Cool and confident in a crisp white shirt and blue jeans, Casey Biggs strides through a Paso Robles vineyard at sunset.
“Does a man have only one life? Yes. One wife? Occasionally. One wine? Preposterous,” he says, as a smiling blond woman hands him a glass of white wine. “The question should not be ‘Red or white?’ but ‘Which red?’ and ‘Which white?’ In Paso, we believe in vino variety.”
A Julliard School-educated actor and director based part time in Paso Robles, Biggs, 59, is best known these days as the Paso Wine Man, a suave wine aficionado whose irreverent tone and sophisticated mien have made him an industry sensation.
“Basically I was trying something new for a wine brand,” said Dina Mande, whose Paso Robles marketing firm, Juice Media, created the award-winning Paso Wine Man advertising campaign for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.
Like Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World” and Old Spice’s “Smell Like a Man, Man” advertising campaigns, the Paso Wine Man videos take a playful approach to serious sales — promoting the North County winegrowing region as Napa Valley’s cuter, more approachable cousin.
Jennifer Porter, the alliance’s executive director, said the online-only campaign stands apart from the usually staid way the wine industry promotes its products.
“Typically, when you look at wine marketing, it’s a pretty vineyard or a pretty bottle shot,” Porter said, whereas the Paso Wine Man campaign showcases a meme-worthy main character along with its lush visuals. “We’re definitely trying to be against the grain from what is perceived as normal marketing.”
‘Funny, informative, ironic’
“I basically said, ‘We should do videos,’ ” Taranto recalled.
To promote the 2011 Zinfandel Festival in Paso Robles, he came up with the idea of a professor standing in front of a chalkboard speaking to a classroom of winemakers. He consulted with Mande, who reached out to “the only actor I knew in town,” asking him to look at the video’s script.
Biggs, in turn, contacted one of his former students, New York-based playwright and screenwriter Zay Amsbury, with specific instructions.
“It has to be funny, informative and ironic,” he said.
Mande said the first Paso Wine Man video was shot in just four hours. In it, Biggs’ character compares Paso Robles zinfandel to Italy’s primitivo and Croatia’s Crljenak Kaštelanski while nonchalantly catching a soccer ball and swinging a baseball bat.
Since being released on Feb. 4, 2011, “Zinfandel: Paso’s Wine” has garnered more than 77,000 hits.
“We could see the clicks on YouTube happening not only in our county but in Santa Barbara (County)” before spreading elsewhere, Mande said. “Nobody had ever seen anything like this locally.”
A major part of the appeal, she added, is Biggs’ larger-than-life character.
“That is Casey’s personality,” Mande said. “He does exude that confidence and that swagger.”
“(He) kind of captures everything about what Paso is from a people perspective,” Taranto added.
Biggs, whose screen credits include “Broken Arrow,” “The Pelican Brief” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” divides his time between Paso Robles, where he lives with his wife, “The New Wine Country Cookbook” author Brigit Binns, and the East Coast, where he teaches on the faculty of The New School for Drama in New York City. Most recently, he’s appeared on television on “Elementary,” “The Mentalist” and “Person of Interest.”
In addition, Biggs is the driving force behind efforts to bring a 500-seat, 26,000-square-foot performing arts center to downtown Paso Robles. The brainchild of developers Brett Van Steenwyk and Debbie Lorenz, who own the Acorn Building, the proposed Pine Street Promenade development would also feature a hotel, parking structure and public market.
Biggs said the tentatively titled Paso Robles Center for the Performing Arts would be “the jewel in the crown that is Paso.” He envisions it as a space for everything from bluegrass to modern dance.
“It’s about raising the bar culturally,” said Biggs, who estimates it would cost $25 million to $35 million to build the performing arts center.
Videos judged a success
Last year, Juice Media created 12 “Varietal of the Month” videos for the campaign, each highlighting a different wine grape.
“How do you give a grape personality? How do you educate the audience but entertain them at the same time?” Mande asked. “It’s definitely a fine balance.”
For Biggs, the most memorable entry in the series was “Mourvèdre: Taming the Beast,” which was released in January 2013. In the video, the actor compares the varietal to a wild animal while offering Jasmine, the tiger, a wine glass full of milk.
Biggs remembers being exhausted from the relentless shooting schedule — and a little in awe of the nearly 350-pound tiger mere inches from his face.
“I couldn’t remember a word,” recalled Biggs, who held a raw turkey leg off-camera to entice the big cat. “I said, ‘Throw me the lines, and I’ll keep going.’ ”
Unexpected sights like that keep viewers coming back for more, Mande said.
“You have to get their attention and grab them by the short hairs or you’ll lose them,” she said. “If they don’t see something compelling within the first 10 seconds, they’ll click away.”
According to Porter, the PasoRoblesWine channel on YouTube.com — which boasts 18 Paso Wine Man videos so far, the majority less than 2 minutes in length — has attracted nearly 317,000 hits from viewers as far away as Australia, South Africa and Sweden. The most popular video, “Paso Wine Man on Vino Variety,” has been viewed more than 134,000 times since September 2012.
More videos are planned for the near future.
Porter said the Paso Wine Man videos have proven especially popular with the alliance’s target demographic — 35 to 64-year-olds with a median household income of at least $100,000. Sixty-three percent of viewers are men, she said, and 36 percent are ages 45 to 54.
“I can’t walk down the street in Paso without people stopping me,” Biggs said, adding that he’s even been recognized as the Paso Wine Man while traveling in Croatia and Italy. “People would give their left arm to have that kind of name recognition.”
The Paso Wine Man campaign has even attracted the attention of Wine Spectator magazine, which awarded top honors to the video “Zinfandel: Paso’s Wine” in 2011.
Porter said such success is crucial to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, whose advertising budget is smaller than similar organizations in Napa and Sonoma counties. (In lieu of payment, Biggs receives cases of wine.) The group declined to disclose how much each video costs.
When the video “Paso Uncorked: Wine Festival 2014” was released in May, the alliance enjoyed particularly strong ticket sales for the Paso Robles Wine Festival, Porter said.
And though the local group has no other concrete examples of how the campaign has helped boost sales of Paso wines, the marketing itself has proven efficient because it has been completely viral, Taranto said.
“We want to do things that stand out because we can’t go head to head with them on dollars,” Porter said. “Videos cost very little. They’re good bang for our buck.”
Videos: A virtual tool
“We do see more and more wine (groups) in general … focusing on videos because it’s a really great way to get their story across,” she said, noting that most are made by industry organizations as opposed to individual wineries.
Her publication, which hosts an annual video contest, has about 800 videos of its own.
Some of the videos popular among Wine Spectator’s online visitors offer poignant, heartfelt narratives, while others take an educational or humorous approach to the winemaking journey.
“Fun is definitely a part of it. We don’t drink wine necessarily to be serious,” Maroti Frazee said.
She emphasized the importance of storytelling in establishing an identity that goes beyond labels and logos.
“You’re not just opening a bottle of wine,” she said. “You’re opening a story.”