Thursday, August 21, 2014

The HoseMaster's Guide to Wine Marketing

The longer I’m in the wine business, the more fascinated I become with the marketing of wine. Not that it’s any different than, say, the marketing of movies. In fact, it seems like all marketing makes me think the same thing over and over, “Who the hell falls for that?” Now your question to me might be, “Who falls for what?” And you’ve answered my question.

Let’s first define wine marketing. It’s prevaricating. If you can’t put your hand on a Bible, swear in open court that what you’ve said is true, and not go to jail for perjury, it’s lying. Oh, it’s sophisticated lying, it’s lying by implication and dishonest associations, but it’s still lying. For example, “Our vineyard is right next to Harlan Estate,” which may, in fact, be true, but is meant to imply that therefore the wine is of the same quality. Which is like saying, “That’s my husband, the guy standing next to Brad Pitt,” as proof that Angelina Jolie wants to fuck him and bear his adopted children. (I think Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story about that very situation--“The Pitt and the Pudendum.”) Only, unlike wine, anyone can tell he’s not Brad Pitt without having to put him in her mouth and taste him. Wine marketing relies on the consumer’s ultimate ignorance about wine, and their insecurity about their wine knowledge. Which is why it’s so much fun to be a wine marketer! Playing folks for fools is endlessly entertaining.

I’ve assembled a few rules to remember when reading winery marketing material. This is not a complete list, but it should help you navigate some of the garbage that surrounds the marketing of wine.

It’s Important to Tell a Wine’s Story
Every damned winery has a story. Let’s not forget that a story only has to be good, only has to be interesting, it certainly doesn’t have to be true. I love a good story as much as the next guy, the one standing next to Brad Pitt, but every time I read a puff piece in Wine Spectator (about a winery that, only coincidentally, is owned by one of their major advertisers), or yet another asinine winery review on a wine blog (Alderpated on Vornography passing off winery marketing propraganda as journalism), I cringe. Wine marketing sells you romance when it wants to screw you, just like your ex-boyfriend. Winery stories are the business’ Lifetime movies—they’re “based on a true story.” You see, you always have to qualify “story” with “true,” otherwise it’s not. You don’t have to qualify “true.”

Please, God, can we put an end to telling every winery’s story? The stuff that was made up in marketing meetings? Meetings where they discuss whether to use the word “natural,” or whether it should be “authentic.” I know, I know, let’s use “sustainable.” That doesn’t mean anything legally, and it sounds like we care. Splooge Estate is sustainable! The only question is, is my straight face sustainable?

In Wine Marketing, Two Half-Truths Equal a Truth
“Our winemaker worked in Burgundy. Our vineyards are on the exact same latitude as the Côtes d’Or. So our wine is very Burgundian.” Beware of the word “Burgundian.” It is a word that is only used for the worst Pinot Noirs and the dreariest Chardonnays. It’s marketing shorthand for, “I don’t know shit about Burgundy, but I’m also sure you don’t know shit about Burgundy.” It’s also lazy wine marketing. It takes no imagination or thought, but it flatters the client no end. “Oh, honey, tonight’s dinner was absolutely French Laundrian.” As it turns out, what may sound like praise is basically sarcasm. Remember that the next time a winery claims its wine is Burgundian. They’re probably just being sarcastic. Laugh like you're in on it.

I’m the Expert on Expert Opinions
There’s a reason wine marketing folks praise wine bloggers. They desperately need their opinions to have meaning. There’s no difference between wine writing and wine blogging, they’ll have you know. Just like there’s no difference between your high school production of “Death of a Salesman” and one on Broadway. Teenagers can be actors, too, and they understand the context just as well as the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Only an idiot would think otherwise. You just have to memorize some lines, after all, and you, too, can be Willy Loman. Hey, what’s an MS made of but memorization? See? There you go. (See section above.)

Points, medals, blurbs from bloggers, it’s all the same. Make them all seem meaningful. But it’s something of a descending order of preference for wine marketing. No Parker score worth touting? Talk about the one Gold Medal you received out of the ten competitions you entered. No Gold Medals? Well, you got a nice little mention on the blog that won “Best Reviews on a Wine Blog,” an award given by marketing folks. In fact, any blogger that mentions your wine is an expert! He’s a wine writer. Which implies he’s a wine expert (see paragraph two). Hell, we’re all wine writers! I know, let’s put on “Death of a Salesman” and we can all be actors, too! I got dibs on Biff.

