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Can a wine be serious and unsnooty at the same time?

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What does it mean when people say Millennials want wines that are “more approachable” and less “snooty”?

You hear it everywhere, especially in the Blogosphere, but also in conversations about social media and in the columns of newspaper writers: for example, “Snooty is no longer where it’s at in the wine world,” and young people are seeking “more approachable and drinkable wines that are suitable for a range of dining and social occasions,” in the words of this article.

The suggestion is that some sort of cosmic alteration has occurred in the way younger consumers view wine, that this paradigm shift is revolutionizing the way wine is marketed (with, for example, Franzia WineTaps appealing to “growing demand [for] intriguing products”), and that “Specialty wines such as sangrias and chocolate wines” are aiming for the “sweeter taste profiles” the under-30s like.

In line with this blog’s continuing struggle to get at the truth, and hewing to its “the more things change, the more they stay the same” philosophy, I now dispel these modern myths with the wave of a hand. Begone!

Let’s break it down.

Of course consumers want wines that are less snooty and more approachable. Nothing new about that. “You certainly don’t have to be a wine expert to drink wine…For wine-drinking is fun. And wine isn’t difficult. Why consider it harder to serve than coffee, soda pop or beer? There isn’t any hocus-pocus, except for the so-called experts who as specialists have fun trying to make things complex and involved.”

That might have been written yesterday by any number of wine bloggers. But no, it was written by Mary Frost Mabon, then the food and wine editor at Harper’s Bazaar, in her 1942 book, ABC of American Wine. I cite it merely to illustrate the fact that more than seventy years ago writers were reassuring “ordinary” Americans that wine wasn’t “snooty” and that “preciosity in a wine connoisseur” (Mabon again) is laughable.

When I read this stuff about “more approachable and drinkable wines” my first reaction is that it’s sheer nonsense. Milliennials aren’t looking for “more approachable and drinkable” wines because these words have no meaning. They sound like they’re describing something real, because they hew to standard English syntax; but just because I can make up a proper sentence doesn’t mean it corresponds to something in reality. (“My unicorn just leapt over the radioactive rainbow.”) How is any wine “more approachable and drinkable” than any other wine that has ever existed? It all depends on what you like, right? Now, if “more approachable and drinkable” really means sweeter, then why don’t we just come out and say that Millennials prefer sweet wines to dry? Because it’s not true, that’s why. There’s no proof of that. The explosion of things like Moscato (and, yes, sangrias and chocolate wines) is indicative only of rising consumption of wine across all demographic groups, some of whom want their wines sweet while others like them dry.

What writers really mean when they say Millennials want “more approachable and drinkable wines” is that they want cheaper wines. This, too, hardly qualifies as a Eureka! moment, nor would it have come as a surprise 70 years ago to a producer (or 300 years ago to a London merchant). People, especially younger ones, always want value in their drinks, which is why The Wine Group, Bronco, Barefoot and so many other companies are doing so well.

So, you ask, is Heimoff saying that nothing ever changes? In a way, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Trends come and go–Moscato will fade back into semi-obscurity someday–boxed wines were inevitable once the technology developed–one day tequila is on top, the next day rum–sweet, fruity wine-based concoctions have been around from the days of Bali Hai through the coolers of the 1970s to today–young people always will like inexpensive wine but usually are willing to spend more as they age and earn more money–the Sun continues to rise in the east and set in the west–lazy or ill-informed wine writers continue to search for “news-like” information they can pass on with seeming authority–well, you get the picture.

I will stipulate the following concerning younger consumers: they want more interesting wines these days, wines that tell them stories and about which they can talk with their friends (and perhaps to the proprietor via social media). And this, they certainly have, in spades, in unprecedentedly open and interactive ways. But this is a double-edged sword for wineries. It makes the younger consumer easily the most fickle consumer in the history of the world. As soon as the story becomes boring–as soon as a more interesting story pops up (and I use the phrase “pop up” deliberately, in its latter-day urban sense)–the consumer moves onto the next thing.

