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Twitter, free steaks and reality: a morality tale

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Bill Smart, a nice guy who works for Dry Creek Vineyard, a great California winery, and who is a regular commenter on my blog, wrote in yesterday about my recent post, “Can a winery get buzz from Twitter? Probably not.”

Now, I got my butt kicked all over Twitter for saying that Twitter can’t really help wineries in the only way they want and need to be helped–selling more wine. Some people tweeted the usual BS that I’m a dinosaur who doesn’t get it (interesting that these people who say I don’t understand social media don’t get a fraction of the readership on their blogs as I do! Not to mention my Facebook traffic which also is big). Others agreed with me. That’s to be expected. Everybody’s entitled to his or her opinion in these United States (except evolution deniers).

Bill played it down the middle, arguing that while “Twitter doesn’t sell wine,” it can have a fantastic effect in individual cases. As proof, he sent me the link to this amazing story told at Peter Shankman’s blog. It’s a good blog; Peter describes himself this way: “An author, entrepreneur, speaker, and worldwide connector, Peter is recognized worldwide for radically new ways of thinking about Social Media, PR, marketing, advertising, and customer service.”

Please open the link and read it. I’ll summarize: Peter loves Morton’s the Steakhouse. He was on a airplane flight and expected to return home hungry and tired.  As a lark, he writes, “I jokingly tweeted the following: Hey @Mortons – can you meet me at newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in two hours K, thanks.” Well, you know how this ends. Peter arrives at Newark, “started walking to the door” when, “Um, Mr. Shankman,” a guy said to him.

“I turned around.”

“There’s a surprise for you here.” It’s a bag with “a 24 oz. Porterhouse steak, an order of  Colossal Shrimp, a side of potatoes, one of Morton’s famous round things of bread, two napkins, and silverware.”

Writes Peter: “I. Was.Floored.” He continues, “I was joking in my Tweet. I never, ever expected anything to come of it other than a few giggles.”

Back to Bill Smart, who commented, “This is one of the most powerful examples I have seen recently about what kind of impact Twitter can make.” Even if the whole thing was a PR stunt, Bill writes, “The bottom line is that it worked and as a result has created THOUSANDS of POSITIVE tweets and impressions for Morton’s.”

Okay, come, let us reason together. I accept Peter’s claim that it was not a PR stunt–he really was just joking. I also accept that the entire episode generated a gazillion tweets and retweets, and Morton’s the Steakhouse got some juice out of it, even though it cost them a few bucks. Here’s my problem. If I, or you, or anybody else had put that same joke tweet up, do you think we would have been met at the airport by a guy in a tuxedo carrying a full dinner? I don’t. Peter Shankman was, apparently, because–in his own words–“I’m a frequent diner, and Morton’s knows it. They have a spectacular Customer Relations Management system in place, as well as a spectacular social media team, and they know when I call from my mobile number who I am, and that I eat at their restaurants regularly.”

Peter is, in other words, a Morton’s VIP, and in this case he was given the VIP treatment. I think he was a little disingenuous when he conceded that there had been “a few tweets from the other side of the camp [i.e., critical of him], specifically calling out that I have over 100k Twitter followers, and if I didn’t, this never would have happened.” I mean, that’s my conclusion too, and it seems obvious, doesn’t it? But Peter then writes, “But you know what? I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think it’s about my follower numbers. I think it’s about Morton’s knowing I’m a good customer, who frequents their establishments regularly.” In other words, Morton’s the Steak House didn’t go to all that trouble to hand deliver Peter a warm meal at the airport just because of his Twitter followers. His numbers had nothing to do with that. It wasn’t because Morton’s “spectacular social media team” felt that they could get a million bucks in free Twitter publicity with a relatively small investment. No, it was because Peter loves Morton’s the Steak House, and Morton’s feels the love and just wants to love Peter back.

Ah, love, sweet love.

