How to Run a Successful Wine & Spirits Marketing and PR Firm

Katie Ballou Calhoun.
Katie Ballou Calhoun

Awake in her San Francisco home by 7 am, Katie (pronounced Kah-tee, after her German great-grandmother) Ballou Calhoun starts each day reading newspapers and checking email while drinking the first of many cups of caffeinated black tea that will fuel her day.

The owner of Calhoun & Company Communications LLC, a boutique PR and marketing agency in San Francisco with a focus on the fine wine and premium spirits industries, Calhoun says she has been “…surrounded by wine ever since I can remember.”

After a college junior year abroad that included a stay in Burgundy and a year in Paris at the Sorbonne, she returned home to California and took an intern position at Wine Warehouse in Los Angeles, and then joined the sales team of a wine distributor in San Francisco at age 22. Not loving sales, Calhoun found her calling when she began working at a wine public relations agency in San Francisco. She bought the agency 10 years later in January 2003. Her client mix includes Blandy’s Madeira, Chateau Montelena, Symington Family Estates, E&J Gallo Premium Wines, and the Lodi Winegrape Commission.

It Pays To Specialize

Today, wine writers and social media influencers are the mainstay of Calhoun’s business. She takes a specialized approach to creating and sending pitches. “We build a different media list for every send, every time. We look at SRP: can this writer cover this wine at this price point? We look at distribution: can we assure this writer that his or her readers can buy this wine in their region or online? Our list also depends on the story angle we are pitching. We are not pitching Punch, InStyle and The Wall Street Journal the same stories.”

Hands-On Approach

Calhoun & Company has eight employees, but if you ring the main office number it is likely that Katie herself will answer. Calhoun’s can-do approach trickles down to her staff. As she puts it, “A boutique PR agency is hands-on by nature… My employees look forward to communicating with clients every day. For our clients that means that they are getting our full attention.”

Go With Your Gut

Aware that most agencies will present similar case studies and claim the same relationships, Calhoun believes that it is often her instincts and authenticity that close the deal when pitching prospective clients. “Every time we have pulled away with the win, I felt that it was not because of a superior proposal—but was from on-the-spot questions, off the RFP queries, where we had to think on our feet and answer from our gut.”

Preparation Is The Key

For events as varied as an MW-led master class, a food and wine pairing seminar for consumers or a winemaker lunch for the media, Calhoun is involved. “I am always on the ground floor of strategic decisions and client collaboration to determine the size, scope and purpose of an event.  I evaluate venue options, approve menu details and oversee invitations and collateral. I review media and trade lists, help to develop experiences, attend if at all possible and follow up for that final story!” Although preparation can take as long as nine months, Calhoun often flies in the night before or morning of an event, knowing that every detail is in place.

A Publicist’s Work Is Never Done

Communicating with clients in Portugal and California and journalists across the United States means that Calhoun has to be available at all hours. While she does not mind waking up early or staying up late to participate on a conference call, Calhoun drinks coffee in “emergencies only,” preferring to end her day with a glass of hard-earned Bourbon.

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Published on July 11, 2017
Topics: A Day In The Life