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“Going regional” as key to increased quality perception

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Mike Paul’s article, in the Jan. 21 “just-drinks” online pub, offers a compelling insight into the marketing and sales value of “going regional,” and also has important implications for some of California’s appellations.

Paul, who publishes his own business-oriented blog, argues that New World wine-producing countries, including Australia, Chile and South Africa, are “almost certain to vent their frustration that the quality of their premium offer is not being sufficiently recognized, either by the trade or the consumer.”

These countries tend to promote awareness of their wine industries through national marketing and trade associations, such as Wines of Chile, Wine Australia, and Wines of South Africa, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, the problem is that “In any category where a single brand proposition covers mainstream and premium territory, the lower end risks overpowering and dragging down what is happening above.”

Paul’s suggested solution: “producing countries should develop regional propositions that are stronger than their umbrella country brand.”

Here in California we’ve seen a schizophrenic approach to the idea of regionalization. Some large appellations, like Lodi and Paso Robles, have shown an interest in regionalizing. Lodi, which first received AVA status in 1986, twenty years later regionalized into seven sub-appelations. The Lodians’ official explanation for this was that “local winegrowers began to recognize the wide variety of ecological differences across the vastness of the Lodi AVA,” and while that may be true, it’s also true that the Lodi “brand” was not perceived (or the Lodians themselves believed their brand was not perceived) as quality-oriented or, to put it in Mike Paul’s words, they experienced “frustration that the quality of their premium offer [was] not being sufficiently recognized, either by the trade or the consumer.”

Paso Robles was in a similar bind. The sprawling appellation can produce superior wines, but many locals were concerned that Paso was widely perceived as a hot place capable only of rustic, high alcohol wines. They proposed developing as many as 14 sub- or regional appellations, but nothing has happened so far.

On the other hand, California has long seen strange cases in which sub-regions within larger ones go through all the trouble to get an AVA approved—and then local wineries refuse to use it! This has occurred in the Santa Ynez Valley (where some wineries use only Santa Barbara County) and in the new Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, where some wineries are using only Sonoma Coast.

Mike Paul is probably right that entire countries like Australia, South Africa and Chile ought to invest more resources into promoting higher-quality regions, especially in markets as important as America and the U.K. Once a wine-producing area is perceived in ordinary terms by the mass of consumers, it’s very hard to turn that perception around. I think the Lodians were onto something when they took their big step, and I also believe and hope the Paso Robles people can get their act together and create all those sub-AVAs. Both areas deserve to be elevated in the public’s mind. And, if nothing else, having a bunch of new appellations will give us wine writers years of opportunity to study them, determined their differences, and then write about them for our audiences.

  1. Hi Steve,
    Australia has certainly been aware for some time of the need to create stronger regional identities to help promote premium offerings. Hence initiatives such as the “Regional Hero”, “Regional Visitor Program” and the “A+ Australian 1 day wine school”. Though perhaps counter-intuitively, Grange grapes might be sourced from a combination of Clare Valley, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra!

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