By Rachel King
October 2, 2018

Champagne might still have the inflated reputation of being simply an expensive drink saved for special occasions, but many U.S. winemakers are working aggressively to correct that misconception. But many winemakers insist education about Champagne and sparkling wines shouldn’t focus just on the wine, but also about who is making and distributing the wine, in order to better expand the market.

“Consumers don’t know a tremendous amount about champagne,” said Jen Pelka, owner of The Riddler, a Champagne bar in San Francisco, during a panel discussion among women winemakers during New York Champagne Week on Monday. Pelka described she’ll hear customers come in and say, “Oh, this Prosecco is my favorite Champagne I’ve ever had.” (Note: True Champagnes have to be made in Champagne, France. Prosecco is an Italian sparkling wine.)

“Weddings and New Year’s Eve often destroy people’s perception of Champagne,” joked Tawnya Falkner, proprietor of sparkling wine and rosé brand Le Grand Courtage. It’s about bringing people on a wine journey, she explained, positing that many more people are drinking bubbles these days.

“It goes to the rise of social media,” said Pauline Lhote, the head cellarmaster of Chandon California. “Everybody tends to want to celebrate. Everything is about the culture, and celebrating, and sparkling wine really fits into that category.”

However, as many major Champagne and wine houses are merging, Falkner observed, it’s increasingly difficult for smaller businesses to get distribution, and consumers are going to be stuck with more mass-market brands.

Falkner, who pivoted from a career in design and real estate to winemaking, said that as a female owner, she finds it problematic that while approximately “80% of wine bottles are consumed by women,” nearly all of senior level positions at distributors across the country are male.

“They don’t understand that 70% of the wine is bought off the wine label and packaging,” Falkner continued. “So if you’re doing something with the brand, they just don’t get it. It’s a lot of education by myself and my team.”

“We need a female investor-distributor because imagine what we could do with people like that making those decisions,” added Lisa Mattson, director of marketing and communications at Jordan Vineyard & Winery.

But there’s not just a disparity in selling to women but especially to women of color, the panelists agreed. Falkner said when she goes to distributors and selling to restaurants, they don’t even consider how to pitch and market to more demographics.

“They’re completely missing the boat for Hispanic, Asian, and African-American consumers,” Falkner said.

The Riddler, which offers more than 100 Champagnes by the bottle and dozens of sparkling wines by the glass, has an all-female management team. Furthermore, before and since its opening in January 2017, The Riddler’s investment model, in particular, has sparked widespread interest as it has 33 investors—all of whom are women. Pelka explained she initally put together just a list of people she knew who would likely be willing to invest at least $5,000 each.

Reflecting upon her list of contacts and prospective investors, Pelka said she realized 95% of the sources were women. After she decided to open up investment only to women, Pelka said she noticed a “shift change” when pitching. Investors actually gravitated toward that concept, feeling more welcome and invited to participate in a funding round, which is notable as the percentage of women in decision-making roles in venture capital—especially in tech-heavy San Francisco—are in the single digits.

Price points on Champagne are also often challenging on consumers. At The Riddler, Pelka said the Hayes Valley bar’s bestseller is “always” the cheapest sparkling rosé by the glass, while the category they sell the least of is champagne by the bottle.

Pelka also noted that 80% to 90% of The Riddler’s clientele is female. “I’d love to attract more men,” Pelka said. “It’s a great place to go on a first date!”

Pelka talked briefly about a new project The Riddler is currently developing: a Champagne brand called “Une Femme,” featuring women in history with labels designed by women, and shelf prices between $20 and $100. Marketing to women specifically is key, Pelka stressed, describing goals to market it in a style similar to cosmetics wunderkind Glossier.

Most of the wines being introduced into the market right now, Pelka said, are sourced from large-scale Champagne houses that are not considering how champagne is marketed to a particular consumer—they’re thinking the champagne has been in the family for hundreds of years. If they have to change the label, they have to have a family meeting, she joked. “They’re not thinking of even traditional brand marketing we have in the United States.”

Rita Jammet, co-founder of La Caravelle Champagne, pointed out that it’s critical to question how do you know what is going to attract or represent female consumers more than male consumers without going over the line.

“What does it mean to market to women? What is the criteria?” Jammet asked. Susan Kostrzewa, executive editor of Wine Enthusiast and the panel moderator, replied that it can be done and make sense, but agreed that it is imperative to ensure it is done without pandering.

It’s about capturing all consumers, Falkner offered, but it’s critical to acknowledge that women still do more household shopping than men.

Thus, the pressure might be on closing the gender gap in the wine industry before it can even get to reaching a wider customer base. Lhote, who grew up in Champagne, France and got her start in the wine business in her home region, reflected on the gender shift in the industry. It is improving now, Lhote said, but she described that earlier in her career, when you’re female and you want to be a winemaker, people simply said dryly, “Good luck.”

“It is hard, but little by little, it’s changing,” Lhote said. “There are more women in the wine industry, thankfully, and in high positions. For many years, the wine style was decided by men. Some diversity is really good.”

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