Michael Wangbickler

Before moving to wine country a decade ago, Michael Wangbickler knew virtually nothing about wine. Oh sure, he knew which was red and which was white (most of the time), but he was no expert by any stretch of the imagination. He does, however, have an obsession for the good life and that certainly includes wine. Undaunted by his ignorance, he threw himself into learning everything he could about the subject and now holds a Diploma in Wine & Spirits (DWS) from London-based Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and is a Certified Wine Educator (CWE). They even let him teach now. In addition to teaching wine appreciation and WSET classes, Mike is also in hot demand at conferences around the world and presents on wine and food, and social media. While he hates the word “expert”, he is Balzac’s social media whiz. We just call him “expert” behind his back when he’s not listening. Mike currently holds a position (not sure whether it’s warrior pose or downward-facing dog) at Balzac Communications and Marketing in Napa, California. In addition, he also sits on the Board of Directors for the Drink Local Wine organization.

Jul 092014
 

Wine Bloggers Conference

This week, the Wine Bloggers Conference (#WBC14) returns to California for the first time in five years. The 7th annual conference will take place in Santa Barbara County July 10 to July 12.

I’ve been to all but one of the past conferences. I missed the 2011 conference because my sister was getting married. I asked her to move the wedding, but she didn’t go for it for some reason. That year has become legend for the hot weather they saw, so I’m not too terribly disappointed I missed it.

I always look forward to the Wine Bloggers Conference, as it’s an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. I’ve been involved in the wine blogging community from the very start. There were very few of us at that first conference in Sonoma oh so many years ago. Boy, how things have changed. My list of active wine blog contacts now exceeds 800 individuals, and probably 300-400 of them will be at this year’s WBC. That’s a huge group of like-minded wine enthusiasts who, as individuals, don’t have a lot of influence, but in aggregate, definitely can move the needle for wineries.

The fact that its back in California should have an impact on the attention that many of the sponsors receive. Most of the wine produced in this country is from California. And, in fact, the population of wine bloggers in California is much bigger than other areas, so it’s more convenient for many to attend.

I’ve been through Santa Barbara wine country before, and was impressed by what I saw and experienced. I can’t wait to see what the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association and Visit Santa Barbara (both Elite Sponsors) have to offer as they pull out all the stops to impress this group of influential bloggers.

I honestly don’t learn much from the sessions at the Wine Bloggers Conference much anymore, so it really is all about the people and the wines. See you in Santa Barbara!

Jun 092014
 

Ian Cauble MS

Master Sommelier Ian Cauble has a new project. For those unfamiliar with Ian, he was one of a handful of individuals featured in SOMM, a documentary film about candidates who attempt to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier exam, a test with one of the lowest pass rates in the world. In fact, there are only 211 professionals worldwide who have received the title of Master Sommelier since the first Master Sommelier Diploma Exam in 1969. Ian is one of those. He recently launched a new web site called SommSelect.

Ian started the site with co-founder Brandon Carneiro, whom he had met while they were both undergrads. Both had ended up with careers in wine. A few months ago, they launched SommSelect as a way to give consumers access to sommelier-selected wines. Still in Beta, SommSelect has new wines featured daily that are limited production and only for the early members of SommSelect to purchase. They state that the site is not about featuring the most affordable wines, but rather offering the best wines at an affordable price that have been tried and tested and now recommended by one of the world’s leading authorities on wine.  Ian also plans to occasionally offer more spendy offerings when warranted.

“We connected last year after Ian had been in the movie, mainly because I had seen a void in the market for a site like this,” says Brandon. “Something where people could see a daily curated wine from an expert Master Somm and buy wine.  We didn’t want to discount the wines like a flash site, but simply offer one great curated wine each day.  I told Ian about the idea and he liked it.  The rest is history.  We decided to work together and then started putting the project together.”

