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).

How to Taste with Professional Reviewers and Critics

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

What to do, what not to do?

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

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

Conduct a focused tasting that is well prepared in advance

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

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

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

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

Sit down Versus Stand up tastings

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

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

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

Create a Relaxed Meeting Experience

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

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

What to Say/Not to Say to Writers

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

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

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

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

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

Wrapping Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017 Oregon Chardonnay Celebration Review

Guest article by Neal D. Hulkower

The North, South, East and West of Oregon Chardonnay

The Seminar

The seminar which launched the 2017 Oregon Chardonnay Celebration at The Allison in

Newberg on 25 February took us on a tour. Ray Isle, executive wine editor of Food & Wine,

served as moderator and guide as we went “Roadtripping through Oregon Chardonnay Country.”

“People overlook how incredibly complex the wines can be,” Isle asserted. He quoted

winemaker Anna Matzinger who observed that a “high amount of intellectual capital is being

applied to Chardonnay in Oregon.” Five distinct examples from around the state substantiated

her claim.

Bob Morus of Phelps Creek Vineyards near Hood River represented the East. His 2014

“Lynette” Chardonnay had a pretty floral and fruity aroma and was sleek on the palate with nice

acidity and salinity.

Luisa Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards in the northern part of the Willamette Valley advised that you

“want to catch [Chardonnay] right before it tastes great.” Her 2014 Aurora Chardonnay had a

toasty, fruity and nutty nose and a rich, balanced flavor.

Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra gets her Chardonnay from Shea Vineyard in the Western side

of the Willamette Valley. She admitted that she doesn’t “know how to pick before it tastes

good.” Instead she picks part when the acid is good then lets the clusters sit to let the flavors

develop. The 2014 Aurata Chardonnay offered complex aromas of oak and fruit in an elegant

dance. Similarly, the beautiful palate was rich and evolving, with a long, layered finish.

Heading a bit south, we heard from Ken Pahlow of Walter Scott. The 2015 X Novo Chardonnay

is from a young vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills planted to fifteen clones. The nose was

dominated by toast and nuts but with air, spice and fruit emerged. The balance and acidity were

nice but there was little fruit on the palate. It was clear that more time is needed.

The tour ended in Southern Oregon. Bryan Wilson of DANCIN Vineyards discussed his 2015

“Melange” Chardonnay from grapes grown at an average of 1800 feet elevation. Initially muted,

the wine sat zaftig on the palate with some juicy fruit and richness but little acidity. Again, this

will benefit from additional aging.

Isle summarized the tour by highlighting the focus, tension and acidity common among the

Chardonnays featured. While elegant is a term that can be fraught since it might mean thin and

lacking power to some, these wines offered both elegance and power.

The Grand Tasting

We adjourned to the Grand Tasting. For two and a half hours, 46 wineries, including the five

featured at the seminar, poured their Chardonnays from either the 2014 or 2015 vintage.

Appetizers including mushroom popovers, deviled eggs, and smoked steelhead trout prepared by

Jory lent savor to balance the acidity and complement the richness of the wines.

In addition to the five served at the seminar, I sampled 28 bottlings. In general and not

surprisingly, the 2014s were less acidic and more fruity. In contrast, the 2015s were better

balanced, immature but showed great promise for age-ability. From the older vintage, the

standouts were the mouth filling offering from Brittan Vineyards; the lemony but lingering

Crowley Wines “Four Winds;” Chehalem’s complex Ian’s Reserve; the sleek Grochau Cellars’

Bunker Hill Vineyard; and the Matzinger Davies and the Evenstad Reserve from Domaine

Serene were two that were particularly food friendly,. Promising Chardonnays from the younger

vintage included the attractive Knudsen, the yummy Fairsing, the bright Big Table Farm, and the

juicy Willamette Valley Vineyards Bernau Block.

Reflections

It seems that Chardonnay never actually fell completely out of favor despite the now faded

“Anything But…” movement. It remains among the most planted grape varieties in the world,

second among whites to the Spain’s Airén. Naturally, as with Pinot Noir, Oregon winegrowers

have looked East to Burgundy rather than South to California in search of models of Chardonnay

greatness. What we now are seeing is beginnings of the payoff of the “intellectual capital” that is

being expended up and down the state. While there will never be a single style of Chardonnay in

Oregon, just as there isn’t in the Côte-d’Or, it is more distinguished and distinguishable from

what comes from California. No buttered popcorn or oak splinters here. Instead, balance and

acidity are king. This structure suggests greater age-ability, most recently for the vintage 2015

bottlings. The good news is that more producers around the state are embracing the grape, even

grafting over the less profitable Pinot Gris to it. If things keep up as they have been, Oregon

