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).

Virginie Boone, 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 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 Lyn Archer, aka L.M. Archer, an international fine wine writer, critic, judge, and curator who covers Burgundy, bubbles, Oregon,  and emerging wine regions.

Virginie Boone reviews and writes about the wines of Napa and Sonoma for Wine Enthusiast Media and is a longtime resident of Sonoma County.

She began her writing career with Lonely Planet travel guides, writing guides to the American South, South America, Northern California and the Loire Valley, which led in a roundabout and perfectly sensible way to California-focused wine coverage for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Savor Magazine, Sonoma Magazine and others. She is a regular panelist and speaker on wine topics in California and beyond.

You can find and follow Virginie on Facebook , Instagram and Twitter.

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing? I’ve always loved wine, my mom is French and even though she was on a military wife’s budget, we always had wine in the home. But as a writer I came to it via travel writing. My life’s goal was to get paid to travel and so I became a travel writer, working for Lonely Planet guidebooks for many years, as well as my share of startup magazines and websites. I had a travel assignment for Rough Guides I believe, to New England, set to depart my home in Northern California in September 2001. Well, 9-11 happened and everything changed. I did that travel assignment, but it was eerie, landing in Boston 10 days or so after 9-11 to a quiet airport full of heavily armed soldiers. My flight home was delayed because of suspicious graffiti in the bathroom. Soon after I did another guidebook to the Loire Valley (which was amazing), but the travel was again pretty fraught. My husband and I had just moved up to Healdsburg from San Francisco and I thought, why don’t I write about my own backyard, that can be travel, too. Soon enough I was writing a weekly feature on wine for The Press Democrat as a full-time staffer. It was the best education I could have had.

What are your primary story interests? I know a lot of people say it, but I like researching and writing stories about people, how they got into the wine world, what keeps them interested, who do they work with, how do they make it work. A lot of my work involves tasting, scoring and writing reviews, which is much more about the wine than what’s behind it. It’s good to have a balance between this and the bigger narratives about wine. With that, I’m increasingly interested in issues of sustainability, labor and where wine fits into those bigger picture issues. And of course, the travel element around wine is a natural go-to that’s hard to resist.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both? I’m sort of an odd hybrid of both. I am technically an independent contractor, but I work almost exclusively for the Wine Enthusiast and do own a beat, Napa and Sonoma. It’s the best of both worlds most of the time. I work independently but have colleagues all over the world who do what I do. We meet in person as a magazine a couple times a year and of course are otherwise fairly regularly in touch. But I do also like to stretch my wings and write elsewhere, especially if it’s outside of my day-to-day beat and has to do more with travel, teaching, speaking on panels, that sort of thing.

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? Ugh. It’s pretty hard. I feel very fortunate that somehow it’s worked out for me. But I work a lot. Most of it is relatively glamorous, social and amazing, but there are days I’m chucking a car-full of recycling into the bins at the Healdsburg dump, too. I’d say the biggest challenge is the time it takes to do all the things that don’t make money, social media first and foremost among them, but also all the box schlepping, organizing and yes, that recycling.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? That I love wine and all that goes with it, but it’s not my everything. If I wasn’t making a living writing about it I don’t think I’d write about it for free or in my free time. I think about it in the context of a lot of other things, from music to sports to old Hollywood to politics. That said, in addition to being a travel writer and editor in my former life, I once covered the NFL, SF 49ers predominantly, for an ESPN product called Sports Ticker. It was pretty funny. And yes I’ve seen players in the buff.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine? That it doesn’t have to be a big deal. That doesn’t mean I think people should like shitty wine, or wines made in a cynical way, but that getting into wine means trying lots of things, hopefully traveling along the way, even if it’s nearby and not about how much money a bottle costs. I think we’re turning a corner on wine being a precious commodity that’s too good for most people to have. Even if it’s expensive, it doesn’t have to be exclusive or untouchable.

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing? I’d be making Ken Burns-like documentaries about old Hollywood stars and jazz musicians.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews? Doing wine reviews is the most routinized. We taste blind, so I have an assistant set up flights for me to taste. I typically won’t do more than 12 wines at a time of one variety or more than two flights in a day, especially if I’m tasting at a winery for general information on the same day. Wines are often opened 30-60 minutes before tasting, especially young Cabernets. I’ll go back to a wine several times if it hasn’t opened much on the first taste. I write my notes longhand in a notebook. I have a shorthand only I can understand, plus it’s helpful when there are questions about a vintage or designation. I always trust my notes. By the end of every month those reviews go into a central Wine Enthusiast database and eventually into print or online publication. I taste around 250 wines a month this way and that’s barely keeping up with how much wine is coming in.

