Harvey Posert: 30 years in wine P.R – public relations

Harvey Posert: 30 years in wine P.R – public relations – Interview

Larry Walker

Harvey Posert doesn’t look like a legend in his own time. He looks a lot like he did when I first met him, maybe a dozen years ago. Except, I swear he’s 20 pounds lighter. Has the guy made a pact with the devil? If so, where do I go to sign the dotted line.

I’m going to abandon journalistic cool here and admit that I have been in awe of the man for years. If you think that screws up my objectivity, just think away. I first met Posert about the same time he went to work as the chief public relations guru for the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa Valley. That would have been 1980. I started writing about the wine business about that time, or a few years later. At the time, I was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle.

One of my early exchanges with Posert was by mail. He had complained that the Chronicle, which was the largest newspaper in Northern California, the heart of American wine country, should spend a little more editorial space on the wine industry, which rivaled agriculture, timber and marijuana as the largest industry in the Chronicle’s circulation area. I dropped a note back to Posert giving my estimate of the Chronicle’s interest in wine. Namely, that the paper didn’t give a shit about the wine business. Didn’t then, still doesn’t.

The point of that story is that it is an icon of how Posert deals with the press. He’s direct and to the point. If he wants to tell someone in the media they’re off base, well, he just does it. He’s about as far from the typical image of a public relations slimeball as you can get.

And he wasn’t just blowing smoke when he criticized local newspaper coverage of the wine business at the time. He started as a sports writer with the Memphis Commercial Appeal and worked at about every editorial department on the newspaper while he went to college.

There has been a complete makeover of the face of the world wine market since Posert entered the business in the mid-1960s. Then, nobody talked about Australia or Chile. I remember buying Chilean wines for 99-cents a bottle; Australia was about kangaroos and tennis players and wine from Eastern Europe was unheard of. In. the 1970s, the Europeans began their pilgrimage to California, especially the champagne houses, Moet et Chandon, Piper-Heidsiek. And, of course, the stunning Judgment at Paris when two California wines, a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and a Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon outclassed a number of top French wines.

Outside capital was beginning to flow into the wine business. National Distillers, Heublein, Seagram’s, even Coca-Cola bought into the state’s glamour industry. The Mondavi-Rothschild joint venture which led to Opus One was one of the highlights of the ’70s. The pace of change picked up in the 1980s with the blooming of dozens of boutique wineries, pushing the image of California wines ever higher.

It was an exciting time to have a career in the wine business.

I met with Posert in early May, along with ace photographer Steve Hodge. We had a windy table on the terrace at Mondavi. We also had a very good lunch and some superb wines. (Have you tasted the latest Mondavi Pinot noir? Wow!)

The conversation went something like this:

W&V: All right, Harvey, start talking.

Posert: Well, to begin with, I want to make it clear that I am the luckiest public relations guy on earth, although I never intended to be.

W&V: What did you intend to be?

Posert: I did a brief stint in law school and worked in the public relations department of the American Bar Association. Then I got into public relations with Dan Edelman in Chicago. I had planned on a career in the newspaper business. Somehow, I got sidetracked.

W&V: After Edelman, what?

Posert: I opened my own agency in Memphis in 1965, then went back with Edelman in 1965 when we got the Wine Institute account. Which brings me to an important point. My 30 years in the wine business couldn’t have come at a better time. It is the best time to have experienced wine in the United States. Wine was just beginning to become popular in this country in the mid-1960s. Then, in 1980, I came to work for Robert Mondavi, just as premium wines began to be recognized by the public. Those were two very good career segments.

W&V: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in those 30 years?

Posert: Well, in 1965 there were six people who wrote about wine regularly in the United States. Today, there are over 1,000 writers and editors who cover wine.

W&V: That’s worldwide, isn’t it?

