Wine Companies and the Temptation to Speak Out on Divisive Issues

Do wine companies gain or lose by being vocal on social and political issues? I’ve had an opportunity to advise a number of clients on this question over the years. In almost every case when a divisive social or political issue has arisen it has been my advice that the company does not take a public stand.

But I have either had to revisit my initial question above in the wake of 2020 when so often the question of race, health and politics seemed to overwhelm the conversation—whether interpersonal or public and increasingly it looks as though Everything Is Broken. The question is the same: is it good business for a public-facing company to take a stand on a controversial issue dominating the social conversation?

This question also came up and was given a good deal of time in the recent Silicon Valley Bank “State of the Industry” live stream (See Part 2 Video at 7:50). In discussing the different outlooks of Boomers and Millennials, the panel noted that while Boomers believed the Civil Right Movements and its principles drove positive change, Millennials tend to believe that social and ethnic diversity leads to change. This led Silicon Valley Bank’s Rob McMillan to state what many others in various facets of the industry have said:

“When we are talking about diversity, what are one of the things you can do? Well, one of the things is being transparent in your social values. You’ve got to talk about it. You can’t hide from it. If you don’t, somebody’s going to out you. So, it’s critical that you take a policy stand on diversity….If you aren’t addressing this fact, there’s a threat to you being outed….It’s political, it’s messy and it’s hard to talk about.”

Amy Hoopes, President of Wente Family Estates and a panelist on the live stream weighed in with a similar opinion:

“The wine industry has really tended to stay away from what it calls politics. And the difference in the younger group…is they feel what is being discussed now and what is happening is political. It’s life. It’s reality…I think it’s interesting that we have wineries engaging in the digital landscape by completely ignoring what’s happening around us as a world and as a country and this doesn’t play well with this consumer. They want to know where you stand.”

The implication here is that, at least where Millennials and younger wine consumers are concerned, it’s good for the wine business to be transparent about where they stand on the volatile issues of the day. But the question still arises, is there damage done to a brand or to sales if no public position is taken on a volatile political or social issue? Is there value in silence?

It should be clear by now that we are talking politics, not humanitarianism. I’ll go out on a limb here and say there is nothing to lose and likely a good deal to gain in karma, goodwill, and the reinforcement of social ethics by broadcasting your concern for a community that has suffered from an earthquake or a wildfire and urging your customers to pitch in via this method or that method. We aren’t talking about his kind of taking a stand. We are talking about the Siege on the Capitol, Black Lives Matter, action on climate change, restaurant closings during the pandemic, and the like. We are talking about the kind of issues that polarize.

One reason it is difficult to offer generic advice about wine companies taking a public stand on volatile issues is due to the different levels of public exposure a wine company may possess. The statements and actions of a Gallo travel farther and have more impact than the statements and actions of a 5,000 case winery tucked away in the hills of Oregon’s Van Duzer Corridor. Similarly, a winery with a celebrity or well-known owner—no matter its size—is likely to receive outsized attention for its public statements than a similarly sized winery with an unknown owner.

That said, it strikes me that any wine company owner contemplating speaking out on a divisive social issue on behalf of their company should first ask themselves, is there any compelling moral, ethical or practical reason for them to speak out? In reality, the answer to this question will very rarely be “yes”.

Take the case of Black Lives Matter. While one might be truly touched by the issues revolving around this issue, it will be a very unique business that is intimately connected to those issues to the point they are compelled to speak out. There are a few companies that have incorporated racial justice into their branding and company actions and products. In this rare case, the company has an ethical and practical reason for speaking out not only to stay consistent with their company’s public-facing messaging, but also because the expectations of their customers—who presumably have at least in part been drawn to its products due to their consistent messaging on the issue—have justified expectations the company will speak out.

