Wine Doesn’t Sell Wine, Stories Sell Wine (Nederburg Auction 2013 Keynote Speech Recap)

Vinted on September 12, 2013 binned in commentary, going pro, on the road

I’m not-so-freshly back from Cape Town, where last week I delivered the keynote address at the 39th annual Nederburg Auction. Somehow, my back survived the jaunt (though the sciatica and disk issues did some relatively serious damage on my anxiety).

Since the Nederburg organizers don’t invite keynote speakers back, I felt even less pressure than normal (and I don’t start with much in this regard to begin with) to censor my thoughts… and so I think I delivered on the promised “tough luv” messages about the difficulty, complexity, and insanity of the U.S. wine market, and my ideas on how South Africa can still “win” there.

The organizers were absolutely lovely people, the event was top-notch, and the hospitality beyond any reasonable sense of expectation. Also, I’ve now officially tasted impala and can now tell you that I understand why the big cats prefer to hunt those suckers down in Africa (after the lunch of it I had at La Motte’s fabulous restaurant in Franschhoek, I was ready to try to run a few of those things down and eat them raw myself).

Anyway, the auction itself was successful this year, with price per bottle up over last year’s event. Some amazing juice got auctioned off on day two during the charity portion of the event (including two bottles of 1981 Hill of Grace that were generously donated to the auction by Nederburg in my name… and no, I didn’t get to drink any of it). Below are some images that pale in comparison to actually being in the beautiful country of SA, and (eventually… hang in there!) an embedded video of me getting all Southern-Hemisphere-Keynote on everyone…

Here’s the ultra-short version of my keynote address (since I only ever outline speeches, and do not write them verbatim, there’s no complete transcript yet to share with you) is this:

Don’t treat all U.S. wine consumers the same, because the markets behave differently across different generations. Also, we should expect U.S. wine consumers to run out of money for luxury goods (like… wine!) as they ageand plan accordingly.

If you want to start incorporating younger wine consumers into your marketing plan (and you’d better if you’re paying attention to the market), then you need to sell your story before you can sell your wine. There are many ways to do this, but the cheapest way – and one of the best ways for winning the hearts and minds of younger U.S. wine consumers – is on-line.

All in all, it was another amazing day at “the office,” L5-S1 degenerated lower lumbar disk be damned. I regret only that I didn’t have more time to spend touring around, and that there wasn’t more impala into which I could sink my grubby little incisors.

Coming back to the the keynote address (because we are supposed to be working here, right?): I delivered it from a very Star Trek-esque elevated stage, a setting which one person told me made me look like I was a cult leader overseeing a kind of modern quasi-religious ceremony. The gist of the speech is summed up in this video interview that I gave before speaking (it’s intercut with footage of my cult-leader performance the following day, for your amusement). Here’s the slide-deck that I used to illustrate the main themes of the keynote, for those who’d like to play along at home.

Not that I’d be able to prevent them, but as you already know, your comments/virtual tomatoes / etc. are welcome!

2013 Nederburg Auction Keynote interview  

Next week, thoughts on some of the juice, much of which is underpriced so dramatically that I suspect the South Africans will be digging themselves out of the pricing hole for the next several years (bad for them, but good for you bargain hunters)…






  • passionatefoodie

    Is the growing popularity of Cellar Tracker indicative that more consumers don't actually care about the stories & just want a quick rating snippet to make their purchasing decision?

    • 1WineDude

      Richard – I don't see stories and ratings as incompatible. In fact, I think you could argue that an aggregate CT review *is* a story, in a way, or at least is part of a brand's or a release's story. So I don't see it as black-and-white, and I think ratings have been part of that picture for a long time, but they came to dominate the stories (unfortunately). But I think we're seeing the trend now where people want the story, too, and not “just” excellence…

  • Deborah

    Great post, Joe. And I say that despite being envious of your trip and speaking engagement, and repelled by your carnivorous predilection (as a vegetarian!). I cannot agree more that stories are the key to connection and the genesis of relationship, a way to encourage, if not guarantee, remembering the wine and repeat purchases. Ratings will only take you so far.

