social media case studiesHow can wineries use social media to increase sales when the law prohibits them from giving away product samples?

Whitehall Lane, a 20-year-old Napa Valley winery run by the Leonardini family, has hit on a winning social media formula that pays dividends in both increased sales and brand loyalty.

Wineries face special challenges in promoting their business on social media. The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, known as the TTB, considers social media “advertising,” and regulates what wineries can do.

The regulations primarily affect Whitehall Lane in two different ways. They cannot run contests that give away wine, and they must monitor user-generated content for anything that might promote irresponsible drinking.

“We don’t fool around with the TTB regulations,” said Katie Leonardini, direct sales manager for Whitehall Lane. But that hasn’t stopped them from successfully using social media to grow a loyal fan base outside the tasting room. This in turn has increased both wine club membership and direct sales. Here’s how they do it.

instagram meme

Whitehall Lane Winery uses Instagram as one way to foster brand loyalty.

Organization: Whitehall Lane Winery

Social Media Handles & Stats


  • Direct sales have increased month-to-month with no increase in tasting room walk-ins
  • Wine club member sales increased 39% from September 2012 to September 2013
  • Wine club member retention has increased to over 99% each month
  • Wine dinners at partnering restaurants sell out, and wine club signups at the dinners have increased dramatically

Whitehall Lane started using Facebook and Twitter in 2009. They’ve since expanded onto Instagram, Pinterest and a blog within the last year and a half.

By keeping an eye on their brand while experimenting through trial and error, they’ve hit on a social media formula that reaches beyond the tasting room by: 1) partnering with complementary brands, 2) rewarding loyal fans and 3) educating and telling stories vs. selling.

Partnering With Complementary Brands

Contests and giveaways are standard tactics on social media for retail brands. But TTB regulations prohibit wineries from giving away alcohol. Whitehall Lane has overcome this challenge through some creative thinking.

Leonardini identifies complementary brands that fit with their objectives for contests. The winery has given away wine glasses and cookbooks, for example. They’ve also done giveaways with Whitehall Lane estate olive oil.

glasses giveaway

Whitehall Lane partnered with Govino glasses for this Instagram contest.

glasses giveaway instagram

Finding complementary brands is a way for wineries to do giveaways.

Whitehall Lane also retweets content on Twitter and likes Instagram photos of complementary brands that promote tourism in Napa Valley.

liked photo on instagram

Whitehall Lane liked this photo on the Instagram feed of a Napa Valley inn.

Rewarding Loyal Fans

Whitehall Lane does not run contests on social media to get new followers. They run them to reward existing fans. “It’s never a refer-a-friend type of contest,” said Leonardini.

They would rather use contests to collect email addresses of current fans for their database than inflate follower numbers with people who aren’t true fans of their brand. Whitehall Lane also does not advertise on Facebook.

t shirt promo

Whitehall Lane rewards fans with special promos and contests.

“All of our fans are genuine,” said Leonardini. “Whitehall Lane isn’t about hundreds of thousands of fans, it’s more about the quality and the conversation,” she said.

The winery also rewards fans informally by liking their photos on Instagram and giving shout-outs on Facebook and Twitter. In return, fans naturally share Whitehall Lane content.

reposted fan photo

Whitehall Lane reposted this fan's Instagram photo to their own feed.

fan photo shoutout

Reposting and liking Instagram photos informally rewards fans.

giving fans shoutouts

Whitehall Lane gives shout-outs to fans on their Facebook page.

“We’ve found that when you have genuine, authentic followers, you don’t even have to ask them to RT or share your posting, because they’ll do it on their own,” said Leonardini.

facebook shared post

Whitehall Lane finds that fans naturally share content that resonates with them.

Their focus on growing a fan base organically has an added benefit—they almost never have to remove user posts or comments for spam or encouraging alcohol abuse. This makes it much easier to comply with TTB regulations.

Educating and Telling Stories vs. Selling

When Whitehall Lane first started using Twitter, they would search for people who were asking which Napa Valley wineries to go to or who had checked in at another winery. They would then tweet with a 2-for-1 offer to come in to their tasting room.

It did bring in traffic. “But they were people looking for free tastings,” Leonardini said. Although numbers in the tasting room went up, sales did not follow. They decided to change their Twitter strategy.

