Some years ago (and I quoted her in New Classic Winemakers of California), Heidi Barrett told me that the success of Screaming Eagle surprised even her, the winemaker. It was like a “prairie fire,” she said: lightning struck ready ground, and the winery became a legend.
Recent developments and discussions have led to me inquire about the possibility of creating a new cult wine in California. A “cult wine,” of course, is one that is of relatively low production, that amasses, not jus good, but ecstatic reviews from the most influential critics, that has a “story,” and—bottom line—fetches the highest prices. The sanctum sanctorum of cult wines is a situation where the wine doesn’t even appear in retail contexts. In order to buy it, you must get on a waiting list for a mailing list.
Before analyzing how a cult wine might be created, let’s look at a few that already exist and see how they happened. I spoke of Screaming Eagle: before it became Screaming Eagle, it was just another Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Heidi Barrett was not then the ultra-famous consulting winemaker she has since become. Screaming Eagle’s location, off the Silverado Trail in east Oakville, was not considered the best. There was indeed a “lightning strikes” serendipity to the process that is very hard to explain.
Another cult winery is Saxum, which I also wrote about in New Classic Winemakers. Rhône blends from Paso Robles weren’t exactly cult darlings when young Justin Smith began his West Side project. It took some stellar reviews from top critics to launch him to the top. Ditto for Helen Turley at Marcassin, Williams Selyem and Rochioli, Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non, John Alban and, up in Washington State, Charles Smith and Cayuse. They would not be where they are today without the help of famous wine critics.
On the other hand, there are wineries that have spent tens of millions of dollars to produce quite respectable wines that, while very good, have not launched into cult status. They hired the most famous flying winemakers, the hardest-to-get viticulturalists and the most expensive P.R. firms, and still they remain on the almost-cult list. Napa Valley is replete with such examples. Could it be that the era of the cult winery is over—that it’s not possible to make a new one from scratch?
That is a plausible theory. The field is so crowded that it hardly seems to have room for yet another cult wine. A younger generation is not as interested in them as were their parents and grandparents. A meme has swept the country, along the lines of “Just because it’s expensive and gets high scores doesn’t make it better.” In fact, people, especially below the age of 30, understand that to some extent the system is rigged. They may not know the details, but their cynicism has been sharpened by exposure to a U.S. media that seems to advance people and things for its own purposes, rather than for the general well-being. In this sense, it would be very, very difficult if not impossible to make a new cult wine.
On the other hand are a couple of traits of human nature. One is that we seek novelty. Even cult wines gradually lose their appeal; I could name several that have over the last twenty years. Wine people are notoriously fickle. They are also are notoriously insecure, which is why wine critics are so easily able to influence them. Since we still have wine critics—and are likely to into the future—there is the distinct possibility that “the critics” (whoever they are) could anoint a new cult wine anytime they choose to do so. Yes, the Baby Boomer critics are leaving the scene but, as I have long predicted, they’re being replaced by a younger generation (Galloni is the prime example) that’s as influential as ever. Meanwhile, the most important wine magazines and newsletters maintain their critical power; even if their newer writers aren’t as well-known as Parker or Laube, they retain the power of the Score. So we still have the infrastructure in place to create new cult brands.
What varieties are most likely to be the new cult wines? Pinot Noir for sure. In my opinion, its future is unlimited; someone, somewhere, is going to make a single-vineyard Pinot Noir that rockets to the top. Cabernet and red Bordeaux blends are more problematic. There are so many; the market is so saturated. I suppose if a First Growth started a new Napa Valley winery (the way Petrus, or rather Christian Moueix, did at Dominus), the media at least would be waiting with baited breath for the first release, and if they universally praised it, it could soar to the top. But that’s unlikely. Nor is it likely that there will be a cult Chardonnay or Zinfandel. What about Syrah? It’s poised for a comeback. Growers are putting in new plantings in the best coastal locations, especially along the Central Coast. Prices for grapes are up. In selected locales, Syrah and red Rhône blends are doing very well, hand-sold by gatekeepers to audiences who don’t seem to be aware of, or care about, the conventional wisdom that red Rhônes are dead. So, of all the varieties, I think Syrah, or a Syrah-based Rhône blend, is in the best position to give birth to that rarest baby in the wine world, a cult wine.