Chardonnay will be ready for a Cole Porter style tribute:

I love the smell of you, the lure of you

The fruit of you, the pure of you

The nose, the legs, the mouth of you

The east, west, north and the south of you

I’d love to gain complete control of you

And handle even the heart and soul of you

So love, at least, a small percent of me, do

For I love all of you

_____________

Neal Hulkower is a mathematician and an oenophile living in McMinnville, Oregon. His wine

writing has appeared in a wide range of academic and popular publications including the Journal

of Wine Research, the Journal of Wine Economics, Oregon Wine Press, Practical Winery &

Vineyard, Wine Press Northwest, and The World of Fine Wine. Occasionally, he can be found

pouring quintessential Pinot noir at the top of the Dundee Hills.

Beyond “Food Friendly”: Pairing Suggestions That Actually Help Sell Your Wine

Guest Post by Deirdre Bourdet, CEO of Hedonism Ink

People have been consuming wine and food together for thousands of years, because wine generally makes your food taste better — and food generally makes your wine taste better. Smart tasting rooms offer guests a bit of charcuterie, nuts, or other wine-loving snacks to sample with their wines, knowing that these few bites will make the wines — and really, the whole tasting experience — immensely more enjoyable. A thoughtful food match can transform a mousy wallflower of a wine into a celebrity rockstar … that surprise new favorite that people feel compelled to share with all their friends and followers.

If we know people like to drink wine with food, and we know wines taste better with food, then why do so many wine producers give the issue of food pairings short shrift in their marketing strategy? Few wine descriptions, tasting notes or sell sheets include any information at all about successful food pairings. Some offer up the revelation that a wine is “food friendly” (a term most consumers read as a warning not to consume on its own), or advise that it “pairs well with pasta or grilled meats.” These kinds of vague, obvious suggestions are absolutely useless — as well as a lost opportunity to educate your consumer on the many excellent ways they can enjoy your wine.

Let’s review the basic facts of food and wine pairing: a successful match depends almost entirely on how you season the main ingredient of your dish, rather than the type of protein or dish. Many seafood dishes are transcendent with red wines, and many meat dishes (particularly southeast Asian dishes) are far superior paired with white wines. Many salads are delectable with red wines, and pasta can pair with any wine on earth, depending on what comes with it.

Unless your pairing suggestions offer advice on the flavors and preparations that complement your wine, you’re not giving your customer any useful information to guide them on how and when they should consume your wine. In my opinion, this is a total marketing fail — especially for classically styled or funky wines that don’t show particularly well without food.

So, what to do? Obviously it’s impossible to describe every single dish and preparation method that would flatter your wine — there are just too many options. But even on a back label or a shelf talker, you have enough room to point out a few specific seasonings or flavors (e.g., fresh goat cheese, basil, tandoori spice, mushrooms) that would complement your wine. Rather than just matching the aromas already in the wine, try to focus here on flavors that will harmonize and build on them. Mirroring a wine’s aromatic characteristics in a pairing often cancels them out entirely — a smoky wine paired with a smoky meat typically makes both taste less smoky, for example. A better pairing utilizes the wine’s distinctive flavors as additional ingredients for the dish, layering on complexity in the total (wine + food) mouthful. Identifying some of these key complementary flavors helps consumers identify easy ways they might be able to work your wine into dinner tonight.

In marketing collateral with more space to dive into details (tasting notes, online product descriptions, etc.), you can go a step further and suggest some actual dishes to try. Remember to describe them in a way that makes their flavor profiles clear … think “sole with browned butter,” “spicy Thai coconut curries,” “steak au poivre”. Pick a variety of dishes that shows off the versatility of the wine — perhaps “fresh tomato and Brie sandwiches, grilled salmon with thyme and fennel, or roasted duck with five spice” — and consider including a simple recipe for one of these suggested pairings to take the guesswork out of it. Even if your customer never makes the dish, a well-written recipe provides useful guidance about successful pairing options and cooking techniques, as well as an evocative image of deliciousness.

Everyone loves to eat, and most people are far more familiar with food imagery than they are with wine descriptions. An alluring food idea can make your wine less intimidating, and easier to picture fitting into their holiday meals, weekend dinner parties, and Taco Tuesdays. And if you make it easier for people to enjoy your wine, they’ll not only drink more of it — they’ll also appreciate your help. In my experience, good food pairing suggestions are one of the key value-adds that keep people in wine clubs. (Wine club parties with excellent food pairings are another.)

