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Last night’s tasting at U.C. Berkeley


The 60 students last night at the Haas School of Business, at the University of California, Berkeley, are young, gregarious and curious about everything. At the thresholds of their careers in banking, business, or whatever (I met one guy who wants to make his bundle, then start up a Napa Valley winery), they’re members of the Wine Club because they have fallen in love with wine. Justin Owen, the club’s president, has assembled the club nine times this year, with such guest speakers as Michael Mondavi, from Folio Fine Wine Partners, and some of the P.R. and marketing team from Kendall-Jackson. Obviously, the curiosity of these future MBAs extends beyond wine appreciation itself into the hard-core business side.

And then there are the critics, of which I was the only one to speak this year. After briefly introducing myself (although there were a number of students who remembered me from last year), I told the group we could talk about anything they wanted to. I was surprised–no, make that stunned–that nobody asked a single question about social media. This is the generation that supposedly lives on their mobile devices. I, myself, talked SM up, suggesting how it might be changing the face of wine writing and publishing in general; and, obviously, I would not have minded talking about this blog. It was bait I thought they would take–but no one did. They just frankly didn’t give a damn about blogs, Twitter, Facebook or anything else like that.

So what did they what to know about? “What’s it like to be a critic?” “What’s up with the 100-point system?” “How do you taste?” There remains a great mystique, among the public, concerning the critics, who, to hear people express themselves, are something of a priesthood, with all the priest’s mysterious wrappings and trappings.

I tried to dispel the air of mystery. I told them how I’ve always tried to bring the impenetrability surrounding critics down to the level of the average person. I explained how blogging had introduced me to the concept of transparency, and that a large part of transparency is ripping aside the curtain to reveal that the man inside the booth, working the levers, is not a Wizard, but a plain, sometimes perplexed person, who’s doing the best he can. I think they appreciated that; they smiled. It never hurts to reveal the common touch, and besides, it happens to be true.

We tasted two Tannats, from Joseph Swan and Cambiata, and two Charbonos, from  Shypoke and Robert Foley. Charlie Olsen suggested I was crazy to expose young newbies to such obscure wines, but he was wrong: They’ve been tasting good to great Cabs and such all year at their meetings, and I wanted to tell them to open their minds to alternative varieties, especially when produced by small family wineries that have trouble getting distributed in the three-tiered system. I think they liked the wines. At least, they seemed to; at the end of the two hour session, all glasses were drained, all bottles empty. I, myself, had less than 3 ounces of wine.

One of the greatest pleasures of my job is interacting with audiences like last night’s. The critic often gets stuck in a bubble. You’re either at work, tasting wines in silence, or you’re on the road, tasting wine and talking about wine with winemakers or your fellow critics. It’s refreshing and important to get into the real world every now and then and see what people are thinking. Judging by these future MBAs–who admittedly may not be representative of their Millennial generation–the wine industry will find itself with willing buyers. They’re drinking Two-Buck Chuck now, literally, but in a few years they’ll be elevating themselves. That’s good, but I’m still really amazed at how little they cared about social media. What’s up with that?

  1. Sherman says:

    Steve, I believe you discovered the reason that this batch of young going-to-be-professionals may not be representative of the generation as a whole, basing a good portion of their lives around social media, because they are focussed on the bigger picture and more immediate issues. Eons ago, when I was in law school, everyone was so intent on the issues of their classes that we didn’t have much time for outside interests. Guess that’s why there aren’t all that many football teams from law schools? 😉

    When they are consumed with classes, discussions, papers and research on the things that interest them (and that will shape their future), it doesn’t leave a lot of hours in the day to be dawdling on your wall, posting comments about mundane matters.

    It’s especially gratifying to see that, given all the above dedication to the goals at hand, a good number of these bright folk took the time to experience wine and learn something about it. Even more encouraging that they asked a good number of questions, albeit not in areas that were expected. But then, that’s one of the signs of intelligence, eh?

  2. Sherman, intelligence, yeah, these guys are really smart. By the way, UC Berkeley obviously does have a football team (Go Bears!). Walking around campus, I saw plenty of people pecking on their cell phones and iPads so it wasn’t like they’re not using social media, they just didn’t seem interested in it when they had the opportunity to talk to a critic [me]. I wonder if this ties in with some of the news reports in recent months that Millennials are tiring of social media. The novelty is wearing off and they’re actually reading things on paper and talking to real people!

  3. I often speak to college classes and I am always blown away by how little students are involving themselves in and thinking about social media. I think it’s a major flaw and I think they are all in for a big surprise when they realize how important social media is going to be to their business pursuits or wine pursuits.

    On a side note, I think one of the most successful things about your blog, Steve, is how much you are able to “dispel the air of mystery,” and get to the real thought process. It’s refreshing. Especially for the wine industry. I’m curious if any of the students said anything about having read your blog or followed you on twitter before the event. It’s so easy to prepare and connect these days. And college’s aren’t teaching students to take advantage of how truly easy it is to connect with people through social media. It’s a shame. And I’m guessing you would have been more than happy to get a tweet or blog comment from one of the students in the lead-up. Perhaps giving you some topics for discussion.

  4. Did you have a good time? Did they? That is really all that matters.

    As for social media, well those MBAs will know how to use it when they need it. One does not need to be twittering endlessly to know how to use the medium when one needs to.