Now the winery uses Twitter primarily to educate fans about food and wine pairings and share facts about Napa Valley and winemaking. The interaction they receive tells them this is what their followers want.

educational tweet

Whitehall Lane finds that educational tweets are what their followers want.

“When we tweet something that’s educational, we get an average of four to seven retweets,” said Abbi Whitaker of the Abbi Agency, a public-relations firm that works with Whitehall Lane.

educational retweet

Educational tweets get more retweets and favorites than promotional ones.

The winery has also started a blog where they post recipes, updates from the winemaker and harvest notes. Though blog subscribers are fewer than they would like right now, they’re focusing on consistency and quality content and believe the numbers will follow.

“We’re not just going to buy a list and shoot out our blog to them,” said Leonardini. “We want it to grow because people want to [subscribe].”

Results: Successful Wine Dinners and Increased Wine Club Sales

Subscribers to Whitehall Lane’s wine club get three to four shipments of wine a year; the club is a big part of the winery’s business. But they were getting calls from subscribers, often after three shipments, asking to cancel. When asked why, subscribers would often say they loved the wine, but they belonged to three wine clubs and had to let one go.

“We’ve been able to greatly reduce that [problem] because of social media,” Leonardini said.

Whitehall lane encourages club members to follow them on social media. “Even though they live in North Carolina or Nebraska, they get the feeling that they’re still here in touch with us, and our retention rate has changed dramatically,” said Leonardini.

wine club

Whitehall Lane uses social media to make wine club members feel connected.

The winery also partners with fine restaurants across the country to put on wine dinners. The dinners are not a new idea. What’s new is the response they now get.

Because of their social media following, restaurants now approach them about helping to promote the wine dinners. RSVPs are now up to the point that the dinners sell out—a win-win for the restaurants and the winery.

Wine sales at these dinner events now exceed a busy Saturday in the tasting room during the high season,” Leonardini said.

In addition, the number of wine club signups at the dinners has increased dramatically. “It’s a whole new outlet for us,” said Leonardini. “Previously the only venue to sign up club members was through the tasting room, but now we can sign them up at these dinners throughout the country.”

Over to You

Despite federal advertising regulations, Whitehall Lane has found a way to successfully use social media with tangible results to their bottom line.

What do you think? Is your business in a regulated industry? How have you used social media to increase brand loyalty and sales? Include your comments and questions below.

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  • If I remember correctly Gary Vaynerchuk used video and his personality to expand his family’s wine business. These folks seemed to have taken it a step further.

  • Great article Louise! Amazing what authenticity and education can do to help build authority / trust in a brand (and increase sales).

  • Kerry Jones

    I love reading about a brand that has no problem changing their approach based on what their audience engagement tells them.

    On a sidenote, I’d be interested in seeing a post just about TTB regulations and social media.

  • Louise Julig

    Thank you, @Bob_Strassel:disqus! And yes, I agree. Whitehall Lane is doing a great job of sticking to their strategy of education and building loyalty with their core fans.

  • Louise Julig

    Thanks for the comment, @disqus_MjOI5Dpyrl:disqus, I will pass it along to my editor. And yes, I really liked how Whitehall Lane was able to be flexible in changing their strategy when it appeared that it wasn’t the right fit for their objectives based on the feedback they got.

  • Andy Medlam

    This is a timely article/read as I’m in the process of talking to a winery in the uk regarding promoting their business through social media… & like @disqus_7mk3xlfljY:disqus mentioned I’m aware about Gary Vaynerchuck’s story about his parents business


  • Nicole

    Thanks Matt! It has definitely been a fun journey showcasing Whitehall Lane’s personality through social. :]

  • Nicole

    Thanks Louise & Bob! Authenticity and being true to our fans is very important to us.

  • Nicole

    Thanks Kerry! The Abbi Agency wrote about this a little while ago if you’d like additional information:

  • Nicole

    Thanks Andy! Glad you liked the article.

  • I love Katie’s remark about when you have authentic
    followers, you don’t even have to ask them to RT or share your posts, because
    they’ll do it on their own. This proves that your followers genuinely trust
    your brand and that is so POWERFUL! What a great case study Louise – thanks!

