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Public to choose wines for top London restaurant using Twitter

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That’s the attention-grabbing headline from Decanter, explaining how L’Anima, an Italian restaurant, is asking the public to vote for wines to go onto its wine list, in an online election to be held via Twitter. Decanter says this is believed to be a “world-first.”

That’s a pretty clever idea. As soon as I read it, I was reminded of Murphy-Goode’s “A Really Goode Job” contest, which was also a world-first, in a way: the first time (to anyone’s knowledge) a winery hired a Director of Social Media. (There was also a sort of online election-that-wasn’t-really-an-election tied to that one, but let’s not go there.)

As we all know, in retrospect it turns out that what was so interesting about “A Really Goode Job” was that the ensuing media attention, which was worldwide, gave Murphy-Goode around $17 million worth of free publicity. I wonder if that’s behind L’Anima’s move? After all, here I am, in California, reading about this London restaurant I’ve never heard of, and probably never would have heard of, had they not done the Twitter thing. And Decanter in all likelihood never would have written about L’Anima otherwise.

The restaurant certainly seems keen on the contest. I went to their website to read their sommelier praise “the power of Social Media [to] help me select those [wines] that should be given a chance.” Two comments here: One, are we now capitalizing “social media”? Who makes these decisions anyhow? And two, has there ever been a self-respecting sommelier who didn’t feel capable of making his own wine list selections, without asking a bunch of total strangers, with no obvious skill set, for advice? I mean, on L’Anima’s website they say this about their wine list: “When writing the wine list, we had the challenge of finding wines to accompany [chef’s] innovative menu and representing the true Italy and its diversity.” I don’t quite understand how they’ll be able to use the word “we” after thousands of voters with, one suspects, no particular skills, and with little reference to “chef’s innovative menu” or even what “true Italy” means, do the actual selecting.

I suppose the least you could say is that all wines on the ballot were pre-selected by the sommelier and his team, so they were all qualified to be on the list. I guess, but still… Is this the ultimate challenge to authority, sponsored by no less than the Court of Master Sommeliers?

Meanwhile, the P.R. train seems gearing up for action. Jancis Robinson has already tweeted about it (“Creative use of Twitter to shape excellent London restaurant, L’Anima’s, wine list”). And when Jancis publicizes something, it will be noticed. (I know, the irony is that I’m publicizing it too.)

I wonder if this use of social media for P.R. purposes isn’t emerging as one of its main features. I mean, given social media’s tendency to talk about itself, if an organization (restaurant, winery) uses it for some sort of contest, and then the straight press (e.g. Decanter) picks up on it, the social media users will repeat the straight press’s account, creating a tornado of endless repetition of the sort we saw with A Really Goode Job and are seeing with L’Anima. It’s all very phony, in a way — a computer virus that self-generates, like a nude celebrity video leaked to a tabloid — but it obviously works. It generates buzz. Imagine a couple of tourists who hit London for vacation. They’re looking for a nice place to eat and the concierge suggests a couple of restaurants, including L’Anima. “Isn’t that the place that had the Twitter contest?” one of the tourists asks. “Why, yes, it was,” her friend replies. So they decide to try L’Anima. When they get back to Cleveland, they tell their friends, “We had dinner at the most amusing place.” “How was the food?” their friends inquire. “Oh, it was all right, but it was that restaurant that had the Twitter contest for the wine list.” “Oh. How was the wine, then?” “It was all right, too. The sommelier told us all about how some of the wines were chosen by the world’s first Twitter contest. They’re already calling it the Twitter restaurant.” “Cool! You must give us the address so we can go next time we’re in London.”

And so it goes.


Book review: “What Price Bordeaux” by Benjamin Lewin MW

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There’s something retro about this book, in the best sense. It reads more like something from Hugh Johnson or André Simon than a slapdash quickie from today. Authoritative, classic in structure, elegant and complex, like a Classified Growth itself.

The book contains much that has been written elsewhere on Bordeaux: its ancient history, explanations of its multitude of appellations, how the AOC “pyramid” works and the history of its evolution, a detailed analysis of terroir, the differences between the Left and Right banks, observations on scores and pricing, and — most relevant and interesting to me — a critical examination of the famous 1855 Classification, which not only set in stone the hierarchy by which the famous chateaux are ranked, but established a template that every other famous wine region in the world tries, consciously or not, officially or not, to mimic.

Lewin asks questions that are as fundamental as any that may be posed concerning wine, and it’s amazingly odd how little consensus there is concerning their answers, even going on the Classification’s 154th anniversary.

– Given that even First and Second Growths were often still blended with Rhône and Spanish wines (to strengthen and colorize them) as late as 1865, “Were there in fact any consumers who knew the taste of the unadulterated wines of the Médoc when the chateaux were classified in 1855?”

