Tag Archives: Robert Joseph

Wine Influencers and Thinking Like a Consumer

I’m working my way through Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass where I just finished Chapter 17 on editing. I adore the advice that Gaiman gives here on the importance of looking at your work through the eyes of the reader.

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

When he finishes a draft, Gaiman sets it aside for a week or so. Then he returns to as if he’s never seen it before in his life. He brings with him all the expectations that he would have as a reader–to be entertained or enlightened and wanting to follow a good story that makes sense with no dangling loose ends.

Often in his first draft reading, he’ll find many unsatisfying marks that he’ll annotate for Gaiman the author to later revisit. It might be a character that Gaiman the reader wanted to learn more about or a battle whose descriptions felt far too truncated to immerse himself into the story.

I love the simplicity of that advice. Yet, I don’t doubt that it’s difficult to follow through on. Beyond the troubles of divesting yourself emotionally from something you’ve created, there’s also the challenge of “forgetting” all the knowledge you take for granted.

I see these same difficulties when it comes to wine marketing where we rarely stop and think like a consumer.

Now I’m not talking about market research and consumer studies.

Photo by Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD Van Vechten

Do note that you don’t need to take off your shirt for this exercise. Though, seriously, DAMN… Marlon Brando.

I’m talking about walking into a store or sitting in front of a restaurant wine list and looking at it like you don’t work in the industry at all. Think Marlon Brando-ing instead of branding.

I’m talking about asking the question “What influences me?” and “How do I decide?” in those situations as if you were a regular consumer.

By doing that, by taking fresh eyes to a marketing dilemma, there are many insights to gleam that are not going to be measured by metrics. To win consumers’ hearts and wallets, you have to first get into their heads.

So what influences you?

When you’re standing in the wine aisle or staring at a wine list, are you recalling wines that you saw random bottle porn shots of while scrolling through your Instagram feed?

Are you remembering wines recommended by any of Global Data’s Top 10 Wine Influencers, Social Vigneron’s Top 40+ Wine Influencers of 2018 or the Beverage Trade Network’s “Top Wine Influencers In 2019 You Need to Pay Attention To“?

Well, you might be. But if you’re truly channeling your inner Marlon or Meryl Streep, the odds of these influencers actually influencing most regular consumers are fairly low.

Photo by Financial Times. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Pretty much any list of top influencers should prominently feature the Beyoncé of Wine.

Even among some of the genuinely notable influencers on those lists like Jancis Robinson, Jamie Goode, Robert Joseph, Fiona Beckett, Alder Yarrow, Karen MacNeil, etc., the extent of their influence is felt far more on wine industry folks than consumers.

Yes, there is a segment of highly engaged consumers who subscribe to wine magazines, read wine blogs, comment on forums and follow influencers on social media. But even in the wettest of winery owners’ dreams, this segment is rarely ever more than a minority of wine consumers.

How do I decide?

Go back to that wall of wine. Pick up that wine list and look at them again as a consumer. How would you decide?

Depending on your mood and the occasion, you’re likely going to do a couple of things.

1.) Go with what you know or at least what you see everywhere (i.e., the McDonald’s/Starbucks wines that dominate supermarkets)

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.

2.) Phone a friend or ask the wine steward and sommelier for advice (Folks with Bacon numbers of 1 in the Wine Influence Sphere)

3.) Google “Best wine for blah” or pick the most interesting label or wine name and Google it to see if it’s not plonk.

And here, with this last option, do we find where wine influencers can actually make a difference.

Influencers aren’t helping you at the beginning of the consumer journey, but near the end.

Every marketing student has seen the familiar consumer journey map documenting the path from brand awareness/familiarity to consideration and then purchase with hopefully loyalty/advocacy coming soon after. The reality is not that linear, but it’s a solid starting point.

The problem with the wine industry’s relationship with influencers is that we’re often thinking more like marketers instead of consumers. It’s easy to assume if we see influencers work in other sectors such beauty, fashion and tech with generating brand awareness then that is how they’re going to work with wine.

But wine is not like beauty, fashion or tech. Consumers aren’t scrolling through social media feeds and blogs looking for something to “inspire” them to drink. Again, step back and put yourself in a consumer’s shoes. Think about how you shop for things–what catches your attention on impulse versus something that you deliberately look for.

If you want a better comparison with wine, think about taking a vacation.

Yes, sometimes the inspiration to travel can come as an impulse. A picture or a story of an exotic location can come out of the blue to capture your imagination. But more often you have a general sense of where you’d like to go–if not a particular place in mind.

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

Somewhere with a lot of feral cats…

Somewhere warm.

Or somewhere not too expensive.

Somewhere with great food, great history or great beaches.

