Observations of a Wine Marketer – Taste Napa Valley

“If all of us acted in unison as I act individually there would be no wars and no poverty. I have made myself personally responsible for the fate of every human being who has come my way.”
….Anais Nin

Thoughts & Observations

The events that started in October 2008 seemed like the start of trip down the wormhole. As the economy spun out of control due to the hubris, fraud and greed of a few in whose hands the future of financial markets rested, our wine industry started to take on water in the ensuing world financial turbulence as outlined by Michael Lewis in The Big Short,” As brands attempted to gain traction, the strategic and tactical marketing sins that were ignored in the halcyon days of the apparent financial boom of the post 9/11 world, were now acting like anchors helping to sink a lot of wine boats. Wineries found that they were facing non-existent or greatly constricted credit-markets. Bulk & case goods values were realistically lowered as the rate of depletions declined, and inventories started to back-up, crowding distributor and winery warehouses. Brand margins were squeezed as significant discounting became the de rigueur marketing tactic to move lazy inventories. In this fabric of the late first decade of the new millenium’s space time continuum, results were at best mixed. The market disequilibrium lacked known values, resulting in a confusing set of solutions; and not ones satisfying the given equation. It seemed that in the singularity of the broad market no one solution existed to pull our industry out of the gravitational force of this financial black hole.

However, conventional wisdom and the popular press tends to focus our view of market trends through the lens of our largest or enterprise winecos, or through those wineries with the most visible profiles. This prismatic look exhibits the logical fallacy of ‘argumentum ad numerum,’ (i.e., the number of followers sways the argument, arguing noise over signal) and on closer view leads us down a path of absurdity. Most USA wineries are family wineries, producing less than 10,000 cases with a significant number producing less than 5,000 cases on an annual basis. We don’t need Stephen Hawking to solve this apparent size dichotomy; but, we just have to observe what it was that allowed some agile family winecos to escape the event horizon and to have thrived in these trying times.

  • market research
  • a passion for wine
  • sharp pricing tactics
  • a laser-like focus on quality
  • significant channel diversity
  • client relationship development
  • a clear route to market strategy
  • key lighthouse account placement
  • indy and mid-chain grocery distribution
  • communicating real points of differentiation
  • incorporating a vibrant DTC & DTT sales plan
  • focus and delivery of superior customer service
  • website development that allows for intuitive eSales activity
  • utilizing regional and/or national restaurant account targeting
  • adopting integrated sales-focused drinks industry CRM technology

There has been an apparent turn-around in the wine market, starting in mid-August of 2009. This has been true especially for wines above $20/bottle. But, there will be bumps and plateaus in the road ahead. In the opinion of Think Wine Marketing the three-tier distribution system presents significant challenges for small family wineries, and the support of HR5034 by three-tier wholesalers is a serious affront to family winery/distributor relationships. So, those lessons adopted and/or observed during the Great Recession should not be shelved as we approach a brighter business climate. Let’s not do this time warp again.

Taste Napa Valley

As always events large and small hosted by the Napa Valley Vintners are events not to missed, and Taste Napa Valley 2010 exceeded all expectations. The air was heavy, almost tropical, and the skies were dark, but spirits were high and smiles were everywhere – on the faces of staff, volunteers, chefs, vintners and guests. The early start and the iconic winery location marked a change in the public face displayed by Napa Valley to guests from the four corners of the wine world. This was a return to the sprit that I remember that was in place back in the early days of the Napa Valley Vintner get-togethers, the ones hosted by Hans Kornell. While the food, wine and celebrity meter was off the hook, this was just a gathering of Napa Valley’s agribusiness business community shared with wine consumers for the benefit of numerable Napa County non-profits. If the positive results of this year’s earlier Napa Valley Vintners’ Annual Mid-Winter Barrel Auction for the Trade, were to replicated at the Auction Napa Valley 2010, a good indicator was the Friday June 4th Barrel/eAuction at the Rubicon Estate. There seemed to be a palpable excitement displayed by the more than 2,000 attendees at the grand courtyard food and wine tasting, and the active bidding for the Barrels by ballot or though the eAuction was robust. Incorporating a mix of technology for the eAuction was timely and displayed a recognition that eCommerce now plays a key role in the wine business and at contemporary wine auctions. But a large part of the auction was the interaction of guests with names or faces previously only seen by most visitors in print, on TV or on the web. Those who live here often forget that not only do we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, but the people we see in our everyday work lives… the ones who work so hard in our restaurants and wineries are in fact celebrities. And these celebrities of the food and wine world were cranking out good times, good will, great food and great wines.