– Given the frequent changes in vineyard location (due to swaps/trading, purchases and new plantings), does it make sense to classify chateaux in a way that suggests permanance of terroir rather than continual change?

“Do some chateaux have better terroir, or is their position in the classification self-reinforcing, giving them greater resources because they can claim higher prices?”

“When chateaux decline due to neglect, can they be resurrected by new investment? And how can chateaux originally lower down in the hierarchy fight their way up?”

– Given the fact that much of the Médoc’s vineyard area sits in areas that used to be marshes but were drained for agriculture, does it make sense to refer to “natural terroir”? “Whether the terroir is natural or made by man, the basic question is: how far are the great wines of Bordeaux driven by terroir? Do they provide unique representations of conditions that can be found only in their specific vineyards? Or are they brands, representing commercial marques where the underlying quality depends on changing methods and sources of production?”

Lewin sums up with a final question: “Should the hierarchy established then retain validity in the very different conditions of today?”

These are brave questions to ask, and they ought to be asked. There are so many fertile areas to explore and discuss, one hardly knows where to begin; I could blog on these quotes alone for the next year. But here’s some food for thought:

Never again should we speak of terroir as something pristine and unadulterated, existing in and of itself, like Aquinas’ prime mover. There is no such thing. Wine is the product of terroir and man/woman, or what the great enologist, Emile Peynaud, calls “cru.”

Never should California attempt anything as silly and insubstantial as a hierarchy of wineries or vineyards.

Never should we conclude that one area is permanently better than another. Five hundred years ago Bordeaux was a mass of swamps, and the wines often were so thin and austere, they had to be mixed with riper, darker wines from warmer climates. Today, one can complain that some regions in California are too hot to ever produce fine wine. But who’s to say that some unknown mitigations will not upset those calculations in ten years or twenty?

The implications for the unstated, unofficial hierarchy we have today (Napa Valley at the top) are obvious. No one can rest on pre-established laurels. It took the old order centuries to rationalize itself because historical conditions meant that things could change only very slowly, if at all. We are now in the new order, when change occurs in 140 characters at the touch of a “send” button. I’ll leave it to others to answer Lewin’s question, “Should the hierarchy established then retain validity in the very different conditions of today?” But I will say that every hierarchy that exists today is in danger of being turned over.

“What Price Bordeaux” was published by Vendange Press, a Dover imprint. I highly recommend it.


The next Jess Jackson? Foley speaks

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Bill Foley, of Foley Family Wines, has been raising eyebrows in California, where he’s on a tear. He now owns Kuleto, Firestone, Sebastiani, Merus, Altus, Goodnight and Three Rivers in Washington, most of which he’s bought in the last year, expanding upon his base wineries in Santa Barbara, Foley Estate and Lincourt. Earlier this month he bought New Zealand Wine Trust, a 280,000-case company. Now, yesterday came the latest announcement: a strategic partnership with Wattle Creek (Alexander Valley) and with Boomerang Vodka, which is from Australia. I spoke by phone with Foley, who was at a golf course in the Rockies with about 40 of his distributors and sales managers.

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SH: Why buy Wattle Creek?

BF: Chris Williams [the owner], I’ve gotten to know over the years. He’s well-connected in the restaurant trade, with Outback Steakhouse [Ed: Williams is friends with Outback’s chairman], and also with Boomerang vodka, so he has terrific connections in Australia. Wattle Creek is Alexander Valley Cabernet, and some Pinot Blanc in Mendocino, so it fills an appellation target I had, that northern part of Alexander Valley. Plus he [Williams] has a tasting room in Ghirardelli Square, and and a terrific wine club, and he signs up a lot of people. So we want to learn from his direct-to-consumer focus.

Why? Are you expanding your DTC program?

We have some plans to open remote tasting rooms, starting with Fashion island in Newport Beach. Lots of traffic, walk-by, high-end stores, evening traffic with movie theatres, and Chris will help us with that.

The press release says you’re entering into a “strategic partnership” with Wattle Creek, not buying it. Do you have plans to eventually buy it?

We’ll just do his management and wholesale sales for now. We haven’t come to an arrangement to purchasing it, although Chris has indicated he wants to take an interest in Foley.

Is Boomerang your first alcoholic venture beyond wine?

Yes.

Why vodka?

Well, I’ll only own about 20% of Boomerang. But we’ll sell it, and it gives us a different appeal to our distributor network, having spirits. It’s about being relevant and important to your distributors, and vodka will help us. I don’t drink a lot of vodka, but I’m told Boomerang is good vodka, well-priced.

Any plans for beer, maybe micro-brews?

I hate beer!

You said you don’t care for vodka, but you’re a businessman.

Well [laughs], vodka will make us a lot of money!

What is your long-range plan? More wineries?

I have nothing significant in the pipeline. I’ve got to put the New Zealand thing in bed.

