Ever since last Fall, every wine writer has written about how hard high-end wines have been hit by the recession. I have, for sure. The latest is the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat’s Kevin McCallum, who wrote this piece entitled “Makers of high-end wines caught in ‘dead zone’.” It does a good, and scary, job of describing “the demise” of Flanagan Family Winery, whose owner sank his heart into the project, only to see the recession come along and kill the ultrapremium tier he hoped to conquer.
Kevin gets to the point when he writes “Some think the reversal will be short-lived; others say something has fundamentally changed in the wine business.” This is, of course, the 64 dollar question, and I won’t attempt to answer it because I don’t have a crystal ball. But it is worth speculating about the second premise of Kevin’s statement, namely that “something has fundamentally changed in the wine business.”
Has it? Or are we all just prone to making cataclysmic prognostications of gloom and doom, when, actually, things don’t ever change that suddenly or radically? Well, to begin with, some things do change that suddenly. Sept. 11 changed almost everything in America. I think historians will refer to pre- and post-Sept. 11 for a long time (and possibly to pre- and post-fourth quarter of 2008 as another epoch-shattering event). And it is, of course, to the fourth quarter of 2008 and the massive recession that the question has to be addressed concerning the wine industry: Has the deck been fundamentally reshuffled, or just temporarily? How long will expensive wine suffer?
One obvious place to look for the answer is personal income. Americans have lost literally trillions of dollars over the past year or so. That’s spending money, folks. And that loss means that tons and tons of stuff is not going to be bought by consumers, including wine. We know this, so the followup question is, will Americans recover the money they lost? If they do, then sales of expensive wine will recover. If they don’t, then it won’t. It’s that simple.
Even if you assume that the recovery is upon us, and employment goes back up, and salaries stabilize if not actually rise, there’s still a big problem: peoples’ retirement incomes — their 401Ks and IRAs — have been demolished. Let’s say someone was making $75,000 a year before the recession and had $750,000 in a retirement account. That person didn’t mind spending $15 or $20 for a bottle of wine, because while she didn’t exactly feel rich, the retirement account was reassuring.
But assume now that the value of her IRA has fallen to $350,000. Assume she still has her $75,000 a year job and is reasonably secure in keeping it. Will she still spring for a $20 bottle? I don’t think so. If she’s like many folks I know, her reasoning is, “Gosh, I’ve really lost a lot of money. I have to rebuild my nest egg. And my employer has been talking about us contributing more toward healthcare premiums, as well as higher co-pays and prescription drug costs. So, while I’m not ready to give up wine, instead of spending $20, I’m going to start looking in the under-$10 category.” She does, and you know what? She finds that there are lots inexpensive wines that are as good and satisfying as what she used to buy. She becomes a permanent under-$10 buyer. (Along these lines, I recently gave a high score to an $11 wine. The winemaker called to tell me that it was really a $40 bottle from a winery that couldn’t sell it at that price, so he bought it, retailed it for $11, and still made a tidy profit. There are innumerable instances of this happening every day.)
Multiply our hypothetical consumer by millions of people and you have a permanent shift in American wine-buying habits. The only thing that could change this would be psychology: people are conditioned to think that if something costs more, it’s better, and nowhere is this more true than with wine. It’s a fundamental part of human nature to associate price with quality, however mistaken this is. Here’s where the Millennials and Gen Y come in. In ten years, when they’re at the peak of their purchasing power, will they revert to the old “if it costs more, it’s better” way of thinking, or will they — the smartest generation of wine consumers in history — recognize that cost and quality aren’t always related? Again, I don’t know, but I suspect they may be bamboozle-proof. If so, then we really, truly are witnessing the death of high-end wine.
Disclosure: Gary Vaynerchuk is a nominee for Wine Enthusiast’s “Innovator of the Year” Wine Star Award. I hope he wins. If he does, I look forward to meeting him next Jan. 25 at our awards ceremony in New York.
