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What is a wine with “personality”?

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While we’re on the subject of storytelling (we are, in case you haven’t been reading steveheimoff.com lately), let’s consider the role of personality in a story. “A personality” is what people call a person who isn’t bland or forgettable, but instead someone who impresses himself on others through the sheer force of—well, personality.

Keep in mind the origins of our word “personality”: from the Latin persona, literally, “an actor’s face mask.” While each human being by definition has a “personality” (in the sense of a collection of personal characteristics), I’m more interested in what we mean when we say of someone, He’s a real personality,” as Jennifer Garner did of Matthew McConaughey, her co-star in Dallas Buyers Club. He’s a fantastic actor and he’s a real personality and he’s charismatic as hell,” she said in an interview.

“He’s a real personality” is also how a sports commentator referred to former Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

Clearly something more than just a collection of traits is going on here; people who impress us as “real personalities” have extra qualities that grab our attention and make us remember them—for better or for worse. That, I think, is the key to understanding the remark yesterday by a Tuscan winery owner concerning Chianti’s top-tier classification, Gran Selezione.

“The problem,” said Lorenzo Zonin, “was that Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva were almost a commodity, wines that didn’t have such a strong personality, so they said we have to find a way to give a value to such products that are outstanding.”

“Strong personality?” Is Mr. Zonin talking about the wine’s organoleptic qualities, or is he talking about the perception of the wine among the critical community and consumers? I confess I don’t know, but this meme of “personality” in wine ties in nicely to the storytelling aspect that has enveloped wine lately. It seems that every winery—and its marketing team—wants consumers to form a personal bond with the wine—as if they have a stake in it. This is the elusive “personality” of the wine that makes it distinct from every other wine.

Does having “a personality” add value to a wine? Why? Is it because the wine really does have objectively valuable extra qualities, or is it because the winery says it does? This is the eternal question.

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How do you know it’s not just a trend?

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Back in 1999, a wine writer, Randall Murray, called Sangiovese “the next Merlot,” by which he meant that the red grape native to Tuscany was poised to become one of the leading red wines of California.

Never happened, did it? Actually, by 1999, Sangiovese already had one foot in the grave. Ten years prior, one might have been forgiven for betting on it, but by the approach of the new Millennium, I think most of us knew that Sangiovese was in trouble in California.

Sangiovese in California was, in fact, a trend. Those who invested heavily in it, like Piero Antinori, failed to make good their hopes. Another more recent trend might be Moscato. After an amazing leap to prominence in the previous decade, sales of the wine were off dramatically last year, compared to the previous two years. Will the growers who installed so much Moscato regret their decision in 2020? If they do, it will be because, by then, we’ll know that Moscato was yet another trend.

This is the risk growers face. How do they know what variety has staying power? It’s quite easy to know when something is not a trend. Pinot Noir is not a trend. The wine company that invests in Pinot acreage in prime growing areas can be confident it is making a wise decision. It’s a lot harder to know when something is a trend. Growers exist in a tense world torn always between the realities of the past, the urgency of the present, and the exigencies of an unpredictable future. Granted, if they make a mistake, they can always graft their vines over to another variety. But this still causes them to lose precious years of productive time and money.

The ability to tell the difference between a trend and a real paradigm shift extends beyond the wine industry into all areas of retail. Companies have always hoped to cash in on trends (baby products, skincare, technology and fashion are among the top exemplars in this category). Apple Computer obviously succeeded better than anyone else in tech in trendspotting. In the fast-changing culture of 21st century America, where nothing seems fixed and permanent anymore, you might think CEOs are constantly looking for the next trend. But in what the Wall Street Journal is calling “a broader shift in retail,” more and more companies are showing “a preference for operators over trend spotters,” causing them to seek leaders “whose strength is in the nuts and bolts of retailing rather than flashy merchandising.”

