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Why don’t cult wineries embrace social media?

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One of the things I’ve been puzzled about is how slow to embrace social media the so-called cult wineries have been in California.

I ask just about every cult proprietor I meet what they’re doing online, and the usual response is a shrug. Sometimes they’re not doing anything. Sometimes they don’t know what they’re doing, because they hired somebody to do it for them and they never even check it out. Maybe they have a web site that hasn’t been refreshed since 2009.

As far as I can tell, too often the proprietor’s attitude toward social media is sort of “I can’t be bothered.” It’s like they feel that going online is a form of peddling — a vulgar hawking of their product, like a late-night infomercial or a cheap clip-out coupon in the Sunday paper.

We now have some insight into this mindset via an article, “Luxury Brands Still Tread Lightly With Social Media,” that appeared in yesterday’s Forbes.com.

The headline telegraphs the main point. I love this quote from a fellow named Jean-Claude Biver, ceo of Hublot, a luxury watch producer (how about $19,500 for the Limited Edition 715.CI.1110.RX for men?). “When you are online,” M. Biver observed, Gallic nose upturned, “you are not exclusive anymore.”

You might wonder why a watch that costs nearly twenty grand wouldn’t be exclusive no matter where you buy it. As it turns out, there’s a reason. It’s provided by a Brit, name of Matt Rhodes, who is described as the social media director for the firm, FreshNetworks London, which advises “high-end travel and fashion companies.” Rhodes explains that people who are going to drop a bundle on a product want more for their money than merely the thing purchased. A lot more. “If you’re going to spend $1,000 on a pair of shoes, you want to have a glass of wine going around, the attention of staff; you want an experience as well…”.

In other words, when the lady is yearning for a pair of Manolo Blahnik Rhinestone Buckle d’Orsays, she doesn’t want to look them up on amazon.com and have them sent in a box through the mail. She wants to walk into Bergdorf’s and be treated right — in an experience that feels “less like [a] sales room and more like [an] intimate venue,” says Rhodes.

Now we get to the nub, not only of why luxury wine producers are reluctant to go online, but why, in fact, people treasure luxury wines in the first place. We need to understand snobbism, or perhaps elitism is a less loaded word. Lots of people who live to show off their cult wines are not…quite…comfortable with the multitudes, who don’t hold their forks correctly and may not have perfectly manicured fingernails. The people who can afford cult wines like to be around other people who can afford cult wines. That implies exclusivity, and what could be less exclusive than social media? Social media lets everybody in, whereas the objective of snobbism is to shut people out. As Rhodes says, pointedly, “[O]n Facebook, you are opening the gates to discussions you don’t [necessarily] want.” Who wants to have a conversation with the underclass? If Rhodes’ fashion designer clients have a new Fall line to present, they’d much rather do it through “[their] own catwalk show where [they] control the invites,” not through some common public platform.

Thus the notions of exclusivity, controlling the environment and maintaining insider status lie at the heart of cult wines. But those notions are inimical to the soul of the Internet. That is why cult wine proprietors are slow to embrace social media. It smashes exclusivity, demolishes the ivory tower, bridges the moat and throws open the gate to anyone who wants in.

So I entirely agree with the reporter who wrote in the Forbes.com article, “…it’s odd that so few resources are invested in reinventing how that product is marketed and delivered on the web…in the luxury sector.” Odd, indeed. And sure to change.

  1. So, once on-line they’re no longer a brand with exclusivity?

    That’s sad and stupid and so totally misguided that I don’t even know where to start. Typing this sentence, I can think of 12 ways in which they could INCREASE the perception of their exclusivity through the use of social media.

    Which tells me that their actual reasons are more akin to fear & laziness…

  2. “Who wants to speak to the underclass?”…now that’s classy.

  3. Dude, I think more than fear and laziness — strong words — it’s a kind of oblivion.

  4. Steve, I think you are right on. Once something is online, anyone can access it. This is the opposite of what any Veblen good desires. Ideally they’d be getting people to pay a large fee just to have a look.

