Someone whom I don’t know privately emailed me yesterday asking my advice about some Petite Sirahs he could buy that are “the darkest (black) and most earthy minerality (full bodied).” It was nice to know that, while I’m not officially a wine critic anymore, at least one person still appreciates that I have a couple decades-plus of experience under my belt!
I was happy to reply, “Lately, I’ve enjoyed Petites from Turley, Retro, Frank Family, Stags’ Leap, Turnbull (all Napa Valley), as well as Miro and St. Francis (both Dry Creek Valley) and MCV and Aaron (Paso Robles).” I could have added many others: David Fulton, Ballentine, Delectus, Ridge, Grgich Hills, J. Lohr, Proulx among them, but a brief reply to a brief email is not meant to be an article!
Petite Sirah is an interesting wine in several respects, not simply because it can be very good, but because it illustrates the difficulty of getting the consumer to try something he or she night not be familiar with. This is always a huge problem for producers and is why so many California wineries continue to make indifferent Chardonnay. The problem with Petite Sirah in particular also is that despite the considerable quantities of it made in California, not all of it is very good! The grapes can vary in ripeness and the wine itself can be too high in alcohol and above all too tannic. Then too, because Petite Sirah does not fetch as much money in the marketplace as, say, Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, there is little reason for vintners to make it as good as they possibly can. When Harry Waugh, visiting from London, tasted his first California Petite Sirahs (in Oakland, no less, at the then home of Belle and Barney Rhodes, who owned Martha’s Vineyard), he found too many of the wines suffered from “oxidation and…volatile acidity,” in other words they were rustic. While Petite’s qualities were strange to Harry, he did find in the best of the wines what he called “a fairly full-bodied Burgundy type,” a description that doesn’t sound like modern Petite Sirah (which you would hardly call “Burgundy type”). However, I suspect that many of the wines at that 1972 tasting were lower in alcohol than Petite Sirah tends to be today; also, that many of them would have been “field blends” of other varieties (Carignan, Alicante Bouschet, Syrah, perhaps even Grenache) and this may have accounted for the lighter weight. Incidentally, Harry also found, in many of the wines, a “peppery” aroma that mystified him, but that today certainly is a marker for a well-made Petite Sirah.
The variety used to be, and until comparatively recently was, known almost exclusively in California, but there there are suggestions its popularity is spreading beyond our borders. It’s “catching on in the Pacific Northwest,” with wines being produced in the warmer areas of Yakima Valley, Wahluke Slope and Walla Walla. Back in California, there’s more Petite being crushed nowadays than ever; 2013’s crush, of 68,000 tons, was a record (alrhough of course the 2013 crush overall also was a record). To put that into some perspective, the Petite Sirah crush was about one-fourth that of Pinot Noir and one-eighth that of Cabernet Sauvignon, but already exceeds that of Grenache, and is nearly half that of Syrah. In other words, Petite Sirah has become quite an important variety in its own right. I suspect a lot of it is being blended into red wine, to make it darker and firmer, an inference supported by the fact that the county with the most acreage is San Joaquin. Oddly, there’s also a lot of Petite Sirah–1,400 acres–growing in San Luis Obispo, although I couldn’t tell you why; SLO county isn’t known for varietal Petite Sirah, so it’s got to be going someplace else. However, the good news is that plantings in Napa Valley are on a sharp increase, up 41% since 2004 to 807 acres, and I’d bet most of that is being varietally labeled. If I had to pick the best spot for Petite in Napa, I’d say the northwestern part of the valley, St. Helena to Calistoga, where the toasty temperatures get the grapes nice and ripe, and where producers have enough money to sort out bad bunches, invest in good barrels, etc.
Seems like just yesterday that social media was portraying itself as the revolutionary alternative to Big or Traditional media.
(Actually, social media, not being an animate being, cannot “portray” itself as anything. It can’t even drink wine! So I should have said certain social media adherents were portraying it that way.)
The world seemed divided into two camps: You were either a hopelessly old fuddy-duddy who read the New York Times and watched T.V., or you were a young, hip, cool trendster with a smart phone or tablet pasted onto your face.
No inbetween. “You’re either for us or against us,” went the refrain of the social media-ists. (Longtime readers of this blog know that I was perceived in some circles as an “againster.”) The social media-ists insisted that the new media were qualitatively different from the old media–that in some way it was purer, more honest, closer to God and less controlled by the greedy hand of self-interested corporate America. Social media would, they asserted, knock old media to its knees.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the future. Things didn’t quite turn out the way they were supposed to. We now know that social media has quite a lot in common with old media. For one thing, social media is corporate-owned now; the people that run these networks are filthy rich–richer than most old media tycoons, in fact–and the us.-versus-them mentality that fueled an infant Twitter or Facebook has now morphed into an Animal Farm ending. (Remember that in the book’s final chapter, the other animals could no longer tell the difference between men and pigs. Mark Zuckerberg hangs out with, and presumably advises, everyone from President Obama to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Not sayin’ anyone’s a “pig,” just makin’ the point.)
