Six Important Seminars for the Wine Writers Symposium

winepenpaperiAs I write, the Wine Writers Symposium is underway in Napa Valley at Meadowood Resort. For the wine publicist, this gathering of well established wine writers, simply established wine writers and others who identify themselves as “wine writers” would be nirvana. Imagine, all these wine writers with digital ink to spare all gathered in one place just dying to hear about my clients.

However, I am not allowed within a mile of the place, even if I paid to go. This is true despite my more than a decade of blogging about the culture, business, marketing and politics of wine. I’m not allowed precisely because I’m also (and primarily) a wine publicist and the organizers of the Wine Writers Symposium properly prefer the event to be about the writers in attendance and writing…not about my clients.

All that said, working with many wine writers in my line of work, I do have some ideas about what kind of seminars I might deliver up if I were organizing the Wine Writers Symposium. Some would say this is a list of “My Problems With Wine Writers” but it’s not. Rather, it’s a list of “What It Takes to Be A Great Wine Writer.”

So, what would my seminar look like?

Seminar #1
How To Fact Check
Believe it or not it’s not unusual to see my clients placed in regions they’ve never been in and find their tasting rooms open hours after they close. We would assign Eric Asimov of The New York Times to administer this seminar.

Seminar #2
How to be a Wine Drinker’s Advocate
Despite the absurdly numerous and ancient anti-consumer laws on the books in nearly every state, you rarely see a writer address these laws by calling on consumers and lawmakers to change them. If this isn’t the job of the wine media, then I don’t know whose job it is. I would assign Jerry Mead the task of overseeing this seminar. Only a small hitch with that plan: Mr. Mead has left the building.

Seminar #3
How to Make Your Readers Laugh & Cringe—Simultaneously
Satire and straight talk and a little bit of wit is a rare commodity in the wine writer biz. But when it’s done well everyone comes out of it with more than they went into it with. This kind of writing keeps folks coming back for more. For this seminar, Chris Kassel would be tapped.

Seminar #4
How To Make Money Writing a Wine Blog
The elusive desire! The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And the question that countless would-be self-publishers have pondered for near a decade now. As yet, we have not determined who would moderate this seminar nor who the panelists would be.

Seminar #5
The Art of Tasting and Reviewing 200 Wines in a Day
If you are going to dispense information every wine lover wants, then you need to get to reviewing. But four of five wine reviews a week just won’t do the trick. That just the thirsty reader wanting more. Thousands of reviews. That what you need. And there is obviously a trick to getting that many wines reviewed for your readers. Whether it’s advice on how not to ruin your keyboard to how to undergo a palate replacement with minimal hassle. Of course, Robert Parker Jr. would chair this panel with Antonio Galloni as his second.

Seminar #6
How to Be Nice to a Wine Publicist
Hey, we just want the chance to pitch a story; maybe just get our client’s wine in front of you. There are a number of easy tips available that will show you how to be nice to the folks who just want to give you the best story idea of your life. Any young wine blogger seeking free wine samples could oversee this seminar.

The 25 Stories Guaranteed to be Written by the Wine Media

newspaperAt Tim Atkins’ blog, Ron Washam (AKA Hosemaster of Wine) offered up a list of topics he’d like wine bloggers to ignore in 2015. It’s a pretty predictable list of topics that wine bloggers will cover at some point…if not annually. Inadvertently, Washam makes the point that some topics will always be covered by the wine media. In fact there is a list of topics that wineries can count on seeing covered year in and year out. For the winery seeking exposure through the media, knowing what these topics are and making sure the media associates their brand with these stories is a good way to generate the desired coverage.

What are those topics that you can count on being covered year in and year out by the media? Behold…

1. Young Winemakers (children of older winemakers) making an impact.

2. Global Warming and its impact on wine

3. The resurgence of (name that varietal).

4. The Three Tier System is archaic and hurting someone

5. The first grapes have been harvested this vintage

7. Its springtime and time for Rose.

8. How to pair wines with Thanksgiving Dishes

9. How to pair wines with Easter Dishes

10. The best places to stay and eat in (name the wine country)

11. Wine critics don’t know what they are talking about.

12. Sparkling wine is for more than just celebrations

13. New York (name another wine region outside of CA) wines are on the rise

14. The best gifts for wine lovers

15. It’s the “Vintage of the Century” (for Bordeaux wineries only).

16. “Natural Wine” is on the rise.

