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Happy New Year! Reflections on 2013

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As we wrap up another year, I find myself, like so many others, looking back over the old one, and wondering what it all meant.

I’m not going to do any sort of list, but instead want to let my mind wander free-range over the past 365 days. It’s been a year of gradual and welcome emergence from the despairs of the Great Recession. Here in California, as you may know, our economy is booming, particularly in the coastal areas, and most especially in Northern California. Fueled by the growth of Silicon Valley, NoCal is experiencing low unemployement, high salaries, and most notably a housing boom. Prices (and rents) are soaring, bringing to mind the housing bubble of the early and mid-2000s–but this time, the experts are telling us there’s no chance of a burst. I don’t know that I believe them, though.

Wineries seem to be doing all right. Like I always say, nobody can really know a winery’s bottom line unless you’re the banker or owner, so any conjectures about the industry’s health are only that: conjectures. But business seems to be back on track. I’m sure there are individual wineries that are struggling, but sales, bankruptcies and the like don’t seem to be any higher than they’ve been in the 25 years I’ve been watching the California industry.

The Holy Grail for wineries is, of course, direct-to-consumer sales. I can’t even remember when I first heard that phrase. I do recall the first time it was brought to my attention that a direct sale brings the proprietor 100 cents on the dollar, rather than the split he has to eat when dealing with the three-tiered distribution system. That was years ago, when I was touring the wineries of the Sierra Foothills, particularly those along Highway 49, in Gold Country, and also located conveniently between the population centers of the coast and the ski resorts around Tahoe. All the owners told me how much wine they were selling through their tasting rooms, up to 90% of their production. That was a good thing, for them–but a bad thing, as far as I was concerned, because too many of the wines were (in my opinion) flawed, and yet the owners had no motivation at all to clean up their acts.

Anyhow, tasting room sales obviously are a subset of direct-to-consumer. So, today, are wine clubs that are active through the Internet. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d love to be around in, say, 20 years, to see if wineries are still at the mercy of a (fairly heartless) distribution system, or if they’ve managed to figure out how to sell direct. At this point, I don’t have a clue.

Two other aspects of the past year intrigue me: the excellence of the 2012 and 2013 vintages. After a difficult 2011 and challenging 2010, California enjoyed two of the nicest years, weather-wise, in memory. The main wines have yet to appear from either, but theoretically, both 2012 and 2013 look to have the qualities of stellar vintages. One cloud that’s hanging over the coming 2014 vintage is California’s severe drought. As I write these words, 2013 is shaping up to be the driest year in California’s history–which goes back in record-keeping to the 1850s. It’s appalling how dry conditions are. On Jan. 1, 2014 (i.e., tomorrow), if the national (which is to say, East Coast) media don’t make a big deal about this, they discredit themselves, and show their right coast bias. How the drought will impact the grapes is complicated, a story that will play itself out next summer. Of course, the weather could change on a dime: January-March could be real drenchers. We’ll just have to wait and see.

A final observation: In all my years of wine reporting I’ve never appreciated so much as I have this year the importance of a younger generation coming up. I guess this is a natural result of the fading away of the original boutique winery proprietors, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. There are ambitious, talented young winemakers all over the place. I’ve written about this extensively in my articles about Paso Robles and Monterey, but it’s not just along the Central Coast, it’s statewide. What energy these winemakers are bringing, what innovation, what risk-taking. California is a very conservative state, wine-wise (the opposite of our political liberalism), and it’s a bold move for a young, unproven winemaker to try her hand at something new, rather than “just” another Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon (not that there’s anything wrong with either!). But I do see a cadre of vintners in their 20s and 30s tinkering with less familiar varieties–and often they’re crafting them at lower alcohols and with higher acidity than has been the case. I’m looking forward to experiencing more of these wines in 2014.

I’d like to thank my readers for sticking with steveheimoff.com for another year; I’m now going into my sixth on this blog. Thank you, too, for all of you who take the time to comment. Your feedback always is welcome and sometimes educational. I wish you all a happy, healthy New Year.


Why high end wines are entitled to hype themselves

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This fellow Rob Asghar wrote a very clever and accurate piece about wine marketing in Forbes, and I am not going to disagree with a single thing he said.  It’s all absolutely true, and shows a keen perception into the minds of high-end wine marketers, who have to have a little P.T. Barnum-style hucksterism in their hearts.

But rather than jump on the bandwagon of criticizing the high-end for “suckering,” “cajoling” and “hustling” consumers, I’m going to try to understand them.

