Off with their heads! Or is it “let them eat cake?”

Is there a “perception vs. reality” problem in Napa Valley? This publicist thinks so. And if it doesn’t get fixed soon, there may be unfortunate consequences. Let’s dip into a real world scenario. In case you haven’t heard, the Napa Valley is now in the middle of a whirlwind of controversy about whether there should be a moratorium on new wineries and vineyard development (among other related issues). Celebrating the winning bid of lot number 1 at Auciton Napa Valley 2014. Photo by <a href="" target="_blank">Jason Tinacci</a> for the Napa Valley Vintners. To that end, the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission appointed a task force to consider these issues. Called the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee, it’s composed primarily of environmentalists with a couple of token wine industry people. The Napa Valley Register reports “The Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee is trying to figure out whether Napa County is choking on its own wine country success and, if so, what to do about it. Residents have brought up issues ranging from too much traffic to a perception that winery tourism is trumping agriculture.”

What does it mean to be a winery today? In a time when distributors are disappearing isn’t having a chance to present your ‘brand’ in your ‘home’ crucial? At yesterday’s Committee meeting, some members proposed that a Napa Valley winery be at least 40 acres in size. Say what?! In these fast-changing times, where a garagiste winemaker can present unique wines in a unique and perhaps “tiny” spot (certainly smaller than 40 acres)? How can the public not understand that a “winery” can come to life in any number of unusual configurations?

Back to perception vs. reality. I would suggest that “real” people are confusing hard-working vintners with the marketing of wineries. Namely, let’s look at Auction Napa Valley, coming up in early June. Live lots this year are full of bling, no question. They include a private concert by a rock star at a vintner’s home, trips to Europe and the Kentucky Derby, tickets to the Emmys, private jets, SEAL immersion and of course much more; the online e-lots are a marketing triumph as well for their creativity and diversity.

Here’s the disconnect. Auction Napa Valley is in a race to be the world’s biggest, best, most lavish, most written about wine auction. How do you achieve that? Flashier, ever more outlandish, more wow factor. But just as the Auction is ever more extravagant, it increases what you might call the squirm factor. Who is the beneficiary of all of this lavishness? “Real” people, disadvantaged kids, vineyard workers, senior citizens. No one that you will run into strolling the grounds of Meadowood sipping sparkling wine and eating caviar.

The real conundrum, from a publicity point of view, is that by masterfully marketing Brand Napa Valley through the Auction, you set up unintended consequences—alienating locals, who might not realize that the wining and dining which vintners do all the time is actually real work and hard work. As a ‘real’ person living in the Napa Valley, you’re watching this. Maybe a vineyard is going in next door or the winery down the road seems to have more cars on weekends. How can you not be resentful? The 1% are twirling around right in front of you. Where do you channel that frustration? What do you do about resenting that conspicuous consumption beginning to engulf you?

So are there really too many wineries in the Napa Valley? I doubt anyone really knows (how could anyone know?). Only the marketplace will tell us. But….that’s the perception that zealous environmentalists are trying to turn into reality. Where are the winery marketers portraying the reality, of wineries who give back to the community, who send superb products into the world, who fight for every sale and every customer? It’s too tough a balancing act—to equate the lifestyle of the rich and famous (aka Auction Napa Valley) with ‘real’ people.

So what have years of glitzy auctions created? A rumbling of class warfare, of the haves and have nots….and sadly, a failure of targeted publicity and marketing on home base, where it matters.

Pop Culture & Wine PR

This weekend brought us two vivid examples of why the media still matters…

PHOTO: Bruce Jenner sat down for a far-ranging exclusive interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in a special edition of “20/20.”

First of course on Friday April 24 there was the multi-hour Diane Sawyer 20/20 interview with Bruce Jenner. Even if you didn’t watch it, you heard about it. Not only did ABC promote it enormously beforehand, not only did it attract lots of eyeballs, but there was definitely a dollop of pop culture news to be broken. Bruce Jenner chose one journalist to be the conduit to the public, someone to ask the questions, keep the revelations coming and be the stand-in for all of us watching and listening. Going on national tv to explain what he’s going through was a choice. Not writing a book (maybe that’s in the works). Not writing an op-ed. Not finding a magazine to do a profile. TV—which would offer the world a treasure trove of sound bites to use and keep him front and center. And it worked, right?!

Where’s the wine PR connection here? It might be the premise of finding specific journalists to tell your story. That means being familiar with the journalist’s work and style. That also assumes you know your story; that you are certain you have enough content and substance and guts to support a spotlight.

 Example #2: The White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Both President Obama and Cecily Strong did stand-up routines which were intelligent and edgy enough to keep a room of jaded journalists chuckling and applauding. Both of them peppered their talks with references to all of the major media outlets, so notwithstanding the tsunami of social media we move through, “real” journalism seems to be alive and thriving.