Do you work on an editorial schedule and/or develop story ideas as they come up? Wine Enthusiast plans its big features once a year at our summer edit conference. We pitch, they accept or decline, and stories get slotted into every issue, with some wiggle room. Front of book and web stories, that sort of thing, are pitched throughout the year, though increasingly we’re scheduling web stories quite a bit ahead. This is true of other people I write for as well.

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important? I try. It depends what it is. The Wine Enthusiast will post from its social media accounts and that usually reaches a much bigger audience of people. But I do think it’s important to get wine stories in front of people who don’t necessarily think they want to read a wine story. That’s where travel, food, people, etc. often come in.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists? Be normal. Nothing wrong with reaching out directly person to person, but do understand what that journalist does, their level of experience and what might interest them. I don’t like spending a lot of time looking at cellars and tank rooms unless it’s pertinent somehow; I also don’t need to taste 50 of your wines at a time, again unless it’s somehow relevant to a bigger story. I don’t need a four-course meal for no reason, nor do I want zero food if we’re tasting 50 of your wines. I’m pretty happy to just walk around a vineyard, grab a sandwich and talk about what you’re up to. It’s fairly simple for me. And this is how a lot of younger, more interesting brands are handling things because they don’t have huge facilities or budgets. Also, say thank you when something good happens, like when you make the cover or top 100 list.

What advantages are there in working directly with winery publicists? I see lots of advantages, from the relationships publicists have built over many years to their understanding of publishing schedules, submission guidelines and general vision of each publication and journalist. Pick wisely and I see only upside. Most publicists I’ve met are positive, energetic and great people-people and that’s worth a lot. I could never do their jobs.

Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)? Not long ago I saw the documentary André, about André Tchelistcheff. I never had the chance to meet him but have met many winemakers who did, and who were mentored by him. He had a fascinating life, one we couldn’t imagine, having to flee Russia and later losing a family farm in France before finding his way to Beaulieu in the Napa Valley. He’s done so much for California wine.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them? It varies. I have a 13-year-old son so it often involves driving him around and hanging out at home. I drive a lot during the week. My husband and I like to cook and entertain. I also like to hike and am lucky to have Annadel, Sugarloaf and Jack London state parks in my backyard. But usually I’m also tasting and writing sometime during those days off.

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience? I had the chance to interview this world-famous Japanese musician named Yoshiki a couple years ago. He was one of the founders of this monster metal group called X Japan but is also an amazing classical musician and composer. He has a wine project with Rob Mondavi and Rob was kind enough to make the introduction. The closest I could get to meet him was New York City, where he was making his debut at Carnegie Hall. We sat in the front row and cried our eyes out, it was incredibly moving. Yoshiki has had a very dramatic life and the sadness and grandeur of that is in his music. We said hi back stage, stopped by an after party and went out for Chinese food until the early morning. The next day I interviewed him amidst his legit entourage in a hotel room in Manhattan while it started to snow outside. I’ll never forget it. A fan of Opus One, Yoshiki and Rob’s Cabernet is stellar, too.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world? Tie between Sonoma and Napa.

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. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

Lyn Archer Interview, aka L.M. Archer

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 Fred Swan, wine reviewer, educator and all around bon vivant.

L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne + Champagne ML is a fine wine writer specializing in Burgundy, bubbles and emerging wine regions. Her works appear in numerous domestic and international publications, including Meininger Wine Business International, Wines and Vines Magazine, South Bay Accent Magazine, Oregon Wine Press, Palate Press, France Today, and Winesearcher.com. She is also a former video correspondent for Foodable Network. A member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, TASTE Awards’ Academy of Media Tastemakers, and International Wine Writers Alliance, she received a prestigious 2017 Professional Wine Writers Symposium Fellowship, and holds designation in French Wine, Bourgogne and Champagne Master Level from the rigorous Wine Scholar Guild. You can find her @lmarcherml on Instagram/Twitter, @lynmarcher on Facebook, and at www.lmarcher.com.

Professional Background

How did you come to wine, and to wine writing? Wine via access to an unlimited expense account in another lifetime, allowed for tastings through the high end of wine lists, thereby helping inform my palate. A trip to Burgundy in 2009 sparked my passion for the region; a love of history informed my insatiable curiosity about the topic in general, as wine really is the story of civilization.

