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From that Winery P.R. Class at U.C. Davis: a few of my remarks

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Yesterday’s Winery P.R. class, led by Rusty Eddy at the University of California, Davis, was a great success. I’ve been a speaker there for many years, and always enjoy interacting with the students, who for the most part are aspiring or actual winery public relations agents, or winery owners, or even social media consultants.

This year Rusty asked me to address some questions. Here are five, with my summarized answers:

How important to you is a good/unique winery story?

The conventional PR wisdom is that the winery needs to tell a “good story” or a “unique story” in order to capture media attention. That’s partly true, but I’m here to tell you why there’s less to this than meets the eye. I get pitched all the time about “stories” and to tell you the truth, they all start to sound alike. “Bill was a great success in [fill in the blank: investment banking, high tech, selling widgets] but one day, he and his wife, Sally, were visiting [fill in the blank, Napa Valley, the Russian River Valley, Santa Barbara] when they came across a [fill in the blank, lovely piece of land, gorgeous house, vineyard]. They decided to radically change their life, and…”. Etc. etc. So for me, personally, a “good story” isn’t terribly important. There’s something else, too: I’m a writer. My task when interviewing someone is to look for the most interesting aspects of their life, and then explore them. It doesn’t matter what official “story” the P.R. advisor has devised in advance: the story will become what I find in my autopsy of the subject’s life, achievements and character.

How important to you is a good/socially adept winery spokesperson?

I’d rather deal with a socially adept spokesperson than an incompetent one! The truth is, the vast majority of winery spokespersons are cordial and smart. I don’t really want a winery spokesperson to do anything for me, except assist with my needs [getting info, samples, arranging a visit]. I don’t particularly like it when a PR person sits in on an interview or tasting with me and the winemaker. The winemaker isn’t comfortable being scrutinized, and may be so guarded in his remarks that it effectively kills the chance for a good interview.

How has winery public relations changed in practice over the last ten years

I don’t think winery PR has changed much. Obviously the tools are different [social media] and this necessitates different skills. But the actual practice remains the same. Get your clients out in front of the media. Get good coverage, if you can. Be active, not passive.

How have wine media people/writers/news outlets changed over the last ten years?

The biggest change, again, is obvious: there’s a new generation of Millennials in the wine critic/writing business. This shouldn’t come as a shock! Every 15 or 20 years, it happens, and it’s happening again. As for new news outlets, obviously the existence of a thousand wine blogs means that wineries have vastly more opportunities for publicity. On the other hand, most of these blogs have little influence with the buying public. So if you’re in charge of that sort of thing at a winery, you have to do your homework and know which blogs are the real thing, and which ones aren’t.

What is the one most critical part of a successful small winery PR effort, assuming excellent wine quality to begin with?

When I look back over recent years, the most successful winery PR efforts have been those that involved social media, and then went viral, like Murphy-Goode’s “A Really Goode Job” contest. Another effort that comes to mind is Lisa Mattson’s work with Jordan Winery and their YouTubes, which have given the winery widespread visibility. The challenge with these efforts, especially single-episode ones like A Really Goode Job, is to maintain the momentum as time passes. That can be very hard. It’s not easy coming up with brilliant social media ideas.


Here I come, rest of the week

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I travel to U.C. Davis this week once again for my old friend, Rusty Eddy, with his winery P.R class. He’s done this for years, and it’s always great fun.

This year, for the first time, the class spans over two days, Thursday and Friday. Friday, when I won’t be there, is devoted to what Rusty calls implementation. This is where the rubber hits the road. Instead of just telling these students what to do, Friday’s session will instruct them in the nuts and bolts of how to do it. I don’t know about you, but I myself need hands-on guidance when it comes to learning how to do stuff. For example, I’m getting better at recording on my new Yamaha P155 digital piano, but I find the manual useless. I need someone who knows his way around that piano to stand right next to me and tell me exactly what to do.

