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Successfully Sell Wine No One Wants or Knows About

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Wine Industry Advisor connected with regional heads, brands, and marketing masterminds who discuss how to revive a sagging reputation, or create one from whole cloth.

Kathleen Willcox

The U.S. has been the biggest wine-consuming market on the planet since 2013, but for the past decade, volume growth has been practically non-existent, thanks to the flourishing of the spirit, hard seltzer, and ready-to-drink cocktails sectors.

Wine sales show a 0.5 percent decrease for 2021, continuing a pattern of depreciation, according to Shanken’s Impact Databank’s forecasts. Between 2000-2010, the market grew 3 percent, but between 2010-2020, that modest growth shrank to 1 percent, Shanken reports.

Despite that, there are pockets of incredible hope and growth the entire industry can learn from. Certain regions enjoyed blockbuster sales gains in the U.S., while battling a variety of challenges—from zero name recognition, to falling out of fashion, or suffering from less-than-stellar quality reputations. 

Making Bordeaux Seem Younger, More Progressive

Everyone knows Bordeaux can make great wine. But until very recently, Bordeaux was more associated with Grand Crus and jet-setting billionaires and royals than environmentally conscious producers and urbane Millennials.

Meet the next generation of Bordeaux / Courtesy Bordeaux Wine Council
Meet the next generation of Bordeaux / Courtesy Bordeaux Wine Council

“We have a long history of selling wine in the American market, and that reputation has a lot of benefits, including our reputation for quality,” says Patrycja Matyskiewicz, Bordeaux’s head of U.S. and China marketing strategy. “But we did have to correct the misconception among the younger generations that Bordeaux was their grandparents’ wine, and didn’t offer anything exciting for them.”

When the Bordeaux Wine Council realized there was a disconnect between the reality and perception, they launched an educational and “listening” study on social media to determine what that gap was.

Then, just three years ago, the Council responded with a campaign to “democratize the perception of Bordeaux.” “Through social media, events, and virtual seminars, we shared the story of the strong women winemakers in Bordeaux, the newer approaches to winemaking, the broad range of prices and the progressive environmental and social values our growers have,” explains Matyskiewicz.

Out went the focus on appellations, technique, and production methods, in came the story telling.

Sales followed. In 2021, Bordeaux reported 21 percent growth in sales volume across the U.S., the highest increase year-over-year since 1986. That translates to 29 million bottles (or 2.43 million cases) sold, worth $326 million.

The Premiumization of Rías Baixas

Rías Baixas has long prioritized the U.S. as its “principal export market,” says Eva Minguez, the marketing director for the D.O.

The region teamed up with communications firm Gregory + Vine to leverage its modest success in the U.S., and carve out a new niche and reputation, with a focus on the Albariño grape.

“Rías Baixas was already regarded as offering some of the best white wines from Spain, but few people were in the market for ‘Spanish white wines,’” says Helen Gregory, Gregory + Vine’s founder and president. “To position it as a great white wine choice more broadly, we focused on sharing the history, winemaking legacy, and tasting profile of the wines to the trade and media. Somms became our first brand champions, embracing its crisp, refreshing and highly aromatic profile.”

Peer-to-peer endorsement is key, Gregory maintains, especially when building a region’s image and reputation and garnering importer and distributor placements. Transforming Rías Baixas from a great Spanish white to a great white on the same level as whites from New Zealand, France, and other regions, helped to underline its relative value, Gregory says.

The sales numbers for 2021 reflect those goals. Sales of Albariño from Rías Baixas grew 13 percent by volume in the U.S., and 16.8 percent by value, meaning the region increased bottle sales—and the price paid per bottle—according to the Consejo Regulador of D.O. Rías Baixas.

The region hopes to capitalize on this growth, with plans to resume in-person events this year at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival 2022 and the Aspen Food & Wine Classic.

Cashing in on Cava

Cava, meanwhile, has been making the quality-to-price argument for its bubbles for a few years now, Javier Pagés, president of the Cava D.O. Regulatory Board says, adding that 70 percent of its wine is exported to more than 100 countries.