Likewise, I can imagine a wine company that has championed agricultural worker rights and well-being in a good deal of their marketing and messaging in an effort to elevate the living conditions of these essential wine industry participants. Imagine an administration (state or federal) embarking on widespread deportation sweeps and efforts. Like the Black Lives Matter example above, here is an example where the very mission of the company that has devoted a good portion of its public messaging to workers well being compels it to speak out on the issue, despite the fact this it might be highly divisive. Speaking out would not only be expected by its customers and clients, but any real commitment to the issue of workers’ wellbeing would compel public comment from an ethical perspective.

Very, very few wine companies find themselves in the situations outlined above. The overwhelming majority of wine (or any other type) companies do not actively or casually associate their brand and actions with political or social issues. As a result, most wine companies do not possess any compelling moral, ethical or practical reason for them to speak out on a divisive issue.

But this brings us back to the contention made in the “State of the Industry” live stream and in other places that Millennial and younger consumers expect and demand companies to be transparent in their political positions and will, to some degree, base their purchases on whether or not a company is transparent and open about its views. In other words, setting aside compelling moral and ethical reasons to speak out on social issues, is there a sufficient profit motive to speak out on such issues?

While I tend to most often agree with Rob McMillan’s astute takes on the state of the wine industry, I have to disagree with him on the necessity of being transparent about one’s political and social views in the wake of the emerging Millennial consumer. I’m unaware, for example, of any wine company suffering financially for not having spoken out on, for example, 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, the Capitol Riots, or issues related to the pandemic.

Moreover, I think in nearly every case, it would be somewhat jarring for a wine company that has no obvious connection to these issues, to speak out and take a strong stand on these issues. While delivering a “jarring” message to its customers and clients is one way of getting attention, it is almost guaranteed that the reaction will not fall primarily in one direction. Instead, the wine company reaching out to its customers to announce its disgust with the “social injustice and systemic racism infecting our nation” is likely to negatively impact many customers while not necessarily prompting an equal number to be more inclined to support the company.

For this contention, I have no evidence. However, I’m unaware of any evidence that suggests speaking out on a divisive issue in an unsolicited way is likely to be such a thorough net gain from a profit perspective that it would outweigh the potential to offend or to dissuade further purchases by some segment of a customer base. I’m willing to be corrected on this issue, but as of this writing, I’m unconvinced that there exist any instances in which it makes good business sense for a wine company to take a public stand on a controversial issue without possessing a strong, well-established connection to the issue.

This is not a change of opinion for me. In 2015, I wrote about the Wine Train incident in which a number of black women were escorted off the Napa Valley’s moving tourist attraction in the middle of its journey up-valley for the charge of continuing to be disruptively loud after being warned. In that post, I counseled any winery or wine company contacted by the media to comment on the issue to make “no comment”. My rationale was simple: You don’t know the specifics of what happened and there exists no benefit to your company in commenting.

If you read through the comments that were left on that post about the wine train incident you’ll see that this appeared to many to be an unconscionable position to take. But it wasn’t and it’s not today. What you’ll see in those comments are a number of opinions clearly driven by the emotion of the moment. This emotional response to divisive, controversial issues is also likely to be one of the primary prompts for any response to a wine company speaking out on an issue today where that company is not intimately connected to the issue they are commenting upon. If you want to get a sense of what these kinds of emotional responses look like, open up your Twitter or Facebook app and scroll for a moment or two. My guess is that it won’t take long to find a reference to Hitler and Nazis.

There may be an era, down the road, in which social conventions demand companies large and small take public stands on the important issues of the day lest they suffer financially for their malfeasance. But this is not that era.

This era is one in which the wrong opinion, expressed in the wrong way and heard by the wrong person, who is inclined to broadcast the wrong opinion to millions of others with the aim of discrediting and dismantling the social viability of the commenter and their business is both commonplace and not too difficult to pull off. Moreover, it is important to recognize that the threat of being “canceled” and its fallout impacts not merely the owner or director of a company, but also the employees of the company, the people whose lives and their family’s lives are dependent upon the continued viability of the business. This era we are in today does not often reward one-off statements of opinion and often can do damage.

