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What I tell winemakers

35 comments

It used to be, for most of my wine writing career, that I visited winemakers (and winery owners) to listen, not to talk. In the beginning, I had much to learn: about viticulture and enology, about the business side, about how they had gotten into wine, about the local history and terroir and so on.

I’m a good question-asker, with a natural curiosity, and since most people enjoy talking about themselves, the conversation between me (or the reporter in me) and my interviewees never flagged. But these days, I find myself talking to winemakers (and winery owners) more than I used to. Why? Read on.

During a typical visit, the winemaker, who’s been expecting me, has probably gone over in his mind what he wants to tell me. Maybe it’s about his over-arching philosophy. Maybe it’s about a new vineyard he’s developing, or a new winemaking team he’s hired, or a new cave they’re building. Usually, the winemaker wants to taste with me, which opens up whole new areas of conversation. Often, I’ll take out my old-fashioned pen and pad of paper and take notes. This is all in the tried-and-true journalistic tradition of a Q&A where I’m “Q”, the winemaker is “A”, and the result is that odd bit of literature called “an article.”

But I’m afraid I’m turning into a gadfly lately, which is turning the tables on the old way, but when it feels right — when it feels like the winemaker has given me an invitation — then it has to be done. Here’s how it might go.

Winemaker: So I hear your blog is pretty popular.

Me: Thanks. It’s a lot of fun. [Here, there might follow a bit of chatter about how long blogging takes, why I do it, etc. Then I might ask:] So do you blog? Do you do any kind of social media?

Winemaker: [laughing] Me? No. None of that stuff.

Me: Why not?

Winemaker: Oh, I don’t even have a computer! [or a cell phone]. I don’t have the time. It’s too hard; I wouldn’t know where to begin. And I wouldn’t know what to say.

Me: It’s not as hard as you think. You probably have somebody in your employ who’s working with computers, right?

Winemaker: Yeah. [In fact, it could be the winemaker’s son or daughter.]

Me: All you need to do is have them set up the back end, the actual format of the blog. Once that’s done, all you have to do is type in the words. It’s just word-processing. If you’re not comfortable working with a keyboard, just write your blog out in longhand, and have somebody transcribe it for you. It doesn’t have to be long. Maybe 400 words.

Winemaker: [thinking] Well, but what would I say? I’m not a writer.

Me: Well, for example, you met me here this morning, right? You greeted me as the sun was rising and the mist was lifting off the hills. It was cold. Then we piled into your pickup, and you drove me around the appellation, showing me the various vineyards. I asked you questions, remember? About the difference between the hillsides and the flatlands. You talked about alluvial soils, about landslide soils, about limestone outcroppings uplifted 20 million years ago from the sea. Then we drove back here to the winery, where we’re now sitting, tasting through your ‘09 Pinot Noir barrel samples: the 114, 115 and 667 clones, the Pommard, the Swan, the Martini. Don’t you think you could write up 400 words on that?

Winemaker: [frowning] I guess.

Me: So you see, you do have something to say. Every day you have something to say.

Winemaker: Well, who would want to read about it?

Me: Are you kidding? Who wouldn’t?

Winemaker: Anyway, I have a gal I hired who does that for me. She set up our Facebook page and our Twitter account.

Me: Do you even go there?

Winemaker: Not really.

Me: Look. Nobody knows if this “social media” stuff is going to matter for a winery. It may never move a single case; it may be the future. But I can tell you two things: One, it’s basically free, so why not play around with it? You have nothing to lose. And two, don’t let someone else speak for you. Speak for yourself. A P.R. person or a social media employee can never be you. The whole point of a blog is authenticity. Believe me, artificiality shows through a blog like patch of ringworm on a face. You can’t hide it. People want to read blogs written by people who are being themselves — who let it all hang out. They don’t just want to read about facts, which can be spun and manipulated. They want to feel your personality come through, with all its joys, uncertainties, fears, hopes, dreams, enthusiasms, humor. You’re a real person. You’re being real with me right now. All you have to do is write 400 words 3 or 4 times a week and get it up there on your blog.

Winemaker: Well, how would I know if it’s working?

Me: You won’t, initially. You might not get any comments for weeks or months. You might have not have any idea if anyone even reads your blog. But like I said, what have you got to lose?

That’s when I usually see the winemaker lose interest, and I wonder if maybe I’ve overdone it — if I’ve somehow been inappropriate and lectured (or hectored) somebody who was kind enough to be my host. But then I ask them the killer question:

Me: You say you’re increasingly relying on direct sales for your business, right? Like through your tasting room and wine club?

