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Wineries and social media: the inauthenticity trap


On the surface it looks like the subject of this post is politics and Meg Whitman, but it’s not. It’s really a lesson for wineries about social media.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with our recent election in California, Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, spent $160 million on her campaign for Governor, $142 million of it out of her own pocket. That was a record amount for any individual statewide race in the nation’s history, and many tens of millions of dollars more than her opponent, Jerry Brown, spent. Believe me, we voters were subjected to a barrage of robocalls, mailers, TV and radio commercials and signs urging us to vote for “Meg.”

Her campaign also heavily invested in social media. She had a Facebook page with 75,000 more fans than Jerry Brown, was active on twitter, and had more online comments, or “chatter,” than any other gubernatorial candidate in the nation — even more than Carl Paladino or Andrew Cuomo in New York.

Yet even with all that going for her, Whitman lost, and lost big.

As the San Francisco Chronicle says, she “failed to seal the deal” despite the huge influx of cash, for a simple reason: her “seemingly bottomless pocketbook couldn’t buy likeability or authenticity.” Added a fellow Republican campaign manager, “With Meg, nobody believed anything she said. She was a person who was willing to say or do anything to win…”.

This ridiculous sample of Meg’s tweets shows the turnoff factor she gave. As if I’d be likely to run into her at Pea Soup Anderson’s.

Like I said, I don’t mean to dump on Whitman or have this posting turn into an online political debate in the comments section, as one did last week did. Instead, I want to make a couple points that are directly transferable to winerys’ use of social media. The number one takehome message from Whitman’s failed campaign is that money doesn’t matter. It can buy a lot, but it can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

What this means for wineries who are hiring social media managers and investing a lot of cash into that effort is this: there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing. It can work. And, most likely, you can’t win without investing money and time in social media. But — and it’s a big “but” — beware the inauthenticity trap. Whitman lost because she either couldn’t present, or doesn’t actually possess, an authentic personality, the kind that people like and are willing to bond with.

“She never consolidated her base, even on simple stuff – mostly because of the arrogance of her personality,” said a former Republican Party state chair in California. Whitman presented herself as folksy and likeable, a matronly, aging soccer mom with a big toothy smile and a pull-up-a-chair-and-let’s-chat approachability. But that was utterly at odds with what came across everytime she appeared on TV: a cold, aloof and rather mean uber-billionaire with zero understanding of real people, and even fewer ideas of how to address our problems. So even in this Republican tidal wave, Whitman went down to defeat.

The message for wineries is: if you’re playing in social media, you have to be real. If you don’t know what “real” means, you’re probably not. If you have to hire someone to tell you how to be real, you won’t be. “Real” doesn’t mean buttoned up and on message all the time. It doesn’t mean posting something some P.R. flack penned for you. It means you have to convey your heart and soul as well as your mind to the people you’re trying to get to. If there’s a revolution social media has wrought, it’s precisely that: be real.

  1. When I was a young airman stationed at Castle AFB I remember the fervor among my associates as this southerner broadcast loudly my support for
    Jerry Brown to take down the out of touch and insensitive Ronald Regan as Governor of California . Jerry won and in my mind I thought Ronnie was long gone.Surprise, Surprise as Gomer used to say! Glad to see all the trials of stamina have paid off for Governor Brown. Good luck down there.

  2. Exquisitely stated, Steve.

    If anything, social media makes it almost impossibly-hard to “fake it” because there are too many people (and too many smart people) who can see through surface-level authenticity. Why this doesn’t work in the modern music biz, though, I have failed to fully comprehend. 😉

  3. nice way to slip it in, Stevie boy. I enjoyed your post and the ideas. Bravo!

  4. One only need see how the forums on web retailer wine.woot can go sour based on the participation (or indifference) of a winery. The producer whose wine is on offer is encouraged to discuss the wine with the online community. Usually wineries that answer technical questions about vineyards, yields, winemaking additions, etc. in an honest fashion do well. Wineries that spew standard PR lines or get caught in lies tend to incite a sh*t storm.

    Your observation is spot on. In this sort of environment, consumers want authenticity, not a PR hack who will say “lowest yields, newest barrels, no expense spared.”

    I’ve started to notice that Napa is the Meg Whitman of wine regions. It’s completely out of touch with middle class consumers. And when Napa wineries do try to utilize social media, they often come off as rigid and insincere. It was quite fun watching the reaction to V. Sattui saying the acidity in their Riesling was natural when it was clear from their tech sheets the TA had increased 50% from harvest to bottling.