    When I was an MBA student back before the dawn of time, we had to learn rudimentary computer programming. None of us was going to be a programmer, but we simply needed to know how it works. Today’s MBA students know how social media works. It is a tool they will employ when it makes sense–just like advertising, public relations, “new and improved” packaging, etc. It is not a way of life, and perhaps that is the lesson that the larger Milennial group is now discovering.

  5. I think Charlie is spot on regarding social media, it’s a given, but it’s just another tool. Charlie will recognize the quote when I say that the wine industry has been guilty, to some degree, of irrational exuberance concerning social media (millenials, too). Everything matters, and how you connect to people is less important than making the connection, which is why I still like to do my share of standing behind, around or in front of a table introducing people to the wine…and okay, for now, the “narrative.” I don’t care how old they are, or whether they’re looking at a Q-code on a smart phone to watch a video while standing in the aisle, I just care that they’re willing to go to a favorite retailer and pick up a bottle off the shelf.

  6. I think the use of social media is a given for the younger crowd, enough so that there doesn’t even need to be a discussion on its value. It’s like questioning the value of any other form of advertisement. We don’t question why Ford runs numerous car commercials or debate the value of those ads.

  7. Some time ago I was having a discussion with a Gen-Xer regarding computers. She was a smart Wellesley grad and Kenan-Flagler MBA. She had absolutely no interest in knowing how computers worked – she said she took them for granted, like a toaster. Social media is the toaster of today.

    It can also be a total waste of time – which might explain why students focused on completing their MBA might be less than engaged. But mostly I think Jim has it right: irrational exuberance.

    Honestly I believe the death of the “social media as marketing” model is just around the corner. The people I know in their late teens and early twenties barely use social media at all. The rest of us just haven’t got the memo yet.

  8. Michaela Rodeno says:

    Having presented several times to the Haas Wine Club myself, I agree they ask wonderful questions. I’m loving this comment stream – and getting confirmation of my own observations of Millennials. I won’t be buying any Twitter stock…

  9. Allison says:

    I was one of the students who attended this class, and I think the reason that no one asked about social media may be because we talk about this all day in most of our classes, whereas wine critics and ratings are topics that are less familiar. We’ve had other wine club events dedicated to social media, a good number of us interned at Facebook and the like last summer, some of us have taken classes dedicated completely to social media, and we all use social media every day. So my thought is that it wasn’t a lack of interest in social media, just something we already hear a lot about, however; the wine rating system was somewhat of a mystery that we hoped to get some insight into!

  10. Dear Allison, thanks for weighing in. Your view is very valuable to me, as I’m trying to figure this stuff out.

  11. Jason Brandt Lewis says:

    I, too, have presented at Haas, and certainly a fun time was had by all. I was extremely pleased with the level of questions they asked re: the marketing and the “ins-and-outs” of the business, especially the import-export aspects and ideas of how to reach “beginning consumers.”

  12. Hi Steve, like Allison, I also attended yesterday evening’s class (I was the one who spoke to you prior to class about going into the wine business after I “retire” from management consulting).

    To build on Allison’s post, I think an overwhelming majority of wine consumers in our generation interact with social media on a daily basis. I would actually argue that social media will play an increasing role in consumers’ wine purchase decisions moving forward. An online social wine community with a mobile app and a recommendation engine that offers wine suggestions based on friend’s reviews or others with similar tastes could prove to be highly influential when a millennial is standing in front of the ever-intimidating wine wall.

    The lack of questions you received about social media likely wasn’t due to a lack of interest. Rather, you being the only critic speaking to us this Spring, I think we were more interested in drilling down into questions like, “What does ‘blind’ taste testing really mean?” or “What’s the real difference between a 94 and 93 point wine?”

    Btw, my fiance and I love a great Napa cab. I never had a Tannat or Charbono until last night. They were delicious. I can understand why someone would rip up Merlot in favor these varietals 😉 Thank you for sharing them with us!

  13. Michael says:

    To respond to Steve’s entry, but nothing about social media: what peaks my interest is the comment of showing Charbono versus Cabernet and the draining of the bottles.

    My first impression is they would drain those bottles no matter what. Let’s be real: college, graduate, whatever…after all day in the classroom draining a few glasses of wine, regardless of the contents is pretty easy. I worked through an MBA program in the early 2000s and know the social gatherings at night always included something to drink, and drunk it was, happily and easily.

    Now, Charbono being welcome: in theory, and I don’t know Berkeley versus Harvard, but university students CAN be and I think more often are receptive to new things. What they are doing there, at the U, is reading about the old and trying to predict, trying to find the new. So being receptive to new things with a, dare I say, famous critic there would be expected.

    Now, get those same people 5 years from now, with or without spouse, with co-workers and boss in tow at an in-store wine tasting. That is where you discover whether or not they are really open to new ideas.

    2 cents,

  14. Michael, I suggested to them that, when they’re trying to impress bosses (as they will be, soon), they bring something different, like the Shypoke Charbono–something with a story they can tell, instead of the same old same old Cabernet or Bordeaux.

  15. Steve, as usual, you have relayed an interesting tale of your life as a critic, writer and person in an engaging fashion. It was a great read as were the comments. I found those by the students very insightful. I hope Tim realizes his dream and we all get to taste the outcome.

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