I leave with this word of caution to wineries tempted to stroll down the “less snooty-more approachable” path: you may be headed up the garden path, leading to a cul-de-sac from which there is no escape. It’s one thing to make a wine-in-a-box and be content to sell gazillions of gallons of it (and this is in no way a criticism of such wines; among critics I’ve probably praised them the most, on grounds of quality-price ratio). But what if your ambitions as a winemaker are set higher than a boxed wine? What if you’re a garagiste or terroirist or someone seized with the notion of creating something awesome from your patch of ground? Some writers and customers always will “squint, swirl, sniff, sip, swish and spit” (in Mary Frost Mabon’s alliterative words), meaning in turn that these wines by definition become “more snooty” and “less approachable,” which is simply a way of saying that they become of greater intellectual and conversational interest, at least to those of us who care about such things. Do we really want this appeal to “less snooty and more approachable” to result in the end of pleasant discussions about wine, terroir, technique, varieties, aromas, finishes and all the other arcane topics we geeks love to talk about? I would hope not. Any winery that walks the serious quality walk but talks the “unsnooty and approachable” talk is trying to have it both ways, an unsustainable proposition that ultimately will please no one.


Everything about aging California wine is changing

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In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was coming up in wine, the conventional wisdom was that in order to be ageable, a young wine had to be undrinkable.

That made sense. After all, it was the case in most of Europe. Barolo, Rioja, great German Riesling, and especially Grand Cru Burgundy and the top Classified Growth Bordeaux all required years and years in the cellar.

I figured it was the same for the top California wines. The people whose guidance I was depending on–Charlie Olken, Norm Roby, Earl Singer, Bob Thompson, Harvey Steiman–were saying that Cabs in particular required aging, and sometimes for an extended period of time (10-15 years, said Olken-Singer-Roby in their “Handbook,” 20 years in Thompson’s “Encyclopedia”).

I took them at their word. Trust was involved, because they were tasting a lot more and a lot better wines than I was able to (which was actually very little, given my limited budget and the fact that it was to be many years before wineries started sending me free samples), and so I had no basis other than their judgment on which to form a conclusion regarding ageability. I began collecting, modestly: Cabs from Freemark Abbey, Louis M. Martini, Beringer, Pinots from Carneros Creek and Acacia, and so on, and then aging them; but the results were disappointing. I’d open a bottle after 6 or 8 years and more often than not found the resulting wine dried up and boring.

Of course, my cellar conditions were inadequate then. You couldn’t even call it a “cellar.” I had a plastic contraption that I kept in my apartment. Whatever the temperature was in my apartment, that was the temperature in my “cellar.” I knew that was bad, but it was San Francisco, where it’s pretty cool even in summer, so I kept my fingers crossed.

At some point, there was a sea change in popular thinking concerning Cabernet and Pinot. The view began to be that a wine that was undrinkable (hard in tannins, biting in acidity) in youth would never age out. Instead, the theory now went, any California wine that was ageable should be good and drinkable on release.

I fully subscribe to that theory, but when did it start and how did it come about? I was thinking about this as I read the following quote from the winemaker Philip Togni (Philip Togni Vineyard), in Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Claret & Cabs:

“I used to claim that if the wine wasn’t pretty terrible coming out of the fermenter it would never amount to anything, but I no longer believe that.”

Given Philip Togni’s wealth of experience (Chateau Lascombes, Gallo, Chateau Montelena, Chappellet, Cuvaison), this is quite a statement: The confession of a great winemaker who’d essentially gotten something very important very wrong. The only “excuse” (if that’s the right word, and it isn’t, but I can’t think of a better one) is that pretty much everyone in the 1970s in Napa Valley thought that a Cabernet had to be “pretty terrible” coming out of the fermenter in order to age well. It was the weltanschauung of the era, and weltanschauungs are the hardest things in the world to see beyond.

The reason things began to shift was, IMHO, the rise of Parker. We can argue until the cows come home about him, but let’s not today. Parker pushed winemakers around the world to produce wines that tasted pretty darned good right out of the fermenter (and out of the bottle on release).

Do they age as well as the Bordeaux of old? The critical community is still debating that one, and since there are now billions and billions of critics (tip of the hat to Carl Sagan), the debate may go on forever. On the other hand, the attitude toward aging wines is shifting with tectonic force. The parents of Baby Boomers aged their wines. Baby Boomers themselves might have aged some of their wines (if they had some kind of cellar), but they were not as obsessed with aging as their Depression-era parents. Now, the children of Baby Boomers, and in some cases their grandchildren, are becoming the main consumers of fine wine in America, and as far as I can tell, they don’t give a rat’s patootie about aging wine. They want something delicious and interesting, at whatever price they’re prepared to pay, not something they have to stick away for some point in the future when they might not even be around to enjoy it.

