Wine Competition Conundrums: Too Much of a Good Thing?

This article originally appeared in Wine Business Monthly on May 29, 2019. Thank you to Erin Kirschenmann and editorial staff for sharing with this with your readers.

I’m getting push-back from my clients. Not on sending wines for review, but for submitting them to competitions. I agree with this in principal, as the number of wine competitions has proliferated over the last 10 years, as have the number of medal categories and wines awarded. Let’s examine these two issues – the increased number of competitions and awards – and lay out some considerations to help inform your decisions.

Too many wine competitions? The number of wineries in the U.S. and globally has grown exponentially, and everyone is contending for the attention of wholesalers and consumers. Receiving awards is a way to brand differentiate and gain marketing clout. How to choose those most impactful to your business? I asked two competition professionals about the “landscape” of today’s competitions.

Erin James, editor of Seattle based Sip Northwest Magazine sums up the situation. “There is such a dynamic spread of style in wine competitions across the country, from the “little league” variations where nearly everyone gets some sort of medal to more stringent operations like ours – Sip Northwest Best of the Northwest – that only awards medals to a top set of winners. I don’t think one way is better or more accurate than the other, just different options. I would like to see more competitions providing feedback to producers from judges, and elevated judging panels to ensure that feedback is educated.”

Eric Degerman, CEO of Great Northwest Wine and founder of multiple competitions summarizes why he believes medals still matter to consumers: “So within the wine industry, just as it with many things in our society, there continues to be a desire for third-party endorsement.” This makes sense as the number of wineries in the U.S alone exceeds 10,000. It is expected that the number of import wines into U.S. markets will soon exceed that. Offering consumers purchase guidance, as simple as medals awarded, appears to have some competitive value.

Too many medals awarded? Many competitions are giving out too many awards as a percentage of total entries. I think there are two main reasons for this. 1) The quality of wine has improved in all regions due to technology and winemaking experience, and 2) competitions are giving more awards because the revenue generated by competition managers is significant. More awards given equates to more wines submitted, and may lead to additional ad revenues, i.e. label placements, website ads, etc. However, the cost-benefit of awards seems less significant as the percentage of total wines awarded has increased. This also raises the quality of judging panel question. Are there enough qualified judges to go around? And, how are they performing overall? Consider the following studies.

In 2008, Robert Hodgson, Professor Cal State Humboldt, studied the performance of wine judges at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition, and published his report in the Journal of Wine Economics. His exhaustive analysis looked at judge consistency in re-evaluating the same wines, and concordance of results across multiple competitions. You can go to the American Association of Wine Economics website, pay a fee or download from a university library to view the full reports. The net results were that neither judge consistency or wine scores are reliable or consistent. They concluded:

  • Perfect judges do not exist
  • Judges are biased after discussion
  • Male judges are about as good as female judges
  • Judges tend to increase their scores after discussion

In 2018, a French study evaluated whether winning medals in wine competitions affects price increases. In his summary review of the study, Dave Nershi, of Vino-Sphere compares French wine studies with what’s happening in the “New World”, and says “the study shows winning a medal has a strong effect on wine prices, however the prestige of the competition makes a big difference. In France, regulations prohibit awarding more than 33% of participating wines. Some contests are even more strict. Winning a Gold medal in Bordeaux is certainly meaningful – and apparently you can take that to the bank”. The study suggests a 13% increase in prices for Gold medals, and about 4% for anything less. You can read the entire French study here. Dave added, “This study is focused on France, and so it isn’t clear to what extent the findings apply to the U.S.”

I asked a few Willamette Valley clients to comment. Richard Boyles, founder of Iris Vineyards in Eugene offers this: “Awards from competitions keep Iris Vineyards’ wines in the eyes of the public and give consumers permission to try a bottle they may not have tried before. This also reinforces the perceptiveness of Iris’ loyal followers.” Tom Fitzpatrick, winemaker of Alloro Vineyard in Sherwood adds his criteria for selecting competitions: “I choose specific national competitions that are well organized, attract high caliber judges, and get some national attention. I see value with the judges, who are often buyers and influencers, being exposed to our wines. There may be some consumer exposure value, although with the large number of wines and the large number awards given, this value is less than I once thought.” Wayne Bailey, Youngberg Hill Vineyards in McMinnville sums up his view: “ I choose competitions for brand building, market base, reputation with buyers, and legitimacy of the competition.”

