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What wineries need for the market



A recent article in Wines & Vines about the Master of Wine Bob Paulinski, who now works for BevMo, was on the topic of “Making Your Wine Brand Stand Out.”

It caught my eye because, like most articles on the same topic, it asks a pertinent question—one that all wineries are asking—without providing any definitive answers. Not that that’s Paulinski’s fault, since answers are few and far between.

Yes, a wine brand “needs to be compelling.” But how? Everybody wants to be compelling these days—to have a great story that turns people on, hopefully enough to buy the wine. Paulinski suggests there are at least three ways to accomplish this.

  1. “The wine must…have some legacy.” By “legacy” he means, I think, that it’s well known to the population, and that people have some sort of understanding, no matter how rudimentary, of the winery’s place in history. Paulinski mentions Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay in this regard. He is right to say that it is a legacy wine; that is a huge factor in creating loyal customers. The same might be said of, say, Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, or any of the wines that routinely make Wine & Spirits’ top wines in its annual restaurant poll.

These all are “legacy wines” that are known, liked and trusted by consumers, which is why all those F&B managers put them on the wine list. But obviously, it’s awfully hard to become a “legacy winery,” so there have got to be alternative ways of becoming “compelling.”

  1. Another way, according to Paulinski, is to have a “unique quality.” That is, the winery or wine should be somehow different from all other wineries or wines. Now, it’s hard to be “unique” if you’re making a varietal wine that 3,000 other California wineries are making. So what else makes a winery “unique”? The owners or winemaker can be unique in some fashion, but let’s face it, unless you’re Boz Scaggs or Drew Barrymore or someone like that, to most consumers you’re just another owner or winemaker. Are there other ways of being “unique”? Yes. Just yesterday, I was talking with a successful documentary filmmaker, and I asked him if he could make a good film about anyone at all. “No,” he said. “Some people are more interesting than others.” I’m not sure I agree; I think a good writer can make anybody’s story compelling. But first, the winery has to hire a good filmmaker or storyteller. Stories don’t tell themselves, they’re told.
  1. This ties into Paulinski’s third way to be “compelling,” which is to “be highly targeted.” What does that mean? It means that the winery has identified precisely the audience it wishes to sell to, and then crafts its message to that audience. As an example, Paulinski mentions “Reckless Love,” from a winery named Rebel Coast. Check out their website.

It’s pretty clear whom they’re targeting: with their “nubile models in bikinis” (Paulinski’s phrase), they’re after younger consumers, and a specific type of younger consumer, at that. (I don’t have to characterize the type. You can figure it out as well as I can. Burp.)

That’s fine and good, but the problem of being highly targeted like that is, (a) you’re eliminating millions of potential customers, if not actually turning them off (I wonder how women feel about those “nubile models”), and (b) the minute someone comes along with a more compelling and nouveau message, all those fickle consumers will shop elsewhere. So how do you manage to be unique and targeted while maintaining customer loyalty so that you, too, can become a legacy winery one of these years?

Well, these are precisely the issues so many wineries are grappling with these days. I think I have some insights that may be helpful to some wineries, but, as Paulinski correctly observes, “the wine market is not homogenous [sic]; what works for some won’t work for others.” True dat. Wineries need someone who understand their specific needs, not someone who will slap on a generic template that applies to all, and therefore none.

  1. Legacies are both born to be outclassed by replacements as well as focused uniquely upon catering to the satiation of a precise taste tribe, and unapologetically never intended to be perfect for every taste. Like Information Technology, & all that is beautiful, Wine is made rather than born to be the target of makers who wish to very purposefully seek to knock off the best for that title, and thus by having done so, become the brand that others wish to knock off that fickle fucking pedestal.

  2. Many try to catch the eye with websites & labels. I assume this is because they don’t have the product. The ones with staying power build customer loyalty with the actual wine (what a concept)! Some may have done this years ago (Kenwood Vyds), some not quite so long ago (Lytton Springs), or more recently (Siduri).
    I suppose Barefoot works because of a combination of cute marketing and being on every store shelf. You see where many retail shops have been “strong-armed” into displaying Barefoot prominently-not something others can pull off.

  3. Wines buying shelf space without capturing active interest from the segment that they plan to compell are cheating themselves from the legacy that they can create. Wines that fall short on nuance or complexity are racing into battle for effectiveness on the shelf with their armor on backwards. They are like unicorns who have zero horns …. Horses that also ran. That’s a defect that an existing label cannot repair because they are remembered for having run weak.

