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.
Murphy-Goode announced the winner of their “A Really Goode Job” one minute ago. I was embargoed from going to press before the official release, so here it is. (And by the way, I was not part of the selection process!)
Hardy Wallace. More on him in a moment.
I hanged out on Sunday with the Final Ten, where we toured one of Murphy-Goode’s Alexander Valley vineyards with Dave Ready, Jr., did a Meritage-style blending session back in the winery’s new tasting room, in Healdsburg (about a 10-minute drive) and then, after that, the ten took turns staffing the tasting bar, serving wines to the public on a crowded, hot Sunday afternoon. All, mind you, while they were being watched, questioned and scrutinized by their judges — the M-G execs, including Ready — who would be deciding who got kicked off the island. I tried to imagine the pressure these guys and gals were feeling. They’d come this far, and worked so hard, to land the job of a lifetime! But if they were feeling any stress, they never let it show. Instead, there was laughing, joking and lots of good humor. Although they’d met up for the first time, physically, only the day before, most if not all had known each other digitally for many weeks. There was the feeling of kids at a summer camp.
After the vineyard tour we drove up to a nearby peak where everybody posed for pictures. It was an absolutely clear day, late in the morning before the valley heat built up, with a cool breeze from the sea and the sky an unreal blue. As the Ten sipped M-G Zinfandel from paper cups, they glowed with joy. Here, all around them, was the majesty of Alexander Valley, ranging from the vine-covered flatlands along the Russian River to the heights of the Mayacamas (much of it owned by Jess Jackson). Many of the ten had never been to California wine country, and they were so excited to be there, at that time, on that day, under those momentous circumstances.
The ten. That’s Dave Ready, Jr. (back row, middle, with cap) and Hardy, lower left.
People who haven’t kept up with this story can hardly imagine what a big deal this is, not only to the contestants but to so many across the world who have been following developments. This is The Apprentice, the Project Runway of an emergant model in which the wine industry and social media coalesce, like colliding galaxies, to form – - what? No one yet knows. In private chats with many of the Ten I asked where they thought it’s all going and, not surprisingly, their guesses were as good as mine or yours. Many expressed the wish that, regardless of who wins, they all would continue to know, and maybe even work with, each other. Some clearly wanted to remain in the wine industry. Others would be content to work in social media and marketing, whether in wine or some other industry. It was very Millennial. All felt themselves riding the tiger.
The blending session was fun. Each finalist had to assemble a mixture of 2008 Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Dave Ready, Jr. judging which was best. He kindly asked me to co-judge with him, and both of us were delighted that, after the blind tasting during which we’d had virtually no communication, we were strongly agreed on wine #3 as the best. (So delighted that it resulted in a spontaneous high five.) It was neat for me to be able to tell the group that this sort of thing is no coincidence: although each of the wines was basically similar in that they were blends of the three same base wines, #3 exhibited the greatest balance.
I liked all the finalists. Everybody was nice and personable and smart, although each, of course, had his or her distinct personality. There was some behind the scenes talk, among the M-G and Jackson staffs, concerning who was best, who would win, “who’s your favorite,” etc. I was asked for my impressions, but refrained from answering. It would have been inappropriate. All I could say was that whoever won will be terrific. At one point Barbara Banke — Mrs. Jess Jackson — and I were chatting, and when I told her how sad it was that nine of these talented and charming folks would have to be turned away, she allowed as to how the Jackson family (who own Murphy-Goode) are contemplating hiring more than just one, to work at wineries within Jackson Family Wines’ extensive portfolio. At least one contestant for A Really Goode Job already has landed a job: one of the top fifty, who didn’t make the Top Ten, was recently hired by St. Supery Winery, in Napa Valley, as their social media director. Salary: $90,000 a year.
I think this Murphy-Goode thing represents an important milestone in the recent history of the wine industry. Will it be as remembered as, say, the French Paradox? Probably not at that level. But it will be remembered. Another question: What happens to Hardy in six months when his job ends? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I predict a glorious future. A bidding war will ensue for his services. Other wineries will be forced to look for social media directors, and find the budget to pay them. Beyond that, the mists gather; prognostications over “the future of print,” “the relevance of social media to wineries,” “how to calculate ROI for Twitter” etc. etc. are useless. Plus, there is always the possibility that the oncoming proliferation of Director of Social Media for wineries will be a bubble. A few years from now some CFO might dare to ask, “Hey, what are we really getting for the $100G a year we’re paying ____?” The DSM may find herself doing more traditional marketing and P.R., which means — sending me pitches!
Now, a personal word about Hardy, who has commented on my blog in the past, and on whose blog (dirty south wine) I think I’ve commented. Although I didn’t have a favorite, as I said, I believe the M-G people chose a fantastically talented person. I got to know him better on Sunday and came away impressed, not just with his knowledge and enthusiasm, but with his sense of humor. He’s a funny guy! And, last but not least, it was Hardy’s blend that won the contest. A man of many talents. Good luck, Hardy. You’re on your way.
