Category Archives: Wine marketing

Box Wine Envy

Right now, I am sipping on a glass of French Muscadet that I paid the equivalent of $3.86 a bottle for. With its medium intensity nose of citrus and green apple, crisp acidity and moderate finish, I would peg this wine in a blind tasting as something in the $8-10 range.

Muscadet box wine

It’s simple, refreshing and eminently drinkable. But instead of paying $8-10 for a bottle that I won’t finish by myself, I’m savoring this glass over lunch with many more opportunities over the next 3-5 weeks to repeat the experience. All for a grand total of 13.79 euros ($15.44 USD).

Such is the beauty and potential of boxed wines.

Unfortunately, this is an experience that is difficult to repeat in the US. Back home, while the selection is improving, the usual options for many wine drinkers are the mass-produced (and often highly manipulated) supermarket brands of Black Box, Bota Box, House Wine, Bandit or (shudder) Peter Vella, Almaden, Carlo Rossi and Franzia.

While Australia and parts of Europe have enthusiastically embraced the benefits of box wines, there is a chicken and egg conundrum in the US about them. Box wines have a poor reputation among US consumers. Therefore, quality minded producers don’t want to bother with them.

But why do US consumers associate box wines with poor quality?

Perhaps, because the quality of box wines that we’ve been exposed to has been shit?

The French Paradox

Corsican box rose.

Admittedly, not all of them are winners.
I’m sure 6 to 8 months ago this Corsican rosé was lovely. But now it is definitely on its wane and is just ho-hum.

How can a country with a reputation for snobbery be so ahead of the US in embracing box wines?

They’re everywhere and account for more than a third of retail wine sales in France. At the cafés, American tourists pair their Parisian memories with glasses of vin rouge and vin blanc.  Many go home none the wiser that their 25 and 50 cl carafes were filled via a plastic spigot.

Walk into a French grocer and at least half an aisle is dedicated not to the Franzia and Black Boxes of the world, but rather to things like Macon-Village, Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone, Provençal rosé, Anjou blanc and Côtes de Bordeaux–in the box! Ranging in price from 12 to 20 euros ($13 to $22), these aren’t Franzia-level cheap but on-par with the pricing of “premium” Black and Bota Box offerings.

I have yet to visit a BiBoViNo, a French wine bar that specializes in box wines, but there I will have the option of trying old vine Cinsault, Cru Beaujolais and even Condrieu (!) sold by the box.

That would be akin to having an old vine Dry Creek Zinfandel, a Dundee Hills Pinot noir or a high-end Walla Walla White Rhone available to consumers in a box.

Can you imagine how wonderful that would be?

Why US Producers Should Give Box Wines Another Look

No one is arguing that we need to completely disregard bottles. Nor do we need to turn everything into bag-in-box. There is always going to be a place for fine wine and cellar-worthy treasures.

But the vast, vast majority of wine consumed is not cellar-worthy wine. Most wines that are consumed at lunch, dinner or relaxing on the couch with a book are young wines that do not benefit from the gradual aging of cork in a bottle.

Why have so many other parts of the world caught on to this before the US?

Maraval white bag wine cooking

Box and 1.5L bags are excellent for cooking–such as when you need just a splash to deglaze a pan or add flavor to steamed veggies.
However, you never want to cook with something you wouldn’t drink. Hence, the importance of needing a good quality box options.

With the changing market dynamics of Millennials and the upcoming Generation Z, the last thing that US producers want to do is rest on their laurels. What worked for selling wine to the Baby Boomers and Generation X is not guaranteed to work on these consumers.

Just as the wine industry has done for millennia, US producers are going to need to adapt or perish.

Not every solution is right for every producer, but it’s always wise for a winery to look at how their current production is fulfilling consumers’ needs.

1.) Moderation

While I’m skeptical of the scare-mongering reports that Gen Z is going to be the abstinence or teetotaling generation, I do think that moderation is firmly en vogue. Anyone that plans on selling wine over the next 40 years should probably take note.

Millennials and Gen Zers have seen too many of their peers lose jobs and college prospects over unflattering photos, tweets and videos that stem from over-indulgence. While Boomers and Gen Xers had the privilege of their college keggers and booze cruises going undocumented, we now live in an era of social shaming. Undoubtedly, that kind of negative reinforcement is going to influence behaviors.

But instead of the wine industry throwing this consumer base into the arms of “mocktails” and alcohol-removed Franken wines, they should be trumpeting the same mantra that has been preached since the days of the ancient Greeks–moderation.

It is best to rise from life as from a banquet, neither thirsty nor drunken. — Aristotle

Throw moderation to the winds, and the greatest pleasures bring the greatest pains. — Democritus

Think Outside the (750ml) Bottle.
Belgian beer

The lunchtime quandary — get snockered on a bottle of wine in one sitting or try to save it to finish at dinner (assuming you even want to drink the same thing).
Or…..you can have a beer.

What’s one big advantage that beer, cider and hard seltzers have over wine right now? Their go-to packaging is usually single-served options like 12 to 16 oz cans and bottles.

With spirits, they have the benefit of longevity after opening which still allows convenient single-served shots or cocktails without excess waste.

Now, yes, the wine world is playing catch-up with single-serving cans and tetra paks. Also, thankfully, more producers are giving half-bottle (375ml) another go.

But, usually, when you bring up the problem of opening up a full bottle for just a glass or two, you’re met with either condescending mocking of “Leftover wine? What’s that?” or calls to shell out $200+ for an expensive Coravin preservation system.

Of course, someone may suggest coughing up $10 for a vacuum pump system but, seriously, don’t waste your money.

For the $30+ wine, the Coravin is probably the best advice. But the vast majority of wine drinkers aren’t regularly consuming $30+ wine. For these consumers, who just want a nice glass after work or something to have with dinner, one of the best solutions for moderation without waste is a 1.5 or 3-liter box wine that can last 3 to 5 weeks.

But the quality (and value) has to be there.

2.) Value

As I’ve touted many times before, the wine industry can not let the Millennial Math get away from them. The industry has to deal with the lethargy of value options they’re peddling because other categories are far out-performing them.

However, box wines can be a great equalizer here.

The “filling” of bag-in-box packaging does require changes from the traditional bottling line. But there can be substantial savings in production costs. This is especially true when you consider freight and shipping costs of glass bottles. The typical 3 L box uses 91% less packaging material than the equivalent four (750ml) bottles of wine and weighs 41% less.

Those savings add up. Hopefully, they’re passed on to the consumer.

Guardian news print

The Guardian Newsprint Red Blend is a tasty bottle for $18.
But it would be insanely good as a $40 three liter box wine.

It would be a Millennial Math game-changer if instead of being relegated to the Barefoots, Yellow Tails, Apothics and Clos du Bois’ of the sub $10 world, a consumer could get a Washington red blend in a $40 three-liter box. Or Paso Robles rosé in a 1.5L bag for $20.

Even better, take a page out of the French playbook and give American consumers the chance to enjoy a 6 oz glass of Muscadet for the equivalent of 97 cents a glass. That’s cheaper than soda at McDonald’s.

That’s how you start winning the Millennial Math.

3.) Sustainability

There is no doubt that the upcoming generations of wine consumers has the environment on their minds. Many wineries are responding by becoming more “green friendly” with better farming practices in the vineyard, controlling water waste and building LEED Platinum certified wineries.

recycle bin filled with bottles

Plus, there is only so much that a poor recycling bin can take.

All of those are successes that should be touted and emulated. But none of those things are physical, tangible items that a consumer can hold in their hands and feel good about putting in their cart.

It’s hard to get much feel-good mojo picking up a weighty glass bottle of wine that has the same carbon footprint as driving 3 miles in a gas-powered car–regardless of how many “green friendly” achievements are touted on the back label.

In contrast, a 3L box wine drastically cuts that footprint. In a New York Times opinion piece, Tyler Coleman (Dr. Vino) notes that “switching to wine in a box for the 97 percent of wines that are made to be consumed within a year would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about two million tons, or the equivalent of retiring 400,000 cars.

That’s a lot of feel-good mojo.

The Chicken Needs to Act

Back to our chicken and egg scenario.

Quality-minded wineries are hesitant to invest in producing good quality box wines because of the lowly reputation they have among consumers. Consumers are reluctant to try box wines because of their lowly status and bad past experiences.

Photo by fir0002flagstaffotos [at] gmail.com Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under GFDL 1.2,

Psst….hey you. You wanna try some kombucha?

