Good Grape Goes on Hiatus

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” said a very wise John Lennon and that’s exactly what has happened with me.  My life has kept apace, even as I’ve made plans to be a respected wine writer.

By most standards, 2011 has been a very good year.  I was a three-time finalist in the Wine Blog Awards, earning notice in the Best Overall Wine Blog, Best Industry Blog and Best Writing categories.  I started contributing a wine column to Forbes.com.  This site was named the 2nd most influential blog (and most influential wine blog) out of 4,000 blogs in a 2011 Wine, Beer and Spirits study by eCairn, a software company specializing in community and influencer marketing.  I was a panelist at Vino2011 in New York City, I won a scholarship to the Wine Writer’s Symposium in Napa Valley, and I turned down enough worldwide wine trip offers to fill a two-month calendar.

Yet, wine writing has exacted a toll.  I approach anything I do with a zeal and fervor that ensures me the success that I want and I’ve treated my wine writing as a full-time second job, to go alongside the job that I already have that requires 50 + hours a week.

Balance isn’t something that I’ve ever been very good at—possessed of an unassuming mien, a Midwestern work ethic, and a mental make-up whereby I cast myself as the underdog means that I am continually trying to prove something to myself, often times at the expense of real, true priorities.

Even more challenging is the fact that my standards for myself have been raised even as I’ve honed my writing chops.  Instead of figuring out a system to find time shortcuts, the amount of time it takes for me to write has become more deliberate and expansive while my interest in writing has become more professional in nature – less blogging and more credible journalism requiring more work to exceed the bar that I’ve set for myself.

The net result of this, after full-time job plus wine writing, is the rest of my life has received scant attention for nearly seven years and I’ve created a nearly untenable situation for myself, a set of internal expectations that I can’t live up to, requiring a time commitment that I can’t manage.

However, most importantly, the expectations and time commitments that I have assigned to my wine writing isn’t fair to the other people in my life – notably, my incredibly supportive wife, Lindsay.  She has been a saint the past six years, my blogging encompassing nearly the entire duration of our 6.5 year marriage.  But, she is long overdue a husband that takes the trash out without prompting!

I’ll be around the Internets – commenting on wine blogs, doing the Twitter thing, staying connected on Facebook and I’ll probably start engaging more actively on CellarTracker and on the WineBerserkers message board, but I’m taking a hiatus from wine writing to recalibrate, shifting my time to the things that are the most important to me:  Family and career.

Jeff

Old World vs. New World in More Ways than just the Wine

In the increasingly close quarters of our global village, Europe is responsible for bringing at least three different substantive and prodigious professional wine journals to market over the last several years.  Each is written by a ‘Who’s Who’ of wine experts.  Meanwhile, stateside, the U.S. has experienced an explosion of pithiness with amateur wine writers writing online.

This juxtaposition becomes relevant after reading a recent post titled, “Are wine blogs going tabloid” by professional wine critic and writer Steve Heimoff.  In his brief post, with a decidedly American point of view, Heimoff summarizes his thoughts with the rhetorical query, “Why do certain bloggers revert to sensationalist stories that don’t, in the long run, matter?”

Good question.  The easy conclusion suggests that controversy and hyperbolically bombastic articles lead to attention and traffic. 

Certainly, two recent books that I’ve been reading bear out this discouraging notion:  Newsjacking:  How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage and Celebrity, Inc.

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Both books cover similar ground in examining how brands can subvert the 24-hour news cycle for business benefit and how the 24-hour news cycle has been subverted by celebrities using easy technology while leading our news culture into tabloidesque territory.

When considered with Heimoff’s point, it is an easy deduction to suggest that 1 + 1 does in fact equal 2 – the sensational does sell and, by proxy, online amateur wine writers are a reflection of our larger media culture.

However, in suggesting this, there is at least one bigger contextual point being missed as well as a caveat.  First, it’s an exclusive view that doesn’t take in the totality of the global wine media village and second, while sensationalism may sell, the lascivious isn’t always what’s shared.

No, it seems our schadenfreude and more primal instincts are kept private, while our shock and awe comes to the fore, at least according to one study.

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania recently examined the most emailed articles on the New York Times web site in March of this year (link initiates a PDF download), looking for the triggers for what causes somebody to share an article, what makes one thing more viral than another?

Their conclusion?  Positive content is more viral than negative content, but both, in general, are driven by “activation” – the notion that high arousal (emotive pleasure or outrage) drives shareable content.  According to the research abstract:

Content that evokes either positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions characterized by activation (i.e. high arousal) is more viral.  Content that evokes deactivating emotion (sadness) is less viral.  These results hold (dominance) for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is, as well as external drivers of attention.

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This brings us back to my earlier mention regarding the European wine journals that have come to market in recent years.  Simply, they’re an antidote to the U.S. proclivity for the vapid.

The World of Fine Wine, the family of Fine Wine magazines based in Helsinki and Tong based in Belgium all represent an Old World counterpoint to what can be deemed as the extemporaneous and superfluous coming from the New World.

As Tong publisher Filip Verheyden notes in the Tong manifesto (link initiates a PDF download) :

We live in times of “instant” gratification.  If we want to talk to someone, we pick up our mobile phone wherever we happen to be.  If we want to know something, we click an internet button.  We’re going at 200 km per hour. 

What we seem to forget in this race against time is the trustworthiness of this quickly-acquired knowledge, and that is something we have to find out for ourselves.  But who takes the time to do it? 

…The articles that appear in Tong demand the reader’s attention.  You can’t read them fast and put them away; you have to take the time to understand.  I’d say it takes an evening to read and think about each article.  These are not issues to put in the recycling bin.  Even after five years or more, each will continue to convey the essence of its theme…

The World of Fine Wine and Fine Wine magazine are both similarly endowed with length and verve.

My takeaway based on the Wharton research and the stunning dichotomy between what we’re seeing in the U.S. vs. European wine content is two-fold:

1)  The sometimes sensational aspect of online wine writers, especially domestically, should heed the research and focus their pot-stirring ways on matters that provoke an emotional response from readers, ideally with a positive consequence – like HR 1161 for example instead of tired, lame attempted zingers aimed at Robert Parker.

2)  In addition to a legacy sensibility about the nature and style of wine, the Old World is also drawing a culturally defining line in the sand in how they view and report on wine – it’s with substance, permanence and integrity.

The conclusion is anything but.  However, as the world becomes a smaller place and the U.S. and our wine media becomes a part of the world chorus, losing lead vocal, I would hate for our place in the gallery to be rendered completely voiceless based on a lack of substance which is the seeming trajectory that we’re on. 

It’s just a thought…

If you’re interested in seeing an example of Tong’s long-form think pieces, you can see examples here, here and here.

Australian Wine:  The Once and Future King?

You’ve never heard of Campbell Mattinson:  He’s a young, urbane Australian wine wordsmith who forsakes the academically erudite and plaintive wine writing style of legends past for a muscular writing style that is jocularly loose yet incisive, showing every bit of the wunderkind talent of his global English-language contemporaries, Jamie Goode and Neal Martin.

Likewise, you probably haven’t heard of Mattison’s *new* wine book, Thin Skins: Why the French Hate Australian Wine first published in Australia in 2007 and now just released in America.

Seemingly stillborn upon its October publishing date in the states and updated with a scant epilogue where the author notes, “The headiness described in the early passages of this book is now long gone,” the book formerly offered in situ context on the boom and looming bust of the Australian wine landscape and is now something of an ipso facto think piece on the manifested reality. 

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With recency in absentia as one negative checkmark, Thin Skins as a body of work brooks no favors for itself either.  Even when first published four years ago, it represented a compendium of articles and profile pieces, individually quite good, but collectively never quite transcending its constituent parts, especially one that supports the premise of the title.  And, unlike its subject matter, time has not aged the book into cohesion.

Worse still, brought to the U.S. market by publisher Sterling Epicure, the book is likely supported with little more than the gas it takes a truck to drive a meager allotment of books to an Amazon.com warehouse and the dwindling number of Barnes & Nobles that still populate the landscape, a veritable line item in an editors’ fourth quarter publishing spreadsheet under the header, “wine.”

Thin Skins seems destined for a hastened half-life and quick retreat to the remainder bin at Half-Price Books…it’s an ignoble fate heaped upon by my damnation.

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But, I’ve feinted purposefully, misdirecting by caveat because, despite everything I’ve mentioned having some inherent truth(including the author being very talented), Thin Skins is a wildly entertaining book that delivers on providing a teasing glimpse into a distinctly Aussie viewpoint on the factors that led to the Australian wine boom (Parker points, market forces, greed and drought) and in so doing the author makes three key points worth repeating:

1) The Aussie wine industry, save for its Gallo-like equivalents, is NOT happy about their country’s production being viewed globally as syrupy supermarket plonk

2)  Our U.S. perception IS NOT reality regarding Australian wine; their wine industry has an abundance of refined, terroir-based wines from small vintners

3)  The Aussie wine business will rise again on the international scene (in an entirely different form).

One key takeaway for me from the book is that Australia is remarkably similar to the U.S. 

In the U.S., some reports indicate that 90% of the wine sold is “corporate” wine, the kind found at supermarkets across the country.  However, what IS different is that 90% of our national conversation about wine focuses on the 10% of the wine production that ISN’T in the supermarket i.e. everything non-corporate – the boutique, artisan and interesting.

Yet, when it comes to Australian wine, we don’t continue our conversation about the small and beautiful.  Instead of talking about the superlative, we view their entire country production through the lens of the insipid, the Yellowtail and other critters that cost $6.99 at Safeway.

American wine consumers would be rightfully indignant if the world viewed our wines not as we do, a rich tapestry, but as industrialized plonk from the San Joaquin Valley.

This is where Australian wine is at today—a ‘perception is reality’ mistake of colossal proportions.

While offering an abundance of stories from small producers along the way, Mattison suggests that while it may take time, with Australia having 162 years of winemaking history, the day will come, sooner rather than later, when Australian wine forsakes its near-term reputation and is viewed on the world stage as a wine producing country that can proudly stand next to its New World peers.

I wrote recently that I’ve noticed a slow change in tenor from American influencers regarding Aussie wine, they’re becoming more sympathetic, they’re starting to speak less dismissively and more optimistically and holistically about Australian wine, discussing the merits and great diversity in the land of Oz.

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Recent Symphony IRI sales data bears this out as well.  According to a Shanken NewsDaily report from this week, Australian wine in the $15 - $19.99 category rose 23% in September.  In addition, growth is coming from varietals not named Shiraz (see also syrupy supermarket plonk).  Instead, Semillon, Riesling and Pinot Noir are showing growth.

Still, it’s not the land of milk and honey here in the states for Aussie wine, as it once was.  Overall sales are down by volume and dollars, but as Mattinson alludes the correction in the U.S. market isn’t going to be pretty, but it will be healthy and it’s quite possible that Australia will decrease in overall volume and dollar sales from persistent decline at the low-end for years to come as the high-end grows, but not at a rate to replace what was lost.

The net sum of that doesn’t balance a spreadsheet, but it does balance mindshare.

Pick-up Thin Skins if you want to get turned on to a great wine writer while also enjoying a greater understanding of Australian wine – where it has been and where it’s going—perhaps not as a future King, but definitely not in its current role as court jester.

Campbell Mattinson’s Wine Site:  The Wine Front

Australian Wine:  The Once and Future King?

You’ve never heard of Campbell Mattinson:  He’s a young, urbane Australian wine wordsmith who forsakes the academically erudite and plaintive wine writing style of legends past for a muscular writing style that is jocularly loose yet incisive, showing every bit of the wunderkind talent of his global English-language contemporaries, Jamie Goode and Neal Martin.

Likewise, you probably haven’t heard of Mattison’s *new* wine book, Thin Skins: Why the French Hate Australian Wine first published in Australia in 2007 and now just released in America.

Seemingly stillborn upon its October publishing date in the states and updated with a scant epilogue where the author notes, “The headiness described in the early passages of this book is now long gone,” the book formerly offered in situ context on the boom and looming bust of the Australian wine landscape and is now something of an ipso facto think piece on the manifested reality. 

image

With recency in absentia as one negative checkmark, Thin Skins as a body of work brooks no favors for itself either.  Even when first published four years ago, it represented a compendium of articles and profile pieces, individually quite good, but collectively never quite transcending its constituent parts, especially one that supports the premise of the title.  And, unlike its subject matter, time has not aged the book into cohesion.