We know, too, that businesses–from mom and pop wineries to the world’s biggest corporations–no longer perceive social media as weird or alternative, but rather as integral parts of their marketing mix. A company’s advertising and marketing budget now includes every aspect of modern media: Social, print newspapers, magazines, radio and T.V., if they can afford it. In essence, then, the people who spend the money make no distinction in kind between Facebook and Vanity Fair magazine.
Finally, we now know far more about who actually uses social media than we ever did before, and you know what? It’s everybody! It’s not just hip cool tattooed kids, it’s grandma. A study published yesterday on social media usage demographics stunningly paints a picture of an increasingly fragmented, even fractured public. You can read a summary of the study here; a few illustrative highlights are that Facebook is increasingly trending old, Instagram and Pinterest are trending female, LinkedIn swings male (no surprise there) as does Google+. Twitter retains its juvenile appeal, again no surprise given that even the least literate being on Earth can peck out 140 characters.
An earlier study, from last May, analyzes social media use from a slightly different perspective. Its findings once again suggest that a kind of rainbow effect has influenced social media. Users are dividing up along racial, ethnic, age, educational and household income lines, making sweeping statements about social media, per se, unreliable to the point of untenable.
The point I would like to make is that whatever allure social media had four years ago, as a kind of Jesus in the temple, cleansing it of the old money lenders, has now evaporated, if in fact it ever existed. We no longer have “social media” and “old media” in America. We have Media, pure and simple, and while each medium differs in distinctive ways, collectively they’re all the same. And you know what it’s all about? Profits.
What’s the killer social media app for a winery?
I can remember back in the early 1990s when the Internet, or the World Wide Web as most of us called it, was so new that nobody knew precisely what it could be used for. The search was on for “the killer app,” the thing that everybody would want to do, which would therefore earn its users a great deal of money.
As it turned out, some young guys, like Sergei Brim and Larry Page, realized that a search function–the ability to find anything amidst the vast (and growing vaster) hoard of information–was the classic example of a killer app: they created Google and got rich. A little while later, Mark Zuckerberg realized that social networking was the most natural thing in the world for a World Wide Web to do. He created Facebook and also got rich.
(A lot of porn site entrepreneurs also got rich. Enough said about that.)
So those were at least three things the Internet could do (aside from obvious B2B functions that are boring but crucial to companies, not to mention email). The question of the last 5 or 6 years has been, what is the killer app on the Internet for small businesses, and particularly for small wineries–the thing that will help them make money?
I’m not prepared to say, because I don’t know; but yesterday I asked my Facebook friends how they use social media at their wineries, and the overwhelming response was typified by this: “As a tool, FB, Twitter, Pintrest, WEM , are all wonderful ways to connect to your clientele” and this: “I rarely use FB/Twitter for promo and sales. Mostly just to reinforce the simple ‘voice’ of [the winery] and stay in front of my ‘likers’.”
In other words, communication. Several people warned that, as soon as the winery is perceived as trying to sell stuff, it turns friends and followers off. This remains the irony and contradiction within social media.
Central Coast Wrap-up
The Central Coast wine industry seems to be booming, according to this report from the Pacific Coast Business Times. Indeed, you can feel this buzz everywhere you go in wine country. Such a contrast to a few years ago, when a gloomy atmosphere pervaded. I’ll be heading down to Santa Barbara next week for the Chardonnay Symposium, and am stoked by the thought of seeing all the winemakers and tasting their wines.
Blind tasting the cults
Interesting article by my old editor and colleague, Jim Gordon, in Wines & Vines, where he writes of an event at the Culinary Institute of America in which winemakers tasted each other’s wines blind, something they “rarely” get to do.
Winemakers really should do it more often. In fact, they should do it all the time. I know certain cult winemakers who’ve never tasted their own wines blind, much less tasted them against competitors. They might be surprised to find less expensive wines out-performing their own–according to their own palates! But then, that potential danger in blind tasting is probably why more winemakers don’t do it. And anyhow, when it comes to sales, it’s about image as much as it’s about quality. Along these lines, yesterday my sister emailed to ask why some bottles of wine are so heavy. She wanted to know if they cost more than lighter bottles, and, if so, how do the wineries make up for the difference? I explained to her, of course, that some wineries package their wines in heavy bottles in order to make the consumer think the wines are more important. This works very well, and the consumer is willing to pay more for a heavy bottle than for a light one. My sister was surprised, but she needn’t have been. P.T. Barnum spelled this out more than a century ago in his famous dictum about suckers.
