San Francisco Chronicle

The disruptive power of wine influencer­s

As Instagram stars thrive, sexist backlash flares up

- By Esther Mobley

The ranks of social media influencer­s promoting wine are growing — and dividing opinions within the California wine industry. To some, the work of these influencer­s is crucial to the industry’s future. To others, it’s an abominatio­n.

Recently, several critics of these “vinfluence­rs” have been blunt: They’re “wannabes” practicing a form of “nauseating selfaggran­dizement,” according to writer James Lawrence. Many of them are fraudsters and cheats, blogger Jamie Goode asserts. In the Spectator, Lisse Garnett argues it’s hard to take their commentary seriously because of their “overly staged sex appeal.”

For other industries, like fashion or cosmetics, these sentiments will feel like old news. They’re a few years ahead of wine in terms of reckoning with influencer­s, those denizens of Instagram who can leverage their large followings to get paid by brands for product placements. For at least the past five years, even the slowtoadap­t wine industry has been engaging with them to some extent.

This fresh spate of vitriol is due in part to a pandemic trend: Wineries are finally starting to sell more wine online — and looking to influencer­s to help them do it. Many wine influencer­s say they’ve grown both their followings and pay rates since the pandemic began. One Napa influencer says she received two or three requests a week from brands seeking to partner before the pandemic. Now, she gets 10 to 12 per week.

But as the backlash shows, the change isn’t an entirely smooth one for the famously analog wine market, where less than 5% of sales occurred online in 2019, according to marketing firm Somm Digital.

The wave of disparagem­ent has exposed some disturbing­ly sexist

dynamics that have long existed in wine. The contempt for influencer­s — at least one of whom displayed an image with a “nipple poke,” as Garnett puts it — feels particular­ly ironic coming within an industry where women sommeliers report that customers repeatedly sexualize them. Women have accused leaders in the country’s top sommelier organizati­on of misconduct; in Sonoma County, a winery owner has recently been accused of sexually abusing women.

Meanwhile, the wine influencer­s are not going anywhere. In fact, they say, they’re just getting started. Which suggests that the wine industry will denigrate them — or just ignore them — at its own peril.


There’s good reason that the social media influencer market hasn’t been as robust for wine as for fashion or beauty. Few wineries invested in digital sales before the pandemic, relying mostly on sales to restaurant­s and through tasting rooms.

In the intensely visual medium of Instagram, wine has some major limitation­s. One glass of wine looks pretty much like every other, and even a distinctiv­elooking bottle doesn’t have the same aesthetic specificit­y as a plate of colorful, appetizing food. A user who is enticed to click through to a winery’s website might be shocked by high shipping prices, which are standard. All this means that when wineries engage in paid partnershi­ps with Instagram influencer­s, they can’t expect that it will directly result in bottle sales.

But some California wineries have been increasing their investment in influencer marketing anyway, largely in response to a lingering problem: Wine has struggled to gain traction with younger drinkers. The pandemic highlighte­d just how behind the times wineries have been in developing ecommerce businesses. In March 2020, just 3% of an average U.S. winery’s sales came from phone or ecommerce orders; by May, that figure shot up to 26% in part due to dramatic losses in restaurant and tasting room sales, according to figures provided by Silicon Valley Bank. Many wineries were racing to adapt.

Frank Family Vineyards in Napa Valley has engaged in influencer marketing for years — “We’ve built an entire team around it,” with a photograph­er and videograph­er, says marketing manager Marisa McCann. Their tactic is to send products, not cash, to influencer­s. For its most recent campaign, to promote a wine whose proceeds will benefit the James Beard Foundation, Frank Family sent wine and swag to 60 influencer­s, who ended up generating 20% of the wine’s total online sales.

The winery sees influencer marketing as a way to woo that elusive younger consumer. “Millennial­s are going to be the future of our industry, and we want to start capturing that demographi­c,” says McCann. “Our (influencer) campaigns are definitely geared toward that age group.”

A surge in requests from wineries seeking sponsored content meant that Paige Comrie, the Napa influencer whose business inquiries tripled, was able to quit her corporate job with Walmart last summer to devote herself full time to wine influencin­g.

“The pandemic honestly helped speed things along for me,” says Comrie, who has about 26,000 followers (up from 17,800 in January 2020) and a signature photo palette of dark, moody, saturated tones. “More wineries were ready to dive into digital marketing, and my audience improved dramatical­ly during that time.”

Wine marketing firm Colangelo & Partners in San Francisco says influencer marketing

has become a cornerston­e of its business and grew significan­tly last year. In 2016, only eight of the firm’s winery clients did any influencer marketing, and none of the influencer­s they worked with received any monetary compensati­on; today, Colangelo & Partners has 31 winery accounts using influencer marketing.

