Wineries use social media, telemarketing to connect with customers

In Wine Country, where vintners boast rich family histories and vineyards are described as steeped in tradition, it may not seem natural to scour Twitter posts to find new customers.

But some wineries are doing just that, including one that tweets wine-pairing suggestions to Twitter users who check in at restaurants where its wines are served, said Paul Mabray, chief strategy officer for VinTank, a Napa consulting firm.

The topic was one of many explored Wednesday at the first North Coast Wine Expo, a trade show and conference held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. The event, organized by Wine Industry Network, drew 2,000 attendees and 200 exhibitors, said George Christie, president and CEO.

"It was just amazing to me that there wasn't a really robust show in the North Coast," Christie said. "For me, that was a pretty clear message that this region wants to have a show like this."

At the marketing session, Mabray said VinTank is working on a "geofencing" app to enable wineries to send digital invitations to smartphone users as they enter regions like Napa Valley.

"Never before have we experienced the amount of competition that we have today," Mabray said. "In 2011, 150,000 labels were approved by the (federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). There's no other product like it."

Using social media can help wineries learn about customers and find additional ways to connect, Mabray said. For example, one winery found that a customer who spent about $20,000 on its wines talked a lot about his favorite football quarterback, Mabray said. Instead of sending the loyal customer stemware, which he likely didn't need, the winery spent $200 on a signed jersey from the player.

"I can tell you that guy bought a lot more wine after that," Mabray said.

Even so, there's no substitute for picking up the phone to connect with customers, especially for wines priced at more than $35, said Michael Houlihan, founder of Barefoot Cellars, which is now owned by E&J Gallo. Houlihan sees the telephone as an extension of the tasting room.

"A telephone number is more valuable than an email address," Houlihan said. "Telemarketing is the fastest-growing segment of direct-to-consumer today."

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