This is a sad story, told by the Vancouver Sun, about a small British Columbia winery’s legitimate fear that it may get squeezed out of the market. It’s the same old story: Getting harder and harder to compete with the big wineries in shelf space, distribution and price.
When I read a tale like this, my heart goes out to the proprietors. It’s never been easy to sell wine (in either Canada or the U.S.), but it’s getting more difficult. I can’t imagine how emotionally upsetting it must be to put your heart and mind into building a small family winery, then find yourself in danger of losing everything, through no fault of your own.
There are a couple ways small wineries can fight back. One is, obviously, to focus on direct sales. Everybody I know is doing that, but it’s an uphill battle. DTC is trickier than it sounds. You can’t just build a website, start tweeting and Facebooking, and expect customers to flock to your door. It takes years of continuous effort, and even then, there are no guarantees. Of course, if you’re located on a busy road in a popular wine region, you can sell a lot of wine out the door. But not everyone is, especially in a place like British Columbia.
Nor is getting shelf space any easier, particularly in smaller cities and towns and more rural parts of the country. I suppose there’s some motive for a store to sell the local wines, but there’s probably more profit for them to sell distributor’s wines from large wine companies. Here in California wine country, I know that local markets do try to stock the local stuff. But the fact is that small family wineries generally have to charge more for their wine than a big wine company.
Here’s a shocking statement from the Vancouver Sun article: “it costs [small wineries] somewhere between $10 and $12 to produce a bottle of wine. If the price point drops below $17, a lot of them are going to be squeezed out of business.” It’s not clear to me if that “below $17” price point is wholesale or retail, but either way, those little wineries up in B.C. seem like they’re facing almost insurmountable odds against them.
In California, small wineries can get away with charging a higher price than they can in British Columbia, but even so they face a dilemma: Do they go up against the popular premium-priced wines from big wine companies (which is virtually impossible, and would probably mean they’d have to sacrifice quality)? Or do they produce a quality wine that costs more than a comparable wine from a big company? There will always be consumers that prefer to buy a wine from a smaller winery, even if it’s more expensive than they want to pay for, simply because it’s a small winery.
But the majority of American wine drinkers are looking for something affordable, and that’s exactly where the big wineries have the upper hand. With their economies of scale and ability to sink their profits into better farming and technology, the big wineries seem destined to grab more and more of the profits.
The only way out—and fortunately, it’s not a complete fantasy—is this current “artisanal” or “craft” movement we see that happened first in beer, then spread to spirits and, finally, wine. It’s wonderful that consumers, mainly younger ones, are committing themselves to products they sense are authentically made by smaller producers. This is not entirely a guarantee of quality, of course, but there is a sense in which small producers understand that the only way for them to compete with the majors is to make wines so good that consumers will happily pay a premium price for them. Of course, there’s an equivalent challenge for big wineries: they, too, have to be artisanal, or at least present the image of homegrown.
So I called up this winery the other day. It’s not too far away from Oakland. I’m putting together another tasting and asked if I could buy a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon and have it shipped to me. The guy—the owner-proprietor, I think—said no. He said it’s not worth his while to “drive down the mountain” to send a single bottle. If I wanted to buy a case, he explained, that would be a different story.
I thanked him and told him I wasn’t looking for an entire case, so goodbye. No $ale. But the incident bothered me and so I put it up on Facebook and asked my friends, “What kind of a business model is that?”
Lots of comments, as usual. I suppose I think more about these marketing and sales issues since I’ve worked at Jackson Family Wines than I would have when I was at Wine Enthusiast. I thought the winemaker’s attitude was pretty dumb (not that he was rude about it; he wasn’t. In fact, he couldn’t have been nicer. He simply explained that he was way up in the middle of nowhere). The bottle price, by the way, was $27.
