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The personal touch: Talking about wine

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I’ve always liked talking about wine with whomever—I mean, it can be someone more knowledgeable than me, or someone who’s just starting out. As long as they’re interested, I’ll go on all day.

It’s amazing how much information we store in our brains about certain subjects that attract us. I’ve forgotten many things in my life, probably most of what I’ve experienced—but my store of wine knowledge appears to be intact. When I really get going, facts spring to my mind and thence to my tongue that I read about decades ago. But they’re still there.

This is so, I think, because of the passion I have for wine. From the very beginning (1979), I learned everything about it I could. I read, read, read, asked questions of people, and took tasting notes. I would have thought most of it was long gone, but it’s still in there, because it was assembled with loving care, and what you learn with love seems to stick with you.

And I’ve been talking about wine a lot, more than I usually did when I was at Wine Enthusiast. That was a fairly solitary gig. You’re tasting at home, and most of the writing is done at home, too. Of course, there are road trips, but when you’re a working wine critic, being on the road has to be balanced with work: the more you travel the less actual work you get done. It’s important to get out into wine country and meet new people, experience new things and walk the ground, but I found, in my later years at the magazine, that it was increasingly difficult to balance work and travel in a way that was comfortable for me. That was one of the reasons—although far from the only one—that I left Enthusiast.

In the past few weeks I’ve been on a number of trips for Jackson Family Wines, representing the company in various capacities. The people I’ve been meeting range from beginners (such as at tasting rooms) to the most sophisticated sommeliers and merchants. So, as you can imagine, the subject matter of our conversations varies. But one thing that doesn’t change is what I think of as the essence of a wine conversation: And that is that we’re talking about a beverage that lends itself to extended conversation regardless of your level of knowledge.

Isn’t that something? I suppose the manufacturers and salesmen of soup can talk about soup all day and all night, but this probably isn’t a topic that would interest most of us. And, with all due respect for soup, there’s less history, romance and intellectual interest about soup than there is with wine.

One interesting thing I’ve found being out on the road tasting with somms and other high-end buyers is that the technical stuff about the wines doesn’t seem to be what they want to talk about. This may partly be a function that it’s me they’re tasting with—there’s a great deal of interest in my former job—but, as someone remarked to me, they talk about technical stuff all day, and besides, if they’re really interested, they can always refer to a tech sheet.

Instead, our conversations seem to go more in the direction of stories, anecdotes, personal experiences we’ve all had, and it’s fun to share them. Of course, there’s also a lot of opinionating. I’m watching, as I write this, one of those innumerable sports talk shows on Fox where the TV guys are talking about who will win Tuesday’s game in Kansas City. (Go Giants!!) I love listening to this kind of stuff, even though in the long run it’s totally meaningless, because it has no bearing whatsoever on the actual game. It’s just a bunch of guys talking through their hats. But these guys love baseball, they live it and study it and thrive on it, and so their conversations are worth overhearing (assuming you like baseball). Same with wine. Put two of us together who live, love and thrive on wine, and you’re gonna get a gabfest.

To me here’s really no difference talking about wine with an expert or an amateur. When it comes to a nice conversation, it doesn’t matter. Someone always knows more than you, and someone always knows less. So just say what you have to say, and let the conversation begin!


My conversation with a guy in a tasting room

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What do you do when you’re tasting wine with a novice in a tasting room, and there are points you want to make—and the other person says something about the wine that you don’t understand?

Over the weekend I worked a shift at the Murphy-Goode tasting room, the second time I ever did that (the first was last month, at Kendall-Jackson), and I found there’s a very typical kind of taster: perhaps a little younger, enthusiastic, friendly, curious, there to learn about wine, open-minded in a way that older folks may not be. My approach is, I’m not going to do a hard sell. I’m not going to lecture them with some pre-set spiel. I’m going to find out where their interests lie—what direction of thought their mind is going in—what sorts of things they might want to learn more about. And then I’ll take it from there.