There were so many good wines to try, and so little time. I read recently somewhere that Napa Valley winemakers should forget about trying to make Sauvignon Blanc. Well,besides the ludicrous nature of those comments, two memorable Sauvignon Blancs that I had a chance to try were the Araujo Eisle, and Farella-Park . After sharing a Glass of the 2003 J Schram with my friends at Schramsberg, I headed to the caves with about 1,500 new friends for tastes of Blackbird, Cornerstone, COHO, J. Davies, Oberon, Rubicon, Shafer and on and on. My preliminary impression of the 2008 Napa Valley reds based on about 15 separate barrel samples, is that at this point in their evolution they’re displaying density of flavor, saturation of color and impeccable balance. Can’t wait until these wines hit the market.

The Wrap

What follows are some excerpts from Think Wine Marketing’s conversations with winemakers and vintners at Auction Napa Valley: Since the first of the year market conditions have improved significantly and that results have returned to a new normal. Consumers, ones who always had the ability to spend on affordable luxuries are now willing to do so. Encouraging news supporting a strong rebound for Napa Valley wines is that more than a few small family wineries reported being sold-out of their current releases. I was also told that lessons learned in the past 2 years will be incorporated into sales and marketing strategies going forward. I also heard that the stresses encountered in the marketplace brought home that we are all just farmers, growing, making and marketing wine to people on a one-on-one basis. Perhaps my favorite conversation was with a passionate vintner and member of the Auction Napa Valley steering committee. We talked about the journey through the Great Recession to the current recovery – “it was all about the journey, and not about the end-point.”

My take away from Taste Napa Valley and Auction Napa Valley 2010 is that those of us in the wine business should be proud to work with people who realize that involvement in the greater community in which they live and work is a privilege to be exercised. Auction Napa Valley 2010 proceeds are reported to be $8.51 million, a 49% increase over the 2009 results. Kudos to the efforts of the Napa Valley Vintners, Rubicon Estate, Meadowood, the volunteers, vintners, chefs and bidders for such spectacular results.

Copyright © 2010 Think Wine Marketing Blog® All rights reserved.

Dispatches from Wine Country

The Blessing of the Grapes

“God is in the details.” … Ludwig Miles van der Rohe

The Blessing of the Grapes for the 2009 Harvest at Schramsberg VineyardsIt’s late August in Northern California wine country, and the annual wine grape harvest has once again started. At most wineries in North America it’s long shifts and no days-off time for the next several months, as full attention to the details of wine production are the primary focus of each winemaking team. In spite of all the inevitable hard work ahead, the first load of wine grapes is always met with anticipation, and the arrival of the first bins are often celebrated by the staffs at the various winery. It’s a ritual that likely goes back to the historical agricultural origins of grape growing and winemaking in recognition of theFirst Grapes in - Pinot Noir from Richburg Vineyards, Napa/Carneros cycles of nature, and the task of hand crafting what was once just sunlight on new plant growth into a wine that one day will be opened in celebration of some special moment in time. This past The Celebration Begins at Schramsberg Blessing of the Grapes for Vintage 2009Tuesday, August 18th I had the opportunity to witness the ‘Blessing of the Grapes’ at Schramsberg Vineyards. The first load of Pinot Noir from the Napa/Carneros based Richburg Vineyard was pristine. Small berries on small clusters of deeply colored fruit on bright green, yet to lignify, stems. Based on the early returns, 2009 looks like a spectacular vintage, at least for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. As a bonus I had the opportunity to meet iconic National Geographic and now famed wineSamantha Brown interview Schramsberg Winemaker, Keith Hock by the Bladder Press at the Blessing of the Grapes Vintage 2009 countryThe Schramsberg Vineyards Family Heritage Continues with Vintage 2009 photographer Charles O’Rear, who’s work I’ve long admired. I also had the chance to meet Samantha Brown who was filming segments for her Travel Channel show. More importantly I got to meet and talk to Hugh Davies, his wife Monique and their childern, a few of the Schramsberg board members and a proud grandfather. This ceremony wasn’t just a celebration of Crush, but it was about heritage, continuity, and being a member of a wine making family. It was a seminal bonding experience for family, staff and crew. While Schramsberg Vineyards PR & Marketing Manager Matt Levy had the press bases covered, this was not a publicity event, but a timeless ceremony that for me reconfirmed Ben Franklin’s pantheistic beliefs that nature is god.

