On Tuesday, I handed off the presidency of the board of the Rhone Rangers to Josh Bendick of Holly's Hill Vineyards in the Sierra Foothills after a two-year term. I've served on the organization's board for seven years now, a long time in the world of nonprofit boards. And I'm not going anywhere; I have two more years as a member of the executive committee (the past president becomes a vice president during his or her successor's tenure to provide continuity in leadership) and I'm sure I'll stay on the board for a while after that.
But moving out of the formal leadership position in an organization to which I've dedicated a lot of time and mental energy over the last several years has made me reflective both about how far we've come as an organization and where I feel we've fallen short. My main goal five years ago was to transform the Rhone Rangers from an organization whose sole output was a once-a-year event (our San Francisco Grand Tasting) to one which reached many more parts of the country and provided value to its members year-round. I think we've largely succeeded at both of my main goals. My principal regret is that we still only represent about a tenth of the producers we could, and I've struggled more than I thought I would to convince other producers of the organization's value. I'll spend some time exploring that, but it's worth noting what we've been able to achieve in the past five years, principally:
- Put the organization back on sound financial footing. Five years ago, we had to get a credit line from our bank, each November our cash flow dipped dangerously low, and the viability of the organization was threatened. Now we have enough cash in the bank to know that we'll be able to continue each year, we've regularized the billing and invoicing so that its flow is more predictable and wineries have an incentive to renew early and spare us the November dip, and we've opened up several new sources of revenue. Combined, sponsorships, associate memberships and our live auction make us less dependent upon ticket sales at our San Francisco event and our winery membership fees. The key figure in this effort has been our Executive Director Cheryl Quist, who we hired four years ago and whose dedication to the organization and whose relentless work ethic has made all the difference.
- Expanded the San Francisco tasting. For the first eight years of its existence, the San Francisco Grand Tasting showcased the organization's wineries in a big exhibit hall at the Fort Mason Center on San Francisco's waterfront. And that's still the biggest piece of the event, which will enter its 14th year this March and feature somewhere around 125 wineries. [Read more about what should be a great 2011 San Francisco Rhone Rangers tasting.] But to the grand tasting and a Sunday morning seminar we've added two additional seminars and a 15-winery winemaker dinner on Saturday. The winemaker dinner also hosts a live auction, which raised over $20,000 last year and is the principal source of funding for the Rhone Rangers Scholarship Fund. We still have room to build the attendance of the other components of the weekend, but having the event stretch over a weekend allows us to better fulfill the Rhone Rangers' educational mission and gives us more ways we can make an impact.
- Added events in Los Angeles and (most recently) Washington DC. Seven years ago, with the encouragement of board member Doug McCrea of McCrea Cellars, we launched a summer Seattle tasting to help us spread the word of Rhone Rangers to the Pacific Northwest and support a membership drive among Washington State's many outstanding Rhone producers. Having an event in the principal market of most of your principal constituencies is a good idea for a membership organization, and we'll be back in Seattle July 12-13 this year for our annual Seattle tasting. In 2007, we added a tasting in Los Angeles to support our Central Coast wineries. The Los Angeles event has been a runaway success the past two years, filling up to the facility's capacity with trade and selling out all our consumer tickets. (This year's Los Angeles tasting will take place Sunday, August 7th.) And last year, we were invited by the Smithsonian Institution to partner with them on a conference promoting Sustainable Seafood, and 18 Rhone Rangers wineries made the trek across the country. We'll be expanding the Washington DC tasting to two days (June 8-9) this year and adding seminars to our trade and consumer tastings. These tastings give us a model upon which we can build to expand our reach across the country in the future.
- Formalized the Rhone Rangers scholarship fund. Although we'd given scholarships a few times in earlier years, the organization's financial instability and a lack of structure meant that it was inconsistent. Each of the last three years, we've dedicated $10,000 to our scholarship fund, and requested, evaluated, and funded proposals from undergraduate and graduate students researching topics related to Rhone varietals. This has built our connection to America's major viticultural universities and allowed us to contribute to research that will benefit all producers of Rhone varietals, whether members or not.
