By Evan Dawson, Managing Editor
We think this is one of the most insightful posts yet in this series. If you're a consumer, this is dense but tremendously educational when it comes to how the wines you want end up in the stores you visit. If you're in the industry, there is wisdom here.
Rick Rainey is the Director of Sales Education for Winebow, an American importer and distributor. He lives in Trumansburg near Cayuga Lake.
What is the most significant factor holding New York wines back right now?
Are New York wines being held back? I'm enjoying great success with Ravines Wine Cellars in all of our markets (DC, PA, NY, NJ, CT, MA and Chicago, Illinois). Of course, there are some markets that I believe are not realizing all of their potential, but I'm confident that will happen.
So then the question becomes what are those producers doing well (Wiemer also comes to mind) that is not holding them back?
As a distributor I'm interested in a partner that provides consistent and interesting wines with an expression of their region. In other words, what story is this wine telling me that would give me cause to buy it instead of a wine from some other region (this must be my French wine background shining through).
I'm also interested in pricing that is competitive with the other wines of its category from around the world. There are piles of great wine out there and, while pricing is not the ultimate deciding factor, it is an obviously huge part of the equation.
Also, I'm interested in an open partnership where we both have the same vision for the brand in the long term — this is really helpful when it comes to making the tough decisions like, "How do we decide to allocate a recently highly-rated wine?" for instance.
I'm sorry if I didn't exactly answer your question but I'm not sure anymore about the premise that there is a boogyman out there holding New York wines back. We have great terroir, interesting history, a beautiful region, a culture of sharing and support and a growing interest. If you're not moving the ball forward, well…
You have a business relationship with Ravines Wine Cellars, owned by the Hallgren family. How did you develop that relationship? How important is the personal connection, as opposed to the business side?
Several years ago I had the chance to taste one of Morten's early rieslings. My honest opinion was that though I didn't necessarily think the wine was where it could be, I believe it showed that the winemaker knew where he was going…in a big way. I've spent a fair amount of time in France for work tasting wines from new producers and often you would taste a new winery and say, "Oh yes, he will be great but he just has a few more kinks to work out." If you ask me for another fairly recent example of this in the Finger Lakes I would say I felt that way a while back when I first tasted Billsboro Winery's wines.
You know this happens with restaurants as well. It is not meant to be disrespectful but if your job is to find great producers for your sales reps to take out and present to their customers, you really do need to be brutally honest with yourself about the wines you're tasting. It is really hard to say to a customer, "I know this wine isn't stunning today, but just wait until two years from now when he really reaches his stride." From Day one we need to be in the game — maybe not brilliance, but at least in the game.
How did I develop my relationship with the Hallgren family? Funny story, as it took me about two or three years to convince them to come with Winebow. No joke, we had long, long conversations about working together but the stars just never aligned. Ultimately it was for the best because during that time we all learned a few more things, so when it finally did happen we were all on the same page. Remember, presenting a Finger Lakes wine producer to our New York City sales team was no walk in the park. Like most emerging regions, something Winebow has always been interested in (we really got our start in Southern Italy and continue today with wines from say, Greece), many sales reps thought we were simply out of our mind.
It has required some real dedication and hard work by the Hallgrens and I have immense respect for them because of that. I also have a lot of respect for those sales reps that saw the potential for this producer and felt confident that they could compete on the world wine stage and took the time to show the wine to their customers. The Hallgrens are one of our hardest working suppliers.
The personal connection just seems to always happen with small producers. Over the summer I had a producer from France in town and I invited Morten and Lisa over for dinner. We all just have so much in common because (this may seem hokey) we all live and die by the vine. My wife owns a retail store so there is a real bond that often overshadows the business aspect or at least lets it exist in harmony with the business aspect because we all understand the challenges from the vineyard to the store shelf. That being said, we all have huge challenges and ultimately we all have to provide for our families, so having the ability to be absolutely honest about business is a real plus.
How do you determine whether you'll seek other business relationships with New York state producers?
Currently we distribute The Grapes of Roth (LI), Millbrook Vineyards (Hudson Valley), Wolffer Estate (LI) and Ravines (FL) so we kind of have the category covered. We have never been the kind of company that went out and tried to "own" a category by having as many producers as possible from a particular region. This is one model that works for some distributors but with the kind of attention we try and give to all our suppliers, this would just be a difficult thing to do.
Until we hit the production ceiling on a producer and they simply can't make any more wine and keep quality at the level we need, the conversation doesn't normally come up.
What is your opinion of New York wine produced outside the Finger Lakes?
Unfortunately, other than the Long Island and Hudson Valley producers we distribute, I don't get much opportunity to try other producers. I wish I did get to taste more Long Island producers because I find it really interesting to see what they are up to… I suppose I have to live vicariously through Lenn!
There is no business strategy that works best for every winery, but do you feel that New York wines need to see greater distribution?
If you sell everything in your backyard, the market becomes saturated, the prices go down, and everyone eventually struggles.
Fortunately we have good cellar door sales, which probably helps to lessen the pain of selling at lower margins, but if you continue to want to grow your brand, increase your production and decrease your production cost, then eventually you need to address the distribution question.
Unfortunately, from the conversations I have had with some of my friends in the area who own wineries, many of them are not sure how to manage that relationship or even how to have it. Perhaps having these kind of conversations will give them a tiny bit of insight.
If New York wines can be branded with one idea or theme in mind, what would you prefer that to be? For example, in Napa, cab is king. In Willamette, the almost-singular emphasis is on new world pinot noir.
I don't think I could speak for the Hudson Valley and Long Island producers. Seriously, it is a plane ride from the Finger Lakes to Long Island; it takes less time to go from Strasborg to Avignon. I would be speaking out of school on anything but the Finger Lakes… but if you're pressing for one theme, mine is the "diversity within our state", from one unique viticultural region to the other across our vast state (lush valley locations, ocean-influenced vineyards, deep lakes moderating otherwise frightening temperatures).
I understand and appreciate the idea of all of us working together under the heading of "New York," but when it comes to wine, I can't help but want to celebrate them all independently for their own uniqueness.
How else do you see New York wines gaining respect and market strength in the future?
Respect in the wine business comes from regions (producers) that do the work that is required to overcome the roadblocks that prevent us from discovering what the true personality is of that place.
I respect and appreciate any region that can give me a snapshot of that place (liquid geography) without me ever having to leave the comfort of my dining room. It is a huge question in regards to how we get there, but one of my suggestions, at least for the Finger Lakes, is to differentiate between what I call the "wines of joy," (we know the ones, the sweeter, less contemplative, "fun" wines that are drunk by the bucket-loads around the tasting rooms).
It is crazy not to realize the importance of these types of wines, but I also believe they should have their own category that prevents them from bleeding over and vice versa into the "other" wines. I say "other" because not all the wines that would be considered the type that compete on the world wine stage are always vinifera, though for the most part they seem to be.
It is imperative that we look at giving the consumer a guarantee of quality. If we can't come to a wide agreement, then I would like to see growers getting together, agreeing on some basic principles regarding what determines quality (that's a can of worms) and pushing each other to meet those standards and then coming together and telling the story of their work in a unified voice.
The AOC system is by no means perfect, but I do think if we look back in history many of these regions have faced very similar challenges and we would be wise to try and learn from them… It would probably save us a whole bunch of time.