CAMPAIGNS: Long Island looks to cultivate its vintage reputation

Eric Arnold looks at how the Long Island Wine Council handled the challenge of bringing together local winemakers to help position them as credible successes.

Eric Arnold looks at how the Long Island Wine Council handled the challenge of bringing together local winemakers to help position them as credible successes.

Thanks in no small part to Lizzie Grubman, the Eastern end of Long Island is better known for the upper crust of society's summer debauchery than for its grape-friendly soil and maritime climate. But in the past two years, the area has become recognized as the US' most promising new wine-producing region. Granted, wine had been produced on Long Island in relatively insignificant volumes and with few notable successes over the past 28 years. And dissent among the 21 original members of the Long Island Wine Council (LIWC) had almost dissolved the association altogether. By February 2000, in fact, some of the wineries were beginning to gain more respect and publicity than others, and some wineries simply felt they weren't being fairly represented by the LIWC. By the end of that month, one-third of the member wineries had resigned from the Council. Over the next six months, the remaining 14 member wineries agreed to pay larger dues. The LIWC also found a new president, and hired Jane Baxter Lynn as its new executive director. "If you look at Sonoma and Napa, and look at their history, every major wine region has faced this kind of crossroads early on in their development," says Baxter Lynn, "because it goes from small-time farming to competition." But over the past two years, a devotion to communication among the winemakers, followed by an intense effort to promote Long Island as a unique wine region and destination, has helped put Long Island wineries on the map. Strategy Before the LIWC could promote the uniqueness of the region or even the quality of the product as it began to materialize, the LIWC had to start by ironing out the communications problems that existed among its members. "The very first challenge we had as a group was to get the big players back," explains Baxter Lynn. "When you're only 14 of 21, you're the majority, but you can't speak on behalf of the industry, or build the kind of credibility a trade group is supposed to have." The other problem, as far as the wines themselves were concerned, was that they were too often compared to wines from other regions, and not viewed by either experts or general consumers as possessing unique qualities or flavors - especially at the prices people were being asked to pay. Finally, the LIWC would need to find a way to position the region's winemakers as playing an important role in the local economy. Until recently, and within a week of Baxter Lynn's arrival in 2000, the only feedback from the community was complaints about noise the wineries were making with their equipment. Tactics As soon as a new president for the LIWC was chosen after the February 2000 resignations, he brought in a moderator to brainstorm with the remaining member wineries about the future. One thing they all agreed on was that a lack of communication had contributed to the problems facing Long Island wineries. "It was down-and-dirty communication" as far as trying to convince the member wineries that had left the LIWC to return, "and really talking to them about what they thought the council should be, and what it was doing," says Baxter Lynn. The ultimate agreement was to get a coherent member structure and bylaws in place within the first three months, and get a committee structure in place once the wineries returned to the Council. One of the disputes among the wineries that had to be unraveled, Baxter Lynn explains, had to do with distribution. "One of the larger members has distribution in Florida. In the old days, many believed that he wouldn't want anyone else to come into the market because they would be competition. But when you speak to him about it, he totally understands that unless we develop credibility as a region in Florida, no one will buy his wine off the shelf." To that end, Baxter Lynn took other steps to establish the region's credibility, right in the wineries' own backyard and beyond. As far as the local community was concerned, Baxter Lynn had to explain to area businesses and residents that the wineries not only help promote tourism, but also prevent further construction of houses. Fortunately, convincing wine drinkers of Long Island wines' quality proved even easier, as in the past two years, the quality of the wines began to improve, and consumers began to warm up to the higher prices. "The overhead costs of viticulture in a small area like ours, so close to a big city and in a holiday area, is very high," Baxter Lynn explains. "While some of the wine was worth the money the consumer was being asked to pay, there were others that were overpriced. That has changed. The quality is becoming more and more consistently good, whatever the label." She helped get that message out with aggressive media relations and more discreet tactics, such as leaving her business card with the check at restaurants in and around Manhattan. Results The LIWC has not only regained most of the members that left two years ago, now totaling 24 full members (some of them are first-time members), but the region has gained credibility as a producer. A recent issue of Food & Wine magazine devoted its cover and an entire feature, complete with local recipes, to Long Island wineries. A revamp of the LIWC website also led to stories in the San Francisco Chronicle, Inc magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. "The way you successfully put a wine on the map is to capitalize on the success, quality, and prestige of a wine region. And I think, in a very short period of time, Long Island wines have done this quite successfully" says Michael Green, wine consultant for Gourmet magazine. A sign of Long Island wines' newfound prestige could even be seen less than two weeks ago at a major New York benefit for the League of the Hard of Hearing. The event included 40 of New York's top chefs preparing the food, and 21 Long Island wineries serving the drinks. One thousand attendees each paid $300 per ticket. Moreover, production in the region is up, year on year. Long Island produced 350,000 cases in 2001, which is more than 840,000 gallons of wine. That's up from 618,000 gallons in 2000, and 492,000 gallons in 1997. Future Baxter Lynn hopes to continue to grow the reach of the LIWC and the reputation of the region, as well as build stronger relationships with other organizations. To that end, she's already working with the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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