March 30th, 2008

North Coast Wine Gets Screen Time

By Kevin McCallum
The Press Democrat

The next time you spot a bottle of wine on the silver screen or your favorite sitcom, look closely - it might be made right in your own back yard.

North Coast wineries are having increasing success placing their products on popular TV shows and movies, a marketing territory they have traditionally ceded to the big beer and spirits companies.

As young adults increasingly distrust or ignore traditional advertising, wineries are taking a second look at whether product placement can help them reach this important wine-drinking demographic.

The strategy is beginning to bear fruit for Santa Rosa’s Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, whose wines have appeared on at least four different popular network TV shows in the past year.

“We’re absolutely thrilled,” said K-J spokesman George Rose. “Those shows reach tens of millions of people each week.”

The wines usually appear fleetingly as props on a kitchen counter or dining room table, remaining unmentioned by the characters and probably unnoticed - consciously, anyway - by most viewers.

But on other occasions the wines have taken center stage, making cameo appearances unthinkable just a few years ago.

“To have wine as part of the background and even occasionally brought to the foreground, I think says a lot about the wine revolution in this country,” Rose said.

“Meet Kendall Jackson”

The best example of such exposure was an episode of the sitcom “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Seinfeld” fame.

A divorced mother struggling to reenter the dating scene, Christine is watching television with a man. When he asks if she is dating anyone, Christine says “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce you?” She then pulls a bottle of K-J Vintner’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon off a side table and says, “Joe Campbell, meet Kendall-Jackson!”

Rose said he was watching the show when the line was delivered and was bowled over.

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” Rose said.

It doesn’t happen by accident, either.

Last year, Kendall-Jackson hired a product placement firm in Santa Monica, The On Camera Agency, to get its wines placed on various TV shows.

It pays the company a monthly retainer - between $5,000 and $10,000 - and provides the wine used in the shows, plus a little extra.

“We don’t flood them with wine, but we make sure everybody’s happy,” said Christina Shultz, chief operating officer for the firm, which specializes in placing wine and spirits on television. “We’re definitely generous with the product.”

The company provides plenty of wine for wrap parties and set meals, as well as gifts that help the actors, writers and others get more familiar with Kendall-Jackson’s wines, Shultz said.

But unlike other product placement arrangements, Shultz said her clients aren’t paying the studios to feature the wines. Instead the firm just puts the wines in the hands of the right people and hopes for the best, she said.

The firm succeeds because of its long-term relationships with the creators and set designers of various shows, said John Genovese, founder and chief executive officer.

“The key is being on the set and not being a pain in the ass,” Genovese said.

Prop masters and set dressers are under intense pressure to create new sets each week. Finding ways to get them appropriate props and then staying out of the way is critical, he said.

In addition to the “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” the agency has helped K-J wines find their way onto tables and countertops on sitcoms such as “Two-and-a-Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “‘Til Death.”

The agency also has represented Clos du Bois in Healdsburg and Cakebread Cellars and Cornerstone Cellars in Napa, to varying degrees of success.

Hard numbers for the product placement industry are tough to come by. Paid placements for all products in movies, TV and other media were estimated to hit $4.3billion in 2005, a 19percent increase over 2004, according to PQ Media, a Stamford, Conn., research firm.

Placement momentum

Advertisers are increasingly turning to product placement because they worry that younger audiences are gravitating to the Internet and ad-skipping technologies like TiVo, according to a PQ report.

While it’s only now gaining momentum, North Coast wines have been finding their way into movies for years.

When Tom Cruise’s character brought home dinner to celebrate his promotion in the 1993 film “The Firm,” he carried a bottle of Kenwood Sauvignon Blanc. Kenwood didn’t provide the wine, and legend has it Cruise was a fan and suggested using it, winery spokeswoman Margie Healey said.

When Demi Moore seduced Mich-ael Douglas in the 1994 film “Disclosure,” she did it with a chardonnay from Napa’s Pahlmeyer, something owner Jason Pahlmeyer has said sent demand for his wines soaring.

The reigning champ of product placement may be Clos du Val, the Napa winery whose wines have been featured on more than 30 TV shows and films since 2005, including prominent placement on Tony Soprano’s dining room table in HBO’s “The Sopranos.” The winery also pays a monthly retainer to a marketing firm.

The wines don’t need to get star treatment to succeed. Even placements that don’t involve actors handling or mentioning the wines have value, Shultz said

Fleeting images, as long as the labels are clear, can create subliminal messages that can be powerful, she said.

“You just kind of put it in the back of their heads,” she said.

Before she was even in the industry, Shultz recalled watching a cooking show that mentioned Rodney Strong wines. She had no experience with the Healdsburg brand, but months later she was in a restaurant and found herself ordering one, she said.

“It worked on me,” she said.

Another theory behind product placement is that people are influenced by what they perceive to be the implied endorsement of a product by a famous person.

This can be a powerful tool for wine marketers trying to reach younger wine drinkers, who tend to be unmoved by traditional advertising, said John Gillespie, president of the Wine Market Council, which researches consumer attitudes toward wine.

“There is something to be said for that sort of arm’s length, implicit third-party endorsement,” Gillespie said.

Situations gone bad

But there is also reason to be cautious. Wine marketers are gambling that their products will be represented in a positive light, and that’s not something they have much control over, Gillespie said.

“You have no idea whether they’ll do something that will raise an eyebrow or the writers will put something they think is funny in the story that impugns the product instead of praises it,” Gillespie said.

The industry is replete with examples of product placements gone bad. Shultz heard of one where a company paid to get its vodka brand in the show, but got more than it bargained for - the lead teenage character was shown drinking the brand, driving drunk and crashing her car.

Kendall-Jackson suffered a similar experience. In 2005, before hiring its current agency, it found its wine mentioned in a less-than-flattering manner on the HBO series “Entourage.”

The scene involved a wine connoisseur sharing a bottle of 1959 Chateau Latour, a $3,000 bottle, with a character named Johnny “Drama” Chase, a washed-up actor and boneheaded egomaniac. Drama gulps down the rare claret without any appreciation, thrusts his glass toward the waitress and says “Hit me again!”

The appalled connoisseur intercedes, telling the waitress: “Bring the Kendall-Jackson, cork the ‘59.”

Brown-Forman, owner of wine brands such as Fetzer and Sonoma-Cutrer, has worked with product placement agencies before, but the results have been spotty, said spokesman Jim Caudill.

When they work out, they can create significant buzz, giving customers, salespeople and even distributors something to talk about.

But more often than not, Caudill has found the arrangements to be more trouble than they’re worth and the results hard to quantify.

“It’s the kind of thing that gets people excited, but it’s also the kind of thing that gives people such headaches that it’s easy for them to drop out,” he said.

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