The Grape Marketing Flap

La Rocca’s provocative poster begs the question: Are the wines that good?

LIFE IS A BED OF GRAPES To call attention to its all-natural, organic wines, La Rocca Vineyards enlisted local photographer Gary Quiring to take this photo for its latest poster. The model’s face has been obscured at the winery’s request.

LIFE IS A BED OF GRAPES To call attention to its all-natural, organic wines, La Rocca Vineyards enlisted local photographer Gary Quiring to take this photo for its latest poster. The model’s face has been obscured at the winery’s request.

La Rocca Vineyards Tasting room hours are Sat. and Sun., noon to 5 p.m., or by appointment. P.O. Box 541, Forest Ranch, CA 95942, 530.899.9463

Judy La Rocca wasn’t sure quite what to expect when she unveiled La Rocca Vineyards’ latest marketing poster a few weeks ago at the Saturday Farmers’ Market in Chico. Yes, it was provocative, but it was also tastefully done and quite beautiful.

Like the now famous poster advertising the Academy Award-winning movie American Beauty, it showed a young, blond woman lying on her back, completely nude except for coverings in strategic places—in this case, a cluster of purple grapes, a glass of red wine and a carefully positioned hand instead of red rose petals.

To some patrons of the Farmers’ Market, however, the new poster was way too much, as in too much skin.

“People started screaming at me,” explained La Rocca, the wife of winemaker Phil La Rocca. “They accused me of using sex to sell my product. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.” Under pressure from the market’s managers, she was forced to take down the poster.

The poster was to be the kick-off of the La Roccas’ new marketing scheme, and in fact was the brainstorm of their 29-year-old daughter, Phaedra. The company is a leader in the area of organic-vineyard management and winemaking, so the au naturel look was, well, a natural one to use.

So much for good intentions. Instead of seeing the poster as a lovely statement about naturalism, some viewers took it as yet another sexual advertising assault on their youth. Sex sells, right?

But in fact sex and wine have a long history together. Take the ancient Greeks’ Bacchanals, for example, in which good wine was an important part of their orgiastic, Dionysian celebrations. And, when Babylonian King Hammurabi put forth his famous code some 3,200 years ago, he included wine distribution laws that barred women from serving it so as to protect their virtue. Even Noah, in Genesis 9:22-27, condemns his son when the tyke tattles to his brothers that dad passed out nude from drinking wine.

At least wine and sex have a real history together. It’s not like those Herbal Essence shampoo commercials in which a woman screams orgasmically every time she washes her hair. The fact is that, in the capitalistic system, nearly every commodity can be, and is, sold using sex—something about freedom of speech and First Amendment rights.

The La Roccas’ poster seems innocent enough, but it raises an issue besides censorship and the clash of values: the role of marketing in the wine industry. Like most wine critics, I believe California wineries spend too much money on marketing their wines rather than improving their products.

Case in point: In 2001, California wineries spent $93 million on print and broadcast advertising. According to John Gillespie, president of the Wine Market Council, “This does not include the many more millions of dollars spent on public relations, merchandising initiatives, sales promotions, and the like, all of which are important marketing tools for the wine industry.”

Marketing wines is such a major part of what wineries do these days that the San Diego National Wine Competition gives out awards for “Best Label Design.” As a judge at this competition, this used to infuriate me. After all, it’s what’s inside the bottle that counts, right?

The La Rocca poster controversy begged the following questions: Are the wines really worth all this fuss? Have the La Roccas spent too much on marketing and not enough on producing good wine?

The only way to find out was to take the drive up scenic Highway 32 to the winery’s Forest Ranch tasting room. Folks, the wines are good. The real standout, however, was the 2000 Chardonnay (with the “California” appellation). It is with this quaff that the La Roccas have hit their goal of what organic wine production is all about. Not only does the wine exude classic Chardonnay structure, a supple apple-, pear- and persimmon-tinged flavor, but there is also the presence of terroir—that funky French descriptor meaning roughly “all the elements of earth.” Phil La Rocca, bless your heart, I can taste it!

As I scribbled my notes at the tasting bar, the poster caught my eye. Controversy? What controversy? It’s what’s inside the bottle that counts, right?