(Later this week I blog on my conversation with Phil Bronstein, the former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and now editor-at-large for the Chron’s parent company, Hearst Newspapers. We’ll talk about the future of print journalism, monetizing the Internet, social media and, no doubt, the meaning of A Really Goode Job.)
from Paso Robles
Seems there’s this rapper, Lil Jon, who started a wine company, Little Jonathan Wine Company, that made a Central Coast Chardonnay that just won a silver medal at the L.A. International Wine & Spirits Competition.
Now, readers of my blog may know what I think of such competitions, but that’s beside the point. What’s really interesting is that Lil Jon tweeted about the award, in caps: “FOR ALL YALL SUKKAS THAT WERE HATING ON MY WINE CHECK THIS OUT!! WE WINNING AWARDS TWITT!!! GET U SOME.”
We can presume that this is the written equivalent of the way Lil Jon talks on the street. It’s a form of urban speech I hear all the time, living in Oakland. Invented by black kids, it’s now been appropriated by some Asian and Latino kids (at least, those who yearn to live the hip hop lifestyle), as well as every white Eminem wannabe in the land.
On his winery’s website Lil Jon writes:
While traveling the world, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to experience some of the world’s greatest wines. My passion for enjoying those fine wines has led me to pursue my lifelong dream of starting my own winery. Our premium collection is simply some of the best wine that California has to offer. I’m very proud to present our rich, complex blends and world class varietals from the finest vineyards in the Central Coast, Monterey and Paso Robles regions. Our wines are hand-crafted to ensure excellence in evnry bottle and I personally invite you to try our wines and share in my passion.
How does he go back and forth from hip hop talk to the King’s English, with such ease? On his tweet he provides an insight: Jonathan Little Wine Company sounds “a little bit more upscale than regular ‘Lil Jon.’ … This is not no ghetto Boone’s Farm; this is some real wine.”
What’s notable about this, aside from a rapper turning into a winery owner (just another version of celebrity wines), is the glimpse it provides into the different ways we relate when we’re in different groupings of society; also, the way that Jonathan sees wine, which is probably the way most people see it. Lil Jon sees the world one way, and sings it the way he sees it, because his listeners see it the same way as he does, and he wants to relate to his listeners. But when Lil Jon becomes Jonathan Little, he’s no longer a rap star, or, more properly, he’s more than just a rap star: He’s a businessman, selling a product. So he has to act in a way that’s more appropriate to the business world, which is to say, speaking and writing the way business people, and most people in the wine industry, talk and write. No double negatives, no deliberate misspellings or mispronunciations.
We all do that, don’t we? When I’m in New York with New Yawkahs my speech reverts to the Bronx accents of my boyhood. When I’m with serious winos, such as my San Francisco tasting group, we talk in a way that would be as incoherent (and probably sound a lot more pompous) to outsiders as Lil Jon’s urban speech may be to some. Wine geek-speech is no different, in substance, than urban hip hop speech. Both are forms of communication that allow us to function in and bond with specialized groupings of people.
Hey Lil Jon, if you read this: let’s get together and drink some wine. I can teach you geek-speak and you can teach me hip hop talk.
It used to be, and not that long ago, that only a handful of writer/critics shared the not unpleasant burden of communicating to the general public about wine.
Wine writers were a kind of nobility, a knighthood. Few in number, but lordly and powerful, they (exclusively white males) occupied a sanctified ground between the wine-producing part of the industry, and the consumers who bought wine.
You need go back only to the 1970s to see how intimate this fraternity was. In California, Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken, Earl Singer, Harvey Steiman, Andy Blue, Nathan Chroman and perhaps one or two others essentially controlled the spigot of information to the entire state (and beyond, to whomever else read their books and columns). Known to each other, sharing the same overall vinous philosophy and orientation to the top wines of Europe, they were largely in agreement about everything: which wineries produced the best wine, which growing regions were superior and which ones to watch, and which varieties worked best where. Their message was collectivist, easy to digest, and the fact that they marched more or less in lockstep with each other helped convince the public that they were right.
How different it is today! From policy being controlled by a group of like-minded people, we now have the Internet and its associated social media, whose members clamor to make themselves heard, and are being heard, with “the fierce urgency of now.” We are witnessing the equivalent of the breakup of the old Soviet Union into a mass of uncongealed, squirming parts. Or, to mix metaphors, it is like a gigantic invading army of ants, streaming over everything in its path and against which there is no protection. The Internet and social media literally are changing the landscape, even as we stand upon it. And what I want to talk about is the reaction of the typical winery to this onslaught.