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Boot Scooting BBQ

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,
With a pink hotel, a boutique,
And a swinging hot spot.
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”   …. Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell

The arriving crowd at the Scully Ranch for the Land Trust of Napa County 2009 BBQWith the smells of wine harvest filling the air in the flatlands and hillsides in the Napa Valley, and rising seasonal temperatures in what the locals refer to as Crush weather, it was time for the annual Land Trust of Napa County fundraiser. The great thing about attending a non-profit fundraiser in wine country is that you know that the wine and food are going to be something special, and the ‘Boot Scooting BBQ’ at thAuctioning a Magnum Vertical Of Viader Napa Valley Cabernet for the Land Trust of Napa County 2009 Fundraiser at Scully Ranche Scully Ranch on Mt. Veeder didn’t disappoint. The Land Trust of Napa County, like all non-profits in these challenging economic times is facing a funding crisis, and this event was an effort to refill their depleted coffers. The LTNC is permanently protecting more than 55,000 acres of agricultural and open space lands throughout Napa County. More acreage than BBQ great Ray Green at the Scully Ranch for the Land Trust of Napa County Fund Raisercurrently planted to wine grapes. Protecting the natural lands, scenic and open spaces and the agricultural heritage benefits all the inhabitants of wine country – residents, visitors, businesses and wildlife alike. And through fundraisers, like the Saturday event at Scully Ranch, will continue to do so for future generations. Thanks to organizations like the Land Trust of Napa County, they haven’t ‘paved over paradise and put up a parking lot.’ BTW: The perfect smokeThe hard working volunteers burning the midnight oil raising funds for the Land Trust of Napa County 2009 Fundraiser at Scully Ranchd traditional Texas BBQ from world BBQ champion chef Ray Green was a smash hit. And my table rediscovered a fondness for Saintsbury’s Carneros Chardonnay and Carneros Garnett Pinot Noir, both the right weight and style for a warm evening and full plates of Ray Green’s BBQ. All of the volunteers worked so hard, and deserve a hand-up. So if you live here, visit here or sell wine from this area of the world, click on this link and send in a few bucks. It’s needed, it will be appreciated, and it will help to continue the preservation of this special corner of the wine world.

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So You Want to be a Wine Marketer?

Walt Disney and my old boss, Mickey Mouse“When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.” … Walt Disney

One of the attributes that I always look for in someone who tells me that they’re a wine marketeer or that they want to be a wine marketer is an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Oh, not just being a wine geek. Truthfully, that’s not going to cut-it in these hyper competitive times. You really have to have an unrelenting curiosity about life, about culture, and about others. When I used to move around a lot a skill that I developed, one that has served me well in my career in wine marketing, is what they call in the armed services ‘living on the economy.’ This basically means immersing yourself wholeheartedly and without reservation in the circumstance of the culture in which you live. It’s dropping your fears and embracing life. It means reading newspapers, magazines, books, news feeds, and not just wine industry based materials. It means listening to music, seeing plays and movies, engaging and talking to people of all ages. Well, basically living life, but paying attention while you do. Really good actors are able to observe those around them in their daily lives for cues on Duck Blind Liquors, Santa Monica, CAperhaps a current or future performance. This is a necessary skill for any good marketer. Years ago while making a sales call at Duck Blind Liquors on Montana in Santa Monica, I noticed a small, unshaven and rather unkempt man intently watching me as I made my pitch to the store owner. Thinking that the man wanted to make a purchase I offered to step aside to facilitate a possible sale. The man demurred and saiDavid Mametd that he was writing something, and was just imagining a scene. After the man left, the store owner identified the customer as playwright David Mamet, who was drawing information from the encounter. Well, as wine marketers we should always be doing the same thing. Informing ourselves about the circumstances of our culture. Here are a few articles and links that I felt informed me as to what’s transpiring out there in the greater universe which will now tend to help shape my future marketing decisions.

