I have now visited over 100 wineries throughout the Midwest. All our Midwest wineries have their own special qualities and I can honestly say that each visit was memorable in its own way.
Looking back at my winery trips, I have been trying to tie them together and, to be honest, it’s difficult. Midwest wineries don’t really have a unifying theme or message. Each state, each wine trail, or in some cases, each winery, is mainly doing it’s own thing.
Establishing a broader image for the Midwest wine industry is a challenging project, especially when there are grapes to be grown, wine to be made and customers to serve. However, is the lack of a cohesive Midwest wine message holding us back?
The Midwest wine industry is fragmented to put it mildly. As an industry with perhaps $500 million in sales (including wine made with grapes from outside the region), we have dozens of different organizations pursuing many important goals, but with little common direction.
To wit, in the 11 state area Midwest Wine Press serves there are:
- 55 wine trails
- 15 state wine associations
- 20 American Viticultural Areas with several more in the works
- 11 state tourism agencies that promote wine tourism in some fashion
- 11 state universities with enology and/or viticulture programs
- 9 state universities or community colleges with VESTA programs
- Dozens of state wine conferences and state wine competitions
From these organizations comes a constant stream of information. The messages are overwhelmingly pertinent and well crafted, but they can be like driving past miles of billboards for the same product.
When consumers are presented with more conflicting messages than they can process, they usually do one of two things: Shut out some or all of the messages or revert to the simplest choice. For many Midwest wine consumers, the simple choice is to reach for a familiar varietal from a major wine producing region far away.
Here are some possible ways for Midwest wine to project a more cohesive message:
1. Merge some state wine organizations. Impossible you say? Please consider that Oregon and Washington are considering merging their marketing efforts because they don’t think either state on its own can make a global impression. (The Oregon wine industry has about $2.7 billion a year in sales and Washington has about $8.6 bilion in annual wine sales.)
Based on my experience, Wisconsin and Minnesota should consider unifying since there’s so much interaction between the two states already. These two states are also producing primarily the same grapes.
Ohio and Michigan could also team up to promote “Great Lakes” Riesling and Pinot clones. Convincing Ontario to join such an effort is probably a bridge too far, but can you imagine the marketing power of all the Great Lakes wineries combined?
2. Each region should select one white and one red that they can grow and produce well and market them heavily. Missouri and Indiana are already well down this path with Norton and Traminette. If different states want to emphasize the same varietal, then marketing efforts should be merged.
3. Establish a traveling Midwest wine consumer event that visits the top markets in the Midwest on a regular schedule. Funds to pay for such an effort would be contributed voluntarily by each state organization that would benefit from being involved. This “road show” could either participate in established wine events, the way other global wine regions do, or we could have our own Midwest wine conventions.
These consumer events would promote both Midwest wine and wine tourism with the goal of getting more exposure in big markets like Chicago, Minneapolis and Indianapolis.
4. Speaking of conventions, there are too many wine trade shows in the Midwest. All of these shows take place during the first quarter of the year and it’s difficult and expensive to attend more than one or two. Most growers and winemakers attend only their home state convention which just adds to the insularity.
I submit that we’d get more bang for our scarce promotional bucks if we merged or rotated some of the regional wine trade shows and put our resources into the aforementioned Midwest consumer wine shows.
After observing the Midwest wine industry carefully for years, I believe that regional wine will be largely dependent on tourists and tasting room sales for the next few years. Getting Midwest wine into retailers and restaurants in a meaningful way will require regional grape production on a larger scale. We need to grow demand for our quality products in an organized way that encourages people to plant vineyards here.
The growth of Midwest wine from virtually nothing 40 years ago to over 1,100 wineries today is an amazing story. Now is the time to take the next step by working together more closely to grow the Midwest wine industry into a nationally and internationally recognized wine producing region.