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Is it possible to create a new cult wine?



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.

How to get publicity for your winery. Or not.



Old friend Alan Goldfarb asks some pertinent questions in this piece that was published the other day in an online trade publication.

The quandary he poses for wineries: “With wine writers dropping off the face of the earth…to whom does a winery publicist turn to get PR/accolades/reviews when the writer pool is evaporating?”

As evidence of that evaporation, Alan cites several longtime wine columnists whose publishers have taken their columns away or drastically reduced their word count. He might have added the San Francisco Chronicle, from which wine writer Jon Bonné recently departed (he’s supposed to retain some connection to the paper and/or its website, but I haven’t seen anything yet).

Alan makes another compelling point: With the passing of print writers, the number of “new media” writers, such as bloggers, online radio hosts and videographers, has swelled. But—and here’s the rub—of the hundreds and hundreds of online sources, there are [only] about 20 (20!) who are worth yours and your client’s time…”.

That’s really sad, and frightening, too. Wineries need writers to tell their stories, and remind the world that they exist. But with fewer and fewer reputable channels all the time, as Alan asks, “To whom does a winery publicist turn?”

Indeed. Even if you take Alan’s “20” online writers who are “worth yours and your client’s time,” I doubt if any of them has the reach and clout that, say, Bill St. John did—he’s the wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune who, according to Alan, had his column “cut” last week. The Chicago Tribune’s average weekday circulation is 453,500, making it one of the biggest newspapers in the Midwest, and central to one of the nation’s most important wine markets. Do you think any of Alan’s 20 bloggers has that kind of readership?

Near the end of his article, Alan does cite a couple bloggers and other online sources whom he recommends. But it’s a pretty short list; his conclusion, as far as sending samples out, is for wineries to “proceed at your own peril.”

That would be my advice, too. The Internet has shaken everything up, and none more so than to hasten the end of traditional print reporting and replace it with “citizen journalism.” I liked traditional print journalism: I still read newspapers, and I trust them, believe it or not (I mean the news part, not the editorial pages of propagandists like the Wall Street Journal). In my current job, and even beyond it, I’m routinely reminded of the scurry to get publicity for your brand—any publicity, anywhere, so long as it’s generally positive. Winery executives have given up on trying to determine, with any precision, the return-on-investment of publicity. They wish they could, of course, but in the meantime, they’re happy with anything they can get. And yet, they no longer know how to get exposure, or even whom to approach for it.

You’d think that this “revoltin’ development” (T.V. fans from the 1950s, do you know who said that?) would mean the end of traditional P.R., which seems stymied at every turn. But P.R. is even more important than ever. Publicists are in demand, especially if they can demonstrate a grasp of new media. Like soothsayers of old, or necromancers who could divine messages from the gods through the intestines of a sheep, publicists today appeal to the utter confusion of winery proprietors, who have neither the time nor the personal inclination to master these arcane fields. In that sense, if you asked me how a winery should find and hire a reputable public relations expert to turn to for advice, my answer would be the same as Alan Goldfarb’s concerning bloggers: “Proceed at your own peril.”


Sunset Magazine moving to Oakland!

We welcome this great magazine! Thank you Sunset for believing in Oakland!

Monday Mayhem: Drinking too much, and memories of a P.R. guy

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It’s important for us to have a conversation about drinking too much—about alcoholism—for two reasons. One is because there’s always been, and still is, a neo-prohibitionist mindset in this country that frowns on any use of alcoholic beverages at all; and so, as if in advance of an impending flood, we have to pile the sandbags around the door and be ready for anything. The second is because we Americans are rightfully concerned about our health, and while the debate rages on concerning whether a glass or two or three of wine a day is good for you or not, even people who drink moderately have to wonder, in the back of their minds, if somehow or other they’re actually bringing on diabetes, or cancer, or stroke, or heart disease, or something else we don’t want. The situation isn’t clarified—in fact is exacerbated—by conflicting studies that come out seemingly weekly, contradicting each other and leaving us more bewildered than ever.

No wonder more and more people are taking “Are you an alcoholic?” tests. The key phrase in this latest “self-questionnaire”, from England, is, “If you find that you ‘need’ to share a bottle of wine with your partner most nights of the week, or always go for a few pints after work, just to unwind, you’re likely to be drinking at a level that could affect your long-term health. You could also be becoming dependent on alcohol.” By this metric, I suppose you could say I’m “dependent on alcohol.” But what does “dependent” mean? I’m also “dependent” on breathing and eating. I’m dependent on Gus to bring joy into my life. I’m dependent on warmth in winter and dryness in the rain, on a certain amount of social intercourse, on being creative. I’m certainly dependent on going to the gym. Heck, I’m dependent on PG&E for almost everything! So this notion of “dependency” is a “slippery” one, as even the English questionnaire concedes.

I don’t doubt that some people have a drinking problem. But what gets me is this incessant stream of “self-questionnaires” published in magazines, newspapers and online, in which we’re asked to constantly question ourselves about our habits. The suggestion is that everything we do is potentially some kind of problem. Armchair psychologists make a living at this sort of thing, and they find publishers who are happy to give them exposure.