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Please note that although the following links have good useable information, a few may require free registration or may time-out after being up for seven days:

‘Word-of-Mouth Gains Volume’ article from Brandweek re. contrary to other ad categories increased WOM ad spend

Better wines in groceries due to fine dinning slowdown now followed by availability of prime beef (may require free registration)

Timely WSJ article ‘The New, Faster Face of InnovationThanks to technology, change has never been so easy—or so cheap’

Interesting must read on ‘Wine and Global Warming: An Open Letter to the President’ (via environmental attorney, Charles Becker)

An article from Restaurants & Institution ‘Social-Media Marketing for Restaurants: 10 Tips’ – can apply to wineries

Interesting article re anonymity of food critics

A good read re. ‘New Orleans’ Chefs remembering Julia Child’ in context of Julie & Julia movie  BTW: Loved the movie!

Be involved and be aware. You never know when or where you’ll find that next big idea. Be inquisitive. Ask Questions, and then sit back and listen to the answers. Stay intellectually curious. It’s the engine that drives the effective, creative wine marketer. And that’s you, right? The innovative, creative, effective wine marketer?

Note: Copyright © 2009 Think Wine Marketing® All rights reserved.

The Wake-up Call

Niccolo Machiavelli“Whosoever desires constant success must change his conduct with the times.”

… Niccolo Machiavelli

The Cult

My wife’s friend, New York based designer Joe Macal, told her that this summer in the Hamptons the wine selection on the party circuit is no longer the envy of the wine cognoscenti. The cult wines have been locked in the basement wine cellars of the McMansions, and the famous hosts just don’t think ostentatious displays of conspicuous consumption are cool in this economyHamptons Summer Party. Or so opined a vintner friend over Racer 5‘s in Healdsburg last week . I’m guessing there has been a sort of a reverse Veblen good effect going on here. Well, no doubt the tide is out. Wall Street has sneezed, and it’s looking less like a cold and more like the financial flu. The question being asked in the hills and knolls of wine country is ‘are we in a luxury goods recess, or has long-term consumer, even the most affluent consumer, behavior been modified?’ The luxury category segment of the American wine business known as the cult wine market has been on anKinked Demand Curve Model unprecedented run since 1990. While the term is new the concept isn’t. There have always been wines, as long as wines have been produced and sold, that commanded more attention and higher prices. Although we look at absolute pricing as an identifier of value, pricing is relative to the times, and through the inverted kink in the demand/pricing graph made famous by the late Dr Paul Samuelson in ‘Economics,’ and codified by John Forbes Nash in ‘Equlibrium,’ we’ve come to understand that the stratospheric pricing of cult wines infers on the host and guest the psycho-social attributes, as described by Berkeley’s Erving Goffman, of being accepted as members of the club. However, just ask Silas Lapham, membership in the club may not be long term.

The Call

Screaming EagleRinggggg, ringggggg, ringggggg. Sitting bolt up-right in my desk chair, looking past the glare of the iMac screen in the darkened room, I couldn’t believe that at 5 AM my iPhone was vibrating off the edge of my desk. Quickly shaking my head back-and-forth to loose the remnants of the mind numbing long night’s work of pushing ouHarlan Estatet pricing structures for a client’s new label project, I answered my phone without first checking the caller-ID. At the sound of the click the sonorous voice at the other end of the connection jump started the conversation. “Hi, sorry to call you so early, but did you read today’s Wall Street Journal article on the luxury wine market? Well, it struck home. My sales, for the first time in 15 years aren’t so great, and well, I’d like to toss around a few ideas.”

“Not a problem, I’ve been up working on a project, but no, haven’t read any papers this morning. Ah, excuse me. Who is this?”

