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Wine retail shelves are crammed with bottles from wineries both near and far. In such a crowded market, how do wine producers, particularly new ones, get the attention of consumers? And how do wine grape growers gain notice of wineries?

Good Fruit Grower asked wine journalist and critic Paul Gregutt for his advice to new wineries trying to sell their wines in today’s very competitive market. Gregutt has written about Washington’s wine industry for several decades, penning weekly and monthly columns for The Seattle Time’s Sunday magazine and Spokesman-Review in Spokane. He also writes a Pacific Northwest column for the Vineyard and Winery Management magazine and is the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, which involves tasting wines from Washington and Oregon and writing reviews. His second book, Washington Wines and Wineries: the Essential Guide, was released in August.

Business plan

First off, all wineries should have a business plan, he said. Even small wineries must specify a target audience. A new, start-up winery probably doesn’t have a lot of wine inventory and may be able to sell its entire product through a tasting room or locally, but it still needs a plan.

“You have to know going in where you expect to compete, and that requires some knowledge of the marketplace,” he said. If you are making Cabernet Sauvignon wine and want to price it at $40 per bottle, what other wines are out there that the consumer can buy for $35 to $50? What prices are you going to set for your wines and still make a profit?

 The higher the price, the more competitive it gets, he said, adding that the pricing structure for wines has changed dramatically the last three years, and prices have come way down due to the slow economy.

“If you don’t have a solid business plan, and you don’t have an idea of what kind of an audience you’re
targeting, you can’t hit the target.”

Tell your story

In addition to having a solid business plan, new ­wineries also need to tell their story, he believes.

“If you’re small, and you’re trying to enter a very crowded marketplace—assuming you have good wine, assuming you have it well priced, and the package is all put together—you still have to get your story out and be noticed.”

Wine reviews

Once the total package is working together, wineries are then ready to consider submitting their wines for critical review. He suggests that before sending out samples, winery owners learn which reviewers are likely to have an appreciation and knowledge of Washington wine.
Notes about the wine should accompany the sample to provide the reviewer with concise, interesting information. “This doesn’t mean page after page of your family history and your passion for wine,” he said. “I’ve seen that a thousand times. But if you have an interesting story, by all means tell it.”

Each publication has its own method of tasting wines and publishing reviews. A visit to the publication’s Web site should provide information about procedures and forms to accompany submitted samples.

Gregutt is responsible for tasting all of the Washington, Oregon, and some Idaho wines submitted to the Wine Enthusiast for review. While he does taste everything that has been submitted, he may or may not write a full review, and the review may or may not be printed in the magazine, depending on the wine quality. However, almost all reviews of the Wine Enthusiast can be found on the magazine’s Web site in their free searchable database of wine reviews.

Wineries should not expect personal feedback from Gregutt—the magazine forbids him from responding to requests for information on wine reviews and he doesn’t have the time. Tasting wine all day sounds like a great job, but it’s a lot of work and involves handling and recycling bottles and boxes, assembling and organizing notes, dishwashing, and more.

There is no timetable for when reviews are printed or posted online. “Wineries just have to wait for the reviews to appear,” he said. But if months of silence go by, the winery should send an e-mail to the reviewer to query what happened. Occasionally, Gregutt receives wines that are not what he considers commercial quality; reviews for such are not written. When queried, he usually suggests the winery work with a wine consultant and run a ­laboratory analysis of the wines.

Using wine reviews or awards can help a wine be noticed, but it is not the only way to gain consumer attention, he stressed. There are some successful wineries that choose not to send their wines out for critical review.

Hitting the pavement

Gregutt encourages new wineries to work directly with key retailers, which requires “getting out and pounding the pavement.” The most successful small wineries are the ones that work the market and meet with key retailers and do things like tastings and pourings, he said. “It’s hard, hard work. You don’t have to do that, but if you don’t have a tasting room that attracts a lot of customers and you don’t have a sales distributor, then how are you going to market your wine?”

In wine marketing, there’s no one surefire method that works for all, he said. Wineries will likely use several avenues to gain consumer attention.

Wine grape growers new to the industry also need a business plan that identifies their audience. Will their grapes be good enough quality for prestigious wineries or do they need to aim for midlevel-quality wineries?

Growing grapes and making wine are definitely connected, but they are not the same, Gregutt explained. “Vineyards are best showcased by the winemakers and wineries who purchase their grapes,” he said.

His advice for growers: “Develop relationships with the best winemakers, and your vineyard will get the attention of consumers.”