Another one bites the dust

Many of you knew Harvey Posert, who died last week at the age of 84. I met Harvey many years ago, when he was running Robert Mondavi’s P.R. shop. Then he went over to Fred Franzia’s outfit, Bronco. We had fewer contacts after that, but one was memorable. I’d long wanted an interview with Fred, who was notoriously shy of publicity. I called Harvey for years, but the answer was always “No.” One day, I was in San Francisco, and picked up the free weekly paper. Guess who was on the front page? Freddie, and they had a very long, interesting interview with him. In the free paper? So I called Harvey back and asked, what’s up? How come a throwaway free paper that has nothing to do with wine scores an interview and I don’t? Harvey arranged for a get-together with Fred, at his gigantic bottling facility in Napa. Well, to make a long story short, it didn’t work out. I never got that interview and I never saw Fred again (although I did get to spend a fascinating day with his son, Joey, a few years later), but I did hear from Harvey. He was apologetic, but after all, it wasn’t his fault: Fred Franzia can be a very stubborn individual. Anyhow, Harvey put in his time, the good, the bad and the ugly. He did a fine job the old-fashioned way, pre-Internet, pre-social media, in an era of press kits and controlling the message, and he always sat in on interviews with whoever was his boss (which I always hated). Harvey was one of the last of his breed. To paraphrase an old saying, winery P.R. people never die, they just go to some heavenly lounge and hang out. There are worse ways to spend eternity. R.I.P. Harvey!

A new winery P.R. website is born



This is pretty cool—a new blog that addresses the practice of wine public relations, wine media trends, marketing ethics and news commentary.”

Lots of blogs, including mine, have written stuff over the years on these topics, but I don’t know of any blog that is solely dedicated to them. The creators, Tom Wark and Julie Ann Kodmur, call their site SWIG.

I’m sure it will be a success, especially if Tom and Julie Ann—both old friends of mine—keep it free. It’s not clear to me how often they’ll post, or if they view SWIG as a vehicle to drive paying customers to their own, separate public relations firms. Nonetheless, P.R. is a subject of importance and ongoing interest to winery principals—as well it should be—and so SWIG will probably be eagerly read. (Besides, as we all know, Tom is an entrepreneur who knows how to successfully start things up!)

I do want to comment on something Tom wrote on their website. “There is a body of knowledge which guides all publicists, regardless of industry, as well as there being a body of knowledge that guides wine publicists specifically. The intersection of these two bodies is what Julie Ann and I had in mind to explore here at SWIG.”

This is true, as far as it goes; but what interests me is where winery communications is going, as opposed to where it’s been—and believe me, it’s going someplace it hasn’t been before. For that matter, so is the entire wine industry; the two are interrelated. For it seems to me that we are leaving, if we haven’t already left, the “classical” era of winery P.R. and are chugging along into one that—as with all futures—we see only “through a glass, darkly.”

Tom has it exactly right when he states “The Number One Golden Truth of Wine Public and Media Relations [is] YOU MUST ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.” In past “classic” times, this wasn’t always appreciated by the crafters of publicity messages. Back then, advertisers felt free to lie, knowing that no public agency or consumer outrage would check them. This 1930 ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes actually had the nerve to suggest that smoking was good for your throat and lungs!



Tom’s claim notwithstanding, not all wineries always tell the truth. There are lies of commission, and lies of omission; you can’t know what you don’t know, and wineries sometimes don’t want you to know all the stuff they do (like adding mega-purple, or blending in Central Valley grapes, or putting a little Syrah into that nice Pinot Noir, or soaking the Chardonnay in wood chips, or reducing the alcohol by technical gizmos).

But in this day and age, it’s awfully hard to keep anything secret, so wineries are better off figuring out how to be completely candid, even when it’s uncomfortable for them to do so. You can always turn a lemon into lemonade, as Dear Abby used to say.

However, the bigger questions remain: Why does a winery need a P.R. and communications firm? If they can’t do the job themselves, how should they choose an outside firm? How can they measure the return on investment they pay to the outside firm? Answered in reverse order, it can be awfully hard for a winery proprietor to tell if his P.R. firm is worth it. The P.R. people will tell him it takes time for plans to achieve fruition, which is true; they say, also, that some of their results aren’t measurable, which also is true. This is why some wineries remain locked into unholy matrimony with P.R. companies for years, yoked to firms that are not helping them. It’s also why, on the opposite end of the spectrum, wineries will peremptorily fire a very good P.R. firm that actually is advancing their cause: they get nervous, or their brother-in-law tells them he has a better firm, and so the pink slips go out. (Do firing managers still give out pink slips, or am I dating myself?)

How a winery should go about choosing an outside firm is one of the biggest decisions they’ll make, and also one of the most difficult. If I was a winery, I’d ask my successful friends, who represents you and how are they doing? But I’d also apply good, old-fashioned common sense: Do you like the firm’s owners? Do they seem honest, up-to-date, familiar with digital communications and social media? Or are they stuck in anachronistic approaches? Finally, why does a winery need a P.R. firm? It’s all about communication, stupid! The days are long gone when a winery proprietor could sit alone, in splendid isolation, and think that his wine will go out there and sell itself. That used to be true, in certain circumstances and to a certain extent: for example, wineries that were located on well-traveled tourism routes could depend on an influx of visitors who would buy the wine, even if it was horrible. That’s increasingly hard to do, as consumer’s palates are educated. And some wineries coast on their reputations for years, depending on their old customers to continue buying them. But guess what? Old customers die.

Finally, I’d say that the relationship between a winery and it’s P.R. firm cannot be one based only on occasional exchanges. It’s all about intense teamwork these days: neither side—winery or P.R. firm—can generate the best ideas, but only both sides working together, so that brains can rub against each other, causing sparks of imagination and creativity that are geared toward the winery’s specific needs and talents. The winery that blithely accepts from its P.R. firm a template with a boilerplate approach is asking for trouble.

Anyhow, like I said, I’m sure Tom’s and Julie Ann’s new venture will be a success. I wish them good luck, and I’ll be reading SWIG (and often commenting on it) whenever they post.

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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