With such a small shop working to serve different tastes and price points, stocking the shelves can be like pushing a wine barrel up a hill! And trying to maintain the constant favorites while still bringing in new wines is no easy feat. The Asheville Wine Focus Group ("Group") has been extraordinarily helpful in advising on decisions.
Some of our findings for the year are:
While Group enjoyed Chenin Blanc from South Africa and thought these wines had their place, if you had to choose just one, Group preferred the crisp acidity of a French Chenin Blanc while recognizing that pairing with a dish may call for the smoother South African version.
Rose works all year! On three occasions, the favorite of the four submitted wines was a Rose with the Backsberg Pinotage Rose being the biggest hit. Believe it. Kudos to Group for stepping outside their collective comfort zone and bringing a wine truth forward that the rest of the world already knows: Rose works all year!
Group was not afraid to tackle lesser known varietals such as Muller Thurgau. In fact, the Muller took the prize one night. Group thought the varietal offered a smoothness, showing good weight like a Chardonnay, that made the wine good to go solo but still presented enough acidity to pair with food.
We also taste tested a Blaufrankisch. You cannot fool Group. While they liked the bottle, Group thought we could do better for the same or a lower price. This one was booted, baby!
Group went crazy for a blend of Tannat and Merlot from Brumont. We brought the bottle in and still have trouble keeping it on the shelf. Not only great tasting but Group thought the bottle was really good for the price. "A real deal," Group said. And who could forget the Copertino, a blend of 95% Negroamaro and 5% Malvasia. Again, this wine had a little age on it. Group will go there!
And Group showed their knowledge and interest in putting a little age on the bottle. A 2011 Rioja was a smash hit. Group picked this wine as a winner before we knew that James Suckling had given this vintage 93 Points!
We showed that we got critical acclaim game again when we chose Airfield Cabernet Sauvignon. Turned out Wine Enthusiast loved it too. And we were ahead of Eric Asimov choosing a bottle from Broadside which showed up in his column weeks later!
And then there was the Biltmore Smack Down! What is "A Biltmore SmackDown" you ask? A while back, Biltmore showed up @MetroWines and blind tasted us on their Chardonnay and Cabernet. They pitted their wines against two very, very well known and good selling bottles of the same varietal and close in price. Let's just say, we were impressed. But, to land on the shelf, we told Biltmore that they must convince our customers.
More than 40 showed up to take the challenge! Biltmore Wines held their own. The goal for Biltmore was to show that, even if you did not prefer the Biltmore Wine, it was a quality bottle. for example, The Biltmore Chardonnay was quite French in style. The majority of Group prefers a heavier bottle. BUT, it was agreed that the North Carolina chardonnay was great for the price and it was not at all clear, that style aside, the competitor was worth $10 more. When asked which of the Biltmore Wines we should stock, Group said the Blanc de Blanc Sparkling and the Pinot Noir.
And that brings us to the bottom line: the price to quality ratio. So many times Group loved a bottle but when the price was announced, it was a no go. In some cases, Group could even name a bottle already on the shelf of the same varietal that was, in their opinion, better and at a lower price!
Name aside, you have to Bring IT! There is so much competition in the wine world, savvy consumers are passing up the name brands looking for quality at at a better price.
The Asheville Wine Focus Group did a heck of a job helping us to decide not just what goes on our shelves, but the wine landscape in Asheville as well. The importers, sometimes taken aback by how knowledgable Group was about wine and their discerning palates, took note of Group comments.
One phenominon we did notice was consumer connection to a label. That goes bothe ways. You can continue to buy a wine that has long past its prime, that is, living off its respected label and subconsciously refuse to give a new label or a label on a wine, such as Biltmore, that has not peformed well in the past.
This is an article about both sides of label predjudice that we wrote for The Laurel of Asheville a while back:
“I don’t buy wine because of the label. “ But the research says some of us, actually many of us, do. Wineries want you to look. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. And so it is for the wine label. Who can resist the lure of Kungfu Girl Riesling?
Labels were originally intended to provide legally required information. Wine Searcher, a service that posts information from online wine shops, says countries around the world have laws for both wines produced in country as well as imported wines. Labeling laws typically require name, region of origin, vintage, often the varietal or blend, volume and percentage of alcohol.
But fierce competition in the wine world has forced the label to become a marketing tool. “99 Bottles of Wine,” a new book by wine label designer David Schuemann, tells all in his book revealing the wine marketing strategy. The label, Schuemann says, is easier to remember than the taste of the wine.
Schuemann notes that at a wine tasting held at the Edinburgh Science Festival in Scotland showed that while people could not consistently differentiate wines, they were consistently drawn back to the label they knew. So, from a wine marketing perspective, wine consumers look for the label, the brand, just like with any other product. And, again, just like any other product, research shows that an eye catching label can encourage the consumer to buy a more expensive bottle.
Labels range from the traditional coat of arms style to animal portraits to high end design by artists whose works are seen in museums! Little did I know when I saw an exhibition by Mickalene Thomas at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, that her work might be sitting on my dining room table in the form of a wine label!
Label designs also carry subtle messages and invoke what might be called wine label prejudice. People associate minimalist, uncluttered design with high end vintages, says Schuemann. Wine connoisseurs are attracted to labels with cream or white backgrounds, a touch of gold or metal. Labels with “critters” are out. The wine neophyte, Schuemann says, are attracted to labels that “pop” and that means color, design and sometimes, “critters!”
Label prejudice can influence taste as well. An experiment conducted by Cornell University Professor of Marketing Brian Wansink, proved the point. Professor Wansink filled all the bottles with the same $2 wine, labeling half as wine from California and the other half as wine from North Dakota. Those drinking the wine with the California label stayed longer, drank more and rated the wine higher!
But, in the end, the label really tells the story of the winery, the philosophy, the history, how the winery wants to be seen. There is no better example than the label on the Washington State Red Blend by highly regarded winemaker Eric Dunham. One night, Dunham heard a dog fight. He ran out to find and rescue a badly wounded puppy. The puppy lost his leg that night but, as Dunham said, the puppy found a home and Dunham a best friend. With a drawing of the puppy on the label, Dunham named a wine for his new friend, “Three Legged Dog.”
When it comes to wine, make your own decisions and have the courage of yor convictions!