Perspectives on Marketing Vermont Wine in Vermont Restaurants

From Fall, 2017, Interviews and Surveys

 

There is disagreement on the primary barriers to selling Vermont wines in Vermont restaurants (see later for points of disagreement). However, there are some common themes, and the following components are a starting draft for the best path forward:

 

Ensure that quality in Vermont wines is strong - The perception of Vermont wine quality is damaged by the experiences of the early years of Vermont wine production, and the reputation of poor quality wine has persisted for some wine buyers. Step one is to make sure that we truly offer high quality wines. It is important to note that consistent quality does not mean manipulating flavors to stay the same, it means presenting the unique character of Vermont wines in their best light. Consistently.

           Note: Not everybody agreed that Vermont wines, in general, are of good quality today and some wine buyers expressed skepticism that any Vermont wines are of high enough quality to meet their restaurants’ requirements.

December 1st, 2017, Chris Gerling from Cornell Extension is running a half day workshop showing how winemakers can set up a peer to peer sensory evaluation program. We will work with that as a starting point for Vermont systems, and from there go another step to set up tasting panels that get input from wine buyers who know the flavor profiles that interest restaurants in particular. These panels will combine Vermont tasters and people from beyond the state.

 

Place Vermont wine within the broader context of enthusiasm for Vermont cuisine and / or local cuisine - There is a strong starting point for people from within and outside of Vermont embracing our cuisine, and vineyards in particular can benefit from tourism tie-ins - they are part of the aesthetic of a working landscape and offer hands on interactions and tastings. Some offer events that additionally draw visitors. This one-to-one connection can lead consumers to develop an affinity for a Vermont wine and ask for it / order it on restaurant menus. Even without an individual connection, Vermont wine can still be offered as an answer to “what’s local” or “what’s unique” on a menu.

DigInVT.com is available to the Grape & Wine Council members as a collaborative agricultural and culinary tourism promotion platform – in early 2018 we will be planning promotions using an upgraded website for DigInVT. As a DigInVT partner, the VT Grape & Wine Council will be part of shaping new promotions. We plan to begin with a Vermont Wine Dinner Series at VFN restaurants the last week of March, 2018. We are also scheduling a webinar with winemakers in other regions to discuss how they promote on a regional basis. Online resources for working with tourism and marketing organizations in Vermont will be added to the VermontFresh.net site for winemakers to use.

 

Improve wineries’ ability to tell their own stories - Placing Vermont wine within the Vermont cuisine context is necessary but not sufficient, wineries also need to be able to articulate what makes their product unique. These individual stories can offer a reason to ‘take another look’ at Vermont wine for people who may have written it off (or simply feel apathy about trying it) and also help establish the value proposition for what is a relatively expensive product. This value proposition includes stories about sustainability or role in the community, not only related to final flavor.

There will be a webinar on this topic in December, 2017. Field trips to wineries during summer 2018 is the primary vehicle for telling these stories in the 2017-2018 SCBGP wine marketing grant. Another possible avenue to support this opportunity is via food writers - resources for working with wine, food, beverage writers will be added to the VermontFresh.net site. The Vermont Fresh Network will profile individual winemakers in its Fresh Feed as well.

 

Provide restaurant staff the training they need to promote Vermont wines - Vermont wine is not cheap and is not made from a familiar grape -- very few customers will ask “what do you have for Louise Swensons?”. Customers might ask about local beverages more broadly. In any case, it is likely that servers will need to induce customers to choose a local wine over a different default option. This requires servers to know about Vermont wines and believe in them enough to undertake the task of getting someone to change their minds and select a Vermont option.

           Restaurants can help the process with more passive promotion too, including being sure Vermont wine is available by the glass, offering tastes, highlighting Vermont wine options on the menu - particularly if other local beverages (beer, cider, spirits) are highlighted.

Restaurant staff will be invited to the spring gathering of winemakers, wine buyers, and the public. They will also be invited to the field trips. However, they are not a focus of this phase of the grant. This element of the work should be explored for future stages.

 

Engage distributors in promoting Vermont wines (and, vice versa, distributors engage winemakers in working with them to promote their products) - the role of the distributor is particularly important for restaurants who don’t have a strong feeling one way or the other about today’s Vermont wines.

           Quotes from restaurant wine buyers: “it’s very rare to have a distributor push a Vermont wine. . . . I’d probably like it if I tried it”; “I’ve never heard a distributor propose a Vermont wine”; “I feel like there was a short time when my distributor was excited about Vermont wine, but I haven’t heard about it again. . . customers weren’t interested so it fell off my list.”

