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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!


To eat is (literally and figuratively) to live

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My seminar (with Pedro Rusk) at Saturday’s K-J Heirloom Tomato Festival reminded me once again of what a powerful interest people have in learning about wine-and-food pairing and how to make fabulous foods. It’s interesting when you consider that people in this country are absolutely inundated with information about food. It’s a never-ending avalanche: columns in the papers, POS materials in supermarkets, online sites, T.V. cooking shows and cookbooks, cookbooks, cookbooks up the yin yang. Most of us have access to more recipes and how-to’s than we’d be able to use in several lifetimes, and yet we still show up at seminars like Pedro’s and mine for more.

It’s an almost religious quest. People go to Mecca or Lourdes, or just to their favorite house of worship on Sunday, in order to connect with something bigger than themselves, and hopefully become more than they feel they are. They buy self-improvement books, they meditate and pray, they’re constantly on the alert for something that will make their lives more complete and happy. And they go to large public events, like the Tomato Festival.

Of course, there’s an element of just wanting to be in a large, happy crowd on a glorious September day, listen to live music, drink some good wine and eat fabulous food—and man oh man, was that food great! I still feel like I inhaled a bowling ball on this, the morning after. To think that chefs can do so many things with a single ingredient—the tomato—is mind-boggling.

I’m talking about the seminars, though. It’s odd that some of us are so driven to always “up” our food game. In order to investigate the phenomenon, I turn to myself, and my own head, which is at least as curious about new approaches to food as is yours, in all likelihood. My first impression, in examining myself, is puzzlement. Why do I still subscribe to Bon Appetit? Why am I drawn, like a moth to a flame, to the Food Section of the S.F. Chronicle? I don’t subscribe to the other local papers, but when I’m at the gym and someone has tossed aside the Contra Costa Times or Oakland Tribune, I’ll pick it up and see if there’s a recipe somewhere inside. I have at least 40 cookbooks, have given away at least that many to friends, and I go to online sites like The Food Network several times a month; and yet, with all that data at my fingertips, I’m still hungry (forgive the metaphor) for more. I sometimes wonder if this almost obsessive search for perfect recipes and wine pairings isn’t a form of psychological compensation for a spiritual emptiness I feel inside; but such self-introspection can be morbid, and leads nowhere, so I try to avoid it. Still, do I really expect to find another pasta pesto recipe that will bring me to glory? Is there a way to roast a chicken that’s more orgasmic than the ones I’ve practiced for decades? Can there be a risotto more perfect than the ones I’ve cooked most of my adult life?

I suppose, if I were really, really into it, I’d master some new form of cooking, like baking. But who’s got the time, and besides, within a half-mile of my home are stores where I can buy every kind of bread there is, almost fresh from the oven (the San Francisco Bay Area has got to be one of the world’s greatest sources of bread). If anything, I’m shortening the amount of time I spend in the kitchen. Twenty years ago, especially if someone special was coming for dinner, I’d start prepping the day before, and the afternoon before the meal would be consumed with chopping, dicing, slicing and reducing sauces. Nowadays I look for the most delicious food I can make in the least amount of time. That’s not likely to change, even when I retire and don’t feel the pressures and time constraints of work. So why this relentless drive for more recipes?

Maybe it’s as simple as this: To eat is to be alive, and moreover, to indulge in one of the most pleasant aspects of being alive. (I’m reminded of those old commercials for Carl’s Junior: “Don’t bother me, I’m eating.”) It is imaginatively possible that we could have a powerful drive to eat and not necessarily possess an accompanying capacity for the intense satisfaction of eating. Therefore, to be interested in food—to anticipate eating, to think of the next opportunity for great, delicious food—is to authenticate our lives, to celebrate the fact that we are still alive and not dead, to exult in our physical health. When my mother was dying, in the hospital, yet still conscious until nearly the very end, she did not relish the meager foods that were brought to her, and I doubt (although I don’t know for sure) that in her private thoughts she thought about food at all. But then, she already had one foot in another world, a world in which eating (so far as we know) is non-existent or at least non-essential. So she had let go of food-thinking, which was replaced by a form of thinking most of us have yet to experience.

But for those of us who remain alive and kicking, eating is (along with one or two or three other activities) the most glorious thing we can do. As full as my belly feels at this moment, I know that, in a few hours, I will once again have that craving that starts as a vague desire at the fringes of consciousness, then gradually invades the thinking process until, finally, I arise from my seat and head toward the shrine of the refrigerator. The religious symbolism is apt: my search for another great recipe is no less than a quest for purification and redemption. The Most Perfect thing in the world, which is the subject of every religious and moral philosophy, may not be obtainable in this life, and certainly isn’t through eating. But the Almost Most Perfect food is always out there, beckoning, promising, tantalizing with salient possibility. When we stop heeding its call we, too, will have one foot in the other world. Until then, we live, thrive, love, drink, and eat.


When wine writers host public events

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I’ll be co-conducting a wine-and-food pairing event at Saturday’s big Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival. It’s the eighteenth time the event, which is one of the biggest in Sonoma County, has been held—and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never gone. Everyone has told me how amazing it is, so I am totally looking forward to it.

My particular role, which I’ll share with Pedro Rusk, one of the winery’s educators, is to talk about some white wines that make good summer drinking. Of course, I’ll also point out that no wine needs to be limited to just one season, despite the media’s penchant for suggesting that Big Reds (Zins, Petite Sirahs, Cabs) are good for warming the blood in winter, while delicate light whites are “the perfect poolside sippers,” to use one of the many hackneyed clichés that wine writers so often trot out.

Wine writers and wine critics, such as I used to be, possess many skills, but presiding over public tastings and food-and-wine pairings isn’t necessarily one of them. On the other hand there is a population of people out there in the wine industry who are quite proficient at the entertainment aspects of public educational tasting events, but who would make lousy critics and writers. The two skills are separate, yet they also are related. Both call for a knowledge of wine. Both call also for some understanding of the food pairing properties of wine. My own approach to this latter has never been overly precious, as readers of this blog might know. There is the danger of pretentiousness in suggesting that such-and-such a wine must be paired with such-and-such a food; or that certain pairings are lethal to both the wine and the food. There are very few “perfect” pairings, just as there are very few “lethal” ones. I was trying to think of an awful pairing, and came up with oysters and Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, that would be over-the-top, nausea-inducing horror. But fortunately most wines will go with most foods, and you won’t have to worry about the Pairing Police knocking down your door and busting you. My attitude towards pairing is exactly the same as that expressed by the French sommelier, Gerard Basset, who was quoted in today’s South China Morning Post: “If there’s one area that can be over-thought… it’s pairing wine with food. [Basset’s] advice is to keep it simple.”

The other aspect of doing these educational tastings is, of course, to have the type of personality that is comfortable being in the spotlight, can yak it up with a smile and induce people to want to hear more, and one moreover that doesn’t have stage fright. I’m pretty good at being in the spotlight, so that doesn’t throw me. But I think even the best of public speakers has a little trepidation prior to going out there, live, before an audience. You just have to know your stuff, take a deep breath, pull out your natural charm and have confidence.

If you read this, either directly through my blog, or through Facebook or Twitter, and you’ll be at the Tomato Festival, please drop by Pedro’s and my seminar and say hi.


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