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EENY MEENY MINY MOE, TO WHICH CRITICS DOES MY WINE GO?

18 comments

If you’re a winery — well, a winery owner — how do you know (a) whether or not to send free samples to critics and (b) who gets them if you decide to do it? The question isn’t academic, because this is a real-world issue every winery has to face, especially these days. Why these days? Because every critic I know is being sent more wine than ever before, which I infer, with some justifiable degree of evidence, is because the Recession has convinced winery owners they have to reach out and touch a critic, in order to get those favorable reviews that drive sales.

O.K., fine. So we’ve answered (a). If you’re a winery owner you know you should be sending out review bottles. Which brings us to (b). Who gets them?

Again, the question isn’t just academic. It costs money to send those boxes out. UPS and FedEx aren’t in the shipping business for charity. (And I’m not even counting the cost of the wines themselves.) The P.R. head of a large wine company told me when s/he got the job, s/he discovered the company had been sending freebies to well over 60 so-called “wine writers” across the country. S/he scanned the names and couldn’t even recognize most of them. That number has since been drastically reduced.

What brought up these musings for me was something that happened yesterday. I got a phone call from a guy who used to be the head wine buyer for a big chain store outfit. Turns out he’d left the job a few years back to realize his dream of owning a winery. He called to “connect,” he said. We had a long chat about this and that, and he told me all about his winery project. I’d never heard of the brand. He said he’d send me samples for review, and to keep my eye open for them. I said I would.

Later, he emailed me with the link to his website. I went there. There was a tab called “Press.” I opened it. Lo and behold, what did I see but reviews — some of them 18 months old — from Wine Spectator, Food & Wine and Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine.

Put yourself in my shoes (or walk a few yards in my flip-flops). How does this make me feel?

1. The guy’s been sending samples to the competition for the last 1-1/2 years, but not to Wine Enthusiast.
2. Now here he is, reaching out to me, probably because his sales suck and he needs more reviews so he can cherry-pick the better ones for his advertising and P.R.
3. And he didn’t have the cojones to tell me that he’d been sending to the competition and not to me. Why not?

So I email the guy back, explaining how sad it was for me to discover he’d been sending to the competition, and not to my magazine. I assured him that my disappointment would in no way affect my reviews of his wines (particularly in a blind tasting), only that it made me feel real bad.

He emails me back: “Honestly Steve, I hired a sales and marketing company that handled all of my press submissions…I was told that the Wine Enthusiast was among the publications that would receive my wine for review, but am not surprised to hear that you have not seen the wines before…I have also heard from a few other publications that they had never seen [brand name] before, even though I was under the impression that they had.”

O.K. I take the guy at his word. If that “marketing company” told the guy they would send to Wine Enthusiast and other publications, and then didn’t, they did him a grave disservice. In fact, they lied. And if they didn’t send samples to me because they don’t believe Wine Enthusiast is an “A” list magazine, they don’t know reality.

So, winery owners, if you think you should be sending samples, figure out who’s on the “A” list — it’s pretty obvious — and send to them. (That list, by the way, includes bloggers.) There’s a national “A” list, like Wine Enthusiast, and a regional “A” list, which will vary from market to market. And, owners, if you can afford to send samples beyond the “A” list, there are some very talented, up-and-coming “B” list critics out there, too. A good P.R. person can clue you in to all of this.


  1. Sean C. says:

    Steve,

    This is a great topic, and one that many PR professionalis like me think about regularly. There are many ways to look at sample strategy, but typically it comes down to budget and availability of the wines nationally. For 90% of the time, it’s a given that samples should go to WE, WS, and the other consumer wine publications because of their reach to core wine drinkers and because of your credibility. But, wineries need to also consider what markets the wines are available and sample writers accordingly. There is nothing worse than sending samples to a wine writer and then later having to explain that you’re happy they enjoyed the wine and want to write about it, but unfortunately, the wine is not available in that city. That’s a no-no.

  2. Sean C makes good points. A couple more based on my experience in wine PR:

    –Some publications purchase wines they wish to review. Therefore, the presence of a review in a publication does not necessarily indicate the wine was received as a sample.

    –There’s the question of how promptly and consistently a bottle given turns into a review published. If it regularly takes 9-18 months for a review to appear, a winery (or its PR people) might decide not to send. Also, if, say, only half of the wines submitted are ever reviewed, that could strongly influence the decision.

