Unpacking Wine and Engagement in the U.S. With Alder Yarrow
This is Alder Yarrow, who on top of 23 years creating customer experiences for some of the world’s top brands also runs one of the internet’s most popular wine blogs; Vinography.
To say his combined passion for wine and career in the digital experience space make Alder a rich source of knowledge for the industry is a gross understatement. That’s why you will also find Alder working as the strategic advisor for the team from Pix, a wine discovery platform, and as the Vice President of Glancy Wine Education Foundation, an organisation dedicated to making wine education accessible to all.
If you want to discover more about storytelling, consumer trends, digital marketing and sustainability in wine (and more) then we suggest you read on.
To start off, tell us a bit about Vinography…
Vinography is the place I do most of my wine writing (apart from my monthly column for Jancis Robinson, and occasional pieces for other outlets). It’s a labor of love that I’ve kept at for more than 17 years at this point, and has become my main creative outlet, hobby, and leisure time activity. Only half-joking, I like to tell people that it’s like knitting must be for some people. Writing about wine is what I like to do when I want to just do something relaxing by myself.
What motivated you to first start Vinography in 2004, which has since become one of the internet’s most highly rated blogs?
My whole career has been in the digital marketing and user experience domain, and at that point blogs were really on the rise, beginning to shape the field of journalism and starting to have a role in the nascent practice of content marketing. As a result, my corporate clients who were coming to me to help them design their websites and digital marketing efforts had started to ask me if they should start blogs. I realized it was something I needed to learn about, and being a fairly hands-on learner, I thought the fastest way for me to understand the medium was to start one myself. I didn’t have to think very long before deciding to start a wine blog. Wine had been a passion of mine for about nine years at that point, so off I went into the Wild West of blogging.
Wine largely revolves around storytelling, from how it was made to who made it. How do you feel is the best way for producers to tell these stories?
Let’s just begin with making sure stories get told to begin with. I’m constantly surprised at how many producers don’t seem to bother to do any storytelling at all beyond the very minimum set of marketing messages that one is forced to create in the course of building a website.
Once a producer is committed to telling their story, then there’s not an easy or simple answer to your question, other than to say: “authentically.” That’s a pretty heady word, and a very subjective one, but in an age where we’re all constantly bombarded by narratives in every waking minute, we’ve all gotten really good at sniffing out the BS.
The most compelling stories are those that are motivated by someone’s beliefs, and driven by what they care about.
Connecting with consumers these days must be done authentically. So what does that mean? It means having personality, having a distinctive voice, and most importantly, having a point of view. The most compelling stories are those that are motivated by someone’s beliefs, and driven by what they care about. As long as those are all true, then there are a million different ways to share stories thanks to the proliferation of all the channels and media to which we all now have access. Instagram, TikTok, Clubhouse, YouTube, Podcasts, the list goes on and on. Each offers interesting opportunities, constraints, and access to different types of audiences.
What was it that led you to wine and working in the industry in the first place?
It’s still a little hard to think of myself as working in the wine industry. Mostly I think of myself as a journalist, and working in THAT industry, but with a focus on wine. As someone who still tries to play the role of a critic, it’s important for me to keep the industry whose products I evaluate at a little bit of arm’s length.
What do you wish wineries would spend more time and money on?
It strikes me there are two ways to answer this question.
As a business and brand strategist interested in the success and survival of the many small and mid-size wineries out here, the number one investment they have to make is in the long-term, digitally-based relationships they have with their customers. People say DTC (Direct To Consumer) as shorthand, but it’s much more than just being able to sell a bottle directly to a consumer on your web site. It’s acknowledging the fact that you have to build long-term, deep, and meaningful relationships with your individual customers and to nurture those relationships over time. Most wineries are overwhelmingly focused on production, and not enough on what happens after those bottles of wines leave the building.
…the number one investment they have to make is in the long-term, digitally-based relationships they have with their customers.
Wearing my hat as a wine critic, I wish wineries would spend more time and money on doing what they can to make sure they’re environmentally responsible and sustainable. That means doing whatever they can to get rid of all the toxic stuff like glyphosate (a weed killer) and velcorin (a preservative used by larger wineries) even if that means spending more time and effort doing things manually or taking some risks instead of solving problems with chemicals. That means finding the lightest-weight bottles they can use and creating less wastewater. There’s a lot that falls under this banner, but a focus on sustainability is good for everyone – for the planet, for the winery, for the people who work at the winery, and for those of us who consume their products.
Which wineries do you think are doing a really good job of engaging with their consumers, what are they doing?
I’ve always admired what Lisa Mattson does at Jordan Winery, what Hardy Wallace does at Dirty & Rowdy, and what Dan Petroski has been doing at both Larkmead and his own brand Massican. Each of those producers is wildly different in their personalities, yet have found ways to connect with their customers that transcend a transactional relationship.
How did you gain your reputation as a pioneer of wine blogging, and even “The Wine World’s Brightest Cyberstar” by San Francisco Magazine?
When I started Vinography in 2004, I did a search for the two-word phrase “wine blog” on google, and literally clicked on every single link that came up in the search results. If you can believe it, back then there were only a few pages of results for that search query, and among them I found only one other web site that described itself as a wine blog, and whoever had started it in 2003 had made a few posts, and then clearly abandoned the effort. So when I hung up my Vinography masthead and declared that I was not just any blog, but a wine blog, I was among the very first to do so in the English language. My output at the beginning was pretty constant, as I discovered that I actually enjoyed it as an activity, and by virtue of being one of the only people blogging about wine, Vinography attracted a lot of attention early on, and I won a lot of awards in my first few years of writing.
What do you think the biggest trends for wine in 2021 will be?
Questions like this are always tough to answer. As much as I disapprove of the concept, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the “clean wine” trend, which hits on many of the things that casual wine consumers care about. I think the pandemic has also seen an explosion in smaller and more varied wine containers, including an acceleration of the already hot category of wine-in-a-can. We’re going to see a lot of canned wine as well as little picnic-sized wines in the future.
As much as I disapprove of the concept, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the “clean wine” trend, which hits on many of the things that casual wine consumers care about.
I think we’re also going to see an explosion in wine country tourism once infection numbers come down and vaccines become widely available to everyone. I know I can’t wait to go sit on a lawn somewhere and drink wine with friends, let alone fly off to an exotic wine locale where I can soak up the local flavors.
We’re going to see a lot of canned wine as well as little picnic-sized wines in the future.
Finally, at least among products targeting the more serious wine drinking segment, I think we’re going to continue to see a proliferation of grape varieties and styles. We’re (thankfully) on a journey in the industry away from the traditional, stalwart “noble” grape varieties and towards the beautiful, nearly endless diversity that the wine world has to offer. Why drink yet-another Cabernet when you can sample Agiorgitiko or Mencia or Areni Noir?
Which trend in wine have you found the least enjoyable?
Wine aged in whiskey or bourbon barrels. I strongly dislike the overt taste of oak in wine to begin with. Aging wine in a whiskey barrel is like pouring gasoline on a fire for me. I’d be happy if I never tasted one again in my life.
Of all your work as a wine writer, what has been the most enjoyable piece you have produced?
It’s hard to think of a piece I enjoyed researching and writing as much as I did my in-depth profile of a tiny little wine region in Hungary called Somló – read it here.
You can also explore all of Alder’s work on his website, Vinography.