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03.26.2009

The Rise of the Shotgun Wine Company

I've noticed an interesting phenomenon lately, one that has become observable to me as the number of unsolicited wine samples I get continues to increase. More and more new wineries are taking a shotgun approach to the market, spewing out wines and seeing what they can hit.

Usually my wine samples come in a compact little box, with one or two or four bottles carefully nestled inside, along with a note or a press release or whatever the winery wants to send me about the wine. But with some frequency I am now getting huge case boxes, rattling and squeaking with their styrofoam innards, with twelve bottles in them, each one a different wine representing the first vintage for a brand new winery.

These hulking boxes are usually topped with a cheery press release and media kit proudly proclaiming the birth of the new winery, dedicated to making high quality wines that are great values and true expressions of place, or some other nonsense like that. I find myself asking the question, what the hell are these people thinking?

Seeing a brand spanking new wine label slapped on 12 bottles of 12 different wines from 12 different places says to me: we didn't know what to do so we tried a bit of everything. These wines are invariably at a mid-to-low level of quality. And while the people making them are clearly not trying to be the next artisan winemakers of California, I guess I'd expect them to start small and branch out, rather than canvassing the market in one shot. Wineries that have been around for decades, with expansive vineyard holdings have the history, and the pedigree to support a large portfolio of wines. A brand new winery with such a portfolio just seems a little too big for its own britches.

Maybe I am a little old fashioned to be suspicious of such efforts. Certainly most consumers never see all 12 bottles lined up like they end up on my kitchen table for tasting. But all the most successful brands start by establishing an identity of trust and value with a certain level of focus. Once this identity is established, customers will trust the brand as it expands in new directions. We're talking brand expansion not brand explosion.

Perhaps most discomfiting, these new brands are often (though not always) trying to sell themselves with an air of authenticity. They want to tap into the soulfulness of wine. And it's these suggestions of special quality, sense of place, and deep appreciation for what a particular grape and region have to offer that seem completely undermined by the sheer variety of the company's initial offering. It's psychological to be sure, but I can't help but think that most of these companies, and the customers they're looking to serve, could do with just a little bit of focus.

There's nothing wrong with a grand vision of a robust portfolio of wines, but trying to bring it to market in a single step seems like a recipe for lousy wine and erratic sales. Not to mention really hefty shipping charges when you decide you want someone to taste your inaugural vintage.

Comments (39)

GuitarGuy wrote:
03.27.09 at 12:06 AM

Dude,

You should really just shut and drink. Even in the horse-bleep wine market of today I have failed to find the winery giving me their wine for free. No doubt your post will impact the number of freebies showing up on your porch.

But seriously, this seems to be an obvious consequence of a world-wide glut of juice. I for one am reveling in an industry that is getting its comeupence for years of excess - greed, overpriced, dubious quality, rediculous land prices, false scarcity. Matt Kramer just wrote a column in Wine Spectator about how the high end brands are dumping their wine to avoid lowering the price lest their brands' value and image be harmed. Poppy-cock. Make a good product, sell it at a fair and reasonable price and don't pretend to be a playaaah when your winery has a track record of a whole vintage. I will happily buy a good wine at a fair price, even without fancy marketing literature attached.

03.27.09 at 12:46 AM

Alder,

You'll probably find that quite a few have jumped into the wine industry in the last 4-5 years, flush with cash, and on the back of the romantic notion that wine is all beer and skittles. Make it, and they will come.

And there is a pretty good chance that even more samples will be coming your way as the traditonal press keeps dumping wine columns and wine writers to cut budgets and try to make ends meet. The route to market and brand building has never as murky and ill-defined as it is today, and especially so for new brands trying to find a place in it.

That said, sending case of 12 different wines doesn't really speak of any real strategy at all.

Cheers

Randy Watson wrote:
03.27.09 at 7:20 AM

This is a tough one... on the one hand I agree that the 'flood' strategy is not what wine is all about. On the other hand, maybe these wineries are creating products that fill a niche. High volume, low cost wines are definitely in demand.

