rookie errors

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New wineries keep appearing, and sadly, many of them make the same old mistakes. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of learning from the past going on, particularly among those who are setting up shop in a region that is off the beaten path (as far as global wine commerce is concerned), and who have not been working in the industry previously.

Nothing about either of those conditions should prevent these entrepreneurs from doing their homework, but whether it’s ignorance, apathy, or plain hubris, a lot of them clearly do not. So here you go, young wineries, from my lips to your bottom line. PaulG’s Top 10 New Winery Mistakes.

10) Putting your “Reserve” into a massively heavy glass bottle to impress buyers.

9) Designing your own label on your home computer.

8) Producing several dozen varietal wines before you’ve figured out how to do any of them well.

7) Buying really expensive grapes, bottles, corks, etc. and then pricing your wines to “cover your costs.”

6) Hiring a PR firm to write about your “passion for making great wine.”

5) Proclaiming that your just-planted vineyard has instantly shown its unique "terrior."

4) Making 6 or 8 or 10 different versions of a single varietal, differentiated only by clone, block, row, or cute vineyard name, rather than quality or actual flavor.

3) Putting out an entire lineup of wines with excess volatility, brett, or other spoilage factors that simply shout “bad winemaking!”

2) Shipping samples with no technical, pricing or distributor information included.


1) Sending your wine in to me to be reviewed months after you’ve already submitted it to every other publication in the world, and still haven’t gotten the big score you’re hoping for.


1WineDude said...

I think I run into #8 more than any other "rookie error" as you term them; usually, there are a number of those varietal bottlings that are **terrible**. I recently ran into a Riesling bottling at a VA winery that was horrifically bad, to the point where I thought that they must only sell it to drunk patrons in their tasting room because no one who was sober would ever tell you that wine was half-decent...

PaulG said...

It is particularly horrifying to receive wines that are truly, irrevocably, and incredibly horrible - sent as samples for review! You have to wonder who fermented, blended, bottled such wretched beasts. Did no one with any sort of a palate taste the wine at any time? And as an afterthought, shouldn't a wine producing state be a little worried when its acronym is VA?

Anonymous said...

Don't wine writers always weight the bottle before they taste the wine? Haha. Well put Paul! I think too many people have got into this game expecting it to be a cash cow and have forgotten that wine making is a craft that takes a certain level of talent and devotion. That it involves practice and learning that can take years to be fruitful. I've worked for quite a few wineries that make way too many wines, and they are always wanting to make new ones. From a commercial winemakers point of view this becomes very difficult because (hopefully) most of us are trying to learn and be better year after year. How can one focus and make better wines if we are constantly having the game plan changed? It's just not possible. And when I have to pump out 20 or 30 different wines in one year and a couple of them suck they always become the focus. Any way... Good list.

Ted Henry said...

Love the advice. I think I'm only partially guilty of #2. Well, I used to be guilty of #10 too but I eventually figured that one out.

Keep it up...

Micah Nasarow said...

Alright, I will chime in on this one. As a “rookie” winery I will weigh-in my thoughts to the list.

10. I don’t get it. I thought “reserve” was marketing term. Why would I mark my wines as any more special than what the earth gave me and biochemistry allowed.

9. What’s the harm in this? This is a product that I made from analog to digital. I do plan on having a graphic designer polish when I go to print, but thus far, the handful of G.D.’s that I have put the label in front of have had little critique.

8. I have been doing the same 3 varietals for 6 years as an amateur. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

7. The grapes cost what the grower tells me. I do not have the buying power. But I will not buy machine picked grapes. I shop for the cheapest glass I can find that looks good and is brokered or made locally.

6. I cannot afford fancy marketing firms. I have a passion for fermenting things and I will tell you about it.

5. Umm.. I am a fermentation scientist, not a horticulturist. That is why most of my grapes come from a grower who does not make their own wine. I wanted to showcase a vineyard in the state that is off-the-beaten-path.

4. Yeah, sounds like too much work for a rookie or a seasoned winery. Not my bag baby.

3. Now this scares me. I lose sleep every night over this one. Even though I have been a Quality Assurance tech and a Sensory Scientist for food processors, breweries, and uh-hem..the largest purveyor of fine coffee in the world. Bacteria kills, poor manufacturing practices kill and sometimes, shit just happens.

2. I have no wine to ship..yet. And when I do, I better have my 20 bux first, and you will get a bottle with a url to my website with all of the info you can muster.

1. I plan to bottle my 2009 this winter and release in spring 2011. When it is available, anyone can purchase a bottle and review it… or maybe just enjoy it. That is what I really have a passion for.


PaulG said...