Worse still, brought to the U.S. market by publisher Sterling Epicure, the book is likely supported with little more than the gas it takes a truck to drive a meager allotment of books to an Amazon.com warehouse and the dwindling number of Barnes & Nobles that still populate the landscape, a veritable line item in an editors’ fourth quarter publishing spreadsheet under the header, “wine.”

Thin Skins seems destined for a hastened half-life and quick retreat to the remainder bin at Half-Price Books…it’s an ignoble fate heaped upon by my damnation.

image

But, I’ve feinted purposefully, misdirecting by caveat because, despite everything I’ve mentioned having some inherent truth(including the author being very talented), Thin Skins is a wildly entertaining book that delivers on providing a teasing glimpse into a distinctly Aussie viewpoint on the factors that led to the Australian wine boom (Parker points, market forces, greed and drought) and in so doing the author makes three key points worth repeating:

1) The Aussie wine industry, save for its Gallo-like equivalents, is NOT happy about their country’s production being viewed globally as syrupy supermarket plonk

2)  Our U.S. perception IS NOT reality regarding Australian wine; their wine industry has an abundance of refined, terroir-based wines from small vintners

3)  The Aussie wine business will rise again on the international scene (in an entirely different form).

One key takeaway for me from the book is that Australia is remarkably similar to the U.S. 

In the U.S., some reports indicate that 90% of the wine sold is “corporate” wine, the kind found at supermarkets across the country.  However, what IS different is that 90% of our national conversation about wine focuses on the 10% of the wine production that ISN’T in the supermarket i.e. everything non-corporate – the boutique, artisan and interesting.

Yet, when it comes to Australian wine, we don’t continue our conversation about the small and beautiful.  Instead of talking about the superlative, we view their entire country production through the lens of the insipid, the Yellowtail and other critters that cost $6.99 at Safeway.

American wine consumers would be rightfully indignant if the world viewed our wines not as we do, a rich tapestry, but as industrialized plonk from the San Joaquin Valley.

This is where Australian wine is at today—a ‘perception is reality’ mistake of colossal proportions.

While offering an abundance of stories from small producers along the way, Mattison suggests that while it may take time, with Australia having 162 years of winemaking history, the day will come, sooner rather than later, when Australian wine forsakes its near-term reputation and is viewed on the world stage as a wine producing country that can proudly stand next to its New World peers.

I wrote recently that I’ve noticed a slow change in tenor from American influencers regarding Aussie wine, they’re becoming more sympathetic, they’re starting to speak less dismissively and more optimistically and holistically about Australian wine, discussing the merits and great diversity in the land of Oz.

image

Recent Symphony IRI sales data bears this out as well.  According to a Shanken NewsDaily report from this week, Australian wine in the $15 - $19.99 category rose 23% in September.  In addition, growth is coming from varietals not named Shiraz (see also syrupy supermarket plonk).  Instead, Semillon, Riesling and Pinot Noir are showing growth.

Still, it’s not the land of milk and honey here in the states for Aussie wine, as it once was.  Overall sales are down by volume and dollars, but as Mattinson alludes the correction in the U.S. market isn’t going to be pretty, but it will be healthy and it’s quite possible that Australia will decrease in overall volume and dollar sales from persistent decline at the low-end for years to come as the high-end grows, but not at a rate to replace what was lost.

The net sum of that doesn’t balance a spreadsheet, but it does balance mindshare.

Pick-up Thin Skins if you want to get turned on to a great wine writer while also enjoying a greater understanding of Australian wine – where it has been and where it’s going—perhaps not as a future King, but definitely not in its current role as court jester.

Campbell Mattinson’s Wine Site:  The Wine Front

Field Notes from a Wine Life – Cover Story Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

The Wine Spectator Affect

When I received my November 15th issue of Wine Spectator on October 11th, featuring a cover shot of Tim Mondavi and an feature article on him and his estate winery Continuum, I captured some online research reference points so I could have a baseline to measure the effect that a flattering Wine Spectator cover story might have on a winery in the digital age.

Using Wine-Searcher, CellarTracker and Google Keywords search data to track various data points, the results, while not directly linked to conclusions, do indicate a small bump in interest as a result of the cover piece.

For example, Wine-Searcher data indicates that the average bottle price, an indicator of supply and demand, rose $2 month over month, from $149 a bottle to $151 a bottle.

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In addition, the Wine-Searcher search rank (always a month behind) indicates that Continuum was the 1360th most popular search in September.  By Friday, November 11th the Continuum search rank had increased to 471st for the month of October. (See the top 100 searches for October here).

Likewise, interest at CellarTracker increased, as well.  The number of bottles in inventory from October 11th to November 11th increased by 177 bottles, likely no small coincidence.

Finally, Google searches increased fivefold from an average of 210 monthly searches to approximately 1000 monthly searches.

What does this all mean?  Good question.  The truth is, a Wine Spectator cover appears to have moved the needle a bit, and while the easy route is to take a righteous Eeyore approach to mainstream media and its blunted impact in the Aughts, as contrasted to what a Spectator cover feature or glowing words from Parker meant just a decade ago, I believe a more tangible takeaway is to realize that these sorts of cover stories don’t happen in a vacuum and that Wine Spectator cover and feature was likely a result of weeks, months or even years’ worth of effort from a PR professional.

In an attention-deficit, social media-impacted, offline/online hybrid world of information consumption with mobile and tablets proliferating, in order to break through to (and ultimately assist) the consumer, the value of the PR professional, an oft neglected part of the marketing hierarchy, in reaching out and facilitating the telling of a winery’s story seems to be more important than ever.

It’s not about press releases, it’s about people supporting and telling the winery story, repeatedly, as a professional function – that leads to media notice, and that leads to 14 cases of wine being sold and inventoried at CellarTracker in a 30-day period of time.  It’s perhaps obvious, but not adhered to.

Wine Labels

To me, a wine bottle is a blank canvas that can either inspire in its creativity or repel in its insipidness.  While I have a reasonably conservative approach to the kinds of wine I want to drink relative to technological intervention, I am unabashedly progressive when it comes to the kind of wine labels that appeal to me.  In support of my interest with wine packaging, I keep an eye on The Dieline wine blog to see what’s happening in wine label design (another example from The Coolist here) and I also pay attention to the burgeoning field of wine label design contests. 

What say you about progressive labels?  Like ‘em?  Loathe them?  I placed a poll to the right.

Below is a slide show of winners from the recent International Wine Label Design competition.

Reconciling the Contradiction

I will lobby the nominating committee of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences on behalf of anybody who can help me understand how it is that in the span of a week I can see multiple research reports (here and here) on a revived sense of fiscal austerity by consumers yet other reports (here and here) indicate that wine above $20 is the fastest growing segment this year.

These two clearly don’t jive with each other, yet I’m witless to understand why wine is “trading up.”  Help! 

 

Field Notes from a Wine Life – Autumnal Equinox Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

The Power of Intent in Biodynamic Wine

I wrote a heady post in September about Biodynamic wine.  The story is too complicated to summarize here (link to post), but one of the things that I touched on (and that interests me on an ongoing basis) is the notion of “intent” in the vineyard particularly as it relates to viticultural quality and Biodynamic preparations.

They say that you can taste “love” in a food dish, so, while not scientifically quantifiable (at least not yet), it stands to reason that extra attention and loving preparation with BioD preps. might have a positive benefit on the vines and subsequently the wines.

This notion of intent isn’t my idea; I culled it from Voodoo Vintners, Katherine Cole’s Biodynamic-related book published earlier this year (she has a different supposition about ‘intent’ than I do).  A passage from the book notes, “The belief is that the preparations aren’t merely herbal treatments for plants; they’re carriers of the farmers’ intentions, which have been swirled into them through the powerful act of stirring.  While it isn’t a requirement for Demeter certification, intention is that little bit of witchcraft that separates the most committed practitioners from the unbelievers.”

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My point in September and my point now is that “intent” isn’t witchcraft, its science – science that is still emerging and not completely understood.

To that end, I read an incredible, eye-opening, mind-bending article in the current issue of Time magazine about a new technology device called the BodyWave.  An iPod sized device, the BodyWave is based on electroencephalography (EEG), the study of how brain activity excites neurons to emit brain waves that travel the central nervous system and can be measured.

So, here’s the thing.  Not only can this BodyWave device measure the fluctuations in the brain’s electrical activity, but when connected to a computer it can perform functions based on brain waves.

It’s a holy crap moment to realize that by focusing brain activity somebody can shut off a valve in a nuclear power plant, via computer, with the power of their mind, as elaborated on in the article.

The full Time magazine article is subscriber-protected (darn publishers that try to run a business…), but the intro. to the article is available here.

I’m a liberal arts guy, as far removed from science as one can get by education, vocation and lifelong learning interest, but I do have the ability to suspend my disbelief and it seems likely to me that in 10 years’ time the Biodynamic conversation is going to be around an entirely different set of conversational conditions than the current ‘bunkum vs. belief’ precept that we have now.

On Knowledge

I’ve never reconciled the “demystify” vs. “knowledge frees you” debate as it relates to wine.  Many will say that wine is needlessly overcomplicated for the average consumer and the arcane aspects act as a barrier to entry.

Well, sometimes you find defining wisdom in the unlikeliest places.

Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, noted in a blog post recently what I’ve thought, but have never been able to say quite so eloquently. 

Indeed, you are what you learn.  You don’t have to know much about wine to drink it, but it sure makes it that much more enjoyable if you lean into the door…

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Thanksgiving Wine Recommendation

Thanksgiving is the wine world’s national holiday.  I get that.  It’s my favorite holiday, too. But, the attendant wine pairing articles are exhausting.  Does it really matter what you drink with Thanksgiving dinner?  Nope.  If it did, somebody, anybody would care that I’ll be having Sparkling Rose, German Riesling and New Zealand Pinot, but, really, nobody cares.  At the end of the day, the below picture encapsulates what really matters when picking a wine for Thanksgiving (Hint: Focus on the food).

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It Was a Good Week for Lot18

My eyes bugged out like a virgin at a nudist camp when I saw that Lot18 secured $30M in additional funding.  That money coupled with clarification from the California Alcohol Beverage Control (CA ABC) on some wonkiness in legalities, means the first week of November 2011 will go down as a watershed moment for Lot18.

Perhaps equally interesting to me is a passage noting, “Radical Transparency” in an email sent to Lot18 members from Lot18 (ostensibly founder Phillip James).  The email noted:

As Lot18 moves into its second year of existence, our goal is to ensure that, with more money in the bank and compliance questions behind us, Lot18 can continue to deliver on its responsibilities to our suppliers and to our members alike. We must hold ourselves accountable to ensure we maintain trust with everyone who produces and consumes goods offered by Lot18.

We do this through a policy called Radical Transparency, which simply involves sharing more than was once considered wise. We believe in this because it drives our focus and ensures that all of our employees and our members feel that they have a role in shaping our future. Together we can create a service that will not only help you find great value, but also encourage you to spread the word to friends and family so that they may also share in the delight.

We’re all aware of “transparency” as an online buzzword the last several years.  It’s a word that has been co-opted, commoditized and rendered meaningless, as well.  It seems, transparency is really code word for faux sincerity and empathy and that makes adding the modifier of “Radical” to transparency all the more interesting.

These days, every new business success story comes with hagiographic mythologizing and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in this area, “Radical Transparency” is where Lot18 stakes their claim.  After all, culture and customer service is already taken by Zappos.

Yet, radical transparency isn’t a new concept either.  If you’re interested in seeing how a hedge fund called Bridgewater Associates (founded by Ray Dalio) has codified a brutally honest feedback loop see this profile piece from New York magazine and Dalio’s 123 page “Principles” document (worth the read).

Shut the Front Door: A Vinsane, Pay-it-Forward, Drinks 4X the Price Wine Recommendation

The problem with sleuthing out good wine under $10 is the recommendations usually come with provisos like, “This is pretty good for the price,” or “This isn’t bad for the style of wine.”  Rare is the time that a wine recommendation for vino under $10 is just, “This is a fantastic wine.”

Who can blame the wine recommender for their caveats and written sleights of hand when they’re left to tout the middling amongst the insipid; the redemptive within the felonious?  It’s like the back-handed compliment from the parents of an axe murderer who note plaintively from the front stoop, “He has a good heart.”

