Making wine is not enough

Some wine producers resent the time and effort required to promote and sell their wine. Robert Joseph suggests that this is an attitude that will have to change.

Pick up the phone, Robert Joseph says / Credit: Quino Al on Unsplash
Pick up the phone, Robert Joseph says / Credit: Quino Al on Unsplash

As a climatically miserable Northern Hemisphere summer draws to a close and winemakers shift their attention to the harvest, many will inevitably be looking back at the last two or three months and the stream of visitors to their cellars. 

Was all that effort really worthwhile? 

Some – more skilful or luckier than their neighbours may have decided not to open their doors, because they have no wine to sell. Others, may have the same problem – after a short harvest. And some may have stock but have decided to focus on growing markets elsewhere. In all these cases, there will have been phone calls and emails to answer and requests to turn down.

These topics have led to some quite vigorous online discussion, prompted in part by an article posted by Meininger’s contributor Simon Woolf on the Finnish website Viinilehti. Wanting to visit the Jura region for the first time, he had sent emails, WhatsApp messages and phone calls to producers and received no responses.
As he says in the piece, after disastrous frost and hail-crippled harvests, “some producers have lost close to their entire crop in multiple years…” He goes in to quote Wink Lorch, an expert on the region: 

“Not only are they battling with an increasingly hostile climate, and an ever more challenging labour market, there are also the constant demands from importers for sold-out stock, and from sommeliers, journalists and bloggers for visits to the domaine.”

So they metaphorically take the phone off the hook.

For the moment, that may make sense. But will it look as sensible in a few years, after more generous harvests, when those importers, somms and hacks have fallen in love with wines from another region or producer?


Closed Doors

Of course, over the last 18 months, many wine producers have had a very different problem. Covid lockdowns have removed the possibility of welcoming visitors. This has been especially true in South Africa where lockdowns also prevented domestic sales and delivery, so Anthony Hamilton Russell was grateful that his eponymous winery exports 60% of its production. As he said in an interview with Anthony Peter Dean in the Buyer

“ Don’t rely on tourism and tasting room sales… Build your world market and your brand beyond the high margin local path of least resistance… Segment the world horizontally, not your local market vertically.”
Inevitably, this comment led to accusations of abandoning domestic consumers.

California’s top wineries certainly pay a lot of attention to their home market, and they are generally recognised as having invented the modern concept of wine tourism. This aspect of their operations was also badly hit by the pandemic. But, in 2019 even before anyone had heard of Covid 19, many producers there were already acknowledging the need to rethink the model. Too many wineries are now offering experiences that are too similar, to wine drinkers who want to make two visits in a day rather than four or more. Today there is growing talk of having to provide a broader range of experiences and/or to invest in pop-up shops and events that take the wine to the customers rather than expect them to make the journey.

And of course, very top estates like Harlan and Screaming Eagle do not feel any more need to run a tasting room than Romanée-Conti or Petrus. And for the same reasons.

But, like a cult restaurant with a months-long waiting list for bookings, those wineries will respond to enquiries. As, I’m sure, will Hamilton Russell. 


Not What I Signed Up For

How much kinship will they feel with Hannah Fuellenkemper, who divides her time between making wine and selling it in a pop up called le Carton, and writing about it well enough to have been named Louis Roederer 2018 Emerging Wine Writer of the Year? 

In an entertaining blog headlined ‘Why French winemakers never reply to emails’ on Simon Woolf’s site, she leaped to their defence.

“When you signed up to be a winemaker you did so because you wanted to make wine. You may not have realised how much time the not-making-wine part would take.”

Viewed dispassionately, this makes as much sense as saying “when you set out to swim from England to France, you may not have realised how long and how much effort it might involve.” It may be true, but it’s not really excusable. All you needed to do was talk to a few winemakers or cross-channel swimmers.

Saying ‘I just want to make wine’ is like a restaurateur complaining he/she they hadn’t factored in the need to get customers to come in and pay to eat the food they love to cook. Someone has to do this kind of stuff, just as Theo Van Gogh had to handle the less artistically satisfying  work of selling his brother’s paintings and paying the bills while Vincent focused on the sunflowers. 

Some artists, actors and writers negotiate their own contracts – or even, in the case of Simon Woolf, publish their own books. Most employ others, in the shape of agents and managers. In all these cases, there is an incentive to make profitable deals.

Apart from water in a desert and ice and sun cream on a beach, very few things sell themselves. The way in which they are sold will vary, of course. For some, running a tasting room will be hugely effective; others will travel the world; while others still will simply delegate sales to those with the requisite skills. In every case, effort and/or cost will be involved.

Which brings me back to a nub of the problem, as described by Hannah Fuellenkemper. The income most small wine estates get “doesn’t even begin to cover the hours you spend as a tour guide, technician, cleaner, part time cook and magician.”

In other words, too many small wineries simply aren’t charging enough to pay for the labour required to promote and sell their wine. And, irony of ironies, if only they could raise their prices high enough to attain cult status, they wouldn’t need to cover the costs Fuellenkemper has listed anyway. They could make do with an automated email and phone response inviting enquirers to add their name to a waiting list.  

So, was all the time spent with visitors this summer worthwhile? I can’t say, but taking the phone off the hook and closing your doors probably isn’t the best alternative.

Robert Joseph

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