Good thoughts, Micah, and best wishes for a successful debut.

Don Phelps said...

Paul - Interesting list but the one other thing I feel is critical to a new winery is that most startups have no idea how they are going to market or sell their wine. Reading today's news about some big and small wineries cutting production, closing tasting rooms, laying off winemakers, etc only shows that it can happen to anyone but the newcomer is most susceptible.

Marco Montez said...

Great (and funny in a certain way) post Paul. I see it and taste it all the time.

If you allow me to chime in, here's one mistake that I think many new wineries make: Obsessed with their own wines, they forget to taste/drink comparable wines from within their region and other regions in the world. The result is that they end up "isolated" in the world that is their own wine and the subtle "spoilage factors" or even just lack of any interesting character in their wines becomes not only acceptable but seen as a mark of quality... to them.

Anonymous said...

geez you sure have a big head PG. (read number 1)

The Grumpy Winemaker said...

Actually, Paul, pretty good back label. Did you design it on your home computer? You need to read the Beverage Alcohol Manual from the TTB to get the front label legal.

PaulG said...

Actually, the label shown is as far as I know, a real wine made and marketed by a band in the UK. Not done by me, I assure you.

PaulG said...

Marco, very good point. Without exception I have noticed that the winemakers who make the truly outstanding wines have global palates, and go out of their way to taste wines from other regions with whom theirs compete.

Don, if the "news" you are referring to is the story that ran in the Spectator yesterday, it was full of half-truths and mostly spin. I'll comment further tomorrow.

Anon: 7 3/4 last I checked.

Chief Grape Officer said...

RE: @DonPhelps - You are SO right about this. I have spent countless hours, turning into days and weeks, trying to get new wineries to grasp that it takes far more than good juice to make a successful business out of their labors and investment.

I am reminded of a class at UCD where a young French wine maker stated that he didn't need to "sell" his wines, simply because he made them. It took a few weeks before he and the other French students grasped the concept of marketing as it applied to the wine industry on a global basis. To that point, they all assumed that it was an issue only for non-French wines.

To me, spending even the smallest amount of time to write a business plan BEFORE you start the business is time and energy well spent. If it doesn't make sense at that point, maybe you need to think about another plan or another business. Otherwise as is often said, "If you don't know where you are going, all roads will lead you there."

Jeff Sully said...

Just finished teaching a class on financial management of wineries and vineyards. As part of the costs of marketing segment, we weighed an empty "skull crusher" bottle alongside a bottle far less in weight (but looked just as good). We then calculated the difference in 2nd day shipping costs on a case of empty glass. We picked a zip code at random from the class. The difference in the cost of shipping from Washington State to Minneapolis was OVER $90! No one in the class was willing to pay an additional $90 shipping per case for a bottle that was difficult to hold and would not fit in a normal wine rack.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with some of your rookie mistakes.

I think any reviewer worth his salt should be tasting either double blind or from shiners.
By reading the tech sheet you pigeon hole the wine in terms of oak program, harvest data, ph and acidity ranges you have tended to prefer in previous wines. Pricing info also prejudices your impression of the wine.
I am already anticipating a response telling me you only look at the data after you have tasted and rated.

As I see it if you do not get the best grapes possible, why not tie one arm behind your back or pour acid in your nose and then make some wine. Are you advocating as much manipulation in the winery as possible to overcome a lacking in quality? It all starts in the vineyard!!! I think you may want to rethink your stance on grape cost.

Putting wine into heavy bottles is not just rookies' mistakes. Ever lift a six pack of Hundred Acre in full shipping packaging--42 lbs for a six pack?! How about Phelps Insgnia bottle weight? We are not talking mere carbon foot prints, carbon craters is more like it. They ship in multiple three packs so buyers do not herniate themselves.

Unfortunately starting a wine production is expensive and coming in undercapitalized is the only option for many newbies. With the land costs in Ca so ridiculous, it is obvious why so many new wineries are small productions. Newcomers have little choice if they turn out a wine of lesser quality than they would like to make. Should they not release the wine and fold up the tent and try another biz? I know that it would take years of excellent wines to overcome a bad start in terms of marketing, but if you are not deep pocketed, what are your options besides bulking it off and taking a big loss that could put you out of biz?

KeithJ said...

Paul, great stuff and a much-appreciated and candid insider's list. I have just shared it with a group of foreign winery principals who are working to develop an association and storm the castle here, which I would love to help them do, but warnings like this are great advice and it's a help not to be the only one talking about them.

The isolation/xenophobia mentioned by Marco is also a germane point with some producers. Not to mention the Nielsens released today indicating that 3/4 of wine drinkers who have been trading down in price for the last 2 years are pretty pleased with the quality that they have found there, and intend to stay in that new normal even as $ conditions improve.

