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The Empire Strikes Back: Laube Takes on IPOB

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Brother Laube comes out swinging against In Pursuit of Balance, in the Sept. 30 issue of Wine Spectator. (Sorry, no link. The Spectator has one of the best firewalls in the business. No subscribe, no read.) I’d been wondering how long it would take him. After all, Jim is famous for giving high scores to ripe, plush wines that can be high in alcohol—which is exactly what IPOB is against. You might even say that IPOB is the anti-Laube (and anti-Parker) establishment. So Jim had to declare himself sooner or later. He’s a nice, modest man who doesn’t pick fights, but even shy folks fight back, if attacked enough.

 

LAUBE

This isn’t to say that Jim is merely defending his own reputation. For there is something fundamentally irrational about IPOB. Jim implies this when he says that IPOB “admittedly [is] unable to collectively arrive at a definition of balance,” which is true enough: Ask around, and you’ll find that the majority of wine critics, sommeliers and merchants believe that the rationale of IPOB is for wines to be under 14% alcohol by volume. But I’ve heard co-founder Raj Parr say, at an IPOB event, that that’s not at all what IPOB is about. So what is it? IPOB’s Manifesto defines “balance” in rather boilerplate language. It doesn’t say anything about alcohol levels, only that alcohol should “coexist” alongside fruit, acidity and structure “in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.” But there’s something tautological about that statement, not to mention deeply subjective. Which leads back to the question, What is IPOB really about?

Well, publicity, for sure. There’s some real marketing genius at work with IPOB, which in the few short years of its existence has become something of an insurrectionist force rather like, well, another 4-letter acronym group: ISIS. I Googled “In Pursuit of Balance” and came up with 155,000 hits, but that doesn’t even begin to measure the impact IPOB has had in sommelier circles from San Francisco to New York and beyond. IPOB has, in effect, gone viral.

Jim also referenced the “contentious relationship [that] has developed between somms and producers,” and I’m glad he did, for his voice carries weight. His message—to somms—is that if they don’t put certain wines on their lists just because of “a number” (alcohol percent), they do a disservice to their customers, who may prefer those kinds of wines. Somms, of course, are famous for not liking wine magazines and wine reviewers, who are threats to their existence: If all you need is a famous critic’s score, then somms would be out of a job. So joining forces with IPOB is, for a somm, a way of fighting back against a media elite they never much cared for anyway.

Be that as it may, this is not a quarrel among equals. For Wine Spectator’s senior columnist—one of the most powerful wine critics in America, if not the world—to throw down the gantlet to IPOB is a significant gesture. Jim has presented his case cogently and respectfully, and mostly without snark. (Well, “dim somms” wasn’t his invention, it was Helen Turley’s.) I think In Pursuit of Balance must reply to the rather serious charge that it fundamentally doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

READERS: You can comment here, or join the conversation at my Facebook page.


What makes a winery great?

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I took a rare day off from the blog yesterday, and I know you notice when I do, because I hear from you! Which I’m grateful for. I sometimes refer to my “Thursday Throwaway” and “Friday Fishwrap” posts, because I well know we writers must be appreciative of every individual who reads us—we shouldn’t assume anyone actually does–especially those readers who come every day expecting something new. I try to deliver—and usually do—but not always, as yesterday shows.

The reason I didn’t post yesterday was because I was up in Santa Rosa, working. And the nights were long. I won’t bore you with the details, but I was amazed to wake up in the morning (today, as I write this, yesterday as you read it) without a hangover. Yes, friends, it’s true: If you work in the wine industry, chances are you like to drink wine—and beer—and liquor. Sometimes all three together. So thanks to the Hangover Gods for sparing me.

The wine industry is a big place. I sometimes think consumers don’t know how big, or how complicated. Winemakers and owners tend to get 99% of the media ink (well, it’s not really ink these days, is it?). Growers occasionally are given a little credit. Left unsung are the teams that really make winemaking into a business: marketing, sales, distributors, the digital people (increasingly vital), the tasting room staff, and not to forget the payroll, human resources and other way-behind-the-scenes departments that keep teams running, healthy and paid on time. And the vineyard and winery workers! To all of them, we who love wine should give our profound thanks.

I’m fascinated by the different cultures each specialty has developed over time. These are broad-brush descriptions, but I think by and large they’re true. Sales guys—men and women—like to party hard at night. They’re on the road a lot, away from home and hearth, living the vagabond life, and it’s a bloodbath out there, as everyone in the business knows. You’re constantly trying to get people to buy your wine—people who are just as constantly trying to get you to lower your price. It’s trench warfare. No wonder, at night, when they’re back in the hotel, they hit the bar. I like hanging out with sales people at night because they’re funny and irreverent, with great senses of humor. They’re usually extroverted, which you have to be to be in sales, and since I’m rather introverted, they get me to come out of myself, which is fun. Distribution people tend to run along the same lines, although maybe they’re slightly less the party animals.

I like marketing and communications people too. I’ve written before here that many of my best friends in the wine industry are from P.R. They’re not the manipulative monsters they’re sometimes painted out to be—at least, not the better of them. They don’t want to lie and spin to people any more than they want to get lied to and spun. But we need to clear up something about marketing that’s always bugged me, and that’s the perception that it’s nothing but hype. Look, everybody markets something. You’re on a first date, you’re putting your best foot forward. You’re Screaming Eagle, you’re sending your winemaker out to meet-and-greets. You’re at a party, you smile and put on the charm. Nothing phony about it, you’re trying to get people to relax and like you, and you’re trying to like them. That’s all a good marketing or P.R. type is doing: smiling for the company that employs them, making friends, talking and listening.