It hasn’t always been easy to get wineries on board, especially at first. “We have received pushback,” says Vice President Juliana Colangelo, mostly from wineries that don’t see a clear return on investment.

But, Colangelo tells the wineries, the benefits go beyond selling bottles. “Think about setting up a photo shoot — how much models cost, wardrobe, photograph­y, editing — that’s thousands of dollars,” she says. “Then think about an influencer. You’re giving them $300 and a bottle of wine.”

Though the wine influencer space is still small, it’s growing fast enough that it’s beginning to resemble a finely tuned science, says Kenya Thomas, who brokers deals between wineries and influencer­s for Colangelo & Partners. People with fewer followers may have higher engagement — a measuremen­t that accounts for shares, likes, comments and other interactio­ns with a post — and may actually persuade more people to buy a product.

“Kim Kardashian has millions of followers, but if you looked at her engagement rate you wouldn’t think she had the influence,” says Thomas.

Someone like Amber Lucas, on the other hand, who has about 12,000 followers, may provide a more instructiv­e view into the future of influencer marketing in wine.

Lucas became a wine influencer after dabbling in a more establishe­d line of influencin­g: fashion. She lives in Santa Rosa, so using Sonoma County wineries as backdrops for the outfits she was photograph­ing was only natural. Then around 2017, the wineries began to take notice, asking her to write posts about what to wear to wine tastings.

Soon she discovered an avid audience on Instagram for winefocuse­d content. After a while, she began supplement­ing her “organic” content — items she posts of her own volition — with paid partnershi­ps, in which Lucas might pose with a bottle (or a

Clif Bar, or a carton of plantbased milk), clearly marking it as an #ad.

Lucas says she believes she’s cultivated “a very targeted audience.” Her followers know what she stands for — that she cares just as much about how a winery treats its workers as what its Pinot Noir tastes like — and appreciate the downtoeart­h tone of the wine education she can provide, she says.

Despite her successes, Lucas says it’s still an uphill battle to get some wineries on board. While fashion has engaged with influencer­s for over a decade, “it’s 2021, and there’s still wineries that are unsure,” she says.

Part of the issue, as Lucas sees it, is that wineries aren’t used to paying for media coverage. That’s frustratin­g to her, because, unlike a freelance magazine writer, she’s not getting paid by the platform that publishes her work. And she believes she brings more to the table than just writing a favorable review of a wine. On top of that, behind the scenes, she has to be her own bookkeeper, website programmer and agent.

It’s a hustle, and it usually has to coexist with a day job. That raises the question of whether the arrangemen­t is viable for influencer­s in the long term. Many, like Comrie, have paid for formal education through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, where a nineweek advanced intermedia­te course typically runs close to $1,000.

Influencer­s’ pay varies wildly. According to Colangelo & Partners, “nano” (up to 1,500 followers) or “micro” (up to 15,000) wine influencer­s tend to require small fees, up to a couple hundred dollars. Other times, they simply want product exchanges — a bottle of wine, a free tasting at the winery, swag — for sponsored posts or stories. “Midtier” influencer­s (20,000100,000) can command anywhere from a few hundred dollars to around $2,000 per post. Above the 100,000followe­r threshold, there are few personalit­ies focused exclusivel­y on wine.

It’s a reflection of the fragile symbiosis wine influencer­s are locked into with the industry they cover. As much as the wineries need promotion, the influencer­s need content — a constant, neverendin­g stream of it. What’s more, they depend on paid partnershi­ps not just for income but for validation. Without documented evidence that a wine brand is paying them, they’re just another somebody posting on Instagram. A brand with clout may be able to get away with paying influencer­s less, or not at all. “Posting about a certain Champagne, for example, could give them notoriety,” Colangelo says.

This is a complete restructur­ing of the role played by traditiona­l journalism and wine publicatio­ns, which have always been vulnerable to perception­s that there might be paytoplay elements in their editorial process. In the past, accused wine publishers like James Suckling and Natalie MacLean have vigorously defended themselves; if they were influencer­s today, they might welcome such claims. (The Chronicle’s wine coverage is entirely independen­t and is not influenced by any advertisin­g interests.)

Influencer­s love to say that they work only with brands they actually stand behind, and Comrie thinks her followers believe that of her. “If it’s a paid partnershi­p, I try to disclose that within the first two sentences,” she says. “But since it’s always a brand I am personally interested in, it’s still going to come across as authentic.”

Admittedly, this requires a shift in our understand­ing of what “authentici­ty” means. That may help explain why so much of the wineindust­ry establishm­ent has been slow to warm to wine influencer­s.

But it doesn’t explain it entirely. Some of it, influencer­s say, is just oldfashion­ed sexism.

Garnett, the author of the Spectator article, implies that influencer­s who capitalize on their physical attractive­ness are discrediti­ng themselves as authoritie­s on the subject of wine. “Turning wine into a softporn shoot should be a major turnoff,” Garnett writes, later complainin­g that it’s a shame that a 30year wineindust­ry veteran might now have to occupy “the same stage as a twenty something marketeer who is smart enough to work the system but knows bugger all about Burgundy.”

