Rusty Gaffney Interview, Prince of Pinot

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. Last month’s interview featured Paul Gregutt, Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Rusty Gaffney is a retired ophthalmologist who has had a love affair with Pinot Noir for over 40 years. When he retired in 2001, he decided to devote his energies to writing the PinotFile, an online newsletter at that was among the first wine publications exclusively devoted to Pinot Noir. He tastes and reviews Pinot Noir daily, reads about Pinot Noir constantly, and visits wineries in Pinot Noir producing regions frequently. Rusty also leads wine tours, organizes wine tastings and dinners and corresponds on Pinot Noir for a popular podcast on the internet – Grape Radio. He’s participated in wine-themed videos including one on the Russian River Valley that won a James Beard Award. He has written about wine for Orange Coast Magazine, Orange County’s lifestyle magazine. Rusty has been happily married for over 40 years, has two sons, plays tennis, grow succulents, collects doo-wop music, and enjoys his Corvette.

You can follow Rusty and subscribe to PinotFile at and on Facebook @RustyGaffney and Twitter @PrinceofPinot

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

I am a self-taught wine writer and wine critic who developed an interest in fine wine beginning in the early 1970s when I had enough spendable income to indulge my interest. I have always been a good writer, and penned many scientific articles and chapters in medical textbooks during my years in training and as a practicing ophthalmologist. Over thirty years, I developed a love affair with Pinot Noir.  In 2002, I retired from medicine and transitioned to writing about wine, specifically Pinot Noir. I read everything I could get my hands on related to wine and Pinot Noir, attended every event in California and Oregon related to Pinot Noir, and began reviewing wines. I had to earn the respect of the wine community through my writings, wine reviews and time spent at wineries.

What are your primary story interests?

My writing focuses on the stories behind the wines, including personalities, viticulture, winemaking, and challenges of the wine industry. I have researched and written extensively about the history behind California and Oregon Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. My scientific background leads me to be very accurate in my writing and never include any information that is heresy or told through a secondary party. I have found that there is considerable historical information that is simply not true.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?

My success is partly predicated on the fact that I had a financially rewarding career, and when I retired, I had the financial wherewith-all to travel and buy wine. In the early years of my writing, I had to purchase a considerable sum of wine to review, but as I have gained recognition, 95% of the wine I review now comes from winery samples. At one point, I tried a paid subscription model for my online newsletter, The PinotFile, but I lost so many readers who had previously read the newsletter for free, that I discontinued this model after a year. To have a successful career writing about wine independently and without renumeration, requires financial independence. For example, I pay $4,500 a year for a wine locker where all my wine samples from wineries are sent and stored. There has not only been a reduction in the number of annual Pinot Noir focused wine events in California, there has been an accompanying paucity, and in most cases complete absence, of financial incentives for the media and press to cover these events. The only perk offered is usually free admission to some portion of the event, usually the walk-around tasting that is often a noisy, raucous affair not conducive to critical wine tasting. Organizers of these events and public relations people encourage wine writers to promote their event, attend their event, and then write about their event and the participating wine producers afterwards, yet offer no financial inducement to do so. With escalating expenses associated with staging these events, these “not-for-profit” events simply do not have funds or say they do not have funds to underwrite the expenses of wine writers to attend. The moral is, do not let your children grow up to be wine writers!)

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I have many interests outside of wine. I have been an avid tennis player all my life and still play today three times a week. Through the years, I collected vinyl LPs and 45s, primarily rock and doo-wop from the 1950s-1970s and have an extensive and valuable collection. I have loved Corvettes since I rode in one while in high school in the early 1960s. When I graduated from medical school in 1969, I bought my first Corvette, and have owned Corvettes continuously since, a string of almost 50 years! I am a foodie and seek out special restaurants on my wine trips (always bringing my own bottle of Pinot Noir to drink). I have a son, Dane, who has worked in the wine industry in operations for several years, including Inman Family Wines in the Russian River Valley, Scribe in Carneros, and currently Ashes and Diamonds in Napa Valley. Dane also posts my newsletter online and helps to manage the website. He has taught me everything I know about computers. I could not have done my newsletter without his assistance.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn about your wine writing?

I spend many, many hours each week tasting wine, researching wine stories, and composing my newsletter. I rely on no one, composing, editing and publishing my online newsletter (15-50 pages) every 2-3 weeks. Unlike bloggers, who post 500 words here and there, I have a prodigious output that belies my perfectionist nature. My spouse always complains that I am to wordy and I probably am.

