The wine market is crowded. There are thousands of wineries jumping up and down screaming, ‘ME, ME, ME!!!’, all trying to tell a story about what makes them different. It’s a story that wine buyers and potential customers are getting bored of.

It is not the top tier of producers we are talking about – those making truly fine wine. While fine wine has problems of its own, there will always be demand for the best of the best, whatever the price. Neither is it the industrial wine producers, for whom style trumps substance, who use cold hard cash to open the right doors and who, largely, cater to the lowest-common-denominator drinker.

The producers I am talking about cover the middle ground – independent, small- to medium-sized producers making good everyday wine.

Who are they competing with for shelf space, for by the glass listings, for column inches? Not fine wine, and not corporate industrial wineries – they’ve already bought that shelf space, those listings and that media attention. In truth they are competing with their neighbors – other independent producers.

Now, take a look at the beer market according to The Brewers Association. Overall beer sales by volume are decreasing every year, yet the market for craft beer is stronger than ever. It has grown by figures between 7 and 12 percent for the past couple of years.  To put it simply, craft beer is making huge gains in a sector that is contracting.

How are craft beer producers doing this? The answer is simple – they have mobilized their consumers around a set of shared principles to advocate on their behalf – not only to drink craft beer, but to demand it at restaurants, bars and liquor stores and to force it into the hands of family and friends.

To get an idea of this, watch this video. If only wine lovers were that passionate and driven! Those are real consumers and, even more powerfully, front line sales people. And how have craft brewers achieved this?

Innovation, collaboration and risk taking.

To Greg Koch, CEO and co-founder of Stone Brewing in San Diego, wineries have to be genuinely innovative, if they are to succeed in the same manner that craft breweries have. He states that for wineries who want to embrace a craft beer ethos of innovation, style and collaboration, the trick “is to actually do those sort of things!” He believes that the success of the craft brewing industry is due to the fact the “the true differentiation was in the beer itself.” He poses the question: “What does true innovation look like in the wine world?”

Koch encourages small wineries to look at their larger competitors for cues about “what not to do”, particularly when it comes to sales and marketing. He also points out that, from the get go, craft brewers wanted to be authentic – which to him means being authentic in every part of your business practice, not just your product.

Come together

More than any industry today, the craft brewing industry is one that celebrates collaboration – that recognizes that a win for one craft brewer is a win for entire industry. This collaboration is taken to its logical conclusion – it is now the norm for craft beer brewers to get together and brew one-off collaborative brews – exchanging ideas, techniques and skills for the betterment of all involved.

While this does happen in the wine industry, it is the exception and not the rule, and it tends to be concentrated at the very top tier – you all know the names. This is despite the fact that collaboration happens every day in the wine industry – winery one sells grapes to winery two, for example – and no one seems very keen to be public with it.

The consumer is smart enough to understand that the reason winery one sells grapes to winery two is not that the fruit isn’t very good, but rather that it just isn’t suited to making the type of wine winery one wants to make or that the vineyard produces more wine than winery two can sell.

Why can’t those two (or more) wineries use their collective marketing power to sell wine for both or all of the producers involved? One great example of this from my neck of the woods is the 2010 Riesling Challenge. The idea is simple – give 12 fantastic winemakers the same fruit and then see what they come up with. The wines are released in packs of 12, one from each winemaker. This forces a winery’s customers to try other like-minded producers’ wines – but it also means that those 11 other sets of consumers may be trying wine from an unknown or off-the-radar producer. Beyond that, the media spin-off from a collaboration also raises the profile of the producers, as well as exposing others to the message they are trying to communicate in a exciting, fun way.

Collaboration also happens on an international scale. It is pretty normal for winemakers from different regions to visit others and work in other wineries over harvest time. Why not make collaborative wines – small scale, one off wines that push the boundaries as craft beer collaborations do – with all parties taking a share to sell in their respective cellar doors and on their mailing lists? For Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the Danish ‘Gyspsy Brewer’ who brews beers for his brand Mikkeller at different craft breweries in Europe as well as in the UK and USA, international collaboration brews were important in gaining name recognition in new markets, thanks to the prestige of working with a well-known and respected local brewer.

The craft beer industry is also one that takes risks. Luke Nicholas, owner of Epic, a New Zealand craft brewer who specializes in hoppy pale ales and lagers puts it quite simply: “Try new things. It’s great, following tradition and making wine that everyone else is making, but why do that when someone or many others are already doing it? Do something unique, own that space.”

He also acknowledges that there are other challenges for wineries – that beers can be brewed several times a year, ingredients for making a unique product sourced from anywhere in the world, while turnaround is generally a lot quicker. However, wineries also have advantages, he points out: “the special thing wineries have going for them is the geographic location and the wine maker as a personality.”

That connection to a place, as well as to the people who make the product is becoming increasingly important, not just for wine lovers, but for average eaters and drinkers as well. For the craft beer industry, it means social and corporate responsibility with a special emphasis on having a craft brewery being a positive force in the community. As Greg Koch states: “I think that if you want to be important in the community, you have to be important to the community” and more than that, it has to be “a natural part of who you are as an entity.”

