Thursday, April 7, 2011

Selling wines and selling books

Madison Wine Scene (MWS) recently attended a Washington state wine dinner organized by Jason Markgraff of Steve’s Wine ( at Osteria Papavero (, 128 E. Wilson, Madison.  Justin Vajgert of Reininger Winery ( from Walla Walla presented their Helix Aspersa (a blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Semillon), Carmenere, Helix Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Helix Syrah while Justin Basel of Basel Cellars, also from Walla Walla (, offered their Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merriment (a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc).

The wines were definitely food-friendly, tending to be fruit-forward, soft and round, and like most reds from Walla Walla, tending towards 14% or higher in alcohol content. They provided a good showcase for the variety of wines that Walla Walla and the Columbia River valley in eastern Washington have to offer. Having visited the area, MWS strongly recommends it – the landscape is beautiful, a surprising variety of high-quality wines are made in the area, the winemakers are friendly and accessible, Walla Walla has great restaurants, and a major stop on the Oregon Trail, the Whitman Mission National Historic Site, is just outside of town.

The Aspersa was served as an aperitif but the rest of the wines were well paired with a variety of foods, showing their versatility.  The Carmenere and the Merlot were paired with Fritto Misto alla Bolognese (a mixed fry of meats and vegetables); the two Cabs with Galantina di Coniglio Tartufata (truffled rabbit galantine); the two Syrahs with Cappe Sante e Scafata (seared scallops with pancetta) and the Merriment with Ravioli all’Ortica e Funghi (ravioli and mushrooms). The service was friendly and efficient, especially given the challenges of coordinating the different wines with the food courses.

In all, it was a significant investment of time and effort by Osteria Papavero, Steve’s, Reininger and Basel Cellars in staging this event.

Why do wineries go to the expense and inconvenience of hosting wine dinners? Neither Walla Walla, WA nor Madison, WI is the easiest place to get out of, or to get to.

In many ways, the business of selling wines may be compared to the business of selling books.

A struggling young author, having finished a masterpiece still has to get people to buy the product, preferably at full price.  With the costs and risks of the book distribution business, publishers prefer to rely on well-known names, whether they are Stephen King or George W. Bush, and even well known authors have to make the obligatory pilgrimage to Jon Stewart and David Letterman. Technology is changing the economics radically, but it is also lowering the barriers to entry thus bringing in more competitors for those Amazon rankings.

The options for a new author include:
  • An endorsement from Oprah really comes in handy.
  • Winning a Pulitzer helps too.
  • Getting favorable book reviews from publications such as the New York Times.
  • Placing ads.
  • Trying for direct contact with readers - book tours with book signings at stores, interviews on local radio.
  • If all else fails, having friends and family buy up copies of the book.
A struggling young wine maker is in many respects in a similar position, with the major difference that there will be no ewines to be consumed in the Riedel version of a Kindle.  Having produced the wine masterpiece, the wine maker still has to get people to buy the product, preferably at full price.  

The winemaker has to convince a distributor’s rep to carry the wine, the distributor’s salesperson has to convince a retailer to sell the wine and the retailer’s salesperson has to convince the consumer to buy the wine.  That’s a tough nut to crack – given the costs and risks of distribution, distributors are reluctant to take on unknowns. It is even tougher to get exposure through restaurants and wine bars, which usually have relatively narrow offerings, and tend to rely even more on well-known varietals and recognizable labels from familiar wine-growing regions.  

The options for a winemaker include:
  • A 100-point ranking from Robert Parker really comes in handy.
  • Winning prizes at wine competitions helps, but probably lacks the cachet of a Pulitzer.
  • Getting favorable reviews from publications such as the Wine Spectator.
  • Placing ads.
  • Trying for direct contact with consumers – having wine tasting dinners at restaurants with a winemaker in attendance, building tasting rooms at wineries, starting wine clubs, hosting wine tastings at stores, having an active presence in the social media – even Haut Brion and d’Yquem, which were favorites of Thomas Jefferson, have Twitter accounts (@HautBrion and @mYquem respectively), although Screaming Eagle has neither a Twitter nor a Facebook presence, but with their cult status they have a waiting list to get on their email list.
  • If all else fails, having friends and family buy up cases of the wine.
Thus, wine dinners can be seen as an attempt to connect directly with the consumer, and bypass an expensive and cumbersome distribution system for a product where most consumers rely on ratings, or sales recommendations, to make their buying decisions.


  1. I was there! The food was beautiful and delicious and the wines were all yummy. Thank you MWS for blogging about this lovely event. I am a fan of Washington Wines and now a fan of Osteria Papavero.

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