They Don’t Look Like Wine Buyers


We all make assumptions. I suppose way back when it was because we didn’t have the time to decide if that large hairy saber tooth tiger was dangerous so, based on previous experiences, we had to assume it probably would be. It’s like your prospect of a wine sale when friendly Canadians walk into a tasting room. They are so nice and cheerful and announce their arrival and ‘Canadianess’ with such enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the wine host is thinking about the almost near certainty that they can't ship any wines home to Alberta because the taxes are so horrendous. Or certain ethnic groups in large family parties who disgorge from a minivan, cameras in hand, ready to record every moment with nary a blessed thought in their minds about wine. We jump to conclusions. Based on previous odds we make sales assumptions. But it’s not a good practice.

Three charming ladies from an Asian cultural background told me not long ago about how, from their perspective, there are two wine experiences in Wine Country. The middle-aged white male wine experience, and the three Asian ladies experience. Being left waiting for service, cursory attention, rudeness and lackluster wine presentations, is apparently what they usually get. One of the ladies told me about how she was at a Silverado Trail winery and asked to “Re-taste the Cabernet.” The winery host felt the need to correct her and said, “Actually we say, re-visit the wine.”

I wish I could cast the first stone, but I can't. I told Sonny not to take those two ladies on bikes at 4:45 pm on that Saturday afternoon… He decided to at least chat with them and pour a couple of wines because they had made the effort to get to the winery. Ended up being one of the stronger and more fruitful relationships between customer and winery we had during my tenure. This is similar to deciding what we think a customer can or can’t afford, or what they might choose to spend their dollars on. My muse always used to say, “No-one ever got insulted by you assuming they can afford to purchase more than they might be able to.”

Calistoga Dale told me once that he got the number one slot in wine club sign-ups month after month. He had more free dinners on the company than he could count. He is a quiet man and not a gregarious theatrical type, so I asked him what the secret to his success was. What honey did he drip in the ears of his guests, how did he leverage the “benefits of membership?” Did he push hard and give it the car lot treatment? He said it was nothing particularly clever. He just calmly presented the option to everyone, irrespective of who they were, or what he thought of their abilities or inclinations. That’s all it took, no prejudgment. How many of us have made an internal judgment on a customer and, because of it, not presented a wine, a sale, or a reason to affiliate?

By the way, the three delightful Asian ladies were also pushing a baby stroller. Turned out it contained a special needs cat called “Barbara Walters.” At their Bay Area pet hospital Ms. Walters always gets announce over the speakers by that same name when she arrives. The reasons to hit the snooze button just kept mounting.

There is a joke in Scotland about the difference in assumptions between earthy Glasgow and the more genteel Edinburgh. They say that when you are in Glasgow and arrive at someone’s house near the early evening mealtime (Known as “Your Tea.”) you’ll be invited in warmly. The counterpoint is that in Edinburgh the hostess will open the door and early in the encounter suggest heavily, “You’ll have had your tea?” What I glean from all this is that our assumptions are firmly placed to suit ourselves and our convenience. By not challenging them we can clasp our dearly held prejudices to our chests with no chance of being wrong.

It was sobering to speak to these open-hearted Asian ladies about all this because I am one of those white middle-aged wine industry men who make all these assumptions. At the end of the tasting, they said they enjoyed the wines tremendously and (was it to prove a point?) bought two cases.

VINFABULA - If you’d like your winery, or business, to profit from your story being more powerful - get in touch.

Wineries - Shaded By The Spotlight


Last Sunday I felt good as I walked around my hometown of Calistoga in Napa Valley. Favorite jeans, winery boots, nice quirky T-shirt from a Scottish brewery, and that virtuous sensation that comes from having exercised early that morning. I nodded and nudged, gossiped and informed, all my way down Lincoln Avenue. When I got back to my truck, I realized my pant flies had been open the whole time and I was mortified. Of course, this sensation is predicated on the bias toward believing that people even noticed. In order to survive we need a healthy dose of self-interest and this has some drawbacks. Being continuously at the center of our own stories, we develop an over inflated idea of how noticeable we are in other people’s daily lives. This is sometimes called The Spotlight Effect.

Drifting around the digital ocean I came across the paper from 2000 by Tom Gilovich et al about this psychological phenomenon. Basically, he had people wear an embarrassing (to them) T-shirt and go into a room filled with people. In the study it was an image of Barry Manilow, in Napa it might a White Zinfandel label, or perhaps that rather eerie picture of Jean Charles Boisset that gets used everywhere.

The T-shirt wearers estimated that if it was a room of 20 people at least 10 of them would notice the shirt image. The reality was that only 4 did. They conducted the same experiment with a more neutral persona on the T-shirt and at most only 2 people would remember it.

It can be deflating to realize that no-one notices your beautiful new shirt. But it can be liberating when you wonder how many people noticed your fly was open.

As I sat in a winery meeting with a team agonizing over where to put a decorative item, this concept came back to me. As wineries I think we work lot under the spotlight effect. It’s sobering to think how little we imprint on our guests and how forgettable we are in their day, life, or e-mail Inbox. This is important because if we accept the truth of The Spotlight Effect, we must also assume our wineries, our brands, and brand stories, are making much less of impression than we think they are. 

