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.

Who turned on the lights?

“Well we’re movin on up,
To the east side
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Movin on up
To the east side.
We finally got a piece of the pie.”

… ‘The Jeffersons’ … Lyrics by Jeff Barry & Ja’net Dubois

Moving on Up

In a conversation at the recent DBTA symposium at Ferry Plaza, Qupe winegrower Bob Lindquist (and many others) referred to 2009 as “a very tough year.” Well, even if US wine market conditions are still challenging, it seems as though a significant change in the direction in the US wine market has finally occurred, and that the lights in the marketplace have been turned-on. The dynamics of change are complex, and driven by multiple factors, including significant promotional spend and discounting. In addition, this uptick was aided by new wines entering new channels, and new route to market tactics being implemented by winecos who formerly relied on a few traditional channels, such as Tasting Room DTC efforts, and on-premises channel exclusivity. Some of the changes have happened due to innovation, sheer panic, or as a result of the ongoing recognition of wine market trends. But the evidence of a wine bull market is now unmistakeable.

Sometime in mid to late August 2009, an inflection point in the US market had been reached, as domestic wines sales took an upturn in both value and volume. As reported by Rachel Nichols in Wine Business Monthly on January 15, 2010, The Nielsen Company reported that “wine sales for October were up 2.3%” year/year. And in the rolling 52 week report dollar sales were up 3.5%, and for the same period case goods volume was up 1.7%, possibly reflecting higher price point wines entering the US Food & Drug channel tracked by Nielsen, and the concomitant significant promotional across the board spend for this period.

In a November 10th WBM article, Liza B. Zimmerman noted that “retailers, restauranteurs and wholesales” had expressed optimism that wines sales were indeed moving in a positive direction. But the YTD market seemed to be driven by the value segment; and, as noted by Suzanne Gannon in the November 2009 issue of Wines & Vines, by wines in alternative and environmentally friendly alternative packaging, with dynamic growth being shown by wines in Tetra Pak and bag-in-box formats.

The March 2010 Wine Business Monthly Retail Sales Analysis headline on page 56, reads “Retail Wine Sales See 6 Percent Holiday Bump, Signs of Life for $20 Sales,” with sales increasing in value by 6.3% and volume gaining 5.6%, with wine above $20 gaining almost 10% in both value and volume. This represented a dramatic change of events in a market that has been referred to as the toughest in years. A change in the trend line that not even CNBC‘s Jim Cramer or Danny Brager, Vice President of Client Services for The Nielsen Co. had forecasted.

A Sea Change

Consumer and market confidence seem to have returned with sustainable results now, not only possible, but probable for the remainder of 2010. The major sign beyond the US Food & Drug wine sales increase trends tracked by Nielsen, as seen by Think Wine Marketing, was the February 20, 2010 Premiere Napa Valley Barrel-Futures Auction. The Napa Valley Vintners reported that the auction raised $1.9 million, a figure that is a 30% increase over the 2009 results and represents the 3rd best revenue total in the Premiere Napa Valley’s fourteen year history. According to the Napa Vintners, the top-selling lot of the day was from Shafer Vineyards, a five-case offering of Sunspot Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon sold to Napa-based Winebid.com for $37,000, or $616 a bottle. In response to the winning bid, Doug Shafer, President of Shafer Vineyards remarked that “It was exciting to see the support and enthusiasm for our wine, but it was just as good to sense the cautious optimism in members of the wine trade that things have turned a corner economically.” The sales at the NVV Premiere event marked a sea change in market sentiment by those close to consumers, the wine trade. Gary Fisch of New Jersey’s Gary’s Wines noted that his customers were “starting to drink more premium wines, and they’re calling for us to bring these kind of wines home.” And, JP Richard of Cache Road Liquors in Oklahoma observed that “you can feel that the energy is springing back.”

New Routes to Market

Nielsen trend analysis and auction results alone are not the whole story. A recent Think Wine Marketing survey of wine e-commerce sites revealed vigorous market activity and enviable revenue accretion in 2009. In response to my inquiry Shaun Bishop co-founder and President of wine e-commerce pioneer WineCommune and JJBuckley.com stated that “at JJ Buckley, revenues grew 19% in 2009 vs 2008. We focused on product selection, pricing and service – and customers responded. People are spending, but they want to be smarter about how they spend and are focusing their purchases with retailers they trust. We tried to make it easy for them to save money and get the wines they wanted.”