What’s the best story you have written? Please provide a link.

“Pinot Noir Suitcase Clone ‘828’: An Intriguing Story Revealed”

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

I began writing wine reviews without scores, believing that scores were not as important as the wine description. I also did not feel that initially I had enough experience to be adept at using the 100-point scoring system. For the past 9-10 years, I have used the 100-point scoring system, but I still encourage readers to focus on the written description of the wine. I was the first wine writer to include ABV in the review and later added pH, TA and RS. Uniquely, my wine reviews always include a detailed description of the winemaking process (if available). I try to interject some humor into the reviews when appropriate.

Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?

I have no set editorial schedule. As the wine samples come in, I try to organize them in a theme or feature a separate article on a particular winery that warrants special recognition. I read about wine constantly, and ideas for stories seem to come to me regularly. There is so much to write about regarding wine in general and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in particular, that I never develop writer’s block.

How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)?

 I occasionally submit a newsworthy article to the Oregon Wine Press for which I get paid.

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?

I don’t have time to participate in social media. I do tweet when there is something of interest related to Pinot Noir and the health benefits of wine.

Do you consider yourself an Influencer? What’s the difference today between a writer and an influencer in your opinion?

I know that I influence consumers who read my newsletter in their wine purchases. Wineries give me positive feedback on this. As a former physician, I have a keen interest in the health benefits of wine. I review all the current scientific literature on the subject, publish appropriate information and lengthy articles on the matter, and have given talks to groups on the relationship between wine in moderation and health. Because of my scientific background, I can approach this controversial subject with a keen perspective and believe I am an influencer more than a writer on this subject.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Wineries should communicate with journalists in advance of sending wine samples for editorial consideration. They should always provide technical sheets on the wines by email or enclosed in the wine shipment. The MSRP of the wines and dates of release are the two bits of information that are most often missing. Wineries should offer as much intimate information as possible about the winery and its people including hi-def photos. There are nearly 3,000 wineries producing Pinot Noir in California and Oregon, so it is important for a winery to separate itself from the crowd to induce the consumer. Wineries should always include a personal note in the wine shipment that thanks the journalist for their time in reviewing the wines and invite the journalist to visit the winery (with contact information). It is very time consuming to contact every winery when a wine review is published, so wineries should follow the publication after submission to see their published review.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

Publicists respond more quickly to inquiries, and they will find answers to questions if they do not know the answer themselves. Winery owners and winemakers can be hard to track down.

Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)?

I have met John Winthrop Haeger and highly respect his writings on Pinot Noir. I have met Alan Meadows (aka Burghound) and admire his extensive output of writing and reviews. I have never tasted wine with either of them.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

My leisure time includes walking/hiking, tennis, swimming, family activities (married for 40 years, two grown sons), hosting wine tastings and dinners at home with friends, and watching college football and professional tennis on television. I am a voracious reader of books and magazines.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

Burt Williams (Williams Selyem) has always been one of my idols as he had an extraordinary intuition for crafting Pinot Noir. In 2011, I helped organize a tribute dinner for Burt at the Dry Creek Kitchen Restaurant in Healdsburg, California. This event was attended by a who’s who of California Pinot Noir including Michael Browne, Bob Cabral, George Levkoff, Margi Williams-Wierenga, Bob Pellegrini, David Hirsch, Jeff Fink, Craig Brewer, Michael Sullivan, Ben Papapietro, Nicolai Stez, Ross Cobb, Mac McDonald and others. The dinner, prepared by chef Charlie Palmer, featured six courses accompanied by historic vintages of William Selyem Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in magnum format from the personal library of Burt Williams. Each of the winemakers in attendance brought a special bottle as a gift to Burt.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world?

My favorite Pinot Noir wine region is Sonoma County, California because it combines Pinot Noir from many different microclimates, with all the infrastructure that appeals to wine connoisseurs such as lodging, restaurants, farmer’s markets, and hundreds of wineries in a compact layout. Honestly, when I drive up Highway 101 from San Francisco on my way to Sonoma County, I am flush with anticipatory glee, and once I arrive, I feel like I have died and gone to heaven. My biggest regret is that I didn’t buy a second home (I live in Orange County, California) in Sonoma County during the last recession.

Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing? Favorite recipe/pairing?

My favorite wine and food pairing is Pinot Noir with any food. You name it, salmon, pork, duck, lamb, mushrooms, beets and on and on. Pinot Noir is simply the most versatile of all wines at the table. I am getting hungry just thinking about it.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background, 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. (

Paul Gregutt Interview, Wine Enthusiast

Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. I expect you’ll discover more about wine writers that you know, and learn about many others. The objective with this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. They are after all, those that help tell our stories and review our wines. What better way to obtain media coverage than to learn their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges and pet peeves. This is also part of an ongoing series that is being featured monthly by Wine Industry Network. The first interview in the series features Paul Gregutt, Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Paul Gregutt is a Contributing Editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, a founding member of the magazine’s Tasting Panel, and currently reviews the wines of Oregon and Canada. He writes a monthly column on wine in Walla Walla’s Lifestyles magazine. The author of the critically-acclaimed ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’, he consulted on the Pacific Northwest entries in current versions of ‘The World Atlas of Wine’, ‘The Oxford Companion to Wine’ and Hugh Johnson’s 2019 Pocket Guide. He is a frequent guest speaker on cruise ships and at industry symposiums. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie – a terrier/Chihuahua (a genuine terr-hua!) – in a renovated 140-year-old cottage in Waitsburg, Washington. In his spare time, he writes songs, plays guitar, sings and performs with his band, the DavePaul5.



How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?

I grew up in a family of writers, but set out post-college intending a career in music. In my 20s I worked multiple radio jobs (on-air) and wrote for a start-up alternative publication, the Seattle Weekly. My interest in wine began while tasting some good wines with friends in the business. In my 30s, while working in broadcast television, I began writing a freelance weekly wine column. Once in print I was able to get assignments from several other publications, including Wine Spectator. One thing led to another. I signed on with Wine Enthusiast in the summer of 1998. I’m the second longest-serving writer on staff. In these three decades I’ve written six books, contributed to many others, penned thousands of wine columns, and reviewed tens of thousands of wines.

What are your primary story interests?

Of course, my interests have changed over the years. But my interest as a writer is always how to communicate with an audience. And the way to do that is to find topics of genuine interest to me, and share the excitement of exploring them. Wine is about as perfect and inexhaustible a topic (as far as writing) and playing and performing music has been for me through all these decades.

What are your primary palate preferences?

For me personally, I like high acid, unoaked white wines and reds from Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and unusual blends.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both?

I’ve worked as a freelance writer during my entire wine writing career.

Is it possible to make a living as a wine writer today? If so, how have you succeeded? If not, why not? What are the primary challenges and hurdles you face?

I started out with published writing credentials, having reviewed pop music, theater, film and restaurants before ever writing about wine. I focused on the emerging wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest, which was almost completely unknown at the time. I was fortunate in the timing, and have been able to grow my portfolio as the region’s wines and wineries have gained international recognition. I also made it a point to write about wines from all over the world, and to travel to many of the major wine regions and wineries of the world, so as to avoid “tunnel palate.”


What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I don’t think most people know that I’m a pretty decent guitar player, singer and performer. I’ve written hundreds of songs over the years, and honestly many are quite polished. Back in the ‘70s I signed a songwriting contract on Music Row in Nashville, and before that I worked as an assistant engineer at Electric Lady Studios in New York.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?

Explore! Don’t get stuck in ruts. And remember – it’s always better to drink that special bottle now, rather than waiting for “the right moment” which may never arrive.

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing? 

I’d be writing about something else. I’ve always written for a living.

How would you like the wine community to remember you?

For the love of God, don’t say “he will be missed”!!!


Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews?

These days a lot of my work is simply reviewing new releases. I taste daily, write notes daily, re-visit wines daily. If I’m working on a story, I do online research, jot down ideas and just dive in when a deadline looms. I have never had writer’s block.

Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up?

I am always jotting down ideas, but working so closely with a single magazine I’m also on a schedule, which helps any writer I believe.

How often do you write assigned and paid articles (not your blog)?

Always. I blogged for about five years, and it’s still online ( but writing for free was not for me!

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important?

I post links on my Facebook page. Most of my 2700 or so “friends” are in the wine business, so it’s helpful to keep my work in front of my main audience.


What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists?