Being an optimist, I’d like to think that these wines may actually have a positive affect on consumers in the long run. What if more people actually form an appreciation for the higher quality less commercially mass produced wines that experienced wine lovers rave about as a result of the ‘flood’?

Arthur wrote:
03.27.09 at 7:49 AM

Actually a lot of labels and producers in lesser known regions have been making any possible varietal for years if not decades - probably as long as they have been in existence. This may be because they are growers who cultivate all sorts of varieties and can vinify them or because they are hedging their bets - not in the "throw-enough-shit-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks" approach, but rather because they are responding to the tourists who come through their tasting rooms and want to try their pinot, syrah, viognier, chenin blanc, cab, tempranillio, sangiovese and their late harvest black muscat.

Jack Everitt wrote:
03.27.09 at 7:55 AM

Nothing tells me quicker that a new California winery's wines are mediocre than by having them make many different wines rather than just one or a few.

Joe Public Wine Drinker wrote:
03.27.09 at 10:32 AM

I would rather have an experience trying four completely different wines from a winery rather than the same wine four different ways. I am board with winery’s that give me a Cab from four different vineyards. Sure they are focusing on one wine type, but it really makes little difference to the general public which vineyard it is coming from they still look at it all as Cab. When you try a Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Petit Sirah, from a winery you should have three completely different experiences, and that is what I enjoy.

Alder wrote:
03.27.09 at 10:33 AM

Arthur,

I guess I'm trying to distinguish between the people like, say, Tablas Creek Vineyards who make something like 11 different varietals and 6 or 7 unique blends and a brand new label, often who owns no vineyards at all, and has clearly chosen to just buy a bunch of grapes (or worse, a bunch of juice) from all over. I'd be willing to bet (feel free to correct my assumption) that when they first got started Tablas Creek did not make 18 different wines.

Arthur wrote:
03.27.09 at 10:57 AM

Hi Alder,

Yeah, your last point crossed my mind - after I clicked "Submit".
Tablas Creek is the antithesis of what you are referring to. They were emulating a CdP model so they started with a bunch of varieties (http://www.tablascreekvineyard.com/history.html), but it was a lot less than 18. It was something like 9 or 10 and I don't think they rushed to create the formidable lineup they have now. (they have also experimented with some cool varieties - most recently, I believe it has been tannat).

I think this discussion points to a social issue in the wine market place: Consumers expect variety and not all may appreciate the model of producing multiple vineyard-designated wines from the same variety. Additionally, much of the majority of all wineries’ business comes from tourism and these wine tourists are typically beginner to intermediate. It is sound business to try to capture the consumer's attention (and dollars) by producing a wide spectrum of varietal and blended wines - regardless if you grow the grapes or buy up bulk surplus juice.

Joe Public Wine Drinker wrote:
03.27.09 at 11:02 AM

Tablas Creek Vineyards is a perfect example of Boredom. While I generally like the wine at Tablas I quickly become board with the different blends made with the same varietals. Marsanne, Rousanne, Viognier or Rousanne, Viognier, Marsanne or how about selling you this Viognier, Rousanne, with Marsanne. Really do we need all of this? I agree with you that we do not need a bunch of left over juice blended 11 different ways sold to me. I do applaud the winery that is spending time and money making 4 or 5 completely different wines, not just more of the same 4 or 5 different ways!

Arthur wrote:
03.27.09 at 11:18 AM

Joe

There is rhyme and reason to all the variations on the same varieties and blends. It's OK if you don't appreciate them.
This may seem as pedantic, nuanced or an exercise in wine academics, but it would make absolutely no sense for TC to produce, syrah, zin, cab and pinot noir and chardonnay, viognier and chenin blanc and pinot gris from their estate. The foremost reason for this is that Tablas Creek was established to emulate the terroir of the Rhone and thus grow and produce wines originating in that French region.

Alder wrote:
03.27.09 at 11:46 AM

Tablas creek also makes similar blends at very different price points as a marketing and sales strategy. But this is again the luxury of being a larger, more established wine brand, and very different than what I'm talking about here.

To clarify something, my dismay at these shotgun wine brands is the same whether they are making 12 cabernets right off the bat or whether every bottle has a different grape in it. The message is the same: trying too hard to do too much as a first step, and therfore, as Jack pointed out, likely to not be doing anything particularly well.