In sum: thoughtful pairing suggestions are an easy way to provide your consumers with fun educational information, and provide your wines with the culinary context that make them taste their best. And because so few wineries focus on this marketing opportunity, even a little extra effort in this area sets your winery apart, lifting it head and shoulders above the “food friendly” competition.

Deirdre Bourdet is the Principal and Chief Eating Officer of Hedonism Ink, a wine and food writing service based in Napa Valley. As a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, recipe developer and wine industry copywriter, she’s always devising delicious new ways to enjoy wine. If you’d like help creating food pairing notes or recipes, please feel free to reach out by email: hedonism.ink@gmail.com.

© Hedonism Ink, 2015. All rights reserved.

What is your Tasting Room Strategy?

Tasting Rooms are critical to your survival

Here are the facts, according to a Silicon Valley Bank presentation I recently attended, on the “2015 State of the Wine Industry” – In 1995 there were 2,000 wineries and 3,000 distributors in the U.S. Those seem like pretty good odds for getting your wines into someone’s book, right? Today we are faced with an entirely different reality. 7,000 wineries are entering 2015 in search of just 700 distributors. What does that tell you if you are a small production winery?

While entering new markets is certainly feasible, it has now become more difficult due to the consolidation of wholesalers nationally, and focus on volume based brands. This indicates the need to focus on the Direct to Consumer (DTC) sales channel. And at the strategic core of every DTC program is… The Tasting Room. When I write Marketing and Action Plans for winery clients I always start with a brand discussion, followed by the real estate. Do you have a tasting room, or plan to? Is absolutely every aspect of the room a reflection of your brand strategy? It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does need to be memorable.

Is there a better place to create brand ambassadors than your tasting room? Having one affects your ability to sell wine, grow and profit from loyalty programs, and derive new subscribers and followers to market to. So the strategy is to drive traffic to your tasting room, and use engaging and authentic service to sell wine. From a sales and marketing perspective, there are only three things that you and your tasting room must excel at every day:

1) Selling Wine (66% close rate is your benchmark)

2) Selling Wine Club (10% should be your goal)

3) Getting Emails for your newsletter (I think 80% of visitors is a reasonable target)

It falls to winery owners and managers to ensure staff understands that along with the myriad of other duties, that job #1 is to create brand ambassadors. The way to do that is to out-service your competition. So, glass polishing can wait. Service first!

On the subject of “Service Talks“, and wine descriptions walk… hire staff that are a reflection of your winery brand, that you are proud to have as representatives. It’s not enough to have an earnest friends volunteer to help if they can’t ask for wine and club orders, and don’t provide exceptional customer service. Whoever presents your wines will become the face of your winery, and experiences they provide will persist indefinitely. Hire people who are natural hospitality types and Invest in their wine education. I have a few winery clients that run wonderful tasting room operations; and some have wanted to affirm public perception. We use surveys to get anonymous feedback from visitors and club members; and also hire “Secret Shoppers” and provide a script of questions, responses and talking points to engage tasting room staff. The results go to the old saw “be careful what you ask for”. We can all stand to improve our operations, right?

So, why are Tasting Rooms so important to consumers? It is no longer enough to sell great wine! Save technical details for the small percent of visitors who ask. I tell my clients in no uncertain fashion “Stop Selling Products”; “Start Telling Stories”. People expect to interact and engage with your brand, so your tasting room should have visual displays that are consistent with your brand identify; Visitors also want to have memorable “Experiences“. And the best way to do that is with well thought out questions about their interests and wine knowledge; and in a controlled environment – your tasting room. If you really think about it, don’t we all want to discover that special and reliable place we can always go and bring our friends and “where everyone knows your name” (think “Cheers!” Wine Bar)?

Why not allow guests to choose what type of experience they’d like? There has been a very positive trend toward offering different “Guest Experiences” at your winery tasting room; to have personal hands on interactions of their choice. Examples of this might include 1) Classic standing tasting bar 2) Open seated and served tasting 3) Reserved seating wine and food pairing experience 4) private space for wine club members 5) Guided educational vineyard tours 6) separate space for club members 7) Outdoor Patio or Picnic tables. Options 2-7 have proven to both increase average sales per visit, and new wine club signups. The point is to get away from the tasting bar and people moving.

Let’s face it, these days people have too much information available and so many choices; of who to patronize and which brands to introduce to their friends. First impressions are more critical than ever, and we are tasked with being accessible and authentic in all of our interactions. This highlights the need for consistency of messaging and high-touch high-energy service provided across all your marketing platforms starting with Tasting Room. Deliver good memories and people will take home memorabilia (your wines!). Although this is cliché’, it’s worth stating anyway. It’s the second sale that matters, isn’t it?

