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Thoughts on those sommelier lunches

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Today I am speaker, or host, at a buyer’s lunch for Jackson Family Wines. The venue is Farmshop, a restaurant in the tony Marin County town of Larkspur. I’ve never eaten there, but if you’re a wine-and-food geek in the Bay Area, you’ve certainly heard of it. Farmshop earned a coveted spot on the 2015 Top 100 restaurant list compiled annually by the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer. Our lunch menu was specially created by Chef Jason Purcell to pair with seven JFW wines. Our guests—22 and counting—are important wine buyers in the Bay Area.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to expand the conversation to the topic of these buyer lunches and dinners. These are important ways for wineries to connect with people who might buy their wines, and not just any people: high-end on- and off-premise accounts that will showcase the winery’s wines the way they hope to be be portrayed.

Being present on the shelf of a good wine shop and, even more, on the wine list of a top restaurant is more vital than ever. The Holy Grail for wineries, of course, is direct-to-consumer, but that’s a long, hard road, and the thinking among the smart set is that being on a wine list represents a shortcut, or perhaps stimulant is a better word, to DTC. I’m not sure exactly if that’s true, the assumption, I suppose, being that if a customer buys your off the wine list and falls in love with you, he’ll seek you out in the future by joining your wine club or ordering your wine from your website. That is hopeful, but not proven. But if your production is small enough—and many of the wines I’ll be showing tomorrow are–you can afford to forgo DTC if enough retail accounts buy you.

Wineries have different personnel they can choose to represent them at such venues, which combine entertainment and serious eating with the educational analyses of the wines. Obviously, there’s the winery owner and/or winemaker, who often but not always is the same person. This is a winery’s best bet for putting forth a personality who can talk about the wines being presented, as well as using herself as a selling point; having a “face of the winery” is very important for branding, although not all winemakers and/or owners like being put in that position, and some refuse to do it. But it’s necessary these days, and not a bad place to be, since your audience arrives excited and expecting to like you. All you have to do is live up to their expectations. And who doesn’t like to be liked?

The winemaker or owner isn’t always available, of course. So who else does the winery send to represent them? Well, it’s often someone from sales, marketing or P.R. who is affiliated with the winery in some way, and can speak credibly about the wines. You need a credible presence, because buyers don’t want to feel jerked around by someone who doesn’t have credibility and is only trying to sell stuff–timeshares or Tupperware or whatever.

The hope on every winery’s part, at every trade or consumer event, is to have someone of unimpeachable credibility represent them. This isn’t exactly a new development—winetasting events at restaurants are as old as the hills. But it’s become more polished in recent years, especially with the advent of the “new sommeliers,” people with advanced knowledge of, not only wine, but culinary affairs. They don’t want to go to a lunch just anywhere, and indeed, if the restaurant doesn’t spark their interest, they’ll pass on by the event. Somms have become more pampered than they were in the past—not passing judgment on that, just saying—and so it takes more than it used to to coax them out and make them happy.


Moving away from “the wine list”

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Lucy Shaw’s interview with Christopher Cooper, reported in the drinks business, contains some wise and useful insights, especially Cooper’s contention that sommeliers “need to work harder, take more risks and open their eyes to the bigger world of drinks, taking in beer, cider, cocktails and spirits.” Declaring the traditional wine list “dead—boring…wine bibles [that] are crap,” he even charges that customers “are being forced into buying wine rather than other drinks in restaurants as it’s profitable.”

Wow, lots to break down here. It’s true that restaurants make a lot of money selling wine, although I don’t know if wine is more profitable than beer and cocktails—perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Since I’m a wine guy, representing wineries, I do wonder if this suggestion—that restaurants open their wine lists more or less equally to beer and spirits—will cut down on wine sales. This would be a serious impediment to wineries, especially in this day and age when on-premise is so important to them. But I don’t think so. Here’s why.

To begin with, the gigantic wine list—the size of the Manhattan telephone directory—has clearly had its fifteen minutes of fame. It won’t disappear overnight, but I assume and hope than eventually it will be seen for what it is: a bloated appeal to snobbery. Diners don’t even want such mammoth wine lists anymore; they want something with, maybe, 30 wines and an attractive by the glass selection, creatively chosen, moderately priced and—this is key—curated by someone who knows and loves wine, and doesn’t just throw the Big Names on there for the hell of it.