How do you see the state of the American wine industry today in this recession?

If you have value brands, strong wines at the right price points, there’s no problem selling, providing you have good distributors and enough sales force.

Is this a good time to be buying wineries?

Well, there are good opportunities right now. Distribution is difficult for these smaller wineries.

Why are you the only only one who seems to be buying lately, except for Boisset/Raymond. We’re not hearing anything from Gallo, Diageo, Constellation and the other big companies.

I haven’t gotten over-leveraged, so I can redirect assets from my public companies and buy fixed winery assets, which is what I’m up to. I’m moving way from the public domain and I want to be private. It’s much more fun and I love the wine business. New Zealand was an opportunistic purchase; they lacked U.S. distribution, so, again, I can use my sales and distribution people across the country to sell their wine. It’s a perfect fit.

You say you’re doing well, but anecdotally, every wine company is hurting, except maybe at the bottom end, which you’re not. How do you reconcile those two things?

Well, I mentioned sales and distribution, and you need high quality wine for the price point. At every tier, we’’re trying to provide the best we can. So we’re doing okay. It’s not easy, but we’re having a terrific response from our distribution network in terms of selling the New Zealand wines. We don’t have a lot of debt on any of these assets we’re acquiring. I try to stay no more than 33% debt to total value, so if it’s a $10 million asset, I don’t want more than $3.3 million in debt. We’re paying our bills and making a little money.

What’s your production rank among U.S. wine companies? Last time I checked you were #24.

I don’t know. With New Zealand Wine Trust we’ll be around 750,000 case production [total of all Foley brands in the U.S.]. So we’ll be 300,000 cases bigger than when they did the last measure. [Ed: According to Wine Business.com’s Feb.,  2008, survey, Foley would be between #19, Rodney Strong, and #20, The Hess Collection.]



Move over Perez Hilton, here comes Gary V!

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Is the famous wine personality increasingly smitten with the world of celebrities?

“Transparency” and “exposure” take on new meaning in this op-ed video by Gary Vaynerchuk. The link comes in an article on, not wine as you might expect, but on three celebrities whose menage-a-trois somehow made its way onto the Internet. The article appears in PopEater, which seems to be an online version of Entertainment Magazine.

The background: The 3 celebrities are ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ hunk Eric Dane, his wife, actress Rebecca Gayheart, and “former beauty queen” Kari Ann Peniche. Dane’s lawyers immediately leaped to his defense, calling the tape “a private, consensual moment involving a married couple, shot several years ago, which was never intended to be seen by the public.”

No, of course not. Embarrassing tapes never are.

ericdane45
To see the rest of him, go to the video

Or at least a censored version of it, here at Gawker.com. Believe me, the video isn’t even that hot. The three stars seem dim-witted but that could be because they were stoned. And there seems to be a lot of product placement, including a strategically-placed iMac.

Anyway, this truly tasteless incident never would have made it into a high-minded publication like this blog had it not been for the Gary V. video, which makes it not only wine-related but reportable.

Now, I know nothing about Gary V. beyond his celebrity status. But I’m learning. The PopEater article calls him a “PopEater Pal” and says the video is an “Exclusive Explanation for PopEater” of the videotape’s relevance to a much wider world involving “good [product] exposure and branding.” Which, I guess, means Gary V. has something going on with PopEater.

Gary’s video is 2:13 in length. Here’s a pretty accurate transcript.

“Really excited to talk about what I call the “Hugh Grant” rule…about how naked pictures and this full exposure has not always been bad for the brand, and I understand why…if people come out and say “I’m sorry” we’re kind of okay with it. And so what is going on in this new transparent world — don’t get it twisted, you take a picture or a video of yourself naked, and it’s gonna get out. And if you don’t think that these celebrities and these new internet celebrities, if you don’t realize they’re putting them out on purpose. I think you know. You guys are not naive. But what’s important to understand is it’s exposure. And it’s branding. And it’s opportunity. And as long as you follow up your mistakes with your “I’m sorries,” you’re always in a position, in our society, to build a bigger brand…So my whole take on this is very simple. It’s the movement of everything I’ve been talking about on social media. The fall of newspaper. Wait til television falls. Boxee.com, that’s all I’m gonna say. When all this becomes pure content and full exposure, this trend, this new trend of naked pictures and full exposure is going to continue, followed up with the traditional I’m sorry, and brands will continue to get bigger and bigger and bigger, because that’s how we roll, it’s word of mouth, things like Twitter are just word of mouth on steroids. Vanessa Hudgens, her second round of pictures, I knew about 6 minutes after they were online, because it was a trending topic on Twitter. So the word of mouth has changed so much, allowing these kind of micro-events for Rihanna and Sarah and other people to get really more brand value, not less.”

