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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Do Not Wine Alone: How PR and Winery Associations Improve Your Brand

The author (L) moderating a panel discussion on wine in Santa Rosa
Bill Gates once said, “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations.” But does winery PR equate to return on investment?

With more than 8,000 wineries in the US alone can a winery stand out showcasing their wine and their story by hiring a winery PR firm? In our current age of free “immediate PR” via social media, is paying for winery PR becoming obsolete? To begin with, there are long standing traditional codes of conduct about how alcoholic beverages are advertised in the US and in 1972 The Wine Institute (TWI) developed a code of conduct. “Adhering to the Ad Code is a requirement of Wine Institute membership and members agree to comply,” says Gladys Horiuchi of TWI. The code states in part: “We have a right to advertise and promote our wines to consumers of legal drinking age. Along with this right comes the responsibility to market our wines in a responsible and appropriate manner. Wine advertising shall not: Use music, language, gestures, cartoon characters, or depictions, images, figures, or objects that are popular predominantly with children or otherwise specifically associated with or directed toward those below the legal drinking age, including the use of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.” So forget Santa drinking Sauvignon Blanc while the Easter Bunny binges on Bordeaux, you’ve still got to get your message out.

(L to R: Tim McDonald, Kimberly Charles and Sam Folsom)
Many wineries simply do not have an operating budget to pay a public relations firm. Medium sized houses certainly have more financial flexibility, but often the focus is putting earned money back into the wines. The top tier houses like Gallo, Bollinger, Treasury Wine Estates, for example, certainly have the capital but still no one likes to part with hard earned cash. And even though social media can be “free” it still requires guidance.

Like most wine PR firms Colangelo Partners, with offices in San Francisco and New York, focuses on four essential ideas according to Juliana Colangelo, West Coast Director and Senior Account Executive:
1. Media Relations: pitching writers’ stories about national and regional brands.
2. Events: Anything from small winemaker seminars to 500+ person trade and media shows.
3. Trade Relations: Sharing wines with sommeliers, beverage directors, bartenders, importers, distributors.
4. Marketing: Building websites, designing social media campaigns, TV, print, radio, etc.

Put another way, “Features, scores, awards, and accolades,” as Tim McDonald of Wine Spoken Here suggests. “Above all, we are storytellers,” says Sam Folsom founder of Folsom + Associates, based in San Francisco. “We help with positioning and message development. We write up backgrounder, bios, vineyard profiles, create targeted media lists for trade, consumer/wine, lifestyle, travel, and business.” And there’s more. As Kimberly Charles of Charles Communication suggests, “There’s also media training, speech writing, partnership marketing, special event creation and production, web content and strategy, benchmark tastings, video content.” And the list goes on.

Paying a PR firm means wineries expect tangible results - everyone wants ROI. But how is that measured? “By targeting specific audiences for localized campaigns and programs, we are able to see incremental lifts in sales in any given market where we focus our efforts,” says Senior Director of PR at Gallo, Kristina Kelley. And diversity of media outlets is crucial whether you are large or small. “We reach out to scoring publications with our luxury wines as the readership for those outlets are actively engaged in that category,” Kelley notes. “For a broader demographic, we take a different approach to the outlets we actively engage as the consumer base of products like Apothic, and Barefoot are more interested in an authentic experience that can be shared via social sites like Instagram and Facebook.” And as Kelley suggests, “We think podcasts are an increasingly valuable opportunity to reach a heavily engaged new audience.”

Every winery seeks to advance their message but unless that message is strategic it can get lost. Folsom + Associates has been in the wine PR game for over 30 years. “A PR firm can directly help sales when it generates a review or accolade that can be used as a selling tool in a sales presentation to distributors or accounts and when it prompts a consumer to buy,” says Sam Folsom. “Such credible, third party reviews have the added weight of implied endorsement – more so than a paid advertisement. More broadly, a well-executed public relations program can help build brand awareness and shape trade and consumer mindsets - which directly affects sales.” And sales are the name of the game. “A client often only sees a small part of the effort that goes into getting coverage, especially in a very competitive field,” suggests Kimberly Charles. “I think the most misunderstood part of the PR world is that it is often sacrificed first when a company is having financial challenges. That is often the time that you need an experienced communicator to help navigate misconceptions and to be sure it's you telling your story, not other parties.” The hard data? “Media impressions are vital to brand building and what we in PR actually accomplish is storytelling and ink procurement over time,” says Tim McDonald. “Sales sustainability, new distribution, and healthy depletions rely on PR to be successful in the long term.”

