We encountered him at Oenorama Wine Show and overcoming the initial hesitation of a casual contact, without prior notice, we took the chance and were greeted with panache, good humor and an appointment for an interview, kept to the fullest.
Being with Stelios Boutaris meant we wanted the conversation to go on forever, wishing to analyze Greek wines deeply and becoming wiser, both us and the readers of Greekcellar.gr.
Optimistic, current hardships notwithstanding, Stelios Boutaris is convinced Greek wines will do better, both in domestic and export markets, praises his fellow winemakers, and focuses in good marketing strategy.
How have things changed for Greek wines in the last twenty years, in retrospect?
Greece has got a great wine history but limited wine culture, I always say. Basically the Greek wine industry was revived in the ‘90s with the return of many new oenologists and the disbursement of European Union investment funds prompting the establishment of numerous wineries. The emergence of a large number of small wineries, in particular, improved Greek wine significantly. This became especially evident in white wines, their quality being superior to red wines, not accidentally. White wines rely more on technology, hence the better returns on investment. Now that the wine making industry has come of age –wineries have been around for 20 to 30 years- investment is geared towards vineyards. This will eventually lead to production of superb red Greek wines as well.
How has the current economic crisis affected the industry in terms of prices and investment?
In my opinion, the economic crisis has had a positive impact on Greek wine; Winemakers showed maturity, looking to enter into international markets, applying smart pricing. Bad publicity turned into good in our case because people are looking for good Greek stories. Wine makes a great Greek story amid the mess; a wine journalist or a wholesaler when covering the extra mile sees that wine is one good thing about Greece. Wine is trending higher at home, a new generation of wines has emerged, a new generation of winemakers has emerged, expensive wines, economy wines, there’s a lot of action in the Greek wine industry.
Does expensive equal good always?
No, it doesn’t but if it’s expensive it better be good too, otherwise it won’t sell. I believe economy Greek wines are overpriced and premium Greek wines are underpriced, meaning wines that retail at 4 to 5 euros should probably sell at 2 euros, thus allowing for greater consumer mobility, whereas wines you get for 20-30 euros, probably should be sold at 50 or 60 euros. My view is that there should be a wider gap, a larger number of expensive Greek wines should be positioned in the market, “icon wines”, stellar quality-wise of course, which can be highly rated, enhanced by good marketing.
Is there a change in mentality about wine in Greece?
Yes, there is, day by day and this is partly down to wine schools and wine tasting courses that take place all the time and partly down to wine dinners featured by wineries. Young people especially are exceedingly into wine.
Is perception about Greek wine abroad changing? What about the then and the now?
Our image was that of retsina. This is gradually changing, largely owing to the efforts of the National Interprofessional Organization of Vine and Wine (EDOAO); They run programs in four different markets: the United States, Canada, Australia and China. We are witnessing a shift in the attitude towards Greek wine, there’s mention of native grapes, there’s side by side comparison to Austria, and Greek wines stack up against premium economy markets. There’s a decided consumer attitude change in that sense. Our publicity outreach is far greater than our sales.
What are the challenges facing Greek wine exports?
Sales and distribution is inadequate. We are still out of main channels. By nature wine is a multi-tiered business. There’s the importer, the wholesale distributor, the retailer; wine changes lots of hands before it is consumed off or on-premise. Plus there are taxes to be paid and they are regulated differently by every country. For example in the USA each state is unique in the set of laws governing sales of wine. Therefore key to exports growth is wine distribution channels. And we are not there yet. In Germany, for example, Greek wine is distributed by importers of ethnic food items, along with fish, olive oil and olives. To wit, it will never get to the end consumer. So it’s really important to find distribution channels and to do so we need to come up with a better image. To that end we are taking action along with the Greek Wine Federation to promote a better brand identity in Germany now.
What is the good thing and the bad thing about Greek winemakers?
Greek winemakers make very good quality wines but still lack marketing skills. We have to develop the right marketing mix before making the difference.
The special wine excise duty, how disruptive was it?
It is grossly damaging, in every respect. It is an unjust tax, totally off the rails. Today it is set at 20 cents, tomorrow may climb to 40. Levying agricultural goods? Unacceptable! Penalizing a growing industry? Unacceptable! This is not a tax the Department of Agriculture wanted; this is a tax the Department of Finance wanted. It’s wrong from start to finish. It produces bootlegging. VAT revenues have dropped as it is. Most of bulk wine in most areas is counterfeit. Hopefully when the Memorandum of Understanding is over, this tax gets distributed back or at least there is some cost-benefit process. We are asking that part of this tax funds the industry in return by eventually allowing us create practices for self-regulation. Everywhere in the world wine regulations about appellations or wine-growing regions apply, for protection. This is not something the Farm Service or a third party could perform. The Government should entrust self-control and self-regulation to winegrowers themselves. We have asked that Wine Region Councils are Government legislated. We got the tasting sessions for PDO wines (Protected Designation of Origin); we want the control of origin designation as well. I cannot tell on a fellow winemaker, I’ve got no right to do so. But the Wine Region does.
Greek wine is eventually building a brand identity now. But the visiting tourists in summer may get low quality jug wine or allegedly “local wine” originating elsewhere. Is there a way to avoid that?
If I came across a case like that myself, say get served a Spata wine in Santorini labeled as “local”, my only option would be to get into an argument with the restaurateur and it would never come to that. But what if there was an alcohol control board as to where this wine came from and legal documents had to be presented? You know, after many tribulations we have realized that exports rely entirely on us. We have signed an agreement with the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels (hotel governing board) to educate both hoteliers and their staff about Greek wine and find ways to introduce Greek wine to visiting tourists. Now, it’s not going to be easy, not by a long shot. Things are eventually getting better in small local restaurants (tavernas) too; there is a variety of bottled wine, a certain degree of regionality. It’s a work in progress but we’re getting there.
Native grape varieties vs imported, Mr. Boutaris.
Native, by all means. Varieties native to Greece are our trump card, the comparative advantage of Greek wines. Indigenous grapes is what we have put our efforts into, is what we strive for in exports and I believe there’s plenty of room for growth there.
What are we to expect from “Ktima Kyr-Yianni”?
What we expect is better and better wines (laughs)! God Speed, our new wine visitor center in Naoussa will be open soon, we will be getting into business in Amyndeon after harvest and life goes on. We export into 27 international markets as it is, at a current value of 1.2 million approximately. By 2017 I hope we will be in 30 countries, at a value of 1.5 million and hopefully by 2020 we will have a 50/50 split in domestic and international revenues.
What are your target markets?
We have classified the countries into categories such as “established” markets, e.g. Germany, where a different strategy is applied, in comparison to the United States or Canada, which would fall under “developing” for us. Next we target the United Kingdom, Belgium and northern Europe and then we move to the Far East, Japan, Korea and China where we hope to enter in small scale into Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Thailand.