Winemaker: Right.

Me: I bet your direct sales customers skew older, right?

Winemaker: Yes, they do.

Case closed.

  1. You ridin’ Google’s “Wave” yet, Steve?

  2. One thing you should remember, Steve, is that you have a gift for writing, which makes it at least twice as fast and easy for you to write 3-4 times a week as it does for someone who almost never writes.

    The other huge issue that I’ve found with my winemaker friends in Lodi is that they are so buried in their own stuff that they lose the Bay Area perspective. Paul Wagner of Balzac described the Bay Area perspective as a bunch of people working in cubicles and living in green plastic condos yearning for open vineyards and the wine life.

    Winemakers have gotten it into their myopic minds that there is nothing exciting about topping barrels, pruning or bottling, whereas most of the non-industry wine-o-philes I know are completely thrilled with any of those tasks.

    Perhaps a better solution would be for winemakers to just jump over the blog writing part and go straight to v-blogs, purchasing a cheap Flip video camera, taking it with them into the cellar for half and hour, then throwing it on the desk of the tasting room manager, saying, “Get this on the web.”

    The manager could edit it – or not! – and upload it with Vimeo or whatever, transcribing the juicy parts. That would please most site visitors as much or more than one or two blogs a month written by someone with no passion or interest in writing.

  3. I don’t know why I’m surprised to find you proselytizing for winemakers to adopt social media, but I am. Mr. “old-fashioned pen and paper” you may be but backward you are not.

    I’ve found that some people are just disinclined to write. Few are born diarists, and not everyone can learn. That’s not me though – I write because I always have. It helps me organize my thoughts. The more I do it the easier it gets, but if I stop for a while it takes me a while to limber up again. I rarely check my blog stats but I know I have at least a few readers – when I’m meeting new or old customers it’s surprising how many times I hear “so I read on your blog…”

    Steve: the best advice you are giving is “don’t let someone else speak for you.”

  4. No, the case is NOT closed. People just don’t realize it. Older readers, particularly older wine readers, do frequent the wine corners of the internet.

    One of the advantages of running The Palate Press Advertising Network is that I get to see demographic information for more than 70 different wine websites around the world. Across the network, well over 1 million page views per month, 38 percent of the readers are over 50, and 74% are over 35. The idea that everybody on the internet is a millenial living in their parents’ basements are just wrong.

  5. Wow, there are winemakers that don’t have a Blackberry or iPhone. Never met one of those.

  6. Not every winemaker is articulate or even wishes to write for whatever reason. It may be possible for the winemaker’s wife or staff or friends to write on his behalf. Not everyone is a Wes Hagen who can make sense and wine equally. Or you could write for them. You’ve done some great interviews with winemakers that I know got me really interested in their wines. Their personalities and passions came through.

    In a way it’s almost like the shift from real reporters to pretty anchor people on the TV news that has dumbed down TV news.

    Let people do what they do well. It would be nice if people could do many things equally well. Over time, perhaps this will happen.

    Some people desire authenticity and personality. Others desire great wine. It’s nice if one person can provide both. But others, close to the winemaker, can provide “authenticity” without being artificial.

    400 words 3 or 4 times a week, every week, is a bit much for some non-writers.

  7. So is the idea here that those who “skew older” don’t pay attention to social media? OK, wow. I am “older” and I sure do, but then again, I’m just one person. And the owners of the wine store where I work are “older” and they do too, but really, that’s just two more people. And many of our customers are “older,” and they follow and use social media too, but that’s only another few people. I had no idea that everyone over a certain age completely ignored social media! Now I feel so cool and hip, and like, for the very first time in my life, I am actually doing something BEFORE others in my age co-hort, not after!

  8. Kimberly, lol! I’m just saying that lots of winemakers I talk to “of a certain age” don’t understand social media. They need a lot of hand-holding to get into it.

  9. Larry, I’ve never understood the “I can’t write well” argument. Baloney. Anyone who can talk can write. And believe me, winemakers can talk! They talk about wine, winemaking, viticulture, enology, business, etc. all the time.

  10. JonEVino says:

    “Google Wave”, Steve…very cool…just sayin’…

  11. Shouldn’t we leave writing to the professionals? Winemakers who constantly blog or write on chat boards in my eyes are like watching a prime time TV show. I feel they are constantly trying to sell me something every 15 minutes. I prefer PBS style, letting me know at the end that some major corporation is directing my thoughts and dollars.
    Wine writing is an art. One of my favorite movies is Whit Stillman”s Metropolitan. In the movie Tom Townsend gives his opinion of a book. When asked about the book later his answer is that although he has very strong opinions about it he hasn’t read it he prefers literary criticism to actually reading books. I don’t read wine criticism to taste a wine, I read it for laughs.

