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18 tips for wineries on better communication



I’ve been doing weekly tastings at Jackson Family Wines for a while now, and part of that is buying non-JFW wines to include in our [blind] tastings, and preparing printed information for my fellow tasters on technical matters about the wines.

For this, I turn to three sources: the front and back labels, the winery website, and any tech sheet the winery included in the box.

The labels are usually pretty useless. The one piece of data they do offer—because they’re required to by law—is alcoholic content by volume. I don’t know why so many wineries make this so hard to find. Often, they print it in light-colored ink so it barely registers on the label, and then they use the tiniest type size possible. You should see me twisting and turning the bottles, holding them up under a bright light, trying to find that magic number. Another, related problem is that, if there is an alcohol number listed on the website or tech sheet, chances are 50/50 that it’s different from the number on the bottle. (I always go by the number on the label.)

Maybe most people don’t care about such stuff, but I do, and I think most other critics do. I think also that people who are serious about wine, and are willing to drop a bundle on a good bottle, like to know about the wine’s origins and winemaking. So here are 18 tips, respectfully submitted, for wineries that actually care about their customers, rather than simply making a few bucks.

  1. Always have your new vintage wine/s on the website. Always. No exceptions, no excuses. There’s nothing worse than a website that’s out of date. It’s disrespectful to your audience.
  2. Have a link somewhere to “technical information” or “more information about this wine” or whatever you want to call it.
  3. Don’t make users search for that link like they’re kids looking for the Passover afikomen.

Put it upfront. Lots of winery websites put the link on their “buying” or “shopping” page. I don’t like that. A critic/writer who’s looking for that information shouldn’t have to click all over the place to find it. Every winery website should have a link right at the top of the homepage about “Wines.” That link should lead directly to a listing of the wines, with the tech info connected to them, or just a click away.

  1. What technical information should be there?
  2. Suggested retail price
  3. Alcoholic content [and it should be the same as on the label]
  4. Case production
  5. pH and acidity
  6. Grape sourcing. If it’s a single vineyard, tell us where the vineyard is: Not just “Russian River Valley” (we can see that from the label), but where in the valley? Situate the vineyard. Don’t say just “a cool corner” but exactly where? Sebastopol Hills? Green Valley? Occidental? Westside Road? East of 101? It matters.
  7. If the wine is a blend, tell us which vineyards contributed, and where they are.
  8. Describe the vineyard/s. What is the elevation? The orientation? What are the soils?
  9. What clones or selections constitute the grapes?
  10. What is the age of the vines?
  11. Fermentation techniques: tell us about your regime: barrels, percent new, malolactic, time in wood, stem inclusion, the precise cépage. I don’t need a laboratory analysis, but these above details are helpful.
  1. Who owns the winery? Include a bio.
  2. Who is the winemaker? Include a bio.
  3. What is the full contact information?
  4. How may the wine be purchased?
  5. If you send someone a bottle of wine, especially a writer, include a tech sheet in the box. I don’t want to hear that your fulfillment center won’t do that. If they won’t, hire another fulfillment center.

I have particular annoyance with wineries that try to convey the impression of snobby exclusivity by having a website that offers nothing but an email form to contact the winery. Too good to talk to us? Remember, fame is fleeting. What the right hand offereth, the left hand snatcheth away.

All of these are commonsense things to do. The wine industry is a service industry: we serve the public, not the other way around. It’s a mark of respect for your consumers, for wine writers and for the industry in general to be open, informative and transparent, both on your website and on your tech sheet.

  1. Guilty as charged 🙂 Thanks for this list Steve, it’s helpful to know what people are interested in. This will help reach more people.

  2. Great post & info, Steve!

  3. All great advice. Here is one more tip: Wineries, please put tech sheets (or something) on your web page for ALL vintages, not just the current releases. All you need is a clickable tag someplace for “past vintages”.

  4. Yup, thanks for the reminders. As in life, best practices, are also good manners, and respectful.

  5. Amen. I run into the same time-wasting issues when I prep for my wine dinners and tastings – and I’m guaranteed to get questions regarding those same issues.

    How about adding 2 more things for an even 20:

    Sur-lie aging: Yes or no
    Fining or filtering: Yes or no and methods (especially bentonite).

    Reds fined using bentonite have lower biogenic amine content, the leading culprits in wine headaches (for more on this,

  6. KCPhillips says:

    As a wine consumer only, but one who is interested in knowing about the wines he drinks in more than a cursory way, all I can say is, “here, here.”

  7. Augmenting enumerated items on your list . . .



    7. If the wine is a blend, tell us which vineyards contributed, and where they are. SEE ABOVE ABOUT NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS.

    8. Describe the vineyard/s. SEE ABOVE ABOUT NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENTS.


    And then there is this closing remark:

    “I have particular annoyance with wineries that try to convey the impression of snobby exclusivity by having a website that offers nothing but an email form to contact the winery. Too good to talk to us? . . .”

