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Some good ways for a winery to communicate with the public–and one way not to



As a wine writer, I’m often the recipient of information from wineries, or from the P.R. professionals they hire to represent them. So I’ve come to have some knowledge and understanding of the various ways that wineries reach out to people like me (and to the general public, as well).

Some of these ways work better than others, it seems to me. The primary method of reaching out is the press release. This traditionally has been in hard copy, sent through the mail, but it can also be in digital form. I find most press releases pretty boring, but I do read them, so in that sense, the press release is an effective vehicle for getting noticed.

What do I look for in a press release? Well, it has to be a lot more than manufactured excitement. I (and all journalists, I would think), want news–real news–something to capture my attention. Just an ordinary “after __ made his millions, he relocated to Napa Valley” doesn’t push my buttons.

Another way that wineries reach out to the public is through events. These can be hosted by the winery, or the winery can participate in a larger event put on by some other organization. These can be effective vehicles, too. They’re certainly more interesting than reading a press release. You get to taste wine, and sometimes you get to eat some food. The downside, of course, is that you have to travel to wherever the event is, which isn’t always feasible. I get a lot of invitations to go to tastings in places like Napa Valley and Sonoma County, but that involves hours of driving through the Bay Area’s notorious traffic. Nor am I typically going to accept a dinner invitation in wine country. No drinking and driving for this critic. I’m more likely to go to an event in San Francisco because I can take BART (the local subway system).

A third way that wineries reach out to the public is through their websites. I think every winery should have a good-looking, comprehensive, easy-to-use website. Many do, but my chief criticism is that they’re not kept up-to-date. Very often, the winery will send me a bottle of a new release, without any accompanying information regarding where the grapes are from, how the wine was made, and so on. If I want to learn more about the wine, I’ll go online, starting with the website–but, more often than not, there’s nothing there at all! Which is frustrating. It’s to the winery’s advantage to give us writers all the information we need, because that might help to “fatten” up the review, in terms of its length. (Of course, the score itself is unaffected.)  I could always call someone at the winery and ask my questions, but that’s a lot more complicated. You can’t always get the person you need; you end up playing phone tag, so there’s a limit to the amount of time I can spend in order to find out, say, the precise blend on that Cabernet Sauvignon, or where in St. Helena the vineyard is.

I’ve been talking about various ways that wineries reach out, but there also are wineries that don’t reach out, which I think is a mistake. Just late yesterday, I got a call from a pleasant young person (I won’t say who), who was the P.R. representative of a well-known Napa Valley Cabernet house that you could call “cult.” (I won’t identify it either.) The P.R. rep–I’ll give him/her the name “Pat”–wanted to know how the winery could get a major writeup in such publications as the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Well, it was a little off-putting to be asked that, but “Pat” sounded like a nice person, and I wanted to help. I told “Pat” she/he should call up Lettie Teague or Eric Asimov and ask them directly, because both are friendly, accessible people. But I also told “Pat” something else.

“Your winery never sends out samples. They don’t invite anyone up there. They’ve never reached out to me. The owner has to realize that a major news organization isn’t going to give him free publicity just because he wants it. This industry is about relationships.” “Pat” admitted that he/she understood this, but that ownership felt very strongly that they don’t want to play the game of communicating with the media. Instead, the owner wants to preserve the appearance of being above it all, in an ivory tower–exclusive, you might say.

I explained that there’s nothing exclusive about hiding behind your winery walls. A hundred other Napa “cult” wineries play the same game. They think that, by making themselves impossible to get, it enhances their desirability. Well, that may have been true once upon a time–but those days are ending. These days, the public wants transparency, openness, two-way communication, not a regal winery owner shut up in his castle. “Pat” understood, but said that was ownership’s policy. I replied, “It’s not working too well, is it?” “Pat” conceded that sales weren’t quite as brisk as the owner wants, which is why the winery wants more media coverage. “That’s what I mean,” I said. “The current policy of splendid isolation isn’t working.”

