Moving Beyond A Tourism Based Wine Industry
Call me a dreamer, but I can envision a day when vineyards stretch out across the Midwest. In this future-land, the grapes from Midwest vineyards will be used to make wines that are sold across the country and the world.
As much as I believe in this bright future for Midwest regional wine, the present day reality must be confronted. According to the Midwest Wine Press Winery Rankings, the Midwest wine industry grew at slightly less than two percent last year, which is about equal to the growth rate of the U.S. economy. (Winery growth figures are based on the year over year change in the number winery permits compiled by the U.S. Government.)
Could we be reaching the limits of a tourist based wine industry? Except for a handful of large regional wineries, the vast majority of Midwest wine is sold at winery tasting rooms and festivals.
There is no doubt that millions of wine consumers value the Midwest winery experience. The challenge is how to convert Midwest wine tourists into Midwest wine consumers at restaurants and retailers.
As reported in Midwest Wine Press, there is cause for optimism. More restaurants and retailers are carrying Midwest wines. Within the limitations of archaic alcohol regulations, wineries and wine associations should explore more ways to cross promote with restaurants and retailers. If just a fraction of Midwestern winery visitors carried their preference for Midwest wine home, the impact would be dramatic.
Another big challenge for Midwest wine is sending a consistent message to consumers. As we’ve discussed before, there are too many conflicting, uncoordinated messages being sent to Midwestern wine consumers.
If all the Midwestern wine organizations and associations worked together to send a powerful and cohesive message, the pie would grow for everyone. For a relatively small wine producing region, like the Midwest, there is simply too much time and money spent on futile cross border competition.
And what might this unified message to consumers be? One possible marketing message is: “The Midwest can grow and make world class old world wines.” Michigan and Ohio are going this direction by heavily promoting vinifera wines. But can the Midwest grow old world wine grapes consistently on a commercial scale?
As reported in Midwest Wine Press, the Midwest has 12,300 acres of wine grapes under cultivation. In comparison, Oregon has 20,000 acres of wine grapes. In other words, the third largest wine grape producing state produces 60% more grapes than our 650,000 square mile region.
To reach the economies of scale that would allow the Midwest to compete on price, the Midwest needs to plant a lot of vines. But growing vinifera grapes in the Midwest is a challenge. On the other hand, hybrid grapes produce a relatively consistent crop in most parts of the Midwest.
The drawbacks with hybrid grapes are poor name recognition and a negative perception among wine elites. Neither of these challenges is insurrmoutnable, however. A well coordinated marketing effort with contributions from all Midwestern wine producting states could create demand for hybrid wines.
The Midwest is a world leader in agriculture and we can be a world leader in production of cold hardy grapes and wines. Let’s work together to make it happen.