What critics of expensive wine fail to understand is that the wine drinking experience is infinitely more complex than mere tasting. It involves every aspect of what it means to be human. Yes, perhaps it’s true that “a supposed 1982 Margaux” that’s actually “a $90 knockoff” might fool all but the most discerning taster, but that’s not the point. It doesn’t mean that the experience of drinking ’82 Margaux isn’t worth the price (about $1,000 retail). Here’s why.

Every day, I look at my Facebook timeline and see photos of faraway places my “friends” are visiting. It might be a view from a hotel window in Greece, or a tropical beach in Fiji. It might be rolling vineyards in Croatia, or a plate of steamed clams in Italy. Whatever the image, the message can be boiled down to this: “I am experiencing something unique and vastly pleasurable.” Of course, this experience comes with a price: it costs money to travel, to stay in a nice hotel and eat good food. But that doesn’t matter. The message continues: “It’s my money, I can spend it however I like, and if it buys me something this special, it’s worth it.”

When people spend money on something discretionary, they want to feel that there’s something extra special about it. Value-added, you might say–it brings them to a heightened level of pleasure and perception. And the more money it costs them, the more they want, and expect, to reach that heightened level. I suppose one might object to this and ask, What’s wrong with ordinary life? Why do people always have to be seeking higher experiences? Well, if you’re some kind of renunciate, sitting in a cave, then the tedium of ordinary life might be your thing. But most of us haven’t renounced pleasure: indeed, we seek it out. And on occasion, we seek it out with relentless enthusiasm. One sublime experience might be enough to get you through a string of ho-hum days.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only human. Translated to the world of fine wine, it means that the guy who paid $1,000 for the ’82 Margaux doesn’t really care if the wine is the real thing. I mean, he does, on some level; but he’s not going to send it to Enologix and have it tested. Instead, he’s willing to buy into the romance, the fantasy of drinking ’82 Margaux, with all the implies.

What does it imply? Vintage of the century. Parker 100 [or whatever his score was]. First Growth of Bordeaux. Thirty one years old. And so on and so forth. The pleasure, then, is just as much in the mind as in the mouth. It is glorious fun to turn over these pleasurable thoughts as one is experiencing the wine. They augment the experience, the way a soundtrack augments a movie, making it more than the simple fact of images and voices on celluloid. (Do movies still use celluloid?) Can you imagine “The Godfather Part 1” without that music? For that matter, part of the thrill of “The Godfather Part 2” was knowing that it was the next installment of “Part 1.” The greatest movie of all time! Coppola! Oscars! Brando! Pacino! In other words, one viewed “Part 2” with heightened anticipation, based on the previous understanding of “Part 1.” The pleasure was in the mind, and when the film reached those lofty expectations, the pleasure was all the greater.

Critics of this subjective interpretation of wine enjoyment often point to studies proving that consumers prefer a wine with a higher price point than a lower one, even when the two wines are the same. Well, sure: you can always design a lab study to show that humans are basically idiots who can be programmed to believe anything, even if it defies their senses. We know that. “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…”. In this sense, we’re all ventriloquist’s dummies, marionettes whose strings are jerked around by some playwright we cannot even perceive.

But this fails to do justice to what makes us particularly human: our aspirations, and the dignity with which we pursue them. That is what is involved in a heightened wine experience: it is as much philosophical and physical.

Now, if you want me to relate all this to the 100-point system, I’d be happy to. Another time, perhaps.


“Time in the street”? Now there’s an idea!

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“[Y]ou need time in the street,” says Sergio Hormazábal, an important figure in Chilean wine. He’s President of that country’s Association of Winemakers, and was recently asked, in an interview, about his views on marketing.

Here’s a fuller quote. “How to predict what will sell? What is the future? It is very complicated but I think the only way is…to be in places and talk with people…by looking at the street, in a place to catch a hint of what is to come.”

This is a very traditional way of looking at marketing. It means the winemaker (or whoever) should be on the road, traveling to different markets, interacting with people who may be potential customers, having actual personal experiences. “It is not scientific,” Sergio acknowledges, this mystical practice of traveling among the people and establishing bonds. “It is a feeling.” But it is a feeling well known to established marketers for whom numbers, statistics, studies and focus groups are, at best, ancillary parts of their jobs.