So, with this one guy, we were tasting a reserve Zinfandel, and we had it following the winery’s other tiers of Zin, Liar’s Dice and Snake Eyes. These three tiers are absolutely rational in terms of price and quality (which you can’t always say about tiers). I had joked with the guy (he was a firefighter), “I’m going to test you after we try the three Zins, and I’ll ask you how you perceive the reserve versus the other wines.” After we tasted the reserve, I asked him again to compare it to the first two. He was silent for a moment, thinking, and then he said, “The reserve is more consistent.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, because “consistent” isn’t a word I normally use to describe a wine. It’s more of a term I’d use to describe a wine that’s pretty much the same year in and year out from the winery (in which case, consistency is a good thing). But I don’t know I’d call an individual glass of wine “consistent.”

So I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Well, with the other wines, the flavors were kind of all over the place, but this one is more consistent.” And I thought to myself, “You know, it’s not how I would phrase it, but I kind of see what he means.” That made me really happy: the guy wasn’t using language that I’d use, but he was talking about the wine, describing it, in a way that perhaps was beyond his usual comfort zone.

I had wanted to point out that the wine was more full-bodied, richer and more complex than the other wines—more multi-layered. But I didn’t want to step on his remark: I wanted to understand how what he meant by “consistent” might actually be the same thing I meant by “more complex.” So I told him, “I know! You’re exactly right. It is more consistent.”

Now, in a certain sense, that was not an entirely true statement, because, as I said, “consistent” is not an adjective I would use under those circumstances. But I thought I knew what he meant by it, and what he meant was the same thing I meant, which was the thing I was trying to point out that actually made it a better Zinfandel, which justified its higher price.

I wondered where to go from there (I’m basically winging it). I didn’t think he wanted a whole lot of blah blah technical non-sequitors from me. And, having done this only twice, I don’t really have what you can call a “tasting room approach” (if there is one). So I said, “Do you know, achieving that sort of consistency is one of the hardest things to do for the winemaker?” Since he knew what he meant by consistency (and it was clear he really liked the wine), I figured we could build on his understanding of it by me describing some of the steps that go into making a very good wine: the terroir of the vineyard, the age of the vines, controlling the yield, and so on. It’s not an accident that a wine is “consistent.” I could tell he was really into it by now. After a while, when he went away, he thanked me, with a big smile on his face. He had learned, not only that different wines made from the exact same grape variety can vary in quality, but why, and that is something he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life.


I’m the new “go with” wine guy

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I went on a “go with” yesterday. That is (as I just learned) the jargon for a salesperson who calls on an account and brings “someone else” (like me) with him. In this case, I’m the “famous former wine critic” whom most of the accounts have heard of, and whose ratings might even appear on their shelf talkers; apparently, some of them at least like meeting me—a name they previously knew only in print, only now it’s in the flesh.

What I, and other critics like me, used to do is so mystical and mythical to these guys. Many of their questions are basic: How do you assign a numerical rating? What’s the difference between 89 (death) and 90 (glory)? How exactly do you taste? It’s a reflection of the secrecy of so many famous critics that even hard-core industry veterans don’t understand. I don’t think I, personally, am guilty of obfuscation, since in this blog I’ve explained every detail of how I did everything, over and over, for more than six years. But in all objectivity, I don’t think most other critics have been similarly straightforward, and that’s a shame.

I’ve always said I like the sales and marketing aspect of this business. The sales guys, in particular, fascinated me. These road warriors are out there every day, doing battle with on- or off-premise wine buyers who have heard it all, seen it all, done it all. So in other words, you have two battle-hardened guys, sellers and buyers, meeting on the playing field, and may the best man win.

One of the reasons why I took this job at Jackson Family Wines was, obviously, because it’s a great company, with the greatest portfolio of family-owned wines in California, maybe in all the world, IMHO. It was easy for me, in the comfort of my own home, to review their wines and form impressions of Stonestreet, Cambria, Edmeades, Hartford, Cardinale and all the rest, and know in my mind how good they were.