I won’t be there for the Friday class, but I’m sure that Paul Mabray wishes I was. : >  Last year, we were both there on the same day, and some people were billing it as some kind of mixed martial arts smackdown: Ladeez and Gents: Step right up this way to see the most sensational, knock-down, drag-out battle in the history of social media-dumb. In this corner, the old dinosaur, who’s been around for a long time but still has a few tricks up his sleeve. In this corner the new pheenom, who came out of nowhere and is anxious to kick butt. Place your bets, ladeez and gents!

Well, of course that’s not how it was last year. Although there were some tense moments, overall it was a respectful exchange of ideas. Paul was frustrated that I tend to question some of his basic premises having to do with the efficacy of social media for wineries. And so the energy level in the room rose to a certain level, but it was nothing that grownups can’t handle.

But this year, no Paul and Steve in the same room! Instead, my co-panelists are Virginie Boone, my wonderful “other half” here in California for Wine Enthusiast, whom Rusty is also billing for her roles at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the new Sonoma Magazine (what a great portfolio); and someone I don’t know, Steve Boone, of O’Donnell Lane, which calls itself a lifestyle company specializing in strategic planning, marketing and communications for the wine industry. As someone who has some skepticism about consultants like that (their job, after all, is to persuade potential customers that they, the consultants, have something the potential customer desperately needs, which may or may not be true), I’m all ears to hear Steve’s presentation.

My own presentation will be to describe the world of winery P.R. into which these Davis students are entering as realistically as possible. As someone on the receiving end of countless pitches, I feel I have some insight into what works and what doesn’t. Of course, that’s just me. A pitch that bores me might turn someone else on. On the other hand, it does seem to me that it would be pretty valuable for someone to successfully pitch me for a spot in the magazine, since that is very expensive real estate. An article, even a small one, in Wine Enthusiast will bring a winery vaster coverage than a hundred blogs ever could.

I do plan on taking a few minutes at the end of my presentation to tell the students my views on social media: the good, the bad and the ugly. As some of you may know, I routinely come under some pretty fierce attack on twitter and in blogs for failing to be a 100% card-carrying social mediaist. Sometimes these attacks are pretty ad hominem–you know, when you can’t debate someone’s points, then attack their personality. Alder Yarrow the other day–a fellow I’ve always tried to be nice to–called me a Chihuahua. Now, I am not offended. My family is not offended. But Gus, who is part Chihuahua, has taken this hard.

Alder’s rather sad remark shows how the conversation about the value of social media can really deteriorate into childish name calling, when its proponents lose their moorings and hit that “send” button before they’ve had a chance to sober up and be reflective. Alder claims to be “infuriated” by the questions I ask about social media. I wonder why. That’s such an extreme, irrational emotion. Infuriated? I mean, really…the Taliban gets infuriated. Adult Americans don’t. And Alder’s not the only one. Maybe someday someone will explain to me why these social mediaists have so much personal pathology bound up in it, and why they can’t tolerate even well-meaning, constructive criticism from a simple, likeable guy like me.


Report from Seattle

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I’m up in chilly, drizzly Seattle with the northern branch of my family for the holidays. In this case, it’s two holidays: today is the first day of Hanukah, while tomorrow is Thanksgiving. So my niece has been preparing food for several days in a row, in order to host not one, but two large gatherings. Today is latkes day. If you don’t know latkes is, it’s traditional Jewish potato pancakes. They’re greasy and heavy and utterly delicious. You generally serve them with apple sauce, although some people prefer sour cream. I wouldn’t know what wine to recommend with latkes, to tell you the truth. Beer is probably better. Since brisket of beef is also on the table, that suggests some kind of hearty red.

But then, these full-throttle meals–the kind you serve for Hanukah and Thanksgiving, where there’s a bit of everything, from sweet and sour to salty and bitter and umami–do not require precision pairing. You put a bunch of stuff on the table and let people drink whatever they want. We will have some pretty good wine. I took care of that. But we’ll also have some Trader Joe’s backup, just in case.

