In an article last month in the New York Times, reporter Katrina Heron detailed current problems in Napa Valley selling high-end wine. The economic collapse has resulted in slow movement of inventory leading to sure-to-be calamitous circumstances – wineries backed up on vintages, grapes left hanging on the vine, and winemakers considering skipping a vintage or already having done so. An article this week in the San Francisco Chronicle titled ‘Napa Wineries Fall Under Foreclosure Crush’ was even more foreboding, saying 2010 may be a record year for foreclosures.

Now before Washingtonians and folks elsewhere start smirking and thinking it serves Napa wineries right for being so expensive, so exclusive, and so [add your own adjective here], make no mistake. This problem is not Napa’s alone. If you own a winery, chances are these same problems are coming to your doorstep if they are not already there. Many Washington wineries, certainly those with wines around $50 or higher are already feeling the effects and have been for some time. This problem is going to get worse in the coming months. If you are thinking or hoping otherwise, you are sure to be unpleasantly surprised.

There were two sentences in the New York Times article that made a particular impression on me. Both were regarding top Napa producer Grgich Hills. The first mentioned that Grgich had 20,000 cases of unsold wine last year. 20,000 cases. That’s a lot of high-end wine to be sitting on without a lot of ways of moving it now or in the future. The second was a quote from Mike Grgich saying to his staff, “Get me Facebook and Twitter!” While some might find this humorous coming from an 87 year-old man with such a storied history in the wine industry, I found it chilling. The instinct is right but as I read the quote, two words came in to my head. Too late.


Due to the boom times of the last decade and the fast pace of recent changes, many wineries in Napa and elsewhere have been slow to understand the changing forces and even slower to respond (let’s not forget too that the wine world does not move quickly). They have been caught off-guard by a perfect storm of a historically bad economy, the rise in social media, and changing demographics. Many have long ignored emerging channels, such as websites, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. “I don’t have the time,” is the frequent refrain.

I don’t want to trivialize this sentiment because many of the wineries in Washington and elsewhere are very small operations where focusing on one area means not focusing on another. The question I would ask is, can you afford not to? Can you make it through another one year or two years doing the same thing you are doing right now if the economy remains stagnant? What if it gets worse?

If you cannot – or even if you feel you like can – it’s time to consider doing something different. Many already are. I have been struck by the increased interest in social media from Washington wineries in the last several months. I am continually seeing newly launched websites, blogs, and Twitter accounts. While some have fully embraced social media in its many forms, many are now venturing into the waters not because they want to but because they are scared to death of having to make it through another year like the last one. Still, I am surprised by the number of high-end wineries in Washington with hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars of backed up inventory who currently have no social media presence whatsoever. What are they waiting for?

For some of these wineries in Washington, Napa, and elsewhere, it is already too late. They were too slow to respond to rapidly changing forces. And before the economy suddenly changed, they simply didn’t have to respond. I am sure there are wineries out there right now that feel like they still don’t have to. Perhaps they are right. However, wine sales, club memberships, and waiting lists can rapidly evaporate. I recall living in Boston how the local basketball team, the Celtics, had sold out every game for more than a decade and had a years-long waiting list for season tickets. Suddenly the team found themselves offering day-of-game seats for $10 (and let’s not even talk about the addition of cheerleaders) because all of those people suddenly went away. I should add the fact that they sucked had something to do with this. My point is that things can change very, very quickly.

My intention with this post is not to bring doom and gloom. Rather, it is to say that if you are running a winery and you have been considering becoming involved in social media, this is your clarion call. Now is the time. Do it. Do it before it is too late for your winery.

Postscript: A former mentor once said to never to bring a problem without offering a solution (thank you Murray). To that end, I will suggest in a future post a variety of ways wineries can engage in social media. Until then…