17. You don’t need to pay a lot to drink great wine

18. Will drinking wine make you fat?

19. The best restaurant wine lists in (pick a city)

20. Wine sales increase last year

21. Research shows drinking wine will (imorove) or (harm) your health.

22. Study shows wines are purchases based on the label (or price, or place on the shelf)

23. Will red (or white) blends finally find a place in wine lovers’ collection?

24. Direct wine shipping is coming to (name the state)

25. We mourn the passing of (name a great winemaker/winery owner)

Looking for exposure in the media? Anticipate which of these stories will be written by a particular media outlet or outlets, position yourself to be positively portrayed in one of them and get the word out to the media (Try not to be part of #25). It’s really as simple as that. Because you know these stories are going to be written.

Is Wine PR Nothing More Than Bribes?

Bribe copyIt is one of the most interesting questions that has ever so naturally formulated itself in front of my eyes: AT WHAT LEVEL OF COURTSHIP SHOULD THE COURTIER TAKE OFFENSE THAT THE OBJECT OF THEIR DESIRE HAS NOT RESPONDED THEY WAY THEY HOPE?

Put another way, how much does a wine producer have to spend on courting a wine writing before they may legitimately be offended that writer has not written about them?

This is the fascinating question implied by this comment by Damien Wilson of the Burgundy School of wine published in Harper’s:

What surprises wine producers is that bloggers could think it is appropriate that producers accept their freedom to write anything after having traveled and been accommodated at the producers expense. Remember, that a producers does not have to agree with a blogger’s perspective. But to not write anything after receiving value in wine, time, restauration and accommodation is simply a one-way transaction. In other descriptions of commerce, one way transfer of value could also be called “theft”.

Clearly Mr. Wilson believes that a certain amount of wine drinking, feeding, housing and travel that leads to no writing by the writer receiving these things is grounds for taking offense. But what if the writer traveled on their own dime to a winery, took a tour, sampled wine from the barrel, and snacked on cheese and charcuterie, then wrote nothing? Would that be grounds for offense—or, as Mr. Wilson implies, a form of “theft”? What if the writer’s travel by train is paid for, but the writer pays for their own accommodations, yet drinks the producers wine and eats their food and never writes anything? Can offense be legitimately taken? What if the writer is doing a piece on a producer’s home region, asks for a sample bottle of wine, receives it but then never writes about the producers? My the producer legitimately take offense?

Here is what I think any producer, marketer, publicist or administrator at a business school ought to understand intuitively: when any amount of funds are expended to introduce a wine product to a writer in the hopes they will cover it, there should be absolutely no moral, ethical or commercial expectation that the expenses ought to result in coverage; and certainly should not immediately result in coverage.

To believe otherwise is a foul misunderstanding of the nature of journalism as well as public relations. In fact, the proper way to understand the expense of courting the press is to see it as providing an education of the writer about a brand or product. One certainly goes about using marketing and media relations with the hopes that the producer’s story will be told as a result. But believing you have paid for results and ought by moral right to receive them will only result in disappointment and a poor relationship with the media.

Here’s the caveat. No writer should ever accept something of value from someone willing to offer it if they know they have no intention of ever writing about the produces or the subject matter they represent.

Mr. Wilson’s mistake is believing (and advising) that Media Relations is akin to a transaction. It’s not a transaction. It is an investment. Paying for a wine writer to travel to and stay at and estate and then feeding them is, in the business world, actually akin to placing an ad in a magazine or on an Internet site. Simply because one paid for the ad one cannot have an expectation that it will result in a specific number of sales. That’s crazy talk. They can hope it will. They can look at past experience with advertising, seeing what worked and what did not, and be confident that some sales will result. They can surely expect that the ad will reach a certain number of people. But to believe by right they ought to receive X number of orders as a result of the ad defies and understanding of marketing.

Wine Bloggers: You Are Only As Valuable As Your Audience Size

numbersBy all accounts, the Digital Wine Communicators Conference that took place recently in Montreaux, Switzerland left its wine blogger and wine writer attendees with a great number of interesting and provocative ideas for  to consider. Among the most thought-provoking idea I came across was this one, reported in Harpers and delivered by public relations professional Louise Hurren during a panel on the Future of Wine Blogging :

“[To succeed wine bloggers must] understand and recognize their place in the wine industry and ask themselves what value are you offering and not just what you can get out of it”

The communicators who heard this message most likely understood quickly and intuitively that there is only one answer to the question, what value are they offering the wine industry? But before I repeat that answer it is important to put Ms. Hurren’s advice in context. Additionally, she wanted to explain to the wine bloggers in the room the size of the investment that marketing and promotional sectors of the wine industry make in wine communicators. She discussed, for example, the cost of taking a blogger on a press trip as well as the expectations the marketers reasonably had when they spent the thousands of dollars on trips for wine communicators.

