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Can wine bloggers make money through reader financial donations? Maybe…

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Ever since around the time I began blogging (May 2008), a dominating part of the conversation has been whether or not online content providers can make enough money to make their endeavor worthwhile.

Early in that time period, there were hopeful prognosticators—mainly younger bloggers themselves, and a handful of would-be consultants who hoped to make money advising them about the ins and outs of social media—who believed, earnestly, that sources of income would open up to online content providers, even if it wasn’t entirely clear how that would happen.

This was a kind of magical thinking, of course, but it could be forgiven in light of the immense difficulties print journalism was then undergoing. Newspapers and magazines were facing the severest financial crunch of their lifetimes, as revenue from advertising—always a print publication’s biggest source of income—fell off the cliff. The promoters of online content argued that this was because print publishing had reached the end of its useful lifetime: peering into a cloudy future, they claimed that print would go the way of gaslight lamps, horse-drawn buggies and slide rulers. And because print was about to go extinct, they said, all that advertising money, added to by additional revenues brought in by subscriptions, would flow to online content providers.

I replied, in this blog and elsewhere, that this was unlikely to be the case. Print journalism was indeed suffering, but it wasn’t because of the rise of blogging, it was because of the Great Recession. Advertisers pulled back, not because they were casting an adoring gaze upon online publishers, but because they were struggling to stay alive: they had first to cover the basics, like salaries and rent, before they could lavish money on page ads.

Well, print is coming back, isn’t it? But what remains a conundrum for online content providers is how to make money. Consumers have proven over and over that they do not want to pay to see things online. They feel that they’re already paying enough to get online in the first place, and besides, there’s such an infinitude of websites that, if one of them gets greedy and starts charging a per-view fee, there are always a billion others that remain free.

In the world of wine, there admittedly are a few sites that get away with charging money, Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Vinous among them. But these are outliers—peculiarities of the wine industry, which has enough ardent consumers and trade members who are willing to pay $100 a year for access. As for the rest of the bloggers, theirs remains a labor of love, not one of potential profit.

Some bloggers as a result have turned to accepting ads on their sites. Ads don’t bring in a lot of money, but they bring in some, and if the blogger can increase his numbers, the amount of money might go up. But the same consumers who refuse to pay money for access to online content also don’t like advertisements on the sites they go to. This is the reason behind Tivo, which “eats commercials” (in their own words), and it is also the rationale behind services such as Adblock, which allows users to “surf the web without annoying ads.” This is great news for web surfers, but it’s a disaster for content creators: they finally figured out how to make a little money, and along comes this company that prevents their ads from being seen. It’s also a disaster for the companies that advertise; a honcho from the Interactive Advertising Bureau called ad-blocking sites an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven,” extreme but, under the circumstances, understandable language.

Ad-busting companies such as Adblock certainly don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That would not be helpful to their own bottom lines. What to do? In a really interesting development, Adblock just announced they will integrate Flattr, a Swedish company that calls itself “a social microdonations service” by which content consumers can make voluntary “donations” to websites they like. This eliminates the need of the provider to accept advertising (which most providers don’t like to do anyway), and also increases the depth and complexity of the relationship between provider and consumer. Users would set up a “PayPal-like account,” put money into it, and from those funds providers would be paid, using a special Flattr algorithm based on things like the duration of the user’s stay on the site.

Will the Adblock-Flattr model work? Flattr co-founder Peter Sunde said, on Fast Company, that the new model promises to help artists, creators, journalists, everyone, to earn a fair living from their work. Not to be abused.” That sounds pretty good to me.


From Mexico, a great wine and food pairing, and the perils of poorly-conceived advertising

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I’m down here in Mexico on the fabulous Maya Rivera, at the Karisma El Dorado resort, south of Cancun, where I’ll be doing a bunch of wine education classes and dinners, some of them with the chef/partner of San Francisco’s new Aaxte restaurant, Ryan Pollnow. This is a very exciting opportunity for me. The resort itself is huge, more like a good-sized village, so yesterday afternoon some of the staff toured me around in a little shuttle cart so I’ll know where the various venues are located. The wines I’ll be talking about are from Jackson Family, representing a good cross-section of the portfolio.

