Thursday, July 24, 2008

Finding spot on wine list can be a tough sell

News of the designation as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) certainly was easy for members of the Lehigh Valley Wine Trail to digest. But that doesn’t mean that the word of pushing the brand is over, particularly when it comes to that region’s restaurants.

As co-owner Vickie Greff of
Blue Mountain Vineyards & Cellars pointed out, the wineries are looking forward to “the restaurants in our area really supporting us. In other states they do,” she continued, “like in New York State. You can go in and a lot of the restaurants have New York state wines on the menu and they promote them, and they promote them to the point that they are a little less the California ones. We are starting to make some inroads . . . but it’s a tough road to hoe.”

Kevin Atticks, the director of the Maryland Wine Association, can relate.

“I think we’ve had fairly good luck with restaurants carrying Maryland wines,” he said earlier this week, “but it comes after significant effort on the part of the winery.” Every slot on a restaurant’s wine list, he said, “is extremely valuable, and for a winery to have to overcome all of the prejudices against everything but the top 20 or 30 brands that any restaurant knows will sell [is tough]. Other than through a hand sell, where a waiter would say, ‘Tonight we have a special, it’s a Sugarloaf Cabernet Franc and it’s local and it just won a double gold in the San Francisco wine competition, beating out the likes of bippity boppity, boo, it’s just not going to sell. And so that’s the problem that I think any winery but the top 50 brands have.”

When you have restaurants, he added, that are more interested in simply slotting the top 40 or 50 best sellers rather than showing any passion at all for surrounding wineries, they’re more than likely to “hand their list over to a national distributing company and say ‘make me a list,’ and if your winery’s not on a national catalogue then you’re not getting on. You’re just never getting on.”

There are exceptions. Atticks noted Corks Restaurant in downtown Baltimore carries several Maryland wines. That jogged my memory. One of the wines offered a couple of years ago in a library sale at
Woodhall Wine Cellars in Parkton, Md., was a 2001 Chardonnay bottled special for Corks; the winemaker and his friends had a little fun by decorating each bottle with their handprints. Brandywine Prime Seafood and Chops in Chadds Ford, Pa., is another restaurant featured recently on this blog that makes a similar commitment to not on carrying wines from its region on the wine list but pushing them.

Greff would like to see the same attitude at more eateries in their area.

“They really have to make the commitment that they’re going to give up a little part of their profit but they are supporting a local winery and people like that,” she said. “So they’re going to make some goodwill there with customers. But it’s tough. I mean we’re in several restaurants around the area, but it’s not easy.

“And that’s kinda where we’re coming from with the wine trail, too. I mean, we’re getting to the point where if you want to be part of our Web site and stuff like that, then you need to support us. In order to be part of our wine trail book, you need to have Pennsylvania wine on it, Lehigh valley wine on it. Things like that. You know, we just feel that we’re really getting some recognition for our wines as a whole. For the trail we deserve that respect.

“There are restaurants that are starting to do that, and I think that’s going to happen more and more as people need a little niche to draw people to their restaurants, because there’s a lot of competition out there. People are looking for different things.”

AVA tastes great to Lehigh Valley wineries

The good news out of the Lehigh Valley Wine Trail?

After five years of pushing for it, the trail received the official designation on April 10 as the state’s fifth American Viticultural Area (AVA). That makes Lehigh Valley one of around 200 wine grape-growing regions in the country and the fifth in Pennsylvania.

The others include Lancaster Valley, Cumberland Valley (which combines parts of Washington County in Maryland and Franklin and Cumberland counties in Pennsylvania), Central Delaware Valley (which covers parts of Southeastern Pa.) and Lake Erie. These boundaries are defined by the U.S. Department of the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

In the Lehigh Valley it covers nine wineries, 13 vineyards and over 220 acres that have been set aside for viticulture. All told, it’s an area that amounts to 1,888 square miles and It means, essentially, that the area is officially recognized as a wine region and can label its wines accordingly, said Vickie Greff, co-owner of Blue Mountain Vineyards & Cellars. “At least 75 percent must come from the appellation in order to say Lehigh Valley wine [on the label],” she said, “which in the majority of cases our wines are from the Lehigh Valley. It’s pretty exciting, and it has really opened a lot of doors.”

How many doors it opens could well depend on how well the wine trail promotes its distinction. In a story written around the time of the announcement on, the outgoing president of the Pennsylvania Wine Association said educating the consumer about the meaning and importance of the designation must accompany any of these AVAs that are awarded.

“We are in the trenches, introducing people to wine,” said John Kramb. “If we use an AVA on our labels, we have to educate consumers as to why we are doing it and how it makes a difference in what they are drinking. The average consumer doesn’t understand that. We need to make sure our customers do.”