The word “operators” refers to the operational skills of CEOs and their teams: the ability to actually move product, in a nation in which the middle class is uncertain and online shopping threatens traditional retail. Under such circumstances, it may only be natural for company leaders to take more conservative positions than in boom times, when experimenting on trendy new products—flashy merchandise–makes more sense because everyone has more money, and a company can afford a temporary setback. Nowadays, even a temporary setback may be a company’s tomb. Since one can never predict the future, and the success or failure of strategies can be measured only in retrospect, it’s too early to say whether or not this new, back-to-basics approach is not itself a trend.

For the wine industry, the portents are hard to read. A smart wine company cannot assume that what seems popular today will be popular in five years. At the same time, the smart winery can’t bury its head in the sand, ignoring evidence that things are changing. Success is always a matter partly of luck, but also of wise planning and an uncanny sense of what the future will bring; and planning itself involves no small degree of risk. My own advice to wine companies is to resist being seduced by the allures of current trends; what has worked in the past is likely to work in the future. If you’ve been doing something well for a long time, and there’s something glittery on the horizon that makes you worry because some people are all mesmerized by it, take measured steps. Don’t take the glitter for granted: check it out, understand it, be smart in analyzing what is it and where you think it’s going. But don’t make a wholesale leap and change your entire strategy just to ride a trend. If you do, you risk becoming the next Sangiovese.


The Wall of Wine, Stories, and Consumer Psychology

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I was on the panel of a wine event last week, and one of my fellow panelists was from one of the nation’s biggest Big Box grocery retailers. I asked him, “Will the infamous Wall of Wine be always with us?” and he answered, “Yes. Retail is here to stay.”

Indeed it is, as a basic function of human interaction: I buy something wholesale and sell it to you retail, for a profit. But as experience shows us, retail changes its external face constantly; and the Big Box, with its Wall of Wine, will not be with us forever—at least, in the form we know it.

The reason things are changing is simple to understand: Millennials.

“Online retailers have a huge edge with Millennials,” according to this 2013 study which took the example of a popular woman’s athletic tank top to illustrate Millennials’ disinclination to buy things in stores. “’I logged on, I found my Under Armour top, I pressed a button and got it 4 days later,’” a representative of the company that sponsored the study air-quoted a hypothetical Millennial on her satisfaction with the online experience. He added, “The younger respondents got, the less physical experience mattered” to them.

Contrast that with the number-one reason Baby Boomers cite for their preference to shop in traditional bricks-and-mortar stores: “instant ownership,” with 79% of them in the study citing that “as the most appealing attribute of any retailer, online or off.” This is why, according to the study, even though Amazon is the world’s biggest online retailer, its earnings in 2012 were only 13% of what Walmart cleared.

Baby Boomers may not have a problem with supermarkets, but it’s clear their children and grandchildren do. But Big Box heavyweights like Safeway aren’t about to roll over and go away. Instead, the study predicts, stores will “integrate the digital with the physical,” acquiring “online characteristics.” Such as? “Expect to see a place to pick up the stuff you bought online,” in a “retail locker” concept of retailing. Imagine buying a couple bottles of wine online from any site, and then—instead of waiting for days for it to be delivered to your house (and you might not even be home when it comes)—it will go straight to the “retail locker,” where it will not only be waiting for you, but will be presented to you “by people who like people,” not the often surly floor staff of supermarkets.

That sounds like a pleasant experience. What are the implications for the Wall of Wine? Not good. If inventory is purchased just-in-time, stores will have no reason to buy thousands of bottles they don’t even know they’ll be able to sell. The Wall of Wine will vanish, for the simple reason it will have outlived its usefulness.

* * *

And then there was the tasting I went to on Sunday at a local wine shop. It was of various coastal California Pinot Noirs. One of them (Porter-Bass 2012) started out smelling very funky, a phenomenon everyone who remarked on the wine noticed. (The funkiness, whatever the cause, blew off after a while.) I didn’t particularly care for it. Our host, however, liked it quite a bit, and explained, in some detail, the winery’s biodynamic approach to grapegrowing. Her preference for this wine was apparent to the guests, most of whom were amateurs with only little knowledge of wine. After she was finished speaking, one of the guests, who had noted the funkiness with what I thought was a critical attitude, said, “I thought it was too funky, until I heard your story. Now, I love it.”