But the seller-buyer relationship is totally different, as I learned up close and personal yesterday. The sales guy I teamed with, Charlie, and I covered 150 miles of Bay Area freeways going from account to account at upscale wine stores. One thing I learned: you have to be very patient at dealing with traffic and driving long distances if you’re going to do sales! Another thing: each account is different. I mean, in terms of their personalities. One guy will be all business: no small talk here. Another might be just the opposite. One of our calls was a guy who majored in history at U.C. Berkeley. I asked him what his specialty was, and he said Post World War II Italy. Well, I’m a WWII freak, and the book I’m currently reading is a biography of Galleazo Ciano, Italy’s foreign minister during the war, and Mussolini’s son-in-law to boot: Ciano’s diaries (which I have), smuggled out of Italy during the war despite the Gestapo’s attempts to find them, did much to shed light—damaging and embarrassing light—on the Hitler-Mussolini relationship. Anyhow, that led to a long conversation between me and the sales guy that had nothing to do with wine—although we did return to that subject. The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve always valued relationships in this industry, and it’s fascinating to meet such a varied range of people with so many different interests and points of view.

I valued yesterday’s experience. It enriched my life, and helps me more deeply understand this complex thing we call the wine industry—such a multi-faceted thing, so driven by human personality. When I was a critic, I lived in a sort of bubble. I’m not complaining: it was a very pleasant bubble. But a bubble nonetheless. I had the time of my life, but I eventually came to believe that there was more to life, and to me and my career, than being a wine critic. I’m extraordinarily grateful for those years. At the same time, I’m also thoroughly ensconced in, and enjoying, this, my newest adventure.


The Wall of Wine, Stories, and Consumer Psychology

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I was on the panel of a wine event last week, and one of my fellow panelists was from one of the nation’s biggest Big Box grocery retailers. I asked him, “Will the infamous Wall of Wine be always with us?” and he answered, “Yes. Retail is here to stay.”

Indeed it is, as a basic function of human interaction: I buy something wholesale and sell it to you retail, for a profit. But as experience shows us, retail changes its external face constantly; and the Big Box, with its Wall of Wine, will not be with us forever—at least, in the form we know it.

The reason things are changing is simple to understand: Millennials.

“Online retailers have a huge edge with Millennials,” according to this 2013 study which took the example of a popular woman’s athletic tank top to illustrate Millennials’ disinclination to buy things in stores. “’I logged on, I found my Under Armour top, I pressed a button and got it 4 days later,’” a representative of the company that sponsored the study air-quoted a hypothetical Millennial on her satisfaction with the online experience. He added, “The younger respondents got, the less physical experience mattered” to them.

Contrast that with the number-one reason Baby Boomers cite for their preference to shop in traditional bricks-and-mortar stores: “instant ownership,” with 79% of them in the study citing that “as the most appealing attribute of any retailer, online or off.” This is why, according to the study, even though Amazon is the world’s biggest online retailer, its earnings in 2012 were only 13% of what Walmart cleared.

Baby Boomers may not have a problem with supermarkets, but it’s clear their children and grandchildren do. But Big Box heavyweights like Safeway aren’t about to roll over and go away. Instead, the study predicts, stores will “integrate the digital with the physical,” acquiring “online characteristics.” Such as? “Expect to see a place to pick up the stuff you bought online,” in a “retail locker” concept of retailing. Imagine buying a couple bottles of wine online from any site, and then—instead of waiting for days for it to be delivered to your house (and you might not even be home when it comes)—it will go straight to the “retail locker,” where it will not only be waiting for you, but will be presented to you “by people who like people,” not the often surly floor staff of supermarkets.

That sounds like a pleasant experience. What are the implications for the Wall of Wine? Not good. If inventory is purchased just-in-time, stores will have no reason to buy thousands of bottles they don’t even know they’ll be able to sell. The Wall of Wine will vanish, for the simple reason it will have outlived its usefulness.

