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A wine lunch at Michael Mina

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We had a fantastic lunch at Michael Mina yesterday (don’t even get me started on the short ribs!). It was my first sales trip (for Jackson Family Wines), to which they had invited a small bunch of top sommeliers in the Bay Area. The wines were no slouches: Matanzas Creek 2012 Bennett Valley Sauvignon Blanc (awesome with the hamachi sushi), Stonestreet 2011 Broken Road Chardonnay (so crisp and lemony-minerally), 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 Cardinale and 2007 and 2009 Verite La Muse. Two of those wines (2006 Cardinale and 2007 Verite) were among the only five wines I ever gave perfect 100s to during all my years at Wine Enthusiast, so it was pretty special to taste them again. The ’06 Cardinale of course had more bottle age than it did when I reviewed it (in 2009, I think it was), and it was just about as beautiful as Napa-Bordeaux wine gets. OMG I wouldn’t mind having a few cases of that! The 2010 being younger was more tannic, and if it didn’t have the sheer dazzle of the ’06 it had plenty of elegance. As the late, great Harry Waugh would say, it will make a great bottle.

As for the Verities, what can I say. That Alexander Mountain Estate (where the grapes come from) is one of the world’s great vineyards and if you think I’m saying that just because I work for JFW you don’t know me or the estate. Somebody said that Verite wines have had ten 100s (one from me, nine from Parker), more than any other California wine. I don’t know that for an absolute fact, but there’s no question that Pierre Seillan is doing amazing things up there on that mountain. (By the way, this led to a little conversation about whether Bordeaux blends are better from a single vineyard or a blend. Unlike Verite, Cardinale is a blend: the 2006 was from Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, To Kalon, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain and St. Helena, but, as I said, it was absolutely a 100-point wine. So, no, a great Bordeaux blend can be a blend OR a single-vineyard wine. And there’s no reason in principle why a great Pinot Noir can’t be a blend, if you think about it.)

I so enjoyed being with those smart, young somms. They ask the best questions. One in particular, Ian Burrows, from Atelier Crenn, in the Marina, really hit me up with some great ones. Why do I give high scores to some varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir) and not to others? I explained that, since I reviewed only California wines, although I might like, say, a Pey-Marin Riesling, I’m not about to give it 100 points, or a Charbono from Summers or a Gruner from Von Strasser, much as I like those wines. He pressed me, which was delightful, because it makes me think more deeply about stuff than if I’m just thinking off the top of my head. To be interrogated like that—not in a mean, threatening, third-degree way, but in a journalistic, curious way—is very good. It makes you justify your thoughts and actions and think about things you might not have fully thought out before.

The somms asked lots of questions about being a wine critic and scoring and how do you taste and so forth, and at one point—we were talking about blind tasting—I found myself saying something I’d never said before, at least, with such conviction. “Wine critics really should be held to higher standards of accountability,” I said. There is so much we don’t know about how they taste and review wines. I added, “With all the immense power they have in the marketplace, they should be far more transparent.” I believe that. When I was a critic, I tried, through my blog, to offer more openness and transparency about the actual process than any other critic I knew of (and I think I did a good job). I also was open about my own internal doubts. “Do you ever doubt yourself when reviewing?” Ian asked. “Yes!” I told him. You can’t not doubt yourself. Pride goeth before a fall. Of course, you need to be confident in your abilities, but you also must never forget that you are human and thus fallible. (If you do, experience has away of humbling you, as for instance when you call a Petite Sirah “Merlot” in front of a crowd.) You also must not forget that, if you’re a critic, you’re playing with people’s lives–I mean, the people from the winery whose livelihood you may jeopardize with a poor score. Believe me, that is a very sobering thought.


Why do people buy wine?

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There’s a million reasons, of course, but one that’s interested me for years is why they’re willing to pay a premium for some wines and not for others. And in some cases, a huge premium.

The plain and simple fact is that a $1,000 wine isn’t ten times better than a $100 wine or 20 times better than a $50 wine. In fact, you could make a strong argument (which I guess I’m making now) that, once you get above a certain price, there’s less and less difference between wines. That $500 bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t necessarily better than a $50 Napa Cab.

