Is “great” wine not enough?


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Is visitation to wineries up or down in the Napa Valley? Are sales in Napa Valley tasting rooms up or down? The answers vary depending whom you talk to…..but what’s certainly very “up” and visible are the enormous efforts Napa Valley wineries are taking to entice visitors.

There are a ton of elaborate food experiences being offered. Charcuterie with your wine? Cookies paired with your wine? Bacon paired with your tasting? Caviar? Vegetarian? Lots of cheeses? Prime rib and Yorkshire pudding? It’s all out there!

Several wineries offer variations on the ‘winemaker for a day’ experience—one with a silver robe as part of the experience.

Want to ride through the vineyards in an unusual vehicle, such as a Pinzgauer? Easy. How about renting a bike at the winery to ride through their vineyards? Done.

Here’s a pop quiz: are these Napa Valley tasting room options true or false? You’ll find the answers at the end.

  1. A winery on a remote mountain offers an early morning hike & tasting so you can watch the fog roll away.
  2. A caviar bump! A ‘caviar girl’ with gear strapped to her waist offers you ‘bumps’ of caviar at this winery.
  3. Silent discoing in a redwood grove on the winery property.
  4. A yoga class in the middle of the vineyards.
  5. A biofeedback session amongst the barrels.
  6. Watch a falcon be released to hunt pesky birds, while you sip your wines and munch a picnic.
  7. Pet a horse while you stroll through a stable which adjoins the winery tasting room.
  8. Play golf on a putting green in the middle of a winery’s pond.
  9. This winery offers a flight of its wines paired with music, piped in to your headphones while you taste.
  10. Taste this winery’s wines in the dark.
  11. Before you begin your tasting, this winery will administer a ‘super-taster’ test to your tongue. That will assist you in choosing what wines to taste, perhaps explain why you prefer sweeter wines, etc.
  12. Behold the winery’s enormous gardens….behold the winery’s own livestock…one visit enables you to milk a cow (or goat if you prefer) and start the cheese-making process. Within a few weeks after you leave the cheese you started making will arrive at your front door.
  13. If you’re a club member at this winery, you had your hand biometrically scanned….now you can go into the winery’s cave and the scan of your hand will open a door to an unusual room with a raised platform surrounded by glass and illuminated by a crystal chandelier—just right for you and your ten best friends for a splendid tasting.
  14. You’ve had a wonderful—and enormous—tasting. Before you go, the winery offers you a breathalyzer test.
  15. What a great winery! If only you could come back and visit during harvest, during bottling, during pruning, so you could see the winery’s fabulous vineyards in all seasons. This winery, thanks to a partnership with a scientist, offers a time travel coupon: that will enable you to teleport back whenever you wish.

Let’s discuss.

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As a marketer, trying to think creatively and (pardon the cliché) in an “out of the box” fashion is important right now. The Napa Valley wine industry is going through a super-competitive moment. Clever and memorable and even outlandish marketing programs may just land your winery a following in the demographic you’re seeking. Or not. But it’s worthwhile to look around and see what’s taking place….

Let’s talk to a banker and keen industry observer: “Are sales up or down? On average they are up, but averages aren’t always the best measure,” commented Rob McMillan, EVP & Founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division when we discussed this topic. He continued: “We aren’t selling chemicals in a bottle. We are selling a dream and an experience. And we need to find ways to refresh our sales and marketing approaches,” he suggests.

Another industry expert, Paul Mabray, the CEO of Emetry, shared his insight about the “arms race” of winery experiences. “The competition over winery experiences is going to continue to escalate to attract and retain customers. Being brand true will be one of the ways that these experiences will be sustainable. For example, you don’t have to compete with Castello di Amorosa or The Prisoner if your experience is brand true. However, adding experiences is a core tenet of increasing value and participating in the experience economy,” he said.

Mabray continues: “The absurdity is that we associate the need/want for experiences solely with Millennials. As a point of reference, don’t you like experiences? I know I do. Finally, the continued emergence of experiences is a by-product of increased competition, decreased routes to market and the flattening of wine sales. Moreover, to unlock value to people who are marginally or partially interested in wine but are visiting the winery, it’s good practice to enhance their visit and create brand loyalty. Not every visitor to our region is an oenophile.”