Back in those days of yore, wineries needed only to form relationships with 5 or 10 writers, in order to trust that their tale would be communicated to the public. That was easy. A few lunches or dinners here and there, a couple new releases shipped off, the occasional meet-ups at charity auctions or winetasting events, and that did the trick. It was a small, convivial world, which is why few wineries had, or felt the need to have, P.R. firms to guide them through it.
Now, what’s a winery to do? The proliferation of critical voices — and no one knows who the survivors will be, much less the eventual powers — makes it essential to reach out to as many as the winery can physically grasp. Yet what has been lost in this brave new world? The relationships. The younger bloggers say, in effect, “Good. If you have a relationship with a winery, you can’t be objective in reviewing its wines.” Or else they say, “I can form my own relationships with wineries, thank you. Just give me some time.” The older writers, if I can characterize their position, say, “Over the course of 20 years (or 25, or 30), I have amassed a thing called wisdom. When I speak, it is with the voice of authority, of hard knowledge won from experience.” To which the young bloggers reply, “Who cares about your wisdom? No one under 50.”
And both sides are right.
It may be that wisdom and experience are overrated. That I’ve tasted, say, every vintage of Georges de Latour, and most of them several times, alongside Joel Aiken, and used to be able to hear Tchelistcheff explain them, in heavily Russian-accented English, really counts for very little, when you think about it. What is that, to a 23-year old person just discovering the joys of wine? It is like my grandparents reminiscing about General Pershing at the dinner table while I, 8 years old, longed to get on with it with my friends.
There’s good and bad in this. The good is that every generation gets to reinvent the way it interprets reality through the prism of its own emergent understanding. That keeps things from being too conservative, too staid and unchanging. The bad is that information does, sadly, get lost. Into the gap step wineries, the savvier of whom understand that you must never stop re-defining yourself, to each potential customer, of whatever generation, using each and every tool available. Critics, too. We can’t rest on our laurels.
The 2008 California Grape Acreage Report is hot off the presses from the Dept. of Food and Agriculture, and as usual it makes for fascinating reading for statistically-minded geeks.
Overall acreage of all wine grape types remained virtually unchanged from the last 2 years. Both red and white wine bearing acreage was down slightly in 2008 compared to 2007, but non-bearing acreage increased slightly. Bottom line: statewide grapevine acreage is in a period of static activity.
The devil, as usual, is in the details.
Among major varieties, the following were all slightly reduced in bearing acreage in 2008, compared to 2007: Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. The following varietals were all slightly up: Merlot, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. The actual percentages, both of increased and decreased acreage, were very small (on the order of a few percentage points), but it’s interesting that the “hottest” varieties — Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris — all saw increases. What growers plant, of course, is what they believe will be selling down the line.
Digging deeper, of all wine grape types, red and white, guess which one has by far the greatest number of non-bearing acres: Pinot Noir. In 2008, there were 7,573 acres of the grape which had not yet yielded fruit. That is half of all the red non-bearing acres in California, and 5 times as much as the acreage of the #1 white non-bearing variety, Pinot Gris. This provides further testimony that growers are putting their chips on the two Pinots.
Where is all the new non-bearing Pinot Noir acreage planted? The county with the most new plantings of the great grape of Burgundy is — ta da! — Monterey. The Report doesn’t state where in Monterey the 2,558 non-bearing acres are, but my hunch would be a combination of the Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, and the Pinnacles area in the eastern Gavlian Mountains. After Monterey, the county with the second-highest acreage of non-bearing Pinot Noir is San Luis Obispo, most likely in the Edna Valley, with some Arroyo Grande Valley. Taken together, Monterey and SLO account for 3,650 non-bearing acres of Pinot Noir, nearly 50% of the non-bearing total for the variety in California, and exactly ten times the non-bearing Pinot Noir acreage in Sonoma County (although Sonoma has by far the highest bearing acreage of Pinot Noir in the state). If you add Santa Barbara, with its 830 non-bearing Pinot Noir acres, the Central Coast boasts nearly 60% of all the non-bearing Pinot in California. This should convince anyone that these 3 Central California counties are making a serious play to become the Pinot Noir capital of the state.
Cabernet Sauvignon is striking in its contrast to Pinot Noir. Altogether, there’s only 1,578 non-bearing acres of it in California. That’s 1/5 the number of non-bearing Pinot Noir. Of course, there’s a lot more bearing acres of Cabernet (73,420) than bearing acres of Pinot Noir (25,737) in California. But Pinot Noir has been increasing in acreage literally twice as fast as Cabernet Sauvignon since 2000, and even faster post-Sideways. If that pace continues, Pinot’s acreage will equal Cabernet’s one of these days. (If I were handier with mathematics, I could tell you exactly when; maybe someone out there can figure it out.)
Anyway, the bottom line is that Pinot Noir is on a roll. It has become the most exciting wine type in California, red or white, and growers are betting the house on it.