Somewhere….blah.

And then what do you do? You start Googling about your somewheres until eventually you find just the right “where” that fits your mood and occasion.

Wine consumers do the same thing.

I can’t tell you how many times on the sales floor I witnessed a consumer break out their phone and start googling. Of course, I was trying my best to be their in-person influencer but, for whatever reason, some customers just want to ford ahead on their own. However, it’s not really on their own because they still want some sanctification of their choice.

So they turn to the almighty influencer of Google to see what comes up. Sometimes they’ll have a particular place/wine in mind–like a Napa Cab or a German Riesling. Sometimes it’s more generic like “Best wine to pair with risotto” or “Best red blend under $20”.

Often it’s a particular wine that caught their eye or even a double-checking of what the wine steward or sommelier recommended. You know, just to be sure.

This is the consideration stage of the consumer journey.

Photo from Nick Nijhuis. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Wine blogs and most non-consumer social media (i.e., influencer posts) are most effective when you’ve got the consumer already considering your wine.

This is where the consumer is looking to buy. They already have an awareness of “Brand Wine” and even a vague familiarity of what they want. But they’re honing their choice down to a particular wine and looking for something to verify that they’re making the right selection.

Often winery websites will show up on these Google searches. They might be clicked so wineries shouldn’t overlook how valuable this experience is. However, let’s again step back and think about this as a consumer. If you’re looking for an unbias confirmation, you’re probably going to skip the winery website.

Instead, you’re going to look for links that seem to be objective and knowledgable. And you’re probably going to find a lot of sites belonging to wine influencers. (Hopefully, those influencers are upfront and ethical about noting wines received as samples.)

This is why it’s absolutely vital for wineries to be paying attention to what kind of content shows up on these “consideration searches.”

A Winery’s #1 Influencer Metric — What kind of content are they producing?

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

Smartphones are the new Wine Spectator.

And where does it show up on Google rankings of search terms that my consumer might actually be googling?

The entire marketing community is waking up to the fact that influencers’ engagement metrics and followers are hugely gameable. I honestly don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface with the extent of fraud that is going on in the influencer community.

However, the marketers who are telling wineries to invest in micro-influencers aren’t necessarily blowing smoke up the bum. Though I would be very wary of the ones who don’t strongly advocate thoroughly checking out and doing research on an influencer they’re partnering with. But a massive part of that research should be spent on looking at the quality of the content that the influencer is producing. Metrics can be gamed, but good content stands on its own.

But wait, Amber, aren’t you one of these so-called influencers?

Eh, maybe. I dunno.

Yeah, I have a samples policy and will write posts about wines and tasting I’ve received. But I don’t buy into the “influencer lifestyle” and have no problems being blunt about that.

That’s because I tend to think more like a consumer and winery owner instead of a blogger/influencer.

Internship days photo

Ah, yes. Internship days. The boss didn’t want to pay to use a sorting table but wasn’t happy about the number of jacks that were coming out of the crusher/destemmer.
So he stationed the interns underneath the crusher bin to pick out jacks while grapes rained down on us.
I swear I rung at least a 375ml of juice out from my hoodie.

While I’ve studied wine marketing in school and continue to study it with my WSET Diploma studies, a considerable part of my outlook stems from years working in the trenches of wine retail. I didn’t cut my teeth in conference rooms telling wineries what will help sell their wines. Instead, I spent it on the floor actually selling wine and learning first hand what consumers responded to and what they didn’t.

But, as I noted in my bio, I also worked at wineries and gave a lot of thought to starting a winery.

My wife also studied winemaking and while we’re finding that the technology sector pays significantly more, the idea of “a retirement winery” somewhere down the road is still on the table. Only I know that running a winery is not really retirement but a heck of a lot of work. Making wine is the easy part. Selling it is the challenge.

So when I write posts like this, I’m not just sharing sentiments earned through my studies and experience. This is the advice that I’m taking to heart and what I will do when it’s my money, my brand and my success on the line.

And here’s exactly how I would approach partnering with influencers.

1.) I would Google, Bing and Yahoo the shit out of my winery’s name and any phrases that would be tangentially related to my wines. Brainstorm away with things “Best Cab under X”, “New York wines to try”, “Best wine to go with toasted ravioli”, “Dry Creek Zinfandel”, “Sustainable Sangiovese”, etc.

2.) Note which wine writers and bloggers show up in results on those queries. While search engine optimization is its own Pandora’s box to figure out, it’s never a bad place to start with influencers who are already trending on pages 1 and 2 of relevant search terms.