Something’s got to give.  That something is US wineries taking the lead by putting better quality box wines out on the market. Leading instead of reacting.

The wine industry doesn’t have the luxury of sitting around waiting for consumers to “demand” better box wines. Other chickens are already busy courting them.

If wineries aren’t going to give consumers the eggs they want to make better omelets (moderation, value, sustainability), then craft beer, cannabis, cider, hard seltzers and spirit producers will be all too willing to step into that void.

So it’s time for the wine industry to stop running scared and embrace the box.

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Wine Above Replacement (WAR) Part I — Hard Seltzer

It’s Opening Day for Major League Baseball. Unfortunately, I had to deal with my St. Louis Cardinals sleepwalking through their opener with the Milwaukee Brewers, so I’m looking for a good distraction. Thankfully, that mental break came from revisiting a Facebook thread about my Winery Moneyball article.

Spiked Seltzer

In a tongue-in-cheek comment, the Sierra Wine Guy wondered When will wineries start using WAR [Wins Above Replacement]?

That got me thinking, what would be a good wine industry equivalent to WAR?

What is WAR?

I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty sabermetrics here. But WAR is essentially the calculation of a player’s value to the team above that of the typical bench player or minor-leaguer. Instead of focusing on just one aspect of a player’s game (like offensive stats), WAR aims to calculate their total value including defensive runs saved, baserunning and pitching.

Taking all these metrics together, WAR presumes that having a player like Mookie Betts on your team (10.9 WAR in 2018) is worth almost 11 more wins than signing Joe Schmoe off the waiver wire. In contrast, it may have been better for the Orioles in 2018 to sit Chris Davis and eat his $161 million contract instead of trotting him out on the field to deliver a -3.1 WAR. Ouch!

Though far from perfect, WAR stats have dramatically changed the evaluation of players in baseball (for better or worse). The reason is that, at its core, WAR doesn’t look at each player as a monolith. It tries to look at the bigger picture by recognizing that the needs of baseball teams are multi-faceted (hitting, pitching, base running, defense). It then tries to see how well each player fits into that jigsaw puzzle.

How does this apply to wine?
Photo By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 2.0,

And the under $9 category is starting to look really Chris Davis-y.

Like a baseball team, wine consumers are multi-faceted. They have a multitude of needs beyond just being thirsty that wine aims to fill. But wine is also similar to a ballplayer in that it’s not monolithic either. It is more than just a mixture of alcohol and water.

Which makes it kind of ironic that wine is losing “throat share” (particularly with Millennials) to things like hard (spiked) seltzer–which is literally just alcohol and water.

While wine sales in the US are expecting to level out, or even decline, in 2019, producers of hard seltzer like White Claw and Truly are looking forward to a gangbuster year. And why shouldn’t they? They had already seen growth from $85 million in sales between 2016-2017 to more than $250 million in 2018.

In the metric of Wine Above Replacement, the WAR of hard seltzer is rising while that of wine is most definitely falling.

Why?

Photo By Mwinog2777 - Own work, Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0,

Maybe I would have enough to buy a new Goldschmidt Cardinals jersey.

It all goes back to consumer needs and if they’re being met. Admittedly, dissecting the needs of the typical wine consumer is not cut and dry.

It’s certainly not as easy as looking at the St. Louis Cardinals leading the league in errors last year (133), and thinking that maybe they need some defensive help–like, perhaps, a Gold Glover at first base?

Decades of marketing ink has been spilled studying wine consumers and breaking them down into various segmentations based on needs. If I had all the answers, I’d be a wealthy woman. Well, actually no, I wouldn’t be wealthy because no one really pays for wine content anymore.

But, as W. Blake Gray has noted, Millennials are talking about what they want. Maybe the hard seltzer industry is simply doing a better job of listening?

A few of the things that Gray highlights in his piece are Millennials’ interest in healthier products, transparency, our aversion to boredom as well as our cravings for personal experiences. One other item that I would add is the sense of value and getting a good bang for the buck that is important to many Millennials.

Let’s see how hard seltzer is tackling these needs.
1.) Healthy

Believe it or not, a fair amount of consumers actually believe that hard seltzer is healthier than wine. Part of this is slick marketing from the big players in the seltzer industry (including the non-alcoholic leader La Croix). But this is also a failing of the wine industry in not counter punching the recent spate of negative press about wine and health issues.

Rob McMillan makes this latter point extremely well in a recent blog post.

We as an industry have lost our way in our daily quest to sell our production. We stopped talking to the consumer and stopped defending [against] the junk science out there. We stopped supporting the decades of science that proves there are health benefits of consuming wine. Our consumer is reading the press and without a rebuttal, they no longer believe moderate consumption [is] part of a healthy diet. — Rob McMillan, I Can’t Take the Lunacy!, 3/28/2019

Meanwhile, Truly and White Claw are peddling the “Vodka Paradox” that just because something is clear and low in calories, then it must be good for you.

2.) Transparency
Photo By Naotake Murayama - Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0,

Though if more wineries adopted Ridge’s approach to transparency and labeling, that would be a positive step.

Gray does an excellent job of illustrating the dichotomy of back labels between hard seltzer packaging and most wine bottles.

I’m not entirely sold on the idea of extensive ingredient lists and nutritional labeling on wine. Ultimately, I think it will bury small family wineries in bureaucracy more than it will expose mass-produced and additive laden commodity wines. But, I will concede that the labeling (or lack thereof) does provide a stark contrast.

However, the perception of the wine industry as opaque and obtuse is also not helped by our myriad of grape varieties, wine regions and laws that require an insider’s knowledge to untangle. This is another stark contrast with hard seltzer.

Even with the sleight of hand “healthy” marketing, any consumer buying hard seltzer knows what they are getting. Water and alcohol. They don’t need to attend classes, buy books, read blogs, subscribe to magazines or attend special tastings to understand what they’re drinking. That transparency of “getting it” is something that wine is never going to match.

But this doesn’t have to be negative. Keep reading.

3.) Interesting
Photo by Kaitlin Lunny. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

As soon as hard bacon seltzer hits the market, the shark-jumping will commence.

Right now, hard seltzer has the “cool factor.” It’s not boring and it is certainly not what your parents are drinking. It’s the Instagram to wine’s Facebook.

But that shine will eventually wear off, leaving exposed how transparently simple hard seltzer really is. Yeah, it’s water and alcohol with some flavoring added. It’s flavored vodka for newbies. Been there. Done that.

Eventually, Millennials are going to get bored as there are only so many flavors and fancy packaging that the industry can come up with to keep entertaining them. When the market moves on to find something new, wine’s “weakness” of its complexity and diversity can be a strength.

That’s when the wine industry needs to be the heavily tattooed guy streaking on the field in the middle of the game. Folks might not know what the heck is going on, but they know that something is going on. And no one is taking their eyes away until the naked dude gets tackled.

4.) Personal Experience (relatability)

But what do we do when the Millennials’ eyes are finally upon us? How do we bump up our WAR to make wine more enviable over the many options clamoring to replace it?

Show them our tattoos. Tell them our stories. Give them a reason to connect with wine on a personal level.

Here is where wine can smoke its competitors.

This is where we can get WAR separation as an industry. This is where we are more Mookie and less Chris Davis.

The industry is chockful of so many compelling personal stories (check out this terrific write-up of Dirty & Rowdy’s Hardy Wallace for one example) that we don’t need to resort to gimmicks like Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer’s “made-up” female founders.

AB InBev’s SuperBowl commercial featuring Bon & Viv’s “founders” was a big hit. But this quote from an AB InBev vice-president shows how patronizing and nauseating that ad really was.

“It has two females in a founder position and presented in a different way than we have ever seen alcohol present females characters before,” [Chelsea] Phillips says about the fictional founders depicted in the commercial. “The strength of these women is very important to me. As a female VP, I want to see more of that representation in this space, but I didn’t want it to be a trope. I just wanted it to feel natural… versus more of an overt statement.” — Greg Morabito, Eater, 2/3/2019

Instead of actually promoting a brand founded by women, you make up some female founders to show them in this powerful position? Right….

So much for transparency, eh?

5.) Value
Spiked water.

Spiked water–not seltzer, not sparkling. Just boozy water.
Though, is this really that far off from cheap, bulk Pinot grigio?

I can not bang this drum loud enough. The wine industry sucks at Millennial Math.

Not only do we do a poor job of conveying value at all levels of the pricing scale, but we’ve also virtually abandoned the bottom shelf of budget-priced options to craft beer, cider and, now, hard seltzer.

