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Monday special! Two for the price of one! (We take major credit cards)

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Another celebration of stupid

So there’s this D.C.-based guy, Charlie Adler, a wine and food educator, who has a new book out called I Drink on the Job, that seems to be the latest expression of the “you can be stupid and still like wine” movement that is so reminiscent of the teabaggers. [Confession: I haven’t read the book and know its contents only from published material on the web, including the author’s website.] The book, according to this review, “is a series of vignettes illustrating why wine should be enjoyed organically, rather than studied and dissected.” On his book’s website, Adler writes: “’I Drink on the Job’ takes an anecdotal and often humorous look at wine from a slightly different perspective than your average wine book and draws an immediate conclusion – it’s better to ‘drink first and ask questions later’.”

This “wine is humorous” thing (you know who you are, bloggers) is really starting to get annoying. It’s like saying, “Hey, if you don’t feel like taking the time to understand something, just make fun of it, and tease people who do try to understand it.” It’s demeaning and insulting to suggest that wine drinkers aren’t intelligent enough to enjoy wine and study it at the same time. That’s like saying a person can’t like going to the movies unless he also is a film buff. I don’t know any wine writers who ever made that claim. If anything, America’s best wine writers have stressed exactly the opposite. It’s not Adler’s message, it’s the way he says it, by inferentially putting down knowledge in favor of some kind of blue-collar ignorance. “[H]e just wants Americans to consume wine with their meals – everyday!” Adler writes, third-person, on his website. Well, so do we all. But this anti-elitist stance (which is really a dumbed-down form of elitism) doesn’t help advance that goal.

Speaking of new books

We come now to The Wine Trials 2010, which was co-authored by Robin Goldstein, who many of you will remember was the prankster behind that hilarious phony Italian restaurant that won a Wine Spectator award. The new book “recommends 150 wines under $15 that outscored $50-$150 wines in brown-bag blind tastings.”

This time, the book is for real, and fine, as far as it goes; I myself frequently come across relatively inexpensive wines that out-score expensive ones, and I love pointing that out to Wine Enthusiast readers. What I find interesting is the discussion going on behind the scenes of Robin’s book. For example, in this review, Joe Briand, a wine buyer for a major restaurant group, digs into the concept of blind tasting and declares “I believe blind tastings tend to leave the subtle wines that I prefer at a distinct disadvantage to bigger bolder wines which ‘stick out’ more when consumed blind.” That remark, plus others, prompted Wine Spectator’s executive editor, Tom Matthews, always first out of the gate to defend blind tasting, to clarify [in the Comments section] his earlier assurances that Wine Spectator reviewers always taste blind. “I agree with you that we can learn more from a wine the more we know about it,” Tom wrote, and then immediately added, “But in order to evaluate a wine without biases (conscious or not), it’s important to taste blind.”

Do you see the inherent contradiction here? How can both statements be true? If you can learn more about a wine by knowing more about it, then why is it more important to taste it blind, instead of in some sort of context? Well, the answer, of course, is that context is vital for a proper tasting, as Tom knows. There are not simply two ways to taste, blind and open. There are gradations. But the blogosphere has created this impression than it’s an either/or proposition, and Tom, I think, is replying out of intimidation from the Woodward/Bernstein gotcha! crowd.

(By the way, Tom’s job now seems to be damage control: to peruse the wine blogosphere and reply immediately to anything that could possibly be negative.)

Goldstein himself points out the complexities of tasting in this Feb. 13 blog posting, in which he laments that certain luxury producers (he names LVMH [Yquem, Dom Perignon] in particular) “are overpriced,” and he indicts “the mainstream wine media” for not taking “brands to task for this.”

Well, as a representative of that mainstream wine media, here’s my reply. Anybody who reads my reviews knows that I’m not a slave to prices. I give crummy scores to expensive wines all the time. I don’t have to overtly accuse a wine company of taking advantage of image; my scores are the ultimate accusation. But in general, I agree with Goldstein. He’s on the mark when he writes, “My sense is that, especially when it comes to hazy markets like wine, real human beings—within certain constraints — generally anchor themselves to market prices that are imposed upon them, and generally pay for things what they’re told those things are worth.” That’s true; always has been in the luxury department, and always will be. But it’s also good to let people know that, if they’re serious about not wanting to get ripped off, they need to take the time to educate themselves. A stupid consumer will be taken advantage of every time; an informed one is far more impervious to manipulation.


How come the French are trying to lower alcohol in wine while California’s raising it?