In conclusion, I would like to say how much I love BMW. By the way, I’ll be flying up to Seattle next week to visit my niece and it sure would be nice to have a new 750i Sedan (red, please) registered in my name to drive to the airport. Oh, I also love Bill Harlan and his wines. Bill, I’m having steak this weekend with my friend Marilyn. Please overnight me two bottles of ‘97 Harlan Estate. You can throw in some BOND too. And did I ever tell Thomas Keller how much I love French Laundry? I do, Thomas, I do, and I wouldn’t mind at all if you give me carte blanche to walk in the door any old time I want to and get seated–on the house, of course, including tip.

You see, with love, and a spectacular social media team, anything’s possible–well, if not anything, then at least steak and shrimp hand delivered at the airport for a Morton’s VIP!


Getting by on a wing, a prayer–and another breakout session

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It’s hardly surprising that “Profitability is the top concern this year for wine industry professionals,” as was reported yesterday.

Dr. Robert Smiley, at U.C. Davis, did a survey of managers and found that “profit margins ranked the most significant wine business trend, garnering virtually a 4 on a five-point scale.”

Any wine company always wants to make a profit at the end of the day, but in these perilous economic times, making a profit–however marginal–can spell the difference between survival and going belly up. I talk to a lot of winemakers, winery owners and winery business managers, and I can tell you that, when they’re being frank (which they aren’t always), and they know we’re off the record, they confess in the most startling terms how tough things are out there.

Just the other day, somebody (an unusually well informed winemaker consultant) told me that one third of the wineries in Sonoma County are up for sale. This is an astounding number. Even if its somewhat exaggerated, it’s probably close to the truth. Imagine being at the helm of a small or medium sized family winery. You’ve always managed to make enough money to keep a few of your relatives employed and live the lifestyle. But these days, the pressure on prices is so strongly in a negative direction that you lie awake at night, worrying how you’re going to get through the next quarter.

That’s why “profit margins” are more important these days than ever. This also explains the next most significant concerns by owners, as reported by Smiley: cost of materials, “pricing pandemonium,” distribution and “new consumer values and how to work with them.”

About “cost of materials,” one of the most significant is fuel, and there’s not much a proprietor can do about that. “Pricing pandemonium” refers to the inexorable demand, on the part of buyers, to pay less and less for wine. Producers would love to raise prices to gain a little breathing space, but they just can’t. I’ve heard stories of buyers getting competing sellers together in the same room and saying, in effect, “Okay, guys, who can undercut whom the worst?” It’s like feeding slaves to the lions at the Roman Coliseum. And that’s assuming that the salesmen can get their product into the distribution system, which is far from the case.

This explains “new consumer values and how to work with them.” It’s not clear from the reporting just what these “new consumer values” are, but we can assume that proprietors are thinking of two things: “values” in the monetary sense of the word (i.e. consumers are looking for value wines) and “values” in the sense of a new generation of younger consumers, who are alleged to think and behave differently from their parents and grandparents.

It’s likely, if you’re a 50- or 60-something proprietor or top level manager, that you look at the younger generation with bemusement. Everything you hear and intuitively feel tells you they’re different. They tweet and Facebook and text; they don’t listen to traditional influencers; they’re much more tuned into peer persuasion than your generation; they want to be engaged by wineries, not manipulated by them, or taken for granted. This makes older proprietors scratch their heads, and look to anyone who can possibly explain to them how to get through to this population. That’s why the upcoming (Sept. 19-20) Wine Industry Financial Symposium will address this topic. Attendees will flock to breakout sessions like Jayson Woodbridge’s “Forget Marketing-Change the Game” and John Gillespie’s “What’s Next for the Wine Market? Reading the Tea Leaves of Research,” where they will carefully inspect every utterance and dissect every statistic with the diligence of ancient soothsayers analyzing the entrails of a slain beast for clues and prophesies. They will take notes, ask questions, network, and then go home, there to resume the fight to make a profit, keep costs under control, get distributed and, if they’re lucky, make a little progress on direct-to-consumer. They’ll probably be just as frustrated about those pesky “new consumer values” as they were going in, but maybe they’ll leave with a few new ideas. And believe me, in these times, new ideas–hope–is what gets you through the night.