In fact, we had our first wine dinner last night, and I must say it was really great. Chef Julio, of Karisma, prepared our food, creating wonderful Mexican dishes, and I found it thrilling. It was in one of Karisma’s food theaters; I was sitting with Chef Ryan, watching Chef Julio under the spotlights and in front of the cameras, which showed him on two big screen TVs, and when I suggested to Chef Ryan that the event had a certain theatricality about it, he said “Gastro-tainment.” That was a new one on me. I love it.

As soon as I got to Mexico I heard about a brouhaha concerning a Coca-Cola T.V. commercial that aired here that some people found culturally insulting, but that others thought was just fine. The commercial, which you can see here, keenly illustrates the potential mine fields companies must navigate in the images and messages their promotional materials convey.

The Coca-Cola commercial shows a group of young people (they look like American tourists to me)—good-looking hunky guys and long-haired young women in tight jeans and T-shirts—who seem to be on a Habitat-for-Humanity-style mission to build a giant Christmas tree in an indigenous Mexican town. To the saccharine strains of orchestral music, they paint and labor, high-fiving each other with white-toothed smiles, while the natives look on wondrously and gratefully. And, of course, there are coolers of Coca-Cola everywhere.

The style of the commercial is straight out of Coke’s 1971 “I’d like to teach the world to sing” post-hippie playbook: inspirational Kumbaya love. But some people didn’t get the good vibes. “Outrageous” and “racist,” they called it. Somebody tweeted, “When a company as big as Coca-Cola is saying #AbreTuCorazon [Open Your Heart] by giving Coca-Cola to indigenous ppl. what they are really doing is using them.” On the other hand, lots of the comments on the YouTube video either praised Coca-Cola for a sincere desire to help poor people, or wondered what the big deal was. “Couldn’t care less,” one person said; another pointed out a certain political correctness at work: “I love to laugh at freaking crybabies getting offended over nothing.”

At any rate, things got so hot that Coca-Cola issued a “rare apology” and pulled the ad, but versions it can still be found all over the Internet, as for example here, where it’s been retitled “The White Savior Ad.”

The take-home lesson for companies is that they really have to have culturally tuned-in people on their marketing and P.R. staffs. You can’t just let creative call the shots: you have to ask yourself how your images and messages will be perceived, not just by the people you think you’re talking to, but by everybody. Nobody thinks the Coca-Cola ad was intentionally racist or derogatory; no doubt the people who created it, and the managers who approved it, felt they were doing something lovely, in the spirit of Christmas. And perhaps, after all is said and done, that is exactly what the commercial is: a salute to cross-cultural brotherhood, good will and mutual respect.

Alas, in our world, even the most well-intended message can be wrongly interpreted.


Emotion, the Bee Gees and Bill Harlan: The power of persuasion

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“It’s just emotion that’s taking me over,” the Bee Gees crooned—emotionally—on their 1978 hit, “Emotion,” a song of unrequited love and the pain it can cause.

We all know how powerful emotions can be. If strong enough, they can, and do, overrule reason and common sense, and “take over,” driving their human to perform irrational and sometimes even self-destructive acts. But emotion also can inspire people to supreme creative heights: Beethoven’s deep depressions turn up in his Third Symphony, the Eroica, which is steeped in grief. But his Ninth, the Choral, is an explosion of the most ecstatic joy. (The suggestion that Beethoven was bipolar seems retrospectively to make sense.)

Emotion plays a role in our experience of wine, too. A recent Australian study suggests that people are influenced by emotions spanning the gamut from warm-heartedness and nostalgia to anger, even when they’re tasting wines blind. It’s not clear to me that this particular study is of any use to winemakers, beyond being a fairly interesting academic exercise. Far more insightful is this blog post from Clinton Stark on his responses to receiving an offer to buy Promontory, a new project from Bill Harlan. (I myself haven’t tasted it, but two years ago Bill Harlan explained the project to me, and I subsequently wrote about it in Wine Enthusiast.)

