In early 2017 the North Bay Business Journal very kindly gave me (The Calistoga Tribune) a ticket to attend the ‘10th Annual Impact Napa Valley Conference.’ I wanted to go because a founding member of the Trinchero family was the keynote speaker, they had panel on ‘The Next Generation of Automation in the Vineyard and the Winery,’ and some wine people talking about ‘The State of the Art’ in Direct to Consumer winery sales. Sounded interesting.
Arrival time was 7:30am in south Napa which seemed a bit ungodly, but I arrived promptly. The first thing that I noticed was that people parking their cars and going in seemed a little over dressed. At a wine industry event, you normally have to groom that ‘look.’ It’s like you might have just come from the vineyard or cellar, but you might also be going to the French Laundry for lunch. If you get that right it’s classy ‘Winemaker Casual.’ Often you can identify the wine producers in a room because they cry out their status by showing their sartorial disdain for anything that might be seen as too mercantile.
My ignorance and lack of research caused the surprise. This was not a wine industry event, more of a Chamber of Commerce meets Rotary Club gathering. Hence the disturbing preponderance of jackets and ties. It was a good awakener. We wine industry types tend to think we are the only game in town sometimes. This event made me realize we are just another subset of professionals doing what we do in Napa Valley.
Roger Trinchero was great. It may be an old chestnut, but to be there and hear from the horse’s mouth how they created ‘White Zinfandel’ certainly gave me a rosy glow with 2.5% RS, just like that stuck fermentation in 1975. They started White Zin with 220 cases and made 3 million cases by 1990. The best quotes from Roger were that when they took off they indulged in “freeway aging,” they had “52 labels but not necessarily 52 wines,” and that old favorite, “we had good luck, but the harder you work the luckier you get.” The Trincheros are known for their giving back and Roger talked about the two room cabin they lived in on the Sutter Home property in 1948. His mother always had 3 envelopes, one for savings, one for food, and one for charity. Despite all their later successes this obviously left an indelible mark on the family. It felt like a good lesson for the rest of us in these times of natural disasters.
The automation panel was fascinating. If driverless cars are imminent in San Jose then Napa wineries and vineyards as an integrated, digitally connected organism, cannot be that far away. Roger Bolton of UC Davis was the cranky Uncle, but he was Yoda wise; sensors will be everywhere they will. The sensor will detect the moment, and then single automated electric tractor that disks, sprays, leafs, prunes and harvests will leave the barn to get to work. You’ll run a whole winery and vineyard with two people and a few laptops.
The Direct to Consumer segment was fine, but for someone in the business it was a bit of the usual bowl of revenge warmed up. It’s still growing, you need a “better brand story,” ‘it’s all in the database,” “everyone wants free shipping,” and it’s all about ‘the relationship.’ Essentially, the days of schlepping some wine into a glass and thinking they are going to sign up for your wine club, and buy wine, are gone. The customers have woken up and realized they have more control than they used to think. We are going to have to romance them some more, show that we care, send flowers, and remember our anniversary – just like any normal relationship. The best quote on this quest for an elevated customer connection came from Paul Leary of Blackbird Vineyards. “One thing I can tell you, is not to put your cell phone number on the cork.”
It was a morning well spent in the company of strangers.
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