  3. Or the wine’s not available in that state, and it’s a non-reciprocal (to boot)… to reiterate what Sean C has just written. — jo

  4. Rightly or wrongly, I think many winery owners pre-judge reviewers and journals as to the style of wine they like. If an owner reads review in a magazine criticizing a Riesling for being too lean and austere and another magazine lavishes praise on the same wine as minerally with firm acidity this creates an impression of the style of wine each magazine prefers.

    Taken one step further, what if that winery owner makes a wine that he/she thinks is similar to the wine just reviewed. Well it would be logical to send to only the one that appers to like the style offered.

    It’s not about A or D list, but about the perception of how receptive the reviewer will be to a given wine or style. Since almost all wines receive different scores from different reviewers(some dramatically different) then it makes sense that wineries are guessing at where they will do best.

    If a winery makes a 15% alc Zin and the reviewer has written scathing critiques of high alc Zins in the past, then the winery would be crazy to send the wines to this reviewer.

  5. As an itsy bitsy winery owner, I submitted wines to a few competitions. Lots of money on wine, shipping, and entry fees. Won some medals. Found out most end consumers and retailers don’t care about medals (at least the retail shelf consumers – I’m not licensed for a tasting room) – they care about point ratings from reviewers.

    So I went to submit them to the big three…

    * Wine Advocate… couldn’t find submission guidelines anywhere. Made some calls to what phone numbers I could find and left voice mails, none returned.
    * Wine Spectator… couldn’t find submission guidelines anywhere. Made call to central number, routed to person in charge of submissions. Left a few voice mails, none returned.
    * Wine Enthusiast… found submission guidelines online (instructions, forms, address, etc.). Sent in the wines. Half were reviewed.

    So, many kudos from me to Wine Enthusiast and Steve for actually making it even possible to submit wines for review!

  6. Rusty Eddy says:

    I’m a PR guy that works for a marketing company (not the one mentioned in the blog) and I have to say that sending samples, both to writers and competitions, takes a lot of time and effort. Much of the time is spent on building a new samples list each time a new wine is released. I don’t have one list of writers that receives everything because some wines aren’t sold everywhere, some writers don’t want to receive samples without first being queried, and some writers don’t cover wines from a particular region or country. And there’s always attrition and additions to the list. Building a new list every time is a good way to keep the general media list as up to date as possible.

  7. Readers, please note: Eric was not paid. Thank you Eric. We try very hard at Wine Enthusiast to make the process simple and transparent. And as most of you know, if you call me, I answer the phone — not some secretary who screens you out.

  8. As someone who makes in wine the “other than CA / WA / OR” area I’ve always wondered whether wine critics would ever heap praise on a wine from an unknown area. Could this be the kiss of death for a critic? This is such a fashionable and fickle industry that it seems unlikely that an unestablished writer would do something so brash as to praise a wine from an unknown region. I hope I’m wrong though.

  9. Steve, do you know if this winery owner has taken up issue with the company that misinformed him? The truly concerning question is where did that wine go if not to you and the other publications?

  10. Dylan, I don’t know. And I don’t have the time or energy to invest to find out.

  11. Jason, I would happily give a high score to an “unknown region.” However, my job at Wine Enthusiast is only for California wines.

  12. Some of the people on this list send me samples. Some don’t. When I start tasting for a new issue, I go around to wine stores with my inventory list and buy the wines I don’t have, which is typically a majority of what gets tasted and reported on.

    I often wonder about the whys and wherefores of the wines I receive and don’t receive. There is no obvious pattern and I suppose that each winery has its own reasons. Steve complained about a wine that Connoisseurs’ Guide reviewed and that he had never seen. Without knowing the name of the winery, I have no idea whether it was a sample or one we bought. But, then Eric lists the so-called “Big Three” as folks to whom he sends wine, and clearly, Connoisseurs’ Guide is not one of them. Never has been. Never will be.

    So, it is random, and I am flattered when wineries think of us–and I buy their wines when they don’t or don’t need us. And like Steve, I taste them all blind and don’t care one way or the other where they came from.

