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




Does wildlife = great wine?

I have a client who recently mounted a game camera on a tree in a part of his vineyard surrounded by forest. Every night it was entertaining to download the photos and see a parade of wildlife (with the occasional human waving as they went by): a skunk, a squirrel, different members of a deer family, some tiny creatures who were big enough to activate the camera but slipped away before being recorded.

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Then came the big surprise: bears. A big one, then a smaller one, hard to tell how many there were, or if it was the same ones meandering back by.

Next came a debate: to ‘bare’ the bear news to visitors at the winery or on the winery website.

No hesitation on the part of the guy who’d planted these vineyards 48 years ago and walks them every day. It’s nature, it’s natural, seeing the wildlife—bear or no bear. The bear is a crucial part of the habitat, of growing great grapes which have a Story. The angle of the sun on the vines, the way the vineyards are configured to cover the land, where the dirt changes, what thrives in the shade of some ancient redwoods—no question that the presence of a bear validates that this wine comes from a real place. We won’t even use the word terroir.

Or: is there something to be concerned about? Not that these bears would ever amble across the crush pad almost a mile away. A touch of the wild. A sense of something scary. Something very real. Danger. One variable of many in the life of a farmer, not something that the end user should have to contemplate, much less see. Better not to go there.

Everything in our existence is marketed, right? Down to fanciful wine labels which may or may not have any relevance to a certain piece of dirt. Lots and lots of artful labels and “narratives,” packaging wine to live up to the paper on the bottle. The wine industry is horribly afraid of bad news, of anything that might shadow the mystique—whether that’s the impact of smoke taint or bad weather or other farming issues which don’t easily synchronize with a list of marketing objectives. You might even say the fear of bad news is the backbone of the wine industry….

Yet. I believe there are wine aficionados out there who are searching for wines which reference a particular plot of land, wildlife or no wildlife, clever label or not. After all, what does “authentic” mean if the context isn’t complicated? And part of that complication is being truthful and honest; if you’re “the real deal,” there aren’t any secrets or mystery-man-behind-the-curtain.

Back to the bear cam: my recommendation was to share the news of the bear with customers and visitors. The bear or bears are thriving in a forested part of a vineyard estate where they are happy and not bothering anyone. Lesson? Take advantage of any news to tell your story that much better, with more nuance and richness of detail and imagery. Go bears!

Speaking of which, who knew so many people are intrigued enough by bears to name their wineries after them?

Marketing the misery

Who could have predicted the Napa Valley would be front page news at Halloween-time all around the world…for such a terrible reason?

So many angles of the fires caught the attention of so many media outlets. Human interest, tragedy, heroism, nature, business, animals, agriculture, smoke taint, toxic clean-up, science—how many more facets of a subject could there be?

As someone who lived through a ‘soft evac’ and now, experiencing the fragility of our community, I’ve felt like a shell-shocked bystander as the ‘marketing of the misery’ has begun.

The fires are out. Enormous numbers of people have been impacted. Vineyards and wineries are still assessing what it all means. Any business in the tourism sector is hurting. The media are still checking back…still showing dramatic and not-always-accurate images of the aftermath of the fires.

So now what? It’s inevitable that this enormous and life-changing—indeed, world-changing—event would now shape marketing and publicity in the wine business.


As a marketer, this may well be the toughest business climate you will ever face. Pretend everything’s back to normal? Try to educate your audience about smoke taint? Tout how uniquely philanthropic your winery is? It’s all very sticky and icky: please move very, very carefully.

Let’s keep in mind what we’re trying to do. It’s a balancing act: how do you communicate that the disaster was not as disastrous as portrayed? 99% of businesses are open and eager to welcome customers. How do you respect those who have lived this tragedy personally and professionally, who need assistance? How do you acknowledge the almost undescribable heroism and super-human expertise of firefighters and first responders? How do we do something to balance these needs, to get the word out and be comfortable with how we’re doing that?


“Crisis” public relations is a very, very specific discipline. What’s the best hash tag? #NapaValleySpirit or #NapaStrong? #SonomaPride, #SonomaStrong, #SonomaCounty, #FrontierCulture? Do you issue a press release detailing exactly how your winery has been impacted? Is there a banner on your website home page proclaiming that you’re open for business, come on by?

Of course wineries have reached out to their mailing lists to share their stories, reassure, encourage purchasing and often link to one of the many charities. Some wineries are also offering various percentages ‘off’ of purchasing, where those monies will go to the fire relief funds.

Makes you wince, right? is it 100%? Is it 10%? What’s too little or too much? What’s newsworthy? Some wineries are starting their own relief funds, not content to be part of the collective impulse for good.

What’s the most attention-getting donation a winery can make? One vintner got a few minutes of fame post-fire by announcing he’d match donations from a professional athlete. Where does the generosity of the philanthropy cross into the grey area of how are the funds distributed? Who is ‘more’ worthy to receive financial assistance? Who determines that? How can transparency be built in from the outset to insure that there are no ugly headlines a month or two down the road…? What about the danger of fund-raising being a spotlight for the fundraising entity vs. the recipients?


One winery ran ads in a local paper thanking firefighters and listed the towns from near and far who sent engines.

Events! Who better than the wine and tourism industries to organize lots of eat-and-drink fundraisers?

Breweries are doing fire-related labels for new beer blends; there was a raffle offering tickets to cut the line when a popular beer is released.

Videos! Lots of businesses, whether inns or wineries are telling their story with video. Regions are doing it; online retailers as well.

