How to Sell Riesling

Executives from Chateau Ste. Michelle, Costco uncover why the varietal still confuses consumers

by Laurie Daniel
wine costco riesling sales
Each Costco store carries about 150 different wines, just three to five of which are Rieslings. Annette Alvarez-Peters, head wine buyer for the chain, said the selections cater to different wine tastes such as sweet and off-dry.
Seattle, Wash.—Riesling is the darling of sommeliers and many other wine professionals, but it remains confusing to some consumers and can be a tough sell. Overcoming that obstacle was a topic of discussion at this week’s Riesling Rendezvous, which was held in Seattle and sponsored by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen estate.

At the first Riesling Rendezvous, held nine years ago, participants spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to promote Riesling, said Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. The rise of Moscato was a concern then, he noted, although its 15 minutes appear to be fading.

Still, Riesling remains a mystery to many consumers. The No. 1 misconception is that all Riesling is sweet, although there are many expressions of the grape, from dry to fruity to very sweet, and from delicate to powerful. Exemplary Rieslings are produced in a number of places around the world, including unlikely spots such as Michigan and Idaho, and the wines from each location have their own personalities. “The simple truth about Riesling is it’s complicated,” said Ernst Loosen of Dr. Loosen estate in Germany’s Mosel region—and also Ste. Michelle’s partner in the Eroica Riesling project. “The first step is to get consumers to try Riesling at all,” he said.

But all wine can be complicated, Loosen added, and he thinks that wine producers and sellers should resist the temptation to oversimplify Riesling, even for novice wine drinkers.

Such practices are all well and good, but how, then, do you sell it? That was the topic of a session called “Tips from the Pros on Selling Riesling.”

Retail sales of Riesling, by dollar amount and volume, have been down slightly every year since 2014, according to the Nielsen market research firm; sales barely ticked up in 2013. While domestic Riesling held its own, the declines were particularly bad for imported Rieslings.

Offering good value for the price is one key to selling Riesling, according to Annette Alvarez-Peters, head wine buyer for Costco, which is responsible for $1.7 billion in global wine sales annually. Out of 150 wine SKUs at the typical Costco outlet, three to five are Riesling, she estimated. The consumer she calls the “value member” tends to like sweeter styles; Alvarez-Peters said the Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling, which is off-dry, is a big seller at $5.99 per bottle. In the above-$12 segment, she added, Costco sells a lot of Loosen wine.

Although Costco sells a number of private-label Kirkland Signature wines, Alvarez-Peters said there are no plans to introduce a Riesling—at least in part because existing brands offer such good value.

Advice for on-premise sales of Riesling varied. Paul Grieco, owner of Terroir wine bar in New York City, is the creator of a promotion called “Summer of Riesling.” A passionate fan of Riesling, Grieco landed on a novel way to get his customers to drink Riesling: He offered them nothing else for three months in 2008.

“My staff was unhappy. My partner was unhappy. My investors weren’t happy,” Grieco said. But the idea caught on and even spread around the country. This summer, he’s pouring only German Riesling.

Other beverage directors haven’t gone all in like Grieco, but they’ve found other ways to sell Riesling. A steakhouse might seem an uncomfortable fit for Riesling, but Tylor Field III, who runs the beverage program for Morton’s Steakhouses, said his customers have demanded it. “I’d love to say that I discovered Riesling and made my guests drink it,” Field said, “but they told me loud and clear that they wanted it.” Field added that his Riesling program is mostly driven by the bar menu, where the foods tend to be savory, salty and/or spicy. “Riesling is perfect for that,” he said.

Jason Smith is a master sommelier and corporate wine director for the MGM Resorts, which has 405 food and beverage outlets. His outlets have diverse wine lists tailored to their local markets. In Las Vegas, for example, he said customers prefer the off-dry, fruity styles of Riesling. He added that just having one or two Rieslings on the list won’t increase sales. “You want to have five, 10, 15, depending on what fits your (restaurant’s) style,” Smith said.

Staff training is also important. San Francisco-based master sommelier Tim Gaiser, who works with the Court of Master Sommeliers on wine education, said the organization has taken a strong positive stand on Riesling—German Riesling, in particular. “We’re training the gatekeepers,” he said.

Boosting Riesling’s fortunes has also been the goal of the nonprofit International Riesling Foundation, which grew out of informal discussions at the first Riesling Rendezvous. One of the foundation’s early initiatives was creation of the Riesling Taste Profile, a scale that appears on the back labels of some Rieslings. The scale, which ranges from dry to sweet, aims to inform a consumer how sweet the wine will taste, based not only on residual sugar but also acidity and pH.

The foundation’s website, drinkriesling.com, has suggested parameters, but it’s ultimately up to the winemaker to determine where the wine falls on the Riesling Taste Profile. Foundation president Jim Trezise, outgoing president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, says the scale has appeared on 30 million wine bottles in the U.S. market.

Building on the success of the scale, the foundation is revamping its website to include videos and guest bloggers, and it’s increasing its presence on social media, specifically Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

Participants in the seminar about selling Riesling are particularly optimistic about the grape’s future among millennials. “In folks under 30, the conversation about Riesling absolutely is no problem,” Grieco said. “They’re willing to go their own direction.”

“We have a real opportunity now to get the millennials and turn Riesling into what Chardonnay was for my mom,” Field said.

Posted on 08.03.2016 - 19:43:06 PST
Not sure the millennials are Riesling's salvation! Go after Chardonnay drinkers with palate fatigue, looking for something different. Also, tap into the current trend favoring things that are perceived as new and consumed differently. If one can sell a plate full of deli meats rebranded as "charcuterie" it is not a difficult leap to convert Chardonnay drinkers. Look for occasions when consumers are open to a new taste experiences and focus your attention there. An example would be: "Riesling, the wine before 5:00."


Posted on 10.28.2016 - 17:52:28 PST
If you're trying t promote Riesling's, why is Chateau St Michelle no longer available in my local Stockton, Ca, or Lodi, Ca Costco store?
I am not a wine expert, nor do I like reds, but this one is perfect for me. I know it's still offered in another store several miles further (Manteca,Ca), so what's the issue?
I would like to go to my local Costco to purchase this perfect wine for me!