Recognizing the dangers of speaking politically to the brand and its employees it is true, as Rob McMillan and Amy Hoopes contend, that younger consumers are more concerned with the social commitments of the companies to which they turn their attention. Studies and surveys have shown, for example, that environmental issues and sustainability are the primary concerns that motivate Millennials and beyond to engage or not engage with a company. This is a social issue with which the wine industry and its varied companies are intimately familiar and is an issue that seems ripe for them to comment upon in an unsolicited fashion without risking much harm. But these kinds of issues are few and far between.

So my formal advice on wine companies making public statements on divisive issues remains the same: Rarely is the company’s profitability enhanced by proactively taking a public stand on behalf of your wine business and it is best to resist the urge to engage in the political and social controversies of the day.

Finally, to those who, despite the risk to their own business and to the jobs of those they employ, still insist that they have a moral or ethical or personal obligation to speak on controversial issues from the pulpit of their position as a business owner, I would relate the following:

1. The risk of a business being harmed by public backlash for an opinion or statement still falls primarily to those expressing ideas perceived to fall on the rightwing side of the opinion spectrum. However, going forward this could change.

2. Backlash is normally reserved for people who work in social and cultural institutions such as academia, media, trade associations, and the like. 

3. If a backlash results from a company’s statement on controversial issues, it will almost always come via social media. 

4. There are ways to fight back against a mobbing in response to a controversial public statement and anyone preparing to make what is likely to be a divisive public statement ought to be familiar with such methods in advance of speaking out. 

4. Public statements unrelated to your business ought to be very carefully prepared and the method of their transmission also considered very carefully. Statements should almost always be vetted through more than one person prior to releasing and it’s not the worst idea to show them to an attorney. 

5. No public statement on an issue, controversial or not, should ever be wishy-washy. No one should wonder, after reading or hearing the statement, where you stand on an issue. It makes no sense at all to take on the risks of wading into a controversial or divisive social issue if you do not intend to make as powerful and forceful and rational a statement as possible.

Posted In: Culture and Wine


16 Responses

  1. Paul Franson - January 24, 2021

    On a related issue, the fact that some winery owners contributed to Republicans enabling Trump and/or Trump himself have certainly impacted perceptions. There are a lot of other winery owners out there as alternatives.

  2. Chris - January 24, 2021

    I agreen with your position wholeheartedly, Tom. I thought the same watching the webinar. I don’t see the point of the risk of alienating half of your potential customers. The situation is far too volatile right now.

  3. Alan Goldfarb - January 24, 2021

    Silence = Complicity

  4. Tom Wark - January 24, 2021

    Alan, Alan, Alan….Of this means that any issue a winery does not speak out on one way or another means they are complicit in any harmfulness they are not speaking out on. It’s gonna take a lot of publicists a lot of time to put out all those press releases and tweets and facebook posts condemning so many harmful things. How are you my friend?

  5. Mary Taylor - January 24, 2021

    I speak out as the spirit calls me to and I don’t worry about blowback because my brand is an extension of myself and I’m not trying to manipulate anyone – just be as honest as possible about how trump should be locked up for 50 years and how racist bigots need to step off. If I lose business for that, great. Hate Colin Kaepernick (for example)? Don’t buy my wine. I really don’t care, do u?

  6. Alan Goldfarb - January 24, 2021

    Tom, Tom, Tom: That’s. precisely the point my good and honorable friend. If we don’t speak out — and by “us” I mean white folks — there is no chance this sickness will ever begin to heal.

  7. Rob McMillan - January 24, 2021

    Tom – Isn’t it wonderful to disagree and not throw each other under the bus? I wish public dialogue would return to the days when it was ok for friends to have different opinions without unfriending them.

