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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.


Friday fishwrap: Killer apps, an improved economy and tasting cult wines blind

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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.


Neoprohibitionists’ fig leaf: warning labels

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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.”

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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