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Winery P.R. tools embrace much more than social media

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I’m unable to participate in Rusty Eddy’s class on Winery P.R. at U.C. Davis this year, because I have to be–no, make that want to be in Santa Barbara on Dec. 2, but I promised Rusty I’d give the class some promo, so here it is: It’s this Friday, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. You can sign up online here, for a cost of $190. Worth it!

Participants in the class, at which I’ve guest lectured for years, are winery P.R. people, or those who want to be. They’re looking, I suppose, for any additional insight in how to be better at their jobs. Four or five years ago, there was barely a mention of social media in the class. Instead, attendees wanted to know about stuff like how to prepare a press kit, write a press release, and how to pitch an article to a wine writer. They also wanted to know about the 100 point system and the more arcane aspects of wine criticism.

All of a sudden, around 2008, it began to shift. Suddenly, blogs, Twitter and Facebook were all the rage. It was as profound a paradigm shift as you could ask for.

I wonder what the students will want to know about this year. My own feeling–and that’s all it is, a feeling, because I have no empirical evidence to support it–is that the social media thing may have peaked when it comes to winery P.R. I just don’t sense the excitement, the breakthrough gee-whiz breathlessness that accompanied social media 2008-2010. In that little window of time, social media seemed to be the be-all and end-all of winery P.R. and marketing, the magic bullet that would overturn traditional forms of publicity and replace it with an online revolution in which anyone could participate, more or less for free. Heady stuff, for a winery on a budget.

Looking back now, during this winter of economic and social discontent, it’s hard to believe how naive everyone was. Did people really believe that social media could sell out a warehouse of SKUs, with a single keystroke? They did. But that’s what happens when you have stardust in your eyes: you don’t see things clearly.

Yes, there always were voices of reason arguing that social media was but a single arrow in the quiver, and possibly not even the one that went the furthest or sank the deepest. But those voices were all but drowned out by competing views that social media had changed everything, was destroying traditional P.R., and would reward those who hopped on its bandwagon while punishing everyone who stayed off.

Be honest now. Does anyone still make that claim?

I think a couple things combined to make social media less of a star than it purported to be. One was inherent in the concept itself: social media is merely a way for people to mass-communicate. That’s good, but what does it have to do with selling wine? Not much. People said social media would replace other sorts of sales techniques with peer-to-peer recommendations. Actually, that happened all too well. The peer-to-peer space is shared by an expanding universe of sources. A million peer-to-peer networks result in a million different wines being recommended, each for about 15 nanoseconds of fame.

Another reason the social media revolution failed was because of the Recession. Funny how an event that seemed historic at the time can be vaporized by another event that has truly Historic with-a-capital-H ramifications: namely, the collapse of the global economy. Maybe, just maybe social media could have been more helpful for wineries, if there hadn’t been a meltdown and people actually had the disposable income to buy wine. But that’s a hypothetical situation we can dispense with.

Everything feels like it’s in stasis these days. Black Friday and Cyber Monday aside, nobody’s buying, nobody’s spending, nobody’s hiring, nobody’s lending. If I were a young grad student wanting to move into winery P.R. and attending Rusty’s class, I think my first question to his guests (Sara Schneider from Sunset and Paul Mabray from VinTank) would be: Now that we’ve seen the limitations of social media for winery P.R., what traditional approaches do you believe will work? If I had to answer that question, I’d say that in addition to (not in place of) social media, a winery should have someone representing it who is ultra-skilled at captivating the media. That person might come from internal P.R. or external P.R., or it might be someone like Robert Mondavi, Gary Pisoni or Jayson Woodbridge, none of whom needed P.R. agents at all because they were such dynamic geniuses on their own. Of course, not everyone has that level of flash, which is why God invented public relations. As to the exact form of P.R. that works, impossible to say. It depends on the winery situation. If there were a formula, everyone would know it by now. Obviously, there isn’t.

Anyhow, like I wrote, I’ll be in beautiful Santa Barbara this week, reporting for Wine Enthusiast, doing a big blind tasting of local wines and, hopefully, coming up with interesting posts for my blog!


Mea culpa to beer drinkers

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I upset a lot of beer drinkers yesterday on my blog post and for that I apologize. I guess they just didn’t see that I was having some fun at their expense. Do I really think beer drinkers are stupid while wine drinkers are smart? Of course not. Some people mistake parody for earnestness. I know that craft or artisanal beer is fantastic stuff and I occasionally crave it myself. I had an IPA from a Napa company recently that blew me away and I even told the proprietor it was as good as any wine I’d ever had. So, foamheads, put down those pitchforks and stop stalking me. You are good people.

Keep in mind that these Nielsen statistics represent scanning data from supermarkets and large superstores like Costco and Wal-Mart and so they do not capture the upscale market. Wine Market Council and Nielsen are the first ones to admit that they have little or no idea concerning trends in the above $40 wine tier, and I would guess that the small, local micro-brews also do not show up in scantrack data. So when I posited that wine drinkers are more adventurous than beer drinkers, what I meant was at the supermarket level. People who shop at supermarkets are considerably more limited in their choice of beers than their choice of wines. The beeries are more likely to grab what they had last week and last year than the wine people. I suppose there are those who always drink the same boxed wine or cheap magnum from the bottom shelf, but the real action is on the eye-level middle shelves, and it’s there that wine drinkers seem to be more adventurous, today grabbing, say, Souverain, tomorrow choosing Dancing Bull or Kenwood or Robert Mondavi, tomorrow opting for Peju or Cambria. Of course, a lot of their choice is dependent on sale prices, or the language on a shelf talker, so maybe the word “adventurous” is a little misleading. It’s not that wine drinkers have the personalities of bungee jumpers and rock climbers on excursions to Half Dome, it’s that the realities of the wine industry compel them to jump around when it comes to brands.

