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Up Close and Personal

Author: Beth Galleto
April, 2009 Issue


Good marketing is the same whether you’re selling Toyotas, iPods, shampoo—or Cabernet Sauvignon. Gather a group of sales and marketing experts, ask them to explain their marketing principles, and they’ll give you the same basic advice:

• Be passionate about what you do;

• Figure out what makes you different, and announce it to the world; and

• Make, keep and cherish personal contacts with your customers.

Even in today’s tough economy, some wineries are able to sell 80 to 100 percent of their product directly through their tasting rooms.  They do it by putting their own spin on the above principles of effective sales and marketing.

To survive in tough times, says Robert Merletti, president and publisher of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine (VWM), the focus must be on proven programs. “People who aren’t allowing themselves to become paralyzed by the economy explore every angle of what’s available to them.”

In a recent survey of 2,000 tasting room managers, 55 percent of respondents told VWM they had the same number of visitors—or more—in 2008 as in 2007. Even better, 59 percent said sales were the same or better in 2008.

Merletti believes millennials—those in their 20s and early 30s—are spearheading the growth of today’s wine industry, because they have more disposable income than previous generations and they’re interested in wine [See “The Kids Are All Right”]. In addition, customers are switching from other beverages to wine because of tougher DUI laws and health concerns. In a negative economy, people may choose less expensive bottles, he says, but the number of consumers won’t decline.

“I’ve seen the industry cycle a couple of times,” says Merletti. “I’ve never seen people more interested in wine drinking than in the last five years. Wine is now the beverage of choice.”

The challenge is to transform that interest into sales. To provide tasting room staff with the knowledge they need to do just that, Merletti and VWM organized the Tasting Room Profitability Conference in 1996. The 13th annual conference, with the motto “Grow Sales… Increase Profits,” took place this past January at the Marin Center in San Rafael. “The tasting room is the window to the soul of the [winery] organization,” says Merletti. “We wanted to provide tasting room managers with a way to come together and learn from each other. We put together dynamic speakers on topics they deal with day-to-day, such as shipping, design of the tasting room and using the media.”

Whether speaking at the conference or in private interviews, the experts agree that tasting room success depends on emphasizing what makes your winery different, developing and maintaining strong personal contacts with your customers, and being passionate about what you do.

“For most of us, the winery is our life and our passion. Without passion, you’re not going to drive the bottom line,” says Elizabeth Slater, owner of In Short Direct Marketing in Petaluma.

If you’re not passionate about your winery, you’re in the wrong business. And if your tasting room staff members aren’t passionate about their work, they don’t belong there. But before dismissing them into today’s cruel job market, look for ways to get them more involved. Offer incentives for successful sales or for signing members to your wine club. Most important, make sure all members of your staff understand the larger marketing strategies you’re using and why.

Find your niche

Start by knowing what makes you different from other wineries. “Wineries often give a tour or presentation about their wines that’s the same as everyone else’s,” says Paul Wagner, owner and president of Balzac Communications and Marketing in Napa. “They explain the details of how to make wine. The problem is, this works for the first visitor at the first winery on their tour. After that, they’ve heard it before.”

Another mistake, he says, is to assume the person most knowledgeable about wine is the best consumer of your product: “Wine geeks don’t buy that much wine,” he says. “They buy a little to have in their cellar, but women consumers buy wine to drink every day.” Finally, he cautions, don’t assume people on vacation want to attend biology, chemistry, enology or viticulture class. What they really want is to have a good time.

According to Wagner, “The definition of good marketing is identifying a niche and then owning it.” The goal, he says, is to become leader of a category. The problem, he says, is that, “Most wineries are really bad at this. But if you can’t find something that makes you different, get out of the business.” The terms “family owned” and “highest quality” aren’t unique selling propositions, he adds.

Once you’ve decided what sets you apart from everyone else, your task becomes communicating the message consistently. Wagner suggests creating a seven-words-or-less “elevator speech,” so-called because you can deliver it before the doors open at your listener’s floor. “We give people way too much information and we don’t give them the kernel that stands out,” he says. As an example, he notes most people don’t remember the Ten Commandments: “They should have kept it to five.”

Next, you must send your message out into the world. Put together information for the press and post it on your website. This should be the message your tasting room staff delivers to consumers and the message you present at wine events.

How to use events

Amber Balshaw, chef and owner of Preferred Sonoma Caterers in Petaluma, believes winery events should break even in terms of costs and be considered advertising. Host the event in a place that expresses your uniqueness, she suggests, such as a vineyard, your caves or at the bottling line. Promote each event at least one month in advance through direct mail, your website, email and the press. Put together a flyer and distribute it to neighboring wineries and local concierges.

During the event, have your staff on the floor talking about your wines, and have a fact sheet on all wines available for distribution. Develop partnerships with community restaurants or caterers for the benefit of all. Balshaw cites Passport Weekend 2008 as an example, where she worked with Dutcher Crossing Winery to create a card for guests that was printed with tasting notes and a recipe. Balshaw split the cost of printing with the winery, and both got some take-home publicity.

But before you send your customers off, don’t forget to capture contact information from everyone who attends an event or visits your winery. And don’t let that valuable information go to waste. One way to encourage people to fill out forms is to offer a chance to win a free bottle of wine.

Follow up with emails, post photos of the event on your website and tell the story in your newsletter. Take notes on everything and use them to plan your next event. Balshaw notes events improve when repeated, but after three rounds of similarly staged success, it’s time to make it new and fresh in some way.