Adding insult to this injury, it seems like nearly all domestic wines under $10 are manipulated to appeal to a demographic.  Far too often, they are oak chipped to a formula, softened, vortexed and plumped back up into a wine beverage complete with a label that screams, “Benignly vague and blandly appealing.  I am inoffensive to a large group of people.”

And, forget about pairing under $10 bottles of vino with food.  Do so only if your idea of wine pairing centers on condiments with artificial coloring and HFCS, so duotone are the wine flavor profiles.

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When it comes to what should be reliable international value wines, forget about it – most of them aren’t even has-beens, they never were.  France and Italy – I’m talking to you.  For a sawbuck, these are sad, middling, barely potable wines evocative of an athlete whose entire identity is wrapped up in jockdom, but for whom life’s fate never provided him acclaim beyond the local playground. The fact that these wines often taste like a sweaty gym sock may, in fact, be no small coincidence.

Harrumph. 

What I want is what most wine consumers want: A non-spoofulated wine with quality that stands on its own—a good wine at $9.99 that is a good wine, period.  No half-hearted caveats associated with it.  If the wine pairs with dinner, instead of being a digestif, all the better.  Tie me up, spank me and call me Shirley if this mystical and elusive under $10 wine also has any of the following characteristics: Organic, old vines, unfiltered, native yeast, judicious oak, and complexity whilst being food-friendly.

I’m pretty sure I won’t have to have any dalliances in the wine S&M dungeon save for one emerging country.

Recently, I started to see glimpses of where quality, inexpensive wines might be coming from in the future when I tasted through a sampling of wines from the Navarra region of Spain. One $5 bottle of wine was so screamingly good it defied the law of reason. 

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And, then, I received a recommendation for Masia de Bielsa’s 2009 Garnacha, a Spanish wine from the Campo de Borja area in the Aragon region of Spain, southeast of Navarre and La Rioja.  Adam Japko, a wino friend and author of Wine-Zag, and I did some horse-trading on bottles and he threw in a bottle of wine in a wine shipment to me and noted, “Curious what you think of this…”

What do I think?  I think I owe you favors to last a month of Sundays for turning me onto a beauty.

Of course, wine recommendations don’t happen in a vacuum and the Masia de Bielsa 2009 Garnacha is no different even if it follows a certain circuitous Internet-borne dynamic that seems unusual even in this day and age of “brand vs. land, there are no secret wine values anymore…” online battle.

Jose Pastor is a wunderkind (30 years old) wine importer with a fast growing reputation amongst wine insiders for his portfolio of Spanish wines that are typically natural in style – producers who farm organically when possible, emphasize terroir, use ambient yeasts, filter sparingly and use minimal oak.  In other words, his wines, and especially his inexpensive wine selections, are the anti-brand.  Or, should I say, “They’re the antidote to brand wines.”  The good stuff. 

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Jose’s wines won’t have an end-cap in stores with promotional materials, nor will they follow you on Twitter or ply you with faux-flattery for a “Like” on Facebook. Ditto that for Pastor playing the points scoring game.  He doesn’t do it. The wines and wineries in his portfolio simply represent something good and honest and rely on smart trade buyers who know good juice when they taste it and are interested in paying that forward to consumer’s one bottle at a time.

This formula isn’t a recipe for getting rich, but it is a recipe for long-term, slow-burning growth based on a purity of vision.

When Richard Schnitzlein, a longtime wine buyer in the greater Boston area, took over the wine section at Ferns Country store in Carlisle, MA in early 2011, he started to remake the selection of wines on offer and that meant much more diversity, spreading the selection from two distributors to 14 over a seven month period.

A part of that remaking was to engage Genuine Wine Selections, a wine distributor in Massachusetts, who carries the Jose Pastor portfolio.

When Genuine Wine Selections partner Dennis Quinn showed up at Ferns in the spring with samples to taste, the ’09 Bielsa was a part of the mix.

Enamored, Schnitzlein started stocking the wine.  “Initially (the Bielsa) was a hand sell, but (it) soon became a wine that people were asking for,” he noted.

Japko was turned onto the Bielsa from Schnitzlein and mentioned the Bielsa on his site in June.  A September Ferns promotion dropped the price on the Bielsa from $11.99 to 9.95 and that yielded 15 cases of the Bielsa moving through the door for Ferns including a stock-up from Japko.

Within a week of receiving my bottle from Japko, I had taken to the Internet to find this wine and I bought a ½ case online from Marketview Liquor in New York state who sells it for $7.99 a bottle.

I’ve gifted a bottle to a friend at work, and, well, I’m writing extensively about this vino, too – my own pay-it-forward juju for having been tipped off to this wine.

The moral of this story?  Finding a gem of a wine for $10 or under isn’t a hopeless process, but you do have to sift a lot of muck to find the gold nugget.  In my opinion, you’re more likely to find a gem by keeping your ears open for word of mouth recommendations from wine-inclined friends or a local wine shop then to take to the wine aisles of your supermarket wine section playing brand roulette.  Here, the internet and Wine-searcher.com is your friend, as well.  In addition, Spain is a country that is producing some excellent wines across all price tiers, and my very recent and very anecdotal track record at the lower-end has been very good.  And, finally, it pays to know people.  It pays to know what Jose Pastor is all about, and it pays to know the Richard Schnitzlein’s and Adam Japko’s of the world who freely share where to find the good stuff, even if finding the good stuff requires an Importer in California, a wine buyer in Massachusetts, a generous friend and internet ecommerce.

2009 Bielsa Vinas Viejas Garnacha

Huge, pure nose with mulberry juice, black cherry, orange peel, earth and a meaty savory quality that gives way to an expressive palate with plum, black cherry, spice and fresh squeezed orange juice.  The finish lingers with plum, pepper and earthiness.  This is a varietally correct, gorgeous, natural, unfiltered wine that screams for food and would be a bargain at 4X the price.  Highly recommended.  At under $10 a bottle, you’d be foolhardy not to find this wine.

Field Notes from a Wine Life – Media Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

Rex Pickett

If you’re not reading Rex Pickett’s (author of Sideways and Vertical) blog, you are officially remiss.

Pickett is a gifted writer who cranks out perfectly incubated long-form posts with turns of phrase that are both wry and rich, offering insight into the machinations of publishing, film and stage that few culture vultures grasp.

Pickett recently wrote an extensive (3900 word) post on the reasons why a film sequel to Sideways (directed by Alexander Payne) would not be made from Vertical, Pickett’s book sequel.  In doing so, Pickett offered a discursive meditation on Payne’s artistic pathos and the factors that may be playing into Vertical’s stall on the way to celluloid.

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Unfortunately, Pickett removed the post after re-publishing a second version that deleted much of the armchair psychologist rumination he originally channeled from Payne’s psyche.  An email inquiry to Pickett on why he removed the post (in either iteration) has gone unanswered.

If I were a muckraker, I would publish the post because Pickett’s deletion of the post from his site did not delete the post from RSS feed readers like Bloglines or Google Reader.  But, I’m not a muckraker…

Hopefully, Pickett will revisit the topic in a manner that is less confessional and more elucidation because it was worth the extended read time.  Until then you can read the other posts on his site and gain tremendous insight into the vicissitudes of the publishing process, what the afterglow is like after capturing the cultural zeitgeist and how he’s helping bring Sideways to the theatre with a stage version.

It’s definitely recommended reading.

A Discovery of Witches

While we’re on the topic of books and authors (and with Halloween around the corner), a reinforcing mention goes to Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20.  Earlier this year a little book she wrote called, “A Discovery of Witches” was published and immediately shot up the best sellers lists.  The movie rights were acquired this summer by Warner Bros, likely securing Harkness’ financial future in the process.

While I read fiction infrequently (the last fiction book being Vertical by Rex Pickett), those that I know who can tell the difference between kindling and a classic call A Discovery of Witches “mad genius.”
Any conversation about a wine blogger doing good should begin with Deb Harkness who is now dabbling in rarified air.  Pick up her book if you haven’t yet.

Bargain Wine Books

There’s little doubt, in the prolonged US economic malaise we’re experiencing, that “value wine” and “bargain wine” are hot topics.  Heck, an entire channel of business has been defined with “Flash” wine sale sites.  Given that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a couple of wine books would be published with this specific focus.

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What is a surprise is that the books are authored by wine writers with real chops engaged in offering a deeper narrative than the slapdash compendiums of wine lists that has passed muster in years gone by.
Just in time for the holidays, Natalie MacLean has Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines publishing on November 1st and George Taber, a wine writer on a tear with his fourth book in six years, has A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks publishing on November 15th.

An Idea worth Duplicating?

Celebrity deaths come in threes and new wine ideas come in twos.

We’ve seen this duplicative market entry in recent years with winery reservation systems CellarPass and VinoVisit and now we’re seeing it with quasi-wine search engines.

WineMatch and VinoMatch are both in the early stages of launch purporting to help a consumer match their likes with wines they might enjoy.

Meh.  The problem with these sites isn’t that consumers don’t need help finding a wine they like, the problem is that most wine consumers don’t understand what kind of wine they like.  Yes, it’s the tannins that dry the back of the mouth and its residual sugar that makes that K-J so delectable…

By the time consumers figure out their likes and dislikes graduating beyond the “go-to,” they don’t care about having somebody help them “match” their wines to their tastes because they’re on their own adventure.

It’s just my opinion, but these sites face looooong odds of finding consumer success and short of the slick willy seduction that happens with some wineries who haven’t been bitten and as such aren’t twice shy, they won’t find *any* success.  But, I’ve been wrong before, at least once.

Pictures and Pithiness

While we’re on the topic of online wine services, I’m not sure whether I should be happy or aghast that I’ve been a habitué of the online wine scene for long enough to see a derivative – it’s like watching a remake of the movie Footloose when I was saw the original in the theatre.

There’s a new wine site called TasteJive that takes the concept of a wine blog called Chateau Petrogasm, popular in 2007 and 2008, to new heights.

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Around the premise that a picture is worth a thousand words even if that picture has nothing to do with wine, they have created a site that provides nothing but visual metaphors with a 140 character description for finding wines you might like.

I loved the idea of Chateau Petrogasm, I like the idea of a perfectly crafted 140 character slug, but I’m very uncertain about the community aspect of TasteJive—the users who control the uploading of pictures and descriptions.

As noted mid-20th century photographer Diane Arbus said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”

Not exactly a recipe for success in bumping into a wine.

On Self-Actualizing Wine Interest, Purple Pages, the Kindle Fire and Gutenberg

While it has been cited that we’re living in a “Golden Age” of wine writing, what is interesting to me these days is NOT the subject of wine writing.

My interest is in a broader understanding of the consumption of the wine writer’s output – self-identified wine interest by consumers who are seeking out wine information.  This is a seismic shift more important than the vagaries of who writes what, where, when and for how much.

Something much bigger and amorphous is at work.

It used to be that people self-identified by their job or some other affiliation that produced recognition from others, a status-marker of sorts—“I work for IBM, I have two kids and we’re Protestant.”

However, nowadays, people, principally online (which is moving center stage in our life), are self-identifying by their personal interests which, often times, diverges greatly from their profession and their family situation.

Look at Twitter profiles or a body of status updates from somebody on Facebook.  People are no longer duotone and defined by work and family. They’re multi-layered and complex and defined by their interests.  The modern day self-description goes something like this: “Passionate about wine and travel.  I build furniture, follow the San Francisco Giants, and work in a non-profit by day.  I also volunteer to ensure clean water for sub-Saharan Africans.  Dad to two wonderful kids”

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In diamond-cutting terms, it’s more Peruzzi than table cut and it seems we’re all on a journey to be the most interesting man person in the world.

This kaleidoscopic advancement in sense-of-self is a very important development because, on an individual level, we tend to project externally how we see ourselves in the mirror.  By stating publicly online that we’re a wine enthusiast, a foodie, a jazz lover, who does dog rescue and loves college football with a fascination for all things digital, it’s like writing down a goal.  A goal written down means something to most people and people are likely to actuate their activities around it, even if aspirationally.

This is a very subtle point and I hope I’m conveying it faithfully:  Societally, we’re changing how we view ourselves, we are stating how we view ourselves and consequently we’re more likely to pursue knowledge around those interests because we’ve put it out there.

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’re all self-actualizing.

So, when it comes to wine writing, while I’m very happy for Alder Yarrow’s assignment in writing a monthly column for Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages, I also tend to look at it within a much broader context because there will be more Alder Yarrow Horatio Alger-like stories in the years to come.