  12. Jon, will check out Google Wave.

  13. JonEVino says:

    Great, Steve. You’ve made this winemaker, one happy hodad!

  14. No, Jon, you helped to make a very good wine and I just noted it.

  15. JonEVino says:

    Noted! night, Steve {/:-}>

  16. Doc Holiday says:

    JonEVino,
    I just checked out Google Wave. That’s heavy man. Do you have any of that “very good wine” left that Steve mentioned? I could have used a bottle or two while I watched that loooong Google video on the Wave.

    Now if I had my own Blog with Wave I would have changed Steve’s comment from “very good wine” to “damn good wine”. And with Wave I could have even claimed that I helped you make the wine too. Now that’s some cool technology.

  17. My 2 c worth: When I started writing my wine-blog about a year ago, I had the exact same fears as the winemaker mentioned in the post, ie “I can’t write”, “I have nothing interesting to say”, but I just went ahead an did it, and am still doing it! And I still can’t write and still think that it’s not very interesting!!!! But like Steve says, it’s free, it’s fun, and it’s probably the future :)

  18. Fabius, way to go! I hope all the winemakers read this and take heart.

  19. JonEVino says:

    Good medicine, “doc”. May I prescribe another 750 ml dose for your pre-existing condition?

  20. Interesting discussion. We at Misha’s Vineyard (Central Otago, New Zealand) have a blog (as part of the website) and have found it to be a great tool. It’s mainly the vineyard manager, or me (owner) that does the updates but we’ll get our winemaker to do a few too as soon as we’re into the season. We also tweet and use Facebook. We’ve found so many ‘friends’ who are interested in what we’re doing using social media – it’s amazing.

    Not sure I’d suggest 3-4 times a week for a blog – we do a vineyard update every 7-10 days — but we tweet several times a day and update Facebook daily. This format seems to work for us so I guess it’s finding the way to talk about things in a timeframe that’s comfortable for you – and informative for others. See our blog updates at http://www.mishasvineyard.com/participate/misha-blog/

    Misha

  21. Misha, very interesting. Do you think that blogging, Facebooking and tweeting are selling your wine?

  22. look. there are boocoo (de) wine labels out there in the world. blogs, FB, tweets, all lend the label owner opps to connect with like-minded people, to have a conversation, to explore along shared paths. it may not be for every label, because if there is no passion or commitment behind it, there is no point, but again, i will go back to what is the greatest influencer for people to buy ANYTHING…
    word
    of
    mouth.
    and that’s what these tools do.
    they get the word out. plain and simple. but you need a plan. as organic as blogs are and how lovely that idea is, there is only so much sunrise over the vineyard shlock one can hear before turning the tv on, or, better yet, opening a book, a mon avis.

  23. Stephanie, thanks for a thoughtful comment. Getting the word out is important; persuading people to buy your wine is something else. All I wonder is, how will the successful wineries of the future succeed at that?

  24. This is a great post and subsequent thread. Very thought provoking….

    Yes, the Google Wave release video is certainly a long one, but well worth viewing to see the future of communication; integration, timeliness and visibility. I found it fascinating and it reinforced to me that our decision to tie into social media to communicate with wine-lovers (while these may be existing or potential customers, the reality is the vast majority will not be). BUT, they are all important to us for the long term. Whether they access our Blog, Tweets, Facebook page or Website, we hope they will leave with a good impression of New Zealand wine, or better still Martinborough wine, or even better still, Murdoch James Estate wines, so that when they are in a decision making position, they regard us positively.

    The key understanding is that traditional marketing pushes product at people, while social media puts your message out there and people will act on that (read ‘pull’ not ‘push’). How they react will depend on the message(s) credibility.

    The other point to make is that winemakers who do not understand the potential for telling their story through social media are missing a wonderful opportunity to relate directly with wine lovers, and the only cost is some of your time. This vehicle makes it possible for a wee vineyard like ours on the bottom of the planet communicate with anyone in the world, that may be looking for information on wine, as effectively as can companies with much larger budgets. We love it, and yes, it has led to increased sales and tour bookings. Not massive, but building for sure, and gaining momentum as we do more on-line. I would say to any doubters, find the time!

