Interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels, Capiche Contributor/Strategic Partner, Michaels & Michaels Creative, LLC
When Whitman Parker and his wife, Jo, moved from Denver to Jacksonville, Oregon, they harnessed their backgrounds in real estate to embark on new career trajectories. Whit purchased the Jacksonville Review, and Jo set up WillowCreek Gifts in downtown historic Jacksonville. It wasn’t long before Whit realized he’d better seize the opportunity to launch a magazine celebrating the budding Southern Oregon wine industry, and thus Southern Oregon Wine Scene was born. Fourteen years later, and the region is now a major industry player racking up international acclaim and attracting world-class winemakers.
Q: If you were to chart your life’s story in wines, what would it look like? In other words, which wines would you associate with key periods of your life and why?
A: Really intriguing question! Truthfully, I’ve had a very happy, productive, and contented life, and wine became a part of it with the discovery of Pinot noir in my early 30s. I was an occasional beer drinker until that discovery of really good wine. I consider myself a moderate person, and I associate Pinot with moderation—it’s not too heavy, not too light, it’s moderate, right down the middle.
Q: How did your background in real estate prepare you for your present career as a publisher?
A: Without my nearly 30-year real estate career, I couldn’t have become a publisher. A day doesn’t pass without someone asking me if my college degree was in journalism, to which I answer, “Nope!” To be able to publish successfully, you need marketing skills … period. Without marketing and advertising sales, you have nothing but a concept, an idea, a dream. It’s the ability to pick up the phone, knock on a door, and ask the tough question, “Would you like to advertise in my publication?” I was so lucky to have worked for the BEST real estate companies in the nation and had amazing mentors who guided me and allowed me to use my natural skills and succeed. When it came time to buy the Jacksonville Review 14 years ago, I drew upon my real estate marketing background and essentially used the Review as if it was a multimillion-dollar real estate listing. Fortunately, my wife, Jo, was gifted with Adobe skills and was able to take my vision for reimagining the publication and gave it new life. The first thing we did was to take the news off the front cover—headlines such as “Mayor and Council at Odds” did nothing to promote the town as a place to visit and live and were relegated to the back pages—all intentionally.
Q: How has the Jacksonville Review evolved as technology has transformed the publishing landscape?
A: Jo and I bought the Review in 2009. Since then, technology has made our work lives much easier … but there’s a catch in that you need PEOPLE, and I am very fortunate that Andrea Yancey, who’s my right hand and left hand, is so very gifted with the technology. My role is to know what the technology can do—how it can help market a winery or event—not to know what buttons on the Mac to hit. To succeed in business, you must be able to delegate and then trust your partners to do their part … and you must be flexible and acknowledge that your idea or plan might not be the best and go with another option offered up by someone else—in other words, ditch the ego. As far as advancements go, if I had a dollar for every new widget and software program and upgrade we’ve adopted, I’d be retired. The technology has enabled two people (Andrea and me) to publish two outstanding magazines, with no other staff. This would not have been possible years ago.
Q: What inspired you to start Southern Oregon Wine Scene?
A: Frankly, one factor was the fear of missing out and that someone else would start a wine-only magazine before I did! The decision to move ahead was made very fast but very strategically with the assistance of my Jacksonville Review graphics editor, Andrea Yancey. Andrea replaced my wife as my graphics person years before Wine Scene was started, and the two of us just rolled the dice and figured we’d give it a go. I already knew a lot about the printing business, having attended hundreds of press runs at Valley Web Printing, and the owner, Todd Reichenbach, and their team were instrumental in helping launch Wine Scene. And, luckily for me, I knew a ton of winery owners since one main function I have with the Review is “paperboy.” I had literally delivered copies of the Review to dozens of local wineries for years and already had a relationship with many winery owners. When I approached them about Wine Scene, there was pre-established trust and confidence, and they eagerly jumped at the chance to be a part of the wine-only publication.
Q: In what ways does SOWS serve both the wine consumer and the Southern Oregon wine industry?
A: The two are totally connected, a symbiotic relationship where one cannot exist without the other. The mission of Wine Scene is simple: provide a print/online vehicle that gets people interested in visiting wineries … period. Without visitors to tasting rooms, there’s no wine industry. Fortunately, we have a unique product here in Southern Oregon in that the winery fan can actually interact with those making the wines—from winemakers to winery owners, it’s a very up-close and personal experience you don’t find everywhere. Because the wineries are always crafting new vintages, it gives Wine Scene a chance to tell their story in print/online, and there’s always something new to talk about and promote.
Q: How has the branding research Capiche conducted on the Southern Oregon wine region for the Southern Oregon Winery Association (SOWA) informed your decisions related to SOWS?
A: We follow Capiche very closely and consider Chris Cook and her team a part of our team. Because our focus is really on getting people from tasting room to tasting room, Capiche can concentrate on other aspects of the industry we need to know about. When it comes to branding, there’s probably not another more important topic to address—branding brings life to concepts, and Chris has been able to distill what the industry needs to do in terms of marketing itself to the outside world very effectively.
Q: Chris has been writing articles for Southern Oregon Wine Scene since you launched it in 2017. What unique strengths does Chris bring to her role as contributor?
A: The bottom line to a great story is making a connection with a reader from a freelance writer who is personally connected to the subject in the story. Chris knows the players and knows all aspects of the wine business and is able to convey a variety of subjects easily. Good writers have “conversations,” and that is only doable when the author is connected.
