El Dorado Vintners Strike Gold
First group tasting in San Francisco brings contacts and customers
San Francisco, Calif.—When the El Dorado Winery Association (EDWA) decided to venture down from the Sierra Foothills to San Francisco to showcase their wares for the first time, they did it right. The result: new friends among the media and the wine consuming public, and new retail and on-premise customers to keep the momentum going. How they put it together, and why the event worked so well, may provide useful guidelines for other winery associations hoping to enlarge their markets.
The tasting was staged Saturday, March 20, in the posh Union Square Postrio restaurant, a Wolfgang Puck project in the Prescott Hotel. The exclusive media/trade tasting started at noon; the public, who paid $38 per ticket, was admitted at 2 p.m. With ample space and just 22 pouring wineries, media and trade attendees were able to taste and talk at length with each of the vintners. (There are 67 wineries in El Dorado County, according to Wines & Vines’ IndustryBase; about 30 of these are EDWA members).
The event was a first, too, for Mike Whipple, who recently founded VinUnderground with fellow sommelier Wesley Box, with the explicit aim of “educating the masses and promoting the little known wines of this world, especially the ones close to home.” Whipple’s 20-year affiliation with The Prescott made the venue an obvious choice, and Postrio’s upscale reputation lent drawing power.
“We thought the size and the ambience of Postrio accommodated the group perfectly,” said Jolaine Collins, who handles public relations for EDWA and worked with Whipple to plan and execute the tasting. She told Wines & Vines that media/trade attendance was about 100-150, a total equaled by the paying public.
Ambience was an important factor at this event: Throughout the tasting, a jazz band played standards from a mezzanine, while servers circled the sunlit room bearing trays of exotic bites including prosciutto-wrapped squab; braised short ribs; hamachi crudo and mushrooms with ponzu sauce. Served in Asian soupspoons, these delicacies went down with nary a spill, and a second server was conveniently at hand to collect the empties and keep the wine stations tidy: a thoughtful touch.
Another nicety: Valet parking, normally $15 per day, was discounted to $10 for the event. This was especially welcome in a downtown area where public parking can exceed $35/day.
What the vintners said
Like most in the Sierra Foothills, the El Dorado wineries are mostly artisan operations, with annual productions ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand cases. Their estate vineyards cluster around the 2,500-foot elevation, and tend to favor Rhône and Italian varieties. At the tasting, several vintners commented that they did not currently have a distributor in the Bay Area, although some had distribution in Eastern and Midwestern states.
D.J. Latcham, who handles hospitality and sales for both Granite Springs Winery & Vineyards and Latcham Vineyards, commented, “Financially, it is always difficult opening premium wines if the people tasting are not there to appreciate the wines. An event like this, however, makes sense for us, because of the possible returns to our winery. The attendance was just right for the size of the venue and the scope of the wineries. Having press/trade come and then the public is great, because your focus as a pourer will change depending on who is tasting. I always want people to have enough time to taste, be able to talk to someone about the wine, and actually enjoy the event.”
He noted that his wineries currently focus their Bay Area sales efforts on direct to retailer, and, “We made contact with many retailers and restaurants that were interested in our product.”
“This event opened up several new sales avenues, not only for Lava Cap, but for all of our association’s wineries,” said Beth Jones, owner of Lava Cap Winery and president of EDWA. She reported receiving inquiries from several restaurant buyers regarding price and availability of her wines.
Chris Mericle, general manager of David Girard Vineyards, added, “I was able to make many great contacts both with media as well as wholesale accounts. We were able to set up placements, event pourings and even a radio show from this event.”
Winemaker Marco Capelli and manager Matricia Haigood of Miraflores Winery poured a standout Sauternes-style dessert wine, Botricelli, which paired brilliantly with the hors d’oeuvres. They came away with several restaurant leads for their local distributor. “It was a perfect event for getting in touch with the San Francisco marketplace, and great exposure to consumers who were not familiar with El Dorado,” Haigood said.
As a first time outing for both the association and the organizer, the event seemed to run seamlessly. Collins commented, however, “The opportunity came together very quickly, and so we only had about a month to organize and promote it.” Given the size of the venue, this may not actually have been much of a drawback: Too many more tasters may have diluted the charm. Nevertheless, “Next time, we’d give it several months’ lead-time for promotions,” Collins said.
Whipple had been eager to make this his event-planning debut because, he said, “I’ve been visiting and snooping the Sierra Foothills wineries for years. I would come back to my Bay Area cohorts raving about the juice I’d indulged in, and I’d get these blank stares.” VinUnderground, he said, gave him a vehicle to get the word out.
“It was a day of ‘ahhh nice!’ To see the reactions on the faces of trade and public alike was extremely gratifying.”
EDWA is not resting on its laurels. The association will host its annual Passport Weekends on its home turf April 10-11 and 17-18. For details and tickets, visit eldoradowines.org/events-passport.html.