If it can happen in Australia, it can happen here.
I’m talking about the government requiring wine bottle labels to carry “large and graphic health warnings similar to [those on] cigarette packs,” which “public health lobbyists” Down Under are pushing for.
The wine industry is gearing up for a big fight, predicts the Herald Sun.
The industry already has developed voluntary online guidelines concerning drinking while pregnant, under their DrinkWise Australia program, but last November it rejected mandatory label warnings, with a spokesperson for the Winemakers Federation of Australia, the nonprofit trade group, arguing “We don’t believe [tobacco-like graphics] is the right approach.” His words were echoed by a top Treasury Wine Estates exec, who told the Herald Sun, “The [DrinkWise] guidelines around pregnancy and drinking were a good example of the industry moving forward with sensible and practical action,” and that further steps are not needed “at this time.”
But some “public health advocates” apparently disagree. They want “large and graphic” warnings, “to take up to 25 per cent of [the volume of] front labels,” on everything “from violence and car accidents to long-term health impacts such as liver and brain damage as well as cancer and blindness.”
We’ve seen this issue rear its ugly head time and time again here in the States. Anti-alcohol groups such as Marin County-based Alcohol Justice (formerly known and much ridiculed as the Marin Institute) have been active for many years trying bring about what they call “healthy communities free of the alcohol industry’s negative impact,” which sounds suspiciously like communities free of alcohol, period. Such groups, far from being mere cranky fringe riders, always must be considered dangerous. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago–Oct. 1919, less than 100 years ago, a blink in History’s eye–that these anti-alcohol types grew so powerful they actually succeeded in getting alcohol declared illegal across the United States. Repeal, in 1933, was a severe blow to them; but they never went away, simply recoiled, re-huddled and began planning their next assault on our drinking rights. In the early 1990s, they made their last big play, but were again defeated, largely because the Wine Institute took its considerable political clout to Sacramento and Washington, D.C. and defeated them. But these people, fueled by fanatacism, never entirely go away.
Alcohol Justice (what a silly name) isn’t entirely evil. When they say they “oppose the greedy, corporate promotion of alcohol to youth,” I think most of us can agree that the beer companies, in particular, and also to some extent spirits companies are pretty aggressive and outrageous in their advertising. Where I part company is when they use the phrase “the concentrated wine and spirits corporations” to lump wine in with the bad guys. I see no evidence of a “greedy” wine industry promoting its products “to youth.” Do you? It seems to me that the wine industry has been a model of rectitude. If anything, wine bends over backwards to portray itself as the beverage of adults, for drinking with good food, with stimulating friends, in controlled settings of dinner parties or restaurants. I’ve never seen a winery trying to appeal to teenagers.
The Aussie blogger Crikey [Bernard Keane] has got it exactly right when he explains the difference between anti-tobacco movements and anti-alcohol movements: “the mere use of tobacco is harmful whereas the vast majority of alcohol consumers consume it safely and, indeed, obtain health benefits from it”–a fact that “is deliberately overlooked” by groups such as Alcohol Justice. In other words, any puff of tobacco is dangerous; a glass or two of wine is actually healthful. I have yet to see an anti-alcohol organization, such as Alcohol Justice, admit this.
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It’s one of the most venerable of marketing and advertising schemes. Give the consumer an interesting character he can relate to in an advertisement, and half of the sales job is done.
That’s why David Ogilvy invented Commander Whitehead to sell Schweppes Tonic Water in the 1950s
and why, 60 years later, Dos Equis invented The Most Interesting Man in the World to sell their beer.
Put a face on a product, make the face fascinating, give the reader/viewer a little back story, and voila, you’ve brought that consumer a step closer toward purchasing your product.
Storytelling is well known in the wine world, especially among public relations and media experts. They’re always looking for a way to make their clients compelling. People like me, who are gatekeepers to the media, are the particular targets of PR types. They know that all winemakers and winery owners are fundamentally the same, so they have to figure out a way to make their client different. It’s not unusual for a pitch to be crafted this way:
“Steve, I know you know a lot of husband-and-wife teams who made their money in another industry, then moved to Napa Valley to live the dream of owning a winery. But Bill and Tammy [made-up names] really are different! He’s not just another rich guy, he loves puppies! And Tammy is an artist in her own right, having exhibited her crocheted images of moths in the St. Helena Library!”
What the PR folks, bless their souls, are trying to do is tell a story, or, more accurately, sell a story, in the hopes someone will buy it.
Now, we’re being told, in the pages of Direct Marketing Magazine, that 2012 is “the year of brand storytelling.” Go ahead, read the article. It’s short and actually very acute in its perception, and the writer–Scott Donaton–is balanced. He’s not one of these people arguing that social media is the alpha and omega of everything. He gets to the heart of the issue with two really interesting statements:
1. “content can’t be relegated to a side role. It must be integrated into everything [businesses] do,” including traditional advertising but also tweets, YouTubes and other “consumer experiences.”
