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It’s hard to imagine a better confluence of trends for New Zealand wine in the U.S. – now the world’s largest wine market with annual sales of US$60 billion.
New Zealand wines have become the third highest imported wine into the U.S. by value at a time when American wine drinkers, especially millennial women, are trending toward premium wines that are also lighter and more elegant and sophisticated. These are perfect conditions for the Sauvignon Blanc juggernaut that accounts for 94% of our U.S. sales.
“The wines from New Zealand have gained a tremendous amount of popularity in the last 10-15 years; it is now a very important category for American wine drinkers,” says Will Guidara, co-owner of New York’s Eleven Madison Park, recently named the world’s best restaurant. “There exists a very solid image, and therefore expectation, for what the wines will be like. The majority of consumers are readily aware of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, but many people are still unfamiliar with other varietals and the growing areas outside of Central Otago and Marlborough.”
In 2015 Guidara visited New Zealand on a tour of luxury lodges orchestrated by SweeneyVesty and supported by NZTE, Tourism New Zealand and ATEED.
“The entire country of New Zealand, much like the state of Oregon here in the U.S. has been able to create an image of quality at a lower price point,” says Guidara. “And more often than not, the wines deliver upon those expectations. For a lot of consumers, picking a bottle off the shelf, and having the wine taste like what they expect, is very important.”
Guidara says that “New Zealand has done a great job of putting itself on the map as one region. Now you have to start pushing individual producers, and the sub zones. There are areas of potential growth in New Zealand that are barely being tapped. Syrah, Bordeaux varietals, Chardonnay, Riesling, all have found areas in New Zealand that allow the grapes to shine.” (Eleven Madison Park has three New Zealand Chardonnays on its wine list – Bell Hill 2009 and 2011 from North Canterbury and Kumeu River Hunting Hill 2013).
While accounting for just 20% of wine sales in the U.S., restaurants and other on-premises locations have a key role in influencing the wider market.
“The best way to communicate to sommeliers is on a personal level,” says Eleven Madison Park wine director Cedric Nicaise. “Start with identifying which restaurants or stores you want to be featured in, and then find out who controls those lists. Email them directly; send them a sample with a handwritten card. Make it personal. Mass market emails just get deleted by most people. Understand that not all sommeliers go out to lunch several days a week. Make the wines easy to taste, hold a lunch, inviting people that may want to spend time together, not just with the wine you are selling. But then also have a late night event; many sommeliers like to have a glass after work. If you think your wine is as good as another, prove it, don’t just talk about it; pour the wines side by side, blind; let sommeliers decide for themselves.”
The most important thing a vineyard can do, says Nicaise, is to create a strong bond with your distributor. They are the link between you and restaurants and stores. He is also clear about what not to do. “Don’t stop into restaurants without an appointment, which only creates animosity. Don’t make a dinner reservation and treat your dinner like a sales pitch. You don’t have to drink only your wine. I want to know that a wine maker or winery owner knows more about wine than just what they are making and the region they are from. Don’t be afraid to serve your wine next to something else.”
Social media is an essential medium for wine producers to build a long term premium audience, with 42% of all wine in the U.S. consumed in 2016 by millennials – and with over 50% of wine-drinking millennials talking about wine on Facebook. Millennials have several decades of earning – and consuming – ahead of them, so having a diversified social media presence – not only Facebook but Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and Twitter is important for every winemaker. Millennials are especially influenced by their peers (rather than wine stars), suggesting that the oldest form of marketing – word of mouth – still holds sway today.
It would be a mistake, however, to think of social media as a free play. “Pay-to-Play” was once a term used exclusively for Chicago politicians, but to be effective in today’s carnivorous media environment, it is essential for marketers to invest across a spectrum of social tools, from search to influencer posts to sponsored ads and blogs. It is beyond the realm for most individual vineyards to mount a comprehensive paid social programme in a market the size of the U.S., which is where aggregated efforts on behalf of appellations as well as the national wine brand are most sensible.
The U.S. is many regions, and most New Zealand export strategies in the U.S. need to “cook on the coasts.” It is clear from the wine consumption statistics that the Pacific West Coast – California and Oregon in particular – and the Atlantic Northeast states – Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York – are the top wine drinkers in the U.S. – with the exception of the capital, Washington D.C., which is far and away the #1 wine drinking spot in the U.S.
The relationship between tourism and wine is well established, and with 26.5% growth in American tourists in the past year (322,000 visitors), there is ample opportunity to marry the natural splendor of New Zealand to drinking our wines back home. Articles published in 2017 such as “New Zealand’s Wine Wonderland” in Food & Wine about Central Otago and Wine Enthusiast’s tour of Marlborough – “The world’s Sauvignon Blanc capital has much more to offer than its signature wine” – are excellent examples of earned media that can be generated.
Indeed, the wider New Zealand INC story in the U.S. adds premium to our entire export range. Several recent news stories and events – Emirates Team New Zealand’s win in the America’s Cup, Lorde topping the Billboard charts with her new album Melodrama, Rocket Lab’s successful launch, and LookSee Wellington’s promotion, which saw 48,000 people, including 7,000 Americans applying for 100 technology roles in the capital – all serve to inform Americans that New Zealand has an earthy, innovative, design-driven sophistication that is well-paired with our wine. Winegrowers may be interested in the www.nzedge.com site produced by SweeneyVesty which, since 2000, has mapped over 12,000 stories about New Zealand innovation and achievement in many sectors, including wine, that have appeared in global media.
Great marketing is as complex as making great wine, though Eleven Madison Park’s Will Guidara offers a cautionary note on the pathway to premium. “Wineries need to do what they do best and make great wines. That is the most important thing. Once you start investing more in your marketing team and sales team than you are in your vineyards and production methods, you have turned down a bad path. If you are making great wine, sommeliers will seek it out.”
• Jane Vesty is CEO of SweeneyVesty, a global public relations and creative marketing company founded in Wellington in 1987. www.sweeneyvesty.com