Be brief, be original, be reliable, be accurate, and be up to date. I am especially unhappy when I read a winery news release in my focus region (Pacific NW) in some other publication or website, and that winery or PR person has neglected to send me the same publicly-distributed information.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists?

When they do their job well, they can provide information that I could not easily find any other way.

What frustrates you most about working on winery stories and/or wine reviews?

When required information about retail pricing, release dates, etc. is not provided as requested, and I go to the winery website and it’s hopelessly out of date, that’s frustrating.

Which wine reviewers/critics would you most like to be on a competition panel with?

I don’t do competitions for multiple reasons.


If you take days off, how do you spend them? 

I garden, play with my dog, play guitar, cook and occasionally travel.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?

There are far too many to choose from, and I hope many more will follow. But one extraordinary moment was during a visit up the Douro to Quinta do Vesuvio. We arrived just as the grapes were coming in, and joined a group of locals’ foot-crushing them in an old-fashioned lagare. They were playing Yellow Submarine and dancing while we stomped. A couple years later, when the wine was released, Karen and I bought a case. We drink a bottle on our anniversary every five years.

CARL GIAVANTI is a Winery Publicist with a DTC Marketing background, 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. (


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.  (


CONTENT Drives Winery Recognition; Now More Than Ever

Leveraging all three types of content is critical for small producers

Let’s face it; brand building was easier 20 years ago. Small production wineries today are in an extremely competitive environment. There are close to 9,000 wineries and growing in the U.S. alone. International brands are flooding our markets with good quality and aggressively priced imports. Add to that the consolidation of U.S. distributors, and you have lots of boutique wineries desperately seeking attention and representation from far fewer distributors. Twenty years ago it was not uncommon to be 100% allocated to wholesalers. Today, this is not a realistic model. Here are some wine market facts to consider:

  • 1995 – 2,600 Wineries and 3,000 Distributors*
  • 2008 – The Great Recession starts. Distributors consolidate their books and themselves, and focus on larger, well-known brands
  • 2015 – 8,800 Wineries and 700 Distributors*
  • Today – Distributors work hard selling major brands, and are not necessarily looking for small producers with premium-priced wines
  • Today – five or six national beverage distributors control 65% of all wines wholesaled nationally
  • Today – Large retailers have monopoly power. Retailers with private labels are proliferating and call the shots (Total Wine, Trader Joe’s, Costco)
  • Today – There are fewer print publications with paid staff journalists and wine columns to discovery and report your winery story, and review your wines
  • Today – Wine journalism as a whole is moving from print to a digital medium. How will these outlets generate revenue? They will be looking to you for advertising and/or sponsorship dollars
  • Today – Online wine writers continue to proliferate. Which ones are in your strategic markets? How many are credible and have impact?
  • Today – Wine publications are starting to screen your wines in advance of permitting submissions due to sheer volume alone
  • Today – Wine publications may want you to pay for high scores with label placement and ads in their print and online editions
  • Today – It’s a pay-to-play world and getting consumer mindshare and media recognition can be difficult and expensive
  • Today – Wine consumers are overwhelmed with the sea of wine available
  • But – All is not lost! Please read on!

Today’s challenging marketplace requires small wineries to take control of your own destiny – both DTC Marketing and Wine Media Outreach are the key. Distributors are (for the most part) not going to help you “build your brand” unless there is a quick ROI and minimal risk. It is essential for small producers to tell their own stories, and get their brands and wines to market and be recognized by consumers. I talk specifics on how to get coverage for your brand in this article: Winery PR in a Pay-to-Play World.

All of this brings me to the point of this article—the critical importance of Content. Let’s review the three types of marketing content: owned, paid and earned content.

Owned Content is what you’ve created and actually own—your website, social media platforms, winery blog and news, photos, videos, etc. Paid Content is exposure you purchase—advertising, label placement, etc. And finally, Earned Content is the most important if you want to expand your reach beyond the subscribers and followers you already have and are already marketing to.

Earned Content or Earned Media are third party endorsements by wine writers or other media outlets —media coverage for your brand that results in accolades like feature articles, media mentions, wine reviews and scores. This is also why brand building through media outreach is imperative, as there are too many wineries for writers to discover unless you are being proactive. Can you still be a wine media darling just by making exceptionally good wine? Maybe, but don’t count on it. Put a media program in place to ensure your news and Your Voice is heard.