Eric wrote:
03.27.09 at 12:15 PM

This approach seems to be very prevalent in the spirits world where some new vodka is launched at the "Iron Man" and branded on that red carpet backdrop, only to disappear forever afterwards. Thus I'm surprised (though perhaps I shouldn't be) that people are trying to do the same with wine. I couldn't tell from your post but are all these wines rep by a single PR or marketing company, who are themselves looking to find their own niche? Just curious...

Joe Public Wine Drinker wrote:
03.27.09 at 3:03 PM

Arthur

I do appreciate what Tablas Creek is doing with the different blends. As I said before I have been a member in the past. I just feel like wineries sometimes get pigeon holed into making one European regions (Rhone, Bordeaux, Chianti, etc.) wine varietals. The only reason these regions make wine in that fashion is because the Government tells them to. I feel this carries into the US because wine critics feel that this is the way it should be done, and look down on a winery who tries something out of the norm. Justin Vineyards makes a very fine Bordeaux Blend. Do you think less of them because they also make wines from other European regions such as Spain, Italy, and Rhone? Give the wine maker a chance to experiment, and I think that we will have more wines to choose from in the future, otherwise if you feel things are good then continue keep them down.

03.27.09 at 3:34 PM

Tablas Creek rocks. Period. They turn out stellar product AND variety. If the quality wasn't good, that would be a different story. These people have heart, their wines have soul, and they're on another planet completely from the folks who send me, as well, big boxes of wines that all taste the same.

03.28.09 at 5:51 AM

Sorry to say, but you guys talk as a special segment of the market. All that wine and all those products are responding to both the glut of juice and to the real wine market--the one where more than 95% of wine consumers don't analyze the tannins and fruits until the life of the wine has been reduced to a philosophy.

That's why most of the shotgun approach wines level themselves right at the point of mediocrity.

As a wine writer, I'd become insulted that these freebies--with their lofty promises on the back label and in the press releases--are sent so that I might extol their 'virtues.'

Tobin wrote:
03.28.09 at 10:21 AM

As the old saying goes... jack of all trades, master of none. How much Two Buck Chuck does the market need?

03.28.09 at 3:34 PM

Thomas,

Of course, the wine might just be really, really good. There's always that chance. And only one way to find out.

03.28.09 at 4:25 PM

Perhaps, Dombeya, but I don't get that sense from Alder's blog entry. Do you?

Seems like his mind was made up before he opened the first bottle, and likely because, as he said, the shotgun approach is suspect, to wit: "There's nothing wrong with a grand vision of a robust portfolio of wines, but trying to bring it to market in a single step seems like a recipe for lousy wine..."

Alder wrote:
03.28.09 at 4:36 PM

Thomas,

I am indeed suspicious of such wines, but only because of my experiences tasting these offerings over and over again with disappointment. To say that my mind was made up before I opened the bottle, though, is not the case. Despite previous disappointments, I am always hopeful and open minded when I open a bottle, because wine is different every time you open it, and every year. Whether it's a wine I've had before and did not like, or whether it's a brand new producer with 15 different wines, I always taste with an open mind, because you never know what's gonna be good just by looking at the bottle.

Enough disappointments, though, and I tend to write articles like this one.

03.28.09 at 6:59 PM

Alder,

The point is: these wines aren't made for geeks; they are made for the general public.

I often wonder how long it's going to take for the geek world to become saturated with us pundits, and how long it will take for the the regular world to recognize our value.

Alder wrote:
03.28.09 at 7:58 PM

Of course they're not. But isn't it our job to point people to the better stuff and warn them off the dubious stuff?

Morton Leslie wrote:
03.28.09 at 11:36 PM

Focusing on one wine is a bit like Toyoto only making a Lexus LS. Yes the are Lamborghinis with all the subtlety of the owners tractors Ferracicio's tractors which gives the car critic something loud to write about. But there are many kinds of drivers with different needs not just rich, spoiled ones who don't know cars and make their decisions based ego enhancement. It's the same with wine. I don't know, but rather than complain about a companies wide range of winemaking and generosity of samples, why not do like Gerald Asher and simply write a nice note to the producer and tell them you appreciate their consideration, but please do not send any more samples.