Will Goldring, who in 2002 founded Enofile Online, an online wine competition management system, currently provides services to over 40 wine competitions nationally. Will says “Most of the competitions we help manage are long-standing for several years, and a few are newly minted. From our perspective, success factors include association with a major media outlet or renowned event, and post-competition publicity and/or events that generate sales. I would say about 30% of the competitions we manage have significant post-competition events that make a really big impact in recognition and subsequent sales.”

Should you submit wines?

I think the two key questions are – what is your goal in submitting wines, and whose purchase decisions are you trying to influence – trade, distributors or consumers? Here are some competition strategies to consider 1) Current Vintages – submit wines that are available in your tasting room, online store, in out of state markets 2) Core Wines – submit large production or flagship wines to support distribution sales 3) Judging Panel – who are they, what are their professional bona fides, readership and influence? What are their palate preferences and where are they from, i.e. home palate? 4) Tasting Process – how are the wines being evaluated, categorized and tasted? Will your wines show well? 5) Residual Marketing Value – what is the reach of the event, will the results be promoted in print and online, and will you receive digital badges for content marketing? 6) Consumer Events – are there events and is there an option to participate? 7) Costs? Consider entry fees and bottles required against all the above.

Here’s a perspective from Michael Cervin, a 20-year wine journalist, and 15-year wine judge who likes judging panels that benefit the wineries. “The more progressive competitions disallow winemakers as part of the panel because typically, based on my own and competition directors’ experiences, winemakers find flaws and faults in wine, when the goal is to award wines. Therefore, when looking for ROI, journalists, wine buyers and distributors make up a large segment, at least here in California, in part because they write about the winning wines, they buy the winning wines for their wine lists, and they sign up wines for distribution.” This speaks to the key points of differentiation of wine competitions. Does it help build my brand? Is there marketing impact? Will there be print and digital media announcing the results? Does the competition have readers, subscribers, an email list, social media followers? Otherwise, medals without marketing are an expensive proposition.

Finally, if you are not familiar with how competitions work, read this article by Erin James, Behind the scenes of a Wine Competition, which reviews the McMinnville Wine & Food Classic – Sip! wine competition. Erin also judges and hosts a competition for her magazine and shares some thoughts on the benefits to wineries who enter competitions. “If they place or win, clout and influence! That lauded reputation is a sales and marketing tool to connect with consumers. Another advantage is to receive feedback from judges, to make the product better in the future. Top priority for our Best of the Northwest competition has always been to share the results in our magazine, and to build the year’s best drinks shopping list. We are adding an option for producers this year to receive feedback on their submissions, to ultimately bring more value to their entries.”

As always, there is a cost to enter and to advertise your winning medals. I wouldn’t consider this unless the competition does a good job of promoting award winners and has reach and readers that matter. Competitions are also worth considering as part of your retail strategy. Awards are good marketing content for retailers, to feature as signage and shelf talkers if this is part of your overall sales plan. In the end, that bottle necker or end of isle display may be what inspires a consumer to grab your wines first.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s enjoyed 10 years of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations and communications consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

Winery PR Doesn’t Sell Wine!

Winery PR Doesn’t Sell Wine!

Winery PR does not directly sell wine, nor is it intended to do so. This is not a retraction from my previous article – Does Media Coverage Help Me Sell Wine? Media Relations is about showing the media real stories and wines that fit what they need or want to write about. Communications professionals and publicists help you earn media by trying to influence and facilitate that coverage.

I recently heard a tasting room staffer state “There are two types of wine. The kind you like and the kind you don’t”. I believe there is a third type – the kind you haven’t yet experienced. And that is why wine is a “Discovery” item for consumers. PR’s job is to facilitate discovery through media coverage. Therefore, PR is about lead generation not about sales generation. Unfortunately many wineries do not understand this or can’t afford to engage in a media relations campaign.

While media coverage can have an immediate impact on sales, doing these types of communications and outreach are more akin to a triathlon than a sprint, not one off projects based on cash flow need, backed up inventory, facility openings and new wine releases.

There are also those winery owners/winemakers who believe all they need are great scores in Wine Spectator to sell wine. Due to score inflation and the mountain of wines submitted (estimated 1,200 – 1,500 labels/month), even Wine Spectator scores don’t matter these days unless you receive 94+ points. What happens if your current vintage marks are sub-par? Is this when you start up your PR efforts?

What does a winery PR campaign look like?