This area of Earned Content or Earned Media is important because it contributes to the library of content your winery can use in its marketing efforts. Wine is still an esoteric luxury purchase for many consumers, and they rely on expert opinions to support their buying decisions. Links to articles, podcasts, and video interviews about your brand are great marketing content. Share your scores, medals and other achievements in your general interest and wine club newsletters, and on social media. These are the bragging rights that you’ve earned, and that makes a huge difference in today’s wine world. On the flip side, garnering media attention but not doing anything with it, such as mentioning and linking to it on your website, blog and social media pages, is a terrible waste of a precious resource.

Despite our new 21st Century challenges, these are actually sunny days for the premium wines category. Get your Marketing and PR game on now, and bank enough Earned Media content to help you weather the more difficult times to come.

*Source: SVB 2015 State of the Wine Industry

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 media relations consultant. Carl started by focusing on DTC Marketing for wineries 7 years ago, and formed a Winery PR Consultancy over 4 years ago ( Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, the Carneros, Willamette Valley, and the Columbia Gorge.

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.


Guest Column by Jim Gullo

What a pleasure it is to watch this Oregon wine industry grow and evolve before our eyes. There were just over 200 wineries in the Willamette Valley when I moved to McMinnville seven years ago and began to cover this industry as a journalist and copywriter, and then experienced it behind the counter as a Tasting Room Associate. Now there are nearly 450 wineries in the valley, and over 600 in the state.

We do so many things well that it almost seems effortless to the casual observer. The wines are consistent and top-quality, and have earned Oregon a reputation as being world-class. The visitor experience is casual and likable – tasting room guests talk all the time about how pleasant and informal we are, with unusual access to the winemakers themselves. Even behind-the-scenes things like vineyard management have gotten better and more consistent. Biodynamics, for example, were little known and rarely practiced as recently as 2008.

What hasn’t changed much, curiously, and where we remain behind on the world stage, is in marketing in general and content in particular. Content: The written and spoken words that wineries use to tell their stories to their customers, and how wineries attract more people to seek them out. Stories delivered not only by tasting room staff directly to visitors, but via newsletters, blogs, press releases, clean and exciting websites, and social media. Nobody In Oregon – be it a winemaker, winery or trade association — has grabbed the content reins and become the go-to source of Oregon wine and industry information in the way that Randal Grahm/Bonny Doon has in California, or Charles K. Smith has in Walla Walla. The field is wide open and ready to be seized.

I may be biased, because I make a living from writing and telling stories, but I think that content management will become the next big, important component to a successful winery, as vital to your operation as clean barrels, your vineyard contract and catchy labeling. It has to be: When consumers get the idea that most, or at least a vast majority of wineries produce wines of a similar quality, it is the story, the presentation and the professionalism of the content – of telling the winery’s story – that put it at the top of the list for tastings and direct sales.

Think this isn’t on the mind of the major players in the industry? Argyle Winery in Dundee, which sees extraordinary traffic, will complete a new visitor space this summer. One of their stated goals was to have more areas where customers could sit in small groups and interact with staff – talk and mingle and hear stories about the winery. That’s content. The new management of Scott Paul Wines in Carlton includes a former Nike brand manager and communications expert, and the first thing they will do is renovate the tasting room for more personal interactions and story-telling with customers.

And here’s the nasty flipside: When your content appears to be shoddy and unprofessional, riddled with errors, outdated and loaded with typos and bad writing, it reflects poorly on the brand that you have been so carefully building. Want an example? One winery insists on the front page of their website that they “pour over every detail” in making their wine. They probably mean “pore” over every detail, and that simple error makes you wonder how good their attention to detail really is.

Another tells us on their website that their property “abutts” another (the right spelling is abuts; we all know what a butt is), and from their property you can see “…a statute of Saint Francis of Assisi…” They probably mean statue, unless some legislative body created a statute just for them.

Look, I’m not trying to embarrass anyone or be the school librarian here. But we suddenly have new competition for customers, and when your website and communications are evaluated side by side with the slick, advertising agency sites of your new competitors, will they pass scrutiny?

