Beyond California, Wine Marketers Need to Think Local and Work Together

The Golden State dominates the U.S. wine sector, making it tricky for lesser-known regional products to gain traction

By Ethan Jakob Craft | Ad Age | March 11, 2021

For the many U.S. consumers who aren’t armchair sommeliers, their first and often only thought of the expansive American wine industry is associated with California’s world-renowned Napa Valley.

For a place with name recognition on par with Bordeaux, Tuscany and Rioja, it might come as a surprise to some that Napa’s contribution to the industry is marginal—it produces just 4% of all Californian wine each year, and its total cultivated area of 17,891 hectares is barely larger than Staten Island. Nonetheless, the region has become synonymous with the best of domestic wine and remains top of mind for many American wine drinkers.

In a sector where geographic pedigree is prized, California’s terroir—a French word that describes how the characteristics of an area affect a crop’s growth—is often perceived as superior, which can be difficult to overcome for marketers tasked with selling wine from the other 49 states. But for the country’s independent wineries, even those located within California, the road to competing with corporate heavy-hitters like Constellation Brands and E. & J. Gallo can be rife with obstacles.

“Frankly, the margins just aren’t there,” Mike Wangbickler, president of Napa-based beverage marketing firm Balzac Communications, says of smaller wine producers’ equally small ad budgets. Wine marketing in the U.S. is a numbers game, he says, and the numbers often mean creative messaging is forced to take a backseat to more pressing costs, such as production and crop maintenance.

Putting dollars into digital advertising and organic content marketing—particularly now, given the pandemic-induced closure of many tasting rooms—“are areas where wineries can make a pretty small investment but have a big return,” Wangbickler says, citing Gallo-owned Barefoot Wine’s successful foray into social marketing. But its scale is an exception; if deciding to go the digital media route, mom-and-pop wineries must first think small, targeting consumers near their vineyards and in the region where their vintages are sold. “Local people should support local wines,” he says.

The bottom line for most non-corporate American vineyards: “To produce a bottle of wine is much more expensive than to produce a bottle of beer or a bottle of spirits,” which has contributed to making it “nigh-on-impossible” to find a regional winery’s product across state lines or even beyond an in-house shop, says Wangbickler, who is also the current president of the American Wine Society.

West Coast, best coast?

It’s common knowledge that the Golden State is the epicenter of American grape production. It contains four-fifths of all farmland dedicated to the fruit in the U.S. and outpaces every other state’s annual wine output combined, producing nearly 700 million gallons of the stuff each year—equivalent to about 85% of the national total—according to the National Association of American Wineries.

Following California, state-by-state production statistics drop off dramatically: Washington ranks No. 2 with a comparatively paltry 35.7 million gallons of wine produced annually, followed by New York in third place with 28.5 million gallons and Oregon a distant fourth at 10.9 million gallons. No other states come close.

However, oenophiles will recognize that some niche players have been gaining traction in the U.S. over the past decade or so. Former dark horses like Texas, Michigan and Virginia are now steadily increasing their shares of national production and upping their vintages to award-winning quality, carving out positions as three of the country’s top 10 wine-producing states in the process.

“People know Texas for beer and spirits,” says Shon Rathbone, founder of Dallas-based creative agency 3Headed Monster. But sifting through the state’s thriving craft beer scene and wealth of locally distilled spirits, “there’s an untold story about how good Texas wine is”—one that his award-winning small agency is working on telling, he says.

Recently tapped by the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association to create its first large-scale marketing push, 3Headed Monster seemed to have its work cut out for it. When developing a creative strategy, Rathbone says he encountered high levels of consumer skepticism and “lots of folks thinking it wouldn’t stand up to wines from other regions.”

But two realities helped shape the agency’s plan: the fact that some of Texas’ best wineries have won top-tier competitions, and the fact that Texans have a deep love for their state.

Embracing the classic “everything’s bigger in Texas” mantra, 3Headed Monster sought to juxtapose the wine industry’s well-mannered couth with the state’s independent bravado—scoffing at the need to import wine from “foreign countries like California,” for instance. “Modesty doesn’t play well here in Texas, so our goal is to tell a quality story with a whole lot of Texas pride and a real Texas voice,” Rathbone adds, noting that the crux of the campaign is summed up in its tagline: “Texas bold.”

Rolling out this week with social, print, online video and out-of-home media elements, the campaign is only running within the Lone Star State for now to cultivate consumer awareness and grow demand from restaurants and retailers, but the association hasen’t ruled out the possibility of advertising beyond Texas’ borders in the future. The campaign is slated to run through December 2021, while Texas Wines’ new branding and logo, which were also handled by 3Headed Monster as part of its assignment, will stick around indefinitely.

Striking pay dirt

To the uninitiated, Texas might not seem like a prime grape-growing environment, but it actually contains all or part of eight American Viticultural Areas within its borders. Often abridged to AVAs, the term describes a roster of federally designated wine grape-growing regions in the U.S. that range from the size of a small family farm to the land areas of Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Currently, there are 252 individual AVAs across the country; California claims more than half of them.

Such appellations are not confined to the West Coast, though, and some have been established in the unexpected climes of Arizona, Iowa, Mississippi and Georgia. In fact, the country’s centuries-old commercial wine industry isn’t even rooted in California, but instead traces its lineage back to bourbon-centric Kentucky, when French immigrant John James Dufour established a modest vineyard there in 1799.

