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Another wine-rating system, this time based on 1,000 points

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Forget about arguing over the differences between 96 and 97 points. Now we can debate the finer distinctions between a score of 875 and 876. Or 943 and 944. Or 563 and 562. Whaaat?? That’s right. There’s a new wine rating kid in town, called Wine Lister, and it uses, not the familiar 100-point system, but a thousand point system.

No, this is not The Onion. How’s it work? Well, according to their website, they gather data from multiple sources “to give a truly holistic assessment of each wine,” and the reason for a 1000-point system is because Wine Lister “can actually differentiate to this level of precision [which protects] the nuance and meticulousness of the exercise.”

Well, yes, I suppose a 1000-point system can be described as more “nuanced” than a 100-point system. But really, people who believe in score inflation now have a powerful new arrow in their quiver with which to criticize numerical ratings. From their press release, Wine Lister seems to be using only three critics at this point: Jancis Robinson, Antonio Galloni and Bettane+Desseauve (a French-based, sort of a Wine-Searcher website).

At first consideration the notion of a 1000-point system sounds dubious. It does present us defenders of the 100-point scale a certain conundrum: after all, if the 100-point system is good, then a 1000-point system has to be better, right? Maybe even ten times better. Of course, this can lead to a logical absurdity: How about a 10,000-point system? A million-point system? You see the problem.

Of more interest to me than how many points the best system ought to have are the larger questions concerning the need for a new rating system, and the entrepreneurial aspects of Wine Lister’s owners to launch one at this time. Consumers already have many, many wine rating and reviewing sources to which to turn, both online and in print. They don’t seem to be demanding yet another one. Why does Wine Lister feel their time has come?

Well, maybe it has. Any startup is a gamble, and in the entrepreneurial world of wine reviewing, which seems to be undergoing tumultuous changes, anyone can be a winner. Antonio Galloni took a huge gamble when he quit Wine Advocate to launch Vinous, which has turned out to be such a huge success. Will Wine Lister be? I don’t know, but it has good credentials. What it has to prove is that it’s more than a simple compilation of Jancis-Antonio- Bettane+Desseauve reviews. They’re also factoring in Wine-Searcher, and there’s even an auction-value component (although most consumers won’t care about that). But beyond being a “hub of information” (from the press release), I think Wine Lister’s limitation is that wine consumers seem to want a personal connection to the recommender they listen to, which an algorithm cannot provide. I could be wrong. I’ll be following them on Twitter @Wine_Lister and we’ll see what happens.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


Scores, stores and wineries: a new analysis

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Every day, I get blast email advertisements from wineries or wine stores touting the latest 90-plus point score from Suckling, Parker, Vinous or some other esteemed critic. Here’s an example that came in on Saturday: I’m reproducing everything except the actual winery/wine.

_____ Winery’s ____ Napa Red Wine 2013 Rated 92JS.

Notice how the “92JS” is printed in the same font type and size as the name of the winery and wine. That assigns them equal importance; the rating and critic are virtually part of the brand. Later in the ad, they have the full “James Suckling Review” followed by a full “Wine Spectator Review” [of 90 points]. This is followed by the winery’s own “Wine Tasting Notes,” which by and large echo Spectator’s and Suckling’s descriptions.

Built along similar lines was a recent email ad for a certain Brunello: The headline was “2011 ____ Brunello di Montalcino DOCG”; immediately beneath is (in slightly smaller point size), “94 Points Vinous / Antonio Galloni.”

We can see that, in these headline and sub-heads, through physical proximity on the page or screen, the ads’ creators have linked the name of the winery and the wine to the name of the famous critic and his point score. One of the central tenets of advertising is to get the most important part of the message across immediately and strongly. (This is why so many T.V. commercials begin with the advertiser’s name—you hear and see it before you can change the channel or click the “mute” button.) In like fashion, most of us will quickly read a headline (even if we don’t want to) before skipping the rest of the ad. The headline thus stays in the brain: “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score.” That’s really all the winery or wine store wants you to retain. They don’t expect you to read the entire ad, or to immediately buy the wine based on the headline. They do expect that the “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score” information will stay embedded in your brain cells, which will make you more likely to buy the wine the next time you’re looking for something, or at least have a favorable view of it.