I wished “Pat” good luck getting that New York Times and/or Wall Street Journal article, and maybe it will all work out. But I don’t think so. This matter of reaching out and communicating–to critics like me, to the general media, to the public–is a sine qua non for success in this new era, and any “cult” winery that thinks it doesn’t have to play nice in the sandbox is fooling itself.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    Reminds me of a very well known Napa leisure suit producer who is famous for attending the Family Winemakers event in SF every year. He sends a minion down with one or two bottles and after it’s gone, the empty bottle is prominently left on display at the unattended table for the majority of the tasting. Message to Attendees: I’m so special that you can’t have me, and I don’t care what you think about that.

    The phrase “Napatude” did not arise in a bubble. It was grounded in people’s observations and experiences.

    Take a look at this gem of public relations. It could have run unchanged in The Onion.

  2. Bill Haydon, you got that right! Thanks.

  3. Hi Steve, well that’s quite interesting to see the point of view from a wine writer, thanks. Just wondering what is behind such a bad attitude from a winery’s owner or policy. Are they hiding something or is it just simple arrogance?

  4. Dominik, it’s arrogance, combined with what they think is a business model based on the First Growths and Grand Crus: managed scarcity. The idea is that, the less available you make your product to the public, the more they will desire it.

  5. It’s too bad but there are people in the winery business who think that they are God’s gift to grapes. I started when there were fewer than 200 wineries in Ca. It is an altogether different business today. There no longer exists the collegiality and sense of friendly and fair competition. The business is fraught with people with no people skills. Techies and ego driven nouveau riche who want to extrapolate their “worth” in one money making enterprise to the wine making world. F___ ’em and let them eat beans.

  6. Bill Haydon says:

    Steve, I would disagree that the Bordeaux first growths and Burgundy Grand Crus consciously use a model of managed (manipulated?) scarcity.

    In the case of Grand Cru Burgundy, it is simply that there are tiny amounts produced and no way to expand that production by bringing in other grapes or expanding vineyard plantings. In the case of fist growth Bordeaux, production levels are much higher, but between the en-primeur and negociant systems, there is a relatively healthy free market to set and adjust prices. Here, scarcity (and high prices) truly are a function of supply grossly exceeding demand. Classified growth Bordeaux is sought after on a global level that Napa Valley will never approach. I don’t hear stories of vintages backing up in the warehouses of Latour or Lafite as I do about prominent Napa cult producers; although, it will be interesting to see what happens in that regard as the 11 through 13 vintages are released.

    I would argue that the pricing, illusion of scarcity and “luxury” or “lifestyle” marketing of the large Champagne houses is a much more apt comparison to high end Napa producers.

    As for the Napa producers, it truly is a case of an illusory and manipulated image of scarcity these days. Word on the street is that even a producer who could be considered the benchmark cult Cabernet is not selling fully through his vintages, and I’ve consulted for other highly regarded “cult” producers who had back vintages piled up, yet steadfastly refused to allow their distributors to sell the wine to retail accounts…..and then of course were outraged when the distributors dropped them although the official line was that they pulled out of the market because of no wine to sell.

    I have a friend making wines that retail between $85 and $225 a bottle who steadfastly insists that the reason he has no distribution anywhere outside of California (where he sells it himself) is that “I got no wine, man,” yet when I sign up for his mailing list under an assumed name, I’m immediately offered full cases of everything with a vague hint that there’s more available if I want it.

    In my one year stint consulting for some of these people, I really gained an appreciation for the dysfunctional culture in the valley. Everyone lies to each other about how well they’re doing, and it’s created an Emperor Has No Clothes situation where nobody wants to be the guy attempting to inject a little clear-eyed reality into the situation.

  7. Well I have seen that model of managed scarcity work over and over again, regularly parting fools from their money. Er… that’s not my best PR “voice” is it. Let’s say instead that managed scarcity appeals to a certain demographic. Is that demo growing faster than the number of wineries/bottles needed to serve it?

    I don’t know the answer, but it seems right now that folks who bet on the expanding Chinese market to absorb a bunch of new “cult” are likely to be disappointed. This winery owner may be on the oversupply end of that market and demo. He clearly wants to have his cake and eat it too. Sounds like he is at risk of a smackdown from the invisible hand.