  • Katie Leonardini

    Thank you! It has taken a couple of years to get to this point, but genuine fans are much more valuable than paid followers.

  • Philippa Rees

    Great article. Requires creative thinking to apply to a book, but I am sure there are some applications.

  • Elizabeth DeConti

    Louise, this is a great article which shows how social media can be used responsibly to promote alcohol brands. As an alcohol beverage attorney focusing on marketing issues, I love seeing examples of social media marketing used legally inside our industry’s unique regulatory framework @EDeConti

  • Cool post. My wife Carol and I went there in November of 2005, on Gary Vaynerchuk’s recommendation, and shot a little video for something we like to call, “The Carol and Steve Show.” Man, that was the early days of video blogging.

    Now on YouTube:

  • Awesome insight into the wine industry. I imagine abiding by the terms and conditions is sometimes a fine line, but Whitehall seems to know where exactly who they are while still following the rules. Valuing quality over quantity is not something you see a lot of brands focusing on, so it’s great to see Whitehall doing this! It may have been a long, uphill climb to get there, but from these stats, it seems more than worth it.

  • Thanks for sharing Louise.

    I’d love to see an article on how financial advisers, stock traders, bankers, etc are using social media to build their brands. They keep telling me they can do it “because of regulations.”

  • Great post, well done Whitehall Lane and wider team!

    We’re always saying you should have an iPad behind the tasting room counter to take photos of customers, then show them the photo and ask if they’d like it posted to Facebook. Most of the time they’ll love the idea, and then proceed to tag themselves so all their friends can see how much fun wine tasting can be.

    Other ideas we’ve seen include:
    – Fan Photo Fridays where fans send in photos (which are entered as part of a contest, put into an album or simply put on the wall)
    – Tasting event photos of customers with a similar process
    – Asking fans simple questions about what they’re drinking that night
    – When a winery has news it doesn’t make a press release but gives the short version of the news and then asks a question
    – If you’re traveling you take a photo of your bottle and ask Fans to guess the location
    – Take a Google Maps screenshot of a wine region and ask people to guess the appellation
    – The usual fill-in-the-blank, and finish-the-sentence, finish-this-song (red, red ___), caption-this-photo
    – Hilarious, er, vin-tertaining illustrations and someecards.

    The wine industry is very social so the simple works well, consumers come home at night and just want to relax with a glass of wine and their favorite wine brand.

  • I’d second that idea. In France they’re on the brink of banning all wine related social media, so clear guidelines would help.

  • Louise Julig

    Thanks for the kind words about the article – glad you found it useful.

  • Louise Julig

    Working within regulations can be a challenge, but more and more brands are doing it. It just takes some creative thought. Thanks for the comment.

  • Kelly

    Great article filled with a lot of ideas. Thanks!!

  • This is one proof that social media is very effective in any industry. You just have to learn how to use it the right way.

  • Pranav Sanghavi

    Whitehall Lane Winery is doing a fantastic job with their social media strategy….and great article Louise. By any chance, would it be possible to know which Media Firm they have hired to handle their Social Media strategy and community management? Or is it handled in house by Katie (or who would be the SM Manager)? Thanks.

  • Great ideas Bruce. It wouldn’t take much thought to transform some of these ideas to other industries.

  • This is awesome! I see a lot of similarities with Cecchi Winery. There are many great wineries pulling off some clever approaches, now I need a glass…

  • Actually, we have been working with many high end bloggers/photographer/writers to create private harvesting events. You may be interested to learn more in an email…could be beneficial to your readers!

  • rmsorg

    Excellent post that teaches us when we get “creative” and think outside the box, our business grows and we are able to meet and exceed brand loyalty and market share value!!
    Insightful stats with concrete ROI!


  • One thing I totally don’t get here is why, when I look at this company’s website, they seem almost embarrassed to admit they’re doing social. The tiniest icons right at the bottom of the home page are the only hint that they’re making such huge progress in this regard.

    It’s totally confusing me as a punter. Are they or are they not in the social game? I think they should man up and make a big play about social on their website, rather than burying it where most people won’t even see it. Then reap the rewards.

