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Branding. It’s not as easy as you think


A lot of people have been asking me for advice lately. No, not advice on wines, advice on branding. As in, “How do we get consumers to understand and respect our brand?” The “brand” can be a particular winery, a type of wine or a wine region. Whatever it is, people seem to value my take on branding.

There are reasons for this. One is that I’ve been around for a while, and they think I must have figured out a thing or three in all these years. Which is correct; I have. I’m not a marketer or a P.R. expert or a salesman, but I have worked with marketers and P.R. experts and salespeople, and have some inkling about what they do, and how and why they do it. I see also how they do things wrong. So that gives me some insights into the fine art of marketing.

Critics also have their finger on the public’s pulse in a way that no one else in the industry does. The critic is in the fungible position of being the middleman between the consuming public and the industry; in fact, we’re the only middleman there is. The critic’s role is similar to the public defender’s, or the ombudsman’s at a newspaper. Someone has to represent the consumer, the average person who doesn’t have a voice, who may be getting ripped off, who needs help weeding through the conflicting and often phony messages she gets from the wine industry. That’s where we critics perform what is perhaps the most satisfactory and moral part of our job.

We critics have a feel for what people are feeling and thinking–what they’re going through, how they see things, their most fundamental sensations and thoughts. There’s a lot more to being a wine writer than merely being a wine “expert.” You need to have skills in psychology and sociology and even in politics, in order to effectively understand the marketplace.

That’s why being dialed into the news–political, economic, cultural, business, artistic, sports–helps a wine writer. Wine and its consumption don’t exist in a vacuum. They’re linked to everything else in the culture. When a giant wave moves through the culture–“Sideways,” for example–it doesn’t spring sui generis from someone’s brow (with due respect to Rex Pickett). No, it’s part of an irruption within the broader culture, the result of myriad forces, all converging at once, for complicated reasons; that Rex Pickett was the repository of these forces is almost random. The election of Barack Obama was an example of the convergence of powerful societal forces; so is the rise of the Tea Party. Steve Jobs has a genius for causing waves. Marketing people hope and pray that whatever thing they’re marketing will achieve such an irruption. Making a big wave is the wet dream of the marketing pro. But it’s very hard (no pun intended) to achieve.

The main reason people are asking for my advice is because they’re desperate. When times were flush, which they were pre-Recession, they didn’t need my advice, or anybody else’s, because their product, whatever it was, sold itself. Nowadays, nothing sells itself; everything has to be sold. That involves effort on the part of the seller, but a lot of these sellers aren’t used to selling. They don’t know how to put their shoulder to the wheel, or even where the wheel is. There’s a sense of flailing: hire a social media director, maybe that’ll do it! How about a label comb-over? Let’s cut the price and pray. Fire the old winemaker and hire a new one! Pick riper, plaster new oak-like flavors on! Bring on some pricey marketing consultant to tell us what to do! Sell the stuff off as bulk; at least that’ll make some money. And when none of that works, the ultimate Hail Mary: call Heimoff.

I don’t mean to mock these troubled people who are reaching out. I’ve always had a sense of how to market stuff. I don’t like the technical aspects of selling–I mean, actually having to go out and interact with people, some of whom you may not like, some of whom may be repellent. It’s discomfiting to try and convince someone to buy something they don’t really need. But I’m pretty good at the big picture. I like the creative part of marketing. For example, here’s what I told some sparkling wine people who came to me for advice. My idea for a T.V. commercial is based on the premise that a lot of men think sparkling wine is for sissies (you know, flutes, pinky extended), not “real men.”

We’re inside a sports bar. Big game on the overhead T.V., pounding rock and roll music from the stereo system. Place is packed with young, boistrous, laughing guys, like in those old Miller Lite and Bud commercials. Guy walks up to the bar, alone. Not bad looking, maybe a little nerdy, average “everyman.” Everybody else is chugging beer. Guy orders a glass of sparkling wine. Suddenly, total silence. Everybody looks at the guy. WTF? Who is this creep? Not one of us, that’s for sure. Then, out of nowhere, a beautiful woman, the most gorgeous, sexy lady you’ve ever seen, joins the guy. Guy says to the bartender, “Another sparkling wine for the lady.”

