Pairing Wines with Tasty Stories

Photo courtesy of sfgate.com

Photo courtesy of sfgate.com

My wife and I just spent a few days in the Sonoma Valley with two other couples. Our group agenda for the trip consisted of wine tastings, great meals, sleep...and nothing else. This was supposed to be straight up relaxation, but as we visited the various wineries (we visited eight all together), I couldn't stop myself from analyzing the way they each marketed their brands and products. Wine is a great product to illustrate the importance of story and experience. It has a long history steeped in tradition. There are all kinds of different wines sold under a plethora of labels. Prices range from cheap to reasonable to ridiculous.

But when it all comes down to it, it's just grape juice.

Granted, grape juice fermented from some amazing grapes, lovingly nurtured and harvested from some of the best vines growing in some of the best regions of the world. But still, just grape juice. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not really a wine guy. I have an appreciation for them, and I understand the differences between the different varieties. But can I pick out all of the infinite subtleties of the most complex wines? Not really. So I can tell you that for me, and for most consumers, story and experience are oftentimes more influential than the product itself, no matter how good it is.

That point was hammered home twice on this trip to California. Out of the eight wineries we toured, we had some great experiences, and some exceptionally bad experiences. In every case, the story was what made things awesome or horrible. Let me give you some examples.

Inglenook - A Tale of Two Visionaries

The Inglenook Chateau. Photo courtesy of sfgate.com

The Inglenook Chateau. Photo courtesy of sfgate.com

On the third day of our trip, we ventured over the mountains into the Napa Valley and stopped at the fabled Inglenook Winery. You can learn more about its history here, but the short version is Gustave Niebaum, a retired sea captain, founded Inglenook way back in 1880 to establish a winery in California that would rival Europe's best. Over time, the estate was divided. But in 1975, famed director Francis Ford Copolla began what would become a twenty-year battle to purchase all of the original Inglenook properties, restoring the estate to its original glory.

 

Francis Ford Copolla in the wine cave at Inglenook. Photo courtesy of sfgate.com

Francis Ford Copolla in the wine cave at Inglenook. Photo courtesy of sfgate.com

This place is dripping with history, and as soon as you hit the property there are historical markers all over that explain the significance of artifacts and buildings. When you enter the main chateau, which is a massive stone structure, you're immediately greeted with an entire museum that brings the Inglenook story to life. It walks you through the creation and restoration of the property, and Niebaum and Copolla's personal stories, tracking their parallel paths through life until they intersect at Inglenook. Seriously cool stuff.

I could go on and on, but the point is that the story hooked our whole group. The experience of walking around the property, seeing wine bottles that date back to the 1880's, it all backed up the authenticity of the place. We bought single glasses of wine that cost as much as entire tastings at other wineries. We had cigars and espresso in the courtyard. We spent about three hours at this joint just taking it all in. On top of it, I feel like I need to watch The Godfather trilogy. I try to get out, but Inglenook keeps pulling me back in! Sorry, I couldn't resist.

The Anti-Inglenook - The Bitter Aftertaste of Disappointment

The second winery that we visited on our first day in Sonoma should've been fantastic. I'm not going to mention its name, because that would be needlessly tacky. The winery sits atop a beautiful hill in the Sonoma Valley, with an awesome view of the surrounding landscape. We arrived just after lunch, and we were totally jazzed up by the great weather and the view. This was gonna be good!

Well, it was actually terrible. Why? Was it the wines? Nope, they were quite good actually. The real problem was the experience. The woman conducting the tasting for us was more interested in talking with her coworkers than giving us a reason to connect with this brand. She kept filling our glasses, and she made sure to tell us that we were going to taste hints of raspberries, or vanilla, or maybe a titch of almonds on our mid-palette. Actually, she mumbled that stuff in between telling Denise that she was totally hungry and gazing off blankly into the distance.

She gave us nothing to engage with, no history or interesting facts. There was no story other than the one we created for ourselves. It's a tragedy called "We're not gonna buy anything from this place." The musical will be out next spring. The point is, you need to give your customers something to care about, and it needs to connect at an emotional level. It's going to happen one way or another, and the worst case scenario is that your customers focus on how crappy their experience was because you didn't give them anything else to connect with.

The Deerfield Ranch Winery property, with the tasting cave on the far right. Photo courtesy of Deerfield Ranch Winery

The Deerfield Ranch Winery property, with the tasting cave on the far right. Photo courtesy of Deerfield Ranch Winery

I won't belabor the point, I know you're getting my drift. But allow me to give a couple quick shout outs to two other wineries that gave us a great experience during our time in California. Deerfield Ranch Winery started day two off right. We spent a couple of hours with Ben, our guide for the morning, learning about the winery's history and their mad fermenting skills. He was a riot, and he made us all smile and laugh...and buy a lot of wine. There's something about tasting some really unique, all-organic wines in a cave under a mountain that makes you want to relive that experience while you enjoy a bottle at home.

Chris Loxton of Loxton Cellars. Photo courtesy of Kick Ranch

Chris Loxton of Loxton Cellars. Photo courtesy of Kick Ranch

Lastly, there’s Loxton Cellars. Loxton’s a small operation. It’s just Chris, the owner, and two full-time employees. Chris took the time to host our tasting himself. He didn't coach us on what we should pick out when tasting the wines. Instead, he talked about where the grapes come from, and how he crafts each particular variety of wine. It was really cool, and we all learned a ton of good information. And we bought a lot too. Again, the experience was authentic, unique, and he told a ton of stories about his background and how he got started making wine. Fantastic!

 

Don't Leave a Bad Aftertaste

 

So, there are some real-world examples of how story and authentic experiences really do translate to sales, or the lack thereof. Consider the impact of our group’s response to good and bad experiences, multiplied over and over again for the customers at each of these wineries. That starts to add up to real gains or losses pretty quickly.

Consider what customers experience when they interact with your brand. Are you an experience superstar? Do you tell your story, your WHY? Or are you leaving customers confused or disappointed? Do you give them an experience that they look forward to reliving often, or do you push them out the door? The answers to those questions will have a huge impact on your bottom line. I suggest pondering them over a nice cabernet, or perhaps a bold syrah.

Do you have any examples of really great brand stories or experiences? They don't have to be from a winery, although if you have some that would be useful for a future trip, I'll totally take them. Cheers!