* * *

And then there was the tasting I went to on Sunday at a local wine shop. It was of various coastal California Pinot Noirs. One of them (Porter-Bass 2012) started out smelling very funky, a phenomenon everyone who remarked on the wine noticed. (The funkiness, whatever the cause, blew off after a while.) I didn’t particularly care for it. Our host, however, liked it quite a bit, and explained, in some detail, the winery’s biodynamic approach to grapegrowing. Her preference for this wine was apparent to the guests, most of whom were amateurs with only little knowledge of wine. After she was finished speaking, one of the guests, who had noted the funkiness with what I thought was a critical attitude, said, “I thought it was too funky, until I heard your story. Now, I love it.”

Well, the top of my little head exploded at that. You know that we’ve been talking about “stories” quite a bit here at steveheimoff.com. Stories are the new black of marketing: the latest, hottest trend in the industry. Until my experience at that tasting, I had not perhaps appreciated the power of a good story, told by a trusted authority figure, to completely change the thinking of someone else. And not just to change their thinking: to actually change the way something smells and tastes to them!

I am in awe. Have to think more about this one. The host’s story didn’t work on me, but I’m not your typical wine consumer. Are average wine drinkers so unsure of their own perceptions that a testimonial from an expert can redirect them? Or does a good story, told passionately by a believer, somehow open up the mind of a skeptic so that he can perceive reality on a higher plane? If the latter is true, then what about a good story told passionately by someone who doesn’t even believe it, but is telling it only in order to sell a wine?

I don’t know the answers. There may be none. There may be different answers for different people. But I think all of us had better bone up on our story-telling abilities.


Telling a story about stories

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I speak later today at The Exchange, an organization, sponsored by Nomacorc, that periodically gathers “to improve the marketing of wine by creating a forum for the sharing of ideas related to wine marketing.” The topic of today’s gathering, which is at Bardessono, in Yountville, is “Telling the Story.”

I’ve been amazed the last few months at how this meme of “storytelling” has invaded corporate America—not just the wine industry but everywhere. It’s grabbed the attention of marketing and communications departments and the budgeters who fund them, which means that CEOs and company presidents also are onboard. Never in my professional career has so much attention been paid to this aspect of companies; marketing used to be a sort of minor adjunct to sales, finance and product development. Now, it’s the tail that’s wagging the dog.

We shouldn’t wonder why. Doing business in America is more complicated than ever. The nation is a welter of different, competing points of view, and a company that’s selling things (products or services) has to figure out how to make itself attractive people who are utterly different from each other. But why the sudden popularity of “the story”?

Well, for one thing, it’s not sudden. Companies, through their advertising divisions, have been telling stories for years. They didn’t call them stories; they called them “messages,” but it was the same thing. When Camel cigarettes said, in the 1940s, that most doctors recommend their cigarette—and the ads showed a “doctor” happily puffing away—that told a story. The human brain has a talent for seeing patterns where in reality only scattered bits of data exist. We see a stain on a wall and all of a sudden it’s a witch or Julia Roberts. In the same way, companies today put out creative tidbits of information and hope that we, the recipients, will fill in the blanks by interpreting the story in a way that makes us more likely to be attracted to the product.

Anyhow, that’s as close as I can come to understanding this modern infatuation with “the story.” Here’s some of what I’ll tell the audience at The Exchange:

A good story is always about something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about a person: for example, I love books that explain plate tectonics. A good story is like a good wine: it has structure, tension, grip, an intriguing beginning and a long, satisfying finish. A good story can indeed have a formula: fiction writers like Steven King and John Grishom have been writing the same formula for years. That’s not to put them down: Shakespeare had a formula well-known to students of English literature. But a formula isn’t enough. One must know how to tell the story, which involves an intuitive sense of drama. (I say “drama” because even comedies are based on the dramatic conflicts between human beings or humans and their environment.) A good story also evokes feelings of compassion and empathy in the readers.