  4. Steve, I love this quote: “unless you’re Boz Scaggs or Drew Barrymore or someone like that, to most consumers you’re just another owner or winemaker.” [side note: you may want to update your popular culture references]

    I agree with this quote today because the wine industry entities that consumers care the most about (winemakers) are the least accessible – shunted off by the mess of importers, distributors, brokers, retailers, wine critics, wine writers, marketers and salespeople. Mainstream social media is a crappy way for them to connect to a highly-interested market – it’s too noisy and too complex for tech-aversive winemakers – and so they have no current channel. That will change.

    If you want a taste of what that might look like, just look at Apple’s launch of Apple Music yesterday, specifically:

    Now replace musician with winemaker.

    There are huge parallels here… we’d all prefer to connect with people than brands/bands. We just need a way to do it.

  5. Barefoot is a BRAND because of money and how of it they spent to get it on every grocery store floor. It was a nothing label before Gallo picked it up.

    Yellowtail is a BRAND because it made a ton of MONEY for the wholesalers who fought to initially get it on retailer floor before grocery was forced to pick it up because they were losing MONEY by not having it.

    KJ Vintner’s Reserve was a first mover in the “premium”
    chard space and Sonoma Cutrer was maniacal about being on premise only 30 years ago because that was their TARGET from day one.

    It’s never been nor will it ever be about the wine’s taste, complexity, style, or nuance for any of these BRANDS. That is how they became BRANDS. There are thousands of wines that taste just like all the above mentioned wines that are not BRANDS and never will be…….doesn’t mean they are not still wickedly profitable.

  6. Dear Michael Brill, you’re right about connecting with people, not brands, although I think it’s a little different with music than with wine. I keep on telling winemakers (or owners) how important it is to become “personalities” that the consumer can picture in their heads and associate with the wine. Robert Mondavi and Baron Rothschild did that; so did Gary Pisoni and now Jean-Charles Boisset is doing it. That doesn’t mean the winemaker has to become a dancing monkey. The important thing remains to make great wine. But in our media-saturated culture, people want faces. The Beatles were going to be a great rock and roll band no matter what, but when they started making movies — which allowed us to see them up close and personal — they entered the realm of legend. By the way, I realize that my reference to Boz is a little dated but Drew is out there right now promoting her Pinot Grigio.

  7. Steve, there is the practical matter that the vast, vast majority of wineries do not have owners or winemakers with the force of personality or marketing know-how (or resources) of those in your list. In industries with a stronger economic ethos, this would simply drive most of these people out of the market. But, similar to music, we have hundreds of thousands of winemakers who are barely scraping by but aren’t going away.

    The reality is that these people are not going to become superstar marketers. But if they have great/interesting wines and can communicate what they’re about, then maybe there’s a way for a technology platform and sales channel to connect them with the right audience.

    In many respects, this is *exactly* the challenge that musicians face (note I’m distinguishing winemakers/wines and musicians/music). The genius behind Apple Music is that they are providing both a distribution channel and a social/engagement channel to musicians, and then adding a bunch of discovery services on top (ranging from radio station model to more algorithmic discovery). This “full stack” marketplace replaces the mess of Spotify+Facebook+Twitter+musician websites into a coherent service that people go for everything music-related.

    Put yourself in the shoes of an indie winery today. Nobody’s visiting your website, you have to empty your pockets to get content to people on Facebook who end up not converting to customers anyway, your tweets are lost in noise of Twitter, nobody’s buying your wine on Amazon Wine, and no competent distributor wants to carry your stupid little 250 cases of Russian River Pinot Noir… what in the world are you supposed to do?

    I think we put too much pressure and blame on winemakers to do something that is borderline impossible when instead we should be bitching and moaning about the lack of distribution and engagement platforms for winemakers.

    And here’s the kicker… wine is about 20 times the size of the global recorded music industry.

  8. Do you think Michael just might be making the case for his new venture Cruzu which not only provides another sales channel but does so by accentuating the winemaker who may but mostly is not a proprietor? As with most crowd funding ventures the proponents are the key element in finding backers, not just having a better mouse trap.

  9. Legacy. Unique. Compelling. I’m going to throw out some examples in the Central Valley of California, Fresno to Bakersfield, which is a market I actual know. Anecdotal, perhaps, but there is a reason everyone from Taco Bell to Constellation test markets brands here.

    Legacy comes with time, so a winery with less than 10 years of history has some difficulty with that one.

    A case study in legacy is what Caymus did with their 40th Anniversary release of Cabernet. Cases and cases of the stuff was going out the door and no one had tried the wine, and yet, pre-orders were moving briskly. After it was released, it was the “cool” wine to buy, at least for those that could afford it. It was ready to drink wine, not cellar wine. It was talked about, tasted, paired with appetizers. Wineries would give their left arm for this type of legacy and brand awareness.

