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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.


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.


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