Follow your dream Part 2: How Cartograph Wines creates an experiential brand

Wine is such an experiential brand, I absolutely adore it. Not just for it’s lush taste, but no other everyday product in my mind comes close to evoking so much emotion, lifestyle or delight of the senses with one glass clink. There are so many branding lessons we can learn from our favorite wines and how they behave as businesses.

Continuing my interview with Alan Baker, Cartograph’s wine maker and owner, who we had the good fortune to meet on a trip to Healdsburg, California back in August. In Part One, we heard Alan’s amazing tale of how he got from radio engineering in Minnesota to winemaking in Northern California – and the four lessons he learned to make it happen.

Today, Alan shares how he effectively creates an experiential brand and differentiates from the competition.

RS: Glad to have you back, Alan! Tell us Cartograph’s brand story. How do you position it against the competition? What experience do you hope to convey and how do you do that in your customer interactions? 

AB: Both Serena and I come from other careers and we each found wine in different ways. Our brand story is right on our label. The logo shows the five points on the globe that brought us to wine and then brought us together to make wine. Wine is more about emotional connections and memories than simply about the perfect taste and aroma combinations. Putting a graphic representation of our story on the label helps people remember us and hopefully keeps our story in their minds if they have a great experience with our wines. (Tweet this!) Our brand is about those wonderful moments when an experience with a great bottle of wine gets etched into your mind forever. And while the front label tells our story, the back label plays to our nerdier side, illustrating the growing season and winemaking history for each wine. So looking at the labels you can get a sense for what the growing season was like for each vineyard.

If our customers know anything about us,  it’s that we personally handle every piece of our business from grape sourcing, through winemaking, and then personal correspondence after they buy our wine or join our club.

RS: What is the best branding lesson you have learned from building an “experiential” brand? What are some brand hits or misses you’ve experienced?

AB: Focus focus focus. Do one thing really well before branching out. (Tweet this!) As a winemaker, I’d love to play with a dozen grape varieties but we needed to knock Pinot out of the park and doing that first was my main goal. Now that we’ve had success with Pinot, we can do a few small specialty wines for club-only release but our public face is all about Pinot Noir.

What brand actions work? Winning fans by talking directly to them on social media and through other channels. Our most loyal clients are all connected with us on various platforms and we share a lot of ourselves with them.

Things that don’t work? We’re still learning the best way to run promotions to increase sales during slow times or to move more volume but discounting is not the way to do it in our circumstance. People see a premium product being discounted and they will wait until they see that price again to buy. There are other incentives to encourage purchasing. We can’t compete on price point due to our vineyard sources and tiny lot sizes. We have to give wine lovers an experience to remember and hopefully they become our friends.

RS: Wise words. What is your winery’s specialty wine or most popular seller that people should try?

AB: We are a very small winery and celebrate year-to-year vintage variations. A great example of how weather affects the finished wines is comparing our 2009 and 2010 Floodgate Vineyard Pinots. 2009 – warm year – is lush and round on the palate, a classic Russian River Valley Pinot. 2010 – cool year – is racy and vibrant with the focus on bright red fruit. It is a truly elegant wine that should be very age worthy. Both are great examples of Russian River Valley Pinot but quite different when tasted side by side.

RS: Now, some fun stuff! What is your favorite way to enjoy wine?

AB: Working as many hours as we do, we don’t have a lot of free time but those warm evenings when we get home in time to enjoy a glass of wine while plucking a few things out of the garden for dinner is a real treat.

Connect with Cartograph Wines: ~ Twitter ~ Facebook

Is your brand a commodity competing on price, or an experience that offers unique value? How does this impact your marketing tactics? And don’t forget to check out Cartograph for some great wine gifts…ho, ho, ho!

Follow your dream: Four entrepreneurial lessons from a radio engineer turned winemaker

Back in August, my husband and I stumbled upon a small microwinery and tasting room in downtown Healdsburg, Calfornia, Garagiste, which is a joint venture for two wineries, Cartograph and Stark. Thinking we’d just grab a quick taste and leave, we ended up enchanted by Alan Baker, Cartograph’s wine maker and owner.

