Many years ago, before I started studying wine, I had an opportunity to drink a Château Margaux at an advertising client lunch. I declined, because I knew my associates would expect me to say something pithy about the wine, and the weight of that expectation was crippling. I could describe the colour, but after that, I was on shaky ground. Regrets? I’ve had a few (cue Frank), but that one hovers at the top of my list. Seriously, who says no to Château Margaux?
Years, and more embarrassing moments later, I enrolled in a wines 101 course and my wine education journey began. While we drank some great wine in various “old world” classes, there were no First Growths and certainly no Château Margaux ever touched these lips. Of course, to pass the Guild of Master Sommeliers certified exam, I had to memorize all 61 of the classified growths in Bordeaux, including the five Premier Cru First Growths, including Chateau Margaux. So many close encounters; so many painful reminders.
Waxing Gladwellian about Château Margaux Wine
If you like length in wine and story telling, you may want to uncork a second bottle. Yes, this story runs long. I’m going Gladwellian today (a meandering, anecdotal and hopefully engaging pathway to a point) as I try to parlay my historical interest and business infatuation with Château Margaux into a story that will make the Bordeaux Right Bank-leaning (if you’re to believe Malcolm Gladwell’s clever @blueapron adverts), Toronto-born journalist, reconsider his priorities.
But I’m not doing the standard-issue historical retelling of the Château Margaux story. There are plenty of those. Mine is a more contemporary take.
As readers of this blog know, my interest in the industry has included looking at wine through a marketing lens. I’ve done deep dives, SWOT analyses and competitive reviews of hundreds of brands over the years. So my brain is hard-wired to deconstruct the wine industry that way. A couple of years ago, cosmic forces aligned and two worlds collided: my passion for wine and my passion for market research (nerd, I know).
It came in the form of a 2010 research paper measuring the social media effectiveness and digital visibility of the five most prestigious luxury wine brands in the world – the 1855 Classified Bordeaux First Growths – Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton-Rothschild.
The research focused on the châteaux social media activity on the key platforms of the day – Myspace, Flickr, Digg, YouTube and 13 other platforms. Of course – aside from YouTube – most of these social networking sites are buried in the great digital graveyard in the Cloud, but the research still provides an interesting benchmark.
But first, cast your mind back to 2010, the breakout year for social media on our planet. Facebook overtook Google as the biggest website in terms of market share, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was Time’s Person of the Year, Twitter trends replaced traditional media as the source of headline news, photo and video sharing app Instagram launched, Justin Beiber had more “klout” than President Obama, and the Old Spice Man generated over 128.6 million views for a brand that heretofore, had mostly wallowed in the sixties as cheap drugstore fragrance (with notes of nutmeg, citrus and aldehyde) and our dad’s attempt at swagger.
The meteoric sales of smarter-phones and the exponential growth of social media, meant brands everywhere were scrambling to add social platforms like Facebook and Twitter to their communication plans. In addition to social media, the word “content” was added to the marketing lexicon. Brands began to abandon traditional media tools (magazines, newspaper, TV) for digital content tools (videos, newsletters, native advertising, white papers, blogs, Influencers, Instagram). Wine brands everywhere were jumping on this digital marketing bandwagon; ……everywhere, it appears, except Bordeaux.
It’s 2010 and where are the Bordeaux First Growths?
Investigating the use of social media amongst Bordeaux’s exclusive wine brands, the Reyneke, Pitt and Berthon research[i] found minimal use of social media among Bordeaux First Growths and minimal “brand differentiation” in their social media postings. Essentially, the First Growths weren’t doing much of anything in the emerging digital space. What’s more, their messages weren’t focused. What digital media did exist, was web 1.0 : dated, static web pages. There was almost no audience interaction or social networking going on in France’s cradle of wine.
In their conclusions, the authors warned “some threats exist to these First Growth luxury brands should they continue to take a laissez faire approach to social media, particularly when social media are becoming as influential, if not more-so, as conventional media.”
Researchers acknowledged the one exception to these findings seemed to be Chateau Margaux. It was deemed the most visible and web 2.0 of the Bordeaux First Growths. Not exactly high praise, but not the lecture unleashed on the others.
It’s 2018: Do Bordeaux Châteaux have Social Savvy?
