Marketing Wine from a Difficult Vintage


By Patricia Denci

The allure of wine is how it changes in the bottle from one vintage to the next. Even within the exact same vineyard, grapes and winemaking techniques vary from year to year as Mother Nature leaves her indelible mark on each vintage. Some years prove to be more challenging than others. As a wine marketer, knowing how to maneuver around the difficult years is part of the job. While most remember 2020 as the year of a global pandemic, for the wine industry in Northern California, 2020 is renowned as one of the most trying vintages. The results provide marketers with insights into ways to approach future vintage challenges.

Napa Valley in 2020

When the 2020 growing season began the region was well into an ongoing drought, translating to lower grape yields with higher concentration. This was a potential bright side for the winemaker. While there will be less wine produced, the theory goes the wine will be highly concentrated offering a robust flavor profile. All signs of a good wine vintage. Then the fires came. First in August, with lightning strikes sparking fires in Napa Valley. A separate blaze in September, the Glass Fire, is now heralded as one of the most destructive fires in the valley’s history. Even for vineyards that avoided the path of the fires, thick smoke presented concerns of smoke taint. For the growers and wineries, the question loomed regarding grape and vintage quality.

Responses to 2020 Vintage
According to the Napa Valley Vintners, 80% of their members made some amount of wine from the 2020 vintage, but several Napa Valley winemakers chose to skip the vintage all together. This was especially true for luxury brands that produce offerings focused on exceptional quality fruit that showcase the terroir from historic vineyards. Brands that skip a vintage entirely reaffirm their values and commitment to quality, assuring consumers that they will only craft wines out of the best wine grapes to produce high-caliber wines. This decision can build consumer trust and attract followers to seek out future, more favorable vintages.

One brand’s choice to skip a vintage can put pressure on other wine brands that make the decision to release wines in a tough year. Even if grape sources were outside the path of the Glass Fire, how do brands promote a wine that’s automatically associated with a challenging vintage?

The San Francisco Chronicle explains that “many wineries would sooner dump out millions of dollars’ worth of product than put a damaged one on the shelf.” During a difficult vintage, the winemaker serves as the gatekeeper responsible for ensuring every wine meets or exceeds brand quality standards. Leveraging the knowledge and vintage insights from the winemaking team provides marketers with essential tools needed to tell the story of a wine, particularly in challenging times. Fruit for one Cabernet Sauvignon may have been harvested before the fire and the wine is tasting beautifully, while another may have fruit harvested after the fire, giving the winemaker pause. The winemaker’s experience with the vintage helps mold the brand’s story, giving marketers the reinforcement they need to message either way.

A challenging vintage also gives brands an opportunity to leverage scarcity as part of quality.
According to the 2020 Grape Crush Report, Napa County crushed approximately 37% less tons of grapes in 2020 compared with 2019. With less wine available, brands can leverage the limited supply and promote the scarcity of the wines, creating demand as part of their marketing efforts. Wine expert Karen MacNeil explains “because there won’t be a lot of 2020 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon around in years to come, collectors are already snapping up the few beautiful wines that were made.”

The 2020 vintage in Napa Valley presented challenges for the vintners, winemakers and marketers alike. Now as the wines release, marketers will work to position their winery’s approach to 2020 as part of the brand’s storytelling to consumers. As we say to our wine clients, it’s the story behind the many unique aspects of each wine vintage that help draw consumers in while making the wines stand out.