Shop, taste what's out there, talk to retailers, taste, look at what is in carts at checkout, taste. None of this happens in a vacuum.

Mike Sharadin said...

The biggest mistake is thinking if you make it, it sells itself. It's not a critic, a label or a charity auction or advertising slogans that make that wine sell. It is all of them and hard work. When you start a winery, you think you are a winemaker. Really we are wine sellers. Over 70% of my time is spent selling. There are a lot of good wines out there (Even Don has some :-)!!) How yours will find its "home" amongst all that competition is the least planned aspect of starting a winery. Who buys your wine? If you do not know, your future is perilous. Find those people!

PaulG said...

Keith, thanks for the post. Glad you found it helpful and candid - exactly my intentions. I saw the Nielson stuff - not too surprising really. But as Bob Dylan noted a few years back... "I used to care but, things have changed..."

Mike, I think you'll find a lot of heads nodding in agreement with your comments.

Anon: I have often posted up in great detail my approach to reviewing. I completely disagree with just about everything you have said. I never claimed that big bottles were exclusively a rookie mistake. Nor did I say that wineries should not use the best grapes possible. Perhaps if you would read what I actually wrote instead of jumping at every possible opportunity to misinterpret and criticize me, a little better communication would ensue. And how about signing your name?

Anonymous said...

it's a crazy business isn't it?

Javier Alfonso said...

Wait a second Paul, these mistakes come too late. By the time they/we get a chance at your list, rookies have already made many mistakes. Since they happen prior to yours I’ll give them negative numbers.

Mistake -1: Prior to choosing your new winemaking path, thinking you are going to make a fortune (or any money for that matter)

Mistake -2: Thinking you will instantly turn into a rock start and embark into a luxurious lavish lifestyle. Less than 0.5% of wineries in this State are superstars and I’ll bet you won’t be one of them.

Mistake -3: Thinking you will only work three months out of the year performing such glamorous tasks as tasting, talking about yourself, blending, hosting media and trade, reading about yourself, drinking other peoples' wines, traveling around the world and, did I mention? Tasting, again and again. Come and work with (not for) me next harvest and see if you survive (literally).

Mistake -4: Expecting the media to become your biggest fans and rate your wine if not always a 90+, at least in a consistent, repeatable and objective manner.

Mistake -5: Failing to realize how important marketing and personal contacts are and expect that the quality of your product will undoubtedly determine how successful you become.

And the most important of all mistakes: Failing to realize that you simply are a manufacturer of an alcoholic beverage intended to accompany a meal (just as any other condiment) obtained as a byproduct of rotten fruit grown in farm far away from the glamour of the urban metropolis you currently live in.

I’m making my share of mistakes, I keep correcting them and I’m still loving it.



Cheryl said...

All well received by this "new" winery. #1 to #10..we were guilty of nearly all. It took all of one P&L (and the love of what we were doing) to take your list to heart. We stayed SMALL by choice, so high priced marketing experts is still out of the question.

Knowing that mistakes were made, then corrected, why not give us a second or third chance?

We bottled some real crap in 03...but things were turned inside out in 05 and the new wines are truely good. But i cant get a critique on anything i send out to some critics that had the misfortune of tasting the first wines.

Now that i am sending wines to New York or the SanFran Chron i get spectacular recognition and feed back...BUT it would be nice to hear from some locals and peers who mean the most to us.

So how about it do we get through the road blocks?

PaulG said...

Cheryl, if you are an OR or WA winery (I assume you are) please understand that there are no road blocks as far as submitting wines to me for review. I taste all wines from both states that are submitted. Whether or not they get a review depends upon how they score within the confines of the Wine Enthusiast guidelines. If you want to give me more specifics, please send me an e-mail and we can continue the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Come on people, Paul is right. Do your homework! It's a shame that we don't honor the history of this great art, instead we treat it as some capitalist dilusion of grandure.

Mike Shaw said...

My folks are Washington grape growers on Red Mountain, and, as a side business, produce a small amount of wine (500 cases). I winced when I read your list and then had to laugh because they have made several of those mistakes - gawd their bottles are heavy. My Dad, however, has no delusions of grandeur - he routinely tells the wine tourists who keep coming around that if that want to make a small fortune in the winery business, then start out with a large one.

Anonymous said...

Lover of mine, lover of wine. These two are intertwined.

Judy Phelps said...

NOW you tell me! After I have made just about all of these mistakes :)

Post a Comment

Your comment is awaiting moderation and will be posted ASAP. Thanks!