George Studdert of wine.woot! remarked that “my controller tells me that 4th Qtr numbers aren’t quite in yet, but conservative numbers indicate a 50% increase again this year over last making it three consecutive years of 50% or greater growth.  We can also say that we shipped out in excess of 75,000 packages on behalf of wineries direct to the consumer.”

While both of these businesses are wine e-commerce sites, their individual models are significantly differentiated from one another. Of the two businesses, JJ Buckley is the longer standing e-commerce site (as WineCommune founded in 1999) with an established and recurring revenue base offering a dynamic selection of products on a daily basis, while functioning as a virtual bricks & mortar retailer. While wine.woot! is a newer business launching in 2006 offering 3 individual wines per week from selected wineries, allowing the featured winery to interact directly with clients, and functions as a marketing agent for each offer. Interaction seems to be the key to the success of both companies. The idea that relationships with customer and clients is paramount and that customer service is the driver that builds trust and sales. These are but two of the more than 250+ wine e-commerce sites available to US winecos, albeit two of the more successful operators in the space. In the long-tail, fast product cycle wine industry, and in this saturated market JJ Buckley and wine.woot! offer winecos a voice that seems to transform the “noise to signal” (<– term via VinTank’s Paul Mabray).

Wine e-commerce is a solution that many wineries have discovered, and one, that as broadband infrastructure buildout occurs, will become more popular with wine consumers. In the recent survey results of ‘Affluents,’ households with more than $100,000 net income, Ipsos Mendelsohn revealed that 98% of these households have a broadband connection and frequently shop online. However, e-commerce availability doesn’t appear to be the lone motivator, but selection, service and relationship development are the prime movers of purchase behaviors. With a 72% growth in worldwide mobile broadband data bandwidth usage in H2 of 2009, and the announcement by the FCC that “the goal is to bring super-fast broadband to every corner of the U.S. over the next 10 years, giving the country the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation,” the trend of adoption of the wine e-commerce channel by a wide segment of US consumers will tend to accelerate.

The Aspirational Consumer

The idea of aspiration and the American consumer is a long discussed concept by psychologists, organizational sociologists, and economists, and defined as “being ambitious” and/or “desiring success.” And the idea of aspirational consumer behavior as defined in the ‘Business Dictionary‘ is that ”Consumer motives or goals can be represented by the values they hold. Values are people’s broad life goals that symbolize a preferred mode of behaving (e.g., independent, compassionate, honest) or a preferred end-state of being (e.g., sense of accomplishment, love and affection, social recognition). Consumers buy products that will help them achieve desired values; they see product attributes as a means to an end.”

Susan Hader in a MarketingProfs article notes that ‘aspirational consumers – (are) affluent and middle income consumers willing to pay more for high-end goods and services.” Purchasing these brands “provides aspirationals with feelings of success and status.”

Dr. Issac Mostovicz, a consulting academic with insights into drivers of human behavior in practical business situations, reports in the current issue of ‘Janus Thinking’ that he sees that the US is seeing the return of the ‘aspirational consumer.” “Trends happening in places such as Silicon Valley suggest that American’s with expendable income are regaining the confidence to spend it.” This conclusion is based on January 2010 retail sales figures. “The monthly sales numbers offered further indications of returning demand for prestige and luxury goods, with Saks and Neiman Marcus, the luxury fashion department stores, reporting increases of 6.8 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively.”

The  Long View

In his article ‘Wine in a Downturn,’ Vic Motto, Chairman, CEO and Co-Founder of Global Wine Partners tracks the wine market through it’s ups & downs from 1973 on. An article worthy of review. Mr. Motto has on several occasions referred to the aspirational American wine consumer. Wondering if this observation has changed, I asked the following:

TWM: You’ve often said that the American wine consumer is aspirational; so, in light of the challenges facing the US wine market in the last year what’s your current view?