This reliance of wineries and wine stores on famous critics’ reviews and scores is as strong as ever. There has been a well-publicized revolt against it by sommeliers and bloggers, but their resistance has all the power of a wet noodle. You might as well thrash against the storm; it does no good. The dominance of the famous wine critic is so ensconced in this country (and throughout large parts of Asia) that it shows no signs of being undermined anytime soon. You can regret it; you can rant against it; you can list all the reasons why it’s unhealthy, but you can’t change the facts.

Wineries are complicit in this phenomenon; they are co-dependents in this 12-Step addiction to critics. Wineries, of course, live and die by the same sword: A bad review is not helpful, but wineries will never publish a bad review. They assume (rightly) that bad reviews will quickly be swept away by the never-ending tsunami of information swamping consumers.

Which brings us back to 90-point scores. They’re everywhere. You can call it score inflation, you can argue that winemaking quality is higher, or that vintages are better, but for whatever reason, 90-plus points is more common than ever. Ninety is the new 87. Wineries love a score of 90, but I’ve heard that sometimes they’re disappointed they didn’t get 93, 94 or higher. Even 95 points has been lessened by its ubiquity.

Hosemaster lampooned this, likening 100-point scores to Oprah Winfrey giving out cars to the studio audience on her T.V. show. (“You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car! And YOU get a car! Everybody gets a car!”) Why does this sort of thing happen? Enquiring minds want to know. In legalese, one must ask, “Cui bono?”—Who benefits? In Oprah’s case, she’s not paying for the cars herself; they’re provided by the manufacturers, who presumably take a tax writeoff. It’s a win-win-win situation for Oprah, the automakers and the audience.

Cui bono when it comes to high scores? The wineries, of course, and the wine stores that sell their wines (and put together the email blast advertisements). And what of the critics?

Step into the tall weeds with me, reader. A wine critic who gives a wine a high score gets something no money can buy: exposure. His name goes out on all those email blast advertisements (and other forms of marketing). That name is seen by tens of thousands of people, thereby making the famous wine critic more famous than ever. Just as the wine is linked to the critic in the headline, the critic’s name is linked to the 90-plus wine; both are meta-branded. (It’s the same thing as when politicians running for public office vie for the endorsement of famous Hollywood stars, rock stars and sports figures: the halo effect of fame and glamor by association.) There therefore is motive on the part of critics to amplify their point scores.

But motive alone does not prove a case nor make anyone guilty. We cannot impute venality to this current rash of high scores; we can merely take note of it. Notice also that the high scores are coming from older critics. Palates do, in fact, change over the years. Perhaps there’s something about a mature palate that is easier to please than a beginner’s palate. Perhaps older critics aren’t as angry, fussy or nit-picky about wine as younger ones; or as ambitious. They’re more apt to look for sheer pleasure and less apt to look for the slightest perceived imperfection. With age comes mellowness; mellowness is more likely to smile upon the world than to criticize it.

Anyhow, it is passing strange to see how intertwined the worlds of wineries, wine stores and wine critics have become. Like triple stars caught in each others’ orbits, they gyre and gimble in the wabe, in a weird but strangely fascinating pas de trois that, for the moment at least, shows no signs of abating.


What a beer company can teach wineries about videos

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I buy a lot of wine direct from wineries. The best and fastest way to do this is through their website. Those shopping carts and “Place Order” buttons make life a lot easier. But I do have a gripe. If your shipping address is different from your billing address, why do you have to enter your birth date for both? If someone can explain that to me, I’ll give you free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.

