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Washington | Wine | PR Parked at the Intersection of Marketing, PR & Washington's Wine Industry

Chatter: W. Blake Gray on good & bad PR, and wineries can work best with out-of-market media

Posted in Interviews, Media Relations

All winemakers want to sell more wine. And in the case of Washington winemakers, most would like to sell more wine outside of Washington State.

Most Washington wine is sold within the Pacific Northwest and more than a third of it – 35 percent – is sold within Washington State, according to a report on the state’s wine industry this year by the Washington State Wine Commission. Washington wine is estimated to have only a 3 percent to 5 percent share of the overall U.S. wine market. Moreover, only 50 Washington wine brands are in national distribution, according to the report, because the state’s smaller producers “lack access to professional distribution in many regions.”

All this begs the question: How can Washington winemakers increase awareness and exposure for their brands in smart, cost-effective ways?

One obvious answer: By influencing market influencers – reporters, editors and bloggers. But how, particularly when the influencer isn’t in your market? I put that question to W. Blake Gray, one of the most-read, widely followed wine bloggers in the world.

Blake writes The Gray Report, which earlier this year, it was named Best Wine Industry Blog at the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference. The blog has had more than 500,000 unique visitors and averages more than 25,000 unique visitors per month. His ratio of followers to following on Twitter is 50:1, one of the highest in the industry. A former print journalist based in San Francisco, he also writes for some of the leading food and wine publications in the U.S. and internationally.

Any winery, Washington or otherwise, would love to be on Blake’s radar. In this installment of Chatter on WaWinePR, Blake offers some pointed advice to wineries on how to get noticed by out-of-market writers, bloggers and other influencers.

washington wine, W. Blake Gray, vineyards, wine

W. Blake Gray, French vineyards, 2012

Washington Wine PR: What are three things that Washington wineries or wineries in general can do to build relationships with out-of-state writers?

W. Blake Gray: Sure. Here are three that come to mind immediately.

1. All good wine writing is based on trying the wines. So make that happen, either by sending samples or by inviting writers to small meetings in their areas. Most writers won’t come to big mass tastings and even if they do, they may have a different agenda, so don’t count on that.

2. Read their blogs and discuss things in the comments. Just saying, “Nice post,” isn’t what I’m talking about. Pay attention to someone and they will start paying attention to you.

3. Be a real person. Anybody can tell the difference between a form letter PR release and a short personal email. You can’t build a relationship with form letters.

WWPR: Are there things that drive you nuts when you’re approached by out-of-state wineries with product or story pitches?

WBG: My biggest complaint is that people will send big packets of info about a wine and not include the price. It’s the most important fact. Good PR firms put the price and contact info in a sticker on the bottle. I can’t always find the paperwork when I open the bottle. OK, honestly, I rarely ever find the paperwork when I open the bottle, which might be weeks after I receive it.

People pitch me the story they want written rather than a story I would write. It’s the rare PR person who does the latter.

As for story pitches, I think this will fall on deaf ears, but 99 percent of story pitches are worthless to me. People pitch me the story they want written rather than a story I would write. It’s the rare PR person who does the latter. Those are the ones that I pay attention to.

WWPR: Okay, here’s a hypothetical. I’m from Unknown Winery in eastern Washington and I want to get on your radar. What should I do? What shouldn’t I do?

WBG: Obviously you need me to taste the wine. But don’t just send it. I have so much wine sitting around my apartment yet to be tasted, you wouldn’t believe it. Send me a note asking if I want the wine and telling me about it, about why it’s special. That way, you have a chance to get me interested before the wine even gets here. And if I’m not interested, you save a lot of money. I’d really rather not have samples I’m not interested in.

WWPR: And here’s another one. My winery is participating in a wine show in the Bay Area and would like to introduce you to my wines. What should I do?

WBG: First of all, tell me your story. All the stuff except how great your wines are. If you have an interesting story, that will pique my interest.

I’m sorry this is craven, but make time to invite me to lunch or dinner. I’ll go with two or three other writers, so you can multiply your efforts. At a wine show, there’s almost nothing you can do to stand out from the horde. You need one-on-one time, and unless I’m specifically interested in you, you have to reach out to get it.

I hate to admit to this because when I worked full-time at a newspaper, we couldn’t take free meals so my answer would have been completely different. Keep that in mind — Jon Bonne or Eric Asimov won’t meet you for a meal, no matter how nicely you ask. They can’t.  But most non-newspaper writers will.