    More likely, the venture boasts “absentee owners” who are only around on selective weekends, and which employs a small numbr of part-time custodial care staff who collectively don’t have the time to field inquiries in a timely way.

    [Think about the Meoimi Pinot Noir venture, which recently sold for a purported $315 million — and the buyer gets no brick-and-mortar winemaking facility or vineyards for that eye-popping acquisition price. They source their fruit from three different regions — 37% Monterey County, 34% Sonoma CountY, 29% Santa Barbara County — and multiple vineyards within those counties.

    Given the production levels on this wine — 600,000 cases according to The Wall Street Journal — there is no “master cuvee” sitting in an oversized stainless steel tank, or world’s biggest foudre.

  8. Anecdote.

    Some years ago to celebrate the New Year’s Eve closing of The French Laundry (to allow Thomas Keller to prepare for the opening of Per Se in New York), I joined wine friends for a trip to Napa Valley.

    While in town, we visited our long-time friends Barbara and Jim Richards at Paloma Vineyards.

    A visit preceded by Wine Spectator naming their 2001 Merlot “wine of the year.”

    We celebrated their good fortune by cracking open a bottle in their kitchen — which doubled as their business office.

    The business tools of their trade? One landline phone, one answering machine, and one fax machine all positioned on the kitchen counter — adjacent to the toaster!

    The phone and fax machine were constantly ringing, from collectors leaving messages pleading to buy even a single bottle.

    Simply stated, they were overwhelmed by the publicity. And I suspect less renowned “gentleman farmer” wineries are too . . . hence the all-too-common “website that offers nothing but an email form to contact the winery.”

  9. So much to say here… The lack of extremely precise information that you desire to evaluate your competition is in no way (at least in my part) a lack of interest in transparency nor a lack of respect for consumers and their interest in the unique attributes of my wines.

    Many of those very specific questions are loaded in ways you might not have imagined? I would love to know EXACTLY how all my competitors make their dry rosé – brix and TA at harvest, please, exact processing method, length of maceration, do you crush first, or whole-cluster press, enzymes?, exact yeast used please and fermentation temp low and high, aging protocol and yes, slope/orientation and soil type and rootstock/clone and canopy-management practices, specific location and block number, with phone number for your grower please. You know, to expand the number of people already trying to outbid you…

    I don’t mean to be snarky, I LOVE when people at your level of understanding want to truly get why a wine tastes like it does and compare it to sisters within a region and vintage. So fun, and I want to come to all these tastings where my wine is being compared!

    So I’ll limit my response to the minimally controversial abv issue. Many times we must estimate a final alcohol for the label approval filing before a wine blend is finished. The laws on wine labeling exist on the surface to protect consumers and in reality to collect taxes; even producers with the utmost respect of transparency must do this guessing and are therefore grateful for the 1% tolerance (subject to crossing tax classes) of the Federal labeling law. Once a wine is finished, and tested from the bottle (with the label already on it), we would provide the exact abv–well, I would–on the tech sheet. We could keep the exact abv to ourselves if the existence of a difference between the tech sheet and label is frustrating to the reader, and I hear ya that it is indeed frustrating. I guess I prefer offering the opportunity to learn the exact abv, as do–apparently–50% of producers. Though I do recognize the issue and took pause myself on this at times in preparing tech sheets… The difference should not be assumed to be laziness or mistakes.

    A general thought: perhaps most producers provide a tech sheet offering what’s relevant to express their distinct attributes to their customers who follow and enjoy their wines. My tech sheets are written for my consumers and trade partners–critics FYI generally have bold print in red on their submission guidelines insisting that no materials whatsoever be mailed with wines, and at $.74/color copy at Kinko’s I obey the request. Speaking for myself, I offer what I think is relevant, and will even reference differences in outcomes or process from the year before, sharing our intentions and journey, educating why it tastes like it does or has evolved to this point–from my perspective. Most often, the reason one vintage differs slightly in character from the next is not the exact varietal makeup of the blend, hence many Bordeaux-style blend producers decline to provide this information at all. Back when I worked with Quintessa, the exact varietal breakdowns were never provided; I believe the vintner was well known for this practice. A Bordeaux style blend, or “Meritage,” means Bordeaux varietal wines blended in traditional fashion, and arguably this should suffice, but it’s another subject to debate. Back to my point, each vintner will have a different tolerance on the risks of full winemaking protocol & sourcing details being disclosed to competitors, given the very dog-eat-dog (sorry, but it’s true) nature of our biz. Not that Jackson Family Farms could or would wish to replicate my wines with perfect information, but I think if they wanted to know EVERYTHING, they would need to make an offer for the brand – actually, not a bad idea! The fun we could have together… Then I could learn all of those details for the Verite’ Le Desir CabFranc/Merlot blend, none of which are available on the website…

  10. When I send samples out, in addition to including the tech sheet and other propaganda in the shipment, I include a sticker on the bottle that repeats the obvious about the wine, the Suggest Retail Price and a contact number & e-mail. Works like a charm at getting that SRP posted correctly in print!