3.) Check out the sites, look at the quality of their content–particularly with how they show up on mobile phones. Again, think through the eyes of a consumer who is likely going to be doing their Googling in stores and restaurants. Also, note that search rankings are often different on mobile versus desktops with sites like Google favoring mobile-optimized websites on mobile devices with a higher ranking. (Oh, clear your cookies/go incognito with your searches for more accurate results too!)

I would also do searches on Instagram and Twitter under relevant hashtags. Make sure to check out what kind of cross-platform content your potential influencer partner creates here as well.

Now I’ll freely admit that I’m not acing all these things here on SpitBucket.

But I’m not writing this for my benefit as a blogger.

Instead, I’m taking Neil Gaiman’s advice and looking at this through the eyes of the reader–which these days on SpitBucket is mostly wine industry folks. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll spare you the pandering and BS.

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375ml Bottles — A halfway good idea?

Before we hit the bottle, let’s talk about cans.

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

I’ve been a canned wine skeptic for a while. But my skepticism has faded quite a bit in the almost three years since I wrote that post.

One reason for that is the data showing that consumers are adopting canned wines to the tune of $45 million in sales (June 2017-June 2018). That quickly jumped to $69 million by the end of 2018 with more than 739,000 cases of canned wines sold in the US.

But the biggest eye-opener for me was when I started noticing my elderly (70 year-plus) consumers buying canned wines.

Wait…what?

House wine pride can

My favorite was the lady who bought a bunch of these cans for her after church treat because the colors just made her feel cheerful.

All the hype and marketing reports attribute the canned wine boom to Millennials. It’s fun! It’s convenient! You can take cans backpacking and to concert festivals! This is the feedback that we’re getting from the focus groups.

Now, I sold a lot of canned wines to Millenials back in my retail days. No doubt. There is smoke to that fire.

But seeing my elderly customers adopting canned wines caught me off-guard. This is a demographic that is notoriously reluctant to embrace novelty and change.

So I did what anyone should do when you have real live customers standing in front of you on the sales floor.

I talked to them.

And I found out that their reasons for buying canned wine were pretty darn practical.

Some of my customers were buying them because cans were easier for them to open with a beer key than cork or screwtop. Another customer who regularly bought boxed wines told me that the 3 and 5L boxes were getting a little heavy for her to take up the stairs into her house. So she keeps a cooler in her car now with a few cans of wine and carries them up in her purse a couple at a time.

But the most common refrain when I asked these consumers why they were buying cans was that they simply liked the portion size and not worrying about waste. They found the standard 375ml to be perfect for a couple of glasses. One gentleman described it as his lunch-dinner combo. He’d open a can at lunch for a glass and then finish it off with his supper.

No waste. No worries about leftovers that might not taste as good the next day. And he doesn’t have to listen to his wife yelling at him for getting snockered.

Hearing these real-world perspectives made me realize that underneath all the smoke and hype about canned wines were some serious embers burning. Yeah, novelty and fun can get a fad flowing, but what makes something become a category are these practical considerations that criss-cross demographics.

That’s what wineries need to pay attention to.

The practical considerations that drive sales trends.

Photo from

Will 2020 herald the new Roaring 20s?

While I’m not really convinced that we’re seeing the dawn of Neo-Prohibition in the US, I do fully buy-in that we’re in the midst of a “moderation movement.”

People are drinking less (but hopefully better) and they are paying attention to calories and serving sizes. Again, this is a movement that is being mostly attributed to Millennials and Generation Z, but it stretches across generations. Boomers are starting to drink less and Weight Watchers has always been recommending that the calorie conscious limit themselves to a 125ml (4.2 oz) serving size.

These are strong headwinds of influence that the wine industry is going to have to consider. The days of a couple (or an individual) regularly dusting off a full 750ml bottle in one setting are waning. We can’t bank on consumption levels staying the same.

Nor do I think we should put our faith in the Coravin saving the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Coravin. It’s been an invaluable study tool when I need to open up multiple bottles of wine for tasting. Whenever Amazon has a Prime Day sale on it, I enthusiastically endorse folks checking it out.

Author using her Coravin

Again, the Coravin is excellent for blind tastings but not for the Wednesday night pizza wine.

But it’s a $200+ investment with replacement capsules costing around $20 for a 2-pack. It’s not something that I’m going to use for my everyday drinking wine. Truthfully, outside of wine studies, I rarely use it on a wine less than $50. The capsule cost and wear & tear just aren’t worth it for me.

And the Vacu-Vin sucks ass. I’m sorry. I’m not going to waste my money on a placebo-product.

The bottom line though is that wineries really shouldn’t be banking their future on the solutions of other people’s products. They need to guide their own destiny and, to borrow my favorite phrase from Emetry’s Paul Mabray, “future-proof” their business.