I get inquiries all the time asking about winery PR, and what exactly do I do? The short answer is that I help wineries sell wine by generating media coverage and wine reviews for their brands. Why is that important? There are three reasons. Media coverage 1) implies endorsement from a third party authority 2) introduces your winery to new customers, who will hopefully seek out your brand and 3) provides valuable marketing content for existing customers, followers and subscribers.

  • Consumers need validation, whether from a journalist telling your story or reviewer rating your wines. You can’t rely on Spectator and Enthusiast ratings alone.
  • You can’t keep going back to the same well. There are simply too many wonderful new wineries out there and customer attrition can be brutal
  • Third party content helps you to stay connected and market to existing customers and subscribers, and reminds them of their patronage by sharing your accolades (articles, reviews, scores). More brand impressions and touch points breed the idea of familiarity and quality.

Can you afford not do have an active PR Program?

Sadly and honestly, I believe the answer is negative. Here are three current news items to consider. The big players control the game because 1) large distributors already control the second tier 2) the largest producers will soon control their own second tier 3) legislation benefits the large players the most

  • Consider the consolidation of distributors for a moment. I recently read that New York State fined Southern Glazer $3.5M for bribery, aka pay-to-play with their retailers. With this much money at stake this comes as no surprise. The current wholesaler “mob” and the largest retailers are winning at this game and small production wineries are not in play.
  • Fred Franzia of Bronco wines (Two Buck Chuck) is building its own rail and freight systems to move wine direct to retailers and reduce their shipping costs. This of course increases their margins and puts additional price pressure on everyone else.
  • The recent federal reduction in winery excise tax barely benefits wineries with 5,000 cases of production. The sweet spot is about 100,000 cases if I understand the tax tables correctly. Are you one of the 85% of wineries in the U.S. with less than 5,000 cases?

So what’s a small winery to do?

The answer is not necessarily to engage in PR efforts and media campaigns, not if you aren’t ready. The answer may be to get ready quick. Here are three actionable things you can do now. I suggest you start by 1) identifying your winery’s next marketing role 2) enhancing your winery’s position in your local and regional marketing associations and 3) having your media and trade readiness evaluated by a professional consulting firm or trusted industry advisor.

  • Marketing positions might include tasting room manager (assuming you still manage TR staff) responsible for goals and functions related to consumer direct sales; direct sales manager (assuming you have a tasting room manager) responsible for all aspects of direct sales including tasting room, wine club, offsite and onsite events, and even direct to trade sales; wine club manager once you club gets to critical mass (about 500 active accounts); marketing manager (assuming you don’t have someone else with strong experience in digital marketing) responsible for all platforms including email, blogging, website maintenance, social marketing, etc.
  • Winery associations are getting more involved and getting more requests from writers, buyers and distributors, and are increasing sharing information and recommendations with members. Volunteer for the member board and participate in the marketing committees to stay ahead.
  • Are you trade and media ready?

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 10th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

How to Taste with Professional Reviewers and Critics

Sampling your wines is important. Writers will not review your wines unless you send and they taste them. Even better than just sending samples? Invite professional reviewers and wine critics to visit you at the winery. How better to understand your dirt, special sense of place, the facility where wines are produced, and to meet you, the winemaker in situ?

What to do, what not to do?

If you assume that most small producers have a plan for such visits you would be wrong. I’ve found many wineries that rely on personal interaction to engage consumers and casual wine media do not necessarily know what to do with professional reviewers. This article is based on a conversation with Rusty Gaffney aka Prince of Pinot (www.princeofpinot.com) who has been writing his eponymous Pinot Noir devoted newsletter for over 15 years. Rusty accepts shipped samples of Pinot Noir from around the world, but what I find compelling about his program is that he actually makes it a point to visit wineries and taste onsite whenever possible. Also, Rusty has received winemakers in Orange County where he lives. Feel free to contact him if you’re working the market or if you’ll be in Southern California.

Our interactions were intended to demonstrate how to receive a wine critic and what to do specifically to make the critic’s limited time useful and leave the most favorable impression possible. As Rusty says “This is the kind of stuff they don’t teach at UC Davis or OSU”. Here’s what we discussed and Rusty’s candid and detailed responses.

Conduct a focused tasting that is well prepared in advance

Rusty: Organize the tasting – either finished bottles or barrel – based on the time of year and how you can best show off your wines. It can’t be emphasize enough that the winery needs to be prepared ahead of time and well organized so the reviewer is comfortable and can perceive that preparations have been made in advance.