Joe Roberts of 1 Wine Dude educating wineries
But say you’re a small winery with extremely limited or no budget. What can you do? Obviously, word of mouth is important, as is the social media landscape. Facebook, for example, has some 50 million business accounts, and every winery should have an active account. But it’s less about the number of likes and shares and more about actively engaging with people who contact you. A Facebook “like” does not equate to a wine sale, it’s that simple and if that’s your goal, you’ll be sadly disappointed. As a wine writer however I can tell you that wines I’ve written about for national publications as well as a single Tweet have indeed translated to physical sales, but that is never a guarantee. However it’s not all that cut and dried and with limited money, what can you do with social media? “The problem with most wine brands is that if you tell them to, say, evaluate what percent of their customers respond to social, and dial-in a percentage of their media budget in accordance with that, they look at you like you have three heads and then don't do anything on social at all,” say Joe Roberts, of 1 Wine Dude who has innately understood the nuances of how social media is crucial, and one of the top wine bloggers on the planet. “If wineries do social the right way, then the money spent engaging with the bigger influencers online will almost certainly be very cost-effective,” he tells me.  But he’s also an advocate of balance between traditional media and social media. “Magazine features have a ton of value, though it will be shorter-lived. Social engagement will have less overt value, but it will be ‘sticky’ and will provide benefits for a long time with respect to Internet searches on your brand.” But even he acknowledges that many people have a hard time adapting to new PR methods. “I often start my speaking gigs by telling wine brands that they could have avoided hiring me if they'd listened to what I told them four years ago for free, which was to use social media to take control of their brand messaging. Wineries are used to being a few layers removed from consumers in one sense, especially in the USA being in 3-tier alcohol distribution system, so they willingly cede there power to influencers like me, in the hopes that we will tell their stories for them. But in another sense, they are great at dealing with consumers, from the tasting room side of things; and those same exact skills can be used to create and control their brand message on social media channels, so they can take some of that power back for low cost.” Linda Parker Sanpei of Parker Sanpei in San Luis Obispo agrees. “All social media has an audience, there’s a younger audience for Instagram, and a little bit older one for Facebook. It's a complicated wheel but it all equals PR. And we have to look at all opportunities be that interstitials on YouTube or a feature in a glossy magazine.”

Linda Parker Sanpei in her clients' (Allegretto Resort) wine room
And there is yet another avenue for PR via local wine trade associations. The Washington State Wine Commission, for example, runs a social media account across three main platforms - Facebook, Twitter and Instagram representing all 900 of their wineries and 350 growers. “Through these channels, we educate and engage, share photos and links about wine education, promote the Washington State wine industry and what makes it unique, including information about our AVAs and vineyards,” says Averyl Dunn, Communications Manager, Washington State Wine. Additionally, the Commission trains wineries so they can “use their own platforms the loudest,” Dunn says. And this is where many wineries fall short, not utilizing their association, or not comprehending the magnitude of social media to begin with. As evidence of this, Dunn provided me with the following growth in their profile with data from January – March/2017.
·         gained 7,452 new fans
·         interacted with 47K unique people
·         content reached 1.2 million people
·         content was seen/impressions 1.8 million times

·         gained 881 new followers
·         650+ people engaged
·         interacted with Twitter followers 5K times

·         gained over 1K new followers
·         engaged over 23K times

PR is a numbers game and there is no one correct way to accomplish your goals. What is needed is help – help to create a voice, build public opinion and increase brand loyalty, not to mention a willingness to be adaptable and learn new tricks, but also to be fearless. That is accomplished in a myriad number of ways – but you need to act. Bottom line? As Tim McDonald says, “The brands with the most friends win...we help brands make friends.”


  1. I was headed to Santa Barbara County for a week of tastings and decided the most efficient use of my time was find a space where I could have wineries come and meet me. I sent an open calendar to Morgen McLaughlin at 8 in the morning and by 130PM it was full with 34 appointments. I later heard from some producers who were not happy they missed me and I understand that. However the results worked very well for my publication and will end up being the largest issue ever. I plan to use this method for all tasting trips going forward.

  2. Great piece! Thank you for writing about this often "behind the scenes" job of helping wineries craft and communicate their stories. The most important aspect of PR is of course the relationships we help build.

  3. Thanks, Dixie. Having worked with PR people for nearly two decades I figured it was time they got some attention!

  4. is Italian white wines and food specialist importer and our wholesale division have been helping hotel, restaurants, and retailer in the UK.