    So a new winery has to be unique and compelling.

    Chronic Cellars pre-dates Reckless Love in the Central Valley. Chronic caught on for being both cool and anti-establishment. It is a ubiquitous brand in The Valley.

    But before Reckless Love, there was Sexual Chocolate from SLO Wine Company, circa 2012. “Breaking the mold” and every other headline for being different was used to promote the brand. Sales were great. They even had a “world tour” in a VW bus and then I believe a convertible Caddy at one point. I don’t see the label on store shelves in Fresno or Bakersfield in my recent travels. Maybe they got a bigger distribution contracts, who knows.

    So enter, the Reckless Love branding in action in the Central Valley of CA; Harvard Business Review material, sells like cold water in summertime in Fresno. I do believe that some brands (like documentaries) are more interesting than others in the marketplace, at least for a time. Unique has an ugly cousin, shameless marketing.

    Unique in my book is marketing orange wine or IPOB.

    What compels someone to try a new brand. I think compelling and “hand-sell” may be the secret sauce for a new brand if you don’t have the other two. It starts with the restaurant owner, chef, bottle shop guy, aspiring somm to take on an unknown brand with no scores, compelled by some combination of forces: luck, coincidence, nice day, it’s Friday, etc to take on an upstart brand that doesn’t have a legacy and isn’t making Trousseau Gris (unique), or pandering to “nubiles” (Paulinski reference).

    The second “hand sell” is from aforementioned owner, chef to their customer. The logic here is, if the owner or server is recommending it, then this wine must be compelling enough to try it. If the customer likes it, they may order more of it, again and again. Hopefully, the newly compelled consumer will bring it to a party, compelling their friends to try it and the word-of-mouth hand-sell marketing has taken hold. Naturally, the wine has to be of good quality and appealing to a wider audience, not a highly specific niche of palates.

    A compelling new brand will take longer to establish, as it’s the ‘ground game’ to use a football reference, getting dirty, taking criticism, driving everywhere PERSONALLY, selling store-to-store and building your unique legacy in the wine world.

  10. Tom, if I read your comment correctly, your point is that it’s the strength of the project creator’s pitch that drives success, not something magic about a crowdfunding transaction type. If indeed that is your point, then I agree completely… this goes back to the ‘wine is sold, not bought’ thread.

    And this is why crowdfunding by itself is not a very good model for wine. Winemakers *for the most part* are horrible storytellers. They don’t know how to competitively differentiate themselves, leverage communication channels or all the other stuff one needs to do to be successful selling wine.

    I guess we could shrug and say this is what the channel is for… except that most small wineries don’t have good US distribution and *have* to sell direct. So, what to do? Simply complain that they’re nincompoop farmers that should fall prey to Darwinian dynamics?

    Or perhaps all this traditional marketing stuff isn’t as important as we think it is. What if we started looking at this problem through the lens of relationships instead of individual transactions? We’re more likely to buy wine from people we know… and most winemakers aren’t particularly bad at managing relationships. The problem of course is that mainstream social channels are horrible places to build consumer relationships – too complex, too noisy and too expensive… and the distance from those platforms to a transaction is far too great to be practical.

    Thus my position that wine needs platforms that are the moral equivalent of Apple Music – combining distribution and engagement channels. I can tell you for sure, that isn’t a crowdfunding website.

  11. Andrew Adams says:

    Thanks for reading Steve, I’m glad I saw your post because after reading your comments I realized it was not clear in my report that Bob did not use the phrase “nubile young models.” He referred to their marketing in general and the phrase: “Don’t let tonight be a waste of makeup.” I included the nubile reference to try and give a broader sense of the winery’s strategy based on its website. The article has since been clarified.

  12. Andrew: Thank you.

  13. Bob Henry says:

    I encourage the readers of this blog to study this classic tome:

    “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind”

    Executive summary:

  14. David: You’re going to get a kick out of how small a world this conversation is encompassing. Before I made Sexual Chocolate I worked for Michael Brill at CrushPad. I stared making Reckless Love after I left SLO Down.

    As far as the boobie babes go, yeah I’ll take the heat on that. Two guys started Rebel Coast. There was no huge master plan, other then to make wine fun. When we needed photos for the site we weren’t about to ask guy to do a photo shoot for us! So girls at the beach it was. Now our team is three girls and three guys, so the girls have lead the charge on expanding our appeal. Ironic enough, as we speak we are actually forwarding our old site ( to our new site . We are not re-branding, but the girls wanted something more to look at besides other girls.

    And David, you hit the nail on the head with the ground game. Every single day our team is knocking on doors hand selling. There is no substitute for it.

    Side note: The folks behind Chronic Cellars are badass.

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