ST. HELENA, Calif. - Merryvale Vineyards had a well-regarded product but a slim advertising budget. So it decided to try something different — reach out to gay consumers.
Strategically, that makes sense for a winery, experts say. Going after gay and lesbian consumers could help chase away the doldrums of a world wine glut.
Still, there are some caveats. Rule No. 1: There’s no such thing as ‘‘gay’’ wine. Rule No. 2: If you’re after a particular demographic, you’d better not be trying to sell a substandard product.
‘‘First and foremost, you’ve got to make good wine,’’ said. Felipe Barragan, co-owner of the Chateau de Vie bed-andbreakfast in Calistoga and a Merryvale customer.
Historically, wine companies — unlike the beer and spirits industries — have aimed most of their advertising dollars at the mainstream.
That hasn’t changed much, but over the past five years or so there has been a small but persistent trend of marketing wine to gays.
The pressure is on wineries to stay afloat in a global oversupply, and to compete with attractively priced imports in a slow economy.
‘‘The challenge right now for wine companies is there are so many brands that it’s not good enough that they simply be just another label on the shelf,’’ said Paul Wagner, owner of Napa-based Balzac Communications & Marketing. ‘‘They want to find a situation where they can have the almost undivided attention of the consumer.’’
Wagner says research has shown that gays and lesbians are likely to buy from companies that support their community.
But the pitch must be made without pandering. No one likes to be patronized.
‘‘People here are not into gimmicks. They know what quality wine is,’’ said Ken McDonald, co-owner of Friendly Spirits in San Francisco’s predominantly gay Castro district.
Successful selling to a niche community means getting to know its members, supporting their causes and researching their tastes. Just slapping ‘‘gay friendly’’ on company literature won’t do it.
Barragan said he has noticed many companies who sense that ‘‘there’s a lot of money out there to be had, but they’re not doing the homework that Merryvale has.’’
Merryvale’s decision to reach out to gay consumers, made at the instigation of proprietor Jack Schlatter and president Peter Huwiler, is part sales strategy, part social statement.
‘‘It’s not just a marketing thing, it’s also a community outreach,’’ said marketing director Jean DeLuca.
Merryvale began about a year ago by contacting the gay community and supporting various causes with fundraisers and other events, including some gay-themed celebrations in the winery’s historic cask room.
For their advertising campaign, they took their mainstream ads and tweaked the copy a bit — an ad showing a tableful of candlelit diners was framed by the slogan "Celebrate. Come out to Merryvale."
‘‘We want to get across that we get it,’’ DeLuca said.
A small, gay-owned company, Rainbow Ridge Wines, is taking a bolder approach to marketing with a wine made from Alicante Bouschet, a red wine grape.
Dennis Costa says he and partner Tom Beatty, who launched their winery in March, picked the relatively obscure grape because ‘‘we wanted to go after something that’s a little different, just like we are.’’
Rainbow Ridge’s Alicante Bouschet, which got a 91 rating from Wine Enthusiast this summer, is ‘‘fruit forward with a fabulous finish — and we mean it,’’ Costa said with a chuckle.
Rainbow Ridge, which recently brought out a chardonnay, is just as interested in selling to straight drinkers.
‘‘People say, ‘Oh, gay wine.’ And we go, ‘No. It’s just a good wine made by a gay-owned company,’ ’’ Costa said.
At yet another winemaker, Clos De Bois, marketing director Ruth Souroujon says she’s received hundreds of positive e-mails in response to a winery ad running in gay publications that shows a field of vines being irrigated, with the rising mist creating the effect of a rainbow, a symbol of gay pride. A low-key message at the bottom of the picture notes the company’s support for the NAMES Project and the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
The feedback also is positive at Merryvale, where same-sex couples have joined the wine club. Occasionally, DeLuca is asked if she worries about a backlash.
‘‘I don’t know what there is to worry about,’’ she said. ‘‘We’re not saying that we’re gay, we’re not saying that the owner’s gay or the president’s gay. We’re saying that we’re gay welcoming and anyone who’s uncomfortable with that — OK, fine.’’
‘‘Throughout history, the spirit of community has thrived on good food and wine and friendship,’’ DeLuca said.