By Evan Dawson, Finger Lakes Editor
Photo courtesy of Amy Cheatle, Damiani Wine Cellars
Last week, the well-read wine blog Dr. Vino determined, by reader vote, the wine person of the past decade. And the winner? Eric LeVine.
You'll be forgiven if your response is, "Who?"
Finger Lakes consumers and marketing directors might not have heard of LeVine, but it's much more of a problem if they've never heard of his product. LeVine is the creator of the massively popular CellarTracker, which allows consumers to track their own inventory and write reviews of wines that they consume.
So how does this relate to Finger Lakes wine, and marketing in particular? Last night I was updating my own CellarTracker profile and I checked to see what kind of reviews my Finger Lakes bottles had received from the wider wine community. It's easy to find out, and most bottles in my cellar have anywhere from five to 40 ratings and reviews from CellarTracker members.
Most of my Finger Lakes wines have no reviews at all.
There are obvious reasons for this. First, the Finger Lakes region produces a fraction of the wine produced in many other wine regions. Distribution is only starting to pick up. And the scant reviews that do exist for Finger Lakes wines on CellarTracker reveal the bias against the region, often containing phrases like, "Not what I expected from New York."
But the man who won a (hardly scientific) Web vote as the wine person of the decade has big plans and changes in store for his program, and it would benefit New York wine if more local consumers were told about it.
"In the near future with my redesign, (users) will be able to add comments and interact with people drinking Finger Lakes and other wines," LeVine told me. "So that will present a much richer opportunity to engage."
This is not to say that industry professionals should create an account solely for the purpose of adding inflated scores. In fact, CellarTracker requires disclosure from industry workers, who are not allowed to review their own wines. LeVine's meteoric rise means more wineries will try to do this. "I have plans around that as well," LeVine says. "I take it as a certainty that it will happen. The price of success."
The best approach that wineries can take is to simply familiarize themselves with tools like CellarTracker -- and encourage their customers to review wines for the community to see. It's free, and even a faint drumbeat can help create a larger presence for a region that many wine consumers don't yet take seriously.
But CellarTracker is only one example where wineries can get more involved at little cost. The challenge, according to Lisa Hallgren, is allocating time, energy, and resources. Hallgren is the co-owner of Ravines Wine Cellars on Keuka Lake.
"The good news is that, looking ahead to 2010, we're aware in the Finger Lakes that we have a collective lack of expertise in this area," Hallgren says. "We talk about it. We discuss ways to improve our reach online. But with so many local wineries, there's just so little time. And there's no money to hire someone to do this for you."
Hallgren, like a growing number of New York wine industry members, has recently created a Twitter account. But that's another question mark for marketing professionals who might be wondering about the impact of the hours spent online.
"Social media has a place, and we're interested in being part of it," Hallgren says. "We're all trying to better understand it."
But there's no easy way to measure return on investment with Twitter - or Facebook, or others of that ilk. So the vast majority of New York wineries make no effort to use those platforms to reach new customers. And they might be making the right decision; it's not easy to find hard data that lists the tangible benefits of new media engagement.
The best bet for now? Steady engagement is likely to pay off, but not any time soon. Urging customers to post reviews to CellarTracker and creating social media accounts won't change a balance sheet in any dramatic way, but over the next three to five to ten years, those are the efforts that will create more awareness of Finger Lakes wines. If the quality continues to improve, then awareness will always be the biggest hurdle. 2010 will see more wineries struggling to find the balance that will allow them to reach more customers - and more customers who can't make it to their tasting room on a tank of gas.