You know you need professional winemaking, of course, to make your business work. You need professional vineyard management, compliance and accounting. You need business management. Wineries that want to stand out also need professional content management and marketing. Short of that, at the very least, every message that you put up on your website or blog should be proofread by two or more people in your company who have solid English skills. It’s amazing how even professional writers can overlook obvious errors in our work. When we instituted a proofreading policy at Angela Estate, the typos and spelling errors were almost completely eliminated. Everyone in your company should be encouraged to write or post, and a point-person should be in charge of scheduling the flow of information.

Good luck and may the information flow. I can’t wait to see how this industry matures, and how we tell our stories, as we enter the next fifty years of Oregon wine.

Jim Gullo is a freelance writer whose work appears in Oregon Wine Press, and the Alaska and Horizon Airlines magazines. He has published eight books and was the editor and publisher of, a web magazine. He has also written and edited content for many wineries. His website is; e-mail is


By Alan Goldfarb

So, Mr. Doclawyer, I’ll be conducting this interview so that we can tease out your winery’s story so that we’ll be able to entice some poor schnook of a wine writer out there to pay attention to your wines, even though there are a million others out there like you and yours.

May I call you by your first name? Do you go by Robert or Bob?

Here goes: What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of what it is you’re trying to achieve here; and to separate yourself from the ocean of wine that is getting higher (and not just due to climate change)?

Oh, I see… You have “passion”. Should I write that with two or three exclamation points? Passion. I’m so glad you used that word because it tells me something about yourself and your, well passion. So, does that mean that you have devotion to the business of wine? Or maybe it’s fervor? Would enthusiasm get it? Are you enraptured with wine? Or are you enchanted, infatuated, or is it that you merely adore wine?

Because I want to tell you Bob, I’d like to have a sawbuck for e-v –e-r-y winery owner who tells me he’s got p-a-s-s-i-o-n. The fact that you have passion is the oldest cliché in the annals of wine clichés. And the media – at least those that pay attention– have had it up to here. And so have I.

Do you think I want to read, yet again, from that wonderful muckraker Ron Washam – the blogger who calls himself The HoseMaster of Wine – excoriate us flacks that he’ll never again drink a passionate vintner’s wines if the producer uses the P-word again? I’ve long before The HoseMaster wrote about it, tried to break the yolk of platitudes in my clients.

The point is Mr. Vintner or Mr. Doclawyer or Ms. Technick, mean what you say and don’t spout all that overused, hackneyed pile of arble-garble such as “wines are made in the vineyard” or my wines are “balanced” and “we practice minimalist winemaking”. Chances are none of these vacuous words have much meaning, especially as they pertain to your wine. It’s like using “natural” or “sustainable”. They’ve been used so many times, for the purpose of making things sound better than they actually are, they’ve become useless.

But more important, it is my job as your publicist, your representative – to instruct you and to offer you alternatives to this tired, empty jargon, signifying nothing.

When you declare that your wines are made in the vineyard, prove it. Prove that you do nothing else to the grapes in the cellar but squeeze the juice – gently, of course. Prove that there’s minerality in your wines by explaining why and pinpointing those aromas and tastes. When you talk of your terroir, tell me how that manifests in my glass. Can I taste the wind? Is there evidence of your obsidian-laced soil?

Finally, really show me your passion; don’t tell about it. From here on, passion is not a word that lays there like a lox without substance. If you’re going to be my client, passion is no longer a noun, but a verb; as actionable evidence. I want you to cry in your vineyard, the way the late great André Tchelistcheff once did one afternoon when he stood in front of me in the Beaulieu Pinot Noir vineyard in the Carneros, holding a wind-ravaged broken shoot in his hand.

Or, when Josh Jensen had me smell the limestone in his vineyard in one of his Calera vineyards in the Gavilan Mountains of central California. I really did taste the white chalk in his Pinots. And when loveable crazyman Gary Pisoni almost killed me as he raced me around his property in his beat up, open-topped green jeep; all the while pointing out the nooks and crannies of his Pisoni vineyard, while in the other hand, he held a blunt.

Now, that was passion. That was real. That was exciting and in every case, those ethereal moments manifested in the glass. These men made wines of passion, idiosyncrasy, and difference. They all did so well in the marketplace because the media gathered around them like the flocks of seagulls that hover over the SF Giants’ ballpark every night.

So, as a publicist – while it’s easy to tell the stories of these dream clients – it’s my challenge to show the world that you too, Mr. Stockbroker, really do possess the passion to transfer your zeal and bravado into your wine. Only then and with that, will your wines be truly unique and recognized.