Marketing Matters


How Smart Marketers Capitalize on Festivals

March 2009
by Suzanne Gannon

  • Before committing to an event, find out if it's worth the expense. Ask which other wineries will be pouring and if there are bonus events such as winemaker dinners.
  • Make sure you have distribution in the area where you plan to offer a tasting. Potential customers will be disappointed if they like your wine but can't buy it locally.
  • The personal relationships you forge with patrons at wine events can yield sales long after you've packed up and headed home.

We've all been there. Languishing behind a skirted table inside a tented pavilion that's growing steamier by the moment, bottles of new releases half-empty and spit buckets nearly overflowing. An over-served consumer leans over your table, thrusting his glass forward.

"Got anything sweet?" he asks, residue of a Cabernet from an adjacent table still in his glass, while a food particle of unknown origin clings to his lip.

You smile wanly, pour the requisite two ounces while reciting the pitch about the microclimate of the single vineyard from which your Pinot Noir originates, how much time it spends in oak and the pork loin recipe that might pair well with it.

He sloshes it around in his glass, takes a sip, pivots and heads to the next table with barely a nod.

More than 100 wineries pour at the Nantucket Wine Festival's Grand Tastings, the focal point of the five-day event, which celebrates its 13th year in 2009.

As any wine industry road warrior knows, when it comes to auctions for local charities, tastings celebrating the dominant varietals of a specific region, and high-profile national events that attract marquee-named chefs and feature interactive pairing seminars and cooking demonstrations, a winery could conceivably double-book itself for an entire year's worth of events. Along the way, there are registration fees, sponsorships, table costs, travel and lodging--as well as the not insignificant cost of the cases themselves--all adding up to a hefty line item on the marketing budget.

But how can vintners or a marketing team be certain they're choosing the right events for their portfolio? And, once they've committed to attending those events, how can they extract the maximum value from their participation?

Local distribution is imperative

Carolyn Wente, the vice chairman of Wente Vineyards who runs worldwide sales and marketing for the 125-year-old Livermore, Calif., winery, says there's no point in attending tastings in states where she doesn't have distribution.

Before Wente participated in the Florida Winefest & Auction in Sarasota for the first time several years ago, her sales team focused on penetrating the local market by working with the distributor several months in advance.

"The distributor definitely gets behind you, but they have so many brands, you just have to be in their face about it," she says.

Katherine Jarvis, president of Jarvis Communications in Culver City, Calif., which handles public relations for wine clients including Flora Springs Winery & Vineyards, J Vineyards & Winery, Colgin Cellars, Dalla Terra, Bennett Lane, Frank Family Vineyards, Rocca Family Vineyards and Summers Estate, among others, adds, "You don't want to show things that people can't get, unless it's a decanter of an older vintage that shows the ageability of the wine and makes the consumer feel special."

Trade attendance is key

Sandy Loevner, who has served as event coordinator of the Florida Winefest & Auction for the past 17 years, estimates that between 800 and 1,000 restaurateurs and retailers attend the three-day event, amounting to almost 25% of the 4,000 attendees.

"We've been told that we give one of the best trade events in the country," Loevner says. "It has become known as a good place to do business."

Requirements for entry include four cases of wine, a lot each for the silent and live auctions, and the presence of a winemaker or proprietor.

Frank Neer, executive director of the Nantucket Wine Festival, which is headed into its 13th year this May, says high turnout at the event has coerced the island's restaurateurs into opening shop for the season a few weeks earlier just to capture the influx of wine-loving consumers.

The business opportunity has not been lost on participating wineries that now number approximately 180, with a third of them sending a proprietor or winemaker.

Demographic profiles

Kris Hillstrom and Suzette Obergfell from Brittany National Sales Co. represent Wente Family Estates at the Tampa Bay Wine Festival.

A good way to choose where to pour is to get demographic and psychographic information on the attendees from event organizers. "We know we are trying to expose our wines to Generation X, Millennials and Echo-boomers, because our research shows our consumer is in the 25-to-55 age bracket," Wente says. "Sometimes organizers don't offer demographic information up front, so we have to coax it out of them. But the longer-existing events have a track record, and it's easier to get it."

Christina Grdovic, vice president and publisher of Food & Wine magazine, which hosts the Aspen Food & Wine Classic every June, describes typical Classic attendees as "super-sized wine enthusiasts who not only are affluent, and able to afford wine, but also highly knowledgeable."

The event, now in its 27th year, attracts 5,000 consumers, chefs, restaurateurs, retailers and journalists annually.