Writing called me at the age of eight. However, pragmatism led to a corporate career, with stints writing for in-house and trade publications. In 2008, I attended a writer’s workshop to help me re-spark creatively; the program director allowed us to choose our final project topic. I chose wine, and realized this was what I wanted to write about full-time. However, it took me until 2012 to find the courage to make that leap of faith full time.

After leaping, I wanted to understand my chosen field more completely, and so began by studying Wine Fundamentals through the International Guild of Sommeliers. As I progressed, I realized that French wine proved a touchstone for me, and so opted to specialize in this area, earning designations first in French Wine, then Bourgogne Master Level, and finally Champagne Master Level, through the rigorous Wine Scholars Guild program.

What are your primary story interests? Burgundy, bubbles and emerging wine regions. I discovered that Champagne is the ‘flip-side’ of Burgundy – same varietals, totally different expression. And emerging wine regions specializing in Pinot Noir and sparkling wine often look to Burgundy and Champagne as reference points, but ultimately seek to express their own, unique terroirs, and cultures. Exciting, and endlessly fascinating.

Are you a staff columnist or freelance? What are the advantages of both? I have done both. Staff writing provides certainty and rigor; freelance writing allows creativity and freedom.

Personal Background

What would people be surprised to know about you? Until late 2015, I suffered from acute shyness. This proved especially painful at the outset of my wine career, as I attempted to learn more about the business of wine making through tenures at a few tasting rooms, and video storytelling. A difficult experience, from which I learned a great deal about myself, and the industry.

What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine? As a writer, I understand the journey of the artist, including winemakers; however, as a professional, it’s important to never lose sight of the fact that winemaking is also an exacting, grueling business.

If you weren’t writing about wine for a living, what would you be doing?   Writing historical fiction. My first historical novel, based in WWII German-occupied Burgundy France, is currently in revisions.

Writing Process

Can you describe your approach to wine writing and/or doing wine reviews? Each story varies, but all involve extensive research, quote verifications, and editing.

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

Do you post your articles on social media? Why is that important? Social media broadens the audience, and dialogue, worldwide.

Working Relationships

What are your recommendations to wineries when working with journalists? Hydration stations and spit buckets, please!

What advantages are there in working direct with winery publicists? Publicists provide essential communications and logistical links during tours and interviews, as well as collateral materials and samples. It helps that most appear to love their jobs, and remain unfailingly upbeat, regardless the situation.

Which wine personalities would you most like to meet and taste with (living or dead)? George Saintsbury, A.J. Liebling, Henri Jayer, M.F.K. Fisher.

Leisure Time

If you take days off, how do you spend them?Getting out of my head – exercise, catching up with family and friends, ‘forest-bathing’ in nature. 

What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience? A private tasting and tour at Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune, FR. with Véronique Drouhin while I was in town covering the 2017 Hospices de Beaune wine auction. Véronique Drouhin proved utterly charming, funny, graceful – generous in spirit, spirits, and Burgundian savoir faire. So much history under one street!

Pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner. Mercurey Village rouge and Oregon sparkling blanc de blancs wine, of course!

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. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

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 princeofpinot.com 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 http://www.princeofpinot.com/ 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” http://www.princeofpinot.com/article/1268/

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. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

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.

 

PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND

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.”

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

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”!!!

WRITING PROCESS

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 (paulgregutt.com) 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.

WORKING RELATIONSHIPS

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.

LEISURE TIME

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. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).

 

Oregon Wine History Archives Interview

I was recently interviewed by Rich Schmidt of Linfield College in McMinnville, for the Oregon Wine History Archives. The Archive project includes oral video history interviews and storage of archival materials such as articles and artifacts dating back to the Oregon “Pioneer” wineries such as Erath, Amity, Ponzi, Sokol-Blosser, and includes many contemporary winemaker and winegrower interviews. If you are interested in the history of Oregon wine and specifically Willamette Valley, I would encourage you to use the archive as a source for your research.

In this interview, we discussed my 10 years of winery consulting; my start in the wine business; the transition from DTC Marketing Consulting to Winery PR & Media Relations consulting; and my view of challenges facing Oregon wineries in the future.

For more information and interviews go to https://oregonwinehistoryarchive.org/ 

Three Biggest Challenges Facing Small Wineries Today?

I think the real story in the Willamette Valley (and other small regions nationally) is that 75% of wineries produce fewer than 5,000 cases annually. It’s micro-production by any measure. They have survived because of so-called “Premiumization” and the recent fascination with their AVAs. What will happen when the next economic downturn occurs, as the distribution consolidation continues, and/or as vineyard and winery acquisitions accelerate (which they are doing now)? Are there business parallels between what is happening in Willamette Valley and other burgeoning industries such as craft beer or high tech? Is large destined to win? How will small craft producers survive and thrive in the long run?

