Dichotomy

Having reached the ripe age that I have reached, it comes as no surprise to me that people complain—about anything. Still, some complaints make a lot of sense.

For instance, the year I entered the New York wine business, 1985, the complaint was that New York wine gets no respect from retailers, restaurants, the press, and most consumers. I don’t think much has changed on that score and so, I am not surprised to hear the same complaint in 2009.

Because of this lack of respect, many New York winery owners work their backsides off to move a case of wine here and there because, until they become large enough or at least establish a relatively identifiable name, distributors have about as much interest in them as they have in dismantling government-sponsored distributor profits. (I sometimes think that distributors take on New York wines mainly as a show of support, for PR purposes).

All too often, when New York wines make it into a distributor’s portfolio, the complaints shift from ‘can’t get into retail shops and restaurants’ to ‘can’t get distributor sales staff motivated to get the wines into retail shops and restaurants.’

To be fair, I know a few New York winery owners that are content with their distributor’s efforts, but it is so rare.

The fact is, New York wine has suffered a relatively negative image for decades—no matter that the image is outdated and wrong. To change something so negative for so long is not an easy task. The funny thing is that the image is not the same image that tourists have of  New York wine.

So, why can’t tourists ask for New York wine and get it wherever they shop and dine?

The answer to that is complicated.

Only the rare retailers and restaurants go out of their way to work at selecting wines, and even then it is a phenomenon largely connected to major cities or certain centers that surround rural communities; the majority simply take what has already sold and keep selling it over and over.

Retailers and restaurateurs have been known to change directions but not usually without a push. They move with the trend and, as much as we may like to think that we are, New Yorkers are not the trendsetters. This may be among the most provincial states in the union. And for upstate New York wineries, it’s even more difficult, as this is among the most conservative places—affecting change is tough.

In general, New York wine is not cheap; it is not overbearingly woody; it is not chewy; it is not consistently rated by the self-appointed gurus; and it is not savvy (witness most NY wine labels). New York wine seems to go out of its way to buck the general public tide.

The one thing that New York wine is—a generally premium product—doesn’t seem to matter, but that’s no surprise either. Just check out the few fastest and most consistent selling wines in the U.S., it’s clear that producing a premium wine doesn’t necessarily provide for certain success.

Much of the New York wine industry dreams of relying on tourists to go home and ask for New York wines. But people aren’t that dedicated and their lives are too complicated to commit to an unnecessary vigil. Besides, many tourists to New York come from other states, where they can’t get New York wine because only a small portion of it is sold outside the home state.

Finally, many wine knowledgeable people don’t get that way by having been explorers. They may pay lip service to the concept of exploration, but when you pin many of these fat-walleted geeks down, you often find that their range is limited and their ability to think for themselves is in retreat. Even the results of blind tastings don’t seem to sway them to think for themselves.

So, here I am with this seemingly bleak picture of the situation that confronts the New York wine industry and this morning I receive my weekly email from the New York Wine and Grape Foundation that includes this startling piece of information:

Since 1985, when there were maybe two-dozen New York wineries located in a total of seven counties, the wine industry has grown to a whopping 294 Tax and Trade Bureau-approved licenses located in 45 counties (there are 62 counties in New York).

While the ‘old guard’ complains, the march of a ‘new guard’ proceeds unabated. It’s a dichotomy for sure, but what does it signify?

Damned if I know the answer. The progression forward may give a hollow ring to the complaints or it may simply mean that you can’t stop the human spirit even under proven adversity. It could also mean that some wine people are in for a rude awakening.

Wouldn’t it be nice if that awakening is a positive one?

Incidentally, the NY legislature gave the NY Wine and Grape Foundation a one-year reprieve. But its state funding for the coming year is less than half of what it was. Maybe this situation will prove to wineries that they need to organize an effective, and unified, industry promotion effort and stop relying on the state for money. Past activity on the industry’s part, however, puts the word ‘unified’ in doubt.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2009. All rights reserved.

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