One of the things I’ve been puzzled about is how slow to embrace social media the so-called cult wineries have been in California.
I ask just about every cult proprietor I meet what they’re doing online, and the usual response is a shrug. Sometimes they’re not doing anything. Sometimes they don’t know what they’re doing, because they hired somebody to do it for them and they never even check it out. Maybe they have a web site that hasn’t been refreshed since 2009.
As far as I can tell, too often the proprietor’s attitude toward social media is sort of “I can’t be bothered.” It’s like they feel that going online is a form of peddling — a vulgar hawking of their product, like a late-night infomercial or a cheap clip-out coupon in the Sunday paper.
We now have some insight into this mindset via an article, “Luxury Brands Still Tread Lightly With Social Media,” that appeared in yesterday’s Forbes.com.
The headline telegraphs the main point. I love this quote from a fellow named Jean-Claude Biver, ceo of Hublot, a luxury watch producer (how about $19,500 for the Limited Edition 715.CI.1110.RX for men?). “When you are online,” M. Biver observed, Gallic nose upturned, “you are not exclusive anymore.”
You might wonder why a watch that costs nearly twenty grand wouldn’t be exclusive no matter where you buy it. As it turns out, there’s a reason. It’s provided by a Brit, name of Matt Rhodes, who is described as the social media director for the firm, FreshNetworks London, which advises “high-end travel and fashion companies.” Rhodes explains that people who are going to drop a bundle on a product want more for their money than merely the thing purchased. A lot more. “If you’re going to spend $1,000 on a pair of shoes, you want to have a glass of wine going around, the attention of staff; you want an experience as well…”.
In other words, when the lady is yearning for a pair of Manolo Blahnik Rhinestone Buckle d’Orsays, she doesn’t want to look them up on amazon.com and have them sent in a box through the mail. She wants to walk into Bergdorf’s and be treated right — in an experience that feels “less like [a] sales room and more like [an] intimate venue,” says Rhodes.
Now we get to the nub, not only of why luxury wine producers are reluctant to go online, but why, in fact, people treasure luxury wines in the first place. We need to understand snobbism, or perhaps elitism is a less loaded word. Lots of people who live to show off their cult wines are not…quite…comfortable with the multitudes, who don’t hold their forks correctly and may not have perfectly manicured fingernails. The people who can afford cult wines like to be around other people who can afford cult wines. That implies exclusivity, and what could be less exclusive than social media? Social media lets everybody in, whereas the objective of snobbism is to shut people out. As Rhodes says, pointedly, “[O]n Facebook, you are opening the gates to discussions you don’t [necessarily] want.” Who wants to have a conversation with the underclass? If Rhodes’ fashion designer clients have a new Fall line to present, they’d much rather do it through “[their] own catwalk show where [they] control the invites,” not through some common public platform.
Thus the notions of exclusivity, controlling the environment and maintaining insider status lie at the heart of cult wines. But those notions are inimical to the soul of the Internet. That is why cult wine proprietors are slow to embrace social media. It smashes exclusivity, demolishes the ivory tower, bridges the moat and throws open the gate to anyone who wants in.
So I entirely agree with the reporter who wrote in the Forbes.com article, “…it’s odd that so few resources are invested in reinventing how that product is marketed and delivered on the web…in the luxury sector.” Odd, indeed. And sure to change.
I like Washington State wines all right, and whenever I go up there I’m impressed by the passion and drive of the winemakers and the quality of the wines. But I have to say the Washingtonians always seem to have a kind of resentment toward California.
On the one hand they’re always reminding us here in the Golden State that California’s too hot to make balanced grapes, our wines are too alcoholic and obvious, they lack elegance, we’re on the same latitude as the Sahara Desert or something like that. Whereas they, Washington State, are on the same latitude as Bordeaux, they make more balanced wines, et cetera.
On the other hand, California sells, what? Ten times more wine than Washington State. California wine is famous all over the world, while Washington wine isn’t. California wine has the “profile” that Washington wine doesn’t, and the Washingtonians don’t like that, but don’t know quite what to do about it.
