Robert Merletti Previews Midwest Wine Conference
The 2013 Midwest Grape & Wine Conference & Trade Show is taking place in St. Charles, Missouri, from February 7-9. The conference, hosted by Vineyard & Winery Management, is the third largest event of its kind in the United States and brings together winemakers, winery suppliers and viticulture experts from across the Midwest and the US.
Midwest Wine Press spoke with V&W Management owner and Chairman, Robert Merletti, about the event and the growing importance of the Midwest wine industry.
Midwest Wine Press: For a California based organization like yours, what’s different about staging a conference in the Midwest compared to putting it on in your part of the US?
Robert Merletti: Well, Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine got started on the east coast in New York State and our roots run deeply in the eastern industry. It’s kind of funny because I tell people that my first Chardonnay was Seyval blanc and my first Cabernet was a Baco Noir. V&W Management has worked its way across the country. We used to have offices in Virginia, New York and California, and we’re very much about the North American Wine industry not just the Californian wine industry. But obviously the epicenter for a lot of our revenue generation is in California and so it’s necessary for us to be here.
“I tell people that my first Chardonnay was Seyval Blanc and my first Cabernet was a Baco Noir.”
MWP: The Midwest wine industry is still a relatively young industry — unless you count before Prohibition! — so how is your approach to organizing a wine conference here different compared to doing it in California?
RM: Every region of the US is burgeoning with wineries and they have a real thirst and need for knowledge. We look at the wine industry like we do any other industry; a winery or a vineyard is a business and people need the tools and the resources to run their business as effectively as possible. Technology, viticulture, business and marketing management issues are all things that anybody that’s trying to run a winery needs to know about.
MWP: I believe you started hosting this conference a few years ago?
RM: Well the conference that we have in the Midwest is one that we took over and added to our portfolio 2 years ago. It was the Midwest Wine and Grape Conference that was being hosted at Tan-Tar-A Resort in the Ozarks and we moved it to St. Charles because we needed a larger facility and one that was more accessible from the airport. It was our goal to change the show from being state centric to more regional.
MWP: What made you take notice of the Midwest a couple of years ago, before it wasn’t necessarily off your radar before, but you’re obviously taking it very seriously now. What indicators were you seeing 2 or 3 years ago?
RM: What had happened is that the powers that be in the Midwest Missouri region had been attending our trade show which is in Richmond, Virginia and Wineries Unlimited is the second largest wine trade show outside of the Unified Show in Sacramento. It was our goal to build a trade show that was large enough that we could unify the eastern wine industry. And so they came to me and said, ‘We’d love it if you could do for the Midwest what you’re doing for the east coast.” So that’s how that discussion kind of got started.
MWP: There’s a lot of ignorance about and snobbery towards Midwest wines. Even many Midwesterners are negative about their own local wines. You’re now clearly an advocate for Midwest wines. How do you react when your colleagues in California dismiss Midwest wines as sweet rubbish?
RM: Every once in a while I get invited to a lunch of winemakers or winery owners and everyone brings a bottle of wine and I always bring some wine from out-of-state, like a Norton or Viognier. I kind of push my out-of-state bottle in there amongst the other bottles and then I watch the people taste the wine because a lot of times they’re not even looking to see what it is. And people say, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good wine!”
We also do wine competitions and one of the things that we would do is take a McIntosh Apple from California and a McIntosh apple from New York and we would ask the judges to taste each one of those apples and judge them. And what we were looking for them to say was, ‘These are both really good, they’ve just got all these different characteristics.” That’s how we want you to approach the wine and that’s how people should approach the wine.
MWP: In the Midwest, restaurants are generally not interested in having local wines on their wine lists. As someone who knows the ins and outs of promoting wine what do you think the secret is to getting local wines into restaurants?
‘Mum, Dad, I’m going to a wine tasting and we’re going to be trying some great Nortons and a few Chambourcins.” And the parents look at him and say, ‘What’s a Norton and what’s a Chambourcin?” And he says, ‘Never mind you wouldn’t understand.”
RM: This is an issue that is endemic to the whole US outside of California and a lot of it has to do with the three-tier system. But in my personal opinion the two things that I would be targeting would be Millennials.
If you can enter a Midwest wine in a national or international wine competition and garner a silver or gold medal, for really not very much money that gives you some very strong promotional material and some bragging right.
I’ve also got a theory that the Millennials are a very independent minded generation of people who are looking to make a name for themselves. When they begin to open their eyes and realize that there is a whole world of wine outside of California, I think they’re going to take that and own it for themselves.
I have this joking comic strip that goes in my head where a kid is leaving the house and he says, ‘Mum, Dad, I’m going to a wine tasting and we’re going to be trying some great Nortons and a few Chambourcins.” And the parents look at him and say, ‘What’s a Norton and what’s a Chambourcin?” And he says, ‘Never mind you wouldn’t understand.”
MWP: What future do you see for the Midwest Wine industry? What direction is it going to take during the next decade?
RM: I think that Midwest wines are going to get more refined. Signature varietals are going to start to rise to the top because I think that’s a trend that we’re seeing in the industry. In Missouri, Norton and Marquette, Viognier in Virginia for instance, and that’s going to lead the way.
As far as the sweet wines and the fruit wine there’s definitely a place in the industry for them. It’s very true that people talk dry but they drink sweet. We all know every winery just about in the US has a slightly sweeter red or white wine that keeps the lights on and pays the rent. Every major wine dynasty or empire that was ever built in the US wasn’t built on dry wine.
“We all know every winery just about in the US has a slightly sweeter red or white wine that keeps the lights on and pays the rent”
MWP: Finally, what sorts of Midwest wines do you go for when you feel like having something from our region?
RM: I love the Nortons. It’s smoothed out, it’s got good tannin and good acidity. Norton is not too floral, and if it’s done well, and if it’s not overly oaked, I think it can be a really nice wine. Stone Hill, the Held family, and Cory Bomgaars over at Les Bourgeios are doing a great job with Norton. I’m starting to get a bit more interested in Marquette but it’s just so new and it’s kind of hard to source.