Relationships are key

“Don’t talk too much about the wine,” advises Slater, a recognized authority on marketing wines and wineries. This may seem counter-intuitive, but her point is that casual buyers turn into loyal customers because of the relationships they build and the way they’re treated—not because of the information they glean from their visit.

Passalacqua Winery, she says, is just one example of a winery that really believes in treating customers well. “They have a very successful wine club and a very loyal customer base,” says Slater. “But it’s not only about the product; it’s also about the people. Kathy Mooney, direct sales manager at Passalacqua, has her own following. She’s created a loyalty because of the way she treats people.”

Most important in this day and age, Slater says, is how we communicate with our customers. “It’s all about a good personal experience, and maintaining the personal part of the experience through email and different avenues of contact.”

This includes sending personal notes after a visit. Check with your top 100 club members after they buy, and ask if their shipment arrived in good order—and what’s new? If they’re unhappy with their shipment, correct the problem. If someone drops out of your wine club, call them and find out why.

“Be positive,” she says. “There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there. Visitors come to wineries to have fun. Remind your visitors that wine makes life better.”

What people most remember, Slater says, are two points of contact: when they first walk in, and when they walk out. The middle is a blur. That’s why it’s so important to greet people when they come in and thank them for coming when they leave.

Throughout the visit, it’s important to make people feel special. “You’re the expert. Visitors want to be your friend,” says Slater. She notes that marketing studies have shown that a key reason people stop shopping at a retail store is that they feel the staff are indifferent to them.

“I visit a lot of tasting rooms,” Slater says. “Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s hard to distinguish one from another.

“Look at your customers. Create an experience that really resonates with them. Don’t always be the same. Be willing and able to adjust all the time.”

At the same time, make sure everyone in the tasting room is repeating the key message, she stresses. “We are known to the world by the stories we tell.”

Your best asset is a passionate, friendly and knowledgeable sales force. “It’s up to us to keep our customers,” she says. “Make sure they’re happy. A little personal attention goes a long way.”

Three strategy successes

Lisa Goff, Pine Ridge Winery’s vice president of marketing, and Dorian Greenow, director of hospitality, say direct sales are an important part of their business. “At the end of our tour, visitors can have a tasting in one of the most fantastic spots in the caves,” Greenow says. The caves extend through a hillside, reaching 135 feet below the surface, and house 4,000 French oak barrels. Corporate events and dinners are also held in this stunning space.

Pine Ridge’s environment isn’t its only special asset. Eric Maczko, the winery’s executive chef, gives food and wine pairing seminars on Sundays. They take place in the caves in the winter and in the estate gardens in summer.

Pine Ridge tries anything new on themselves and their friends before making it part of the winery tour. “We like to tweak the experience to keep it fresh and new,” Goff says.

Debra Mathy, owner of Dutcher Crossing Winery in Healdsburg, says her winery, which produces 8,000 cases annually, sells 98 percent of its wine direct to consumers. Her marketing is based on relationships.

“I’m actually on site all the time. I enjoy being with the customers,” she says. “The staff knows I’m accessible to wine club members. Customers with concerns always get a response from me as well as from other staff members.” Winemaker Kerry Damskey is also accessible to talk about wine or answer questions. Mathy says she and her staff strive to make their message consistent in everything they do.

Mathy considers nearby hotels and restaurants to be winery ambassadors. “We spend a lot of time working with our neighbors. If your counterpart succeeds, chance are you’ll have an opportunity to succeed as well.”

Wine club members also do a good job of promoting the winery, she says. While 70 percent of Dutcher Crossing’s wine club members have visited the winery, the other 30 percent came through referrals from other members. “[Our club members] are very selective about who they tell,” she says. “It’s the best marketing possible—word of mouth.”

A Wisconsin native, Mathy showcases her midwestern heritage by hosting an Oktoberfest that’s similar to festivals held in her home state each year, instead of a harvest celebration. “Our marketing success begins with showing who we are as people. Our innovative marketing approach has let us prosper even though our methodology veers from  traditional industry principles.  Just because it’s not traditional wine marketing doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” she says.

Mathy’s background isn’t in marketing, but in education. She says her marketing ideas are based on creativity and passion. “I love what I do and I hope it shows. It’s easier to sell passion than calculated marketing plans. Passion is front and center for us. Our marketing/business plan incorporates our passion, which lends itself to our success.”

Passalacqua Winery in Healdsburg sells 99 percent of its 5,000-case annual production through direct marketing to consumers. About 80 percent of its sales are to repeat customers.

Owner Jason Passalacqua attributes this success to “quality, hospitality and the value-to-quality ratio.” He makes sure visitors have a good experience in the tasting room. Employees enjoy working there, and the staff turnover is “almost nonexistent,” he says, so relationships develop between customers and staff. “They have the ability to get to a second and third level of questions and answers. A business card doesn’t do it. You have to know your consumer. Sell what the consumer wants to buy, not what you want to sell.”

But he stresses that the experience isn’t everything. A quality product must support the visitors’ great experience in order to retain them as customers.

Because his production is relatively small, Passalacqua says most new releases sell out quickly. He commits to sending new release purchasing opportunities to wine club members first, rather than widening the distribution to potential new buyers. “It’s like getting a treasure in the mail,” he says. “I’d rather sell to loyal customers than distribute to the masses.”

Another option would be to increase production, but that’s not Passalacqua’s business model. “We’re happy with our size and quality,” he says.

You can hear it in his voice: Here’s a man who’s passionate about his business.

Take a good measure of this kind of passion, add in an understanding of what makes your organization special, mix with an effective way of sharing that knowledge and carefully maintained personal client releationships, and you’ll have a recipe for successful direct marketing in your own tasting room.



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