Now let me recap comments from several vintners—all of whom have several decades of Napa Valley winery management behind them.

Vintner A said: “This is a larger issue. Are all of these elaborate come-to-our-winery ideas a good thing? Does it synchronize with whatever “fine wine” is today? Is this the result of the Napa Valley Wine Auction’s morphing from focusing on Napa Valley wine to an international lifestyle glamour parade? Is this wave of super-creative visit enticements a threat to Napa Valley wineries who focus solely on producing great wines?

Vintner B offers: “All of these diverse non-wine-based events are feeding into the anti-winery sentiment of local activists who accuse us of being “event centers” and not wineries. All of this seems to say that wine is no longer the most important thing: that winery marketing depends on corollary entertainment, not “just” wine.  This direction is absolutely going to divide the wine industry. It’s making it harder for small wineries to compete successfully, since they don’t have the resources of the wineries with elegant architecture and large marketing departments.”

Vintner C chimes in: “Is great wine no longer enough? Is it a new world now? All I do is make great wine from a great place—will I survive?”

Circling back to the “35,000 foot view,” another perspective says that we have to come to terms with these issues as an industry. By focusing only on wines—and not including remarkable experiences—are we excluding too many possible customers? Jane Doe comes to Winery X and has a fabulous time, enjoying wonderful curated bites of food along with a great Cabernet—is it the “extraneous” activity which makes the experience memorable, more than the Cab?

“As we see the industry and consumption shrinking, we’re hitting a crossroad,” Paul Mabray says. “If we put our nose in the air about wineries offering experiences, fewer people may care about us. Remember that wine is a complex product; it’s hard to understand. We may be failing our consumers in a big way if we don’t make sure that they enjoy our product. If Napa Valley is to sustain itself as an attraction, our job is to increase our value to customers and adding experiences is an obvious part of the marketing tool kit,” he said.

If we follow this line of thought, people visiting wineries may not want to hear about the intricacies of terroir or barrel aging; they may just want to have a great glass of wine and go home talking about that delicious caviar bump, the Pinzgauer ride through the vineyards, or the ….?

Lots to chew on, what do you think?

Answers to the quiz:

  1. True
  2. True
  3. True
  4. True
  5. False
  6. True
  7. True
  8. True
  9. True
  10. True
  11. False
  12. False
  13. True
  14. False
  15. False




9 thoughts on “Is “great” wine not enough?

  1. Thank you Julie. Sounds like getting a pole dancer up on Spring Mountain is not the answer! With over 500 opportunities to taste wine in Napa County, I’d suggest the Valley’s wines are well represented to visitors. Clearly Boots and Bingo from Chicago still want to come out, hire David Abreu and TRB for the 99 pt recipe, you know, ‘live their dream.’ But The take home message is that the dreamers and their marketers are a dime a dozen, and Napa County’s industry of growing rich people’s grapes, making their wine, designing and building their wineries, creating their story and marketing their dream is actually the new Napa Valley Product. It is not the wine we are making but a platform for rich folks to charge $75 bucks for the pleasure of consumers adulation.

  2. Yes Napa has created experiences, but the reality is that the percentage of wineries that do them is very small, one to two percent. Educational Tours are more common but only a few offer them as the exclusive way to taste the wine. Many people are new to tasting and appreciate the tours, The main difference is that more have gone to appointments due to pressure from the county, and because the Cabernet that represents half of the grapes show better in a slow paced, seated tasting, which is why sales are up. The tasting fees escalated because the current younger visitors do the expensive tastings, but don’t buy much wine. The wineries raised their prices to cover the shortfall, The reason that Napa wines don’t show up on many east coast restaurant wine lists are economics, tradition, and because the lower alcohol allows a couple to share a bottle. In my work as a tour guide I visit several hundred wineries a year and have for over a dozen years, and while the jaded may be frustrated, most of our visitors are happy for the education and gracious hospitality.