If he is “a new media pioneer, showing how things can and will be done,” which is how Jancis Robinson described him in yesterday’s Pour blog in the New York Times, I wish him luck. I will be retired and living off fond memories when Gary takes over the world. So it’s not as if I feel threatened by his rise, or anointment, as the case may be.
I had lunch today (yesterday as you read this) with a Californian who was recently on Gary’s Wine Library TV show, and he told me that Gary told him he’s getting bored with WLTV, desperately longs to be as famous as Parker and is thinking of moving beyond wine into other areas. The winemaker added that he was a bit put off by Gary’s obvious ambition, but went along with it anyway. Hey, a chance to be on Gary’s hit show is not to be missed! The man moves product (although not nearly as much as a good review in Wine Enthusiast). I told the winemaker that I can understand the desire to be famous, but when it’s so obvious, it’s unseemly. (I have a problem with Gavin Newsom for the same reason.) Maybe it’s because I was raised in a different generation, where naked ambition was not flaunted, but hidden behind a veil of propriety. Perhaps my generation was hypocritical. I like to think it was tasteful.
A few weeks ago I blogged “Move over Perez Hilton, here comes Gary V.” in which I inferred, and implied, that Gary — now a certified celebrity himself — was moving closer to becoming a chronicler of other celebrities, a sort of Ryan Seacrest (who makes, what? $20 million a year). There’s a lot of cash to be earned, and Wine Library TV is probably too small a platform to really make the bigtime.
I found the most interesting part of Asimov’s Pour blog when he reported that Jancis “grimaced” at Gary’s wine descriptions when she tasted with him, which perhaps provides some insight into what she thought of his wine knowledge and understanding. Nonetheless, here Jancis is, overcoming her horror to praise him as the coming thing.
My problem with Gary, Wine Enthusiast’s nomination notwithstanding, is that he seems to be a pure product of our celebrity culture. Although he’s not particularly young and, as I understand it, losing his hairline (who am I to talk?), he could be the host of an MTV entertainment show, which is what I alluded to in my blog. His personality is perfectly suited to television and the video Internet: raucous, irreverent, hyper, funny, quick-witted, a little coarse, able to take a punch and come back with a stronger one. He’s not hard on the eyes. Think Seacrest, Craig Ferguson or even Conan O’Brien. These are celebrities who are famous because it pleases us to watch them, not because of anything they “know” or have to teach us. Gary V. is the Conan O’Brien of wine media these days.
“His persona is as much about marketing as it is about wine,” Asimov wrote, insightfully. Gary’s marketing blitz — so naked, so lustful — worries me a great deal, but I also admire it. Anybody who can come so far, so fast, basically on his own merits, has got to be deemed a great success, in the way we define success, American-style, as entrepreneurial skill, and a corresponding penchant for making money — in Gary’s case, a lot.
What causes me worry is the implication Gary’s meteoric rise has for the future of wine writing. In Jancis’s description — “showing how things can and will be done” — the operative word is can. Things can happen the way Gary has made them happen because our media culture increasingly is about entertainment, not content; about sizzle, not steak; about eccentricity, amusement, shock, bread and circuses. The media culture is endlessly manipulatable by those who understand how it works. That’s wino-tainment, folks! Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. But for me to complain about that is tinkling into the wind, meaningless, and it just blows back on me.
As a lover of fine wine writing and education, I really hope the high-end version of our craft doesn’t go away. I don’t think it will. I suspect Gary will go on to an amazing career in which wine is only tangential. I also suspect that fine wine writing will always attract people who get into it, not because they expect to earn a lot, but because of their passion, and the way wine writing lets you live a wine lifestyle without lots of money.
That’s the attention-grabbing headline from Decanter, explaining how L’Anima, an Italian restaurant, is asking the public to vote for wines to go onto its wine list, in an online election to be held via Twitter. Decanter says this is believed to be a “world-first.”