- Launched a Paso Robles chapter. Five years ago, I was struck by the fact that only a dozen Paso Robles wineries were members of Rhone Rangers despite it having the state's largest acreage of nearly every important Rhone grape. So, I called an informational meeting at Tablas Creek, invited our executive director and the current board president to attend, and was gratified that about 30 Rhone producers showed up to learn about the organization. About 15 new wineries joined on the spot, but the most lasting impact of the meeting was the momentum among the group to put together a Paso Robles Chapter to focus on promoting Paso Robles as a key center for the American Rhone movement. That chapter has now grown to 45 members, and each year we produce a chapter brochure, host two Paso Robles events, and have working committees that focus on educating local trade and reaching out to local and national media. The wholehearted participation by the Paso Robles Rhone community has indeed helped establish Paso Robles as the inspirational center of California's Rhone movement while also providing an important core of members to the national organization.
- Provide value to our consumer members. We've had an active consumer component (called Sidekicks) for years, but the organization's contact with these members was occasional and unfocused in early years. We have built our mailing list steadily, and started a regular quarterly e-newsletter, with information about events, feature articles about grape varieties, and Rhone-related news. That's been useful, but it's in the area of social media where we've been able to have the greatest impact. We've started a rotating promotion of our member wineries on our Facebook page, and have been able to quickly share articles of interest and news of note. We've only recently started Twitter (we're @RhoneRangers) but have built a fairly substantial following in just a few months.
That's a pretty substantial list of accomplishments for five years. Still, as an organization we've plateaued around 150 winery members. There are more wineries who make at least one Rhone-style wine just in Paso Robles than there are national members of the Rhone Rangers organization. We represent maybe 10% of the wineries in California with a Rhone wine in their portfolio. We're struggling with how to best represent smaller Rhone producers whose main (or even only) market is their cellar door, and for whom paying $750 per year to get the opportunity to show wine in San Francisco or Los Angeles is not appealing.
Each year, I reach out to Rhone producers who are not members, and I'm often surprised to hear reasons why many don't join. At $750/year, which includes the table fee for any one tasting, the bar is pretty low. We've calculated that we cover that cost with a single additional wine club signup, a single mention in a local newspaper article, the sales of five or more cases in the wholesale market or five extra visits to Tablas Creek. And if we can't get that, or some equivalent combination, with an audience which has self-identified as enthusiastic about Rhone varieties, we might as well close up shop. In fact, each year, our membership in Rhone Rangers (as well as that in other regional or statewide marketing associations) more than pay for themselves. Participation in groups like this helps hit points three, four and five of the eight fundamentals of winery marketing that I wrote about in 2009.
There are two groups whose objections I can understand. One is the group of wineries who already have all the demand they can handle. So, as much as I'd love to convince Justin Smith of Saxum to join Rhone Rangers, I can't really muster much of an argument for him. The other group that I can see why we struggle to reach is small wineries who sell nearly everything direct but whose main consumer base is not in one of the markets where we hold tastings. Think the Sierra Foothills, or the Rogue River Valley of Oregon. Here is where the importance of local chapters comes in. In Paso Robles, probably a third of our current membership are small enough and have little enough distribution that the trade portion of our San Francisco or Los Angeles events are of little or no value. For many of these wineries, just being in the 50,000 copies of the chapter brochure (distributed in each member's tasting room) and on its map is probably enough value to join the group. The two local events that we put on each year are gravy.
But it hasn't been as easy as it would have seemed to replicate the chapter model outside Paso Robles. Based on the success of the Paso Robles chapter, a group of mostly Sonoma wineries put together a North Coast chapter a few years ago. But their first event turned out to be more expensive and less well attended than they'd orginally budgeted, and ate up most of the startup funds that the wineries involved had contributed. That left the members reluctant to commit further, and without a brochure or other tangible products of the chapter membership. We actually lost some members who had been a part of the national organization in the aftermath.
I'm still convinced that creating chapters is, in the long term, the key to attracting small, self-distributed wineries to the organization. And it looks like a Sierra Foothills chapter is going to get organized this year. But meanwhile, I'm going to keep reaching out to proselytize the message of this great organization, and encourage Rhone producers to jump on board and help build the category. In a country where consumers are more willing to embrace non-traditional wines than ever before, the time is now to spread the word.
[So, in following my own message, whether you're a winery, a consumer, a grower or a trade partner (restaurant, retail or wholesale) you can read about becoming a member of Rhone Rangers. I hope to see you at one of our 2011 events!]