COMMENTARY

Sustaining an Industry

By Ted Farthing

To Oregon’s loyal patrons: It’s never been a better time to be a wine fan.

Many local wineries adjusted to the challenging economic landscape by lowering prices — sometimes dramatically — and in some instances blending very expensive grapes into their entry-level offerings. As a result, more of our typically premium-priced wines have come within reach across the country. This is especially true in restaurants, where the quality of wine available by the glass — at unforeseen prices — is remarkable. Wine shops, grocery stores and online retailers are featuring Oregon brands at rock-bottom prices normally associated with Australia, Chile and big California producers.   

But none of this is sustainable for Oregon wineries. Of the many elements that make this an incomparable place to produce wine, one of the most significant is the weather. It’s one of only a few cool-climate grapegrowing regions in the world, where, for many grape varietals, there’s just enough sunshine to allow them to mature before the autumn rains arrive. We have to prune away many of the young clusters on every vine to enable those remaining to ripen, harvesting far fewer grapes per vineyard acre. As a result our cost of production is among the highest in the world. Our winegrowers thrive on the rewards — uncommonly nuanced, food-friendly wines full of soul — only possible on this “razor’s edge.”

Our more affordable offerings make excellent everyday table wines, and allow you to enjoy a taste of Oregon more frequently. For special dinners with family, friends or the boss, I’d encourage you to dig a little deeper when you can and try one of our single-vineyard, reserve or other higher-end bottlings. Your guests will notice the genuine adventure in the glass, and you’ll be sustaining a very special industry.

Sir Walter Scott famously noted, “It’s not fish ye’re buying, it’s men’s lives.” Imagine if he visited a family-owned Oregon vineyard today.    

To Oregon’s wineries: Most other consumer goods categories have only a handful of competitors, but you’ve got over 8,000, with 450 or so from Oregon alone.

Our cost disadvantage is amplified by the small scale of our wineries, which doesn’t afford the massive marketing budgets that others on the shelf enjoy. How do you help the thoughtful wine drinker choose you? 

If you were one of my clients, I’d begin with a positioning analysis. Enough about price; who are you? How would you define your brand in ten seconds? It’s more imperative than ever that your wine — and the story behind it — is relevant to the consumer. The exponential increase in American culinary sophistication has driven an unquenchable thirst for wine knowledge, and the buyer is better informed and more demanding than ever. It’s in your best interest to engage in a dialogue with them to determine what they care about.

Many brands remain relevant and satisfy emerging demand. How are you different from your many competitors? Many of us speak to producing quality wines that reflect the personality of our particular vineyard via sustainable practices. This has quickly become the ante, along with responsible pricing, and can no longer serve as a unique selling proposition. Individual brands need to stand on the shoulders of these noble attributes and truly set themselves apart. Some brand owners hire a P.R. agency to get them more press coverage, but you’re not going to be happy with the results unless you first sort this out. If you haven’t considered your positioning in a few years, it’s time to revisit it.

Once you’ve carved out a unique identity, it’s time to connect with potential customers. I believe strongly that communication is controlled by the receiver, not the sender, and today our customers choose from an unprecedented range of conduits. If you want them to tune you in, you’ll have to generate a voice on their terms.

Many communication portfolios include a website, a newsletter and a bit of print advertising. These are all important one-way vehicles, yet limited as you can speak but cannot listen. Successful brands have always built personal relationships with their customers, driven by interactive dialogue in the tasting room and at events like winemaker dinners and group tastings. There’s no substitute for these high-touch engagements, but with blogs and social media you can leverage the efficiency of electronic communications to help you listen, engage and build trust.

As brands become publishers and gain influence, Communications 2.0 is evolving in real time. You can now place stories directly with consumers, complementing traditional advertising and PR initiatives. The key here is to consider the receiver’s perspective. They’re not going to subscribe to a magazine that only contains ads, just like they won’t come back to your Twitter feed if it’s purely self-promotional.

Focus on providing informative content and cultivate an online conversation. Share the many stories you tell in the cellar and in your own home, and help our loyal patrons introduce you at their dinner table. Then your wines can speak for themselves. 

Ted Farthing served as Executive Director of the Oregon Wine Board and is now a freelance marketer for wine and culinary brands at Ted Farthing & Associates, LLC. 

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