For less than $10, a Millennial can buy a 6pk of dozens of different flavors of various hard seltzers. What kind of sub $10 options is the wine industry giving them? A plethora of mass-produced (and often highly manipulated) Cabs, Chards and Red Blends that all virtually taste the same.

Yeah, eventually all those different hard seltzers are going to start tasting the same too. But then the Millennials can move onto hundreds of craft beer options or cider or cannabis or kombucha or cocktails or who knows what comes next.

The Moral of WAR in the Wine Industry

If you’re not producing–if you’re not fulfilling multiple needs–there is always a replacement.

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Where’s The Wine World’s Pokémon GO?

I was playing around on my phone today looking for new games to download. On a lark, I decided to see what was available when I searched for Wine Games.

Photo by Gieson Cacho. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

Unsurprisingly, there isn’t much. The available games tend to fall into the category of trivia (with the WSET wine puzzle game being the most interesting) or repurposed game designs like hidden objects, escape rooms and arcade games with wine as a backdrop.

So that got me wondering, where are the wine-focused games that combine entertainment and education? Like Speed Anatomy or Lumosity?

Where are the games that foster a social aspect with multiple users? Like Ingress?

Where are the games that encourage wine lovers to go out and explore an area, visit new wineries and just plain have fun with wine?

Where’s the wine world’s Pokémon GO?

Imagine …

Turley wine cellars

A good one to visit while in Paso.

Imagine visiting a wine region like Paso Robles, Red Mountain or the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. You have dozens of winery choices, many of which you may have never heard of before.

How do you pick which ones to check out?

You can scroll through Yelp reviews, check out winery websites or ask friends on Facebook. Of course, you could also purchase a wine travel book, check out the AVA website or maybe pick up a free map at your hotel. But how many of those options are actually fun?

Are these things that you really want to do? Or do they feel more like a chore that has to get done before you can get to the fun part?

For many consumers, a visit to wine country is a vacation — a chance to kick back with friends and family and just enjoy life. One of the last things that many consumers want to do is add research and homework to their vacation docket. Sure, wine geeks may have fun plotting out their wine tastings. But we are a rare breed. For a lot of consumers, they’re just going to go out, have fun and sort of “wing it”.

Wouldn’t it be great if the wine industry could tap into that “I just want to have fun and drink wine” mentality?

Wouldn’t it be great if we had a tool that actively encouraged engagement with consumers, instead of just sitting back and hoping that they come through our doors?

“Winging it” with a Purpose

I’m not a game developer so I’m mostly just spouting off the type of game that I would love to play. While I know that a small wine niche will never reach the level of popularity of Pokémon GO, there are some solid lessons from the game’s success that a developer could use.

1.) Make it a hunt.
Villa Ragazzi Sangiovese rose

A Sangiovese rose from Oakville fruit?!? This is a score on so many levels.

We don’t have pokémon but what we do have are hundreds of unique grape varieties and wine styles. While some (like Cabernet Sauvignon) are very common, others (like Teroldego, Norton and Grenache blanc) are more rare.

Create a system that assigns points based on the rarity of a grape variety within a region. So if you’re exploring the land of endless Cabs, Chards and Sauvignon blancs, stumbling upon a Napa Sangiovese or Riesling would earn you more points.

Seeking out new and exciting wines taps right into the Millennial wanderlust. But often there is an intimidation factor that comes from lack of familiarity and education. Turning that wanderlust into a game helps remove some of that intimidation.

Yeah, a wine consumer may not know what the heck Tinta Cao is but they know if they visit this one tasting room in Walla Walla to try it, they will earn beaucoup points. So why not?

2.) Make it competitive.

It’s human nature to want to be the best–even if all we’re doing is gathering imaginary gems and internet points. And if you have a leader board, it’s fun to see where you rank among your friends and strangers who are doing the same thing you’re doing.

Adding team elements and things like portals (wine bars) to battle over or gyms (cellars) to control would add complexity to the design, I’m sure. But having something to “fight over” makes that repeat visit to the tasting room more worthwhile. That is vitally important to the appeal of such a game to wineries. It’s great to get that one time visit, but repeated engagement is where the needle moves.

3.) Make it social.

Whether it creating teams with friends or easy sync up with your social media accounts, this is an absolute must. We live in a social media world and, especially if we’re having fun, we want to tell everyone about where we’ve been and the wines we’ve tried.

Benefit to Wineries

Tablas Creek Clairette blanche

Tablas Creek would have like 20 some odd entries of different grapes. That would be a “gym” site for sure!

A significant hurdle for such a game is the upkeep of information about what wineries are pouring what wines. This is not a project that can be created in a vacuum without winery involvement. But to get that involvement, an app developer needs to demonstrate to wineries the value that participating in the game could have.

This could involve showing them that 92% of Millennials own smartphones and that mobile apps account for nearly half of all internet traffic.

In places like Napa and Sonoma, they’re already grappling with declining tasting room visits and seeking out innovating ways to bring people in. Even for wineries outside of the North Coast, it would be foolish to ignore the canary in the coal mine.

But the biggest benefit of such a game app will be for the small family wineries making wines that are both literally and figuratively off the beaten path. These are wineries that need exposure and often have an education hurdle to overcome with consumers embracing their unique wines and grape varieties.

Replacing the anxiety of the unknown with a competitive quest for the unique is one of the best ways to overcome those hurdles.  That solution could be very appealing to a lot wineries–especially if their potential investment is just a small amount of time in keeping their data on the app up-to-date.

How Can This App Make Money?

Of course, no game developer is going to do this for free and I don’t think the Pokémon GO business model translates to my fantasy wine app.

Again, I’m not a game developer, so this part of the business plan is not my forte. You can take a look around this blog and realize that I’m also not really keyed into this whole “monetizing” thing either.

But I’m not planning on creating this game myself, so I’m sure that people a heck of a lot smarter than me will have better ideas.

But there are a few potential revenue streams I can see.

Priority Listings
Photo by Marianne Casamance. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

I don’t mean to hate on Cab so much. It makes lovely wines but is just soooooooooooo overdone.

There are only so many unique grape varieties out there being produced. There is going to be a lot of overlap. If the game can gain traction and significant downloads, you could potentially market more favorable search listings to wineries that pay a fee.

So if you are a Woodinville winery doubling down on the same ole Cab and Bordeaux blends that everyone else is making, it may be worthwhile for you to pay for priority or “sponsored” placement to encourage visitors to play the game at your place.

Sponsored “Raids” or “gyms”

If a winery really wants to be proactive in bringing people to their locations, they could sponsor special events with bonus points and status for those who visit during a certain time. This basically follows a similar idea to Starbuck’s partnership with Pokémon GO. Yeah, a wine game is not going to get Starbucks’ sponsorship but what about local wine bar and restaurants? After all, engage wine consumers are engaged diners as well.

Good Old Fashion Ads

Yes, everybody hates them but they are par for the course with free apps. Plus, you can always offer a premium “ad-free” version for a cost.

Data

This is probably the biggest potential revenue stream. But it’s also the area where a developer has to be very careful with because of privacy laws.

But, let’s face it, an app that is collecting data on which tasting rooms that consumers are visiting, how long they are staying there, where they go next and potentially what they are sharing on social media is a goldmine of valuable information for marketers.

So what do you think? Would you play this game?

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Winery Moneyball — Base hits and Home runs

One of the high points of my California trip last week was meeting Paul Mabray, CEO of the data and tech solutions company Emetry. Paul appreciated my No, There’s Not an App For That post and reached out for a chat and to extend some gracious Northern California hospitality with fabulous restaurant recommendations.

Photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/dirkhansen/. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

I’ve been following Paul’s work for a while via his Twitter feed (@pmabray) and blog. So I was quite excited to meet him and get a chance to pick his brain about the direction of the industry.

The timing was apt as just a week earlier Bill Swindell of The Press Democrat did a write-up of Mabray, describing him as the kind of Billy Beane of the wine industry.

Swindell wove that analogy into quite an eyebrow-raising position of Mabray’s.

And just like Beane ditching RBIs for slugging percentage to measure a player’s value, that pursuit has led Mabray to one of his most controversial beliefs in the wine industry: The tasting room will not be the salvation in a marketplace where wholesaler and retailer consolidation has made it difficult to get store shelf space for wine. — Bill Swindell, The Press Democrat, 2/24/19

Wait…what?

The Bacon number of wine

The Bacon Numbers of Wine Influence.
The further you are away from the consumer, the less influential you will be.

