Notes from the Cellar: Assembling the 2009 reds, and getting ready for harvest 2010...
Tasting the Fall 2010 "Collector's Edition" Wines

How to make the most of trade and consumer tastings

Last Sunday, I was standing behind the Tablas Creek table at the Family Winemakers of California tasting in San Francisco.  We were one of 340 wineries pouring wines for more than 1700 trade and 700 consumers (an additional 1700+ trade came on Monday).  Family Winemakers (as it's known in the trade) is, in my opinion, Northern California's best trade tasting each year, and brings out the sorts of top buyers from restaurants and retailers who you usually have to go see personally.  The potential value of a tasting like this is enormous, given the concentration of qualified customers.  And yet, I hear wineries complain after tastings -- even big, well-run tastings like these -- that they can't see the value.

One of our neighboring wineries commented that it was their first Family Winemakers tasting, and they wanted to know how our table was so busy.  Part of it, of course, is that, if not a household name at this point, we're fairly well known among the wine trade.  But that wasn't always the case.  And I don't believe that it's out of a winery's control how much value they get from a tasting like this.  It's no more a viable sales strategy to simply go to a trade tasting and hope that people come to find you than it's a viable marketing strategy to open your doors and assume your customers will walk in.  As I gave the winery next to us a few ideas of how to make sure that you squeeze every possible bit of value out of a big tasting like this one, it occurred to me that the ideas might make the basis for a good blog piece.

A few days after the tasting, I got an unexpected phone call that drove home the point.  One innovation that the Family Winemakers instituted this year was offering wineries the opportunity to pass along a $10 discount coupon to their customers.  It was a great strategy because it both gave the wineries a reason to publicize the tasting, and gave Family Winemakers the ability to track whose promotion was most effective.  Of all the 340 wineries who participated, apparently Tablas Creek's promotion was the most successful, resulting in 42 consumer tickets being purchased with our unique discount code.  OK, I'm pleased with the effort that we make.  But we're a mid-sized Paso Robles winery.  The greater part of our customer base is in southern California, and we have only about 1000 people on our mailing list in the Bay Area.  If our promotion was the most effective, when many wineries in this North Coast-dominated tasting have many times that number of potential local customers, it tells me that far too many wineries aren't making the most of opportunities like this one.  Here's a checklist for wineries:

  • Make sure that your mailing list includes location.  This will allow you to sort it for regional events.  If your top customer in Kansas City keeps getting notes about tastings and dinners in Orange County, they're probably going to get annoyed.  And the result will be that the only notes you'll send out are about events at your winery.  Knowing where your customers are allows you to target them selectively for dinners and tastings in their area.  And make sure you're asking for location wherever you're soliciting for new contacts, whether online, in your tasting room, or at events.
  • Select a good email marketing tool.  The tools for email marketing are incredibly powerful and remarkably inexpensive.  The two market leaders are Constant Contact and Vertical Response, and both are good options.  We use StreamSend, which I like for its flexibility and its lower cost.  And there are countless others as well.  Any of them will give you invaluable information about your email campaigns, including which links get clicked on and by how many people, what addresses are undeliverable, and what percentage of your notes get opened.  This information allows you to keep your database up to date and to learn from your past campaigns.
  • Send an email out to the geographically-relevant members of your mailing list roughly three weeks before every event you do in the market.  Your consumers (and, if the event includes a trade component, your trade) will appreciate knowing about the event, whether it be a multi-winery festival, a wine shop tasting, or a wine dinner.  And it's not a terrible thing for your trade supporters to know that you do these sorts of events; I've several times gotten an email back from a retailer or restaurant, who, upon hearing I'll be in town for another event, wanted to schedule something with me.  Incidentally, if you're worried your existing fans may crowd out new customers, remember that it's useful to have existing supporters at your events for several reasons.  First, they're likely to bring you new customers by sharing the information with friends.  Second, having a busy event, or a busy table at an event, gives you good buzz.  And third, you've helped support the events, restaurants and retailers who support you, which leads to good trade relations.
  • At each event, get contact information for as many of the people who come by your table as possible.  If these are consumers, have mailing list cards or a guest book out on the table, and encourage anyone interested to give you their information then and there.  Don't be shy; you'll get many times the number of people signing up if you suggest it than if you wait for them to ask.  If you see members of the trade, trade business cards with them, and note on the back what wines they were interested in.  If they don't have business cards, or if you already know them and it will feel weird to ask them again, keep a notebook handy to note who liked what.  It's the only way to have the information that will allow you (or more likely your broker or distributor) to follow up effectively. 
  • Have easy pocket-size take-home information about the individual wines you're pouring.  We started making cards like the ones pictured below for our wines years ago, and they're great to have.  At the tasting, it helps provide details about complicated wines (and our wines, being mostly blends, take some explanation).  After a big tasting, a card like this will help people remember their favorites, and having your contact information there makes it a lot easier for them to act.  Finally, from a practical standpoint, having individual cards helps make your larger, glossier, more expensive "about the winery" pieces more usable since they won't go out of date.
  • Esprit08talker   Cotesblanc08talker
  • Spend some time circulating around the room to see who is there, and encourage them to come see you.  Obviously, this is only practical when you have multiple people there to work an event.  But it can be great both in ensuring that key members of the trade taste what you've brought and in getting referrals from other tables.  Bring tastes of wine to other wineries' tables, or to the table of the restaurant serving food across the aisle.  At big tastings, lots of customers ask each table where else they should go.  Do what you can to make sure that you get your share of these recommendations.
  • Get the information about what trade stopped by your table and what they liked to your distributors and brokers within a week or so for follow-up.  Then check back in with the distributor a few weeks later to find out what came of the leads you gave them.  I'm not suggesting that you pester them, or demand a written report about every lead, but if the distributor knows that you care enough to follow up, they're likely to be more diligent in pursuing the leads you provide for them.
These suggestions aren't rocket science, but should help make sure that a winery is effectively covering its bases before, during, and after each tasting that it does, and giving itself every chance to succeed.  And given that everyone's budgets are tight right now, it's more important than ever.