Prepared to Be Banned in 'Bama

October 2009
by Bill Leigon
Two years ago, I embarked upon the goal at Hahn Family Wines of becoming the wine industry's leader in social media marketing and viral marketing. We invested in training regarding blogs, Twitter, I Flips (Integrated Flight Prediction Systems), Facebook, Flickr and many other programs and ideas too numerous to mention. In the beginning, many were skeptical of the direction I was pursuing.

I had appointed Lisa DeBruin as our new media marketing director, and she dove into the project with vigor. During this period of time, Lisa has emerged as one of the major wine bloggers in the industry ( She has moderated discussion forums including a recent panel about Facebook at the Wine Industry Technology Seminar. Because of her efforts, we were in a position to host one of the first wine bloggers conferences at our offices in Napa, and we were involved in the first Twitter Taste Live events. Most recently, we created a bloggers block down at the winery and invited wine bloggers to plant their own vines.

I begin with this information because I strongly believe that our close relationship with and respect for the blogging community, coupled with our knowledge of the process, made possible a phenomenally successful viral marketing campaign when the opportunity arose.

Cycles Gladiator label
I received the frantic news in late July that alcohol beverage control officials in Alabama had issued a recall of our Cycles Gladiator Wines because the labels were deemed "pornographic." The first call I made was to Lisa, to ask her to plant the seed and set the process in motion. Next I called our public relations, social media and direct-to-consumer people. As further luck would have it, the wine bloggers conference was being held the weekend the story broke. Lisa wrote her blog item and sent it out.

That day I received a call from the Mobile, Ala., reporter who broke the story, and then a call from a reporter for the Associated Press. In the interviews I stated that I had decided not to alter the label, but rather to withdraw the brand from Alabama altogether.  

After our interview Phil Rawls, the AP reporter, stated that he liked the story and would run it by the national desk. Friday morning, he called to tell me that the national desk loved it. That afternoon it went out on the AP news wire, and by Friday evening we were receiving national television coverage.

That same day, a reporter for the Mobile Press Register, which broke the story, called me to ask for more information, because the story had been the No. 1 blog item of the day. He said, "We'll just run with it until people tire of it."

On an average day we receive about 100 hits on our website and sell about $100-plus in wine online. That Saturday, we received 8,700-plus hits and sold about $2,600 in wine. In addition, we were receiving calls at the tasting room and office from all over the country. This was quite a ride, but the best was yet to come.

Things slowed down after the weekend, and then I received another call from Phil Rawls. Phil had discussed the phenomenon of censoring with a sociology professor who indicated that when something is censored, awareness of that item typically increases.

She stated that we would likely sell a lot of wine because of the ban. Phil wanted to know if we had seen any increase in interest. I told him that "increase" was an understatement, and that I had decided to go with the campaign: "Banned in 'Bama." He loved it.

The story went national again that week, and it re-energized the entire program. Now we had local TV stations coming down to film at the winery and obtain consumers' comments. I received e-mails from all over the world -- including Argentina, France, the UK and Mexico. About 99% of these e-mails were overwhelmingly positive, urging me to hold my position.

I believe you must create your own "luck" in life. Was the ABC's decision to ban Cycles Gladiator a fortunate random event? Yes. Once given the opportunity, however, we were prepared to conduct what I believe is the most successful viral marketing campaign in the wine industry to date. It was hardly a random process. Had we not been prepared, the story could have easily just faded away.

As the president of Hahn Estates, Bill Leigon has more than two decades of wine industry experience, having worked in all facets of the business. He co-founded The Wine Trust and Ariel Vineyards, and also worked as vice president of sales and marketing for Associated Vintage Group. In 2000 Leigon founded Wimbledon Wine Co., a national sales and marketing?company that later became Hahn Family Wines, the sales and marketing division of Hahn Estates. In his role at Hahn Estates, Leigon developed both the Rex Goliath (which was later sold) and Cycles Gladiator wine brands. To comment on this Viewpoint, e-mail
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