Alder wrote:
03.28.09 at 11:52 PM

Morton,

I am in the habit of declining samples when appropriate. But I'm a blogger too, and so I get to write about whatever suits my fancy. But I'm surprised that you seem to read this post as a spoiled complaint.

03.29.09 at 8:03 AM

"But isn't it our job to point people to the better stuff and warn them off the dubious stuff?"

Dubious? To whom? Are you saying that it's our job to screen wines from the masses? I don't accept that notion.

As far as I'm concerned, unless a wine suffers technical flaws, I expect that it tastes the way the producer intended. It needs to be judged on that basis. If the producer intended it for mass consumption--so be it.

The problem, if there is one, is not with the offending wines, it is with the difference in standards between the geeks and the general populace.

I do, however, agree that the press releases and the back labels are usually farcical--trying to make something already played down at the production stage into something that should be played up in the presentation stage. But isn't that the function between writer and producer: each using the other to reach its own end?

Alder wrote:
03.29.09 at 9:58 AM

I'm saying its our job to arm consumers with the tools and information to help them make better choices in their wine buying.

03.29.09 at 10:18 AM

Alder,

I agree with your last comment. And it fits that we should warn against dubious claims--not against dubious wines, which is a matter of taste meeting expectations (unless, as I've stated, there are technical flaws to point out).

In some cases, consumers should be warned about the critics. ;)

Joanna Breslin wrote:
03.29.09 at 11:56 AM

Wow! I'm glad to see so much attention given to Tablas Creek, though it is tangential to Alder's point as I understand it. To Joe Public's statement that French regions limit their growing practices only because "the government tells them to": The government tells them to because the growers, collectively over hundreds of years,have identified what grows best where. Though these limitations may be stifling at times, they are founded on what seem, overall, to be accurate assessments. They are the basis for the establishment of many commonly acknowledged benchmarks. New World winegrowers are still exploring and slowly defining regional identity. I hope we develop more focus while still allowing and encouraging experimentation.
But, to get back to what I believe was the original point, wine producers would do well to consider what is best suited to their fruit sources and to how they wish to present themselves. As a writer or buyer, I would like to be offered "wines with a reason for being".(This is one of the few marketing slogans I thought deserved whatever its creator was paid for it. It came from Icon Estates.)

03.29.09 at 12:24 PM

Joanna,

May I ask you, then, who decides what constitutes that 'reason for being?'

I certainly hope it isn't left up to the whims of each and every wine critic. These people can't even agree on a simple number!

You reference Europe's system, and so I'll throw this prospect out: instead of TTB's so-called appellation system being concerned mainly with revenue, how about an American appellation system that is concerned with codified quality?

Every wine seeking the mantle of codified quality must surrender to the evaluation of trained appellation control representatives before they go to market.

In Canada, that system was called VQA--Vintner's Quality Alliance. A seal was developed to slap on wines that underwent the seemingly rigid requirements.

VQA may not have removed those 'dubious' wines that Alder refers to, but at least it establishes some sort of baseline by which to evaluate the wines, a baseline that is codified beyond the whims of each individual wine critic/writer, which is the way we do it here.

What do you think? Any promise to the idea?

Dylan wrote:
03.29.09 at 12:36 PM

Wow, speaking of the flood, it seems I missed the flood of comments which had taken place here. It seems Alder was only trying to make note of this notion that oft too many wineries talk what they can't walk. I would tend to trust his sense on this matter as it seems he is on the receiving end of many samples from all ranges of winery. There's a difference between making a promise and showing promise--it's fair to ask that when you do one, you do both.

Jeff wrote:
03.29.09 at 8:32 PM

Quote from Thomas:

"how about an American appellation system that is concerned with codified quality?"

Thomas- Just like they have in Germany, right?

While I respect you and your writing, I think that it's been demonstrated that finding/creating a viable system for codifying quality is about as likely as finding decent real Burgundy for $20. It's just excruciatingly tough to do.

