Let’s Talk About Wine and Smoke Taint…To The Media



As Nike’s swoosh would say, “just do it!”

Yes, I’m talking about whether you or your winemaker or your viticulturist should talk to the media about how you’re handling smoke taint.

People have talked to the San Francisco Chronicle, to Wine-Searcher, to the Napa Valley Register.

Traditional PR counsel would say not to. Why would you risk being associated with something so negative? “People will associate that yucky ashtray-taste with our wine; we’ll be literally tainted with the association,” you’re thinking.

In fact, that’s wrong. Just like so much in today’s upside-down world, I’m encouraging my clients to talk to the writers who are asking for their experience, their opinions, their observations.

The question of smoke taint hanging over the 2020 harvest unites a number of variables. Chemistry. Drama. Melodrama. Tragedy. Winemakers as heroes. The equal playing field (no one grows grapes in greenhouses these days). Sensory thresholds vs. science. Hope. The frustrating things in life over which you have no control. Mystery. And more.

Weather, freak accidents and Mother Nature caused the fires…which ravaged forests…which generated lots and lots of smoke which didn’t go away.

Every single winery or vineyard has had a unique experience (as Prof. Oberholster talked about so clearly in her webinar recently). The media know this, and they’re eager to understand and help their readers get a sense of the enormity of this situation.

We are all suffering equally; the smoke taint in an unimaginable way has created a level playing field in the wine business. Everyone needs (good) grapes. People feel sorry for people who are suffering, and want to hear their story and how they’re trying to cope.

“I want to tell the story of what’s happening – and I want it to be accurate. Without every side of the story, consumers will see the horrific pictures and assume the worst,” Wine-Searcher’s Kathleen Willcox told me.

Here’s why it makes sense to take one or two of these calls. By sharing your particular experience, you’re helping the writer ‘wear your moccasins’ and get a closer look at your business. Are you washing in ozone? Are you hosing off the grapes on the crush pad? New smoke or old smoke? Which grapes are most sensitive? How are you not going crazy while you wait and wait and wait for those lab results to come in?

Soon to be a major motion picture. No kidding.

Maybe I’ve persuaded you? Maybe not.

If not, then there’s still a way to be part of the conversation. Tell the writer you need to be off the record or an anonymous source. Most writers will accept that condition. That then gives you a chance to not only tell your story (identifying details masked as best you can) but also, even more importantly, to bond with the writer, develop a rapport that will certainly lead to a relationship in the future. In six months, when you introduce a new wine, you’ll get a call or email back from that writer.

Think about Machiavelli’s prince and the huge array of strategies and tactics he employed. In this case, there’s nothing nefarious afoot; it’s just that you’ll be in the rare situation of having the power swing your way—the writer is hungry to hear whatever you can share.

And of course, the mantras of our time, transparency and authenticity—they’re front and center here. If you’re willing to talk about how high the stakes are and show your vulnerability, the writer will appreciate.

Take that call. And by the way, make it a call, not an email.
Julie Ann Kodmur is a wine publicist based in Napa Valley with more than three decades of experience working with wineries, retailers, trade associations and other participants of the wine industry. In 2016 she was named Best Public Relations Agency by Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine. Her practice encompasses all aspects of public relations including brand launches, media relations, social media content and strategy and direct to consumer and trade communications. Julie Ann is also a freelance writer and was the editor of The Napa Valley Wine Library Report. She occasionally lectures on public relations and journalism at Pacific Union College and has presented on the topic of wine marketing and journalism at numerous wine industry events and symposia. For more information about Julie Ann’s services and PR practice see http://julieannkodmur.com/

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4 Responses

  1. Jack Seifrick - September 28, 2020

    Transparency and authenticity are welcome and good, but there seem to be several winemakers using the smoke issue as an “excuse” for skipping a vintage when their primary issue is a growing Covid-19 backlog of inventory. Announcing your opinion that the entire vintage is broadly tainted as you communicate your plans to hold back does all of us still trying to make quality wine this year a disservice.

  2. Carl Giavanti - September 28, 2020

    Hi Julie, I love your enthusiasm for media engagement and agree with the premise. I would offer the caveat that one winemaker’s opinion or experience might be construed as representative of an entire region. Hopefully the spokesperson has had media and PR coaching or follows the messaging offered by their winery associations.

  3. Julie St. John - September 28, 2020

    I agree with Jack & Carl. There is so much sweeping assumption (and we all know about assuming things) when a person is quoted. And to dump a whole vintage down the drain is unfair to those who were never near the smoke or for those of us testing each of our wines post-harvest to be sure about the quality. Thank you Julie for writing about this sensitive subject.

  4. Cameron Mauritson - September 28, 2020

    Thanks for this! The California wine industry never addressed smoke taint until after the 2008 vintage, though California has had fires since long before! For some reason it was never an issue until 2008? Smoke will continue to be a part vintages all across West Cost wine regions as it has in the past. It will not integrate with the subsequent wines predictably, but that is what makes appellations and vintages unique in the first place. In the past, we worried about rain and its affect on the vintage. The best winemakers took the challenge in stride and made world class wines. It is important to talk about, thanks for sharing!

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