Words Have No Meaning
Marketing people love language the way troubled teenagers love razor blades. It’s a sick and destructive relationship. There are countless words that have been deprived of all meaning in wine marketing. Words that are tossed around like so many dwarves in a bowling alley. Here are just a few.

Terroir—Once a word that was used by winemakers of an appellation to say that a particular wine possessed telling characteristics of its origins, much as a person might reflect his culture. “Terroir” has now come to mean whatever the person uses it thinks it means—sort of like the word “truth” on the Internet.

Old Vines—How many 35-year-olds think they’re old? Humans and grapevines have similar lifespans, if anything, grapevines can outlive us. So how is 35 old? Or 50? What are we, still in the fucking Middle Ages? Are the best wines in the world made from old vines? I always thought the best wines came from the best vineyards. Old vines are just a novelty in the United States, I guess. Like watching Harrison Ford or Woody Allen get the young girl in a movie. I guess it’s because their balls have had longer hang times that the girls want them.

Balance—We pursue it. Every other winemaker ignores it. We now own it. Want to have balance? Submit a sample. We’ll tell you if you do. Otherwise, fuck off.


Marcia Macomber said...

Hysterical! All true (without qualification). I'll take Brad Pitt; I have no idea who may be standing next to him. Don't care!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron Love,

"Wine marketing relies on the consumer’s ultimate ignorance about wine, and their insecurity about their wine knowledge." I thought that's what scores and ratings were for....

Marcia Macomber said...

The trouble with scores and ratings is that it requires someone to READ them. Now put that in a video....

Two words for Samantha: Burgundian Grenache!

Brian Baker said...


Don't forgot our favorite wine bullshit word RESERVE. Essentially, we have two extra barrels that taste nothing like the main blend so let's call it "Reserve" and since it's only 50 cases we can charge 50% more!

Samantha Dugan said...

People do read scores and ratings, they're called Wine Marketers silly. Meg will never live down "Burgundian Grenache" in my world. Read this morning that we was, "deconstructing Burgundy" can't wait o read what other wonders she will discover there! Ugh.

Marcia Macomber said...

Yup. They sure do. And they can count too (preferrably in the 90's)! Mr. Parker can attest to that.

"Deconstructing," eh? Not exactly my bailiwick. (I hate taking things apart if someone went to the trouble of putting them together.)

How about if we combine the ideas above? "RESERVE Burgundian Grenache" -- can it get any more meaningless?

Samantha Dugan said...

Yes it can, we can say, "Willy Wonky gives it 99 points!"

Claire Gabaldon said...

I realize now I have wasted my life aspiring to work in wine marketing. My futile existence is held together by a web of lies. I'm going to quit my job in Napa Valley and join the Peace Corps tomorrow. Probably. True story.

Brian Baker said...


Don't join the Peace Corp, you'll get Ebola...there are better opportunities in the bowling industry for ex-wine marketers...:)

Thomas said...

This post could use some balance--where's Wark?


there are better opportunities in the bowling industry

Really? Have you seen the feet that go into those shoes???

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Common Taters,
A few words on the inspiration for this particularly negative post.

It was originally inspired by STEVE!'s interview of a KJ flack, who said, "Facebook is the textbook example of a channel where the strategies have changed due to the fact that Facebook now is essentially a pay-to-play entity. Knowing that, and being able to see ahead of that last year, we decided to pivot towards more authentic storytelling."

"More authentic storytelling"...idiot. Such doublespeak, such manure, but that's his job, to spread it. That one quote raised my HoseMaster hackles.

Then Tom Wark, a guy I like, by the way, began his new blog about winery PR with Julie Ann Kodmur (who I don't know). His first rule of PR? "Tell the Truth." Yeah. What that means really is, "Tell a Version of the Truth." Winery PR has about the same amount of Truth as a profile on OKCupid. Believe it at your own risk because, guaranteed, it's a small fraction of the truth. So those two things got me going.