  • Stefan Tynell

    Hard to say it is “proof” unless we know how much they spend on these efforts compared to how much (more?) they make. Would be interesting to see some numbers to these articles.
    For example. If gaining 100 facebook fans and increasing sales by $5.000/month is costing $10.000/month – is it worth it? is it a sucess? 🙂

  • Louise Julig

    You make a good point, @stefantynell:disqus. We could do a better job of really breaking out the ROI so people know the cost vs. benefit. I know that Whitehall Lane said they do not do any outright social advertising, so it is mostly time invested, but they do have an agency helping them, as mentioned in the piece, so that would be a cost. It does get a bit tricky with companies, though, as they can be hesitant to get too specific with their accounting numbers in public.

  • Louise Julig

    They are using the Abbi Agency, run by Abbi Whitaker. She was quoted briefly in the article.

  • Louise Julig

    We are unlikely to do another story on a winery any time soon, but if you have anything you’d like to share with readers, feel free to include it in the comments here. Thanks!

  • Stefan Tynell

    Of course, I wouldn’t expect many companies to reveal that. But you can give out the relative success of the effort/ROI – for every dollar spent (time/advertising) how many dollars did that generate in increased sales – without giving out specific sales numbers. 1 dollar gave 1.23 dollars back, for example. Such follow ups to these kinds of articles would be great 🙂

  • The wine industry is in the middle of a similar debate Stefan, not so much about ROI but whether traditional media has fallen by the wayside and been replaced by social media.

    Probably the newest and best response to the social media cynic is Hawk Wakawaka, in a blog post titled, “A Shift in the Question of Authority: A Response to Steve Heimoff”

    She says that “we have to look at the contrast between the world of print media and the diversification of influence”. Print can be tracked: magazine comes out, sales rocket briefly, end of measurement. Compared to millions of wine conversations which increase sales in aggregate, but go unnoticed. Both are authoritative sources of wine authority, but social media authority is spread across the many, rather than held by the few. This spreading out of influence is a “democratization” of authority.

    Probably parallels similar discussions in other industries 😉

  • Now, that’s smart marketing! The idea is to cultivate what you already have on social platforms and reward those who interact with you. Once other people who aren’t following you see how well you engage with your current fan base, it’s all the more encouragement for them to join also.

    Social media is all about nurturing your current fan base, not reaching out to those who don’t follow you. This nurtured environment will make others want to follow you. No one likes to be left out.

    And this is a great example of how it works. Thanks for sharing!

  • Hey there. I’ve produced fun tours that are not typical to wineries to help create a different non-sommelier type of digital buzz. If I write it all out in a post I will be happy to share the lengthy details and great traffic results we received from it! Thanks! Loved this read and happy you chose a winery, everyone loves wine! 😉

  • Nicole

    Thank you Elizabeth! That means a lot. :]

  • Nicole

    Thanks Sarah. Yes, our fans definitely seem to be liking it!

  • Nicole

    Thanks for the input Stefan! We will definitely consider that. :]

  • Nicole

    Thanks James! :]

  • Pranav Sanghavi

    Hi sorry, my bad, missed that para between the pics. The reason I asked is because I’m trying to keep a track of extremely innovative SM strategies and people who come up with them. An article on Amy Jo Martin a few years ago got me started. Thanks so much again for a super article.

  • Nicole

    Thanks for the input Dave. We are always working on our website and value the feedback. :]

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  • Great tactics. I especially liked the insight about educational tweets and reaching out to audiences of complementary brands. And these ideas can be applied to other industries as well (I’m definitely implementing some ideas in this article for our social media outreach).

    =) Thanks Louise!

  • Mike Phelps

    Great article Louise! Our firm works with private clubs that are restricted by IRS 501(c)(7) nonprofit regulations that limit how they can promote themselves to the public. We have used a lot of the same tactics as Whitehall Lane has and it’s been AMAZING how successful it is. Social media is a great way to communicate and promote organic awareness without blatantly advertising – we love learning from great examples like Whitehall Lane…kudos!

  • MikeMeisner

    The TTB is fairly oppressive, and it’s hard to say who’s really “following the rules” according to them. When they published that edict with all sorts of rules and regulations surrounding social media and alcohol promotion it caused a bit of confusion in the industry. It is good to see wineries like Whitehall Lane doing it right though, as other wineries might be scared into being antisocial rather than cultivating a following through social media and online content.

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