Clinton’s appraisal is that the appeal of Promontory, a $400 Bordeaux blend, is pretty much exactly the same as that of “rarified, non-discretionary luxury goods,” like “a purse, a painting, a sculpture,” or, more specifically, “a Porsche.” All trigger “feelings” of “inexplicable and illogical lust,” the result of “marketing” pitches (in his case, Promontory’s offer letter) that cause “woefully uncontrollable…desire” in Clinton’s all-too-human heart.

Clinton has had, in other words, an emotional response to the offer letter. Even though he knows that Promontory is just another red wine, albeit (one imagines) a very good one (after all, Petrus and Romanée-Conti are also “just” red wines), some part of himself—which he knows is irrational—wants it. He has a good attitude about the whole thing, though: recognizes his emotional response, views it with the correct admixture of detachment and wry amusement, and decides ultimately not to buy the wine, but to add the offer letter “to my collection.”

Are we to conclude, then, that the producers of expensive wine merely resort to marketing ploys that prey on our emotional triggers? Were things only that simple! Humans are too complicated to divide desire into two categories: desire based on real need, and desire not based on real need, with the latter category somehow illegitimate or silly. We do have emotions; our emotions help to define our humanness. (And I’m not saying that animals don’t have emotions. As Gus’s dad, I see the full rainbow spectrum of his.) Part of desire is aspirational: the person who loses, or voluntarily denounces, his aspirations may be a Mother Theresa type, but as Plato knew, self-interest lurks everywhere, in our saints as well as in our sinners; who is without aspiration of some kind is dead. The desire for something fine and rare—a wine, a Philip Milic tattoo, a Lamborghini, a Ty Cobb baseball card, an Oscar, a Superman Action Comic No. 1, a trip to outer space on Virgin Galactic, a Papal blessing—may be irrational, in the sense that it is not strictly to sustain life. But neither are love and much of what makes life so rich and interesting.

And then, even as I wrote this blog post, the phone rang and who should it be but Bill Harlan. Serendipity, you dazzle me! This was of course before he could have known about my next day’s post. He called about something else. We talked about Promontory, and I told him it  would be in the next day’s post. I said also how much I’ve always respected him personally as well as his wine businesses. None of what I have written above is meant in the slightest degree to disparage him, or whoever wrote his offer letter. I don’t think that was Clinton Stark’s point and it certainly isn’t mine! A large part of Bill’s genius is in dreammaking. Let he who is without the sin of self-aggrandizement cast the first stone. I’m just saying that at some point, wine doesn’t get any better no matter how high the price soars. What the buyer is looking for can’t be measured or expressed or even justified: it’s “just emotion,” and sometimes it can feel so good to let it take over.

Have a safe and happy Labor Day weekend! Back on Tuesday. (And aren’t you glad the Seventies are over!)

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A new winery P.R. website is born

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This is pretty cool—a new blog that addresses the practice of wine public relations, wine media trends, marketing ethics and news commentary.”

Lots of blogs, including mine, have written stuff over the years on these topics, but I don’t know of any blog that is solely dedicated to them. The creators, Tom Wark and Julie Ann Kodmur, call their site SWIG.

I’m sure it will be a success, especially if Tom and Julie Ann—both old friends of mine—keep it free. It’s not clear to me how often they’ll post, or if they view SWIG as a vehicle to drive paying customers to their own, separate public relations firms. Nonetheless, P.R. is a subject of importance and ongoing interest to winery principals—as well it should be—and so SWIG will probably be eagerly read. (Besides, as we all know, Tom is an entrepreneur who knows how to successfully start things up!)

