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Wine country gears up to attract gay wedding $$$

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California wine country is hoping Proposition 8 is defeated next month, not out of the kindness of their hearts, but due to the tightness of their budgets. Wine country has become a mecca for gay and Lesbian couples to get married. (Prop 8 would add an amendment to the State Constitution banning gay marriage.) So lucrative are the potential profits that counties have started aggressive ad campaigns to attract same-sex weddings.

Yesterday, Sonoma State University, in Santa Rosa, released a study forecasting that 430 to 865 new jobs would be created between 2009 and 2011 from same-sex weddings in Sonoma County, while new wages for new and existing workers will total $13.7-$27.6 million. And Sonoma County’s Tourism Bureau has this link, headlined Sonoma Wine Country for Gay Marriage and Honeymoons. According to Sonoma County Vintners, at least 13 Sonoma wineries offer their facilities for weddings, although the number seems obviously greater than that.

Over in Napa, according to the San Francisco Sentinel newspaper (which broke the Sonoma State story), Napa County officials also will likely react to the defeat of Proposition 8 and position their county to compete for same-sex wedding revenue. There’s already an online gay wedding site for Napa listing “Gay/Lesbian-friendly wedding sites” (Tra Vigne, V. Sattui). One-stop shoppers can go to Undiscovered Napa/Sonoma for gay marriage help; the site claims to have “relationships with over fifty accommodations and unique locations that include private homes, elegant inns, ranches, B and Bs, spectacular hotels or a simple wine cottage.”

In near-bankrupt California, all the major wine counties (especially in the North Coast) want their share of the lucrative gay wedding industry. A study from the UCLA School of Law predicts that 120,000 gay couples will be married in California over the next 3 years (assuming Prop 8 loses), spending an estimated $700 million annually. Regardless of their personal politics (and wine country can be a pretty conservative place), that’s hard cash for schools, firefighters, cops and roads.


The U.S. needs something like Britain’s WSET and WSTA to help the wine industry

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Decanter reported today that Britain’s Wine & Spirit Education Trust and its sister organization, The Wine & Spirit Trade Association, have launched 2 new programs to plug a “skills gap in the industry.”

Here in California (and I suspect in the rest of the states, all 50 of which now have bonded wineries) there are plenty of “skills gaps” and we might benefit from studying how the Brits plug them.

There are 2 kinds of skills gaps in the wine industry: Winemakers (or winery owners) all too often are lousy businessmen, and people on the business side (wholesalers, distributors, sales) are sometimes quite deficient in their actual knowledge of wine.

I’ve seen these twin, related phenomena ever since I started writing about wine. I used to be amazed at how somebody would start up a winery with no business plan, no understanding of how to sell, and not even an appreciation of what kinds of wine the public wanted. You’d think that would be less so these days, but it’s not. I could name some tremendously wealthy individuals who lost fortunes because they just didn’t have a clue.

Then there are those folks on the business side. When I first started meeting distributor and sales types, I was stunned to realize they could just as easily have been peddling widgits as wine. Wine was just another commodity to them; they were concerned with SKUs and margins and such, which, of course, they had to be, but to someone like me — who had a passion for wine — many of them seemed almost crude.

The new British initiative is designed to address these very skills gaps. The business people will learn more about wine appreciation from the likes of Jancis Robinson, while the wine people will learn more about business from the likes of Constellation’s European chief, Troy Christensen.

Here’s the money quote, made last Friday by WSET’s chairman, Ian Harris: “Some people have a strong FMCG [Fast Moving Consumer Goods] background, but little understanding of the peculiarities of the wine business, and others have strong wine knowledge but relatively undeveloped business skills.”

America needs something along these lines or, if our huge country is too big for a single organization, then California needs something like it. The Wine Institute is more of an advocacy and public policy organization, lobbying at state and Federal levels. Although their work (which covers everything from sustainability, export issues and Pierce’s disease to direct shipping and advertising standards) is important, it doesn’t really address the issues that WSET/WSTA does.

R.I.P.

My old friend, Sid Goldstein, died last month, too young at the age of 61. I knew him during the many years he was Fetzer’s PR top gun. Sid was a great gourmet, and his book, The Wine Lover’s Cookbook, is one of the best food-and-wine pairing books ever. Sid will be missed.


Technorati: The State of the Blogosphere is Very Good

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Technorati, an online search engine for searching blogs, is issuing its second annual State of the Blogosphere report in 5 parts, running all this week. It’s extremely worth keeping up with, as it’s become the go-to overview on the developing world of all blogs, not just wine.

