By Andy Abramson
Yesterday, the Santa Barbara Vintners Road Trip stormed Los Angeles for a trade tasting that was a chance to meet, taste and talk about the wines they are producing and selling this year. Usual suspects Margerum, Qupe, Hitching Post/Hartley - Ostini,
Andrew Murray, Brander, Foxen and Ampelos were all there, as was Zaca Mesa, Larner and some 30 plus others at the event staged by winepal Allison Levine and her boutique "Please the Palate" team of wine promotional wizards.
It takes a lot of work and Allison should be commended for staging the event, and getting 37 or so producers to Los Angeles on a Monday in May. From experience, I know that organizing any event isn't easy, so pop a cork for Allison and the producers who supported the event. But sadly, as many producers who were there, there were some notable absences underscoring the fragmentation of Santa Barbara as a wine region and the Central Coast in general vs. the more collegial Paso Robles producers who seem to work more as a unit than the longer established Santa Barbara County producers.
Missing were the likes of Au Bon Climat, Cold Heaven, Tercero, Core, Habit, Sans Leige Loring, Cargasacchi and Stolpman. Granted you can't be at every event, but your reps and distributors can, and sadly, that's where this all breaks down and the fragmentation begins.
The local distributors may have one or two wine producers each from the region, but they won't spend a dime or take any additional time to help drive sales or staff tables. Also lacking was a "Discovery Table" approach. Instead of finding new discoveries at the "Discovery Table" like I've experienced at Decouvertes du Rhone or ViniSud, the only wines poured are those poured by the winery reps themselves.
Given its a two hour trek to L.A. on a Monday, local reps could easily work with Allison and her team to promote discovery and have the wines there without the need to staff it. Now days technology is such that with an smartphone and a QR code Allison could have set up a "for more information" type of system at the event on a table and the info would have filtered into the sales reps..but wine distributors and reps, technology and promotion seem to be far apart, and in the end the winemaker, buyer and consumer all suffer.
Next is the turnout of wine buyers.
I was there to help my friend John Sungkamee, owner of Emporium Thai re-image his wine program. John's Westwood restaurant has some of the best Thai food in town, and now he's ready to up his game with an expanded wine program. What I didn't see were enough buyers from restaurants and wine shops. As I talked with some recently trying to drum up a few more mouths for Allison's event I was saddened by the answers that ran the gamut of "oh Monday's my day off" to "I can get the reps to come to me," to "I taste wines all the time, I don't need to go to an event."
Gosh. I grew up in pro hockey promoting the sport, and on any given night I was at some local hockey rink working the crowd, talking to parents, rubbing shoulders with the youth hockey leaders, hanging with the media. I did that seven days a week for almost 13 years and a program of significant size followed with a $50 million dollar endowment years later based on that kind of dedication back in Philadelphia in the 70's and 80s. Granted i did that from the age of 15-28 but that was all about building future fans.
Wine is no different. Wineries, somms and retailers need to cultivate future customers. And to do that, they need to be where the action is. Like a scout in sports, the players don't come to you. You have to go to them. So by not being at an event with 37 wineries and over 150 wines the only disservice being done is to your customers.
But again technology can be a rescuer of so much to help wineries sell more wine.
Why not have a virtual tasting. If Jim Clendenen or David Corey can't travel from Santa Maria why not have the bottles there, a rep from the distributor (or even a friendly customer) and a video link. That way, they can be in the winery, and on an iPad screen, and a headset you can talk to the winemaker. The technology is there and it can be done today. That type of participation would make events even more successful, and for winemakers it would sell more wine.
Heck they could even have webinars with consumers on a regular basis staged at friendly and stocked up retailers all without leaving the winery.
The world is changing. The wine world needs to change.
With the advent of direct to consumer in just about every industry, including wine, beer and spirits part of the rising tide, winemakers, distributors, retailers and event producers need to explore and develop more modern ways for bottles, kegs and boxes to be marketed, promoted, trialed and sold.
On June 16 and 17th I'll be talking about the nexus of technology and wine at Fine Minds 4 Fine Wine at Chene Bleu as part of an invite only think tank with some of the wine world's most recognized minds.
As a business change strategist and operator, a former wine writer, and now part time winemaker, I've seen all sides and am discovering that just like the Internet had a last mile problem to solve in order to be what it has become for many, the wine industry still suffers from a middle mile and last mile problem.
One is caused by the distribution challenges, of which there are many, and the latter suffers from a endemic issue of exposure and availability. New wines come and old wines go, but today, consumers are looking for more choices, at better prices and with easier access. Helping my METal pal John reimage wine at Emporium Thai is exposing more about the kinks in the industry to me. It also mean I'll get to apply a "look past tomorrow approach" to disruption and change.
But what really made things come together was seeing the expression on the face and hearing the comments of long time friend and former Qupe sales manager Rick Morrison's. His reactions, as we talked wine retail, restaurant needs and distribution options was galvanizing, as it further convinced me that I was onto something.
As we spoke, and I was clearly into winebiz speak mode, Rick uttered, "Look at you. You're talking their language." Many years ago pal Doug Margerum wrote on his winery web site that "Andy is the ultimate wine insider." Doug may have been right. He was just ten years or so too early.
Come this June 16th and 17th in the Rhone some old guard types may want to think of me as the "outsider." But given that the time has come to toss the old thinking about wine away that changes how it reaches the consumers, new thinking, new voices and even newer approaches are needed, as the consumer has to be squarely at the center of the entire industry as it's not that way today. Somms, distributors and retailer buyers are treated like royalty, while the consumer is often last in line.
That's why at Fine Minds 4 Fine Wine I'll be the start of changing the wine world. It's really the era to stop settling for what the establishment would want to continue by building pathways for disruption, and creating new ways to sell wine, with greater ease and greater efficiency.