Sergio, who sounds like he knows a lot about human psychology, also remarks on how preferences are established. “We talk as if people know already what they want. People do not always know what they want. Instead, give them a taste of something. They like it? A moment before they had not had it. They did not know they would like it.” This fundamental truth also requires the winemaker, or her representatives, to be on the road, out there among the people, pouring and explaining. I would go a step further: it’s not enough to just “give them a taste of something.” Sometimes, people aren’t sure whether or not they like something even while they’re tasting it. This is why so many pourers at tasting rooms will tell you what you’re experiencing even before you’ve had time to decide for yourself. They know that slight open window of indecision is their opportunity to swoop in and influence your judgment and conclusion.

I’ve frequently encountered this myself, not in tasting rooms but when visiting with winemakers. They pour me something, often from a “thief” direct from the barrel, and start describing the aromas and flavors while I’m still swirling. This is always a delicate moment for the wine critic. On the one hand you want to say, “Please. I can make up my own mind.” On the other hand, you don’t want to be rude. So you end up saying nothing, just allowing the words to pass through your brain, but not letting them influence your own experience of the wine.

That can be difficult or easy. It’s easy if the wine is awful. But wines aren’t awful anymore, in most cases. Most wines are perfectly sound and usually quite good, right out of the bottle or barrel. So it takes a little thinking to get to the point where you’re ready to make a judgment, especially if you’re scoring a wine. Eighty eight points? Eighty seven? Ninety one? This is why I take so long to review wines–about eight minutes per, give or take. Some critics claim to be able to rattle off a wine a minute, or less. I don’t understand it.

Anyway, this isn’t an anti-social media rant, so let’s not go there. Just saying that, as Sergio notes, it’s all about face time, not Facebook time.


Telling a story? Some are better than others

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There’s long been this meme out there that “story telling” is the key to wine marketing and P.R. The theory goes that we humans are social critters who like hearing about each other. So wineries have been urged to “tell their stories.” This is why their newsletters and websites talk about the family dog, or the owners’ new grandchild, or the Mexican vineyard director who’s been with the winery for 23 years.

Stories are nice things, and I’m not saying that wineries shouldn’t tell them. But there’s always been something suspect about the theory that stories boost sales. The first fallacy is this: Since everybody has a story, if they’re all telling them, then they all cancel each out, resulting in a net effect of zero.

Are some stories inherently more interesting than others? I suppose so. I mean, human interest gravitates toward tales about redemption and struggle; the story of a blind winemaker is more touching than that of yet another multi-millionaire who decides to buy a lifestyle and then tells everybody about it in agonizingly pretentious detail. (“Bob and Mary tired of life in their Beverly Hills mansion, so they bought 120 acres on Pritchard Hill and…” Well, we’ve all heard versions of that one a little too often, haven’t we?)

Still, they story-telling myth persists. Yesterday, I got a blast email from a marketing company that contained this link to an article entitled “The Art and Power of Digital Storytelling.” It held some undeniable truths: “One of the most valuable skills any writer and content producer may have is the ability to tell a story. Good stories draw the audience in. Great stories make them care. And when people care, they share those stories—and keep coming back for more.”

Now, it’s hard to deny any of this. Humans sat around fires in caves tens of thousands of years ago listening to stories. Maybe the men folk described how one of them died while hunting this woolly Mammoth they were all eating now. Maybe a shaman told how the sun god jumped up onto the back of a turtle every morning, thereby assuring the continuity of life. Even today, a good story told ‘round the dinner table will get everyone laughing. And every Saturday or Sunday morning, in church or synagogue, a priest, minister or rabbi tells stories to enlighten and inspire.

It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly what I find so cynical or off-putting about using stories to sell products. It’s even more than that: it’s when consultants, who earn their living at this sort of stuff, tell their clients to use stories to sell products, and then hire them to do it. I like and respect P.R. and marketing, but when I see this sort of thing, it creeps me out. For example, in the above-cited article, one piece of advice the author gives is for story tellers to “Find the humanity at the center of a situation.” Now, speaking as a journalist, I can tell you that if you’re writing a story about someone, if there’s something intensely human at its core, that will make the story better. Indeed, it’s hardly worth writing otherwise. The other day, I was reading a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about inner-city teens who are managing to create lives for themselves despite the grinding poverty and fearsome crime rates of some of our cities. (I live in Oakland and this is of particular resonance to me.) There are some truly inspirational stories about kids, and the brave, committed mentors who are trying to help them.

