Ray Johnson on Wine

HomeWho is Ray?The BookRay's BlogWinetasting EventsWine ClassesContact Ray

Print View

Regional Branding and the Russian River Wine Road: November 2005

The Russian River Wine Road


Regional branding has come of age and winery associations are implementing the strategies learned by other product and service providers. While various wine and wine-related associations vie for consumers’ attention in California, one has been particularly successful. The Russian River Wine Road has joined the interests of wineries and other hospitality enterprises in Northwest Sonoma to attract a loyal following of tourists and wine enthusiasts.

Characteristics and Nature of the Region’s Brand Image

A brand is “a name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of these, intended to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors” (Kotler et al. 2004, p. 407).

Region as brand
“Wine tourism can play an invaluable role in being part of the process of creating a brand identity for a wine(ry) organization, in fact, it can create the texture and richness that the wine brand may often lack to make it truly successful” (Bruwer 2005, p. 92).

The sense of place created is part of the wine region’s image. According to Bruwer and House, ‘using the image of a place of origin to differentiate a product can be compared with applying a branding strategy if marketers can exploit the associations consumers have with a particular place (Bruwer & House 2003, p. 56-61).

Wine Road Position
“Sonoma is where fine wine production started in northern California and, although in the late 20th century Sonoma was eclipsed by Napa’s seminal role in the state’s wine renaissance” (Johnson & Robinson 2001, p. 273).

According to Ries and Trout, first is best: “The first person, the first mountain, the first company to occupy the position in the mind is going to be awfully hard to dislodge” (Ries & Trout 1986, p. 20). In the California wine business, Napa has a firm lock on this primary position.

While the Wine Road has worked on building an identity apart from the more famous Napa Valley to the east, it has also struggled to create an identity that is distinctly northwest Sonoma County. “The Sonoma Valley AVA…is nowadays less important that the northern section…although the town of Sonoma could hardly be more important to California wine historians” (Johnson & Robinson 2001, p. 274).

The renown of the town of Sonoma and the fact that it is identical to the name of the county has created for it a stronger identity than that of the other wine places in Sonoma. Thus the Wine Road in its branding has sought to not only create a recognizable entity apart from Napa but also one apart from the Sonoma Valley and its southern hub, the town of Sonoma.

“Sonoma Valley is a very small portion of Sonoma County but it rivals and occasionally beats nearby Napa Valley for réclame” (Robinson 1999, p. 646). In the world of wine from Sonoma County, Sonoma the town and the Sonoma Valley that extends north from it have occupied the first position in the minds of consumers visiting the region.

According to The Russian River Wine Road’s Executive Director Beth Costa, “the image we’re projecting is a simple picture: Wine Country” (Costa 2005, pers comm.). This has been a very successful tack for the organisation to take. An image of Sonoma is difficult to convey as it has multiple associations as described above. And choosing one of the appellations within the county as an image has not been as successful with consumers (Frey 2005, pers comm.). Rather the Wine Road has adopted the river that runs through a wine country setting as its standard bearer.

Bruwer states “according to Hall et al (2000), the concept of a bounded space is vital to the idea of a wine route since it defines for its wine-producing members an identity that proclaims unique attributes for their wines and cultural heritage” (Bruwer 2005, p. 122). The string that binds the three diverse regions of the Wine Road is the Russian River. It flows through the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys.

Brand Elements
Bruwer’s ‘Main Brand Elements of the Barossa Valley Wine Region’ (Bruwer 2005b) are synonymous with the main brand elements of the Russian River Wine Road:

  • Scenery/countryside magnificent/stunning
  • Great wines/great quality
  • Food culture
  • Tasting rooms well presented
  • People friendly

“I firmly believe from what I have seen that this is the chosen spot of all the earth as far as nature is concerned,” said Luther Burbank, internationally renowned botanist who made his home in Northwest Sonoma County (Wine Road website 2005).

Costa states “the image of the Wine Road is one of rolling hills, country roads and small wineries. It’s an ideal fantasy picture. The logo is clean and easy to remember” (Costa 2005, pers comm.).

Great wines/great quality
Tom Stevenson describes the area as follows: One of California’s most important wine regions…and a reputation for quality now fast-approaching that of Napa…boutique wineries specializing in premium varietals are taking over” (Stevenson 2001, p. 458).

