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We can all get along together, if the zealots back off

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Two recent events that occurred on opposite sides of the world demonstrate that when it comes to the clash between pro- and anti-alcohol sentiments, common sense can result in compromises everyone can live with.

Over in El Dorado County, in the Sierra Foothills, they’ve been having a battle for years between wineries that stage tourist-attracting events, and resident neighbors who object to the increased noise and traffic. As I blogged here just the other day, wine tourism contributes billions of dollars to the California economy every year, and so ought to be encouraged. However, as a resident on a busy street in the inner city, I know full well the annoyance of constant noise and vehicular traffic. So the people who live near the wineries have rights, too. Read this description of a new draft agreement between the wineries and their neighbors in El Dorado. It may not have made anyone completely happy, but it’s a good compromise that lets everyone feel they got something.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in Thailand, a similar drama played itself out, as the country’s Public Health Minister backed off a ridiculous proposal to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol on religious holidays and even over the New Year holiday. “[u]nrealistic” and unenforceable, thundered the bangkokpost.com. After the public outcry reached a crescendo, the minister withdrew his proposal, and the good citizens and tourists of Thailand will continue to be able to enjoy a glass of wine or beer in peace.

Both of these are instances where extremists tried but failed to impose their will on everybody else. I have a feeling the outcome will be the same here in the U.S., come Election Day.


The stupid ideas just keep coming

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Two more examples of how not everybody shares equally in intelligence.

Stupid Idea #1

In North Carolina, they have 80 wineries that bring in more than $800 million a year to the economy. It’s become America’s tenth-biggest producer. So important is the industry that the state’s Department of Commerce commissioned a study earlier this year about wine tourism; among its findings were that by far the majority of people visit wineries for 2 reasons: to taste wine, and to buy wine.

So you’d think it’d be a no-brainer that when the North Carolina State Fair is held in Raleigh this week, wineries would be allowed to sell wine to the 850,000-plus visitors expected to attend. But no! The state’s Republican Agriculture Commissioner, Steve Troxler, says over his dead body. (For a report on the story in the Winston-Salem Journal, click here.)

Steve “No Wine” Troxler

I Googled Mr. Troxler’s name and found out a few facts about him.

– He’s North Carolina’s first Republican Ag Commish.

– He rode a tractor to his swearing in.

– He’s a tobacco grower. (Way to go, Steve. Alcohol’s bad – tobacco’s good. Huh?)

– Last year, Mr. Troxler and someone named Jeremy Troxler (son? brother? dad?) went to a “Convocation & Pastors’ School” event at Duke, where they presided over a seminar called “Growing in Grace in Rural Communities.” Hmm. I wonder if Jesus would have a word or two for tobacco growers whose products kill millions of people every year.

Stupid Idea #2

Now we’re in England, whose neoprohibitionists are as weird as ours. The government is considering forcing alcohol buyers in stores to use “alcohol-only checkouts which would be operated by specially-trained staff.” The purpose, according to The Telegraph:

“It is hoped it would put shoppers off from buying excessive amounts of alcohol under the scrutiny of fellow customers…”.

Oh, great. Picture it. You stop by Sainsbury’s for a nice bottle of Pommard for dinner, and endure the Perp Walk of Shame while the “normal” shoppers raise their eyebrows and tsk-tsk.

Who’s pushing for this insulting law? An ambitious young MP named Nigel Evans.

Mags & Nige

The Right Hon. Mr. Evans is (you guessed it) a Conservative, Britain’s equivalent of a Republican. Google tells us that Mr. Evans believes that sunspots, not carbon emissions, are the cause of global warming, and declared himself as among those “who don’t like being spoonfed by Al Gore.”

Good lord, why is it always the idiots?


A top designer’s advice on wine labels

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The San Francisco Business Journal last week had an article on a topic that’s long interested me: the importance of label design in marketing wine. The article talked about “people in grocery or wine stores looking perplexed” when confronted with the Wall of Wine. (Last June, I blogged on this topic.) So when I ran into my buddy Thomas Reiss, who owns one of the Central Coast’s top wine label design firms, Kraftwerk, I asked him seven questions concerning the ins and outs of label design. Here they are, with his answers.

Thomas Reiss

How do you come up with a label for a start-up brand?
TR: Three things. Research the target market. Then develop the best possible creative solution, which is often directed by the market. For example, we sometimes want to do something super-creative, but a lot of our clients are mainstream, so that would be a mistake. Finally, customer service. I wouldn’t mind having most of our clients over to my house, and a lot of people forget about that.