Well, the top of my little head exploded at that. You know that we’ve been talking about “stories” quite a bit here at steveheimoff.com. Stories are the new black of marketing: the latest, hottest trend in the industry. Until my experience at that tasting, I had not perhaps appreciated the power of a good story, told by a trusted authority figure, to completely change the thinking of someone else. And not just to change their thinking: to actually change the way something smells and tastes to them!

I am in awe. Have to think more about this one. The host’s story didn’t work on me, but I’m not your typical wine consumer. Are average wine drinkers so unsure of their own perceptions that a testimonial from an expert can redirect them? Or does a good story, told passionately by a believer, somehow open up the mind of a skeptic so that he can perceive reality on a higher plane? If the latter is true, then what about a good story told passionately by someone who doesn’t even believe it, but is telling it only in order to sell a wine?

I don’t know the answers. There may be none. There may be different answers for different people. But I think all of us had better bone up on our story-telling abilities.


Emotion, the Bee Gees and Bill Harlan: The power of persuasion

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“It’s just emotion that’s taking me over,” the Bee Gees crooned—emotionally—on their 1978 hit, “Emotion,” a song of unrequited love and the pain it can cause.

We all know how powerful emotions can be. If strong enough, they can, and do, overrule reason and common sense, and “take over,” driving their human to perform irrational and sometimes even self-destructive acts. But emotion also can inspire people to supreme creative heights: Beethoven’s deep depressions turn up in his Third Symphony, the Eroica, which is steeped in grief. But his Ninth, the Choral, is an explosion of the most ecstatic joy. (The suggestion that Beethoven was bipolar seems retrospectively to make sense.)

Emotion plays a role in our experience of wine, too. A recent Australian study suggests that people are influenced by emotions spanning the gamut from warm-heartedness and nostalgia to anger, even when they’re tasting wines blind. It’s not clear to me that this particular study is of any use to winemakers, beyond being a fairly interesting academic exercise. Far more insightful is this blog post from Clinton Stark on his responses to receiving an offer to buy Promontory, a new project from Bill Harlan. (I myself haven’t tasted it, but two years ago Bill Harlan explained the project to me, and I subsequently wrote about it in Wine Enthusiast.)

Clinton’s appraisal is that the appeal of Promontory, a $400 Bordeaux blend, is pretty much exactly the same as that of “rarified, non-discretionary luxury goods,” like “a purse, a painting, a sculpture,” or, more specifically, “a Porsche.” All trigger “feelings” of “inexplicable and illogical lust,” the result of “marketing” pitches (in his case, Promontory’s offer letter) that cause “woefully uncontrollable…desire” in Clinton’s all-too-human heart.

Clinton has had, in other words, an emotional response to the offer letter. Even though he knows that Promontory is just another red wine, albeit (one imagines) a very good one (after all, Petrus and Romanée-Conti are also “just” red wines), some part of himself—which he knows is irrational—wants it. He has a good attitude about the whole thing, though: recognizes his emotional response, views it with the correct admixture of detachment and wry amusement, and decides ultimately not to buy the wine, but to add the offer letter “to my collection.”

Are we to conclude, then, that the producers of expensive wine merely resort to marketing ploys that prey on our emotional triggers? Were things only that simple! Humans are too complicated to divide desire into two categories: desire based on real need, and desire not based on real need, with the latter category somehow illegitimate or silly. We do have emotions; our emotions help to define our humanness. (And I’m not saying that animals don’t have emotions. As Gus’s dad, I see the full rainbow spectrum of his.) Part of desire is aspirational: the person who loses, or voluntarily denounces, his aspirations may be a Mother Theresa type, but as Plato knew, self-interest lurks everywhere, in our saints as well as in our sinners; who is without aspiration of some kind is dead. The desire for something fine and rare—a wine, a Philip Milic tattoo, a Lamborghini, a Ty Cobb baseball card, an Oscar, a Superman Action Comic No. 1, a trip to outer space on Virgin Galactic, a Papal blessing—may be irrational, in the sense that it is not strictly to sustain life. But neither are love and much of what makes life so rich and interesting.