We have to define what “better” means, though, before we can proceed. By “better” I mean the wine’s hedonistic or organoleptic or purely sensory qualities: the flavors, the way it feels in the mouth, the finish. In a great winemaking region such as Napa Valley, where the overall quality is as high as anywhere on earth, the consumer can rightfully expect a certain standard of excellence once the wine gets to, say, $40. This is why you can make a blind tasting and often a more modestly priced Cab will win.

Which returns us to the question: If the $500 Cab and the $50 Cab are so alike in objective quality, then why would anyone in their right mind buy the former?

Well, you have divined the answer, haven’t you, dear reader? It’s because, when it comes to paying these astronomical prices, there’s nothing objective whatever going on in the buyer’s mind. It’s all subjectivity.

How does this subjectivity work? We get a hint of the mechanism by reading this description of a tasting set up by a crafty Frenchman, Frédéric Brochet, who fooled a bunch of so-called connossieurs. “[He] decanted the same ordinary bordeaux into a bottle with a budget label and one with that of a grand cru. When the connoisseurs tasted the ‘grand cru’ they rhapsodised its excellence while decrying the ‘table’ version as flat.”

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, and of wine news in general, you’ve no doubt heard enough of these kinds of experiments to know that they demonstrate the point I’m trying to make: Your experience of the wine all depends on what you think you’re drinking.

My goal today, though, isn’t to reiterate this point, but to try and rehabilitate the reputations of people who routinely get fooled in these tastings, and to show that they’re not total idiots, and you shouldn’t condemn them as such. Instead, their very failure to perceive reality illustrates one of the best reasons to drink fine wine: because it satisfies, not just the senses, but the intellect.

When I taste Lafite Rothschild, for example, and I know what it is (nobody tastes Lafite blind), I have to admit my soul lights up. I get excited. I pay very careful attention, because this is, after all, Lafite. I know the back-story: First Growth of Bordeaux. Ancient history. One of the greatest red wines in the world. Thomas friggin’ Jefferson loved it. My reaction similarly would be the same as, say, being given the Koh-i-Noor diamond, as opposed to costume jewelry. If you gave me the Koh-i-Noor (you’d have to wrestle it away from Queen Elizabeth first), you just know I’d stare at it and bring it up to the light and look through it and ogle it and go ooh and ahh and remember that moment forever. Now, on my own, I’m sure I couldn’t tell the difference between the Koh-i-Noor and a cubic zirconium from QVC, but that’s precisely the point: in our little thought experiment, I do know the difference. And that makes all the difference.

This subjectivity explains why wines of equal or almost equal quality may vary so widely in price. The pleasure of drinking Lafite consists of far more than merely what the wine tastes like. This is something that’s hard for outsiders to understand, but which is easy for a wine geek. To think that you’re in a limited circle of people privileged to taste something as exclusive and expensive as Lafite boosts your love and appreciation of the wine. This may sound snobbish to some people, but it’s perfectly understandable. It’s occurring in the brain, the seat of thinking and understanding; and pleasuring that part of the cerebral cortex is as important as pleasuring the senses, maybe even more so.

So I’m arguing for some understanding for these poor schlemiels who get caught in these wine tasting entrapments. It could happen to you, it could happen to me, and in fact, it has. What it says about wine isn’t that it cheapens the experience or levels the playing field, but that it elevates wine tasting to a fine art whose appreciation requires knowledge and understanding. As the physicist/mathematician, Freeman Dyson, observed, “Mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our understanding.” What we think is, for each of us, reality; it’s our collective thinking that elevates Lafite to Grand Cru-ness.


When quality isn’t enough: the “lightbulb of recognition”

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The standard meme for marketing wine is: Ours is better than theirs. In just about every wine advertisement you read, this quality argument is there, whether implicit or explicit. Producers claim that their wine is rounder, smoother, more mellow, more delicious, better balanced, cleaner, more fulfilling, more [fill in the adjective] than the competition. The hope is that consumers will be swayed, for, after all, when you’re spending money on a product, you want the highest quality, right?