But you want the reality; this is the reality. There are thousands of wineries out there and even a writer like me has dozens competing for my attention. Just saying you make a great Syrah isn’t going to get it.

Yes, it would be better if you could get writers to meet you some other way. But you want the reality; this is the reality. There are thousands of wineries out there and even a writer like me has dozens competing for my attention. Just saying you make a great Syrah isn’t going to get it.

WWPR:  If I’m a winemaker and I met you briefly at a wine event, what’s the best way for me to stay in touch and stay on your radar?

WBG: Send me an email reminding me what we talked about. I probably talked to a lot of vintners that day. Offer to send me any wine I expressed interest in. And I’ll go back to the point about commenting on the blog. You want a relationship, start a relationship.

WWPR:  Any examples of good PR practices by wineries? Same question re: bad practices by wineries.

WBG: Good PR practices? That label I mentioned on the back of bottles. Knowing what types of stories I write and pitching something in the way I would be interested. Immediately getting back to me, I mean that very day, if I ask for information or photos.

Example: I would have written a post about a winery this week, but I asked for photos and they still haven’t sent them. So that post will probably never get written. If I’m working for a paper, I might have a tight deadline. And if it’s for my blog, I’m easily distracted and will move onto the next thing. Respond quickly, even if the response is incomplete.

Bad PR practices: Mass press releases about uninteresting stuff. There are certain PR people whose releases I delete without opening.

Bad PR practices: Mass press releases about uninteresting stuff. There are certain PR people whose releases I delete without opening. Maybe one day they’ll send something interesting, but I don’t care that Winery X just released the 2010 vintage of Wine Y.

Here’s a more subtle bad practice: trying to control the human nature of the wine or winery. I write a lot about people as individuals and I’ll put up a Q&A on my site or elsewhere if it’s honest and interesting. If you carefully compose a quote, I probably won’t use it. Even if every quote doesn’t stay completely on message, it’s better to get something published than nothing at all.

WWPR:  From your perspective, is there one absolute no-no when it comes to winery PR? How about one absolute must-do?

W. Blake Gray, washington wineWBG: One absolute no-no. Hmmm. I have had PR people complain to my editors about stories I’ve written. Of course that gets back to me. I wouldn’t call it an absolute no-no, but if you have a complaint, bring it to me. If you read my blog, you know that I can handle dissent. But there are people I won’t include in stories for certain publications because I don’t know how my relationship with those editors would be affected if they complain directly. If you think your complaint is worth burning a bridge, go for it.

A little less dramatic, but it counts: I don’t care what Robert Parker or James Laube thinks of a wine, and frankly I think Laube has a terrible palate. So if you try to pitch me by saying that Spectator gave your wine a 92, I’m probably not going to be interested. Besides, if Spectator gave you a 92, why do you need me?

I talk to other writers and some writers are much more affected by this mistake than I am. One absolute must-do: Price of the wine. If I ask that, I might be on deadline, and I might need to know right now, this minute. Answer me right now, this minute. Please.

WWPR: Social media has changed winery PR dramatically. Do you have any tips / suggestions on how wineries can use social media to keep out-of-state writers in touch with their wineries?

WBG: I don’t know if I’m the right person to ask this because I don’t follow any wineries on Twitter or Facebook. You can message me on Twitter, though, and I’ll see it. Ditto for commenting on one of my Facebook posts. I’m sorry, that seems very arrogant on my part, and maybe it is. I don’t think I use social media like other people. Sorry.

WWPR: Any more advice you’d like to offer?

WBG:  Be honest. Be yourself. Be a human being. I write more about human beings than I do about bottles of wine. You don’t have to suck up to me, and in fact it’s better if you don’t.

Be honest. Be yourself. Be a human being. I write more about human beings than I do about bottles of wine.

Adam Lee probably disagrees with me more than anybody in California wine and has publicly lambasted me more than once, but we have an email relationship you don’t see and when I need a quote I know I can contact him and he’ll get back to me right away. I have included him in a number of articles about Pinot Noir for large publications, which is what all wineries want. He’s just very honest and I respect that. I think I said this already, but if you want a relationship, start a relationship.

Chatter is an occasional series of interviews on WA | Wine | PR with journalists, wine business influencers, winemakers and others, all of whom have interesting ideas and opinions on PR and marketing for the wine industry.

  • Heidi Witherspoon

    Great article. W. Blake Gray always comes at his stories with depth and does a great job of illustrating the character of his interview subjects. I am a lurker for now but look forward to pitching him next year.