Courtney Cochran wants to be Sommelier to the Millennials, the voice of wine to her recently legal generation -- children of the Boomers for whom wine is isn't so much a lifestyle choice as it is what you drink with dinner. She gets that industries these days need personalities, people like Martha Stewart and Rachael Ray, luminaries to guide us along the path. She's not likely to dazzle you with her skill at tasting and scoring, à la Robert Parker, nor to amaze you with her insight and erudition, à la Jancis Robinson. It's not that she can't detect notes of tar or that she doesn't understand Italian appellations; it's that dazzling you with expertise is not what she wants. What she wants is to be your trusted friend, a fun-loving peer who's happy to help out when you've got a question about wine, always ready to suggest some new, fun thing. She doesn't want to be a critic or a teacher; she wants to be a brand.
Of course, becoming a brand does mean teaching people a thing or two, and before that, a certain amount of learning. You don't get to be the voice of wine just by holding a glass and smiling. So Cochran got a sommelier certification to go along with her MBA from UCLA, and in 2005, she headed up to San Francisco. She started Your Personal Sommelier, a wine-consulting business. She followed that with a blog, and by January '06, she was ready to start her events company, Hip Tastes.
Through Your Personal Sommelier, she runs tastings ("Getting to Know Merlot...All Over Again"), talks ("The New Power Players: Women and Wine"), and seminars ("Blind Tasting Technique"). She consults on restaurant wine lists. And she works with a chef to host wine-and-food dinners in private homes. (The site is stuffed with links, articles, ideas, recommendations -- not unlike a magazine.) Through Hip Tastes, she hosts wine-tasting parties, and for the genuinely curious, Saturday School. "It's my favorite thing in terms of wine events, because everyone who's there really wants to be there. The wine parties are parties, and the people at the corporate events are usually there for some other reason -- they had a meeting, and they added a wine tasting. But the people at Saturday School are my people; I keep it to groups of 12, and I'll do themes that are off the beaten path." ("Geek Wines," featuring Gruner Veltliner, Malagousia, et al.) "After folks come to three sessions, they get the fourth for free."
It's satisfying work, but it's hard to charm the world 12 people at a time. Slipping from winespeak to business-speak without a hiccup, she says, "I'm at a point where I would love to start to scale it in ways where all of my revenue is not based on personal experience -- time I've spent at events. Business is only so scalable when you have only one person running it. I've loved the events, because I've built a loyal customer fan base, and it's put me in touch with the consumer; but it's actually pretty tiring, especially when you're doing as many events as I did. It was important to keep the momentum by having a party every month. Now I'm looking for ways to monetize what I've created."
Exhibit A: Hip Tastes: The Fresh Guide to Wine, Cochran's entry into the world of wine books. Her social network put her in touch with an agent, and her agent "believed in Hip Tastes and thought I could create a winning book proposal around it. Essentially, the proposal was like a 50-page marketing document, and I love that stuff. What I learned in business school is that the most important thing is, you have to prove that there is a need over and over and over again. I felt that my audience could really use a guide like mine."
Tone, of course, was key: sassy without being snarky, sprinkled with plenty of personal anecdotes. And for content, a mix of information on basics (a good pronunciation guide, plus the usual Wine 101 material) and more advanced topics (corkage etiquette). Oh, and the occasional happy surprise: things like solid, practical advice on actual wine shopping. In "Sizing Up the Smarts of the Staff," Cochran suggests asking a sales clerk the difference between Premiere Cru and Grand Cru Burgundy, or what grapes go into a Super Tuscan, or the difference in style between New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Sancerre. It's not a matter of playing gotcha -- it's a question of how much faith you ought to put in a person's account of this or that wine. And it's not a question of snobbery -- Cochran includes a bit on "Buying Wine in the Supermarket" that offers good counsel, such as seeking out unoaked whites, Chianti Riserva, and wines you already know and trust (in the supermarket, consistency is king).
And of course, Cochran was selling more than just a book; she was selling a brand. "One of the things I talked about was the growing parallel trend in food in the U.S. Look at the Food Network, Ratatouille -- the media is just inundated with foodie fare. I think that hasn't transferred to wine yet, but it's coming. I said in my proposal, 'Food has the Naked Chef, so where is the Naked Sommelier?' I think that was probably pretty memorable. And they really liked the fact that I had a proven following at my events -- I had a track record and a fan base -- what they call a platform from which to market the book." Now, she says, "The book is a great example of the way I'm extending the brand. It's a product that's completed and is now for sale. From a business point of view, I love that -- because it's done."
Once the book was done, however, it was time for phase two: marketing the brand extension. "Penguin, my publisher, came up with a number of tour stops, but I organized a couple of the events myself -- the events in Sonoma and Napa. It was important to launch the book there -- it's wine country! Happily, there were venues that were thrilled to work with me, donating wine and inviting people." Her publicist at Penguin got her a mention in Domino, but still, says Cochran, "As a writer, you have to do a lot of your own publicity. I got a review in the San Francisco Chronicle that was written up by a professional acquaintance of mine who is a freelance writer. I sent the book to him, so I think the genesis of that was with me." The brand rolls on.