Food Culture
“The Barossa Valley region in 2004 became part of the “Slow Food” movement” (Bruwer 2005, p. 77). Likewise a Slow Food convivium was formed and titled Russian River in Sonoma County. There are currently four convivia in Sonoma County.

MacNeil describes Sonoma like Provence: “often thought of as California’s Provence, Sonoma County is also full of small towns that sell local cheeses, olive oils, honey, fruits and vegetables” (MacNeil 2001, p. 673).

Tasting Rooms Well Presented
In a classic touring book published by the Wine Spectator, Sonoma wineries are described as having a ”more low-key approach to living. Instead of proclaiming themselves with eye-catching architecture, the wineries here tend to be understated converted barns. With some notable exceptions…smaller producers still make wine in old, rustic buildings that are beautiful in their simplicity” (Shanken 1998, p.45).

While this quote may seem ancient, the scene it describes is still quite apropos today. While modern architectural gems have been created, as at Stryker, barns and wine farms are still well integrated into the rural landscape.

People Friendly
Urry cites a former president of Scandinavian Airlines, who “refers to the encounter between a customer and a smiling waiter or welcoming receptionist as ‘moments of truth’…such moment, it is alleged, determine a company’s success or failure” (Bruwer 2005, p. 84). So too with a wine region, as today Napa is considered to be unfriendly to tourists. In Sonoma there is a more homespun feel.

This emphasis and acknowledgement of the importance of visitor satisfaction is underscored in the annual meetings of the Russian River Wine Road (Costa 2005, pers. comm..).

Wine Tourism Components
Bruwer quotes Telfer, stating, “with the wine tourism product bridging a complex set of industries from grape growers to wineries to restaurants and tour operators, the potential exists for building even greater strategic alliances” (Bruwer 2005, p. 94). This is exactly what the Wine Road has accomplished.

“Wine tourism is set with the context of cultural, rural and industrial tourism, with links to festival/event tourism” (Bruwer 2005, p. 95). Much of the brand image of the industry association is its attraction as a wine tourism destination. Components as per Bruwer include:

Cultural Tourism
“Culture is a major tourist attraction…Cultural tourists might be interested in the inter-relationships between wine production and the local people and their environment, including gastronomy and authentic traditions” (Bruwer 2005, p. 95). The ‘wine country’ culture of the region is one of artisinal wine and food products produced in an historically agricultural area that also offers the modern amenities of world-class restaurants, shopping and spas.

Rural Tourism
“Rural tourism and wine - wine regions offer a very unique and appealing rural experience” (Bruwer 2005, p. 95). A tourist to the Russian River Wine Road has a rural experience in an authentic agricultural environment surrounded by oaks and redwood forests, all within a short drive of a relatively undeveloped coastline.

Urban Tourism
“Urban tourism and wine – most international travellers will use urban gateways to visit wine regions, so that an urban-rural experience can be packaged for them” (Bruwer 2005, p. 95). San Francisco is the gateway for international and interstate visitors to the Russian River Wine Road.

The proximity of San Francisco is an asset for the region. “The growth of weekend breakaways and a desire to visit rural areas is also compatible with winery visits” (Bruwer 2005, p. 91). The San Francisco Bay Area provides a market of over 1,000,000 people and approximately 40% of the Wine Road’s visitors originate in the greater San Francisco area (Costa 2005, pers. comm.).

“70% of the Wine Road’s visitors come from California. Outside of the state, a large number of visitors from Florida, Texas, Utah, Colorado and New York, fly into San Francisco and rent a car to drive into the region” (Costa 2005, pers. comm.).

Festival and Event Tourism
“Festivals or events and wine – event tourists fall into at least two categories, including those motivated by the theme and those simply looking for a good social experience. These events are both products to attract visitors and a means of gaining publicity and shaping the image of a region” (Bruwer 2005, p. 96). Attending regional wine festivals like the Road Trip is a social experience beyond the wine theme. There are games and other activities.

The Russian River Wine Road’s Network Development and Categorization

External Markers and their use by the Network
“The following were found to be the most important external markers used by Texas winery visitors according to Dodd in 1998:

  • Word-of-mouth
  • Previous exposure to the winery’s label
  • Newspaper or magazine information
  • Brochures
  • Previous visits to the winery
  • Billboards” (Bruwer 2005, p. 114).