Message: the guy with the sparkling wine gets the date. The beer chuggers are total losers who go home alone.

To effectively brand something, you can’t just come up with a message that you like. It’s not about your opinion; what you think is bupkes. You have to get inside other people’s heads and understand where they’re coming from. The successful brands of the future will do exactly that.

Visiting Chez Mondavi, and Top 10 Wines of the Week


I go today (Thursday, when I posted this) to Rob Mondavi’s place, up in the Carneros, for dinner. He invited me to meet some of his friends, none of whom is older than 45. They represent a new, upcoming generation in Napa Valley. Some have familiar last names (Burgess, Gott, Mondavi, Steltzner, Truchard, Viader) but, as the sons and daughters of veterans, are establishing their own reputations. Others are not known to me.

In the case of a younger winemaker taking the helm in Napa Valley, think of the weight they must feel pressing down on their shoulders. Tradition. Expectations. Quality. And, yes, reviews. When you make wine in Napa Valley you are playing in the NFL, the NBA, Major League Baseball. Especially in these perilous economic times, they have got to experience some angst every once in a while. Can you keep the family tradition going forward into the second decade of the 21st century? Can you make a success from the career you’ve chosen, and upon which you’re risking a great deal? Will you let your parents down?

I’m looking forward to this event with a keener anticipation than many other things I’ve gone to lately. I’ll let you know how it went.

Meanwhile, here are the top 10 wines of this past week.

Bartalotti 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford. $60, 144 cases, 15.2%.

Robert Mondavi 2008 I Block Fume Blanc, Oakville. $75, case production not revealed, 14.7%.

Robert Mondavi 2008 Reserve Chardonnay, Napa Valley. $40, case production not revealed, 14.2%.

Chime 2009 Pinot Noir, Sonoma County. $19, 1,100 cases, 14.4%.

Sean Thackrey 2008 Devil’s Gulch Ranch “Andromeda” Pinot Noir, Marin County. $45, 700 cases, 14.4%.

Calera 2008 Ryan Pinot Noir, Mt. Harlan. $40, 2,856 cases, 14.9%.

Laird 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. $16, case production not revealed, 13.8%.

Volker Eisele 2007 Terzetto Bordeaux blend, Napa Valley. $75, 450 cases, 14.7%.

Cambria 2008 Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley. $22, case production not revealed, 14.5%.

Vine Cliff 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $55, 1,200 cases, 14.3%.

Should marketers be optimistic about social media ROI?


Almost since I started blogging, I’ve been asking wineries precisely how they expect to make money through the use of social media.

Their response has been, pretty much, Uhh…well…err…umm… It reminds me of when I was a kid of six and we were visiting my mom’s relatives in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma=oil, right? So I spent the better part of 3 days digging a hole in my uncle’s backyard, hoping to strike liquid gold. If you’d asked me precisely how I thought this would happen, I couldn’t have told you. But I believed.

Belief, though, isn’t a good business plan. And I haven’t seen a good business plan from wineries, not in 2008, not in 2009, not in 2010, and not yet in 2011. What would constitute a good business plan? Establishing  a solid link between social media and ROI.

ROI! It’s the Gold Ring, the Pot of Gold at the end of the rainbow. No, it’s not the French word for “king,” it’s short for “return on investment.” If you’re not a business person, here’s how ROI works. Let’s say it costs me $1 to do something. If I then earn $2 for that effort, I have a positive ROI, and it’s probably a good idea for me to do that thing again. If, on the other hand, I earn only 50 cents for my dollar investment, then my ROI is negative, and I’d be pretty stupid to keep on doing it.

Well, the “pretty stupid” part has been the defining characteristic of the wine industry’s investment in social media so far. Yes, it’s true that the social media boosters have said that, even though they can’t identify ROI, they still benefit from social media because it creates “branding” and “buzz” and “imaging.” But those things are unmeasurable. Will.I.Am’s Super Bowl commercial for his new social media business,, was seen by who knows how many gazillions of eyeballs, but it remains to be seen if can make it. Let me put it to you this way: If issued an IPO now, would you invest in it? I wouldn’t.