Random Seattle notes: Rainier from 15,000 feet in my Alaska Airlines plane: all gold, pink and yellow above the tree line in the low winter sun. Puget Sound sparkling, flashing in the light. Big houses on the beaches. Conifers everywhere. My family lives in West Seattle, whose Alki Beach neighborhood reminds me of Oakland or Berkeley. Hip, young, cool, lots of cafés and great little restaurants. We ate at a Thai place last night, Buddha Ruska, that was absolutely delicious. (Yay, crispy chicken!) No wine with Thai: Singha beer. At my sister’s, for the 5 o’clock cocktail hour, we had an Artesa Reserve 2011 Reserve Chardonnay, very oaky–maybe a bit too much–but rich and satisfying.

Anyhow, I’m clearly writing this on the fly. Family vacations are hectic, you’re not really in charge of your schedule, but I wanted to get something up. I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving and to those of you of the Jewish persuasion, Happy Hanukah! Did you know that Hanukah can occur as early as late November and as late as January? I never knew why until I asked my 11-year old grand-nephew this morning. “Because it’s determined by the lunar calendar,” Joey explained, patiently. Smart kid.


Style and eccentricity in wine

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Two articles struck me this week, in publications that, you might say, are diametrically opposed to each other: The New York Times and Playboy. While the topics are different, I hope to be able to draw a connection between them, as concerns our current wine culture.

The Times article was about a fashion designer, Isabella Blow, whose glory years were the 1970s-1990s, and who now is the subject of a retrospective in London. Isabella was certainly a couture eccentric: the author, Andrew O’Hagan, describes her wearing “giant mink antlers” and “a sneering mouth so red with lipstick that it was like an open wound.” (Blow is Lady Gaga‘s spiritual grandmother.) She had a “phantasmagoric sense of fashion [and] beauty” that O’Hagan says is missing today, when too many people are mere “imitators” of fashion, “publicity scavengers…who think it’s merely about fame or attention.”

IsabellaBlow2
Isabella Blow

Other style setters whom O’Hagan admires are the famously infamous writer Quentin Crisp, Anna Piaggi, who wrote for Vogue, and the recluse Edith Bouvier Beale, Jackie Kennedy’s cousin, who lived and died alone in a falling down mansion filled with garbage, even as she dressed as outrageously as anyone in the Hamptons.

O’Hagan’s point isn’t necessarily a new one: celebrate style. Be yourself, and unafraid to show the world who are are.  He quotes another of his muses, Elsie de Wolfe: “Only those are unwise who have never dared to be fools.” When I read that, I immediately thought of those California vintners who are daring to march to a different beat from today’s consumer favorites. Not for them another oaky Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay.  No, they want to split off from the crowd and explore niches that interest them. I think of someone like Marimar Torres. True, she makes great Pinot and Chardonnay, and could easily get by with only them, but instead she pops out of the envelope with such interesting blends as her Chardonnay-Albariño and Syrah-Tempranillo. There’s Cambiata, whose Tannat is at the top of the list in California, even though most consumers wouldn’t know Tannat if it walked up to them and punched them in the nose. Or ONX’s Reckoning, which daringly combines Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Grenache in a wholesome way. These are wines of a certain eccentricity, perhaps not for everyone: but they are wines of beauty and artistry.

The Playboy article, Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation, is funny and trenchant. The writer skewers every generation born during the 20th century (including mine, the Baby Boomers) right through Generation Z (born after 2000). You have to smile as you read his descriptions. Here’s a snippet from “Generation Y, AKA The Millennials”: “They’ve earned the nickname the Me Me Me Generation for a reason: They’re three times more likely than Boomers to have narcissistic personality disorder. Materialism and a lofty sense of entitlement–minus the means to realize their caviar dreams–have contributed to breathtaking delusions of grandeur. Generation Y is arguably the most medicated on record, their hazy state and sedentary social-media lifestyle contributing to a rise of obesity and its BFF, diabetes.” As for their obsession with social media: “Millennials who tried to quit social media showed the same symptoms as drug addicts in withdrawal.” Ouch.

