there are a lot of attempts and failures from State Associations. There are quality assurance programs that haven’t typically been very successful and those state programs are exclusive with a board of winemakers, sommeliers and retailers who will put a stamp of approval on the wine. So if you’re a winemaker and you don’t know enough and you fail to get that stamp, that’s a black mark against you. We’re not about that, we’re about education and helping winemakers make better wines. I haven’t found a lot of this kind of cooperation in other US regions. We’ve had a lot of, “Gee I wish we had this in our state!” And that is something we would foster if it got big enough, for example an Illinois or a Kansas technical group, because we work with a lot of the same varietals. That’s kind of a dream of mine, but for now it’s Midwest wines.
RWT: At the workshop you tasted unfinished and problem Nortons. What Norton problems usually come up?
JH: They can include, for example, your tank not being topped, meaning not full – so your SO2 levels will be low – that causes your wine to oxidize. To solve this I would go to an extreme and tell people that if you have 350 gallons and you only have a 300 gallon tank, fill up the 300 gallon tank, even if it means throwing the 50 gallons away. That issue applies to all wines. As far as Norton goes in particular, today we had a speaker talk about oak management, that’s something not specific to Norton but it does have a problem with it. Norton’s tannin structure is light, there’s not a lot of natural tannin that comes in the fruit, so it’s important to manage your tannins and manage your oak which provide tannins to be able to stabilize your color and make a bolder wine style that is agreeable.
RWT: Winemakers often say that Norton is a hard wine to make. At these workshops do you ever advise people that they should make something easier like Chambourcin?
JH: No I would never recommend that people not make Norton, just because of its clout within the state. I would always advise that it is very tricky to deal with and you may not want to make Norton as your first wine ever, but at the same time it is manageable. I have learned a few tricks here and there and that’s what I would tell people, as opposed to discouraging them from trying to make it.
RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method? (see: Missouri’s Les Bourgeois Vineyards Profile)
JH: Oh I do a lot of different things that are not typically standard! To deal with the pH problem, I know that Norton has a high acidity so I will actually acidify Norton. After fermentation I will drop the pH down to a microbial management level. The higher the pH the more chance you have of a spoilage organism surviving so you’re really the safest with your preservatives if it’s around a lower level. Even though I have to add acid to make that happen – and the wine will be relatively undrinkable for a few months! – I will maintain that pH and therefore maintain my sulfur level to where I don’t have to worry nearly so much about spoilage. When I finish the wine I will change it back to a higher pH and drop that acidity out because once it is sterile filtered and in the bottle, in theory, you don’t have to worry about spoilage organisms anymore.
“RWT: Can you tell us some of your tricks? I know you told us about one of them before, your reverse bleeding method?”
RWT: In this workshop do you ever disagree about whether a wine has a problem or not and the nature of that problem?
JH: Typically, if a wine is a problem wine there won’t be a disagreement about that but a lot of the time there’ll be disagreement on what that problem is. So if I think its high T.A. (total acidity) or V.A. (volatile acidity) somebody else might think it’s a sulfide problem for example. And sometimes the wine’s off and we don’t necessarily know why.
RWT: Are you finding after four years of workshops that the Norton wines you’re tasting now are having fewer, less serious faults?
JH: The people who attend the workshops and take them seriously have made huge improvements in what they do and how they do things and their wines have definitely got better. However, it is a work in progress and will take years. I’ve only had one person get really irritated with the workshop and say that they weren’t coming back! I take a certain amount of pride in that too because winemaking is something you put all your time and heart into and as long as you stay in your winery your wine can seem fine! But once you get out there and start comparing apples to apples sometimes you realize you have a problem. That’s hard for people to stomach but for the most part everybody’s really taken on the suggestions, gone home and the next year worked on things and it’s really made a difference.
RWT: With the unfinished wines you tasted today was there anything that that surprised you particularly? Or that was notably different to previous workshops?