But it’s a lot different telling a story about winery owners who, let’s face it, are usually affluent, haven’t particularly suffered, don’t have much inspiration to offer, and who, after all is said and done, are telling their stories in order to sell their wines! In fact, in the article, it says the author should ask himself or herself “What is the point of telling this story?” Good question. Is the point to sell wine? That’s not a very good reason to tell a story. Well, maybe it is, from the proprietor’s point of view, but it’s not a very good reason for anyone to read it, much less to “keep coming back for more.”

Incidentally, have you noticed a very important issue that’s been absent from this discussion? Quality. You can have the best story in the world, and if you’re making mediocre wine, nobody cares anyway, unless all they care about is a “story.”


What will it take for the Chinese to embrace Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon?

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The Holy Grail for California wine has been China. With its hundreds of millions of emerging upper-middle class consumers, Cali producers see a vast new source of demand. The problem is how to persuade all those Chinese that they want California wine.

We already know they want French wine. Parker has been investing his time and energy heavily in China for many years (I remember raised eyebrows when he started visiting with regularity, but he was ahead of his time, wasn’t he?), and now, of course, a Singapore outfit owns Wine Advocate.

RMP himself is now back tasting California wine. (Ironic, isn’t it? First he said he didn’t want to anymore. Then “the troubles” went down with Galloni, and The Man Himself was compelled to return to a beat he’d previously said he was tired of.) So, while the Wine Advocate is competition for the magazine I write for, Wine Enthusiast, I do think that Parker is in a position to publicize to wealthy Chinese consumers the Napa cult wineries he likes. If I were a cult Napa producer, I’d be all over Parker, inviting him to the winery, getting my wines into his hands, then keeping my fingers crossed for a 99 or even a perfect 100.

But I also think Wine Enthusiast has growing clout in China, a clout that will only increase over time. Last year we began a Mandarin edition of the magazine, and my understanding is that it’s doing quite well. It was, I believe, the first important English-language wine periodical to be published in the Chinese language. And, as that edition also reports on my scores and reviews of Napa cult wines, I think it’s likely that those scores will drive sales, too.

Of course, some Napa wineries don’t have to worry about scores. Yao Ming’s wines ($625 for the 2009 Family Reserve) were an instant hit in China, for obvious reasons. I suspect that Screaming Eagle and Harlan also are doing well. The kind of people in China who can afford them have extensive connections with the west. They tend to speak English and are aware of the consumer goods, including wine, that are popular and prestigious in America. They take their cues from rich Americans and are ever alert to symbols of status and preference. Since critics like Parker tend to rate these wines highly, that should make them in high demand in China.

What about the other hundred or so Napa cult Cabs?

It’s terribly difficult for individual wineries to market themselves in China. But the Napa Valley Vintners has been plying those waters for a long time. This article, from the Huffington Post, does a good job describing the general contours of breaking into the Chinese market, but to me, the bullet quote is from Harlan’s GM, Don Weaver“Trying to solve the China puzzle is the most exciting part of my job right now.” The adjective “exciting” is an interesting choice; Don might have used “challenging,” but when you rise to meet a challenge, and then perhaps exceed it, it is exciting.  (I felt that way when I was awarded my first Black Belt in karate.)

Napa wineries (and others in California) also recently got a boost from Gov. Jerry Brown, a longtime friend of the wine industry, when his April trade mission to Shanghai (which included Wine Institute’s CEO, Bobby Koch), promoted the state’s wines; the promotion also included a “Taste Napa Valley” event sponsored by Wine Institute.

These activities all are promising, and the people organizing and managing them are very good at what they do. But there’s a limit to how effective they can be at the individual winery level. If you’re selling a 93 point Cabernet for $100 or more, and you don’t have an ultra-famous name and have only been around for a few years, you’re going to have a tough time, whether it’s here in the States or in the People’s Republic. It’s those Napa Cabs I wonder about. Who’s buying them? Who will be buying them? Maybe their proprietors are so rich they can afford to break even, or even lose a little money, for a decade or two. I have a feeling they’re about to find out.


Can a wine be serious and unsnooty at the same time?

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What does it mean when people say Millennials want wines that are “more approachable” and less “snooty”?

You hear it everywhere, especially in the Blogosphere, but also in conversations about social media and in the columns of newspaper writers: for example, “Snooty is no longer where it’s at in the wine world,” and young people are seeking “more approachable and drinkable wines that are suitable for a range of dining and social occasions,” in the words of this article.

The suggestion is that some sort of cosmic alteration has occurred in the way younger consumers view wine, that this paradigm shift is revolutionizing the way wine is marketed (with, for example, Franzia WineTaps appealing to “growing demand [for] intriguing products”), and that “Specialty wines such as sangrias and chocolate wines” are aiming for the “sweeter taste profiles” the under-30s like.