VM: “Hit by the shock of the recession, we all feel and are a little poorer, so our spending patterns reflect that.  But, we don’t give up. As we recover financially, we always revert to our normal spending patterns. Old habits are hard to break. There are centuries of history that demonstrates this – including the post-recovery of the great depression, which went from the lowest low in U.S. history to the highest high. There are many reasons that premium wine sales will recover, including very important and ongoing long-term drivers of industry growth and premium trends with over 25 years of momentum behind them.  But the core reason that premium sales are already beginning to recover is that we humans are aspirational. We always seek to improve our lives and quality of life, and we don’t give up on that – no matter what our status. People really do want quality, and they appreciate the difference. So, I wouldn’t bet against the American consumer, or the U.S. economy. I just don’t think that’s a good bet.  The time for hunkering down is passing. It’s a good time to go long.  I’m already buying better wine than last year.  How about you?”

Insights and Recommendations

The just released qualitative and quantitative research study on today’s American consumer By Ogilvy & Mather Chicago in partnership with consumer insight company Communispace has revealed the emergence of a radically individualistic consumer who is re-imagining a more sustainable future for themselves. This post-recession consumer wants fewer, but still high quality consumables. “We are finding (that) consumers make very interesting trade-offs across seemingly unrelated categories in order to get their lives into balance while still feeling like they are treating themselves to those things that make them feel normal and well taken care of,” As discussed in ‘world tea news,’ the concept of ‘affordable luxury’ seems to be well applied to wine: “It seems that the next big buzz word for consumables is affordable luxury. The trends of consumers trading down their purchases due to the economy while staying at-home to re-connect and enjoy the finer things in life are fueling a new perspective in Americana. Add the fact that consumers are demanding higher quality products, faster without added cost or complexities; affordable luxuries seem to have found the perfect storm in the late 2000’s.” Another key attribute of the new consumer exacerbated by recent economics is the idea of ‘cocooning’ introduced in the 1990’s by trend forecaster/marketing consultant Faith Popcorn. Consumer cocooning is being redefined and actualized by this new consumer, who is eating out less, and socializing more at home, necessitating new route to market strategies by wine companies. The forecast by Ms Popcorn that cocooning would lead to stay at home electronic shopping, has in fact come true. So, as wine marketers, it is our job to identify consumer movement and consumer keys and develop a plan to create commerce.

Please note the following suggested steps to enact as part of your post recession marketing action plan:

Ramp-up your customer service: Pete Blackshaw, EVP of Digital Strategic Services at Nielsen Online, in his 2009 WITS keynote address said it all – “Service is the new marketing. It’s the most important activity.”

Route to market: Consider a diversification of your channel strategy and consider multiple market touchpoints, to include e-commerce. Note that single channel marketing strategies are no longer viable.

Talk to your customers: The idea of customer relationship management (CRM) may have morphed into the concept of “Social CRM.” But regardless of platform, understand that every consumer touchpoint matters. Develop, nurture and build a relationship with each and every customer. Make your customers your clients.

Ask your customers to talk to you: Today with so many ways to connect to your customers via social media (which you should monitor via Cruvee), don’t forget the basics, like the ‘contact us’ button on your web site, the basic 1-800 #, and those one-on-one conversations (remember talking to your customers) that you can have in person. And don’t forget those capture/feedback forms in your tasting rooms or at tasting events. Oh, and hand out a lot of business cards with your contact info.

Reevaluate your promotional spend: According to Olgivy’s Graceann Bennett “The consumer is moving forward, but many marketers are projecting the stresses of the economy in their marketing and are not connecting with the new consumer mindset…” “It’s time for marketers to reflect the new positive self reliance of today’s consumer and to tap into building relationships with more one-on-one marketing efforts” … “it is important for marketers to tread carefully into the discount space, because brands that are associated with deprivation and the recession may conjure up less than positive associations once consumers have a bit more cash to spend.”

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

CRUVEE Names Think Wine Marketing Founder to BOA

The Appointment

cruvee logoHaving written and proposed the adoption of a number of available useful technological advances for wine business marketing departments seeking to optimize their efficacy, I have an announcement to make concerning my recent involvement with one new wine business technology company. On August 13, 2009 I accepted an appointment  to the Board of Advisors at Cruvee. In this past week, Cruvee.com CEO Evan Cover named Michael Wangbickler and John Corcoran, Think Wine Marketing Founder and Chief Marketing Officer to the Cruvee BOA. As a wine industry participant, I have been a tireless supporter of the wine industry’s adoption of technology under the mantras of  ‘best practices’ and ‘utilize every tool available.’ I look forward to working with Evan, Michael and the BOA at Cruvee in an effort to increase the adoption of this timely and critical wine marketing intelligence platform.