JH: Mmmm no. I think there were fewer flaws in general than there have been in past workshops. We had one guy who bought this one barrel in that wasn’t the same as his other twenty barrels and he don’t know exactly what was going on. He gave us a rundown and we were able to maybe figure out what the problem was.
RWT: What did you bring to the workshop?
JH: The wine I submitted today, there’s no flaw to it, it was an unfinished 2011. It is very green and I wanted to see what people thought of it as far as what I could do to finish it a little better. So I bought it in and it was well received and the criticisms were along the lines of the wine being green, very young and having a lot of potential but needing a lot of time, maybe a little more oak and maybe a little more structure. Those are all things that I can do between now and when the wine is released.
RWT: How long could you age that Norton for and have it sitting in barrels so you can manipulate it?
JH: I think everybody agrees that you have anywhere from two to ten years to age a bottle of Norton – it’s not like a Cabernet that has the tannins to hold up – so we typically will do anywhere from 12 to 24 months in barrel and then release it and I think that is relatively standard within the industry.
RWT: Is there a difference between the technical skills and equipment you need to make a Norton, as opposed to another wine variety?
JH: As far as equipment, no, as far as skills, yes, I would say that. I’m not trying to promote Norton here but I have worked with vinifera and it is much easier to deal with. You don’t have the problems that you have with the Norton and I think that goes all the way from growing that grape to the finish.
RWT: What did the tasting today indicate about the progress of your endeavors to improve the Norton and what still needs to be worked on?
JH: Well, as far as the progress goes for the Missouri Wine Technical Group I was very happy with the way things went today. I was also happy with the wine quality in general but I really believe that if we had more wineries represented (note: there were 10 represented and Jacob would like that boosted to about 30) then I think everyone could benefit a little more, so that’s the goal of the group, to get more membership and get more attendance.
RWT: During four years of your Technical Group, what new varietals are you seeing more of?
JH: Well, we do experimental cultivar tasting through the University of Missouri in Columbia and some people are biting on that and there are some grapevines that are being planted that haven’t always been planted but I don’t think it’s a mad rush to do so…
RWT: Which ones?
JH: The best example I can think of off the top of my head would be Valvin muscat, a muscat cross that’s able to be grown in the Midwest. I’ve noticed a lot of people growing that and we actually had some interest in that today as the next Workshop but I don’t think we will because there’s probably not enough people making wine out of it yet . As far as consumers go, from what I hear in the tasting room and from what I see people buying, Vignoles is something that I think Missouri has a handle on and now people ask for it by varietal, more so than anything else apart from Norton.
RWT: The fact that people are actually asking for their local grapes by name, that must be quite pleasing?
JH: Yes it is. This is something that has only happened recently, within my short career over the last 12 to 13 years. When I started, no-one ever asked for Norton or Vignoles by name, it was all, you know, “Let me have your sweet white,” or, “Let me have your dry red,” but I believe that’s changing to some extent.
RWT: Thanks very much for your time President Holman!
JH: Ha! Ha! No problem, I hope you got what you need.
Grand heading isn’t it? I can imagine a wine lover from outside the state of Missouri, unfamiliar with the wines here, finding such a dramatic title quite amusing. Missouri? Who ever thought they made wines at all let alone had enough to warrant even a small selection of them! Well, actually, with over 100 wineries in the state now there are plenty of vinos to choose from, but (as far as I know) there’s only one place where you can drink a very wide range of them.
Seven years ago Daphne and Jim Bowman opened an antiques store in Excelsior Springs, but rather than prosper, business was so bad they were going hungry to stay open. Needing a radical shift of gear, four years ago they decided to refashion their shop around what they really liked. “So the store became a culmination of everything that we know and love. We love people, to entertain, we love wine and coffee and food.”
But above all, Missouri wine. I stumbled on Willow Spring Mercantile (the name of their establishment) by accident and I couldn’t believe my luck. As you enter their rustic café-bar-shop on East Broadway, you’re struck by a wall of dozens of bottles of local wines that you can taste for free and buy by the glass or bottle. “We love wines from all over the world but because we have friends that own wineries we thought this would be a little more unique,” explains Daphne.
