The New York Wine Mind — More Questions Than Answers

Before discussing the challenges that face many of the wineries in attendance at the recent “America’s Grape Country Wine Festival,” a few more words about the event itself and some small things organizers can do to take their performance up a notch. What I’m about to suggest is not rocket science; these are part and parcel of any industry wine tasting. And, while seemingly minor in scope, they go far in helping festival-goers have that much better of a time.

First, more dump/spit buckets. These receptacles should be uniform in size and appearance and there should be at least two at every wine station. Also, don’t make the winery responsible for the removal and emptying of these buckets. Winery personnel are busy with potential customers and shouldn’t have to run hither and yon looking for a place to dump the accumulated wash. Have volunteers with rolling carts wheel by, collect the filling buckets and drop off fresh, empty ones as they go. Big improvement in efficiency and customer comfort.

Second, ample supplies of napkins or paper towels, and plenty for each table. Wine tasting is messy business, and attendees shouldn’t have to search high and low when drips and spills get in the way. Again, volunteers can police the tasting areas to make sure these materials are in good supply.

Third, move food sample tables away from the wine tasting areas. People want access to both products, and putting them in close proximity is a recipe for traffic jams. As people crowd into these areas, they cut off traffic to other areas of the hall, and other vendors are denied the exposure they expect and deserve. Traffic has to flow. Think more carefully about what booths are placed where. Everyone benefits from smart planning.

Finally, hire a freelancer or staffer to write uniform program copy for the wineries in attendance. This year’s program was a hodge-podge of write-ups, most of them filled with useless information. If you wanted to learn anything about the wineries at the event, the program was often the last place to look. One more bit of unnecessary frustration.

While the organizers of this event have more pressing matters to confront, specifically the size and location of the venue, these few details, if properly executed, can go a long way toward making the event that much more professional, that much more welcoming to the thousands who look forward to attending each year.

These niggling annoyances were no match, however, for the confusion and frustration created by the wineries themselves. Only a few wineries, and one offered only fruit wines, carried a roster of wines that did not include some ridiculous label that told the consumer absolutely nothing about what was in the bottle. Pazdar Winery was the greatest offender: not a single label offered a clue as to the contents of the bottle, although three trademarked names (all their labels carry trademark symbols) included the words chocolate or mint. Some of the more sigh-inducing names, including Pazdar’s “Wuby Wabbit,” were “Red Zeppelin” (Fulkerson), “Aunt Millie” (Willow Creek), and “Yummy” (Eagle Crest). Sparkling Ponds Winery in Ripley, NY, pushed the envelope of good taste with “Dago Red” and “Woman Pleaser.” Finally, I hope the Euro wine cops don’t hear about Americana Vineyards’ “Finger Lakes Chablis,” because that will be the end of that label, along with probably a nice fat lawsuit and some hefty fines.

What’s behind this inane and saccharine approach to labeling and marketing? Are wineries hungry for the sort of notoriety Walter Taylor brought to Bully Hill in the 1970s? Do they think that such cartoonish names will create a market niche? This approach, shared by too many NYS wineries, creates more questions than answers. In their defense, many wineries in America and abroad are starting to make similar attempts at clever branding. But in many cases these serious attempts at silliness come from long-established producers, who have already staked out their plot of the national wine landscape. The New York wineries I met in Dunkirk cannot say the same.

I’ve been thinking about all this for the past two weeks and still can’t make heads or tails of it. Who do these producers see as their competition? Is there a strong enough consumer base for these countless, cutesy bottlings? Do they not have any regional or national aspirations? Other than Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non and Randall Graham at  Bonny Doon, both in California and both winemakers of high regard, very few wineries can carry off this sort of whimsy while still being taken seriously. Most ambitious wineries know better than to even try. What sort of market research have any of these wineries done? Are they all flying by the seat of their pants? I have to wonder whether these questions have even occurred to them.

If New York State wineries, apart from those producers who are carving out, or who have already done so, a name for themselves in the national marketplace, ever expect to be taken seriously, they need to drop the kitschy, sophomoric approach to marketing, and they need to hone their craft. They can start the latter process by trimming their rosters and focusing on three or four wines they can master, rather than being mediocre with a dozen labels. And, as Evan Dawson encouraged in Summer in a Glass, his look at the wineries of the Finger Lakes, it’s time to drop the labrusca production in favor of those vinifera varieties that already thrive in New York’s challenging climate. Because wines like “Sangria Slush,” “Ellatawba,” and “Chillaxin’ Red” are going to get you only so far.

3 thoughts on “The New York Wine Mind — More Questions Than Answers

  1. Tom Riley

    Dan, I appreciate the support. Something is holding these producers back and for all I know it’s a lack of guidance or a strong dose of fear. Maybe they think that if the abandon the current plan they will lose their market. I don’t know. I think that many wine drinkers are willing to be led, to be educated. The wineries could bring their customers around if they really wanted to. Maybe it’s too much work. I wish they would try.

    1. Dan

      Tom, I would say that by your review and the event’s website which I checked out, they are also doing lots of things correct. But, they really need to have a professional wine event organizer in charge to conduct a proper wine tasting. As far as the wines being presented, that’s a real problem, the consumers are pretty savvy these days and the wineries need to find a regional identity or a local grape that they can exploit. Or heaven forbid, just start making better wines (from grapes), gee, there’s an idea.

  2. Dan

    Tom, they should be paying you for this advice, what a sad state of affairs. With such a large turnout for their wine tasting, they are really missing the boat. That’s really a shame, especially when people are genuinely interested in trying the wines. “Chillaxin’ Red”, the name doesn’t tempt me.

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