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The Social Media Interviews – Virginia Wineries – Part I:  Breaux Vineyards

As a follow up to my post three weeks ago – Social Media: Do Virginia Wineries Get It? – I contacted several Virginia wineries that are ‘actively’ engaged in social media to solicit their input on how they are utilizing social media tools to connect with consumers. Today’s post is the first in a four part series featuring Virginia wineries that are leveraging social media tools to connect, communicate and build their brand (and setting a great example for others).

My initial post on the subject was intended to create (or continue) dialogue between Virginia wineries, PR folks, bloggers, and me, with the hope that we could all learn from each other.  The number of comments/responses surprised me – as did the position several of the respondents took. Unfortunately, a few of the ‘most colorful’ responses were sent to me via email, and would not comment directly to the post.

One of the disagreements came from an unexpected source – a friend of mine who knows a tremendous amount about wine, and in particular, a lot about Virginia wine.  As we discussed why he feels Virginia wineries do not need to embrace/leverage social media, one of the primary reasons he cited was the amount of tasting room traffic wineries have on the weekends – especially those wineries located on one of the ‘Wine Trails.’   (in fairness, I paraphrased his comments here for brevity)

I categorically disagree with the notion that wineries – especially small Virginia wineries – do not need to embrace/leverage social media simply because their tasting rooms are packed on the weekends.  I’ve only come across a few wineries that appear satisfied with their current level of sales with no desire for future sales growth or winery expansion.  Most of the winemakers and winery owners I’ve spoken to all have plans (and desire) for near-term growth.

Although social media is certainly not the panacea of winery success, it is a medium that cannot be ignored – Virginia wineries are going to have to embrace social media (just my opinion – highly unlikely that I’m wrong) to stay competitive.

To continue the dialogue, and to make the case to those ‘social media hold outs,’ I went directly to the source – one of Virginia wine industry’s most active social media practitioners – Jennifer Breaux-Blosser of Breaux Vineyards.   (Editorial Note:  some responses were condensed)

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About Breaux Vineyards: Breaux Vineyards is located just west of Leesburg, VA in the town of Purcellville.   In 1994 the Breauxs found themselves captivated with a picturesque piece of Virginia landscape that would rapidly evolve into one of the fastest growing wineries in Virginia. Along with scenic views, there were 3 acres of grapes on the 404-acre property that were planted in 1985.  Breaux now has over 100 acres under vine.

Assisted by Dave Collins, who would later become Breaux Vineyard’s winemaker, the Breauxs soon began making hobbyist wines. Discovering that their home-produced wines were more popular among friends and guests than many commercial offerings, the Breauxs collaborated with Dave to begin producing commercial wines at an even higher level of quality by investing in all new state-of-the-art wine making equipment and using proven vineyard practices, such as planting, harvesting and sorting by hand.

The winery and vineyard are managed and operated by Jennifer Breaux-Blosser, daughter of owner, and Chris Blosser, son-in-law of owner.  Breaux is the largest wine-grape producer in the state of Virginia and sells over 65% of their fruit to other wineries. All Breaux wines are made from Breaux Estate grown fruit that is harvested by hand, pressed on site, aged and bottled at our facility.

When did you begin using Social Media?

We started with Facebook about 3 years ago and Twitter about 15 months ago. I was very pro-active with Facebook right away with a great response. After setting up my Twitter account, it took several months before I really understood what Twitter was all about and before I was comfortable engaging with people there.

What social media tools do you currently use (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Blogging, Ning, etc.)?

Twitter, facebook, LinkedIn, Ning(thanks to you!), blog has been started but not live yet,  You Tube, Cruvee, foursquare, flickr, meetup, Stumbleupon, digg, Delicious, friendfeed, open wine consortium and  other wine –based sites that are mostly for trade purposes.

Do you have a defined approach in terms of how you spend your social media time (formal Twitter strategy, specific customer acquisition plan, limited to Facebook, etc.)?

I monitor Facebook and twitter daily – even when I don’t have time to commit to more than a few minutes. On days when I know I don’t have time to spare, I check in and at least search my business name for mentions, certain hash tags and see if anyone may be visiting my winery or asking a question etc. Even on my busiest days, I have time to send a quick invitation to visit or a tweet of thanks to someone who RTs (ReTweets). I check Facebook daily as well. My Twitter status automatically posts to Facebook (def. not the other way around!) just in case I only have time for one. I do log onto Facebook several times each day – regardless of the amount of time I have to check on what’s going on and to change my status, add events, and chat with people/patrons etc.  I find that I have more of a local presence there and people are so active and ready to engage that I can’t resist.  Cruvee is awesome and helps me to stay on top of ALL the buzz around Breaux Vineyards. I’m learning daily how to be more efficient without forsaking the quality. My strategy is not formal at the moment; however, I do have defined goals within my informal approach. They are:

  • Engage daily on Twitter and Facebook, keep the Facebook status fresh and fun, interesting and relevant and check Cruvee daily.
  • Commit 1 hour daily minimum to allow for “engagement.”
  • Commit to creating long-lasting relationships with writers, bloggers, consumers and doubters of VA wine.
  • Nurture the relationships with our current customers that connected with us via Social Media.
  • Regularly research other social media sites to pursue new opportunities.
  • Track the success of our efforts and ROI via Google analytics, Google alerts and point of sale among other things.
  • You Tube when possible and link all sites back to our website (currently under construction).
  • Regularly invite advocates of my trade to be a part of our industry and business (events, tastings, etc.).
  • Stay on top of the latest trends in technology in order to support the growing trends in SM.
  • Read and respond to blogs that are relevant.

