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 ( Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, the Carneros, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge.

Get to Know Your Wine Blogger: They’re the New Media

By Alan Goldfarb

We in the wine public relations trade are witnessing the evolution of how we conduct our business. As liaisons between the wine industry and the nation’s media, many of us are realizing that we have to change the way we engage with writers and radio hosts; while identifying who those entities are. As the influence of the Wine Spectators and the Wine Advocates of the world begin to erode, it’ll take hard work to put eyeballs on your wine because wine writing and communication is entangled in an amorphous and ever-expanding sphere. Woe be it to those that don’t try to rein that world in and comprehend it. Otherwise, you’ll be left in the ashes as your brand tries to gain traction with the media, as concurrently wineries are running in place in the miasma of brand proliferation.

When my partner, Carl Giavanti and I began our media relations consultancy a few years ago, we boasted of a database (our strongest asset after our media relationships) comprised of about 800 media members – 75 percent of which were traditional print or broadcast radio people. Today, that list has grown to approximately 1,200 names – 65 percent we estimate, is made up of online writers , aka wine bloggers. What an unfolding development.

With that in mind; as well as intuitively understanding that online/blogging media members are rapidly and exponentially becoming our target audience, we set out in July for Buellton, north of Santa Barbara, for the Wine Bloggers Conference or as it’s known in the blogosphere, WBC.

That’s right, wine bloggers, for the last seven years, have been gathering in ever-increasing numbers in various wine regions for an annual confab where they meet and greet, listen to tales of how to conduct their craft (or hobby, as is often the case), and engage with each other in speed dating-like sessions in which tastings of wine – within about 15-second windows – are tweeted to anyone in the world who might be out there. The WBC, I suppose, enables wine bloggers to feel a part of something bigger than themselves, to revel in like-minded camaraderie, and to give a sort of legitimacy to their endeavors.

To those of us flack types; it was an arena in which 250 wine writers were gathered in the same place for three days with almost unfettered accessibility, to engage these new-world media members. The idea was to put a face in front of and to build relationships with those writers with the hopes that they’ll post something, sometime, about our clients.

Additionally, it was another opportunity for us – and the astute half-dozen or so other winery PR consultants who were also there working the room – to vett the writers in order to separate the more serious types from the hobbyists. The latter obviously have realized that writing a word here or there about wine, which is not larded with monetary rewards, does come with extraordinary perks. Or, as I witnessed at one seminar in which a professional blogger — who by a show of hands saw that no one(!) in the room was making a living writing about wine — suggested there were other ways to line one’s pockets. To which about half the participants, in unison and sotto voce giggled, “W-i-n-e”. Meaning: the opportunity to receive abundant free samples of wine. The requisite apparently, was to post a few words once in a while – sometimes superficially or lacking in original thought – in order to have samples delivered to one’s door.

That’s part of why it’s so difficult to know which writers will bring your winery the most rewards and why it’s imperative to try and grasp who is doing what on the vast Internet. Carl and I go through an arduous series of vetting protocols and hierarchies to understand with which writers we want to put our clients and their wines together.

It’s a Sisyphus’s task to collect any real data on how much traffic a writer’s blog or site attracts. Numbers from multiple sources vary wider than a pitcher’s curveball. But if one is paying attention and digs deep into where a blogger may have some penetration, a pattern emerges as to whose stories, reviews, and mentions have meaning.

How many people read Does I’mawinebloggerandyou’ have impact? Does IknowwhatI’ know what they’re talking about? They most decidedly don’t have the cachet and gravitas of Jim Laube or Robert Parker and while it would be folly to ignore those arbiters of wine, the websites and blogs of a rapidly growing and important new kind of media – collectively – are too many to dismiss. In fact, you now must embrace them, nurture them, and realize – this is the future and they’re fast becoming the present of what constitutes wine media in the nascent stages of the 21st century.

I saw one of these bloggers at WBC shopping for dresses and shoes online while three seasoned (read: traditional print writers) tried to impart their wisdom on the new media members in the room; while another leaned over to me to comment, “It’s time to move on” in an admonishment of traditional journalism. This is our new reality.

Amateur wine writers might be proliferating faster than krill, while bloggers who choose to dismiss journalistic wine history, are commonplace and often shallow, there is a small cadre of worthwhile bloggers who are emerging. You would be remiss to discount an opportunity to engage with them.
Get to know the new online wine media; and love them. You’ll sell more wine.

ALAN GOLDFARB has been on both sides of the media-relations aisle, first as a 25-year wine journalist, and now as a winery media relations consultant. His writing has appeared in Decanter, Wine Enthusiast, and he was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star in the Napa Valley where that assignment was not unlike covering Catholicism at the Vatican.

Alan is partnered with Carl Giavanti ( in their winery media relations consultancy. Their clients are or have been in Napa Valley, the Carneros, Dry Creek Valley, Willamette Valley, and Columbia Valley.