When they started converting into a wine focused store everyone said they’d never make it as a business selling Missouri wines. They were wrong. “It quickly turned into a very successful business. We now have the world’s largest selection of Missouri wines.” They stock over 160 different wines from twenty-five wineries. Taking into account the well over 100 wineries in the state – the number has gone up dramatically in the last decade – they’ve only just scratched the surface of Missouri wine possibilities. Down the road Daphne and Jim would like to stock Kansas wines too, but the liquor laws make that complicated because for their shop to buy them, a Kansas winery needs to have a Missouri distributer and Daphne only knows of a couple that do. At the moment the couple venture over the border to buy Kansas wines and legally can only enjoy them at home. That’s a pity.
“We have a lot of fun converting people to the Missouri wine industry who used to say I would never drink a Missouri wine.”
Daphne says the consumer wine market in Missouri is a little confusing and isn’t sure if they’ve created a market for their wine bar and bottleshop or if it was there already and no-one had tapped into it. “I give a lot of credit to the Missouri Wine & Grape Board for their success getting the information out to the consumer” she says and adds that every day Willow Spring Mercantile receives visitors taking Missouri Wine’s winery tour route. “We’ve become a destination where you can sit, relax, listen to live music, have an hors d’oeuvre or lunch, sample wines and learn about the wine industry.”
Daphne insists that the key to their success is a combination of loving what they do, which rubs off on customers, and also making sure they take care of their customers, who then spread the word about their shop. “I spend more money taking care of customers than I ever do on any kind of advertising campaign because they are a better source of advertising for me than any advertisement I could run in a newspaper.”
Rather than stock bottles from Missouri wineries that have already found their way onto supermarket shelves they tend to select wines from the smaller wineries that don’t have wide distribution. To buy their stock they drive to the wineries and usually choose the best-selling wine together with a couple of their favorites. The biggest selling wines in the Midwest are the sweeter varieties so they’re well stocked with those, but you can find a full range of flavors, including the dries (which Daphne prefers). “We have a lot of fun converting people to the Missouri wine industry who used to say I would never drink a Missouri wine.”
During our conversation Daphne gave an informative summary explanation of Missouri as a wine region. “If you do a little bit of researching about Missouri history you’ll find that the grapes that are grown in certain regions of the state are very similar to the settlers who settled those areas.” She says the sweet wines in the Midwest are very comparable to German Rieslings and Traminers because of the large numbers of German immigrants settling around Hermann. But if you travel to Saint Genevieve south of St Louis, that area was mostly settled by the French, so there are a lot of French style hybrid grapes in the wines. By contrast, around St James, Italians were the main settlers so the wines often reflect Italian styles.
…not only the world’s largest selection of Missouri wines, but unfortunately one of the only places where you can drink and buy any selection of Missouri wines at all.
I also asked Daphne about the Missouri grape, the Norton. “You’ll find that a lot of people disagree about whether it is the best grape in Missouri, but it’s one of my favorites” she says. “It’s so rich it reminds me of a red Zinfandel with even more berry components and a little more earthiness. It’s got a lot of spice, hints of tobacco and hints of cranberry in it,” she added. “A lot of people say the Chambourcin is the best grape, it’s in the Pinot Noir family, a French grape and more comparable to California dry wines. It’s easier to sell, lighter and more of a balanced wine.”
While Daphne can discuss local wine history and styles with ease, she’s far from a wine snob – quite the opposite – and understands that the industry is still young in Missouri. (see the Todd Kliman video for more about the history of Missouri wine and its great days in the mid 19th century). When her store first became a wine focused shop she says it was difficult just getting people to try the wines because of the lack of familiarity with wine culture in the state. “We’re a relatively a new industry trying to come back so we have a lot of young wine drinkers, and I don’t mean young by age, I mean young as in new, it’s a new experience for a lot of people.” Over the years, Daphne and Jim have watched wine tastes change. “In our Wino Club it’s really fun to watch because the wine part of our business has been going for about four years now and we keep notes on the back of every person’s wine card,” says Daphne. “We’re watching our customers’ palates change right before our eyes and some of our customers have gone from very, very sweet to very, very dry in the last four years and some of them are moving a little more slowly.” Daphne says the rate of change often depends on how much wine is consumed on a regular basis and what it’s paired it with.