As it turns out, the quality factor may not be the best way of promoting wine anymore. From ProWein, the big international wine trade event held last month in Germany, came mixed messages concerning the value of using quality claims to sell wine.

The reporter asked attendees from different countries (Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, China, etc.) what they thought of the pushing-quality approach to selling wine. The answers were remarkably similar: “the excuse that your wine is top quality does not work anymore.” “Quality is not a competitive advantage anymore.” “Far too many wineries appear to rely on wine quality alone.”

Ouch. So if quality isn’t the message to be sending consumers, what is?

Well, let’s begin to answer this by assuming that the 50 people queried were all on the young side; they are described as “students from the Masters programme at the School of Wine & Spirits in Burgundy,” so they’re probably Millennials. The question therefore becomes, What are Millennials looking for in wine marketing?

For starters, they’re not “looking for” anything, if by the action verb “looking for” you mean a pro-active search. Marketing and its hand-maiden, advertising, are by their nature insidious: they come at you from the sidelines, entering your consciousness by osmosis at a time when your guard is down. That’s why marketing works [when it does]: it captures your imagination.

How it does so is complicated. Here are some of the things the students said wineries should be doing to market their products, instead of stressing quality:

 

“start telling a different story.” We know all about “the importance of the story line.” It’s easy, however, for an outsider to say this to a winery, but much harder for the winery to actually do it. What “story” should the winery tell?

“producers need to ensure that their brand’s representative is up to scratch.” This comment, by a South African student, referred to the actual employees who represented the various brands at ProWein. It was echoed by an Italian student who asked for representatives “with an easier and friendlier outlook,” by a Russian who found many representatives “simply boring,” and by a Brit who complained of “too many [representatives] sitting on stools behind their stands using wine bottles as a barrier.” An Italian was positively scathing in his critique of reps, particularly from his own country. “Everyone was thinking just for themselves—creating a sense of fragmentation and confusion.”

Clearly, what these young students were looking for was engagement. They wanted to feel like they were interacting with representatives who were fully human and alive, not a bunch of bored-stiff zombies giving off the vibe that “If it’s March, it must be ProWein.”

We all can relate to this. I was chatting with a friend the other day about how, when I take a cab ride, I like to have a little conversation with my driver. (This is why my friend recommended Lyft and Uber.) But I’ve been on the representative side of the table at wine events and know that it can be hard to always be chipper and put on a good face. You get tired, bored, cranky, especially at multi-day events when you’re expected to be “onstage” all day long and into the night.

This sort of bravura performance requires a certain type of personality—outgoing, extroverted, friendly. This may not have much mattered in decades past. But clearly, the rules have changed. Younger consumers understand that 99% of all the world’s wines are now faultless and drinkable. They also suspect that too much has been made of the famous “cult” wines their fathers and grandfathers worshipped; they feel no need to genuflect at that altar. But they are, after all, consumers; and nowadays consumers want to feel some sort of personal connection to a company whose brands they buy.

I sometimes think that wineries don’t pay enough attention to these rules of the road: When you send someone out to represent you, that person needs to have certain skills of charm and engagement. A winery’s representative, after all, is part of its “story.” If this hasn’t been immediately obvious until now to marketing managers and sales directors, it long has been to those of us on the receiving end of pitches. Just yesterday, Forbes’ food & drink columnist, Cathy Huyghe, in a piece called What Makes a Wine Sell, and What Doesn’t, wrote that “a producer’s story trumps any detail about a wine’s technical profile or even their numerical rating,” arguing that “tablestakes”—the technical details of the wine—“aren’t a point of differentiation” because “Everyone has them.” Huyghe described her interviewing approach to winemakers: after “the preliminaries—the…logistical data—are over with,” she looks for “the lightbulb of recognition…that illuminates what it is that makes that particular wine and that particular producer unique and different…”.

That “lightbulb of recognition” is something wine marketers hope to ignite in the minds of consumers. Wine itself, unidentified and without a human connection, cannot do that; the winery’s frontline representative is the spark that lights the bulb.