Day 1’s analysis was on Who Are the Bloggers? Technorati reports we’re mostly college graduates, and nearly half of us attended grad school. (I did.) We skew male, and have a household income above $75,000. (Ditto here.) Half of bloggers are on their second blog (I now have 2) and 59% have been blogging for more than 2 years. (I started just last May.)

Day 2, The What and Why of Blogging, asked why blogs have become so big, so fast. Technorati couldn’t really answer this question, but in interviewing bloggers they found most “consider their style to be sincere, conversational, humorous and expert.” Most bloggers do not engage in tell-all gossip, and don’t want to. I’ll offer this thought on blogging’s explosive popularity: It’s the Internet, which is the biggest thing in the world! People were addicted to the Internet before blogging got big; blogs just give them one more reason to go to their computers.

Day 3’s topic was The How of Blogging. This was of particular interest to me. I was not surprised to find that one in four bloggers spends at least ten hours a week at blogging. Nor was I surprised by this finding: “The most influential bloggers are even more prolific.” I probably spend 12-15 hours a week blogging, if you count the research that goes into the back end of a proper post. Technorati also said that bloggers are “tremendously sophisticated in leveraging the available tools to make their blogs more robust,” such as video and photos. I posted a You Tube video here a while back, and I plan to do so again, because people seemed to like it.

Day 4′s topic (today) is Blogging for Profit. Technorati addressed only one revenue stream: advertising, although surely there are other potential sources. Slightly less than half of all bloggers surveyed have no advertising, with the majority explaining they’re not interested in making money. But I know for certain that a lot of wine bloggers would like to make as much money as they can through their blogs. And I wouldn’t bet against them. They’re smart cookies. As for this blog, I don’t make a dime off it. I do not accept advertising, yet. I may look into it someday, but right now, it’s too much of a hassle.

Tomorrow’s topic is called Brands Enter the Blogosphere. I guess Technorati is referring to big companies. That’s already happening, bigtime. Here is Fortune Magazine’s list of 500 corporate blogs, defined as “active public blogs by company employees about the company and/or its products.” (I have to assume the employer companies are aware of them and approve.) They include Boeing, Google, General Motors, Xerox and Wells Fargo. And many wineries have started blogs. A blog is good public relations, and a cheap investment that could have big payoffs. The business world obviously believes there’s money to be made in blogs.


Beer the new wine? Yawn…

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The Atlanta Constitution has an interesting article called Is beer becoming the new wine? that caught my eye, because it comes on the heels of that Gallup Poll that said how beer has opened up a double-digit lead over wine as the favorite beverage of American alcohol drinkers.

Now, wine lovers are justifiably proud of the gains their favorite beverage has made over the decades, but attached to this pride is always a little apprehension that what we all worked for so hard could be snatched away as quickly as, well, Lehman Brothers’ profits. America is at heart not a wine-drinking culture like Italy or Spain or France, but a beer and hard spirits one (or a tee-totaling one, but that’s a different story). Ale and moonshine are what our country was built on (Thomas Jefferson’s penchant for Yquem notwithstanding), and for all wine’s popularity, you just have to look at the way (mainly) Republicans refer to its effeteness to realize that a lot of people look at wine as something drunk in elite, affected San Francisco, not the heartland. Hell, when Hillary tried to prove during the Primaries she had cojones, it wasn’t an amusing little Pinot Grigio she sipped, but a frosty mug of brewsky.

You chug, girl!

Beer and wine have always been on opposite sides of the great divide in America’s social wars, with beer laying claim to the working class — and that Gallup Poll suggests that, in tough economic times, the working class’s collar is a little bluer and more frayed than usual.

So for the Atlanta Constitution to suggest that beer is the new wine is a little scary. Slate had a similar story last year, and NBC’s Today morning show even had a segment on “beer is the new wine” in which an editor at Food & Wine made food-pairing suggestions. In that Constitution article, they said how the chef at a popular restaurant was pairing rainbow trout stuffed with smoked oysters and bacon over sweet potato hash and crispy fried leeks with a German-style malt called Twain’s Autumnfest.

Now wait a minute! Beer can’t have it both ways. It can’t be blue collar, C&W and chewin’ tobacco one minute, then turn around and be the twinkle-toed partner for some fancy pants chef’s expensive, precious entree the next. Sarah Palin won’t stand for it, and you don’t want to get on gun-totin’ Sarah’s bad side, especially with that heartbeat-away thing we may have to deal with pretty soon. I have it on reliable authority that the only food Todd Palin would ever eat with beer is pickled eggs and moose jerky.

Sorry for the Sarah segue! Sometimes I just can’t help myself. All I wanted to say is that beer isn’t a threat to wine. Ask any winemaker, especially during harvest, when they bring the suds in by the tanker. Beer, wine, it’s all good. I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.