    Thanks for covering the videocast. This isn’t an easy topic and was difficult for me, but I think it’s not only the right thing and the right time to support diversity, but without it – we can’t fully market to the consumers we desperately need.

  8. Jane Kettlewell - January 25, 2021

    Lead by example. Actions speak louder than words.

  9. EJ - January 26, 2021

    Well put. People come to wine, in part, to escape the conflict and share in something good, despite their political differences. Sometimes the world isn’t all about race or politics.

  10. Jem Macy - January 26, 2021

    Winieries speaking out on controversial issues for the purpose of seeming more authentic or woke to Millenials may not work as a marketing strategy–and it’s disingenuous in terms of the issues themselves (although it might help make progress on those issues anyway). Some companies speak out on some issues–look at Nike, Coca-Cola, Benetton etc. Wineries should take a public stand on issues they genuinely care about, issues that are particularly important in their town/region–and most of all issues they are ACTING on. For my winery it’s women’s roles and viticulture and winemaking that has a positive impact on wine quality and the environment. I care a lot about fairness to migrant workers, but I don’t use migrant labor so while I can shine some light on how it works, I can’t take a productive stand.

  11. acv - January 27, 2021

    How do you prove your company is a good company?

    I did not see Rob McMillian State of the Wine Industry talk this year. I have watched it in the past. It is my understanding of the entity SVB, and the folks running SVB, they seem to be fair, smart, and open-minded stewards of the community. Let us start with this as a foundation for the discussion. So, it was not lost on me, when SVB hired Angela Morris as their Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer.

    I understood the game and “liked” the post on the various Social Media platforms (a huge part of the equation), but I knew what the game was, and so does every single company that adds to its balance sheet the asset of equity, inclusion, diversity, climate change, etc.
    (>>Isn’t it wonderful to disagree and not throw each other under the bus? <<) Yes, yes, yes. But let us have a fair and open discussion on the risk and strategy of taking up divisive issues in the public square.

    Getting into divisive issues is a calculation. Using SVB as an example – a well thought out calculation. But Wente, and RNDC…and frankly the post from Pernod Ricard today that finally made me sit down and write this response are all equals in this race to prove they are good.

    Divisive issues are tripwires that if you are not careful your company can nick with their foot and set off a chain reaction. What are these issues? Gay, anything to do with women, everything to do with race, everything to do with Trans movement….and a little climate change to round it out. On the first four topics it might be noted (you can look) that these divisive issues primarily suck up the air of public discourse in the UK, Canada, USA, and Australia but you find bits in France, Spain, etc….not so much Eastern Europe. You get the gist. Not everyone is focused on this stuff.

    Why is there a current trend to hire diversity coaches in Corporate America? Why do banks and energy companies care about diversity? Because it is the cheapest move, they can make to avoid nicking a tripwire.

    After the crash of 2008, this is the cheapest thing a Bank can do and pretend that they are on the side of the very crowd who still very much want to see them hanged. Speaking up on divisive issues avoids having to pay a price in 2021. Angela Morris’ 6 figure salary? That is peanuts to a Bernie Sanders financial reform legislation bill. This is protection money for the banks. See, Fortune 500 companies understand the value of a society run on a meritocracy…. but if your business model is fossil fuels…. hell yeah…. we are all about diversity too. The brut politics of Virtue signaling.

    Yes. Corporate wokeness is the cheapest thing corporations can do to dodge things that would otherwise cost and come at them. Picketing. Boycotting. Lawsuits and god-awful legislation from Washington.

    So, (here is where it gets painful – so forgive me) …. So, I looked at SVB executive management. 8 white guys and 2 white women. SVB corporate board directors seem to be 8 white guys, 4 white women, and a new board member hired in October of 2020….who is a person of color. Angela Morris and every other company from RNDC to Pernod Ricard who hires a diversity coach is generally engaging in a strategy of deflection.