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Last month, a seminar was held in Mendoza, Argentina, at a trade fair. The seminar was sponsored by the OIV (International Organization of Vine and Wine), a Paris-based organization that studies scientific issues related to wine and grapes, and the French Institute for Vine and Wine (IFVV), an agency of the French government. One of the most important agenda items discussed at the seminar was dealcoholisation of wine. As OIV’s summary headlined, “Dealcoholisation at the top of the Euroviti 2009 agenda”. It went on to say “…a large part of the seminar was devoted to low alcohol wines.”

Why France is interested in low alcohol wines is complicated. Partly it’s due to rising national awareness of the problems of alcohol abuse. It’s also, one suspects, fueled by French resentment of California wines that are higher in alcohol than theirs, and have for some time been more commercially successful (for that very Parkeresque reason, the French contend). For all these reasons, the French are interested in manufacturing lower alcohol wines, and they’re developing techniques for doing so. To quote from the OIV summary, “…several technological advances have been made. These include partial dealcoholisation techniques for finished wines, a technique for reducing the sugar content of musts, a technique for reducing the fermentation yield using yeast, and a selection of grape varieties with low sugar content at maturity.” The conference didn’t stop at mere technique. “Socio-economic and sensory aspects were also addressed, particularly the impact of lower alcohol levels on the sensory experience of wines, as well as the degree to which consumers appreciate and accept low alcohol wines.”

Then we come to California, where our wines have been going in exactly the opposite direction: up, up and away in alcohol. “[S]ales of so-called ‘hot’ wines — those reaching at least 14 percent alcohol — have tripled in the past decade,” says this article, headlined “State’s wines get extra shot of alcohol,” and which was widely published in several media outlets two days ago. The article quoted Ehren Jordan, one of the hottest California winemakers (no pun intended), as saying, “If you want to make big wines, come to California, because it is hot as blazes here.” [His Turley Wine Cellars Zins are in the 17 percent range.]

I’m not reflexively anti-high alcohol. I rate and review high-alcohol wines almost everyday. Sometimes I love them and sometimes I don’t. It’s a question of balance. High alcohol is not an issue for me, probably because I’ve developed a California palate (not that that prevents me from appreciating a lower-alcohol wine of complexity and elegance). But I do have to say it’s surprising how research into lower-alcohol wines seems to have ground to a halt here in my state. If anybody’s working on it, it’s escaped my attention — and I get paid to know what’s happening.

Sure, we’ve had alcohol-free wines in the past. Sutter Home’s Fre comes to mind. (It’s been many years since I last tasted it, so I can only say I hope it’s better than it used to be). But it doesn’t seem like low- or no-alcohol wine is at the top of anyone’s agenda. How come U.C. Davis and Fresno State aren’t on this bigtime? Where is Wine Institute? How about the big wine companies that account for most of the nation’s sales? Are there garage entrepreneurs out there who are tinkering? I have a feeling a lot more wine could be sold if consumers who aren’t comfortable with alcohol were offered tasty alternatives.

The challenge to low- or no-alcohol wines is, of course, to preserve flavor once you’ve stripped out alcohol. No easy task. But as the French technological advances mentioned above suggest, through a combination of them it might be able to be done. If it’s doable, California can do it, and take the lead in an important new area, as the state does in so many others.

Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion

Winebusiness.com just published their 2009 Most Visited Blog Postings and this little blog has 5 of the top 14, more than anyone else. All I can say is, it’s hard work coming up with stuff 5 days a week, but I’m glad people seem to like what I write.


The critic of the future? Not on Twitter. Not on Yelp. On-demand on your cell phone.

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The question is how we’re going to make our buying decisions (including wine) in the future, when (supposedly) the influence of super-experts will wane in favor of peer recommendations. The conventional wisdom — at least, as expressed by social media advocates and the people who are paid to promote them — is that social media will replace critics in a huge democratization of everything, in which everybody becomes a critic, all the time. The most obvious platform for such a revolution, it is said, is Twitter.

But wait. Is it really? Twitter’s limit (twimit?) is too much democracy too fast. Twitter is as if the ocean were funneled into your kitchen sink, one drop at a time through the faucet, until your entire house is 300 feet underwater. There is no unanimity of opinion (the way there is when a handful of critics raves about a movie). There is no continuity (because what was just expressed is washed away in micro-seconds by what is being said now, and now). There is no time to digest information that arrives in breakneck fashion. Moreover, the information that is incoming does not coincide with the timing of when you need that information in order to make a decision. It is, rather, like not having a hammer when there is a nail you wish to drive in or, conversely, like inconveniently being given a hammer when you neither need nor want one.