Today the Associated Press is reporting that Washington State again is trying to “raise the industry’s profile,” this time by inviting dozens of wine buyers from “major U.S. restaurants” on a tour of wineries and vineyards.
It’s always helpful to invite gatekeepers to your wine region. A personal relationship between people is more likely to result in a sale and a dedicated customer. But these sorts of junkets also have their limitations. The kind of gatekeeper — be it restaurant owner, sommelier or buyer for a large chain — who gets invited to tour Washington wine country also gets invited to tour most of the other wine countries of the world. At the end of the day, the pleasant experience in Walla Walla is trumped by pleasant experiences in the Colchagua Valley and the Barossa. The wine buyer ultimately has far more reasons to buy wine, or not to buy wine, than the mere fact she’s toured a particular place.
This was pointed out in the A.P. article by the quote attributed to Michael Mina’s somm, Tony Cha. When asked if he intended to devote a section of his wine list to Washington State wines — which the Washington Wine Commission seemed to suggest would be a nice idea — Cha replied, discretely, “We have some Washington wines, but we’ve never had a section devoted to it,” he said. “I’d like it to change, but…”. That’s a big “but.” What Cha really meant was, “but it’s not going to change.” I can’t imagine a wine list having a section for Washington wines, unless it’s actually in Washington State, and even then, it would be weird.
Cha theorized that, as Napa gets more and more expensive, Washington could step in and benefit from being the lower-cost alternative in Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. I’m sure the Washington Wine Commission hopes that’s true. Problem is, the recession is driving Napa prices downward, and even as it does so, other areas in California are rapidly improving. If you’re a restaurateur trying to sell wine from a little understood region to a customer, is Walla Walla easier than Paso Robles? I don’t think so. What’s the story? “Walla Walla is this fine little appellation in eastern Washington State. No, not Washington D.C., Washington State. You know, where Seattle is. No, it doesn’t rain there all the time. In fact, Walla Walla is in what they call the ‘rain shadow’ and…”
and so on.
Versus: “Paso Robles is in the Central Coast of California, halfway between San Francisco and L.A. The region benefits from inland heat, but is cooled by breezes off the Pacific. Our sommelier is very excited about their wines.”
Now, that’s a message you can take to the bank.
I blogged last April that Gourmet magazine, which Condé Nast shut down in Oct., 2009, might spring back to life, not just as an online publication but even in some newsstand format.
Now, it’s actually happened. “Condé Nast has announced that it will indeed bring back Gourmet in print form,” says this article in the online zine, FishbowlNY.
It’s worth reading between the lines to see if we can infer any lessons to be learned in (a) why print publications die, (b) how they can continue online and (c) if they can actually pull a Lazarus and return to print form after they’re dead.
In my April blog, I wrote that, if Gourmet did return to print, it might do so as an advertiser-driven publication, one that straddled the tenuous border between “straight” journalism and what’s called, in the trade, an “advertorial.” So, I wrote, the new Gourmet “would be ‘Gourmet by Kraft.’ Could we expect to see recipes based on Oscar Mayer bologna, Oreo cookies and Philadelphia Cream Cheese?”
Such information as is available on the new Gourmet is scant, to say the least. What we know from the early reports is that the first issue is called Gourmet Quick Kitchen,
it will be 128 pages long, contain 81 “fast and easy recipes,” and will hit newsstands Sept. 7, at a cost of $11 — which seems pricey for a magazine.
But that’s about all Condé Nast has told the world. What we don’t know is whether the magazine really will be advertiser-driven, or whether it will be pure.
We also know, via the New York Times, that all of the recipes in Gourmet Quick Kitchen “were published in Gourmet before its demise,” and the first issue “has no paid advertisements…”. That’s pretty interesting, but before you come to any conclusions, the Times article also said that “future editions might” contain advertisers. You can only conclude that, when the Times reporter was given access to the Condé Nast P.R. person who broke the news, the P.R. person wouldn’t rule out the possibility of future advertising.
Knowing how advertising works, I suspect that potential advertisers are holding off for now, waiting to see if the new magazine actually sells.