And then, even as I wrote this blog post, the phone rang and who should it be but Bill Harlan. Serendipity, you dazzle me! This was of course before he could have known about my next day’s post. He called about something else. We talked about Promontory, and I told him it  would be in the next day’s post. I said also how much I’ve always respected him personally as well as his wine businesses. None of what I have written above is meant in the slightest degree to disparage him, or whoever wrote his offer letter. I don’t think that was Clinton Stark’s point and it certainly isn’t mine! A large part of Bill’s genius is in dreammaking. Let he who is without the sin of self-aggrandizement cast the first stone. I’m just saying that at some point, wine doesn’t get any better no matter how high the price soars. What the buyer is looking for can’t be measured or expressed or even justified: it’s “just emotion,” and sometimes it can feel so good to let it take over.

Have a safe and happy Labor Day weekend! Back on Tuesday. (And aren’t you glad the Seventies are over!)

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Print down, but not out, yet

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Observers of this nation’s media environment might be forgiven for being slightly manic-depressive. One day, everyone’s convinced print publications are headed for the trash heap; and the only question seems to be, How fast will this happen?

The next day, having imbibed the bracing tonic of some academic study or other, we remain confident print isn’t going anywhere. We hear that more Millennials are subscribing to magazines; that advertising is returning to print, having previously abandoned it during the Great Recession; that even young people are tiring of their obsession with (and enslavement to) mobile devices.

I, myself, have been consistent over the years in my position—which is not to say I’ve been correct, just that I’ve been saying the same thing all along. And that is in line with the “print isn’t going anywhere” theory. It has seemed to me that print publications are in a strong position to not just survive but thrive going forward, although I may be prejudiced, in terms of both my age (I grew up on newspapers and magazines) and my past career as a print guy.

Given the obscurity of the situation, no one really knows what’s going to happen to the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Which is why we so eagerly grasp every new study or factoid that comes along, hoping (perhaps against hope) that it will accord us some tidbit of understanding. The latest information comes via the Wall Street Journal, which last week reported that “Print Magazine Sales Decline in 1st Half of 2014,” a situation that must depress print fans. For the data—down 12% in newsstand sales compared to the 1st half of 2013—are especially troubling, since “Newsstand, or single-copy, sales have been considered the best gauge of consumer demand because they can’t be propped up by deeply discounted subscriptions or free copies distributed in public places such as doctor’s offices.”

(This last sentence strikes home. The discounts I’ve been offered to the magazines I subscribe to make me wonder how those magazines can stay in business at those prices; meanwhile, the three publications I see given away free, in almost all the hotels I stay at in California wine country, are the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Wine Spectator.)

Well, that’s print magazines. And what of digital? Up from 10.2 million last year to 11.6 million this year, a rise of 13.4 percent. But there’s this catch: “However, the category [digital] accounts for just 3.8% of the industry’s circulation,” a very small slice, and thus not particularly reassuring to financially-pressed publishers.

THE META-TAKE

Does any of this matter, except to publishers and their bank accounts? It does, if you think of a nation’s wine consumers as part of a community, in which group decisions are made, after a give-and-take (this is, after all, how wine trends become ensconced into traditions; for example, the rise of California Cabernet Sauvignon was a group decision, driven largely by the power of the media).