All of this makes the new study from Bazaarevoice, as reported on Mashable, so interesting. The study queried 175 Chief Marketing Officers about their social media goals in 2011, and found that 74% of them “predict they will finally tie social efforts to hard ROI this year.”

Finally! I’m tempted to clap my hands and say, “It’s about time, good for you guys, I hope you tell us how you did it,” except for one thing. Try as I might, I cannot find anything in the study (a summary of which you can find here on Bazaarvoice’s website) concerning precisely how the CMOs plan on tying social efforts to hard ROI, this year or ever.

What the survey did find is not without interest.

•CMOs move towards social insight and customer-centricity

“Social insight” means that companies can better understand the beliefs and behaviors of customers and potential customers. This can be incredibly useful in product development and improvement; “insights that fuel improvements across the business” can “serve as the launch pad for innovation and business change.” As for customer-centricity, it sounds good, right? But I still don’t see how a wine company can accomplish ROI on social media. Maybe Apple, Ford or Proctor & Gamble can; they have massive advertising budgets, and can afford to have social media be a part of the marketing mix. But wineries don’t have massive advertising budgets.

Okay, but now come the study’s caveats. The CMOs may be eagerly figuring out how to use social media for social insight, but

•Linking company revenue to social media is the next frontier

This gets us back to the Uhh…well…err…umm thing. Next frontier? Space is the next frontier for NASA, but it’s not coming easy, is it? The CMOs “were optimistic about tracking ROI for social media,” with 81% saying “they planned to track social media to revenue…”. But here’s the kicker: “However, standard ROI metrics proved difficult to measure for many social efforts…”. That’s putting it mildly. Anybody can make a plan, but if a plan is based on flawed or incomplete information, it’s not likely to work. (Paging Secretary Rumsfeld.) So, while [M]easurability remains a top executive priority” for the CMOs, don’t forget, striking oil in my uncle’s backyard was my priority, at the age of 6.

Lastly–and I love, love, love this

•Product ratings and reviews remain one of the best understood tools with proven ROI

Can we talk? (as my father’s cousin, Joan Rivers, might ask). Most CMOs use social media “without clear insight into the ROI that tool is delivering.” But a clear majority sees “product ratings and reviews,” including blogs, as enormously influential. Ratings and reviews, including wine reviews from trusted sources, work. CMOs know that. The advent of social media does nothing to change this, except to put credible reviews online.

So there you have it. It turns out the headline on Mashable, “Marketers Optimistic About Finding Social Media ROI” is somewhat misleading. The CMOs are hopeful. They’re keeping their fingers crossed. They’re really, really trying to make ROI work so they don’t get fired. They’re going to breakout sessions in the hope they can learn something they don’t already know, paying a whole new cottage industry of social media-ROI gurus to tell them how to do it. They figure that, if everybody keeps saying there’s social media ROI out there at the end of the rainbow, why, then, there must be. But are they optimistic? I don’t see why they should be, unless all that Prozac and Viagra is affecting their brains.

Can other regions challenge Napa when it comes to Cabernet?


After drinking and enjoying the Bernardus 2009 Marinus barrel sample of Marinus (which is from Monterey County), I started wondering, does any other region in California besides Napa Valley have a snowball’s chance in hell of gaining acceptance for ultrapremium Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, or is the Napa brand simply too strong to compete with?

Off the top of my head, the answers, respectively, are No, and Yes. The Napa Valley brand is so connected with Cabernet Sauvignon, they’re effectively joined at the hip–the perfect Siamese twin conjunction of geography and wine, such as you find in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Piedmont, Champagne, and just about every great wine region in the world.

