Sonoma County's chardonnay a hit; pinot noir doesn't fare as well

By CATHY BUSSEWITZ January 10, 2013
Lovers of high-end pinot noir are more likely to choose a pricey wine from Willamette Valley or Napa Valley than from Sonoma County, according to a new report by Wine-Opinions.

But for chardonnay under $20, Sonoma County is king.

The research was presented at the annual meeting of the Sonoma County Vintners on Thursday by John Gillespie, founder and CEO of WineOpinions, a market research firm based in St. Helena. He had conducted a national study to determine just how Sonoma County is perceived, compared with other domestic and international wine regions, by those who drink the most wine and buy the priciest bottles most often.

"Sonoma County is the only region in the top three of both quality and value," Gillespie said. "That's an accomplishment. That is something that can be broadly leveraged in the marketplace, because it's unique."

The study was commissioned by the Sonoma County Vintners to determine just where the wine region stands in the target consumers' minds as the group launched its ad campaign in national news media and at international trade shows. That way, the group can track the impact of its work.

"One of the things that smart marketers do is to lay down a baseline study so that over time, in a year, in two years . . . you can measure the progress that you're making in the market," Gillespie said.

In the past year, the Sonoma County Vintners developed and launched a new brand identity and logo, and presented it at numerous food and wine shows in the U.S., China and Canada. The ad campaign hit the pages of Wine Spectator and Food & Wine in December, and the group is planning a two-page spread in the Wall Street Journal in March.

"Fabulous harvest, great year, but we have even more ahead of us in 2013," said Honore Comfort, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners.

"All of you know that diversity is one of our single greatest strengths from the winemaking perspective, but from a marketing perspective that's one of our biggest challenges," Comfort said.

The group plans to use Gillespie's study to identify the region's strengths that can be used to its advantage, and the weaknesses where its image can be improved.

For example, about half of frequent, high-end wine drinkers occasionally enjoy a bottle from the Russian River or Alexander valleys, but just as many of those drinkers have never heard of Rockpile, Green Valley or Bennett Valley, the study showed.

"We've established something here. It's that Sonoma County obviously has value. And it's very clear to a relatively sophisticated group of consumers," Gillespie said. "Could those numbers be better? Sure they can. Everything moves, nothing stays the same."