7 ways California wineries can connect with customers sheltering at home

Digital Marketing

Shana Bull is a marketing educator and digital storyteller, working with wine, food, hospitality businesses, teaching classes on marketing, and freelance writing. Reach her with your questions about digital marketing at,

@sharayray on Instagram or at

Read past columns at

See more business coverage of COVID-19.

There's a right time for everything, and the right time for your social media communications crisis plan is now.

I have shared details about how to create a five-step social media action plan for business during a crisis and how to keep relationships with customers after disasters. Both articles focused on the North Bay during the fires, but they are also relevant during a worldwide pandemic that is hurting so many in the hospitality business.

Like with any crisis, rules change so quickly that regular communication with your customers is necessary. (Keep your plans up to date through the Wine Institute or the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, aka the ABC.) Right now, the best way to keep your customers updated is through social media, emails, the homepage of your website, and personal phone calls and DMs (direct messages) if appropriate.

Connections matter more right now than ever before

During hard times, it is easier to focus on current customers than on acquiring new ones. Potential customers may not be planning vacations right now, but marketers can focus on their energy on furthering the connection current customers have with your brand. ?

You may have heard that it costs more money to acquire new customers than to focus on your current ones.

This is an excellent time to move some of your marketing budget from trying to get new customers (like ads going to a "visit us" page) to upselling products or services. Update customers with what you are doing at your business to stay clean and safe, perhaps while still being able to ship or provide pickup services at your winery. You can do this by sharing details on social media, creating ads for some of your promotions, and engaging with your customers even more than you share.

Focus on long-term customer loyalty and invite them back once this is all over.

Keep your customers updated through social media: 12 steps

This is as simple as sharing daily posts across all of your social media channels about what is going on at your business. Things are changing quickly, so posting as frequently as necessary is helpful.

1. Be honest about what is happening, even if you are not sure what is going on.

2. Stop all forms of “business as usual” posts; this includes scheduled posts, automated emails, and ads (because an ad inviting people to the winery when you are closed is misleading, and wasteful of your budget).

3. Post uplifting content about your products, but make sure to be empathetic to what your customers are going through.

4. Wine makes people happy and brings some normalcy to daily life for many people stuck at home. People are looking for this! Share content that makes people smile.

5. Be aware of what you and your employees are sharing on your profile pages (these are an extension of your brand).

6. Share links of how your company, or community is helping others.

7. Keep things personal. People do business with other people, and the connection is what people will remember long after visiting your location, sipping on a glass of your wine, or connecting on Instagram.

8. Create personalized video clips or voice messages to share in your best wine club members' DMs/emails, asking them how they are doing (this is not a place to sell unless they ask).

9. Share behind-the-scenes videos, go live on Facebook or Instagram, or do virtual wine tastings, which many wineries have started doing.

10. Create an opportunity to connect through a shared experience of something both you and your customers value (i.e., gardening, sustainability, cooking, entertaining, etc.).

11. Listen more, talk less. If you don't listen to your customers, you'll never understand them.

12. Brainstorm with your team (remotely over video) to think of personalized ways to connect with your customers (e.g., hand-written notes, adding a custom gift to every order, custom videos from the wine club manager, etc.).

Virtual wine tastings go viral

Virtual wine tastings can happen with a general 21-and-over crowd through social networks like Facebook or Instagram, in which winemakers or owners can open up a bottle of their wine and share it live. If you are looking to go this route, make sure to bring something other than “tasting wine online” to the table. Right now customers are looking online to connect with others, get out of their own heads for a bit, and bring some happiness to daily life.

Get in the dirt and find a shared experience with your customers

Dirty & Rowdy Wines in Calistoga has been doing things differently for years. Their core business focuses on online & email sales, events, distribution, and relationships. Even 11 years ago when they first started, they wanted to do something different than the typical winery tasting room. With each experience (both online and in-person) they have with their customers, it is so much more than just about the wine. The co-founder, Hardy Wallace says, “we stripped our winery down to heart, sole and rocks. It was just two guys and a barrel and our customers could see themselves in that.”

Digital Marketing

Shana Bull is a marketing educator and digital storyteller, working with wine, food, hospitality businesses, teaching classes on marketing, and freelance writing. Reach her with your questions about digital marketing at,

@sharayray on Instagram or at

Read past columns at

See more business coverage of COVID-19.

Their passion for relationships lent naturally to social media marketing, where they share details about their own story, and behind the scenes, but they also make the experience about the customers on their own accounts like @dirtysouthwine on Instagram. For one of their virtual tastings, they sent wine to Grammy-award-winning musicians who played live, and shared playlists with new releases. The experience made it more of an interactive show for their customers. And it made sense for their brand.

For your winery, try to make your virtual wine tastings about something more than just the wine. Something that only your winery can share with your customers.

Paw-some marketing on social media

Bad pun aside, Alison Smith-Story and her husband, Eric, have chronicled the story of their small winery on social media since the beginning stages. Along for the ride, their goldendoodle named Sandwich happens to have almost 80,000 followers on Instagram at @sandwichthedoodle.

How did he do it? Other than being adorable, he also has a charity called Socks for Sandwich, which is a non-profit organization that donates and promotes giving new socks to those in need.

He also sells his own wine, Lord Sandwich Red Table Wine, and a sauvignon blanc. When the tasting room is open, he even greets the excited guests (and many times they share pictures of themselves with him).

The husband and wife duo are very personable on their social media. It makes people feel like they are a part of something, even if they have never met.

Make a virtual wine tasting more intimate

Gary Farrell Winery and Inman Family Wines, both in Russian River Valley, have implemented a virtual wine tasting program, bringing the Wine Country experience directly to the homes of consumers nationwide. Wine lovers who purchase one of Kathleen Inman's wine packages consisting of three of her pinot noirs, chardonnays, rosés, and sparkling wines are invited to her “meet the maker” chats, but the best part of this experience is that part of the proceeds from each package goes to Meals on Wheels, a charity helping feed those in need.

At Gary Farrell, guests are invited to “taste virtually” with their estate sommeliers, going through a series of six different bottles. In both instances, guests are only invited if they purchase the wines, so attendees can sip alongside while they chat online.

Just show up on social media

What is essential right now is connecting with your customers. Sales come when we show up for one another. This is not a time to go silent on social media, nor to become a billboard that's trying to push regular transactions without having a solid reason (e.g., $1 shipping, a new release, a recipe, or gardening tips, or an exclusive virtual tasting).

Many businesses are trying to sell at the expense of losing the relationship with a customer. Customers are being bombarded with emails from every business they ever subscribed to, being asked to purchase something. They're hitting “unsubscribe” very quickly right now. If you send out an email, try to make it less about sales, and more similar to your social media posts by creating value and keeping your customers updated.

We are all worried about the state of our businesses since we have no idea when this pandemic will end - but eventually, it will. When it comes to organic social media, it never has 100% been about pushing the sale. It is about creating relationships that make people want to support your company.

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