More to the point however, and within a bigger picture, what Alder writes now and in the future on his own site or at Jancis’ site is likely going to be viewed by an increasingly larger audience who, based on the aforementioned self-actualization, have become more inclined to seek a wide-range of information that supports a myriad of personal interests, including wine.

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This online growth in information-seeking is, indeed, a very good thing particularly for the wine business who is caught up in a focus on Gen. Y, when the more important point is that there is a mass of people of all ages who have increasingly ready access to information online that allows them to easily pierce the veil of wine.  And, the implications for that for shouldn’t be understated because the view of the wine world is likely to be altered to be much more inclusive of all types of viewpoints – think the streets of New York instead of Pottery Barn.

The Kindle Fire tablet by Amazon.com may represent the next step in this evolution, driving the potentiality of mass on-the-move content delivery. No, it’s not as important as the printing press or any other God Complex hyperbole that is assigned to Steve Jobs, but it’s an important step forward nonetheless.

Where laptop computers are functional machines designed to execute work, and tablets (like the iPad) are a lightweight, portable device that act as a multi-functional hybrid between a smartphone and a laptop, here comes the Kindle Fire which is a device designed almost exclusively for content consumption, all kinds of content – blogs, digital magazines, digital books, videos, music, etc.

The Kindle Fire, to me, is a device that enhances the trend we’re seeing in the increased complexity of how we define ourselves because here’s a device that lets users pursue content around their interests anytime, anywhere and it’s reasonably affordable at $199, at least half the cost of other tablets on the market.

For example purposes, let’s say I have an interest in German Riesling, but I don’t really want to buy another paper-based book because I already have a stack of 14 books at my bedside that I haven’t read (or, perhaps, I don’t buy that many books, period).  Likewise, it isn’t convenient for me to read a book on my laptop because, well, that’s not really a form factor that works for me because I’m already hunched over my laptop for 12 hours a day.  In addition, I don’t want to print out a 150 page pdf because that’s paper I have to carry around.  Previously, with all of the aforementioned caveats, I would have let a deep dive into knowing more about German Riesling be a fleeting thought—an opportunity that would lay fallow.

Ah, but the Kindle Fire will let me consume this German Riesling content in a nice, portable, convenient, lightweight manner that is designed to do expressly that.  I’m now looking forward to pouring through Terry Theise’s 2011 German Riesling catalog and reading part II of Mosel Fine Wines 2010 vintage report.

All of this distills down to an essential takeaway:  When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type, the tangible output was the ability to have ready access to print books.  However, the bigger impact was the spread of knowledge which led to the Renaissance period which inalterably changed the culture of the world.

That’s where I think we’re at now, particularly with wine and the spread of information.  The conversation can be about who is writing and where they come from, but the conversation with far greater impact is what the end game is for this mass adoption of personal nuance lived out loud.

In simpler terms, the wine writer, like Descartes in the Renaissance era, had a great, lasting influence, but the Renaissance period was much bigger than Descartes.

The key for the wine business in this seismic shift in wine affiliation and the pursuit of information thereof is to decide whether they want to support the status quo and perpetuate business as usual or open themselves to all kinds of thought.

Wine writers already are and so are the consumers seeking out this information.

Field Notes from a Wine Life – Power Structure Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

Naked Wine and Occupy Wall Street

It’s not hard to notice the parallels between the natural wine movement and Occupy Wall Street - both are valid causes sorely lacking coherence and a rallying point that would move them from fringe head-scratcher to mainstream momentum.

  Natural wine is about purity of wine expression—shepherding grapes grown without chemicals to the bottle with as little human manipulation as possible, representing the place where they came from in the process.


  Occupy Wall Street is about re-calibrating the world’s best economic system – capitalism—to preserve the middle-class, the labor force that has allowed the U.S. to create the most productive economy in the world.

Neither movement represents fringe radicalism as some would have you believe.  I look at both as being valid inflection points and, at their core, about keeping a balance between big and small, allowing every man and woman an equal opportunity at pursuing success around their particular truth.

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What reasonable person would deny the validity of either if not clouded by confusion?

One idea well-conceived and well-communicated can change the world, but, unfortunately, both the natural wine movement and Occupy Wall Street are prevaricating from their essential truth, rendering them both toothless and feckless.

No need to crib from Che Guevara, but appealing to base logic and the common denominator would do both movements some good.

Just one man’s opinion…

On the Aussies, Redux

A few weeks back, I noted how the Australian wine industry was poised for a rebound in public perception due in part to two things happening in concert – public backlash to Yellow Tail wine, what I call the, “Derision Decision,” and an unspoken coalition of influencers recognizing Australia’s artisanal wine production – the antithesis of Yellow Tail.  I cited recent sympathetic mentions from Jay McInerney in the Wall Street Journal and Dan Berger, wine writing’s current patriarch, as proof points.

You can add to the list of sympathetic mentions about artisanal Australia with recent mentions from Jancis Robinson and James Suckling.

Don’t sleep on Australia.  It’s making a comeback slowly, but surely in public perception.

Tim Mondavi and Wine Spectator

Thomas Matthews, the Executive Editor for Wine Spectator magazine (WS), has commented on my site a few times.  Each of these instances has been to protect or project Wine Spectator around its editorial goals.

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Good on Thomas for not being afraid to get in the ring.  Certainly, WS takes its fair share of shots from the wine chatterati, mostly with grace and aplomb.

Lest I cast myself as anything but objective, I should note that James Laube’s article on Tim Mondavi and Continuum in the current issue of WS (November 15th issue) is everything right about what mainstream wine media can offer wine consumers that online wine writing (mostly) doesn’t –long-form, depth, first-person access and an effort that takes weeks and not hours.

Laube’s piece is excellent - well-written and balanced; acknowledgement thereof is in order.

Besides the Wine

Jordan winery has two wines – a Cabernet and Chardonnay, but they really have a triumvirate in terms of things to buy.  Jordan focuses on food and wine as being partners at the table and, to that end, any purchase from Jordan should also include their olive oil.  Wow!

The Jordan olive oil makes Trader Joe’s EVOO seem like Two Buck Chuck, comparatively speaking.  A little whole wheat Barilla pasta, some homemade pesto using the Jordan olive oil and some artisan bread in five minutes a day and you’re assuredly living the good life.  The rub is I wouldn’t pour the round Jordan Chard with the pesto, probably a Sauvignon Blanc, but don’t let that dissuade you from picking up their olive oil – it’s good stuff.

Field Notes from a Wine Life – Story Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

Words aren’t enough

I give to thee…the worst wine ad of all-time and that’s without delving into the ponderous name of the wine or, why, inexplicably, the back of the laptop in the photo has a big sticker for Ass Kisser ales

…In the main visual, three people are huddled around the boss giving him “Ass Kisser” wine…Isn’t the point of being a brown-noser to do it subtly?  Who randomly gifts their boss right before their employee review? 

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Even if you view this ad as schlocky hipster irony, it’s still bad and makes you wonder if the advertising sales guy at Wine Enthusiast couldn’t do a solid for his client and suggest creative that, well, actually makes sense.

Or, maybe being horrible was the plan – like a movie that becomes a cult hit a decade hence…so bad that it becomes a lofty ideal for bad, enjoying a following because of its campy nature. 

Bad Week for Eric Asimov?

On both Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, Eric Asimov, the New York Times chief wine critic was taken to task for different reasons by Matt Kramer at Winespectator.com and Steve Heimoff at his blog of the same name.

This is interesting because wine writers of a certain stature very carefully call their shots amongst their peers.

Normally the shots are fired up (Parker) or down (bloggers), but usually never sideways amongst writers in the same strata. 

To watch Asimov, as seemingly decent of a guy as you’ll find, called onto the rug by two notable wine writers, to me, speaks to something much bigger.

With Parker stepping aside and Antonio Galloni receiving glancing admiration for hitting a stand-up triple by dint of his current position at the Wine Advocate, at the same time that the wheat and chaff are separating with wine bloggers, somebody has to step into the fray as a public foil for other wine writers to target.

Unwittingly, it might be Asimov for reasons entirely opposite of Parker’s hegemony.  Asimov’s palate for wine seems food-friendly and balanced; he takes an egalitarian approach to wine for the people without pretense and he doesn’t score wines.

In other words, Asimov is bizarro Superman to Parker’s swashbuckling empiricism and, perhaps, even a greater danger to the Ivory Tower of legacy wine media than the mere jealousy that passed for poking at Parker.

Just a thought…

It’s all about the story

The wine business has always been excellent at storytelling.  Virtually every winery has their origin story and that of their dirt down pat, even if not very compelling.

So, it is with interest that I’ve been watching Facebook’s recent changes keeping in mind that founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has emphasized emotional resonance, narrative and storytelling – factors that extend well beyond consumers using Facebook to “Tell the story of their life,” as Zuckerberg noted.  This will be inclusive of the brands that use Facebook for engagement, as well.

I was further intrigued after reading parallel news reports that Randall Rothenberg, President and CEO of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), is singing the same song.

He notes in an article in Advertising Age, “Technology innovations are irrelevant to the future of advertising and marketing unless a more fundamental activity is understood, honored and advanced: the craft of storytelling.”

A quick Google search for “Mark Zuckerberg F8 Keynote” and “Randall Rothenberg MIXX Keynote” will yield a number of stories all occurring in September.  There’s no question about Facebook’s influence and the IAB is the thought-leader for digital advertising.  Between the two of them, they present an imposing shadow of influence on digital marketing.

If I were a winery with an understanding that digital marketing is a tsunami of change that is important, I might start revisiting my winery story for some fine-tuning…

Two books that I recommend to bone-up on the elements of good business storytelling are:  The Story Factor and Made to Stick.

On Sweet Wines

In an article this week from the San Francisco Chronicle called “Beginner drinkers get a crush on sweet red wines,”  E.&J. Gallo VP of Marketing, Stephanie Gallo, noted:  “There is a major shift going on in the U.S. wine drinking culture.  First, we noticed that regional sweet red blends were doing particularly well in Indiana, Texas and North Carolina. Second, our consumers were asking if we produced a sweet red wine after tasting our Moscato at events.”

Good Grape readers had the scoop on this months ago when I wrote:

How Sweet it is – The Growing Sweet Wine Trend in early October, 2010

And

Move over Moscato and Make Way for Sweet Reds in February of this year

Just saying…

The Old World, EU Wine Reform and Battleground USA

In the global village, Americans like to boast that a war has never been fought on our shores; we protect our interests in other people’s backyard. Yet, there is a daily battle being waged on American turf and its combatants are vying for the hearts and minds of domestic wine consumers.  The conflict I’m talking about is marketing and advertising for the attention and –ultimately- the purchasing power of U.S. wine consumers.

Yes, the annual pat on the back we give ourselves about the U.S’ progress toward leading global wine consumption has a collateral effect. Ditto that for our annual cheerleading for wine to be the top beverage alcohol choice against beer. Because of this, other countries want their fair slice of our wine buying pie.

The most aggressive frontal marketing charge is being waged by the member states of the European Union (EU) and it affects almost all of the “Old World” wine-related communications we see in the U.S. today.

From marketing outreach with wine writers and journalists, to trade shows, PR, marketing and advertising (especially advertising), U.S. wine consumers haven’t yet seen the crest of the coming wine marketing wave all fueled by a strategic vision to reclaim what the Europeans feel is rightfully theirs –a global leadership position in prestige and sales of wine.

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They just might do it too; beating back years of floundering that was based mostly on their hubris and the status quo.

When you watch for it, you’ll begin to see the tell-tale EU flag in virtually all forms of Old World marketing here in the states– on the side of a Reunite truck doing grassroots marketing in a parking lot, in digital ads for Romanian wine, in email newsletters and, most notably, in our wine magazines – any wine magazine will suffice—including Wine & Spirits, Food & Wine, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator.

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The most current example is the October 31st issue of Wine Spectator which has nearly 50% of its full-page beverage-oriented ads dominated by EU co-funded wine advertising with an additional seven EU-sponsored quarter or 1/3 page ads.

In contrast, the number of U.S. producers advertising in the same issue? Three – Rodney Strong, Louis M. Martini and a two-page spread from Diageo.

Adam Strum, Publisher of Wine Enthusiast magazine foreshadowed this trend of EU marketing dollars in his “Top Stories of 2010” article from December of last year. In his #3 top story, he noted: “The European Union followed up the market reforms it instituted in 2008 with the promised funding: over a four-year period, well over 828 million euros ($1.16 billion) to support the marketing of European wine. We’re already seeing new styles of labels, unique media concepts and new visibility. Italy is, not surprisingly, leading the charge as the number- one exporter from Europe.”