I decided to write it in a style that, in my own head, I relate to late, angry Mark Twain. I am in no way comparing myself to that genius. But I adopted a rather angry, outraged tone simply because it seemed appropriate. PR folks are incapable of telling the whole truth, and they do NOT get paid to tell the whole truth. They tell their version of some truth, and by repeating it over and over and over, attempt to make it the accepted truth. In the biz, we all laugh at it. Just as in show biz they laugh at the hype and bullshit that it generates. But those on the outside, well, I thought I'd have some fun cluing them in.

As if they read my stupid blog.

PR folks don't waste their lives. If anything, they've wasted a lot of mine. Thanks for chiming in!

Yeah, "Reserve." It's either on a $10 bottle, or a $200 bottle, so you know it has meaning.

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Scores and ratings are shorthand for those who don't know about wine; winery "stories" are for those who think they know about wine. I think that once people find a reliable person to help them with wine--a person like you, or a friend with a lot of knowledge, or maybe a wine bar owner--they quickly abandon scores. But for most people, they just don't care. They want wine, they want to get a buzz, they're in a hurry, they go by scores. I've fought it for as long as you have, and it's a good and honorable struggle, but we are vastly outnumbered.

And you really need to stop reading Meg Houston Maker's FaceBook page, or whatever it is you read, before you have a heart attack. Though I love it when you're pissed off...

I love you!

Oh, Tom can't be bothered with me. Besides, why? He has Truth on his side.

Unknown said...

Hey is that Reserve Burgundian Grenache also Organic? That sounds like a Chilean wine I need to know about, especially at $9.99!


Samantha Dugan said...

Ron Love,
I love it when you get pissed too, hence the reason I adored this post! Meg hasn't the, well the anything to give me a heart attack but I do get lots of material reading her Facebook and hot wings pairings and Burgundian Grenache are just a couple of favorites.

Dale Dimas said...

Let me try that again...

"Only, unlike wine, anyone can tell he’s not Brad Pitt without having to put him in her mouth and taste him."


"Wine marketing sells you romance when it wants to screw you, just like your ex-boyfriend."


Thomas said...

Did the PR person really say this?: "we decided to pivot towards more authentic storytelling."

I wish part of a PR person's education included language. Does that statement imply that before pivoting, every story they told was inauthentic? Or does it imply that Facebook is not a place for authenticity? Or does it imply, as I suspect, that the person who said it hasn't a clue?

What's more, when confronted with such inanity during an interview a journalist ought to press for clarification and not let something so blatantly absurd go right by.

Finally, Who's Meg Houston?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

That's a direct quote from STEVE!'s post last week. The guy works for La Crema, as I recall, one of the wineries owned by STEVE!'s employer, an employer known for authentic storytelling. I hope STEVE! doesn't get too sucked into that "authenticity."

Spin is as old as the Bible--the absolute textbook on spin. I don't mind it, it's just part of the game. It's the people who practice it smirking at the chumps who believe their "authentic storytelling" that motivates me. They'll look you straight in the eye, tell you a ridiculous lie, and swear that it's the "authentic" truth. It's insulting, so it deserves some insulting in return.

Thomas said...

I forgot that STEVE! is no longer a journalist. I haven't read it in quite a while; has his blog become a KJ promotional device?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

No, it's still a STEVE! promotional tool. Though he's certainly getting paid to swallow the Kool-Aid (otherwise known as K-J Chardonnay). But good for him. He earned it. I'm wondering when Laube will go to work for Constellation...

gabriel jagle said...

Why is Burgundy the only region that gets turned into an adjective? I want a wine that is Napavallian, with a Baroloian finish.

Natalie Bowman Lee said...

As I spend more time in the industry, both production, and restaurant side, I find this sleazy form of wine marketing and the people who do it increasingly want to make me hate the industry, which sucks really badly (to put it oh so eloquently) because I truly love wine, and I know there are so many winemakers who truly love wine.

What I am in the midst of deciding myself is were these "journalists" once passionate towards wine and had their souls sucked away, Dark Crystal style, by the money and lies they had to keep up with in order to continue catching the plebeian wine drinkers who don't know shit, or did they just never really give a fuck in the first place. Is it a chicken and an egg thing or no?

