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Lessons learned from an old Hollywood blockbuster



I had a couple hours of downtime yesterday so I turned on the boob tube and decided to watch an old movie, Disclosure. The 1994 flick, which stars Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, is fairly dreadful, although it does have its moments of intrigue and suspense. But watching it, I’d forgotten how it made a star out of Pahlmeyer wine.

I suppose some people had already heard of Pahlmeyer, a Napa Valley boutique winery, before Disclosure. Certainly, the fact that the early red wines were made by Randy Dunn was not lost on the cognoscenti. Jayson Pahlmeyer had set his sights on Cabernet–as he says on his website, he wanted to make “a California Mouton.” But it was a white wine, his Chardonnay, that made it to the silver screen, and made Pahlmeyer a star.

Turns out that the Pahlmeyer 1991 Chardonnay (made by now-Harlan winemaker Bob Levy) was integral to the movie’s plot. The details are unimportant, but, as Jayson relates on his website, “the wine’s big role in the battle-of-the-sexes blockbuster helped further the frenzy surrounding Pahlmeyer.” The wine became so famous that Entertainment Tonight described it as “an obscure bottle of Chardonnay” that hit the big time due to its “well-timed toast in the movie ‘Disclosure.’” The Los Angeles Times, reporting on the phenomenon, said the wine’s starring role gave it “the kind of publicity corporate wineries would gladly give big money to a studio to get.”

What does all this have to do with anything today? Glad you asked. The topic of how the media, and particularly social media, can be of assistance in promoting wine has been much discussed in the blogosphere. I think the history of that Pahlmeyer wine can shed a little light on the subject.

Lesson one: If a Hollywood blockbuster, starring two of its biggest movie stars, highlights your wine (in a positive way), chances are good your winery will become famous. Too bad that’s not an option for most winemakers, but it’s true.

So that Hollywood option is off the table. But the idea remains the touchstone of social media’s promise: to create buzz. After all, social “media” is simply that: media. From the Latin medius, “the middle,” meaning in this case “an intervening thing through which a force acts or an effect is produced.” The modern meaning of media, then, refers to television, radio, print publications and movies, all of which act as intermediaries between one thing (a movie star, an advertisement, the news) and another thing (the mass public). In this sense, social media is simply the latest incarnation of mass media.

But it’s somehow more than that–and less. More, in that for the first time in human history everyone can be his own publisher–not only that, but can publish to the entire world, instantly. Less, because where everyone can do it, that act of supreme empowerment suddenly becomes less powerful. Do you remember that old paradox: If everything in the universe suddenly doubled in size, would anyone notice? The answer, obviously, is no, no one would notice, for the very reason that a force acting equally on everything is the same as the absence of a force. The only way to notice change is relative to something that is unchanging.

Put another way, imagine that in 1994, the year Disclosure came out, there were thousands of other movies, simultaneously released, each with big name stars, Hollywood bucks for promotion and mass distribution. And each of those movies showcased a different wine. Would the Pahlmeyer Chardonnay have gotten the play it did if, say (to mention a few other 1994 films), The Shawshank Redemption featured Mondavi Fume Blanc, Pulp Fiction starred Laurel Glen Cabernet, Forrest Gump gave a lead role to Sanford Pinot Noir, and The Lion King featured an animated Talley Chardonnay? You see my point.

It’s far more complicated today, then, for a winery, or a wine, to get the kind of massive publicity that the Pahlmeyer Chardonnay did a generation ago. The media just isn’t concentrated enough anymore. And the public’s attention span is too short (which may or may not be attributable to Twitter and other short forms of social media. Certainly, people’s attention span already was dehydrating before the advent of social media). Today, everyone’s consciousness is stuffed to beyond capacity with details of every kind. This clearly complicates the task of getting messages through to consumers. There are legions of social media experts and public relations and marketing professionals all working heroically to enable their clients to break through the din, but I’m afraid it gets harder and harder to do all the time. One winery manages to break through for 15 minutes and then is eclipsed by another hundred, who in turn are eclipsed by another hundred 15 minutes later.

So short of getting your wine featured in a Hollywood blockbuster, what’s the best way to get huge notice by the public? Get a high score from a well-known critic.

  1. Steve, I should have known that last line was coming! Overall, this was a good read and you make some worthwhile observations. One thing you missed on was a different (perhaps THE) major reason why SM is more than “simply the latest incarnation of mass media.” Perhaps you ignored the answer intentionally, or perhaps you honestly don’t know it. But, in honor of Socrates’ love if questions (He also loves… baseball!), I let you think about it. Or maybe someone else will fill in the missing piece…

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    Ahhh, Jayson Pahlmeyer: they guy who chose to pose for a Wine Spectator photo wearing a full-on confederate flag leather jacket.

  3. Bob Henry says:


    Regarding . . .

    “Lesson one: If a Hollywood blockbuster, starring two of its biggest movie stars, highlights your wine (in a positive way), chances are good your winery will become famous. Too bad that’s not an option for most winemakers, but it’s true.”

    . . . speaking as a marketing guy with ad agency experience, there are few wineries that have the “product placement” budget to get their brand integrated into the story line of a movie, and prominently displayed on screen.

    Whereas beer and hard liquor companies do have the marketing budgets (given how much more profitable those beverages are over making wine).

    A bibliography:

    From (posted December 20, 2012):

    “How ‘Skyfall’ [James Bond Movie] Screwed Heineken While Rewarding Macallan”


    And see this from (posted June 5, 2013):

    “Alcohol and Product Placement: Can Brands be Trusted to Self-Regulate?”


    And see this from (posted November 27, 2012):

    “Is That A Budweiser In Your Hand?: Product Placement, Booze, And Denzel Washington”


    Happy new year.

    ~~ Bob

  4. If you added up the total number of GRP’s and TRPS of the original television broadcast and reruns of the “Sixty minutes” segment on “The French Paradox”, three movies “Bottle Shock”, “Disclosure”, and “Sideways” the impact on wine brands dwarfs any social media effort.

    It would make an interesting Sonoma State graduate student project to add up the cumulative total media impact in gross and targeted ratings points.

    Given the importance of Japanese, Korean and Chinese wine consumers you would include the 39 volume Manga series “Drops of God” which is the wine bible for those Asian countries. Drops became a TV series in Japan. Only one of the 39 Volumes mentions US wine brands. There are 15 discussed in Volume 22.

    In reality a comic book series in Asia, an episode of Sixty Minutes, a couple of rap music videos, and the television reruns of three movies have had more impact on brands, wine sales and tasting room visits than any planned marketing or sales effort created by the wine industry.

  5. Steve, my reply is late but thanks for the shout out! Being in Disclosure was an incredible stroke of luck but it’s no accident that I’m still making great wine twenty years later! And, most importantly, I’m still looking good! Jaysoooon

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