If so, please describe how you developed this strategy.

I’m currently working on a more comprehensive plan for our social media based on what I am learning in my research and from others. We have a marketing plan in place for our company and have added social media as our #1. Although it’s in the plan, it’s also noted that it should not be used like traditional advertising. Our strategy includes using Social media as a tool to gain and retain customers while organically communicating with them and being available to them. Getting people interested in our business, wines and mission.

Has Breaux Vineyards realized quantifiable results from utilizing social media (increased tasting room traffic, sales, buzz, media attention, etc.)?

Absolutely! All of the above. Our tasting room is always busy so I encourage people who I’m “connected” with to let me know when they’re visiting. This helps me to loosely track the results of my efforts.  I get to meet so many patrons this way (face-to-face) and this connection helps with customer retention and satisfaction.  Most weekends, I meet a new face to the winery that I’ve connected with on Twitter or Facebook. People will come in and ask for me because they had tweeted with me or exchanged dialogue on Facebook – that justifies using social media for me. Our current customers who are active in social media love that there is a fast and fun way to connect. They’re gaining satisfaction and with that, I am again retaining customers. Those people do make purchases when they come in and they also refer their friends and family to us. I can post info about events and sell tickets as a result, or post a sale on one of the sites and immediately see the results. During the horrible blizzard we had to close for about 2 weeks total.  I got creative and had a “sneaux sale” and for every inch that fell, my online prices on wine fell. On a day that was dismal, I was able to have some fun with customers and made a few thousand dollars for the winery. I don’t do that sort of thing often so my followers accepted me giving them a “sales incentive” and they didn’t react by ceasing their follow.

As far as media buzz, where do I begin? Social Media has given us a platform to the world that we would not have otherwise. When we decided to export our wines to London, we participated in the London International Wine Fair and as we were traveling, I was tweeting and made great connections. We had writers and bloggers stop by our booth that had no plans to do so until they saw my tweets. It added validity to our business. Those connections provided buzz from London back into the US via Twitter. The local bloggers and writers have been an incredible resource for us as well. They create such an awesome excitement to an audience that is at our front and back door. I know that many of our Twitter followers are a result of the blogger influence. I believe that our supportive VA bloggers give “permission” to the rest of the world to enjoy wine from this wonderful, emerging wine region. Most people would not even think twice about following me unless they are from my area or have visited – especially those who are wine writers, “snobs or from the leading 4 wine regions in the US. Our local bloggers have clout and often times open the doors for us for many opportunities. They certainly help us gain market presence and validity. These are the people who I want to create relationships with and who can really teach the wineries so much about social media. They want us to succeed, after all.

Since many Virginia wineries are small, family-run operations with limited staff, finding time to devote to social media can be a real challenge.  Despite many of the same time constraints, you have found time to include social media in your marketing strategy.  What advice can you share with your fellow Virginia wineries on how to work thru the time constraints of the social media learning curve and how to best use their social media time?

With the lack of staffing and limitless hours put into work days, it’s easy to drop the ball on social media.  I still struggle with the balance of home life and work life as we all do in this industry. The two comingle and that’s just the way it. Like so many of us, I need 4 clones of myself in addition to the 5 other staff members I also need to get just the basics of every day complete.  I recommend taking the time to at least learn how to create and manage a Facebook account – it’s the most efficient way to see results almost immediately. A minimum of 20 minutes each day is my recommendation while you are getting acclimated to the process. 20 minutes allows for simple updates and other “bare minimums”. That encouragement of your success in gaining a presence via followers and feedback will push you to further build your site and plant the seed of soon-to-be addiction to social media. After that point, my recommendation is to spend at least 1 hour each day engaging via SM. This will help create actual relationships and propel your mission to success. You’ll have a great following in no time at all and you’ll quickly realize the potential and be sold on its significance for your winery.  I’m not a believer (yet) in paying someone to run social media for the VA wineries. By that I mean no “outsourcing” to PR firms who have to rely on you to give them your message. We’re currently emerging and morphing as an industry and people want to be connected to the people behind the wineries, vineyard and wines. It’s important to get your message out via social media in a personal manner.  Again, take the time to learn how to at least start a Facebook account and the rest will follow.  As I mentioned before, utilizing the skills of others around you may be necessary – a staff member, one of your kids or grandkids or fellow members in the wine industry are all great resources. Bottom line, SM is free with exception to the time you’d spend anyway creating an ad for a publication. Just do it!

Given your experience thus far with social media, what are your lessons learned, and how will your approach change (if at all)?

I have learned that SM is so much more fun and effective than traditional means of getting my message out. I’m becoming slightly addicted and am learning as much as I can about it. It has helped our business to grow and gain validity within the wine community and allowed me the pleasure of fostering new friendships along the way. If I could change anything it would have been to immerse myself sooner than I did. As we grow, I am turning over my marketing to another member of my team but not social media. I see it as relationships I’ve created and I’m not willing to turn my “friends” over to someone else. My goal is to keep learning and keep getting better as we mature in our SM efforts, launch our blog and have some fun along the way with the people we get to “meet”.

Congratulations to Breaux Vineyards - 2002 Merlot Reserve was selected as favorite red wine at the Drink Local Wine Twitter Taste Off on April 25, 2010. Pictured: Chris and Jennifer Blosser.

Editorial Disclaimer: Your humble correspondent is by no means a social media or wine expert – not even close!  Rather, I write thru the lens of a passionate wine enthusiast, advocate of the Virginia wine industry, observer of trends from a common sense perspective, and user of social media.

Tomorrow we hear from Chris Wolf at Doukenie Winery and their thoughts on social media.

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