So how do they answer the concerns of the moderation movement, serving-size and waste issues? Portion-controlled cans and boxed wines are one answer.

But let’s be serious.

Do you really see Lynch-Bages in a can?

Or how about a nice Napa Cab? A Washington Syrah? A Mosel Riesling?

Most likely not. For a lot of wineries, the canned and box wine options aren’t going to fit with their branding. But 375ml half-bottles do.

There’s just that pesky problem of production costs. I asked about this on Twitter a few days ago where several winery folks laid out the hard truth. Bottling 375ml doesn’t follow the same logistics as bottling 750mls with wineries not only needing different glassware but also different sized labels, capsules and case packaging.

Jason Haas of Tablas Creek was especially forthcoming.

In a Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog piece, Haas shared more details about the difficulties in selling half-bottles. Even though it cost 2/3 that of producing a 750ml, not many consumers are willing to pay 2/3 the price. The mental math and perception issues make it tough.

Back in my retail days, I saw a similar situation with magnums. Many would see a 1.5L magnum and expect it to be no more than double the price of the regular 750ml–or even cheaper because of a “bulk discount.” Eventually, more educated consumers would grasp that there is some premium for the bottling costs and storage potential.

That may be the case with 375ml–especially if the retail price of the wine can stay closer to 55-60% of the 750ml price. But I don’t doubt that will involve subsidizing some of the production cost–at least until supplies and logistics become favorable.

Nor do I doubt Haas’ other point about the dwindling demand (and production) that Tablas Creek sees in their half-bottle program.

At our apex in the late 2000’s we were bottling 450 cases each of our Esprit and Esprit Blanc in half-bottles. By the early 2010’s we were down to 250 cases of each. Then 200, then 150. Last year we bottled just 125 cases of each. This year, it will be only 75. — Jason Haas, “Is there a future for half-bottles?” June 3rd, 2019

Being ahead of the headwinds.

It doesn’t shock me that a winery as innovative and savvy as Tablas Creek is 15 years ahead of the curve. I give massive credit to Haas for picking up critical insights in the early 2000s from the sommeliers at his restaurant accounts about their use of half-bottles.

I know for myself, some of the most gang-buster experiences I’ve ever had playing the Somm Game (where I essentially give a somm my budget and let them pick out anything) have been at programs that made liberal use of their half-bottle selection.

But being ahead of the curve means that the timing isn’t always there to hit a home run.

That is always going to be the scourage of innovation. Sometimes the best ideas for the future are ones that haven’t worked out the best in the past. Back in April, I posed this question to wine writer and producer Robert Joseph when he was featured on Sorcha Holloway’s #UKWineHour Twitter chat.

It’s well worth reading Joseph’s answer on Twitter. As the 2019 winner of the Born Digital Wine Awards for innovation in the wine industry, he does give a lot of food for thought.

We didn’t talk about 375ml half-bottles and packaging in that thread. However, I think this is a vitally important conversation for the industry to start having now.

The “Canned Wine Boom” is a wake-up call for wineries.

But don’t let the ringtone of Millennials! Novelty! Fun! distract you from picking up the phone and listening to the voice on the other end of the line.

The moderation movement is real.

Calorie counting and serving-size awareness are real.

Waste considerations are real.

That is why wineries investing in 375ml bottles is absolutely more than a halfway good idea.

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The Folly of Price-Blind Scoring

Walk into a grocery store or wine shop and take a look around. You’re going to see tags–lots of tags–with wine scores. Usually, they’re at least 90 points because, these days, getting 90 points is akin to spelling your name right on the exam. Good job, Johnny. Gold star for you.

Photo By Caleb Zahnd from USA - Bobbing for apples, CC BY 2.0,

Now I’m not going to dive into another drivel about the scourge of score inflation or the silliness of points.

Instead, let’s talk about the Apples to Apples trap.

I’ve been banging the drum about the need to highlight value–especially for wineries wanting to capture the emerging Millennial market. These consumers are always looking for the best bang for the buck, so it’s vital to look at what kind of message we are sending them.

Is a 90 point $10 wine a better value than a 90 point $40 wine? Or what about an $8 wine with 4.2 stars on an app? Is that a better value than an $80 wine with 4.0 stars?

Apples to apples, right?
Photo By Usamasaad - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Both of these fruits have been rated “Outstanding” with superior character and style.

But we know that’s not right. We also know that the typical consumer is not going to look at the details or differences such as one score coming from Joe Schmoe while the other from a respected publication. Nor are they going to bother to learn that one wine is a 100,000+ case bulk wine from a mega-corp while another is a small lot production from a family winery’s estate vineyard.