And yet, vintners in California keep chasing after Napa, with the idealism (or is it naivete?) of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Sonoma County has been doing it longest. They’re still trying in inland Mendocino. Lake County has made a very serious Cabernet play in recent years, especially with their Red Hills appellation on the southern slopes of Mount Konocti; and, of course, Cabernet super-grower Andy Beckstoffer is heavily invested up there. And then, more recently, the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara is doing the Cabernet thing, with big money backing it up.

There are multiple scenarios one can envision, leading to multiple outcomes. One, which is the most likely, is that Napa will continue to dominate. Of course, this is predicated on the likelihood that Cabernet Sauvignon will remain America’s favorite and top red wine. I think that, despite Pinot Noir’s rapid ascent, it will. There’s nothing else remotely in a position to knock off Cabernet.

But Napa has challenges. One is price. Napa Cabernet is expensive–the most expensive wine in America. If it costs a lot here, it is prohibitively expensive in Europe. There’s Asia, of course, but rich Asians seem interested only in Bordeaux. So cost is the biggest obstacle Napa faces. But it’s not insuperable. If high cost were enough to make something unpopular, then nobody would want Porsches, Dom Perignon and Rolex watches. But they do. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon could be around for a long time as a luxury product, with even less expensive bottlings ($25-$50) benefiting from that perception.

There are other possibilities. Americans are a curious people, who like changes. They’re always looking for the next big thing, whether it’s an action hero movie, politician or fashion style. This trait presents the greatest opportunity for non-Napa Cabernet. No marketing wizard ever born could guarantee in advance to make her product a success, but we know certain things from the “evil art,” advertising, concerning what it takes to convince consumers to try something new. Among these are recommendations. The best reccos are from experts whom the public trusts, and “regular people,” the man or woman in the street.

Well, what makes people–experts or “just plain folks”–recommend something like wine? The expert will recommend something that surprises and delights himself or herself. It’s quite easy for me, in my position, to recommend (via a high score) any particular Napa Cabernet. I do it all the time. It’s something else for me to give a high score to a non-Napa Cabernet. In Sonoma County and particularly Alexander Valley, I do that pretty routinely, but when we get beyond Napa-Sonoma, my Cabernet scores fall off pretty rapidly. (There are exceptions in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but Santa Cruz Cabernet, like Santa Cruz anything, is rare these days, because of housing development.) Therefore, when I give a good score to a Santa Barbara Cabernet or one from Lake County (which I don’t do anymore, since Virginie Boone is now covering that region) or anyplace else, it may not be a 100 or 98, but even if it’s a 92 or 93, you might detect, from my text (if anyone bothers to read the text anymore, instead of just looking at the score) a sense of excitement. Do I get more excited by a 92 point Happy Canyon Cabernet than a 95 point Napa Valley Cabernet? In a way, I do. Because expectations were lower in Happy than in Napa.

Now, I understand enough about this industry to know that if I excitedly recommend a wine, people respond by buying it. I’m just saying. And if someone buys a wine I recommend, and they like it, then they might just recommend it to someone else. And so on, down the line. Therefore, as the quality level of non-Napa Valley increases–and it is–and Napa Valley Cabernet continues to be expensive, while non-Napa Cabernet holds the lid on pricing, then we have the pieces in place for non-Napa Cabernet to be competitive.

Bordeaux survived and thrived because it had no competition whatsoever when it comes to Cabernet. It long ago reached the tipping point of being inexorably one of the world’s greatest wines, in perception if not in reality. I don’t think Napa Valley has reached the same point, or anywhere close. Napa Cabernet is a very glamorous wine, and a very great wine (despite the Europhiles who denounce it), but it cannot take its current reputation for granted. So I do think there’s an opportunity for other regions in California to be competitive (not to mention Washington State). I’m going to switch my answers to the questions I started with:

Does any other region in California have a snowball’s chance in hell of gaining acceptance for ultrapremium Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends?


Or is the Napa brand simply too strong to compete with?


A classic: Wine World TV!

1 comment

Hard to believe it was 2-1/2 years ago when I made this video, when my blog was a mere 3 months old. Gary V. was big back then, so I decided to have some good-natured fun and do this wacky takeoff. Click here to see it.

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