I’ve tried to live my life in a way where I didn’t much care what anybody thought of me. And I like people who feel the same way. People of style are generally people of honesty and integrity. You can’t have integrity if you follow the herd, because having integrity takes guts. You have to be willing to take risks, to split off from the mainstream and explore new, and sometimes unpopular, dimensions. When I was in grad school, I’d take BART (the San Francisco subway) to S.F. State, outbound from downtown, and look at the mobs of people on the platform across from me, heading to the office towers of downtown. They all looked the same, dressed in severe business attire (men and women; we called it Financial District drag), with their little leather attaché cases and bored faces. I didn’t scorn them so much as feel sorry for them. They were just doing what they thought they were supposed to do–what everyone else was doing–what they hoped would bring them money and happiness.

Perhaps as a child of the Sixties I tend to romanticize the outlaw view, that people who “celebrate diversity” (to use that phrase) contribute more to humanity’s spectrum and upward spiral than those who remain confined within narrow limits. (I think of Steve Jobs in that respect, a hippie if ever there was one.) My sense of style tends to conform to O’Hagan’s; as he writes, “the true eccentric gives us more mystery, more wonder about being human, a new side to beauty…”. Wine is like that, too. There aren’t very many eccentrically mysterious wines being produced today in California, because most proprietors are too concerned with the bottom line to take risks. But I sense that may be changing. As for those Millennial social media addicts, I suppose the ultimate risk would be a Digital Sabbath: put the smart phone down and connect with the real world.

I’m off to Seattle today to celebrate Thanksgiving with my “northern” family. I’ll try to post something every day this week. Meanwhile, here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and safe Thanksgiving!


Thanks to all my tour guides over the years

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Thanks to Massimo di Constanzo for being my tour guide yesterday in Coombsville. This is Napa Valley’s hinterlands, a sleepy region of little homes and twisting country lanes that would be easy to get lost in. I’ll have much more to say about Coombsville in my upcoming story in Wine Enthusiast, but for now I just want to comment on the feeling I get when I visit a place that just reeks of terroir.

Terroir: there it is, that awful word again. I’m both a believer in it, and a scoffer of many of our official appellations that claim to have terroir but in reality don’t. But there are indeed places that look like they have terroir. Coombsville is one. So is Ballard Canyon, down in Santa Barbara County. So is Mount Harlan, where Calera does their thing. Edna Valley oozes a sense of terroir. So what do I mean by “places that look like they have terroir”?

For one thing, they’re fairly small in area. You can eyeball the entire appellation (pretty much so, anyway) from one point of elevation. Even if you can’t see the whole thing in one swoop, you can see the appellation’s unity on a topo map. For instance, this image of Coombsville

CupsSaucer5 w line.ai

 

shows clearly how the region is so delineated: tucked into a crescent-shaped bowl beneath the Vacas that descends from rolling foothills down to the Napa River, where the flatlands of Napa City take over. Doesn’t that look like “a place”? It’s not sprawling, like Paso Robles. Nor does it even have much of the east-west spectrum of, say, Oakville. It looks like It has a unity of climate, soils and exposures, which is why you’d expect to find a similarity between wines of the same variety or blend. And you do. And that’s what I call regional terroir.

I’ve been lucky in having tour guides like Massimo help me all my career. When I first visited the Santa Rita Hills, it was Greg Brewer who took me all around. Andy Beckstoffer once gave me the royal tour of Rutherford, an experience I’ve never forgotten. Greg Melanson was kind enough to helicopter me (twice) over Pritchard Hill, an experience beyond praise; being 900 feet up in altitude is absolutely the best way to get the lay of the land. Michael Terrien once shepherded me around the Napa side of Carneros; walking that land showed me that the area is more complicated than I’d thought.

There’s a symbiosis between the wine writer, on the one hand, and the people he writes about, on the other. We need them, as much as they need us. Ultimately, our interests don’t necessarily coincide, but, there’s a mutual respectfulness–in the best of cases, anyhow. I’ve met a few vintners and growers in my time who were models of incorrigibility. But not too many, fortunately; this is a pretty well-behaved field to work in.


A perfect day in Napa Valley

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Some friends visited over the weekend, two lovely women I’ve known forever, including the daughter of one of them who has been admitted to the Culinary Institute of America’s Accelerated Wine and Beverage Certificate Program, an intensive eight-month course of study that will put 27 new students on the path to becoming sommeliers, or perhaps cicerones I suppose in this Golden Age of Beer.