PS- the guy next to Brad Pitt is apparently Marc Perrin (see June 30, 2014 Wine Spectator Cover)

PPS- I just discovered you, and your writing is fucking awesome and very refreshing. Grazie

Tom said...

"PR folks are incapable of telling the whole truth, and they do NOT get paid to tell the whole truth. They tell their version of some truth, and by repeating it over and over and over..."

Ron, I think your observation here is too limited. I think you need to include writers, critics, consumers, bloggers, winemakers, tasting room personnel, retailers, sommeliers, wholesaler salespeople and just about everyone else when talking about folks delivering "their version of the truth" is concerned.

Additionally, I'm going to take issue with this:

"Believe it at your own risk because, guaranteed, it's a small fraction of the truth."

To quote the hosemaster: "Such manure".

Anonymous said...

I loved this post. The story bit especially. I don't have to make up good stories about my producers, but I've found that given the choice between two similar wines at tastings, the one with the best producer story wins out every time.

Thomas said...

Well, yeah, Tom, the Hosemaster is using a little of his own form of hype to get a point across.

A good journalist learns through experience that "truth" is a slippery thing at best, and everyone's truth is a version of THE truth.

It is of course the consumer's responsibility to ferret, whether reading what someone writes or buying what someone produces--it's hard to do that when you are ill-equipped for the job.

It's a pretty tight version of the truth to say that PR is all about skewing, spinning, and if possible, obfuscating truth.

William Allen said...

Marcia, Samantha, with all due respect I think the comments on Meg are a bit harsh. Its my Two Shepherds Grenache she is referring to, saying it reminds her of Pinot Noir.

I have probably had 50 other comments from people similar who have tasted it. Sorry you disagree on using the Burgundian reference, I am sure you will equally object with my regular references to old world....the lines have blurred, I concur, but its something most people still understand and relate too.

Meg is passionate about wine, and very knowledgeable. She is a writer first, not a marketeer. There will always be disagreement with terms, descriptions people use. Its fine to have your own counter opinion, but are such pointed attacks really necessary or helpful in any way?


Samantha Dugan said...

We will have to agree to disagree. You can point to 50 people that misused the term "Burgundian" and I can point you to another 100 that cringe and shake their head when you do. I will never agree with using the term, for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and for a grape that doesn't even grow in Burgundy it is simply wrong. Isn't true of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Burgundian Grenache is one of the more careless and reckless, in terms of helping the consumer, I've come across in many, many years. You can defend it, as did she, but I will continue to fight against that kind of misinformation, because it is the consumer that I end up working with and shit like that just confuses them. There are lots of other words to use, (and part of the reason I thought it okay to pick at her a bit is her constant pointing out over everyone's errors, thought she could take it) and she has a beautiful and intimate relationship with them, I never said she wasn't a great writer, I said that term was wrong...and it still is. So to your question, does it do any good, I think in the long term, as far as customers getting the information they need, (which is why we do this right?!) it does.

I have to wonder though, had someone said your Grenache reminded them of Cape Area Pinotage would you be so quick to defend that? Look, I'm sure your wine is beautiful, graceful, elegant but it's Grenache so Burgundian it isn't.

I respect your intent but with just as much due respect, I continue to disagree.

William Allen said...

thanks for the reply Samantha.

I am not defending Meg's use of the word Burgundian (nor attacking it for that matter.)

This isn't about my wine,or my thoughts on it, I would never engage here, about that.

Its perfectly fine to agree, or disagree. Wine will always be that way, nature of the beast.
People will make whatever comments they like on the wine, consumers and writers alike. I don't agree with them all, but it's their opinion. which whether or not I agree to, they are entitled to.

My comment/point was that disagreement is fine, as is your your reasoning. I don't see the need for the other jabs aren't needed to make your point, in fact they detract from it IMO by making it more personal. That's all.

William Allen said...

I do think vine age is relevant.

