On Saturday, I spoke at a panel exploring the communication challenges faced by global wine brands.
Robert McIntosh, the founder of Thirstforwine.com and the co-founder of the DWCC and Vrazon.com, moderated the panel. It included Ben Smith, who heads up communications for Concha y Toro in the United Kingdom, and Pia Mara Finkell, who directs media relations and social media for Rioja Wines. (Please note that Rioja Wines sponsored my trip to the conference.)
Check out my prepared remarks below. The panel inspired a fantastic back-and-forth conversation with the audience, so obviously, lots of what we discussed isn’t included below.
The Challenges of Being Global
When talking about global brands, it’s absolutely critical to distinguish between huge wine companies — like Concha y Toro, Pernod Ricard, and Kendall Jackson – and generic brands, like Rioja, Champagne, and Napa Valley.
They’re very different.
Reps from both are constantly pitching me and other members of the media. And I promise I’m not the only wine writer who is much more receptive to a message from a “generic brand,” like Rioja, then a large corporation, like Concha y Toro.
This makes sense. And communicators shouldn’t apologize for it or feel any need to defend it.
First, virtually everyone here is a wine writer. You’ll notice that I’m saying wine writer – not lifestyle journalist or cooking specialist, but wine writer. For most of us, our audience simply doesn’t care about mass-produced wine.
Here’s a news flash. If you’re writing a wine blog, and focus on inexpensive, mass-produced wine that you can pick up at any supermarket in the world, no one is reading your site. Paul Mabray of Vintank can back this up with data, but it makes perfect sense. People who buy inexpensive, supermarket wine don’t read wine blogs. They’re not fascinated by wine.
Wine blogs are written by wine geeks and read by wine geeks, and wine geeks aren’t interested in mass-produced wine.
I’d compare it to restaurant criticism. No restaurant critic – or foodie – wants to tell the world about a new McDonald’s that just opened. But a hole-in-the-wall Italian joint with world-class cooking? Absolutely.
We are, however, quite interested in generic brands like Rioja.
This, too, make sense.
Just as the clothing you wear and the politicians you vote for says something about who you are, so does what you drink. Wine writers enjoy seeing themselves as ambassadors.
Everyone here has probably heard of Peter Liem. He enjoys being an ambassador for Sherry and Champagne. Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle enjoys being an ambassador for the “new” California wine – the producers who are exploring California’s vast and varied climate to protect old vineyards and produce wine from unusual grapes.
I’m sure there’s someone in this room who enjoys being an ambassador for Beaujolais and another who enjoys being an ambassador for dry reds from Portugal.
And even though she’s paid for it, I’m sure Pia enjoys being an ambassador for Rioja.
Very few wine geeks want to be an ambassador for Kendall Jackson Chardonnay, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, or, even worse, Yellow Tail.
This doesn’t mean someone like Pia has an easy job.
For starters, “generic brands” are inevitably funded by the largest players – and those “large players” tend to be the companies that wine geeks aren’t that interested in. Just as California’s trade association is funded by large companies like Constellation, Treasury, and Gallo, Wines of Rioja is funded by its members, with the largest exporters paying the most.
So Pia has a difficult job.
On the one hand, her client would be giddy to see Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, write about Rioja. But on the other hand, Pia knows that a guy like Eric Asimov – because of his personal preferences and his audience – is only interested in Rioja’s more traditional producers, like Lopez de Heredia and Rioja Alta. He’s simply not interested in Rioja you can easily pick up in the supermarket. And, generally speaking, Wine of Rioja wants to see at least three brands mentioned in any article about the region.
For another example of why generic brands don’t always have it easy, just look at Australia – the wine-producing country that was once relevant.
Ten years ago, the PR folks for Wines of Australia had an easy job. And then the market for Australian wine completely collapsed. So now, the folks there have a terribly difficult job – how do you convince the American market that Australia is more complex than Yellow Tail and over-oaked, over-extracted, monstrous fruit bombs designed in a lab for Robert Parker?
If Pia has a difficult job, then Ben’s is even more challenging.
I’m certain that virtually everyone who works for Concha y Toro, including Ben, absolutely loves wine. And they’re proud of the work they do and the companies they represent. And then a guy like me gets on stage and loudly says:
“Sorry, I’m just not interested.”
But of course, you can make me interested. Stories matter. History matters. Personality matters.
Tell me about the winemaker at Concha y Toro. Tell me about the small-production, experimental stuff you guys are doing. Tell me about your high-end wines, and why I might be interested in them.
This can work. During the Australian craze in the United States, wine writers could rave about Penfolds Grange or D’Arenberg’s “Dead Arm.” Were regular consumers buying these wines? No. But if they read any serious wine writing and then headed to the supermarket, they’d recognize both these brand names.
And those supermarket wines are appealing to a certain kind of journalist.
Journalists spend lots of time thinking about their audience. I know exactly how many people visit my site every month and where they come from. I even know how much money they make and how much they spend on wine. So I have a general sense of what they want to hear from me.
About half the people that visit my site work in the wine industry. The other half are extreme wine geeks.
But I also write a twice-monthly column that runs in several dozen newspapers across the United States. These folks are general interest consumers. My column might run alongside a recipe or a restaurant review. Or even an article about how the high school football team won a big game.
So for that audience, I do care about Concha y Toro and Kendall Jackson.
Plus, the PR folks for big brands can more easily reach out to other types of journalists, like recipe writers, lifestyle reporters, book-club bloggers, you name it.
Finally, Ben, Pia, and every other person who represents a global brand can bypass traditional journalists and interact directly with consumers thanks to social media. A Facebook contest offering a free trip to Rioja if you, say, host a Rioja tasting at your house? A simple but effective campaign that could, in theory, reach countless more consumers than a mention in the New York Times. And one that’ll allow you to more easily promote “supermarket” wines.
I’d conclude by saying that even though writers have a responsibility to their audience – and editors – writers will forever write about what interests them. Maybe it’s only Napa Valley wine. Maybe it’s only Champagne. But the overwhelming majority of writers are looking for an interesting story. So long as a global brand can figure out how to make something interesting, then that brand can communicate effectively.