It’s for these reasons that I have expressed doubts about the potential of Twitter to transform (twansform?) our consumer culture. But don’t think that the Luddite in me believes that the Internet is incapable of such radical transformation. There is one such technology that shows the potential of driving sales as radically as any social media devotee could ever wish for, and that is Yelp.

What is Yelp? “A web-based community which allows users to share the experiences they’ve had world-wide,” in the words of this slideshow, although “world-wide” exaggerates Yelp’s real focus, which is city-wide (or local). If you’re on a business trip to Duluth and are looking for Thai food, Twitter isn’t likely to help (“the information that is incoming does not necessarily coincide with the timing of when you need that information”) but Yelp can. Yelp can steer you to “businesses within walking distance” no matter where or when you are, which is why Google is in discussions to buy it, according to last Saturday’s New York Times.

Is Yelp “social media”? By the widest definition, certainly. It started in San Francisco as an email recommendation service, so its peer-to-peer nature made it “social” while its email platform made it “media.” Today, of course, Yelp operates out of numerous U.S. cities, and you can browse by 22 categories (nightlife, religious organizations, beauty and spas), of which “wine” is not one; but the search engine lets you find reccos for wine bars, wineries, wine stores, wine clubs and the like, each of them accompanied by user comments that range from snarky to complimentary.

Still, when it comes to wine, there’s one thing Yelp doesn’t yet offer and probably never will, and that’s to give shoppers an overwhelmingly persuasive reason to buy one particular bottle over all the others. Even if Yelp enabled users to sound off on wine, all it would become is another, well, Twitter: a cacophony of dissonant opinion, with Johnny praising that Sauvignon Blanc while Susie accuses it of smelling like cat piss. Then too, Yelp’s revenue stream, which “lets businesses sponsor their search results” thus allowing them “to pay Yelp to display themselves higher on searches,” makes its objectivity suspect, no less so than Zagat’s reccos are similarly suspect (because the restaurant owner’s extended family and employees can say the most glowing things). So there’s no reason for a savvy shopper to believe anything qualitative or subjective on Yelp. He might find directions to that Thai restaurant in Duluth, but it could be the worst meal he ever had.

So what will replace the critics? You’re back in Duluth. You’ve opted out of the Thai restaurant, preferring instead to spring for French (you’re on a per diem from your company). Yelp leads you to Au Contraire, which boasts the town’s best Provençal. You pick up the wine list. It’s indecipherable; you barely recognize the appellations, much less the chateaux. You could ask the sommelier but, this being Duluth, Au Contraire doesn’t have one, just a waitron of doubtful apprehension. Fortunately, there is a solution. You take your iPhone, to which you’ve downloaded wine recommendation apps. (There are several, including the Wine Enthusiast Guide, which has sold 85,000 copies in the last 12 months). Suddenly you feel on surer footing; you no longer have to guess. You have highest of high-tech mobile platforms to make an informed wine-buying decision — where you are, when you need it, from a source you trust. The Death of Print? We can argue about that, but not, obviously, about the death of the critic, who lives on to give advice, with a digital voice over your cell phone.


Wine magazines dead? I don’t think so

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And as proof I offer wine.com’s #1 wine of the year, Cambria 2006 Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, from the Santa Maria Valley.

Each year for the last 3 years, wine.com, the nation’s largest online wine retailer, publishes its Top 100 wines list, but it’s different from the top wine lists published by most newspapers and magazines, including Wine Enthusiast. Wine.com’s list is “based entirely on customer preferences,” the web site explains. “The ranking reflects the top 1% of wines sold nationally on Wine.com during 2009 based on unit volume.” In other words, in wine.com’s list, the company’s customers vote with their wallets, instead of editors voting their personal preferences.

But hold on. There’s one big thing wine.com’s list has in common with Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 Wines list of 2009. Our #1 wine also was the Cambria 2006 Julia’s; our list came out a week before wine.com’s. I can explain why the Cambria was our top wine, since I’m the guy who reviewed it and gave it 93 points. What I can’t do with precision is tell you why the Cambria was wine.com’s #1 wine. But I can make an inference that’s pretty plausible.

It’s this: wine.com cites two reviews from wine magazines for the Cambria. One was mine, which appeared in Feb., 2009 in Wine Enthusiast; the other was a 90-point score from Wine News (which I believe was given by my old friend, Steve Pitcher). Add to that the fact that wine.com is selling the wine for $17.79 — considerably less than the $21 suggested retail price — and you had lots of customers buying it. A 93-point Santa Maria Pinot for under $20? Grab your credit card and start shopping!

