DANVILLE, Ky. - Here’s a low-cost, highly effective way to market your Kentucky wines, courtesy of winemaker Dominique Brousseau and her business manager-father, Andre, of Château du Vieux Corbeau Winery in Danville.
“The best way we have discovered to market is to taste,” Andre said.
Andre and his wife, Linda, produced pottery and crafts for 25 years, doing extremely well without ever advertising. “But in the wine industry, there’s so much competition from around the world that you have to actually get out there and market yourself,” he said.
Andre told of a couple wanting red wine for heart health who went to a local liquor store for recommendations but were paralyzed into indecision by the hundreds of choices of reds from all over the world. “They came here, tasted our wines, and found one they liked,” solving their problem. “The biggest challenge is to get customers to try your wine, and once they do, hopefully they’ll find a wine they like.”
So Andre takes charge of the process by setting up a constant schedule of samplings at local liquor stores.
They have 15 stores in their circuit, a comfortable number to rotate through, visiting one per week, then seamlessly repeating from the beginning. “We have never failed to sell one to three cases” at each tasting session, Andre reports.
The tastings normally last two hours. The stores furnish one-ounce sampling cups. Andre brings three wines at a time – “Maybe a new one we’re just introducing, or one we feel will go with that particular season,” such as a cranberry wine for Thanksgiving or Christmas consumption. Typically they will bring a white Riesling and a red along to complement the specialty choice.
The liquor stores are glad to have the traffic-boosting event – quite often the stores arrange beer and bourbon tastings alongside the wine event, and will set out samples of cheese and deli items, which also sell briskly to the visiting customers, he said.
Kentucky should come first
Andre laments that sometimes ego gets in the way of Kentucky winemakers cooperating to market the Kentucky product. “There are so many wines out there from China, Australia, Argentina, and all these places, and we all ought to be helping each other sell Kentucky wine made by Kentucky winemakers using Kentucky fruit,” Andre said.
Kentucky fruit is a particular sticking point for Andre. “I get upset with Kentucky winemakers who use California grapes. I don’t know why they think a Cabernet Sauvignon grape from California is better than one from Kentucky,” he said. “Have they sent the mediocre juice to us? You cannot produce a good wine from bad juice, so you want the best,” Andre said.
“The European grape varieties grow well in Kentucky.” Andre said. “We can get everything we need to make wine here in Kentucky, except cranberries. We would love to talk some farmer into growing cranberries for us – we haven’t found any.” (Cranberries are grown mainly north of here, primarily in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Washington, and Oregon.)
Andre credits Dominique with having an excellent palate, as opposed to his own, which he says was permanently scorched in New Orleans with “too much Cajun food”. She also has the patience to extract the best from her wine. “I’ve come to learn to trust her judgment, because she has really done well,” Andre said.
Dominique says her home life often consists of moving a cot into the wine cellar. Andre frees up Dominique’s concentration by running the business end of things, dealing with tax matters, marketing, advertising, and generally pushing the company paper, Wife and mother Linda manages the tasting room.
At bottling time, when all the operations have to be done in a single day, all the family helps; but Dominique, the expert, calls the shots.
With her personal stamp comes an insistence on quality, Andre said. When Dominique contracts with farmers, they know they have to produce a certain quality or be dropped from her supplier list.
When they agree the fruit is at its peak, she and her suppliers set a date for harvesting, and they harvest all the grapes in a vineyard with 15 to 20 workers who work hard to, within the same day, take the steps needed to convert those grapes to juice.
So Dominique is sometimes up until 1 or 2 a.m. on harvest days, processing the juice through the destemmer and crusher, and draining the juice into the tanks.
“We’re French, we can make wine”
She began learning winemaking back at the turn of this century with the help of an online program from the University of California-Davis, aided by her college chemistry background.
“Originally, our intent was to start a vineyard,” she remembers. “In 2001, we planted the first half of our vines. We had owned our farm since 1996 – it had been a farm for over 200 years through various families.
“My dad was from New Orleans, and my mom from North Carolina. And somewhere in the middle of all that, Dad decided, ‘We’re French, we can make wine,’ so we started a winery.”
The first order of business was to have a special election in their precinct to be legally allowed to sell wine in a dry county. “We called our friends in the neighborhoods around us and met at the farm to tell them what we intended and ask for their help,” Dominique remembers.
The sympathetic neighbors passed petitions in their neighborhoods and, thanks to the relatively narrow scope of an election in only one precinct, securing approval was not too hard a task, she said.
Four expands to 15
The family built their winery in 2002, opening their doors that October. They started out with four varieties – now they produce about 15 varieties, some new blends, and some berry wines. “I like to experiment down in the wine cellars,” she explained.
Fourteen feet down, the winery cellar remains a fairly steady 60 degrees all year. The cellar contains stainless steel tanks of various sizes from 50 to 1,000 gallons. All in all, Dominique has a tank capacity of approximately 10,000 gallons.
Their best seller depends on the time of year. One that gets good reviews is called “Trouble,” named for a goose that serves as weed control in their allied organic garden.
The organic garden is a separate operation – grapes are difficult to grow organically because of Japanese beetles and other insect pests, Andre said. The organic garden’s produce – greens, orchard fruits, berries, squash, okra, and tomatoes – is used for their catering operations.
Some of the berries make it into their berry wines, made a special way by Dominique. She doesn’t add the other fruit juices that complicate the flavors of berry wines, such as, for example, apples or bananas contributing to wines named for a berry. “I just put whatever that berry is in a tank,” she said.
Linda meets tasting room customers from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, and Dominique joins her to tell customers about the wines they’re sampling.
Appointments after hours can be arranged for more special presentations by the entire family. The winery has mounted special events for clients such as Centre College, Kentucky Women in Agriculture, and a local group of optometrists.
Dominique says the winery is in the middle of an effort to re-do tourism signage coordinated by the Danville-Boyle County tourism office.
Their wines are available at Liquor Barn (all three Lexington and all three Louisville locations), The Party Store (Northern Kentucky), Capital Cellars (Frankfort), and various Kroger satellite liquor stores.
This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Agritourism Monthly, a Kentucky Department of Agriculture newsletter dedicated to Kentucky's agritourism industry. Jim Trammel is managing editor of Agritourism Monthly.