The quality of wine produced in the Eastern U.S. continues its upward trajectory, but wineries still struggle with consumer perception and their doubts about the quality.
“The hardest thing for East Coast wineries is the general attitude toward their wine,” says Elizabeth Slater of In Short Direct Marketing, who works with wineries across the nation to improve their sales. “People don’t take wine from Virginia, North Carolina, or New Jersey seriously. They have a preconceived notion, just like they used to have about California, where California was no good next to French wine.”
Cameron Stark, who started his career making wine in Napa before returning to his East Coast roots and joining Unionville Vineyards in New Jersey agrees that even though the quality is there it can be hard to get people to believe it or even try it.
“People have a real reticence to trying New Jersey wine,” says Stark. Sometimes at tasting events we had to have a huckster standing on the outside of the tasting table and say ‘wow, have you tried this, this is really good,’ and by hook or by crook get them to actually try the wine.”
Slater adds that the difficulty can even go beyond getting people to try the wines. “One of the challenges they have is getting people to taste the wine as it is, rather than the way they expect it to be. People will taste a wine from Virginia and say, ‘oh it’s okay,’ when in actuality it’s really very good.”
She suggest using blind tastings to help move people past their preconceptions and taste wines from emerging regions next to California and other recognized quality producers. This is a tactic that Stark has used too.
“I’ve done many tastings with highly rated white Burgundies, and I’ll put them against Unionville Vineyards Chardonnays, and they do surprisingly well every single time,” Stark says. “However, people’s preconception of wines is almost stronger than what they taste in their mouths. In one tasting everyone at the table voted that the Unionville white was the best one in the flight, and then when I revealed the wines, they immediately gainsaid their own decisions. They thought it was a trick, there was a complete disbelief that the wine could be good.”
Slater and Stark both point to the promotional work of regions and associations as key in establishing a good consumer report that will help wineries sell their wines.
“In Napa, the expectation is that the quality is good, and that just comes from Napa’s reputation. I’ve had some truly dreadful Napa Valley wines, and yet they sell well because of the brilliant marketing that went into the region early on. The reputation of Napa Valley helps sell your wine,” says Stark. “It always helps to when I say that I went to UC Davis and worked in Napa for 13 years.”
“They need to do a lot more promoting of their wines,” says Slater. “Virginia does a better job than most, because they’ve got the Virginia Marketing Board, so they have a budget and are backed by the state government. They’re way ahead of the curve.”
She also points to the Finger Lakes as an example of an eastern wine region that has made a concerted effort to work on their reputation and says. “They’re much better off in the Finger Lakes now than they have been in the past.”
Scott Osborn, owner of Fox Run Vineyards, agrees. “When I came to the Finger Lakes in 1994 the image was large format and jug wine, and it was a real challenge to sell our wines, not only to liquor stores and restaurants, but to a lot of the consumers, because they had no confidence.”
When Osborn bought Fox Run Vineyards there were only 14 wineries on Seneca Lake, today there are over 90, and he attributes the success of the region to the communal effort to improve the quality and reputation of the Finger Lakes as a wine region.
“Back then a number of wineries here were producing some high quality wines early on. Dr. Frank, Anthony Road, Standing Stone Vineyards, Lamoreaux Landing, Fox Run, and Lakewood Vineyards, but we were up against this quality image,” Says Osborn. “And, number of us early on realized that one good winery doesn’t make a wine region. And if you want people to come, you need to have a whole bunch of wineries producing great wines, and the more of those that you have, the more people are going to come visit you, and the more people will talk about you and write about you.”
Osborn had started his wine industry career in on the West Coast and learned how to make wine working in the cellar of California wineries, but he knew it was important to invest in the quality of Fox Run’s wines, and that he could hire a winemaker that could make a better wine than he could, so in 1995, he hired Peter Bell, who has been Fox Run Vineyards’ winemaker ever since.
“Peter has been a great asset, not only to us here at Fox Run, but to the region as a whole,” Osborn explains, “At the time he was one of the few college trained winemakers in the Finger Lakes, so what I told Peter was, if one of our neighbors calls with a problem because they know you have the expertise, I want you to take care of it, fix it for them, because we want our neighbors to produce wines as good as ours. The more of us that produce great wines, the better it’s going to be for our industry here in the Finger Lakes, and that is exactly what Peter wanted to hear.”
That early commitment to working together to improve the quality of the region’s wine carries through to today where a number of winemaker groups regularly get together and taste wines from around the world and each other’s wines in progress with the idea to improve the quality of all Finger Lakes wines. “There’s a huge emphasis on improving quality by winemakers getting together,” says Osborn, “ and most of the winery owners up here try very hard to work together and learn together.”
Quality wine is fundamental, but it’s not enough, and Osborn tells how the same spirit of unity in striving for quality extended to getting the message out. “We started here on Seneca Lake by sending out gold medal wines to wine writers, and we’d sent out a bunch of them. So the wine writers would have an opportunity to taste twelve Finger Lake Rieslings, and they’d realize that there wasn’t just one winery in the Finger Lakes producing great wine, here were twelve of them. And it started to really open people’s eyes. That was in the late nineties.”
The Finger Lakes have come a long way as a wine region over the past 20 years, and a great deal of it can probably be attributed to the renown of the world-class quality their Rieslings, but even though travelers now come from all over the world to visit the Finger Lakes to try the wines, they are still faced with some preconceptions.
“It’s still a challenge, there’s still somewhat of a negative reputation out there with some people,” says Osborn. “If I’m trying to sell my Lemberger, which is a red, a lot of people still believe that the only good red wine comes from California. But if you get them to taste it, it’ll change their attitude. So we’re still up against that, though it’s not as strong anymore as it used to be.”
By Kim Badenfort