I’m intrigued with the application of psychological reactance to tourism, especially wine tourists in Sonoma County. Most of my posts are based on something I’ve read in art theory and how it applies to grape growing. This is a bit different – I read something to help me with my wine sales and it struck me how it could be applied to strategic economic planning at the scale of our county.
Psychological reactance lays claim to a whole chapter in Influence, The Psychology of Persuasion, a book examining the key ways people can be influenced by “Compliance Professionals” (Robert B. Cialdini, 1984). It’s when you get people to say yes or no by using reverse psychology. More subtle, you get them to want something they don’t need by making it less available or simply unavailable. My kids are at the prime age for it. I fumble daily for new parental methods of coercion, this one has been fruitful for at least a week. I think the wine industry can use it to increase traffic and interest in Sonoma County forever.
This is a top-secret marketing plan for Sonoma County, staged scarcity at a grand level. It will take big metaphorical balls, boob ones and testicle ones. Tell the public that after significant drops in tourism after the fires (SHED stated this is why they closed) and the proliferation of flood disaster images, all wineries have decided to put into effect a coordinated reduction in tasting hours and staff to reduce overhead, and shift focus to out of county three tier sales. Best scenario might be to start just in my backyard with Alexander Valley AVA, that way the source of this staged scarcity can be passed off as grass roots, under the pretense of originating from a rogue AVA and not sanctified in advance by the Sonoma County Vintners Association. 100% participation is needed to be credible and to be fair to the little guys, because I’m sure Alexander Valley’s celebrity winery Coppola can weather the drop in foot traffic and so can Alexander Valley’s top bottle price Verité. They’ve gotta join the resistance.
“Alexander Valley wineries urge you to plan carefully, do your research, and please call ahead to reserve one of our limited tasting appointments in what will now be an extremely sleepy valley. This will start in June, to reduce resources dedicated to dwindling on-site sales, and redirect those resources to out of county sales in wholesale sectors. On June 1st all wineries will obscure their signage to demonstrate the new disaster relief business model.”
Behind the velvet curtain, those same wineries will be encouraged to nail boards over road-facing signs in a very DIY picturesque way, and to post pictures of their boarded up signs with #stayawayfromSonomaCounty and #dontvisitsonomacounty. Then psychological reactance can work its way into the public’s mind by smart social media propagation. Starting with just one AVA will allow to test the plan, and check daily against tasting room traffic in neighboring AVAs. Visitors will be impelled to add their photo posing in front of a barred sign, the brand coyly peeking out from between rustic boards. Such photos will need to be seeded by locals to begin. One after another, AVAs can join the effort until all 18 AVAs in Sonoma County and our 400 wineries have joined in.
The final coup will be to release a press statement after a year of trials and state that we quite like the new MO, and in fact we are now removing all our signs forever and putting in a big parking lot off San Antonio Road, south of Petaluma at the county line with Marin where the wine tourists can park, and check out our newly constructed community tasting room featuring Sonoma County’s 400 wineries with rotating wine makers on site sharing their wines in person. Then if you dare, wine tourists can request a pass and make appointments, via electric vehicle, bicycle or kayak and explore our sign-less agrarian rural paradise. Maybe small uniform yellow wanderweg signs that help swiss alpine hikers keep to the trail can be employed here “winery —>” or “winery <—”.
I’ll address two logistical hurdles: how to get everyone to commit and how to keep such a secret? Coppola! Let’s get a few celebrities to underwrite it and speak to the ranchers, nothing like a Brad Pitt to enlist participants in this massive media hoax. As to keeping the secret, all farmers are used to that, and if there’s an inkling of financial gain, then mum’s the word.
And now to break down the absolute preposterousness of this proposal. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In my 9 years as permanent resident here, and the blood I have in my veins that has been here since 1860, Sonoma County has principally been agrarian and unable to shake it. There have been a few strategic reassessments and marketing plans. There is the constant comparison with that place on the wrong side of the Mayacamas, that narrow, featureless, sign-ridden, overcrowded valley whose name I won’t mention. I worked at Sonoma County Museum in the marketing department and the discussion around positioning the museum as a culturally exciting center of Sonoma County always ended up with a discussion on who are we as a county and what does contemporary art mean to us? It seems like between the agrarian past and the fast pace of high end wine, Sonoma County is suffering an identity crisis between its real self and ideal self. That the distance between the two is insurmountable and leading to fraught circumstances and real trouble in marketing the county as whole, let alone the agencies that operate within it, like the museum and all the wineries, cries out for tension relieving coping mechanisms. My favorite of which is dissipation and acceptance through humor.
I hear often from Sonoma County Tourism, Winegrowers, Vintners and the Economic Development Board, that new plans are in place! Research is being done! Something will roll out soon that will fix the issue of our county’s identity and make sure our neighbors don’t leave us in the dust, by reputation and by price point. In response to the 2017 fires and 2019 floods, I received many emails from those agencies pushing the policy of “we’re fine, everything is beautiful, rock on, come visit!”. In reaction to that policy, I’m advocating “we got hit hard, there’s no more resources to host you, don’t come unless you plan carefully and call way ahead”. I think that will work better than pleading for visitors.
Check out Bolinas. As often as the locals tear down their city sign, they will be found. The anti-tourism reputation of this small coastal town has made it an extremely desirable place to visit. It’s attractiveness endures despite hostile locals and lack of amenities. And when I visited Chasselas country above Lake Geneva in Switzerland, I couldn’t find a tasting room for the life of me. After knocking on a few locked garage doors I finally landed in a shop that sold glassware and had some open bottles behind the counter. But then I went to their communal tasting room, funded by government agencies, to provide equal visibility opportunities to all wineries and preserve the quaintness of the landscape. Think hard about it so that we don’t end up like James Conway’s version of the corporatized wine Disneyland over that way east of us. America is the most individualistic country, and it shows in our wine tourism and we’ll suffer from it. This communal Swiss tasting room was a marvel of architectural construction, overlooking the lake and straddling a waterfall. An epic center with high walls lined with wine bottles and a few exhibition rooms and videas addressing the history of wine in that corner of Switzerland: Vinorama! Where did our wine museum go? The California Wine Museum collection in Petaluma is for sale currently after an aborted attempt to move to downtown Santa Rosa. Contact Jim McCormick to procure one of his 4,500 pieces of wine history before it gets spread out or sucked over the hill.
I think the identity crisis of Sonoma County can only be healed by bringing the true self and the ideal self closer together, bridging the gap between the two. Recognizing our rich heritage as a diverse community where the rich fucks from everywhere come to escape in our redwood forests, as they have done forever. Sonoma County boasts the most (attempted) communes of any county up north of the Bay. So we are bohemian recluse farmers, artists, and eco-maniacs, we are humble and self-effacing, we make great wine, accurately priced mind you. You can’t even tell you are in wine country until you’ve driven half way through the county, up the 101 and see the first vineyard just past Santa Rosa, even though you’ve already driven past such famous names as Iron Horse, Buena Vista, Costa Brown, Paul Hobbs, etc.