On the somewhat prickly topic of the general absence of Missouri wines from the majority of wine lists at top restaurants in Kansas City and the midwest, Daphne says part of the problem is that small wineries are so busy they don’t have enough time to market their wines properly. She says getting Missouri wines into restaurants is an important next step for the whole industry. “The key to getting more people who have educated wine palates to understand how good our wines are is getting them in the restaurants and not just in the liquor store or the wine shop” she says. “It’s going to take the customer base who are visiting restaurants saying, ‘We want to see a Missouri wine on here!’ or, ‘ This is my favorite winery, I would love you to have those wines on the list!’ A customer inspired revolution in wine thinking plus wine distributors taking on some of the smaller wineries are the way things will change, says Daphne.
Which means at the moment Willow Spring Mercantile wine shop is not only the world’s largest selection of Missouri wines, but unfortunately one of the only places where you can drink and buy any selection of Missouri wines at all. That’s a shame.
On Saturday, Stone Hill Winery in Hermann Missouri held its annual Norton 10-Year Vertical Tasting and Dinner. It’s the sort of event any Midwest wine fan would have enjoyed attending. I couldn’t be there because of my wedding anniversary, so instead I’ve gone for the next best thing: an interview with Dave Johnson, senior winemaker at Stone Hill for the last three decades, who hosted the event.
To define our terms here (which I didn’t fully understand myself before embarking on this story), a vertical tasting is a taste test of wines of the same type and from the same winery, but from different years (vintages). This is different to a horizontal tasting where usually you taste wines of the same type from different wineries but from the same vintage. So the objective of a vertical tasting, like this Norton event, is to see how a wine type from a particular winery changes over the years.
“It’s really one of the most fun events of the year and one of the most educational,” says Dave. “You can stand there and pick up each glass and look at the wine against the white table-cloth and see how the youngest wine is this purple, red color of Norton grapes and as it ages the color changes until towards the oldest wines it has more of the traditional red brick color.”
The winers and diners at Stone Hill sat down to their own row of 10 special Norton Glasses (a glass that is slightly torpedo shaped, designed by the crystal maker Riedel), each containing a Norton vintage from the years 2002 to 2011. The most recent two years – 2010 and 2011 – have not yet been bottled so those tasting samples were taken directly from the winery’s barrels.
Most people did prefer the older Nortons, but there were plenty of punters who liked the youngest ones best. The youngest and oldest Nortons had very different flavor profiles. Dave characterized the 2011 barrel sample as having that fresh Norton grape character, similar to a Beaujolais Nouveau (the light, fruity French wine, usually made from the Gamay grape, that’s designed to be drunk as soon as its harvested and put in a bottle) but really full-bodied and much darker in color. Some people would say the younger Nortons have an almost ferocious, fruity dry taste.
By contrast, after spending time in oak (twelve months for Stone Hill’s Nortons) and then the bottle, the clear fruit character of the younger Nortons disappears. The older vintages had developed a new layer of oak flavors and aromas and then another layer of complexity developed in the bottle (bottle bouquet) like subtle cigar box, spice and floral smells. The more senior wines had lost their acidic impact on the palate and had a much smoother, velvety feel in the mouth.
