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Outlying regions, and their wineries, face uphill odds

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Having visited a few “outlying” areas lately — including Suisun Valley and Lake County (twice in the last 6 weeks) — I’ve been thinking about what it takes for a wine region to bust through the clutter and establish itself, favorably, in the consumer’s consciousness.

I call them “outlying” because they are, in two senses of the word: Suisun Valley lies just outside Napa Valley, within Solano County but literally just cross the street from Napa. And Lake County is one mountain range (the Mayacamas) away from Napa Valley, although, as a Lake vintner laughingly told me, when he told a visiting French winemaker that the Mayacamas were mountains, the Frenchman replied that, in France, they would more properly be called hills. And, in fact, when I drove early yesterday morning from Langtry/Guenoc winery, outside Middletown, along Highway 128 to Rutherford, I saw once again how close southern Lake County really is to Napa. A short hop, skip and jump across the Mayacamas and you’re at Pritchard Hill, which is one of Napa’s high-rent districts (Colgin, Bryant, Chappellet).

So how can a new region become known? What conditions must it fulfill in order to hit the bigtime? In my experience, the region must:

– attain a critical mass of wines that have been highly-rated by respectable writers
– be close enough to major transit routes to be easily visited by writers and tourists
– develop an infrastructure of amenities (restaurants, lodging, tasting rooms and other recreations) to provide hospitality for visitors

If you look at California’s best known regions (Napa Valley, most of Sonoma County, Santa Barbara County, San Luis Obispo’s Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys), all three conditions have been met. Even meeting two out of the three conditions can be enough, as the Sierra Foothills shows. It’s close to transit routes (various highways over the Sierra Nevada, and Highway 49, which winds through Gold County). And, of course, there are tons of restaurants and nice places to stay in El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras counties, as well as things to do besides visiting wineries. So even though the wines may not be as good as they could be (IMHO), the region is doing just fine.

Take away two of the conditions, though, and it’s much harder. Mendocino County makes pretty good wines, but it’s a schlep from the Bay Area, and the areas around Hopland and Ukiah lack the fine dining and lodging and overall excitement that wine country tourists seem to want.

Lake County is trying very hard to get on the consumers’ (and critics’) map. They’re pushing wine quality relentlessly, especially in the vineyard, and the wines are beginning to show marked improvement. At the same time, it is a longer drive than Napa/Sonoma (and if you’re talking about the areas around Clear Lake, it’s another 45 minutes beyond Langry/Guenoc). That’s no longer a day trip but a weekender, which eliminates lots of potential tourists.

While I was typing this my friend Scott Carpenter called and during our chat reminded me that without a great sales, marketing and distributor force, it doesn’t matter if you’re making good wine. You won’t be able to sell it anyway. And lots of the wineries in these outlying areas are small family outfits, who find it hard to get distributed. When you think about all the obstacles a little winery from an outlying area has against it — especially in this economy — it’s a wonder they even try. At the same time, in a way they’re able to be more innovative, since they have little to lose by being bold and creative; in a place like Napa Valley, wineries grow more and more conservative over the years, the operative philosophy being: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

In the end, it takes a long time for a wine region to establish itself. Doesn’t happen overnight, which is why I hope the family wineries and Lake County and Suisun Valley are committed to the long haul. At the very least, they should understand that some of us writers are out here watching them and, if there are positive developments, we’ll be the first ones to holler about it. I include the bloggers, too, not just paper reporters like me. In fact, with bloggers and twitterers and all that, the outlying areas and wineries may be able to radically shorten the time it takes to get known.

Dept. of What were they thinking?

Lewis Perdue‘s Wine Industry Insight is reporting (and I don’t think he’s joking) that a British publisher, Kraken Opus, “is currently working on a wine book…that will retail for £640,000, (approximately US $1.12 million).” “The Wine Opus, an 850-page book, will feature the 100 best wineries in the world selected by a panel of as-yet-unnamed judges,” Perdue writes, adding, “Extravagantly thirsty purchasers will also get six bottles of wine from each winery in the book. Only 100 copies of the book will be released. The company says that 25 have already been pre-ordered. Kraken Opus is owned by former Goldman Sachs derivatives and tax expert Karl Fowler.”

I guess the Recession is over! Disclosure: I’ve ordered 3 copies of the book, myself. (I got a deal from Kraken, an unbelievable $3 million for all three.) And I’m announcing the first-ever steveheimoff.com contest: The winner of the most interesting comment to the following question will win one of those books and a dinner with me! Here’s the question: Why I want to have dinner with Steve.

(Could I get sued for lying? You know I am, don’t you?)