A good story has to be well-written. Many great stories have been mangled by writers who just didn’t know how to write. Sloppy writing, poor grammar and syntax, superfluous words and sentences all can kill a good story. I believe in Thoreau: Simplify, simplify!

If you think about it, every human interaction is a system of mutual story telling. Scientists have long speculated about what makes us “distinctly human,” different from all other animals. Some have said it’s our ability to laugh. Maybe it’s our ability to tell stories, and to listen to the stories of others. On the other hand, one of my Facebook friends once said—in reply to my question of why Gus sniffs lampposts and fire hydrants to much—that those repositories of canine scents are Facebook for dogs—that each scent contains a vast amount of information that only dogs can detect: the gender of a previous visitor, the dog’s age and so on. So maybe dogs, too, tell each other stories, not through the use of words (they can’t speak) but through chemical emissions. We know that ants communicate through chemicals their bodies emit. Maybe the essence of the Universe is that all its infinite parts are constantly telling their stories, from the quantum atoms to the biggest black holes. The Universe is a dazzling babble of stories.


To the Green Valley for a book signing!

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I’m driving up to Occidental today, on the far edge of the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, for a book signing at a winery called Fog Crest. I’m not familiar with their wines, and I don’t know the proprietors, but they invited me up, bought a bunch of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and are putting me up for the night at the nearby Inn at Occidental, so what’s not to like about that?

That book was published in 2005, after a writing and editing effort that took about two years. Prior to that, I’d tried hard to get a book publishing deal. It was an era when having a book was the crowning glory to your reputation as a wine writer, but actually getting a book deal was hard. I’d written sample chapters, sent them to agents and publishers and worked the grapevine diligently, alas to no avail; nobody seemed to want my book.

Then serendipity struck, in the form of a phone call from an acquisitions editor at University of California Press. He invited me to lunch and, over sushi in Berkeley, informed me that I could write a book – about anything I wanted – as long as it was about wine – and U.C. Press would publish it.

Wow. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. But it did. I came up with the idea for Journey – based on Heart of Darkness (alternatively, Apocalypse Now), I conceived it as a year-long journey from one end of the Russian River to the other end, where it spills into the Pacific, exploring along the way the region’s culture, plate tectonics, climate, personalities, food scene and, of course, winegrowing areas and wines. Because U.C. Press didn’t have a large budget like some for-profit publishers, they couldn’t afford a photographer, so I took my own pictures – with a throwaway camera. In the end, the rustic nature of the pictures echoed the book’s artisanal nature: I call it “the terroir of Steve” from a writing point of view.

I wrote one more book after that for U.C. Press, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, but by the time we started talking about a third book, I’d begun this blog, which, after more than six years, has amounted to perhaps two million words, the equivalent of many books. I always thought that said something about the nature of wine writing: that it’s migrated to the Web. Of course, wine writers still write wine books, and they still get reviewed, but somehow, a wine book doesn’t seem to have the glory it used to anymore. The times they are a-changing.

My readers know that I make a big deal of the art of writing. In Journey, something came over me that I can only liken to possession: I felt like it wasn’t me writing it, but some wonderful force that was expressing itself through me. It’s a terrific little book, if I do say so myself. When I proposed it to my editor, I told him, “I want to write a book people will read 100 years from now.” I was well aware of the brief lifespan of 99% of wine books: they come and go like gnats. Today, Eric Asimov is praising them in the New York Times: tomorrow, they’re in the remainders bin of the local bookstore. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to capture a moment in time, in a particular place (the valley of the Russian River), in such a manner that later generations would read it and go, Ahh, that was an interesting time and place.

I haven’t been up to Occidental in years, so this trip will have some nostalgia. Today will be quite warm and sunny; we’re in the pleasant grasp of our last heat wave of the season before the rains come and transform the Russian River Valley into a dripping enchantment I once likened to Middle Earth in a storm. That is, if the rains come: we all hope they do. I don’t want to see Guerneville and adjacent towns flooded, as they so frequently have been, but we all are hoping for torrents to fall and fill our reservoirs.

Have a great weekend!


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