Much is made of Cathy Corison’s Cabernets when it comes to Napa wines in the “older” style. And it is indeed true that her Cabs are lower in alcohol and age gorgeously–well, up to ten years anyway, which is the oldest Corison Cab I’ve had. (A 2001 was fantastic in 2011.) However, ageable as they are, they’re lovely on release. Here’s what I wrote about Corison’s 93 point 2007 regular (not the Kronos): A beautiful wine, dry and classically structured, showing the elegant balance for aging. Made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s long and deep in blackberries and cassis. Give it a brief decant if you open it now, but it should develop over the next six years, at least.

I suppose if Cathy had been making Cabernet in 1976 I might have written something like “Tough and tannic and sharp, almost undrinkable, a dark, brooding wine of astringency. It stubbornly refuses to reveal its inner nature. However, a deep core of fruit and cassis suggests 10, 15, even 20 years in the cellar.”

Well, that wine never existed, so we don’t know, do we? It might have aged gracefully, but it might have been one of those clunkers like the Cabs I tried aging from the mid- to late 1970s. Aging wine always is a crapshoot, and I’m not a gambler. I like a sure thing, which is why I like Napa Valley Cabernet nowadays: it’s drop dead gorgeous and sexy from the get-go, and whether or not it will go 20 years is pretty much irrelevant. (But a lot will.)


Whose blogs are relevant?

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READERS: Here’s another blast from the past, originally published late in 2008. I’ll resume regular posting when I come back from New York, this Friday.

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I had coffee yesterday with M., a highly regarded North Coast winemaker (actually, he had tea) who’s been in the business for a long time. What did we talk about? Blogs, of course. I wanted to know how he (and, by extension, his winemaker colleagues) view wine blogs, and did he think they hold value for him in publicizing his brands.

Yes, M. replied, but… There’s always a “but.” M. put it this way: In determining the value of any particular blog, he wanted to know if it was relevant.

Hmm, I wondered. How do you determine if a blog is relevant? So it was a bit of serendipity this morning to surf through my usual morning mush of blogs and stumble across this one from Caveman Wines, which asks the question, “How do we as wine PR professionals determine which wine bloggers are legitimate or not?” To answer that, the blogger, Michael Wangbickler, a P.R., account manager at Balzac Communications, turned to a guy named Kevin Palmer, who runs an outfit called Social Media Answers. According to Caveman, Palmer came up with a list of 5 metrics by which he measures the value of a blog. Quote:

1. Alexa/Compete – Good for painting a general picture of the strength of traffic to their blog.
2. Quantcast – Most won’t have the tag installed necessary to register with Quantcast. Those that do may be a little more serious about their blogging.
3. Age of blogs – There is high turnover on blogs. An older blog may indicate that the blogger is here to stay.
4. Average Number of posts per month – The more frequently a blogger posts, the greater likelihood that their audience will be larger.
5. Other Social Media channels – Does the blogger have a good following on Facebook, Twitter, etc.? It may indicate that their readership is larger than implied by visits to the blog.

By this method, Caveman writes, he can figure out whom to send review bottles to, because “We can’t just send wine samples to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who happens to say they have a blog.”

I can’t quibble with Palmer’s 5 metrics, although I believe there are additional ways to evaluate a successful blog: the blogger’s breadth of knowledge and experience; number of visits; demographics of the blog’s readership; the blogger’s reputation in the industry (although not all of these are readily quantifiable). I agree with Palmer’s conclusion, taken from his website, that wine blogging currently “seems really fractured and disorganized.” Palmer referred to a Twitter discussion that gave him the feeling “that a lot of bloggers weren’t being respected or included by wineries or PR people. They felt slighted, a little angry” at not being sent samples and not getting invited to events. Well, that gets me back to my conversation with M. With 1,000 wine blogs out there, there’s no reason why a winery should reach out to every one of them. As M. said, he’s happy to play ball with a blog, as long as it’s relevant. Turns out, he couldn’t really define what makes a blog relevant; he just had a feeling which ones are and which ones aren’t.

Blog relevance may be difficult to precisely measure, but, to misquote the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it.


Did Rodney Strong manipulate bloggers, use clever marketing, or both?

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Readers: Please enjoy this re-broadcast of the original Aug. 26, 2008 post. It generated more comments than anything else I ever wrote, and, for me, inaugurated what I now call “The Blog Wars,” which, hopefully, are now over. Back on Monday with new material.