In line with this blog’s continuing struggle to get at the truth, and hewing to its “the more things change, the more they stay the same” philosophy, I now dispel these modern myths with the wave of a hand. Begone!

Let’s break it down.

Of course consumers want wines that are less snooty and more approachable. Nothing new about that. “You certainly don’t have to be a wine expert to drink wine…For wine-drinking is fun. And wine isn’t difficult. Why consider it harder to serve than coffee, soda pop or beer? There isn’t any hocus-pocus, except for the so-called experts who as specialists have fun trying to make things complex and involved.”

That might have been written yesterday by any number of wine bloggers. But no, it was written by Mary Frost Mabon, then the food and wine editor at Harper’s Bazaar, in her 1942 book, ABC of American Wine. I cite it merely to illustrate the fact that more than seventy years ago writers were reassuring “ordinary” Americans that wine wasn’t “snooty” and that “preciosity in a wine connoisseur” (Mabon again) is laughable.

When I read this stuff about “more approachable and drinkable wines” my first reaction is that it’s sheer nonsense. Milliennials aren’t looking for “more approachable and drinkable” wines because these words have no meaning. They sound like they’re describing something real, because they hew to standard English syntax; but just because I can make up a proper sentence doesn’t mean it corresponds to something in reality. (“My unicorn just leapt over the radioactive rainbow.”) How is any wine “more approachable and drinkable” than any other wine that has ever existed? It all depends on what you like, right? Now, if “more approachable and drinkable” really means sweeter, then why don’t we just come out and say that Millennials prefer sweet wines to dry? Because it’s not true, that’s why. There’s no proof of that. The explosion of things like Moscato (and, yes, sangrias and chocolate wines) is indicative only of rising consumption of wine across all demographic groups, some of whom want their wines sweet while others like them dry.

What writers really mean when they say Millennials want “more approachable and drinkable wines” is that they want cheaper wines. This, too, hardly qualifies as a Eureka! moment, nor would it have come as a surprise 70 years ago to a producer (or 300 years ago to a London merchant). People, especially younger ones, always want value in their drinks, which is why The Wine Group, Bronco, Barefoot and so many other companies are doing so well.

So, you ask, is Heimoff saying that nothing ever changes? In a way, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Trends come and go–Moscato will fade back into semi-obscurity someday–boxed wines were inevitable once the technology developed–one day tequila is on top, the next day rum–sweet, fruity wine-based concoctions have been around from the days of Bali Hai through the coolers of the 1970s to today–young people always will like inexpensive wine but usually are willing to spend more as they age and earn more money–the Sun continues to rise in the east and set in the west–lazy or ill-informed wine writers continue to search for “news-like” information they can pass on with seeming authority–well, you get the picture.

I will stipulate the following concerning younger consumers: they want more interesting wines these days, wines that tell them stories and about which they can talk with their friends (and perhaps to the proprietor via social media). And this, they certainly have, in spades, in unprecedentedly open and interactive ways. But this is a double-edged sword for wineries. It makes the younger consumer easily the most fickle consumer in the history of the world. As soon as the story becomes boring–as soon as a more interesting story pops up (and I use the phrase “pop up” deliberately, in its latter-day urban sense)–the consumer moves onto the next thing.

I leave with this word of caution to wineries tempted to stroll down the “less snooty-more approachable” path: you may be headed up the garden path, leading to a cul-de-sac from which there is no escape. It’s one thing to make a wine-in-a-box and be content to sell gazillions of gallons of it (and this is in no way a criticism of such wines; among critics I’ve probably praised them the most, on grounds of quality-price ratio). But what if your ambitions as a winemaker are set higher than a boxed wine? What if you’re a garagiste or terroirist or someone seized with the notion of creating something awesome from your patch of ground? Some writers and customers always will “squint, swirl, sniff, sip, swish and spit” (in Mary Frost Mabon’s alliterative words), meaning in turn that these wines by definition become “more snooty” and “less approachable,” which is simply a way of saying that they become of greater intellectual and conversational interest, at least to those of us who care about such things. Do we really want this appeal to “less snooty and more approachable” to result in the end of pleasant discussions about wine, terroir, technique, varieties, aromas, finishes and all the other arcane topics we geeks love to talk about? I would hope not. Any winery that walks the serious quality walk but talks the “unsnooty and approachable” talk is trying to have it both ways, an unsustainable proposition that ultimately will please no one.


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