How do you know if you are successful? Tracking Metrics and Conversion rates against goals. Tracking new daily visitors, buyers, sales, club signups, email subscribers and how they heard of you is a must; Compare your results to industry benchmarks, calculate your conversion rates, and adjust the goals and incentives of your tasting room staff monthly. You will improve your sales conversions by tracking user preferences and history – so use your POS or invest in a CRM to record, segment and target customer preferences; or at least use your EMS (email system) to track notes, history and interactions.

Other TR best practices – offer strong industry discounts (25-30%) to other tasting room – they are your best referral source; when it’s busy send staff out to network and see what other tasting rooms are doing; have staff do daily Facebook posts in your winery’s voice with the mood and a photo of the day; send email thank you notes to all significant daily buyers (you got their email correct)? Ask them to follow on your social platforms; add them to your EMS (email marketing system), and setup auto-generated offers in one week; always send hand written thank you cards to new wine club members; Tweet daily tasting lineups or promos using common hashtags. Oh, and if you’re not doing this already, please visually acknowledge me within 7-10 seconds when I walk in your door.

White Wines are Red Hot!

Special Guest Article by Lisa Shara Hall

Oregon is known for its Pinot Noir. Okay, that’s fair as seventy percent of its plantings are Pinot Noir.

But that’s not the whole story about Oregon. Not by a long shot. So why are so many of it’s white wines overlooked?

The 2014 Oregon Chardonnay Symposium sought to give some spotlight to Chardonnay. And you betcha, there are some mighty fine chardonnays in this state. Bergstrom’s Sigrid, Domaine Drouhin Oregon’s Arthur, Chehalem’s Inox, Brittan Vineyards, Kramer Vineyards, Stoller Family Estate, and Soter Vineyards just to name a few.

Riesling is another up-and-coming variety with fine examples from Brooks, Trisaetum, Argyle, Chehalem, J. Christopher, Anam Cara and Teutonic Wines, just to rattle off a few of many. They do an amazing tasting at the end of the International Pinot Noir Celebration that is remarkable for its range of wines.

Melon de Bourgogne (the grape of Muscadet) is grown by, among others, Panther Creek, Ken Wright, de Ponte, Cameron, and Grochau Cellars.

Pinot Blanc is also made in Oregon. Chehalem, Adelsheim, Willakenzie Estate, Ayers, The Eyrie, and St Innocent make noteworthy Pinot blanc.

And Pinot Gris. An Oregon work-horse. There can be wonderful wines such as Chehalem’s two cuvees, The Eyrie, WillaKenzie Estate and Bethel Heights to name a very few.

And of course there are some wonderful stand-alone wines. Troon’s delightful Vermentino. Ponzi’s Arneis. Abacela’s Albarino. Chehalem’s Gruner Veltliner. Cowhorn’s Viognier (other people do make Viognier but Cowhorn’s is outstanding).

So you see that Oregon is not necessarily all about Pinot Noir. Take a chance. Try a white wine. You might be surprised.

The ‘Three R’s’ of Wine Club Loss Management

Wine Clubs have become exceeding popular with many consumers. I’ve heard reports of folks belonging to as many as 4-5 different clubs. It’s easy to join and drop clubs, so we all need to be on our toes. After all, members are our best customers (almost like our business family), aren’t they?

There are many reasons our customers RETRACT their membership including lack of winery contact, not being acknowledged and treated special, dumping of wines and inflexibility of choice. Be proactive during the winter months (after holiday bills arrive and with shorter tasting room hours), recognize the challenges around jobs and the economy, and keep a watchful eye on anniversary dates as the average life span of club membership is between 1 to 1.5 years.

So how do we RETAIN members? Give your members what they want! Remind them of their benefits and do something special during slow winter months. Try to take members aside in a separate area of your tasting room when they arrive during regular hours. Non-members will take notice of course. Use Customer Management Systems to track your members preferences, purchasing patterns, anniversary dates and tailor communications and promotions specifically to them. When is the last time you sent a poll to find out how they liked their last wine shipment?

When someone cancels, what do we do to RECOVER? Give them options of course! First of all sincerely find out the reasons. If within your control, make adjustments to accommodate retaining the member. If not, offer to skip a shipment or suspend for a period of time. If these don’t succeed, move them to the general email list to keep in touch with the winery. I manage a few wine clubs and know this is difficult and time consuming, but certainly worth the effort. Remember these former members have brand loyalty and are highly qualified, so be creative, prepared and have a plan to follow-up with them in the future.