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A Dry Wine Desert in Ohio

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Ten years of visiting vineyards, ten years of looking for beautiful wines in any given state’s wine making, and ten years of hearing the same thing. Sweet wines pay the bills. It doesn’t matter which state on the east coast I’ve been in, I’ve heard very few exceptions to this statement from winemakers or winery owners. I’ve also witnessed first hand the customers who ask for “the sweetest wine you have”, without stopping to taste anything else the winemaker might have to offer. So the numbers don’t lie, the sweet wines do pay the bills, but are they serving the best interests of wine consumers and a state’s wine reputation? The disheartening looks from some winemakers and other customers tell me there’s another story that is yet to be told.

Cabernet Franc – courtesy of Red Wines

There are some universal truths to a successful business:

Your product must be one that potential customers want to buy. 
Your product should be of a quality that encourages repeat customers.
You must have passion for what you do, and strive to do it well. 

There are businesses that can be successful in spite of themselves, lacking one or all of these characteristics – but those exceptions are not the standard most business owners want to emulate. We go into business because we feel strongly that we can do something better than or at least equal to what other businesses in the space are doing, we feel we have a good product and people want to buy it, and we have passion for our chosen business and want to share that with our customers. 

So why do I see passionate winemakers who put incredible resources and energy into their vinifera wines giving a back seat to many of those products in marketing and placement efforts? Some winemakers say its because that’s what the customer wants, but how would the customer know if what they taste is a small percentage of your product selection? 
How do I know I’d prefer a Cabernet Franc if I all I taste is 5% residual sugar Riesling? I pick that Riesling because I do not know there’s something that I’d like better. I settle due to a lack of knowledge, or perhaps decide not to purchase at all. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with sweet wines – on the contrary there is a huge market for those wines, along with many others. But what I do see is a crowded tasting room and a by the taste menu in Ohio wineries that encourages customers to stick to what they know, and not deviate from their comfort zones.

What’s a winery owner to do?

Plan a tasting menu for your winery. Set that menu to include the best you are making in the wines you want to promote (the dry wines you are putting so much effort into). Include one or two of your sweet wines to show off those products, and add your ice wine for an additional charge if you need to recoup those costs.

If you want to promote a tasting menu of your sweet wines, reverse the process. Put a few of your dry wines into the tasting. White to Red, dry to sweet. Don’t serve sweet white wines before your dry reds. It kills the tasting, and customers will never realize how good those red vinifera wines really are.

Set a fee for your tasting, and try to avoid a “per taste” fee. $5 is an easy number to manage for up to 10 wines. If your customer is thinking about how much each taste costs, she’s not thinking about your wines. Most consumers don’t need a two ounce pour, somewhere around an ounce will give any taster enough wine to discern the aroma and  flavors. If they are at your winery to drink more than 7-10 ounces via a tasting, they will happily buy a glass of their favorite wine, and bottles to take home. If you want to stick to a two ounce pour, most customers will find that to be a generous amount over the course of 10 wines. And please, provide a dump bucket. Don’t force your customers to drink the wine because they feel it would be rude to leave it in the glass for you to pour out in order to go on to the next taste. 

Educate the customers, don’t just serve them. Pour each wine into a proper glass as you discuss it – where it came from, what it should taste like. Sell the wine as you watch the customer experience it. This doesn’t have to be overdone, but a wine with a story sells better than a wine without. Don’t risk the customer confusing your prize winning chambourcin with your award winning Cabernet Franc, or your Pinot Grigio losing its flavors and aromas because its in a plastic cup far away from your tasting associate.

Talk to your customers about your wines, make them excited about drinking the wine you made. That may mean spending more time educating your staff on your products and how to gauge a customer’s knowledge level, but it will increase the sales for those wines you hold near and dear to your heart. Today’s consumers have done research on your winery before walking in the door. They want to experience the engagement of your staff and if the staff is excited, that feeling is definitely contagious in the tasting room!

Why do I recommend these steps? Because I was a sweet wine only drinker until a tasting room associate got me to taste other wines… now I drink both!

Readers, tell me what you’d like to see in a tasting room. What turns you on, or off, when you head out to taste the grape?

If you are a winery or tasting room manager looking for information on how to best set up a tasting program or train your associates in customer service directed to the educated consumer, contact Southern Wine Trails for assistance. 


6 responses »

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  4. Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Very useful info specially the last part 🙂 I care for such information a lot. I was looking for this certain info for a long time. Thank you and good luck.

  5. Totally agree with you Dave. There is some really good dry wine available. Kinkead Ridge and Hermes come to mind, as well as Ferrante's Cab Franc. But it saddens me when the RS fruit experiments are so incredibly prevalent that a consumer can only assume that's all the winemaker does. Or the quality of the drier wines has suffered because it is so much easier to make the wines that will fly out the door. "Ohio is sweet wines" – I think it does our state a disservice. Thanks for stopping by, Dave. It was so nice to meet you and your wife at #WBC11.

  6. I always look for the three "goods" — good staff, good setting, good wine. The staff needs to be knowledgeable. Nothing is more of a turn-off than a server who doesn't know the grapes in a blended wine.A nice winery building and tasting room elevates the experience. Outstanding wine makes the visit memorable. Having the wine served in nice stemware makes it even more special. Unfortunately, I've been served wine in plastic cups at some OH wineries. Arrrgh! There is some good dry vino out there in OH, but it does take a back seat to an ocean of sweet stuff. The sweet wine is especially prevalent during the numerous wine festivals.Dave NershiToledo Wines and Vines


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