Ironically enough, or maybe not so ironic at all, the current issue of Wine Spectator is their, “Italian Wine and Food” issue and the advertisers, predominantly, are Italian.

Yet, this marketing outreach funded by the EU isn’t limited to Italy, almost all leading wine member states of the EU including Austria, Greece, France, Portugal, Spain, and Romania have used these monies to ramp up their efforts here in the states.

Interestingly, this battle shouldn’t have the element of surprise; it has been in the works dating to 2006.  Yet, when the EU Wine Reform passed in late 2007 and was enacted in August of 2008, it hardly blipped on my wine-loving radar: It was just a collection of headlines in dire need of some context. Now, we can see the ripple effects…I can see the tangible outcome.

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What follows is a primer on the EU wine reform effort that will continue to present itself to U.S. wine consumers for at least the remainder of this decade (planning is through 2019). At the conclusion, I’ve included an overview on what I think are the possible long-term implications.

EU Wine by the Numbers

The EU is the world’s largest wine producer, consumer exporter, and importer representing 45% of the world’s wine growing areas and 62% of global wine production

Amongst EU member states (EU-27) there are 2.4 million wine producers working 8,895,793 acres (about 3.7 acres per producer) producing 4.5B gallons of wine worth $21B dollars.

The U.S. remains the leading export market for EU wine receiving 24.6% of their volume representing 30.7% of EU wine value.

EU Wine Reform Vocabulary Primer

EU-27:  Phrase for the 27 members of the European Union.  Formally established in 1993, the EU is an economic and political collective of member countries principally in Europe.

CAP:  Stands for Common Agricultural Policy.  Agriculture is the only sector of the European Union (EU) where there is a common cross-countries policy.

CMO for Wine:  Stands for Common Market Organization for Wine.  The CMO regulates and strives to maintain balance of the European wine market under the umbrella of the CAP.

CMO Wine Reform:  Large-scale, EU-wide effort, led by former European Union agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel.  Interchangeable with, “EU Wine Reform.”

Member States:  A reference to the 27 member countries of the EU.  If a country is a part of the EU they are a, “Member state.”

Market Intervention:  The process through which the CMO for Wine, with a fixed annual budget of $1.7B (US dollars equivalent), paid for the disposal of excess wine.  This disposal of wine accounted for over 60% of their annual budget or approximately $678M.  Prior to reform, 15% of wine production in the EU was disposed of every year.

Third Country Markets:  Generally, a country outside of the EU where export and marketing is conducted.  Examples of leading third country markets include the U.S., Canada, China and Russia.

National Envelopes:  Funding allocation from the CMO for Wine to EU member states for their support programs.  Up to 50% of the support programs funding can be used for promotion in third country markets.  The balance is used for country wine industry infrastructure support and services.  National envelopes are funded from a re-allocation of the monies in the wine reform, principally from market intervention.

Planting rights:  The ability for a wine producer to plant vines. Currently prohibited until 2015 and left to the discretion of EU member states from 2016 – 2018

Grubbing up:  The process through which farmers who aren’t economically viable from a quality or scale perspective are financially incented to remove their vines and farm another commodity.  Grubbing up, in conjunction with limitations on planting rights, is intended to balance the EU wine market.  Thereafter, producers are presumed to be planting new vines based on market viability.

The Impetus for EU Wine Reform

In the years leading up to the 2006 reform announcement, a number of large trends finally converged on the traditionally hidebound EU member states making the act of doing nothing more dangerous than changing with the times.

Over the course of the last 25 years, declining consumption in the South of Europe, coupled with an explosion in production and imports from the US, South Africa, Chile, Australia and New Zealand led to a narrowing of the gap between European exports versus imports leading to declining domestic market share.  This was exacerbated by increasing consumption in the North of Europe where consumers in many non-EU member countries took a liking to New World wines, adding insult to injury.

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Besides wanting to keep a wine trade balance (if not maintain a leading margin), The EU had fundamental industry issues to deal with.  Notably, 40% of EU wine production was classified as “table” wine and 60% was “quality” wine with regional origin.  But, overall, 15% of that total wine production was being destroyed on an annual basis because it was unsellable, including some “quality” wine.  Because there were so many EU wine producers farming just an average of 3.7 acres, the producers had become reliant on subsidies while continuing to create a product for which there wasn’t a market that required government “market intervention.”  To say the least, the fact that destroying wine represented 60% of the CMO annual budget was a palpable problem.

The EU Wine Reform Objective in a Nutshell

Align a wine program that increases the competitiveness of the EU’s wine producers, strengthens the reputation of EU wine as the best in the world, recovers legacy markets and wins new markets in the EU and worldwide.

Decrease over-production by eliminating budget expenditure on destroying wine

Re-allocate the money formerly spent on destroying wine on marketing wine to increase growth

Pull up 432K acres of vines by financially incenting vineyard owners

Place a moratorium on new plantings until the end of 2015 and give member states the ability to extend that through 2018

Align towards a systemic quality orientation with origin of place

Simplify labeling allowing for varietal designation

The Net-Net on EU Wine Reform Changes

Mission accomplished, so far.  A lot of credit needs to go to the former Agricultural Commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel for having the strength of vision and constitution to get the EU reform done in the first place.  The old question of, “How do you eat an elephant?” is apropos.  EU wine reform was a process that took nearly three years from first public notice to enactment in August of 2008.

As of today, grubbing up vineyards is over-subscribed based on the 432K acre goal.  Planting rights, when re-enabled in 2016 or thereafter will allow quality-oriented producers to plant based on market demand, and, well, the third country marketing is happening apace.

Yet, the real question is:  What does this mean for U.S. wine business and consumers? 

The Implications of EU Wine Reform

Clearly, the U.S. and North America with Canada is target #1 for the EU.  We have an active wine culture that is growing unabated and the most disposable income of any country in the world.  China and Russia trail a close second as their middle-class economies and wine interest is also growing. 

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What will be interesting to watch is what happens AFTER this EU Wine Reform transition period (2008 – 2013).  In this period of time some CMO monies are being diverted to grubbing up.  However, thereafter, until 2019, some 2/3’s of the CMO for Wine budget is going to be allocated to national envelopes, adding to a marketing larder that is already embarrassingly rich. 

The monies will be allocated to member states based on vine-growing area, production and historical spends.  Therefore, expect to continue to see a barrage of marketing messages from EU wine leaders Italy, France and Spain (Spain has the most potential for becoming au courant, in my opinion).  Yet, it’s the other wine producing countries like Portugal, Greece and Hungary that have the most room for explosive growth. 

If, at the end of this decade, Portugal and Greece have significantly expanded positions of U.S. market share, some pockets of the wine cognoscenti might chalk it up to the zeitgeist, but we’ll know that the zeitgeist was nudged in a certain direction.

The EU Wine Reform is also fantastic for domestic wine marketing agencies and wine magazines – they now have self-identified prospects.  It doesn’t get any better than knowing where the money is.  Expect to see healthy balance sheets for years to come.  Online-based wine media, including bloggers, will likewise experience the positive benefits – warm bodies are needed for press trips, brand ambassadors will be fashioned and digital know-how leading to areas of marketing innovation will all have value against hard currency.  The dark side is that our current understanding of wine media ethics will probably also be immutably altered because where there is money, there is corruption.

Finally, perhaps the most damning indicator is the fact that the U.S. is moving into a period of wine supply balance at the same time the EU is finding balance.  If Australia gets their stuff together to get in balance at the same time that consumption is rising, well, there’s only one way out of that situation and its higher wine prices for consumers.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself… 

As I mentioned, there’s a battle being waged on American turf and the EU has to win the battle before they can win the war.  Will they win the war—the war for consumer interest and sales?  Who knows, but one thing is certain:  The end of this wine decade is going to look at lot different than it does today.

Author Note

1) All EU (€) dollar values and hectares have been converted to US dollars and acres, respectively. 

2) A significant amount of research went into this post in order to distill an unwieldy subject into something consumable (no pun intended).  If you have a question about source attribution, please leave a comment and I’ll direct you to the source if not already linked.

Will Yellow Tail Find More Green?

Australia, a wine darling in the U.S. for most of the past 20 years, fell prey to Newton’s Law of Motion and the coloring of the bruising from the tumble down, in addition to being black and blue, is also yellow and black.

Aside from grappling with a myriad of structural industry and world currency issues, the Aussies have also had to grapple with the fact that their number two import market, the U.S., has had its wine cognoscenti turn their back on the perceived plumped up juice from Oz, a fact that was contributed to in no small measure, I believe, by the ubiquity of Yellow Tail – the inexpensive, redolently sweet, duotone in taste and packaging wine brand that grew case sales 3180% from 2001 to 2008, as reported by the New York Times.

To mix metaphors, where perception is reality, one bad apple (Or three if you count Yellow Tail category imitators as well as Robert Parker, Jr.’s legacy proclivity for Mollydooker) has spoiled the bunch, at least in the minds of wine influencers.

Tom Steffanci, President of Yellow Tail brand owner W.J. Deutsch & Sons, noted to Shanken News Daily (SND) in April, “…It’s so important that we never compromise on quality…you can’t fool consumers on quality…”  However, wine tastemakers don’t think much of the Yellow Tail quality nor are they often shopping in the $6.99 price category. 

Consequently, the brand that begat a category casts a pallor over an entire country’s wine. As one Australian wine marketing rep recently told me with a deep sigh, “This is the toughest job in the wine business.”  A job, by the way, that includes aggressively trying to market Australian wine as being borne of terroir and regionality, a job, indeed, that evokes salmon swimming upstream into the waiting maw of a hungry bear. 

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Yellow Tail’s sales have plateaued in the last two years at 8.3 million cases and recent statistics from Australian wine export reporting indicates that total Australian volume to the U.S. dropped 19% in the year ending in June.  This makes sense given that Steffanci indicated to SND that the brand represented around 40% of Australian wine sales in the U.S. 

This subtext leads to an interesting question, one I’m sure the Australian wine marketing folks would also like the answer to:  Is Yellow Tail a declining brand, victim of the “Derision Decision” – the point in time where something grows to such popularity that it transcends ‘hot with cachet’ to ‘not cool,’ a victim of the cultural zeitgeist? 

Or, is Yellow Tail’s stagnant growth merely a mindshare issue alleviated by some marketing? 

The answer to that question may be an indicator to when the overall category of Australian wine sales might recover, at least from a perception perspective which can lead to a sales recovery in the upper reaches of price tiers, not anchored by their mates in the $6.99 category.

Doubtless, it’s not schadenfreude to suggest the Australian wine marketing folks might not be terribly upset if Yellow Tail shrunk from its ubiquity and, by proxy, it’s mindshare that equates to, “Australian for wine.” 

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Already, some East Coast liquor and bottle shop sales data (IRI provided by Wine Australia) shows that Australian wine priced $15.99 to $19.99 was up 24% in the fiscal year ending in June.

This rooted in reality but still hypothetical question of whether the Australian category is tethered to the relative misfortune of Yellow Tail in order to makeover perceptions is especially interesting given that 85% of every man, woman and child over the age of 21 is expected to see at least one Yellow Tail marketing message before the end of W.J. Deutsch’s fiscal year in March of 2012.

I guess we’re about to find out…

The New York Times (NYT) recently highlighted Yellow Tail’s new advertising and marketing campaign.  With a shift in positioning from the nebulously adventuresome, on the go-oriented and short-lived, “Open for Anything” to the equally nebulous, but brand reinforcing “The go-to,” Yellow Tail is attempting to incrementalize and grow their flat case sales.

Brands face this conundrum all the time in the brand growth cycle.  Explosive growth doesn’t always remain so and brands enter into an inevitable maturity phase:  Do we push growth along or innovate?  The unspoken question being, “Do we milk this sucker or do we take a left turn and try to reignite growth?”

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At least for now, Yellow Tail is taking the safe route.  In the words of Renato Reyes, Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) at Deutsch, as quoted in the NYT’s, he said Yellow Tail as, “The go-to” is “trying to own ‘occasionality’” and be, “the spine of (consumer) purchasing behavior.”

