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Wine of the Month Club Offers a Taste of Online Video

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How many people does it take to produce, shoot, edit, and host a multi camera, professional-looking video series? Just one, if you are Paul Kalemkiarian. His day job is owner of the Wine of the Month Club. But this self-taught producer has made video an important part of his business. Working mostly on his own, since 2006 he has made nearly 700 videos tasting wine, interviewing winemakers, and pulling a few pranks.

Founded in 1972, the monthly mail-order wine business is the oldest club of its kind in America. But that history only gets it so far. The business now relies on video, Facebook, and Twitter to keep growing. Kalemkiarian says, “I don’t think that I would be here, frankly, if I didn’t have all three of those elements working for us.”

Kalemkiarian tastes 300 bottles of wine a month and personally decides what to ship in his four club packages. Each month, he ships tens of thousands of bottles of wine. For each shipment, he shoots a video with his co-host Ed Masciana tasting each of the bottles his customers will be getting.

A Production Setup Built for Speed

Once a week, he holds a tasting where winemakers book appointments to show off their samples. Kalemkiarian brings some of these winemakers into his studio to record these tastings. His video workflow is designed for speed and efficiency. Working all by himself, he takes about 5 minutes to set up, and then he’s rolling.

At first, Kalemkiarian made audio-only podcasts because the existing video technology took too long. He didn’t like the real-time transfer of tape-based cameras. When JVC came out with a camera that let him transfer digital files with a point-and-click, he started doing single-camera videos.

His Los Angeles-based studio in his warehouse and office now includes a Canon 5D and 7D mounted on VariZoom tripods. He’s also experimenting with a GoPro to get unusual angles. He locks down the cameras, with a wider shot on the 5D and the 7D shooting the guests or a shot of the wines being poured on the set counter. He starts the cameras himself and heads to the set to start the wine tastings and interviews.

Most of his segments are less than 10 minutes long, so he doesn’t have to worry about the cameras stopping. But he’s adding a digital clock to the wall just in case he needs to stop and restart the cameras during a taping.

No one is watching the audio levels or the camera framing during the taping. But, Kalemkiarian knows where he needs to stand for the wide shot to stay in frame. And he knows where the bottles need to be placed for the close-up camera. Since he’s editing it, he will only use the close-up camera when the shot is good. His technique works well, and his viewers most likely think they are watching a professional studio show with a full crew.

The interviews are usually done in one take, but for the wine shipment videos he does a few takes and rehearses a little. If he makes a blooper or misspeaks a word, he’ll just correct it and keep on going. This adds a more human and real element to the videos. While Kalemkiarian works hard to make the production look as professional as possible, he wants the on-camera performance to have a loose, relaxed style.

For audio, he’s experimented with Sennheiser lavs and a Beachtek DXA-5D audio adapter on the camera. He’s switched to a Rode NTG2 microphone on a boom fed into a Zoom H4n audio recorder, which gives him better audio. He starts each taping with a clap to help get the audio and video in sync in post production.

The lighting kit includes two softboxes and two reflectors. He built the set with the wine bottles in the background and egg crates on the walls for better sound proofing.

Wine of the Month Club owner Paul Kalemkiarian (left) and his co-host Ed Masciana in Kalemkiarian’s Los Angeles home studio. 

Kalemkiarian has tried using a teleprompter system that works with his iPad, operated of course by himself, using an iPhone. But he admits he’s horrible at reading from the prompter, and it comes out much more natural and real without it.

After recording, he brings the files into iMovie for editing and adding lower-third graphics. Kalemkiarian says iMovie “is sophisticated enough, but I’m starting to push some of the constraints” especially with graphics and color correction. So, he’s learning Final Cut Pro X.

While he shoots in 1080p, he exports in 720p. Then, he uploads his videos to Vimeo and YouTube. The videos also appear on his wineofthemonthclub.tv site as well as his emails to subscribers and on the club’s Facebook page.

He gets even more use out of the videos by cutting them up into segments. Each of the wine videos about the monthly selections covers four wines -- two reds and two whites. Each of those four wines gets its own separate video, linked on the product pages of his e-commerce website.

Recently, he’s had transcripts made for the videos to help with Google’s SEO. He doesn’t have time to do the transcripts himself, so he outsources the work on the website fiverr.com, where people offer to do tasks starting at $5.

His most popular videos get thousands of plays. But, Kalemkiarian says it’s very hard to calculate a direct ROI for the videos. He says doing the videos is not about how many minutes they have watched. Instead, he says, “I’m firmly convinced our presence in the video side has added a ton of credibility to our company and shows the wine drinking public that somebody cares and someone is really looking out for their best interests in wines.”

Kalemkiarian also gets a lot of positive customer feedback to the videos. One customer emailed saying he got his monthly wine shipment, but the video wasn’t available on his website. Kalemkiarian then uploaded it and thanked the customer for reminding him. The customer replied that each month, he and his wife sit and drink the wine watching the videos, as they laugh along with Paul and Ed. Kalemkiarian doesn’t have hard numbers on how many other customers do this, but he suspects many customers connect drinking his wines and watching the videos.

Wine of the Month TV aims to make their videos entertaining and fun. One of Kalemkiarian’s most popular videos is part of his series on what to do with 85 percent of the wine he tastes but doesn’t like. He took a bowling ball outside and aimed it at a bunch of wine bottles arranged as bowling pins. Stealing a page from David Letterman, he’s also dropped bad wine off the roof and used a radar gun to answer the important question of whether chardonnay or cabernet goes down faster.

Kalemkiarian says it’s hard to calculate direct ROI from his videos, which he hosts on Vimeo and posts to his own website. But he emphasizes that doing videos is about building credibility and providing value, not racking up views. 

Kalemkiarian says he’s got a couple of new ideas on how to destroy some wine. He’s been experimenting with a Glidecam HD4000 stabilizer and also a Redrock Micro shoulder mount to help capture the studio videos.

Kalemkiarian says he loves making the videos, despite the time and effort involved. He’s also a practical joker on camera. He’s smashed a phony bottle of wine over an unsuspecting guest, and he spiked some wine with vinegar to see how his guest would react.

Wine of the Month Club started making podcasts the same year, 2006, as Gary Vaynerchuk, another major player in the wine business who ended up using videos to greatly expand his company. Vaynerchuk’s daily Wine Library TV podcast helped transform his father’s liquor store into a $45 million e-commerce business. Vaynerchuk’s videos were known for their especially low production values, with just one camera and a very bare-bones set.

At first, Kalemkiarian didn’t understand why Vaynerchuk would talk so much about football on his wine videos. But now he says, “I know better now because he was doing exactly what we do, he’s establishing a personality, he’s establishing his credibility.”

Kalemkiarian has some advice for any business thinking about getting into video. He says you can’t see it as just a campaign. Instead you have to make a commitment. “It’s hard to know what impact it’s going to have until well into the use. You’ve got to keep the videos fresh, you got to keep them going, because the market is slow to react to those things. You can’t just do a couple of posts and think that’s going to set you on fire.”

After more than 40 years in business, Wine of the Month Club knows about doing things for the long haul. And it has found a professional way to introduce its customers to wine using video with a crew of just one.

This article appears in the 2014 Streaming Media Sourcebook as "High Quality, Low Budget."

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