  3. Reminds me of an old folktale in which a couple owned a goose that laid an egg every day, and the egg was made of gold. The couple prospered. And the more they had, the more greedy they became.
    One day, the man said, “Why wait for one little egg every day? There must be a great store of gold inside this goose. If I kill it, I can have it all now.” And so he killed the goose, only to find that there was nothing unusual inside her.
    And that, of course, was the end of the supply.
    So in his greed he destroyed the source of his good fortune.
    If a goose is laying golden eggs, collect the eggs. Don’t kill it in an attempt to increase short term profit. A dead goose lays no eggs, golden or otherwise.

  4. Gee, I’m shocked that people are no longer heading to Napa Valley to pay $25 tasting fees and be pressured into adding on costly additional “experiences” all delivered with an “aren’t you lucky to be here” attitude. The vintners in the valley may all tell each other that their Emperors’ New Clothes look wonderful, but their act no longer plays outside of their own bubble of smug.

    In the real world, their customer base is ageing and dying off and Generation X and the millennials have gone all in on European wines. I can’t tell you how many trendy wine bars that I’ve visited along the Boston-NYC-DC corridor or in Chicago (and even in mid-tier markets like Minneapolis) and seen literally no California wines on the list. Napa Valley wine is like a 70s leisure suit. It had its moment when everyone thought it was cool and would be around forever, but now its just looked on as a somewhat embarrassing relic of an age of excess.

  5. As a long-time visitor to Napa and Sonoma who uses these trips to buy wine that I can’t buy at retail, I am irritated that I can no longer taste wine at some of my favorite wineries without signing up for an over-priced “experience”. I don’t want to be stuck for two hours at a table with six people I don’t know, tasting wines I would never buy just so I can taste the one or two I most likely will buy. And, pay $70 for the privilege of listening to someone pitch their wines. We’ve switched our wine buying trips to other regions that haven’t adopted this terrible “experience” approach. I don’t see us coming back to Napa/Sonoma anytime soon. The industry needs to cater to both types of customers–true wine buyers who buy cases of wine and inexperienced wine tourists who might buy a bottle to take back to their hotel.

  6. As you visit many other wine producing areas in the world, you will find put that most have their wine as the center piece of the show, but they all rely on a couple of additions to their town offerings as a whole. It is not each winery per se. It is the town and other offerings.
    You cannot feel that unless you have Disney in Napa then people will not visit. But obviously, if wine is the main ingredient, food has to be in the list. Perhaps other productions, olives, cheeses, aromatics, virtual reality, etc… If in doubt, call me. We are experience developers. Chin chin.

  7. Back in the day Napa Valley wines were priced higher than the retailers across the country and they depended on the three tier system. Today they are the same or lower priced than there old retail partners. As a retailer I hardly recommend Napa wineries to visit because I know the winery will sell the wines and leave me out in the cold. Now many wineries are mail order only but many customers get tired of the same wines (unless you are the top 1%). So maybe Napa wineries ought to reinvest in the old three tier system and let their retail partners help sell.

  8. people do love an ‘experience’. the friends who were visiting Bordeaux with me wanted to visit Ch. Margaux, Haut Brion and the like. these wines are way, way above their price point but they wanted a story to tell. I wanted to visit the lesser lights that I actually buy. at the family wineries I visit in france, people leave with multiple cases – not a few bottles of way overpriced wine. I’m shocked that these Napa wineries find it economically sound to create these ‘experiences’.

  9. Consumers are value shoppers. What do they value? We aren’t just selling chemicals in a bottle. We’re building brands by repetitive engagement, partially with everything we do at the winery in hospitality and in the tasting room.

    Many define value as equal to Quality/Price. But with wine and luxury goods, we have to add experience, so I’ve described it as:

    Quality + Experience
    Value = ———————————–

    Where Experience is a placeholder for everything we do to engage the customer.

    So what that says is we can lower price which will increase value. Or we can improve experience/engagement and increase value too. But in a time were everyone makes good wine, we aren’t going to get enhanced value by trying to focus all of our attention on making good wine. Making good wine is the permission to play now. Selling wine – as has always been the case – that is much harder.