Achieving Balance in Wine Country | April–May 2010

Fauquier County has been experiencing a somewhat contentious winery zoning debate. At the most recent public hearing on the subject, I was the clear minority of one winery in speaking out in favor of a county zoning ordinance that would curb some winery events.

Neighboring winery colleagues have expressed disappointment in my remarks and politely asked that I consider muting my opposition to an otherwise unified effort. This is a fair request. I have to admit that there are times when I fear that I have become the crusty curmudgeon who rains on the party. But ultimately, I couldn’t ignore the fact that my neighbors’ wines and marketing activities have a very direct impact on my business in two ways: They affect both the reputation of Virginia wine overall and the relationship between wineries and their neighbors.

The Dangling Qualifier

Wines are categorized by region. Like it or not, we are all lumped in together. How many times have I heard what I call the “dangling qualifier” from customers tasting my wines: “This is good…..for a Virginia wine.” My neighbors’ wines thus have an impact on my winery’s reputation and potential price point.

This is true in other regions as well. In Australia, the inexpensive and heavily marketed wine brand Yellow Tail has been the bane of artisan high-end Aussie producers trying to sell wine in the American market.

Some French wine regions have also felt the impact. In the 1970’s, Beaujolais Nouveau was heavily promoted. They sold a lot of cheap, non-descript wine in a hurry. This cash flow wine became a category killer. Small, traditional terroir-focused producers can now scarcely give their wines away. It is frightening to talk to these Beaujolais winegrowers. Wines from coveted terroirs in Morgon, Chenas, or Moulin-a-Vent no longer interest the wine consuming public, who can only associate the term Beaujolais with nouveau.

On more than one occasion I have heard of Virginia wineries dismissed as simply “entertainment wineries.” These comments come from prestigious wine retailers and sommeliers in the Washington DC area—potentially our best market. They carry few Virginia wines.

The majority of Virginia wineries sell most of their production at the tasting room or at festivals. This is possible because these wineries are within a day trip of Washington DC. When there were just a handful of wineries, one only had to hang a shingle and open the tasting room doors. There were enough customers around for a small winery to sell their modest production. Today, however, there are close to 100 wineries within a reasonable drive of Washington. Special events, rather than improved wine quality, seem to be the trend of attracting customers.

My fear is that as our industry becomes more entertainment focused, wine quality will take a back seat to the front of the house. Virginia is on the cusp of putting all the pieces together to make wines of exceptional quality. This requires risk, time, expense, and intellectual focus. On the other hand, market driven wines are by definition safe, serviceable, soulless, and cash flow friendly. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it usually is.

Pendulum Swing (or, from darling to devil)

Ten years ago most residents viewed wineries and vineyards as a welcome, benign neighbor. Not only were vineyards romantic, but they also enhanced property values (if one believed real estate brochures). This euphoric period is history now, primarily due to community concerns over amplified music, buses, late evening events, and DUIs. Entrepreneurial impatience has replaced visionary winegrowing.

Politically savvy wineries successfully lobbied the Virginia Legislature to include weddings, concerts, and festivals as agricultural activities. These functions now fall under the guise of a recently passed state law that attempts to define normal and customary farm winery marketing activities. This law only makes sense to those who paid for it. Wineries have taken advantage of their farming status to the consternation of some of their neighbors.

As the growth of entertainment wineries continues, local county governments are being pressured by neighbors to curb activities. The resulting regulatory pendulum swing could eventually impact more traditional cellar-door tastings and sales. This would be devastating to the smaller, low-key wineries that depend on these sales for their livelihood.

A new winery’s desire and need to host events is understandable. Linden Vineyards attempted to hold events when we first opened. We soon found that we were managing a separate business enterprise that was far removed from winegrowing.

In Virginia, farm wineries are legally able to operate in agriculturally zoned land if they grow the majority of the grapes used to produce their wines. This keeps us honest.

However, when farm wineries begin holding weddings and non-wine related events on a weekly basis while buying “shiners” (unlabeled bottled wine) from other wineries, the sizzle has become more important than the steak, and we are all in trouble.

Every winegrower’s goal is to produce a balanced wine. A balanced marketing program should follow.

Flavor magazine, April–May 2010

Jim Law