The D.O. capitalized on Cava’s reputation as a food-friendly, celebration-worthy sparkler in the past year, partnering with several prominent restaurants, including Yannick Benjamin’s new Contento, José Andrés’s celebrated Mercado Little Spain, and Francie, the newly-awarded Michelin-star Brooklyn brasserie, and rolling out digital marketing activations—all in a bid to support the restaurant industry and celebrate relief after months of COVID-19-related shutdowns.

Celebrate Cava Discovery Week
Celebrate Cava Discovery Week

There is still work to be done, though, Pagés says. While most people have heard of Cava, few understand its categories.

“We are launching an initiative to explain the different categories, so that consumers can recognize and look for high-quality markers, and understand what makes each one unique,” Pagés says.

Sales worldwide for the priciest Cavas did exceptionally well. The Guarda Superior category increased by 34.73 percent year-over-year. Gran Reserva —another top category—shipments were up 42.11 percent. In the U.S. the sales growth for the region overall was outstanding for an established category: 62.91 percent.

Revving Growth in Georgia

Georgia’s winemaking history is more than 8,000 years old, but it has really only made itself known in the U.S. in the past decade. In 2015, Marq Wine Group, a D.C.-based consulting agency specializing in wine and economic growth, launched a marketing campaign in partnership with Georgia’s Ministry of Agriculture that kicked off the acquaintance.

At that point, there were 60 Georgian winemakers with a presence in the U.S.; now, more than 200 are present, with more than 1 million bottles of Georgian wine sold as of the end of 2020. Sales have grown, on average, 29 percent over the seven years. Marq worked with Georgia

The campaign, Marq’s managing partner Julie Peterson explains, was extremely straight-forward.

“It’s not sexy, and there’s no magic formula,” she says. “We are not throwing $100,000 parties. Most of the time, we are in the trenches, making phone calls and cementing relationships.”

For a wine region to succeed, especially in the U.S., Peterson believes that a few key standards must be met. 

“The wine has to outperform for the price,” Peterson says. “That’s the winemaker’s job. But it’s our job to make sure it does before bringing it in. It’s also essential to build relationships, and not just by doing events, but by checking in with key industry and media contacts before, during, and after the events. Finally, you need to ensure the mechanisms for success are in place.”

In other words, the “unsexy” logistical elements: importing, distributing, and selling the wine.

Connecting wine with food and culture is an important component to the success of Georgian wines in the U.S. market.
Connecting wine with food and culture is an important component to the success of Georgian wines in the U.S. market.

Creating a Market for Armenia

Winemaking began in Armenia at least 6,100 years ago, surviving millennia of conquest, war and economic challenges. The Soviet Union prioritized brandy production over winemaking though, and it wasn’t until Armenian independence in 1991 that a new generation of winemakers and growers decided to resuscitate the ancient abandoned vineyards of the past.

In September of 2020 Storica Wines was launched onto the market (not the most auspicious time, Storica Wines’ head of wine Ara Sarkissian admits), with the goal of being the first major U.S.-based importer of small-scale Armenian wines. But more importantly, the brand took point on sharing the story of Armenia with American wine lovers.

“We knew we couldn’t sell ‘just wine’ if we wanted to succeed,” Sarkissian explains. “We had to sell the notion of the place, the history of winemaking, the 400 indigenous varieties, the incredible terroir with 120-year-old vineyards at up to almost 6,000 feet above sea level.”

Through consumer-focused tastings with carefully selected retailers, social media pushes focused on “the story of place and people.” Storica has gone from selling 338 cases worth $66,816 from September through December in 2020, to selling 1,751 cases worth $222,000 during the same time period in 2021.

Flourishing in challenging conditions is possible. These pros make it look easy. But behind every seemingly easy sale and social media blitz are hundreds of hours of unglamorous and thankless research and outreach, backed by a well-oiled logistical import, distribution and sales strategy.

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Kathleen Willcox

Kathleen Willcox writes about wine, food and culture from her home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is keenly interested in sustainability issues, and the business of making ethical drinks and food. Her work appears regularly in Wine SearcherWine Enthusiast, Liquor.com and many other publications. Kathleen also co-authored a book called Hudson Valley Wine: A History of Taste & Terroir, which was published in 2017. Follow her wine explorations on Instagram at @kathleenwillcox

 

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