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 082014
 

Nomacorc select seriesUsed for centuries, natural cork is still among the most accepted closures, especially for wines that are meant to be aged. However, natural cork’s market dominance has been waning significantly over the past 13 years. Whereas approximately 95% of all wines were bottled under a cork or cork derivative in 1999, by 2012, that figure had dropped to 56%.

In fact, cork bashing has become a popular sport, with many people decrying the high failure rate of such corks, which result in corked wines. Admittedly, no one is happy when upon opening a bottle of wine it is found to be accompanied by a musty/wet dog smell. At that point, there is no other remedy than to simply pour the wine down the drain.

For some winemakers, the incidences of cork taint and bottle variation have proved to be too much to bear. At noted Savennières producer, Domaine des Baumard, Florent Baumard had had enough and began using the Stelvin closure (aka screw caps) in 2005 for all of his still wines, including those he expected consumers to hold/age for 6-7 years. Baumard claims that having made the switch helps him to sleep better at night, particularly because the closure permits more consistency among bottles.

Similarly, Michel Laroche of Domaine Laroche starting experimenting with screw caps in 2002, having identified problems with TCA (the chemical responsible for cork taint) in 2001. Today, he offers his customers a choice of closure, with 75% of total sales bottled under screw cap. He admits that “we are breaking the rules,” but notes that with his experience, he won’t come back to promoting corks. “We love to feel young and healthy,” he says, “It is the same with wine,” stressing that screw caps keep wine fresher with more tension (read acidity). While the screw cap was not always my preferred bottle, a comparison tasting of his wines (one bottled with a screw cap and the other with a natural cork) proved his point.

Lines drawn in the sand

Not surprisingly, screw caps have been touted as the perfect alternative to natural cork, keeping the wine as fresh and fruity as the day it was bottled. But, such closures have predominantly been used for whites and rosés, which aren’t meant for aging. Early-adopters New Zealand and Australia have implemented screw caps across the board, but producers in many other countries have been reluctant to try them. Still others have outright refused to consider them as a viable option, essentially separating producers into two camps.

With this debate almost firmly centered on natural cork vs screw cap, faux corks have often been dismissed out of hand. But, it turns out that there are synthetic corks and then there are synthetic “corcs” – or, more precisely, Nomacorcs. Founded by Belgium businessman Gert Noël during the 1990s, Nomacorc produces a synthetic closure made from plastic foam. Nomacorc’s original goal was to eliminate cork taint; mission accomplished, it has now begun to focus on the integration of oxygen management with its new product line.

A brave new (wine) world

The Select Series, which debuted in 2012, permits winemakers to choose one of four models, based on their desired level of oxygen ingress over time. For example, the Select 100 permits the ingress of 1.2 mg/L of O2 in 12 months, while the Select 500 permits the ingress of 3.0 mg/L of O2 over this same period. Straddling both sides of the aisle – freshness and ageability – this new type of closure opens up an interesting world of possibilities. Consequently, when considering which Select Series product will best meet their needs, a winery can develop an integrated strategy taking into account how long it will take to get the wine into the market, how long it will sit on the shelf and when the winemaker thinks that the wine will be ready to drink, potentially prolonging the shelf life, or hastening the development, of a given product.

Nomacorc now has 13% of the closure market worldwide, with 58% of Nielsen’s Top 500 SKUs closed with a Nomacorc product. While big wineries such as Gallo, Barefoot and Yellow Tail are large accounts for the company, the adoption of Nomacorc has not been limited to commercial brands. Eberle Winery’s winemaker, Ben Mayo has been a convert since he joined the winery in 2003. The Paso Robles producer switched entirely to Nomacorc in 2002, inclusive of its Reserve-level Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $75.00. Equally esteemed clients include the Willamette Valley’s Ken Wright Cellars and Alsatian producer Anne Boecklin among others.

But not everyone has embraced Nomacorc. The company recognizes that consumer perception of its products as being unnatural is its biggest challenge and has gone out of its way to emphasize its commitment to sustainability in all aspects of its business practices. Further, the Classic and Select Series Nomacorcs are 100% recyclable (with #4 plastics), while its newest product, Select Bio, claims to be the “world’s first zero carbon footprint closure.” Instead of being made from petroleum-based plastics, the raw materials for Select Bio are derived from plant-based polymers.

With Nomacorc’s new approach and younger consumers’ more ready acceptance of synthetics, it will be interesting to see how the supply side reacts to these changes. While natural cork’s supremacy has indeed eroded, its future remains unclear. Only time (and marketing dollars) will tell what we find at the top of the bottle standing between us and our wine.

Jan 032014
 
Wine and politics: how do we vote?

Graphic courtesy Jennifer Dube, National Media Research Planning and Placement LLC

According to a recent study reported on by the Washington Post, what you drink can be an indication of how you vote. The research comes from consumer data supplied by GfK MRI, and analyzed by Jennifer Dube of National Media Research Planning and Placement, an Alexandria-based Republican consulting firm. Wine and politics… now we know what’s really important.

