How Two Maryland Wineries are Using Wine Education Events to Build Relationships

Winery tourism is a big deal for the Mid-Atlantic wine industry because these states’ wineries rely on the direct-to-consumer (DTC) business model to stay financially afloat, meaning they sell out of their front door. Customers – a.k.a. tourists and visitors – must come to them. Ask any winery in the Mid-Atlantic how important “DTC sales,” which encompasses tasting room and wine club sales, is to their financial success and the answer is likely to range from “extremely” to “existentially.”

The reasons for this are myriad, but most importantly for my point: demand for (most) Mid-Atlantic wine does not result in prices and volumes high enough to retain sufficiently profitability after the cost of distribution to retailers and/or restaurants is taken into account.

DTC success hinges on close relationships with customers as it requires the customer to expend a good amount of effort to visit the winery repeatedly, and give the winery a good amount of trust to sign up for a wine club in which they may not get to choose which wines they automatically pay for and receive.

Time and trust are not things that we humans part with easily or flippantly.

With DTC so vital to the Mid-Atlantic, wineries are becoming increasingly invested and creative in how they develop those close relationships with customers. One such tactic I’ve been seeing more and more is wineries offering educational programming for customers.

Since the wine industry is at its core a service industry, the personalities that are drawn to it are usually personable, if not gregarious, and enjoy communicating with customers. Though there are exceptions, I’ve found this to be largely true, even with the geekiest of winemakers, let alone the front end staff (tasting room people, etc.).

I’ve seen every reason for wineries to put their winemakers in front of customers, and these new educational programs are doing just that. I attended two recently that I think demonstrate how wineries can do these events well, and why it is worth paying the price of admission to participate.

The first was a wine blending seminar at Old Westminster Winery in Maryland. Billed as “The Art & Science of Blending,” this event was specific to wine club members because the resulting wine becomes an annual wine club-only release – a wine for the club made by the club.

My wife and I attended with another couple, and we had our own table. When we sat down we were served a class of the previous year’s Cru Cuvée, as it is called, as a reminder of what we had blended the previous year.

Also at the table were beakers of three unlabeled single-variety red wines, liquid measuring devices, pens, scratch paper, and a brief written guide of how to approach blending. Lisa Hinton, Old Westminster’s winemaker, led the session. We were told to first smell and taste each variety on its own and write down our impressions – structure, aromas and flavors. Next, we were told to blend the three wines in equal parts and write our impressions of that down to establish a blend baseline. Once we had done that, it was then up to each of us to chart our individual journey to our favorite blend.

We were given a good 45 minutes or so to do that, and it was surprisingly difficult to settle on the blend they liked most as it requires a lot of trial and error, even for an experienced winemaker. It can be remarkable how much of a difference an extra 3% of one variety – and a corresponding 3% less of another – can make on the final product.

Blending is indeed as much an art as it is a science, and it takes an open mind and patience to yield a good wine. It is also something that cannot be sufficiently conveyed through conversation – you must do it, yourself, to truly understand why blending is challenging, and what it takes to do it well.

Gaining an appreciation for those things through first-hand experience is eye opening, and something every wine lover should experience at least one because it will show just how hard it is to do it well, and deepen appreciation for the better blends (and likely lead to the judging more harshly of those blends that don’t come together well).

The second educational event took place at Maryland’s Catoctin Breeze Vineyard. Also a wine club event, this was a barrel tasting with their winemaker, Mike Lentini. We sampled four wines from barrel, as well as their upcoming 2017 Estate Cabernet Franc release (spoiler alert: it’s very good). Barrel tasting can be a fascinating experience because it shows how wine ages, and what that means for the ultimate wine that gets bottled, purchased and consumed.

With the numerous variables that go into how a wine is aged in oak barrels, barrel aging can have a dramatic impact on wine. If I’m told a chardonnay has been aged in new French oak for 12 months, there are significant things I can predict about that wine with considerable accuracy just with that knowledge – it is likely to be full bodied and lush, and taste of vanilla, custard and butter. Similarly, if the same base chardonnay is aged in neutral French oak for 12 months, I know it’s likely to be medium to medium-plus bodied with more noticeable acidity, while featuring lesser amounts of vanilla, custard and butter, and higher amounts of citrus, minerality and white pepper.

Tasting the same base wines from different barrel treatments is an enlightening experience in understanding the evolution a wine goes through in oak. We did just that with Catoctin Breeze cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. What made the experience especially interesting was that we were tasting the winery’s first attempt at doing barrel fermentation on a red wine (their cabernet sauvignon). Catoctin may well even be the first Maryland winery to do a barrel fermented red wine.

We began with the cabernet francs, one out of a neutral (previously used) barrel and one out of a new barrel. Ideally both barrels are the same, though in this case the neutral barrel was an American-French hybrid (meaning American staves and French heads) while the new barrel was entirely American. A small difference, but important to note.

The main difference in the wines was that the wine aged in the new barrel was fuller-bodied, juicer and thicker in the tannin department. The wine from the neutral barrel was softer and more floral and red (versus black) fruited.

The two cabernet sauvignons we tried included their standard-made wine and the new barrel-fermented wine. The barrel fermentation had a dramatic impact, creating a longer and more layered wine that gave a deeper impression of the flavors and structure one would expect with significant barrel treatment: vanilla, cherry and tobacco flavors with heavier weight and longer tannin. This is unsurprising as fermenting in the barrel allows the wine to be exposed to oak sooner, which helps form longer chained tannins that are especially smooth and rich.

Barrel fermenting is a complicated undertaking in the case of red wine because it requires putting the skins into the barrel with the juice, something that is not otherwise done and makes it harder to undertake several winemaking processes. In order to make the manual labor easier, Catoctin invested a significant amount)in a barrel racking system made by Oxoline that has small wheels where the barrels rest, which allows the barrels to be rolled in place while in the rack, and screw-down bungs, which creates a wine-tight seal while under gravitational pressure so the wine doesn’t spill while it is being spun. This allows Mike to “do” punchdowns while the skins and wine remain in the barrel by spinning them.

Since the majority of high quality red wine sold in America is aged for at least a few months in oak barrels, it can be easy to passively assume that while it’s an important step in making red wine, oak aging is more or less the same with every wine. Barrel tastings like this one offered at Catoctin Breeze illustrate very clearly why that is a false assumption, and can help a customer significantly improve their understanding and appreciation of wine.

The success of these educational events hinge on the ability of the instructor to inform, and the Old Westminster and Catoctin Breeze events fully delivered in this department. It also helped in my case that both wineries make wines that I enjoy and respect, and both winemakers are inherently innovative people whose company I enjoy and insights I appreciate.

The way Americans are choosing which products to buy today dictates that wineries show more investment in their customers. These kinds of educational events are therefore likely to be drivers of success for some Mid-Atlantic wineries that carve out more sustainable and profitable market share. I expect to see more of them popping up.

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