Some wineries apparently haven’t caught up to the 21st century, though. They list their wines on their websites—but still make you call the tasting room to order the old-fashioned way, through a person. I just did this the other day and it took about 15 minutes for a single bottle. The person kept asking me to spell my name, to give my phone number again, etc. etc., and then I kept hearing her talk to herself, saying stuff like “Hmm, this isn’t working right, just give me a second.” And this wasn’t some mom-and-pop winery in the boondocks but a major winery owned by an international corporation. What’s up with that? So Nineties.

Then there are the wineries that don’t let you order their wines at all unless you’re a club member. Their websites are the digital equivalent of a doormat that says “Go Away, and Don’t Bother Us, Ever Again!” You can’t even sign up to be a club member, you have to email them and hope someone will get back to you. I suppose this is done to make their wines appear exclusive—but it’s very snobby.

Winery websites should be places people want to go to and hang out for a little while. They shouldn’t make you feel anything negative. Along those lines, the drinksbusiness reported yesterday that Miller Lite beer apparently is “lost…again,” a reference to their “distributors [being] agitated” because the brand is “sick.” So Miller Lite’s parent company, MillerCoors, is looking for a “new breakthrough ad campaign.”

Well, that’s very strange, because on the same day (yesterday) I got a report from the latest Nielsen data (sorry, no link) that MillerCoors volume overall is down in the last 12 weeks, year over year; but Miller Lite volume grew by +1.5% y/y in the period.” !!! That would indicate that Miller Lite is not sick and may be carrying the company’s other SKUs! Anyway, I went to Miller Lite’s website to see if there’s anything sick about it, and I have to say, their videos are great. I watched all 15 of them and loved the ones that take place in the grocery store. (The Troy Aikman video is classic.) I realize that making videos costs money and not all wineries can afford it; but Miller Lite’s are SO much more creative and entertaining than the typical winery video that has a winemaker or owner giving some boring spiel about terroir and passion. (The Miller ones that show the closeups of golden brew and the brewmaster, Dr. Ryder, are not as interesting.)

Wineries tend to be overly timid in their approach to videos. So many of them are cut from the same mold: boring, predictable, with string quartets trying to get a classy feel. I think some winery owners are conservative and live in a bubble where they think because they’re making videos they think are classy, everybody else will be fascinated by them. Sorry, that’s not how it works. The Miller Lite videos should be object lessons for how to capture the consumer’s attention. And just because they’re funny doesn’t mean that a “serious” brand can’t use humor and human interest. I love that the people in the Miller Lite videos are “real.” Of course, they’re actors, but they look and sound real, and the store looks like the sort of place I’d buy something from—not Premier Cru!

And that’s what we want to see on the Internet, isn’t it? Real people, like us, not talking heads who sound like they’re reading from a teleprompter.


Content, schmontent and impact

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The subject of the impact of social media on the actual sale of wine, as opposed to merely creating some short-lived buzz, has long been considered in my blog, as well as throughout the greater Internet community.

The question always has been: What do all those page views and visits mean? Do they translate into moving cases—or are they merely feel-good statistics that, from an economic point of view, are meaningless?

Attempts have been made to measure the “metrics” of such statistics, and sometimes these analyses look very good and thorough. But behind the spreadsheets, graphs and pie charts has been a continuing mystery wrapped in an enigma: What’s the point of it all? It’s rather like that old Zen koan, “What if they created a site that had big numbers, and nobody ever bought anything?”

This is the topic of an important article two days ago in BuzzFeed. It quoted the company’s founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti: What matters most, and what all these metrics should try and point to is impact.”

Impact! Now we’re talking.

He asks pertinent questions: “Does [social media] have an impact on people’s actual lives, are people using the content, is it something that matters to them?” Because if the answers are no, no and no, then content, schmontent, none of it matters.

BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, illustrated the unimportance of fancy metrics by comparing them to “artworks hang[ing] on the wall.” They may be pretty to look at, they may make you feel good, but they don’t pay the bills.