With that in mind, we probably have to magnify what we do if we want to make a more memorable impression. Some or all of the following: Bigger personalities, stronger reasons to exist, bolder relationships, simpler messages, more generous gestures, more emphatic positions, and pop up the volume in our language and communications. It doesn’t mean becoming brash; it just means making a conscious decision about how different, interesting, or worthwhile we are going to have to be to get remembered. In short, if we haven’t reached a point in our discussion of feeling uncomfortable about our volume, we probably haven’t reached where we need to be.

As a story led agent of change and winery consultant, (I ought to simplify that) I look for new clients who are a good fit. I could use another in my portfolio just now. Why the gap? In reflecting on my self-marketing, I’ve dipped my hand into the material I’ve created and felt the undercurrent of an assumption of noticeability. Naively believing my nuance, wit, and experience “speaks for itself.” This stance is pulling me out to sea, and not up the beach. This led me to revisit my web site design with a very useful book in hand called ‘Building A Story Brand’ by Donald Miller. He skillfully addresses the basics and I did a kind of story audit. I think it helped. If you decide to do this without professional assistance, find someone to ‘Sue.’ Sue was the person who looked at my handiwork and gave me real time customer feedback on what resonated and what was wasted space. A savvy soul like this helps diminish your Spotlight Effect. 

In conclusion and to be blunt, if your brand narrative describes how sold your company and entered the wine business because the land you purchased “spoke to you”, and that your first Chardonnay is named after your daughter - you do not have anything memorable. That’s almost everybody around here. As your doctor, I must tell you that you might be suffering from The Spotlight Effect. It’s very hard when we are told that we are not as noticeable as we think we are, but your winery/business will be better for it, if you allow this thought to percolate. It’s curable, get a fresh perspective on your story.


VINFABULA – Profit from Powerful Storytelling.  Because the strongest brands have the best stories

Wine and Forgivable Luxury


I was at a the new Flowers Winery unveiling in Russian River not long ago. It was a soft opening and as part of the seated tasting they served a very nice 2017 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. Underneath the wine title on the tasting sheet it said, “Estero Gold gougére with lemon zest + wild fennel pollen.” Having been party to many exotic and far-fetched wine descriptors over the years I asked the wine host “What’s the Estero Gold in the wine descriptor?” Much to the rest of my companion’s amusement the host pointed out that it wasn’t a wine descriptor. It was the shortly to arrive pairing, that went with the wine.

A few days later the same winery came up in discussion with a Bay Area gentleman who is an executive at Mandarin Hotels and his partner who was an architect. We were talking about the Napa and Sonoma winery aesthetic and where each valley is on its journey. He observed, as many do, that they enjoy Sonoma as “You can spread out, there’s less traffic, and it feels more real and authentic.” I work on both sides of the hill and the phrase “Sonoma is what Napa used to be” is used quite a lot by visitors. Whether this is really true or not is not the point. Perceptions are reality.

We talked about how many of the early luxury brand wineries of Napa were about dominating the landscape. They existed to make the customer feel like they were entering a place to worship, part hallowed ground and part entering an impressive old bank to get a loan.

This new winery is an interesting teasing out of the folds of wine, luxury, and experience in an evolving Sonoma. We are now firmly in the era of ‘farm to table’ and our ‘woke’ customers are increasingly sensitive to the impact of their luxe desires on the world around them. What this winery appears to have done cleverly is walk that fine line between offering luxury while not being ostentatiously assertive about it. It does this in two simple ways. The winery and its outdoor seating areas are impressive but consciously set into the landscape rather than above it. You feel enveloped by the earth. The second is the use of soft tones and natural colors throughout. The accumulating natural textures and build materials used throughout give a feeling of environmental vigor. I put my bright red Moleskin notebook down on the tasting table for memorializing my impressions. As soon as I did, it felt so jarringly out of place that I hid it down the side of my chair. Some people are going to look horrendous in this new wine world. I suspect they will have to ban many customers in the more lurid Tommy Bahama shirts. I was glad to have randomly picked out a green linen shirt that morning. It’s always such an added bonus when you go to a place and sit down feeling on brand.

They will work out a few identity kinks as they progress. Once you have created this kind of endearing aesthetic, name badges take it in a heartbeat from being sensitive and environmentally empathetic, to expensive spa resort.

The exemplary visit felt like a watershed winery moment for Sonoma. Like a new evolved form of Napa is germinating in the valley next door. I suspect that they will do very well. There are some savvy people in charge, and you sense that the winery is at the right point on the cultural wave. Many visitors are looking for a counterpoint to the brash and gaudy conspicuous celebration of consumption in the highest offices of the land. This winery deftly makes our desire for luxury forgivable.

VINFABULA – Consulting for wineries. Creatively aligning narrative with operations.

Wine Tribes

It’s no coincidence that rookie wine hosts are taught to ask where else a customer has tasted on their trip so far.  The answer immediately speaks volumes.  Do they have money, do they have access, are they searching out the cool and cultish, are they wine focused, or are they ‘wine tourists’ wandering aimlessly around Wine Country?  Who is their wine tribe?