On Tour in the US with Our Winemaker

Andy’s update on the recent tour of the US.

Over the past 18 months Misha’s Vineyard has been working on securing market placements in the competitive and challenging US market. Part of our commitment to importers and distributors was in-market support from Misha and I, along with our winemaker Olly Masters. We planned visiting three key regions starting 26th February – Northern California where we have special friends – both inside and outside of the wine industry, Arizona, where our special “Fox Block Eight” blend of Pinot Noir for Fox Restaurants has been in the market for a year, and New York where our fabulous importer has been placing our range of wines in some amazing restaurants.

Jim Chanteloup at K & L
First stop was San Francisco. We love this city and its surrounding wine districts. Over the course of four days we met with some big New Zealand wine supporters and hopefully we influenced some more! Jim Chanteloup, buyer at wine retailer K & L and Chuck Haywood along with Paige from Berkley based
NZ Wine fan - Chuck Haywood
retailer JJ Buckley have long been supporters of New Zealand wines and have been responsible for getting New Zealand wines shelf space in their respective retailers. It was fantastic to see a growing list of wines from all parts of New Zealand on offer – and more than just Sauvignon Blanc! Our meetings with importers in San Francisco and Napa confirmed that while there is recovery in the US market – it is slow and cautious.

Dan Berger & Olly
We were delighted to be able have lunch in Santa Rosa with Dan Berger – a highly respected journalist and wine critic. Dan has been selected to choose the US wine selection for the 6 Nations Wine Challenge – extended from the Tri Nations (New Zealand, Australia and South Africa) to now including wines from Chile, Argentina and the US into the competition. Dan has visited New Zealand on more than one occasion and will hopefully be back again soon. We were able to show Dan some of our wines – carefully carried in our suitcases – with Olly able to explain the detailed winemaking and vintage data for each of them.

Zach at Robert Sinskey Wines with our friend Lara
We had a little bit of downtime one afternoon so we headed north to tour the famous Napa wine region. While in Napa we were invited to tour the winery and barrel caves at Robert Sinskey Wines with the very funny and entertaining assistant winemaker Zach Gabbert. The scale of the winery tasting room and caves is amazing! While not considered a huge producer, the long tunnels lined with barrels, elaborate tasting room hidden deep under the hillside and immaculate winery facility cannot fail to impress. Zach took Misha, Olly and I along with our friends Mike & Lara through barrel and tank tastings of the current vintage, and a sample of the “Orange Wine” (that Dan Berger had told us about) made from Pinot Gris with long period of skin contact. We also managed to fit in lunch and a tasting at one of Misha’s favourite Napa producers – Frogs Leap Winery.

Andy, Misha, Regan and Olly
Next stop was Phoenix where we held our first Misha’s Vineyard wine dinner for Fox Restaurant Concepts (FRC). FRC has about 40 outlets and growing. Most are in Arizona but they are fast expanding in other states. Our wine dinner at Modern Steak in the Scottsdale Fashion Mall was a sell-out and matched five of our wines with an array of stunningly prepared “modern” dishes. After the dinner Regan Jasper – Beverage Director of FRC – took us on a visit to two of the “Culinary Drop-out” FRC venues in Scottsdale and Phoenix – hot spots for people of all ages. The concept really works! Chefs are dressed in t-shirts and bandanas rather than kitchen whites and stripes, the menu is fresh and simple, cocktails are both innovative and really well presented. The larger of the two Culinary Drop-outs’ we visited was an old motorcycle dealership – a huge open sided warehouse where in addition to the restaurant and bar, part of the area had been converted into lounges around small gas fireplaces built into the coffee tables and games – table tennis and bean bag throwing. The large venue was packed late at night when we dropped in for our cocktail, and when Misha and I went back at 3pm on Sunday (while Olly & Regan were playing golf) we were told there was a 1 ½ hour wait for a table!