Peretti and Smith don’t claim to have definitive answers for achieving impact as well as metrics. Too bad, because that’s the Holy Grail. But then, after all these years, we shouldn’t expect instant solutions. However, Peretti does offer some ideas, which he poses as questions:

Does the editorial asset work across platforms?

Does it help people connect with each other?

Does it help people improve their lives?

Does it inform the public and change institutions?

Does it make the world more open and diverse?

Now, if you’re thinking that these are pretty lofty ambitions for a winery, you’re right: Peretti is thinking in terms of his company, which is making a play to be a serious media outlet. BuzzFeed may worry about making the world more peaceful and diverse; a winery is more concerned about moving last year’s inventory before the new one comes piling in.

But what Peretti is onto, I think, is that successful social media campaigns—the ones with impact—somehow are more than just themselves. They are created with intelligence and passion, such that readers or viewers feel that connection to the winery. They are inclusionary: they make all people feel part of the story. They’re not just slammed out willy nilly, like auto parts on an assembly line, in order to fulfill today’s Twitter quota. Rather, they form a continuing narrative—sort of like a really good T.V. series—that people want to revisit, to see what happens.

You know, there’s been talk of the evolution of social media as a selling platform, and maybe, in some cases, that’s true. But, as a wise man once pointed out, “There isn’t a version two or three if there isn’t a great version one.” People involved in the creation of social media campaigns should keep this in mind, and that word “impact” at the forefront of their consciousness.


As consumers turn against Big Box stores, supermarkets feel the heat

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The death of the Big Box store (think Wal-Mart) has been widely predicted, as for instance here, here and here.

Just about every major trend we’re following right now bodes poorly for power center retail,” says the Business Insider article. Those trends include the facts that “Americans are driving less than they have in decades. Populations are flocking to smaller, urban communities over sprawling suburbs. And consumers in their 20s and 30s increasingly prefer small, local shops to big-box retail.”

It took a little longer for this rejection of the Big Box concept to spread to the big supermarket, but now, it has. The U.K. last year saw its first decline in supermarket sales in two decades, and America isn’t immune: “U.S. supermarkets are stuck in time-warp,” USA.com announced, adding, “The bland midmarket, hi-lo, be-all-things-to-all-men strategy is not working.”

Speaking of Mid-Market and supermarkets, today’s San Francisco Chronicle has a front page article, “Trying to mimic Ferry Building on Mid-Market” [link not yet available], that tells the story of how a big supermarket, Market on Market, faltered, precisely because it tried to “be-all-things-to-all-men.” A little background: The Mid-Market stretch of S.F.’s Market Street has for years been a sorry spectacle of homelessness, drug dealing, prostitution and low-end stores. That all began to change when San Francisco persuaded Twitter to headquarter there (in exchange for controversial tax benefits). Now, Mid-Market is becoming a yuppie haven: rents there are going up as fast as anywhere in the city. Mid-Market had never had a nice supermarket. So the owners of Market on Market thought the time was ripe to open one.

Turns out their assumptions were wrong. Those young tech workers don’t want a big supermarket. They want what Whole Foods offers: ready-to-eat food, often impulse-driven, and small, specialty cubicles run by independent purveyors: a pizzeria, ramen shop, créperie, sushi bar, fish monger, tea shop, microbrewery and so on. They want, in other words, to feel as though they’re in the marketplace of some old European village. So that’s what Market on Market will now offer them: similar to what famous Ferry Plaza has been offering shoppers for many years.