That’s a pretty clever idea. As soon as I read it, I was reminded of Murphy-Goode’s “A Really Goode Job” contest, which was also a world-first, in a way: the first time (to anyone’s knowledge) a winery hired a Director of Social Media. (There was also a sort of online election-that-wasn’t-really-an-election tied to that one, but let’s not go there.)
As we all know, in retrospect it turns out that what was so interesting about “A Really Goode Job” was that the ensuing media attention, which was worldwide, gave Murphy-Goode around $17 million worth of free publicity. I wonder if that’s behind L’Anima’s move? After all, here I am, in California, reading about this London restaurant I’ve never heard of, and probably never would have heard of, had they not done the Twitter thing. And Decanter in all likelihood never would have written about L’Anima otherwise.
The restaurant certainly seems keen on the contest. I went to their website to read their sommelier praise “the power of Social Media [to] help me select those [wines] that should be given a chance.” Two comments here: One, are we now capitalizing “social media”? Who makes these decisions anyhow? And two, has there ever been a self-respecting sommelier who didn’t feel capable of making his own wine list selections, without asking a bunch of total strangers, with no obvious skill set, for advice? I mean, on L’Anima’s website they say this about their wine list: “When writing the wine list, we had the challenge of finding wines to accompany [chef’s] innovative menu and representing the true Italy and its diversity.” I don’t quite understand how they’ll be able to use the word “we” after thousands of voters with, one suspects, no particular skills, and with little reference to “chef’s innovative menu” or even what “true Italy” means, do the actual selecting.
I suppose the least you could say is that all wines on the ballot were pre-selected by the sommelier and his team, so they were all qualified to be on the list. I guess, but still… Is this the ultimate challenge to authority, sponsored by no less than the Court of Master Sommeliers?
Meanwhile, the P.R. train seems gearing up for action. Jancis Robinson has already tweeted about it (“Creative use of Twitter to shape excellent London restaurant, L’Anima’s, wine list”). And when Jancis publicizes something, it will be noticed. (I know, the irony is that I’m publicizing it too.)
I wonder if this use of social media for P.R. purposes isn’t emerging as one of its main features. I mean, given social media’s tendency to talk about itself, if an organization (restaurant, winery) uses it for some sort of contest, and then the straight press (e.g. Decanter) picks up on it, the social media users will repeat the straight press’s account, creating a tornado of endless repetition of the sort we saw with A Really Goode Job and are seeing with L’Anima. It’s all very phony, in a way — a computer virus that self-generates, like a nude celebrity video leaked to a tabloid — but it obviously works. It generates buzz. Imagine a couple of tourists who hit London for vacation. They’re looking for a nice place to eat and the concierge suggests a couple of restaurants, including L’Anima. “Isn’t that the place that had the Twitter contest?” one of the tourists asks. “Why, yes, it was,” her friend replies. So they decide to try L’Anima. When they get back to Cleveland, they tell their friends, “We had dinner at the most amusing place.” “How was the food?” their friends inquire. “Oh, it was all right, but it was that restaurant that had the Twitter contest for the wine list.” “Oh. How was the wine, then?” “It was all right, too. The sommelier told us all about how some of the wines were chosen by the world’s first Twitter contest. They’re already calling it the Twitter restaurant.” “Cool! You must give us the address so we can go next time we’re in London.”
And so it goes.
Is the famous wine personality increasingly smitten with the world of celebrities?
“Transparency” and “exposure” take on new meaning in this op-ed video by Gary Vaynerchuk. The link comes in an article on, not wine as you might expect, but on three celebrities whose menage-a-trois somehow made its way onto the Internet. The article appears in PopEater, which seems to be an online version of Entertainment Magazine.
The background: The 3 celebrities are ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ hunk Eric Dane, his wife, actress Rebecca Gayheart, and “former beauty queen” Kari Ann Peniche. Dane’s lawyers immediately leaped to his defense, calling the tape “a private, consensual moment involving a married couple, shot several years ago, which was never intended to be seen by the public.”
No, of course not. Embarrassing tapes never are.