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Deborah. I also ate several vegetables while there… :-)

  • Tom

    I find the stories are definitely key. I am bringing over a French wine named for the house that was owned by the woman who made fake ID papers for my father and grandparents to get out of France during the war, and the wine is made from grapes grown on land that was part of the Chateau in the 18th century. I've had more inquiries about that wine pre-sale than any other I've carried, and from a much wider range of people.

    • 1WineDude

      Tom – awesome example!

  • gabe

    I agree with you're premise that "stories sell wine". My one caveat is that its not just as simple as wineries "telling their story". For a winery to succeed with that business model, there has to be a story – a good one – to tell. Working at Illahe has made that obvious. Working on a family farm with horses and amphora makes the wine easier to sell; but we don't really have to work to hard to tell our story. We just do something interesting, and people tell our story for us. If you are a tech millionaire who bought a plot of land and hired a bunch of people to make safe wine with expensive toys, no amount of twitter and facebook will sell that story.

    • 1WineDude

      Gabe – agreed. Some stories aren't interesting, simple as that. But relying on others to tell your story is allowing them to control your brand message, when there are things that you can do to tell that story yourself and control some of that message yourself.

  • Alana Gentry

    To my friend Richard, ratings are useful for a certain group of buyers but when you really study imports, ratings are not what is selling them. South Africa is one of the most mysterious and exotic places in the minds of Americans; in this case, stories are very, very important. Btw as Joe knows, I'm developing a business centered on being the go-to-gal for South African wines in the states, so if you'd like to talk further, please reach out. Joe, I'm really looking forward to reading your wine reviews. Cheers~

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Alana.

  • Bob Henry


    "Stories sell wine." Agreed. Marketing is storytelling. (Think Don Draper doing a client "pitch.")

    But how many wine merchants these days still walk onto the sales floor, engage the customer, and "hand sell" wine through personal experience anecdotes (instead of letting the WA or WS 90-plus point scores reproduced on "shelf talkers" do that sell-through for them)?

    How many non-Somm wait people know their wine list well enough to do tableside "hand sells"?

    Joe, conduct an informal, non-scientific sampling survey of your blog readers: When they enter a wine store, how are they greeted? How knowledgeable is the salesperson? How quickly does the salesperson reflexively cite wine review scores to validate his or her wine recommendation?

    ~~ Bob

    • 1WineDude

      Bob – all the more reasons why wine brands should also be telling their own stories add much as possible through on and off line channels.

  • Bob Henry



    ~~ BOB

    Excerpts from Slate
    (posted July 21, 2011):

    "The Greatest Wine Retailer in America;
    How Chambers Street Wines eschewed critic ratings and built a loyal following.”

    By Mike Steinberger
    "Drink: Wine, Beer and Other Potent Potables" Column

    Depending on your circumstances, visiting a great wine shop can be an exhilarating experience or it can leave you feeling like a eunuch at an orgy. I'm on an austerity plan these days, and while I can walk into most wine stores content merely to browse, there is one shop that I actively avoid in the interest of financial rectitude and domestic tranquility. That would be New York's Chambers Street Wines. IF THERE’S A BETTER WINE PURVEYOR ANYWHERE, I HAVEN’T ENCOUNTERED IT; at Chambers Street, temptation lurks in literally every rack and bin, and even just writing about the place makes me want to whip out a credit card. . . . BUT IT IS ALSO THAT RAREST OF THINGS IN AMERICAN WINE RETAILING: A STORE WITH A DISTINCTIVE VOICE. [Capitalization added for emphasis. – Bob]

    . . .