Regards,

jb

Joanna Breslin wrote:
03.29.09 at 11:01 PM

Thomas -

Jeff's point about the difficulty of establishing a system for codified quality is borne out, as he suggests, by attempts made in places with much longer winemaking histories than ours. Besides Germany, Italy comes to mind.

Perhaps we could use quantifiable information such as yields, elevation, and soil or climate types. This would not make Paso Robles Pinot Noir illegal or dictate harvest dates, but would tell us something about the intentions and practices applied to a given wine.

Go ahead, somebody, argue with my choice of the word "intentions"; that's my story and I'm stickin' to it.

Hey Jeff, those are my initials too...

JB

03.30.09 at 5:25 AM

Jeff and Joanna,

I concede: quality was the wrong choice of word.

Quantifiable information is the better way to look at it.

I suppose we all agree, then...

Joanna Breslin wrote:
03.30.09 at 12:32 PM

I love you guys!

John Skupny wrote:
04.01.09 at 11:03 AM

Alder, I can see your point and it correlates to your essay on 'honest wine' but what drives me nuts are the wine companies making a baker's dozen of brands, each different with those cleaver names like - Bob's Big Boy, Screaming Beagle, Sonoma Bono!...etc, seems just like the big brewers trying to steal market share from the craft brewers!

CJ Jones wrote:
04.08.09 at 8:21 PM

I've come full circle on this issue of wine "pundit" vs regular wine drinker.

As I went further up my own backside as I learned more about wine, someone reminded me of the first time I had a glass of wine that affected me enough for it to mark the beginning of a passion.

That same wine tastes like Kool-Aid to me now, but it is also what got me started on a profound and meaningful journey. It made me want to learn more... and I did. Enough to know now that it was plunk.

But... if a pundit had been on the scene that day I took my first sip and somehow convinced me that I "shouldn't" be tasting what I thought I was tasting, I think my joie de vino would have been snuffed out then and there.

Now I just try to enjoy the moment when someone new gets fired up and wants to start a wine adventure of their own. If they ask what I think, I'll tell them, but always with the qualification that this is going to be their journey, and a slap on the back and a big "congratulations!" given on what I promise them will be a wonderful ride.

Alder wrote:
04.08.09 at 8:28 PM

Thanks for the comments.

Since when are pundits sitting there next to people as they enjoy their wines? The pundits write what they write and people seek out their advice, or they don't. The wine drinker that you were when you started would not be reading a wine blog or a wine magazine. I'd venture to guess that the point you started actively reading to learn more about wine was 'round about the time that you started making decisions about which wines you really liked, and which ones you didn't so much, and vice versa.

CJ Jones wrote:
04.08.09 at 8:59 PM

Believe me I sat next to a lot of people and tried to show off my wine "chops" and basically diminished their experience and myself in the process.

I think the real value in experience, and the thing that most people actually respond to and appreciate, is helping someone new learn to slow down and spot ancillary flavors and scents.

But, that said, you're right. Of course... your particular thoughts in the context of this blog are entirely appropriate, welcome and suited to readers likely to be here.

madmbovary wrote:
05.27.09 at 9:36 AM

Alder,
Let me give you the perspective of a small winery.
If we had our way, we would only produce one or two wines. However, because of the distribution system, and the way the big labels (kendall-jackson etc.) control the wholesale market.....It is almost impossible to get our product into stores/rest. 85% of sales come from our tasting room. Therefore, when a customer walks in we need to have something that they like. Not everyone wants a bottle of Cab. Some people want a bottle of something sweet. If we offered only one wine, we would quickly go out of business.
Don't hold it against the wineries that come up with so many products. It is what 90% of people want when they walk in the door. If we had our way it is not how we would do business either.

Alder wrote:
05.27.09 at 8:17 PM

Madm,

Thanks for your comments. As a winery you need to do what you need to do in order to make money and survive. No one, least of all me, would begrudge you that.

My rant is focused on brand new wineries, and in particular, wine labels, that hit the market with 12 different wines each from a different appellation, clearly from purchased grapes, and no real rhyme or reason for doing so.

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