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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.”


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.


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