While SommSelect is still technically in beta, wine enthusiasts may still sign up to receive offers and purchase the daily feature. While there are similar kinds of sites, this is the first I’ve seen to really leverage a top wine personality who mostly knows what he’s talking about. The wines are not selected by some anonymous buyer who is looking for the best deal he can offer, but by an expert.

“These are wine selections I believe are the best from a specific grape varietal, region and price-point,” says Ian. “We offer wines from all price points from about $12 to $100s of dollars and we offer free shipping on purchases at about $100. There are other sites out there that offer daily wine selections, but our approach is focused on small production wines that I truly believe are the best of class. I don’t believe there are any other Master Sommeliers offering curated wine selection on the internet so we are a bit unique.”

You can sign up to receive emails about their daily offerings.

 

May 202014
 

Craft Beverage Expo

Last week, I attended the first Craft Beverage Expo (#CBE14) in San Jose, California. It was a conference devoted to the production and marketing of craft beverages, including beer, wine, cider, and spirits. I won’t go into the details about the conference, but I did want to address some of the thoughts that came to me during the event.

 

First, what are craft beverages? This question was raised several times during the conference. I think that most of the participants accepted that it meant a product made by smallish, independent brewers and distillers. I think the wine business looks at it a different way. They don’t really use the term ‘craft’ in their messaging. It’s usually boutique, small-lot, etc. to most winemakers. Regardless, wine definitely fits in with this group, facing many of the same challenges and benefiting from much the same market environment.

 

Second, I deeply believe that each of the separate beverage sectors can benefit from each other. While it’s becoming more common for wineries/breweries to blur the lines and produce both wine and beer, the sectors still remain fairly separate. Call it competition or regulation or focus, no matter what, breweries, wineries, and distilleries haven’t always played nice. I believe that is changing, however, as demonstrated by the sheer existence if this conference.

 

Third, the wine business has a head start on craft brewers and distillers. While it’s possible to ship or sell wine direct-to-consumer in many states now, or even to allow samples in tasting rooms, many brewers and distillers still lack that ability. That is slowly changing as legislatures have begun to open new avenues for them, but wineries have a clear lead. Craft brewers and distillers could benefit greatly from observing what has and hasn’t worked for wineries in their own struggles to compete.

 

Finally, wineries better watch out. As craft brewers and distillers gain experience and grow, they could eat away at wine’s market share. I think we are already seeing this, especially among millennials. Wineries will either have to adapt the way they market their products, or join the band wagon and start producing beer and spirits to offset their losses.

 

The good news is that the upsurge in craft beverage production offers consumers more choice and freedom to seek out new and interesting experiences. They are no longer confined to Dewers, Bacardi, Budweiser, and Coors. The future looks bright.

Apr 242014
 

Media RelationshipsIn my day job as a wine publicist, I’ve had innumerable conversations with clients and media contacts regarding how best to work with each other. Thankfully, I’ve been in a position to share some of my experience with those hat need it. Along those lines, the following is a talk I gave at the License to Steal Conference in Ohio a few weeks ago. I presented this in conjunction with Mark Fisher from the Dayton Daily News, who offered the perspective of a journalist, while I offered mine as a publicist. It was awkward at times, as any of these relationships are, but we ended up with a nice talk on media relationships in a new era.

The business of news publishing has changed dramatically over the past several years. The arrival of the Internet revolutionized the way that people interact with news outlets, corporations, and with each other. “News” is no longer controlled by a handful of major newspapers and magazines, but by those who were once their readers. More and more consumers are getting their news and information from sources such as blogs and social networks. As a result, advertising dollars are down, publishing companies have had to consolidate and restructure, leaving a smaller pool to play in. Essentially, media outlets have had to evolve to compete. They’ve moved much of their content online, rather than just providing it in print, started blogs, and launched new media outlets. Rather than a negative, it now provides many more opportunities for wineries to promote their wines to key influencers.

