by Jim Raper
Keswick Vineyards invites customers to help select the blend for a red wine called Keswick Consensus.
Call it a reality show for would-be vintners. At Virginia’s Keswick Vineyards, winemaker Stephen Barnard invites in a hundred or so good customers for a weekend each December to help select the blend that will make up the next vintage of the red wine called — aptly enough — Keswick Consensus.
The customers form teams, and each team gets a carafe of four or five varieties with which they can experiment. The blends they concoct are then rated by the full group in a blind tasting. The favorite blend is used for Consensus.
Last year’s winning formula: 40 percent Norton, a variety native to Virginia; 30 percent Malbec; 17 percent Petit Verdot; and 13 percent Touriga Nacional, a variety imported from Portugal.
Over at Jefferson Vineyards, not far from Keswick in the Charlottesville area, winemaker Andy Reagan holds blending classes open to the public three times a year. He and Barnard say the experiences build customer loyalty and are interesting for the winemakers as well. “It allows us to make a wine that is in tune with what our best customers are drinking,” says Barnard.
Special events accomplish another goal: They sustain an industry that depends on direct sales to customers. More than half of Virginia wine sales come from wineries selling directly to customers, a model that avoids the profit drain of using wholesale distributors and retailers. Wineries can sell on their premises and at festivals and other events where they set up a booth.
The list of events employed by Virginia’s 150 wineries to attract customers is long and creative. Customers can take in concerts, art shows, cooking classes and cookouts. They can indulge in formal dinners, wine appreciation classes, cheese tastings, chocolate tastings, pet get-togethers, boat and kayak excursions, car shows, and, of course, harvest shindigs.
King Family Vineyards and Winery in Crozet even hosts polo matches on Sunday afternoons — weather permitting — between Memorial Day and the end of September.
In what is a perfect setup for the wineries, once people are on their grounds, the alcohol they consume is almost always legally restricted to wine purchased from the winery. Wineries hope, too, that visitors will buy a few bottles to take home.
Another large revenue generator is weddings. Some of the newer winery facilities have been designed to accommodate wedding parties of 200 or more. Doug Flemer, owner of Ingleside Vineyards — one of Virginia’s older wineries and a setting for weddings since the 1980s — recently invested in some remodeling because the wedding business is so brisk. “Either more folks are getting married or there are fewer places to host them,” he says. “We have a full-time wedding coordinator and are busy spring through fall.”
The Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard near Charlottesville recently created a new position to oversee weddings and the winery’s other events.
Barboursville Vineyards in Orange County, Williamsburg Winery and Chateau Morrisette in Floyd County have perhaps the steadiest means of attracting customers. Each has full-service dining on the premises, and the former two also have lodgings.
According to the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, the state’s wineries and their functions attract about one million visitors a year. No official attendance figures are available for 2009. However, most wineries surveyed for this report say they have sold more tasting tickets through July this year than they did a year ago. At Barboursville Vineyards, for example, the number of visitors paying tasting fees was up 17 percent for the first seven months of the year. Also, state alcohol control board statistics show wine sales (measured in cases) by the wineries were up by 4.7 percent for the first half of 2009.
Annette Ringwood Boyd, executive director of the marketing office, said the industry has proved recently “to be remarkably recession proof” but added that there is still a lot of room for improvement. Sales of Virginia wine in the state have hovered in recent years at about 4 percent of total wine sold in the state. Boosting that number may require producers to come up with ever more inventive ways to attract customers to wineries. She estimated that about 30 percent of winery sales come from their events, while the rest is generated by regular tasting-room traffic.
For more information on winery events throughout the state, go to http://www.virginiawine.org/events.
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