Where’s the wine PR connection here? Humor. Intelligence. Hip and edgy. Great qualities to keep in mind as you write and pitch and correspond with the correspondents.

Alert: Earth Day is here!

It’s never too late to celebrate Earth Day, which is April 22. Check out Google’s special animated feature as a way to start contemplating.

Established in 1970 by Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day was initially conceived in the aftermath of the huge oil spill in Santa Barbara. Twenty million people rallied to bring attention to the environment…and it’s still relevant today.

It’s not too late to put up a Facebook post or a display in the tasting room. Maybe there’s time to eblast a message to your customers.

 It is, however, probably too late to reach out to journalists. We bring you an example here of one very well-done treatment of the topic.

Drip, drip….drought!

What you’re about to read has probably been rattling around in your mind as something you know, as a communications expert for your winery, that you should be addressing.

water-huz6.jpg (1433785 Byte) rain drops on window

What’s all over the news? The drought! What Governor Brown is doing, what ordinary people should be doing, what and how we should all be sacrificing, and more, right? Agriculture—with a capital A—is coming in for a lot of focus and a lot of criticism.

In The New York Times this past week, Mark Bittman mulled over the topic in a strong op-ed column. In “Making Sense of Water,” he made several points:

  • “The solution lies with agriculture, which consumes more than its fair share.”
  • “California produces more than 400 commodities in many different climates, so it’s difficult to generalize about agriculture. Many farmers are cutting back on water use, planting geographically appropriate crops and shifting to techniques that make sense, like “dry” farming.”
  • “California grows fruits and vegetables for everyone; that’s a good thing. It would be an even better thing, however, if some of that production shifted to places like Iowa, once a leading grower of produce.”

The average person does not understand the nuances of farming; it’s our job to educate them. In addition, grapegrowing is so very intimately connected with specific terroirs, as we know so well—those terroirs can’t be outsourced; they are the lifeblood and identity of each winery business and its marketing.

Do some research and you’ll see that there’s another side to this coin. For example, also this week the AP reported on a study from the state’s legislative analyst that “California’s four-year drought has forced farmers to fallow 400,000 acres and driven 17,000 farmhands out of work” but also that “agriculture makes up only 2 percent of the state economy.”

How farms—yes, a vineyard is a farm!—use water is a very complicated question. Young vines may need more water or not. Weather may impact how much water is used in maintaining a healthy crop. Maybe your vineyards are dry farmed, but no one knows about it.

Sit down with your team and put together a position paper or a report on how your winery is handling the drought. Are you doing anything innovative? Are you moving to dry farming and is that necessitating changes in what is planted or how grapes will be harvested or whether or not you also adhere to organic or biodynamic practices?

Wine PR Lesson 201: take advantage of a controversial topic in the news and make it yours. Be a leader; be out front in explaining how you’re addressing the situation.

Killing the Wine & Arsenic Story – Before It’s Too Late

Killing the Wine & Arsenic Story — Before It’s Too Late

By Tom Wark

Cross posted from Fermentation – The Daily Wine Blog

“Boy, who knew about the arsenic in wine. I’m a beer drinker.”

“Great, now there’s another way I can die…Just drink wine.”

These are two comments that were directed at me this weekend. Both were unsolicited and both in response to me being asked what I do for a living and responding that I work in the wine business.


Here’s what I can guarantee: sales of wine will decline over at least the next two months, if not further, due to the report that some wines have elevated levels of arsenic in them.

It does not matter that the report is bogus.

It does not matter that those reporting it are extortionists.

It does not matter that you’d have to drink yourself dead to be harmed by the arsenic in wine.

What matters is the perception and the impression.

If you’ve ever wondered why you pay dues to your state winery association or to your regional/appellation association, the reason is for moments like this. If your state or regional trade association is not on the phone with reporters of a national or local perspective, then you better get on the phone with them and absolutely demand they start making calls, setting reporters straight, telling the real story and doing everything they can to discredit the people who are spreading the story that wine is dangerous.

So, as a winery, retailer or member of any other sector of the wine industry, what should you do?

1. Contact your regional and state-based trade association just to remind them that you hope they are addressing the arsenic controversy.

2. Put a statement on your website discrediting the controversy and explaining why there is no danger of arsenic poisoning from drinking your wine.

3. Create a short and sweet fact sheet about the controversy that you can send to customers or trade that ask about the issue.

4. Use social media to direct your followers and friends to the best discrediting of the report that you’ve seen. Here is a good one from the California Wine Institute.

You’ve got to kill these kind of damaging disreputable claims in their crib and you’ve got to do it with hurricane force because if bogus claims like this are left to metastasize it can grow into a cancer on the industry that will be hard to overcome.