A look at their media mix indicates that their digital activity is skewing female with its current focus on the young female movie Bridesmaid on Facebook in addition to late night television with its young male audience and lifestyle channels that hit a broad, culturally literate, age-spanning audience.  Apparently, Yellow Tail is going for reach in trying to hit a mass segment of people that are likely wine-interested, but not wine enthusiastic (see all the creative here).

By trying to be the “spine” of wine purchasing behavior, they’re trying to create brand loyalty, notoriously difficult to achieve in wine, but akin to regular purchasers of any other consumer goods where repeatable familiarity drives business.

As Reyes noted to the NYT’s, if every Yellow Tail consumer makes a purchase, “One more time, that would represent 10 percent growth.”

Incrementalize.

In my opinion, this audience traded up a price level to Malbec and Moscato, but that’s anecdotal and definitely beside the point.

Meanwhile, an industry hangs in the balance… or does it?

Some tastemakers are coming back around to Australia as evidenced by a recent story by Jay McInerney in the Wall Street Journal where he noted in a similarly themed article about Australia’s current wine misfortune, “I’m ready and willing to revisit Australia.”

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Likewise, the Dean of working wine writers, Dan Berger, recently confronted Australian wine (mis)perceptions head-on using a “young wine blogger” as his foil (likely a Slats Grobnik-like writing device) where he made the case that the best red wines in Australia, “Are balanced and age nicely.”

So, where does this leave Australian wine that doesn’t have a kangaroo?  Is it wearing a bumblebee colored hairshirt, casually waiting for one brands decline in order to catch its next wave of momentum?  Will Yellow Tail find additional green, continuing to leave fine Australian wines in the red?  I suspect the answer is no.  But, regardless of Yellow Tail’s sales, and even if re-emergent, Newton’s Law of Motion also states that when a force is directed at an object it accelerates in proportion to and in the direction of that force. 

Inexpensive plonk and marketing campaigns aside, I suspect that Yellow Tail and Australian wines of character can co-exist and the real force that is starting to accelerate are the U.S. wine influencers and tastemakers, the progenitors of the, “Derision Decision,” who will soon direct their energy on the good in Australia and not their perception of the bad.

That’s a force (and trend) worth watching and one that Newton, also a wine drinker, would approve of.

Field Notes from a Wine Life – Inexplicable Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

The Green Card Cometh

I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a public congratulation to Johannes Reinhardt, winemaker at Anthony Road Wine Company in Penn Yan, New York in the Finger Lakes (FLX) wine region for earning his green card.  Not that he’s waiting for my congratulations, by the way.

However, I do think it’s important to honor professional excellence, integrity and the pursuit of the American dream in a period of time when our national mood is drenched with political acrimony and institutional cynicism.

Sometimes things work out the way they should…

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First reported by Evan Dawson at the New York Cork Report in the first week of September, Reinhardt has earned his permanent worker status, a way station on the way to a permanent green card.

Reinhardt’s back-story is well chronicled in some circles (here and here) and his story is a notable chapter in Dawson’s recent book, Summer in a Glass, but it’s also the kind of workaday footnote that barely blips on the radar of the larger wine consciousness, even if it should.

The summary of a longer narrative is Reinhardt initially came to the U.S. from Germany over a decade ago, leaving his family winemaking legacy behind, to do the same on U.S. soil.  Working on a string of visas while seeking a permanent green card (a green card that has proven difficult to obtain as he faced rejection after inexplicable rejection), Reinhardt carved out an enviable leadership position in the collegial Finger Lakes winemaking community helping to elevate it to the world-class status it now enjoys for its Rieslings, while also doing the same for his employer, the aforementioned Anthony Road winery.

For those that don’t follow immigration law, which is most of us, the difference between a visa and a green card is most akin to the labor differences in between the NFL and the NBA.  In the NFL, you can get cut and lose your job at any time.  In the NBA, you have a guaranteed contract.  A green card acts as something of a guaranteed contract in the U.S. in that you’re not at-risk to have your ability to be in our country yanked or not renewed (deported). 

With permanent worker status and a green card in his future, Reinhardt can now seek citizenship should he choose to do so, or, at the least, get on with building a life in the U.S.

I sat adjacent to Johannes and next to his wife Imelda at a wine dinner in the spring of 2010 while his wines were being poured.  With just brief interaction, his meticulous work effort, charisma, collaborative spirit and genuine desire to achieve excellence as a winemaker in the Finger Lakes shone through.  I’m happy for him, his wife, and most importantly, I’m happy for wine enthusiasts who will continue to enjoy access to his fantastic wines. 

You can toast Reinhardt by buying some Anthony Road wine at the winery web site or at a New York-based online retailer (I use Marketview).

Just in time for Harvest

“It takes a lot of beer to make good wine,” as the saying goes.  Joining the Winepod, a high-end home winemaking system that was launched a few years ago, comes the WilliamsWarn Personal Brewery launched by a couple of Kiwi’s in New Zealand.  Promising craft brewery beer quality at home and priced at around US $5000, the WilliamsWarn, which includes an all-in-one tap for dispensing your brew, looks like the perfect accompaniment to the Winepod and one of the commercial grade espresso machines that are available.

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Now all I have to do is figure out how to scrape together $14,000 of disposable income to buy all three…

More information here (initiates a download of the WilliamsWarn product details sheet).

As Seen in Sommelier Journal

The July issue of the Sommelier Journal (you are a subscriber, right?  You should be…) features a blurb about a new service that allows Sommeliers to create wine clubs for their guests and consumers interested in their wine finds. 

Powered by the unimaginatively named company “Wine Club Shipment,” the firm handles all web site development, shipping and logistics and the Sommelier does what they do best – find unique and interesting wines.

Sign me up.  For two reasons, this is a fantastic service:

1)  With all of the mojo that the craft brew scene and mixologists are earning, I’m very ready for the wine world’s bright young Sommeliers to take a step forward into the limelight by curating selections.

2)  Wine clubs, in general, get a justifiably valid bad name for unloading plonk on unwitting consumers.  Anything that can stem that tide with a quality orientation is a good thing

The company web site is scant on detail, but you can get a sense for the service at the A16 wine club site.

Even a Blind Squirrel…

On the heels of my recent post called, “Palate Tuning and the Permanent Record” in which I discussed disparities in critical wine scores and the hypothetical development of a meta-database that weighs variables in critics palates to create a sort-of super wine score, comes, well, you guessed it – something pretty darn close to that.

I published my post on the 15th and then, via Lewis Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight wine news round-up on the 16th, I saw an article published on the web site Inside Toronto that details a company, WineAlign, in Ontario that has a similar concept with the twist of taking major critical reviews and overlaying that on Liquor Control Board Ontario (LCBO) wine availability in Ontario, Canada. 

It can be done in the states, but the magic is in hardcore number crunching and weighting critical palate preferences to create a meta-score that can map to an individual consumer preference reliably.

Johannes Reinhardt Photo Credit:  Morgan Dawson Photography

Palate Tuning and the Permanent Record

I’m aware that there are at least three strata of consumers who use wine reviews (and likely many more). 

1)  People that calibrate their palate to that of a critic so they can make very informed purchase decisions.  These people are few and probably most closely aligned with Robert Parker or niche critics like Allen Meadows of Burghound or Charlie Olken of the Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine.

2)  The broad swath of consumers who use scores, perhaps with some deference to the score-giver, to make retail purchase decisions.  With these folks, all things considered equal while balanced against price, a 91 is better than an 88 so they go with the higher score on the shelf-talker.

3) Online armchair wine researchers are an emerging category of users. Searching for a wine presents a sort of blotter file like the dreaded “permanent record” of school days gone by.  Consumers use search to research wines, validate a thought, sway indecision and incent action, sometimes in conjunction with #2.

This is linked, but separate from a recent working study presented under the banner of the American Association of Wine Economists called, “The Buyer’s Dilemma – Whose Rating Should a Wine Drinker Pay Attention to?”  For a well-considered post on this topic, see Joe Roberts post at 1WineDude.

For my part, I’ve done very little wine reviewing on this site preferring instead to make any specific wine the context for bigger ideas or points I want to make (no pun intended).  However, as I’ve gotten into the groove with my Forbes.com column, where there is a much broader audience, a wine-of-the-week column does have merit and I’ve started reviewing wines with more regularity.

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Doing so is fun, but the most that I hope for is to be a part of the permanent record as noted in item #3.  I certainly don’t have visions or a desire for anything more, but just the same, doing any sort of reviewing does open a can of worms, particularly in the case of the 2009 Red Car “Trolley” Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, a wine that I recently reviewed and gave four stars to – which equates to a generalized “90-94” score.  I don’t give precise numeric ratings.  If I had to, I would have given the Red Car a 92, I liked the wine – it was earthy, nuanced, layered, balanced and it required some thought to figure out, all hallmarks of a good wine.

So, consider me SHOCKED when I saw the Wine Spectator review for this very same wine and Jim Laube gave it an 81.  I was less shocked, but slightly curious when I saw that Steve Heimoff at Wine Enthusiast gave it an 86 and Stephen Tanzer gave it an 88.

Can you imagine somebody searching online for the Red Car and seeing search results that present a disparate spread along the lines of Spectator’s 81, Heimoff’s 86, Stephen Tanzer’s 88, CellarTracker’s average score of 89 and a score under the Forbes masthead of 90-94?

It would be a real WTF moment that creates more confusion instead of the consumers desired order.

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This disparity in scores brings me to my point, which is the point of the Wine Economist working paper – whose score should you listen to?  Well, Joe Roberts, rightfully so, says listen to your own palate.  However, with the preponderance of existing and emerging wine reviewers out there, combined with an ever burgeoning tsunami of information about wine online, that’s easier said than done.  The real need is for meta-aggregation of scores, a sort of super wine review database.

Neil Monnens and his Wine BlueBook represents this on some level with his monthly newsletter that aggregates wine scores for individual wines from three or more critical scores giving it a QPR rating, but this is just the tip of the iceberg compared to where information is going.

Methinks that if a stats wonk can assign a Quarterback rating to NFL quarterbacks, and Sagarin ratings for college football, there has to be a way to create a meta-rating database based on regression analysis that accounts for palate preferences across a wide diversity of reviewers to create a super score for a wine that acts as the ultimate arbiter.  And I won’t be surprised if, in the near future, this emerges. 

Ultimately, the ongoing debate about wine scores is for naught.  The horse has already left the barn.  A better conversation might be around shaping the future and the fact that the best answer to, “Whose Rating Should a Wine Drinker Pay Attention to?” might be, “Trust your palate,” but it might also be, “Tune your palate against the database.”

The Lost Symbol, Quantum Mechanics and How Randall Grahm helped me Reconcile Biodynamics

By a country mile as the crow flies over a buried cow horn on the vernal equinox, Biodynamics is the subject I’m most interested in amongst a myriad of conversational issues that compete against each other in the wine business.  Yet, I’ve never been able to square with Biodynamics – the benefits or the bunkum – until now.

When Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone winery and author of the blog Biodynamics is a Hoax said in a recent interview, “It’s a fight between religion and science.  There’s no question about it.  The people that are mostly Biodynamic supporters are post-modernist skeptics of science” I paused and took it in.  Yet, I was also confused about the boundary lines that he drew.

We live in a complicated world.  It seems too tidy to draw boxes and say that BioD detractors are pragmatic and progressive in matters of viticulture who resent the piety of Biodynamic practitioners whilst the BioD folks shrug their shoulders when asked how Biodynamics works, eschewing modern day viticultural practice, gazing at a moon chart.

Meanwhile, as we’re noodling on these neat assignments, let’s also throw in secondary dubiousness with Demeter as the arbiter of standards (and depositor of checks), mix in the Biodynamic father Rudolf Steiner as an alleged charlatan and add a dash of societal convention that relies on burden of proof for outcomes. 

With this heady stew, we now have perfect assignments along with swirling sub-issues that force the interplay of capitalism, spirituality, philosophy and science that is nearly impossible to reconcile amongst even the most reasonable people.

Harrumph.

The problem-solver in me needs to transcend partisan Biodynamic views.  The facilitator in me wants to find common ground. 

I want to know the truth about Biodynamics.  Not necessarily THE TRUTH, but my own truth, a personal reconciliation even if it is: “There’s a lot in life we don’t understand and this is one of them.”

I’m okay with living in the space between so long as I’ve assigned value to the black of, “It’s a hoax” and the white of, “It’s religion.”

Why? Because unlike Smith’s assertion, there has to be more to Biodynamics than accepting the use of BioD practices as an article of faith.