  25. All true. And whether we decide to use these methods for communication to our customers and potential customers or not, one thing is for sure: new technologies will continue to emerge. I remember buying an 8-track player back in the day, and thinking that it was the final frontier in car audio. A week later, a friend showed me his new cassette player. He said it was the ultimate and final frontier in car audio. I went to the local dive bar to lick my wounds, wondering the whole time how that skinny little tape could possibly produce the sound quality of my wide track?! Of course now we know that the CD is the ultimate and final frontier in audio entertainment…uh-huh…right? Hang on everybody and keep doing all this stuff at whatever level your schedule will afford. At the very least, you’ll be able to wax poetic about the technologies of your youth, to future generations.

  26. JonEVino, I wish that somebody with a good imagination would paint a word picture about how a small, relatively unknown winery can use social media to become a contender. Kendall-Jackson grew from an idea to a world power without social media. Williams Selyem rose to fame based on word of mouth and superb quality. I can envision a world in which everybody is pecking away on their personal digital assistants 24/7, but I can’t see how that will help an individual winery. There are 4,000 brands in California alone. How will Facebook, Twitter etc. help any of them if they’re all out there doing social media?

  27. steve, i believe you cannot persuade people to do anything; they always persuade themselves. how? by getting the bytes of info they require at relevant times in their buying-cycle thought process, typically.
    where do these bytes come from? friends. critics. wine stores. blogs. tweets. etc. social media is just a tool. some people love it. some people live by it. some people could care less.
    it all comes down to understanding the needs of your audience, and what mediums they use to get their bytes of info. simple, dimple (in theory).
    the problem is, it’s getting harder and harder to peg down any type of behaviour in consumers, since studies show they wear so many different psychographic hats depending on what they’re buying, e.g.,. buying a car they might be one type of consumer in how they think and act and what’s important to them. buying wine they will be another, buying another label, they may very well be another.
    looking at the number of wine brands out there, as you point out, it’s clear there is an ueber supply of psychographic choices (besides types of wine and wine style), making it virtually impossible to figure out who your next customer might be. unfortunately, like having a 10+ wine list at a winery, people try to be too much for too many, as if they think they can meet everyone’s needs. bad strategy when there’s so much wine out there. in my opinion, social media is then used for this “i must be everything to all people” frenzy. people need to focus on a target consumer as best they can and go from there. otherwise it’s a whole bunch of idle chatter.
    does Social Media sell wine? well, does dating always land one in the sack? no. but as long as there’s that chance, people will keep trying.

  28. Stephanie, I agree that wineries might as well keep trying to get customers “in the sack.” They always have and they always will. Doing so these days is harder than it used to be, because there are so many wineries (and if you include imports, the number of brands is practically endless). So I’m all for wineries doing the social media thing. Like I said in my blog, I try to convince every winemaker I meet to just do it! Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I explain to them that when I first started blogging — less than 2 years ago — I thought blogging was pointless, but figured I might as well, since I had the time. Now steveheimoff.com is one of the most widely read wine blogs in the world. So if I can do it, anyone can. But just as most wine bloggers can’t figure out a way to monetize their blogs, I don’t think most wineries will be able to do it either. Maybe somebody will prove me wrong. My crystal ball just doesn’t see clearly enough into the future for me to know how a winery is supposed to make money through social media.

  29. Ok, Steve…so I agree with you that it’s hard to imagine social media making any small winery a “contender”. Not sure that’s the point. The marketing profs used to talk about “share of stomach” – people only drink so much liquid per capita, and therefore in order for them to drink more of one type of beverage, they need to drink less of something else. By this measure, we wine folks are all in the same boat, whether we are “KJ” or “Keith and Joe’s Cellars”. Social media, then, would rightly fall into the public relations camp. It’s a way that we in wine can use our passionate nature (evidence the response to some of of your other recent posts) to level the playing field with other beverages, and to highlight the unique nature of wine to a world in serious need of another glass. By attempting to promote ourselves, we are benefiting us all.

  30. Doc Holiday says:

    I always like to relate winemaking, winegrowing, vineyards and wineries to cooking, cafes, and restaurants. There’s everything from Two Buck Chuck to McDonalds, from Chez Panisse to Heitz Cellars and from Opus One to Ruth Chris. Everyone loves to eat and wine is food.

    There are plenty of blogs and websites out there for the restaurant industry. They have various marketing strategies and they are profiting through social media.

    Social media is one of the best forms of advertizing; it is modern day word of mouth advertizing. Websites, email and blogs will become more and more fused and indistinct much like JonEVino pointed out with Goggle’s “Wave”.

    A perfect example of how social media sells wine is a recent post on Steve Heimoff’s blog site dated March 10, 2010 “A Perfect day With Challenges”. Steve blogged “This is, quite simply, the best Santa Barbara Bordeaux-style red wine I’ve ever had,” referring to a visit that day to Gainey Vineyards.