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I found myself in a bit of a flap this morning. Yesterday, I made a comment on Mike Duffy’s blog, The Winery Web Site Report. He’d written about Rodney Strong sending preview samples of their debut 2005 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) to “a select group bloggers” in advance of sending it the usual way to paper-based wine reviewers like me (although obviously I’m a blogger too!). I didn’t know about the program, not having been contacted, although I did know about the impending Rockaway launch because Rodney Strong has been aggressively touting it through press releases for quite a while. Over the past week or so, during my routine web cruising, I’d seen a spate of glowing tributes to Rockaway on various wine blogs. These were almost universally positive and had phrases like “Making History” and “bold and prescient” and “cool and revolutionary.” As I saw more and more of these postings, I thought, WTF? But I let it go until I came across Duffy’s blog. That’s when I wrote this comment:

“Maybe the early release to bloggers will prove to be a good move on Rodney Strong’s part. But when I started seeing all these online reviews of Rockaway I really had to wonder. Why did all those bloggers give it free publicity? Don’t they get free wine every day? So why write about Rockaway? I haven’t had the wine (plan to review it tonight) and I have no idea if it’s any good, but it shows how easily some parts of the blogosphere can be manipulated into providing free publicity to wineries.”

That comment stirred up something of a s**tstorm. One person said it “smacks of some old media arrogance…” Another asked, “How exactly is this any different from WE or any other glossy getting samples and writing about them? Isn’t that ‘free’ publicity for the winery?” 1WineDude, who participated in the launch, wrote: “I did ask RS why they decided to do this, and my take on their response was that their PR / Marketing dept. was the driver behind it…” while Jeff, at Good Grape blog, said my comment was “misguided” and “made in something of a vacuum.”

Whew!

So let me spell out my discomfort with Rodney Strong’s approach, even while I concede it was clever marketing. Rodney Strong for years has been trying to get the High Scores and the resulting attention for their wines. Nothing wrong with that. My impression has been that, while their reviews (at least, from me) have been quite good, it’s never been enough for owner Tom Klein. I figure the order must have gone out to the marketing and PR people (just as 1WineDude surmised) to figure out a way around the mainstream wine media and garner some attention in a new way. And guess what? It worked! The problem from my perspective is that those who participated were manipulated, and happily embraced their manipulators. I don’t blame any of the bloggers for reporting on Rodney Strong’s unique marketing strategy, but the glowing, gushing and self-referential “Aren’t we special?” quality is, for me, a turnoff. As for WE getting samples, yes, I do all the time, but I don’t write headlines or columns or special blogs about them, I just review them along with everything else. And I note that quite a number of well-known bloggers, who must have been approached by Rodney Strong, evidently declined to participate. I think they saw the potential for themselves to be used and decided, wisely, not to allow it.

Update (Aug. 27) Apparently, the participating bloggers agreed in advance to write about the wine. If a winery told me they’d send me a wine only if I agreed to write about it, I’d strongly refuse.


What goes around, comes around

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It used to be, following the Repeal of Prohibition, that Americans favored inexpensive sweet wine by a large margin (further proof that Prohibition had an aberrational effect on the county’s wine drinking habits). In my Wines & Vines 1943-1944 Yearbook of the Wine Industry are endless ads for stuff like Roma California Sauternes, Petri California Sauterne [without the “s”], Guasti Pale Dry Sherry (I bet it wasn’t dry), Gianni’s California Port and an array of Vermouths and brandies.

It wasn’t until sometime in the 1970s, I believe (maybe someone will fact check this for me) that a taste for dry wines overtook that for sweet ones among consumers. This was generally hailed as a turning point in the history of California wine: at last, producers could get serious about European-style table wines, since the market apparently would reward their efforts. That’s exactly what happened. We saw the explosion of the “boutique winery” movement in the Sixties and Seventies, the Judgment of Paris, and the glorious birth of our modern wine indsutry.

“Good riddance,” said most educated people to the inexpensive sweet wines, which by the 1980s were seen as an embarrassment–fit for Skid Row bums and, perhaps, for college rowdies who, it was hoped, would soon outgrow their fondness (one could hardly call it “love”) for sweet booze.

So what are we to make of this report, which suggests that two of the five fastest growing wine brands in the U.S. are sweet?

Those would be Apothic (which I haven’t had, but is described on the Internet by a reviewer as “jammy, sticky-luscious,” and Daily’s, which are alcoholized fruit wines.