So restaurants shouldn’t just add beer and spirits to already-overweight wine lists, they should shorten their wine lists. Who gets to stay on such coveted real estate? Ahh, glad you asked. It’s the wineries that offer the most bang for the buck.

The real action these days isn’t in the critical scores or the latest magazine cover stories, it’s on the sales turf. Everybody—Bill Harlan to Fred Frenzia—is out there thinking of how to stay relevant. Nobody really understands the rules because frankly, my dears, there aren’t any, or very many, and such rules as there are tend to get broken quickly as the landscape undergoes constant mega-change. There’s a lot of bull out there that masquerades as expertise when in reality it’s just another service being pitched. The details differ at each price scale, but basically, the question for vintners is: Am I still going to be able to sell this stuff five, ten, twenty, a hundred years from now?

This is a worthy question for a vintner to ask—indeed, the only worthy one. I have a feeling that wineries that can prove to the world that they are in this for the long haul, will find themselves a leg up, because having a real long-range plan means they’re performing at the top of their game. Nobody wants overnight successes, built on some phony formula, that won’t exist tomorrow. We want to support wineries that have been doing a good job for a long time and haven’t gotten complacent.

And that gets us back to wine lists, which, according to the Cooper theory of reality, should actually be called “wine, beer and spirits lists.” It’s a good idea that will upset the wine industry temporarily, but in the long run will be good for consumers, and that’s what it’s all about.


Connectedness: the Holy Grail of winery marketing

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Last week, while Americans were watching developments concerning the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, which eventually (and thankfully) collapsed, another more successful merger went almost unnoticed. That was the marriage between Blue Bottle Coffee and Tartine Bakery, a far happier union that consumers could celebrate, instead of worrying about.

Blue Bottle was founded in my hometown of Oakland and now has cafés throughout the Bay Area, L.A., New York City and Japan. It’s become what Starbucks used to be: the hippest java joint around, one of the high-end coffee industry’s most respected roasters,” according to Fast Company, an appraisal shared by Bloomberg Business, which described Blue Bottle as “the next wave of artisanal coffee shops” and reported on enthusiastic investments in the company by Silicon Valley tech giants such as Google, WordPress and Twitter.

Tartine Bakery sprang from the famous San Francisco restaurant, Bar Tartine, a Mission District hotspot that helped make the Valencia Corridor one of the city’s most visited dining destinations. Tartine’s bread makers earned the prestigious James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef. As wildly popular as the bakery is, Tartine has not been able to figure out how to expand to other locations. Blue Bottle has. The San Francisco Chronicle predicts the merger will “provide mutual benefits to both,” as consumers continue to seek out “well-crafted quality, locally sourced and planet-sensitive foods.”

There are lessons for the wine industry, particularly for family-owned wineries that want a more personal connection with consumers. Consumers do want “planet-friendly” things to buy. They do want quality that’s apparent, and preferably locally-sourced. But, maybe more than anything, they want a connection with the people who sell them products and services. Never in the history of American industry has that personal connection been more important. People—in their loneliness, idealism and confusion—desire to feel something human. Not the appearance of something human. Not something crafted in some P.R. shop that seems human. Something that is human.

Tartine and Blue Bottle (I’ve been to both) provide that connection to human-ness. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how, or to describe it, unless you’ve been there; the blogger Kevin Lindsay has called it a “visceral reaction” that can create lifelong connections with the shoppers who can and will become compelling brand evangelists.” This is, of course, the Holy Grail for all companies, including wineries: to “create lifelong connections.” A lifelong consumer does not have to be marketed to with the same ferocity (and costs) as a new, unaffiliated consumer. This is the magic of branding: it’s why I met so many fans of Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve wines on my trip last week. It’s why the About Money website says branding is not about getting your target market to choose you over the competition, but it is about getting your prospects to see you as the only one that provides a solution to their problem.”

What a concept! So doable, and yet so rarely done. This is precisely the challenge wineries must confront, and solve, in the coming years, if they are to remain viable, in the face not only of domestic competition but international, as trade agreements erode traditional national boundaries and the entire planet becomes a single marketplace.

