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Social media in the Napa Valley

There’s a story that Paul Mabray, co-founder of the Yountville-based social media company VinTank, likes to tell in describing some wineries’ attitudes toward social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Mabray held a seminar about using those websites as marketing tools for wineries at a conference in Southern California this year. At the end of a discussion about how social media can keep customers buying wine after they leave tasting rooms, someone shouts out, “Why bother? There will be another busload of them tomorrow.”

It’s a valid point, Mabray acknowledges, particularly in the Napa Valley, where every rising sun seems to greet a new flock of tourists looking to taste and buy wine.

But it misses the significance of a technology that, when used effectively, can reel in customers in a competitive market already saturated with wine and wineries — and potentially keep them buying, Mabray said.

“We are digitally handicapped in this industry,” Mabray said. “We talk about it but we don’t hire for it. We don’t move functions around for it. We’re still being dragged, kicking and screaming, in many ways, into this thing called social media.”

Indeed, while Napa Valley wineries’ stature and reputation in the wine industry have grown tremendously since Robert Mondavi redefined California wines as high-quality, high-price commodities in the 1960s, Mabray sees many comfortable with resting on their laurels and continuing to rely on the successful marketing and business strategies that brought them to the top.

That can lead to a dependence on using word-of-mouth and critical reviews and point scores to drive reputation — and thus price, sales and distribution deals — as well as traditional advertising and the Napa Valley’s inherent advantages as a tourist destination to capture consumers going up and down Highway 29 and Silverado Trail.

Social media can upend those tactics to some degree, while complementing them in others, Mabray said.

Word-of-mouth can be expressed in a Facebook or Twitter post, and buzz can be built on Foursquare check-ins or Yelp reviews. An established critic’s score or review can be missed entirely if the consumers don’t care to look or their smartphones won’t readily find it.

Distribution deals are harder to come by in a market with 200,000 wine products approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and more than 8,000 wineries in the U.S. — 500 in Napa Valley alone. Wineries ignorant of social media can watch consumers drive by their tasting rooms to a winery willing to reach out or respond on those channels, he said.

“We need to look for peer recommendations,” Mabray said. “I’m not saying this is the end of the critic by any means. It’s having changes all around us. Get a score, get a distributor — the ‘Field of Dreams,’ ‘If you build it, they will come,’ doesn’t work anymore.”

Opportunities and challenges

Mabray’s company, VinTank, tracks social media usage and mentions within the geographic boundaries of Napa Valley. According to company statistics, an average of 2,500 signals — from publicly accessible accounts — are sent every 90 minutes during the daytime from the almost 5 million tourists who visit the valley annually.

Many come in the form of Twitter or Facebook posts announcing a visit, or an Instagram photograph documenting some aspect of a visitor’s stay. Based on pricing for bottles of wine, VinTank estimates that getting anywhere from two to 20 of those visitors to purchase wine would result in $90,000 to $900,000 in additional sales annually.

If only it were that easy to capture customers, laments Erin Middleton, a social media consultant based in Sonoma County. Middleton pours wine in the tasting room from Bryter Estates in Sonoma, and recognizes that one of the foremost point-of-sales moments for wineries is opening a bottle of wine for a visitor in the tasting room.

The experience of the tasting room — the look of the winery, the atmosphere, and, yes, the taste of the wine — is a major influence in a customer’s purchasing decision, and that experience should be reflected in a brand’s online presence just as it is offline, Middleton said.

“People just do research,” Middleton said. “You need to ensure that all of the potential touch points deliver a similar experience to what you’re getting in the tasting room. Your online experience needs to reflect your offline experience, and wineries are behind that trend.”

But therein lies the challenge with social media: It’s a sprawling universe covering multiple platforms, with mainstays like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but also websites like Pinterest, Yelp, Foursquare, LinkedIn, Google+ and a litany of others.

Middleton said a dedicated person is needed to track traffic on those websites and respond to customer inquiries, mentions, comments or criticism. Ideally that person would be supported by a creative team, content generators such as writers, photographers or videographers and Web developers.

