This is an actual past question from the Masters of Wine exam. These types of questions are not common but they do pop up on the “contemporary issues” part of the exam once in a while…. It seemed the key was to understand a customer that was truly foreign to the seller, and use selling tactics that were based on the understanding of that foreign customer.
This leads me to the idea of selling to customers in New York City. No, let me rephrase that, in Manhattan. No, let me rephrase that, to the wine trade in Manhattan that is associated with a more ambitious wine program. Yes, these are Martians. These are not your typical wine drinkers. Their drinking habits are sometimes odd, they use funny terminology and they will get excited over discussions of rootstock and specific yeast. I am one of these Martians…. and yes, we feel we have seen it all… but once in a while someone, someone special, will open your eyes to that which you were blind.
Last week, on January 29th, I had the great honor of going to a class and lunch with Oz Clarke. He has co-authored many great wine books and is a wonderful personality in the wine world. And as a writer, he has such a distinctive voice. I had always wondered if he would be the same in person: witty, passionate, incredibly knowledgeable and down to earth. Happily I can say he is all of those things and more… he is one of those rare writers that make the words come more alive when he speaks them.
This master class was sponsored by the New Zealand Winegrowers, and the main focus, to me anyways, seemed to be, “What is exciting about New Zealand wine?!”
Honestly, I went because I wanted to see Oz Clarke. And I walked away not only being thoroughly impressed by him, but being thoroughly impressed and swept away by New Zealand. The kind of excitement I feel for French wines. Yes, I am that dirty word: FRANCOPHILE.
And I think this has to do with Oz Clarke. He knows how to sell to Martians! Or maybe he just knows how to inspire passion for wine regions, even in the hearts of those that were jaded long ago.
I must admit that I have heard of Waitaki Valley but I knew very little about it. And I could sense the other Marians in the room were not familiar with it either. This made the Martians immediately perk up and want to know about something that could possible be so hip, that we, who were on the cutting edge of hip, did not even know about it. Waitaki is on the South Island and straddles the boundary between North Otago and Canterbury. It is known to suffer from frost almost every month. Matt Stafford, Chief Winemaker of Craggy Range, who was in attendance that day, confirmed this fact.
So why on earth would anyone plant vines there?!
According to Oz Clarke, there is a layer of limestone that gives a beautiful minerality and the conditions are great for aromatic varieties. Well, some of the Martians seemed to have issues with even the mention of the currently dreaded word “minerality”, and you could hear the rumblings of dissatisfaction in the room. Oz Clarke knew well enough about the whole “controversy” about saying that a wine gets “minerality” from the soil. He then expressed the idea, which was carried throughout the class, of the rarity of place and people that New Zealand presented as a country. In most other regions in the world, if the wine grower knew from the very beginning that they would have to deal with frost once a month, they would never even consider planting vines there. But not the New Zealand people! This fact just makes them want to give it a go even more. This seemed to please the Martians and they quickly forgot about getting into an argument about minerality, and were then open to hearing about what was exciting about New Zealand.
Then there was a point where we had to cover Marlborough. Many Martians at this time started to check their email. And Oz knew that the Martians were over Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Even though it is the top selling New Zealand wine category, even though a great wine making country such as Australia has Oyster Bay New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as their #1 selling wine, it is too overdone for Martians to take any interest. Yes, they have to represent them on their wine lists, they know many of their customers want it, but they don’t have to like it. And as the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wines were poured, I could sense that the other Martians did not even want to bother with these wines. The Martians were there for the Syrah wines from Hawke’s Bay! (By the way, I do love Hawke’s Bay Syrah. Please try to taste it if you have not already.)
But then Oz, with his talent and skill for breathing excitement and life into language, started describing the Marlborough Sounds, which is a remote pristine maritime oasis. And that the legend of its beauty inspired many sailors over the past couple of centuries to travel through hellish, life threatening conditions so they may have the slight chance of experiencing paradise. But he had a way of saying the words that reached beyond our minds to tap into our hearts, and he connected with the Martians’ desires to want to escape to a place that was very different from Mars.