So I’d venture to say my review in Wine Enthusiast pushed the Cambria into the stratosphere. Not bad for a paper-based wine magazine published in a time when strident voices are predicting (and possibly hoping for) the “death of print” we’ve heard so much about. If being a potent driver of sales is an indication of a terminal disease, we’re going to have to reconsider what “healthy” means.

I daresay that even if the top 10 blogs, or the top 25 or what have you, all agreed on their #1 wine of the year (which obviously isn’t going to happen), it wouldn’t be enough to cause a #1 wine at wine.com. We’ve all heard anecdotes of a few success stories here and there — Capozzi selling out 1,700 cases of Pinot pre-release purportedly on the strength of pinotblogger’s blog, or Gary V. pushing product through winelibrarytv. But what you’re not hearing are the hundreds or thousands of wines that have gotten good reviews on blogs (and some of them pretty famous blogs) where the net impact on sales was lighter than a gnat’s poop.

What I’m driving at is that the better wine magazines are going to be around for a long time because, frankly, they work. As the recession lifts and the advertising climate improves, the difficulties of the past year or so will increasingly be behind us. Americans still like to read their wine magazines. That doesn’t mean lots of stuff isn’t shifting online. But when it comes to wine reviews that actually sell cases, I don’t think it’s moving to blogs or Twitter. Amazon’s Kindle, maybe, and similar portable reading devices. People may well move away from paper-based to an e-book platform, but I’m predicting that even as/when that happens, the wine magazines they’ll turn to will be the same ones they’ve always turned to, such as Wine Enthusiast. And as the wine.com #1 wine of 2009 makes clear, reviews, including those from Wine Enthusiast, will remain the single biggest driver of sales (yes, even bigger than peer recommendations!).


Some lessons learned from the first decade of the 21st century

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Hard to believe in just 37 days the first decade of the 21st century will end. Seems like only yesterday we were partying like it was 1999 (wait, it was 1999) and in a panic about the Y2K meltdown. Now here we are on the verge of 2010. In the blink of an eye, a decade has flown by.

It’s been ten years of discontinuity and discombulation for everything in America, and that includes the wine industry. I went back to review some things I wrote for Wine Enthusiast back in 2000, to see what we were thinking and talking about then. The wine market was, of course, robust in 2000, coming off the previous decade of up, up and away. In August of that year I wrote a column that reflected on the historical swings of the Bordeaux market over the preceding, well-documented two centuries. “Switch now from Bordeaux to California, and especially Napa Valley,” I said. “Many of the top wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon, have doubled in price since 1990…the price of many, if not most, expensive wines has got to come down, and will…If you don’t believe that the world’s most prestigious wines can suddenly, exuberantly collapse in price, just read ‘The Wines of Bordeaux’ and find out.” That book, by Eddie Penning-Rowsell, traces the sine curves that Bordeaux prices always have described.

The dot-com bust and Sept. 11 dealt blows to the wine industry, but nothing like the staggering knockdown that the Great Recession of 2008-2009 delivered. I still see “suggested retail prices” of $100, $150, $250 for certain Cabernets, but frankly, I don’t believe them. A winery owner can claim to be asking (and getting) triple-digits for his wine but that doesn’t mean he is. So I was right that prices would collapse, but it’s a prediction anybody can make, at any time, because sooner or later, prices always tumble. But that has never stopped certain people from trying to talk prices back up, as for example this article from Investors Chronicle, which argues that “the market for quality wine has enjoyed a rapid turnaround” and cites somebody from something called The Wine Investment Fund as saying that fine wine “has earned it[s] place alongside gold, equities, bonds and other assets in an investment portfolio.” We may forgive The Wine Investment Fund, which is based in London, Bermuda and Hong Kong, for hyperbole, since it’s hardly a disinterested party.

I asked, also in a 2000 column, the following question: “Have you noticed that wine is getting sweeter and softer?” Apparently, I had, although 2000 was a little before I remember actually becoming convinced that California wine had a real problem, namely lack of acidity and excessive residual sugar. Later that year I wrote a little story about Jess Jackson stepping down as Board Chairman of Kendall-Jackson, and quoted him as saying, “I’m seventy. I’m retiring.” Some retirement! But along less happy lines, at the end of 2000 I reported on the news that Robert Mondavi Winery had “extended its reach to a fourth continent, Australia,” with its announcement of a joint venture with Rosemont. In retrospect we can see that this really was an early warning sign of the winery’s impending demise, caused by the hubris of exalted ambitions. RMW’s actual death dragged on for another four years, but finally occurred in December, 2004, when the company was sold to Constellation.