Alan’s entrepreneurial story is fabulous: He’s a public radio engineer, turned blogger/podcaster, turned winemaker. With Cartograph, he produces ultra-premium Pinot Noir sourced from grapes from the best Northern California coastal vineyards. (PS, great holiday gift idea!)  His mission is to produce wines that are true to the vineyard and vintage from which they come.

As we sat and sipped, we loved the gothic, high-end feel of the stone gray tasting room and the interaction we had with the man who’d lovingly made the wines we were enjoying. We got to talking about how he loved that wine is such an experiential brand, and for that reason, so much care was taken in architecting and decorating the tasting room. Most wine lovers know that the joy is found in the experience of wine – and that can manifest whether you are spending $20 or $200 a bottle. It’s not about price: it’s about taste and experience.

But Alan is not just savvy about branding, he has a powerful entrepreneurial story, ripe with juicy lessons about planning, moxie, and following your dream – no matter how far down the bottom of the ladder you may need to start.

THIS IS A TWO PART INTERVIEW. In Part One, Alan shares how he got started in an industry he knew little about and parlayed a loyal audience into backers for his dream. In Part Two, Alan shares important lessons on crafting an experiential brand.

Here is Part One of Alan’s story with four lessons you can take to heart in your own ventures:


1. Opportunity will knock – if you build your house in the right place (Tweet!)

My passion for great wine started with a simple $13 bottle of Riesling from Alsace. I was fascinated that such a simple thing as a pale colored glass of wine could be so incredibly complex and engaging. My obsession with learning everything I could about the wines of the world eventually led me to decide I needed to at least try to find a way to make wine the focus of my day rather than an off-hours pursuit. After years of interviewing maverick American composers like Meredith Monk and Philip Glass for my radio work, I knew that finding the right path is often a process that brings a lot of uncertainty and risk into life. They instilled in me the belief that if you focus on what you love and do best while putting yourself into a position where opportunities may present themselves, you’re sure to find creative energy and success.

2. Work with what you’ve got (Tweet!)

Once I’d decided to strike out for California from my Minnesota home, I needed a scheme to get experience. I knew I loved wine, but I wasn’t confident I would love the wine “business.” I feared that I’d end up like the cake lover who opens a bakery only to realize they hate getting up at 2 a.m. every day. So rather than spend my life savings on a degree at UC Davis, I decided to do what I already knew how to do: produce radio. I’d use my production skills to investigate where I might fit in the wine business. The plan was simple and, necessarily, vague. I would write a blog and produce an audio podcast to document my adventures as I explored the wine industry – a well-developed industry I knew very little about.

I told all my friends and family about the idea repeatedly to force myself out of my safe public radio job and into the unknown. My pitch to wineries was that if they gave me part-time work, they’d get publicity from the podcast. There was really no other reason for them to pay me to do work they could get done faster with experienced help, so the podcast was my foot in the door.

In the fall of 2005, National Public Radio picked up the podcast for their alt.npr series. This affiliation grew the audience for my content quickly and enabled me to pretty much call anybody up and schedule an interview. I used the podcast as a way to investigate all aspects of the industry from grape growers to marketing pros and wine makers I respected to see where I might fit in the wine business. I turns out that I write way too slowly to ever make a buck off the writing, so that was out. Growing grapes is a very labor-intensive activity and unless you own that chunk of dirt, it’s not a thing a 40-year-old dude is going to get by on when he has a wine budget to think about. It had also become clear that while NPR did like the content, there wasn’t a market for wine-focused media that was going to start paying the bills. So I was burning through my savings and starting to feel the pressure that comes with not knowing what’s next. However, once I got into the winery working as a cellar rat with Unti and Peterson wineries in Dry Creek Valley, I found what I’d been looking for. The winemaking process is fascinating and I fell in love with every backbreaking chore and nerdy technical detail.

3. Get creative: Leverage your community (Tweet!)

With the bank account shrinking I focused on how I might stick around to work another vintage. Plan B: move to San Francisco to do tech consulting to stash some money for the 2006 harvest. Grapes are not cheap, nor is paying for winery space to make wine. I scored some nice consulting contracts but quickly realized that I was only treading water. SF is a very expensive town and I would never save enough money to make wine. Also, I was just doing the same work as before, albeit in a very pretty city. I had a few months of living expenses left and figured I had one shot at leveraging all the work I had been doing writing the blog and producing the podcast. So after finding a very innovative winery in San Francisco called Crushpad where I could make wine, I sent out a pitch to my blog readers and podcast listeners; If they would pay in advance for a case of wine they could come help me make my first commercial wine and we’d document the whole process with a video podcast. To my great relief I sold 65 of 100 cases of wine as futures, giving me the cash to buy grapes and pay Crushpad. The archive of this project is still online.

