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Time for north country to see glass half full and market region’s wineries

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As usual, this column is very late and, as usual, I am overseas — this time in Central Germany, where wine outranks beer as the drink of choice. My last column was on the emerging wine industry “cluster” in Northern New York, so it seems appropriate to continue the theme.

Before I left New York, I had two relevant experiences. The first was watching the movie “Bottle Shock,” about the triumph of California wines at a famous blind tasting in Paris.The second was serving as a judge in the New York State Commercial Wine Competition. Those two things have convinced me that the future belongs to us.

While I did not recognize any wines from the cold-hardy grapes grown in the north country, the general run of competition showed me that our region’s wineries can compete well against the work of other New York state winemakers. Our wines are new and still finding their voices, but there is a niche there for us.

To the local wineries: If you did not enter a wine in the competition, please consider it next year. Many of the judges have journalism connections and they arrive ready to learn about new wines and new trends in New York winemaking. Even if you don’t win, you could gain some friends. Many people did not know much about University of Minnesota cold-hardy hybrids. I think you can fix that.

As I write this, I am less than an hour’s drive from the Mosel River, one of Germany’s premier wine regions and a massive center for global tourism. The river is famous for its wines, but most of the real money seems to be made by hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, health spas, bicycle tours, boat cruises and fun/elegant boutiques. Visitors from all over Europe begin arriving in June and don’t quit spending money until the last of the harvest festivals in early October. The poor exhausted residents spend the winters drinking wine and counting their profits.

When I look at the emerging tourist business structure in Clayton, I think that we could build an economy there much like that on the Mosel. Along with an expanding cluster of wineries, we have some new and some existing tourist businesses. When I arrived in Jefferson County in 1994, I found a tourism industry concentrated largely on fishing and boating, with a little attention paid to winter sports and snowmobiling. Selling people a chance to fish in the St. Lawrence River is fine, but the real money is in selling them an elegant fish dinner on shore, with appropriate matching wines from the region. We can do it.

The time is certainly right to launch a local wine industry. Per capita wine consumption in the U.S. and globally has been growing steadily for years, and in 2010 Americans downed a record 2.54 gallons per capita, according to the California Wine Institute. Even better for us in the north country, Canadians drink more wine per capita than Americans.

If we have a strong market at home, our best opportunities may be abroad. China saw a 20 percent increase in wine consumption last year, and global wine consumption continues to grow across the board.

In the U.S., the Wine Marketing Council offers extensive research into the wine-drinking market. They have labeled 57 percent of the wine-drinking market “core” — people who drink wine at least once a week with meals. The remaining 43 percent are “marginal” wine drinkers, who have wine occasionally. The two groups have traded places in the past 20 years, as more Americans adopt wine as a part of their regular lives. The core drinkers account for 92 percent of all wine sales in the U.S., making them the friends of winemakers everywhere.

According to the same research, word of mouth recommendations from friends and family are the most important source of information about new wines. If we want to build a global community of north country wine drinkers, we need to get more people to try those wines.

So far, we are doing lots of things right. New York state has launched a North Country Wine Trail and helped local producers get their wines in statewide shows. What needs to happen next?

If you are a legislator representing the region, I think you should support two pieces of legislation. The first is to allow the sale of wines in grocery stores. That represents everyone’s interests except those of the state’s liquor store owners. Sorry guys.I know you work hard and this won’t help, but the larger community good needs to be considered ahead of your own interests. If you disagree, send me an email and we can talk.

The second law that needs to change is the state’s restrictions on having wine from out-of-state wineries shipped directly to New York consumers. Don’t just repeal that law, however. Contact your counterparts in the other 23 states that still have that antiquated special-interest restriction and do a deal. Why not a law that allows shipments from states that do not restrict similar shipments from New York? We have a huge community of customers at Fort Drum who will eventually move away to other bases and places. If they develop a passion for local wines, we want them to be able to order those wines and to share them with their friends. Remember the part about word of mouth as the most significant source of marketing? If you are a good politician, I am sure you can figure out how to do a deal.

If you are an economic developer in the region, start treating wineries like your best friends and do whatever you can to give them the same deals you give prospective manufacturers. I promise you that they, and the broader tourism industry they foster, will generate more local economic benefits than another prospective owner at one of our creaking old paper mills. Quit trying to underprice the Chinese on paper goods and start selling them wine.

If you are a local restaurant, add some local wines to your list. I was delighted to see that Café Mira, my favorite restaurant in Jefferson County, has added wine from Coyote Moon in Clayton. Try a bottle of the Marquette with the lamb or duck breast. This is a great chance to differentiate your business from the huge pack of chain restaurants in Watertown.

The Wine Marketing and Management certificate at Jefferson Community College is a great start and represents exactly the support we need from higher education. Hopefully it will develop into a full-fledged degree program with connections to wine programs at Cornell University and elsewhere. Along that path, make sure to add some coursework in international business and foreign languages and cultures. The richest markets for wine on Earth are in Europe and Latin America, but the competition is intense. Your graduates need to be ready to take the battle to the competition wherever the opportunities wait.

In the film “Bottle Shock,” Alan Rickman’s character predicts a future where the dominance of European wines is shattered and we drink wines from the United States, South Africa and Latin America .He raises a glass of California white and toasts, “To the future.” I am drinking a glass of Mosel Riesling and I raise it to our future. Join me?

Greg Gardner is an associate professor of business at SUNY Potsdam. His column on business issues in the north country is published monthly in Money Matters. E-mail him at ggardner@wdt.net.

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