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How do you definite the character of Long Island wine? (Credit: Randee Daddona for northforker)
How do you definite the character of Long Island wine? (Credit: Randee Daddona for northforker)

When the Long Island Wine Council hired Ali Tuthill last spring as its first marketing director, many in the industry were curious about what she would try to do, and what she’d be able to accomplish. After a somewhat quiet period that was no doubt spent meeting with winery owners and winemakers, getting the “lay of the land” as it were, the wine council has launched a new website, logo and branding — all with the goal of creating a cohesive brand for Long Island Wine Country. 

You can see the results at liwines.com and, as someone who works in digital marketing and community management at my day job, I can tell you that they are impressive.

The focus of the site’s content is trained squarely on the land, the people and the wines of the region. You could call it the character of Long Island Wine Country, which leads me to a less-obvious part of Tuthill’s work, the #LIcharacter hashtag she’s using and encouraging wineries to use in their social media engagements.

For those of you who don’t use Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites, a hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) that is used to identify messages on a specific topic. So if you’re interested in what the Twitter chatter is about your favorite football team, for example, you could search on Twitter using #steelers (my favorite team) to gather all of those posts together into one view.

I first observed #LIcharacter on a tweet from Bedell Cellars but soon noticed that may local wineries were using it on all of their posts on Twitter and Instagram. Intrigued, I asked Tuthill about it: What was the inspiration and what is the goal?

“Without a ‘signature’ grape, the region wrestled with defining a unique positioning that it could rally behind and use to help drive important decision-making (setting strategic priorities, partnerships, managing visitor expectations, marketing/communications) and drive sustainable growth with regard to awareness and reputation. When I was hired, it quickly became clear to me that without defining what the region stands for, we could not effectively meet our organizational objective: to establish Long Island Wine Country as a world-class wine destination,” she said in an email.

I’ve long asked the question (of myself, of customers and of the wineries themselves) of whether Long Island needed a ‘signature variety’ — a grape or wine that it bases its identity and reputation on. I’ve argued against it, but plenty have debated my point — and not just the Long Island Merlot Alliance.

With the focus on #LIcharacter, Tuthill is putting a stake in the ground and positioning the region in a novel way.

“I set out to define our brand proposition by leveraging what makes our region truly unique among other winemaking regions: our character,” she said. “It is an authentic position, not a gimmick. It merely articulates the common set of values that we all share and practice through our craft. You can’t talk about one of our wines without diving into the story behind each bottle or vintage; that’s character. Our winemakers regularly celebrate how challenging it is to make wine on the East End. It makes them have to stay true to their art; that’s character. Each of our wineries offer visitors a unique experience when it comes to discovering our wines; that’s character. It is a position that is both distinctive and unifying.”

With 48 members, that bit about “unifying” is important and incredibly challenging. For years, the wine council has suffered at times from an inability to come together on campaigns and projects. That Tuthill has been able to rally so many different wineries with different goals and attitudes is impressive. She should be lauded for it.

Next, she’ll need to continue to work to unify membership around the idea that wine quality, rather than wine entertainment, is the way forward for this region — in both the short and long terms. It’s another idea that she should be applauded for pushing.

“Any wine destination is really in the business of agri-tourism. What we’re trying to do is shift the focus of our efforts away from agri-entertainment and back toward making and promoting fantastic wine,” she told me. “This hasn’t been as hard of a conversation as some folks have made it out to be. At the end of the day, most of our members want to be recognized for their wine first and foremost while finding a way to drive revenue. Over the past few years, I think our members have learned that swinging too far toward an entertainment-based model ultimately distracts from the product and ultimately does not drive revenue in a sustainable way.”

The entertainment-focused model won’t ever go away. Some wineries simply aren’t making good enough wine to move away from it, but Tuthill has found that a majority of the council’s membership is “open to revisiting our approach in an effort to attract and ultimately win over a more wine-focused consumer, which involves a major focus on product: both educating and hand-selling consumers.”

That’s music to my ears. And I’m willing to bet that some of the North Fork wineries that are not members — all quality-focused producers, by the way — are giving the council another look, too. These are exciting changes for an industry that had lost its way a bit. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Lenn Thompson

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