Winemakers often are creative people who are happiest when they can experiment to see if they can improve on tradition.
Such activities, as noble and as fascinating as they are, often lead to projects that are simply not commercial. This is where wine marketing people come into play.
They are typically ultra-conservative types, so-called bean counters who keep wine companies afloat by making sure that crucial funds are spent wisely. They most often put profitability ahead of artistic expression and can kill the best plans of the adventuresome.
That’s the usual scenario: A creative urge frequently is squelched by financial restraints that look realistically at how commerce must be part of every business plan.
Wineries thus often make decisions that winemakers disagree with. And frequently that can lead to the loss of some interesting wines.
Decades ago, for instance, Simi Winery in Healdsburg, California, made a splendid chenin blanc. It was tasty, as fresh as a spring morning. It wasn’t hard to make, was easy to sell, and was profitable.
Then one year, the winery decided not to make it anymore. What happened was that the company decided to trim some of its SKUs. A SKU is a stock-keeping unit—a term used for almost all commercial goods. In wine industry parlance, a SKU is a unique wine in a portfolio. If a winery ends up bottling 15 different versions of wines a year, each one is a SKU.
Large wine companies usually don’t like having lots of SKUs. So, when a giant winery acquires a smaller one, some wines end up on the cutting room floor.
That’s what has happened to many wines as a result of mergers in which the new parent company wants to simplify what it sells. Wine industry consolidation has been going on for decades, reducing the number of players but keeping old brands as staples for marketing purposes. What remains in most portfolios are the wines we have come to know well because they carry familiar names.
So, we have a lot of chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, sauvignon blanc, and pinot gris. And what we are losing are fascinating wines such as chenin blanc, Charbono, and Barbera.
However, recently I have seen an interesting trend: Small wineries are turning to some of these wines for their wine clubs.
Consumers join a winery’s wine club because it offers more than just the standard wines. This countertrend allows wineries to make cabernet franc, malbec, dry rosé, dry riesling, petite sirah, and many other wines that are sold only at the tasting room and by mail order to wine club members.
As a result of wine club needs, some wines that once were popular and then were abandoned are coming back to life. So, while larger wine companies simplify portfolios by abandoning some less-than-popular wines, small wineries are adding less-well-known wines in small amounts that actually expand the number of SKUs being made.
Usually, the only way some of the “unusual” varietals can be made is if someone is still growing the grapes.
The good news is that smaller, adventuresome producers are making small amounts of French Colombard, Carignan, chenin blanc, pinot blanc, Lagrein, Trousseau Gris, and other grapes. The trick is to find them, which means visiting tasting rooms.
And the first question to ask is, “What do you make that is for sale only here?”
Wine of the Week
2020 Aveleda Vinho Verde, Portugal ($9): There are many wines from Portugal called vinho verde that are similar to this light, simple, quaffable white wine. This reliable producer makes one of the best, soft and slightly sweet, but with lower alcohol and relatively crisp.