Sommeliers have banded together to put on fundraisers. Publicists have launched specific GoFundMe programs.

Bottom line, this tragic experience illustrates an axiom of the communications world: bad news is more newsworthy than good news. Lots of news outlets are maintaining lists of how to help but the road back to normalcy is unpredictable.

Of course there are marvelous exceptions to the click bait of the bad news drumroll, such as the heroism of Safari West’s owner, who saved all the animals but lost his house.

And thankfully there have been intrepid journalists doing their best to alert all of us to the latest developments—best exemplified by Sarah Stierch in Sonoma.

Anecdotally, tourist kiosks at SFO are steering people away from Napa, saying ‘it’s all burned up.’ Also anecdotally, tourism is unexpectedly up in areas in the Northwest, where the visitors are commenting that they’d intended to be traveling to northern California’s wine regions.


Lots of questions. Take time to find the answers which are the best fit for your situation. Make sure you’re finding the right tone, the right delivery vehicle, framing your communications with the utmost sensitivity.


Business to business PR counts too

Julie Ann enjoyed putting on a business-to-business publicist ‘hat,’ as a way of helping clients of Barrel Builders. Read on for why Little League enters in the equation…..

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You can find it here

or below:

Pithy points from a patient publicist

I’ve been “practicing” the art (or is it a science?) of publicity for 34 years, in New York and California, with jaunts overseas as well as domestic pavement pounding as part of that adventure.

I am honored that Barrel Builders asked me to share some tips for business to business PR which could benefit their customers. A gift from Barrel Builders to you!

In hopefully easy to digest bullet points, off we go!

Credibility: Who are you? When did you start your business? To answer those questions—and in fact, to anticipate them—look for a local newspaper or magazine who could write a profile of you and your business. In the Napa Valley, that would most likely be the Napa Valley Register’s 10 Questions column. Here’s an example:

Visibility: You must have an opinion or two, right? What’s an issue where your business intersects with something in the community? Put pen to paper: write an op-ed column and submit it. A variation on this theme, in the San Francisco Bay area, is to propose a piece to the KQED Perspectives series. Browse around here and you’ll get the idea:

Act like an expert: Look for panels and symposia which your industry conducts. Offer to be a panelist. You’ve probably already considered having a booth if it’s that type of program, but don’t forget the panels and speaking opportunities.

What do the people say? Hopefully you get some great mail once in a while, someone expressing their gratitude for the quality of your work, how you rescued them, what a creative and thorough pro you are? Put those up on your website (it’s nice to ask permission first or using a first name only works well too).

Play ball! Visualize your logo on the back of the high school baseball team’s shirts. Donate to your local schools’ sports teams or the community Little League or rec center basketball. Not only does that show your community spirit, it also of course is a not-so-subtle ad for your business.

Act like an expert #2: Your goal is to be an expert whom the media seek out. They want your opinion on something in your field. Be available. Return the call as promptly as you can. Stay professional and as concise as possible. I once knew a winery president who had a separate business card he gave out only to journalists, and that number rang at a phone on his desk which only he answered, so when it rang he knew it was a journalist.

Hear all about it! When you have news—a new product or service, for example—tell the world. Do you have a place on your website to share news? Do you have the ability to send eblasts to your customers (and prospective customers)? Do it!

Prowl the web: Do you know of online forums which specialize in discussing the nuances of your particular niche of business? Find them and become a commenter. The readers are pre-selected and ‘silo-ed’ to be interested in your field and your products or services.

Change up your delivery: Someone in your organization is good with a cell phone. Occasionally put video clips on your Facebook page or on your website: there’s nothing like a picture and there’s nothing like a moving picture.

As Eliza Doolittle sang, “Words, words, words!” Go for it!



Harvesting harvest

It’s that time of year. All along the highways and byways and cross roads grapes are ripening. Trucks are rumbling. Crews are assembling. Harvest is starting!

Hats off to the St. Helena Star for tracking the news week by week, appellation by appellation: here’s the first installment.

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We’ve shared some pointers about how to turn harvest into PR “gold” in the past, but here are a few quick reminders.

  • Images. Snapshots. Video glimpses. However you can capture this very exciting and very visual time of year, do so!
  • Tell the world. Everyone’s interested, whether your tasting room guests or club members or distributors in Dubuque or website readers or Facebook friends or Instagram pals.
  • What’s different? Yes, everyone is harvesting, so find out what’s unique about what you and your crew do. What time in the night are you harvesting? Traditional harvest meals or snacks? Sprinkling the first load of grapes with a sparkling wine? What happens to all that pomace?
  • Push away from your desk and spend some time following your winemaker or vineyard manager around. How do you cut off a cluster of grapes the best way? What happens to those berries as they travel to the crush pad? Get familiar with the Brix numbers. Whole berry fermentation? What kind of yeast and why? This is a chance to learn about the science of winemaking.
  • Mother nature. Here’s a chance to put some details around how green you are, how important the birds and the bees are to creating great wine. Maybe there’s a bear in the neighborhood? What kind of birds like your Merlot grapes?
  • People stories. Who’s picking? What are their stories of favorite years, things that have gone right or so wrong? Harvest is a momentous time where the team is working together for long hours. There have to be some Stories.
  • This is your moment to reach out to that writer you’ve been thinking about contacting. Assemble some stats and go for it. Even if the journalist doesn’t bite, he or she will be appreciative that you thought of her, so you’ve built a bit more of a relationship with that writer.

Harvest is probably the most newsworthy time of the year. Make the most of it!