Books, glorious books!

There are wine books and then there are WINE BOOKS, with the thought in extra-large font and spotlit.

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Two comprehensive wine books have been updated and are being released this fall: Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine and Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible. If you spend your days marketing wines, these are books which should be within reach. You may have earlier editions….but you really might consider springing for these revised versions.

Take a sec away from your to-do list to think about the enormous effort which goes into writing extremely comprehensive books such as these. What is required?

  • A superb palate
  • Great organizational skills
  • A serious memory
  • A sense of humor and not-taking-yourself-too-seriously
  • Creativity
  • A love of language in all its nuances
  • Familiarity with a number of foreign languages
  • A good copy editor/spell checker nearby, whether human or virtual
  • Patience.

That said, we would like to recommend that you read two recent articles about these authors: a ‘think piece’ Jancis Robinson wrote which appeared in The Financial Times on September 4, and an interview with Karen MacNeil from the September 8 St. Helena Star.

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Among other things, Jancis reflects on what it means today to be considered a ‘wine expert,’ and how social media has changed that definition.

“…as someone celebrating her 40th year writing about wine, I have to concede I am considered by many as a wine expert. However, I am keenly aware of the sands that have been shifting under the notion of expertise in this era of instant communication and (often anti-) social media…..

The wine market today is more crowded than ever. As wine production has transformed itself from peasant activity to plutocrat’s bucolic folly, and as drinking wine has become a social signifier on every continent…..consumers are presented with a baffling array of choices. And, as producers strive to make better and better wine every year just to stay in the game, so they have to shout louder and louder to get attention…..

This may partly explain why some days no fewer than six or seven boxes of unsolicited samples arrive on my doorstep — more than ever before — in the hope that I will publish a tasting note on them. But could it also have something to do with the fact that, even in this era of the citizen critic, my 40 years of visiting vineyards, listening to winemakers, watching trends emerge, making comparisons and seeing wines evolve from barrel to decades in bottle might just be regarded as worth something?…I have gone from being a unique provider of information to having to fight for attention….”

Well said, Jancis, and a cautionary note to all the PR and marketing folk out there contemplating their sampling lists.

Next, let’s acknowledge Karen MacNeil’s Wine Bible.  She talked about the enormous work involved in writing it: “…I spent 10 years creating the first version of The Wine Bible and four more years completely rewriting it and updating the maps, charts and photos for this new version,” she said….”

And then there’s the book’s huge success: “…since its release in 2000 it has sold more than 750,000 copies, making it the best-selling single volume wine book in the history of U.S. publishing…”

One key takeaway from learning about Karen’s work and this impressive book might be R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Extend that courtesy to all wine writers: you may never know how much work has gone into their lives as writers, what their work load is, what pressures and politics sway them as they pursue something as ‘straight forward’ as wine writing.

Are media events worth it?!

Here’s a topic we haven’t yet addressed on SWIG: The Media Event.

There are lots of pros and cons about whether gathering a table full of journalists is still meaningful. Here’s an overview of this topic. It’s very fresh in my mind because I just orchestrated one.

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Here are good reasons to put on media events:

  1. Writers who can’t attend are receiving an invitation and outreach from the winery, so they’ll be getting a glimpse of the winery’s personality and of course being reminded that the winery exists! This may prompt them to schedule a visit or at the very least, stay in closer touch with the winery.
  2. Coverage! Articles! Blog posts! Tweets! An Instagram image or two! Whatever writers do attend will get to know the winery and its principals. If the event is done well, the writers will leave with a story.
  3. Live media training for your principals! Good or bad, it’s your own stage, a moment for the winemakers and owners to stand up and deliver the winery’s message, whether in short sound bites or longer ones.
  4. What IS your winery in terms of style and entertaining? Just executing the event will be helpful in defining the winery’s unique personality in these areas. Casual? Formal? Seated food service or buffet? What type of glassware? A walk through the vineyards or cellar or caves before the tasting or meal? This will require that the team plans all of the crucial details which seem small at the time but aren’t—-how tall are the flower arrangements? Do media guests leave with a gift? Is there assigned seating? What kind of printed materials are provided?
  5. Each journalist has a different following, different eyeballs who follow his or her work. Good to know and also a factor in selecting whom you invite.

Here’s an often-cited reason for NOT putting on media events: it’s the idea that journalists sitting together will be busy spying on each other and feel that they’re not getting the winery’s undivided attention and an exclusive. Wrong, in my opinion. At the very least, a media event builds camaraderie amongst the winery team and its guests. An event underscores that there is a greater wine community and we can all learn from each other.

Now for a few helpful hints:

Plan way ahead. Be sure to invite your guests at least a month ahead. Follow up, but diplomatically.

Artful. Concise. Elegant. Informative. Newsworthy. Those are the keys to a compelling invitation, whether you email it or it’s sent in the mail.

Follow up a day or so before, including precise directions as well as a day-of phone number in case they need to contact you at the last minute.

The event: keep it lively and interesting; move around at the winery; consider having a station with wine and a nibble as your guests take a walk or tour before sitting down to a tasting or meal. In other words, don’t stay in the same room or place for the entire event.