    So, if you have read this far the question is what are we talking about? We are talking about why companies find it necessary to speak out on volatile issues and the answer is – deflection, misdirection…. the “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” strategy in 2021.

    Do I think it is a noble aspiration for Amy Hopes at Wente to let millennials know that Wente is not a racist, homophobic, or xenophobic company? Of course.

    But if a company needs to tell you that no young girl growing up in America should be held back for being a girl (Adulthood and childhood). that’ Wente believes that being LGBT should not be a limiting factor in your career development or that whatever the color of your skin is that should not make you feel as if you are persona-non-grata in America the question should be asked why are these making these painfully obvious assertions?
    Is coming out against this stuff in such a vocal way erasing our differences or accentuating them for profit?

    Whatever your views are on these narratives this is looking an awful lot like companies seeking to fend off the wolves while protecting the bottom dollar of profit. Declarative statements like “Hey, racist you’re not welcome in the Wente tasting room, or if you are a man who thinks he’s a woman well rest assured at Silicon Valley Bank we want you to know you can choose the bathroom of your choice can be advocated (if they are at all needed) without the virtue-signaling press release.

    I get it. Companies are petrified to be called out. Wente and SVB and RNDC etc. etc. feel like if they do not get on board, they will look like they neanderthal companies of yesteryear – unintellectual corporations to the woke generation. No one is asking companies to take Kamikaze stances on either side of the argument. “Less is more.” KISS is a great acronym.
    The silent majority…. want their banks to not charge them unnecessary fees, their energy company to be as clean as they can be in extracting energy ….and their wine brands to deliver good wine at a fair price. I do not need, as Pernod Ricard said today in the social media blogosphere, to advocate their views/ interpretations on the current state of humanity's grand debates along with my liquor purchases.

    Why? Why? Why?

    Because Gay rights and Trans rights are in contention or total opposition. Trans would say a Tom-boyish girl is a boy in a girl’s body – get out the transition drugs and fast. While Gays are looking on and saying hold on that may a perfectly normal girl who is just likely to grow up to be a perfectly happy lesbian.

    Feminists look on and Trans advocates and say we feminists have been championing for decades that the very nature of womanhood is NOT to behave in a certain way or to look a certain way but that is exactly the argument Trans advocates are saying – I look and act like a woman. Therefore, you must call me a woman.

    Still trying to figure out if there is no such thing as the construct of sex (male/ female) then how can you be a man in a woman’s body…. but whatever…

    That is not even to touch the subject of “trans men” competing in female competitions and robbing females’ athletes of the very opportunities afforded to them in sports scholarships.
    And MLK’s grand thought do not judge someone by the color of their skin but rather the content of their character has now been set upside down on its head 50 years later.
    Identity Politics is a very strange, fragmented view of society which Amy thinks she is clarifying for millennials at Wente, but she is just as likely to create more tension – racial, sexual, or otherwise by trying to navigate the labyrinth of identity politics to sell a few more bottles to a select (very select) category of consumer. Amy, you work for a wine company. Stick to selling wine.

    Unfortunately, this is largely being driven by the Silicon Valley companies and social media outlets Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Their business models are precisely designed for customers looking to reach out to new customers and to modify their behavior to love or hate their product/ and or circumstances. The algorithms are looking more and more evil every day.

    The weaponization of social media against your company is a frightful thought. The problem is that the left is encouraging us to engage in is a never-ending game of equity – and that is why you should not engage in its discussion. The privilege game is the same – never-ending.

    The world has unfairness in it, it has inequalities in it and yes, some people are more advantaged than others….and yet the playing field has never been more level. Nevermore level. Perhaps companies that advocated more for the practice of showing a little gratitude by this privileged generation they wouldn’t’ need to do backflips over the latest outrage that comes with their morning coffee.

    I am still trying to figure out why the Court of Masters of Sommelier had to take a position on the George Floyd travesty….literally… why? I realize CMS ran into other trouble later last summer… I wonder why? Take note Wente, RNDC and SVB

    The victimhood game has no winners just losers.