Can a winery get buzz from Twitter? Probably not

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I saw Biz Stone on C-SPAN talking up Twitter, which of course he co-founded. He told the tale of a New York night club that was struggling to get attention. When a local celebrity tweeted that he was going there, badda bing, next thing you know hundreds of people were trying to get in.

That’s a great example of the Twitter influence. Another, on a much more massive scale, is the way that kids in the Middle East are pulling off the Arab Spring, using Twitter to alert each other. This kind of stuff is exciting, and clearly establishes Twitter as one of the most revolutionary advances in the history of human communication.

So what does this mean for wineries?

I’ve been saying for years that it means nothing. Put me down as a Twitter skeptic. There are vast differences between popularizing a night club, mobilizing crowds against a regime, and boosting the fortunes of a winery. And anyone who confuses or conflates these instances is bound to be disappointed.

We can dispense with the Arab Spring use of Twitter immediately. Political movements have always depended on the ability of a core group to communicate widely with a constituency, whether it was by putting tracts up on church walls, broadcasting shortwave radio messages or, nowadays, Twitter. That’s all Twitter is for modern politics: the most up to date way for constituencies to talk to each other. But does anyone think that the choice of a wine brand is a revolutionary act, comparable to overthrowing a government?

Now, let’s think about that New York club. In that example, a lot of people already were ready to go out on a particular night. They were looking for someplace cool, when lo and behold someone cooler than them told them to check out this club. So of course they did, and in so doing they created, and became part of, buzz. They had nothing to lose by going to that club. If they didn’t like it, they could always go someplace else, probably in the same neighborhood. Manhattan has plenty of clubs.

The hope among winery proprietors is that they can use Twitter (and social media in general) to create this same kind of buzz–an energy that will send people flocking to buy their wine (hopefully direct from the winery, so they don’t have to deal with distributors). But I haven’t seen any evidence yet that this can be done. It was different with the night club. Clubs are driven by buzz, same way that restaurants are. Whatever club is the buzziest at any given time will get the crowd. And when it comes to creating buzz, there’s nothing like a celebrity endorsement. People have always flocked to clubs that had celebrities in them, from CBGB and Studio 54 back in the day to San Francisco joints like Infusion and DNA Lounge.

But how can a winery get buzz going? Can you think of a single instance? I can’t, and I’ve been watching this scene for a long time. I suppose in theory one could imagine a celebrity talking up a winery or a wine brand, and it could have a certain impact. Lil’ Kim sang about Moscato (“still Over In Brazil sippin Moscato,” from Lighters Up/Welcome To Brooklyn), and that, among other things, is said to be responsible for Moscato’s popularity, especially in the hip hop community. But let’s say Lil’ Kim’s lyric was, “still Over In Brazil sippin Fetzer Moscato.” Do  you think hundreds of thousands of people would be out looking for Fetzer Moscato? I don’t. Besides, celebrities usually don’t mention specific brands unless they’re paid to endorse them.

Take it a step further. Let’s say someone famous with a high likeability factor, like Bono, tweeted that he liked Fetzer Moscato, and then, somehow, that tweet got retweeted so much that it became a trending topic. I suppose that would give Fetzer Moscato a certain boost. But it wouldn’t last for long. It couldn’t, because before long all the other Moscato producers would figure out what was happening. They’d hire their own celebrity endorsers, and the whole thing would become absurd. Either that, or the shelf life of such an endorsement simply would expire beyond a certain point, probably within a matter of weeks.

I understand the theory behind the night club tweet story. It’s an urban legend, simple to understand, and compelling. All success takes is a tweet; little wonder that winery proprietors are so enthralled with the possibilities that social media dangles before their eyes. All I’m saying is that so far those possibilities have not materialized into reality, and the logic of the situation suggests they’re not likely to in the future.


Are wine writers psychopaths?