Likewise, Biodynamics can’t be debunked as an article of faith, counter to science.  If so, it presumes that the base of our collective human knowledge is at an end point.  We know everything there is to know and so Biodynamics doesn’t fit because it’s not rooted with a base of empirical proof.

So, what if Biodynamics is neither religion nor science, but rather a hybrid of the two that isn’t fully understood?

After all, by its very definition, Biodynamics relates to:  the study of the effects of dynamic processes, such as motion or acceleration, on living organisms.

That’s what I’ve been exploring.  Undoubtedly, it’s not leading me to THE TRUTH, but it is leading me to a truth different than, “science” “hoax” and “religion.”

Katherine Cole’s new book Voodoo Vintners (see review) does an exceptional job of framing Biodynamics in a balanced manner, yet there’s one chapter that I found sticking with me long after finishing the book.

In Chapter Four titled, “Science … or Sci-Fi” Cole explores the emerging scientific realm of quantum mechanics – the idea that our bodies, minds and physical environment are a symbiotic elements of energy that interact and that our consciousness, our thoughts, can impact our world. Specifically, she cites a book called, The Field:  The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe by Lynne McTaggert.

The framework for Cole’s mention is the notion of “intention” in the vineyard.  The idea that, as she notes and deftly discredits in the paragraph, “The belief is that the preparations aren’t merely herbal treatments for plants; they’re carriers of the farmers’ intentions, which have been swirled into them through the powerful act of stirring.  While it isn’t a requirement for Demeter certification, intention is that little bit of witchcraft that separates the most committed practitioners from the unbelievers.”

Yet, what energy forces and “intention” distills down to is not a rejection of science, but an embrace of the most cutting edge of science.

Randall Grahm, the founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard, is quoted from his blog in the book noting, “The world of wine exists in a non-Euclidean space, and certainly partakes of the quantum universe; there are great discontinuities in what we know or imagine we know.”

With that, I made a mental note to pick-up, The Field.

Later, I read Ideal Wine by David Darlington, which covers some of the some topical area with more insight into the scientific quantum mechanics link and Biodynamics, including Steiner’s founding of the philosophical area of anthroposophy, a pre-cursor philosophy to the more scientifically-rooted, legitimized quantum mechanics.

After I purchased The Field, I noted that it had a cover blurb that said, “The author and science featured in The Lost Symbol.”

The Lost Symbol is author Dan Brown’s follow-up after the wildly successful book, The DaVinci Code.

By now I’m deep into the proverbial rabbit’s hole. The Lost Symbol is a mediocre story, but an incredible mix of historical insight, cutting edge new science in quantum mechanics and its relation to modern day man’s role in seeking spirituality.  And, unlike the DaVinci Code that took some liberties with the line between fact and fiction, Brown is quick to point out in the preface of The Lost Symbol that, “All rituals, science, artwork, and monuments in this novel are real.”

And Brown does, in fact, lean on the ideas in The Field and McTaggert’s subsequent book called, The Intention Experiment whilst the cottage industry of “decoding” The Lost Symbol books gives validation to the basis for the ideas presented.

For the two people that have read this far, all of this is pretty heady stuff and not easily explainable, which might partly account for the obfuscation in Biodynamics and wine.  You have to be really, really intellectually curious to spend the time, but here’s where I’m at and here’s my recommendation if you want to follow a similar path:

Biodynamics isn’t about science vs. religion or “post-modernist skeptics of science” as Smith put it.  The entire conversation is wrong.  It IS about science that isn’t fully understood – quantum mechanics.  In fact, there’s a growing body of evidence that science and religion are one and the same.  This may be pseudoscience to some, but, regardless, the wine and Biodynamics conversation needs to be about whether you believe in the cutting edge of science or whether you need empirical proof in the here and now.  Talking about anything else is bloviating with half-truths from ideological positions. 

Further, anybody interested in wine and trying to understand Biodynamics from a wine perspective is wasting their time by reading about Biodynamics through the lense of the agricultural practices.  Don’t spend any time on Nicolas Joly, or Monty Waldin, or any of the leaders in the field.  You’ll never get past the weird preparations and the attempt at the explanation thereof.

Instead, any attempt at understanding Biodynamics needs to come through a view of the emerging science side.  Get a notebook to take notes.  Read The Lost Symbol first.  Then, read a decoding book about The Lost Symbol.  This acts as an accessible introduction to a number of ideas.  Again, the ideas and facts are real, the story is fiction.  From there, read The Field and skim The Intention Experiment.  Then read Voodoo Vintners and Ideal Wine. 

Once this has been completed, fill in the gaps with internet research on Steiner and some of his history with Theosophy and later Anthroposophy and then wade into Google and Amazon.com searching for, “Quantum physics, God, Consciousness.”  Balance all of this with some quick searching on metaphysics to understand the delta and overlap between science, religion and philosophy.

If, after having done this, you haven’t completely confused the shit out of yourself, you’ll have gained a new enlightenment the least of which will be akin to Oliver Wendall Holmes quote, “Once the mind has been stretched by a new idea, it will never again return to its original size.”

As I mentioned earlier, when seeking a truth, I’m okay with “There’s a lot in life we don’t understand and this is one of them” and that’s where I come down on Biodynamics, but the conversation must not be framed in black and white terms.  Everybody around Biodynamics – the proponents and the detractors are operating in the gray and there is no one particular truth, but, and this is a big but, we might not be too far away from a deeper understanding.

A Partial Journey in Exploring Biodynamics:
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Other stuff to read:
The science behind The Lost Symbol

Quantum Mysticism

Institute of Noetic Sciences

Space photo credit:  Wired.com

Field Notes from a Wine Life – Digital Marketing Edition

Every year, and sometimes more frequently, I write a post about what’s happening in digital and what’s coming next, looking through the lens of the domestic wine business, based on my work in digital marketing outside of the wine business. This is that post.

Most everybody reading this understands the value of digital marketing (or “engaging” to use an overworked phrase) with platforms like blogging, Twitter and Facebook.  While not all wineries are utilizing these tools, enough in the wine business are.  Despite the growing imperative, we are in the midst of another cycle of advancement.  New platforms are emerging that are likewise centric to community-building and/ or a mobile device, either a smartphone or a tablet computer. 

Life gets more complicated and one man’s use of Twitter is another man’s opportunity to get ahead of “what’s next.”

On Social Media

The “Social Media Expert” of 2009 is now, officially, a dinosaur.  The game isn’t about Twitter or Facebook, it’s about effective use of platforms, a myriad of platforms that happens to include Twitter and Facebook.  As always, be wary of the consultant who borrows your watch in order to tell you what time it is.

On Google+

Google+ is more likely to be a danger to LinkedIN than it is Facebook.  I would keep an eye on it, but its value is still very much in the definition phase and even hardcore early adopters don’t know what to do with it.  Accordingly, I wouldn’t spend much energy on it until it gets categorized into a definable niche.

On Flash wine sales sites

As these sites mature, the fact that they offer a discounted price is going to become tangential to the fact that they make purchasing wine reasonably simple and easy.  There are too many wines for the average consumer to navigate when, at the end of the day, all they want is a good bottle of wine without a lot of problems in choosing.  Flash sites solve this by curation, which will become more important as the short-term oversupply issues resolve themselves.  They’re not going away anytime soon.

On Tumblr

In April, when Gary Vaynerchuk exhorted the crowd at the Nomacorc Marketing Symposium to pay serious attention to Tumblr, the easy to use blogging platform, I understood the “what” and “why” of his recommendation, but I also mentally counter-balanced what he said with the understanding that he also had an investment in Tumblr.

Sometimes it’s hard to *listen* to the message (“Every person in this room will have a Tumblr account for their winery in 24 months”) when you think you *hear* something self-serving.  Yet, recent statistics bear out his commendation of Tumblr.

According to recent Silicon Valley Insider statistics, Tumblr traffic is growing at astronomical rates—up 218% from July 2010 to July 2011.

The “why” of this requires a bit more context and Tumblr’s growth puts several trends in play:

  Wordpress, now the de facto blog platform, continues to lard itself with capabilities, morphing into a robust content management system and professional publishing platform in the process, becoming less and less the simple, easy-to-use, no-brainer tool that it was a couple of years ago.

  People that are active on Twitter and Facebook may want to write more expansively than what those platforms support, but less than the 400 – 600 words of a “normal” blog post.  In doing so, they want to “curate” other news and other people’s content and comment on it creating a sort of ongoing digital ephemera stream, a sort of digital scrapbook and archive of their life.  Tumblr and its competitor Posterous makes doing this super simple and optimized for mobile usage, as well.

  Tumblr and its ilk skews much younger demographically than Wordpress and Blogger.  It’s hard to imagine thinking of Blogger as your Mom’s blog platform, but it’s true.

  Web sites like Wix and Weebly allow individuals to create a web site/personal brand hub and then social channels/platforms become the metaphorical arms and legs off their personal brand hub – Facebook for friends, LinkedIN for professional pursuits, Twitter for communicating, quick links and watching news headlines, Tumblr for activities and longer thought,  Facebook for personal networking, etc.

My overall point is that wineries shouldn’t sleep on Tumblr – where blogs are morphing into a winery PR channel and Twitter and Facebook are fast becoming marketing channels, Tumblr is likely to morph into a more personal communication channel.

Speaking of Not Sleeping…

Wineries are officially remiss if they don’t pay attention to Pinterest.  You probably haven’t heard of it, but you will.  It skews dramatically young, female and educated and it’s all about curating pictures of stuff that users like online.

In my opinion, Pinterest is a direct result of the community niches that organized around subject areas in Flickr.  The community aspect in Flickr, it should be noted, has long been under-acknowledged by marketing types, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as matters of personal taste can be explored unfettered… 

Being into wine is a statement of personal taste and Pinterest is all about expressing personal taste through imagery that is, “pinned” to a user’s board. The fact that Pinterest is growing fast and organically will keep it cool and insider-ish for a good long while.  The winery that starts a Pinterest board that resonates with a large female audience will have a marketing leg-up. I’m very bullish on Pinterest.

Online Wine Sales

The three best wine shopping experiences that I’ve seen online in 2011 are Dean & Deluca, Plonk Wine Merchants and Lot 18.  I’ve purchased from Plonk and Lot 18.

Interestingly, none of these “best” online wine shopping experiences, in my opinion, have anything to do with price, or selection – they have everything to do with user experience.  Clean, elegant, easy to use and information rich, each of these sites gives a drop of knowledge alongside an intuitive web browsing experience.  This is what wineries are competing against and we’re not too far away from current winery web sites and their legacy platforms supported by Inertia, eWinery Solutions and others being woefully out of date from a user experience perspective.

Oh, by the way, wine ecommerce is still very, very early in its growth.  That blip on the sales radar won’t be a blip forever… 

#Hashtag Days

The Hallmark holiday of the new millennium.  Let’s have a “Cabernet Day” or “Pinot Grigio Day” or any of the various permutations that have happened over the last two years.  Snooze.  Wake me when it’s over.  Overall, I’m terribly ambivalent about these arbitrary days just as I’m ambivalent about “Sweetest Day.”

It’s great for marketers because I think it does have an impact (however slight), but, they are unimaginatively tactical and not sustainable because participants gain absolutely nothing from participating and, users, if nothing else, are self-motivated.

Generally speaking, these are even more faddish than the QR codes that I mentioned earlier this week.

Gen Y. Focused Wines

Wine brands that are focused on Gen. Y (HobNob, Project Paso, Tamas and others) are missing something that I think is integral to being in your 20s – connecting your wine brand to an emotion.  Encapsulated by JWT research – it’s got to be a, “Fear of Missing Out” (see here and here).

On ROI

ROI or return on investment is important, but not nearly as important as having the simple ability to measure what you’re doing.  The return will present itself if you can measure.  Figure out the measurement and analytics first.

What I believe about Digital Marketing In a Nutshell

Organized customer relationship management (CRM) is everything.  Every Twitter follower and Facebook fan page “like” should be in a CRM program associated to an email address and, ideally, a mailing address.  The information is available. 

Content is most important after that.  Brands are publishers.  Ideally, both CRM and content marketing is underpinned by a strategy of some duration that plans content for various platforms. Plan your work and work your plan.

Note:  PR is one aspect of content marketing and strategy, but it’s not the entire strategy. 

One-off tactics that don’t fit within an overall strategy (i.e. QR codes) are a waste of time, effort and money.  Likewise, a mobile strategy need not be complicated so long as the platforms used within your strategy are mobile optimized. 