The takeaway of Ms. Hurren’s talk was that understanding how the wine trade works is an essential element in a blogger becoming more professional, which is a requirement for success as a blogger.

This is all excellent advice. But what I did not read in the coverage of her talk in Montreaux was the one and only possible answer to the question, “what value are you offering the wine trade through your blog”.

The answer is The Size of Your Audience.

In fact this is also the answer to the question, what value do commercial wine publications offer to the wine industry. The fact is, it does not matter how professional a wine blogger is. It does not matte how well a wine blogger understands the wine trade. It does not matter how interesting their ideas or observations are. To the wine trade the real value of any wine blogger is the size of their audience.

The more eyeballs that see what the blogger writes, the more valuable that blogger is to the wine industry that has one goal in mind: expose as many potential customers to their brand as they possible can. This is a somewhat cold, cut and dry way of understanding the work of the wine blogger or professional wine writer or commercial wine media outlet. But there is no other way to calculate the value of a wine media publication. If the most brilliant, the smartest and the most prolific wine blogger on the planet reaches 50 readers a day, their value to the wine industry is very, very small. Meanwhile, if the most incompetent wine blogger on the planet reaches 10,000 readers a day, then the wine industry will see great value in their swill that they produce.

If, then, it is the goal of a wine blogger to be of value to the wine industry, the advice I would have given the attendees at the recently Digital Wine Communicators Conference would be this: BLOGGERS: WORK ON INCREASING THE SIZE OF YOUR READERSHIP…IT’S THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS.


A Great PR Guy Is Gone — And Why It Matters

harveyImageHarvey Posert Jr. died on October 3 in St. Helena after a brief illness. At the age of 84, he’d lived many lifetimes, from a privileged childhood in Memphis to college at Yale to several years in military counter-intelligence in Europe. Then there were the phases of his career, from the copy desk at The Memphis Commercial Appeal to working for Dan Edelman in New York and San Francisco, before coming to wine country to represent Robert Mondavi and later Fred Franzia, as well as numerous others.

Harvey was a friend of mine for more than 25 years. I was both a professional colleague and a personal friend. By now you might have read articles about him which have appeared in The Wine Spectator, the Napa Valley Register, Napa Life and Wine Industry Insight. In the coming days there’ll be many more tributes, I’m sure.

Pardon the cliché: Harvey was the last of a breed, a giant among men—whether we’re talking about the wine industry or the world of wine PR. What does that mean? He was a thinker; he was also an enormously astute judge of character and personality; he was also someone who shaped our history as wine marketers. He literally created trends to shine a light on his clients.

You can read elsewhere about the specific programs he dreamt up and the numerous achievements of his career. Here are

10 Things I Learned From Harvey

1. Do The Work

Roll up your sleeves. Do the research. Write the materials. Be courteous to the client. Get the work out in a timely fashion.

2. Open Your Eyes

Read everything you can read. Talk to people. Be curious. It’s all ‘grist for the mill,’ the backbone of your creativity.

3. Every journalist matters

No one is too ‘little;’ if you identify yourself as a writer, you’re welcome in the tent.

4. Find the humor

Cultivate a big sense of humor. You can find it everywhere. It’s a leavening agent, a humanizing factor, a common denominator.

5. Standards

Be on time. Be courteous. Mind your manners. It matters.

6. Stay in touch

You never know when a writer will re-appear somewhere; never jettison a writer after having worked together, even if the outcome wasn’t what you wanted.

7. Be modest

PR people aren’t the story; the client is. Be present but don’t look for the limelight.

8. Don’t overestimate but don’t underestimate your audience.

A press release always has to include the obvious as well as the news.

9. Content IS “king”

Be known for your substance, for ideas and programs which have merit and meaning.

10. Niceness counts

Make sure you thank a writer once a story appears. Think of other gestures to express your appreciation. Be human.

How appropriate that Harvey suggested that donations to honor him go to The American Civil Liberties Union.