Raising the Bar: Truth in Wine Marketing

“It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief—of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it.” ~Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game

Honesty is not only the best policy, it’s a proven business tool. Skillfully wielded, truthful brand communication forges trust that keeps customers coming back for more. Mishandled, that same tool can cause irreversible damage. So how can wineries refine their stories to be more truthful?

Scandal recently broke around Mast Brothers, which touted itself as pioneers of small-batch, “bean to bar” chocolate. Customers shelled out $10 per bar on the false premise that they were buying a handmade product. In fact, the Brooklyn-based company had cast many of its chocolate bars from melted Valrhona.

Volkswagen, meanwhile, drew hordes of fans based largely on its promise of efficient engine performance. Yet in 2015, the EPA found Volkswagen intentionally cheating on emissions tests. “We have totally screwed up,” admitted Michael Horn, chief executive. No confession from an executive could temper the devastating financial consequences, not to mention the loss of consumer trust.

Is there a Mast Brothers or a Volkswagen of the wine world? We can’t say. We can say that consumers and industry members alike are paying attention, and are ready to hold companies accountable for their claims. Any winery message, then, must be consciously crafted with caution—and, of course, with truth.

What is the truth, anyway?

Transparency_New_GreenTo begin, let’s acknowledge that there is such a thing as being too honest. Whether as people or as companies, we select the most relevant details of any story to share with others. This article advocating for transparency, published by Poynter Institute, reminds us, “Only a fool would suggest that inner workings of any organization would ever be fully transparent. Yet, it’s heartening to see people being driven toward openness.”

What does it mean to tell the truth? The full truth entails more than simply avoiding lies:

Transparency: clearly communicating product and process.

Authenticity: delivering on promises.

Wineries have ample opportunity to be both transparent and authentic. A simple and powerful way to refine the truth of a brand’s story is simply by examining word choice—in print, online, and in speech.

Which words in particular deserve a closer look?

The “Winemaker” Interpreted

Unlikely as it may seem that a word as fundamental as “winemaker” could be fraught with confusion, somehow, it is. The winemaker is integral to any winery’s story, so making this term ring true could be considered a top priority.

At many wineries, the winemaker is exactly who you’d expect them to be—that person toiling away in the cellar with purple-stained hands, who may later pour you a glass with authority and enthusiasm. At other wineries, the “winemaker” is a more of a figurehead position, someone who writes checks and buys fruit, but never touches a barrel. This person claims the title of winemaker because, well, it’s their winery. (This might include celebrity winemakers.) Meanwhile, a quietly dedicated team member or consultant makes the wine without being publicly credited.

Does a title matter? If you want a straight story, then it probably does. The point here is not to place value judgment on any particular model—it is to be clear with the audience. When customers walk into a winery and ask who crafted the beverage they’re sipping, they deserve to know. (Chances are, it is not Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie.)

While industry insiders know the title “winemaker” means different things in different companies, consumers are not savvy to this reality. Perhaps wineries owe their audience a clearer understanding of who controls their winemaking process. Increasing transparency can surely only make the company’s story more compelling.

Fruit Source

Great wine starts in the vineyard, it’s commonly claimed. Sure, but where is the vineyard, and how is it tended, and does the winemaker ever really spend any time there? When we talk about a fruit source, it’s vital that we speak transparently and authentically.

Let’s look at the term “Estate.” According to the TTB, wine that is “Estate-Bottled” must be 100 percent produced on property owned by the winery. Increasingly, though, wineries lease property that allows them to use the term “Estate-Bottled” without having significant connection to the land (or even having visited the property). In his book New California Wine, Jon Bonne devoted an entire chapter to “The Myth of the Estate.”

For those wineries that are site-based and fully dedicated to their estate property, the decimation of this term is disheartening. Peay Vineyards, which makes their home on the remote Sonoma Coast, recently penned an essay on the matter. Andy Peay writes:

There must be something about living on the vineyard throughout the year, daily walking the vineyard at all stages of growth, and making wine from the same vineyard across many varying vintages, that enables the estate winemaker to best capture the ineffable, yet distinct, voice of the vineyard. I think it has something to do with the estate winemaker’s slow accretion of knowledge about the unique quality of grapes grown at their site.

Also relevant to the fruit source is the equally tossed-around term “terroir.” Critics may eschew it for having little basis, while vintners like Peay and other leagues of passionate oenophiles defend it. Andy Peay continues,

Despite an inability to scientifically explain why a wine tastes the way it does based on its terroir… we all know terroir exists from our empirical experience. 