Best Practices

Like the news outlets they court, truly successful wineries also have to adapt to this changing world and work within the new system. The following is a TOP 10 list of best practices we suggest when working with media in the modern era. Some of these ideas are not new, but may require new approaches. Some are unique to the new environment of media relations. In every case, the very best wineries or agencies will use these techniques to further their brand recognition and reputation.

  1. Tell the story – Media is always looking for an angle to a story. They are looking for something unique that they haven’t written about before (and hopefully no one else has either). Do you want to be taken seriously? Do you want to garner more coverage than basic reviews of your wines? Tell YOUR story! What makes you special? The GOOD writers and reporters usually wants personalities, not statistics. Give them what they want! But, keep it brief. You only get one shot at this. If people scan it and it’s a waste of their time, they won’t bother to do it again. Ensure that every interaction is valuable and rewarding for the writer.
  2. Is it really news? – The press/news release is the lazy PR professional’s way of delivering information about a winery or wine. Releases are often not appropriate for the occasion, and often abused as a delivery mechanism. They should be reserved for real news. A new vintage release, a top score or medal, or party announcements are NOT news and are not, therefore, release-worthy material. Save your releases for real, hard news such as the acquisition of a vineyard or a change of leadership at the winery. For the rest, it is more effective to craft a tailored update or pitch for your important media contacts.
  3. It’s about relationships – It’s the title of the seminar after all. This holds true, regardless of who you are talking to. We all like to make that personal connection. It’s human nature. The more you get to know the right media contacts, the easier it is to call on them when you need them. It’s easy to do, really. Make an effort to meet them at conferences, reach out to them when you’re in market, invite them out to the winery, read and comment on their pieces etc.
  4. Know preferences and beat – Like everyone, writers have certain ways they like doing business. This is part of building that coveted relationship. Make an effort to find out when the writer is on deadline each day/week/month. Find out how they like to be contacted. Even more than that, do your research to figure out WHAT they write about. If the writer only covers the wines of New York State, don’t bother contacting them about a wine from Oregon. It makes you look foolish and wastes your media contact’s time. Don’t know how? Well, first read what they write. This also affords opportunities for you to figure out what wine styles they like and don’t like. When all else fails, ask them! They won’t bite… usually.
  5. Find out what THEY need – Before you call on a media contact for something you need (an article, etc.), find out what their needs are. First, this shows that you actually care about what they write about. Second, it offers you a way to play the hero with giving them something they are looking for. Third, it again helps you build that ongoing relationship. Finally, it opens new possibilities for you to pitch something in the future. Act as a resource for them, and they’ll come back to you when they need more.
  6. Consider regional/generational differences – In many ways, the world has shrunk because of new media, but cultural attitudes still remain. When talking to or meeting media in markets other than your own, keep in mind regional cultural differences. East Coasters have different attitudes regarding time, etiquette, and style than those in the mid-west, south, or west. In addition, there are generational differences along the same lines. Millennials look at the world with a different eye than Boomers. Be open to the difference, and try not to be offended. It’s quite possible that they don’t realize that showing up for a meeting 15 or 30 minutes late is considered rude by you. Or that, by showing up in jeans and a t-shirt, you believe that they are offering you disrespect. This may not be the case, so roll with it.
  7. Editors are overworked (or non-existent) – Once upon a time, the very thought of encountering a typo in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal was beyond comprehension. Alas, those days are long gone. Today, every newspaper and magazine is working with much less staff than they once did, due to the reality of shrinking advertising revenues. So, as a result, copy editors are overworked to the point that they must cut corners to make their deadlines. In addition, online outlets and blogs rarely even have copy editors. This means that fact checking is also rare, and that errors are more the norm than the opposite today. In order to minimize the damage, it is best to give writers everything they need UP FRONT, so they don’t have to ask for it later. This includes bottles images, family photos, technical sheets, brand overviews, etc. This also means that you should keep your website current, since many writers/editors will use it as a quick reference for any additional facts. Nevertheless, it’s inevitable that errors will occur and facts will be wrong. Thankfully, most everything is published online now, and changing it is relatively simple. Besides, most readers will remember the overall message of the article, and not the minutia. Let the writer know about the error and ask for a change if possible. If not, don’t sweat it and move on.
  8. Use every tool you have – Most media prefer to be contacted by email these days. It’s less intrusive than a phone call, and the writer can respond to you at their leisure. Don’t be afraid, however, to pick up the phone. Just keep in mind that their time is valuable and keep it brief. But, in addition to the email and phone (fax is all but dead), there are any number of other avenues to contact important writers. This is especially true with the new generation of media. Linkedin, Twitter, and Facebook are all ways to reach media. So, seek them out and follow them on Twitter and send contact/friend requests on Linkedin and Twitter. It’s best to do this well ahead of a time when you might need to contact them. If you can’t reach them by email, this may be a viable option.
  9. Be prepared and follow through – Thomas Edison is famous for saying that “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration” – meaning that you are 99% of the way there if you do your homework and are prepared. Sending a pitch about a new wine? Do you have all the supporting materials written? Do you have a spokesperson? Are they prepared to talk about the news, and are they available to do so? Do you have samples ready and packed to ship? What are the compliance laws of the state in which your media contact resides? Prepare for whatever eventuality you can conceive (and ask others, because they’ll be able to conceive of more). Most importantly, follow through on ANY promises or commitments you make in a timely fashion. Otherwise, you risk losing the opportunity.
  10. Say Thanks – It can’t be said enough. Sending a quick note by email (or even better, handwritten) to a writer after they’ve penned an article about you or your wine to say ‘thanks’ is good policy. Everybody likes to be recognized. By letting a writer know that you’ve read and appreciate their work, you are sending the message that they can feel comfortable calling on you in the future. Besides, it’s just good manners and you’ll make your mother proud.