“I’m that small cult winery, ha, that you pitched last year about this time and I told you I didn’t need any help. But I just got off the Araujophone with a management contact at my Boston asset management firm and, well, I need it now.” “I’ve replanted about half of my vineyard, changing the potential final blend, and the grapes are in 4th leaf. I could bottle the young juice in my primary brand, but the overall quality would be diminished. And if there was ever a time to push the quality envelop, it’s now.” “I’m thinking about introducing another label, in a more popular tier, something that could be sold in other environments, other channels. I’ve always been at the luxury end of the market, but I do buy other wines all the time, and think it would be great to get this new wine in more hands.” “So, how do I do this?”

The Plan

Yes, it is possible for a luxury brand to execute a lower priced, more egalitarian brand strategy effectively. A clear focus is needed and a tier specific brand plan is necessary. There are key questions that need to be asked and answered.

  1. Theme – name, appearance, label, packaging
  2. Personality – place, product, pricing, promotion
  3. Tactical Plan – what, when, where, how, how much
  4. Reputation Engineering – the PR initiative
  5. Sales Effort – DTC, DTT, existing distributors?

Forts de LatourA great team is in place, and to dislocate them for a new project just wouldn’t make any sense. They are part of the positive story for your existing brands and lend credence to the new project. You’re current cult and luxury portfolio is based on Napa Valley mountain grown Bordeaux proprietary reds. Protect the image of the existing luxury/cult brands by reducing production by further defining selection and maintaining real rarity. Use the traditional Bordelais classified growth second label model. Think Forts de Latour from Chateau Latour, Pavillion Rouge from Chateau Margaux, or Le Petite Cheval from Chateau Cheval Blanc. Share the story of replanting with new clones and the early quality displayed by the young vines, whilimages-3e refining the cult winemaking process. Increase exposure and the positive press and/or wine blog buzz opportunities by providing value and access to wines which were formerly unavailable in the broad market from your winery. In a market in which Michelin star chef Daniel Boulud has decided to focus more on value with DBGB Kitchen & Bar, the idea of a cult brand providing a more value centric model is not only timely, but most likely necessary given the reality of today’s world financial markets.

The Wrap

drafting plansCreating any new brand in a rapidly consolidating and saturated broad market is not without risk. Manage your risk by utilizing research to target the best potential accounts. Work with key lighthouse accounts, both on and off-premises in limited geographic markets, who will provide support through newsletter, blog and/or web endorsements, while avoiding brand image diminishing discounting. Be sharp in your pricing to not only maximize profit but to achieve planned depletion velocity and consumer pick-up and repurchase. Your value proposition is leveraged on your existing reputation, built through hard work and a fidelity to your singular vision over the last 15-20 years. Don’t engage in any activity that will diminish the new brand or your existing brands. And, really only do this if you are totally committed to success, and not just as a short term liquidity fix.

Note: Copyright © 2009 Think Wine Marketing® All rights reserved.

Focus on Blocking and Tackling

200px-Pat_Riley“When you’re playing against a stacked deck, compete even harder. Show the world how much you’ll fight for the winners circle. If you do, someday the cellophane will crackle off a fresh pack, one that belongs to you, and the cards will be stacked in your favor.” … Pat Riley

During Monday’s NBA Finals game 3 something seemed off with Kobe Bryant. His focus just wasn’t there. ThisKobe Bryant usually isn’t the case. Kobe is arguably one of the top 10 professional basketball players of all time. His skill set is matchless, and usually so is his focus. Needless to say, the Lakers lost. We’ve seen this lack of focus in sports before with the Pens’ goalie Fleury in last week’s NHL game 5 at the Joe, or with pitcher Barry Zito most of last year at the Phone Booth. It seems that a key observable attribute among those that succeed in any endeavor is the ability to focus on the task at hand. Focus that is the culmination Kennethfoxof awareness, preparation and execution. As a matter of course the wine business entrepreneur is often pulled in multiple directions, and in place of the necessary laser like focus on the end game these distractions tend to diffuse one’s original vision. In observing this situation, a former associate who prior to his life in the wine business was a senior US Navel officer was fond of saying that ‘a good Admiral always knew the outcome of the battle before sailing from port.’ So, like good admirals we should all have a thorough understanding of our brand positioning, and the strategy and tactics necessary for the competent and successful execution of same on the road to winery viability.