As a note to new and regular readers

John Corcoran Think Wine MarketingAlso, having previously written about Social Media with occasional Cruvee mentions as part of the story line, I felt that I should update my readers regarding my new appointment to the Cruvee BOA. This seems important to me, and hopefully to you, the reader, within my personal ethos of transparency. Please also note that this is a quick post and that my regular weekly Think Piece article will be posted this Thursday Evening 8/20. So, staMargie Tosch (OTL), Russ Beebe (California Wine Hikes), Randy Hall (Wine Biz Radio)y tuned! The intent of any Think Piece post is an effort to create  a discussion revolving around identifiable current wine marketing issues. Your involvement and comments are a critical part of the process. This is meant to be a conversation and not a lecture. I’m gratified that to date I’ve received more than 250 comments in my first series of Think Pieces. Many of my post have been the result of ‘what-if’ questions from friends and contacts in the wine business, sometimes on the phone but often over a glass of wine, or possibly a local craft brew. Hopefully the content has been helpful to some, and of value to many, but that determination will be made by you, the reader. Please feel free to contact me by commenting on this blog, or please click on the blog contact page to call or email me directly. Looking forward to a robust discussion on the topics over the next  six months

The Cruvee PR Release

Pioneer in social media intelligence for the wine industry, announced today the appointment of two wine business experts to their Board of Advisors

08.13.2009 – Napa, CA, August 12, 2009 – Cruvee, the pioneer in social media intelligence for the wine industry, announced today the appointment of two wine business experts to their Board of Advisors (BOA) selected to assist and advise the company in strategic developments, marketing and outreach within the wine community.

Cruvee’s BOA will thoughtfully work to advance Cruvee as the leader in social media monitoring and information aggregation for all online conversations surrounding wine and wine brands. And in order to do so, Cruvee will look to these two recognized leaders and innovators in the wine industry to draw from their experience bolstering Cruvee’s mission and aspirations.

Founder and Chief Executive officer, Evan Cover, asserted, “It is an honor and absolute privilege to have these forward thinking wine business leaders as part of Cruvee. They bring so much passion and knowledge to our company that will undoubtedly aide in our success.”

The two initial appointees to the BOA are:

Michael Wangbickler is the Executive Director of the Academy of Wine Communications and currently holds the position of PR manager at Balzac Communications and Marketing in Napa, California. Prior to that he was at Franciscan Estates (part of Constellations Wines U.S.) where he was a wine educator/program specialist with responsibilities for trade relations and special events. His credentials include the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, Sommelier Certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers, and is a Certified Wine Educator. He has been a judge for various wine competitions, and has taught courses on wine and wine marketing.

John Corcoran is the Owner & Chief Marketing Officer of Think Wine Marketing where he works to assist wine businesses maximize market awareness through market modeling, strategic planning, promotions and digital strategic initiatives. John has been in the wine industry for over 25 years focusing on marketing and sales. He is an active voice online through his blog and social media participation, extending his reach as a well-respected resource for insights into wine business.

Cruvee’s BOA will consists of four total members. They will be announcing two additional members comprised of thought leaders and veterans within the technology industry soon.

About Cruvee

Cruvee is a customer acquisition vehicle that is designed for wineries to connect with consumers through social media monitoring services. It aggregates all the conversations and tasting notes from around the web including:

• Over 19 Million blog posts with over 1,000 dedicated wine bloggers

• Over 15,000 forums – both wine related and non-wine related

• Over 3 million tweets a day

• 100’s of social networking sites and wine groups

• Major wine related tasting note sites

This tool helps to promote and protect a wineries brand by effectively monitoring, measuring and interpreting the online chatter, clutter and its inherent viral effect. They help their clients leverage this consumer-generated media as a competitive advantage in today’s online marketplace. Cruvee not only gives wineries a unique view of their brands public perception in near real-time, but they also enable wineries to engage consumers to continue brand loyalty and sales efforts.

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