Setting Sights for No. 1 in Wine Country

Sonoma County continues aggressive national, international marketing effort

by Andrew Adams
sonoma county vintners
A crowd of more than 200 listen to details about Sonoma County's marketing efforts as well as the results of a consumer benchmark study.
Santa Rosa, Calif.—A survey of some of America’s most regular wine buyers and drinkers found they held Sonoma County in high regard but the region still came second to Napa Valley in some categories, it was announced Thursday at the annual meeting of the Sonoma County Vintners trade association. Sonoma County’s unified and aggressive marketing strategy aims to change that and place the region at the top of the list for consumers, trade and wine media.

After years of planning and securing about $600,000 in funding, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Tourism Bureau unveiled a marketing campaign in August.

Honore Comfort, executive director of the vintners’ group, gave a rundown of the marketing efforts in 2012. She prefaced her remarks with a highlight video that began with a San Francisco TV news report about the travel website TripAdvisor, which named Sonoma County the top destination in wine county. The clip earned a smattering of applause and shouts of approval from the crowd of more than 200 attending the meeting at the Vintners Inn.

Publicity plans for the coming year
Comfort went on to describe some of the events and marketing efforts planned for 2013. The group will continue its advertising push in major wine publications with ads designed to highlight the unique characteristics of the region. “We don’t want to look liked any other wine region,” she said.

The county plans to buy space in the Wine Spectator, Food & Wine and other publications. Comfort reminded the audience each winery had a chance to chip in $7,000 for a piece of a two-page spread in the Wall Street Journal.

Other initiatives include bringing in groups of sommeliers to tour Sonoma County,  “Sonoma in the City” tastings in Dallas and San Francisco, participating in national and international wine shows and hosting a Chinese trade delegation as well as 20 of the top foreign wine writers.

The push continues an effort to present a unified front of Sonoma County’s diverse AVAs. Comfort said the new website wearesonomacounty.org is live and will be home to information about the entire county as well as content developed by individual wineries. “Let us know if you have material we can feature,” she said.

Consumer benchmarks
To gauge how much the press junkets, tastings and advertising pays off, the county contracted with John Gillespie’s Wine Opinions group to conduct a survey of consumers to gauge their awareness of Sonoma County and its wines.

Those initial survey numbers will be compared to results of later surveys to determine the effectiveness of the marketing effort. “You all live in one of the most competitive marketing environment of any industry,” Gillespie said noting that all the marketing done by Sonoma County is being matched by Napa, Monterey, Bordeaux and other wine regions.

Gillespie’s survey of 913 consumers focused on those who not only purchase wine but do so regularly and at relatively high price points. The results found that while consumers were aware of Sonoma County through tastings and promotions, they still had a better awareness of Napa Valley.

Sonoma County fared much better than other California regions such as Lodi, which 12% of those surveyed had not even heard of. “Their challenge is to get on the radar screen; that’s not your challenge,” Gillespie said.

When asked about a region’s perceived quality, Napa came in first followed by Sonoma, Bordeaux, France; Oregon; Burgundy, France, and Washington, in that order.

However, when asked about which region had the greatest perceived value, the rankings swapped with Chile taking the top spot followed by Washington. Napa fell to near the bottom while Sonoma County came in third, making it the only region to be viewed as having high quality while remaining a value. “That is something that can be broadly leveraged in the marketplace,” Gillespie said. “If I were you, I’d be damn proud of that.”

By varietal, Sonoma County had good consumer demand for Chardonnay below $20, but consumers said they’d look to Burgundy or Oregon for more expensive Chardonnay. The Russian River stood out to consumers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but other appellations such as the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA had little consumer recognition.

Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley compared well to Napa Valley in the $20-40 range, but consumers said they’d turn to Napa and Bordeaux at higher price points.

Gillespie also described how the survey included two fictional labels of “Winscott” wines—one with a California designation and one with Sonoma County. By almost a 2 to 1 margin, the panel figured the Sonoma County wine was better than the California appellation wine. “Sonoma County has value, it’s clear to most frequent buyers.”

Board members announced
Also at the meeting, the Sonoma County Vintners announced a new board member, Russ Joy from Patz & Hall Wine Co., as well as officers for 2013:
• President: Matt Gallo, Gallo Family Vineyards
• Vice president: Corey Beck, Francis Ford Coppola Winery
• Secretary and treasurer: Gerry Forth, Forth Vineyards

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