The food: minimal is really fine. No need to try to dazzle; the wines should be the focus, with ample water and bread and spit cups flanking the glasses. That said, less is more but the ‘less’ needs to be MORE. Anything you serve or present should be superb quality.

The people: put together the event so that your winery’s personality is expressed through as many principals as are appropriate: the proprietor welcomes, the winemaker presents the wines, the vineyard manager sets the scene. Don’t forget to recognize the chef and ask him or her to comment on how the menu was constructed.

A caveat: be ready for rudeness. Your guests unexpectedly bringing companions. Standing up in the middle of the meal to promote a side business they have. Inappropriate clothing. Too much perfume or cologne!  I’ve seen lots more in my time…..

Then there’s the relative rudeness of today’s world: guests may ask to hop on the winery’s wi fi. They may text, tweet and talk on their cellphones throughout the event. Is this social media support or not? Only you & your team can judge that. If a Baked Alaska explodes, you might be glad someone captured it on their iPhone.

Follow-up: be minimal. Don’t hound your guests. If they indeed got a story, you’ll know soon enough.

Manage expectations: even if everything is a smashing success…20 guests inevitably will not mean 20 stories.

More on the Wine Train incident to consider

Is there anyone who doesn’t know about the recent incident on the Napa Valley Wine Train?

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Newspapers, radio and media everywhere have reported on it, thanks also to the hash tag #laughingwhileblack. What started out as a long-time book group get-together turned into an international fiasco.

We’re now in the third cycle or so of commentary and what-ifs. SWIG co-founder Tom Wark has suggested a simple plan for how to deal with a situation such as this.

Let me add to his suggestions that you read two other thoughtful commentaries, by Jo Diaz and Blake Gray.

Here’s some more advice.

Keep your eyes open and read whatever else you might find.

Most importantly, meet with your management and hospitality teams and walk through some scenarios which could take place in your tasting room or at an event you sponsor. What is your crisis communications plan? Who will write it? Who will be the person to talk to the media when they call?

How hospitable IS your hospitality?

How discreet are your employees?

Where does your business stand in the grey area between ethics and morality and marketing and reputation management?  Have you ever had that discussion? Now would be the time.

Tequila Shots and the Rules of Wine Public Relations

TshotsI find myself in a relatively unique position. For many years, like my blogging partner Julie Ann Kodmur, I’ve made a living working in wine public and media relations. Part of that job is reaching out to journalists and “pitching” stories that represent the interests and backgrounds of the clients that pay me. We both are pretty good at this.

However, for over a decade now I’ve also been blogging, usually at Fermentation, and I’ve been pretty successful at that too. As a result I get stories pitched to me by other PR professionals who want me to write about their clients. A turning of the tables if you will.

So, here is the pitch I got from one PR company today. This is real:

“Question: are you ready for the end of the summer? Probably not. Do you have a plan? Maybe. Would you accept suggestions? Definitely! Labor Day weekend is around the corner and what better way to say good bye to the hot summer days than with tequila shots!

So I stared at that awhile. Re-read it a couple of times. Then I tried to imagine the story I might be writing if in fact downing tequila shots was a central element in that story. I tried to figure out how I could write a story that centered around the virtue of doing tequila shots. Of course, I know what the virtues are of doing tequila shots. I’m just having a hard time figuring out the virtue of writing about those particular virtues.

While I’m thinking about what those virtues might be, I do have some solid recommendations for wine PR and marketing folks that relate to this particular story pitch I received:

• Try to pitch stories to writers who have at least a slight interest in what you are pitching.

• Try to pitch stories that go beyond the somewhat comical, “Wanna tell your readers how to get shit faced”?
• Never, ever, hit the send button after writing the first thing that popped into your head and not leaving time to edit what is likely a very bad idea.


Advice for working with the media

When you’re a professional communicator or marketer, it is crucial that you ‘wear the moccasins’ of the journalists you are talking to. Today in an unusual twist for SWIG we want to bring you a terrific piece of writing which was also a speech at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference in upstate New York, delivered by award-winning blogger and writer, Meg Houston Maker. Our thanks to Meg for sharing her insights.

AUGUST 17, 2015: The Story Only You Can Tell: Advice to Wine Bloggers

By Meg Houston Maker

You have a wine blog. Congratulations: You are now a nonfiction writer.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t tell a story. In fact, you must tell a story if you want your work to be read, and if you want your reader to keep reading.

Good wine writing demands more than just a palate and a vocabulary. It demands curiosity, creativity, insight, and diligence—and that’s true whether you approach your work journalistically or view your blog as a strictly artistic endeavor.

Good writing is also about more than grammar and syntax. These reside squarely in the realm of copy editing. This is writing writ small.

I’m speaking here about the realm of storytelling, of story doctoring, the art of stitching your piece together into something that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Something that says something you believe to be true.

If you’re willing to master a few techniques of good writing, you can keep your reader reading. These techniques aren’t hard, but they do require you to bring your writing to a level of consciousness: To inquire, to listen, to reflect, to syncretize—to tell a story.

Keep reading…..