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Report: American wine industry healthy

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Wine Intelligence, a London-based wine industry consulting and market research firm, is reporting that American wine is doing just fine, and that “there is still huge potential for building sales, particularly among less regular wine drinkers.”

The report finds that “Americans are embracing wine as never before as a younger generation of health-conscious and cosmopolitan drinkers discover the pleasures of a glass or two with a meal.” But “wine is still not a mainstream product in most parts of the US,” said Graham Holter, an associate publisher at Wine Intelligence.

There are about 73 million regular wine drinkers in the U.S., but 85 million adult Americans don’t drink alcohol of any kind. Among wine drinkers, 40 percent account for 80 percent of wine’s market value.

The report divided wine drinkers into 5 unique groups: Generation Treaters (wine is an integral part of their lives); Premium Brand Suburbans (highly involved with wine, but don’t see themselves as experts); Senior Sippers (the oldest segment, a group that enjoys wine with food); Kitchen Casuals (with a low interest in wine, they’re not opposed to screwtops) and Un-Engageds (may drink, but wine is not a part of their lifestyle).

The report suggests that wine marketers concentrate their efforts to raise per capita consumption among less regular wine consumers, such as Un-Engageds and Kitchen Casuals.


Groundhog day: Haven’t I had this wine before?

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Great post yesterday in John Mariani’s column on Bloomberg.com. (Full disclosure: John gave my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California, a very nice review.)

Reading his Bloomberg column, I almost felt I could have written it myself. John’s point — that red wines the world over are all starting to taste alike due to copycat viticulture and enology — isn’t a new one. It’s a criticism made by critics everywhere, including myself. But John’s writing is so pinpoint accurate that his column ought to be preserved like the Magna Carta.

He had tasted a Mendoza Bordeaux blend (from a winery that hired — surprise! — Michel Rolland as a consultant) that, he wrote, could just as easily have come from Mendocino or Sicily as from Argentina. Mariani quoted the winemaker’s description from the label: “Full bodied and complex, it exhibits aromas of ripe red fruits and spices with flavors of red fruit, spice, and anise and notes of vanilla and chocolate that complement the rounded tannins.”

Wow. Just yesterday, I had a friend over for dinner, and was telling her how increasingly hard for me it is to come up with varied verbiage for red wine reviews in Wine Enthusiast. How many ways can you say “ripe red fruits, spices, anise and chocolate”? Sometimes I’ll say licorice instead of anise or, if I really want to get into the tall grass, it’s black licorice or red licorice. Sometimes I’ll substitute cocoa for chocolate, or carob, or dark chocolate, or milk chocolate (there are actually subtle differences between these). Sometimes, instead of “spices,” I’ll elaborate: clove, pepper, nutmeg. Since there’s no synonym for “vanilla,” that word turns up a lot, not just in reds but in whites also, especially Chardonnay.

So if everything tastes the same these days, how does one wine get a 95 while another gets an 86? Good question. It’s about balance — the wine’s elusive, hard-to-describe qualities of fusion, integrity, mouthfeel and elegance. Or the lack thereof. It’s actually easier for me to downgrade wines due to faults than it is to upgrade them for quality. That’s why, when I blind taste a lineup of a dozen reds, I eliminate the lower-scoring ones first, leaving the best for last. That way, if wine #11 scores 91 points, and wine #12 still remains, it must score higher than 91. The question then simply becomes, how much higher?

Anyhow, the point is that John Mariani is entirely correct when he says, “There is a lot wrong with a world of wine where attempts are made to have every varietal taste more or less the same and where hugeness and over-ripeness are seen as a virtue as much as they are a marketing strategy.” The problem is, where does the world of wine go from here? I’m tempted to say that a new, younger generation of wine critics (read: bloggers) will upset the apple cart, and come down in favor of drier, more streamlined and elegant wines that more truly reflect their terroir. But you know what? I don’t think that’s going to happen. For all their revolutionary zeal, the bloggers will rave over the same wines Parker does, when and if they get the chance to taste them. M. Rolland’s job is safe.


New course for tasting room employees

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Wines & Vines Magazine (which is edited by my former boss at Wine Spectator, Jim Gordon, who in turn used to blog for Wine Enthusiast’s unreserved — it’s a small world out there!) has an interesting new article, Pros to Teach Tasting Room Management, explaining how Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Program is teaching a new class for tasting room staff. It will bestow on them what I believe is the nation’s first Tasting Room Management (TRM) Certificate.