  5. Very nice piece Steve.

  6. Bill Smart says:

    Great stuff, Steve. I hope all of my “PR flack” friends read this post and take it to heart. You know, one thing did occur to me when reading your post. I think it is much easier for PR/Communication people who work for family owned wineries to have an authentic/real voice. I can imagine (and I’m just imagining here) that a PR person who works for some big corporate wine company has much less flexiblity. I can picture it now. First the brand manager has to approve the tone of the message. Then the marketing department has to make sure the message resonates with whatever marketing initiative is going on. And then finally, you have a “corporate communications specialist” massage the message to ensure it’s authentic. By the time the message is posted to Facebook or Twitter it sounds more like a Clorox commerical then it does something that comes from the heart or is “real.” Kinda funny if you think about it.

  7. James McCann says:


    I agree 100%. Contrast Meg with Mayor Bloomberg, who uses his billions to run for office. He runs as a cold businessman, which he is. What you see is what you get. If Meg had taken that approach, “I ran a successful company and I’ll use my business experience to solve our economic problems,” the vote would probably have been a lot closer. But I doubt it would have made enough to defeat Brown.


    Jerry Brown did not run for governor against Reagan. Great anecdote, but it didn’t happen.

  8. James McCann, thanks for weighing in. However, I don’t think I said that Brown ran against Reagan. He succeeded Reagan.

  9. James McCann says:


    Macdaddy did, that is why I addressed it to him.

  10. Bill, I agree. This is why, when winery communications people ask for my opinion (and believe it or not, they do), I say something like, “Find somebody who likes to write and loves to blog, and then let him or her do his thing without intrusion, so it doesn’t feel scripted or censored.” On the other hand, I have been made aware that there are certain legal aspects to what an official wine blog can and cannot say. So there appear to be constraints.

  11. Thanks Samantha.

  12. Greg: “Napa is the Meg Whitman of wine regions”!! Wow. You said it, not me.

  13. Dude, some of us are following your own efforts to keep 1WineDude real. Kudos to you!

  14. 100% spot on.
    the trouble is, like a lot of wines out there, people are trying to please too many others, and instead of thinking, “how best to express myself? ” instead it becomes, “what can i say/make that others will find appealing?” yawn.

    and you know how they make sure their message is super-ultra appealing? something akin to adding acid, sugar, color, etc. when they know their wine needs a little oomph? they throw a ! on the end. LOVE it.

  15. Stephanie, great comparison between social media and winemaker interventions!

  16. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:

    Integrity is or should be “free.” Wine bloggers should be honest in their reviews and the readers respect that and will follow their picks. A reader or person can spot a “fake.” Political figures as well as wineries need to recognize that when trying to convey messages. “Keeping it real”, an old term is now a new term in our times…

  17. I just had a similar conversation with my partner over lunch. If you look back over the past couple years I think there was a lot of “strike first” thinking by wineries that wanted to throw money at social media to make a splash BECAUSE they were using social media. It seemed to work. However, I don’t know that it has really paid off for the big brands. They did garner a lot of attention for hiring marketing people but now that a few of these experiments are over, I would love to know if they think it was worth it. I’m ten times more interested in what Hardy has to say now that he’s an integral part of the team over at the NPA. His hands are in the business and the winemaking. Great move by Kevin.

    At Cartograph, we’re tiny but technology and social media is part of how we live our lives and interact with our customers and accounts so we manage our social outreach ourselves. But if faced with a choice between hiring a marketing pro VS a wine geek with some technical chops and a deep desire to learn about how we make wine, I’d chose the later to manage our social media work. Oh, and they’d have to be well integrated to the team. You can’t observe from the outside and create compelling media.

    Alan Baker, winemaker – Cartopgraph

  18. Greg Brumley says:

    “Napa is the Meg Whitman of wine regions”

    Now, THAT’S a one liner! Greg is on the board for wine industry bon mot of the year.

    Steve, money does matter. Let’s not kid ourselves. The wineries, which do the highest-saturation social media, can because they have the shekels. Your points are well taken that less-than-authentic social media, or social media supporting a less-than-authentic product don’t sell.

    On the issue of Bloomberg’s authenticity, I agree with McCann (and it isn’t even Christmas yet). However, the election post-mortems indicate that the “I’m a business executive, so I can solve all our problems” pitch no longer plays with the voters.

