a jury of your peers

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I occasionally do some speaking, either formally or informally, to groups of winemakers. Apart from the usual topics – scores, ratings, reviews, the media, Parker, etc. – I offer some insights into the marketing of wines.

My background in marketing is both deep and wide, and encompasses far more than wine. My early training was in broadcast media, specifically radio and television, both as on-air talent and program producer. For a number of years following that, I worked in corporate media. The company that employed me did a variety of things, for a client base that included high tech, trucking, cruise lines, non-profits, museums and much more.

It was a fascinating time, and it provided the opportunity to meet behind closed doors with the C-level people in many different, highly competitive industries. Whether I was writing a speech, developing a video, or brainstorming a product roll-out, the challenge was to get inside that particular industry, to understand the client and their competition, and to find a meaningful point of difference for their product or service.

Good training for analyzing wine marketing.

My advice to winemakers has nothing to do with trying out a different type of yeast, or barrel, or pruning technique. That is their domaine, not mine. But I tell them that one thing I know separates the great winemakers from the merely good (or worse) is the depth and breadth of their palate knowledge.

Too many start-up winemakers seem to believe that by making 30 or 40 different wines they will somehow stumble upon success. I recently tasted through one such portfolio – not all at once, but over some months – and found a couple of very nice bottles amidst the rubble of over-ripe, over-oaked, over-soaked reds. I don’t know if this individual has tasted much wine outside of his own winery or neighborhood, but he would be a better winemaker much more quickly if he made a concerted effort to do so.

On a number of occasions I have suggested to winemakers from a particular, narrowly-defined region, that it would be a worthwhile experiment to contact a group from a different region, and swap bottles. Trade a mixed case of wine back and forth a couple of times a year, sit down and taste blind, make notes and send them off to each other. No press or media or trade or buyers involved. Keep it strictly private. But get some qualified opinions about your region’s wines. See what other people are doing. If you specialize in any particular varietals, then find a group somewhere else who do the same, and see what they are up to.

It would provide a double benefit: a chance to taste outside your own region, and a chance to get critiqued, risk-free, by a jury of your peers. Has anyone actually done this? Not to my knowledge. There are tastings, hosted by vineyard owners, where different versions of the same grapes from the same vintage are poured, and those can also be quite educational. I have been invited to one or two, and loved the learning experience. But that is not the same as what I am proposing. It has a different sort of value.

I’ll state it bluntly. The best wines, from the best winemakers, at least in this country, virtually always come from women and men who have traveled and tasted globally. Who know exactly what they are competing against in the marketplace. Who have tested themselves repeatedly and made their wines better as a result. That’s what it takes to reach the top.


Thad W. said...

I concur with your assessment about the best wines most often coming from those who have travelled to other winemaking regions of the world (or even better having worked in another region). In fact, it's one of the criteria I use in determining which wines to try, let alone buy. Some might suggest this approach excludes some worthy winemakers, but I have yet to suffer such consequences. Truth be told, whenever I don't employ this criteria, it's easy to guess why the wine is not meeting the bar.

Judy Phelps said...

I was in New Zealand for 2 weeks in November, just to taste wine.. and taste I did! I never knew Sauvignon Blanc could come in so many different "colors and sizes". Each vineyard block is prized and valued for what it contributes to the wine, each one unique to its own terrior and bottled separately. I loved that aspect of New Zealand wines, truly an expression of place. I soaked it all in and definitely could not have gotten that perspective staying home.

Greg Harrington said...


I tell Enology students all the time their best possible first job after school would be to work in a retail store for a year or two.

We also always bring in sommelier during blending who is a buyer at a major property to help "check" and gauge our blends.

Anonymous said...

Nice Post! I agree completely. The worse thing for a winemaker to have is "House Palette" or not have a palette at all. Winemakers need to try and keep trying wines to find the style that they would like to emulate. If they don't they will always be a mediocre winemaker at best.

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