Living and working so close to Woodinville wine country, I’ve always been an advocate of the importance of the tasting room experience. In fact, I consider it one of the few real influencers in the wine world with a Bacon Number of 1.

I saw so many customers during my retail years who had a vested loyalty in a brand because of a tasting room experience they had.

Whether it was in Woodinville, Walla Walla, the Willamette or down in California, people remember how a winery made them feel and sought out their wines back home. I even had customers who visited wineries in Michigan, Virginia and Arizona come into my Seattle area stores looking for wines that they tasted years ago on vacation.

So I always thought that tasting rooms were one of the last bastions of hope for small family wineries. But after meeting Paul, hearing more about his insights and approach, I had a light bulb go off.

While I was thinking small, he was thinking on a much bigger scale–one that plays well on the baseball diamond.

Tasting Room Visits Are Like RBIs

Just like RBIs are dependent on other people (i.e., whether those batting before get on base or not), the true value of tasting rooms are dependent on other people and other factors as well.

It’s dependent on your location–how close you are to a population center or tourist destination. And it is dependent on people actually walking through your doors–which is always going to be a very limited occurrence.

Photo by Mr.schultz. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Hey, look! Another solo home run!
Back in 2013, the Orioles led the league with 125 solo home runs–including 30 by Chris Davis alone.
They finished 4th in their division.

Even if a winery does an amazing job of promoting its tasting room experience, there are only so many consumers out of the 84 million potential wine drinkers in US that they can possibly reach.

Yes, that tasting room experience is immensely important. It is where a lot of wineries hit home runs. But, in many ways, it is only a clean-up hitter in the line-up.

A team can invest millions into signing a great slugger but that one hitter is only going to be able to do so much. And what they can do will always be intimately connected to the people getting on base ahead of them.

Mabray’s right. Just as a great slugger is not going to save a team, tasting room home runs are not going to save a winery.

Wineries Need Base Hits

How often do you think the team with the season’s home run leader ends up winning the World Series?

Photo by Barbara on Flickr. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

My Cards have won two World Series and appeared in four in the last 15 years. Though never in a year when we statistically led anything.
But that is because we have devil magic.

Hardly ever. The last time was Ryan Howard with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. Before that, it was Mike Schmidt, also with the Phillies, back in 1980.

But…. if you look at team records with OPS (on-base plus slugging which includes both base hits and walks), you start noticing more of a pattern beginning with last year’s World Series winning team, the Boston Red Sox.

2017 OPS leader? The Houston Astros.
2013? Boston Red Sox.
2009? New York Yankees.

And so on. It’s obviously not precise but it is inescapable that the teams that succeed are the ones that reach base.

Now, if you’re a winery, you want to gobble up bases like Ted Williams. You don’t want to sit back and wait for the home run ball. You want to make things happen.

You want to play Whiteyball.

Social Media — A Winery’s Lead-Off Hitter

Photo by John Mena. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

The White Rat.

Billy Beane’s Moneyball philosophy has undoubtedly pushed the envelope in baseball analytics. But Beane’s Oakland A’s haven’t had much success to show for it.

Now, of course, small market economics played a role but those same economics didn’t keep the 2014 and 2015 Kansas City Royals from back-to-back World Series appearances and one championship.

Much of the Royals success came from manager Ned Yost adopting some of the tactics that St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog promoted in the 1980s. Back then, Herzog’s “Whiteyball” led the small market Cards to 3 World Series appearances, including a championship in 1982.

A central tenet of “Whiteyball” is the importance of the lead-off hitter. This is the place setter and spark plug that gets the offense going. Statistically, it’s also the batter that has the most opportunities to bat and reach base.

For those legendary 1980s Cardinals teams, that hitter was Lonnie Smith and then Vince Coleman. The 2014-2015 Royals had Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar.

But who hits lead-off for a winery?

What spark plug does a winery have that statistically is going to get the most opportunities to bat and reach base with consumers?

It’s not the tasting room limited by time, capacity and, sometimes, permit regulations.

It’s not a restaurant wine list which is even more limited by time and capacity as well as the whims of beverage directors.

And it’s certainly not retail channels where you almost need a New York Yankees’ type profile and budget to secure access to anymore.

No, the one area where wineries have almost unfettered access to put the ball into play for millions of potential customers is social media.

Underutilized or on the bench?

Nowadays, just about every winery has some social media presence. They’re at least penciling someone into that lead-off role. But you almost get the sense that they’re doing that as an afterthought. It’s like slapping a helmet on a warm body and sending him out to the on-deck circle just because somebody has to be there.

Hey, let’s post a random bottle shot and let people know that the tasting room is open! That’s engagement!

Photo by Keith Allison from Owings Mills, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

A serious question that every winery should ask themselves, what are you doing with YOUR Mike Trout years?

As I lamented in my articles The Winery Twitter Dance and Is the Wine Industry boring Millennials to (its) death?, the shoddy and half-hearted approach to social media by many wineries is astonishing.

The vast, vast majority are not doing the kind of targeted and data-driven approach advocated by Paul Mabray and others. Nor are they utilizing the platforms to share their stories–which is a winery’s most powerful currency.

Instead, it like wineries are playing the role of Arte Moreno of the Angels. They’re pouring resources into a lineup of fat contracts and splashy moves while wasting the best years of Mike Trout. Sure, you’re doing something. But are you really focusing on the tools that feed your success? That sets the table to make those big home runs impactful?

Yes, focusing on your tasting room is important. Focusing on your wine club and DTC sales are important. Making great wine is important.

But all of that is for naught if you’re not getting on base and reaching consumers.

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Cali Quick Takes — Winery Signage

I’m wrapping up my Northern California jaunt with a lovely 4-hour flight delay at SFO. But, all in all, the trip was extremely productive. I was able to gather lots of inspiration for future posts that I’ll be publishing over the next couple of months.

Tasting room sign

You can get a sneak peek at some of the places I’ve visited and topic ideas that I’m mulling over on the SpitBucket Instagram page.

I had several objectives on this trip–researching the Stags Leap District for a special project, indulging my wife’s sparkling wine obsession, checking out the CellarPass winery reservation system and figuring out how California’s prestige wine regions plan to reach Millennial consumers.

When it comes to the latter, the jury is still out. But I can tell you one thing, many wineries certainly won’t be helped by their signage.

I Can’t Drive (Or Read Your Sign) 55!

Photo by Weatherman90 Matt Becker. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

I seriously can’t believe that Sammy is 71.

And, at 71, Sammy Hagar probably can’t read them either–at whatever speed he’s driving nowadays.

It was really surprising how many winery signs along the major roadways in Napa and Sonoma had tiny print for their tasting hours and whether or not they were by appointment.

Sometimes even the name of the winery itself was hard to read because they decided to mimic the cursive font on their label. Very elegant when you’re slowly pulling into their entrance but completely useless when you’re whizzing past on California 12 in Carneros at 55 mph (or 65 mph as the numerous cars that passed me were going).

Now it’s not that bad when you have a passenger with a smartphone that can Google to see what winery we just passed and if it’s worth turning around to visit.

But that’s not good either.

Photo by Fietsbel. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Not elegant but effective–especially at 55 mph.

At several of the wineries I visited, I chatted with my fellow guests to see where they were going next. The most common reply I heard from wine drinkers of all generations was:

“Oh, we’re just going to drive around and see what jumps out.”

Do you think the winery signs with hard to read cursive fonts and tiny print “jump out” to many of these drinkers?

I truly wonder how many winery owners have gotten into their cars and drove past their signs at the maximum (and “realistic”) speeds to see how readable they are.

This is particularly critical for small wineries that don’t necessarily have people looking for them. They really need to capitalize on those wine drinkers who are just driving around and looking for a place to visit.

It’s worth sacrificing a little bit of elegance to gain functionality.

And that is the point of a winery sign, isn’t it? To be functional and to help people find you.

A good sign doesn’t have to look like a highway sign but taking a look at their standards is not a bad idea.

At the bare minimum, the name of the winery should be crystal clear as well as the tasting hours and if appointments are required or not. And this needs to be readable at roadway speeds.

Because most consumers aren’t going to pull over or ask a passenger to whip out their smartphone to see if a winery is worth turning back for.

They’re just going to keep on driving, looking for something to “jump out”.

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Cali Quick Takes — A tale of two approaches

I’m in Napa and Sonoma for the next few days–away from the comforts of my books and desktop that usually fuel my posts.

domaine carneros menu

But a visit to Domaine Carneros and dinner with a bottle of Joel Peterson’s Once and Future Mataro gave a great contrast in two wineries’ marketing approach that I want to chime in on.

Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah

At Domaine Carneros, I greatly appreciated that they were able to squeeze us in without an appointment. They sat us in a dining area with a menu of tasting option, glass pours and small bites.

My wife went for the bubbles flight (of course) while I had a glass pour of their prestige cuvee, the 2013 Le Rêve. The attendant was helpful enough, explaining briefly the grape varieties in each cuvee and the aging. He did stumble a bit in the sweetness scale–describing demi-sec as “half-sweet” and telling us that if we ever see a bottle labeled as sec that it would be “twice as sweet” as a demi-sec. (Yeah, no.)

But I wasn’t in the mood to be that person so I let him finish his spiel before going off to tend to other guests.

It was then that we noticed how utterly useless the tasting mat that came with my wife’s flight was.

Domaine Carneros tasting mat

#ChateauStyle gobbly gook

Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah

What use is this? I guess I should have had a pen and paper ready to take notes when the attendant was dropping off the wine.

There is not one shred of useful information on this tasting mat. Just marketing blurbs telling me what they think I’m drinking instead of details about what I’m actually drinking.

It would have been extremely helpful to have some worthwhile information about the wines as we compared and contrast. Grape varieties? Vineyard source? Blend percentages? Dosage? Farming style? Bueller?

It really felt more like pandering than anything else. And it was world’s apart to the back label of the 2016 Once and Future Mataro from the Oakley Road Vineyard in Contra Costa.

Can this be the “Once and Future” for all wine labels, pretty please?

Once and Future label

Well done Joel Peterson, well done.

The only thing missing is farming practices. But I absolutely love this approach. Here is a back label that doesn’t take the intelligence or curiosity of its customers for granted.

Yeah, there is a lot of info here that many folks won’t care about. It takes a certain type of geek to get excited about 8×8 head pruning. But it is all hidden away on the back of the bottle to where it is there if you want it and out of the way if you don’t.

And it is far and away better than pandering, marketing gobbly gook telling you to taste “refreshing aromas of lemon zest, grapefruit, golden hay and a floral note reminiscent of the delicate grape flower.”

Oh please.

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Adapt or Perish — The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Technology

I’ve seemed to have kicked up a little bit of a hornet’s nest with my post No, There’s Not an App For That — Winery Visit Rant.

Seriously, take my money

You can read for yourself the responses in the comment section of the article. Additionally, some interesting points came up on the SpitBucket Facebook page as well as from Paul Mabray’s retweeting of the article. There are a few other Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook threads circling around with more. But these will give you the gist of things.

Admittedly, I was surprised at the responses because there was nothing out of the ordinary about my post or situation.

I’m a consumer wanting to give wineries my money.

I want to use technology that doesn’t require me to jump through hoops to facilitate that.

I had assumed that somewhere out in the world there was a happy medium of wineries who wanted my business and tech companies willing to help bring us together in exchange for getting some money themselves.

You know, capitalism.

Why is there is such a disconnect here?

The irony that this all sprang about while I was planning a trip to Napa and Sonoma is not lost on me. It’s almost like Fry and Laurie wrote a skit.

For the past couple of years, the industry has been buzzing about how tasting room visits to these areas are down. Now some of that has been blamed on the wildfires. But, of course, after acts of nature, the next natural culprit to all the ills of the industry are Millennials.

Oh, we are such a pain in the ass, aren’t we? Why don’t we make it easy and play by the same rules as everyone else?!?

How dare we kill off the traditional tasting room with our “immersion experiences,” yoga in the vineyard and picnic settings?

Photo by Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0)

I’m not vegan or vegetarian but this is one seriously delicious burger.

Yet, here I was, a millennial just looking for regular, plain-jane tasting room appointments.

I wasn’t asking for anything crazy. I have no desire to pack my yoga pants. Sure, picnics are lovely but so is enjoying an Impossible Burger at Gott’s or pretty much whatever Chef Cindy makes at Mustards.

The only thing I wanted was simply the same ease and convenience of scheduling winery appointments that I have booking restaurant and hotel reservations, flights, doctor and lawyer visits; ordering take-out, groceries, household items; purchasing movie and event tickets; checking my bank account, moving funds around, paying bills, etc. All the other things in my life that I can do at the touch of my phone.

I am not asking the wine industry to re-invent the wheel. I’m asking them to do the same thing that wine has been doing for thousands of years.

Adapt

When wine was made only for local consumption, animal skin casks were fine. But then producers wanted to reach larger markets and more consumers. So they developed the amphora, then the barrel and eventually the bottle.

Photo by Pepys/Wheatley. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

Samuel Pepys, the original wine blogger, was a frequent visitor to the Pontacs’ Royal Oak Tavern in London. His writings (and the Pontacs’ good business sense) brought immense attention to the wines of Haut-Brion.

When snags in the supply chain between producers, merchants and consumers emerge, savvy winery owners as far back as the Pontacs of Haut-Brion in the 17th century saw the benefit of “direct-to-consumer sales” and going where their customers were.

When the telephone was invented, I’m sure some winery owners didn’t see the value in the expense of equipment or hiring someone to answer the phone.

We know what happened to those wineries. They eventually adapted or they perished.

What makes this any different?

In response to my last post, one common sentiment was that wineries already have a tough time handling social media.  Online reservation systems are another obligation that wineries will struggle to maintain. That’s a very fair point. I’ve lamented many times the piss poor utilization of social media by wineries.

But the fact that the wine industry currently sucks at one thing is not justification for it to keep sucking at everything else. If anything, that should add to the red flags that the industry has a serious problem here.

However, the slow adoption of common technology is not just the wine industry’s folly. It also a reflection of the poor job that tech companies have done in demonstrating the value of their services to wineries.

Yes, wineries historically don’t like to spend money.
Photo by Tomwsulcer. Uploaded to wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Wineries, this is your future customer base. The Boomers aren’t going to live forever.

This was another common blowback I heard. I get it. It’s hard enough to squeeze extra dollars out for barrels and equipment upgrades–much less for point-of-sale, web and software services.

I also know that there are going to be owners who are overly complacent. Right now they don’t need technology to sell wines and bring visitors to their door. They’ve got the Boomers! They’re going to keep consuming wine and live forever, right?

But tell me. How many successful businesses have ever depended on the status quo….staying the status quo?

Wineries are businesses. They have problems that are in need of solutions. Sometimes they don’t realize they have a problem until they see sales and tasting room visits declining. Or maybe it takes hearing consumers like me complaining about how hard it is to give you our money before the light bulb finally goes on.

And then it goes back off because you can’t pay the electric bill.

This is where the solution providers need to step up. Tech companies, I’m talking to you.

Not only do you need to show wineries that they have a problem but you need to demonstrate your value and effectiveness in solving that problem. You can’t sit back and wait for consumers to get fed up at their needs not being met by your potential clients. Otherwise, the goose will be cooked before it even gets a chance to start laying those golden eggs.

Go and look at some of the feedback to my post.

It’s very clear that many wineries,

A.) Don’t realize they have a problem.

or

B.) Don’t see the value in the solutions currently being offered for those problems.

That’s not good.

While wineries might not want to spend money on tech now–each and every one of them is going to have to deal with the changing demographics of their consumers. They are going to have to deal with the reality of the world we live in.

Every winery is going to have face the same “inexorable imperative” that wine has dealt with numerous times before.

Adapt or Perish.

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The Lost Storytelling of Wine

Now that we’ve talked about the Millennial math that is stacked against the wine industry, let’s work on reframing the discussion about value.

Photo by Onderwijsgek. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0

To appeal to Millennials, the industry has to demonstrate its value. They have to show us why a bottle of wine is worth shelling out our hard earned cash to purchase. As I mentioned in my post Is the Wine Industry boring Millennials to (its) death? the old playbook of marketing is not going to work.

We don’t care about high critic scores.

We don’t care about exclusive, high-priced cult wines that are famous for….being exclusive and high-priced?

And we certainly don’t care about the “lifestyle” image and traditions that enticed our parents’ generations.

But do you know what does entice us? A great story.

The Reading Generation.

Photo by Tmursch . Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

If you give a mouse a cookie, make sure he doesn’t pair it with something too dry.
A very dry wine will taste tart with a sweet cookie.

LeVar Burton would be proud because Millennials are leading the pack when it comes to reading. The popularity of digital formats are a big driver but even tried and true paper and hardback books are seeing an upswing in interest.