Rusty: I believe the winemaker should be prepared ahead of time with some idea of how he/she plans to utilize our time together. They can give options but should have planned the options ahead of time considering when wines were bottled and what wines in barrel are appropriate to taste at that time. If it is a sit down finished bottle tasting, the tech sheets on each wine each wine should be available at the tasting so I don’t have to keep asking details including MSRP. Prepare and hand out appropriate information about the winery/yourself. Water should always be available as well as spit cups/receptacles.

Rusty: The winery should dictate the tasting and not ask the reviewer what they want to taste unless the reviewer demands certain arrangements.

Carl: I was just at a long standing professional wine conference with 30 wineries pouring. There were 2 dump buckets in total, both became immediately full. There were no water pitchers or stations anywhere near the event space. How is it possible to miss those details?

Sit down Versus Stand up tastings

Rusty: Have a sit down venue available if possible with proper glassware, water, spit cups, pen, paper, and wine tech sheets that include the date of release and MSRP.

Consider giving writer time to taste alone and then discuss the wines. The last time I went to Willamette Valley, one of the wineries had five vintages of the same wine lined up with glasses and allowed me to taste in private before discussing. And they didn’t interrupt. I liked this. It is hard to adequately taste wines when the winemaker is hovering over you and engaging you in conversation. On the other hand, it is very helpful to have the winemaker’s insight and comments, and general impressions about the vintage and wines are welcome information to the reviewer as long as they are not obviously over enthusiastic.

Carl: Offering a private space to accommodate writers that to taste privately is an excellent idea. You can show them what you’ve setup when they arrive and ask if they’ like to taste alone. If so, revisit the wines with them after and answer questions they may have.

Create a Relaxed Meeting Experience

Rusty: Make yourself available over a generous time period. The writer should determine how long the encounter will be. The mood should be relaxed and not rushed. It is important to talk personally beyond the wine and winery discussion to give the writer insight into yourself and provide background info for a write up.

Carl: If the tasting takes place in a public space such as your tasting room, have someone there to take care of other guests during open hours. I know this sounds obvious but I’ve seen winemakers dashing between tasting guests and media and it makes a negative impression.

What to Say/Not to Say to Writers

Rusty: Do not discuss finances of the winery or how difficult it is to get distribution.

Rusty: the winery should know in advance how much time the reviewing critic plans to spend at the winery. The winery or publicist should inquire ahead of time about the time frame of the visiting reviewer.

Carl: Upbeat and heartfelt personal greetings matter. Show the writer what you have prepared and planned for their visit. See if the setup meets their expectations. If you are working with a publicist they will typically know how the writer likes to interact and taste through the wines. If you are uncertain of their schedule or if they are running late, ask how much time they have allowed and keep to that schedule unless they would like to extend.

Carl: Be sure to have some key brand points of difference ready to share at the right time. Although this is a formal tasting, personalities and relationships matter. They may love your wines but may not make the extra effort to write if you don’t make a personal connection and if the experience is somehow uniquely not memorable. No, it’s not all about the wine.

Carl:  There is no need to tell the writer your opinions before they taste. Your personal preferences for a specific vintage or style of wine are not necessarily theirs.

Wrapping Up

Rusty: Offer to give the writer opened bottle(s) as they may wish to re-taste later. Also, giving an unopened bottle is a nice gesture for the writer’s time and makes an impression.

Rusty: Always send the writer a follow-up email within 24 hours thanking them for the visit and offering any further information or samples needed. Invite them back anytime if appropriate.

Carl: If you are not working with a PR firm or have communications staff, be certain to let the reviewer know you have bottle and label images and any other winery asset they might need. High resolution photography is not optional (yes, I mean no iPhone bottle shots!).

Rusty: It also is critical that the winery uses the reviewer visits in all their social media (take a photo of reviewer at winery) and on their website. The fact that a reviewer spent the time to come to their winery is a Huge marketing ploy. Be sure to give the reviewer who visits recognition in every way possible. No reviewer who chooses to visit should be minimized.

Remember, reviewer visits are a FREE marketing advantage and I cannot overemphasize the importance of the reviewer’s impression after the winery visit. I receive many inquiries from readers asking advice about what wineries to visit, and the impression winery’s earn will have a major impact on what wineries I recommend. Those that reach out to me to receive recommendations are serious wine buyers and these are the type of customers that wineries want to embrace.

