The wine business is hard. It may not get talked about a lot, but it is. There are huge start-up costs, an ever-growing number of wineries which crowd the marketplace and compete for your existing customers, and a shrinking number of distributors that combine with a relentless stream of wines from around the world and make it hard to gain attention in the wholesale market.
Granted, there are positive demographics working in your favor as a winery, too. America is becoming more and more a wine-consuming nation, which means that you aren't competing with the other wineries in your area for a pie of a fixed size; the pie is growing every year. Liberalized wine shipping laws have put some 80% of American consumers in states we can ship to. And Americans' acceptance of blends (and unusual grape varieties) has never been better than it is. But it's still a challenge getting and keeping your name out there, particularly when you want, like we do, to succeed both in our direct sales business (our tasting room and wine clubs) and in the wholesale market.
So it's great to see an article like the one we received recently from Paso Robles-based bloggers Matt and Annie Browne, whose blog Hoot n Annie is packed each week with first-person accounts of their explorations into the local wine community and their insightful analysis of what works in marketing and social media. The title of the article is Paso Robles Wineries: Tablas Creek is Doing it Right and I'm not sure I've ever read anything so nice written about us. They are social media experts, and much of their focus is on what we've tried to do in that sphere (I was very happy to read that they thought we'd been successful) but they also talked about our marketing, our facility, our people, and (of course!) our wine.
It's easy, I think, to fall into ivory tower syndrome as a winery. Unless you force yourself to get out into the market, or make sure you're searching out unbiased opinions, it's easy to hear only voices that tell you you're doing great work: those are the people who tend to seek you out. Does this mean you're doing great work? Not necessarily. And even if you are doing great work in one sphere (winemaking, say) it's easy to assume that success will find you as a matter of course. We had that problem at the beginning; our initial marketing plan could have been summed up as "people will buy Tablas Creek because people love Beaucastel". It turned out to be wildly optimistic, and we spent some dicey years in the early 2000's turning around the business side of Tablas Creek. In 2002, for example, we sold 4,000 cases of wine and made 12,000. That's obviously not sustainable, and we realized that our problems weren't going to be solved by a single effort. We opened a tasting room, started a wine club, started participating in wine festivals and working with our distributors around the country, and rededicated ourselves to being an involved and committed member of our community. We made the decision to focus on maximizing the number of customer interactions and doing everything we could to give those customers an outstanding experience that they would rememeber and would tell their friends about. And little by little we leveraged a successful business out of the good choices we'd made at the beginning in choosing our site and making our wines. By 2006 we'd stabilized our balance sheet and were selling roughly the same 18,000 cases we were making.
But it's not easy. And each year brings new challenges, as you work to stay true to who you are while continuing to innovate in ways that keep you fresh. We've tried hard not ever to take our fans for granted, or to rest on our laurels. Reading a piece like Matt's and Annie's gives me faith that it's working. Thanks, guys.