“I generally find that [consumer] expectations are pretty low,” says Pete Snell, who co-founded the Arizona Wine Collective with his wife Jeanne three years ago. But aside from the occasional “wine snob” who’ll turn around and walk out of Snell’s tasting room, most customers come to appreciate the unique varietals that the AWC has on offer. “And they leave with bottles” in a testament to the products’ quality, he says.

Snell does what he can to support Arizona’s wine business, purchasing product directly from vineyards and keeping mark-ups low to encourage purchases, though he says that he’d “like to see a little more cohesion” in the state’s wine industry. (The Arizona Wine Collective functions as a tasting room and vendor of local vintages, and is not affiliated with the statewide Arizona Wine Growers Association—an advocacy group akin to Texas Wines that most wine-producing states have their own version of.)

His advice for independent wineries seeking to market themselves is succinct: “Work together,” citing California’s Sonoma Valley as a successful case study with well-established wine trails and regional vineyards all recommending each other to visitors. While Snell notes that such cohesion is largely absent in Arizona, the strategy has proved successful for other states’ wine industries that have advertised as a unified body, rather than competing as individuals with limited resources. “It’s a trite thing,” he says, “but high tides float all ships.”

As early as 2006, the Ohio Grape Industries Committee began ramping up its TV ad spend to entice in-state consumers to buy local wine, while the Kentucky Wine and Grape Council helped fund an award-winning documentary to raise awareness about the state’s vintages in 2010. And just last September, the New Mexico Wine & Grape Growers Association put on Grape Aid 2020: a virtual and drive-in concert featuring singer Elle King and discounted cases of wine to support the industry in the Land of Enchantment.

Pure Michigan, the tourism arm of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., broadly spotlighted the state’s wine scene as part of a $7.7 million national ad campaign just before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S. That investment came as a welcome respite for local vintners, who formerly had enjoyed heavy promotion from the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council up until 2018, when the group was reconfigured to become the Michigan Craft Beverage Council and shifted its focus to craft beers, ciders and spirits, Crain’s Detroit Business reports.

To advertise its flourishing industry, Oregon took a less-traditional route, green-lighting the creation of special issue “Wine Country” license plates that contribute a portion of their annual registration fees to tourism agency Travel Oregon and to the development of the state’s culinary scene. First made available to the public in 2012, the colorful plates have since sold tens of thousands of pairs, funding a generous grant-matching scheme that awards different applicants each year.

Last year alone, the “Wine Country” plate program drummed up $243,000 in matching grants for initiatives such as overhauling the Oregon Wine Board’s brand identity, creating a new consumer-facing event in the town of Eugene hosted by the Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association, and continuing Rouge Valley Vintners’ development of a cross-platform marketing strategy with Portland-based consultancy Lookout.

Marketing to the masses

Americans are largely an unpretentious bunch when it comes to wine, with 85% of current wine consumers saying price point is at least somewhat important in their purchasing decision, a Harris Poll survey recently commissioned by Ad Age reveals. More high-brow considerations such as a brand’s varietals and vintage years tend to fall by the wayside in 2021, cited as less influential than price, by four and 29 percentage points respectively.

That paradigm shift is reflected in changes to wine advertising, too. “Traditionally, wine marketing has been very conservative. It’s been about the lifestyle and the prestige of drinking wine,” says Wangbickler, who for the past 18 months has hosted the beverage industry-focused “Hit the Bottle” podcast.

With fewer Americans’ pinkies in the air, creatives have begun to ditch crystal goblets and ultra-expensive overtones in their wine ads “because frankly it doesn’t connect with a broad audience,” he says. Many consumers are less finicky about the cachet of their vintages than they were two decades ago, and wine brands such as Babe Wine and Snoop Dogg’s 19 Crimes have positioned their brands as cool rather than black-tie classy. “It’s not about luxury anymore. It’s about a beverage to enjoy with a meal,” he adds.

The Harris Poll’s survey also suggests that while California ranks No. 1 in wine consumers’ psyches, Americans are receptive to experimenting with unknown brands and secondary wine-producing regions.

The data inevitably skews toward tradition for some demographics; high-income earners, residents of the Northeastern U.S. and consumers aged 35-44 all say place of origin has an outsized impact in their wine buying. But, across the board, more than four-in-five respondents report they’re at least somewhat willing to try a product that is not from one of the “big three” wine-producing states: California, Washington and New York.

With widespread openness to trying out-of-state wine, the final hurdle for wineries appears to be getting their products on store shelves—something that’s out of the question for many mom-and-pop vintners with high overheads. On the West Coast, where Wangbickler and the bulk of the U.S. wine industry is based, other states’ products are often viewed as “novelties” and only sought out by the most hardcore oenophiles. “To most people in California, they probably don’t even register,” he says.

The situation isn’t hopeless, and strategies like making piecemeal investments in lower-cost advertising strategies; trying to get featured in a local travel publication; pooling resources with nearby vineyards; or collaborating with your state’s wine and grape-growers association, can all be effective marketing ploys, Wangbickler adds. But, in his estimation, the current American wine market is centered on California and that won’t change anytime soon.

“Unless California falls off into the ocean, I think their status as the leading producer of wine in the country is pretty safe.”

Read the full story at Ad Age.