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Putting a face on your brand


I came across this YouTube the other day of Michael Mondavi being interviewed by a guy in Italy about wine blogs. Among other things, Michael said: “… my daughter and her friends do not look at Wine Spectator, Decanter. They get emails from friends…they go to the blog…it’s interactive…and they trust the blogs more than they trust the critics and magazines.”

It’s nice to see a guy of Michael’s age give props to the blogs. It’s not always easy for a Baby Boomer to “get it.” But then, Michael is the eldest son of Robert Mondavi, and nobody in the history of wine better understood just how the intricate mechanisms of marketing, P.R. and technology mesh than Bob. I don’t know how much Robert Mondavi knew about the Internet before he died, in 2008 at the age of 94. He’d been in failing health for some time. But I suspect that, had he been physically able, Bob would have been deeply involved online today, especially in videos. He was deeply photogenic, even into old age, and he had a playful, natural way of interacting with the camera, as this YouTube shows. Michael, in his welcoming video on the website of his Folio Fine Wine Partners, seems a bit more self-conscious compared to his father’s effortless ease. Michael’s younger brother, Tim, shows more of his father’s geniality in videos; check out this YouTube as an example. At any rate, it’s probably unfair to compare the sons to the father. Robert was, literally, incomparable.

What Robert got, and what Michael was referring to, was the importance to a vintner of establishing a personal relationship with his customers. Of course, that relationship isn’t really “personal” the way I have personal relationships with my family, friends and neighbors. You don’t really “meet” anyone through the media. My 2,500 Facebook “friends” are friends only in a strictly defined sense of the word. But Robert Mondavi knew that a bottle of wine that has a face, place and personality associated with it will stand a better chance of being bought than one that floats anonymously in a vast sea of bottles. So much the better once a name becomes branded, and no name in the history of American wine has been more potently or successfully branded than that of “Robert Mondavi.” That the company over-extended its brand, leading ultimately to its demise, takes nothing away either from Robert Mondavi’s astuteness (or our appreciation of it), or from his legacy, which teaches us that branding is the essential cornerstone of business success. It’s not possible, obviously, for every winery to have a face as iconic as Robert Mondavi’s; and I suspect that most winery principles would not want their faces out there, the way Robert’s was. Robert was, in some respects, a performer. He used to remind me of a Vaudevillian, an old trooper whose philosophy could be expressed as “The show must go on.” No matter how he was feeling, when it came time for him (and his wife, Margrit) to go onstage, they squared their shoulders and rose to the occasion.

With all the talk nowadays about whether and how much a winery person should tweet, Facebook, blog and all the rest, I wonder why more winery owners and winemakers don’t become the face of their brands. We humans are above all a visual species; before we had invented reading and writing, we used our eyes to scan what was in front of us, telling friend from foe, truth teller from liar. Humans have not changed, only technology. Which California winemakers are doing the best job of getting their faces out there and symbolizing their brands? I’d like to hear your suggestions.

  1. Is there a fundamental difference here between Old World and New?

    The great Old World wines have survived generations, partly because their brands transcend the individuals who temporarily own or make their product. And those products certainly don’t “float anonymously in a vast sea of bottles”, over here at least. They stand out as Aston Martin stands out in a vast sea of cars, or Rolex stands out in a vast sea of watches – without any “face”, without any personal relationship with their audience.

    You say of Mondavi that “He was deeply photogenic, even into old age, and he had a playful, natural way of interacting with the camera”. But not everybody does; and surely there is something wrong with the success of a wine being linked to the personal characteristics of its owner?

    People (beyond the trade) have no idea what Chapoutier, or Jadot, are like as people – and frankly, don’t care. Their names are imprimatur of quality – their names are brands – and their personal characteristics are (thankfully) irrelevant.

    Over here, we have seen a fashion brand implode because of one night’s misbehaviour by its designer. To pin a product’s success upon the character of an individual can be extremely shortsighted.

    Finally, it’s important to consider the international aspect – does personality travel as successfully as wine? The Old World owner we Brits find aspirational may be felt by Californians to be aloof. The winemaker who feels himself outgoing and friendly in California may be interpreted over here as pushy and loud. Wine is global; personality, like humour, is not.