What did my Facebook friends say? You can read all the comments here. Most of them roundly criticized the guy. Jeff Stai, from Twisted Oak, wrote “I’m way up in the mountains and I’ll sell you a bottle. wink emoticon.” He added “Today’s one bottle sale is next month’s five case sale.” Bill Smart said the guy’s business model is “One that is not going to last for very long?” (Bill did put it in the form of a question.) Chris Sawyer said the business model is a “case study [in] how to inflict bad mojo on your brand.” Sean Piper said “If you ever buy a bottle of my wine I’ll personally hand deliver it to you.”
And yet, the guy had his defenders. Neil Monnens wrote, “More power to him…Imagine you are his friend or family and he leaves you to go down the mountain to sell one bottle of wine to someone…it’s not worth it. Good for him.” Victoria Amato Kennedy wondered “What was the profit margin on the one bottle after factoring in gas/shipping costs/time?” I understand that, but I would have paid whatever shipping cost the guy charged me. The fact of the matter is, he was too lazy to drive down the mountain. As Patrick Connelly wrote, “Bad customer service = increasing selling difficulty.”
If I had a little family winery (which this was) I’d drive down the mountain! How hard can it be? It’s summertime, no rain, easy-breezy. Besides, even if it’s a 30-minute drive to the UPS Store, aren’t there other things the guy can do while he’s in town—buy groceries or supplies, call on an account, have a nice meal, see a friend? I’m sure that people who live up in the mountains always have lists of stuff to do when they’re in town.
As I’m constantly reminding people nowadays, you do what it takes to sell your wine. Establishing customer relationships is one of those things. Although I didn’t identify myself to the guy, how did he know I wasn’t buying the wine for a Parker tasting? I could have been some rich Silicon Valley venture capitalist looking for a house Cabernet. You never know. Sending somebody a bottle of wine can sometimes change your life in unexpected, great ways. But first, you have to be willing to come down from the mountain.
Today I am speaker, or host, at a buyer’s lunch for Jackson Family Wines. The venue is Farmshop, a restaurant in the tony Marin County town of Larkspur. I’ve never eaten there, but if you’re a wine-and-food geek in the Bay Area, you’ve certainly heard of it. Farmshop earned a coveted spot on the 2015 Top 100 restaurant list compiled annually by the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer. Our lunch menu was specially created by Chef Jason Purcell to pair with seven JFW wines. Our guests—22 and counting—are important wine buyers in the Bay Area.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to expand the conversation to the topic of these buyer lunches and dinners. These are important ways for wineries to connect with people who might buy their wines, and not just any people: high-end on- and off-premise accounts that will showcase the winery’s wines the way they hope to be be portrayed.
Being present on the shelf of a good wine shop and, even more, on the wine list of a top restaurant is more vital than ever. The Holy Grail for wineries, of course, is direct-to-consumer, but that’s a long, hard road, and the thinking among the smart set is that being on a wine list represents a shortcut, or perhaps stimulant is a better word, to DTC. I’m not sure exactly if that’s true, the assumption, I suppose, being that if a customer buys your off the wine list and falls in love with you, he’ll seek you out in the future by joining your wine club or ordering your wine from your website. That is hopeful, but not proven. But if your production is small enough—and many of the wines I’ll be showing tomorrow are–you can afford to forgo DTC if enough retail accounts buy you.
Wineries have different personnel they can choose to represent them at such venues, which combine entertainment and serious eating with the educational analyses of the wines. Obviously, there’s the winery owner and/or winemaker, who often but not always is the same person. This is a winery’s best bet for putting forth a personality who can talk about the wines being presented, as well as using herself as a selling point; having a “face of the winery” is very important for branding, although not all winemakers and/or owners like being put in that position, and some refuse to do it. But it’s necessary these days, and not a bad place to be, since your audience arrives excited and expecting to like you. All you have to do is live up to their expectations. And who doesn’t like to be liked?
