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Six traits of a successful regional winery association

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There’s always some tension between wineries and the associations that represent their regions. The association acts on behalf of its members, but ultimately, on behalf of itself: any organization’s #1 Darwinian duty is to survive. A winery, on the other hand, has first and foremost to promote its own interests. Sometimes, the interests of the association and the winery do not coincide.

There’s another problem, too. In some cases, winery members pay association fees based on their case production. That means that larger members can have more say in how the association is governed–or at least, be perceived as having more say. This can lead to sore feelings at little wineries, who may feel that their voices aren’t being heard at management level.

I’m not going to name any specific regional associations here. But I will say I’ve worked with them all, through many of their changes in personnel and strategy. I’ve gotten to respect some for their effectiveness, while not having a whole lot of respect for others that seem to just limp along year after year. So here’s my advice: six things a successful winery association should do.

1. Represent all your members without appearing to favor any of them. The worst thing that can happen to a regional association is to become riven with internal political strife. I’ve seen it happen. An association can go from relevant to irrelevant overnight, and it can take years to recover–if it ever does. The best association executive directors will stand up for what they think is right, even if it means disagreeing with powerful members.

2. Work hard to earn the trust of the media. The media, after all, is your amplifier to the consumer. You, the association, don’t communicate directly with the public, for the most part; the media does that for you. If the media likes and respects you, and if you’re helpful to them, they’re more likely to want to write about your region.

3. Understand things from the winery’s point of view. An association might believe its function is to promote the appellation it represents. This is only partially true. Yes, you want the public to know and trust the region, be it Dry Creek Valley, Santa Barbara County or Fort Ross-Seaview. You want to communicate the unique traits of your region, everything from the climate and restaurants to various recreational things to do. But individual wineries sometimes fear, and rightfully so, that promoting the region has the unintended consequence of promoting their competitors. This is the concern of proprietors. The successful executive director must combine the empathy of a mom for her child with the hard head of a corporate CEO.

4. The way people look for information these days is through the Internet, so why do so many regional winery associations have such boring websites? Granted, things are better than they used to be. But still, some websites are hard to negotiate. They’re clumsy looking, confusingly organized, with inadequate search functions. They’re not places that people want to return to every few days or weeks to see what’s up.

5. Figure out how to keep the association relevant. Wineries today have Twitter, Facebook and other social media outreaches to the public. They blog, make YouTubes, stage events (both virtual and “real”), and in general do a better job of getting out there onto the streets to greet old friends and make new ones. In a certain sense, they no longer even need a big winery association to help them with promotion. Granted, an association with clout can be influential in legislative, international trade and marketing areas, but not all associations have the clout to hire lobbyists or have an office in D.C. or overseas. So the smaller associations in particular really have to offer wineries a reason to support them.

6. Reach out to other, non-wine regional associations in your area and partner with them. Many regions have tourist, convention and other kinds of associations to promote their restaurants, recreational opportunities and the like. This is the age of networking. Nobody makes it alone anymore. It takes the power of collaboration to make things happen, to smash through the clutter of noise out there. As an example, consider ZAP’s (Zinfandel Associates & Producers) partnerships with businesses,  such as The Saint Francis Foundation, Lot18, Wine Enthusiast, BevMo and KQED television. Granted, ZAP is not a regional organization, but it behaves like one. ZAP shows how the power of “we” is greater than the power of “me.”

  1. Yup…..all good and valid points, Steve. The quality of those regional associations highly depends on the person who heads it, has been my observation. I’ve seem some which have pretty much crashed when a really good exec director departs. The BOD of these Vintner’s Associations appears, to me, to be less of a factor.
    What you raise also applies as well to those varietal-based associations as well… such as ZAP and RhoneRangers and TAPAS.
    Tom

  2. Steve, your suggestions are pertinence to all wine associations, particularly larger ones, and are spot on from your perspective. I have a slightly different perspective after working with 28 highly independent, passionate, and sometimes stubborn vineyard and winery members in the Spring Mountain District Association. It is that a successful association doesn’t always have to be entirely focused on promotion.

    In the Napa Valley, the NVVA does a spectacular job in creating marketing opportunities for us all. For smaller sub-Napa Valley associations, rather than duplicate what the Vintners do so well, there are other things we can do for ourselves.

    In our small association we have a Viticulture committee that gets together a couple times a year in a vineyard for a sharing of information. Truly candid, members share their failures and successes, what they have learned about the AVA, its climate, soils and grapes. The committee occasionally will organize a formal presentation on an important topic.

    Member winemakers jointly get together to taste and candidly discuss wines from the previous harvest. It’s about what they learned and honest feedback on their wines. Is there a more important focus for an AVA than to improve their wines?

    An AVA is more than vineyards and wineries, it’s a community. Once a year all our members and all our non-winemaking neighbors get together for a barbeque put on by the association. It’s not fancy, but it’s a way of keeping in touch. During the year emails and calls are broadcast by the association to the community regarding fire dangers, procedures in case of fire, the rare mountain lion spotting, and the even rarer burglary.

    Twice a year association members spend part of a day walking the entire road from the top to the bottom, roadside to creek, picking up litter, followed, of course, by pizza and beer. There is a charitable focus too. Our association working together can do more in charitable fundraising, than our small wineries independently. It’s an effort we are proud to share.

    These things all may sound nice, they make the association cohesive, but are they pertinent to selling wine? Look, if we can cooperate on all of the above, then when we sit down to talk about promoting the appellation, it is a lot easier for our passionately independent (and yes, sometimes stubborn) members to find common ground.

    An example of cohesion is a unwritten policy that sprang up spontaneously in our tasting rooms. If a Spring Mountain District winery gets a big spender at their tasting room and the visitor asks for a suggestion of where else they might visit, a call is made to another tasting room in our association to find a member who can handle another visitor. The tasting rooms have agreed with one another, “Let’s keep ‘em on the mountain.”

  3. Karen Cakebread says:

    Steve,
    Perfect timing! Thanks for your download on AVA organizations.I’m on the board of the newly formed Calistoga Winegrowers and we are in start-up mode. I support your observations and we have discussed many of these ideas at our meetings.Tom hit the nail on the head that an AVA can be much more than a list of vineyards and wineries. Calistoga has it’s own personality and we’ll listen to the membership as to what they want their AVA to be. It will continue to evolve as time goes on. The AVA is only as good as the leadership and its active membership. Thanks to you both for your insights.

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