Sunday, August 19, 2012

Georgian wine struggles for market share in Riga

by Robert Linkous

16.08.2012. Many are the splendors of Riga – blocks and blocks of dazzling Art Nouveau architecture, flowery green public parks as ablaze with color as many an Impressionist painting, motorists who wait at respectful and humane distances while pedestrians stroll past in clearly marked cross walks – and now Georgian food and wine can be added to their numbers.

Not far from the Central Train Station, in the Spikeri Creative Quarter, is the Pirosmani restaurant, open for business since February 2010. Its walls are devoted to sizable reproductions of the work of the artist to whom the restaurant pays homage, and its menu is as typically Georgian as any to be found in Tbilisi.

“Everyone likes the khachapuri,” reported waitperson Veronika Anikina, to which a happy diner, chowing down at the moment, chimed in his assent. But the khinkali also has its devotees, as do the Tsinandali and Mukuzani with which to wash them down.

At the opposite end of central Riga, across from the Art Nouveau Museum, is the Winiveria Vinoteca, a tasting bar and wine shop in its second year of operation, featuring by the glass and by the bottle the Winiveria wines of Chateau Mere. According to consultant Vineta Reinberga, quite a few visitors spill over before or after a tour of the museum, but co-founder Anri Leimanis also attributes Vinoteca’s appeal to the regular “wine tasting nights for groups of up to twenty wine lovers when we tell our private stories of Georgia supported with our photos and videos showing why we love Georgia and its people.”

Indeed, Leimanis and two friends were inspired to open the simply but authentically decorated shop after “previous good experience with Georgia. We had traveled there, met nice people and found good friends,” she elaborated in a lengthy email. Thanks at least partly, if not largely, to their enthusiasm, the shop is “doing rather well.”

For that matter, Riga seems a fine city for wine lovers, with a number of enticing shops scattered about the heart of the city. With selections that vary from shop to shop, they offer a wide range of thirst-provoking choices from major winegrowing regions around the world, but in the majority of them Georgian wines are either nonexistent or barely represented and none too prominently displayed.

Near the Central Train Station, however, there is a Stockmann supermarket with a wine department that can rival almost all of the shops. In it a fair share of shelf space is given to the wines of Georgia, considering the relatively small size of the country and its newness on the world wine market. Selling for around 6 to 10 Lats (approximately 11 to 18 USD, or 17 to 29 Lari), wines from Teliani Valley, Tamada, Marani, and Askaneli, for example, are on hand.

Well and good, except for the competition, such as Jacob’s Creek and Hardy’s from Australia, Trapiche and Norton from Argentina, KWV from South Africa, and Campo Viejo from Spain, to name a few, which at Stockmann is selling its wine at comparable or lower prices … and these are people with hugely successful track records of marketing – and making – good wine.

And even if sweet red Georgian table wine has found a niche in Riga, it is a small one predominantly occupied by young wine drinkers with a sweet tooth who will tend to vacate it as their taste for wine matures.

Along with the Winiveria Vinoteca, Leimanis and colleagues also have an import company called Pelican Club, which originally brought in wines and brandies from seven prestigious Georgian producers, but it “now only sells Mere and Winiveria wines to a small number of bars and shops in Riga,” she wrote, since Pelican Club is struggling, and Winiveria’s “are by far the best quality wines that we have found in Georgia.”

Pelican Club’s difficulties are “mainly due to heavy competition and the rather high price of Georgian wine,” Leimanis lamented; “store owners/managers in Latvia are rather ignorant of wine quality and prefer a good deal to a good wine.” But the likes of Hardy’s and Campo Viejo may be offering a good deal and good wine.

The solution? In the view of Leimanis, “Wholesale of Georgian wine would benefit from significantly lower prices (by approximately 40%), much better logistics (shorter transportation time, lower cost and better organization) as well as better design of wine bottles plus some overall producer marketing support.”

It sounds simple enough. Wine, especially dry white wine, has a shelf life, and Georgians ought to be able to get their wine to the Latvian market at least as quickly as Australians and Argentinians can. Moreover, even if half of Latvia speaks Russian, it is puzzling to see wine labels that are in that language exclusively.

In the not too distant past, Leimanis and her group “drafted a Public Private Partnership project and attracted interest from the Georgian Ministry of Agriculture and several private partners in Latvia and Georgia,” which she believed to be “well designed” and “innovative,” would solve the problems noted above, and would ultimately “sell wine in much larger quantities than currently.”

But “the government officials were unable to reach all the necessary approvals and the project never came to life.” To Leimanis it seems that “Georgian government officials are afraid of being accused of some imaginary illegal doings so they preferred to do nothing unfortunately.”

Still, Georgia and its wine seems to have a loyal friend in Leimanis, and in a city of wine lovers such as Riga, it may hope to make more of them by and by.


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