Then there was the risky mention of Cloudy Bay. Oh yes, Cloudy Bay is what put Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the map. It is the epitome of what Martians do not typically find exciting: a successful wine brand. He talked about the senior winemaker Tim Heath and how he was very uninterested in talking about only specific winemaking techniques that he employs at Cloudy Bay. I have found that true in my own experience. Tim visited my wine store for a staff tasting a year and a half ago. I asked him several technical winemaking questions, and he seemed as if he was always trying to bring the conversation back to the idea of place, the idea of New Zealand. Oz said Tim is a true lover of New Zealand who would be happy to talk to anyone about his favorite spots to fly-fish, or about any authentic interest in the country itself. And I think the main point of this master class was the idea that you need to try to get to know a place before you can ever truly understand their wines.
How would you sell wine to a Martian?
You need to know their habits, pricing limits (or lack of limits), attitude towards wine, level of knowledge, and those cultural idiosyncrasies that make certain promotional aspects either offensive or appealing. But beyond those different factors there is a commonality to all customers, Martian or not, that was prevalent throughout this whole workshop. It is simply the following:
The Human Spirit
All of us have our fantasy of either being superheroes, taking on something personally terrifying or simply living our lives by being true to ourselves without worrying about being judged, ostracized or seemingly coming off as failures. But at the end of the day, all of us know we will be judged by not just one, but by many, no matter what we do. We feel we cannot win.
On that day, Oz Clarke presented a place that seemed adventurous and free of those worries of being judged for being different. This may not be true in the reality of daily life in New Zealand, but it was nice to be transported to this magical world that Oz Clarke created. It was even better than the original movies of the Lord of the Rings… because it involved wine!
Tasting notes from wines tasted that day, January 29th, 2015
-Seifried Sauvignon Blanc Nelson 2014
Green, herbaceous notes, more grass than asparagus
-Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc Te Muna Road Vineyard, Martinborough 2013
Stony, flinty, terroir driven
-Cloudy Bay Te Koko Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2012
Textural wine due to barrel ferment, combination of aromatic lift and good amount of weight on the palate
-Mahi Ballot Block Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2008
A distinctive flinty nose, not too much of a green note, has a lot of life and very enjoyable even at they advanced age… surprising
-Clearview Reserve Chardonnay Hawke’s Bay 2013
Lean and focused with lovely peach fruit and a nice zing of acidity on the finish
-Carrick Chardonnay Central Otago 2012
Natural wine making.. biodynamic practices, low SO2, notes of hay and ripe melon, and a touch of kombucha… the Martians were going crazy for this wine
-Pyramid Valley Field of Fire Chardonnay North Canterbury 2012
I thought this wine was stunning, yes, natural practices as well, but more savory and less funk, it was rich with roasted hazelnut aromatics and a decadent full flavored palate balanced with an overall elegant quality
-Villa Maria Taylor’s Pass Chardonnay Marlborough 2011
More tropical fruit dominant with bright acidity, great purity
-Escarpment Pinot Gris Martinborough 2013
Good amount of body and creamy texture
-Aronui Riesling Nelson 2014
Pristine citrus fruit with mouth watering acidity
-Spy Valley Gewurztraminer Marlborough 2013
The purest smell of lychee one could ever smell and slight hint of rose petal
-Milton Riverpoint Vigonier Gisborne 2013
Only slight perfumed which was nice, and a fun saline finish
-Palliser Estate Pinot Noir Martinborough 2013
Red cherry and dried herbs
-Dog Point Pinot Noir Marlborough 2012
High-toned lifted aromatics of raspberry with lean texture
-Ostler Caroline’s Pinot Noir Waitaki Valley 2011
Ahhh.. the savory notes that I love with Pinot Noir, dried porcini mushroom and forest floor
-Valli Pinot Noir Central Otago 2009
Lush body with chewy tannins and crisp acidity with lots of black cherry flavors and hint of lapsang tea
-Passage Rock Reserve Syrah Waiheke Island 2012
Aromatic Syrah with peppery notes
-Cypress Terraces Syrah Hawke’s Bay 2012
More flesh on the palate, sweet fruit and exotic spice
-Craggy Range Le Sol Hawke’s Bay 2011
Smoky nose with bitter chocolate and black currant leaf, one of my favorite producers
-Kusuda Syrah Martinborough 2009
For bacon lovers, smoked meats and black cherries…. Okay, now I am hungry!