Someone is needed to curate content from user-generated posts, such as a positive experience at the winery, while maintaining a quality-control job to ensure that all of the activity aligns with the brand’s mission and desired representation, Middleton said. And, to top it off, the brand has to keep consumers’ trust and keep the content interesting and useful to them, she said.

Adding that work to a winery’s existing staff is daunting, and justifying the cost of hiring on additional staff or contracting with outside firms can be difficult since social media can take a long time to contribute to the company’s bottom line, Middleton said.

“You have to hire someone you can trust to put in charge and be an editor,” Middleton said. “Someone who can curate the hose of information that’s always on. It’s hard with that hose that’s always drowning you.”

In Napa Valley, 80 percent of wineries produce fewer than 10,000 cases of wine annually, said Patsy McGaughy, communications director for the Napa Valley Vintners. These include the small, family-owned wineries whose lean staffing budgets are a hurdle to throwing more resources at social media, McGaughy said.

“For the average winery owner, they’re doing the best they can with the resources that they have,” McGaughy said. “Many of the wineries are being run by a handful of people.”

For that reason, Middleton sees larger, wealthier wineries use social media more effectively. VinTank’s winery social media index backs up that assertion.

The index uses an algorithm to gauge how brands around the world are engaging consumers, what their activity levels are, and how they’re growing in numbers of fans.

The index ranks each brand based on these data points, and the Napa- or Sonoma-based brands in the top 10 — out of 50 spots total — include Wine Sisterhood, Woodbridge, Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Castello di Amorosa and V. Sattui Winery.

But Mabray also sees plenty of examples of small wine-producers or bloggers establish themselves and their brands on social media, as the technology, while time-consuming, is free to use. He recommends a divide-and-conquer strategy for smaller brands.

“Social media is everybody’s job,” Mabray said. “There is always (a return on investment) in talking to your customers. Social media allows you to be scalable. You can talk to more people like that for less cost.”

A case study

At Napa-based Trinitas Cellars, project manager Betsy O’Neill handles her winery’s social media accounts, which she took over this past summer as Trinitas put more emphasis on them. The family-owned winery is located adjacent to the Meritage Resort and Spa, and its first vintage was in 2002, making it relatively new to the Napa Valley. It produces 15,000 cases annually with a desire to make more, O’Neill said.

O’Neill said her main focus is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Yelp and maintaining a staff blog for the company’s new website. The company is wading more deeply into the world of social media, she said.

“I think a lot of people are realizing that this is the easiest and most cost-effective,” O’Neill said. “We could pay for advertising in magazines, but I’m not sure people are reading magazines as much as they’re checking their Facebook.”

Trinitas’ tasting room is a cave dug out of a vineyard-swathed hillside, a tucked-away location that can make it difficult to draw in a steady stream of tourists, although the resort helps, O’Neill said.

“We don’t have acres and acres and an estate,” O’Neill said. “If we didn’t have social media we probably would have a lot fewer visitors. We’re off the beaten trail.”

O’Neill said Twitter and Facebook are effective at keeping in touch with members of the winery’s wine club, while Instagram can show off the natural beauty of the Napa Valley.

“It’s very lighthearted,” O’Neill said of the posts. “With Napa it’s the same story — people come and they go back home. We don’t get to see them every day. Why not share pictures or share updates?”

She said she sees challenges in trying to maintain all the accounts while still trying to generate content such as pictures or posts, which can require being out in the vineyards or checking out the winemaking process. That can result in missed opportunities to connect with customers who reach out to one of the accounts.

“I’m not everywhere at once,” O’Neill said. “I’m definitely going to miss things. With the real time of social media, it’s instant. That’s almost the norm and the expectation. You could easily spend all day on all of the channels.”

O’Neill’s experience isn’t unique, Middleton said. Social media requires constant focus and attention.

“Traditional marketing is creation and then placement,” Middleton said. “You spend a week to several months developing a campaign. Social media has required that campaigns work in 24-hour cycles. The content happens on a minute basis. It’s very much an always-on campaign. It’s here to stay.”

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