Millennials are infusing bookstores with new life because of the sense of nostalgia and authenticity they give us. When we feel overwhelmed with the world, books offer a haven and sure-fire antidote to the “Boredom Factor” we disdain.

Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if the wine industry could capture some of that?

If only we had a product that could convey a unique sense of place, crafted by people with a passion and personality?

If only we had something that constantly changed, both in the glass and in the bottle, like a great thriller with all its twists and surprises?

Hmm…if only.

A Story in a Bottle

The wine industry will continue to have problems converting Millennial consumers if it sticks with the old playbook of treating wine like it’s a commodity or status symbol. Neither of those interest us.

The health-consciousness of Millennials are moving us away from the idea of drinking cheap wine just to get a cheap buzz.

Photo by Jami430. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Let see, should we spend $25 on a bottle of Meiomi or an order of organic avocados sliced on toasted nine-grain bread with sesame seeds?
…or we could buy a house?

We don’t have the money or inclination to buy luxury “status” wines because we’d rather pay rent, go on a trip or enjoy avocado toast.

Yes, the gameboard has changed with Millennials. But what should send a spike excitement through the industry is that it’s changed in a way that is tailored to the strengths of wine.

Step back and think about it–what beverage beyond wine can so perfectly cater to a Millennial’s sense of wanderlust or their cravings for authenticity and uniqueness?

What beverage can tell a story better than wine?

We just need to stop thinking of (and promoting) wine like its a commodity. We need to reclaim our lost storytelling.

Compelling Characters

This is the personality and people behind a wine. By far, it’s a winery’s most important asset and should be the number one marketing focus.

Print made by Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

Watson, it was clearly the sulfites in his wine that poisoned him. Jenny McCarthy said they were bad.

The key to every great story is a compelling central character–our heroine or anti-hero. The central character is what separates one book from the myriad of others in the same genre. There are thousands of detective stories but there is only one Sherlock Holmes, one Alex Cross, one Hercule Poirot or one Kay Scarpetta.

And while there are god knows how many Cabernet Sauvignons, Chardonnays, Red Blends, Pinot noirs and Sauvignon blancs out there, what distinguishes each of them is their own central character–for better or for worse.

Maybe its a bulk wine with its central character a boring, non-descript narrator. They come and go like cheap penny dreadfuls.

A winery that wants to capture the attention of Millennials doesn’t need to be a Sherlock Holmes. But they do need to aim for more than non-descript and dreadful.

What makes a character compelling is that they come to life, they’re relatable. The readers learn details that add color to their understanding of the character. This lets the character jump off the page and resonate with them.

What makes a bottle of wine become more interesting and compelling is the character behind the bottle–not the grape or terroir (the backdrop). Of course, the plot (the wine itself) is important but readers will accept a few underwhelming books in a series (I’m looking at you Alex Cross’ Trial) if the character is still compelling enough to follow.

For a winery to appeal to Millennials, they need to build and promote this character.
Photo take by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as user:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

And, honestly, a bottling truck is kind of cool.

Show us the details that add color to our understanding of your wine.

Who are you?

Why are you making wine?

What drives you and is distinct from all the other characters out there?

Show us the hard work and setbacks. Your consumer has setbacks too. Show us the excitement and joy of many months/years of labor coming down the bottling line. There are things in our lives that take months/years to come to fruition. We can relate to that.

Let us connect to your wine by telling us your story.

Because that is really the only compelling reason we have to pick up your bottle over every other option that is clamoring for our money.

The Backdrop

J. R. R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling and Stephen King certainly had compelling central characters in their works. But they also brought the settings of their stories to life, even in short-stories that weren’t part of a larger world-building series. While the stories would still go nowhere without the central characters, the backdrop was an essential piece of the puzzle.

In wine, the backdrop is the grape varieties and places that the wine is from. One of my favorite definitions of terroir is “the story of a wine,” and this includes things like the climate of the vintage and the culture/traditions that a wine is brought up in.

Photo by Olivier Colas (http://olouf.fr). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Fun Fact: The Battle of Pelennor Fields was filmed only about an hour half away from the wine region of Central Otago.
“I am no Burgundy!”

A Pinot noir from New Zealand is distinct from one from Oregon, California or Burgundy for many reasons. All those reasons add richness to the story of the wine just like Middle Earth, Hogwarts and Shawshank added richness to their narratives.

When I encourage wineries to focus more on marketing the unique character of themselves, I’m not telling them to ignore the grapes or terroir. But they should recognize these things for what they are–the backdrop.

This is why making wine from unusual grape varieties or emerging wine regions is not enough to entice Millennials.

As fascinating as visiting Gondor is, we only care about that place because of Aragorn, Faramir and Boromir. Likewise, unique grape varieties like Fiano, Xinomavro, Cinsault and Trousseau or emerging wine regions in Denmark and Sweden are exciting but the novelty of new wears off quickly.

To keep consumers turning the page, you still need a compelling character to drive the story.

The Plot

However, you can have the most compelling character ever written with an imaginative world, but the plot still needs to deliver. As I mentioned above, readers will forgive a weak book or two in a series if the character is worth following. But the strength of that character gets weakened with every dud.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4032043

Yeah, I know it was the Oxycontin but *shudders*.

Similarly, the strength of a winery’s character weakens with every subpar bottle they release. Plus, there is always the risk of a consumer’s first impression coming from that “off-vintage” and them deciding that the character is not worth waiting for another book. If your first experience with Stephen King was Dreamcatcher, it might take some coaxing to get you to try another bottle.

Most importantly, though, the plot of what’s inside the bottle is where wine separates itself from other options. Above all, here is where we can highlight a wine’s value above a similarly priced beverage.

Yeah, you can get flavor and a buzz from craft beer, cider, spiked seltzer water, cocktails and spirits. But each of those items is a short-story that stays static.

The story of a wine doesn’t end when the cork is pulled. That is merely the end of one chapter.

A Continuing and Changing Climax

The evolution of wine in a bottle is something that the wine industry does a poor job of explaining or marketing. And we wonder whatever happened to aging fine wines?

We promote “drinking windows” and isolate people/wines into camps of “instant-gratification” or “cellar-worthy.” We treat enjoyment of wine like it’s a timestamp on a theater ticket. Better get your butts into the seats before they lock the doors.

Photo by CynSimp. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

What they didn’t tell you was that the toxins were really kombucha.

All of that ignores the storytelling that adds value to wine.

Even after the cork is pulled, a great wine (like a great story) will unfurl itself over the course of each glass. Change of direction, build-ups and plot twists are around the corner with the next pour.

What equivalent priced beverage offers that? Yeah, your beer could get warm and change. Or your ice sphere could melt into your diluted whiskey. But that’s more discovering that trees are releasing toxins to purge the planet than realizing that Bruce Willis is dead.

Plus, with many wines, there are still chapters that have yet to be written and are waiting to be experienced months, years or even decades down the road. The bottle you open today is not going to be the same bottle–the same story–that it’s going to be when you pick up the book again.

That’s fascinating and exciting!

It’s something that not even the Choose Your Own Adventure series can top.

Leveraging our strength and adding value.

In hindsight, it will be silly if the wine industry continues to have a “Millennial Problem.” Our greatest strength is that our product has such potential to be compelling, unique and authentic.

We just need to get back to telling our stories.

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Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

A few days ago I wrote about the “Boredom Factor” that is sapping Millennials’ enthusiasm for wine. But engaging Millennials with things that are new, interesting and authentic is only part of the battle. The industry also needs to reframe the discussion about value and pricing.

Photo by Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Let’s face it, wine delivers horrible “bang for the buck”–especially compared to other alcoholic beverages. This is true at all price points, but particularly at the low-end (and ironically titled) “value wine” segment.

For smaller boutique wineries, worrying about “value wine” might not seem like a big deal. But the issues impacting the top shelf take root on the bottom.

If you want to know why $100+ bottles of Napa Cab are in danger, head to your local grocery store and look around.

Millennial Math in the Grocery Store

I’ll get to our boutique and more premium wine brands below. But let’s start with a cash-strapped Millennial who want to spend less than $10 for something to drink. You could go to the wine aisle and find stuff like this.

Yellow Tail and other under $10 wines

Then there are other options as well–like Barefoot, Arbor Mist, Cooks, Andre’s and more. At this one grocery store, I estimated that around 40% of their wine selection was sub $10. So, diversity, yeah?