  11. I echo the thoughts of both Emily and Bob above, well thought out, practical and realistic.

    I like the “respectfully submitted” part Steve. Nice touch.

    So, respectfully, here a few comments about the 18 Tips.

    You’re a critic, with a long time in the wine business. You take the deep dive into the pool Steve. As you said in your recent post, you can go into “Critic Mode, which is inherently a negative state”. By focusing on the chemistry, geology, terroir and cru, you can continue to be a tremendous voice for an appellation or for California wines at large; describing the differences and telling us that alcohol is a relative experience based upon varietal and appellation.

    However, the Fact Sheet/Tech Sheet you’re looking for Steve isn’t even given for Caymus Special Select, only the scores for every year since it was produced are given, along with quotes from Parker and Laube on top of their Special Select document. No technical data. No details. Nothing. Caymus got a string of 90+ point ratings, that’s all the public needs to know. Same goes for Silver Oak and Rombauer. No detailed vineyard information. No soil content. No ph or TA. Nada. Nothing.

    93 Points in WS for the Rombauer Chard, that was easy to find.

    So let me ask you a question, does Laube and Parker get the technical information from Caymus, Silver Oak, and Rombauer in a non-disclosure agreement? Or is ignorance bliss? Do you, as a high profile critic, get information the public doesn’t? If critics don’t get the technical specs and rate it 90+ points for all these years, then do the technical facts even matter?

    Because 100,000 cases of Rombauer are going to go out the door again this year and nobody is quoting the pH. The only number that matters to the public it seems is 93.

  12. Dear David Schedldt, I have no idea what information Parker or Laube get, obviously. I, myself, get no “insider information,” unless I call the winery to ask specific questions, which is a hassle. That’s why I wrote this post: Please, wineries, give us the pertinent information upfront, so we don’t have to hassle ourselves, or you, for answers. Do the technical facts matter? Yes and no. They don’t, in the sense that the way I taste is quality-determined, so it doesn’t really matter if I know that the wine was, for example, aged in 50% new Francois Freres for 18 months. But wine appreciation is as much intellectual as hedonistic, and technical information is an important part of possessing information that’s complete enough to decide if this is a wine you wish to buy. It’s beyond my control (or any other critic’s), how consumers use our scores. If all they want is a number, fine. I might wish they’d take the time to investigate the wine further, but that’s beyond my powers.

  13. Steve, I’d be happy to discuss with you my winemaking process, from harvest to bottled product. My phone number is actually on the back of every bottle I sell. I’m an easy man to find. Some people do call me with questions about oak, harvest and bottling dates and if I filtered the wine. But usually, people call me to find out if I won any awards or got a point score and if I have a shelf talker; that’s the usual phone call.

    The 18 Tips are part of the winemaker’s “secret sauce” and a little Scheherazade that protects us and makes us unique. To tell you all my secrets and not keep you interested might see that I was cast aside for a more interesting story. Or worse yet, the story I tell may not be up to expectations, and again, I’m cast out.

    I think, intellectually, this is an ends and means discussion. If I added water or acid or oak staves or bentonite or a field blended vineyard source no one has heard of, does it matter if the wine tastes good? Does the end justify the means? Wine truly is hedonistic and intellectual and I’d add artistic and philosophical.

    Thanks for the response.

  14. KCPhillips says:

    Whether it’s Steve’s 18 points or someone else’s 5 or 6 points, the issue concerns providing useful information to consumers who are most likely buying a product that they have no experience with. If I buy Rombauer Chardonnay based solely on price and WS’s 93 point score, then I’ve just been screwed as a consumer because it’s not a style of chardonnay I like at all. Hence, even a few of Steve’s points could help me buy a wine that I will probably like.

  15. Does this wine label “tech info” suffice?

  16. It’s better than most but still doesn’t address all the issues.

  17. Steve,

    This link is embedded in the above cited wine label “tech info” sheet:

    For even more info, the winery could put a Quick Response (QR) code on the label.


  18. Hmmm..
    By another example, in the “Art Industry” Steve, do artists have to tell the gallerists and art buyers the type of canvas they are using, and to what PSI it was stretched on its frame? Does the artist have to list his sourcing of paints and color Pantone chips? Does the artist have to give such technical info to validate his work? Why exactly are we writing these notes for our wines?

    What does all this technical info that we so regular succumb to churn out really help a consumer appreciate about the wine?

    Does it really tell us about the story of the wine that has been created? Does it tell us anything about the people that create wine?

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