Now, I’ve never been big on these certification programs. There’s too many of them. Whether it’s a mail-order divinity license that lets you marry people, or some fancy-pants piece of paper you get from taking a two-week course in wine appreciation, they make it too easy for somebody to become an instant expert. It’s like when the Wizard of Oz gave the Scarecrow a diploma, proving that he had a brain. But Sonoma State’s certification program is one I fully support, for the simple reason that tasting rooms — which have become vital customer centers for wineries — all too often have abysmal staffs. My biggest gripe is when a tasting room person can’t answer a simple question about the wine, such as where the grapes are from.

I do have one apprehension about the Sonoma State course: I hope they’ll let the tasting room employees be themselves and remain warm, friendly human beings, instead of over-educating them to become little marketing managers who see walk-ins as nothing more than dollars on legs.

As part of the Sonoma State program, Jean Arnold, president of Hanzell, will teach a course on “Marketing Wine as a Luxury Product,” which Hanzell certainly is. I’m of two minds on the wine-as-luxury thing. Part of me hates the elitism and snobbery that can accompany it. The other part of me totally relates to it. (So I’m vinously bipolar.) Sit me down to dinner and serve me up ‘61 Latour and I’m impressed! A course on “wine as luxury” flirts with the danger that it reinforces the notion you have to be rich and wearing black tie to enjoy wine, but Jean Arnold is the perfect person to teach it. She’s solid and down-to-earth, as has been everyone I’ve ever met who worked at Hanzell.

Incidentally, a Master of Wine by the name of Sheri Sauter Morano, who’s a spokesperson for the Wines of France campaign, is running a poll on her blog called “Which Wine Will You Open on Election Night?” Speaking for myself, next Tuesday I’ll have a bottle of Roederer Estate 2002 L’Ermitage in the fridge. Here’s what I hope and expect will happen. Shortly after the polls close in California, the national news outlets will declare Barack Obama the winner by a considerable margin. (I’m predicting a minimum of 340 electoral votes.) That’s when I’ll pop the cork, lift the glass high, and shout out L’Chaim! to toast President-elect Obama.

Please vote tomorrow, if you haven’t already. And if you live in California, vote against Prop 8, a vicious, mean-spirited and misguided attempt to deny civil rights to thousands of people. As Bob Dylan wrote, in Slow Train Coming:

But the enemy I see wears a cloak of decency
All non-believers and men stealers talking in the name of religion
And there’s a slow, there’s a slow train coming up around the bend.


The truth about winery PR people

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Hacks? Flacks? Floozies? The negative descriptors were flying in comments made by readers after my Oct. 27 post, So what did I learn at the Wine Bloggers Conference?, on my Wine Enthusiast blog. I didn’t even mention public relations, but midway through the extensive comments (26 and counting) the drift turned toward PR, and some controversial attitudes were revealed.

It started with Lenndeavors’ remark that the WBC was “a  bit too PR heavy.” I, too, had noticed the presence of a large number of PR people at the conference, both self-employed and those working for big wine corporations, but my reaction wasn’t a negative one. Instead, it didn’t surprise me at all. Any PR professional who could have gone to the WBC, but didn’t, isn’t performing her job very well.

“Joel” rose to PR’s defense by pointing out the same thing: PR people need to understand what the blogosphere is, and so they come to events like the WBC to see it up close and personal. Jo Diaz, who runs her own PR firm in Sonoma County (and who also blogs), agreed. Jo self-deprecatingly used the term “hack.” [From the German; related to our word “hook.” Colloquially, a person hired to do routine, dull writing, which you'll never find here!] After that, things headed south. Mia Malm (who, last I knew, did PR for Robert Mondavi) felt it necessary to defend her profession. So did Tia Butts, who I believe also works for Mondavi. (Mia and Tia, forgive me if I’m wrong.)

I did get the impression, both at the WBC and in its aftermath, that there was unease among some bloggers at how many PR people came to the event. If this was true, it must have been largely restricted to younger bloggers, who may not understand the role that PR professionals play. In fact, PR people are a vital part of the gigantic machine that rolls the wine industry forward every day. Don’t get me wrong: as I said in my Credibility seminar (and have said many times elsewhere), PR people will use us writers if they can, and if we let them. But then, we writers use wineries and winemakers for our needs, don’t we? I’ve never blamed PR people for what they do, and I rather admire them. It’s their job to get publicity for their clients, and if they’re good, they’ll devise ways of doing it that are aboveboard and intellectually defensible.