  1. Steven Mirassou says:

    Steve:

    Good post. The Livermore Valley has attained two of the three conditions as well. In fact, no region in California is so perfectly placed (literally) to cater to the millions of wine drinkers in the Bay Area as we are. Many of us are working hard at it, but all the producers in the Valley need to wring more out of the exceptional winegrowing qualities that naturally exist here in Livermore.

    The number of people who visit the Valley increases every year; the renovation of downtown Livermore over the last couple of years has been fabulous; there are now 44 wineries here (when Steven Kent started in 1996, we were winery #17); the Valley is 50 minutes from downtown SF, 30 from Oakland and San Jose, a little over an hour from the Peninsula…when the wine quality reaches critical mass, wine lovers will have the best of all worlds…great wines, conveniently available.

    I differ with you a little on the need for small wineries in outlying areas to be distributed. Having tried and failed repeatedly (ultimately my fault) on the distribution front, we have come to learn that if the Winery provides a compelling experience and compelling wines it can find an audience that will keep them in business. It has never been so true that the big wineries control what happens in the distribution houses. Fewer wineries, bigger wineries, and fewer distributors means even less share of the salesperson’s mind than before for small brands.

    I believe the recipe for business success is to first create an Extraordinary Experience for your guests, make great wines, and don’t assume you are going to get any help from the distributor. Self distribution is the way to go in California, and if volumes are small, the potential is there to make it work.

  2. Greta post, especially as read from my perch in the Finger Lakes in NY. This region has been producing wine since 1858 and has been producing premium, top-quality table wine for at least 30 years yet, getting “there” remains the slog of the century.

    The region has always been a crossroads–it is accessible to the densest population in the country (the Northeast) between 75-100 miles anywhere you turn; within the past dozen years, finally, one can find more than half a handful of quality restaurants; and in the past half-dozen years more high-quality lodging has shown interest in the region.

    Still, distribution and promotion are dismal.

    Oh, and Steve, I want to have dinner with you to find out how I can become a celebrity blogger, too…

    So, the three things are in place:

  3. Make that great instead of greta, and I have no idea where that final sentence came from–thought I had excised it!

  4. Steve, of the three characteristics you cite, I would have said that the first was the single most important and overriding–make wines that are worth paying attention to. If a winery does that, the popularity of its wines will follow.

    Neither of other two standards necessarily apply to a given winery or even a region. I would point to Ridge and Mount Eden as proof that wineries can be free-standing, a pain in the neck to reach, have no hotels nearer than 30 minutes, offer very little by way of great experience to visit and yet have wines that are very popular.

    The Santa Lucia Highlands show that a region can gain fame in a very short period of time based on the quality of its wines, not on its “visitability”.

    Livermore has visitability but it has yet to produce the critical mass of great wine. It may, but it is a work in progress. Folks like the Mirassous are going to help. Concannon, some of the Wente special bottlings, and a number of smaller wineries there are all making good wine from time to time, but the overall track record has yet to make the world take notice.

    And while the La Rochelle wines from Steven Mirassou are brilliant efforts, they are only made in the Livermore Valley. There is not a Liv Vly Pinot Noir among them–for obvious reasons.

  5. Charlie, SL Highlands is a very interesting case and one worth analyzing. I would not discount the importance of Gary Pisoni in making it famous. Maybe I should have added a 4th condition: A flamboyant spokesman!

  6. Great read and subsequent comments.

    Why I want to have dinner with you? Swap hippie pictures.

  7. Morton Leslie says:

    I disagree with the statement that “In the end, it takes a long time for a wine region to establish itself.” Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands, Dundee Hills, and Columbia Gorge to name a few, have existed for a shorter time than Lake County or Solano County. An appellation can establish itself quickly if it:

    Is delimited to small and readily recognizable boundaries.
    Has a beautiful landscape, is a place you could imagine living a great life
    Has a cadre of creative, wine loving, and worldly winemakers
    Produces an abundance of great tasting, world class wines

    Lake County and Solano County are deficient in all aspects of what makes a great AVA. And though Livermore is far better, it still has it’s work cut out for it.

    BTW Steve, I remember walking through a small, old, vineyard planted on pure gravel at Concannon. Gravel such that even weeds could not grow, though the S.B. vines were doing great. I never thought this special terroir was ever exploited to the extent it could have been. Also, I remember a lecture by Maynard Amerine (circa 1968) where he stated that the best S.B. in California was at that time from Livermore. Maybe there was a connection.

  8. Seems to me that QUANTITY of quality matters most. Critical mass, as Charlie would say.

    Speaking from a NY perspective, I do not consider Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande as “known” regions. But I would put Mendocino there, and perhaps even Monterey and Lodi; those are appellations we see more frequently on shelves and lists.

    And when you peek beyond California, I don’t think “visitability” is so important. Think Ribera del Duero and Priorat in Spain. Marlborough NZ too.

