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The “yawnfest” of the “family winery” story

By Duane Pemberton

If I were paid a quarter (I know it used to be a nickle, but times have changed) for every time I approached the table at a wine event of a winery or visited a winery I’m not familiar with,  and they start going into their spiel about: “”We’re a family winery” – blah blah blah – I’d be rich.

Really? That’s the best you got? I sure hope your wine is damn good because the story is all too tired in this day and age of “family-run wineries” – the 90′s called, they want their story back. This upcoming generation of wine drinkers likes things which are faster than ever before – quick updates from their smartphone about the latest Facebook postings, twitter updates, emails, weather forecasts – most data they could want – in an instant – available to them. They’re too ADHD to hear your long, drawn-out story about a “family-business”.

Is there exceptions to this rule? Absolutely but those are wineries which either started back when the story was still “cool” or their wine is winning such high scores that the bulk of their customers are what we consider to be a part of the “old-guard” – you know, the kind of customers who still care about scores. Most 30-somethings and certainly 20-somethings couldn’t give a rat’s ass about a score – they just want to know the following:

  • How good is it
  • What is the price

It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that. – of course there are those who are wine geeks who love to get more into the details such as AVA, terroir, acidity, ph and other technical merits – but wineries need to find a way to come up with an idea that’s simple and doesn’t sound like the old hum-drum.

That is precisely what Charles Smith did – you’re thinking, “oh no he didn’t just say that name”  -yeah, I did and here’s why. From day one he made no bones about it, he was purely in the business for money – you didn’t get some boring story from him – it was simply “this is my wine and I hope you like it and here’s how much it costs”.

Where’s he at now? Oh, “only” about $11 Million dollars richer thanks to Precept wines purchasing his Magnificent Wine and Charles Smith brands a few years ago. He did what he set out to do because he found a way to get his wines to simply connect with people. The wines he had made for his brands were tasty and priced at a point where folks were happy to pay for it.

There’s a lot of lessons struggling wineries can learn from his example in regards to marketing and connecting well with the upcoming wine lovers. Just like General Motors’ Buick brand found out – their current customer base already had one foot in the grave.  It was time to move on, make their cars more appealing to the younger crowd and now Buick has had record sales for a number of years running.

What would I do if I had a winery? At least the  following:

  • First of all, if the wine sucks, none of the following advice even matters so make sure it doesn’t suck
  • Make absolutely sure that the wine you’re selling is worth the asking price – either subjectively or objectively
  • Get a catchy label
  • Find some sort of gimmick – Charles had his hair, flamboyancy and good wines. If your story of the family-run-blah-blah is working, great, but if not, do like Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards did (their story involves a brothel) and sell a story of SOMETHING . Folks like stories that’ll make them laugh, is relatable or otherwise intriguing.
  • It’s perfectly acceptable to still include your personal story to it but it can’t be only about that when you’re still an “unknown” brand with wines that are’t very memorable

Here’s to hoping more family-run wineries come up with better reasons for us to enjoy the fruits of their hard-work other than just the fact that they’re a “family winery”.

And don’t get me started on the whole “We’re an Estate Winery too!” – sigh…..

Additional reading:
Washington’s Fading Wineries 

  • http://twitter.com/UCBeau Beau

    If I had a nickel every time I saw a blogger try to tell wineries how to run their businesses, I’d be able to buy a winery.

  • http://www.winefoot.com Duane Pemberton

    Yeah? You get a lot of bloggers trying to specifically tell you how to run a winery do ya? 

  • Don Phelps

    The issue is not how to run a winery but how to set your business apart from the competition – the line is Differentiate or Die and it holds true for any business

  • Bart Fawbush

    I mostly agree with this article, however I believe there are folks out there that also want the details.  They want to know your story, it helps them connect to the experience.

  • Sara Lise

    Great story Duane. I have worked in the wine business for 7 years. All of those 7 years was with a family winery. The small family wine story did not work. It was already over saturated in the Washington Wine market. The same story over and over again. Show me a great wine, for sale at a fair price, and no consumer cares if it’s a family winery or not, they will buy it regardless.

  • Janejones

    I find it very interesting to read what you want, we are a new vineyard and I have been saying since we started do people really care about me or do they just want good wine at a fair price and obviously where they can get it.

  • Leesie

    Awesome, well-written and candid piece!  I love your writing style and talent.  Interesting food for thought even for this consumer.  Thanks. 

  • http://twitter.com/UCBeau Beau

    I see (read) “advice” from bloggers all the time, makes me wonder if they’ve ever worked for/at a winery and seen things from the other side of the proverbial fence. Have you?

  • http://www.winefoot.com Duane Pemberton

    I have – I worked Crush in 2010 at Pacific Rim winery in WA – we crushed 2700 tons that year. 

  • http://www.winefoot.com Duane Pemberton

    But more to the point, I don’t need to work at a winery to know what works and what does not. I see it all the time – even in my current work as a wine reviewer. I meet with them at trade events all the time, I go to visit them – I talk, I listen and have seen many go out of business because of poor marketing, wine that wasn’t worth the asking price or both.