But they all fall into the same “sameness” of sweet, simple or boring Cabs, Chards and Red Blends. Sure, you have the occasional gimmick of things like the “living labels” of Treasury Wine Estates’ 19 Crimes. However, after the novelty of a cute label wears off, it’s still the same boring juice in the bottle.

Now right next to the wine department in many stores is a beer department which has likely been greatly expanded thanks to the craft beer boom.

Let’s see what under $10 options our Millennial shopper has there.

22 oz Beer bomber singles

These are 22 oz “bomber” sizes of beer which is only a tad smaller than the standard 750ml (25.4 oz) bottle of wine. In this one Albertsons grocery store, I counted over 80 different SKUs of at least 20 different styles of beer among under $10 bombers. And this was a rather small grocery selection for the Seattle-area market.

If you think of beer styles (Belgian Tripel, New England IPA, Oatmeal Stout, etc.) like grape varieties, the beer department has the wine industry smoked when it comes to answering the “Boredom Factor.”

Even among the same style (like IPA), you are far more likely to find distinct personalities and differences (hoppiness) among various brews than you ever would dream of finding among under $10 Cabs, Chards and Red Blends.

I have a fair amount of industry folks who read this blog so I’m going to ask you to step back and take off your “wine hat” for a moment. If you were a young post-college Millennial shopper with no personal connection (like having visited a winery) or long-term relationship with drinking wine, what would you spend your $10 on?

Are we just waiting for better times?

Yeah, things suck right now for the broke 20-something Millennial. But can we really predict their future buying potential based on the habits of their 20s?

It’s true that most Millennials have not entered their peak earning ages. Likewise, most have not reached the ages when previous generations started embracing wine.

Jason Haas, of Tablas Creek, makes that later point particularly well as he points out some of the silver linings amidst the gloom and doom assessments about Millennials.

The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. — Jason Haas, Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us. 2/4/2019

I concede Haas’ point and appreciate his optimism. I’ve certainly not hidden my affection or admiration for Tablas Creek’s business acumen. Though Haas is a “proud Gen Xer,” he pretty much runs Tablas Creek like a Millennial with a brand that embraces transparency, authenticity and sustainability along with pushing the envelope for new and exciting wines.

Without a doubt, if more wineries followed Tablas Creek’s example, the Boredom Factor would almost be a non-issue.

But what I fret that Haas’ optimism overlooks is the habits and perceptions that are being ingrained into Millennial consumers right now. Haas’ generation (and the Boomers) had the benefit of a promising economic outlook before them–where there was the potential for growth in earnings and career development.

That is a luxury that many Millennials don’t have and this is something that we are all too aware of. Even if things get a little bit better into our late 30s and 40s, it’s going to be very difficult to shake the mindset and spending habits of our formative 20s and early 30s.

Valuing “Value”

While things are not as bad as they were during the Great Depression, social scientists and economists are already drawing parallels to the spending habits and mindset of Millennials with those of the Silent Generation born between 1925-1945.

Even though the Silent Generation benefited from the post-war boom, many kept the spending habits imprinted on them during the hardship of the Great Depression. Prominent among those retained habits was the idea of stretching your dollar–even when you had more dollars to stretch.

Millennials certainly like to be entertained. We want experiences and to feel connected. And we avoid boredom like the plague.

But we deeply value “value.”

The $15-25 Sweet Spot

Let’s go back to the grocery store and look at the more premium $15-25 “sweet spot” range of wine pricing–with emphasis on the sweet.

Meiomi & 7 deadly with cheaper spirits

Usually, Meiomi is not over $25 so, for the sake of argument, I’m including it here.

When you get up to the higher price points, wine’s competition is not just beer (with many interesting six and twelve packs available in this price range) but also spirits as well. But spirits adds another dimension because they’re far less perishable and the servings are much smaller.

With wine and beer, you ideally want to enjoy it the same day that it was opened. But a comparably priced spirit can last weeks or even months.

Now I can hear wine folks scoffing at the idea of Captain Morgan or Deep Eddy taking away throat share from anyone older than 23. Yeah, I get it. The “Fireball crowd” eventually grows up. But for those folks who lose the sweet tooth and want something with more complexity, the spirits department still offers numerous options–especially among whiskeys.

Plus, because of how long a bottle of whiskey last, a Millennial could even stretch their $25 drinking budget to $40 and still get some very compelling value.

Old Forester and Woodford reserve

Personally not a fan of the Redneck Riviera but I’d take it over Meiomi any day of the week.

Granted, you have to sometimes deal with the inconvenience of getting the product out of lockup. Also, in some states (like Washington) there are crazy high liquor taxes to account for too.

However, this is all part of the sum-value Millennial Math that we deal with on every trip to the store. What the wine industry needs to concern itself with is how all these figures are adding up.

Banking on Premium Spenders

I want to embrace the optimism that as Millennials feel financially secure, they will turn to wine and start spending in the premium category. That means not only a strong wine industry but also a strong economy overall.

But I can’t shake the feeling that even if Millennials have more money to spend, that they’re not going to be impressed with the value they see in high-end wines. This is something that I’ve personally experienced myself. I’m very fortunate in my financial situation to where I can occasionally splurge on bottles like Opus One, Silver Oak, Cristal and Petrus.

You know what? I’d rather drink Pappy.

I feel this way even though I’m a highly-engaged wine drinker with a personal connection to wine. I’ve been bitten hard by the bug and have a healthy cellar to show for it.

But if you ask me for my brutally honest choice of whether to spend another $2600-4000 on a bottle of Petrus or something like the 1981 Glenmorangie Pride, I would choose the Glenmorangie every time.

And this is coming from someone that keeps a picture of Petrus as their background banner on Facebook!

However, when I step back and let my Millennial nature take over–when I think about the sum-value of what I’m getting compared to what I’m paying–whiskey beats out wine.

If that’s the case with someone like me, then how do you think the math is playing out with my co-horts?

The Petruses of the World are not the ones that need to worry.

Petrus is not going to have problems selling their wine. Even if Millennials aren’t spending at levels of past generations, wineries like Petrus make so little at such high prices that they only need a few folks to bite the bullet each vintage. There is always going to be enough people like me who shell out thousands to attend our Super Bowl–even if it ends up being a 13-3 snorefest.

The real hurt is going to be felt by all the wineries making NFL regular-season and playoff-type wines. They’re the ones that are going to have to convince Millennials that their wines are worth the price of the ticket.

Let’s go back and look at our supermarket shelf at some of the $50-100 options.
$50 to 100 wine vs spirits

That is an excellent price on the Grgich. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was wondering how long it had been standing upright under the supermarket’s harsh lights.

Again, why spend $50-100 for something that needs to be enjoyed mostly in one night (unless you spend another $200+ for a preservation system like the Coravin) over something you could stretch for months?

Wine’s saving grace has been that only a small segment of drinkers have developed a taste for brown spirits like whiskey, tequila and rum. But those categories are growing–especially among Millennials and women.

If the boredom factor doesn’t kill off the $100+ Napa Cab, brown spirits certainly will.

But it all starts back in the beginning, with the spending habits and perception of value that Millennials are developing now with their under $10 and $15-25 options. Here is where wineries are losing the battle before the war even begins.

Yeah, Millennials wanderlust is great and can definitely help wineries that are offering different and exciting wines. But that same wanderlust also fuels our openness in trying other beverages like craft beer and brown liquors. The more we try them, the more those other options become players in the “sum-value” game of Millennial Math.

And, right now, that math is seriously working against the wine industry.

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Is the Wine Industry boring Millennials to (its) death?

For a follow up to this post, check out Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

Ah, Millennials. The infamous murderers of numerous industries and institutions. Now, it appears that wine is the latest victim in our crosshairs.

Photo by Ed Yourdon'. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

As a millennial myself, my first instinct to such breathless takes is to roll my eyes. There are only so many times you can be blamed for economic homicide before it becomes ho-hum. But as a student of wine business and marketing, I know that there are embers underneath all the smoke and silliness.

Because–apocalyptic hyperbole aside–the wine industry does have a “Millennial Problem.”

It’s boring as fuck.

Losing the Millennial Market

This recent hand-wringing over Millennials was provoked by Silicon Valley Bank’s State of the Wine Industry report released earlier this month. The headline grabber was that Millennials were not adopting and consuming wine at the rate of previous generations.

Rob McMillan, the founder of SVB’s Wine Division, commented on his blog reasons why he thinks Millennials might become a generation of “lost wine consumers”.