           Restaurant buyers without pre-existing connections to VT vineyards mostly wanted to hear about wines through distributors, largely due to time & attention constraints.

           All the distributors interviewed (which were all the local distributors carrying Vermont wine) expressed enthusiasm for promoting Vermont wine and finding ways to promote it.

           There are many ways that winemakers can work in complement to their distributors to present the strongest marketing.

Distributors are participating in the 2017-2018 wine grant. An introduction to working with distributors webinar will take place in November 2017 (Update: Notes & a recording are now available), and distributors will help organize the March dinner series. Distributors were interviewed in Fall 2017, and will be re-engaged in Spring 2018 to get their impressions of next steps, then again in Fall 2018 to measure any increases in wine sales.  Current sales to restaurants stand at 868 cases annually.

 

Points of Disagreement

 

Role of Price: Everyone agreed that Vermont wines are expensive compared to high quality wines from elsewhere, and for production reasons will probably remain expensive. Winemakers overall felt anxiety about pricing. Some distributors felt that having lower pricing for restaurants is key, others didn’t think that was a primary barrier. Some wine buyers said it was more a value issue – given the right wine characteristics and story, they can sell Vermont wines for a higher price just as they sell other Vermont beverages for a relatively high price. This leads back to staff training, as listed above. Some restaurants just mark Vermont wine by the glass up by less than they normally would.  

 

Impact of Unusual Varieties: Winemakers appeared to be the most concerned about the unusual cold climate grapes, others saw it more as indicating you can’t expect a customer to ask for a Vermont wine the way they’d ask for a pinot noir but not a major issue. Wine buyers taught their staff how to place Vermont wines in the context of other grapes, highlighting characteristics they share, although a few interviewees thought that was poor form (that Vermont grapes should be appreciated on their own merits). Some interviewees pointed out that if a cold climate grape variety, Marquette for example, developed a following then Vermont would particularly benefit since we’re top ranked in producing cold climate wines. In general, those interviewed felt that Vermont wine makers should embrace the unique character of Vermont wines and minimize any manipulation towards more “normal” flavor. Where buyers felt winemakers currently fell on the manipulation spectrum varied, some felt that the wine was much too manipulated (an unfavorable comparison was made to Mountain Dew), others felt that some winemakers were pushing into niche markets and other winemakers don’t need to go that far down the route of unorthodox wine.

 

Quality / Readiness of Vermont Wines: Wine buyers were all over the map in how they felt about Vermont wine quality, some say it’s the best hands down, some that there are a few good winemakers but not many, some that they don’t trust the quality (even if they’ve had a good bottle, they don’t believe the next one will be good), some that the quality is very good but not commensurate with price, some that you will “never have good wine from Vermont” because of the climate, some have the impression that Vermont wine is low quality but realize that’s an old attitude and are willing to take a second look.  

Sustainability in Wine: For people concerned with sustainability measures, it’s increasingly true that specific practices are needed beyond saying wine is “local” or “small scale” - and these practices tie into flavor. Very few people interviewed had concerns about the sustainability practices of Vermont winemakers or listed it as a threshold issue in their purchasing, although some mentioned they enjoyed hearing stories of interesting projects in this realm. If national trends in the demographics most likely to buy Vermont wines push towards particular sustainability interests (organic wines, biodynamic wines) when people dine at restaurants or look at particular labels, then that could have an underlying effect and shift wine buyers’ criteria.

 

Wine Culture in Vermont: Some interviewees felt that Vermont, in general, had little interest in wine – including not only the dining public but also restaurant staff. Others had a different experience and found that people come to work in food in Vermont because they’re very interested in all aspects of food and just like in other places, food and wine go together in that interest.  

 

Effect of Craft Beer, Spirits, Cider: Some interviewees felt that wine was eclipsed by other popular local beverages and would never emerge from their shadow. One interviewee asked “why would you bother working on wine?” when all people care about is beer. Others felt that the interest in other beverages helps Vermont wine on two key fronts. First, it raises an interest in local beverages and causes customers at restaurants to inquire about local options. Second, those products have contributed to a more adventurous spirit in trying beverages so that the unusual varietals aren’t the problem they might once have been. Some suggested thinking more creatively about collaborations - aging Vermont spirits or ciders or beers in Vermont wine barrels, using byproducts (like pomace) from winemaking to create other products, telling a “full circle” story through collaborations.

This report was made possible by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. More information from the Vermont Wine Marketing Project is available online from the Vermont Fresh Network.