What else is part of Condé Nast’s plans for Gourmet? The magazine “will see another iteration on the iPad and other tablets later this year with the launch of Gourmet Live,” reports min online. What is Gourmet Live? Condé Nast’s president and CEO announced it in an online press release last June 22. He called Gourmet Live “an entirely new digital content product” that will offer readers “articles, menus, photos, videos and more,” while bringing “monetization structures new to Condé Nast.” It’s not clear whether Gourmet Live will carry advertising. The company made a YouTube promo for it, but there’s no clue about advertising, or what those new “monetization structures” will be.
So it looks like Condé Nast is taking a multi-platform approach that incorporates print, newsstands, online, social media in all its aspects (there are also a Facebook and Twitter pages), and creating buzz through giving “insider” access to selected media, like the Times. Which is pretty much about all any publisher can do in these uncertain times.
Reaction, by the way, to the new Gourmet by old Gourmet Magazine fans has been less than enthusiastic. Here are some typical reader comments to the Times article:
Eleven dollars (plus tax) for a magazine? I would hope they wouldn’t have advertising at that price. You could almost buy a book for that.
Gourmet Quick! sounds like they’ve taken all of the quality out and left us with a Rachel Ray look alike.
I miss the old Gourmet…I’m not looking for quick recipes from Gourmet. I can find a 100 of the same thing on the shelf already.
Seems like cashing in on a well-loved name…Rerunning old recipes with new photos? I can go to Epicurious if I want to find old recipes.
It’s so sad to see a repackaging of old content and dare to say they are “bringing Gourmet back”.
Anyway (this is Steve again), it seems to me that Gourmet has a long, hard road ahead, and believe me, I wish them well. They’re one of the more conspicuous victims of the recession and the online revolution, but they’re hardly alone. It will be educational to watch Gourmet and see how they navigate the treacherous waters ahead.
Does the wine industry do a lousy job marketing to women? That’s what this article in the Oregonian says.
“[T]he corporate wine world has got it wrong when it comes to marketing to women” is the conclusion, and the article offers plenty of supporting evidence, most of it anecdotal. There are all those dumb brand names that are supposed to appeal to women: Little Black Dress, Girly Girl wine, White Lie, and they might have mentioned Bitch wine, with its pretty in pink label.
The article also draws a sharp line between the way men and women shop for wine. Men, who are “more likely to be posting on eRobertParker,” will “bring in their Blackberries and look up Spectator points.” Women by contrast “come in [the store] by themselves…Their attitude seems to be more, ‘This is what I really like and that’s why I want to drink it.’ It’s really more about ‘me time’ rather than getting another 95-point trophy to show your friends,” says the owner of a Portland wine bar.
The article cites some female wine marketers who give advice on how to target women. “Emphasize the ‘elegance’ of wine…Advertise the activity, not the object…How about showing women cooking together or sitting at their book club, socializing and enjoying wine…”.
I asked my Facebook friends what they think of the industry’s marketing to women, and the replies came in fast and furious. “The wine industry does a crap job of marketing to everybody. Women just get an extra dose of crappy,” said one, a man. A woman, who sounds like she had a lot of pent-up feelings, wrote, “Overall the wine industry does a TERRIBLE time marketing to women. We are treated overall like second class citizens or as if we are attempting to enter an all male social club. I’ve actually had wine merchants say to me ‘Wow, not many women know what they are talking about when it comes to wine.’ Really? Really? Maybe if they would shut up and freaking listen to us, they would understand how ridiculous that statement is.”
Another woman summed it up: “Women don’t buy on points, first of all (the ‘mine is bigger than yours’ doesn’t work). And women don’t like dumbed down wines (less calories!) or ridiculous targeted names (girly girl? give me a break). This is why tastings are important, because women seem to buy what they like and in order to do that, they must have a reference.”
I thought about the women I know who buy wine. They’re mostly strong and independent, and can hold their own with a bunch of yakkity guy wine snobs. But maybe that’s just the women in my life. It does sound like there’s a problem out there, especially considering that women drink most of the wine consumed in the U.S.