    By the way, Thomas, I do think Finger Lakes is turning the corner of recognition. This century, at least.

  9. Steve

    Very interesting post today, one that certainly caught our attention quickly.

    I think you have taken a very positive view of the potential of many regions not only in California but accross the US and focal points that all can work towards. I absolutely agree that wine quality is front and center foremost and that simple travel amenities, access and promotion do not factor without that quality.

    Diversity is a wonderful thing and regions working hard to define their diversity in the bottle and in the destination bring many layers of complexity to the consumer experience just as a great wine has many layers of complexity in it’s taste.

    I applaud you for getting out into such regions as Lake County and Suisun Valley. Keep exploring the uncovered and little know, we will all be more enlightened as a result.

  10. Jo: OMG. I can just see you in your granny glasses and bellbottoms!

  11. Well, yeah!!! We might have looked more like twins back then, sans beard…

  12. Maybe I’m reading something into Steve’s post, but after reading what Tish commented, I thought there may be a separation between a region establishing itself favorably and smaller wineries developing into success because of it.

    As Tish points out, Mendocino may not be a welcoming visit (although other than the restaurant paucity, I love the place) but many on the East Coast seem to feel the way Tish and I do about the region.

    And Tish, as you know, I’ve been saying it for 25 years now, nearly as long as I’ve been expecting wine in grocery stores in NY. Maybe one has to come first before the other happens–in either direction.

  13. Steven Mirassou says:

    Morton:

    SB and Semillon have been growing in Livermore since the 1840s. Supposedly, the first vineyards were planted by Louis Mel from cuttings gotten from his friend, Comte de Lur Saluces at Chateau d’Yquem.

    There are wonderfully rocky soils here in our Valley as well as a number of different loams, clay, alluvia, etc.

    We definitely have our work cut out for us, but I tend to agree with Steve that the social media tools have the ability to get the word out more widely and quickly than traditional press, advertising, etc. But as ever, the real engine for recognition and what comes with it, is the quality of the wine.

    Steven Mirassou

  14. I hope you will excuse the plug, Steve (and I will understand if you don’t run this post ) but the Bay Area Wine Society will be doing our bit to promote “outlying wines”. Over the next four months we intend to feature vino (and gourmet food products) produced beyond San Francisco’s backyard. We will be using a space long dark in the Metreon next to the Moscone Convention Center and the hotels and museums, to showcase AVAs like Lake County. All the money raised will go toward charitable causes. Called “PAIRINGS, a pop-up Tasteria” you can read more about our concept here: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pairings/136653479767?ref=mf and here:http://bit.ly/qUAxG for non Facebookers.

  15. Steven,

    Social media ain’t nothin’ without a story to tell. I have nothing against tweeting and booking and any other form of SMEDIA, but until Livermore has a story to tell, it can’t make itself famous. And by the way, if there were vines in Livermore in the 1840s, they were the old Mission grape. Most historians point to the latet 1860s as the first move to plant more than the random vine amidst land devoted to cattle and to grain crops.

    Louis Mel was a little before your time but I remember him well. He was born in the late 1830s, did not purchase vineyard land untill the 1880s. And was it not Charles Wetmore, not Louis Mel, who brought in grapes from Sauternes. According to historian Charles Sullivan, reds, especially our old friend, Zinfandel, were the dominant grapes in the 1880s and it was not until the turn of the century that Livermore’s reputation for Sem and Sv Blc became firmly established.

    Louis Mel used to sit in my backyard and drink lemonade with me until he passed away a few years ago at the ripe old age of 160. Other than that, my story is as accurate as yours. :-}

  16. Great post, Steve. I’ve always enjoyed going to places that were a little off the beaten path, and coincidentally I resolved about a month ago to visit a few of Cali’s outlying wine regions. So far, I’ve made a couple of forays to Lake County, Santa Cruz Mountains, and Amador/Lodi. Beginning in Sept. I’ll be posting some of my visits on my blog (it’s very new — so don’t expect too much at the moment). It is California Wine Month after all. Might as well do my part! By the way, I’d be happy to take suggestions if anyone here has tips on must visit places, whether those are regions or more specific wineries, restaurants, sights within them.
    Thanks in advance for the help!

  17. Steven Mirassou says:

    Charlie:

    As Mark Twain used to say “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Some names (and dates, apparently) were changed to protect the guilty.

  18. Steven,

    I doubt, however, that Twain was referring to history. Some names–and dates–are sometimes changed not to protect the guilty but to enhance the agenda ;)

  19. Steven Mirassou says:

    That’s true Tom. I wish I were that conniving…but I think it’s just my notoriously bad memory (just ask my kids!):)

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