  19. It’s tough to beat Jerry Brown. Has he ever lost an election? The state is has 42% more registered Dems than registered Republicans. To win she had to hold her base and get 90% of the independents. Brown has the state employees, teachers, and public safety unions. He didn’t have to really deal directly with the issues because everyone knows him as a likeable, slightly unpredictable professional politician. A seasoned veteran campaigner who hired smart people to run his campaign. And not that he needed it, but he had a bit of “luck” Meg that threw her housekeeper out “like a piece of garbage.” I mean, how could he lose? I thought his ad where he juxtaposed statements by Arney and Meg was brilliant. It was a negative ad, but no one said anything negative. I’m surprised he didn’t win by more.

    One of Meg’s problems was that she could never present a believable reason why she wanted to be governor. So you are a billionaire and you want to go to Sacramento to run a bankrupt state with long term economic issues and fight with a overwhelming majority of Democratsand state workers unions just to give us peons “a chance to achieve their dreams like you did?”

    I wish Brown had used some of his political capital to push Prop 19. I think that would have increased his margin of victory as I know quite a few conservatives who think our war on drugs is idiotic. Like me.

    And what am I going to do with all these gro-lights? (Maybe someone who hasn’t picked their Cab could use them.

  20. Alan,
    I looked at your site and your social media efforts. Very well done. You have fine representation of your winery and it’s personality in your work.


  21. Steve: I’m as much in favor of extrapolating politics into wine blog posts as you are, but … those tweets don’t sound all that inauthentic to me. What do you expect Whitman to write: “Didn’t like waitress at Andersen’s so I smacked her. Lawyers settled out of court.”

  22. Blake, oh, come on. Meg tried to portray herself as some kind of populist. How absurd. I could imagine running into Willie Brown someplace I go, or Jerry Brown. Come to think of it, I did. But Whitman? Puh-leeze. The ultimate in inauthenticity and therefore in insults to the voters.

  23. Terry Hall says:

    Seriouisly…Meg Whitman as a metaphor for Napa Valley wineries’ social media programs…you guys are killing me with this stuff…as Jon Stewart would tell you…bring it down a notch 🙂 But, that’s just me…a PR flack from Napa Valley.

  24. I’m with Morton and Blake. Her saturation bombing bombed, but her message did not communicate inauthenticity to me. She stated ad nauseum that her business experience and acumen are what the states needs (this is not classic populism). She created jobs at eBay and she would do the same for state. But not enough voters believed this background would prove successful as a kind of CEO of the state. Her loss was due to her lack of appeal as a candidate coming out of left field, not for any disconnect between message and manner. Your obsessive dislike of the Grand Old Party fogs up your critique.

  25. Steve,

    Bravo, well made point and a great parallel to what is going on in the wine world. The amount of responses to this sort of writing should give you an answer to the question you posed on facebook about what to blog about: Post on 10 wines of the week – 2 comments = who cares. Post on Authenticity – 24 comments in less than 24 hours… tells the story, doesn’t it?

  26. Toni Ettore, Texas Sake Import Agent says:

    Another great work Steve-san.
    I am so sick of California…(except San Fran – I love me some SF!)
    Perhaps this Meg creature could have pumped her own money into the economy instead of tweeting her ass off. Tweeting about being in a John Deere tractor? Sorry honey, you aren’t Sarah Palin.
    And yes I grew up on a ranch, shoot firearms regularly, and show sake all over Dallas – I just want to smack this chick…

    Money doesn’t replace originality or reality, it just makes the skin taught & shiny and the BS slightly less rank.

    Great Job Steve-san. Your grapes get bigger with each ballsy blog. (pun intended 😉

    Sake Up Steve-san!
    Toni Ettore, Sake Girl
    Dallas. Texas.

  27. Toni Ettore – I should point out that by spending $140m or whatever it was on her campaign, Meg Whitman did pump that money into the economy. TV ads are not free to develop or air. Nor is anything else related to running a campaign.

    My rant for today: over-generalization. “Napa is the Meg Whitman of wine regions and completely out of touch with the middle class…..”. Yes, I’ve noticed EVERYONE here is out of touch with the middle class. That’s why their wine sales in the under $30 category are suffering. Oops, no it appears that, in fact, is the opposite of what’s happening. EVERYONE’s use of social media comes off as insincere??? Come on, EVERYONE???. Sounds like Greg’s comment is one of those insincere sensationalistic soundbite he accuses others of making.