“Word-of-mouth is the most important source of information” (Bruwer 2005, p. 114). “The team at White Oak Vineyards and Winery [a member of the Wine Road] also shares recommendations for dining and lodging, keeping a restaurant book with menus at hand. This extra level of service makes the winery a partner in the visitors’ experience and creates a relationship that goes way beyond that of traditional sales. (Johnson 2005, p. 10).

Costa also notes that word-of-mouth from “people attending priors events with their friends is the best source of publicity for the Wine Road” (Costa 2005, pers. comm.).

Newspaper or Magazine Information
According to Costa, results from advertisements and publicity releases in Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Francisco newspapers produce immediate incoming calls for tickets and information (Costa 2005, pers. comm.).

“Brochures at a hotel would be markers that may provide information and direction to people concerning the winery” (Bruwer 2005, p. 113). The Wine Road’s maps are available at lodgings and at each of the member wineries to facilitate cross promotion of all members across their business type. There are now about 600,000 of the Wine Road maps produced every two years, reaching thousands of consumers in the Bay Area and beyond” (Johnson 2005, p. 10).


The various appellation orgranisations, rather than the Wine Road, maintain winery signposts at major intersections. “Markers may include signs external to the winery on roadways or buildings pointing to the winery” (Bruwer 2005, p. 113). These external markers benefit all parties involved.

“Touring routes, such as wine routes, are a good way to organise and encourage rural tourism” (Bruwer 2005, p. 96). The Wine Road is well posted at most major intersections as shown below. Arrows are paid for by the member wineries. The appellation associations coordinate the post placements.

Strategic Alliances
“With the wine tourism product bridging a complex set of industries from grape growers to wineries to restaurants and tour operators, the potential exists for building even greater strategic alliances” (Telfer 2001, p. 21). The Russian River Wine Road is just such an alliance, including wineries, lodgings, restaurants, recreational providers and grape growers.

Restaurants participate in Wine Road events and also cooperatively market on the organisation’s website. At the annual Wine and Food Affair, over 50 wineries work with local restaurants to create wine and food pairings for the attendees. Bruwer quotes Johnson, saying, “The attributes of a grape wine region that appeal to those visiting a wine region (scenery and open spaces) may be quite unrelated to consuming wine” (Bruwer 2005, p. 95). The Russian River Wine Road has wisely forged an alliance with partners outside of the wine industry. The alliance includes such businesses as canoe rental for the Russian River and spa treatments in Healdsburg.

Yet the organization has not gone as far as industry members one county north: The Mendocino County grape growers and wineries are planning to tax themselves to launch a county wine commission that would promote the Mendocino County industry. The plan is unique in California in that it involves growers and wineries. Proponents said about 75 percent of the 58,000 tons of grapes grown locally are currently sold to Napa and Sonoma county wineries, which blend the wine juice into their own higher-priced varietals (Geniella 2005, pp. E1 & E6).

Network Categorisation
Hall et al. define four inter-organisational relationships and two apply to the Russian River Wine Road:

Organisation sets: inter-organisational linkages that refer to the clusters of dyadic relations maintained by a focal organization, e.g., a visitor information centre or wine tourism organization develops individual relationships with wineries so as to provide tourists with information on each winery.

Action sets: a coalition of interacting organizations that work together in order to achieve a specific purpose, e.g., a visitor information centre [or wine tourism organization] comes together to produce a regional wine tourism promotional campaign (Hall 1997, p. 11).

The Russian River Wine Road is a ‘coalition of interacting organisations’ with a unified focus. The member wineries and lodgings both participate and benefit from the united marketing effort. Their inter-organisational relationship is one of ‘action sets’. At the same time, the individual members, exhibit the behaviour described by the former, ‘organisational sets’, treating their own association as if it is external to them.

Some members are enthusiastic participants. Director of Hospitality and Tasting Room Manager Denise Gill of White Oak Vineyards and Winery describes the Wine Road as “a source of camaraderie and support. Denise says that the organization grows by 10-15 wineries every year. She states that she’s a firm believer that ‘the larger the organization, the more impact it has’ (Johnson 2005, p. 10).

