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Vintners: Sell wine while you drive!

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Most wineries these days are doing their best to increase direct sales to consumers. With the recession, they’re seeing a much more sluggish market than usual. Stores and restaurants aren’t selling as much, there are fewer visitors to the tasting room, and such as there are do not want to spend any more than they have to.

What’s a vintner to do?

We know they’re turning to the Internet and to social media to build brands, make new friends and keep old ones, and attract more members to their wine clubs. And in those clubs, they’re offering special things that are not available through the usual channels. That makes the members feel like they’re getting in on something — sort of like an initial public offering, only it’s wine, not a stock.

Winemakers also are getting increasingly ingenious when it comes to P.R. Well, that’s probably not the winemakers themselves, but their public relations people. Everybody’s pitching, pitching, pitching these days. They realize it doesn’t work anymore to pitch this tired old kind of story: “Don and Janet were bored with their old life. He made a fortune in [fill in the blank], while she was a stay-at-home mom raising their kids in [fill in the city]. So they decided to return to nature by buying 30 acres in [fill in the wine region] and grow [fill in the grape variety]. They hired [fill in famous winemaking consultant] and have now released their first wine,” blah blah blah.

That is so Nineties! No, today the pitch needs an angle, a twist. Something connected to a charity often works — whales are a perennial favorite. Biodynamic is on the wane, but it still works. Ethnic and cross cultural is coming on strong. Wine and food pairing always works. Who doesn’t like to eat? And spirits are big. Get yourself a hot mixologist, and you’re golden.

Vintners are also going to more and more wine fairs, symposia, big public tastings and the like. They’ve always done that, but I think they’re having to do it more nowadays. Anything to catch another customer, get the brand name out there, nail down some loyalty.

It used to be that the winemaker would drive [or fly] to the fair, do their thing, then drive [or fly] back. Big waste of time, all that travel. Could be doing something more productive. In France, they are. A new for-profit business provides the service of telling traveling winemakers where along their route a group of wine lovers has invited them into their homes for a little tasting. Says Decanter: “It has become imperative that, while [winemakers] are at wine fairs, or on their way back home after a sales trip, they can maximise their time away. Meeting wine lovers directly in their homes is an effective way to do this.” Let’s say Bob Cabral drove down to Shell Beach for World of Pinot Noir. On his way back to Healdburg, he’d get a text message: “The Wisenheimers have invited you to their home in Los Altos Hills for a tasting. They’ve invited their neighbors. The address is….”. And: “On your way to the Golden Gate Bridge, make a detour at Geary and go up to Seacliff. The Lotsabucks will host you.”

A winemaker’s day is never done!

* * *

And then there’s the Commonwealth of Virginia, which has been drifting to the right for years. The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission recently banned college newspapers from accepting alcohol advertising.

That prompted several Virginia colleges to challenge the ban, but it [the ban] was upheld by a U.S. Court of Appeals. On Monday, the ACLU stepped in, asking for a reversal. I know that conservatives often complain about “the nanny state” — government that is overweening and intrusive. They always say people should be left alone to make their own decisions. Well, shouldn’t college newspapers be allowed to accept advertising from perfectly legal alcohol companies, including bars that sponsor happy hours (the ban even outlaws use of that phrase!)? Come on, Virginia. Your most famous native son, Thomas Jefferson, loved wine. He must be rolling in his grave.

  1. To tell you the truth, I’m about done with wine fairs. Sure the first hour or two can be good, but by hour 3 its nothing but drunks who want to get their money’s worth. Where’s the (forgive me for saying it ) R.O.I.? I’d much rather do an in home dinner with some real enthusiasts who want to understand my wine and why each single vineyard tastes the way it does; rather than spend 4 hours pouring with for the “I just like (red), (white), (cab), (zin), etc.” crew I find at many tasting.
    That being said, events like Pinot Days and WOPN do it right: focused and concise. My guess is ZAP is similar (or does the alcohol take over in the end).
    -Chris
    PS – Mr. Lotsobucks, I can be reached at the winery 707.431.4442

  2. Bravo Chris! Gotta say the same is becoming true of our walk in tastings, (now the more specialized evening classes are different) lots of groups of friends that just want to hang together, drink some wine…drink some not taste and learn about….and then run off to grab lunch, an early dinner or on to the next drinking event. Sure they plunked down the cash for the tasting but that almost never covers the actual cost and we are in business to sell wine….not just pour it. I am also beginning to think that the people that are seriously into it have grown bored with those shuffle and sip events. Just my take from the retail end of things.
    PS Oh and Mr./Ms/Mrs. Lotsobucks, we can be reached at the store 562.597.8303

  3. San Diego says:

    I sometimes skip the Wine Fairs in San Diego. I will go to the Wine Maker dinners at the local restaurants the same week. Some wineries also have separate tastings at local wine bars. It is more intimate and you have food pairings instead of a cracker.

  4. Chris, I haven’t been to ZAP for a long time. The sponsors tell me it’s more controlled than it was in the bad old days when IMHO it was basically a drunk fest.

