Fight back! Time for small wineries to embrace the term "craft wine"

The time is right for wineries for to start embracing the term "craft wine." With everything happening in the drinks business, the general shift in consumer tastes, and the cultural shift as a whole, embracing the moniker of a craft winery is a perfect opportunity for small wineries to set themselves apart from the big brands, and big companies who dominate the industry. So what are we waiting for, and why is this not a thing?

What craft beer did for beer, craft wine can do for wine

Those in the wine business like to think that a wine drinker must be educated, and must be knowledgable about wine in order to enjoy it. What has done has put many of the best wines out of reach of many consumers simply because they feel like they are not ready to enjoy something they believe they do not understand. Craft beer offered to consumers a more complex product than your everyday beer, the movement offered a premium product and a premium price. And yet they never challenged or required their consumers to learn more about what it was they were drinking. There was no need to learn how to pair beer different ales with food, or lessons to teach drinkers the different taste notes in each beer. Even though you can do both of these things with beer, it was never really a question as to whether or not you knew your grassy hops from your citrus hops. Brewers cared, sure, but as a movement they came across and simply said we take more care, more pride in our work, and make a better product. You decide whether its worth it or not.

Twenty plus years later, I think we know what consumers decided on. The result is they elevated the beer experience in America.

Wine as a whole can learn from this, but it is America's small wineries who need to learn from these stories of success and take the moniker of craft seriously. Small wineries are often up against it compared to the big name producers and distributors of wine in the United States. It is hard to set small wineries apart from the larger, and you have to ask yourselves whether or not wine drinkers get a general sense of where their wine comes from. Yes it comes from a vineyard, but is it a massive vineyard? Is it small?

Taking on the moniker of craft is about taking pride in where you come from, your story, and your love for making wine. This is something that all wineries already aspire to. The term craft wine goes hand in hand with the idea that a wine is an expression of terroir. We may argue that it is in fact a simpler term for most wine drinkers to grasp, but at the very least these terms are compatible and even help to further entrench the emotional connection between winery and consumer. 

At the forefront of every movement can be America's craft wineries

Over the decades wine has proven to be a fickle business at times. Tastes and trends shift. The desire for sweeter wines in the eighties gave way to a movement towards dry wines in the nineties. One line in a movie saw sales of Merlot flatline. More recently we have seen an explosion of Rose wines, while everybody seems to be daring to try Orange Wine and we are on the cusp of an explosion in natural wine. 

This is similar to how craft brewers were at the forefront of the hops and IPA revolution in beer that gave us all better beer. Craft brewers have to dare, and they have to prove their worth by making something that is better and outside the norm. For brewers that meant looking for a product more flavorful than the standard, mass produced lagers and pilsners you a la Miller and Budweiser. For wineries it can mean making something popular but using a different method, an unfined and unfiltered Chardonnay for example, or it could mean experimenting with obscure and rare grapes like Counoise, Albarino, or maybe even Saint Lauren. 

The truth is that a lot of small wineries in the United States are very much at the forefront of wine's biggest trends and movements. Small wineries were the champions of Rose, they were the wineries experimenting with Orange wine, and they are the stronghold of the natural wine and minimal intervention movements. But there has never been anything that has unified small production wineries allowing them to keep hold of their competitive advantage. As soon as Rose sales were on the rise we saw big name wineries moving in. Even Duckhorn produces a Rose wine now. For wineries around the world both big and small Rose is still a big hit, but how does a small winery continue to compete with the big producers who can offer something similar for less?

Craft wine is not a buzz word, its about cementing a place in the industry

Half of all wine sold in the United States is made by just three companies. They are followed by a handful of companies who make up another sizable chunk of the market. Small wineries producing less than 50,000 cases (and thats still a sizable winery size) make up the majority of the 10,000 or so wineries in the United States, but just a sliver of the sales. In contrast the boom of craft beer has seen the segment outpace mainstream beer for growth as well as continue to eat into its market share year on year. Craft brewers kind of nailed it, if you want to beat the big guys you have to figure out a way to stand together, even if thats collectively setting yourself apart from the big players just by saying so.

Saying you are "craft" is saying to the drinker that you are not making something with a heavy focus on profit margins, its saying to the consumer that you are making something with a heavy focus on their delight. It is a method of setting your products, your process, and your brand apart from anything in the mainstream so that it stands out immediately.

With craft success comes craft responsibility

Of course when small players become highly successful do they remain small? What happens when they get bought by the big players? Are they still craft. In beer we see a lot of that, for example Goose Island being bought by AB InBev. Something of their craft heritage remains, but are they really craft?

If craft wine becomes a successful moniker for small wineries then big wineries will buy into it by buying some of the more successful brands. They may go on to establish themselves as cult brands like Charles Smith's entry level wines that included Kung Fu Girl Riesling and The Velvet Devil Merlot, or The Prisoner wine which is owned by Constellation Brands. Sam Adams likes to think of themselves as a craft brewery, but can they really be a craft brewery when they are sold so widely across the country and make up 1% of the total beer market in the US? How do you practice craft responsibility when everyone is going to jump in on the term?

The only way to succeed as a craft winemaker (unless you do want to sell your brand for big bucks) is to make sure you stick to the principals of what defines craft products. Consumers can see straight through the marketing malarkey, but if you are genuine then they will have a stronger connection to you, and stick around longer. The moment you stray from your principals is the moment you lose your credibility as a craft producer. 

Its about looking to the future, and making sure we have a place in it

If you take anything away from this article, take away the fact that small wineries need to stand together to battle their large competitors and take a bigger slice of the wine market. Collectively calling it craft wine is a way of standing up together in the face of distribution channels and sales representatives that small wineries cannot compete with. We can call it whatever we like, but lets call it something and then figure out ways to build it up and problem solve around it so we are no longer playing the game by the rules that work against us. Lets go out and get people excited about small, craft wineries.