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We have this free newsweekly in the Bay Area, SF Weekly, which has a columnist, Katy St. Clair, who writes a feature called Bouncer. It’s about the bar scene and is always a fun read I look forward to. This week’s headline is “Why Psychopaths Make Good Bartenders,” and with an intro like that, I just had to read. Katy’s theory is that bartenders possess outsized personality traits such as grandiosity, a magnetic, charming personality, an inability to feel empathy or remorse, “and what can be described as ‘play-acting’ when it comes to emotions.” By this, Katy means that bartenders have a pre-rehearsed grab bag of emotional reactions, any one of which they can pull out at will to fit the circumstance. Of all the personality traits Katy sees in bartenders, the most powerful is “always needing to win.” Collectively, these traits constitute a certain clinical psychopathy. By way of name dropping, Katy uses such charmers as Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer to make her case.

Anyway, I don’t know that much about bar culture; it’s been a good many years since I spent my nights getting loaded looking for someone to go home with (although it does seem to me that most young bartenders are still quite good looking). But I take Katy at her word, and it made me think: If there’s a bartender “type” with specific personality traits, is there a wine writer type?

In order to answer that question, I first had to go through the rolodex in my mind that consists of all the wine writers I’ve known. (Does the word “rolodex” date me? It’s my handwritten card file, if you don’t know, and it works faster and more accurately for me than anything computerized.) And rest assured, I’ve known a lot of wine writers. In California–which is the only state that really matters when it comes to wine, right?–I’ve known them all. Like God watching sparrows fall to earth, there hasn’t been a wine writer in my generation who’s operated beneath my radar. So my rolodex is full.

I’ve also met quite a few out-of-state wine writers, and actually found them to be quite decent, despite not coming from California, although the New Yawkahs can have attitude problems. And since I started blogging, I’ve met scads of wine bloggers, if you can call them “wine writers” which I think you can. So I figure over the years I’ve known at least 400 wine writers, enough of a sample to come to some reasonable conclusions.

First off, wine writers aren’t like bartenders. Most of them aren’t good looking (I exclude our beautiful woman wine writers, such as Leslie Sbrocco and Karen NacNeil), a pity, since I spend so much time looking at them. In fact, most wine writers are the opposite of good looking. I don’t mean that insultingly, it just puts things in perspective: most people aren’t good looking, so wine writers are about as homely as everybody else.

The “grandiosity” of bartenders of which Katy speaks is a function of how good looking they are. So is that magnetic, charming personality. Good looking guys know they’re good looking, they’ve known from an early age that others gaze upon them with desire and love, and that idealization swells their egos and makes them feel charismatic and deserving. Wine writers, by contrast, have egos that have been thwarted. Nobody ever gazed upon them with desire; they did not grow up in that charmed spotlight. Hence, you’ll more often than not find in wine writers a sense of having been deprived. Those who feel that life has been less than fair often have rich inner lives; they have to rationalize a lot in order to stay sane. Wine writers are, in other words, intellectuals. No matter what else you can say about bartenders, I don’t think most people would describe them as intellectual. This intellectualism also tags wine writers with geekiness, which comes in handy when you’re obsessed with rainfall patterns in the Vacas. The captain of the football team never would have ended up as a wine writer. But the vice president of the chess club probably is.

Do wine writers have prefabricated emotions the way bartenders do? Bartenders can’t afford to be empathetic because of the nature of their jobs. They spend all night hearing out moaners, whiners, drunks, cruisers, con men, liars, losers, loud mouths, suicidals, poseurs, wackos. How could anyone be real in that zoo? Bartenders use whatever emotional response will get them through the situation.

Wine writers are similar to bartenders in this respect. They meet a wide range of people, and they have to be polite and responsive to everyone. This can be quite exhausting, so wine writers develop certain habits and traits to cope. (Hopefully, this doesn’t involve drinking too much, but I’ve known some wine writers who were serious alcoholics.) Like bartenders, they have to have a certain amount of charm; but behind the charm lies an impenetrable mystery. Who the wine writer really is, is something most people he meets will never know. I don’t believe wine writers try “to manipulate others,” as Katy says bartenders do. But they are skilled at creating comfort zones that allow both sides to escape from what can be a sticky situation.

Do wine writers “always need to win”? Of course. Duh. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be telling everyone what to like.