The Organisational Structure and Mission

The organization began in 1976. At that time the only structure was that of a board and general members. For the first two years, the board met every month to make decisions and plan events.

Five years ago, a paid position was created and titled ‘executive director’.
Today there are over 170 members and 120 of the members are wineries. There is still an elected board, all volunteers. There are 10 winery representatives and 3 lodging representatives. Officers are elected including a President and Vice-President.

The board meets 6 times per year. There is one annual retreat where most of the annual plan is visioned and created. General meetings with the entire membership are held four times each year.

The organization has created a simple and powerful mission statement: “The Russian River Wine Road is a winery and lodging association geared toward educating consumers and building sales for its members.”

From observation and research it is possible to articulate the organization’s ‘objectives in practice’:

  • Be the one-stop shop for Sonoma County Wine Country visitors
  • Strengthen the brand image of the organization with both casual and avid wine consumers
  • Educate consumers about the value and quality of the members’ offerings
  • Increase visitations and sales for all members

The Russian River Wine Road has developed a brand identity that is congruent with the wine country experience its members provide. The association has grown and its members have prospered.

Check out these references for more information on wine tourism and regional branding:


(i) Bruwer, J. 2005, Wine and Food Tourism and Festivals, Study Guide, University of Adelaide, Adelaide.
(ii) Bruwer, J. 2005b, Winery Business Management, Study Guide, University of Adelaide, Adelaide.
(iii) Bruwer, J. 2005c, Global Market for Wine, Study Guide, University of Adelaide, Adelaide.
(iv) Bruwer, J. 2003, ‘South African Wine Routes: Some Perspectives on Wine Tourism Industry Structural Dimensions and the Wine Tourism Product’, in Tourism Management, 24(4).
(v) Bruwer, J. & House, M. 2003, ‘Has the Era of Regional Branding Arrived for the Australian Wine Industry? Some Perspectives’, The Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker, December.
(vi) Costa, B. 2005, Personal Communications, September/October.
(vii) Frey, N. 2005, Personal Communications, February/March.
(viii) Geniella, M. 2005, ‘Mendocino wine commission sought’, The Press Democrat, 13 May, pp. E1 & E6.
(ix) Hall, M. et al 1997, ‘Wine Tourism and Network Development in Australia and New Zealand: Review, Establishment and Prospects’, International Journal of Wine Marketing, 9(2/3).
(x) Hall, M. & Mitchell, R. 1998, ‘The Scope of Tourism Studies’, in Introduction to Tourism: Development, Dimensions and Issues, 3rd edition, Australia, Longman-Pearson Education.
(xi) Johnson, H. & Robinson, J 2001, The World Atlas of Wine, 5th edition, Mitchell Beazley, London.
(xii) Johnson, R. 2005, ‘Making Friends in the Alexander Valley’, Sonoma-Marin Farm News, August.
(xiii) Kotler, P., Brown, L., Adam, S., Armstrong, G., 2004, Marketing, 6th edition, Pearson Prentice Hall, Frenchs Forest.
(xiv) MacNeil, K. 2001, The Wine Bible, Workman Publishing, New York.
(xv) Ries, A. & Trout, J. 1986, Postitioning, The Battle For Your Mind, Warner Books Edition, New York.
(xvi) Robinson, J. 1999, ‘Sonoma’, Oxford Companion to Wine, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
(xvii) Shanken, M. 1998, Wine Spectator’s Wine County Guide to California, M. Shanken Communications, New York.
(xviii) Slowfoodusa.org 2005, ‘Local Convivia’, [Online, accessed 15 September, 2005]. URL: slowfoodusa.org/contact/index.html
(xix) Stevenson, T. 2001, The New Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, 3rd edition, DK Publishing, New York.
(xx) Telfer, D. 2001, ‘Strategic Alliances along the Niagara Wine Route’ in Tourism Management, 22 (1).
(xxi) Wineroad.com 2005, ‘Press Kit’, [Online, accessed 15 September, 2005]. URL: wineroad.com/aboutus/presskit.asp



^Top of Page^

Home | Who is Ray Johnson? | Ray Johnson the Author | Ray’s Wine Blog | Winetasting Events | Wine Classes | Contact Ray Johnson

Copyright © 2005-2007 Ray Johnson. All Rights Reserved.

Website Design: Graphicsmiths