- I have been fortunate enough to work with some older vines and the difference in complexity and varietal expression to me is quite clear. (Of course a winemaker can wipe all sense of that out, just as they can terroir, quite easily.)
That isn't to say that young vines can't make great wine, but all things being equal, an older vineyard can add much. Humans and vines may share a similar lifespan, but provide different characteristics as they age.
(while you could correlate my receding hairline, to older vineyards reduced yield, I think the latter is more beneficial to wine making, than to my personal appearance. :) )

- vine age can be relevant globally, thanks to phylloxera, which is why we have vineyards like the Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi, which at 135 years, are believed to be the oldest surviving vineyard for Cinsault in the world.

Samantha Dugan said...

I did not intend to make any personal jab. I still don't think I did but if you saw any kind of personal attack that I will apologize for.

William Allen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Allen said...

thanks Samantha, very kind, and apologies if I miscontrued. I am perhaps getting soft hearted in my maturing years.

I'll be pouring in LA Sept 9th for Rhone Rangers tasting at Vibiana, perhaps we can meet finally and can share some bottles with you, and we'll stay away from the "B" word. :)

I'd love some descriptors for my new 12.3% alc Mourvedre that is lighter than....Pinot. :)

Thomas said...

On the subject of PR and Burgundian, I've never understood why any wine producer in the U.S. chooses to equate with wines from anywhere else. Isn't it supposed to be about individual location--terroir?

Plus, as an old wine salesman, I made it a point never to mention the competition, good or bad. I'd rather the wines make it on their own merits--sans comparisons.

I'm with Sam:
I don't know who you guys are talking about and I don't know the context, but it's wrong to call a Grenache Burgundian, if only for the confusion it can cause. As a writer trying to convey information, something like that would not enter my mind.

Samantha Dugan said...

It bothered me and for all the reasons you state. I often talk to domestic producers about this and many of them agree, they don't like using the term Burgundian for their wines because they are proud to be where they're from, but use it because other people do. I agree 100% with regards to their pride of place but we aren't going to make the misuse of the term go away unless we call people out on it, out loud so everyone hears it, which is why I rant as I so often do.

I think William kind of proved one of the important points, inadvertently, (and I am still sorry that it was taken as personal jab, not at all intend that way) by assuming the Pinotage comment was a slam on his wine, (that I've not tasted) which implies that being called Burgundian is far favorable. Why is that? Because of a reputation earned and that is why I find the whole Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne thing even more annoying than just being incorrect or belittling the wines from California, (or Oregon) Burgundy earned that memory, feeling, image that it evokes and it shouldn't be handed over to anyone. You can think them better or not but there is a reason those names are stolen and used and I will be the barking twat about until I do have that heart attack I am sure Ron is wishing I would have right about now. Plus like I said before, I am a retailer that deals with hundreds of customers, face to face each day and I am the one tasked with fixing what sloppy language messes up...and it makes me cranky.

Your lack of using terms like that Thomas is just another thing that I admire about you. As a dude and a writer.

I'd love to taste your wine and I promise not to compare it to Bandol!

Joel Peterson said...

As a winery PR and marketing guy (person?), this post made my day. Not sure if it's because I'm writing my 3rd press release today, or just tired of looking for adjectives for "unique". Thanks Hosemaster, I think I'll be drinking a margarita tonight...

Beau said...

"Beware of the word “Burgundian.” It is a word that is only used for the worst Pinot Noirs and the dreariest Chardonnays."

Please send this line up to Oregon. It's desperately needed up here.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hello Natalie,
First of all, welcome as a common tater. Secondly, thank you for the kind words. Don't be discouraged by all the malarkey and hypocrisy in the biz--it's everywhere in every biz. It's laughable, and, ultimately, harmless. And, also, take absolutely everything I write with several grains of sulfites.

My observations are limited? I've made fun of every single one of those professions you list, and don't recall it bothering you when I did. But PR is also really adept at distraction--deflect the point being made by tossing in irrelevant-to-the-conversation comparisons. The piece was about marketing wine, PR, the endless crap sent to me via email, peddled through lazy bloggers, and spewed in tasting rooms by employees told to follow the script.

What's interesting is how many private emails I've received from marketing people, and wine lovers, who love the piece. A much bigger response than I usually get. Honestly, Tom, best to have a sense of humor about these things.

As for manure, old friend, I tip my cap to your expertise.

