We might think of MSs and MWs as rock stars and influencers, but among millennials, the people who influence the wine market are often Instagram stars, many of whom operate outside the wine realm. Take, for example, the case of the former chef turned rapper Action Bronson and the Sicilian-based natural-wine producer Frank Cornelissen. In 2016, on his Viceland TV show, “F*ck, That’s Delicious,” Bronson ordered—and swooned over—a bottle of Cornelissen’s Susucaru. Suddenly, sales of Susucaru skyrocketed. In the month the show aired, roughly 24,000 people looked for Susucaru on Wine Searcher, which had had just 1,300 searches in the entire preceding year.
That show aired more than two years ago, but it’s still exerting an influence at Chambers Street Wine in New York City. “The response was, and continues to be, remarkable—at least for us,” says Chambers Street cofounder and partner Jamie Wolff. “We no longer have Frank’s wine on the shelf here for more than a few days a year because of the demand.”
Of course, while an Instagram post by Bronson featuring Susucaru in 2016 did get 8,351 likes, his platform and influence extend well beyond his 1.5 million Instagram followers. Still, the effect he had on Susucaru sales reveals the kind of sway nonindustry influencers can have with regard to brand awareness and wine sales.
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“They direct the narrative to their followers, who then come into wine shops, wine bars, and restaurants looking for those exact wines,” says Matthew Kaner, the wine director and co-owner of the Southern California bars Good Measure, Dead or Alive Bar, Covell, and Augustine. But do social media stars really help move bottles? “So long as we have the wines to sell,” says Kaner, “I suppose the answer is yes.”
Sway in Wine Retail
Kaner has observed that the social media personalities that seem to have influential sway in the wine space tend to be a mix of stars both inside the trade and out. Topping his list on the trade side are winemaker and sommelier Rajat Parr (who has 45.8k Instagram followers), sommelier and natural-wine doyenne Pascaline Lepeltier, MS (20.5k IG followers), and sommelier-entrepreneur Patrick Cappiello (29.8k IG followers). In the middle is comedy writer, film producer, and actor Eric Wareheim, who moonlights in the wide trade as the owner of Las Jaras Wines (335k IG followers). High on the nontrade side are NBA star LeBron James (46.5m IG followers) and Philadelphia pizza restaurateur Joe Beddia, also known as Pizza Camp (31.3k IG followers).
“Audience size directs the effect,” says Kaner, emphasizing that the more people who see these influencers’ posts, the more frequently clerks at wine shops and somms at wine bars and restaurants are going to be asked about the wines the social stars are promoting. “These are all people at the top of their game within their industry,” he says, “and they’re all becoming smarter and [more strategic] at using their audience to monetize their wine side projects or books they authored, or to plug their new media ventures. When they post a bottle on their feed, their audience sees that as a direct recommendation.”
Eric Crane, the director of training for Empire Distributors, has also observed the impact of the two sets of social media stars—both the beautiful-people influencers on Instagram who appear to be living a fantastic lifestyle that includes wine and the wine industry insiders like Parr, Lepeltier, and Madeline Puckette, the cofounder of Wine Folly (whose personal followers combined with those of her brand amount to more than 160k). Crane explains that each cohort has a different effect. Industry folks may influence what buyers are ordering and somms are drinking, he says, but the nonindustry influencers—those beautiful people, many of whom are paid by brands—“are taking a picture [with a brand] in some exotic location, and they’re very well funded because they’re beautiful and they have a million followers … Those kinds of social stars may drive brands, from a retail POV.”
Dustin Wilson, MS, the cofounder of Verve, a wine retailer with locations in New York City and San Francisco, says he can’t quantify the impact social media has on sales, but he recognizes it. “We don’t always hear that it comes directly from a social media post, but if and when someone like Raj Parr or LeBron James or someone with a big following says something great about a wine we have in stock, and then we get orders—it’s not hard to see why.”
Similarly, Lisa Mattson, the director of marketing and communications for Jordan Winery in Healdsburg, California, says she can’t offer proof that any posts by social influencers in the wine space lead directly to sales—the winery doesn’t do promotions with celebrities or influencers that would allow them to track direct sales. But she does have some ancillary evidence, one example of which occurred last November, when LeBron James posted an Instagram story that featured the Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon that he was drinking. “A few days later,” says Mattson, “I saw a woman post a review [about our wine] on Vivino with one word: ‘LeBron.’ I can only assume she bought Jordan because he posted it.”
Nick Davis, an advanced sommelier and the creative director of Medium Plus, a beverage consulting and events company based in Seattle, also cites the LeBron effect. “LeBron helps a wider audience get interested in fine wine—albeit high-level Napa and Bordeaux, mostly,” he says. “More than anything, I think these big names drive the interest of young people toward wine, which is good for the business overall.”
Influencers’ Impact on Restaurants
James’s influence may extend far beyond his wingspan, but popular culture wine stars from the movie Somm also seem to be able to wield some clout. Twice this January, Sharde Maria, a sommelier at Purple Café & Wine Bar in Seattle, has been asked for wines based on the preferences of social stars. In the first instance, a guest requested “that Pinot that LeBron drinks” [Antica Terra Antikythera]. “And,” Maria says, “I was asked about what wines the ‘guys from Somm’ would drink, so we opened Insta and looked at their profiles, and the guests really enjoyed doing that.”
If nonindustry influencers like Bronson and James help move bottles in retail, in particular, industry insiders may be more likely to move the needle in restaurants. For example, says Crane, “if Raj Parr [posts] about a wine, there are somms all over the country who will seek to add it to their list. If Hardy Wallace cracks a bottle of anything that’s not his, it catches fire. It’s why Chenin Blanc is so popular—because Pascaline popped a bottle on Instagram.”
Beth Hickey, an advanced sommelier who works at Seattle’s Heartwood Provisions, has seen the same trend. “I’ve had guests inquire about a wine, a service point, or something wine related that I know came from a social media post because I read it that day,” she says. In her opinion, Wine Folly is one of the top influencers for wine. “When guests start asking about grapes like Blaufrӓnkisch,” she says, “they will mention Wine Folly.”
Erik Segelbaum, a sommelier who just left his post as the corporate wine director for Starr Restaurants to launch a consulting business, Somlyay, points out that another way in which social media posts may affect wine sales is by promoting bottles over glass pours. Regardless of whether the posts are those of big celebrities or influencers in the trade, Segelbaum says that when people are looking for a wine they saw in a social feed, more often than not that wine will be available only by the bottle, not the glass. “Just by the nature of the fact that they’re showing me a photo of a bottle … [that] makes me think they want to purchase a bottle,” he says. “Plus, because they’re already self-sold—‘This is what I want to drink, this or something like it’—it makes it easier to make that a bottle sale.”
While influencers on social media may be able to take some credit for moving bottles, somm after somm suggests that there’s one cohort that has an even bigger influence than celebrities and wine trade pros combined, and that’s friends. “A lot of people,” says Segelbaum, just “want to drink what their friends are drinking.”
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When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.