Distribution

Distribution is one of the most challenging business problems small-production wineries face. Consider that just 20 years ago there were roughly 2,500 wineries and 3,000 distributors. The odds of having your wines represented by distributors were very high due to the demand for excellent wines. Distributors worked hard to help build winery brands. That is not the case today. There are more than 9,000 wineries in the U.S., and with the consolidation of the largest distributors, I estimate only 700 distribution companies remain. And for economic reasons, they focus on large family or corporate winery groups, high profit margins and depletions. The small winery simply cannot compete. Ironically, market research and industry studies show that today’s consumers want to try and purchase more from small craft brands (as opposed to the well-established brands that used to be consumers’ preference), but cannot find them available in the marketplace.

Additionally, I was reminded of the purchasing power of retailers that act as wholesalers. I made a trip to Costco recently and discovered cut-rate pricing for Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs on display for Oregon Wine Month. Would you believe $10.99 for Willamette Valley label wines? Concurrently, there are active initiatives to control labeling and varietal percentages to enhance the Willamette Valley brand and presumably our price points. I can’t make sense of this discounted pricing in the long run, despite the recent large yield vintages.

Competition

While there are still many small winery operations starting up these days, there are many others that are better equipped for this hyper-competitive environment. I believe we are living in a wine bubble that is destined to pop for economic, political or other unforeseen reasons. Starting a winery today requires significant funding and marketing wherewithal to stand out in today’s crowded, competitive market. We not only have too many wineries in small regions like Willamette Valley, we’re seeing many more from all over the world that bring serious investment dollars and business savvy to bear. Many smaller wineries aren’t so well prepared.

I am also starting to see high quality and reasonably priced $20-$30 Pinot Noir – which I believe is sustainable for most small wineries – and should act as a good hedge against eventual restrained consumer spending, as well as to supply national wholesale markets.

Brand Building

Why do this? Because top of mind awareness is the only way to ensure consumers will buy wine from you when they are ready. The adage goes something like this – Repetition breeds familiarity; Familiarity breeds trust; and Trust leads to Sales. It’s the justification for advertising and media relations programs.

While getting media coverage is still essential for businesses, it is increasingly challenging due to the proliferation of wineries and dearth of established writers with ongoing columns. In other words, the days of being “discovered” and handed a strong fan base due to media coverage have passed.

Writers are not paid enough to research and discover, nor do they have time to do so. Wine brands that stand out in today’s world tend to get ongoing media coverage for three reasons: (1) They are already popular, often written about, and quick and easy for writers to review; and/or (2) They are easily found in the marketplace due to distribution; and 3) They spend advertising dollars with a media outlet. Many print and online publications rely on a pay-to-play system to survive in a post-Internet world. This leaves many small-production wineries out of the equation, and mostly for financial reasons.

Another aspect of branding is controlling your winery profiles on social media. I like to think of social media as Consumer PR. Have you claimed your profiles on all the relevant sites? I mean not only the obvious ones – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, but also the travel itinerary, wine country mapping, wine rating and mobile app sites. Monitor, post and engage consistently.

Strategies

My feeling is that a balanced approach of direct-to-consumer marketing (direct sales in tasting room/club members and eCommerce), ongoing brand building (using media coverage in your marketing), and specialized targeted distribution options (online brokers, targeted states) are required to ensure success. Unless you have been established for a long period of time (5 years or more), a reasonable goal is 20-30% wholesale and 70% direct sales.

Small do-it-all-yourself wineries are finally hiring marketing staff – DTC or Hospitality Managers – either from within the wine business or outside – experienced hospitality professionals (hotel and restaurant staff come to mind) are excellent hires. They understand the importance of the customer service experience and can quickly acquire sufficient wine knowledge. And they have direct experience with seated tastings, proven to generate higher sales per visitor. Give them a mobile POS and cut them loose.

Consider creating a staff position to manage your wine club, and choreograph the sales path with your staff. Why? Loyalty programs might be the saving grace for small producers. Revenue is recurring and mostly predictable. Members refer friends when treated well and their business is appreciated. Get a handle on this important aspect of your direct sales program while wine clubs are still viable.

Doing outreach and getting media exposure will continue to build awareness of your brand and unique market position to support these goals. Using third-party expert opinions (feature articles, wine reviews and scores) in your content marketing will help you to stay top of mind with your customers.

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. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com/Media).