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How do you know if you’re being authentic?

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“Did you stop beating your wife?” is the classic Catch-22 question. If you say “Yes” you admit to having beaten your wife. If you say “No,” you admit you’re still beating her. Either way, you lose.

It must feel the same way when a winery owner is told that he’s not being “authentic” in his marketing strategy. What’s he supposed to say or do to prove that he is?

Yet “authenticity” is supposedly the Holy Grail that Millennials are seeking. We’ve been told this again, and again, and again over the years, particularly with the rise of social media such as Twitter. Here’s the latest version, entitled “Authenticity Key to Wooing Younger Wine Consumers, Price Says.” (It’s in yesterday’s Bloomberg News.)

The bullet point: “The key thing to the younger drinkers is being authentic — they have super-sensitive noses about what’s not authentic about your brand,” Price said. (William Price is chairman of Vincraft Group, a winery capital investment company that works with such wineries as Kosta Browne and Gary Farrell.)

Winery owners might well read Price’s words, scratch their heads and think, “What the hell does being authentic mean?” The questions pile up. What practices are authentic and which ones aren’t? How do you know when you’re being authentic and when you’re not? Is there an authento-meter you can buy that measures it? (Try Googling Authento-Meter.) How much does it cost to be authentic? Are there people I can hire who specialize in authenticity? (Try Googling authenticist.) How do I find them? How do I know if they know what they’re talking about? And so on and on. It’s enough to turn your hair gray.

Some hint of a solution to frazzled winery owners is offered by Michael Honig, of Honig Vineyard & Winery, who says Millennials “have been lied to so often and so many times about these fanciful brands. It’s like the Wizard of Oz, what’s behind the curtain? Well, there’s nothing behind the curtain.”

All right, our winery owner now knows, he must never, ever lie to consumers. Fair enough. But then, he never did lie to consumers, not to his knowledge, anyway, not consciously. Oh, he might have put something on the back label about “the finest grapes from the finest coastal vineyards,” but everyone does that, don’t they? And besides, they were good grapes; he paid an arm and a leg for them. But was it a lie? True, he might have paid a lot more for grapes from other vineyards, but it was the Recession, times were tight, his financial manager (who happens to be his wife) said they couldn’t afford $4,000 a ton, and so they had to settle for $2,000 a ton fruit. But it was good fruit, wasn’t it?

Even so, our owner thinks, maybe he should get rid of that phrase. If these Millennials really have super-sensitive X-ray noses that can detect the slightest lie–no, exaggeration–then perhaps he might tone down his back label.

But what was that stuff about “nothing behind the curtain”? I’m here behind the curtain. Me, my wife, my kids, my brother-in-law who does our sales, my nephew who helps out in the winery. Are we “nothing”? Are we the Wizard of Oz, phony fakes pretending to be things we’re not? The winery owner grows indignant. Who is this Honig to accuse me of being nothing? Why, I should call that little so-and-so up right now and–

Then he collects himself and takes a deep breath. Maybe Honig’s right. Sales have been soft lately, at least since 2009. Maybe that’s proof that I really am nothing. If I were something, sales would be better, right? Our winery owner sighs. He pours himself another drink. I really don’t know what being authentic means, he thinks, and the thought makes him sad. He’s gone through four Kubler-Rossian stages in less than 10 minutes and is now parachuting into the final stage, acceptance. He turns to the Google machine one final time, to find a number for Vincraft. Maybe this Price fellow can give me some advice about authenticity, our winery owner thinks. I just hope he’s not too expensive…

  1. Does it surprise you that someone like Price has authenticity on his mind? They guy bought authentic brands/vineyards. Maybe he doesn’t feel authentic deep down.

  2. Interesting article, but you got the initial quote wrong, I believe. It should be “Have you stopped beating your wife?” Either a “yes” or a “no” answer implicates the responder.

    David C.

  3. STEVE!
    When it comes to “authentic,” I like to quote the great English novelist, and wine enthusiast, Kingsley Amis, who said, “Unquestioning devotion to authenticity is, in any department of life, a mark of the naive–or worse.” Whenever I read wine writing that constantly discusses the value of “authenticity,” I am struck with the aptness of Amis’ aphorism.