To see the rest of him, go to the video
Or at least a censored version of it, here at Gawker.com. Believe me, the video isn’t even that hot. The three stars seem dim-witted but that could be because they were stoned. And there seems to be a lot of product placement, including a strategically-placed iMac.
Anyway, this truly tasteless incident never would have made it into a high-minded publication like this blog had it not been for the Gary V. video, which makes it not only wine-related but reportable.
Now, I know nothing about Gary V. beyond his celebrity status. But I’m learning. The PopEater article calls him a “PopEater Pal” and says the video is an “Exclusive Explanation for PopEater” of the videotape’s relevance to a much wider world involving “good [product] exposure and branding.” Which, I guess, means Gary V. has something going on with PopEater.
Gary’s video is 2:13 in length. Here’s a pretty accurate transcript.
“Really excited to talk about what I call the “Hugh Grant” rule…about how naked pictures and this full exposure has not always been bad for the brand, and I understand why…if people come out and say “I’m sorry” we’re kind of okay with it. And so what is going on in this new transparent world — don’t get it twisted, you take a picture or a video of yourself naked, and it’s gonna get out. And if you don’t think that these celebrities and these new internet celebrities, if you don’t realize they’re putting them out on purpose. I think you know. You guys are not naive. But what’s important to understand is it’s exposure. And it’s branding. And it’s opportunity. And as long as you follow up your mistakes with your “I’m sorries,” you’re always in a position, in our society, to build a bigger brand…So my whole take on this is very simple. It’s the movement of everything I’ve been talking about on social media. The fall of newspaper. Wait til television falls. Boxee.com, that’s all I’m gonna say. When all this becomes pure content and full exposure, this trend, this new trend of naked pictures and full exposure is going to continue, followed up with the traditional I’m sorry, and brands will continue to get bigger and bigger and bigger, because that’s how we roll, it’s word of mouth, things like Twitter are just word of mouth on steroids. Vanessa Hudgens, her second round of pictures, I knew about 6 minutes after they were online, because it was a trending topic on Twitter. So the word of mouth has changed so much, allowing these kind of micro-events for Rihanna and Sarah and other people to get really more brand value, not less.”
I could bemoan the obvious crassness of a culture that permits such things to happen. I could criticize Gary V. for not merely identifying the phenomenon but doing so glowingly, as if it represents a signal breakthrough in human morality and consciousness. I could rebuke people who think that the best way to get famous, without talent, is to put images of themselves naked on the Internet, then leak the story to barracuda “journalists” of the type who write garbage for the tabloids.
I could do all that, but I won’t. Instead, fair warning. Tomorrow, in this space: Naked pictures of me, Steve, in compromising positions. Groups. Animals. In public, with celebrity chefs, winemakers, Mayors and movie stars. I want my brand to get bigger and bigger and bigger, so I’m applying the “Hugh Grant” rule which we actually may now call the “Gary V.” rule. If it’s sleaze, it leads. After everyone is shocked, shocked at my brazenness, after I’ve offended every measure of public decency, I’ll come out with my phony “I’m sorry,” and I’ll be bigger than ever! Mwahahahahahaaa!
David Bowman is vice president of premium and fine wines for E&J Gallo. His portfolio consists of brands like Louis Martini, Mirassou, MacMurray Ranch and William Hill, but not, say, Barefoot. In other words, Gallo over $9 a bottle. When I asked to be connected with Gallo’s top social media person, Bowman, 38, is who they hooked me up with. We spoke by phone last Friday.
SH: Does Gallo have a social media strategy?
DB: It’s all starting to develop. We’re in the early stages of trying to understand what role it should play in our media mix. We’ve taken a watch and wait role. Is it disruptive to something we’re already doing? It defies some of the characterizations we generally apply as marketers. What is the intent? What is the net result? But because social media is very democratic, it appeals to a broader audience than a Wine Enthusiast reader.
That’s all very theoretical, but what are you actually doing?