Without regard to a specific channel model, understand that you are in the wine distribution business. This is just the process by which your wine gets to the final consumer. This includes the selling, shipping, merchandising and promotion ofWine trade tasting your wine. In performing these functions it seems important to understand the unique and individual needs and wants of each and all of your customers – sales agents (including distributors), trade and consumers. It also requires an understanding of the marketplace and your competition. It is through the acquisition of this knowledge that leadership is developed in crafting quality products that fill the needs and wants of your targeted audience. Being a visionary in anticipating your future opportunities will allow you to continue achieving your brand goals. But, in order to shape your brand success you’ll need to identify, create and communicate your winery’s unique brand position.

Small to mid-sized wine companies need a keen awareness of the perceived attributes that determine their brand positioning. For Cabernet Sauvignonexample, where your wine grapes are planted, and the set of geological, geographical and cultural attributes inherent to this point of origin go a long way to the determination of positioning – i.e., take the vineyard location of Cabernet Sauvignon. While Cabernet Sauvignon’s organoleptic profiles, without regard to origin, share some similar characteristics, the point of origin provides some significant points of differentiation as to brand positioning. Cabernet wines grown in Napa Valley will tend to be positioned differently thaimages-7n Cabernet wines from Bordeaux, or even neighboring Sonoma; and, certainly on a different tier than the good Cabernets grown in Monterey’s Hames Valley or in the nearby Paso Robles AVA. Consider the unique brand position that Ste Michelle Wine Estates achieved for Washington State Cabernets. All of these are different but potentially good wine regions, but each is perceived to have a unique sets of attributes by critics and consumers alike. And these attributes tend to aid in directional decisions concerning volume, price, and channel, hopefully resulting in consumer take away.

images-8For those brands in broad market distribution, whether in a DDT or a three tier model, there are three basic questions to ask and answer:

Where are my wines now sold?
Where should my wines be sold?
How do my wines achieve desired targeted distribution?

Effectively answer the above inquiries and you’ll be worth every penny of your income aspirations. In other words, define the current state of affairs and establish brand goals. Yes, this is detailed work, but without targets, goals, and a foundation of specific in market knowledge, your house of cards is in danger of crumbling. So, roll up your sleeves and create an effective CRM list of targeted accounts, by market (geography), name, class (volume potential) and type (on or off-premise). The broad market is dynamic, so continually modify, maintain and update your CRM database.

Now that you have this baseline brand distribution intelligence, your future sales efforts should be directed towards increased markePalace Kitchen Seattlet penetration in your now targeted account universe. Goals should be established within each designated sales territory by account and varietal. Target specific goals should also be codified and achievement should be tracked. These targets, for example, could be wine list or WBTG placements in New American cuisine restaurants in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. Or, fine wine retail placements and ads in Boston, New York, and D.C. Your case goods volume, price point, product mix, and brand intelligence will help to determine this market specific distribution strategy.

Focus

FocusThis is how the top 30 largest wineries tactically achieve their success. They do this in all their key markets. While it’s almost always a good idea to observe and mirror other successful wine businesses, you’re going to have to be more focused and crisper in your execution. You’re a much smaller business and your wines are at FOBs that exclude certain points of distribution. Take advantage of your unique brand positioning proposition. Focus your efforts on fewer markets. Perhaps look to hotels such as Four Seasons, or Ritz Carlton or Kimpton Hotels, and not just wine list or wine by the glass, but in addition pursue placements in banquets and events. Country Clubs and private clubs are an under serviced account base,  but once established they tend to be long-term loyalty accounts and their members represent a key demographic base of influencers. Some of my brands most sustainable distribution was achieved in private clubs, common in most major metropolitan markets. By the way, caterers are always looking for differentiated wines.  So, put on your game face and become a focused niche marketer. Focus on your execution, and focus on scoring those winning placements.

Note: Copyright © 2009 Think Wine Marketing® All rights reserved.