2. However, “The more broadly content is defined the more danger there is that the word will be washed of all its meaning. If everything is content, how can you have a content strategy?”
In these two statements lies most of the back-and-forth that’s occurred on this blog over the years concerning the value and role of social media for wineries. Many of my colleague bloggers have tended to the position in #1: Wineries have to become more socially engaged by telling their stories and engaging consumers, or else they risk being irrelevant. My position has veered more towards #2. If everybody is Facebooking, tweeting, instagramming, etc., all the time, then it all tends to cancel everything out. Donaton, the writer, calls this conundrum “questions that need to be addressed,” which is fair enough. It means we have to continue to have the conversation, even if it sometimes leads nowhere. In the meantime, Donaton writes, “brand storytelling is an effective weapon [that can] establish rituals, showcase product benefits and generate excitement.”
Problem is, if everyone has a story (and everyone does), then distinguishing your particular story becomes less and less possible, to the vanishing point. You really have to start splitting hairs. If Bill loves puppies, then his competitor, Don, has to love crippled puppies rescued from disasters. If Tammy’s crochets are in the St. Helena Library, then Bill’s wife, Tina, has to have an installation piece in the Louvre. (Actually, that would be a pretty good story!)
There have been some good recent examples of storytelling. The Envolve guys leapfrogged on Ben Flajnik’s star turn on “The Bachelor” to tell their story. They got tons of publicity, all of it free, but it remains to be seen if that has legs. As Donaton suggests in his column, the consumer’s attention span gets shorter all the time. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame has turned into 15 seconds on a tweet.
Storytelling has its place, but whenever you hear someone talking it up, look for their agenda. Little wineries such as Failla or Saxum have great stories, but journalists didn’t get around to writing about them until they [the wineries] proved themselves by establishing quality. People tend to forget that quality must precede the story. You can tell a story about a mediocre winery and the winery will still be mediocre. Conversely, every story about a great winery is a great story.
I have mixed feelings about the Federal Trade Commission requiring alcoholic beverage companies to reveal their “Internet marketing and data collection practices,” as reported here.
Most of the information I cite here came to me this morning from the Buffalo Trace Distillery, a Kentucky-based whiskey brewer, through an email blast. Unfortunately, the contents of that email are not available on the Internet, so I can’t provide a link.
But according to Buffalo Trace, the FTC “for the first time” has requested the information in order “to see how effective the industry’s voluntary guidelines are in reducing marketing messages to underage audiences.” The companies now under compulsary order by the FTC include Anheuser-Busch, Diageo, Constellation, Brown-Forman, Jackson Family Wines, Pernod Ricard and many others that are big players in the wine, beer and spirits industry.
The FTC is concerned, rightfully so, with Internet marketing of alcoholic beverages to people below the age of 21. According to Adweek magazine, which reported a version of the story yesterday, until fairly recently the FTC wasn’t terribly concerned with Internet marketing of alcoholic beverages. But all that changed following “the explosion in mobile apps and social media, reportedly a new favorite of alcohol marketers.” Seems the FTC became aware of a study which determined that “digital marketing…might be even more profound than the known risks of exposure to traditional marketing,” particularly when targeted to “youth who…increased their drinking levels more over time…into their late 20s.” You can find a link to this study by going here and then clicking on the “Alcohol Marketing in the Digital Age” link at the bottom of the page, which brings you the PDF.
The reason I have mixed feelings about this new policy by the FTC is because I’m concerned about the increasing encroachment of the government into our Internet activities. I grant that the government has a legitimate interest in combating underage drinking. It’s also obvious that alcoholic beverage companies are experts when it comes to marketing. See this report on how “Social networks are becoming the go-to platform for alcohol marketing,” which says “social media has become a new venue for promotion, and alcohol is no exception.” Check out, for example, this YouTube-like opener for Corona Beer. It’s really well made, addictive in its own way. Who wouldn’t want to be young, cute and lovable, on a warm beach at night, with other young, cute lovable kids, rocking out to live music while sucking up the suds? The possibilities for love are endless.
Of course these ads are reprehensible; they seek to entice young people into irresponsible behavior, at a point in their lives–teenage–when they’re least capable of self-discipline. On the other hand, how intrusive do we want government to get, even with giant corporations? It’s also unclear what the FTC means to do with the information it has required from the companies, which is due by June 11. Can the FTC force companies to drop their Internet ads? Is that censorship? What will the courts decide? As usual, the intersection of public policy, law and private behavior (remember, “corporations are people”) is an exceedingly complicated one.