Yes, there are times I’ve been frustrated with the way some of them just spin and spin, like the Republican attack machine against Obama. And yet, PR people can be a writer/critic’s best friend. They’ve been enormously helpful to me in all sorts of ways, without ever expecting any favoritism when it comes to scores or reviews for their clients. (In fact, one of the most important things PR people do is explain to their clients how the industry works, which in turn makes writers’ jobs easier.) I couldn’t imagine the wine industry without PR people, and I’m happy to let them do what they’re paid to do: Pitch stories to me. So let’s be kind to PR people. Far from being flacks, hacks or floozies, they’re true professionals with a big job, often working under trying circumstances.

Here’s a list of some top winery PR companies. I’ve worked with most of them.

P.S. I blogged the other day about The 800 Pound Gorilla in China’s Wine Industry. Now, check out this blog post from someone who defends Chinese wine against charges of adulteration and deception.


Wine Bloggers Conference: the repercussions just keep on coming

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There were so many issues swarming around the WBC that it’s going to take time to sort through them all or even identify them with specificity.

One way to figure out the emergent issues is to read the posts that the bloggers themselves put up, to see what they’re talking about. I like this one from Wilma’s World. Her observations are right on, including that some wine bloggers have grey hair (ahem) while others are young and edgy. “Nearly all would also like to make money from their blog but few will actually do so,” she writes, echoing my belief. She adds, “Blogging isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a commitment and it can NOT be a transparent attempt to sell a product,” which are points I stressed in my breakout session on credibility.

I also liked the Napa Valley Wine Blog and especially the point that some heavy hitters (Gallo, K-J, Ste. Michelle and — at my table — Brown-Forman) attended “to observe and find out just what influence bloggers might have on the wine industry.” Nobody knows if wine blogging is a temporary blip on the radar, the future of wine writing and criticism, both, neither, or will mutate to something unpredictable. But the smart people understand they’d better be on the train if it somehow decides to barrel out of the station.

Then there was this blog from Caveman Wines, run by a guy who works for a well-known California winery P.R. company. He attended my credibility breakout session, and I’m glad he pointed out that “After this summer’s kerfuffle over Rockaway-gate, I was expecting things to get ugly, but they actually remained very civil.” (I had similar fears.) My buddy Lenn Thompson, from Lenndeavors, has commented (in a comment he made to my Wine Enthusiast blog) that I “held my punches” and “played nice” co-moderating the credibility seminar, but I think The Caveman understands the value of civility in an uncivil world.

Credibility, civility, making money, commitment, the role of blogging vis a vis the biggest wineries in America — clearly the WBC opened a Pandora’s box of gigantic issues, whose repercussions are far from being understood.

Oh, I also have a new fiction story, immediately below. Enjoy.


The 800 pound gorilla in China’s wine industry

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Last month the International Herald Tribune headlined China could become the wine industry’s next Chile in an article predicting that “China could become…a font of quality and affordable wines.”

I even blogged on this. But now comes some truly distressing news, in the form of a blog entry entitled Doubts about the wine label from a guy named Tim Johnson on the China Media Blog. In it, he writes that “80 percent [of all Chinese wine] is imported junk wine,” frequently from Chile, Australia and Argentina. So bad is its quality that Johnson likens it to “second-hand suits imported from Japan and Korea…”. The imported plonk then is “remixed” with Chinese wine that, itself, may be nothing more than “sugar water with some food coloring, alcohol and grape juice thrown in.”

Chinese producers certainly have no problem finding bulk wine on the Internet. Someone on a Chinese wine bulletin board recently wrote: “We are looking for large volumme [sic] of imported red wine…
1. Packing : barrels
2. 30,000 Litre per month
3. Stable supply and quality”

and received a slew of replies, including these:

“We can offer you bulk wine from Frace [sic]/Italy/Chile/Argentina/Spain etc.
you can direct import wine in bulk stably from winemakers.”

“Hi, my name is ___ and I work for an Italian exporter of typical Italian wines. We can supply you with white and red wines form [sic] different parts of Italy.”

“WE export over 30 million litres of bulk wine from Australia – South Africa – Argentina, Chile each year. Winery need to be able to receive 24,000l tankers”

“We’re a Chilean Winery, we can provide you the following Varieties : Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Malbec”

And on and on.

It sounds like an ocean of wine is being tanked to China for “remixing.” This is bad news for China’s emerging wine industry. Coming on the heels of the country’s tainted milk and eggs, lead-in-childrens’- toys and other consumer product scandals, it should make consumers agree with Johnson’s sorry conclusion: “…never, ever drink Chinese wine.”


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