Friday, September 4, 2015

Lisa GRANIK, Master of Wine: "Many producers think making good wine is enough; it isn’t"

special guest

04.09.2015 (Hvino News). The special guest of Hvino News today is Lisa GRANIK, Master of Wine.  Ms. Granik, an internationally acclaimed wine expert, is well-known for her activities aimed at raising awareness about Georgian wines on global scale, and in the USA in particular. She kindly agreed to answer our questions.

Hvino News: In the recent months you have visited a number of top-level international wine events – from Boston to Bordeaux, and from Oregon to Tbilisi. You have been educating the visitors from various countries and cultures about the Georgian wine, conducting master classes, tasting events, and seminars.  This seems to be a tremendous challenge, given the fact that Georgian wine is still a terra incognita even to wine professionals. For a start, can you remember the most funny, naïve, or just strange question from your audience, which you had to answer during your events? 

Lisa Granik: Actually, most of the audiences are wine professionals, or quite wine-knowledgeable, and they come with a keen desire to learn more about these wines that have been receiving so much “buzz” and attention lately. The naïvete arises in every seminar, however, as people still think Georgia is a part of Russia, that the Georgian language is a dialect of Russian, and so forth.  I need to explain how Georgia and its culture predate Russia, that the Georgian people are a completely different ethnicity, and that only in the past 200 years has Russia been important vis-à-vis Georgia – a blink of an eye for a country that has 8000 years of wine culture!

Hvino News: This is true. What’s the perception of Georgian wine of an average seminar visitor? How can you characterize the current place of Georgia among the world’s wine producers?  

Lisa Granik: The seminar attendees are all in the trade, whether in importing, distribution, retail or education, and are excited primarily about two things.  First, they are keen to taste the indigenous varieties.  Second, they are fascinated with the qvevri wines. Regardless of which style of wine the average visitor prefers, everyone leaves the seminar convinced that Georgian wines offer something unique to the world wine community.  The immense challenge, however, is that Georgia is among many countries and regions vying for recognition in the world of wine.

Hvino News: Judging from your lecturing experience, what are the biggest obstacles which lie in the way of a wider international expansion of Georgian wines?  

Lisa Granik: Some of the grape varieties are hard to pronounce.  For English-language speakers, Otskhanuri Sapere is a tongue-twister!  Any variety or brand name with sounds that do not occur in English, or that have Georgian’s famous consonant clusters is a big challenge – consumers won’t ask for something if they can’t pronounce it or are embarrassed of saying it improperly.

Hvino News: Let's hope their thirst for Georgian wine overpowers the embarrassment. And what are the next stages that you envisage for the Georgian wines’ development on the international scene?  

Lisa Granik: Georgian wines will gradually continue to appear on more wine lists, and in more wine bars, in more cities in key export markets. If Georgia maintains the strong marketing efforts that have been in place over the past several years, and if the quality of wines continues to improve – which I believe they will, I think you’ll eventually see an increase in volumes and points of distribution.  Lots of education is necessary for consumers to understand that while all Georgian wines are a taste of history, qvevri wines offer a window to ancient practices, whereas modern wines express varietal purity.  But this is a long, slow process.

Hvino News: Our readers will surely be interested to learn more about you, your professional interests in general, and how you got involved with the Georgian wines. Firstly, please can you tell us about yourself.  What made you enter into the world of wine - after a successful career in law and an advanced academic degree? We doubt you come from a winemaker’s family – it must be a rare trade in Philadelphia. 

Lisa Granik: I was a lawyer and law professor in an earlier career.  As a Fulbright Scholar I taught and did research at the Institute of State and Law in Tbilisi.  It was 1990-1991 – a challenging time for Georgia – but it was an indelible, formative time in my life where I met people who remain very dear to me.  After I got my doctorate, though, I decided to change professional direction.  After some thinking outside the box, a career in wine appeared as an intellectual challenge, but also as a way to bridge cultures.  Personal diplomacy has always been very important to me.

Hvino News: Correct us if we are wrong, but it seems you are the first American Master of Wine to play such a significant role in promotion of Georgian wine culture. What’s the story behind your becoming an advocate – or rather an ambassador - of Georgian wines in the US?

Lisa Granik: Yes, I’m the first American MW to be so active in promoting Georgian wine.  (My colleague Isabelle Legeron MW in the UK has done much in Europe.)  In 2011, when I heard of a USAID program to send American wine experts to Georgia, I worked very hard to participate because I knew I was the only American wine professional who had any expertise regarding the country, and because I felt so strongly about Georgia given my time there before.

Hvino News: At Hvino News, during recent years we have been stressing the importance of a highly professional approach to global promotion of Georgian wine – the country’s “signature product”. In early 2015 we have been very happy to notice a real breakthrough in the US and European mass media’s coverage of Georgian wine, from Forbes Magazine to New York Times and many more. Surely the Georgian wine authorities deserve a high praise for their efforts, which are finally bearing fruit. But I guess we are also indebted to you for this achievement, too. How can you comment on this fantastic PR success and booming media’s attention?  