    THERE IS ANOTHER THING THAT SETS CHAMBERS STREET APART FROM MOST OF ITS COMPETITORS: LILLIE AND WOLFF HAVE NEVER USED RATINGS FROM CRITICS TO HELP SELL THEIR WINES. WHEN CHAMBERS STREET OPENED, IT WAS DIFFICULT TO FIND AN UPSCALE WINE STORE THAT WASN’T COVERED IN SHELF TALKERS TOUTING SCORES FROM ROBERT PARKER AND THE WINE SPECTATOR. MANY MERCHANTS HAD SIMPLY STOPPED SELLING WINE AND WERE INSTEAD FLOGGING POINTS. BUT LILLIE AND WOLFF WERE INTENT ON ESTABLISHING A RAPPORT WITH CUSTOMERS THAT WASN’T MEDIATED BY THIRD-PARTY OPINIONS. "We wanted the shop to be completely personal — to get know people's taste, and to recommend wines we liked and that we thought they would enjoy," Lillie told me. He's quick to note that, back in 2001, the kind of wines that he and Wolff were interested in didn't get much attention from critics, which made it easier to eschew scores. Fair enough, but I still think it took some guts make Chambers Street a points-free zone.

    A DECADE ON, THEIR DECISION LOOKS PRESCIENT. THAT’S BECAUSE RATING SEEM TO BE DIMINISHING IN IMPORTANCE. A VERY SELF-CONFIDENT WINE CULTURE HAS TAKEN ROOT IN THE UNITED STATES: PEOPLE ARE USING DISCUSSION BOARDS AND SOCIAL MEDIA TO FIND THEIR WAY TO GOOD BOTTLES, AND THE INFLUENCE OF CRITICS IS WANING, ESPECIALLY AMONG YOUNG DRINKERS. . . . RAMPANT GRADE INFLATION COULD BE HASTENING THAT DECLINE. High ratings help merchants sell wines, and being cited on shelf talkers and in email offers is free publicity for critics, who thus have an incentive to bump up their scores. But big numbers have now become so prevalent that they've turned the 100-point scale into a farce. I THINK RETAILERS ARE GOING TO HAVE TO LEARN TO SELL WINE AGAIN, and in that sense, Chambers Street has a big jump on a lot of other stores.

    . . .

    • 1WineDude

      Bob – interesting, thanks for those. I’d say we’re dealing with a possible fallacy of small numbers there (sample size is too small), but I do (obviously) think it’s a growing trend, and a movement that will gain more and more traction with younger consumers. I mean, we ALL buy things differently now than we did ten or fifteen years ago, and that cat is NEVER going back into the back or the genie back into the bottle just because it doesn’t happen to fit some outdated business models based on how people used to buy things (as the music and publishing industries are finding out the hard way). Cheers!

      • Bob Henry


        Marketers conduct "qualitative market research" (e.g., focus group) studies comprising small numbers of consumers to garner insights. They are not designed to adhere to the rigors of "quantitative market research," which is based on scientific sampling techniques.

        So from a marketing perspective, it is quite acceptable to query your [comparatively small number of ?] followers on their anecdotal retail wine shopping experiences.

        And I suspect a spirited debate will emerge.

        (Aside: Think about Twitter feeds, monitored by marketers. A repository of anecdotes.)

        ~~ Bob

        [ Link:… ]

        [Link:… ]

  • Bob Henry

    Telling your story through social media?

    See this June 23, 2014 Wall Street Journal article:

    “Social Media Fail to Live Up to Early Marketing Hype”



    “Social media are not the powerful and persuasive marketing force many companies hoped they would be,” concludes Gallup Inc., which on Monday is releasing a report that examines the subject.

    Gallup says 62% of the more than 18,000 U.S. consumers it polled said social media had no influence on their buying decisions. Another 30% said it had some influence. U.S. companies spent $5.1 billion on social-media advertising in 2013, but Gallup says “consumers are highly adept at tuning out brand-related Facebook and Twitter content.” (Gallup’s survey was conducted via the Web and mail from December 2012 to January 2013. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.)

    In a study last year, Nielsen Holdings NV found that global consumers trusted ads on television, print, radio, billboards and movie trailers more than social-media ads.

    • 1WineDude

      Bo – so we have essentially established that a lot of companies do not know how to use social media correctly to engage people directly, and instead view it all as just another means of advertising, which it is not. That article tells us almost nothing.

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