None of this, of course, makes wine writers psychopaths. But I do think wine writers tread the line. There are classic signs. They’re not real good at parties. They don’t mix well, the solitary nature of their jobs making them loners. They’re also somewhat “on stage” in public, which makes them queasy. Bartenders are constantly on stage, but they like it and thrive center-stage. The public persona of the wine writer must be something he’s never entirely comfortable with. He or she puts on a costume with every public appearance. The wine writer who is least psycopathic learns to make this costume as transparent as possible, so there’s they least distinction between the “real self” and the “perceived persona.” The most psychopathic wine writers are those whose actual personalities are impossible to discern from their public presentation–even to themselves, which is the essence of their psychopathy. If you run into a wine writer, how do you know the difference? Trust your intuition.


What’s my favorite wine?

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People are always asking me, “What’s your favorite wine?”, to which I invariably reply, “The one I’m drinking now.” If they press me, I’ll say Champagne (or sparkling wine). If they really want to get down with me, I’ll tell them Pinot Noir.

I decided some years ago I liked California Pinot Noir even more than Cabernet Sauvignon, but I was never entirely sure about it. Whenever I tasted a great Pinot Noir, I’d be thrilled not only with the wine itself, but with an appreciation of how far, how fast this variety has come in California. It would have been inconceivable in the 1990s for me to have preferred Pinot over Cabernet, and I think the same could be said for most of the working critics of that time. However by the late 1990s, certainly by the early 2000s, if someone knowledgeable had said they thought Pinot had overtaken Cabernet, at least nobody would have suggested a forced trip to the psycho ward.

As much as I’ve liked Pinot, the reason I wasn’t quite sure it was my favorite was because every time I did a great Cabernet flight, it would blow my mind and remind me once again that Cabernet had been my first love and, while I might have flirted a bit with this racy young upstart, Pinot Noir, I was destined always to return to Cabernet. Dance with the one that brought ya, the old saying goes, and it was Cabernet Sauvignon that had brought me to the ball.

So I went into the database today so see what my top wines have been so far this year, and, not surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the list. The top 5 are all Cabernet or Bordeaux blends. What is surprising, though, is that two of them are not from Napa Valley! Those would be Stonestreet’s 2007 Rockfall and Verité’s 2006 La Joie, both astounding wines. Of course, one could argue that both of them are from the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, separated only by an accident of geography from being in Napa County, instead of Sonoma County.

My #6 wine was Williams Selyem’s 2008 Litton Estate Pinot Noir, a wine I’ve loved ever since I first tasted it. (The name henceforth will be Estate, not Litton.) It’s a big Pinot Noir, not for the faint-hearted, and I guess you could criticize it for not being “Burgundian” enough, but that’s not a criticism I share. My #7 wine was a sweetie, Dolce 2006, and it should never be surprising to see Dolce appear on anyone’s top list. It’s consistently one of California’s great dessert wines. What perhaps is a little surprising is that my #8 wine is a sparkler: Schramsberg’s 2004 J. Schram Rosé, possibly the greatest California sparkling wine I’ve ever had the pleasure to review. After that, we revert back to Pinot Noir for the #9 wine, Joseph Swan’s 2007 Trenton Estate, which with its acids and tannins reflects its southern Russian River Valley roots. In tenth place, last but not least, is Qupe’s 2006 X Block “The Good Nacido” Syrah.

This list makes me happy and proud. It certainly wasn’t premeditated for me to have Cabernets, Pinots, a sweet wine, a sparkling wine and a Syrah in my Best of 2011 (so far) list. But there you are. What it tells me is how well California is doing in many different varieties, at least at the upper tier.

After that Qupe Syrah, #11 is another Syrah, Donelan’s 2008 Richards Vineyard, from Sonoma Valley. But get ready for this: #s 12-22 are all Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux blends. I don’t see another Pinot Noir until #27, the Babcock 2009 Microcosm. So I guess I’d have to say, if you make me put my hand on a Bible in a court of law and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth concerning my favorite wine, I’d say, “Based on the evidence, it would be Cabernet Sauvignon.” But in my heart of hearts, I wouldn’t really believe it.


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