MEDIA ROUNDUP: Wineries toast media renaissance

Though still an immature business compared to other countries, the US wine industry enjoys a growing number of options when it comes to spreading the word.

Though still an immature business compared to other countries, the US wine industry enjoys a growing number of options when it comes to spreading the word.

Though wine consumption in the US tends to lag far behind other parts of the world, the industry has long possessed a mystique that fascinates both the American public and the press. "Unlike, say, the auto industry, wine in the US is still a fairly immature business, with 10% of the population drinking 90% of the wine," says Adam Strum, editor and publisher of Wine Enthusiast magazine. "But wine is one of those categories that always gets coverage because it's kind of a sexy business. There are a lot of frustrated winery owners." This fascination with the vineyard lifestyle - along with the notion that wine drinking is a habit adults adopt as they move up the socioeconomic ladder - enables wineries to successfully pitch lifestyle stories far beyond the standard product review. "Wine coverage is becoming much more like traditional journalism, where they do stories about the people and personalities involved in wineries," says James Caudill, PR director for Brown-Forman Wines, which includes the Fetzer, Sonoma-Cutrer, and Jekel brands. Catering to the mainstream Much of the coverage occurs not so much in specialty magazines such as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, but in the general interest and lifestyle media. "Wine columns tend to come in and out of favor at some of these publications," says George Rose, VP of communications, Kendall Jackson. "For a while, some of the women's magazines were picking up on wine, but they've slacked off a bit. Vogue at one time had somebody who wrote about wine on a regular basis. Now they don't, but Family Circle seems to be writing about wine on a more regular basis." Rose adds that newspapers seem to have had a renaissance when it comes to coverage and now include a wine column in their weekly food sections. But only a few newspapers - top-tier outlets like The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and LA Times - have a dedicated wine reporter. "Some papers have their own reporters who normally cover other things but also have a passion for wine, or they may have a local wine shop owner or college professor with an interest in wine write a column," says Tom Scott, director of PR for Diageo Chateau & Estates Wines. "Most papers now prefer to use a local writer, because what you increasingly see in a lot of columns is not only ratings on wines but also recommendations on which shops [carry] them." Despite the influx of wine-related lifestyle coverage - and a trend among food writers to include wine recommendations for the latest hot cuisine - most wines still tend to succeed or fail based on their reviews. "With more than 76,000 brands in the marketplace, brand loyalty is very rare," says Megghen Driscol, PR director for Allied Domecq Wines USA. "So to keep consumers true to your brand, you need to remind the consumers, and have others remind them, of how great your product is." These reviews are done more and more on a sliding scale based on price, with categories such as "Best Wines Under $20" or "Best Wine Bargains." "Most journalists know that consumers are value-oriented, so they focus on price, but they also look at availability," says Caudill. "The trend now is to write about wines people can actually get their hands on." In the past, wine consumption and coverage tended to be a coastal phenomenon, but Strum points to a growing interest in the Midwest. "It's becoming more broad-based," he adds. A visual appeal At least part of the expanding geographic base of wine connoisseurs is being driven by the growth of wine-related TV programming, especially on the national cable outlets. "It used to be just the Food Channel, but now there's coverage on Home & Garden Television as well as travel shows," says Caudill, adding that wineries tend to provide great visuals because most of them are located in exquisitely beautiful areas such as California's Napa Valley. Rose notes that wines also remain a compelling business story, though he adds that much of the coverage tends to focus on problems, such as the phylloxera insect wiping out the vineyards in California, the recent grape glut, or the raging debate over the use of plastic "corks." "All those news media outlets love a good wine crisis story," Rose says.

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