  4. The key solution to authenticity is this: “Always be sincere, even if you don’t mean it.” Attributed (not verifiably) to Harry S Truman.

  5. I wonder if the Millennials (me included? I was born in 78) ideal of being or wanting ‘authentic’ is driven by their own vision of themselves. It seems the Millennial generation is all about being true to themselves, having their own identity, or just keeping it real, so to speak (which reminds me of a few sketches from the Chappelle Show titled “When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong”). Anyway, Millennials want a product/brand and its people to represent what they see in themselves. We want our brands to be honest. Don’t be a winemaker who tells me that every new vintage is your best vintage ever. Stand up and don’t be afraid to say that you liked 2010 more then 2009 or that 2011 was a tough year but we made the best wine we could. That is being authentic. However, from a business standpoint, I understand why that would be tough thing to say.

  6. I just had to chuckle at the thought of putting on a mantle of authenticity because it is the latest craze! Anyone else struck with the irony here? I have a feeling that it is not the small family wineries that are searching for an elusive “authenticity.” They already have it! My mother always told me: “Just be yourself…” Isn’t that really what genuine authenticity is all about?

  7. Dear David Cobb, you’re right! I changed it. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

  8. Patrick: Love it! Sounds like something Oscar Wilde said.

  9. Nice piece Steve! I had just completed reading the Bloomberg release, thinking the irony of a vinous-venture capitalist espousing authenticity! No disrespect in that thought. It brought to mind a something I heard from Fritz Maytag at one of the first Craft Brewers Conventions [nee: micro brewers circa 1987] when telling young brewery owners about image and authenticity, Fritz said ‘If you need to change your image check reality first’!

  10. i think if he’s hiring a pr person to show how authentic he is, then he’s probably on the right track. he should also hire a professional photographer to take some “authentic” photographs, then have his marketing person post it on one of those twittergram sites that millenials seem to like

  11. Millennials, schmillennials, come on! All humans no matter what age can only take so much BS. The marketeers of all products, not just wine, have been getting more and more sophisticated and invasive over the years, and they now bombard us with X-thousand marketing messages/day. Eventually saturation point is reached, and everyone, not just millennials, can recognize the BS for what it is. This search for authenticity, as you call it, is not just another marketing point, but a deep human desire to do away with all the BS and meaningless soundbites and images that are constantly being thrust into our faces these days. Well, that’s what I believe, anyway. No doubt some marketeer will work out a way to market authenticity to us too :)

  12. Hi Steve,

    I watched the whole half hour and came away with one main thought. Have a plan, be yourself, deliver sense of place and open yourself up to your audiance.

    Although, I didnt agree with everything that was said, I do agree that any demographic appreciates knowing where and from whom their wine comes from and it should be a personal relationship/experience.

  13. It’s really an interesting question because an authentic product is what everyone says everyone wants. Therefore, there should be no market for unauthentic products because nobody would buy them, ergo – all products must be authentic – or – there is a market for unauthentic products and not everyone cares about authenticity.

  14. Making sure that a brand has and always communicates their authentic message is one of the most important, and sometimes most frustrating, part of our marketing business. No one wants to hear for the millionth time that someone found the perfect property, was told that it would be the perfect place to grow (insert rape variety here), hired the best (insert “expensive” here) vineyard manager and winemaker, blah blah blah… please, not again! Be creative! Think about what really makes you, your history, your family, your brand or your property unique. If you are serious and formal, then have a more traditional, serious brand and communicate with your customers that way. If you are fun-loving and known to have a sense of humor, then let that show in your branding and communication. Please don’t try to create your brand to fit a type of consumer. Create (or re-create) your brand to communicate who you are. Consumers will “buy” it because it will be true!

  15. If you have to think about how you will craft the message in a way that hides part of the message, you’re not authentic–in any field, for any product. YMMV.