Carl: If you are successful getting important wine critics to visit your winery, and if they like the wines and review them or write a feature article about your brand and wines; please be certain to get the article or wine review online links; a copy of the article if in print and use the content in your marketing. Be sure to tag the author, and use proper hashtags so others see the content. This will drive up the value perception of your brand, and we all know how difficult it is to get attention in today’s marketplace, so be sure to leverage the opportunity.

WILLIAM “RUSTY” GAFFNEY, MD, aka the “Prince of Pinot,” is a retired ophthalmologist who has had a love affair with Pinot Noir for nearly forty years. Upon retirement from medicine, he devoted his energies to writing the PinotFile at princeofpinot.com, an online newsletter that was among the first wine publications exclusively devoted to Pinot Noir. Rusty tastes Pinot Noir almost daily, reads about Pinot Noir constantly through all of the available resources on wine, and visits Pinot Noir producing regions frequently. He also leads wine tours, organizes wine tastings and wine dinners, and participates as a judge in wine competitions. He can be reached by email at prince@princeofpinot.com.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 9th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25 years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

Does Media Coverage Help Me Sell Wine?

The Ultimate Question. The Ultimate Answer?

The only question more difficult than this one for a publicist is “Show me exactly how much wine I sold as a result of the media coverage you obtained for us”.

I was on the phone with a longtime client recently, and received a question I didn’t expect – Does media coverage help us sell wine? – It’s a difficult and broad discussion, and there are so many ways to respond, so instead I deferred and asked “Maybe you can be more specific”?

Let me give this a shot. Generally speaking I would say yes, although it’s difficult to quantify. But I think the question could more appropriately be – Does media coverage encourage consumers to buy wine from us eventually? – as I don’t think there is an instant and direct correlation (with the possible exception of 94+ point scores in Spectator and a few other high end publications) between media hits and selling wine. The reason for this is that people buy from brands they trust and have experienced. Short of that, consumers rely on 3rd party expert opinions to justify their purchases and loyalty. Readers respect writer’s opinions, much as they trust selected wine shop’s palates to guide their purchases.

Media coverage is one aspect of a comprehensive marketing program, and if you aren’t getting media endorsements – articles, reviews, scores – about your winery and wines, it creates an additional barrier to entry for consumers as they have too much choice and information to sort through these days. So yes, media coverage helps new customers discover your brand and wines, which should eventually lead to sales. The point is staying top of mind, and when the time is right and someone is ready to buy you should reap the harvest (couldn’t resist that analogy).

Andy Perdue of Great Northwest Wine says “ I ask wineries featured in my Seattle Times column what kind of consumer feedback they got, and it ranges from a few calls and sales to the phone ringing off the hook, and a ton of sales and wine club signups. I also get feedback from wine shop owners mentioning upticks in sales when the column comes out. And if I review a wine that is difficult to find or happens to be sold out, I hear about it from the consumer.” Andy’s partner Eric Degerman adds that “Wineries can do themselves a favor by quoting and linking back to reviews of wines. Sharing on social media is important. And promoting a post for $20 will often get a lot of good reactions from consumers.”

Tracking the impact of an article via website analytics is worth the effort but tricky. You can correlate spikes of traffic within 7-10 days of an article or magazine review, but it is anecdotal at best. How many readers signed up for your email list after reading an article or review? What about Social Media follows and engagement? You can track these pre-sales actions, but you can’t track sales as easily. However, you now can market directly to those new subscribers, resultant from the media coverage, and hopefully eventually sell them wine. It is an ongoing process and requires vision and patience.

Online articles about your brand are directly track-able when linked back to the winery’s site. If you place a related ad, you can use promo codes for readers of those publications. You know exactly how many visitors came from that coverage because of the unique link or code, and if they purchased.

There are other potential results of media coverage to consider – What about retail store purchases? The wine shop or restaurant customer sees your winery on the list, and recognizes the brand, somehow. Maybe they don’t know from where or why but feel comfortable making a purchase because of some previous media impression. So no, media coverage doesn’t typically directly sell wine, but it greases the skids and removes barriers to enable new customer to find you and purchase your products.

That’s all fine and good and understood, but here is an even tougher question from said client – How do we get the writer’s audience to take action, i.e. to buy our wines? Should the writer be promoting wines that they like to their readers?