So what happens when our value-minded Millennial consumer grabs that 90 point $10 Cab and are just “ho-hummed” by the experience? What messaging will ever make that other $40 wine worth trying? Certainly not that the message that it got 90 points!

On the flipside, what if they absolutely loved the $10 wine but thought the $40 wine was crap. Then we get back to the lovely “No wine is worth spending more than XX because of blah” circle of Dante’s Inferno.

Sure, education is always the easy answer but, as an industry, we have to accept that education is not the elixir that we so desperately wish it was. Lots of consumers, if not most, are not interested in education. They want short-cuts and the security blanket of stars and numbers.

They want an apple to be an apple–not an orange, not a coconut.

So what do we do?

Get rid of “price-blind” scoring

Go ahead, keep your scores, stars and numbers. But put some teeth and reality behind them. Let an apple still be an apple but point out when it is a Braeburn (your daily value drinker) versus a Pink Lady (something more of a treat). And don’t be afraid to compare them to other apples. Yeah, this Pink Lady is not worth the money compared to the Honeycrisp or Fiji.

Of course, you can’t do this blind (in any fashion) but maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

I expressed this sentiment about judging wines based on value in a recent Twitter thread where wine writer Robert Joseph countered with a very astute point.

He’s right. Just as some tasters would judge expensive wines more harshly, there are others who would be more inclined to give them an easy pass. However, the fact that two types of biases exist doesn’t mean that both are equally valid. If one benefits the consumer (judging on value) while the other doesn’t (judging on faux merit), then the answer is to root out the afflicting bias.

The critic who automatically thinks that a high price=great score is wrong and should be called out on that. While they aren’t likely to admit that bias (and it may be self-conscious), patterns always emerge. Instead of accepting this, we should be challenging these judges to actively and consciously rethink their biases.

Being “price-blind” doesn’t work in the real world.

By InterestingPics - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Sometimes you don’t need an “Outstanding” apple. Sometimes you just want to get an apple that you can use to both bake a pie and have as a snack. Or a wine that you can cook and serve with dinner.

A consumer standing in front of a wall of wine is not “price-blind.” They have a budget and an expectation for what they can get within the limits of their wallet and credit card. We have to recognize and respond to this.

However, one of the biggest hindrances is that most professional writers receive the wines they review as free samples. I understand why it benefits wineries to put their bottles in front of people who will write about them. And I definitely appreciate the benefits to writers who often can’t afford to buy all the wines they review.

But samples still remove the writer from having to deal with the realities of the consumer–how they actually think and shop–when they write their reviews. That’s an obstacle that we have to work to understand and overcome.

There are reasons why a consumer may want to buy a Braeburn and reasons why they may want to buy a Pink Lady. Likewise, there are different reasons and expectations for buying a $10 wine for pizza and a $40 wine to take to dinner with the in-laws.

Even if a critic is receiving their wines as free samples, they need to at least acknowledge that “objectively” judging the pizza and nice dinner wine on same scale is foolish.

So let’s stop being foolish.

Bottle of Petrus

While I don’t regret spending $2600 on this bottle of Petrus, I would much rather buy multiple bottles of Ch. Angelus than buy another.
Beyond a one-time “Super Bowl” experience, it’s simply not worth it. I feel like it would be hard to be that honest if I had this wine as a free sample.

Let’s stop pretending that price doesn’t matter and that we can objectively review a wine based solely on the merits of what’s in the glass. For god sakes, how many decades have we spent playing this charade?

Yes, there are going to be bias but let’s tackle those biases head-on and put them in their place.

The onus of every critic and wine writer should be to first acknowledge their own biases with price. They need to step back and think of how often their eyes automatically go “oooooh” at the sight of an expensive bottle and wonder “why?” that is so. Conversely, if the thought of tasting a “value wine” makes us recoil, we need to own up to that too.

The second onus we have is to put ourselves into the consumer’s shoes as much as we can. And the best way to do that is to start comparing apples to apples.

So you’ve received a $50 bottle of wine as a sample. Great.

Now how does that wine compared to the other $50 bottles of wines that you may have purchased yourself at some point? Or the $30 bottles, $20 bottles, $200 bottles whatever.

The number one question that every critic should ask themselves when reviewing a wine is–how would I feel buying this with my own money? Would I feel like I got a good bang for my buck? Or would I feel like I’d rather had spent the money on something else?

Now, wait, how does this solve our “Apples to Apples” trap from above?

Come on Amber! If we’re grading on the curve of value then doesn’t that mean we’re still going to have those $10 wines that someone thinks is drinking pretty good for a $10 wine and those $40 wines that someone else thinks is drinking pretty good for a $40 both get 90 points?

Yes, and that’s precisely the point.

