La Crema uses crowdsourcing to make wine, engage consumers

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It’s tough for wineries to break through in the crowded social media marketplace. It’s easy to zone out amid the mix of ubiquitous shots of the perfect wine-and-food pairings — dubbed “food porn” by some admirers — funny cartoons, and yes, even cute animals.

Then there are the multitude of platforms. The activity is spread across a myriad of choices, including Twitter, where the #winewednesday hashtag will trigger a flurry of posts, to beautiful vineyard shots on Instagram to the chorus of voices weighing in on the latest Facebook post.

While vintners appreciate the likes, shares, and retweets, what they are especially looking for is consumer engagement to help develop brand loyalty and increase sales — a tough code to crack despite the millions of dollars spent trying.

But Jackson Family Wines’ La Crema brand has recently achieved success by taking an unconventional route in its latest effort: allowing customers to participate in making their own special brand of wine.

The Windsor-based winery’s “Virtual Vintner” program takes customers through the winemaking process by allowing them to vote through crowdsourcing on such decisions as the varietal, the appellation, the vineyard, barrel type, name and design, resulting in a special bottling of 500 cases to be released in late fall 2015. Participants will have a chance to purchase the wine when it is released.

Since it launched in August, the interactive website has led participants through their important decisions with sharp pictures and graphics, easy-to-understand text and short videos featuring Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, La Crema’s director of winemaking, explaining the process in ways that are understandable even to someone who doesn’t know the difference between pinot noir and pinot gris.

The metrics have far exceeded expectations. The winery had expected 10,000 participants, but it has resulted in 22,485 registered users so far. Those visitors have logged 43,000 votes and quiz participations and 38,000 likes, shares and retweets and other engagements through social media sites.

‘Entertains and educates’

“Wine is such a social product. You want to have that innate ability to entertain, but also educate people about wine. Again, that’s what Virtual Vintner does. It entertains and educates,” said Caroline Shaw, executive vice president who oversees marketing and communications at Jackson Family Wines.

One promising measure is the average length of time spent at the site, 2 minutes and 30 seconds, which shows significant engagement beyond voting; visitors want to know more about the product and how it’s made.

“We want to make it really interesting for folks who were just starting to delve into the subject, but also still have enough juicy details for folks who perhaps wanted to make a little wine on their own,” said Grant-Douglas, who joined La Crema as an enologist in 2001 and was promoted to her current position last year.

Other analysts and winemakers have also noted that Virtual Vintner has struck a chord by allowing consumers to feel part of the winemaking process.

“The fact that it stretches out over the length of a winemaking year, explaining each step in the process along the way, is a clever way to subtly educate users. The various naming contests keep it fun and competitive,” said Liz Thach, a professor of wine business and management at Sonoma State University, in an email.

The ultimate goal of social media engagement is to build loyalty and increase sales. In one recent case study at the Wine Industry Financial Symposium, Constellation Brands’ Arbor Mist line invested $200,000 in Facebook advertising that allowed it to gain 421,000 new fans. Those fans were more likely to purchase Arbor Mist, and accounted for $1.3 million in increased sales, a sixfold return on the investment.

A customer’s experience

But the pitch can’t be blatant. The main lesson vintners must realize is that storytelling should not be focused solely around their brand, but rather the customer’s experience, said Mia Malm, who owns her own communications company and works with the Wine Institute in its social media engagement in the United States and more than a dozen foreign countries.

“It’s really about bringing their audience on a journey with the consumer,” Malm said. “It’s not you being the hero of the story. … You want to have the audience be on the journey with you.”

The outreach applies across the board, no matter the size. Malm offered up two small wineries that also are succeeding in the social media realm: Lagier Meredith Vineyard in Napa and Twisted Oak Winery in Calaveras County.

Lagier Meredith regularly post snippets of daily winemaking life, from nice sunsets over its Mount Veeder vineyard to videos of zinfandel grapes being crushed. Twisted Oak has a more wild sense of humor with a running rubber-chicken gag, encouraging customers to take the prop on their vacation, shoot photos and share them on the winery’s Facebook page.