It seems that wine drinkers turn out in greater numbers than spirits drinkers overall. “Analyzing voting habits of those who imbibe, Dube found that 14 of the top 15 brands that indicate someone is most likely to vote are wines,” states the article. In addition, the BRAND of wine you drink may indicate your political leanings. As you can see from the chart above, those that drink Kendall-Jackson and Robert Mondavi skew Republican and those that consumer Chateau Ste. Michelle and Smoking Loon.

In fact, Smoking Loon drinkers are off the chart in terms of voter turnout for DEMOCRATS. The ultimate irony is that this particular brand is made by Sonoma-based Don Sebastiani & Sons, and Don Sebastiani himself served three terms in the California Legislature as a conservative REPUBLICAN. Go figure.

Oct 142013
 

 

Grapes on a Train

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

From walk-around wine tastings and dinners with winemakers to clever titles and cute comparisons, it’s challenging for wine public relations people to create something new and different for the press and trade. However, the folks at Complexity – New Zealand  have certainly succeeded with their Grapes on a Train event held in late September.

“All aboard!” came the shouts from the conductors as we assembled on the platform at New York Penn Station very early on a Sunday morning. We were about to embark on a unique journey, partially retracing the tracks of the famed 20th Century Limited.

Operated by the New York Central Railroad  from 1902 to 1967, the 20th Century Limited provided express service from New York to Chicago, making the journey in only 16 hours.  The passenger train was known for its high level of service, complete with its signature red carpet rolled out in the station platforms on either end. As journalists and sommeliers, we were similarly given the red carpet treatment when we entered the Hickory Creek train car, hooked up behind the regular Amtrak service to Montreal. This historic, Pullman car was part of the 20th Century Limited’s re-launch in 1948 and has now been restored to its former glory, used for private events held along Amtrak’s existing routes.

Given its remarkable history, the 20th Century Limited has been prominently featured in books and Broadway we well as movies, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.Thankfully, instead of being greeted by villains and spies, the group was welcomed aboard by winemakers from some of New Zealand’s top wineries.

Upon departure, we headed north past beautiful views of the Hudson River and fall foliage on our way to Canada. But, while the scenery was stunning, our true itinerary was New Zealand, as the winemakers presented several seminars with guided tastings.

The seminars were led by the winemakers, all members of the Complexity-New Zealand consortium. This portfolio crosses wine regions and emphasizes New Zealand’s high quality wines, with membership currently limited to 17 producers.   We kicked off the day with a general introduction to New Zealand – its history, its culture, its people and its land. With the stage set, we then moved onto the varietally-focused tastings.

Wines on the Train

Photo Credit: Tracy Ellen Kamens

 

Sauvignon Blanc with Brett Bermingham, Winemaker of Nautilus Estate and Tim Heath, Winemaker at Cloudy Bay
It’s nearly impossible to speak about New Zealand wine without mentioning Sauvignon Blanc as the grape that put New Zealand on the world stage. However, the discussion centered on the diversity of Sauvignon Blanc, looking at differences among grapes grown on gravels compared to those grown on clays as well as among the Wairau and Awatere Valleys situated within the greater Marlborough region. In this regard, clay soils provide more herbal/green notes and less tropical fruit. As New Zealand producers become more experienced and their vines become more mature, it is expected that more sophisticated styles of Sauvignon Blanc will be seen in the future. Among the most interesting wines tasted in this session (and perhaps of the entire event) was a Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from 1996, which showed that although these wines are best enjoyed in their youth, they can provide complex aromas and flavors with age. Among the younger wines, I really liked the Mud House “The Woolshed” Sauvignon Blanc 2013, Marlborough, New Zealand.

Aromatics Seminar with Rudi Bauer, Winemaker of Quartz Reef and Ben Glover, Chief Winemaker at Mud House Wines
Less well known than Sauvignon Blanc, the aromatic white varieties of New Zealand can be traced back to the 1980s when Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris were first planted. Rudi suggested that these varieties were more about purity of varietal expression than about winemaking, additionally emphasizing the link between aromatics and acidity. Rudi acknowledged that you don’t always know what you are getting from Pinot Gris, but with Riesling, the standard of quality is better. He felt that the reason Pinot Gris was way behind Riesling in its development was that the initial stock had come from Geisenheim, when the focus was on quantity, not quality. As progress is made, alcohol levels are coming down as are sugar levels. Consequently, Pinot Gris wines are becoming more food friendly to support cuisine along with a trend toward longer time spent on the lees, resulting in wines with more richness and texture. My favorite wine of the session was the Mt. Difficulty Pinot Gris 2012 , Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand.

Pinot Noir with Matt Dicey, General Manager and Winemaker of Mt. Difficulty Wines and Ben Glover, Chief Winemaker at Mud House Wines
Although Matt admitted that Burgundy is a reference point for Pinot Noir, he also emphasized the word, Tūrangawaewae, which is Maori for “where we stand,” an indigenous concept similar to that of terroir. Building on this aspect, he mentioned the regional and vineyard differences as well as the increased exposure to UV light in New Zealand as compared to vineyards in the northern hemisphere. Moreover, Central Otago fruit is credited with delivering darker fruit flavors, while Marlborough is generally more savory in style. With wines from both of these regions, the session tasting provided further confirmation of this diversity. My favorite was the Villa Maria Taylors Pass Pinot Noir 2010, Marlborough, New Zealand.

Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Syrah with Nick Picone, Senior Winemaker of Villa Maria Estate
Nick referred to the wines in his session as “hidden gems,” suggesting that most people know a whole lot less about these wines than others from New Zealand. Turning first to Chardonnay, he noted that premium NZ Chardonnay is typically hand picked, whole bunch pressed and barrel fermented with good freshness and a purity of fruit. Wines from the warmer north are picked earlier and at lower sugars, while wines from the cooler south with have more lime and citrus notes, with intense minerality in those from Central Otago. When discussing Bordeaux style wines, which are best associated with Hawkes Bay, Nick attributed the turning point for this region to the establishment of the Gimblett Gravels. Finally, he spoke of New Zealand Syrah, which he described as being closer to the Rhône Valley in style than to Australia, despite the geographic proximity. I was impressed with the Kumeu River Estate Chardonnay 2009, Auckland, New Zealand.

After arriving in Montreal, we stopped at the hotel to freshen up before heading to an evening BBQ, held at a rented house in the Mont-Royal neighborhood. From the home’s rooftop, we could see the Olympic Park, but the fall weather pushed most of us inside where we proceeded to enjoy a delicious meal accompanied by an enormous selection of wines. Having been to New Zealand several years ago, I was especially pleased to see wines from Amisfield, Ata Rangi and Te Kairanga, all places we visited (and tasted at) on our trip.

The next morning, it was off to the airport for the flight home, packed with luggage and great memories of a fun and festive virtual visit to New Zealand.

Jul 262013
 
Creating Compelling Content

Photo Credit: Wine Predator

One of the major goals of this blog is to create articles that we think people will want to read. In other words, we try to create compelling content. When I attended the Wine Bloggers Conference in Okanagan last month, I had the privilege of participating on a panel with Jeannette Montgomery from The Third Glass and Okanagan Writing and Marcy Gordon from Come for the Wine. Together, we attempted to share some wisdom based on our backgrounds in writing. I’ve been writing for 20 years and have learned many lessons (some hard) along the way.

So, what is compelling content?

Simply put, it’s something that is convincing or demands attention. In other words, compelling content is something that grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. We want to make sure that the reader actually reads the whole article, and hopefully comes back to read more at a later date.

Why write it?

Because we want people to read our blog. The more compelling the content, the more interested the reader.

What’s the benefit?

Increased traffic, increased engagement, and possible increased revenue.

So, where do we start?

Some writers have great success sitting at a keyboard and just starting to spew forth the most interesting drivel. The rest of us, however, may need to prime the pump a bit.

Know the audience.

Who are we writing for? Who is reading our blog? Other bloggers? Trade? Consumers? What kind of consumer? The connoisseur, the novice, or somewhere in between? How do we figure this out? We make a model of who our ideal reader is. We include examples of what we think they might want to read.

Here’s the rub: WE ARE NOT OUR AUDIENCE. If our audience was like us, they’d be writing their own blogs (some may). We try never lose site of that.

Until we know who we are writing for, we can’t make our content compelling.

Pick the subject.

What kind of article will we write? Will it be an editorial piece (opinion), news piece (fair-and-balanced), review piece (expertise), or something else? Once we determine that, we set the tone of the article.

Do homework.

To most, this will be the most important step in the writing process. Chances are that we don’t know everything or anything about the subject on which we intend to write. Which means, we need to do our homework.

Where are we going to look?

  • The Internet – Because everything is true on the internet, right?
  • Wikipedia – Um, yea. Relies on their community of “experts.”
  • Technical notes – Because everyone wants to know about TA and Malo-Lactic fermentation, right?

No! We talk to people and try to be original.

We contact a PR Manager or agency.
We contact a regional associations (Napa Valley Vintners, Wine Walla Walla, etc.)
We contact a winemaker.
We visit the wineries or regions.

We have questions prepared. Better yet, we have INTERESTING questions to ask. Again, we think of our audience, and what THEY would want to read.

We try not to get too wrapped up in the experience that we lose our objectivity.

Build a narrative, tell a story.

Wine writing today tends to be like a scientific journal. It’s all about breaking down the wine into its component parts (aromas, mouthfeel, tannin, technical, etc.). On top of that, the various rating scales have broken it down further. Does it tell you ANYTHING about the wine or the winery?

NO.

Wine is an aspirational product. Wine drinkers imbibe to feel better about themselves and impress their friends. If they didn’t care about that, they’d just drink beer or whisky. What they want, is to drink a glass of wine and be transported somewhere else. That somewhere else is rarely going to involve malolactic fermentation. It does involve the place the wine is made, the people who made it, and the blogger who experienced it. they want to know what the story is behind the wine and to live vicariously through us.

Three take aways.

In the end, the three main things that separate the great bloggers from the rest is:

1. They know their audience
2. They do their homework
3. They tell a story

Creating compelling content is really just that simple.