San Francisco being the trend-setter it is, this movement likely will spread around the country, first to other urban areas and then to hipper suburbs. It’s reflective of the same yearning for authenticity and quality we see in the wine industry and the consumer’s preference for wines of terroir, connected to the land and owned by a family—wines with stories that make people feel more human. I know that, speaking for myself, it’s almost unbearable to shop at Safeway anymore. The place just seems like, well, it’s stuck in a time-warp from 1965. Whole Foods is much more in my comfort zone (although it’s more uncomfortable from a dollar point of view); and Rockridge Market Hall is even more of a trip for me: I can’t exactly explain the exaltation I feel when shopping there, but where Safeway feels pedestrian, Market Hall feels like a trip to the Marché International de Rungis without leaving Oakland.

It always surprises me to see so many young people thronging my local Whole Foods: I wonder where they get the money. But they do, and whatever their financial situation maybe, it’s clear that they’re voting with the wallets for higher quality food, the feeling of being philosophically and organically connected to what they put into their bodies, and a more welcoming shopping experience. The wine industry could learn from this example.


Wine, beer and spirits for Millennials: which is cooler? (Hint: It’s not wine)

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I’m interested to the point of obsession with industry issues, such as who’s buying wine, how it’s doing with Millennials, price points and so on. One thing I’ve been keeping my eye on is restaurants. Everybody loves to eat out, but what are they drinking with their food?

The conventional wisdom of the past few years is that wine is losing ground to craft beer and cocktails. I’ve tended to agree: Beer and mixed drinks are getting a lot of love from the media, with all those tattooed mixologists and craft brewers grabbing the headlines (and spotlights; layout editors know exactly who looks good on the page or screen). Wine by contrast seems stodgy. It’s not, of course, and never has been, and remains my favorite; but for some reason, wine seems less hip lately than beer and mixed drinks.

Forbes has written an interesting article along these lines, citing Paul Franson, of Wines & Vines, that Millennials [have] gravitated toward cocktails and craft beer,” and moreover, that when Millennials do drink wine in restaurants, the wines tend to be those that are “hot,” which I take to mean things like Muscat or orange wine, which have no lasting value at all.

This squares with my observations of my Millennial friends in Oakland, a very hip town, on the cutting edge of most cultural things, and thus an interesting case study. What happens in Oakland, from hip hop to fashion in clothing not to mention politics, often leapfrogs across the country.

And the truth is, my friends in their 20s and 30s like to drink; in fact they drink a lot, bless their little souls, but what they’re not drinking is wine. They are, as Forbes and Franson point out, downing cocktails and beer.

Why? The answer is important, but not simple. On one level they see wine as the alcoholic beverage of their parents if not their grandparents. Why is that? Because beer and cocktails don’t make a big deal about their intellectual components, the way wine does with notions of terroir, etc. Another is that beer and cocktails don’t pretend to be about anything else but getting buzzed. Wine tries to hide the impact of its alcohol. It always has, especially at the top levels, where it portrays itself as offering an experience that is intellectual, sensual, hedonistic, imaginative, fabulous—anything and everything but a liquid that makes you high. Wine seems almost embarrassed by its alcoholic content, which is why this entire argument against alcohol levels has arisen. Is vodka embarrassed by alcohol? Is tequila? Are IPAs? Of course not. But wine likes to pretend it has no alcohol.

I don’t know how we got into this situation. Possibly it’s because the intellectual conversation about wine got started a lot earlier than our conversations about beer and spirits. Between the Bible, the medieval references to wine, Thomas Jefferson and so on, wine has assumed an august place in the culture. Nobody was praising beer and spirits two and three hundred years ago. Maybe, back then, they were ashamed of wine’s alcoholic effects on the brain and body, so they avoided writing about them. We have inherited that tradition today.

I’m not suggesting we should brag about how high wine gets you. But the fact that beer and spirits tend to be grabbing Millennial attention strongly suggests a new approach to how we portray wine. We need to make wine cooler, sexier, and more relevant to a generation that instinctively recoils against canned messages and cheap advertising slogans. There is, in its essence, no reason why wine is less attractive than beer and spirits. But the way we’ve been communicating about wine hasn’t been enough to convince Millennials that it’s something they should feel cool about ordering in a restaurant. Can we change that?


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