So here we are – eight years later – et voila!!! …. a new Bordeaux marketing research study has been released!
This time, Bordeaux agency MyBalthazar has established a digital and social media visibility ranking of all the châteaux in Bordeaux, including media coverage in the traditional press. There’s a different crop of social platforms and a broader digital dragnet (aka algorithm) measuring all that social networking “content”, but what’s fascinating is not much has changed since 2010.
According to MyBalthazar CEO and study author, Benjamin Sonet, it’s largely the smaller châteaux who are scrambling to understand the social media ecosystem and content marketing toolbox…. and this, out of necessity. According to Sonet, the tradition-bound, First Growths and many other classified and established châteaux in the Bordeaux region continue to rely on the en-primeur or “wine-futures” practice where négociants manage all the marketing and distribution. In Bordeaux, négociants will often buy 90% of the most recent harvest – years before the wine is bottled – and then manage the distribution to retail and restaurants on behalf of the winery. So who needs a social media presence when the world lines up at the door to buy your wine? (You can read my interview with Benjamin and a full review of the MyBalthazar research here…..)
And Château Margaux?
Apparently, Château Margaux didn’t read the “keep your head down” memo. According to the MyBalthazar research, Château Margaux is the #2 most digitally active chateaux out of 544 chateaux in Bordeaux. They’re #1 on Instagram, #1 on Twitter, #3 on Vivino, #13 on YouTube (hmmm) and #1 in traditional press. And that got my attention…..
“Yes we use the négociant system, but there is a whole new generation of young wine consumers who we need to educate and who need to understand the care and passion that goes into making Château Margaux,” insists tour manager Marie Guillard as we discuss the research. “We need to be talking to them and using social media to share our experiences and talk about our wine. Bordeaux has been very slow, but I think we understand the importance of the next generation here at Margaux.”
And there you have it. That’s why Château Margaux led the field in 2010 and why they lead the field in 2018! (And it doesn’t hurt that they make perhaps the best wine in the world.)
In the marketing world it’s called brand vision. Brand vision is hard work. It requires deep introspection and gutsy leadership. You need to commit to a vision, a strategy and then immerse the team so people like me, meeting employees like Marie, walk away inspired and thoroughly convinced. And you need to be looking ahead, beyond the terroir and the gravel hills of the Médoc to the next thing. The next thing in the wine-selling world has been, and continues to be, social media marketing. Making the brand personal.
If you look at the research, only two of the Bordeaux biggies have an active presence on social networks – Médoc First Growth – Château Margaux and Sauternes First Growth – Château d’Yquem.
Understanding the je ne sais quoi of Château Margaux
This summer, I finally had the pleasure of visiting – and drinking – Château Margaux. Clearly VERY good things come to those who wait (see tasting notes).
We toured the expansive, newly renovated limestone property, walked the impeccably curated vineyards, and learned about the visionary Mentzelopoulos family. We toasted the remarkable legacy of winemaker Paul Pontallier, gawked at the exquisite bottle library, witnessed the historical inventory shift in bottle colour from green to black, and toured the delicious, cedar-scented cooperage where Margaux’s barrels are manufactured.
It was a magical experience and I was able to cross “visit Château Margaux” off my bucket list.
But for those not travelling to the famous Médoc region of Bordeaux, the mystique of Château Margaux wine is stoked daily by the ‘brand vision’ team, through their digital communications and social media posts.
What stories are they sharing through the social feeds? Here is amustread’s take on the property’s key messages, (scientifically gleaned (ahem) from hours of lurking):
Quality and the legacy of Château Margaux, Trumps All (with apologies to the Mentzelopoulos family for my verb choice)
Château Margaux CEO and owner, Corinne Mentzelopoulos is a remarkable woman. I think I’ve read every article written about her and it’s clear improving the quality of the wine so it delivers on the centuries-old reputation and legacy of Château Margaux, is foremost in every decision she makes.
Corinne Mentzelopoulos inherited Château Margaux from her father, retail giant and Greek tycoon, André Mentzelopoulos (A Hellene in the Médoc). Amazingly, she was just 27 years old. Her father’s sudden death – just three years after he bought and revived the vineyards and downtrodden château – threw her into a role, which she was completely unprepared for. In an interview with luxury lifestyle magazine “how to spend it” she says: “I had to learn everything from scratch; I didn’t know anything about how to run a Bordeaux estate – I was a Parisian.”