Across this ten-year span of Nortons many of the changing characteristics were following a predictable pattern that comes with aging. However, like human beings, different wine vintages don’t age at the same rate or in the same way. Some people get grumpy as they get older, others mellow, some people are wrinkled prunes by the age of thirty, others look okay into old age. It’s the same with wines. Depending on the weather, crop load (the amount of fruit on the vines), fermentation processes and other factors, different vintages will express different tastes and smells. “One Norton might be lighter and more delicate, another might be more muscular and tannic, regardless of how old they are”, says Dave. So of these ten vintages, which are his favorites? One of the older wines, the 2005, was Dave’s choice for drinking now. “It was at the perfect stage and was a very nice vintage” he says. The 2011 showed great potential. “At this stage it’s very young and not terribly complex, but with barrel aging and time I think it is going to be a great vintage.” Dave was especially happy with this Norton because about 15 years ago Stone Hill started trying to make the younger Norton wines more enjoyable and less acidic to adapt them to suit the wine drinking habits of most customers. “There might be a few people who buy Norton and lay it down in their cellar,” says Dave, “but the reality is probably most bottles of Norton are aged about as long as it takes to get from the cash register to the tables out in front of the winery.” One thing Dave will be watching is how this particular Norton deals with the aging process because while he likes the basic style of the wine he says it may not age as long as some of Stone Hill’s older vintages.
This vertical tasting is a unique opportunity for Stone Hill’s winemakers to assess a cross-section of Norton vintages, observe the reaction to them from customers and inform their winemaking process. While Dave made no suggestion that there’ll be any radical changes to their winemaking on account of this Norton taste test, he said one method they’ve been using to tweak the flavor of their Nortons is pneumatage. This technique is part of what’s called wine cap management, where the word ‘cap’, refers to the grape skins that float on the surface of the juice during fermentation and need to be pushed back down into the juice to impart their flavors and contributions to the fermentation process. Dave explains: “When you ferment a red you end up with a cap of skins floating on top of the liquid, the CO2 clings to the skins and they float to the top. So you have to mix that back into the liquid in order to extract from the skins all the things that you want. Of course the original method for doing that many, many centuries ago was treading the grape juice. Another method is the small lot technique of punching down, when you simply push the skins – or cap – down into the liquid with some kind of punch down device, often just a board on the end of a two by four, something like that. There’s also pumping over, when you pump the liquid out from under the cap to over the top. Pneumatage is a method where we inject a sudden burst of filtered, compressed air to the bottom of the tank. It goes “bang!” almost like the sound of a gun and this huge bubble of filtered, compressed air goes into the tank and rapidly rises up and breaks through the cap, and causes a folding over motion that blends the cap back down into the juice.”
If like me you missed this tasting and are planning on testing Stone Hill’s Nortons yourself, the 2008 is the one most likely to be available in retail outlets across the Midwest (usually for $19), but the 2009 through to the 2002 are currently for sale and all available at the winery, although the older vintages are in limited supply (and range in price from $25 to $30). 2001, 2000 and 1999 are available too, but they’re not usually for sale. Perhaps if you asked them nicely?
Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Stone Hill’s 10 Year Vertical Norton Wine Tasting. Dave is especially proud of this milestone because it will mean they’ve been making a Norton capable of aging for 10 years, for 35 years. “That’s a unique situation for many wineries, let alone a Missouri winery”, he says.
As we finished our conversation I told Dave I’d do my very best to get to next year’s big 25th anniversary scheduled for the same time in April. He politely reminded me that this was unlikely as wedding anniversaries don’t generally change dates.
All photos courtesy of Lucinda Huskey, Stone Hill Winery’s Public Relations Manager
Over the weekend I quizzed Todd Kliman about his book, The Wild Vine, a creatively written history of the American wine industry focusing on its native grape, the good old Norton. The book was published in 2010 under the byline, “A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine” and has been recommended to me by several wineries as required reading. The interview was looking unlikely for a while but Todd ultimately agreed to take time off from museum hopping and barbecue sampling in Kansas City to meet me on the lawn of The Nelson Museum. I took my video camera along and the result should be ready for viewing soon. The, at first odd, but understandable thing about the video is that you don’t see Todd’s face! This wasn’t because of Todd’s undoubted modesty. As food editor and restaurant critic for DC’s The Washingtonian he didn’t want his identity revealed (even by humble D. Wood in Kansas City) or it would compromise his efforts to review restaurants fairly. So without the face of the star, the creative demands on the interviewer/film maker were intense!
