By: Susan DeMatei, Founder of WineGlass Marketing
After navigating our client’s business and company growth during the last two roller-coaster years, I was ready for a significant break. Armed with credits from two canceled vacations and many pent-up credit card miles, I cashed in for an extended European visit in July. While there, my husband and I traveled to and stayed in four major wine tasting regions: Alsace, Champagne, Burgundy, and the Rhine/Mosel.
While there are countless and apparent differences between how France, Germany and the US promote tourism and sell wine directly to customers, there are equal similarities if you look hard enough. On this trip, I found myself in the rare role of a focused tourist. So, I became aware of the marketing cues and delivery vehicles and noted what worked, and what didn’t.
Here’s Some of what I Learned:
1. You can’t judge a baguette by its crust. If I were to ask you to paint a picture of your ideal customer, who would you envision? Most have that gray-haired, tanned, 65-year-old couple on a sailboat in their mind. What if I told you that the average 25-55 year old was equal to or wealthier than most over 55?
And it goes beyond gray hair to the overall presentation. The casualness of today’s affluent consumers was apparent on day one in the premium airline lounge. I splurged all our points on an upgrade to Business Class for our 11-hour flight to and from Zurich, complete with the little fold-down bed and access to the private lounge at the airport. I expected to see businessmen in suits and mature couples dressed in Sax Fifth Avenue or European power couples with effortless, crisp, linen summer button-downs and a nanny in tow with the two gorgeous well-behaved children. This was not what I saw. I saw 30-year-olds with backpacks and complete families with grandmothers in a wheelchair and many young children.
This observation continued at wineries. What struck me the most was the dress code. I know this isn’t the 60’s where you dressed up to go traveling, and we were in a heat wave, but even in Reims, where an average tasting can be 70€ and a bottle in the thousands, the standard was casual, very casual. Like pajama bottoms, gym shorts, flip flops, unbrushed hair, and ripped jeans casual.
Takeaway: The days of the winery controlling the “exclusivity” of a visit have passed. Customers now decide where they think they fit in and boldly go there. Visually, the current wealthy consumer is indistinguishable from a person on minimum wage. How would you determine who “belongs” even if you could? It would be best to assume anyone walking through your door is self-selected to be at your winery and a potential buyer. Your control exists with a straightforward website with your story and brand, where you list your offerings and are clear about your pricing. If you execute traffic-driving initiatives, ensure your income and geography target is correct so you don’t get someone looking for a Toyota strolling into a Range Rover dealer.
2. Napoleon’s hat is cool but not what I was looking for. My husband and I have seen vineyards and done our share of winery tours, but I was not going to miss the chance to tour the ancient and legendary cellars of the one-and-only Moët & Chandon. I have always been a Dom Pérignon fan, and as the parent company, Moët is the only place you can find it as a tourist. I was prepared to spare no expense for a high-end experience at this boutique and called ahead but was dismayed that they only had two options for visitors. I explained I was a Sommelier from Napa and that I was interested in the higher echelon wines I couldn’t easily find in the US, but there was no flexibility with options. Hoping for the best, I purchased the more expensive of the two tour/tastings.
Épernay is very similar to Napa. Small and hyper-focused on luxury winery tourism and visited by many tourists with various ranges of knowledge and spending power. Moët & Chandon didn’t disappoint with a grand entrance and seating area displaying several historical artifacts, including Napoleon Bonaparte’s hat.
But that was as interesting as it got. For the next 75 minutes, we were led through an introductory tour of the champenoise method-not, even very much history or specific information about Moët. It was the same script someone from Schramsberg could have used. A woman from Oregon wanted to ask questions, but at each juncture, she apologized and seemed embarrassed that she was interrupting the tour guide’s script with wanting to know more.
At the completion, we were rewarded with two glasses of vintage champagne (the base level tour offered a single tasting of the current NV Brut as the only deviation). In the garden with our group, I listened to our group chatter as an Australian wine collector boasted about his cellar full of Penfolds Grange to a mother from the Netherlands with her son, who was celebrating his birthday (he had just turned 18). Then we were all ushered through the gift shop before exiting.
Takeaway: What a tragic missed opportunity! With some foresight and flexibility, the Grange buyer and ourselves could have easily been delighted with an abbreviated tour and tasting of their high-end offerings. I’m sure we would have purchased 3x as much in half the time. Then the woman with the questions and the mother and son would have been within a smaller group of people who all could have learned about dosage or riddling while feeling more comfortable and heard.
Never underestimate the power of customized experiences or knowing your audience to maximize sales opportunities.
3. A little Nerd goes a long way. The tools and technology used were as varied as the regions we visited. Alsace had some of the most professional “Hollywood” style use of video, ingeniously using the barrels and the cellar walls as the video screen for various camera angles. Mercier in Épernay has a full-size laser-guided train that tours their cellars and a video that interacts with its elevator. Dr. Loosen, in Germany, chose low-tech but equally effective blown-up laminated images of the vineyards and soils to accompany and explain their elaborate and complex Riesling tasting.
We belong to the Domaine Serene Wine Club in Oregon, and their sister winery is Château de la Crée in Santenay, Burgundy. I appreciated they were sufficiently connected worldwide to have my Wine Club information (even though I noticed la Crée wasn’t on WineDirect as Serene is). The customer service was seamless; they knew what wines we’d purchased and our entire history. But with language barriers, I respected that they also asked us to fill out a customer form to confirm they had information in their system correctly, and nothing needed updating.
A not-so-great but funny example of a technology miss is that thanks to COVID-19, most cafes and some European restaurants have removed menus entirely in favor of QR code stickers on the tables. This reduces waste and time, lowers germs, and is easier to update, so it seems like a great idea all the way around. That is until your phone runs out of juice (which happened), or your sticker is ripped or faded (which happened), and you’re left awkwardly sneaking to another table or flagging down an annoyed waiter to find a menu.
Takeaway: We can use technology to enhance or confuse our customers. It can improve creativity, help communicate a message, make the visit memorable, reduce waste and germs, and help your customer and employee experience. Just ensure you know why you’re using it and employ it with intent and purpose.
Also, always have a low-tech backup for when tech fails or you need to communicate with a neophyte.
C’est La Vie!
It’s been several years since I’ve been to another wine region to compare “cellar door” marketing and programs and I can say Europe has come a long way toward our new world DTC practices here in the US. I am encouraged that as younger consumers become more educated, affluent, and demanding, the pace of evolution will continue to increase. There will likely be additional channels and tools that we are just beginning to explore in another few years.
Susan DeMatei is the founder of WineGlass Marketing, a full-service direct marketing firm working within the wine industry in Napa, California. Now in its 10th year, the agency offers domestic and international clients assistance with strategy and execution. WineGlass Marketing is located in Napa, California at 707-927-3334 or wineglassmarketing.com