  8. doug wilder says:

    One of the things at work here is that in some instances the winery will send wines to writers slightly before release (which I think you would enjoy). That means the websites may not be current either with offerings, or reviews. In these instances it is nice to have some tech sheets or at least price and production information accompany the sample delivery. When getting ready to write it can take hours to run down the information when it is missing but I usually hear back from winemakers promptly. Others send wines with no information available in the box or on their sites and don’t return calls.

    Your generosity with the PR was notable. I doubt they were doing anything but following instructions communicated from the client and perhaps they learned a valuable lesson about protocol. When I was a Wine Buyer I once spent an hour on the phone as a columnist picked my brain about the newest things I was tasting that they were unfamiliar with. I was happy to share the knowledge I had but it turns out they wrote a book about them!

    Just continue doing what got you here, Steve. There are plenty of places that I don’t hear from which is fine with me. I actually had a Rutherford winery that invited me to visit several years ago before the place was even finished (and the 100 point scores came), explain to me recently that they made so little wine that if they let me taste, how could they possibly say no to James Suckling? I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry.

    Hmmm, maybe I should write a book!

  9. Doug Wilder, I’m sure you could write a very good book!

  10. I definitely agree that winery’s don’t keep their sites up to date. When I receive emails announcing new releases, when I go to their site looking for case production and price at least 25% don’t have current wine vintage information on their site.

    And to answer why many wineries don’t believe in marketing, I think for some, they are farmers and not savvy on marketing. For others, they think the wine speaks for itself and they don’t need to advertise their wine.

  11. OK Press Releases are not sent out to the Wine Consuming Public, it just does not happen, no reason it should. Or does Steve mean he shares the info with the wine consuming public that he gets from that press release.

    Wineries need to be consistent in all and any communication they use (very very few are and they give very quickly)… social media, through tastings (as you mention Steve, oh and great if you live in Cali etc..) and weekly email programs which is the forgotten and best marketing piece.


  12. Steve,

    Good juju coming your way for being pleasant and approachable to the young P.R. cub.

    Ah, the naivete of youth …

    I distinctly recall the name of the president of an Ad agency who took the time to return a cold call of mine when I was 21 or 22 and had the gravitas to ask what it would take to get an internship at his agency.

    His kindness when he clearly didn’t have to extend it will be with me for the duration of my career.

    Good karma and kismet to you.

  13. Jeff: What a lovely message. It is my distinct honor to help younger people in this field.

  14. Ego in the wine business? Say it ain’t so! A winery can put a restricted trade section on its website so they can post information about a new wine before they are ready to announce it to the public.

    Many winemakers want nothing to do with the public and say they don’t care if people buy the wine “I’ll drink it all myself if I have to.” There are also wineries that say you can get their wines only by allocation and only the waiting list is open, but can actually be found in some retail shops.

  15. “Splendid isolation.” Gonna work that into my next winery pitch.

  16. Tex Sawyer says:

    “Co”mmunication involves, at the very least, 2 people talking to each other. “Co” comes from both sides. If you want to stay in an ivory tower and hold yourself above others, then you will find it very lonely.

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Steve and Bill:

    “Managed scarcity” is addressed by a timeless article co-authored by the “dean” of marketing professors, Phillip Kotler at Northwestern:

    Bibliography: Philip Kotler and Sidney J. Levy, “Demarketing, Yes, Demarketing,” Harvard Business Review, November-December 1971, Vol. 49, Issue, 6, pp. 74-80.

    [Sorry, no link.]


    “Classified growth Bordeaux is sought after on a global level that Napa Valley will never approach. I don’t hear stories of vintages backing up in the warehouses of Latour or Lafite as I do about prominent Napa cult producers; although, it will be interesting to see what happens in that regard as the 11 through 13 vintages are released.”

    Today [Friday] I attend the Bordeaux producers trade tasting in Los Angeles — part of their whistle stop tour of the U.S.

    Given the dire characterization of this (and subsequent) Bordeaux vintages, it will be interesting to see if ANY 2011 being poured this afternoon is compelling.

    Going forward, Latour has a novel approach to selling wine: bottle aging it until it is ready. (Eliminating wine “futures” offerings.)


    ~~ Bob

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