Original, Critical-Thought Wine Writing – Why It Is Imperative to Your Brand

By Alan Goldfarb

“Originality is how we separate ourselves, including you, from the pack”. Who said that? I said that. I meant it as it pertains to the good folks that write about wine. But, of course, if you – Mr. & Ms. Winery Owner – are fortunate to have an original, unique story published about you, you’re almost guaranteed to separate yourself from the morass of wine brands that seem to pop up every day of the week. So, for our purposes here, let us concentrate on the (wine) media: those members of the so-called fourth-estate, be they traditional print writers (magazines and newspapers), new media involved with posting on the Internet, or members of the electronic media (radio & TV).

It is these folks with whom you must figure out how to engage, and who will disseminate your winery’s stories to the world – and mostly for free(!). We call this “earned” media, as opposed to “paid advertising” or “pay-for-play” and advertorial articles, which will cost you dearly. Third-party endorsement I’m sure you’ll agree, is the goal.

So, whom to engage and enlist in your public relations (we prefer the term media relations) campaign? Whom to target to get the most meaningful benefit from your efforts? Well, we all know – and much to the curdling of my printer’s ink-infused blood – traditional print media is shrinking faster than a guy in cold water. Newspaper and magazine wine writers are being excised as though they’re mold on cheese. Nonetheless, traditional media offers audience targeting and is measurable, and therefore is not to be dismissed.

Streaming wine radio or podcasts however, are proliferating at an unprecedented rate, as well as is wine coverage on the web that is spreading rapidly. But, a word of caution: While wine coverage is reaching critical mass, the vast majority of media still lurk out there without real journalistic or writerly experience; and for whom perks such as food and wine, and seeing their name in print, is the primary lure; and for which an original or creative thought was not part of their SATs.

So, my advice to you, is to go after those few members of the wine media who think for themselves, harbor authentically singular and distinctive thought; and oh, who know wine and what they’re talking and writing about. It is these individuals who are apart from the chaff; albeit far and few. The task is to identify those idiosyncratic members of the wine media.

As a wine journalist myself for the last quarter-century or so, I learned years ago that it was imperative to find my own voice as a writer. That construct is not meant as a platitude, but is offered to writers who I believe must find their own voice, identity, and style. It is what makes readers take notice. It’s amazing – and sometimes disheartening – to read a writer, whose work contains no critical thoughts, no original ideas, uses your website copy or is devoid of creativity.

It manifests now for me when I have my winery public relations hat on; when I read a review or story from a writer, who has posted or published an article about one our clients. Pieces are often predominated by words from our media kit that we furnish to writers in order for them to get a better understanding of our clients.

It’s flattering and rewarding, of course – especially for the winery – to see an article written about them. But to me as a media consultant, it’s disappointing when I read something that has been regurgitated almost verbatim from our press materials.

We are always truly grateful that the writer thought enough of our client, and by extension, enough of our press information, to warrant an article on the Internet or in a magazine or a newspaper. It means we’re doing our job.

But we’re only human and when I see a piece that’s chock full of original thought with compelling turns of a phrase, we’re automatically drawn to that journalist; and we will try to get placements again and again with that writer on their blog, or in their newspapers. Because it’s meaningful and valuable, no matter the readership of the writer.

Elaine Chukan Brown

Some writers that stand out for us are Fredric Koeppel out of Memphis with his whimsically named Bigger Than Your Head ( blog, or Elaine Chukan Brown from California and her imaginative Lily-Elaine Hawk Wakawaka website (

Also, check out Pennsylvania’s Joe Roberts on his 1WineDude ( site or Jon Bonné writing in the San Francisco Chronicle ( How about Leslie Sbrocco with her restaurant-centric show, Check, Please! Bay Area (, on the PBS KQED-TV series that is shown in the San Francisco Bay Area. A wine writer first and foremost, Ms. Sbrocco always makes sure to devote a segment to talking about wine; a rare occurrence for a TV show or even a restaurant review to spend some time on wine.

So, the point here is: Just as the wineosphere becomes more cluttered everyday with a plethora of brands, so too is the Internet becoming overrun by mediocre wine writing. In the end, original, well-thought out writing will reap ever bigger rewards, for everyone.

In turn, it’ll be much more meaningful for you, your winery, and your brand. Hopefully, in time, it’ll add up to selling more wine.

ALAN GOLDFARB has been on both sides of the media-relations aisle, first as a 25-year wine journalist, and now as a winery media relations consultant. His writing has appeared in Decanter, Wine Enthusiast, and he was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star in the Napa Valley where that assignment was not unlike covering Catholicism at the Vatican.
Now, Alan has partnered with Carl Giavanti ( in their winery media relations consultancy. Their clients are or have been in Napa Valley, the Carneros, Dry Creek Valley, Willamette Valley, and Columbia Valley.