From a public relations perspective, Michael Heintz [Gallo’s PR director] is actively spending time with bloggers. He does outreach to certain bloggers. We send wines to certain bloggers.
How are those bloggers chosen?
The criterion is how influential we think they are, how broad an audience they garner.
How do you determine that?
A lot of it is based on the facts you can see. A lot of them make claims, “This is how many people read my blog.” Some of it is by reputation.
What would you consider a good enough readership?
I wouldn’t put a specific number on it. It might be geographically based, or this person has credibility in a particular region.
What does “credibility” mean?
Well, this is why I said it defies characterization. You’re going to a place where an individual consumer can instantly become a wine reviewer and influence a wider circle of people. This has to do with the democratization of wine.
So is print becoming less relevant?
From a credibility point of view? It can become much more marginalized in importance.
What will replace print?
That’s the hard part, with 1000 blogs out there, as opposed to setting up one meeting with a famous wine critic. He [Michael] is now interacting with hundreds of people. And that becomes difficult. How do you tell if someone’s credible or not? There are no rules. How do you know if they have reach? It’s very, very hard.
Can there be a single strategy at a company like Gallo where you have so many dozens of brands?
Great question. Each and every brand has a personality and a set of reasons for the consumer, retailer or restaurateur to believe the brand makes a great wine and has a good story.
Does anyone at Gallo actually blog?
From us on behalf of the brand? Not as of today.
Well, we’re trying to figure out the best way to do it. Here’s the challenge. Think of Facebook: There are issues of protecting your trademark. And how relevant will you be in that context? Five or six years ago, everyone ran to the Internet thinking they needed a website. But what brings people back? So when you enter Facebook, I say make sure you have something to talk about! The last thing you want is to have a site on Facebook and say “I’m here” without having anything to talk about.
How do you figure out what to talk about?
Depends on the brand. Take Barefoot, which is in Stephanie Gallo’s group, not mine. They’ve been assertive in moving into the social media space. Now, I could argue we haven’t done anything on our premium portfolio, but it appeals to a much more narrow audience [than Barefoot], and we’re still trying to figure out what we want to talk about so someone will log in. For example, what role will Michael Martini play [at Louis M. Martini]? What’s happening on Highway 29 today? Because if the content’s not fresh, why should the consumer care?
Well, how long will it take to figure out what you want to say? You can’t just think and think about it forever. Eventually, you have to just get out there and start talking.
I agree. I’m just saying it’s important that you have something to say. If you have nothing to say, don’t get out there and say it! For you, Steve, you have something to say. From my seat, as an individual brand, I wonder if there’s enough for the consumer to come back, because the last thing I want to do is bore them.
How do you keep that concern from becoming an impasse?
I understand where you get to a point of paralysis. We do have a lot to say — we just haven’t organized around it to ask who’s responsible for policing our site? Who’s in charge? It’s like any company that’s new to this social media space — defining who’s accountable. This is why this area lacks so much definition in our industry. It defies characterization. You want people to be passionate. But somebody also has to be responsible to make sure there’s relevant content that’s fresh and accurate and doesn’t subject us to liability.
Is it conceivable that, ultimately, social media might not be a strategy that’s in Gallo’s future?
My answer is unequivocally no.
So what concrete steps can I expect to see you take over the next six months?
Well, you’ll see without a doubt some of our brands start to enter into a more active participation on Facebook, blogging, Snooth, podcasts, talking about what we’re doing at the winery. In my portfolio, the brand that makes the most sense is Martini.
Could you see Gallo hiring a Director of Social Media to oversee all brands?
Probably not. As it relates to individual brands, from my perspective I’d rather push that responsibility down. It will be up to the brands to make it work and keep the content fresh.
What did you think of the Murphy–Goode thing?
I thought it was an interesting P.R. exercise. They hired this blogger to be a blogger but the tent was for P.R. They capitalized on the broad interest in social media to exercise a P.R. tactic. It said, “This brand is progressive and thinking about the future.” But from my point of view, whatever we do it has to be based on authenticity.