Certainly, in my tour of Château Margaux, Marie stressed the quality over quantity message, over and over.
It Takes a Village
Madame Mentzelopoulos has always ensured the spotlight is focused on her team and the genius of the terroir; she doesn’t want the credit and defers to the superb talent of the Château Margaux team in all public appearances and communication. Consumed with rebuilding the esteemed reputation of the estate and brand, one of her first major decisions as CEO was to appoint 27-year-old Paul Pontallier, as Margaux’s winemaker.
The hugely respected winemaker and general manager for Château Margaux and ambassador for Bordeaux – writ large, led the estate for 34 years. Pontallier died of cancer in the spring of 2016 at just 59 years of age. As an hommage to Paul Pontallier’s remarkable career, the Château’s 200th anniversary and theNorman Foster redesign of the winery, the château celebrated the exceptional 2015 vintage by launching a special edition wine. The magic of the vintage is captured in this YouTube video, and can be found as a teaser campaign on the Château Margaux Instagram page.
More than metaphorical, it literally takes a village to operate a First Growth with the size and standards of Château Margaux. The 270 harvest employees and the day-to-day team of 84 full time employees represent the backbone of the estate. The family calls this the human or emotional side of wine messaging and increasingly, profiling ‘the village” behind the brand is a big part of Chateau Margaux’s engagement strategy.
Next-Generation Decision Making
If you immerse yourself in the Château Margaux Instagram page (please come back), you’ll note a discernible shift in audience traffic and posting practices at the end of 2016. More engaging visuals, higher quality images and more video begin appearing in posts (#best practices). The feed transitioned to a healthier mix of promotional and inspirational content and followers grew in number and passion (likes/comments).
Not coincidently, in 2016 Corinne Mentzelopoulos appointed daughter Alexandra Petit Mentzelopoulos to the role of Deputy General Manager, Communication and Image, which meant the 27-year old digital native was now overseeing Margaux’s social-media strategy.
A bold mother-daughter message began appearing in the fine-wine world. The Mentzelopoulos women, together, were transitioning to a new power structure. Corinne was passing more decision-making responsibility to daughter Alexandra. It was an acknowledgment that Bordeaux needed to change and recognize a new generation of younger, wine buying consumers. Château Margaux would take the lead. This powerful announcement and insight was a nod to the long game; the old money, male dominated, cellar-building fine-wine crowd was dying off. It was…is, time to embrace and introduce a new, energized, gender-neutral demographic to Château Margaux wine.
Alexandra’s job? To take a wine that retails between $225 – $225,000 (1787 bottle) U.S. a bottle, and make the intrinsic luxury message approachable – while keeping it aspirational to the “badge-value” conscious, social media masses. “We want it to tell the world that we are now looking at new ways of doing things and that a younger generation is on the way,” said Corinne in the Financial Times interview.
Give the brand a fresh face…or 3
Doing double duty as social media manager, that fresh face is Alexandra Petit-Mentzelopoulos. Her youthful beauty and exuberance in our Instagram-loving, oh-so-visual culture, makes her a slam-dunk for Château Margaux’s poster child. Owning an exceptionally cool wine bar in London – Clarette – further supports the key message that Château Margaux is the perfect fine wine to enjoy in casual (bar) settings. It’s not just about fine-dining.
For the last few years, Corinne Mentzelopoulos and her wine-making team have been re-thinking harvest math and reallocating quality blocks to their second – Pavillon Rouge– and third wine – Margaux du Château Margaux. Not everyone can afford a Grand Vin.
As Château Margaux rolls out their next-generation communication strategy, they’ll need a purchase strategy that makes the wines somewhat affordable for young consumers. This message is critical as châteaux across Bordeaux watch wine sales erode from competition in other (social media savvy), fine wine regions.
Open New Markets
China is seeing the rise of a new wine market that’s young (in their mid-30s), and thirsty for exclusive brands. “Creeping” Instagram, blogs and traditional media, turns up a rich library of articles and posts confirming the importance of Château Margaux in the region. Images abound of master classes in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Jakarta and more.