Part 2: Why Online Wine Writers Matter

Traditional wine writers and online wine bloggers marked the passage of time together at the 5th annual Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland. Like a multi-generational wedding event with families and friends on both sides of the aisle, these professionals shared their expertise and co-existed in respect. Too much? Well, that’s how it felt to me as a first time participant.

So I attended and survived #WBC12. This included attending all sessions, field trips, wine tastings and extracurricular after hours activities; and doing PR work and event organization for 3 clients, tweeting for one AVA, guiding 2 bus trips, promoting a winery association and myself. The ramp up to completing all of this was almost 2 intense months of 6-7 days per week. I came out of the conference with immense enthusiasm and respect for the writers I met. I developed some new friendships, and observed how ‘online’ can bring people together ‘offline’ or face to face (it often works the other way in wine marketing!).

I believe I also got some answers to questions I posed in Part 1 of this article, thanks to sessions led by Tom Wark, Joe Roberts, other industry services professionals, and keynotes by Randall Grahm and even Rex Pickett. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Why do Online wine writers matter? They matter because they exist, and many bloggers are great writers and create quality content. It’s as simple as that. Not to mention that small wineries need exposure wherever they can get it, and potentially have more access to online wine writers than traditional journalists.
  • What about their survivability? The transition to an online advertizing focus continues for businesses, and consumers are now more comfortable transacting online and willing to pay for quality content on the internet.
  • How will they monetize their writing? Joe Roberts (#1WineDude) held forth on the principle of not giving anything away. Monetization options include selling advertizing on blog sites, affiliate ads and links, publishing eBooks or hard copy publications (i.e. Rick Bakas), repurposing blog posts to paid publications, and consulting to support online writing and also as a lead in to other projects and positions.
  • Can they organize in an effective way? WBC12 was sold out for the 5th year in a row with a wait list of over 100 hopefuls. Conversations and commitments to attend WBC13 have already started. Discussions about promoting wine writing online and debates as to its viability are continuing. Social groups have been setup to continue the conversation.
  • What assures their continuation and relevance in the wine industry? The internet has democratized wine writing and many more writers now have a voice. Also, blogging is very cost effective. Tom Wark pointed out that the owner of the blog writes, edits, publishes, curates content, sells advertizing and promotes their own publication. I’m a sales and marketing guy, not a writer, and even I have a wine industry blog!
  • What are the pressing and ongoing issues facing bloggers? Monetization, need for integrity and editorial responsibility, establishing ethical and educational standards, providing ongoing training to improve wine knowledge, etc.

Online wine writers matter because writers are storytellers regardless of the medium they choose (offline or online). Selling your brand and telling your story is what wineries must do to compete in a vast sea of floating bottles.

Why Online Wine Writers Matter!

The message is the same, the medium has changed.

We’re slowly moving from print to digital media, and online writers aka ‘bloggers’ are driving this trend. My journalist and media consultant friend Alan Goldfarb (a modern-day McLuhan) advises that quality wine writing is what matters, whether online or traditional print media. Quality wine writers should be treated the same regardless of the medium. I measure this by evaluating their investigative and analytic skills, writing ability, and frequency of articles.

It is my belief that small production wineries should target wine bloggers to build mindshare, exposure to their brand stories, generate interest in sampling their wines. And do so in the hope of connecting with them and the potential for reviews, mentions, and feature articles. This is no different than wine industry PR/media relations strategies and applies equally to blogger relations. This seems practical as many smaller wineries don’t hire PR firms and must attempt to publicize their brands in a cost-effective way.

Although wine blog subscription bases are smaller (1,000-10,000+ readers) than their print publication competitors (whose magazines and newsletters are only distributed by hand to a few friends and acquaintances), blog posts are shared, tweeted and disseminated via the Internet bringing more potential reach, and therefore greater actual viewership than can be documented.

Wine Bloggers Conference 2012, otherwise known as WBC12 or #WBC12 in Twitter parlance, is coming soon to Portland, Oregon (otherwise known as #PDX). The big question for me is not whether quality wine writing and reviews will result. I am quite confident that they will, having followed the tweets and blog posts of the top 100 wine writers attending. My pressing issue is will the genre survive and continue to influence the wine industry? How will these talented writers monetize their craft? How will they coalesce and collaborate to become a meaningful collective? Which writers will still be plying their trade by next year’s conference in Canada, and with whom to follow and invest energy and mindshare?

And what does all this mean for wineries as they re-position themselves in this fast, ever-changing mediasphere?

2012 Wine Bloggers Conference – Winery Toolkit

Carl Giavanti Consulting and Tamara Belgard of Sip with Me! are offering consulting and support for winery participants of the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference. The conference is scheduled for August 16-19 in Portland, Oregon. The toolkit consists of identifying and following appropriate bloggers and online writers pre-conference; connecting with them during and after the conference with the goal of obtaining reviews and feature articles to promote the winery brand. Request the WBC Toolkit Service Package for more information, details, contact information and pricing.