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.