In a stroke of brilliance, in 2010, Corrine Mentzelopoulos appointed Paul Pontallier’s son, Thibault Pontallier to be Château Margaux’s brand ambassador in Asia. The team’s approach was to make Château Margaux personal; give the brand an online and offline persona, including more events, more tastings, and more interaction.
Thibault Pontallier grew up at the winery, working many vintages with his father. He acquired a business degree and landed jobs at the UN World Food Programme and for a short time, in former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s public affairs office. As Château Margaux’s ambassador, Pontallier lived in Hong Kong for eight years, where he witnessed the incredible, parallel growth of the fine wine market and e-commerce enabled social media channels like WeChat and Weibo.
According to Thibault, China and Hong Kong account for 10 to 20 per cent of the Château Margaux’s Grand Vin, depending on vintage forecasts. But they’re most interested in Pavillon Rouge (China represents ~80% of brand sales), and wine that can be drunk immediately and that’s affordable.
Tech Charm Offensive
Another key audience for Château Margaux appears to be the tech world.
Are the nouveau riche of Silicone Valley hunting out great wine? Instagram shows Château Margaux tastings in NYC with Google! And Facebook! Think: young, influential, and on strategy!
Still Exclusive after all these years
Exquisite dinners at Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, in Napa and at the U.S. Supreme Court of Justice, among others, reinforce the fact that these wines are very, very special….
Nature, tranquility…nothing tugs at your emotions like a fabulous sunrise behind the vineyard, early morning pruning or a water droplet hugging a perfectly formed Château Margaux merlot grape. Philippe Bascaules, who worked alongside Paul Pontallier for 21 years, now has the responsibility of carrying forward the tradition of world-class winemaking. The excitement of the harvest ritual is captured on Château Margaux’s website and Instagram page and is a key message that’s always scores big “likes”.
Et voila!! That’s my take on Château Margaux’s social strategy and the messaging required to cement a remarkable 16th century wine brand in consumer’s hearts and minds. Amongst Bordeaux chateaux, Margaux’s ranking is strong. But if you’re to believe Twitter (!), it appears the MyBalthazar research has inspired a social media revolution in Bordeaux. Châteaux across the region are now scrambling to understand social media and content marketing and they’re busy analyzing Château Margaux’s – and other’s – brand-building strategies (you’re welcome).
Meanwhile, at the venerable estate, two women with tenacity, trust new audiences will continue to appreciate the magic of a beautifully made wine. Thanks for a lovely visit this summer. I’m excited to taste the next chapter of Château Margaux.
2009 Pavillon Rouge du Château Margaux
67% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Merlot, 4% Petite Verdot
This is a wonderfully elegant and approachable wine that’s drinking beautifully now. Aromas of ripe raspberry and sweet black fruit are complemented by classic cedar, gentle herbal and forest floor notes. On the palate, plum and cherry flavours balance beautifully supported by a lively freshness. Through it all, there’s a luxurious softness. Palpable tannins support the wine’s structure but they’re satiny and beautifully integrated. The Pavillon Rouge offers remarkable complexity, length and grace.
2004 Château Margaux – Premier Cru – Grand Cru Classé
78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17.5% Merlot, and 3.5% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc
Château Margaux’s Grand Vin was the only wine to receive a perfect 20/20 score from the judges in the Classification of 1855. That fact stayed with me as I approached my first tasting ….
The 14 year old wine is a rich, deep garnet, with a seductive bouquet of red and black fruit, layered with gentle spice, sandlewood and my favourite blue vintage leather jacket. Aromas are reminiscent of the recently-visited cooperage and the term “perfume” – often used to describe Margaux – is quickly evident. On the palate: ripe, black cherry fruit dominates with hints of cedar, earth and cigar. The balance is perfect with finely textured tannins providing a gentle grip.
The “sensory” experience of this Margaux is truly remarkable. I now have context for the word. I can safely say I’ve never tasted a more silky, luxuriously textured wine. Exquisite now, or in 10 years’ time.
[i] Reyneke, M., Pitt, L.F., Berthon, P. (2010) Luxury Wine Brand Visibility in Social Media: An Exploratory Study. International Journal of Wine Business Research
(PDF) Luxury wine brand visibility in social media: An exploratory study. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/241701280_Luxury_wine_brand_visibility_in_social_media_An_exploratory_study [accessed Oct 11 2018].