Remembering the little guys

For the past two Grape Sense columns, the focus has been on a handful of small production Oregon wineries.

This column wraps up the in-depth look at how they face marketing challenges against the big operations moving into the Willamette Valley. There are also some brief comments about their wine and how to buy their products.

Carl Giavanti is the marketing consultant working in the valley with these ‘little guys’ assisting them in carving out a niche.

“I think the real story in Willamette Valley (and other small regions nationally) is that 85 percent of the wineries produce less than 5,000 cases,” Giavanti has written. “It’s micro production by any measure. They have only survived because of so called “Premiumization” and the recent fascination with the region.

“What will happen when the next economic downturn occurs, and as the distribution consolidation continues, or as vineyard and winery acquisitions accelerate (which is happening at a rapid pace right now)? Are there business parallels between what is happening in Willamette Valley and any other burgeoning American industry? Is large always destined to win? Is there a “Manifest Destiny” for these small craft producers?”

Giavanti is a guy good at answering his own questions. There is no questioning its tough for these winemakers to clear their shelves at the end of each season. But smart marketing positioning and taking advantage of free media seem to be the most direct route for the smaller winery’s success.

“It’s no secret there are generally lots of wineries in most wine regions,” Giavanti points out. “There are over 9,000 wineries in the U.S, and due to consolidation by the largest distributors, I estimate only 700 distribution companies, and they focus on large family or corporate winery groups, high profit margins and primarily order taking. The small production winery simply cannot compete.”

Boiling down Giavanti’s recommendations can be oversimplified to having a good story to tell and knowing your product niche. He tells the winery owners to: 1) build your own unique brand, have a strong authentic winery voice that clearly states how you are different, unique and what you promise to consumers 2) do media outreach, either direct or with a media relations consultant. Get your name, your stories and your wines out there; and 3) sell your wine direct to consumer. You’ll have the highest margins (even after marketing costs), enjoy the greatest loyalty and have the most fun.”

That’s pretty good advice for any small business.

The Wines

One of the remarkable things about the Willamette Valley is the overall quality of the wine and the five producers included in this story are no exception. Those making Chardonnay are learning quickly and producing Burgundian style — soft and rich — white wines. Ghost Hill makes a fabulous white Pinot Noir at an incredible low price.

Pinot Noir is the calling card for Ghost Hill, Alloro, Lenne, Youngberg Hill and Vidon wineries. The wines are slight different in style which is one of the most interesting things about Oregon Pinot for real wine enthusiasts. All have varying levels of critical acclaim.

Space does not allow for individual reviews but ordering six bottles of wine from any of the wineries will be well worth your Pinot investment. The wines average around $40-$50 a bottle. With price creep really taking hold in Oregon, these wines are a value buy. Contact the wineries directly through their easy-to-find website to place an order. And yes, they can ship to Indiana. For specific recommendations, contact me at the email listed below.

And anytime you visit a wine region, remember the little guys.

For More

Go to the Grape Sense website at and look for a post with the headline “More from Boutique Oregon Wineries.” There are tips on aging Pinot, and background and philosophy on winemaking.

Howard W. Hewitt of Indianapolis writes every other week about wine for more than 20 Indiana newspapers and websites. Reach Howard at: [email protected]