    For a fun game, try finding any useful info on a cult wine’s website. In most cases you’ll be lucky to find anything more than a link to sign up for the mailing list. Want a tech sheet? Well, they fart in your general direction because your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.

  5. Greg, I’m afraid you’re right. Hard to even get case production figures from them.

  6. For some of the smaller wine brands it may be a question of resources and skill. I know a few small, high-end producers that don’t have the time or experience to create an online presence that is both thoughtful and meaningful. This is especially true in a market when many folks are just trying to survive. In the end, it is critical to engage with customers in a way that builds trust. Smaller brands know this. They also know that in the future building these types of relationships will surely involve a significant online experience, but at what level and where to focus limited resources is the question.

  7. Tim, I don’t buy into the “not enough time or experience” argument, which I hear a lot. First of all, it doesn’t take that much time to do a Facebook post or write a few lines on a blog. As for experience, nobody was “born” with experience in social media! Everybody begins at the starting line. If someone chooses not to start learning, that’s their problem.

  8. David White says:

    They’re also losing out on free advertising. Now that all the fall shipments are making their way across the country (after four months of too-hot-to-ship weather), I’m literally getting wine shipments every day of the week. The other day, I wanted to tweet about all the packages I was excited about getting — Peay, Failla, Williams-Selyem, Sojourn, and others. I think only Sojourn is on twitter, so I decided against the tweet.

  9. Greg Brumley says:

    Exclusivity has its privileges.

    One must recall the data in Silicon Valley Bank’s “state of the wine industry” report of more than a year ago: There is a top tier of affluent consumers whose buying habits were not changed by the Great Recession. Those few with money to burn don’t want to buy from vendors who must seek out new customers. Social media is all about seeking out new customers. If your winery does, in fact, have people waiting to get on your mailing list, that exclusivity is far more valuable to you than reaching out would be.

    One suspects there are far more winegrowers who think they’re cult wineries than those who actually are.

  10. Greg B., the problem with your analysis is that the “top tier wineries” ARE seeking out new customers. They’re just doing it in subtle ways, so that their existing fan base doesn’t find out. In other words the left hand and right hand of the wineries are operating in different arenas.

  11. Most “Top Tier Winery’s” know their market and understand that the average customer on the web does not have $10,000 in their Paypal account for an online purchase.

    I agree with Greg exclusivity is far more valuable. Perception is everything.

    Joe

  12. My 12 year old nephew is really interested in cars and spends much of his time online at various sites sharing his driving experiences and assessment of the performance and handling of Lamborgini’s, Ferrari’s, and Bugatti Veyrons. He has a lot of fun with it, but I’m not sure his sharing of his imaginary driving experiences add much to the conversation about these luxury brands. And I doubt that his online experience will influence whether he will ever own or drive one. Hard to control the message when you open it up to anyone.

  13. Morton, “Hard to control the message when you open it up to anyone.” Correct. Entire college courses in marketing and psychology are devoted to this topic.

  14. I had been thinking about this topic over the last few months after getting an email from a cult producer regarding a social media project. It read in part…

    “Though I’ll personally continue to follow your adventures (and with much interest), I think the format is not quite the right match for a story on ****. We’ve thus far [have not] ‘officially’ contributed to a single blog project (surprising in this day and age, I know!), mainly due to the chain of extremely low production we continue to wear around our necks. Because we need to be so critically selective, we’re often faced with the pressure of having to say no when we’d really rather say – yes!”

    In other words, I took it to mean: “hey, with a small production we charge a fortune for, we don’t want to diminish our brand with social media.” I guess I understand that and I think your shoe analogy is correct. When we are OVER paying for things, we want some assurance that it is OK to do so, and being a member of a club few others have access to provides that reassurance for the purchase.