  5. Bob Cabral says:

    Forget the Weisenheimers and the Lotsabucks (the cheese is always old & the pate is usually rancid)! I’d drive 50 miles out of my way to have a glass of pinot with good ol’ Joe Schmoe and his buddy Al Fresco!!! Seems those guys always have some cheddar cheese, salumi and crackers handy for the inpromtu visitor. ;)

  6. Shuuun the big tastings! Shuuuuuun them! We’ve been doing in-home events for a couple of years now. I can tell you from long, hard experience that the conversion to wine club members, or even to repeat sales, for these private tastings with the Wisenheimers & Lotsobucks is no better than it is for the big events. Nothing beats the Tasting Salon, except perhaps a private barrel tasting. Nevertheless, we still prefer the intimate settings and personal connections we make at private events. We can be reached at 707-294-8278 (Eddie also does custom bar & hand-made cocktails) or 707-480-2251.

  7. Steve,

    Though wine fairs are not what they used to be, they still are a vital marketing tool in the winemaker’s and winery’s toolbag. They certainly are ‘necessary’ for everyone, but for small wineries especially, they still are very important.

    I think that part of my excitement about these events is based on the fact that they tend to meet my lower-than-usual expectations about them. I simply will not make the same number of ‘important trade contacts’ as I might have made a few years ago, and there are many valid reasons for this:

    * Most wineries have representation that will show their wines to buyers a couple of times a year

    * Many people from the ‘trade’ choose not to go to these events for many reasons, including the ones Chris mentioned above.

    * Many buyers are taking a more conservative approach and are just sticking with ‘what they know’ for now

    * Many wineries are no longer bringing their ‘best stuff’ but instead bring stuff they need to get rid of or larger volume items, and therefore buyers are staying away.

    All of this said, for a winery of my size, it is incredibly helpful to be at these events and meet as many people as I can, even if that number is lower than in the past. If I make a handful of contacts that turn out to be fruitful, I am satisfied . . .

    I’m curious to hear what others have to say.

    Cheers!

  8. Larry, I’ve noticed that fewer winemakers go to these fairs that they used to. These days it seems to be people from the tasting room, PR, marketing, etc.

  9. Bob, only they spell it “salami,” not “salumi.” Glad to see you here at steve’s blog!

  10. Steve,

    To me the fact that most winemakers go to these events is ‘problematic’. No one knows the wines as well as the winemakers do, and they should be the best people to put out there.

    That said, you and I both know that not all winemakers are comfortable being in front of crowds . . . some are much more comfortable being in front of vines or tanks.

    Cheers!

  11. I’m attending a large regional event this coming Sat. in the Rogue Valley here in SW Oregon and the main reason that I’m putting out the time and money is that this event has a rather high ticket price ($75 per head!). The rationale was explained to me by one of the event’s founders as a way to make sure that the serious and committed wine enthusiast is the main focus of the attending wine makers.

    Since the economy went south, I saw that the number of trade tastings in my prior region (Phoenix/Scottsdale in AZ) dropped off the edge of the table. Even the annual events by the “Big Boy” distributors were curtailed in an effort to cut expenses. With the concomitant demise of a number of small and medium-sized distributors, there were no larger trade tasting events in Phoenix for almost 18 months.

    With the consolidation of distribution, it would seem that a “Tupperware” wine event would be viable as an alternative for a winemaker on the road. Are there any support mechanisms in place to assure a minimum level of attendance?

  12. Sherman: I think your question is key (“Are there any support mechanisms in place to assure a minimum level of attendance?”)

  13. That’s true Larry. In the old days you could always count on the winemakers pouring. No more.

  14. I totally second what Samantha mentions above — the “shuffle and sip” events have become so lame for those who really want to appreciate and learn about wine.
    I’m in the retail end too — I work in a cafe that has an extensive retail wine selection as well — and while we do tastings two days a week, we recently did a wine dinner — our first — and it was so much better for really exploring each wine’s intricacies and finesse. And tasting them alongside the amazing dishes our chef prepared made it all the more memorable.
    We were initially disappointed that only 17 people reserved spaces for the dinner, but that ended up being an ideal number — lots of great interaction between the wine presenter, the chef, the guests, and the food and wine. And we ended up selling quite a bit of wine on pre-order that night as well. All 17 guests wanted to know when we’d be doing it again, so I think it’s safe to say we’ll add wine dinners to the mix, along with the weekly “sip and shuffle” tastings. (Love that phrase — it describes these kind of tastings perfectly!)

  15. I think a lot depends on where you are in your growth cycle as a winery as well. I don’t much care to talk with a PR person from a winery, and I think most attendees get more out of meeting the winemaker but I’m not your typical event attendee.
    The Family Winemakers event last week was a bust on Sunday but Monday saw serious buyers asking good questions, at our table at least. So for us, a winery just getting started, it was a big deal to score two high-profile restaurant placements. I don’t know that we would have gotten those placements if we had sent somebody to pour for us. (oh, and we can’t afford to do that anyway)

    Cheers,
    Alan

  16. Alan Baker, that’s good news. Congrats!

  17. James McCann says:

    Steve,

    Wasn’t that ban put into place under the previous administration, which was Democratic? (The last two governors were Democrats, and the first lwasuit seems to date to 2008) The current commissioners were recently put into place by a Republican Governor with a goal of privitization.

    While it’s clear what side of the aisle you come from, shoudn’t you at least spend five minutes looking at an issue before writing such an inaccurate piece?

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