If there is a certain anti-woman snobbism in fine wine shops, I can relate to how women experience it. I remember how awkward I used to feel when I went into Draper & Esquin, an upscale shop in the Financial District. This was back in the Eighties, when I was getting into wine. I was ready to buy (not the most expensive bottles, but still), I was curious and had questions, and I longed for the clerks to make me feel welcome. They never did. Instead, they made me feel like I didn’t belong there. You can communicate a lot through body language, and theirs was basically: get lost. As a result, I never bought a single bottle at Draper & Esquin, which eventually closed down. Gee, I wonder why.
Most wineries these days are doing their best to increase direct sales to consumers. With the recession, they’re seeing a much more sluggish market than usual. Stores and restaurants aren’t selling as much, there are fewer visitors to the tasting room, and such as there are do not want to spend any more than they have to.
What’s a vintner to do?
We know they’re turning to the Internet and to social media to build brands, make new friends and keep old ones, and attract more members to their wine clubs. And in those clubs, they’re offering special things that are not available through the usual channels. That makes the members feel like they’re getting in on something — sort of like an initial public offering, only it’s wine, not a stock.
Winemakers also are getting increasingly ingenious when it comes to P.R. Well, that’s probably not the winemakers themselves, but their public relations people. Everybody’s pitching, pitching, pitching these days. They realize it doesn’t work anymore to pitch this tired old kind of story: “Don and Janet were bored with their old life. He made a fortune in [fill in the blank], while she was a stay-at-home mom raising their kids in [fill in the city]. So they decided to return to nature by buying 30 acres in [fill in the wine region] and grow [fill in the grape variety]. They hired [fill in famous winemaking consultant] and have now released their first wine,” blah blah blah.
That is so Nineties! No, today the pitch needs an angle, a twist. Something connected to a charity often works — whales are a perennial favorite. Biodynamic is on the wane, but it still works. Ethnic and cross cultural is coming on strong. Wine and food pairing always works. Who doesn’t like to eat? And spirits are big. Get yourself a hot mixologist, and you’re golden.
Vintners are also going to more and more wine fairs, symposia, big public tastings and the like. They’ve always done that, but I think they’re having to do it more nowadays. Anything to catch another customer, get the brand name out there, nail down some loyalty.
It used to be that the winemaker would drive [or fly] to the fair, do their thing, then drive [or fly] back. Big waste of time, all that travel. Could be doing something more productive. In France, they are. A new for-profit business provides the service of telling traveling winemakers where along their route a group of wine lovers has invited them into their homes for a little tasting. Says Decanter: “It has become imperative that, while [winemakers] are at wine fairs, or on their way back home after a sales trip, they can maximise their time away. Meeting wine lovers directly in their homes is an effective way to do this.” Let’s say Bob Cabral drove down to Shell Beach for World of Pinot Noir. On his way back to Healdburg, he’d get a text message: “The Wisenheimers have invited you to their home in Los Altos Hills for a tasting. They’ve invited their neighbors. The address is….”. And: “On your way to the Golden Gate Bridge, make a detour at Geary and go up to Seacliff. The Lotsabucks will host you.”
A winemaker’s day is never done!
* * *
And then there’s the Commonwealth of Virginia, which has been drifting to the right for years. The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission recently banned college newspapers from accepting alcohol advertising.
That prompted several Virginia colleges to challenge the ban, but it [the ban] was upheld by a U.S. Court of Appeals. On Monday, the ACLU stepped in, asking for a reversal. I know that conservatives often complain about “the nanny state” — government that is overweening and intrusive. They always say people should be left alone to make their own decisions. Well, shouldn’t college newspapers be allowed to accept advertising from perfectly legal alcohol companies, including bars that sponsor happy hours (the ban even outlaws use of that phrase!)? Come on, Virginia. Your most famous native son, Thomas Jefferson, loved wine. He must be rolling in his grave.
I’ve always been skeptical when a high-end winery turns out a lower-priced line of ordinary wine it then tries to burnish with the halo effect of its own prestige.
This happened most famously, of course, with Mouton-Rothschild, whose Mouton-Cadet, an indifferent wine, patently trades on the Mouton sheen. In California the best known instance was at Robert Mondavi, and helped ultimately to cause the family to lose control to Constellation. Sometimes, upscale wineries that decide to play the low-price game do so under a different brand. Learning from the Mondavi debacle, they hide the visible connection between the original, prestigious parent brand and the cheap new bastard child.