Grdovic says one of its strongest selling points is the "intimacy of walking around with the same people for three days."

Who else is pouring?

"When they throw out a number of participants, but not specific names, and then change the subject to the number of tickets sold or the type of marketing they're doing to promote the tasting, that throws up a red flag."

Donatiello adds that a few phone calls to fellow vintners can help determine whether the event is worthy of participation.

He estimates that he dedicates about 20% of his marketing budget annually to tasting events, which cost on average about $250, plus the cost of travel and wine.

Donatiello's event calendar has included events like the Nantucket Wine Festival, the High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction and several local and regional Pinot events, such as Pinot Fest and Pinot on the River, which collectively exhaust approximately 2% of his 6,600-case annual production.

Choose intimate programs

Look for components such as winemaker dinners, seminars and tasting panels in which you can be involved. According to Sandy Loevner of the Florida Winefest & Auction, a key component in her formula is the series of Sarasota-area winemaker dinners in which most of the 50 to 60 attending vintners have an opportunity to participate.

Frank Neer says, "What makes the Nantucket Wine Festival unique is the fact that 32 winemakers are paired with 32 chefs in intimate settings of eight to 12 people inside private homes you would never have the opportunity to see. While enjoying a meal prepared by a top-notch chef, your wine is being poured by Robert Sinskey or John Shafer or Kate McMurray."

Ascertain media coverage

One of Jarvis' clients, Frank Family Vineyards, every year contributes an elaborate lot to the live auction at Auction Napa Valley. In addition to a large-format reserve Cabernet, the package usually includes a walk-on role in an ABC Television production such as "Grey's Anatomy" (Frank partnered with ABC Television president Steve McPherson) and a wine trip through New Zealand courtesy of Air New Zealand. The bidding, which last year reached $480,000, garners press coverage year after year, according to Jarvis.

Equip the table

In addition to having a knowledgeable and passionate winemaker or proprietor attend events, Jarvis says, consumers enjoy tangible branded materials they can associate with the wine.

"It's great to have scores, press clippings, brochures and instructions on how and where to buy the wine in the local market," she says.

Invest in the set-up

"It might sound silly, but one thing we've learned is to get there early and set up properly," says Joan Flowers, who with her husband Walt, founded the Flowers Winery in Cazadero, Calif., on the Sonoma Coast. (Recently Huneeus Vintners, owner of Quintessa and other top Napa brands, purchased a major stake in Flowers.)

"Some producers come in at the last minute or come late, and then the consumer walks in and there's no one there, and it's not good."

Attend consistently

Flowers, who has been participating in the Florida Winefest & Auction for the last seven years, values the personal connection she makes with consumers and trade at such events, because her winery is so remote it lacks a tasting room.

"It's important to make people feel welcome," she says. "If you go to the same events year after year, you get to know people's names, and they get to know your wine."

Capture names and follow up

Most producers interviewed say they actively collect names and contact information from consumers, restaurateurs and retailers who express an interest in their wines.

"We try to gather as much information from the customer as we can," says Donatiello, who sells 60% of his wines direct to consumers.

Apparently it goes both ways. Following a large tasting event, he can see a significant spike of activity on his website.

Make a lasting impression

Owners and winemakers make a more lasting impression than local distributor reps juggling multiple brands. Carolyn Wente recalls that two years ago at the Nantucket Wine Festival, a woman from New York approached her booth and tasted a Chardonnay. The following year, the woman returned to the Wente table with her mother, whom she had subsequently introduced to Wente, and the two of them told the fifth-generation vintner they had turned all of their friends onto the brand, estimating that they had sold "millions of cases" in New York and New Jersey by word-of-mouth alone.

"The bottom line is about the personal connection you make with someone. It carries much more weight than third-party endorsements," Wente sa ys.

Based in New York, Suzanne Gannon writes on travel, culture, food and wine. For the past four years, she has reported on a variety of topics for Wines & Vines. Reach her through

Posted on 03.27.2009 - 15:54:38 PST
Great article. IMHO you hit the nail on the head. As a large part of the marketing strategy for many wineries, I suggest they look at each event outside of their immediate area with a perspective of leverage and ROI. By this I mean they weigh out how much they can leverage their presence via extracurricular things like wine maker dinners the night before, guest appearances at wine shops, an interview with a local magazine or paper, etc., calculate their cost for all of these things and then weigh it against potential sales, club member sign-ups, press coverage.

Scot Burns
Redbarn Marketing
Paso Robles, CA USA