Posert: No. Just in the United States. Remember that outside of this country, Australia, Canada and England, consumers never think of looking in newspapers for wine writers. And, in fact, there are more wine writers every day, but where are the newspapers? Well, anyway, back to those 1,000 people. Because of working at Wine Institute with Harry Serlis and now working with Bob Mondavi, I’ve met those people and that has been invaluable. And at Mondavi, there have been some major things. The enormous growth not only nationally, but with the global moves in Chile and Italy. Going public, that was a very big thing and it has changed the way I do public relations here.

W&V: In what way?

Posert: One of the things you do in public relations is lay out the future. Someone calls and you can start quoting Robert Mondavi about the great things that lie ahead. Now, you quote the stock prospectus.

W&V: You bring up a good point. What is public relations all about?

Posert: Public relations is news and programming.

W&V: Explain?

Posert: By programming, I mean a good public relations person needs a sense of the timing of the media and is the story newsworthy. You need to schedule what is coming up and position it. You don’t want to throw everything at them at once.

W&V: In what other ways have the nuts and bolts of PR changed?

Posert: I think there has been an evolutionary change from an emphasis on production to marketing. The wine itself has taken second to marketing, which has become brand management. In the last few years, the marketing department here has grown from two or three people to two dozen. The discouraging thing is that wineries are now arguing over market share, and trying to grow the market, which in most industries is the job of a trade association. Here you have a situation where a winery like Mondavi with only 3% of the wine market in this country has done a lot of work to expand the total market.

W&V: Examples?

Posert: Well, a good example is the new Center for Wine, Food and the Arts, which Robert is very involved in. The Mondavi Mission Statement putting an emphasis on wine and health. Mondavi is the largest exporter of premium California wines. The Mondavi involvement in international wines – in France, Chile and Italy – has helped enhance the image of California wines and in particular has pushed the image of Napa. An example of that is the acceptance of Mondavi Cabernet, first the Reserve, now the regular bottling, on the Bordeaux futures market. That was no PR event, but a business judgment by the Bordeaux futures people.

W&V: Let’s get back to trade associations. You said that wineries had to do the work that trade associations normally do. Can you elaborate on that?

Posert: Yes, I can. I think it is one of the biggest failures of the wine industry and I feel that my greatest failure was not finding a way to help the industry unite the way other industries have.

W&V: That’s hardly a personal failure.

Posert: Perhaps not but in the past, I worked for maybe half-dozen trade associations, so I know what they can do, how they can help the industry. We do support the American Vintners Association and the Wine Marketing Council. We have more in common than not and the industry simply hasn’t had the support it deserves from the major trade association. I do feel that the greatest failure of Wine Institute was not keeping everybody together, not performing as a trade association should perform.

W&V: Haven’t they been hampered by industry politics?

Posert: Yes, of course. But that is true in all industries. Turf and ego are a general thing, but other groups have managed to get together and work together. As an industry, we are competing with all the other drinks industries for share of belly. On the other hand, I think the trade publications, like Wines & Vines, have helped enormously in creating a spirit of free exchange of information. Now we all act like we are in the ambulance chasing business. I just don’t see much of that exchange and trust today. Trade publications were a key in helping exchange knowledge which was the key to helping the industry grow and helping the wines to improve, which in turn made my job easier. I could talk about the wines getting better every year and they were getting better every year.

W&V: OK, what about some success stories?

Posert: Personally, working with the wine writing community to extend my reach. My colleagues in the PR community would love to have people like those who write about wine. So establishing that rapport with writers, knowing what they wanted, helped make what we were saying true. It gave us credibility. Of course, the affection of the press for Robert Mondavi was tangible. The media identified with producers like Robert to carry the story to the public. The writers enjoyed wine and wanted to spread the message. They functioned like an extended staff. As you know, there are not many objective reporters in the wine business.

W&V: What did you do to establish that relationship?

Posert: The smartest thing I ever did was to emphasize the sensuous pleasures of wine. Wine is a very complicated thing, yet it takes to the PR mode very easily if you emphasize the pleasurable side and function to educate people about wine. From the winery point of view, one of the big success stories was the Bob White and Bob Red and the growth of the Woodbridge label.