Emerging lessons from that “Dispatches” TV program

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Two days ago I blogged about the British television program Dispatches’ “exposé” about additives in wine. I explained how the show had created a furor in Merrie Olde England, and how the hysteria is likely to find its way here. Now, the brouhaha is going global. Decanter yesterday headlined with this stating that the “Wine world [is] outraged at Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ doc.” Down under in Oz, the head of that country’s Wine and Brandy Corporation called the program “a beat up … It’s like saying ‘shock horror, cars are made of metal and plastic’ – what do people expect?”

This tempest, which may not be confined for long to a teapot, got me thinking. At first, I was tempted to conclude that the Dispatches show was just one more sorry example of Gotcha! “journalism” [think: Mondovino], the desperate sortie of a producer trying to drum up controversy (which drums up advertising). But the more I ponder the situation, the more I see how it relates to an inter-related web of far bigger issues. A few month ago, in a post at my Wine Enthusiast blog on “why everything tastes like everything else”, I referred to a phenomenon I called Stocalism. I suggested that, with everybody in California now using the same consulting winemakers and vineyard managers, we’re getting “a sameness of character” that is very apparent to someone like me, who tastes close to 4,000 wines a year.

In researching this posting, I came across a term I was unfamiliar with: alcopop. Wikipedia defines it as a derisory term used to describe cheap, fruity-alcoholic drinks aimed primarily at young people, but the word has migrated over to describe a certain style of wine.  See, for example, this, from the online Australian tabloid MailOnline, which links the term “alcopop” with another wine-derisory word I blogged about last June, Frankenwine, referring to genetically-modified grapes and their resulting wines.

So we have a continuum: Frankenwine … alcopop … and, now, additives. They are three links in a chain, or perhaps the better metaphor is three weights on the scale of growing public concern over what we put into our bodies. The first two weights may not have been enough to politically tilt the balance. The third weight — additives — may just send it reeling, when the debate breaks into public consciousness. As I wrote two days ago, the coming battle over TTB’s impending decision on mandatory allergen labeling is going to be the wine industry’s equivalent of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Both sides had better get into condition, starting now.


Industry braces for rules on label disclosure of wine additives

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Tom Wark, at Fermentation, alerted us yesterday to the British newpaper Telegraph’s article on “unauthentic ingredients” in wine in the form of oak chips, but this was only the visible tip of a gigantic iceberg roiling the waters in Great Britain over the use of additives, and about to spill over bigtime to our shores.

In what looks like a testing of the waters, the defense of the use of wine additives a few days ago by the CEO of Britain’s largest wine industry lobbying group, The Wine and Spirit Trade Association, signaled that the alcoholic beverage industry is taking seriously threats to require labels to disclose all the ingredients in the bottle, and is fighting back.

The CEO of the 320-member group of producers, wholesalers, bottlers, retailers and others, Jeremy Beadles, told Channel 4’s Dispatches (a kind of Sixty Minutes program) that “The winemaking process is governed by strict regulations designed to ensure products meet stringent health and safety standards.” Dispatches aired a segment highly critical of additives, of which the European Union allows at least 50, in the form of flavorings, preservatives, enzymes, fining agents and so on. The Dispatches program provoked a storm of controversy throughout England, with bloggers like Jamie Goode yesterday slamming Channel 4 for producing “a desperately poor programme,” while consumers praised it for alerting them to facts previously unknown. Check out this commentary from Jane Moore, a columnist for The Sun newspaper, who’s in favor of complete disclosure on labels. She wrote, “One producer told us it [disclosure] would be tantamount to ‘commercial suicide,’ presumably because it might put the customer off and result in lower sales.”

On this side of the pond, Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm famously came out for full label disclosure last December. The federal Tax and Trade Bureau issued a proposal of rulemaking (Notice No. 62, updated by No. 64) that would require disclosure of all potential “allergens,” which seems to be simply a synonym for additives. Wine Institute, California’s leading association of producers, strongly opposes such a new law, as evidenced by this remarkable 34-page letter to TTB from Wine Institute’s President, Robert P. Koch.

At this point, Wine Institute’s Gladys Horiuchi says she has no idea when or if TTB will issue their final ruling. But TTB spokesman Art Resnick says there will be one, sooner or later. The holdup: the Food and Drug Administration is holding hearings on its Food Allergen Awareness program, “and we [TTB] need to be consistent with what FDA does,” Resnick asserts. TTB, in other words, is dotting its “i”s and crossing its “t”s so they can build up a scientifically airtight case for mandatory disclosure. With heavyweights like TTB and Wine Institute squaring off, the food allergy lobby mobilizing, and bloggers just waiting to stir things up, this smackdown is going to be interesting.


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