Boutique booty

Boutique wineries are more about pastoral beauty than big business.

Boutique wineries are more about pastoral beauty than big business.

Ben Canaider explains why boutique wineries are your friend—they run on the same business values as a lot of restaurants, and add an ‘X factor’ to your wine list that the big guys can’t offer.

There’s a strange synergy which exists between boutique wineries and a lot of smaller hospitality businesses. It is the hands-on approach; it is the belief that if you run your business as well as you can then the rewards will come; and it’s the notion that if what you produce and serve is personalised and unique, then customers will only want more of it.

Yes, this is hardly a number-crunched business model, I know; but it is a kind of business ideal that underpins a lot of small bars, restaurants—and wineries. Smaller hospitality businesses and boutique wineries are not just synergistic, however; they are also symbiotic. One needs the other, and vice-versa. Without smaller restaurants and bars a lot of boutique wineries would struggle to turnover their stock; and without such wine a lot of restaurants would have fairly generic, bland and  unprofitable wine lists.

So with this is mind, it is useful to consider what constitutes a boutique wine and winery, and how you can leverage this sector of the wine market’s qualities to best serve your business.

To begin with, Australian boutique wineries do have a professional association. Of course they do. The Association of Australian Boutique Winemakers. Holding an annual wine show and an annual wine festival, the Association is principally a marketing company designed to generate greater public and trade interest in their members’ wares. And a good starting point for anyone interested in selling boutique wines would be the Association’s wine awards results, which garner a lot of respected public and media attention. From a technical point of view, the Association recognises any winery which produces less than 250 tonnes of grapes to be ‘boutique’. Chief executive of the Association, Judith Kennedy, reckons most member wineries are more likely to be around 50-tonne operations, however (by the way, to convert tonnes of grapes into cases produced, multiply by seventy; hence a 50-tonne winery can make about 3500 cases. It is interesting to compare this to the Riverina De Bortoli winery, which produces three million cases, or about 43,000 tonnes; but that’s why most of that De Bortioli wine is in liquor stores, and not on wine lists. Ipso facto: boutique wines suit wine lists).

It is these smaller 50-or-so-tonne operations that, of course, make up the great majority of the Australian wine industry. The great anomaly of this fact, however, is that only about ten companies out of Australia’s 2000-and-growing wineries are on most drinkers’ wine radars. These ten or so companies are the bigger companies who so dominate retail markets.

Which is why, according to the director of Australian Wine Education and Training (AWET), Chris Barnes, the smaller, boutique wineries are the place to find wines that can add the X factor to your wine lists.

“These small business are the ‘colour and movement’ of the Australian industry,” he says. “Without these often eclectic producers the drinker would be robbed of discovery and fun in wine. They are the opposite of the big wine companies, whose corporate consistency may be the safe choice when the dollar is tight, but by the same token, are boring and predictable.”

Furthermore, Mr Barnes sees a natural link between boutique wines and many independently run bars and restaurants. “It’s the same as being forced to eat at fast food restaurants or have a buffet lunch in a five-star hotel for the rest of your life. It’s boring. The discovery of a hole-in-the-wall bar in an alley is the same as finding a Marzemino made by an ex-sea captain in the Yarra Valley—quirky and perhaps a few dollars more than the big company product, but much more interesting. Long live the small producer and long live the small bar, both run by people with verve and boundless energy when giving me a good time!”

The sentiment might be quite rightly and keenly focussed, but there’s still a bottom line known as Landed Unit Costs (LUC). How much more are these boutique wines going to cost you? The good news is that Landed Unit Costs of a lot of smaller producers are not by any stretch of the imagination high. The $13 to $20 sector is particularly good pickings for any beverage manager. The great and sometimes hidden part of this equation concerns mark-ups: an unknown wine with a posh label and good quality wine inside the bottle is an all-too tempting proposition for a lot of F&B managers, not to mention owner/operators. To inflate floor prices of boutique wines is to shoot both yourself and the boutique winemaker in both feet, however. The winemaker will not on-sell to you for much longer; your customers—
the wine-savvy ones that lead trends in you restaurant—will not buy it; and you’ll get a dodgy reputation. Greedy mark-ups live and die by their own excesses—and all too quickly; so I urge you not to exploit boutique wines by this method. It is short-sighted business
practise, at best.

If you do want to follow the boutique wine path then some more general water-tight truths about wine buying and selling still exist. In order to make the decision easier for your customers, keep the regional/varietal blend right. That is, don’t try to sell warm-climate pinot or Tasmanian zinfandel. Keep the regional and varietal matrix sensible. In cool climate regions stick to pinot noir, aromatic whites, even some cabernet and shiraz; warmer climate wines should utilise the boutique wine industry’s great strength—experimentation. So look for new red grape varieties, such as tempranillo or nero d’avola. After all, if you are going to take a punt on a little-known wine label, you might as well take the next step and use it to pitch a weirdo wine variety to your customer. The double-whammy might have just enough of the too-strange-it-must-be-true about it to be knocked back…

The most important aspect of your boutique wine push should be about integrity and purity, however. The best boutique winemakers specialise in a small range of grapes—all of which provide great regional examples of the resultant wine. They often do not try to mask subtle flavours by the use of too much oak, nor do they go in for wines that are fruit bombs. It is all about a wine that is—in so many respects—a beverage. That is, something you can drink very easily, albeit with some wine connoisseurship and intrigue. So use the boutique angle first, then focus on the region, then on the grape (that so suits that region), then—if you have to—on the winemaker’s reputation, then on the wine’s own flavour profile, and—finally—on the notion of individuality, purity and uniqueness.

Anyone anywhere can drink a bottle of industrial wine; but how many of your customers can really call the wine on the night their own?

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