Instead of painting critic scores as an “objective” assessment of intrinsic quality, we’re letting it be a subjective assessment of value. A $10 wine that drinks pretty good compared to other $10 wines should be highlighted as worthwhile just as a $40 wine should be assessed among its peers.

Instead of being a trap, we turn our bounty of 90 point wines into bushels–each with their own kinds of apples. That’s certainly preferable to the wine industry’s current gig of tossing all these apples into a tub filled with water and wishing the consumer “Good Luck!”

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The Real Influencers of the Wine World

Earlier this month, the Drinks Insight Network published their top ten influential wine experts in the beverage industry. They highlighted 10 Twitter accounts with 17,000-245,000 followers and a ranking of at least 54 on GlobalData’s “influencer score”.

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

Yes, that is Kevin Bacon.

I follow all these accounts on Twitter and it’s not a bad recommendation to check them out. But I only actively interact and read 2-3 of them–Jamie Goode (@jamiegoode), Robert Joseph (@robertjoseph) and Ken Alawine (@alawine). I follow Goode and Joseph for their engaging dialogue about wine topics while Alawine’s feed is a nice diversion of fun memes and infographics.

I don’t think I’ve ever been influenced to buy a wine mentioned by any of them.

And I’m an active social media user who is already motivated to seek out wine stuff.

If I’m so minorly influenced by the most prominent influencers, then what kind of influence do these folks (as well as other influencers/bloggers) really have on the typical wine consumer?

Do You Want The Brutal Truth? 

Very little.

I know this post is not going to make me friends among my fellow bloggers or “influencers”. But I can’t forget about my past life before I really started blogging. In addition to several years working wine retail, I studied winemaking at the Northwest Wine Academy with thoughts of one day opening up my own winery.

Bottling wine

One of my favorite photos from winemaking school. Featured here is my mentor, Peter Bos.

While I’ve moved on from that goal, I still have many friends who work at or own wineries in the Pacific Northwest. When I talk to them about my experiences working in the trenches selling wines like theirs, I’m not going to bullshit them.

I know how tough it is for a small winery to compete in a saturated market. With time and money scarce, I’m not going to encourage my friends to waste either chasing the favor of “influencers”–especially if it’s not really going to help them sell wine.

Yeah, this is a self-defeating post for a blogger to write. Oh well. But I will share with you the same advice I give my winemaker friends. While this is, of course, anecdotal, it’s drawn from my years of helping tens of thousands of consumers while working as a wine steward at a major grocery store chain and a big-box retailer.

It’s also the advice that I would put into practice myself if I started my own winery. There are real influencers out there that drive people to a store looking for wines. But few of them would rank an “influencer score”.

The #1 Influencer — Friends and Family

In over seven years working on the floor, I’ve never had a customer come in with a blog post, Instagram or tweet on their phone looking for a wine. Again, anecdotal, but that is the stark truth.

However, every single day I would have multiple customers come in looking for a wine that a friend or family member recommended to them. These personal recommendations are, by far, the most valuable currency in the industry—and not just in wine.

Of course, friends and family are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can consider some social media influence from outside sources. But the reach of a blogger or “influencer” is going to be indirect and weaken with each link away from that personal connection.

The Bacon number of wine

A Few Good Men and some Sleepers

Essentially if we want to “Kevin Bacon” this, your best influencers are going to be the folks with a Bacon number of 1. When you start getting 2 steps or more removed from the consumer, the amount of influence dwindles considerably.

Advice for Wineries

Remember, keep your eye on the Bacon.

Personal recommendations from friends and family are more valuable than 90+ points from a famous critic. Wineries should seek these recommendations out every bit as aggressively as they court a high score.

Many wineries allow wine club members to bring guests to the tasting room for free. But I can’t think of many who do “friends and family” wine club events. Most events allow their members to bring only a single guest who is usually going to be a spouse.

How does that help you grow your clientele list? Think about expanding that allowance to 3-4 guests as well as promotions that reward current customers for referrals.

#2 Restaurant By-The-Glass Programs

While Millennials tend to be more adventurous than previous generations, there is always a risk in accepting a recommendation. For many, the risk of paying $7-20 for a glass pour of wine at a restaurant is more appealing than spending $25+ for a full bottle at a store.

After personal recommendations from friends and family, the second biggest driver of consumers to my wine shops was the desire to find something they had at a restaurant. Once in a while, a customer would be seeking something they ordered a bottle of but the vast majority of the time it was something they had from the BTG list.

Advice for Wineries
Photo by Iwona Erskine-Kellie. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

There is a reason why the big mega-corps focus so heavily on their on-premise accounts.

Getting on restaurant wine lists should always be a priority for small wineries. In many ways, it is the perfect setting for people to have their first experience with your wine–with great food and great company.