  28. Great post Steve.

  29. Steve – you’re on the money here. I constantly hear complaints from winery owners and winemakers that their facebook efforts (other than responses from friends and family) are ‘flat as a pancake’.

    The reality is that in this highly competitive space it’s practically impossible for each winery to engage all the people who ‘like’ them on a daily basis with postings about how many tons of grapes they harvested or a party that 90% or more of their fans can’t attend.

    I conduct seminars for wineries called Kick Start Your Social Media Strategy – Getting Going towards an ROI that is inexpensive and helps companies write a biz plan for their social media strategy and a six-month or one year outline of what they need to be doing to get a return on the time (and money spent) on this effort.

    Just because the tools are easy to use doesn’t mean that people really know how to use them.

    I make the analogy to driving. Everyone has a license but there are plenty of people I wouldn’t ask for a ride to the party.

    Check out our page – with almost 10K wine lovers who have joined in the conversation. It’s a great place to connect with your constituency.

    Julie Brosterman

  30. Kathy, I never intended a one-liner to be some kind of thorough analysis of Napa wine economics. Of course it’s an oversimplification. But you know why some folks got a laugh out of it? Because there’s an element of truth to it.

    Interesting you choose $30 as some magic price point. Yeah, I don’t think too hard about paying that price if a wine is really good. But I make that choice to spend more on wine than some other creature comfort. $30 for a bottle of wine is *expensive* to most people.

    The whole point of social media is to interact. Well, guess what, you talked down at me instead of with me. That’s not helping your case, nor is suggesting $30 is an inexpensive wine. Actually it seems that a very fair percentage of Napa wineries are engaging via social media, and successfully at that. But compared to other regions, it is still lagging. It’s remarkable how often wineries ignore social media opportunities or simply lack any info on their wines beyond a front-end website with a signup for a mailing list.

    I think Napa vintners may be catching on that the luxury good angle may not have as much room at the top. But judging by Steve’s article in Lexus Magazine (see his current post) this mentality is still going strong. Wineries offering discounts based on ownership of a Lexus? Not exactly aiming for a broad client base on that one.

  31. Julie, well, I get a lot of Facebook commentary going for a simple reason: I’m not afraid to “be myself.” I mean, my goodness, who wants to read social media stuff that was written by a PR consultant? But then, for various reasons, I don’t give a **** what people think about what I write, because I’ve reached a point where I have nothing to lose by being myself. And I am a strong-minded and opinionated person!

  32. Mitch, thank you.

  33. Great post, Steve.

    Alan B — regarding your point about big brands and whether social media has paid off for them — Speaking from previous experience working at a behemoth winery, there are corporate marketing and communications managers out there still developing messaging strategy, internal routing systems and approval protocols for social media posts. As soon as I heard that one big company was finally hiring a few social media people this year, I thought to myself, “Well, how are those guys going to get all their tweets and posts approved by the legal department?” It’s the same B.S. Bill Smart talked about above. The media department head told me that they’d worked out a system with legal that everyone was agreeable to. You can’t be real if an attorney’s guidance is always in the back of your head everytime you attempt to express yourself or your brand online. This is conversation about wine, people. There’s no reason not to be real.

    That’s what’s great about working for a family winery where everyone in senior management is on Facebook. You comment on our page with a question about winemaking, the winemaker answers. Same goes for the cellar master, vineyard manager and hospitality director. General comments are often answered by the winery owner himself. Someone once asked me who was managing John Jordan’s Facebook account for the winery. It is really sad that it’s gotten to the point where people expect that some flack is behind everything. Not the real person.

  34. Thanks for that post! It’s just made my day!
    When I first started blogging/tweeting/SM-ing/etc about a year or so ago, I decided to just be me, and be honest and tell t the way it is!! Even if I’m a mediocre writer, and just post about the boring day-to-day stuff I do in the vineyard and winery!
    What you say about PR sound-bites is just so true; every time I read something like that (in any area, not just wine) it makes me all cynical and actively turns me off the product or company. So apart from the fun of interacting on SM, by being ‘authentic’ I think I attact a few people who are genuinely interested in my wine and vineyard activities, and with whom I can really interact, as opposed to thousands of ‘false followers’.

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