What prompted these thoughts was a recent article in the online journal, Luxist. They interviewed Prince Robert of Luxembourg, the managing director of Domaine Clarence Dillon (DCD), which owns the Bordeaux chateaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. DCD has launched a new brand, Clarendelle, which makes red, rosé and white wines from Bordeaux that retail here in the States for just north or south of $20. Production seems to be between 60,000-65,000 cases. The grapes are bought from producers throughout Bordeaux.
In the interview, the Luxist reporter was very flattering to her subject, the Prince. She told him, “It will be nice for customers to walk into a wine store and find $20 to $25 bottle of wine with a name on it like yours that represents quality. Who wouldn’t want to buy it?” The Prince did not demur, nor did the reporter press Prince Robert when, in response to her question of how Clarendelle is blended, he replied, “We are doing the same exercise we do when we make Chateau Haut-Brion every year,” as if there were qualitative parallels between Clarendelle and Haut-Brion, a Bordeaux First Growth. Nor did the reporter follow up when Prince Robert said his goal is “to create a super premium brand from Bordeaux that goes beyond the chateaux.” This suggests, to the average reader, that a negociant brand, made from leftover grapes in Bordeaux not good enough to go into top crus, can be as “super premium” as the wines from “chateaux,” a nonsensical statement on its face. Any Bordeaux producer can call himself a “chateau,” but most consumers will assume, quite mistakenly, that the word “chateau” applies only to the Lafites, Latours, Moutons and, yes, Haut-Brions of Bordeaux.
The Prince has been hitting the streets promoting Clarendelle. There’s a story in this Japanese magazine, “Lisa Your Family Magazine,” that calls Clarendelle “a trendy wine” (that’s what the link on Clarendelle’s website says). The Prince recently told the Chinese publication, Beijing Youth Daily (BYD), that “Clarendelle has incorporated the balance, elegance and spirit of Haut-Brion,” and in the course of that Q&A, the following howler occurred:
BYD: If you compare Clarendelle with other class-one wines from Bordeaux area like Mouton Cadet, how do you think Clarendelle differs from all other wines?
PRL: Please don’t make comparison between our wine and others…Clarendelle does have a very limited production…and it is super premium.”
Limited though the production may be, Clarendelle is sold in at least 18 countries, and is served in Conrad Hilton Hotels and on Swiss Air Lines.
Prince Robert also went to Moscow to promote Clarendelle. The article in Passport Moscow says “Clarendelle is a super premium class wine and is the new project of Prince Robert,” which words sound right out of Prince Robert’s mouth. Then the Prince is quoted as saying, “We trust, that connoisseurs of wine search for names which they trust and which represents alternatives to existing brands. Creating Clarendelle, the team of our wine makers aspires to find and make the best of the potential of Bordeaux terroir and from the from centuries of knowledge which this region possesses”. The typos and other mistakes are no doubt due to translation or language difficulties, but the underlying gibberish is clear.
Is Clarendelle wine any good? I haven’t had it, but my colleague, Wine Enthusiast’s European editor, Roger Voss, has. He scored it between 83 points and 87 points. He called the 2005 red “awkward [and] stalky” and said it left “bitterness” in the finish. But then, Roger is an accomplished wine taster, impossible to fool with associations with “chateaux,” and not likely to believe a wine is trendy because it says so in a magazine. Nor is Roger the type to describe Mouton-Cadet as a “class-one” wine.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on the Prince. A guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, especially these harsh days when First Growth Bordeaux is a hard sell to everyone except Asian billionaires. Still, it rubs me the wrong way when people like the Prince — who is basically a P.R. guy in an expensive suit — take advantage of the gullibility of naive people by telling them falsities, such as Clarendelle is like Haut-Brion because it’s made from the same grape varieties. Wide-eyed reporters in Moscow and Beijing actually believe that kind of thing. Then they write it up, and their even more credulous readers believe it, go and out seek the wine, tell their friends, and there you go: A trend is born. Clarendelle ends up being a “class-one” super-premium wine, even though it’s just another supermarket brand.