  15. Wayne, thanks so much. What an interesting quote from the producer. I wonder if he or she will be singing the same tune in 5 years. After all, that’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it? Longevity. Or is it? Maybe some of these people want instant profits and don’t care what happens down the road.

  16. “Lots of people who live to show off their cult wines are not…quite…comfortable with the multitudes, who don’t hold their forks correctly…The people who can afford cult wines like to be around other people who can afford cult wines.”

    I disagree w/ the first part–Most people I know who buy cult wines hold a wine glass by the bowl and pair Harlan with lobster….. but agree w/ the 2nd– They do like to be around other people who can afford to do the same…

    But think of the crazy success SQN had a few years selling T-Shirts– They probably sold more T-shirts to people than actual bottles. Didn’t diminish their brand, probably strengthened it buy giving people that can get the wine something they could touch, buy, and show…

  17. SQN is a for people who don’t know any better.

  18. Greg Brumley says:

    Steve,

    Let me clarify that, by “top tier”, I meant cult wines which actually do have a waiting list. Not many of ‘em.

    Whether they’ll be singing the same tune in a few years…that’s the question. Especially in 10 years. As this remarkable under-35 generation of wine drinkers matures, how do cult wines possibly attract them?

  19. My friend at a cult winery plays Words with Friends with his mailing list people.

  20. Steve- Agreed, almost all of the cults are for those who don’t…

  21. David Cole says:

    It’s all in the elusiveness! If they were online having conversation and sharing information, that would be way to much! because as a few noted about, they don’t give much information NOW! Most of their websites are lacking information (not that mine is perfect…:-))

    But most of these cult wine owners have serious $$. When I got in the wine business my dad said “I thought I raised you smarter than that. Your trying to play a big boys game.” The reality is I am not trying to play that game. I just love wine and people. I have a passion for it. Making $100 plus dollars of wine is not that hard!! Yes, I said it. When you buy grapes for $8,000 to $20,000 per ton and hire Heidi Barrett, Thomas Brown, Ceila Welch, Bob Levy, Mark Aubert, or Helen Turley you better be able to make great wine! I think only Heidi has a real online presence. And if they all spoke up more, you know what we would find out? There human and they put there pants on one leg at a time, just like us. And that could diminish their brand or brands.

    My prediction: Most will stay the same and not ad social media to there marketing plans. Some cult wines will not be around in the next 10 years! Bold, I know…:-)

  22. David your prediction is probably true! I wonder which of the big name Cabs won’t be around.

  23. You have to love America…. We can all still do as we please and thank god we are not all the same : ) YEAH!!!! I have to read some of that 12 year olds reviews on fast cars..lol

  24. Steve,
    This topic is very interesting and I can say it isn’t just cult wine, look at all wineries who aren’t engaged. Producers who are not engaged online feel like Cadillac in the 1990′s. Everyone in the 90′s bought Cadillac’s because when they were 10-15 years old in the 1950′s it was THE car to have. When they could finally afford that car, they bought them, but Cadillac’s wasn’t engaging anyone under 55 years old. As thier customers literally died off, Cadillac had to re-invent it’s brand and appeal to the youth (which it has successfully done).

    If you aren’t online right now, you can catch up, but you are at a huge disadvantage. NO-ONE I know under 30 (my peers and friends) are not on social media. It isn’t because we want to share everything with everyone, it’s because we want to share our lives with other like-minded friends and fans. If you are not making yourself ‘available’ for sharing as a company, you are not in the conversation, and you are out of sight, and out of mind.

    Look at other luxury brands that do share, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Rolex, Ferrarri. Just because people can’t afford the product, doesn’t mean they can’t have a conversation about it and raise brand awareness. Exclusivity can exist alongside social media, and there are TONS of brands doing it.

    Owning a 300 case winery, being the marketing/finance/janitor/winemaker/owner I feel that social media is my biggest tool. The tools are easy to use, have tons of integration, and allow friends and fans to share. I can’t see the down-side.