How does a winery know when it needs a label redesign?
TR: Sometimes, distributors will give them negative feedback that the brand is stale and they need to do something about it. But unfortunately, most brands don’t notice until it’s really hurting them, which makes it harder. The more ground you’re losing, the further behind you are. If you wait until your biggest distributor drops you, it’s too late, whereas if you do some research earlier, you have not as much to catch up.

What’s the worst idea you ever heard from an owner?
Oh, they’ll want to add more junk [like] bad colors. Or they’ll come in with a design and it’s just awful! But I always tell them. It’s one of the things I’m famous for, keeping it real.

What are the main target markets?
TR: There are three. Snobby high-end wine collectors where price doesn’t matter: “I have to have it.” The 25-35 age group, which is the fastest growing segment. Some designers think a label aimed at them has to be cool, hip, funky and crazy, but a lot of those people want to seem more grown-up and conservative. Finally, there’s the price shopper who wants a decent wine for a decent value.

If you gear to one demographic, how do you avoid turning off the other ones?
TR: That’s where you have to take into consideration other things. If you have a small production, you can afford to turn some people off. It gets harder as you get bigger. Then you have to make sure you don’t alienate people too much by putting all your eggs in one basket. The bigger you get, the more safe you have to get.

What’s your advice to wineries in these hard economic times?
TR: The most important thing is your price-value relation. A few years back, lots of wineries with a $20 bottle sold it for $30. Now, consumers are smarter. So you have to have the right price and keep it fair. The label is only a door-opener.


How does a wine region hit “the tipping point”?

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As a California wine writer, I’ve watched with fascination when a winegrowing region becomes a certified superstar. It happened with Carneros in the 1980s, the Santa Lucia Highlands in the 1990s, and certainly with Santa Rita Hills in the 2000s. Each went from nowheresville (defined as: anyplace not in Napa Valley or Sonoma County) to the bigtime. These regions hit “the tipping point,” the phrase coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2000 book of that name. He defined tipping points as “the levels at which the momentum for change becomes unstoppable.”

So it was really interesting to come across this blog in the online magazine c-ville, the Charlottesville (Virginia) News & Arts. In it, the writer, J. Tobias Beard, a good wine blogger, exults in the blossoming of the wine industry in his state. Virginia currently has 140 wineries, and “our wine tastes damn good,” he says. (I haven’t had a Virginia wine in many years, so I don’t know, but I’ve heard good things.) The new industry catch phrase, Beard writes, is “Virginia wines are at the tipping point.” But, he asks, a little plaintively, “How can Virginia wine Tip when most Virginians won’t even tip it into their glasses?” Only 5% of all wine consumed in Virginia is produced there.

Beard answers his own question: “[M]ore marketing.  Or better. Or smarter.” He wants state government to spend more on promoting local wines, and he takes particular aim at “those PR people who work for distributors and wineries” who fail to get Virginia wine on store shelves and restaurant wine lists.

I can feel Beard’s pain. California was very lucky in that our industry has been famous for well over a century, and has been able to build on that tradition, not just in the state but nationally and internationally. Virginia, and each of the other states (all 50 now have at least one bonded winery), may produce wonderful wines, but they have their work cut out for them. There is one thing Virginia could do to boost its wine industry, however. According to someone who commented on Beard’s blog, Virginia “sadly has not allowed wineries to sell directly to stores and restaurants in the commonwealth,” the way most of them can in California.  I researched it, and it’s true: Virginia wineries used to be able to self-distribute, but that ended in 2006, when a U.S. District Court ruled the practice unconstitutional. Last year, the Virginia legislature passed a law allowing the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to serve as a wholesaler for small wineries, according to this report from virginiabusiness.com. A new division in the Department can now make direct sales, on behalf of the wineries, to restaurants and stores. Only about half the state’s winery’s have signed on, though, and the biggest wineries haven’t because the law limits them to only 3,000 cases per year. Sounds like a typical bureaucratic mess, in which the distributors’ hand has been heavily applied. All I know is, if Virginia wineries could sell more wine in their state, more Virginians would tip it into their glasses, and that tipping point wouldn’t seem so far away.

P.S. I’ll be down at the Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend, moderating a couple dinners, through the weekend. But I’ve pre-posted (is that a word?) a couple posts, and look forward to resuming contact next week. Take care until then.