I’m skeptical about the weight he gives to neo-prohibitionism and health concerns. Cocktails, energy drinks, cannabis, coffee, craft beer, whiskey and other hard alcohols have to deal with negative health-messaging as well. Yet, these categories are growing and taking “throat share” away from wine–particularly among Millennials.

But McMillan absolutely hits it square on the head when he points out how boring wine is making itself seem to Millennial consumers.

We are quickly becoming your parents beverage, and being your parents anything is always the kiss of death for consumer products.

Wine is Boring ..

To this young consumer with a short-attention span – activity, health, the environment, causes with an egalitarianism theme and fun are important both conceptually and as values. The wine industry is just not hitting any of those elements to attract their attention. — Rob McMillian, The Lost Wine Consumer of 2019, 1/27/2019

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Do you know why Merlot sales are still sluggish?
Photo by Benutzer:Stahlkocher. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The only thing in this picture that gives me joy is the decanter. It’s my ideal shape for form and function.

It’s not because of a movie that came out when the youngest Millennials were still playing on their elementary school playgrounds.

No, it’s because it is what our parents and grandparents drink. And who wants to choose that when you’re out on a date or sitting at home watching documentaries about the Fyre Festival?

It’s boring and anything boring is not worth the time, money or calories.

If there is one area I would give credence to about health concerns impacting wine sales, it is that Millennials and the upcoming Generation Z are not interested in just getting drunk.

What we put into our bodies has to give us some tangible benefit beyond intoxication. It has to edify us–mentally, spiritually, physically or emotionally. To Marie Kondo-it, we want the things in our lives to bring us joy.

So how can wine bring joy back to Millennial consumers instead of boring them to tears?

Combating Wine’s Boredom Factor

A tried and true tenet of Marketing 101 is that successful companies stand out from the pack. Especially in a crowded marketplace, you need to find ways to catch the consumer’s attention and show them that you’re different.

Bottle highlight 90+ score

Yawn…

That’s still true with Millennials. This is not an area where marketers need to re-invent the wheel. But what wineries do need to reconsider is how they are trying to distinguish themselves.

Oh, you got a great 90+ score from a critic?

That’s nice. So did several thousand other wines.

Oh, your vineyard has unique terroir and you let the wine reflect the site?

That’s nice. Most all your competitors say that too.

Oh, you won whatever medals from whatever wine competitions?

That’s nice. Look at all that bling being passed out like candy.

Oh, you have heavy screen printed bottles, colorful die-cut labels and REALLY long corks?

That’s nice. How much of that am I paying for in the retail cost of your wine? And why should I even bother when I can get so many other wines in less fancy packaging for a better price?

You can’t market to us the same way you did to our parents.
Photo by Deb Harkness. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

What a lovely, well maintained and cared for vineyard in Napa!
Kind of looks like all the other lovely, well maintained and cared for vineyards in Napa.

In a talk on how Napa wineries can “future proof” themselves, Paul Mabray, of the market research firm Emetry, noted that the industry can’t stay back in the 1970s and continue to do things like they did when Robert Mondavi wrote the playbook on marketing wine.

Yet, that is precisely what wineries today are trying to do. And then they wonder why Millennials aren’t responding?

To reach Millennials today wineries have to come up with a new playbook. I don’t think anyone has all the answers (I sure don’t), but I can tell you two things that will undoubtedly help.

1.) Stop “Doubling Down” on what’s been done before

Seriously. The absolute worse thing that a winery (or wine region) can do is assume that what’s been successful in the past (i.e., Cab and Chard) is going to continue to be successful in the future. Sure, the gravy train is running along smoothly now but the track up ahead is unfinished. What is the backup plan when the nails and steel run out?

Wineries wanting to capture the Millennial market have to go back to the basics of Marketing 101–they have to stand out and be different.

You don’t do that by offering us the same ole, same ole. You don’t do that by offering us what our parents drank.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Garcia. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US Air Force

The Wine of Mencía.
Anyone who went to high school/college in the 2000s should get that.

You do that by offering us something different–different grapes, different blends, different stories.

But Amber, consumers often need to be “educated” on these different wines before they buy them.

That’s true. Folks usually don’t look at a wine list and randomly select a bottle of Mencía, Touriga Nacional or Pecorino. People need a helpful nudge to try these obscure grapes.

However, you don’t have to give them a Wikipedia article. For many consumers, the grand sum of education they need about a new wine can be delivered in two lines.

“This is something different from __________ you should try. It’s definitely not the kind of Cab/Merlot/Chardonnay/Pinot grigio that your parents would buy.”

And that’s it. That is enough to hook a lot of Millennial consumers.

Sure, there will be a few geeks like me who want to know a little more. Your tasting room staff and the restaurant sommeliers you partner with should be well trained to answer those questions. That is why they’re important influencers.

But the vast majority of Millennial consumers care more about the experience of trying something new than the nitty-gritty details.

2.) Show the people behind the wine

Millennials crave authenticity and transparency. They like a story that they can connect to and share with friends and family.

But when the wine world talks about “authenticity”, what is the first (or only) thing they talk about? Terroir, vineyards and farming.

Back label with marketing blurb

“Being famous is great, it’s not like bad or horrible or anything.” — Dave Chappelle

Now that’s all fine and good. As a geek, I love that stuff. But I am the minority. For most Millennials, hearing talk about soils and climate and all that is marketing gobbly-gook. Especially when they are hearing the same spiel from every winery and reading it on the back of every wine bottle.

We get it. Every vineyard claims to be special. Every winemaker claims to take care of the land through careful farming and to let the site speak for itself. Gold star for you.

Yet there is one unique thing that wineries (especially small wineries) have that you hardly hear a whisper about–their people. The very heart and soul of their brand.

It always baffles me how little that is promoted–especially because the best showcase of personality is a person.

Showing personality through Social Media

By far the most significant area that wineries’ fall flat in is how they use social media. I’ve talked before about the woeful state of many wineries’ Twitter use but those same woes can be seen on Facebook and Instagram.

Bottle Porn is useless.
Photo by Petar Milošević. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Pics like this probably sell more take-out meals then they do wine.
Great use of a winery’s time and social media feed, eh?

Again, this is what everyone else is doing. So what makes your bottle porn special? And, no, a fancy near-impossible-to-replicate food dish next to the bottle doesn’t do much to keep us from just scrolling by. Granted, if we’re hungry, it may encourage us to close Instagram for a moment to order something from Door Dash or Uber Eats.

Bottle porn and food pics are recipes for boredom. If you want to capture people’s attention, study after study has shown that featuring people in your posts is the way to go. For wineries, you want this to be the people who are the personalities behind your brand.

Behind-the-Scenes Story Telling

It’s kind of ironic that the wine industry has such a boredom factor when there is so much cool stuff going on. At least it’s cool to consumers who aren’t surrounded by it 24/7.

Every winemaker I know has stories about how taken back they are at the giddiness of consumers at barrel tastings. Sommeliers, wine writers and buyers get blasé checking out barrel rooms because they’ve seen them before. But for the average wine drinker, it’s quite a thrill.

I remember at one of my internships when we were doing pump overs, a few consumers in the tasting room heard the sound of the pump and wanted to know what was going on. One of the staff brought them into the winery to see and they thought it was the coolest thing ever.

So why not try to “bottle” that excitement?
PVPP fining agent.

During this Facebook Live, we’re going to learn the difference between PCP and PVPP (polyvinylpolypyrrolidone). While both are vegan-friendly, only one of these will help remove bitter tannins from wine.

Nearly every day in the winery or the vineyard is a chance to do a quick Facebook live or Instagram story. Right now, producers across the Northern Hemisphere are pruning their vines. Give a quick 2-3 minute tutorial on your Facebook page. Show us what’s the difference between cane and spur pruning and why this time of the year matters.

Again, not everyone will care about those nitty-gritty details. But they will care about a winery giving them something different to experience on their social media feed.

If you want a Masterclass in how to use social media to show personality in a brand, check out the Instagram accounts of the Kitzkes of UpsideDown Wine (@usdoingwine) and the Garretts of Serrano Wine (@serrano_wine). Spoiler alert. They’re both Millennial-owned wineries so they may know a thing or two about not being boring.

These behind-the-scenes moments don’t have to have fancy production value. In fact, it’s even better if they don’t. That makes them feel more personable, more sincere, more authentic.

And that is far less boring than being told about yet another 90+ rated Cab and Chard that was “…sourced from the finest vineyards, handcrafted to let our unique terroir come through.”

Oh please, somebody get me a joint.

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