    Ian B.

  25. Isaaks, I hope every winery reads your comment!

  26. Cults status I define as in-accessible. I believe most of the small producers don’t have a waiting list to get on to the waiting list to get on the mailing list. I do know they have inventory to sell. A Winery can give the impression they are hard to get without social media access or website, but that is inauthentic and doesn’t sell wine. My customers want to be included in the Winery experience, and since my Winery is deep in a forest, their only access is virtual.

  27. In talking with wineries, I can tell you that there is a lot of interest right now in exploring the subject of social media for luxury wines, but also a lot of hesitation. Some of it, to me anyway, seems to stem from not having much experience with the medium – the owners or principals aren’t social media adopters in their own lives so don’t see the value (especially when it comes to the value of their time). I’ve personally seen a few people in the industry evolve from deep skepticism about social networking to having an “aha moment” with it to becoming Twitter-thumping social evangelists. Maybe you have to “get it” to get it, like they used to say about EST back in the day? How do we help make that happen?

  28. I stand behind my strong words; obliviousness is essentially laziness, from a certain point of view! :)

  29. Will cult wineries with a serious wine to deliver be singing the same tune in five years? Absolutely.
    Within five years, it is the person who can build a bubble against the onslaught of media in any form (primarily mobile by then) who will be among the most coveted.
    Not my thought but thought of true media/mobile experts at the end of last year.

  30. Bill Smart says:

    Steve – you’d be suprised how many people (and I’m talking winery owners here) have a hard time figuring out how to turn on a computer, much less engage in social media. Hard to believe in this day in age, I know but it’s true. In my view, a lot of these cult producers fancy themselves as artists and traditionally artists could give a crap about the mainstream. I’m sure at least some are in a position to say, “buy my wine, don’t buy my wine, I could really care less.”

  31. Bill, I know it’s true too. I don’t think it’s because they consider themselves “artists.” It’s because they’re old! My mom didn’t own a cult winery, but when she got to a certain age she couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything technological. She could barely turn on the radio, much less figure out email. In the case of the rich cult wine owners, this tendency is magnified by the fact that they have people working for them to do all the boring stuff they don’t want to do themselves. The mystery is why they don’t just hire a young person to do their social media.

  32. Kathy, I don’t exactly see how or why “the person who can build a bubble…will be among the most coveted.” Not getting that connection.

  33. Dude, not necessarily. Laziness is when I look at the dustballs in the corner of my livingroom and am just too tired and bored to sweep. Obliviousness is when I don’t even see the dustballs!

  34. Ah… but it’s laziness when you’re entire neighborhood talks about the accumulation of dustballs and yet you still never bother to consider looking for them in your pad… :)

  35. Dude, I don’t allow the entire neighborhood into my home! I am selective. You, of course, are always invited.

  36. JD in Napa says:

    OK, for one, I have no interest in “cult” wineries. What the hell are they, anyway? (are there any Blue Oyster Cult wineries? Just askin’) And I “like” wineries on FB which have wines that interest me and that I have an interest in purchasing; highly unlikely that I’d “like” a “cult” winery whose wines are generally unobtainable. Why waste the space/time when there are interesting things to follow?

  37. Great piece and right on the money (no pun intended) – I think it’s important to note our CEO was referring to being online via a store (eshop) and not being involved in social media overall – clearly Hublot as a watch brand pretty much pioneered online communications and we keep innovating in that field year after year.
    The problem of social media and luxury is well understood by those in the business – luxury, which is exclusive by definition, is orthogonal in concept to social media which is inherently “popular” and wide open, free and under little perceived control. This is the dilemma we face in the luxury industry. That and the fact that being online can be perceived as un-exclusive in certain markets (I dont believe the USA is one of them).
    In any case, a fascinating struggle that will be played out for years to come IMHO.

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