I could bemoan the obvious crassness of a culture that permits such things to happen. I could criticize Gary V. for not merely identifying the phenomenon but doing so glowingly, as if it represents a signal breakthrough in human morality and consciousness. I could rebuke people who think that the best way to get famous, without talent, is to put images of themselves naked on the Internet, then leak the story to barracuda “journalists” of the type who write garbage for the tabloids.

I could do all that, but I won’t. Instead, fair warning. Tomorrow, in this space: Naked pictures of me, Steve, in compromising positions. Groups. Animals. In public, with celebrity chefs, winemakers, Mayors and movie stars. I want my brand to get bigger and bigger and bigger, so I’m applying the “Hugh Grant” rule which we actually may now call the “Gary V.” rule. If it’s sleaze, it leads. After everyone is shocked, shocked at my brazenness, after I’ve offended every measure of public decency, I’ll come out with my phony “I’m sorry,” and I’ll be bigger than ever! Mwahahahahahaaa!


There was a young tweeter from Thailand

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I got those low-down, mean old social media blues. Can’t get ‘em outta my head. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook — what’s it all mean? Everybody’s talkin’ about it but who’s walkin’ the walk? Why am I leaving off my “g’s”? Why did the chicken cross the road? As you can see I’ve taken leave of my senses.

Let’s start with blogs. My Gallo post from yesterday resulted in a wave of responses, mostly along the lines of “What are they waiting for?” It’s true. If you think you want to blog (whether you’re a winery or a weinerschnitzel), you can’t think about  it forever, you can’t have meetings and develop flow charts and strategies, you can’t predict ROI, you just have to sit down and do it! It’s like being in high school and going to a dance in the gym. If you stand around the sidelines instead of asking someone to dance, you’ll just be, well, standing around the sidelines. Not where the action is. Not prudent. On the other hand, if you ask that pretty lad or lassie (? where did the Scottish stuff come from?) to dance, you might get a big, fat Rejection, but you might not, and hey, what’s life without a little rejection once in a while. It happens. Get used to it. So here’s Steve’s one-word piece of advice to wineries: BLOG. Just do it! Build your numbers slowly. It’s like starting out at the gym. You have to work your way up to the heavy numbers.

So at least two people have forwarded me the Wine Business.com story from yesterday on “Do Wine Blogs Impact Your Brand?” One was a winery owner/consulting winemaker and the other was a wine industry P.R. professional. I didn’t think there was anything particularly new in the study, which came out of Sonoma State University. But the fact that winemakers and P.R. people are fascinated by blogs is what’s really interesting.

Okay, then we move up the feeding chain (or is it down?) to Facebook. Facebook, I get. It’s easy, comprehensible and fun, and you don’t have to be a TIJ (Total Internet Junkie) to play in the FB sandbox, which is maybe why an older generation has gravitated there, present company included. There are some pretty heavyweight wine names who’ve moved onto FB lately (find ‘em yourself, I’m not naming names) and you can always tell a newbie, they’re tentative and exploratory in their comments, perhaps a little afraid to let it all hang out. Well, here’s Steve’s five-word piece of advice for FB: let it all hang out. Be yourself. You have a personality, no? You know, that “you” inside yourself that feels like “you” and which you know so well? Let it out. The best FB posts express strong feelings and emotions: humor, wit, eagerness, enthusiasm, a love of liquor and food, family, fun and a celebration of life. Also the occasional rant. Which brings us, alas, to Twitter.

To be truthful, I FB’d yesterday that I don’t get Twitter. I don’t. Lord knows I’ve tried, but it’s just not working out. I mean, I kind of liked Twitter from the minute I laid eyes on it. We did the flirty-flirty thing and began dating for a while. But the more we went out, the more I realized I didn’t really know who Twitter was. Maybe we just aren’t compatible, I don’t know. When I said that on FB I got replies that were largely sympathetic. I can see why a winery professional would be reluctant to jump into the Twitter whirlpool. It’s not that I don’t understand the conceptual basis behind Twitter: let’s all of us be in touch all the time so we can form new friendships and connections. That, I get. What I don’t get is the difficulty involved in mastering Twitter. Google Twitter, and you get 741,000,000 hits. There’s a YouTube you can download that professes to teach you how to Twitter. You don’t have to watch a video to learn how to blog or Facebook. Then there’s this hit, which is the ninth on the Google search: “This module provides API integration with the Twitter microblogging service and API-compatible alternatives like Identi.ca.” WTF? I don’t have the time. Which, I guess, is what makes Twitter so attractive to those who love it. Maybe they figure, if someone’s not smart enough to figure out Twitter, then that dummy shouldn’t be in Twitter anyway. In that respect, Twitter reminds of of those cliques in high school from which I usually felt excluded.

Anyway, blogs – Facebook – Twitter. Got ‘em in my head and they won’t go away.

Oh, the headline about Thailand? More to come.


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