Comparing the wine cultures of Japan and the U.S.

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Ned Goodwin, said to be the only MW living and working in Japan, has written a thought-provoking piece that’s worth reading in full. For me, his essential take-home point is that Japan is experiencing what he calls “the Galapagos effect,” an “isolation dynamic” that takes its name from the island chain, off the west coast of South America, where species that went extinct elsewhere somehow stayed on, or developed exotic new features, because the islands are so remote.

Ned, whose love of Japan is evident, nonetheless is critical of certain aspects of its culture: “an inability to see what’s going on elsewhere, and a closed-mindedness that’s steeped in ignorance and grounded in the tired old us-and-them mindset.” I personally have never been to Japan, and so I can’t say whether he’s right or wrong. But he made a point that compels me to compare Japan’s wine culture, as he describes it, to that of California, and America in general.

Japan has been through a lot lately: their “lost decade” of economic stagnation, leading to perpetual recession; the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and an overall “drudgery” that comes from their work-work-work ethic. Lately, of course, has also come some trepidation of the Chinese. The result of all this, Ned writes, is that the Japanese, insecure and isolated on their home islands, see wine “as a token motif of status or face” and—in a beautifully written phrase—“something to dissect forensically while tasting with the eyes instead of the nose and mouth.”

Well, one could of course make the identical accusation against certain American connoisseurs who simply must have the latest cult fave, but I’m not thinking of them today. I’m thinking of the masses of younger Millennials, whose approach to wine, and alcoholic beverages in general, seems to be the opposite of the conservatism Ned finds in Japan.

We too, in America, have been through a lot. Depending on when you trace the beginning of our tsouris, the 21st century thus far has been one of difficulties both emotional and financial. We had the dot-com bubble and resulting collapse of 2000-2001, followed closely by the contested 2000 election that threw the country into political chaos. Then of course there was Sept. 11, as wrenching an experience as anything America’s ever been through; the launching of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, finally, just as things were beginning to look up, the Great Recession that began in 2008 and whose ill effects linger with us still. That’s a lot for any nation to go through in such a short period of time.

But kudos to our young Millennials, for instead of retreating into an isolationist, “close-minded elitism” (in Ned’s words), our new wine drinkers are the fairest and most internationalist-minded in history. Perhaps my view is prejudiced from living in the San Francisco Bay Area, but never before can there have been this enthusiastic embrace of all things alcoholic: wines from every nation on earth, a myriad of beers, and cocktails, cocktails, cocktails!

Ned writes that “the wine scene [in Japan] is essentially moribund,” which also is part of the Galapagos effect: evolution seems to have ground to a halt. How different are things here in America, where “the wine scene” is evolving so quickly, no one quite knows how to get their arms around it! That makes it infinitely more difficult for wineries to market themselves, but it also makes our “wine scene” that much more vibrant and exciting.

Maybe the reason why is because America is a far younger country than Japan. We’ve always been open to new experiences; trying new things is in our national DNA. We may go through periodic bouts of isolationism and chauvinism, but by and large Americans embrace change. For older wineries, that means more or less a constant reinvention of themselves. This is a challenge , to be sure, but also an opportunity, for who wants to rest on their laurels?


Random chance as an influence in brand building

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Why did The Beatles become the biggest band in the world? How come Mona Lisa is seen as the most famous painting of all time? A new study out of Princeton suggests that “artworks gain popularity based on social influence, and chance,” and not necessarily due to inherent artistic merit. In fact, there’s an element of pure randomness. The Princeton scientists created nine parallel “digital worlds”, each populated by real teenagers who were given 48 rock and roll songs they were asked to rank according to personal preference.