  2. Sediment Blog, not true that “surely there is something wrong with the success of a wine being linked to the personal characteristics of its owner?” Baron Rothschild turned Mouton into a First Growth on the strength of his personality (of course, the quality was there). I could cite other examples.

  3. Steve,

    Rothschild actually reinforces our argument. The public, as opposed to the trade, have no knowledge of Baron Rothschild’s personality. He had no personal relationship with his audience. Whereas the name Rothschild is now a brand, an imprimatur, completely removed from the personal characteristics of the first owner, current owners or winemakers

  4. the proliferation of me-too wine brands in the last years have not left many faces much to stand for, meaning, there is no great story to back them — what, that they, too, purchase grapes from the same vineyard as label x, y, z and have their wines all made by winemaker q? what kind of brand story is that? before a face represents a brand, you better have a damn good story to back it up, with the goods that deliver, of course, and that’s just the beginning.

  5. Alison Crowe, Garnet Vineyards says:

    Hi Steve-

    Who’s doing a good job of being the face-of-a-brand? My vote goes to the original Merry Prankster of wine, Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm.

    Since the 1970’s, Randall has tirelessly hit the road, pounded the pavement and sometimes has made us collectively pound our heads deciphering cryptic eno-references in his wine labels. Before blogs, Randall had amassed a cult-like following with his wacky wines and provocative (though admittedly sometimes wordy and navel-gazing)newsletters.

    In addition to publicity stunts like staging “The Death of the Cork” he is a frequent podium-pounder at industry, trade and consumer events, holding forth on Bonny Doon wines but more often on Life the Universe and Everything.

    He may be a left-of-wonky self-promoter with more than a little chutzpah, but I believe his ability to laugh at himself first, and tweak the noses of the vinous establishment in the process, has made wine more accessible and enjoyable for us all.

    As one of the original instigators of the cult of wine personality, Randall deserves a nod.

  6. Alison, Randall’s done a great job over the years. He certainly is one of the most innovative winemakers of the last 30 years.

  7. I love the description of thinking of Mondavi as a performer. When you are a winemaker, you are putting yourself on center stage with consumers and as with all people some winemakers are more comfortable there than others. Mondavi has always been an icon for me and a role model as to how winemakers should react to the world and I try every day to follow his example.

    As a winemaker, I blog, tweet, and do my best to create wines that people will enjoy and have fun drinking. I want to hear from the people experiencing my wines. I want to interact with them because it makes my job more fun and rewarding to know my work is appreciated. I don’t know why more winemakers don’t.

  8. Charles Smith comes to mind.

  9. I love how the French refer to Great Britian as “that small group of islands off the coast of Europe”.

  10. I think Caymus is doing a good job with their videos, introducing viewers to the Wagner family members, multiple generations.

    Our approach at Jordan has been to add John Jordan’s face to the brand, at least with our videos, but I also think it’s important for the audience to make a visual connection with all of the key people at the winery who are responsible for the wine and food experiences those people have at the winery or in their city: winemaker, chef, hospitality director, etc. Unless you are a 10,000-case winery, it’s not really realistic to only have one face for your brand anymore, in my opinion. At least not when you’re talking about digital media. Maybe that goes against traditional marketing, but at least for Jordan, we find that people really enjoy watching the chef make his favorite marinated goat cheese appetizer, the baker demonstrate French macaroons, the events director give floral design tips, the vineyard manager describe how grapevines bloom, John Jordan’s mom tell the story of how they purchased the land when the winery now sits.

  11. LG KIng

    We love how the Americans describe the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.

  12. I like Judd’s Hill. Far too many of the rest of us aren’t all that engaging or funny, and most have faces made for radio – nobody wants to see that.

  13. No updates in 4 days?! Mr. Gurth must be dead, rest in peace

  14. Dear Danuta, I’ve been in NY planning the 2013 magazine. Intense, long hours, late nights. I could have dashed off crap but that’s not my style. Forgive me. Will resume regular programming Monday morning.

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