Greek Wine Success Story: How the West was Won

From virtually non-existent in the US market, Greek wines gained recognition in less than a decade


The US Wine Market Council released data on the demographics of premium wine drinkers in the country in one of its 2014 surveys. W. Blake Gray, the prominent American wine blogger, went a step further, delving into what premium wine drinkers were actually drinking. Gray began his article by saying: “If you want to identify a high-end wine drinker in the United States…., look for the guy drinking the bottle of Assyrtiko.” He went on to note that these premium wine drinkers were also ahead of the curve, since they were drinking a premium wine while it was still being sold at bargain prices. During the same year, Eric Asimov of the New York Times urged his readers that the time had come to move on from wines like Pinot Grigio (the second most popular white variety in the US) to something different and more interesting; he offered as alternatives the Greek varieties of Assyrtiko, Moschofilero and Roditis. 

A decade earlier, this kind of talk would have been unheard of, but times have changed. The transformation bewith the frustrating realization that Greek wines were virtually nonexistent in mainstream US wine lists and retail shops. At best, Greece was relegated to the nebulous category of “other wine regions.” I had moved to the US in 2002 and was working with a couple of importers to get the word out on what I knew had been dramatic changes in Greek winemaking since the 1990s, but not many people were listening, especially local distributors. It soon became obvious that the top wineries of Greece would have to come together and create a promotional campaign to introduce the world-class products that were beginning to come out of their vineyards.

During the summer of 2003, I decided to return to Greece and meet with some leading winemakers. We wanted to see if we could put together a group to promote this wine renaissance that we all knew had taken place. A group was formed under the name All About Greek Wine; it remained a private enterprise for the first three years before swelling into a full-blown national campaign, supported by the Greek National Interprofessional Organization of Vine and Wine (EDOAO) and with the help of the Hellenic Foreign Trade Board (HEPO) drawing on both EU and Greek government funding. Over the next few years, EDOAO was able to secure increased funding, which ultimately allowed our efforts to be taken to the next level. Of course, the strength of the campaign has always had as its bedrock the group of passionate Greek winemakers who put their egos aside for the benefit of all.

During the first years of the campaign, it became obvious that the only way to create a viable space for Greek wine would be to find a way to differentiate Greece in the US, a market flooded by wines from every region in the world. Fortunately, we were already different because of our indigenous varieties. What’s more, Greece is a fantastic environment for growing those grapes, with a wide range of different terroirs, for making great wines with a true sense of place. Because we lacked the large budgets that other wine regions enjoyed, our initial focus was on getting media and trade to start telling our story. We also understood that educating people about our varieties and our regions would have to be a priority. This became the cornerstone of our efforts. We reached out to the top culinary schools, universities and sommelier organizations across the US and Canada and found they were happy to add Greek wines to their courses.

“What’s more, Greece is a fantastic environment for growing those grapes, with a wide range of different terroirs, for making great wines with a true sense of place.”

Sommeliers have become, today more than ever, the gatekeepers and trendsetters in the wine market. With emerging regions like Greece, which have unique yet unknown native varieties, it was important to enlist the sommelier community to help us tell our story directly to consumers. At the same time, we began a media outreach campaign to get the word out about our amazing grape varieties, which were made to complement food instead of overpowering it, as do so many of the trophy wines that grab today’s headlines. We knew it would be important to bring as many people as possible to visit the Greek vineyards, meet the winemakers and experience firsthand the revival that was taking place. These efforts have now helped create a group of lifelong ambassadors, not just for Greek wine, but also for our gastronomy, hospitality, lifestyle and culture. 

Since most Greek wineries are small, family-owned and with boutique-style production, it was also essential to focus on producing and promoting quality wine that could be sold and marketed in the middle to premium categories. Today, Greek wines are being compared with some of the best in the world, and because Greece is still an emerging region, they represent great value for the quality and uniqueness they possess.

The winemakers are committed for the long term, but there is still an enormous amount of work to be done. In recent years, the campaign has expanded into direct marketing to the consumer, while building a database of wine drinkers interested in learning more about Greek wine. Fortunately for us, during the same time that the Greek wine campaign was evolving, media as a whole was moving from print to online. The internet has provided more cost-effective marketing opportunities to reach the masses. In addition, it has given us the ability to target “interested consumers,” accelerating the momentum that we had begun to build.

“Today, Greek wines are being compared with some of the best in the world, and because Greece is still an emerging region, they represent great value for the quality and uniqueness they possess.”

Today, we are getting posts and articles in the media in numbers disproportionately high to our relatively small production. In just the first seven months of 2015, we reached the staggering figure of more than one billion media impressions. Positive articles about (and references to) Greek wine now appear almost daily, not only in wine and gastronomy outlets but in major financial and lifestyle publications as well. The true measure of success, though, comes from the distribution side. During the last five years, exports to the US have increased in value by 39 percent and those to Canada by almost 55 percent.

Ironically, the economic problems that our country has been experiencing in recent years (and which held the potential to be a major setback to our work), have in fact turned out to be a motivating factor for wineries to concentrate even more on exports. Although domestic wine consumption has not decreased during these difficult times, sales for the higher quality wines have suffered at the expense of cheap bulk wine. However, exports have done well. As both Elin McCoy of Bloomberg News and Alexander LaPratt of Forbes recently pointed out, this has been one of the bright spots for the country, and a cause for Greek pride. LaPratt went as far as to say: “Some of the most interesting European wines are coming from Greece and Spain.”

Many others agree with this positive outlook; Jon Bonne, former Wine Editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, remarked in his 2016 wine predictions for The Punch that: “Greece, after years of being patted on the head, will rise from its economic muddle to become a serious contender to Spain and Italy.”

It is perhaps dangerous to put too much stock in such a prediction, but then I remember that, just over 10 years ago, it was hard to imagine that one day not so far in the future, Greek wine would even be considered in the same breath as such well established wine regions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sofia Perpera is an oenologist and director of the Greek Wine Bureau in North America.

During the last five years, exports to the US have increased in value by 39 percent and those to Canada by almost 55 percent.


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