To small brands in the wine business, David versus Goliath is an understatement. When a fledgling yet passionate wine startup is faced with long hours and no money, there aren’t many avenues an aspiring winemaker can explore, except to venture into the Wild, Wild West of social media. It’s here where there are few rules apart from authenticity, and flopping terribly is most definitely an option. But a few vintners have figured out this frontier’s formula—launching new careers and profitable outlooks using only social media, and plenty of sweat equity.
Hardy Wallace of Dirty and Rowdy Family Winery is a brave, eloquent man. When he spoke at a recent Nomacorc Marketing Exchange, the room was captivated not only by his passionate discourse, but his success in such a competitive industry. No stranger to social media, Wallace won the Murphy Goode “A Really Goode Job” contest in 2009, beating out over 2,000 contestants to win a six-month stint as a lifestyle correspondent and social media promoter for the Jackson Family Estates wine brand. In 2010, he started his own brand with three other partners and since then, has been featured in Forbes, New York Times and was a “40 under 40” featured in Wine Enthusiast Magazine. But he hasn’t let praise go to his head. He’s still quite humble and palpably obsessive about what he’s doing and where’s he’s going. Where he came from was 10 cases the first year and now, Wallace and his three partners produce 2,500 cases distributed around the globe.
And they grew their production and fan base organically. For free. Using only social media.
Dirty and Rowdy’s wine story is unique, which might explain why they’re successful in social media. They staked their claim in producing nine different Mourvedres, sourced from vineyards throughout California. Made with no additions and minimal sulfur dioxide, their wines also aren’t filtered or fined. They use concrete eggs and neutral barrels for aging. When launched, Dirty and Rowdy didn’t have money to spend on marketing, let alone a marketing plan. (Not like they even had the time.) When the brand started, Wallace and partners—Matt, Kate and Amy—had full time jobs, so they wanted to find the best bang for the buck. The source of this bang has shifted over the years. In the beginning, Twitter ruled for them, then Tumblr in 2013, and now, the ideal blend appears to be Instagram, Facebook and message boards.
Instagram, however, rules their world, reported Wallace. “Instagram has been an incredible tool for us. We’ve been using it since early 2011. 99% of our Instagram tractions and content comes from our personal accounts, versus our placeholder winery account… but most measurably, Instagram has had a huge influence on our international presence and even as a small winery, it helped us open markets and connect with importers from Singapore, Malaysia, Denmark, UK, Australia, etc. Beyond just getting there, it connected us to the right partners. It is 10 times more effective for us than any of the other platforms.”
For Facebook, it’s more challenging to have meaningful conversations due to the constantly changing (and annoying) algorithms. Wallace and his partners gain success by posting both to their personal pages as well as their business page, trying to weigh how much business should infiltrate their personal pages. Wallace does confess that the impact of Facebook is “a fraction of what we see on Instagram.”
At about the same time that Dirty and Rowdy was established, over in the Russian River Valley, Two Shepherds Winery, a one-man “micro winery,” was founded by former wine blogger William Allen. Beginning in 2010, he used social media and restaurant placements almost exclusively to launch and promote his cool-climate, Rhône variety wines. His marketing outreach centered on Facebook and Twitter and he leveraged his blog following to lead them on his wine adventures. Along the way, he garnered glowing press, from San Francisco Chronicle to Wine & Spirits Magazine. While working a demanding day job, he produced 175 cases in his first vintage and now makes and sells out over 1,000 cases. Although he toils at some of the wine event pouring circuits, social media is still his bread and butter to spread the word, “But it’s all Instagram now.”
Former wine blogger Ed Thralls of Thralls Family Cellars also went down the Murphy Goode contest path, catching the wine bug and moving to California to follow his wine business dream. Concentrating on Russian River Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Thralls began making wine in 2011 and, already quite adept at using social media, he faced the same financial obstacles as his micro winery compatriots—there was never enough money. He initially focused his attention on Twitter, but then, over time, Instagram has taken the lead, following the 30-second rule because he says, “That’s about all the time you have and all people can handle… lots of photos and visuals.” He also emphasized the growing importance of Delectable, but not just for promoting his own wines. “You can’t talk about yourself all the time. By mentioning other producers, it shows my followers who influenced me and how I make wine.”
The thread that ties all these vintners together (they’ve all become friends since moving to California) was their passion-fueled blogs, teaching them to use social media to expand their influence. None of these men proclaim a social media “plan” and haven’t from the beginning. As Wallace stated, “We genuinely enjoy the tools that we use and engage and share plenty of non-winery specific content. We want to be productive members of these communities. If we have any plan, it is always to listen more than we speak.” Sounds like the secret sauce to fling at Goliath.
Author’s note: I was also a contestant in the Murphy Goode contest and moved to California shortly after making it to the top 50 in the contest.