by Andrew Chalk
Gruet Winery sells almost 130,000 cases of wine a year, the best of it made from New Mexico grapes and clearly labelled as such. Its retail and on-premise (restaurant and club) reach extends to 49 states in the U.S., plus Japan and the Caribbean. Gruet is sui generis in this respect. No other winery from New Mexico has a footprint outside of the state.
Texas wineries are at an inflexion point in the industry’s history. They are quality-competitive with like-for-like varietals from other states, but that fact is not known outside the state. As a result, out-of-state sales are much lower than they could be. Obviously, a good product is not sufficient to sell nationally. Something else is needed.
What lessons does Gruet’s success have for Texas wineries in expanding their sales footprint outside the state? What are the key factors that led to Gruet’s success? Was it distribution? If so, does on-premise or off-premise distribution matter more? Is it reviews? If so, which review sites matter? How important is editorial coverage in wine blogs? How important are blind tastings? What about word-of-mouth?
To answer these questions, I visited Gruet in Albuquerque and interviewed the management and family of the winery. Obviously, the situation of each winery is unique. However, there can be common threads that apply across the industry and lessons from Gruet can be applied to Texas.
Gruet’s Nathalie Gruet supplied the answers.
What were the crucial events that caused Gruet’s sales expansion beyond New Mexico?
Nathalie Gruet: In order to grow the winery and the brand, the family involved in the US business sought to develop the market outside New Mexico. Distribution with Monterey Bay and Skurnik, and trade buzz helped catapult Gruet on its merits of quality, value and methode champenoise winemaking.
Monterey Bay Wine Co. was the first distributor for Gruet Winery. The late Joe Kimbro owned it at the time (now led by Cindy Kaster, a great advocate). (Michael) Skurnik Wines was next, and when they brought Gruet in, they sold out of their initial order so quickly that they had to air-freight Gruet to NY. These two distributors really help put Gruet on the nation’s stage.
What was the relative importance of:
a) review scores.
NG: It was important at the time to introduce the brand in the connoisseur’s world, to present a New Mexico product which would have been left out otherwise. Gruet really never invested in paid marketing/advertising, and the growth of the brand was word of mouth from critics and consumers. It was crucial to show the product and to get scores that would support the excellent quality of our sparkling wines.
b) consumer acceptance in new markets.
NG: Consumers were ready to be surprised by a product that came from an unusual part of the US, something different from California. Consumers were excited to discover a product of great quality they could afford and they could drink on a regular basis.
c) Placement in the channel.
NG: Gruet believes that placements to be made 60% on premise in order to introduce the brand, to show off the high quality of the product and to tell the business owner that Gruet is a must when it comes to quality/price ratio. Gruet is used regularly in chef schools in the US as a good food-pairing wine that is always of high quality. Enthusiasm is a must while selling the Gruet brand. This sparkling comes from an unusual place. It’s a combination of delicious, festive, and affordable wine backed by a passionate winemaking family and it has great distribution.
What were the relative importance of reviews in:
a) Wine Spectator Top 100 Wine of 2011 – #43, the only American sparkling on the list. NG: The 2011 ranking resulted in a shortage of Blanc de Noirs, immediately spurring on-premise sales growth. If anyone ever doubted of the quality of Gruet, this review closed the gap.
b) The Wine Advocate.
NG: Robert Parker has always loved our product and rated them fairly well. Again the reviews confirm the quality of the products and how serious Laurent was about making excellent sparkling wine in NM.
c) The Wine Enthusiast.
NG: This publication always seems to offer a good review or Gruet mention before the holidays, which reminds the consumer there is a great product from NM perfect for holiday dinners and cocktails.
d) Local newspapers and blogs.
NG: Throughout the years, we had numerous articles locally, in newspapers, local magazine, and even TV news telling our story and mentioning our success. Those types of reviews bring new customers to the tasting room at the winery.
Author and wine expert Jancis Robinson has been a great proponent, touting Gruet as a shining example of an American success story, showing the wine on national television, and telling the winery’s story in her book on the nation’s wine regions, ‘American Wine’.
How important are medals?
NG: Lots of international trophies and quotables- See the list of acclaim in various downloads.
International Wine and Spirits Conference 2010 – Sofian Himeur (Gruet marketing manager) attended the event awards ceremony when Gruet was a finalist in contention with Robert Mondavi. Gruet won USA Wine Producer of the year.
How important are peer tastings:
NG: Winemaker Laurent Gruet is most flattered when his wine is blind-tasted with true French Champagnes and peer experts can’t taste the difference. When patriarch Gilbert Gruet was alive he would hold private tasting with peers and blind-taste Gruet against Dom P, Moet, Ruinart, Roederer, etc. In one tasting of 12 wines, Gruet NM was the only non-Champagne there and ranked as the 2nd place favorite in this informal tasting.
Any other things?
NG: In July 2014, Gruet partnered with Seattle-based Precept Wine in a sales and marketing agreement that would take it into deeper points of distribution and give it the event, PR and marketing bandwidth that other Precept brands enjoy. Precept hopes to nearly double Gruet’s current production and in the next five years. It is the first sparkling wine offering in the Precept Wine portfolio, unique to its flagship brands such as Waterbrook, Canoe Ridge, HOUSE, Browne, Ste. Chapelle and others. Like Gruet, Precept is privately held and family-run.
AC: Nathalie Gruet, many thanks for your time and attention today. You have given Texas winemakers a lot of food-for-thought.