Q: Raising the profile of Southern Oregon wineries benefits the entire region, particularly when it comes to the economy and tourism. How do you and Chris collaborate on your shared goal to promote the Southern Oregon wine industry?
A: I am really happy that I can pick up the phone anytime and speak with Chris and collaborate on a variety of issues and topics … sometimes it’s as simple as finding out about what’s happening at certain wineries, shifts in demographics, economic trends, and changes happening in the industry and with our tourism partners such as is happening with the COVID crisis. Chris is a great sounding board when it comes to vetting ideas for stories and finding out what the readers of Wine Scene will be interested in learning about. The more we can shed a positive light on what’s happening here, the better. Both Wine Scene and Capiche care deeply about the industry, partly because the industry here comprises owners and staff whom we know personally—it’s different than a corporate model wherein there’s a disconnect. Our tourism economy needs the wineries, and the wineries need the lodging, retail, and culinary sectors to all succeed. Chris’s connections are just as deep in other industry segments, and that is meaningful.
Q: Capiche has sponsored cross-pollination events such as the Wine Marketing Roundtables and SOWINS. Can you talk about how these events benefited you and fellow participants?
A: I have to tell a funny story here … it’s relevant. Years ago, before Chris took over the Wine Marketing Roundtables (WMR) from Marylin Hawkins, I sat with Chris at one of the events. I was a familiar face in the crowd, having been publishing Wine Scene for a bit of time. It was one of Chris’s first meetings, and she didn’t know that many people in the room. She looked over at me and asked, “Do you know EVERYONE in this room?” I said, “Yes,” and added, “you will, too, someday.” Fast-forward a year or so to the same event renamed SOWINS. I reminded her of that encounter and added that I then believed she knew more people than me at that moment—it’s a great testament to how hard she’s worked to get to know everyone in the industry. More importantly, she’s a giver, one who shares her passion with others with no guarantee of getting anything in exchange. This was the basis of the WMR—to gather, share, learn, and help lift up everyone attending.
Q: Capiche also spearheaded the first wine marketing workshop in the region, and Southern Oregon Wine Scene was the primary sponsor. Why did you feel it was important to support this event, and what were some of the takeaways?
A: Like Capiche, a core principle of my company is to give back and help others who are helping others—I know it sounds quaint, but it’s true. When I was approached to support the kick-off event, I jumped at the chance. There’s a saying I use all the time, “Give it out in slices, and it comes back in loaves,” and this was truly the case. Wine Scene needed exposure at the time, and it needed to show it was a legitimate player in the region. When you attend marketing events here in the region and then take a moment to look around the room, you always notice you are surrounded by the key players, the doers, the ones making it happen … in most cases, you’ll be humbled to be in their presence. If you’re not humbled, you may not understand how hard everyone in this region is working and how challenging it can be to succeed here—you might want to check your ego at the door and pay attention.
Q: Do you feel the wine industry is suffering from diminished networking opportunities due to COVID regulations, or are those conversations continuing in remote/digital forms?
A: C19 has severely impacted one-on-one interaction, and nothing can take the place of that. Zoom is a great fill-in, but it doesn’t replace being able to be there, engaged, together. All I can say is that I am hopeful we are nearing the end of this lonely era!
Q: In 2019, Capiche played an instrumental role in getting Cork & Barrel to spotlight Southern Oregon wineries. Milestones like this show how far the region has come in gaining recognition as a premier wine-producing region over the years. How has the perception of Southern Oregon wines changed since you arrived in Oregon?
A: Over my 14-year publishing career here in Southern Oregon, I have seen massive changes, much of which are due to better wines being produced by uber-talented winemakers. Truth be told, a decade ago, there were wines being produced that were not that drinkable—that has all changed, partly due to competition raising the bar and forcing mediocrity to take a hike. Just look at the number of highly skilled winemakers from around the nation coming here—here to Southern Oregon—where they compete for jobs because they love crafting great wines. That shift has trickled down to the “shelf” level, where the local wine-drinker now chooses local wine first and proudly serves local wines to their guests at home.
Q: What do you love most about Southern Oregon wines, and what sets this region apart as a top wine-lovers’ destination?
A: The variety of wines is just outstanding due to the climate and ability to grow so many varietals here. But the number-one thing that sets the region apart is the accessibility of the vineyards and tasting rooms, with owners and staff willing to allow guests to get a real glimpse of winery life.
Q: Your wife, Jo, owns WillowCreek Gifts in the historic Jacksonville, and you are highly engaged in the local community, including having served on several boards and committees. What makes Jacksonville such a special place—for residents, business owners, and tourists?
A: Jo has owned WillowCreek Gifts for 10+ years. Jacksonville is like living in Mayberry … some days, you just have to pinch yourself and make sure it’s real. The one thing making it such a great place to live/work is the committed and involved volunteers—they run the town and deserve the credit.
Q: What do you envision for the future of the Southern Oregon wine industry?
I think it’s going to take another year at least to recover from the economic impacts from the pandemic … but the future is bright. With so many event venues dark, the wineries are one of the only places to go, and wine tasting is the only thing to do! Prior to March 2020, we were on course to finally put Southern Oregon on the map, but that has taken a back seat to just surviving. I know “this too shall pass,” and that a year from now, we will be talking about big marketing initiatives to draw visitors to the region once again. The industry in going to survive and thrive, no doubt, but it’s just going to be a bit longer road to get there. When we get there, there are many to thank … and that surely includes Chris Cook and her Capiche team.