Wine Going Viral: Ambitious Multimedia Project Aims to Capture Entire Santa Barbara Vintage

By Gabe Saglie, Senior Editor, Travelzoo
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on January 14, 2014)

Let’s call the wine grape harvest a race.   Then, you can liken the crack of the starter pistol to the precise moment a grape leaf emerges from its bud.  What follows is a no-holds-barred game that lasts most of the year, with teams of growers and winemakers descending on fields of vines and striving to capture essence in a bottle.  The checkered flag that waves in the end is the barrel’s bung, sealing in the freshest of wines as it begins its journey toward maturity.

Wouldn’t understanding this – and seeing it, in real time, even, and through myriad media – elevate one’s appreciation and enjoyment of that wine?

Fernandez uses a camera mounted on a drone helicopter to film a vineyard (credit: Jeremy Ball)
That’s the inspired notion driving Wil Fernandez these days, and an ambitious project that aims to capture Santa Barbara County’s 2014 harvest in its entirety.

“I spent a lot of time [last] summer in wine county, taking a lot of pictures, and I soon realized that what I was doing was documenting viticulture,” says Mr. Fernandez, 35.  “And I thought, why not take it up a notch?  And create a dramatic documentary, digitally distributed through different channels and platforms, that followed the story of the vine from beginning to end?  And in real time?”

The multi-tier project, dubbed Vintage 2014, will depend on multiple video cameras rolling simultaneously.  Content will be collected daily, from bud break to grape crush, at several strategic vantage points throughout the county.  And, rather than collecting video to edit into a full-length documentary later, video will be released as short episodes throughout the year.  Photo essays, social media content and audio broadcasts will also emerge throughout the year.

Filming is set to start in March, when initial bud break is expected, and last through October or November.

Periodic photo essays will be part of the multimedia Vintage 2014 project (credit: Jeremy Ball)

Mr. Fernandez’ vision for the website that will house his project: “All content will live on a map of Santa Barbara County that can be explored by space and time.  You see the map, at a wide scale, and you can flow through from March through October.  And different types of media will pop up, depending on the timing during the growing season.  You’ll be able to see what’s happening in the Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley at the same time.”

The project features some formidable local talent; the visuals are under the direction of Michelle and Jeremy Ball, the award-winning husband-and-wife team behind Solvang-based Bottle Branding.

And funding is being raised online, through the cloud sourcing web site Kickstarter.  Pledges of support are open to the public, and for any amount; a $10 pledge gives access to private behind-the-scenes footage, like bloopers, while $75 gets a commemorative t-shirt made of organically grown cotton.  The initial goal – which has not yet been met – is $20,000, pledged by this Friday, January 17th, to pay for equipment and develop the web page.  Subsequent drives will be earmarked for things like producing time-lapse video of the entire 9-month production, an interactive 3-D map and a soundtrack recording of original music by local artists.

Fascinating.  But “ambitious in scope and cost,” as Morgen McLaughlin, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association, puts it; though, she admits that “the idea is innovative and it would be exciting to see this project come to fruition.”

Mr. Fernandez says he’s got the energy to do it.  “I move very quickly,” he insists.

In fact, the former ad executive from L.A. is not new to high-stakes endeavors.  He’s run ad campaigns for BWM motorcycles, banks and pharmaceutical companies.  Once, when he ran a project for Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine, he launched a food truck tour that doled tapas nationwide and included online tie-ins through QR codes.

But when he got bored with life in Marina Del Rey four years ago, he hit the road.  He’s had no physical address ever since, actually.  He’s been driving around in a 40-foot Winnebago.   And of all the places it’s taken him, Santa Barbara – and the wine valleys on the other side of the mountain range, in particular – appeals to him most.

“When I first went over the hill and saw the Santa Ynez Valley, I got all tingly.  I just found something special.  I was blown away,” says Mr. Fernandez. 

“Stress melts away when I go over that mountain.  It’s a little paradise.  And it’s like a yo-yo.  No matter where I’ve been in the last four years, I keep finding myself back here.”

This past summer, that included falling hard for the wine industry, the agriculture that defines it and the people who drive it.  And it included becoming convinced that the caliber of Santa Barbara wines rival those of Napa and Sonoma.  The fact they’re in their shadows is, rather, a matter of marketing.

Fernandez hosts a pop-up Santa Barbara wine tasting in Phoenix
Over the last few months, Mr. Fernandez has aligned himself with about a dozen Santa Barbara County wineries.  He’s their marketing consultant, under the banner Central Coast Wine & Food (CCWF).  And he’s organized pop-tastings and intimate winemaker meet-and-greets with consumers, restaurateurs and media in key markets across the country, like Houston, Phoenix, New Orleans and Miami.  

The Houston event included a video simulcast, via Skype, with Cold Heaven winemaker Morgan Clendenen, which allowed attendees to ask her questions, live, as they tasted her viognier for the first time.  It also helped secure a Texas distributor for Flying Goat Cellars winemaker Norm Yost.  He says he’s benefited from Mr. Fernandez’ “new ideas, and the fact he’s using new technologies.  And I like his energy.”

In November, Mr. Fernandez hosted a virtual wine tasting and live Q-&-A session over Twitter with Clos Pepe Vineyards winemaker Wes Hagen; the internet audience included several influential bloggers who sipped the 2009 Clos Pepe pinot noir simultaneously and interacted with the winemaker digitally.

Next week, he’ll be hosting a series of intimate winemaker events in Key West, Florida, during the five-day 2014 Key West Food & Wine Festival.  CCWF is a sponsor.  Among the presenters will be Laura Booras, general manager at Riverbench Vineyards & Winery; she’s taking 50 mason jars with her, filled with Riverbench dirt, for guests to whiff while they sip the pinot noir that grew in it.  “We’ve never been at this festival before,” she says.

CCWF pop-up tastings feature iPads to display winery info as well as gather consumer feedback
And up next, Vintage 2014.  The multimedia project is the next chapter in what is, at its core, a labor of love for Mr. Fernandez.  It’s meant to bring the vineyard to the people, and increase sales.  “There is a clear correlation between the amount people pay for a bottle of wine and whether they’ve been to a vineyard before,” Mr. Fernandez says, based on man-on-the-street surveys.  “Is it because they have more money to spend, or because they have an appreciation?  When you see everything that wine goes through – nine months of an uphill battle and all the things that can go wrong in between – you appreciate it more.”

The footage and multimedia elements that are released throughout will, in the end, be archived.  There are also plans to submit a comprehensive documentary to film festivals.  But the biggest thrill for Mr. Fernandez is in simply capturing the precise time and place encapsulated in every wine.  “So when, say, the 2014 Clos Pepe pinot actually comes out, you’ll be able to drink a bottle and go back to the web site and look at Clos Pepe Vineyard – and what was happening there throughout the year – in all different kinds of media,” he says.  “It’ll be
an epic experience.”

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