Whatever your stance on these particular words, it’s true that, by using them vaguely, we undermine their value. By using them responsibly, we honor their intended meaning, as well as our colleagues who uphold their true spirit.

 

The Dirty Work of Greenwashing

In the wine business, the opportunities for greenwashing—over-hyping a product’s environmental friendliness—is immense. From the vineyard to the cellar to the bottle and label, innumerable opportunities exist for a winery to either negatively or positively impact the environment. Some of these can be framed in a favorable way, when it comes time to market the wines.

Three commonly used (and abused) terms in winemaking are:

  • Biodynamic
  • Sustainable
  • Organic

A company using these terms can do so somewhat freely, with little oversight. Yet to earn the coveted “Certified Sustainable” or “Certified Organic” stamp of approval, issued only by accredited organizations, requires greater effort.

In Sonoma County, California, this is a hot topic on vintners’ minds. Sonoma County Winegrowers and Sonoma County Winegrape Commission have partnered to create a three-phase program that will make Sonoma County the nation’s first 100 percent sustainable wine region. On the organization’s website, they have vowed to protect against false environmental claims:

To ensure against “greenwashing,” third-party verification and certification programs will be used such as the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance’s Code of Sustainability that involves 15 chapters and over 200 best practice assessments for growers and wineries, focused on environmental, social and economic viability and continuous improvement with verification by a third-party certifier.

Another critically-important factor to this initiative is transparency, which will be accomplished through regular progress updates, an annual Sonoma County Wine Region Sustainability Report Card and a vineyard and winery real-time tracker on the SCW website.

At least in Sonoma County, “sustainability” will soon be a difficult word to abuse. And no matter where a company is based, its claims of sustainable, biodynamic, or organic (certified or not) wine must be well documented.

Labeling

A wine label is packed with information, some TTB-required and some added for flourish. When care is taken, both categories of information can be authentic, transparent, and (yes!) fully true.

Many words commonly used on wine labels (such as those below) lack a legal basis, which obfuscates their meaning.

  • Old Clone
  • Old Vine
  • Barrel Select
  • Heritage
  • Bottle-Aged
  • Select Harvest
  • Proprietor’s Blend
  • Balance

What is the purpose of such verbiage? Marketers might do well to choose carefully. If the intent is to create a sense that the wine is distinctive, there may be another, more concise way to do so. After all, while there is no implicit lie in these words, there is no real truth, either.

Who regulates truth in marketing?

As any industry insider knows, the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) is the main regulatory organization for the wine industry. The organization does provide a good deal of scrutiny to every wine label printed for commercial purposes. Additionally, the Federal Trade Commission can and does provide some checks and balances to advertising. Other specific organizations, such as those mentioned in the “greenwashing” section of this article, are also working to provide oversight and regulation. Who else is responsible?

  • Wineries (redux):
    • Manage customer perceptions with careful attention to some of the key verbiage outlined above.
    • Within the winery, communication is important, too. Use a company mission to get employees on the same page, so that the product produced is in sync with the product marketed.
    • Tailor product experiences (i.e. tours, tastings) so that customers can decide for themselves what they are drinking. They are the ultimate arbiter of “authentic.”
  • Reviewers & Retailers: 
    • Do your homework on brands before celebrating, placing, or promoting them.
  • Consumers: 
    • Know that wine, while inherently romantic, is business. You are being sold on a product, and it’s up to you to think critically about its contents.
    • Ask questions. Drink in the experience. Enjoy.

About the Author

Amy Bess Cook (https://amybesscook.com) has been a working writer for 16 years. For half that time, she managed a boutique winery in Sonoma. With a zeal for creative entrepreneurship and a passion for the vine, Amy Bess now works as a writer and brand consultant within the wine industry. Check out her harvest journal and winemaking project here: https://www.sirseethegift.com/.

Comments

  1. We are a long way from truth in wine marketing. In most states there is no legal meaning to the term “winery”. That means that in many states a national retailer could call themselves “ABC Market and Winery” and there’s not a thing that a real winery who actually grows grapes and makes wine could do about it.

  2. Excellent post, Amy. I have clients who stretch the “estate” story to its legal limits and cannot lay claim to Andy Peay’s “slow accretion of knowledge.” I won’t even touch on the other topics.

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