    You can’t get better word of mouth advertizing than that I don’t care how much you spend. And it didn’t cost Gainey one cent. But that’s what happens when you put you heart and soul into making a great wine. It sells itself…but you do need to do a little blogging.

  31. JonEVino says:

    Yee haw, Doc! This is startin’ to remind me of when you and I, and my cousin, JonERingo, used to sit around the saloon after everybody else was gone and go on for hours about…oh, I don’t know… marketing and public relations, social media…stuff like that. Those were the days, eh Doc? Have you noticed how a bunch of folks round these parts have been questioning the value of social media, as though they was gonna have to lay out serious gold dust to pay for it? Think you’ve hit the nail square on the head this time, Doc. The point is that it’s advertising that you don’t have to pay for (my apologies to the “time is money” crowd…you know how much I love those guys). Back at Gunslinger Tech, seems to me they called that Public Relations. Seems like folks were pretty high on it, and back then you mostly had to pay a guy or gal to do it for ya. Now you can be sittin’ on your horse, or layin’ in the bunk, clutchin’ your handheld (hee hee, cough cough), and next thing you know you’ve done a little self promotion, and ya never even broke a sweat! Doc… seriously now…I think it’s time that we make like cow pies and hit the trail. Don’t forget to pick up your gun on the way out. Seems we’ve lived to fight another day – g’night, Doc.

  32. Interesting discussion. I have built a long and successful career in both B to B and B to C marketing and sales and have been involved in online marketing from the beginning. While I certainly agree that wineries should use a variety of media to engage with customers and prospects, it is troubling to me that so many have no communications plan or comprehensive marketing strategy, yet they want to jump on Twitter or Facebook because it’s the latest thing. I recommend that clients develop their online media plan much like they would develop a personal investment strategy: take a portfolio approach. That means, first invest in your foundation (low risk, high return): great, updated website and consistent, quality email. Then, add “higher risk” elements like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr. It is really shocking to me the number of wineries that make no effort to collect email addresses from tasting room visitors and, further, even those that do seldom use them! I was recently visiting a high end ($50-100/bottle) Sonoma County winery; purchased a couple of bottles, but no one even asked for an email address! Wouldn’t they like to sell me more wine? Are there really so many customers in this price range that they can afford this attitude? So, net ,net, I am all for incorporating a variety of social media in a marketing plan, but some of the elements need to be viewed as frosting on a cake. Unfortunately, way too many wineries don’t have a cake! The good news – lots of opportunity for people like me!:-)

  33. Diane: A great message, and one that every winery should read! Thanks.

  34. Greg Brumley says:

    Steve,

    Sorry to be the curmudgeon, but I think we really are talking mountains and molehills. It’s fine to hop on the social media bandwagon — as long as one realizes it’s a second-tier tool.
    For an under 10,000-case winery, marketing is a very different task than for a 100,000+ winery. To the latter, it’s about volume sales; to the former, it’s about repeat sales to the same people.
    The challenge for my small-winery clients is to grow their relationships with current customers, and develop relationships with new clients. That must be done voice-to-voice and face-to-face. People don’t buy Kendall-Jackson because its “my winery in California”. They do buy Jones Family Winery for that reason. Social media cannot start those personal relationships, nor tighten a customer’s bond with the winery. Social media are wonderful secondary tools to support those efforts — but they should never be a small winery’s primary effort.
    I spend time teaching wineries to talk with and pamper and exploit and learn from their most-active customers. Many are reluctant to do that, just as your representative winemaker is reluctant to blog. But, when we break the job down, they become pretty good at it.
    You are very right that someone whose name is on the label makes the best representative by far. I also very much agree that young family members — properly trained and supervised — can be very effective on the social media. (It’s a great way to involve the next generation in the business because these kids’ tech savvy equips them to carve out a sales/marketing niche as no previous young generation has.)

    Thanks for provoking everyones’ thoughts!

    Greg Brumley
    mail@brumleygroup.com

  35. Great post. I’m going to bookmark this to show my clients. I run my own business (on the side) for Wine 2.0 (and regular internet marketing) and mainly consult but occasionally I maintain social media accounts for clients. I always tell them it’s best if they provide the content (even if I’m the one typing it up for them). Sincerity and authenticity are key. While consistency is great it’s better to post once a week (or even once a month) than not at all as long as you’re clear about how often you plan to post. Your audience wants to know ahead of time what to expect.

    So thank you for encouraging more wineries to utilize all of these free marketing avenues online.

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