Also note, paralysis by analysis is a peril.  There’s so much out there and so much that you *can* know that over-thinking is as dangerous as doing nothing. 

If all else fails, listen to Miles from Risky Business.

Don’t Believe the Hype:  QR Codes are the Pet Rocks of 2011

Cyril Penn does a fantastic job as head editorial honcho for one of the wine industry’s two principal trade magazines – Wine Business Monthly (the other is Wine & Vines led by Jim Gordon).  WBM’s editorial filter is an influential arbiter of prioritization in the industry and a bulwark against noise and distraction.

Given that, I was surprised when the August issue of Wine Business Monthly arrived with a large QR code on the cover.  In the realm of digital marketing, precious little is more representative of “noise” and “distraction” then QR codes – a fad more perishable than a gallon of milk with a shelf life to match.

While the article (written by Paul Franson who writes for both trade magazines) is exceedingly informed and balanced, the reality is, in my opinion, QR codes act as an inexpensive panacea for the innovative disruption that is being wrought in the consumer technology market with smart phones and tablet computers and are not an effective marketing tactic for the wine business.

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As a 15-year professional in technology marketing (Jeez, has it been 15 years?), I’ve had the chance to watch and participate in every chapter of Internet marketing dating to 1996.  And, despite my better judgment, I’m currently involved in two QR campaigns—one with a major mobile phone carrier engaged in niche audience marketing and another with a leading spirits brand.  Because of this, I have a front row seat to execution, usage and value with an eye on the future.

When QRs burst onto the technology and wine industry scene last summer, they represented two aspects of potential value:

  Something tangible and understandable in the realm of the digital hot topic of the day – mobile marketing

  Something reasonably inexpensive, less complex and widely usable on the heels of phone apps which were white hot in 2009, but reasonably expensive, complex and impractical for most wineries.

Despite the momentum in mindshare from wine industry marketers, the numbers don’t bear out a need to implement usage of QR codes in marketing activities.

Consider: According to recent ComScore (Digital research and measurement firm) research, a mere 14 million mobile users scanned a QR code in June of this year.  When considering that there are 78.5 million smart phone users in the U.S., less than one in five owners have used a QR code – and this is the leading edge of technology adopting consumers! 

The numbers get a lot worse when you compare usage against the total number of cell phone users in the U.S. –303 million.  Not exactly resounding validation based on adoption and usage against the potential population.

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Perhaps more damning is the fact that in technology marketing, momentum is everything.  We want to do the things that our peers are doing.  In this case, they’re largely ignoring QR codes.

Now, I can already hear the cries of defense –“QRs are still early in their lifecycle,” or “Our campaign is successful…” so, let me ask a couple of questions:

  Can you explain how to use QR codes in under 60 seconds?

  When was the last time you used a QR code in the store?

If you can answer the first two queries with a straight face, then…

  When was the last time you used a QR in the store and the content provided by the brand was worthwhile?

If you can answer the first three queries with a straight face, then…

When was the last time you used a QR and the content provided incented your purchase decision?

That’s what I thought. The principal challenge with QRs is that marketers are creating them for an audience and for consumers that they think exist based on a cresting wave, but for whom the numbers don’t back it up.  It’s the worst kind of vacuum-oriented marketing when people create something for people to use that they themselves don’t use.

And, secondarily, the consumer value provided by the marketer’s content is often bad, really bad.  So, even if consumers do scan the code, the value is often dubious at best.

However, even more challenging to QR adoption and usage is the hungry maw of technology advancement that isn’t going to stop apace for QRs. 

The next wave of mobile technology is right around the corner.

While the Wine Business Monthly article cites “label photo recognition” as a possible advancement – the process of taking a picture of the label that will return relevant information, this is likely to join a couple of other technologies and one that is poised to be dominant:  Near Field Communication (NFC).

Near field communication is a technology protocol that will allow for wireless payments via your mobile phone.  Your phone is linked to your bank account and when processing a transaction at a store, you wave your phone at the reader at checkout and presto change-o it’s a transaction without swiping our ATM card.

The same capability will soon exist with NFC tags that can be placed on products, and instead of trying to read a QR code, you’ll be able to wave your phone at a tag and a video (or a brand-oriented piece of content) will automatically load.

NFC removes the important bit of challenge that exists with QR codes – humans.  You have to understand what a code is, you have to get and keep an app. to read the code and then you have to use it.  If all that works, then hopefully the content that’s served the consumer isn’t a letdown.

Eliminating as many steps as possible and keeping it stupid simple with a high degree of value is the key to user behavior. 

In sum, I’m a big supporter of the convergence of wine and technology.  Technology will re-define the domestic wine world, both consumer facing and in the industry value-chain, but along the way there will continue to be a number of technology marketing tools that are more hype than reality and parsing the difference between the two sure isn’t easy.  Unfortunately, QR codes happen to have a grip on the wine business and they’re definitely hype.

Later this week I’ll cover several other fleeting bits of technology marketing fluffiness including the wine industry’s equivalent to Hallmark holidays.

Additional background reading on QR codes and Near Field Communications:

Top 14 Things Marketers Need to Know About QR Codes

NFC Marketing and promotions round-up

Perfection in a Bottle?

In the rolling hills of Tuscany the Frescobaldi family has been making wine for 30 generations and some 700 years.  Yet, it was only in 1995, when the family aligned with the Mondavi’s, America’s first wine family, that a cross-continental collaboration was borne in Montalcino, an area within the Tuscan region famous for its Brunello, a 100% Sangiovese wine.

Luce della Vite, meaning “Light of the Vine,” is the resulting winery even as gyrations in the Mondavi family business have blunted the initial collaboration of the two families in jointly creating a world class winery.  Now run exclusively by the Frescobaldi’s with investment from Michael Mondavi (and imported to the U.S. by Michael Mondavi’s Folio Wine Partners), their flagship wine, sourced from 29 DOCG certified acres, the 2006 Brunello di Montalcino, has been awarded a perfect 100-point score by James Suckling, former European Bureau Chief for Wine Spectator, now leading his own wine project at his eponymous web site.

This introduction would be apropos of nothing besides ornate wine writer affectations were it not necessary to create the milieu for what is an interesting convergence of issues in the wine world.

Encapsulated in this one wine, from an Italian wine family, formerly aligned with the scion of American wine and imported to the U.S. by his son and given a perfect 100-point score by a former critic with the Wine Spectator, many of the contemporary issues of the wine world can be examined and pondered…

Consider:

•  A 100-point score

Is there such a thing as a perfect wine?  I’ll leave the question open-ended while noting that my own scoring only goes to 99.  In the realm of subjectivity, can something like wine or art achieve perfection?

•  The fallibility of wine criticism

Stephen Tanzer, another notable wine critic, gave the same wine 92 points.  Wine Enthusiast scored it 93 points.  Robert Parker’s Italian wine critic (and recently anointed California reviewer), Antonio Galloni, gave it a 90.  While a 90, 92 or 93 is a good score, the difference between a 93 and a 100 certainly points to a margin spread that provides more questions than answers about the wine.

•  Crossing the digital divide

Suckling, ex-Wine Spectator, is out of the paper magazine business and running his own web site with subscriptions, a business that is less than a year old.  He has lived in Tuscany for a number of years and knows Brunello wines well.  However, anointing 100-point wines isn’t something critics do lightly or without thought.  So, when he declares that, “The 2006 vintage for Brunello di Montalcino is the new benchmark…” is he genuinely reviewing the vintage and the region’s most notable vintner or is this his attempt at market-making relevance akin to Robert Parker Jr.’s declaration of ’82 Bordeaux as “superb” when others weren’t as bullish?

•  Critical scores affect on inelastic pricing

While so-called “cult” wines get a bad rap based on their stylistic profile, the reality is that prices are high because of scarcity – more people want to buy it then there is wine available to buy.  Suckling’s 100-point score for the Luce Brunello is oft-repeated on numerous retailer web sites where the retail price has been raised from a suggested retail price of $89.99 to an average price of $127 based on Wine-Searcher.com data.  Meanwhile, the 2005 Luce Brunello is being discounted and has an average price of $84 based on Wine-searcher.com data.  It should be noted, that save for Suckling on the ’06, both wines were reviewed consistently with scores in the low 90s.

•  A global style

It’s interesting to note that Suckling’s tasting note for the Brunello called it, “…A wine with soul.”  Meanwhile Antonio Galloni noted, “The sheer concentration and depth of fruit are remarkable, but ultimately this comes across as a heavy, labored Brunello with limited finesse.”

So, which is it?  Is it a soulful wine or one with limited finesse?  The U.S. has the largest global appetite for Brunello with some reporting that upwards of 25% of all Brunelli produced is imported to the states.  Given that, is the Luce Brunello made to appeal to more of a fruit-forward palate that is often found in the U.S., a style of wine that Wine Spectator and Suckling have lauded in the wake of Robert Parker, the so-called, global style?

Summary

I’ll save the full review of the wine for my Forbes.com column…in the meantime, I’m reminded that the conversations about the people, personalities, ideas and issues in the wine world are often as interesting as what’s in the glass and that’s certainly the case with the 2006 Luce della Vite Brunello di Montalcino, a 100-points for interest and conversational fodder and less for the actual wine.  For me, that’s just perfect.

Field Notes from a Wine Life – Trend Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

The Devil’s Cut

I’m a sucker for the clever and unconventional, I admit it.  One such bit of cleverness isn’t even wine-related, though it is oak barrel related.

Most wine enthusiasts are familiar with the, “Angel’s Share.”  It’s a term that denotes the wine (or spirits) that is lost from a barrel due to evaporation during the aging process.  Now comes the, “Devil’s Cut” from Jim Beam.

Using a proprietary process that extracts the bourbon moisture that’s left in the staves of the barrel after being emptied, this extract is then blended with regular Jim Bream to create a deeper, more characterful sipper.

I’d hate to think what a wine might taste like if the, “Devil’s Cut” was blended in from a wine-aged oak barrel, but a thumb’s up to Jim Beam for thinking outside the box.  The wine world could use more esoteric and idiosyncratic ideas similar to what the Scholium Project is doing, turning wine on its head.  Can a day be too far away when white Pinot Noir and orange wines aren’t outliers?

Speaking of Idiosyncratic

Last year I wrote a story on Proof Wine Collective and their out-of-the-box wine label design work.  An edgy company of twenty-something’s in San Luis Obispo, they’re set to eschew a services-oriented business helping market other people’s wine projects and start their own wine thing.

Anti-wine by the guys at Proof sets the table for what’s to come with an Anti-wine Manifesto that says in part, “I can hear the death rattle of our industry when salespeople peddle wines made and re-made in the same style, over and over.  I hear it when they glorify classism, pretending that customers own a cellar to age wines for decades, when in truth we buy a bottle to drink tonight…My goal with this project is to be free from the affectations of an industry I can no longer respect.  These wines follow no formulae (Ed. Note:  Nice use of the plural of formula!). They are blended between vintages in order to take the best traits of each.  I regard red and white varietals as equals, and intermix them with no interest in what is “sellable.”

I like idea, for sure.  However, initial reverberations indicate that they’re going to have to do some traditional-type activity in the wine business to get solid footing.  Sales at retail.  Wine events.

If a nascent wine brand truly wants to be free from the affectations of the industry and do so without being shticky then it has to be prepared to swim completely against the current. 

I’m rooting for Anti-wine, but I’d also like to see a completely new playbook written for the wine business, not a statement of intent while coloring inside the lines.

Tastevin

I’ve read a couple of recent articles that indicate that watches are set to become a trend (here and here).  This struck me as odd because I hadn’t received the memo that watches were out of style.  I started to think about accessories for wine enthusiasts that are decidedly out of style and I came to the tastevin.

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Traditionally used by Sommeliers, but long out of favor, the only reason I know it’s not a mythical unicorn, is because a Somm. at my honeymoon resort some years ago was wearing one and checking the quality of the bottles he was serving by taking a quick sniff and slurp.

Now inspired, I’m starting a one-man wine trend.  If you see me at a wine tasting in the future it’s probable that I’ll be using a tastevin instead of the insipid glassware that’s usually provided.

Feel free to adopt usage of a tastevin for yourself.  The key to not feeling douchey is to either be incredibly confident or so hip that others don’t even know its hip.  Either will work for this emerging trend that you and I are starting.  Buy one at Amazon.com.