Placement on the BTG list is even more valuable than being on the general wine list. The intimidation factor is less while the openness to explore is greater. Of course, well-run programs will have talented sommeliers that can hand sell the entire list. However, there are very few consumers (like me) who indulge in things like playing the Somm Game.

Plus, for those consumers who are open to recommendations, the odds are better for your wine getting a BTG recommendation from the sommelier than getting one of your bottles recommended from the full list. Think about it. You’re competing against a dozen or so options by-the-glass versus potentially hundreds of bottle options.

I know competition for placement in these programs is high and brings a lot of challenges. But I firmly believe that the effort pays more dividends than chasing online influencers.

#3 First-Hand Winery Experience

While the influencers above drove more people to my shops, this is the area where wineries most control their destinies. Of course, the quality of your wine should be of paramount importance but second only to that should be the type of experience guests get in your tasting rooms.

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

I know the sight of a “Bridesmaid Brigade” fills tasting rooms with dread. But they are all prospective customers, even if they don’t buy jack on that first visit.

Living so close to Woodinville Wine Country and within driving distance of all the major wine regions in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen the best and worst of tasting room experiences. I’ve also heard on the floor, from consumers, the best and worst as well.

The best experiences give people a reason to be excited about a winery. Often people visit 2-4 wineries on a trip, so the goal should be to stand out positively. Every tasting room is going to be pouring wine. That’s old hat. The memorable wineries are the ones that give their guests something more than just booze.

Advice for Wineries

I can not emphasize enough the importance of making sure you have a great staff working your tasting rooms. Pay the good ones well and work like hell to retain that talent. They are truly the difference between bringing home the bacon or burning it to a crisp.

I can’t count how many times I recommended a wine only to have a customer recount a bad tasting room experience that they (or friends and family) had. Even if it was several years ago when the winery was owned by someone else, it was a non-starter.

If I started a winery, I would take this Maya Angelou quote and frame it in my tasting room.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. — Maya Angelou

#4 Published Media “Best of…” lists and Wine Competition Awards

My last retail holiday season was 2017 but I remember it quite well. This is when all the “Top Wines of the Year” and “Best of….” lists come out. It seems like every newspaper and magazine publishes some year-end compendium.

For retailers, these lists are both blessings and a royal pain in the ass. They’re easy sales because consumers come in ready to buy and you can fill their basket in 3 to 5 minutes—that is, if you happen to have the exact wine and vintages. The pain in the ass comes from nearly all these lists featuring wines of limited availability (sometimes even winery-only) or from a vintage long sold out.

Advice for Wineries
Photo by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-4.0

Customers coming into a wine shop with an actual print copy of a wine magazine is becoming rarer and rarer.

I ranked this one #4 but it could have easily been #5. The influence of traditional print media is certainly fading. When I first got into retail, I would almost weekly have customers coming in with the latest copy of Wine Spectator or the local newspaper critic’s column. Now it seems mostly concentrated on these year-end lists.

I’ve also noticed that the clientele that actively uses these lists skew older as well. Again, only anecdotal, but I suspect that the influence of these media sources will only continue to wane with the growing prominence of Millennials and Generation Z in the market.

Likewise, I see less excitement and influence surrounding wine competitions every year. But there is still some fight in the old girl. Personally, I don’t think they should have much any influence but people like shiny things. Wine competitions dish out lots and lots of shiny things.

For my own winery, I would still be entering competitions and sending samples out to the traditional print media. However, I wouldn’t put all my eggs in these baskets and focus more on the top #1-3 influencers above.

But you ultimately can’t discount the easy sales that a winery can get with prominent list placement. Nor can you downplay the influence that even a silly bronze medal sticker has in making a wine stand out on the shelf.

#5 Wine Apps

Wine apps with Yelp-like rating systems are another thing that I think shouldn’t hold much influence–but they do. As I described in my post Naked and Foolish, I think these apps are incredibly gameable and ripe for misuse.

My apprehensions aside, I realize that wine consumers (particularly the younger set) are downloading and using them. It’s not yet a considerable quantity, hence my #5 ranking, but it is growing. Before I left retail, I would see maybe a handful of customers a week whipping out their phones and scanning bottles to see how many “stars” something got. I can only expect that number to increase.

Advice for Wineries
Wine Searcher screen grab

While not necessarily a rating app itself, I often saw consumers on the floor using WineSearcher to check prices and critic scores.

While I doubt that wine apps would ever supplant the top 3 influencers, it is nonetheless a Bacon number 1 influencer that shouldn’t be ignored.