    There has been a lot of discussion lately about winewriters and the need for independence. I accept samples but do not send out solicitations for them. Wineries need to reach the consuming public, and if I owned a winery, I would sample every writer of merit from down home Maine to the Pacific Ocean. Regardless of the winery’s story, regardless of how green it is or how kind it is to its workers or how nasty it is (and there are a few of those as well), I simply want to know how good its wines are. It does not matter whether one is in the making end, or the PR end or the critical end of the wine arena, ultimately, for most of us, it is the wine that tells the best stories. And that is why wineries need to send samples and folks who are widely read for their ability to help sort out thousands of wines into a more manageable number of choices need to taste those wines honestly and report about them accurately and free from bias.

  13. Good points all. I’ve don’t get why wineries bother sending bottles and quite frankly why they get reviewed when the production or #/cases imported is so low, that virtually none of the readership would ever have an opportunity to try/buy the wines. WS in particular seems to enjoy reviewing wines where only 10 cases are imported or 56 cases produced;
    is it one-upmanship over their competitors? And the wineries? What do they hope to gain if no one would ever have an opportunity to enjoy their wines. If ROI is secondary, the motivation is…?

  14. JD in Napa says:

    At the top of the response string, there were grumblings about “if the wine isn’t available in the [area]“. This is a non-issue, in this consumer’s view. I’m willing to bet that the people who read wine publications, and particularly those who read blogs, do not run to Safeway or the local wine shop to look for a wine about which they’ve read. They go online. Those of us who actively read about wine know that (oh, let’s say) 80% of the wines reviewed will NOT be available at the local shop or super; there are just too many wines out there. When a review or story gets my attention, I’m on wine-searcher.com (“pro version”, of course) before I know it. Gotta be a savvy shopper, kids.

  15. Christopher O'Gorman says:

    I do the communications for a medium sized winery in Napa, and I’ll echo what Rusty said regarding the need for constant updating of the media list.

    Additionally, with the explosion of wine blogs, we now have to look at casting a wider net to capture the more active and influencial of these bloggers. And, that universe is expanding weekly.

    These are dynamic times for wine marketing and pr.

  16. Bruce, good point. I think the reason wine magazines review these little 10-case productions (I do sometimes) is because we believe that readers like reading about them. Kind of like reading People magazine. Few of us will ever own a mansion or be inside Oprah’s place, but it’s kind of cool reading about them and seeing the pictures.

  17. It is obviously a tricky challenge for folks who review wine for a living. On the one hand, you want to be able to recommend wines that people can actually buy. Some folks, like JD, will search wines out, and while a few of people at the paid-for-wine-mag end buy their fancy wine at Safeway, most do not. Still, the small lots are often instructive. One hundred cases of Syrah from Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa or White Hawk in Santa Barbara could grow into 500 or more over time. If we stuck only to big winery wines, we would have missed the emergence of many important wineries.

    My rule for years was 300 cases and no wines sold only at wineries. The world has changed and while I still try to avoid puny productions (in case count as well as quality), how does one review the wines of Testarossa or Kosta Browne and leave half of the out? Answer is that we can’t because folks who read us want to know about them.

    But, neither Steve nor I nor most reviewers get the cult Cabs anyway. For that, you have to pay and pay or read the big two–because folks like that will not even taste you at the winery let alone send samples.

  18. Okay, for thee who do not liketh small productions, we are a not uncommon vineyard/ cellars, with a tiny 225 total case production this yr. Rest of the grapes were under contract. We took bits and pieces of blocs heretofore allowed to crisp up while the wineries waited for the “bloc” to ripen. In truth, they couldn’t be bothered with a ton of grapes, let alone 1500 lb lots. Well, that’s what we make wine from, in part, it is all severely stressed, and makes fine wine. Our goal by design is to remain small, we have no desire to make 1000 cases, maybe 500 someday. We are only interested in extremely well cared for grapes to make wine of similar quality. Grapes of questionable quality were dropped long before, and yield is mostly in the 1T/ac range, up to 2.5 T/ac. Rhone/ Bordeaux Vineyard has steeply sloped limestone hills, temp splits of 55 degrees day/nite during growing season, S -SW face. Charlie, you wouldn’t be interested in tasting a wine from that persuasion? I bet JD would. The idea isn’t to make a bazillion dollars…we are only interested in quality…nothing more, nothing less.

    As for deciding whom to send our wines to, it couldn’t be simpler. Read WS and WE reviews for a couple yrs, try some of wines, see who reviews what you personally taste, find a reviewer who is understandable and whose tastes are somewhat similar to yours(okay, at least in the same ballpark), and the choice is rather straight forward.

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