The biggest risks the craft beer industry took have paid off, big time. Craft brewers chose to collectively define themselves against the status quo of mainstream industrial brewers’ “fizzy yellow beer” that still represents the majority of the beer market. In doing so, they created the market for craft beer. To seize this opportunity, wineries have to be prepared to do the same – collectively differentiating themselves against mass-produced industrial wine, but also teaching the consumer what they do stand for – in many ways, the same principles as the craft breweries.

How those principles are to be interpreted is up to the collective of producers who embrace them. Obviously this may entail some commercial risk. But isn’t doing nothing even riskier?


Jules van Cruysen is a Sommelier turned Wine Rep based in Wellington, New Zealand he writes professionally for a number of New Zealand and International publications—you can follow him on twitter @grapengrain and read his blogs at grapengrain.co.nz and nzwinedispatch.blogspot.co.nz


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  • http://vrazon.com ryan

    Well said.

  • Tomer

    Much of the wine industry is based on old world tradition and rules so one my say that wineries are working with different rules.
    The whole boom of craft beer is to show that there is no tradition, they may follow a style but creat something unique.

    With wine you are always compered to the origine of the style your making.
    Also ,very rare are the oppotunities to invent a new style (aussie shiraz,coffee pinotage,kiwi SB)

  • Lizzy

    “Come together”. Guys, this is the first and biggest obstacle for small & medium wineries in Italy…(then the other came)

  • http://winecurmudgeon.com Wine Curmudgeon

    Pretty damned brilliant, Jules. This should be required reading for everyone in the wine business — thought I doubt that they think they need to read it because they’ll be the first to tell you the wine business is already perfect.

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  • RickTee

    Interesting article and comparison. A couple of observations, though… Try a craft beer- $4-$5. Try a wine $20-$50. Secondly, you usually know what you are getting with the beer- an IPA has certain characteristics between almost all beers. I am a wine lover, and love to try new wines and wine regions, but I can’t tell you how many times I have bought a $30 red wine, to name one example, and found that it had significant residual sugar, which I do not like. I think what would expand the willingness of people to experiment more with wine is to have standardized bottle disclosures- it is sweet, what are the grape blends, how much acidity and residual sugar…

  • http://www.decantedwines.com Jessica Fialkovich

    Very thoughtful and interesting article, I think another thing that the craft brewers do much better than some of the newer wineries is knowing their market demographic…maybe one of the reasons the beer customers become so engaged.

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  • http://stripercoastsurfcasters.us Frank W

    @ Rick Tee, I think you are pigeonholing beer styles so broadly by characteristics. Take IPA’s for example. There are great differences between say, the huge grapefruit aroma of an Ithaca Beer Co. Flower Power IPA and the huge malty, rum flavor and boozy nose of a Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA.

    That would be like me saying all merlots are basically the same due to the same grape used. I know there are differences by where the grapes are grown, the affect of temperature and rain in the growing season, yeast used etc..

    That is exactly the same as beer. All malted barley are not created equal. Each brewery uses hops that are aslo affected by growing seasons. The yeast used by each brewery is also usually very specific to that brewery who may have just created their own strains which have their own distinct flavors.

    Brewers often put brewing info and ingredients infoon their labels and most often, on their websites. This is just craft brewers mind you.

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  • http://winecountrybeer.com Charles Bockway

    Thanks for the thoughtful wine and craft beer marketing article. For wine lovers visiting California wine country, it’s also a perfect time to explore some of those craft beer breweries that are seeing the rapid growth. I encourage folks to make a few brewery stops along with the winery visits. A lot of helpful information on this can be found at winecountrybeer.com. Cheers.

  • http://grapengrain.co.nz Jules van Cruysen

    I just want to say thank you to all of you for the great feedback both supportive and critical.

  • http://www.avalon-tours.com Peter Smith

    Very interesting food for thought. Maybe something to do with the somewhat introverted personality of many who took to growing grapes to escape and find peace… and that the beer business is by nature a more day-to-day convivial occupation. Both the shorter production cycle of beer, and the traditional atmosphere of how it’s drunk, in relation to wine, may also be factors. Thanks for prodding the thought process!

  • http://worstbeerblogever.com Timothy Augustin

    I could not agree more. The craft brewing industry is very dynamic and rampaging because of its unique culture. I have met several brewers and many employees of breweries and most are excited to taste, discuss and even help their competitors. Heck, I recently listened to a podcast of Adam Avery (of Avery Brewing)talking about how to brew their Imperial IPA Maharaja at home! I can not say with certainty that is not the case in the wine world, but from my observations it does not seem to be. So, far this culture and attitude has proven very successful for craft beer and I am curious to see how such an attitude shift would affect the small producers in the wine world.

  • Denis Andolfo

    Basically, I believe the main difference stays in the attitude of the customers to the two different products
    Especially in the US (but not only) , people are a little scared about wine, they are scared to choosing the wrong one because average knowledge of wines is low
    Everybody think to know beers , instead
    And altho they donnow what make a red different from an amber , they feel more free to judge and experiment new products
    …and this give more power of innovation to craft brewer rather than artisanal wine producer who think that following the BIG brand leads automatically to succeed
    And then blaming BIG