At the very least, I would recommend that wineries download these apps and pay attention to what scores their wines are getting from consumers. For small wineries that aren’t likely to get many inputs, it is probably not a bad idea to upload nice pictures of your labels. That way when someone is searching for your wines they can find them more easily.

I would avoid the temptation to add your own ratings and take part in the easy gaming of these apps. But that’s just me.

#?? Recommendations of Wine Stewards/Sommeliers

As a steward on the floor with face-to-face contact with consumers, I carried a Bacon number of 1. But how influential I truly was depended on a lot of factors. This makes it difficult to give a blanket ranking on how influential stewards (and in the same vein, sommeliers) really are.

For customers that I interacted with often and built a relationship, my influence would be only behind that of the #1 influencer–family and friends. I earned trust by learning their palates and backing up my recommendations with my knowledge.

But more broadly, my influence probably fell in the #3-5 range depending on the consumer’s personality (i.e. willingness to seek out a recommendation) as well as their past experiences with other stewards and wine shops. It’s very easy for a consumer to feel burned by a bad recommendation that they received one time, from one person, and then be skeptical about any recommendations they get–from anyone.

The hiring prowess and training programs of a wine shop/restaurant have an immeasurable impact on how influential their stewards and somms will be.

Advice for Wineries
Picture with Jean Triaud of Ch. Gloria

A pic from my retail days where I had a chance to meet Jean Triaud, the grandson of Ch. Gloria’s founder Henri Martin.
Trying the wine was nice, but I was able to introduce many more consumers to Ch. Gloria’s wines through the stories and insights that Jean shared.

After family and friends, wine stewards and sommeliers have the potential to be the second most potent influencer selling your wine. I would give the nod to a winery’s own tasting room staff vis-à-vis, but when you add up how many people visit your tasting room versus the numbers that visit wine shops and restaurants, the potential is higher with the latter.

It is undoubtedly in a winery’s best interests to influence these influencers. These are the folks that are in the trenches presenting your wine to consumers. They have the potential to move far more cases of your wine than a blogger like me ever will.

But it is not just about getting wine stewards and sommeliers to try your wines. Keep in mind that they’re likely getting samples, trips and other perks from dozens upon dozens of other wineries.

You need to sell them on what makes your winery unique and distinctive, just like you do to a consumer face-to-face. Successful wineries reach out to wine stewards and sommeliers and give them tools (great stories, behind-the-scenes insights, etc.) that they can share to the thousands of consumers they interact with yearly.

I’m not saying that bloggers and social media influencers have zero influence, though.

I don’t want to come across as slamming my fellow bloggers or denigrating their efforts. I know we’re all working hard to make original and useful content that people will want to read. Believe me; I feel the same flutter of excitement and gratification looking at page views and subscription numbers as you do.

But the truth is, is that we are, at best, Bacon number 2s when it comes to the true reach of our influence. We have some influence, but it is quite limited.

We can contribute content that shows up on Google searches when an already engaged and intrigued consumer looks for more info on a wine. Indeed, this is the area where we probably exert the most influence which is why creating original and compelling content is critical.

But that audience of actively engaged consumers is still relatively small. And those prospective consumers needs to be initially “engaged” by something else before they start searching–often by things in the Bacon number 1 realm like sommeliers and wine stewards.

Photo from Renee Comet of the National Cancer Institute. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-author

Engage bacon is by far the most influential bacon.

Now bloggers and social media influencers can certainly influence those sommeliers and wine stewards. Stepping back and thinking about my retail days, I most certainly read blogs and got intrigued by wines.

However, when I step back further and look at the blogging and “wine influencer” scene–when I look at what I’m doing–I realize that we are mostly just influencing ourselves.

Spend any amount of time scanning the comments and likes on Instagram of notable wine influencers and you start seeing a pattern.
It’s the same people talking to each other.

Now, truthfully, that is great because this is a community that abounds with terrific friendships. One of the most edifying results of attending the Wine Bloggers Conference was meeting fellow bloggers that I could geek out with.

But we can’t mistake shared passion for influence.
Photo by J.Dncsn. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Non-engaged bacon.
This is how I view my blog posts. They’re an ingredient that needs to be “cooked” before its sweet aroma influences anyone.

Wineries that invest hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars sending out samples to influencers are not getting their money’s worth. Especially compared to the return on investment they could get focusing on the Top 3 influencers I noted above.

Preaching to the choir will never bring people off the streets and into the pews. And getting people off the streets to check out wines is the whole point of marketing. It’s what wineries need to do in order to survive.

That is why when my good friends with wineries approach me about sampling their wines for review, I’ll accept them–but I’m not going to mislead them about my “influence.” I know that there are better ways that they could be spending their time and money.

And sharing that might be my real influence.

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