You won’t believe what the Brits want to do

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One of my favorite love-to-hate-them groups is the neopros (not to be confused with the neocons, although there may be some overlap). These are the neoprohibitionist types who are always looking to curtail alcohol use in any way they can. They’ve been particularly loud lately, and not just in America. From the continent of Africa to Australia and China, from Europe to right here, they’re active. Some of it is worthy: to stop binge drinking and alcohol abuse and, hopefully, cut down on drunk driving. But some of their latest stuff borders on the insane.

Take, for example, this report from Catersearch.com, an online hospitality industry site. It’s about a scheme the British government’s Department of Health is proposing. They issued a draft proposal that would

– ban happy hours
– prohibit waitstaff from pouring wine by the glass without first measuring the amount (I guess this means doing away with crystal stemware and using calibrated flasks instead)
– require every restaurant table to have a “responsible drinking” sign on it (maybe French Laundry can put them in little 24 karat gold frames)
– prohibit pubs from having “free for women” promotions

I checked out the actual provisions of the draft law at Britain’s Department of Health. There’s some good stuff in there, like training store staff not to serve underage or drunk people (same as Washington State is doing). But there are also some dumb proposals, like requiring off-premise stores to display alcohol only in designated areas. No more Chardonnay stacks by the lobster section or Cabernet near the chocolates! The new law also would compel pubs and restaurants to sell wine in small as well as large glasses. This is actually being done by smart restaurants already, but it shouldn’t be a government mandate.

The Department says it’s being forced to enshrine these practices into law because “voluntary agreements are not being followed.”

Pub owners are rightly concerned. The British Beer & Pub Association’s communications director told catersearch.com the new draft code “introduces a host of detailed regulations on the way every licensed business in Britain should be managed and run on a day-to-day basis, with all the accompanying enforcement and record keeping.” And more, that it would be onerous to “the entire leisure, tourism and hospitality business in the UK – hotels, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, historic houses, tourist attractions and late night food outlets.” Just what Britain, whose economy like ours is tanking, needs.

For crying out loud, England gave us Guinness and pubs! I hope the neopros on this side of the pond don’t push this kind of nonsense, and I don’t think they’d succeed if they did. But it won’t be for lack of trying.


Parker, Laube and me

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[Cue: theme from Jaws]

Just when I thought it was safe to be a wine writer with some, ahem, experience under my belt, it’s happened again. Another “You’re old, get out of the way” attack from — gasp! — a blogger.

After last summer’s dustups over the Rockaway thing and the Wine Spectator restaurant hoax, both of which sent the blogosphere into gales of chatter over old vs. new media, here it comes back again, nipping at the heels like a pesky chihuahua.

This time it‘s via a blog I was unfamiliar with, Wine Questers, which describes itself as “focused on wine tasting road trips and the winery experience.” These are good and useful things to blog about, so I’m not quite sure why the owners, Jim and Katya Preston, decided to go off-topic and post this rant provocatively headlined “The old wine media is shattering! (And, yes, the exclamation point is in the original.)

The Prestons cite three examples of what they call “the old media gang of Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast [and] Parker.” They also say that “Many California  vintners definitely want their influence to end.”

I’m honored for my magazine to be included on the short list of old media elites (although I don’t really think of Parker, Jim Laube and me as being members of the same gang), but the Prestons’ citation entitles me, I believe, to respond.

1. Can we please get over this old versus new thing? It’s tired.
2. Print media is not “shattering.” Well, admittedly, the economy is making everyone tremble a little bit, but it has nothing to do with age, or whether you’re print or digital.
3. Re: “California vintners want [our] influence to end,” there’s actually some truth to this, but not for the reason the Prestons imply. To the extent California vintners desire good reviews in order to promote their wines, it stands to reason that they welcome more critical voices. That way, if “x” gives someone a bad review but “y” gives them a good review, they can use y’s review in their PR. It has nothing to do with some silly old versus new preference.

Here’s the Prestons at the end of their rant: “So let the old wine media shrivel up and die on the vine.” Snarky, no? I’ll rise above the temptation to out-snark them to observe simply that there may be some ulterior motives going on in Prestonville. Their website is very ambitious. It aims to be (in its own words) the “critical interface between tasters and tasting rooms and winery Web sites.” It would be convenient for Wine Questers, I suppose, for the likes of Parker, Laube and me to shrivel up and die on the vine. But I don’t think we’re going to.


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