The industry is taking notice. Santa Rosa’s Vintage Wine Estates earlier this year bought Canopy Management Wine Co., including its popular Middle Sister wine, an affordable brand targeted to millennial women. Middle Sister was helped in the marketplace by its aggressive social media use, such as its Wine Sisterhood website and its character “Rebel Red.” The website’s feel is much more InStyle magazine rather than electronic retailer wine.com.

“It’s the most un-wine looking page you will come across,” said Mary Ann Vangrin, who developed the Middle Sister campaign and is now director of social media and communications at Vintage Wine Estates. “We wanted to create a community of women who are interested in wine and get them to join, engage and comment and share … without worrying about their level of wine knowledge.”

Vangrin now is examining all the other brands in the company’s portfolio, such as ultra-premium wines from Cosentino Winery, and tailoring each to its own specific demographic. “We’re really excited about what we can do,” she said. “We have some really great properties here.”

Natural fit for La Crema

La Crema was a natural fit for the Virtual Vintner program, Shaw said, because of its engaged, socially active consumer base that skews female. The winery describes its target audience as “stylish, modern, trendsetting women” ages 28 to 34. They live in urban centers with household incomes of more than $100,000 annually.

“La Crema has more social engagement than any other premium wine brand in the nation,” Shaw said.

It is also one of the 25 largest wineries in California, and its chardonnay is a top seller at Costco. During the first eight months of 2014, it shipped nearly 600,000 cases of wine, down 3 percent from last year, according to the Gomberg-Fredrikson Report, an industry newsletter.

But allowing such participation carries risk, especially as there was no guarantee the weather would cooperate for this year’s North Coast harvest, which turned out to be excellent, according to many vintners. In addition, similar efforts in the food and drink realm have bordered on the gimmicky, especially in the case of Doritos and Lay’s potato chips flavor contests, with winners such as spicy street taco and wasabi ginger.

But the effort got the blessing of Barbara Banke, Jackson Family Wines’ chairman and proprietor, and the social media and winemaking team got to work. “We’re always looking to innovate,” Shaw said.

Surprises with the program

The program also has given the winery a real-time focus group on a large scale and has produced some surprises. The first choice was between choosing a pinot noir and a chardonnay.

Grant-Douglas said she thought that participants would ultimately choose chardonnay, which is the most popular wine in the United States. But pinot noir won with 51 percent of the vote.

“I thought it might lean a little bit toward the chardonnay. It also indicates the level of interest of folks who are leaning toward pinot. They can be very, very engaged. Some of the most fervent fans out there are pinot fans,” she said.

Voters also chose the Russian River Valley appellation, the company’s Laughlin vineyard, which viewers were informed carried an elegant taste of “pretty red fruit like raspberries and sweet spice.” Participants also chose wild yeast for fermentation, “subtle impression” for the toast style of the oak barrel, and for it to be aged nine months. The program is currently soliciting names for the wine, with finalists to be named on Dec. 1. The voting will finish with a label design.

La Crema decided that some decisions would have to be left to Grant-Douglas, who found her love of wine while growing up in Niagara Falls, Canada, where her father made wine from a backyard vineyard. She worked for several wineries in Canada and Washington, giving her considerable experience in grape growing and winemaking in cool regions.

That included the most crucial decision: calling the pick. While winemakers rely on acid and sugar level readings to decide when to harvest the grapes, it’s much more than numbers.

“It’s about tasting those berries. It’s something non-quantifiable. You can’t really make that an option unless I could haul them all into the vineyard, which I would love to do,” she said.

Shaw noted that Grant-Douglas has been key in the program’s success. Much of the video and text work was front-loaded prior to harvest and its long days for winemakers. “You would not necessarily want to videotape me on Oct. 1. I’m much less coherent,” Grant-Douglas joked.

“You couldn’t do it without a winemaker who wasn’t an open, out-of-the-box innovative thinker like Elizabeth,” Shaw said. “She has been such an integral part of it. She is virtually teaching people how to make wine.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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