The young daughter had never visited the CIA before, so we drove up there on Saturday to check it out. While walking the campus (where it appeared other AWBP students were early-arriving), we ran into a lady who runs part of the program. She recognized me; we all set to talking. Earlier, we’d tried to go into the CIA’s gift shop, but they wouldn’t let Gus in (perfectly understandable). Later, the lady told me that Robert and Margrit Mondavi also used to have a little dog, which they carried around with them everywhere in some sort of puppy-purse. That led to much laughter, and when someone said that there’s a pet store in St. Helena called (only semi-facetiously, I would think), Fideaux, I wondered if I should buy a Gus-sized leather doggy pouch from Hermes, perhaps. But I don’t Gus would like being schlepped around in a bag like a Christmas ham.

The temperature by mid-afternoon hit 100 degrees, in one of the few heat waves to occur in Northern California this summer, but other than things being a little toasty, it was as beautiful a Napa day as can be imagined. The sky was immaculately blue: not a cloud anywhere, and perfect visibility, so that the Mayacamas in the west and the Vacas in the east seemed close enough to touch. We drove up the Oakville Grade, about a mile past the old Vichon winery (which is in a state of deshabille, having been purchased by, I believe, Bill Harlan, who is reconstructing the facility for a new project). From that high vantage point, maybe 800 feet up, you could see the valley in all its glory, green and lush (through the miracle of irrigation) while the grasslands of the Vacas were gold and sere from drought. Since I was, on this occasion (and at my friends’ request), the educator-in-chief, I asked them to carefully study the Mayacamas range and the Vacas, only 4 miles apart, and perceive what makes them so different.

It didn’t take long for one of them to reply, “trees.” Exactly. I explained how fascinating it’s always been to me that rainfall falls off so rapidly in Napa as storms, robbed of their moisture by the wall of the Mayacamas, ebb their way eastward, losing their punch with every passing mile. The result, of course, is a heavily-forested Mayacamas versus a Vaca range almost brutally denuded of vegetation, except for the most drought-resistant shrubs, like madrone.

My friends wanted to visit a winery, but I talked them out of it. With the head charge–what is it now, about $25?–the crowds, the impersonality of the tasting room and the utter absence of anything to do while there except to take a slurp or three of something and then mindlessly pick up coasters in the gift shop, it hardly seems worth the time or the money. So we didn’t go to a tasting room. Instead, on the way up the Oakville Grade, we made that little oblique turn, across from the Carmelite monastery, where the Grade starts to climb, onto a narrow, twisty road that leads into the scenic foothills where Far Niente, Martha’s Vineyard, Casa Nuestra, Stelling, The Vineyard House, Futo and of course Harlan have their estates; and I explained how, acre for acre, this is probably the most expensive vineyard land in the New World. Even to me, after all these years, I get goose bumps.

I had pointed out the Oakville Grocery on the way up–a favorite place of mine for a snack and cappuccino–so on the trip back [south] they asked if we would stop there for sandwiches. I had to explain that the trick for managing Highway 29, on a tourist-choked day, was to never, ever take a left turn from the road (forcing you to cross oncoming traffic), which then, of course–when your mission is over–forces you to take an equivalent left turn out of the driveway to get back to the direction you want to go. (The preceding is probably the most inelegant sentence I’ve ever written, but you get the idea.) So, since we were headed south, back to Oakland, it was to Dean and DeLuca, on the west side of 29, we repaired. A great place for a quick bite to eat. (I had the chicken pesto sandwich on ciabatta. So good.) We ate alfresco, sitting on little stoops in front of the store, seeking refuge from the sun in the narrow shadow of the building itself. After a while, conversation stilled, and everyone was content to just sit there, in peace, enjoying the good food, drinking the cold bottled water, watching the traffic (limos, the Wine Train), and delighting in the eye candy of the valley, the Cezanneesque mauve rectangle of the Vacas, the azure sky, and feeling and breathing the clean, dry last air of summer. Ahh, Napa Valley.  I envy my friend’s daughter at the CIA. Her next eight months will be all discovery and delight.


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