“Different songs became hits in different worlds,” said one of the scientists. “For example, in one world, Lock Down by the band 52 Metro, came in first and in another world, it came in 40th.” Put another way, in one world Mona Lisa becomes an iconic work of art; in another, it’s just another minor painting. The conclusion: “Popularity begets popularity.” One person likes something, and turns someone else onto it; two become four, and so on. And “social influence” is key in driving popularity. Gatekeepers and tastemakers mandate what’s worthwhile and what’s not; a groundswell becomes a “fad,” and “as fads form, they make stars into mega stars.” Thus a Madonna, Springsteen or Michael Jackson. Thus, too, a Screaming Eagle.

The randomness of what propels one wine to superstardom while another, equally good one never makes it is illustrated by something Heidi Peterson Barrett once told me, when I interviewed her for my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. I asked her how Screaming Eagle had become so famous, so fast, when she was its winemaker. “There’s what I think of as the magic factor,” she explained. “You can’t quantify it exactly, but it happened with Screaming Eagle. It was something that none of us could have predicted. I loved that wine out of the shoot, I thought, ‘Gosh, this is just delicious stuff,’ but I had no idea what was going to happen to it. It wasn’t so much a wine writer’s wine, even though it did get 100 points [in 1992, from Parker]. It had already gone out, sort of word of mouth, this wildfire undercurrent, person-to-person, friends to friends: ‘Have you tried this?’ They were all excited. It just spread like wildfire. And by the time that review came out, it had already spread.”

Many winery proprietors have since tried to replicate Screaming Eagle’s success, but no one has done it. (Harlan Estate is equally esteemed, but it predates Screaming Eagle.) These wannabe wineries develop splendid vineyards or buy grapes from top sources, hire the best consulting winemakers around, and build palaces where the wine is produced–only to find that they have just another expensive Cabernet in a world over-populated by them. They discover that you can’t catch that “wildfire undercurrent” in a jar. It either happens–or it doesn’t.

Does this mean it’s useless or pointless to try to capture “the magic factor”? Not at all. It’s what keeps marketers and P.R. people busy. It is, in fact, the fuel that propels the wine industry forward. A world where so much happens so randomly is one in which anyone can make it. From out of the blue, lightning can strike. It may never happen–but it’s the light in the eye, the flutter in the heart, the dream in the mind of every winemaker.

My own career has benefited from this randomness. I was in the right place, at the right time, in the late 1980s, when no one particularly wanted to be a wine writer. Everyone wanted to be an MBA and make a ton of money on Wall Street! But I wanted to be a wine writer, and the fact that I became one was due as much to chance as to my efforts and abilities. So I’ve always been fascinated by questions of marketing and P.R. in wine: Why some wineries and wines become huge hits while others don’t? Can a brand that’s been lagging be reinvented? Can a new one be instantly interesting? I think the answer is yes. It’s what I’m going to base this next phase of my career to understanding.

P.S. To the hundreds of people who have contacted me through Facebook, email, phone, Twitter, my blog and in person, offering support and love, thank you thank you. You have no idea what it means to me.


Winery P.R. and social media: Make the product cool, and make stars of the everyday people who drink it

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The great advertising genius David Ogilvy, who founded one of Madison Avenue’s most successful firms and served as the inspiration for generations of Mad Men, in his 1963 memoir “Confessions of an Advertising Man” quoted his own father. “[He] used to say of a product that it was ‘very well spoken of in the advertisements.’”

Ogilvy’s father lived in an era when being “well spoken of in the advertisements” was convincing enough for a gentleman to buy the product. Ogilvy understood, partly through his readings in mass psychology, that it was important that the person speaking in the advertisements be credible. He was a stickler for the authoritative figure: in “Confessions” he cites Escoffier as “the definitive authority” in cooking; he recalls his own stint as an assistant chef under Monsieur Pitard, “the arch symbol of authority”; one of Ogilvy’s first clients, when he set up his advertising firm, was “an eminent authority on rare books”; in advising how to sell proprietary medicines, he notes that “A good patent-medicine advertisement conveys a feeling of authority”; and, finally summing up what it takes to be a successful ad man, suggests practitioners “become the acknowledged authority” on subjects ranging from ad budgets and media planning to getting scholarly articles published in the Harvard Business Review. An ad man who can do that “will be able to write your own ticket.”

David Ogilvy died in 1999, at the age of 88. His career spanned a period when authoritative advertising really could push products because consumers trusted the information in the ads. Ogilvy specialized in inventing “personalities.” Oldtimers will remember Colonel Whitehead, the cool white-bearded guy who told us of the benefits of Schwepps tonic water, and “the man in the Hathaway shirt,” with his eye patch (who was the spiritual father of “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” the Dos Equis guy). Believe it or not, there really was a time when advertising seemed to express the honest, objective truth, and people were credulous enough to believe it.

Today’s P.R. and advertising specialists constantly refer to “the story” as the backbone of capturing the consumer’s attention. Although the term “the story” wasn’t really part of Ogilvy’s lexicon, it’s clear that his character-driven narratives anticipated it. He refers to another advertising man’s use of the term “story appeal” in photographs: “the more of it you inject into your photographs, the more people will look at your advertisements.” (One of my favorite Ogilvy images, and one of his most famous, is this ad for Rolls Royce.

ogilvy-rolls-royce-ad

 

It’s almost impossible for the eye and the mind not to dwell on it. Who is that woman driver? Are those her kids? Where are they coming from–private school? What are they carrying? This is “story appeal” to the max, amplified by the photo’s caption, which captures the imagination.)

Hence, the modern goal of P.R. to “tell the story” is hardly new. Mucha did it in 1897 with this poster advertising Nestle’s:

Mucha

a self-confident, classically beautiful maman mixing up the cocoa for her healthy, happy baby. When P.R. professionals take their first meeting with a new client, they prod for the story–and if they’re good at their jobs, they never stop refining and, if necessary, re-defining it.

But today we have the game changer called the Internet, and specifically social media, a paradigm shift if ever there was one. Businesses no longer need P.R. people to take them public; they can go public all by themselves, with more exposure than even David Ogilvy ever dreamed of on his most creative, three-martini day. However, as we know all too well, some companies, and particularly small wineries not well versed in social media, don’t know how to take advantage of the opportunities, thus leaving room for P.R. consultants for ply their trade, especially if they’re adept at social media. One successful example of a neat fusion of telling a story through the use of social media concerns Vans, the popular shoeware company (I own several pairs and love them). Vans has a new, online documentary series in which four filmmakers were asked to find interesting young people who embody the spirit of the brand and tell their story. For instance, here’s a short YouTube of an East L.A. guy named Anthony. He’s pretty cool: it’s interesting to get into his life, and he just happens to be wearing Vans, which gets a transfusion of Anthony’s cool via the miracle of emotional transference. We know for a fact that video is the future of social media. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an interesting video is worth its weight in gold.

The American public today is less susceptible to believing something just because it’s “very well spoken of in the advertisements.” I mean, we passed that milestone long ago. Nowadays people are more likely to skip through the commercials on T.V, and slip past the ads in newspapers and magazines. They do, however, respond to interesting and clever videos. The Vans YouTubes are wonderful to watch, and even though they don’t say a word about Vans, the shoes are part of the show. I’m not saying that traditional P.R. is dead or has no place, but the skill set for successful P.R. has changed. It now involves–not just the ability to make a good video–but proper insight, even more important, into the content of the video. Consumers will not respond if they’re hit over the head with product ads–at least, they won’t with wine. (I never fail to be amazed by the brutality and noise level of car commercials. I hate them, but maybe they work, or else the industry would have abandoned them long ago. But you can’t sell wine that way.)

So how is “Anthony,” the East L.A. guy, an “authority”? The fact of the matter is, for a younger generation the definition of “authority” has changed. It’s no longer some stentorian font of wisdom who knows more than you do, telling you what’s up. It’s someone just like you. Anthony is an authority on being a cool young kid who’s having fun who just happens to be into Vans. That’s way different from some talking head on a T.V. commercial blathering away about the quality of Vans soles or the durability of their laces. People don’t need that anymore, at least in everyday footware. Nor do they need it in wine. They want to see and hear from people they can relate to. That’s the lesson for wineries, for P.R. pros and for marketing execs in general to take home.


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