It’s an argument that sounds downright antiquated, not far from the idea that beautiful women don’t deserve to be taken seriously. It also explains why newcomers to the wine industry might find social media an appealing platform in the first place. If some establishe­d wine writers believe that only people with three decades of experience are entitled to expertise, then it’s no wonder the “twenty somethings” are looking for another entry point.

“The fact that it’s overwhelmi­ngly female puts a target on it,” says Liz Paquette, director of brand for alcohol delivery platform Drizly and onehalf of a wine influencer duo posting as @millen nialsdrink­wine. The recent stream of critical articles, she says, has been “uninformed and shallow.”

All of the wine influencer­s I spoke with sounded a similar sentiment. They were disappoint­ed, but not remotely surprised, by the unkind words, given the overwhelmi­ngly older, male nature of the wineindust­ry establishm­ent.

They know that posting photos of themselves in cute outfits, offering bitesize nuggets of “Wine 101” content and engaging unabashedl­y in paid promotions flies in the face of traditiona­l wine communicat­ions. It’s different not only from newspapers and magazines, but also from the crop of digitalnat­ive wine review outlets that have arisen over the past two decades, like Vinous and Jeb Dunnuck, which likewise are maledomina­ted.

In fact, influencer­s may even threaten those publicatio­ns. While writer Lawrence might see influencer­s posting selfies as “nauseating selfaggran­dizement,” it’s a savvy business model with numbers to back it up. Instagram posts are 38% more likely to get likes and 32% more likely to get comments if they include a person’s face, a Georgia Institute of Technology study found. That may be due to a mix of the algorithm that Instagram sets and the complexity of human psychology. But an influencer who takes advantage of that is no different from any other entreprene­ur capitalizi­ng on an opportunit­y.

Research shows that more wineries would be wise to get in the game. A study from April 2020 by the influencer­marketing analyst Izea showed younger drinkers (ages 2129) were nearly twice as likely to have increased their wine consumptio­n since the pandemic began compared with the general population, and Instagram users more than three times as likely to have increased it compared with nonusers. In other words, the audiences that these wine companies would so desperatel­y like to reach are there, and their numbers will climb: In 2021, Instagramm­ers in the U.S. will reach 117.2 million, eMarketer predicts.

That’s not to say there aren’t some legitimate reasons for cynicism. As someone who writes about wine for a living, here’s what I think about: To the extent that influencer­s do threaten establishe­d wine communicat­ions, is something important about the way we talk about wine being lost? As wine education evolves to fit into a bitesize medium like Instagram (or, perhaps the next frontier, TikTok), is our collective attention span waning for more indepth, and less visual, informatio­n?

And it’s not clear how equitable the enterprise is for the influencer­s themselves: Is getting paid in wine or a few hundred dollars per post enough, especially when they’re subject to the omnipotent algorithm? It can be a punishing master: What looks like “selfaggran­dizement” from the outside may, on the inside, be an uncomforta­ble blurring of one’s public and private life. And the algorithm could always change on a dime, instantly crushing someone’s hardearned business.

Then again, Paquette has another take on why posts about wine or any other product that include a beautiful woman’s face — or, yes, her bikiniclad body — tend to perform better. It isn’t just about sex appeal, she says. In her view, it isn’t exploitati­ve at all.

“People have a strong desire to connect and know who we are,” she says. “I believe this is a really human channel.”

“The fact that it’s overwhelmi­ngly female puts a target on it.”

Liz Paquette, wine influencer, about criticism of her field

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 ?? Photos by Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle ?? Above: Instagram wine influencer Amber Lucas poses as a friend takes photos of her at Lambert Bridge Winery in Healdsburg. Fun, flirty imagery is part of the game. Below: Lucas tastes Lambert Bridge wine.
Photos by Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle Above: Instagram wine influencer Amber Lucas poses as a friend takes photos of her at Lambert Bridge Winery in Healdsburg. Fun, flirty imagery is part of the game. Below: Lucas tastes Lambert Bridge wine.
 ?? Photos by Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle ?? Julien Tremblay of Lambert Bridge Winery in Healdsburg serves Ryan Robinson (center) and wine influencer Amber Lucas, who documents the moment on Instagram.
Photos by Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle Julien Tremblay of Lambert Bridge Winery in Healdsburg serves Ryan Robinson (center) and wine influencer Amber Lucas, who documents the moment on Instagram.
 ??  ?? Lucas, 35, jots down notes during a wine tasting at Lambert Bridge Winery. Some wineries have embraced influencer­s.
Lucas, 35, jots down notes during a wine tasting at Lambert Bridge Winery. Some wineries have embraced influencer­s.

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