Olive & Ivy Bar & Restaurant Manager Doug Lyons with the shelves of Misha's Vineyard "Fox Block Eight" Pinot Noir
For our last event in Arizona we held a lunch and Misha’s Vineyard training for FRC managers and staff at another of their Scottsdale venues – Olive & Ivy – a very popular dining spot, and also visited some of the other FRC concepts – True Foods, The Greene House, Blanco, Sauce and Zinburger. On Tuesday we held another sell-out wine dinner in Tucson at North – the authentic Italian restaurant.

While in Tucson we stayed with Regan and his wife Megan – great friends, and incredibly generous and hospitable hosts. As this was Olly’s first trip to the US we fitted in quite a bit of sight-seeing into the timetable including a trail walk through a desert canyon with signs on the side of the trail warning us to be careful of mountain lions and bobcats! Regan calmly told us the rattlesnakes would not be a problem as it was still too cold for them!

The next stop was New York and we knew the temperatures would be a little cooler than Arizona. As we boarded the flight in Phoenix we were told a major snow storm was approaching the North East and that 1600 flights had already been cancelled. But we arrived okay and were surprised to be met off our late night flight by our New York importer Darren McMahon. Darren is about the most enthusiastic wine guy we know. He loves selling wine and has a passion for everything he does. After dropping us at our accommodation in Manhattan at 11pm, he was heading back to his office – 2 hours drive away – to do some more work then drive back to meet us the next morning. We woke the next day to find the city covered in a blanket of snow making the pavements slippery with ice and very wet where the snow had piled into slush. Travel by metro trains seemed the best way to get around and avoid the traffic so we arranged to meet Darren at the first appointment which thankfully was near a subway station.

The Sommelier and the Restaurant Manager at Sparks Steakhouse in NY with Olly, Misha and our importer Darren
The customer visits in New York were, well…interesting to say the least! It seems we have our wines listed in some of the very best New York steakhouses and restaurants, many of which have been in business for a considerable number of years and some with links, past and current, to the underworld. Sparks Steakhouse was one such place and is famous for being the scene of the shooting of one of New York’s most notorious mafia bosses. We also presented our wines at a “Gentleman’s Club” frequented by some of Wall Street’s finest – and that’s certainly a first for our listings. New Zealand wines are certainly not ubiquitous in the New York restaurant scene, but they are getting to be better known. Our Misha’s Vineyard style of Pinot Noir and cool climate aromatic wines were very well received and in most cases a visit resulted in a new account, or a new listing in those establishments where we already have one or more wines.

Tasting wines with Mark Miller at Crush in NYC
On Sunday we joined Darren and his daughter for brunch at Kiwiana in Brooklyn. Kiwi chef Mark Simmons opened this small but very popular restaurant to feature New Zealand inspired cuisine and New Zealand products. It was great to see some of our wines on the list and a good selection of wines from all over New Zealand.

In addition to NYC and the close surrounds, we also have quite a number of listings on Long Island. We visited some of these restaurants and again, we were just amazed at the scale. Even the smaller Italian restaurant we visited does 300 covers on weekend nights and some of the steak and seafood locations turn through 600 diners in an evening! Darren had organized a Sommeliers Dinner at Four Food Studio in Melville – a modern American restaurant that features a menu to match the season. Misha, Olly and I had the opportunity to tell the large group of sommeliers and restaurateurs about New Zealand wines and the Central Otago region. And of course the Misha’s Vineyard wines were served throughout the dinner with the appropriate course. It was a great way to get people excited about New Zealand wines and it resulted in some immediate listings and orders for Darren!

A delayed flight out of New York meant we missed our homeward connection in Los Angeles. However the unplanned 24hr stopover gave us a sightseeing opportunity so we rented a car and visited Venice Beach and Hollywood – with a brief shopping stop at the Harley Davidson store!

It was a busy 2 ½ weeks but very worthwhile to spend time with our importers and customers, and meet potential new ones! It’s tough to gain a foothold in the US wine market with its multi-tier import rules and low valued dollar. However it remains the world’s largest economy and is growing in per-capita wine consumption so it really is an essential part of any wine exporters market plan. We’re looking forward to the next trip.