    “While the endless contradictions and fabrications within identity politics are visible to all, identifying them is not just discouraged but policed. So, we are asked to agree to things we cannot believe.” – Douglas Murray “The Madness of Crowds”

    “I was a loyal Soviet citizen to the age of 20. What it meant to be a loyal Soviet Citizen is to say what you were supposed to say, to read what you are permitted to read, to vote the way you were told to vote and, at the same time, to know that it is all a lie” refusenik Natan Sharansky

    “One man who stopped lying could bring down a tyranny.” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

  12. acv - January 27, 2021

    Paul Franson way to push unity. Views you do not agree with are to be punished as some sort of thought crime. Supporting Trump makes you extreme and dangerous. There is a wine brand from the Republic of Georgia with Stalin’s picture on it. You should consider stocking your cellar with the brand.

    Alan Goldfarb have you met W. Blake Gray US wine editor for Wine-Searcher. I thought the Athenian model of democracy the very two learned wine writers would understand in this blogosphere is that everyone has a vote, and everyone’s voice matters equally. The form of democracy the two of you are currently championing mirrors more the democracy of the Iron Curtain under Soviet occupation. This new version of democracy is everyone feverishly agrees with the people in power or else we ruin their lives. The orthodoxy of groupthink is lost on you two. But a positive development has you both nominated for the NYT Walter Duranty award in journalism.

    Mary Taylor why lock Trump up? You are clearly a supporter of the party of racial lynching….and a genius I might add…. so, break out the torches, pitchforks and let us cut to the chase and string Trump up. We can hang him right next to the Chewbacca guy.

    “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” ― George Orwell, Animal Farm

  13. RH Drexel - January 28, 2021

    acv calling everybody out by name like a big swinging dick but identifies self anonymously with three little letters. Lol. Maybe get outside a get some fresh air,.acv.

    Rh drexel is a pen name for Sao Anash.

  14. acv - January 28, 2021

    Sao Anash are you still working at Muse Wine Management? You seem rather emotionally invested in learning my identity. Very W Blake Gray (US wine editor at Wine-Searcher) of you.

    So, addressing the arguments in the post again. You know what this is? TMI. Too much information that is coming across as exploitive.

    I thought about the Pernod Ricard folks a little more. Not sure which is more disturbing Their Absolute vodka campaign that went something like…

    Drink Buy Absolute vodka responsibly and you will not end up a date rapist. Way to shift the blame of being a date rapist to a product not a failure of character and upbringing. 5 stars to the marketing genius behind that.

    Or their recent board room decision that went something like this. –

    “So, we found this lady of color that we will hire to be our new North American director. She is perfect. Degree in business…. knows the industry somewhat. Best of all she was abused as both a child and adult and our plan from day one to exploit her life story to the woke generation to show the humanity of Pernod Ricard’s liquor brands.

    (cut to – Marketing department) “So, what we want to do is exploit your life story to sell a few more bottles of rum? Are you on board with us? Nods in agreement. After a moment “One question. Have you ever done this with a white male CEO?”

    (Marketing department) “Oh, no you can never get those guys to air their dirty laundry in product placement materials. (cue Awkward grins all around)

    With leadership like that in the Marketing department….by a white guy no less…. you wonder just how comical it is going to get over the next 4 years… it’s certainly getting interesting to see the push back on the folks at Wall Street.

    #Gamestop #RobinHoodInvestmentApp #HedgeFunds #ShortSelling

  15. RH Drexel - January 29, 2021

    Acv, maybe lay off the white claw a bit.

  16. acv - January 29, 2021

    I used to drink White Claw with my mom……god rest her soul. So, I am thinking of getting into the motel business this year. What do you think?

    Pernod Ricard – “Reimagined Absolute vodka citron not your mom and dad’s date-rape vodkas that you remember.”

Leave a Reply