This brings us into the cutting edge realm of “Influencer Marketing” which is a hybrid of earned media and advertising, and includes both “they” (the writers) and “we” (the winery) promoting action. Where we want to be extremely careful is not to be perceived as collaborating with writers on advertorials like certain wine travel magazines offer, because people are savvy to that, and professional writers and reviewers lose credibility. There are writers for hire that are more focused on billings than investigative journalism that you can approach to promote your brand.

So how do we get THEIR readers to take action? – It is not the writers’ job to sell your wine as this is conflict of interest for any objective journalist. It is your job to leverage their content in your marketing.  See my article on using media coverage in your content marketing.

One way to leverage articles and reviews is to advertise on their site, place a banner ad or pay for a review. Take a look at Catherine Fallis’ Planet Grape website as an example – upper right hand corner are banner ads. Consumers will hopefully click, which could lead to sales. There are many other ways to pay-to-play with wine reviewers such as The Sommelier Company who will review your wines for a fee. I don’t believe the paid nature influences the actual score, although this always depends on the integrity of the reviewer or publication.

Another example are video reviewers who are paid to review wines, and will say nice and positive things, and post the video on YouTube and their social sites exposing your brand to their followers. I am also actively talking to other influencers in the wine, food and travel industries, and other outlets about doing the same. I think this is a better, superior option to simply running static print ads, and should be part of an overall advertising budget. Vetting the source, type of consumers and marketing program is a must before dedicating advertising dollars to any project.

In the end, no winery can afford not to do all the things that generate sales – either directly or indirectly – including marketing, PR and paid advertising (including Influencer marketing). It’s just too competitive out there and consumers have too much choice.

I think most of you inherently know this, so hopefully this article offers some points of clarification on the topic. Bottom line – Wineries will get more out of media coverage when they put more into it after it’s published. Please comment or email and let me know your thoughts.

Kudos to one of my long time client for continuing to ask the tough questions. You know who you are!

CARL GIAVANTI is Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background. He’s going on his 8th year of winery consulting. Carl has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25-years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery media relations consultant.  Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge.  (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

 

Winery PR in a Pay-to-Play World

Where have all the Wine Writers gone?

I recently bumped into Karen MacNeil at the 8th annual Wine Bloggers Conference. She was scheduled as the keynote speaker. We had just arrived from Chicago into Elmira, a small regional airport that services visitors to Corning and the Finger Lakes wine region. While waiting for our bags we got to talking.

I learned that Karen will soon release the 2nd edition of her “Wine Bible.” It has taken four years to update and is very comprehensive. I asked her “How many ‘A List’ writers are still working today in the U.S.?” Her response was “Around ten,” which gave me great pause.

I took Karen’s response to heart and decided to do some research during the conference. With so few “A-List” print outlets sporting a wine columnist these days; to whom does a winery publicist turn to promote their clients? At lunch I asked Tom Wark, an industry commentator and publicist, and Bill Ward of the Minneapolis Star Tribune how many serious wine writers they thought were still around. Their consensus was about 30-40. The last time I checked, I was tracking 100+ “A List” writers in my database. But… come to think of it, Bill St. John of the Chicago Tribune retired; Jon Bonne’ is no longer at the San Francisco Chronicle (although still writing); and Katherine Cole is writing infrequently for The Oregonian. Whatever the number of pro writers may be, getting quality endorsements and media coverage has become more challenging.

So what’s a winery to do?

With wine writers dwindling and journalism moving from print to the digital realm, your earned media options (coverage, accolades, and endorsements) have changed. There are costs associated with gaining recognition for your winery, but think of it as an investment in brand building. Do it wisely and you will be rewarded. I’ve always been an advocate of taking a balanced approach – in other words not putting all your wines in one basket. Here are some Pay-to-Play channels to consider from most obvious to least:

o Advertorial – I’m not a big fan, but the lines have been blurred and we’re living in a pay-to-play world. Touring & Tasting Magazine is a beautifully produced publication that is unabashedly pay-to-play. You pay, and they will write an article with photos to be published in its glossy magazine. Many consumers realize this is advertorial, some don’t. There are many other print publications whose editorial and placement may be influenced by those wineries that advertise. Again, I’m not an advocate but this has become a reality.

o Competitions – I have to wonder about the popularity of wine competitions with consumers. Do medals hanging on bottles collecting dust really impress? Do they influence purchase decisions? It seems like some competitions are moving to pay-to-play and everyone-is-a-winner approach. Winning categories may include Platinum, Double Gold, Gold, Silver, Double Bronze, Bronze… maybe I exaggerate but you get the point. But really, would you hang a Double Bronze medal on a bottle in your tasting room? I can just hear the urban wine sophisticates now: “Is that all you got?”