I don’t think there’s any real brand loyalty in wine. Maybe a little, but not the way there is in beer. If you’re a Coors guy, you’ll likely stay one. If you’re into Napa Smith Amber Ale, you probably buy it all the time. But I don’t think that people are wedded to any one particular wine brand in the popular price range. More likely, they switch around.

Wineries try to make people loyal to their brands, but that’s very difficult, almost impossible. It’s the Holy Grail of P.R. folks, but it’s really a hopeless task. Nearly 100% (96%) of core wine drinkers are not members of wine clubs, while only 82% of marginal wine drinkers are. If people were loyal to their brands, those numbers would be far lower (meaning that most drinkers would be members of wine clubs). (I’m back to using Nielsen data again.) This is because most wine drinkers “find the selection of wines where I regularly shop to be sufficient.” So we’re back to the infamous Wall of Wine, the Aisle of Angst, where shoppers make the best decision they can, cross their fingers and hope for the best.

So, beer drinkers, if I offended you, I offer my deepest regrets. But I do stand by my assertion that wine goes better with food than beer. Not with all food. I would much rather have beer with Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai food than wine. Ditto for standard Mexican (burritos, tacos), although at a place like Maya, I might spring for a cocktail or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But for upscale California-style cuisine, with French or Asian influences, which is the majority of the good dining I do, it’s always going to be wine. Ditto for barbecue and grilling, which is big year-round here in Cali. Ditto for almost every appetizer I can think of, and it’s been a long time–like never–that I went anyplace where somebody served beer for a cocktail or aperitif.

I’ll say this for wine drinkers and craft beer aficienados (and it’s something a few of the commenters pointed out). We certainly have a lot in common. I have a feeling if I lived someplace in Oregon’s brewski country I’d fit right in. I never met a brewmeister I didn’t instantly like. A young, visionary beer maker is like a young, visionary winemaker: both are artist-entrepreneurs seeking to wrest beauty from the plants of the earth, their feet on the ground and their heads in the clouds, not wanting to put on a suit and tie everyday and march off to some job simply for the money. Come to think of it, that describes most wine writers too.


A new look

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Welcome to my blog’s spiffy new look! I thought it was about time to change the its appearance. The old one was 2-1/2 years old and was getting a little stodgy. The photo of me was even older, about 4 years. So I set about changing things.

The new header was designed by Thomas Reiss, of Kraftwerk Design, in San Luis Obispo. I think Thomas and his team are the top wine label, wine website and packaging designers in the Central Coast. They’ve done everyone from Justin and Vina Robles to Eberle and Zaca Mesa, and you can almost always tell a Kraftwerk label because it’s so clean and elegant. Thomas did a great job with my header. At first, I thought it looked like I was standing in front of a jellyfish tank at the Monterey Aquarium, but the more I looked at it, the more I liked it.

Thomas himself, who’s tattooed, had suggested my look: long-sleeved shirt, rolled up to the elbow, showing off the bottom of my arm. The actual photo was taken in the garden of the Santa Ynez Inn, with me posing in front of a rosebush, which I thought would echo the flowers in my tattoo; but Thomas chose to remove the background. The signature is similar to, but not, mine; Thomas explained you don’t want to have your real signature publicized, for legal and identity theft reasons.

The blog layout is a WordPress template. The actual work was done by Jose Diaz, of Diaz Communications, an old friend (with his wife, Jo). Jose listened carefully to my desires, contributed ideas of his own, and the result is this new look. I may have some additional surprises to add to it in coming months. We’ll see. In the meanwhile, I’ll be troubleshooting the new format for problems. If any of my readers experience difficulties, or have suggestions for improvement, I hope you’ll contact me.

* * *

I reviewed Pinot Noirs yesterday and what a pleasure it was. I hated to pour the remnants down the sink, but what’s a critic to do? In my early years of reviewing, I’d take the opened bottles (which were almost full; I’d pour out only a tiny sip) around to my neighbors, knocking on doors, asking them to help themselves. They were pleased to, of course. I also told them to not hesitate to come around to my place, late in the afternoon after my tasting sessions were finished, to take whatever I had reviewed that day. No one ever did. I found it enormously puzzling. Here I was, offering them free, good wine, and they weren’t taking advantage of the situation. Then I put myself in their shoes, and figured out why. They didn’t want to seem like supplicants. I couldn’t blame them. So I started pouring the bottles down the drain. I still feel awful doing that when it’s a 95 point bottle, but there’s nothing that can be done, so I just do it.

Anyway, I won’t mention the brands I tasted yesterday, but they were all Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast Pinots, mainly from 2008. Well, I will mention one, Merry Edwards. Compared to some of the lighter, silkier Pinot Noirs that are so good to drink right now, hers are dense and tannic, almost coarse. Of course, they’re too young. But there’s so much stuff going on, not just fruit, but earthy, mulchy, mushroomy things that remind me of long walks in the Autumn through fog-shrouded Redwood forests. Hints of wild, feral things, game, pine cones, fir needles, wet leaves, old fallen limbs. Very interesting and inimitable wines.

The ascendance of California Pinot Noir has surely been the most significant and satisfying event of my career. I cannot imagine another variety doing anything similar in my lifetime. I like to think that Pinot’s success was the wine version of the Manhattan Project, in which the nation poured all its resources toward a single end: the creation of the atom bomb. In Pinot’s case, it was all the resources of California, from the universities and laboratories to the young, ambitious winemakers and growers, as well as the critics and writers who, from the sidelines, cheered everyone on, creating a sense of excitement. Could that happen again? Probably not.

I hope you like my blog’s new look!


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