(The other three hot brands are Cupcake, which offers good varietal wines at affordable prices, La Marca, a sparkling Prosecco, and William Hill, from right here in the Napa Valley.)

The article doesn’t say exactly who’s buying these sweet wines, but my guess would be younger people, women and those newly arrived to our shores–not necessarily in that order.

Incidentally, three of the five fastest selling brands belong to E&J Gallo, proving once again that, when it comes to marketing, this venerable wine company wrote the book. (I’m especially impressed by William Hill’s success. Those wines are not cheap, and face mountains of competition from other California brands.) The Gallos have forgotten more about selling wine than most everybody else put together knows. Other wine companies, even big ones, come and go, get bought and sold, see their stock prices rise and fall, report huge losses or modest profits, and face generally cloudy futures. Gallo goes on and on, a survivor, riding the waves of the economy like the man on the flying trapeze, seeming to do it all with the greatest of ease. If this sounds like a paeon of praise, it is.


Labels, visceral responses and disruptive business models

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At dinner the other night a senior executive for a major wine company told me that labels are becoming one of the most important reasons why people make a spontaneous purchase of wine.

I’d always known that labels are important, but this executive stressed their importance even beyond what I’d thought. It’s difficult for me to put myself in the shoes of an uneducated shopper as she browses the wine aisle looking for something special to drink with the pesto pasta and fresh garden peas she’s making tonight. I would already have an idea in my head of what type of wine to drink with it–maybe a sprightly white wine, with good acidity and some sweetness; Gewurztraminer? From there, it would be a matter of selecting a trusted producer, at the right price. I might also be influenced by geographic origin. Alsace? Sure.

But our shopper doesn’t know anything about any of that. Instead, she has to rely on one of our oldest, most primitive forms of human sensibility: vision. What we see is immediate and powerful: it can do only one of three things: repel us, attract us, or leave us indifferent. Label designers know this, and design accordingly.

But this isn’t a posting about labels, it’s about buying wine based on “more visceral responses [of which] aesthetics is key.” Those are the words of a gentleman named Phil Hurst, who is board chairman of a newish company, H.D.D., which is described in this press release as “one of California’s newest and fastest growing wine companies,” with brands including Healdsburg Ranches, Stonegate, VML and Bradford Mountain. (I’ve reviewed all these wines in recent years. The results have been mixed.) What interests me about H.D.D. is their practice of what one of their angel investors, a San Franciscan named Daniel A. Carroll, calls “a truly disruptive wine business model.” Come again? “A Disruptive Business Model focuses on improving products and services in ways that the industry does not expect while designing for an evolving set of consumers in a new market environment,” explains the press release.

That’s a mouthful that I didn’t quite get, so I asked my friend, Mr. Google, about it. Here’s one definition: “The word ‘disruptive’ is bandied about when referring to surprising new entrants into an industry, new players with new technology, and sudden competition coming from unlikely sources.” Here’s another: “A disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.” And a third: “Disruptive business models focus on creating, disintermediating, refining, reengineering or optimizing a product/service, role/function/practice, category, market, sector, or industry. The most successful companies incorporate disruptive thinking into all of their business and management practices to gain distinctive competitive value propositions.”

Okay, I’m beginning to get it. The opposite of a disruptive business is a me-too business, one that uses stale, non-performing old models instead of revolutionary innovations.

Back to H.D.D. What are their disruptive models? One is direct to consumer. The other is that “visceral response” thing. “Decisions are made at point of purchase based on mood or occasion,” the press release says. That’s our pasta-cooking shopper. Perhaps she’ll buy H.D.D.’s Dearly Beloved Forever Red wine because the label’s so cool (especially if she’s a Deadhead).

Well, all right, this all sounds good, until you begin to think about it. What is really new about “a purchase based on mood or occasion”? Gallo understood that 60 years ago. Retailers have been trying to influence the shopper’s mood forever. So I’m not seeing what’s so disruptive about H.D.D., and it was even more surprising to see no mention at all of social media in the press release. I did an (admittedly quick) Google search to see if I could find any mention of H.D.D.’s online practices, and I couldn’t. I would think that a disruptive business hoping to upset apple carts would have social media as part of its practices. However, H.D.D.’s founding partners include Bill Hambrecht (he’s the H.) and Paul Dolan (he’s one of the D.s). Smart guys, industry vets. I’d put my money of them, if I had any.


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