How is this to be done? Now that the clamorous exaggerations for social media have begun to calm, we can see that merely having a robust online presence isn’t nearly enough. Social media is simply a tool: put a chisel in the hands of Michaelangelo and you end up with David. In the hands of a child, a chisel is merely something to thump and bang with, and possibly do damage. To really connect with the consumer, you have to think like the consumer. You have to have empathy. You have to get out of your box and into the mind and heart of the consumer you hope to reach. That may sound New Agey, but, as Mark Benioff explains in this interview about his late friend and mentor, Steve Jobs, Jobs’ spirituality (inspired by yogic meditation practices and The Beatles) made the Apple co-founder “a prophet” who knew what consumers wanted even before they themselves did. Steve Jobs not only gave them what they sought, which was a way to increase their connectedness to the world, he made them—and the world—a better place.


Capitaltruism: Merging idealism with making money

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There’s a movement afoot in corporate America that doesn’t get enough attention but is gaining traction and could be a game changer. This movement is about inculcating social, environmental and health concerns into the sale of goods and services: call it Capitaltruism, where traditional capitalism meets idealistic altruism. And nowhere is it being embraced more heartily than by Millennials, who may feel that—since neither the government nor corporate America by itself is tackling important issues—it’s up to them.

Two recent developments illustrate this movement. The first is reflected by the rise of the “B Corporation.” The “B” stands for “beneficial.” A B Corporation is “a for-profit company committed to social or environmental goals in addition to its financial obligations.” That’s according to this article in the San Francisco Chronicle that describes how such corporations try “to benefit not [just their] shareholders, but also society.”

Millennials in particular are “drawn to firms that do good.” B Corps are certified by a third party, B Corporation, that claims to have registered 1,247 companies in 38 countries, across 121 industries, including wine. A Brookings Institution study found that the “desire on the part of Millennials for their daily work to reflect and be a part of their social concerns” is a chief factor in their choice of careers—and in their purchasing decisions.

The second development, reported courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, is of two California restaurateurs, Daniel Patterson (of Michelon-starred Coi in San Francisco but also of Plum Bar in Oakland) and Roy Choi, who got his start with L.A. food trucks. The pair have started up a company, Loco’l, whose aim is to replace the dismal diet of unhealthy fast food that now dominates less affluent neighborhoods with what Patterson calls a “natural, cooked-with-integrity alternative.” The first two Loco’ls will open in San Francisco’s Tenderloin and in Los Angeles’ Watts district. The foods will cost between 99 cents and $6 and will include things like a “Burg”: a beef-grain-garum [fish sauce] patty with Awesome Sauce, Jack cheese, grilled scallion and lime relish, on a Tartine Bakery bun. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

What do these two initiatives have in common? For one thing, both the Loco’l people and the B Corp people want to make money. But they want to do so in a way that addresses serious social concerns that, frankly, are not yet being addressed adequately. Both ventures are fueled by idealism and creativity, and both fill an important niche in a consumer market that’s been waiting for somebody to give them something worth spending their money on. What a fabulous idea!

Have a great weekend!


Networking in San Francisco’s wine and food scene

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I used to go to every P.R. event I was invited to—which was a lot—when I started out as a wine writer. With Wine Spectator cred, I was on all the A lists in San Francisco. When I moved over to Wine Enthusiast as chief California critic—a big step up in power—the invitations only increased.

It was really cool, I thought, to be welcomed at all those top restaurants and clubs, to be wined and dined on wine and food I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, to be treated with a certain respect and courtesy. But guess what? I soon tired of the scene, which, it seemed to me, was populated mostly by networkers looking to sell their products or services. I wasn’t networking; I already had the job I wanted.

For some years now, I’ve been pretty selective about what I go to. The invites still pour in, but I seldom feel the need to go: I’m happy snuggling up with Gus at night and reading a good book, watching something on the telly, or getting some work writing done on the computer. But last night was an exception. I’d gotten invited to a client meet-and-greet by Postcard Communications, an up-and-coming S.F. agency, whose offices are located in a cute little building on uber-cute Maiden Lane, two blocks east of Union Square. The firm represents restaurants, artisanal food producers and wineries.

I’m not entirely sure why I went; something prompted me to. So I took BART into the city (four stops) and was there promptly at six. It was the usual thing: grazing through tables of delicious foods and wines. Met some nice people; traded business cards; had some superficial chats. There are two or three individuals I plan to follow up with.