I think it would be hard to argue that using "Burgundian" in the context of a California Grenache is anything but lazy journalism, and, honestly, Meg should know better. It only shows a paucity of vocabulary, not valuable insight. And from a woman who prides herself on her use of language, no less. All the talk in the world doesn't make it defensible. Though we've blown the whole thing way out of proportion here. Which I love.

As for pointed attacks, William, come on, that's just how it works in the real world. Samantha's words were hardly inflammatory. Have you read what people say about me? I don't care, and I doubt Ms. Maker does either. I also doubt she needs a Shepherd in Shining Armor.

Welcome. Only a marketing person would be searching for an adjective for "unique," one word that can never be qualified. You may be in the right line of work.

I am of the opinion that Oregon set itself back 20 years when, back in the 1980's, so many producers compared their wines to Burgundy. It was a dreadful idea. Maps showing they were on the same latitude? How stupid is that? I'd hope most of the producers now avoid all of that hype and manure (sorry, Tom).

Tom said...


I never said I didn't appreciate the piece. I only pointed out that your perspective is limited. How do I know this? I'll show you:

"PR folks are incapable of telling the whole truth"

Not only do I know with certainty that this is untrue, I know that you know it is untrue.

I further know that your perspective is limited because you mocked this perfectly legitimate statement:

""Facebook is the textbook example of a channel where the strategies have changed due to the fact that Facebook now is essentially a pay-to-play entity. Knowing that, and being able to see ahead of that last year, we decided to pivot towards more authentic storytelling."

It used to be that one could use Facebook to communicate directly to those that indicated a desire to hear what you had to say. Then, facebook changed the way posts were distributed to those who "liked" you. Now, unless you advertise, your posts don't get distributed to all those who "liked" the idea of hearing what you had to say. This is what the PR person was talking about when he called Facebook a "pay to play entity. It makes perfect sense. It's not doublespeak to say they wanted a way to communicate more authentically. They want to communicate without the kind of intermediation that Facebook now demands.

But you mocked this person who had far more understanding of the subject he was talking about than you do. Still, he got mocked as a manure spreader.

You've read me and known me for long enough to know that in addition to having an earnest side, I also have a sense of humor. So, I hope you'll appreciate when I tell you that when you decide to mock the folks that don't understand the wide variety of skills and talents that PR and marketing folks must possess, then I'll let loose with a belly laugh that has been pent up by 25 years of listening to people mock PR and marketing folks when they have no idea what they are talking about.

You're a big boy, Ron. And I love you. So don't hold it against me that I've taken the opportunity of this post on your blog to make this point.

Thomas said...


I knew you'd present us with "balance".

Just for the record, something either is or it isn't authentic (there's no more or less authenticity). Also, the definition of authentic needs to be understood within each specific context; otherwise, it's use reads like nonsense, as in "authentic wines" or "authentic stories."

It's my opinion that those in the communication profession ought to be able to communicate effectively, if not accurately.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I love that you first tell me what I know, then what I don't know. In this impersonal and uncaring age, it's comforting to be so known.

Anyone who uses the phrase "more authentic storytelling" is full of shit. Shall we take a vote on how many agree with me on that? I just pointed it out. I don't care about marketing on FaceBook, or FaceBook at all. I do care about language, and I'm mocking that idiot because he deserves it. That's what I do here, Tom. This seems to be shocking to you.

You have a brand spanking new blog all about the wonders of PR and marketing. I am sure you'll enlighten all of us about how you're doing God's work, and how the business owes a debt of gratitude to everyone in wine marketing. Godspeed. As for me, I'll mock whomever I feel like mocking. If my piece unleashed some of your pent-up rage at the indignities you've suffered as a PR person, then I've done my job.

You're always welcome here, Tom. I'll vouch for your sense of humor. Telling a satirist he doesn't know what he's talking about, though, pretty much misses the point entirely.

Thomas said...

..and of course, I screwed up its with it's in my diatribe about communication. I should read before I click.

Brian Baker said...

Speaking of authentic storytelling out in KJ Land...let's ask the flak to ask his colleague for the real story on Jed Steele's contribution to the flagship product...I'll bet he pivots off his La Crema rocker!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

So you're saying the purpose of "Authentic" is to lie, cheat and Steele? Noted.