By Barbara Barrielle
Good wine writers look for what appeals to their audience. Who is their reader and are they strictly looking for an examination of wine quality – or lack thereof – or are they seeking lifestyle pieces where the quirky winemaker and extravagant vintner steal the show? The wine is simply a player in the story.
Good publicists know the writer, but more importantly, know who their audience is and what appeals to them. They pitch what’s relevant, and that’s the way it’s always worked, but the wine PR landscape has changed over the last 10 years as has the way readers consume information. Wineries that want their fair share of media attention are having to change their tactics as well. One thing that hasn’t changed is the importance of having and maintaining relations with influencers in the media and as well as understanding who they’re writing for.
Sara Schneider, long the food editor at Sunset Magazine and then the magazine’s wine editor, has recently made a shift to Robb Report as the Contributing Wine and Spirits Editor. “Sunset readers look for good value,” Schneider said. “Robb Report readers look for value but at a much different level.”
At Sunset, her team didn’t pan wines they didn’t care for. “If we didn’t like a wine, we didn’t write about it,” she says. At Robb Report, the approach remains the same, but the reader is definitively high end and of a very affluent demographic. They are wine drinkers and, while there may be concern about Robb readers and their acquisition of expensive wines as either trophies or simply investments, at the core they enjoy a very good bottle of wine.
Katie Calhoun, president of Calhoun & Company Communications, a San Francisco-based public relations firm with clients as diverse as Chateau Montelena and Lodi Winegrowers, is pleased to hear that Schneider, in her new role, is seeing a “ramp up” in the quality of wine samples. It means that wineries and PR firms are paying attention to Robb Report’s reader base and what they are looking for in wine coverage.
Schneider says that, in addition to the wines that may attract her readers, she is looking for stories that will interest them as well. Family stories, innovation, new material and ground level stories like the one she will cover in the Rhone of a new Chateauneuf-du-Pape launch. “Knowing the reader and the authentic news for that reader is what will attract my attention.” Says Schneider.
Virginie Boone, contributing editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine explains, “It’s very important to have relationships with PR professionals, we need each other. Over time, you build a mutual trust and understanding of what’s useful and relevant to one another.
“I find that the PR people I trust over time become invaluable resources, and I know I can turn to them if I’m working on something in the early stages of development or conversely, if I need something fast on deadline. Not to mention the other types of assets we need as writers that can sometimes be hard to track down directly from a winery, from prices of wines to current vintage, etc.,” says Boone.
While Sara Schneider and Virginie Boone remain wine writers for print and online publications, Katie Calhoun’s job as a publicist has changed wildly in the days since most major newspapers had wine coverage. Now there are two newspapers with a dedicated wine journalist; Eric Asimov at The New York Times and Esther Mobley at The San Francisco Chronicle. Now wine writers are bloggers, part-timers, influencers and wannabes.
Wine writers are often not dedicated just to writing about wine but have day jobs like teaching high school or selling insurance. Yet they may have a blog or online magazine that has a following and they are important to reach.
“We have to meet writers on their time. If they can’t meet for lunch because they work, we are finding other ways to meet with these writers that come in all shapes and sizes. We need to travel more. And everyone is freelance,” explains Calhoun.
PR agencies have to be versatile. A story may be the wine or it may be the antique car collection the vintner has in the barn on the property. The story may be about the chef and his recipes or the organic garden where he grows his produce. There may be gorgeous floral gardens. Or there may be a cool winery dog story to pitch. It is easy to see that, with so many potential angles, smart PR firms are not just pitching wine writers but lifestyle and hobby writers of all varieties.
“Building our media list is the most important thing we do, and it is time consuming,” says Calhoun. “We are looking at the writers’ audiences, the price of wines their readers may support, the regions they target and then we target the message.
“We do not simply send samples of our clients’ wines. We have changed the way we are doing things and we may send an alert or release,” Calhoun expands. “We look for a response and require interaction for a hot minute.”
It is a challenge to qualify the many bloggers and influencers that demand time, attention and, ultimately, samples. That is why developing the media list is crucial. And Calhoun understands the pay-to-play that is required by some publications and influencers, so she will pay a highly qualified influencer with significant followers that can weave the wine into an artistic post. Wine writers get paid to write, and a social media influencer will get paid to get that wine seen.
Michael Wangbickler, president of Balzac Communications, with clients like the prestigious Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, concurs that the number of traditional wine media publications has “shrunk incredibly, but we have seen the emergence of digital media in many other forms.” He says, “we view writers as content creators, whoever their audience happens to be. The challenge is who is worth our time… the client’s time.”
“The tendency is toward metrics, but traffic can come from anywhere. In a writer (or influencer) we are looking for the quality of their content, the frequency of their publishing,” explains Wangbickler, “and ultimately the credibility of the source.”
It is a changing frontier on both sides and it requires both the writer and the publicist remain adaptable and alert to their audiences and their expectations.
Schneider, Calhoun, Boone, and Wangbickler are all part of the Wine Writers: What Are They Looking For? conference session moderated by Chris O’Gorman, Director of Communications at Rodney Strong Vineyards, , which is part of the Sales & Marketing Track Presented by Emetry at the North Coast Wine Industry Expo on December 6th, 2018 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Registration for this and other sessions can be found at http://wineindustryexpo.com/