To be fair, I think that competitions are a reasonable starting point for developing wine regions, or small fledgling brands. Judging at state fairs and local competitions will help weed out poorly made wines from the rest of the lot. As always there is a cost – to enter and to advertise your winning medals, typically by paying for label image placement on the competition website. In my opinion, this is not worth doing unless there is residual marketing value provided by the competition sponsors, and there are only a handful of decent competitions that do a good job of promoting award winners and have reach. Competitions are also worth considering as part of your retail strategy. They are good content for retailers to feature in signage and shelf talkers if this is part of your overall marketing plan.

o Wine Scores – Everyone wants to be highly rated by the “Big 6” publications, and the reach and impact can be significant. However, because of growth in the number of wineries submitting (Wine Advocate estimates 1,000 wines per month), it has become so competitive that some publications are screening wines prior to acceptance (current Spectator and Advocate policies). Additionally, getting an 88 or 89 point score from one of the “Big 6” wine publications used to mean something. Today, with score inflation to consider many wineries don’t bother to promote scores below 90. Scores of 92 or above are now considered achievements, but to stand out you probably should consider paying for label placement (if offered as an option).

o Online Reviews – Pitching your story and identifying and sending samples to national, regional and local wine writers is important, especially in those strategic markets where your wines are available. There are many print journalists now writing or doing podcasts for their own sites, and many more serious online writers to consider, including the “Wine Bloggers” community. These influencers are the largest and most approachable source for 3rd party endorsements. After all, quality writing hasn’t changed, but the medium has, and in this case the lines are blurred but in a good way.

Traditional print journalists and online writers are equally and simply wine writers. Do they have a palate preference for your wines? Do they have a story interest in your brand? Do they write often? What is their reach? If they have a significant following and can influence brand awareness and sales, are they worth considering? By my estimation there are 200+ such online writers worth getting to know who write about U.S. wines.

A note about the Wine Bloggers Conference – About 225 wine writers and industry folks attended this year’s conference. Over the years, the seminar topics and conversations have centered on questions such as “Are we bloggers or writers?”, “Should there be wine writing certifications for bloggers?”, and “How to monetize your blog?” Today we have several success stories of the more prominent writers getting assignments for print publications, being hired as writing consultants, or by wineries in marketing, etc. This is a serious wine community that has continued to gain respect, and will achieve future prominence as editorial continues to move online.

Proof of their commitment to wine is that most write despite not being paid. Find those that write well, write often, and have significant visitors to their website and social platforms. There is the cost of shipping your wine to consider, but this seems a reasonable Pay-to-Play scenario. Online writers must disclose that they have received samples, and will not write unless they are compelled by the wines or something in the media kit triggers a story idea.

o Onsite Visits – invite local and visiting wine media to tour, taste and interview a winery spokesperson onsite. Giving a writer or group of writers (organized Media Event) exclusive and private access is the best experience you can produce, and with the correct follow-up should result in some form of winery publicity.

o Market Trips – Tastings with local writers in your hotel room, their office or over lunch. Yes, there’s a cost, but why not maximize time in market when not doing ride-alongs with your distributor?

Although these channels for earned media have crossed the line (in some cases) to pay-to-play, taking a diversified and cost effective approach can make sense. Aggregate total impressions from a variety of different sources – did the media hits drive website unique visits, page views, sharing and comments? Track and determine where you are having success. Keep a running tab of media hits, reviews and accolades and the concurrent bumps in newsletter signups, social follows and sales. Eliminate what is not working and update your PR plan often. Compare your Earned Media results to Paid Media (advertising) and Owned Media (content you produce on your website, blog, newsletters and social media) to determine the correct marketing mix. As one of my clients is fond of saying “We’re in this for the long haul, and every little bit helps.”

In my opinion, the end-game for earned media is to substantially increase your winery’s visibility and sales by placing the winery in front of the media, which in turn will increase awareness of the brand to consumers, which will organically translate to increased sales.

CARL GIAVANTI has been involved in business marketing and public relations for over 25-years; originally in technology, digital marketing and project management, and now as a winery marketing and media relations consultant. Carl started by focusing on DTC Marketing for wineries 7 years ago, and formed a Winery PR Consultancy over 3 years ago (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media). Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, the Carneros, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge.