Wine critics are insulated from the buying public. They live in a sort of bubble in which popular tastes are shut out, and only their own impressions impinge upon their consciousness. Yes, there’s something solipsistic about being a critic—maybe even narcissistic. But that’s the way it should be, because the critic must remain immune to all influences except that of his own taste and discernment.
Sales people, on the other hand, must constantly be in touch with the public. It’s always been something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum whether the success of a particular wine, or type of wine, is due to the top-down approach of marketing and P.R., or whether it’s from a bottom-up movement from the street. Probably it’s a little of both, and individual cases will vary. However, this we do know: customer satisfaction is more important now than ever.
By that I mean that the customer has more ways of being satisfied (or dissatisfied) than ever—more ways of expressing it, more capacity to share with others, more ways of having leverage at the winery. This is due, obviously, to the Internet and social media, and ease with which we can get online and publish our thinking with mobile devices. But you already know that.
So it wasn’t particularly surprising when I saw this study yesterday on “Three things consumers want [from a company]: responsiveness, involvement and conviction.” What was surprising was the huge gap between what people say they want more of, and how they think companies are actually performing. Measured by this metric, most companies suck.
For example, in the area of greater responsiveness (to complaints, questions, concerns, and so on), 78% of people want an almost “on demand” responsiveness from the company. And yet, only 17% of the respondents felt that companies actually respond in a timely manner. That’s a gap of 61%. If I was doing business with a company that answered my queries only 17% of the time, I’d find another company to do business with.
Corporate America certainly understands this and is responding. In my own life, I use Comcast, PG&E and various web service companies a great deal, and, like you, I sometimes have the need to contact them. In each case, their response time has gotten much faster, and the process of contacting them has gotten easier (not that it’s pleasant…). So kudos to them for that.
Wineries don’t have as good a track record. It seems to me they could be doing a much better job reaching out and staying in touch with customers or potential customers. You might think that bigger wine companies have an easier time of it, because they have bigger budgets and can afford to hire communications experts, including digital ones. But bigger wineries also have more demands from their customers, so it all kind of evens out in the end.
The “conviction” issue is interesting. It means that consumers want their brands to have “a clear mission and purpose,” even to the extent of “driving change in the world.” We’re told that Millennials in particular feel a sense of obligation to the world’s problems and, in that sense, they’re more likely to support a company that, for instance, helps the environment. But this is a tricky business: oil companies (Chevron, for instance) tout their environmental concerns, but lots of consumers don’t believe it; they think Chevron is “greenmailing”—telling lies to further their actual cause, which is making profits.
How can a winery tout its “convictions” in such a way as to seem authentic, not phony? It’s vital for companies to figure this out, because a phony conviction can have a backlash. I think there are two ways of doing it: one is to avoid getting stuck with a negative image in the first place (the way the oil companies did), because then you don’t have to tear down those walls of suspicion. The second way is to get your message out, clearly and directly. This, too, is problematic: if you tout your do-goodness too much, people will say you’re just trying to win their friendship (and their money). If you don’t say anything at all, nobody will know about your good deeds. The challenge is to talk about yourself in such a way as to inform people but not lose their trust.
There is something fundamentally oxymoronic about the Bordeaux Wine Council’s new advertising and branding campaign, reported on the PRNewswire.
On the one hand, it emphasizes “innovation” through the use of taglines such as “There is so much to discover.” This implies something New Worldy about Bordeaux: it is not old and tired, but youthful and exciting, a place of endless reinvention and creativity. (Actually, I thought that was California’s claim to fame!)
On the other hand the campaign also stresses “maintaining Bordeaux traditions.” This obviously is meant to appeal to the broad stratum of international perception, possibly subliminal, that Bordeaux is all about ancient history and venerability; what Professor Saintsbury called (as Claret) “the queen of natural wines.”
One can spot the internal contradiction immediately: A thing cannot simultaneously be modern as well as traditional. At least, it can’t in reality—that is squaring the circle–but it can be in the magical thinking of a marketing campaign that contains a little bit of something for everyone. Thus the contradictions exist, side by side.
For the last several decades, Bordeaux has struggled with this identity crisis. It knows that a younger generation doesn’t give a hoot about its history and tradition, so it needs to appeal to them by making Bordeaux seem modern. This is the thinking behind the Council’s “Today’s Bordeaux” meme, wherein wines costing $55 or less are recommended as having been tasted by “our Wine Buffs.” Wine Buffs? Professor Saintsbury is turning in his grave at this crime of Franglish—an Americanism that would otherwise be condemned by the French as vulgar. “Wine Buffs” indeed! Good heavens, imagine telling Baron Rothschild he was a Wine Buff!
I certainly don’t blame the Bordeaux Wine Council. They have to market, same as everyone else; they’re just trying to find a formula that works. Why now? “This is the ideal time for a re-invented brand identity,” the Council’s president said. It’s ideal because the world is emerging from the Great Economic Slowdown (at least, we hope it is) and people seem a little more willing to spend money on wine. And then too, the Millennials are getting older and they want their wine. But just as important as “Why now?” is the question of “Where?” The seven markets the campaign will focus on are the U.S., France, U.K., Germany, China, Belgium, and Japan—in other words, Bordeaux’s traditional markets, plus China and Japan, which is where the money is in East Asia.
Bordeaux always has been about aspiration, and the Council is betting it still is. For all the talk about Millennials being qualitatively different from Baby Boomers, it turns out that they’re just as conventional as their parents and grandparents. Millennials are ambitious, strive for career success, and they seek a satisfying personal life beyond work. They’re into “personal authenticity” (who isn’t?) and “want to spend time with their families and fulfill career aspirations.” They are, in other words, yet another “wants it all” generation. And part of “having it all” is, of course, the Good Life, which involves good food, good wine and what we here in California think of as a Sunset Magazine lifestyle. That fits in well with the Bordeaux Wine Council’s strategy. It may be a little oxymoronic to mosh traditional and modern together into one big, unwieldy package, as I said; but then, the lives of Millennials, as of us all, are oxymorons. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Walt Whitman, who I bet liked to drink, would be 195 years old, if he was still alive.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
“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!)