Use Entry Level Wines as a Way In

Recruiting top winemakers to make table wines helps tap into new audiences

After working with an importer and distributor of German and Austrian wines for nine years, I decided that I needed to do something about the lack of California wine in one-liter bottles—a format popular for things like Grüner Veltliner. In Spring 2012, I reached out to a Napa winemaker, Steve Matthiasson, about teaming up with me to create a wine that would bring the casual feel of these larger-format bottles to our “New California” wine scene

For me the stylistic inspiration was Steve’s eponymous Napa Valley white wine: It was crisp, but with good texture and tense, nearly electric acidity. Since Steve’s white wine was retailing at just under $40 at the time, I wanted to find grape sources that would allow us to create a one-liter bottle of wine that could retail for half that price.

The idea would be that having a wine at $20 or less in Steve’s lineup would introduce a new category of retail buyers and consumers to Matthiasson, a producer whose wines may have been otherwise out of reach, because of price.

The success of the 2012 vintage of Tendu white wine was exciting. We started with only a few hundred cases to test the waters, and it was a great way to get in the door at more casual restaurants and onto the floor stacks at our local retailers. Since then we’ve added a red wine into the mix and increased our total production to just under 4,000 cases. In the meantime, Steve’s fame has exploded. My hope is that through the availability of the “entry level” Tendu, and the press that Matthiasson has received, we create a path for drinkers to trade up on an artisan level—to a small winery’s more prestigious wines. And it seems that’s just what happened; the Matthiasson wines are selling faster than in past vintages, and we now sell them to accounts that started with the less expensive Tendu. It was a way in.

Similarly, in 2013 we started working with Sam Bilbro of Idlewild Wines, based in Sonoma County. Sam was looking to release his first vintage of single-vineyard, single-variety wines made from older vines, or from Piedmontese varieties grown on California’s North Coast. We launched Idlewild that spring with small amounts of wines that were well received. Then early the following year, as it became clear that Sam was going to have no problem selling such small amounts, perhaps 50 to 100 cases of each bottling, we had a discussion about how we could grow his production. He naturally steered toward making more of each of the wines that he already produced. The only problem with that is that single-vineyard, single-variety wines are by definition limited by site and by vintage. You can only get so much fruit every year.

I proposed to Sam the idea of creating a set of blended wines, labeled simply “white”, “rosé”, and “red.” Rather than an extremely limited run, they would be appellation wines and blends of varieties that he was already working with, made in larger quantities. Enter Idlewild’s Flora and Fauna series—wines that came out with the 2014 vintage and allowed Sam to move his prices down from around $30, where most of his wines were then priced. The idea was to have these on shelves at $21 to $23, prices that allowed them to hit the sweet spot in many restaurants’ by-the-glass programs.

For us, as a small broker and distributor, the restaurant by-the-glass program is essential: It’s a great way to get consumers to try our wines with little investment on our, or a winery’s, part. It’s one of the single most important ways a little-known winery can get visibility without a corporate-sized marketing budget—and it only works when the wines are priced inexpensively enough that a small restaurant can buy them in decent quantities.

We need those wines in order to get consumers interested in a little-known producer like Idlewild. From a restaurant list, we hope that consumers then seek out the bottles at retail shops or through a direct-to-consumer (DTC) platform, potentially trading up to more expensive, limited bottles as they go.

For me, DTC is one of the most important pieces of this puzzle. That was a lesson we learned with another of our partners, Scribe Winery, which has successfully answered a key question: How do you get a consumer who is used to buying $10 or $20 wines to trade up to bottles that are upwards of $35?

For one thing, you put them in a situation where the more expensive wine is what’s available, which is why you may have noticed that when you visit most tasting rooms, inexpensive wines are rarely found. Visiting a tasting room is, after all, about the experience—and this is where Scribe has been wildly successful. Regular visitors to its tasting facility east of Sonoma are welcomed into a rustic but still refined tasting building for a semiprivate experience. Scribe’s Andrew Mariani and his family have built a loyal following this way—by offering more than just a tasting bar and someone regurgitating tasting notes.

They’re certainly not the first—Robert Sinskey comes to mind as a winery that has long sought out a personal connection with its customers—but they are a great modern manifestation of making wine about more than just the bottle. The popularity of the Scribe wines, and customers’ willingness to pay ambitious prices for them, shows the success of that connection. For me, that brand loyalty carries through when consumers seek out the wines in local shops and on wine lists.

Matthew Plympton is a co-owner of Revel Wine, a broker and distributor in California that focuses on grower-producer wine and cider made throughout the United States. He lives in Oakland.