Is it possible for any winery to be perceived as authentic in social media, when people know what you’re really trying to do is sell a product?
The consumer of today, my generation, Millennials, they are very sensitively marketed to. They tune it out instantly, and they want a sense of truth and authenticity. They understand if you’re online and have something to sell. They’ll enter into the relationship already knowing that. But they’re willing to accept it, because there’s something of value to them.
Are there any wineries you respect in the social media sphere, other than Murphy-Goode?
Umm. [long pause] Not in the true sense of social media. Everybody’s still toying with it. A lot are doing it to capture consumers for the wine club. The funny thing is the consumer and someone like yourself who blogs are most empowered by this format, but brands are still trying to figure out what this means. It’s not like a traditional P.R. campaign or buying a TV or magazine spot.
Do you yourself regularly Facebook or blog?
I do not. It’s a conscious decision. Mostly I’m in a sensitive position given what I do. If I’m online talking about wine, anything I say could be construed by consumers or press, so it’s more self-restraint. I’m very opinionated but right now it would be irresponsible for me to do so. But I’m online a couple hours a day, and I do it inbetween [other tasks]. Snooth has an interesting operating model. And Michael [Heintz] brings stuff to my attention constantly.
Now that some time has passed since the Murphy-Goode contest, we may have a little more perspective on what it meant — and it had to mean something. I read 1WineDude’s take on this, and he’s pretty much right-on in his analysis. But there’s another implication that hasn’t been mentioned. I tried to describe it in this comment I made on 1WineDude’s blog:
Here’s what I wonder: Now that Hardy is the official voice of MG, will his writing (tweeting, blogging etc.) be seen as independent and credible? Or has he now taken off the hat of independence in exchange for that of paid marketer? What we may be witnessing — as Joe implied — is not so much the rise of social media as an independent voice, but the wine industry co-opting it for its own P.R. and marketing purposes.
Joe himself wrote “Murphy-Goode Fallout = Wine Media Jobs” and he astutely noted that getting hired as a lifestyle manager for a winery is not the same as independent wine writing. It couldn’t be; it’s a job promoting the winery. As such, a social media expert who gets one of these jobs isn’t really a social media writer anymore: he or she is a public relations manager using social media, the way P.R. managers used to use press kits and free dinners. The tools are different, but the job is the same.
You can’t fault wineries for doing what Murphy-Goode did, which is something other wineries already are doing. It’s the old “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” routine. Or, to put it another way, if you’re a big industry and a little industry comes along that poses, however distantly, a threat, what do you do? You take it over. When television came alone, NBC Radio bought into it. Whenever somebody in Silicon Valley invents some cool, useful new gizmo, Microsoft scoops it up. That’s how business works; it follows the same laws as Darwinian evolution: eat or be eaten. The wine industry watched social media for a couple of years, mostly just wondering what the heck it was, and all the while social media was screaming, “Pay attention to us!” The wine industry didn’t really want to pay attention, but finally was forced to. And it has now culminated in A Really Goode Job.
In the 1958 movie “The Blob,” that pulsating mass of protoplasm from outer space absorbed everything in its path. There was nothing that could stand up to it (until the end, of course, when the hero, Steve McQueen, killed it). There was probably a semiotic meaning behind “The Blob” the way there was behind so many Hollywood sci-fi movies of the Fifties (Communism as alien menace). But on another level “The Blob” was a metaphor for anything big taking over anything small by the simple mechanism of absorption. Will the wine industry now absorb — co-opt — wine social media? Are people engaging in wine social media hoping to land high-paying jobs as lifestyle managers? Is there any fundamental difference between older, print-based wine writers and younger, social media writers? And who will the “hero” of this movie be? I think the answers are yes, yes, no and who the heck knows. The truest lesson of Murphy-Goode may be less about the future of wine writing or anything like that, and more about how wine social media is getting cozy with the traditional P.R. and marketing machine. One or the other is The Blob; we’ll have to see who absorbs whom.