Mendocino Hires Wine Marketing Veterans

Chandler and Burns to mold five-year strategy for grape and wine commission

Ukiah, Calif.—Mark Chandler and Steve Burns have joined forces to help the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission forge and implement a five-year marketing plan and build brand recognition.

Burns, perhaps best known for guiding the Washington Wine Commission and Washington Wine Institute through much of its formative era, and Chandler, who led the Lodi Winegrape Commission from obscurity to international recognition in his 20 years at the helm, came aboard at the instigation of MWWC executive director Megan Metz, a Mendocino County native and former board member who took the reins in 2011. Burns now operates O’Donnell Lane in Sonoma, and Chandler is a principal of Chandler & Co. of Lodi.

“The Mendocino County wine community has abundant assets and newsworthy stories,” Chandler said in a statement. “Steve and I are on board to help the commission maximize its return on those assets.” MWWC is an alliance of 91 wineries and 343 grapegrowers, promoting and marketing the county’s vineyards, wines and people through education and research in support of sustainable viticulture for growing premium grapes.

Like similar California commissions, MWWC is state-sanctioned by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. On Feb. 1, CDFA held a public hearing to determine if the MWWC should be renewed for another five-year term. CDFA determined an election was warranted to validate continuing the commission, and will send ballots to eligible voters on April 19, which must returned to CDFA before May 23. Results will be announced by June 15.

Meantime, however, the MWWC board met yesterday and “loved our action plan,” Burns reported. It will be presented to membership next week. Mendocino’s constituency is relatively small compared with other districts, and MWWC wields a smaller budget: Less than $1 million annually.

Follows Washington and Oregon Unlike Sonoma and Lake counties, and the Lodi District, where commissions are supported solely by grapegrowers, MWWC follows the model successfully established in Washington and Oregon, embracing both growers and wine producers.

Prior to the end of the commission’s previous five-year term, Metz circulated an omnibus survey of the wine industry. Although for years Mendocino has touted its sustainability and “green” credentials, the survey revealed doubts among the membership. Maybe, it suggested, “Green” does not convey the whole story to media and consumers.

Metz called on Burns, who in turn enlisted Chandler. “We’ve known each other a long time,” Burns said, and the two had talked when Chandler started his consultancy last year. With their decades of commission experience, they decided to team up on the Mendocino project.

“Nonprofit management is a hard business, and the jobs are not easy,” Burns acknowledged, citing the recent fast-shuffle of the Oregon Wine Board/Oregon Wine Growers Association, where a carefully recruited executive director resigned after seven months on the job. Membership respect is essential, he said, lauding Metz as a “consensus builder.”

Building the plan Strategic planning is not uncommon “for successful regions,” Burns said. “Much of my business is moderating strategic planning board retreats,” including recent sessions in British Columbia and Walla Walla, Wash., in addition to the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

“Without a plan, followed with consistency, associations are whipsawed by the market,” he explained. MWWC held a board retreat in January to begin formulating plans that will be largely implemented by July 1, he said. Among the activities was a SWOT assessment: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. “This gets everything on the same page,” Burns said.

As revealed in the industry survey, Mendocino County is not as well known as its North Coast neighbors, Sonoma and Napa. The new plan will put more emphasis on familiarization trips to tour media and buyers throughout its 12 diverse regions, and taste them through the cool climate wines of Anderson Valley and contrasting varieties from inland vineyards.

Metz hopes to correct a common public misperception. “When you say ‘Mendocino,’ you think the coast,” she acknowledged. In reality, the county is the size of Delaware, with two different regions. Both inland and coastal wines are earning medals at major wine competitions, she pointed out.

Considered more remote Even with its image skewing toward the coast, Chandler said, Mendocino has a head start on the Lodi area he began introducing to the wine trade 20 years ago. Bordering Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties is a plus, although Bay Area residents consider it more remote. Lodi, he noted, draws some 50% of its tourism from the Sacramento area, and freeway linkage brings in massive numbers of day-trippers from San Francisco and the East Bay.

“A lot of progress can be made” in Mendocino, Chandler said optimistically. “There is a growing number of wineries in the appellation, and we want to help all the wineries to grow.”

For a wildly attractive, still charmingly rural region with limited promotional funds, social media is alr eady a vital part of the marketing mix, said Metz, who added that she’s a “firm believer in a healthy social media program.”

Metz is encouraging county wineries to engage with consumers on their fan pages. “It’s a new avenue to pull people who have never experienced Mendocino County,” she said. Between October and December 2011, “Likes” on MWWC’s Facebook page soared from 400 to 4,000, tenfold growth.

In Mendocino, growers come first. Burns noted that MWWC is 80% funded by grapegrowers. “We want to make sure they are successful and the quality of the wines is maintained,” he said. “First and foremost is recognition and building Brand Mendocino.”