Challenging wineries to tell their stories: Uncork the Forks

Columnist Lenn Thompson, second from right, at a panel at the USBevX 2018 conference.

If you’re a regular reader of this column, you might remember that one of my wine-related resolutions for 2018 was to do more speaking gigs to help spread the gospel of East Coast and, specifically, Long Island wine. Well, a couple weeks ago my family and I traveled to Washington, D.C., during the winter break. While most of our time was spent doing the typical touristy things — the memorials, the museums and the zoo — I spent half a day at USBevX 2018, a conference dedicated to “helping drive the quality reputation for Eastern and Midwest wine and beverage producers.”

I always enjoy these types of conferences. They are opportunities to reconnect with friends I’ve made over the years. One guy from California and I realized that we hadn’t seen one another in a decade (the last time I was out in Napa and Sonoma, where he lives). It’s also an opportunity to meet folks I’ve known only virtually — via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram — in person for the first time.

A handful of folks representing the Long Island wine industry were there, from Bedell Cellars, Lieb Cellars and Wölffer Estate. Funny enough, this was the first time I got to meet Max Rohn, Wölffer’s general manager, and Ali Tuthill, the Sagaponack winery’s marketing director.

The conference organizers invited me to be part of a panel that asked the question “Wine Writers: What Are They Looking For?” The audience consisted largely of winery owners, general managers and marketing professionals. We had a great discussion, though I wish it could have been more interactive. Both during the session and afterward, when several people cornered me — some to thank me, some to challenge me — I was reminded just how complex the “wine industry” is. It’s really a myriad of industries within an industry. Each person I spoke with had a unique point of view, with different beliefs or goals, different approaches or constraints. It’s fascinating but must also be incredibly frustrating at the same time.

The crux of the message I wanted to convey to those who attended my session was that wineries need to be more self-aware. Not every winery is going to get a 5,000-word feature article in Wine Spectator. And that’s OK. Many winery customers aren’t reading Spectator anyway.

It’s just important for wineries to better understand where their wines fit into the overall wine landscape and how to tell a unique story.

Every winery in the world has something worth writing about. Maybe it’s the wines, which are uniquely delicious. Maybe there’s an organic or biodynamic angle. Maybe the farm has been in a family for 10 generations. Or maybe the winemaker traveled here from far afield and is applying what she’s learned to a new, emerging region.

Once you know that story, it takes some time to understand your customers and the media landscape, too. What are your target customers reading? Maybe it’s glossy magazines like Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast. Maybe it’s Food & Wine Magazine. Maybe it’s a niche wine publication or blog. It could be that they don’t read specifically about wine unless they happen upon a story. Maybe they only read about wine in the local paper every couple weeks.

This might all seem obvious. You might even say it’s Marketing 101. But, let me tell you, the number of wineries up and down the East Coast that are being thoughtful in this regard is unfortunately small.

This panel was about how wineries can and should engage with writers. We all agreed that it’s about building a relationship, and that writers don’t want to be treated like transactions. As the conversation continued, however, I think it became just as much about how wineries should engage with customers, too.

At the end of the day, wine writers are little more than enthusiastic wine consumers who are willing and able to share opinions via the pen — or the keyboard.