Instagram’s Wine Influencers Started Thriving During The Pandemic. Their Rise Has Prompted Sexist Backlash

Esther Mobley
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  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 Esther Mobley reports, not all of the attention has been pleasant.

San Francisco

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 self-aggrandizement,” 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 slow-to-adapt 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 distinctive-looking 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 e-commerce businesses. In March 2020, just 3% of an average U.S. winery’s sales came from phone or e-commerce 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 wine-focused 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 plant-based 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 down-to-earth 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 nine-week 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. “Mid-tier” influencers (20,000-100,000) can command anywhere from a few hundred dollars to around $2,000 per post. Above the 100,000-follower 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, never-ending 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 pay-to-play 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 wine-industry establishment has been slow to warm to wine influencers.

But it doesn’t explain it entirely. Some of it, influencers say, is just old-fashioned 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 soft-porn shoot should be a major turnoff,” Garnett writes, later complaining that it’s a shame that a 30-year wine-industry 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 one-half of a wine influencer duo posting as @millennialsdrinkwine. 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 wine-industry establishment.

They know that posting photos of themselves in cute outfits, offering bite-size 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 digital-native wine review outlets that have arisen over the past two decades, like Vinous and Jeb Dunnuck, which likewise are male-dominated.

In fact, influencers may even threaten those publications. While writer Lawrence might see influencers posting selfies as “nauseating self-aggrandizement,” 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 influencer-marketing analyst Izea showed younger drinkers (ages 21-29) 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 non-users. 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 bite-size medium like Instagram (or, perhaps the next frontier, TikTok), is our collective attention span waning for more in-depth, 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 “self-aggrandizement” 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 hard-earned 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 bikini-clad 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.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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