  16. Gabe – The key to being authentic in the wine business is to begin wearing bib overalls and a straw hat whenever wine writers or photographers are about. That is what I was told by my image consultant. She told me the most authentic brand of bibs are Dickies and they have to be blue. For extra authenticity get them at Walmart and leave the tag on like I did.

  17. Valerie: True enough.

  18. How do I know? If my HoseMaster tell me so…..silly.

  19. How do you know if you’re being authentic? Look in the mirror

  20. pinotdude says:

    It’s simple. If you really are “authentic”, you don’t have to think too hard about whether or not you’re conveying an accurate message.

  21. Is authenticity, like sincerity, a secret of success? And when you can fake authenticity, you have got it made!

    “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.”
    Jean Giraudoux
    French diplomat, dramatist, & novelist (1882 – 1944)

  22. crap! if somebody sees me in these waterproof helly hanson overalls, they’ll all know what a phony i am!

  23. I read this article and I thought it was pretty interesting. I know everyone accepts this idea as true, but look at the brands that have taken off in the past few years – Jam Jar, Flip Flop, Cupcake, Skinny Girl. I mean, seriously, is anyone correlating the brand data with this assertion?

    I have an alternate hypothesis – millenials are more willing than past generations (when they were 20-somethings) to spend more money per bottle of wine. And in general, for wine consumers, I think there is a trend towards more authenticity for wines at the high (i.e. $20+). So yes, maybe millenials are seeking more authenticity than 20-somethings of the past… but I think the causation is willingness to spend, not a generational shift in wine brand approach.

  24. I find it quite ironic that this authentic discussion for wine was begun by the owner of Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery. I’ve known Gary since I first started selling wine in 1994. It took me several tries to get google to help me remember the name of his current winery… Alysian. Even when I google Alysian I get a wine-searcher.com advert for a Gary Farrell Wine.

    My first rule of wine authenticity is can I visit the place that made the wine I’m drinking.

    Second rule is if the person who’s name is on the place still works there… if not how about an off-spring???

    Those two (and a half) rules likely eliminate 90% of all wine available in the US marketplace. Sorry Cupcake, Santa Margherita, Cavit, Barefoot etc…

  25. Bill wertzberger says:

    This is a real trap because one should not assign abstract attributes to oneself. E.g., you may describe yourself as 6 ft. tall, dark hair, and make 100k per year because those are concrete and verifiable. But once you start describing yourself with abstractions… “We’re authentic, genuine, ethical…” then you’re out there with “Honest Bob’s used cars”. Positive abstract terms carry weight only when applied by third parties who don’t stand to gain anything. One can only strive for authenticity and hope others recognize it. Because I guarantee that people will recognize the B.S.
    And the original question is – WHEN did you stop beating your wife?
    -Bill Wertzberger
    Maker of genuine, authentic, honest wines and a virtuous man with good Christian values.

  26. I see authenticity as 1. being transparent in what you tell your consumers about your wine and winemaking, and 2. being tied to a single piece of land/region. The same goes for food.

    If someone has a “California” designation on the bottle–that may not be something I’m interested in drinking, but it is absolutely authentic.

    I too love history and multi-generational producers, but does the founding winemaker/family have to be involved with the winery for it to be authentic? I don’t think so…if that were the case, producers like DRC and several Bordeaux houses would be in the bargain bin. It is the vineyards and wine-making standards that matter.

    Consumers have all of the power now–weather they decide to read and understand a label, or go deeper through education and travel, is up to them. Some consumers just want Layer Cake, just like some consumers want Taco Bell. I think it is very refreshing that the Millennial generation is going deeper.

  27. Millennial here… I love whats behind the curtain! I’d like to see more of whats behind the curtain. What went into creating a label, history (if you have any),process (ANY PROCESS!), grape to glass lessons. Please please please dowse me with more honest/authentic information even if I have to tromp down a vineyard row and run into a spider web to get it.

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  1. NEWS FETCH – March 20, 2013 | Wine Industry Insight - [...] How do you know if you’re being authentic? [...]
  2. What The New Generation Wants From A Wine (A View From The Argentina Wine Awards Global Seminar) | 1 Wine Dude - [...] – if you have to ask, then No, you’re not being authentic, [...]

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