I’d bought his book the other week and really enjoyed it. The Wild Vine is an enticing combination of investigative journalism and creative, history story telling. I learnt a lot about numerous American wine characters, living and dead, including Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Norton, Jenni McCloud and the Held family. Also, the details of the now surprising rise of Norton and the all conquering Missouri led US wine industry in the mid-19th century and then the disappearance into obscurity until very recently. It was difficult to cover the scope of the book in a few minutes of video, but hopefully the Nortonian flavor comes through. Watch this space…
Here’s another tale from February’s Midwest Wine Conference in St Charles. In the upstairs section of the venue I stumbled on Elizabeth Slater, founder of In Short Direct Marketing, who gave a series of seminars on wine marketing and also spoke at the conference. Elizabeth was sitting down with the owner of a regional winery who had some questions about the labeling on her wine bottles and how to attract more visitors to her tasting room. Elizabeth and the winery owner (who preferred anonymity) allowed me to sit in on their conversation and take notes for this blog.
Elizabeth likes to be called, and is widely known as, “E”, so from this point onwards in this blog post, Elizabeth will be referred to as “E” and the anonymous winery owner will go by “D”. From the start I was impressed by E’s sensible and insightful advice. She was the sort of person who makes you think to yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that!” and “Yes, that makes sense” – a lot.
Much of the conversation – about twenty minutes – was about bottle labeling. D the winery owner was concerned about her logo and the style of the labeling. E stressed the importance of sticking with a logo and making sure it remained in the same style and font on every bottle. It turned out this particular winery had been playing around with the logo in the last couple of years and E said that was undoing good work by confusing customers who might have recognized the label in its old format. Once you have a logo, said E, you have to stick with it to allow customers time – many months or even years – to get used to you enough to start recognizing your bottles in the grocery store. She said the other decorative elements and writing on the label can change, but the logo must remain the same in order to build recognition of your brand.
As far attracting more visitors to the tasting room, E’s approach was to make D see herself as the creator of an experience. “Winemakers are the rock stars these days,” she said, in other words, one reason people visit wineries is to enjoy meeting the winemaker. E said it was also important to remember that wine lovers drink wine with their friends and fellow wine lovers, so once you’ve given one wine lover a good experience in your tasting room, you’re likely to attract more customers – ie their friends. “One customer at a time…it’s about giving them a story to tell their friends,” said E. That good story or experience to relate about what they discovered at your wine tasting venue should help up the visitor numbers. “It’s not about the wine, it’s about the experience,” said E, but of course it’s a given that the wines have to be good.
“it’s about giving them a story to tell their friends”
As far as how to decide what sorts of experiences to provide in your tasting room, ask your customers what they want. If possible, E suggests sending your customers a questionnaire via email and ask them things like what they like about the winery, what they don’t like and what they’d like to see there. Given that many wineries are at least an hour’s drive from a lot of their customers, it’s also important to make sure you serve food so that people know they can come out and spend time there and not get hungry.
D the winery owner also brought up the issue of whether to charge for tastings. She explained that they recently decided to charge but had a couple of complaints from customers. E thought it was a good idea to charge and said you can’t expect to please everyone but suggested offering one free sample as a way of compromising and keeping most people happy.
The conversation continued and moved onto sweet wines. Given the popularity of sweets wines in regional USA, D told E she was looking at adding a sweet red to her wine list. D said a “pretty high” number of her customers wanted sweet wines and her winery offered only dry wines apart from her slightly sweet Riesling. E thought a sweet red was a good idea but D said she struggled with this because she didn’t like sweet reds. At this point D made an interesting observation that other winery owners may be interested in confirming or commenting on. She said people who prefer sweet wines tend not to buy in volume – they’ll come into the wine shop and buy a bottle or two – but those who prefer dry wines often buy by the case. At this point I excused myself from the conversation because I had to start the long drive home to Liberty. Thank you E and D!