Lisa Granik: The National Wine Agency and the Georgian Wine Association do deserve the credit. The leaders of these organizations have been working for many years to increase visibility and sales of Georgian wine, and it is on the basis of their efforts that I have been working over the past few years to move Georgia to the next stage. Also, others such as the Clark Smith, my friends at Kargi Gogo and the various importers have helped spread the word with winemakers and consumers. Alice Feiring and Sarah May Grunwald are keen evangelists of qvevri wines.  October is “Georgian Wine Month,” with trade tastings and seminars in NY, Washington DC, and San Francisco. I hope to continue with these strategic efforts as happily, we are increasingly seeing positive results.

Hvino News: Speaking about marketing, Georgia is pioneering some innovations – such as greeting incoming tourists with free bottles of wine at the border. At the same time, voices are heard about insufficient marketing efforts. How would you assess the existing level of marketing support that the Georgian wine industry is receiving from the government? Should the private companies rather relate on their own efforts in marketing or demand more support from the state?  

Lisa Granik: Greeting people at the airport with wine is fun and novel, but this primarily reaches out to people already positively predisposed to love Georgia and its wines.  The real challenge is cutting through the noise and competition of the many thousands of wines clamoring for attention in the world market to reach those who may never have heard of Georgia.  As for state vs. government support, it’s not an either/or thing. Success is more likely when both the state and industry work together in mutually reinforcing efforts.  For example, the Austrian Wine Marketing Board – an independent entity supported by both the government and the trade – is the gold standard in raising awareness, and sales, of that country’s fine wines.  For the past 20 years, they have worked tirelessly and creatively in the USA, UK, and other countries to have their wines equally esteemed among the top echelon of the world’s classics. With a clear, focused strategy based on a long-term view, this is a model to emulate.

Hvino News: In a number of ways Georgia is unique, but at the same time there must be similarities with other countries, which are making their way in a highly competent global wine market. You have a wide experience with other countries and national wine industries. Can you think of important lessons, which may be useful for Georgia? Are there any mistakes, which you are observing, or which you may warn against in the future?  

Lisa Granik: It is crucial that producers understand the intense competition in the marketplace and the need for sustained, clever marketing. Many producers think making good wine is enough; it isn’t. Understanding your target market, and tailoring a realistic, focused campaign to capture them is at least as important.  Too few producers are willing to invest what is necessary to be successful, which lessens their chances of success.  Their market share will be eaten by companies who do make this marketing investment.  It is important to relaize that the US market is a long-term play, and    not to give up too soon. It is important to stay the course.  Certainly, the wine industry feels the ups and downs of the global economy.  Since 2008 people have really focused on wines that offer value. Georgia has an advantage here as its wines produced in a modern style offer a point of difference, in terms of the indigenous varieties, that can be attractively priced.  The qvevri wines offer prestige, and something very unique, but it would be unfortunate if Georgia followed the path of Bordeaux, where a few top producers are successful and wealthy, but the producers of fine quality, everyday wine have serious difficulties.

Hvino News: Let’s talk about the wines per se. If you have personal likes or dislikes about any specific Georgian wines, we will be interested to know. But we do not want this interview to focus on Georgia only. What is your general vision on the wines, preferences, “weaknesses” for any specific type or region?  

Lisa Granik: I like wines with a clear personality, that express their origins, and demonstrate that they were grown and made by someone who was conscious of quality.  Wines that could come from anywhere in the world are boring.  I tend to avoid wines with too much oak, too much extraction, aggressive acidity, and wines that are microbiologically unstable.  Balance and purity of expression are most important to me.  Not all wines can be, or need to be, profound and complex.

Hvino News: Georgian wines are developing in several directions simultaneously. Some producers are oriented at so-called European style wines, others pay main attention to traditional Georgian methods. Let’s not forget about consumers who are accustomed to “Soviet style” wines, and there are producers which are targeting this large market sector.  In the times of unstable market situation, production managers are facing some very hard choices. How would you comment on the balance between various market options and wine styles? 

Lisa Granik: It is important to remember that there is no single type of wine consumer, thus there is a need for different styles of wine.  There are people who will never be interested in qvevri wines, for example – they prefer a light, fresh style with no discernible tannin.  For them, the modern-style Georgian wines are perfect – a different variety, but made in an accessible fashion. Similarly, some people will always want semi-sweet wines.  All of these wines are properly Georgian wines. In a way, Georgia is lucky that it has a variety of options to the consumer, rather than being a “one trick pony.”  For the producer, it’s a personal choice of the producer to determine which wines they can both produce and market best, and then target the appropriate consumer with an appropriate marketing strategy.  But, as I noted earlier, they need to realize that unlike other sectors, wine is not a get-rich-quick enterprise.  It requires a realistic strategy based on a long-term view.  Those who put all their eggs in the Russian basket are learning that lesson now.

Hvino News: We know that your interests spread beyond the wine sphere – you like literature, music, history, and poetry.  Being one of the oldest Christian countries, Georgia, too, has a lot to offer to the world, besides wine. We sincerely hope that you had a chance to get familiar with some cultural treasures of Georgia. Can you name something that impressed you, or something you are planning to see in the future?  

Lisa Granik: During my last visit to Georgia, I visited 3 monasteries, 10 churches and 4 synagogues.  I well understand and respect the meaning of tradition in modern life, its wisdom, grounding, and challenges. 

Thank you very much, Ms. Granik, for taking time to answer our questions. We know many of our readers highly value your opinion. At Hvino News you are always very welcome

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