Several conclusions can be drawn. Wine prices are down now, but unless this is the End of History they will rise again, pace Penning-Rowsell, although it could take a while for the high end to recover; there were eras when Bordeaux took decades to come back. Softness and sugariness remain stubborn problems in California wine, but there’s evidence that that trend-line has peaked, thankfully (although it’s a Dracula that threatens always to rise again from the grave). Jess Jackson happily remains with us, at the helm of a great wine company. And the unhappy experience of Robert Mondavi should be a warning sign to ambitious empire builders. What are its lessons? Be careful what you wish for because you might get it. The Devil’s in the details. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. The fundamentals still apply as time goes by.

casablanca-splash

And speaking of the second decade of the 21st century

The world will have heard by now that Gary Vaynerchuk has won Wine Enthusiast’s “Innovator of the Year” Wine Star Award for WineLibrary TV. I am personally thrilled by the prospect of finally meeting Gary when we all gather, in black tie, at next year’s gala ceremony, at the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street branch. I feel like I know Gary from his comments on my blog, and he is obviously a force to be reckoned with as we head into the two thousand and teens. Congratulations to Gary and to all the Wine Star Award winners!

GaryV


Michael Brill on Crushpad’s big new deal with Twitter

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They’re already calling it “twine.” San Francisco-based Crushpad will make wine for Twitter, in a move (dubbed the Fledgling Initiative) to benefit the charity Room to Read.

I talked with Brill, Crushpad’s president and CEO, last Friday.

SH: How did the deal come about?

MB: We have a couple Twitter employees who are customers of ours. They contacted us about making some barrels for employees, as a team building exercise. They also at the same time were trying to hook up with Room to Read, their favorite corporate charity. Over the course of 45 minutes, we all came up with the idea of why don’t we create a wine, sell it, and the profits will go to Room to Read.

What is the significance of this, beyond raising money for charity? I mean, Crushpad getting involved in social media. You’re already calling it “social winemaking.”

Great question. We’re all about getting people involved in the winemaking process and co-creating a product with the customer. So this is an extreme exaggeration of what we normally do. Instead of 5 or 10 people involved in the process, we’ll have hopefully tens of thousands [buying the wine]. And all this is being tweeted as we go along. It’s a way to expose winemaking to many thousands of people who could not ordinarily afford it or be involved in it.

Tell me about the wines. Varieties? Sources? Price? Production?

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The grapes are from different vineyards — Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Rita Hills, Russian River, Sonoma Coast, all the stuff we normally deal with. The price is $20.

I read that only $5 of that will go to Room to Read, with $15 going back to production costs. That seems high.

Well, if you look at our hard materials costs and labor, we’re not making any money on this. And we’re eating shipping costs. We’re probably losing money. People making wine from the same vineyards [charge] $40 or $50.

Why is the brand is called Fledgling?

That was Twitter. Biz Stone [Twitter's co-founder] came up with that. They like things that are bird-related.

What is case production?

Between 1,000 and 10,000.

Can you be more specific?

No. Twitter is concerned about not wanting to commit to specific dollar amounts to give to Room to Read, so they don’t want to set specific expectations, even though we have internal targets. I think Twitter’s taking a huge risk on this. Some people have been snarky on the blogs [such as]  “Twitter should figure out its business model.”

Is this a one-time thing? Will production and variety type increase?

We’ll see how it works. We’ve never made anything on this scale. This is an order of magnitude larger than our Vayniac Cab [which Crushpad made for Gary Vaynerchuk].

Crushpad has a Twitter account with 63,425 followers. Has that resulted in any additional business, or is it mainly a P.R. device?

It’s the latter. Social media and Twitter are fine for brand building, relationship development, getting your name out there, but it’s a horrible mechanism for generating revenue.

Could that change with a killer app?

Well, there are challenges with Twitter in that there‘s no structure. Personally I believe Twitter for business will only be successful when there’s structure built into it, whether by Twitter or a third party. A tweet is just an event. How do I take advantage of it? So my perspective is, Twitter is great for updating people, but not great now for selling.

Has the recession affected Crushpad’s business?

It’s put a crimp in, especially in the first half of this year. Most of our clients are pretty affluent, but the uncertainty about the economy earlier this year pushed people back. But there’s more optimism now. We saw a big jump this harvest.

That brings up another point. You speak of “democratizing” wine, yet doesn’t the Crushpad model actually only apply to wealthy individuals?

It’s a process. Ten years ago, you needed tens of millions to make wine. Then custom crush facilities brought it down to $100,000. We brought it down to $10,000.

Last words?

I think a lot of the Room to Read piece gets lost [in media coverage]. It’s a great story. Twitter doesn’t get any P.R. value from this; they have nothing but risk associated with this project. It’s about all of us helping Room to Read, which in turn helps kids.


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