W&V: There was a lot of talk when Woodbridge was introduced that it would be a public relations disaster. How did you avoid that?

Posert: Again, by an educational program. Rather than try to separate the Woodbridge and the Napa wines, we put top wines together with Woodbridge and explained the difference – education, not direct selling was the key. If you go to someone trying to sell them something, they will be suspicious. The fact that Mondavi makes and sells the four noble varieties – Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot noir – in some quantity has also made my job easier. Two particular wines, the Fume blanc and Tim Mondavi’s work with Pinot noir, have been spectacular success stories. Of course, the greatest success story was the birth of Robert Mondavi.

W&V: There is much concern over the failure of wine to attract younger drinkers. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Posert: Well, I have three sons, all drank wine at the table when they were young. But I think the whole subject divides into two parts – women and men. Young women have a positive attitude toward wine and a typical promotional program could be effective with them. But young men in the same age group, 21 to 35, do not have a positive attitude. I think it will take a serious educational campaign, a change in the way we bring wine to the table. Must get young men to accept the taste pleasure of wine as opposed to those beverages which are consumed for their alcoholic effect. The industry’s chief trade association, Wine Institute, has missed the boat by not retaining credible spokespeople to appeal to each market segment, including young people. It will take a unified industry to solve this problem.

W&V: What advice would you give those who are entering the wine business in PR positions?

Posert: First, I would never advise that people go into public relations. You can make more money in advertising or sales or marketing. But if you enjoy writing about the product, there are enormous number of opportunities. Media experience is a must. It is crucial that they have that. People without media experience don’t belong in public relations. You can’t be responsive unless you know deadlines and know the way things move. Also, don’t confuse schmoozing with public relations. Given those basics, you must have things that really happen. Just in the past few months at Mondavi, we’ve had the purchase of the Sierra Madre vineyard, the expansion of Byron, the introduction of the Frescobaldi joint venture.

W&V: (Interrupting) Is it worth it to try and fake a story?

Posert: Well, in the wine business you can always have a tasting and some media will show up, but will they write about it? But you can find a story, even though not much has really changed in how wine is made in 7,000 years. An example of that is the environmental story, organic vines and recycling, all that.

W&V: Any “rules” to lay down?

Posert: Don’t waste people’s time. All we’ve got is time and PR people are known as time wasters. Don’t just grind out press releases and certainly don’t waste the writer’s time by calling them to ask if they received the press release they should not have got in the first place. Don’t require the writer to go through you to get the story. We have a very successful program here because everybody is empowered to talk about what they are doing. Finally, on the positive side, every aspiring PR person should look for areas where their wines can be leaders.

W&V: Looking ahead, say to the year 2010, what do you forecast for the industry?

Posert: I believe the industry will become unified. We have to. We have to get together and promote the common best interest as we get wiser people together. I’m looking forward to more women being involved in high level decision-making in the industry. They aren’t as divisive. They have a different approach to ego and turf. Women network better which will lead to a more united industry. I think that health research will continue and become even more positive, which will get the government off our backs.

W&V: How about the downside?

Posert: We have one-half of Americans living in prohibition. If you are under 21 you can’t have a glass of wine and you can’t even think about having a glass of wine if you want to get pregnant. Again, it will take a unified industry to solve these problems. Political decisions which seem to have nothing to do with wine could also have an effect on the future of wine. Wine is a discretionary purchase. If we don’t have a strong community of consumers, we are in trouble. If people aren’t making money, they can’t buy wine. So political decisions that affect jobs and income will have an effect on wine.

(In the course of the interview, Harvey Posert was quick to credit the entire public relations staff at Robert Mondavi with the success of the public relations program. That staff consists of: Regina Lutz who handles family PR, Margaret Kearns, brand PR and Suzanne Bergstrom, assistant.)

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