My brand was named after the blog. Cellar Rat Cellars. Throughout this project, I was using Crushpad’s virtual winemaking website called Crushnet to manage my group of people helping with the wine. People as far away as Puerto Rico were participating, so having a tool to manage this virtual group was a necessity. After the winemaking was concluded, I was hired by Crushpad to develop Crushnet and grow the virtual community of winemakers. It was at Crushpad working on hundreds of fermentations a year where I got most of my hands-on winemaking experience and set me up to strike out on my own to launch Cartograph with my partner Serena Lourie in 2009.

4. Get friendly with uncertainty while keeping you eye on your vision (Tweet!)

I think it’s essential in any entrepreneurial operation to use the tools at hand to continually move towards a goal, even when the route is completely unknown at the start of the journey. There is always a way to use your existing skills to open new doors but you have to be willing to live with a lot of uncertainty and always be looking at alternate ways to solve a problem. Had you asked me 12 months into the events above if it was worth it, I might have said no but another six months, and a couple more forced left turns, and I was being paid well as a technologist in a ground-breaking winery. From where I sat in Minnesota I honestly couldn’t have dreamt up a better outcome.

The “persistence of vision” mantra I’d been hearing from those composers I so admired really does work.

Join us for Part Two of this interview, when Alan talks about his brand vision for Cartograph and how he brought it to life.

Connect with Cartograph Wines: ~ Twitter ~ Facebook

What A Ha! insight did you get from Alan’s story? How does it apply to your own entrepreneurial or project journey? Please share in the Comments below and get some link love back to you site!

Fine wine brands: “Chanel vs. H&M”

Some of you may know I’ve been a freelance wine writer online and in print before. I’m not an expert sommelier by any stretch but I love wine so I was fortunate enough to share the novice’s point of view and land some fun gigs tasting, researching and chatting up wine experts.  I often tout that good wine is any wine that you like, whether it costs $10 or $150 a bottle.

Recently, I got the chance to hear an inspirational panel of wine industry women. They were winemakers, owners, executives and even a well-known wine industry TV and radio personality.  Women winemakers are making huge strides in this very male-dominated industry, which is fabulous, considering 60% of wine is bought by women. They are on a mission to introduce more women to the rewards of the wine world – and help women use their palates (which are often better than men’s) to have confidence in choosing gorgeous wines.

As far as experiential, emotional brands go, you can’t really find any better example than the wine world. Wine is about making memories, about upscale casual summer night dinner parties with friends. It’s about great – often uninhibited – conversation. It’s about celebrating the simple pleasures of life.  Often, we’ve experienced some of our most emotional memories over a bottle of wine: an engagement toast, a comforting chat with a sobbing girlfriend, an exciting first date, a cherished holiday dinner.

There’s a quote I adore, attributed to Ben Franklin: “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Amen, brother. Tweet this!

The panel’s moderator, Sharon Harris, is owner and winemaker for Rarecat Wines but also founder of A Woman’s Palate, a place for women who want to connect and empower others through wine.  I loved how she described the difference between regular wines and fine wines.

“It’s like comparing Chanel to H&M.”

This is a great brand analogy. It’s not that H&M doesn’t provide fun, good or trendy clothes. But it’s how the products are crafted that makes the brand difference. Tweet this! Fine wine is crafted with love, carefully-honed knowledge of “terroir,” science and agriculture. It’s perfected to evoke a feeling or a memory and is often overseen personally by the winemaker.

The highlight for me was the discussion about all those crazy taste and aroma descriptions critics dream up for wines: “lingering notes of leather and black cherries, with a hint of tar on the nose.” Sharon’s perspective? “Fine wine is crafted with such love and excellence that it results in a complex yet balanced taste that no one word can accurately describe. It goes beyond words. Yet the memory of it lasts for decades.”

Wouldn’t you love your brand to have such an impact?

Which brands do you feel exemplify quality craftsmanship and feel “made with love?” Please share in the Comments below!