The difference between a boutique wine and a big-name brand is its humanity—and the impact it can have on your business
Now that modern life is run entirely by supermarkets, everything has become a commodity. Milk is a commodity. Broccoli is a commodity. Dishwashing powder is a commodity. And so is so much wine. There’s a facelessness that has crept into the way we all sustain ourselves. Little human or personal contact is the basis of our daily happiness or nourishment as we increasingly became mere automatons for the robotic processing of food and drink. There is undoubtedly a massive, silent cry for help going on—which is where hospitality champions can step in.
As a business that provides paying customers with food and drink, you get to add the one thing that the supermarkets and wine store chains can never add: the humanity. In as much as good restaurateurs strive to source the best produce so too should they endeavour to provide the best wines. And I’m not talking about the wines with the highest profiles or awards or kudos; I’m talking about wines that are grown and made by people for people. Boutique wines, as they are termed.
A boutique winery, as defined by the Association of Australian Boutique Winemakers, is a winery “which crushes and bottles 250 tonne or less annually and is owned independently, i.e., not owned by a larger wine company”. In other words, about 85 per cent of Australia’s near 2500 wineries. And when you think of it that way, that’s a rather big pool from which you might draw your wine inventory.
Three important points need to be established about such wineries and how they can help your business, and, you in your turn, help theirs. (This, by the way, doesn’t seem to be the sort of symbiosis enjoyed by supermarkets and their suppliers…)
Firstly, boutique wines are generally little known outside the sharp end of the wine drinking set. In this sense they have the sort of niche status that so suits smaller hospitality businesses endeavouring to make their own niche mark. It is a natural fit, as the expression goes. No other business can hope to replicate your kitchen’s signature risotto, for instance; no other business might recommend a certain boutique wine to accompany that dish. Your food combined with your wine selection and service becomes unique. In a franchised world you stand apart.
Secondly, a list of boutique wines brings an element of discovery, and through that journey, a sense of comfort and trust to your customers’ luncheon or dinner. A highly marked-up bottle of Multinational Hill Creek Estate Shiraz might be a wine that many customers are familiar with, but none of them will want to drink it in your restaurant, both out of resentment at what they see as the outrageous mark-up and also out of a sense of snobbishness. Don’t insult your customers by thrusting machine-made wines at them. Intrigue them, entice them, and help them learn more about wine through a wine list that personalises more than it leverages price. Every wine list can be a revealing and informative epistle, if only properly composed. Your customers will come to love you for it, because it teaches them things about wine in a non-prescriptive manner.
Thirdly, in a world where sustainability, the environment, and a growing sense of custodianship of the planet are becoming the perceived ideal, boutique wines offer you a connection to that vision. Boutique wineries are increasingly becoming bio-dynamic or organic, or possibly both. Boutique wineries use their partnership with nature as a selling point, and you should use it too, in order that your customers also feel the love—and feel the calling and duty to the same regard.
Boutique wines are little known, but many are high quality; boutique wines are a unique teaching device through which you can turn your customers on to wine; and boutique wines connect to the earth and a sense of place—or of their terroir, as the French has it.
Boutique wines and their winemakers also help to throw off stylistic burdens that have become so super-glued to the Australian wine scene. As winemaker David Bicknell, from Oakridge in the Yarra Valley, commented before a meeting of leading Melbourne wine lovers in March this year, “Decades go into winemaking; it is not a young or easily-achieved thing. Focussing on the vineyard and on what variety is best suited to it, that’s the key. What I want as a winemaker is transparency. I’m not interested in the façade of wine, but in its simple construction, so that it lets you see what it really is, based on where it is from. Yes, I know single vineyard wines have become trendy, but making a wine simply so that the vineyard can speak is what it is all about.”
Margaret River’s Hay Shed Hill winemaker, Michael Kerrigan, sums up this boutique wine sentiment all too well: “In a highly corporatised wine world we’ve seen highly visual wine companies ‘huff and puff’ with huge volume expectations and with more press in the business news than favourable reviews in the wine columns. In the end corporations shouldn’t run boutique wine businesses.”
He’s right. Nor should they run the niche restaurants and cafes and bars that add so much to the cultural life of Australia. That cultural life returns the favour to smart hospitality operators, and including a wide range of boutique wines on your list is part of the equation.