If you don’t care about group decision-making, then the dissolution of the media won’t bother you. After all (you may reason), a group that was based around print will simply cluster into a group based upon digital. Yes, but…If that happens, there will be, not one group, but many; not a single conversation (such as has always existed) but multiple ones. And when you have multiple conversations, each driven by its most vocal adherents, but none of which really touches upon the others, you have chaos, whether it’s in domestic affairs or in something as relatively calm as the wine industry.

All this drives wine marketers bonkers. They try to come up with messages that appeal to all groups, and realize how difficult that can be. The broader the message, the less refined it is; the more refined, the less broad; but this, at least, keeps marketing people employed.

Is this then the cloud, or the silver lining around it? I’m an eternal optimist. The marketing of wine is more fractionated than it has ever been, but this simply means that wineries have to work smarter, in order to succeed. Part of working smarter is producing better wine. Part of producing better wine means having your finger on the market’s pulse, and divining where the public is going. This, in turn, requires knowing how to tell the difference between a trend that is going nowhere, and an authentic shift in public preference. No easy task.


Do Millennials find wine “dull”? Let’s talk

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Once a headline is out there, it becomes “reality”—whether it’s based on reality or not. Thus, “Millennials: Wine Dull, Cocktails and Beer Exciting”, which is the header of this online article, is repeated on Lewis Perdue’s Daily News Fetch, so that people who don’t have time to actually research the topic—which is most of us—go away with the impression that Millennials are turning away from wine (if, in fact, they ever embraced it) in favor of the latest signature cocktail or craft suds.

The “dull wine” meme comes from this story in Wines & Vines, which based its own headline, “Wine Losing On-Premise Sales,” largely on the remarks of an MW who is the beverage director of a large restaurant chain, who said, “Cocktails and draft beer are more entertaining to [Millennials] than wine.” In a key quote concerning his own beliefs, the MW inplied that, for younger drinkers, beer and cocktails “feed the souls,” while wine presumably doesn’t, since it is not associated with the visual feast of “attractive, muscled bartenders with tattoos shaking cocktails like maracas and blenders whirling.”

Wow. I’ve seen plenty of muscled winemakers with tattoos, but it’s true that they’re not on public display the way mixologists are (and maybe they should be). Still, as much as I doubt the entire truth of the premise that Millennials are turning a cold shoulder to wine, there is in my own life some evidence of it. I have friends in their 20s and early 30s who really don’t care much about wine, but they do love a good glass of beer and if they’re in full party-on mode (which they frequently are late at night) it’s hard liquor they turn to. It’s always dangerous to base one’s conclusions on anecdotal evidence, but there’s little doubt that there are folks out there in their 20s and 30s who for whatever reason don’t perceive wine to be as cool as a local mini-brew with a badass label, or a glass of something hard with all kinds of fruits and colors swirling around.

Still, I come down on the side of Sara Schneider, the wine editor at Sunset, who was quoted in the Wines & Vines article as saying she doesn’t agree with the MW. Calling wine “almost de riguer in new restaurants,” she pointed also to the proliferation of wine bars as proof that Millennials, and drinkers of all age, remain dedicated fans of the grape. And then there was the floor manager I met yesterday from BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse. I asked him if his young customers think wine is dull and he said, in essence, hell, no. So once again this confusion underlies the fact that the market is incredibly complex; there’s no such thing as “Millennials”, there are individual millennials, and divining what they like and don’t like is an inexact science.

So it may or may not be true that Millennials see wine as dull; there are studies, and then there are studies, and you can generally find anything you want to with a Google search. Be that as it may, there are clues in this little debate concerning what wineries should be doing, from a marketing point of view, in order to remain competitive with beer and booze. If my experience is any indication, and I think it is, they have to get out there any and every way they can: on social media, on wine lists, at meet-and-greets, pouring in hotel lobbies and hosting events and in general hitting the road. The market is wide open right now for wineries to make fast, smart moves, by-passing traditional gatekeepers (who tend to be the most conservative people on earth) and plowing new ground. A winery that believes it’s been shut out of a particular market, such as Millennials, will be, because we make our own reality.


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