The winemaker or owner isn’t always available, of course. So who else does the winery send to represent them? Well, it’s often someone from sales, marketing or P.R. who is affiliated with the winery in some way, and can speak credibly about the wines. You need a credible presence, because buyers don’t want to feel jerked around by someone who doesn’t have credibility and is only trying to sell stuff–timeshares or Tupperware or whatever.
The hope on every winery’s part, at every trade or consumer event, is to have someone of unimpeachable credibility represent them. This isn’t exactly a new development—winetasting events at restaurants are as old as the hills. But it’s become more polished in recent years, especially with the advent of the “new sommeliers,” people with advanced knowledge of, not only wine, but culinary affairs. They don’t want to go to a lunch just anywhere, and indeed, if the restaurant doesn’t spark their interest, they’ll pass on by the event. Somms have become more pampered than they were in the past—not passing judgment on that, just saying—and so it takes more than it used to to coax them out and make them happy.
A recent article in Wines & Vines about the Master of Wine Bob Paulinski, who now works for BevMo, was on the topic of “Making Your Wine Brand Stand Out.”
It caught my eye because, like most articles on the same topic, it asks a pertinent question—one that all wineries are asking—without providing any definitive answers. Not that that’s Paulinski’s fault, since answers are few and far between.
Yes, a wine brand “needs to be compelling.” But how? Everybody wants to be compelling these days—to have a great story that turns people on, hopefully enough to buy the wine. Paulinski suggests there are at least three ways to accomplish this.
- “The wine must…have some legacy.” By “legacy” he means, I think, that it’s well known to the population, and that people have some sort of understanding, no matter how rudimentary, of the winery’s place in history. Paulinski mentions Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay in this regard. He is right to say that it is a legacy wine; that is a huge factor in creating loyal customers. The same might be said of, say, Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, or any of the wines that routinely make Wine & Spirits’ top wines in its annual restaurant poll.
These all are “legacy wines” that are known, liked and trusted by consumers, which is why all those F&B managers put them on the wine list. But obviously, it’s awfully hard to become a “legacy winery,” so there have got to be alternative ways of becoming “compelling.”
- Another way, according to Paulinski, is to have a “unique quality.” That is, the winery or wine should be somehow different from all other wineries or wines. Now, it’s hard to be “unique” if you’re making a varietal wine that 3,000 other California wineries are making. So what else makes a winery “unique”? The owners or winemaker can be unique in some fashion, but let’s face it, unless you’re Boz Scaggs or Drew Barrymore or someone like that, to most consumers you’re just another owner or winemaker. Are there other ways of being “unique”? Yes. Just yesterday, I was talking with a successful documentary filmmaker, and I asked him if he could make a good film about anyone at all. “No,” he said. “Some people are more interesting than others.” I’m not sure I agree; I think a good writer can make anybody’s story compelling. But first, the winery has to hire a good filmmaker or storyteller. Stories don’t tell themselves, they’re told.
- This ties into Paulinski’s third way to be “compelling,” which is to “be highly targeted.” What does that mean? It means that the winery has identified precisely the audience it wishes to sell to, and then crafts its message to that audience. As an example, Paulinski mentions “Reckless Love,” from a winery named Rebel Coast. Check out their website.
It’s pretty clear whom they’re targeting: with their “nubile models in bikinis” (Paulinski’s phrase), they’re after younger consumers, and a specific type of younger consumer, at that. (I don’t have to characterize the type. You can figure it out as well as I can. Burp.)
That’s fine and good, but the problem of being highly targeted like that is, (a) you’re eliminating millions of potential customers, if not actually turning them off (I wonder how women feel about those “nubile models”), and (b) the minute someone comes along with a more compelling and nouveau message, all those fickle consumers will shop elsewhere. So how do you manage to be unique and targeted while maintaining customer loyalty so that you, too, can become a legacy winery one of these years?
Well, these are precisely the issues so many wineries are grappling with these days. I think I have some insights that may be helpful to some wineries, but, as Paulinski correctly observes, “the wine market is not homogenous [sic]; what works for some won’t work for others.” True dat. Wineries need someone who understand their specific needs, not someone who will slap on a generic template that applies to all, and therefore none.