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“Time in the street”? Now there’s an idea!

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“[Y]ou need time in the street,” says Sergio Hormazábal, an important figure in Chilean wine. He’s President of that country’s Association of Winemakers, and was recently asked, in an interview, about his views on marketing.

Here’s a fuller quote. “How to predict what will sell? What is the future? It is very complicated but I think the only way is…to be in places and talk with people…by looking at the street, in a place to catch a hint of what is to come.”

This is a very traditional way of looking at marketing. It means the winemaker (or whoever) should be on the road, traveling to different markets, interacting with people who may be potential customers, having actual personal experiences. “It is not scientific,” Sergio acknowledges, this mystical practice of traveling among the people and establishing bonds. “It is a feeling.” But it is a feeling well known to established marketers for whom numbers, statistics, studies and focus groups are, at best, ancillary parts of their jobs.

Sergio, who sounds like he knows a lot about human psychology, also remarks on how preferences are established. “We talk as if people know already what they want. People do not always know what they want. Instead, give them a taste of something. They like it? A moment before they had not had it. They did not know they would like it.” This fundamental truth also requires the winemaker, or her representatives, to be on the road, out there among the people, pouring and explaining. I would go a step further: it’s not enough to just “give them a taste of something.” Sometimes, people aren’t sure whether or not they like something even while they’re tasting it. This is why so many pourers at tasting rooms will tell you what you’re experiencing even before you’ve had time to decide for yourself. They know that slight open window of indecision is their opportunity to swoop in and influence your judgment and conclusion.

I’ve frequently encountered this myself, not in tasting rooms but when visiting with winemakers. They pour me something, often from a “thief” direct from the barrel, and start describing the aromas and flavors while I’m still swirling. This is always a delicate moment for the wine critic. On the one hand you want to say, “Please. I can make up my own mind.” On the other hand, you don’t want to be rude. So you end up saying nothing, just allowing the words to pass through your brain, but not letting them influence your own experience of the wine.

That can be difficult or easy. It’s easy if the wine is awful. But wines aren’t awful anymore, in most cases. Most wines are perfectly sound and usually quite good, right out of the bottle or barrel. So it takes a little thinking to get to the point where you’re ready to make a judgment, especially if you’re scoring a wine. Eighty eight points? Eighty seven? Ninety one? This is why I take so long to review wines–about eight minutes per, give or take. Some critics claim to be able to rattle off a wine a minute, or less. I don’t understand it.

Anyway, this isn’t an anti-social media rant, so let’s not go there. Just saying that, as Sergio notes, it’s all about face time, not Facebook time.

  1. doug wilder says:

    I appreciate your comment about the winemaker tendency of describing wines before you taste. It happens but I don’t think for a second they are trying to lead the palate of the critic. They have spent several years with it and know the wine intimately ( a lot better than you or I do at the moment). And I imagine they are proud of it. When a winemaker introduces a wine with extended comments I do take it in and respectfully consider what they are saying, yet I spend quite a bit more time with a wine (20 minutes +) looking for the secondary character that the one-minute tasters likely miss. (BTW – wineries understandably would prefer critics don’t rush through their wine in a lineup of hundreds). I do routinely request tech sheets with production and price but typically don’t look at them until after the note is written and rated. Sometimes I am surprised to find I liked a 30000 case, $24 Chardonnay, or was less than impressed by a $100 example under 300 cases.

    This reminds me of when Iwas a buyer, and had wine sales reps call on me. Most of them could tell what the wine was in 15 seconds from memory. But I had one rep who read the sales sheet verbatim from paper. I finally told her to learn three things about every wine in her book that she memorized, slowly she got better.

  2. Doug Wilder, I think it’s a little naive to think they’re not trying to influence perceptions. Sure they are. They may even believe what they’re saying. I also think it’s not true that they know the wine better than you or I do. That may be true, in a technical sense — but as outsiders, you and I are apt to be more objective.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    Having consulted for several high end Napa Valley wineries, I can’t tell you how much they should take this Chilean’s advice. And by that, I don’t mean flying in for a Cochon 555 event or the Aspen Wine Festival or a wine dinner at Blackberry Farm.

    They need to get out of the self-reinforcing Borg-like hive mind of Napa Valley and plant their asses in the seats of sales reps’ cars week after bloody week. Talk to buyers but even more importantly look at the shelves, the wine lists and the BTG programs. And here’s another novel thought, at night for dinner ask for recommendations from sommeliers, servers and bartenders without letting them know who you are. The lack of Cali recs may be painful, but it’s something they need to hear. Then–and only then–will they maybe start to understand the real market dynamics and where things have been headed and how it differs from the feel good stories they tell each other safely back in the hive.

  4. doug wilder says:

    Steve, What I mean is that I can’t allow myself to think they are trying to influence me. If that is what I thought, it would change the entire dynamic of the situation. For me it is a matter of mutual respect. I’m in their house and we have made the time for each other. I do want to hear, for example: about their fermenting in open top neutral puncheons, that a wine is from a particular block, this white is comprised of eight different varieties in a field blend or they double decanted 24 hours before. These are things I actually heard while tasting in the valley last week. That is information I can filter. They can even talk about what it is THEY find and again I respect their perspective. I imagine we are not to different, Steve, in how firmly we trust our own palates. That is why I don’t worry about it :)

  5. Usually when I am describing one of our wines to anyone (critics, consumers, friends, my wife) i am not trying to influence someone’s opinion of the wine, I am trying to tell them the story of the wine. What the vintage was like, the grapes were like, what was our winemaking process. What makes this wine different from any wine I’ve made before.

    Once the wine goes in your nose/mouth, the experience is yours. But I like telling people what got the wine to that point. How much that matters to each person varies, but I would assume wine writers would want to know that stuff

  6. Dear gabe, in my humble opinion, when a critic is tasting with a winemaker, the winemaker should not be describing the wine before the critic has a chance to form his/her own impression. But this is a very complicated topic that involves questions of propriety, tradition and self-awareness.

  7. while I understand why you feel that way as a wine critic, we usually treat a wine critic the same way we would treat anyone else who was interested in our wine. I am still a young winemaker, and I have a lot to learn, but that seems to make the most sense to me.

  8. gabe: I think it’s more tasting room staff that tell you what they want you to think, than winemakers.

  9. Well, like i said, I don’t try to tell people what to think of our wines, I just try to tell the story of how those wines came to be.

    I literally spend years of my life crafting a single wine. To me, there is more to those wines than just a smell or taste. I may be wrong, but I think people are interested in hearing the story those wines have to tell.

    I will respect that you have been doing this for much longer than me, and allow people to taste those wines before I tell them about my relationship with the wine they are tasting. But I can assure you that I don’t tell people about the wines I’ve made because I want them to like those wines. I tell people the stories behind the wines because I want people to understand them.

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