The Next Step

Now that you’ve got the article or review written, now what? Unfortunately, this is where many wineries fall down. They figure that once the article appears in print (or online) their job is done, and they can move on to the next project. Wrong. You can’t assume that the RIGHT people are actually going to read the article. It is, therefore, the job of the winery to leverage the article by distributing it to their sales force, posting it on their website, sending it to their consumer list, and printing copies for the tasting room. This is essentially a free endorsement of your product. Why not take advantage of it?

In the end, media relations today isn’t much different than in the past. Many of the same rules hold true, but the delivery mechanisms and demographics have changed. Those wineries that are media savvy, and able to adapt to the new environment, will thrive.

Jan 102014
 

Wine Snob | Wine Education

Photo Courtesy of 303 Magazine.

What makes a wine snob? Is it that they know more about wine than anyone else, or do they just pretend to know more than anyone else? In fact, most “snobs” are just putting on an act. They know a little bit more about wine than those around them, but they are hardly experts. They may have received a little bit of “wine education” (air quotes) by attending a class or two, and they like to show off. The worst are those that keep the knowledge to themselves, hording it like a miser does with gold.

I can’t abide snobs. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Wine is, in fact, just spoiled grape juice. It’s agriculture combined with chemistry. Yes, there is more to it than that, but it’s not really that complicated.

The majority of wine consumers, however, don’t really know that much about wine in general. A lot of them know what they like and stick with what they are comfortable with. To most, wine is a mystery and their ignorance often prevents them from experiencing the simple joys of wine appreciation. Wine can be intimidating. In fact, even those of us who consider ourselves experts are constantly learning new things about wine. It’s what makes the study of the subject so compelling.

Which is why I’m thrilled whenever I come across a genuine attempt at wine education for the masses, like NPR’s Science Friday. In a series they’ve begun called “Out of the Bottle,” they are exploring some of the science behind wine in a way that most of us can understand. Through a series of cleverly produced videos, they’ve made wine education more fun. We need more mainstream wine education like this.