I stayed for about an hour, then—feeling like the old uncle in a group whose average age seemed to be about 24—I left. On the way home on BART four young men were break dancing for contributions. It was fun to watch and I wished I’d brought something less than a couple twenty dollar bills so I could give them a few bucks. (It felt weird asking for change. Should I have?)

And I thought: I don’t really need these networking events anymore, but they’re fun to go to occasionally, and moreover, they really are the bloodstream of the younger part of our wine and food culture. Everyone I met had already had three or four “careers” in their search for one that suited them. One guy had been a teacher, a techie and had worked in publishing, before ending up in the food business. These folks, at their tender age, are still figuring out where they want to be and what they want to do insofar as work is concerned. They’re happy to be living in San Francisco or the East Bay (although prices are killing them). For a veteran like me, it was refreshing to see such burgeoning passion and talent incubating in the Bay Area, which is such a remarkable fount of creativity, from the programmers of Silicon Valley to the musicians and chefs of Oakland. I sometimes think of it as a kaleidoscope of personalities, dreams, ambitions and skills, always shifting and transforming into beautiful patterns of symmetry and color. From it will emerge the successes of tomorrow.


Thursday throwaway: Restaurant tipping, and Alexander Valley Cab

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When the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle—arguably the most important reviewer in California, and one of the most important in the whole country—comes out and says it’s time to end the practice of tipping, people should listen.

That’s exactly what Michael Bauer did yesterday.

“Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit.” For the reasons why he’s taking this radical position, Michael cites the fact that it’s happening anyway—Bar Agricole, Trou Normand and Camino, among others, have already done away with tipping. He notes also that this “new tipping paradigm” is “civilized”–no more calculating percentages, no more discomfort or uncertainty—and is “the wave of the future.” Adding an overall service charge, instead of tipping, also ensures that back-of-the-house staff is paid more equitably (at least, one would hope so!).

I’m in favor. I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of tipping, so I won’t miss it. I have two huge problems with tipping: (1) it’s not fair to the kitchen staff, and (2) it implies that servers aren’t professional, which certainly isn’t the case, particularly in a good restaurant. I mean, you don’t tip your doctor or car mechanic; why do we have to tip our servers?

Nor have I ever particularly subscribed to the notion that tipping is good because you can tip higher for great service and lower (or not at all) for lousy service. The truth is, 99% of all restaurant service seems pretty good to me. Maybe it’s because I live in the very professional, restaurant-conscious Bay Area. Maybe it’s because I’m not a fussy, demanding diner; I don’t expect everything to be perfect. In fact, on occasion when I’ve dined at  restaurants like French Laundry or the old 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo, I’ve sometimes been uncomfortable with the service because it’s so self-consciously perfect that it makes me self-conscious! (Thanks, but I can put my own napkin in my lap!) So I rarely have cause to complain about restaurant service, except when I feel like I’ve been forgotten about, and that usually happens in an inexpensive restaurant where I’m there, not for cuisine, but for sustenance.

So let’s see how this “end-of-tipping” thing goes. California is where most trends happen: maybe this will sweep the country.

* * *

I’m interested in what my readers think of Alexander Valley. Here are a couple of my thoughts:

  1. Great Zinfandel, much of it from older vines.
  2. Surprisingly good Chardonnay given the valley’s warm climate. Those old Chateau St. Jean Chards, made by the great winemaker Richard Arrowood from vineyards like Belle Terre, rocked.
  3. Very fine Cabernet Sauvignon. Along these lines, I make a distinction (which may not be as important as it used to be, due to precision farming) between the higher, western slopes of the Mayacamas and the flatlands. Still, Alexander Valley is one mountain range closer to the Pacific than Napa Valley, which makes it cooler. The Cabs as a result are somewhat earthier or more herbaceous, with pleasing tobacco-green olive-sage notes: you can actually taste those things because the Cabs aren’t as fruit-driven as they are in Napa Valley. I think, also, that Alexander Valley Cabs aren’t as high in alcohol as Napa’s, and that they’re more capable of aging. I’m always surprised they’re not more popular with somms.

Care to offer your thoughts, esteemed readers?


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