I do want to comment on something Tom wrote on their website. “There is a body of knowledge which guides all publicists, regardless of industry, as well as there being a body of knowledge that guides wine publicists specifically. The intersection of these two bodies is what Julie Ann and I had in mind to explore here at SWIG.”

This is true, as far as it goes; but what interests me is where winery communications is going, as opposed to where it’s been—and believe me, it’s going someplace it hasn’t been before. For that matter, so is the entire wine industry; the two are interrelated. For it seems to me that we are leaving, if we haven’t already left, the “classical” era of winery P.R. and are chugging along into one that—as with all futures—we see only “through a glass, darkly.”

Tom has it exactly right when he states “The Number One Golden Truth of Wine Public and Media Relations [is] YOU MUST ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.” In past “classic” times, this wasn’t always appreciated by the crafters of publicity messages. Back then, advertisers felt free to lie, knowing that no public agency or consumer outrage would check them. This 1930 ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes actually had the nerve to suggest that smoking was good for your throat and lungs!

LuckyStrike

 

Tom’s claim notwithstanding, not all wineries always tell the truth. There are lies of commission, and lies of omission; you can’t know what you don’t know, and wineries sometimes don’t want you to know all the stuff they do (like adding mega-purple, or blending in Central Valley grapes, or putting a little Syrah into that nice Pinot Noir, or soaking the Chardonnay in wood chips, or reducing the alcohol by technical gizmos).

But in this day and age, it’s awfully hard to keep anything secret, so wineries are better off figuring out how to be completely candid, even when it’s uncomfortable for them to do so. You can always turn a lemon into lemonade, as Dear Abby used to say.

However, the bigger questions remain: Why does a winery need a P.R. and communications firm? If they can’t do the job themselves, how should they choose an outside firm? How can they measure the return on investment they pay to the outside firm? Answered in reverse order, it can be awfully hard for a winery proprietor to tell if his P.R. firm is worth it. The P.R. people will tell him it takes time for plans to achieve fruition, which is true; they say, also, that some of their results aren’t measurable, which also is true. This is why some wineries remain locked into unholy matrimony with P.R. companies for years, yoked to firms that are not helping them. It’s also why, on the opposite end of the spectrum, wineries will peremptorily fire a very good P.R. firm that actually is advancing their cause: they get nervous, or their brother-in-law tells them he has a better firm, and so the pink slips go out. (Do firing managers still give out pink slips, or am I dating myself?)

How a winery should go about choosing an outside firm is one of the biggest decisions they’ll make, and also one of the most difficult. If I was a winery, I’d ask my successful friends, who represents you and how are they doing? But I’d also apply good, old-fashioned common sense: Do you like the firm’s owners? Do they seem honest, up-to-date, familiar with digital communications and social media? Or are they stuck in anachronistic approaches? Finally, why does a winery need a P.R. firm? It’s all about communication, stupid! The days are long gone when a winery proprietor could sit alone, in splendid isolation, and think that his wine will go out there and sell itself. That used to be true, in certain circumstances and to a certain extent: for example, wineries that were located on well-traveled tourism routes could depend on an influx of visitors who would buy the wine, even if it was horrible. That’s increasingly hard to do, as consumer’s palates are educated. And some wineries coast on their reputations for years, depending on their old customers to continue buying them. But guess what? Old customers die.

Finally, I’d say that the relationship between a winery and it’s P.R. firm cannot be one based only on occasional exchanges. It’s all about intense teamwork these days: neither side—winery or P.R. firm—can generate the best ideas, but only both sides working together, so that brains can rub against each other, causing sparks of imagination and creativity that are geared toward the winery’s specific needs and talents. The winery that blithely accepts from its P.R. firm a template with a boilerplate approach is asking for trouble.

Anyhow, like I said, I’m sure Tom’s and Julie Ann’s new venture will be a success. I wish them good luck, and I’ll be reading SWIG (and often commenting on it) whenever they post.


Petite Sirah revisited

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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.


Social Media is now just a part of Big Media. Welcome to the club!

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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.


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