I said before that winemakers tend to get all the media attention, but you know what? Winemakers love the teams that help them behind the scenes. They know they couldn’t do it alone, without the help and support of the staff. It may be a tiny little staff—at a mom and pop winery where Big Sister’s doing the financial stuff and Little Junior is tweeting and Instagramming. Or it may be a big company with hundreds or even thousands of employees. It’s all the same: a team. And it’s a curious fact, or maybe it’s not so curious, that the best wine seems to come from wineries with the happiest teams. I can’t prove it—but I’ve known an awful lot of winery employees over the years; some wineries have a “bad vibe” about them, with crazy, unempathetic bosses, and those are the wineries whose wines tend to be “Who cares?” But a happy winery—ahh, there’s a winery that makes good wine, because happy people don’t get behind B.S. wines based on B.S. hype and B.S. practices. They may work at such a winery, but they won’t be happy campers, because the essence of that winery is negative, and you can’t be happy working at a company ruled by negativity that comes from the top down.

A great winery is so because it was started by a great founder. Wineries don’t begin indifferently, with an ill-formed vision, and accidentally stumble into greatness. Great wineries are the manifestation of the visions of dreamers who know how to make their dreams come true. Andre Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi, Bill Harlan—we know who they are. Dreamers can be difficult—witness Steve Jobs. But for all the people who complained he could be a total bastard, they all agreed that he pushed them beyond their limitations and forced them to do things they didn’t think they were capable of. Or, to put it another way, Steve Jobs didn’t force them; they forced themselves to be more than they were, because they were inspired by Steve and wanted to live up to his expectations and gain his approval. I don’t know of a single great winery in the world that doesn’t operate according to that principle, where the expectation is utter greatness. It feels dreadful not to live up to that expectation; to succeed at it is divine. May it be ever thus.


When it’s time to kiill off a brand

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When is it time to retire a tired brand?

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Procter & Gamble is thinking of dropping one of its flagship brands, Ivory Soap, as part of an effort “to clear out weaker performers to focus on…brands that account for almost all its revenue and profit.”

Ivory Soap’s ads were a part of every Baby Boomer’s life.

Ivory

Who could forget the T.V. announcer telling us “it’s 99 and 44/100ths percent pure”? The first Ivory T.V. commercial aired in 1939, on a Cincinatti Reds-Brooklyn Dodgers game, just 5 months after television was introduced in the U.S. By the 1950s, Ivory was a sponsor of soap operas, like The Guiding Light (I still remember my Grandma Rose faithfully watching it every afternoon). In the mid-1970s, Ivory made advertising history by sponsoring the “Nominate the Ivory Girl” contest; we see wineries today doing similar things.

So why would P&G kill the brand off? “Marginal or underperforming brands collectively are holding back the company, which needs to be more nimble in a competitive environment,” says the WSJ, noting that Ivory’s share of the U.S. bar soap market has dropped to 3.4%, down nearly 20% from ten years ago.

No doubt company execs feel a strong bond for Ivory, which “got P&G into the magic of branding.” But no management team can afford to keep a dying brand on life support forever. So how does a company know when it’s time to pull the plug?

That brands come and go is no secret. Ever hear of these wineries: Monte Vista, Old Madrid, Mancuso, Garrett & Co., Colton, Poway, Scatena Bros.? All were thriving 70 years ago; now, all gone, alas. Why? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s maxim suggests that the demise of each winery or brand is due to its own peculiar causes; but we can generalize about them all and say they failed to keep up with the times.

You can tell when a winery’s failing to keep up with the times by looking at who it sells wine to, especially through its club. Are its customers all “of a certain age”? If they are, the winery has one foot in the grave, literally. This is why wineries are so interested in reaching out to Millennials. At least, they’ll be around for a while.

Actually, the analogy to “pulling the plug” is apt for this reason: How do you know when it’s actually time to do it? This can be an unbelievably difficult decision for a wine company trying to figure out what to do with an underperforming brand. Ownership may have a lot of time, experience and love invested in the brand; there’s always the chance that things can be turned around with the right marketing and sales plan. One doesn’t want to act precipitously: once you’ve killed a brand, it ain’t ever coming back.

I think I know some brands out there in California that won’t be around ten years from now. I could be wrong: there are brands I thought were moribund in 2000 that are still alive. Anyhow—have a great weekend!


A new winery P.R. website is born

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This is pretty cool—a new blog that addresses the practice of wine public relations, wine media trends, marketing ethics and news commentary.”

Lots of blogs, including mine, have written stuff over the years on these topics, but I don’t know of any blog that is solely dedicated to them. The creators, Tom Wark and Julie Ann Kodmur, call their site SWIG.

I’m sure it will be a success, especially if Tom and Julie Ann—both old friends of mine—keep it free. It’s not clear to me how often they’ll post, or if they view SWIG as a vehicle to drive paying customers to their own, separate public relations firms. Nonetheless, P.R. is a subject of importance and ongoing interest to winery principals—as well it should be—and so SWIG will probably be eagerly read. (Besides, as we all know, Tom is an entrepreneur who knows how to successfully start things up!)

I do want to comment on something Tom wrote on their website. “There is a body of knowledge which guides all publicists, regardless of industry, as well as there being a body of knowledge that guides wine publicists specifically. The intersection of these two bodies is what Julie Ann and I had in mind to explore here at SWIG.”

This is true, as far as it goes; but what interests me is where winery communications is going, as opposed to where it’s been—and believe me, it’s going someplace it hasn’t been before. For that matter, so is the entire wine industry; the two are interrelated. For it seems to me that we are leaving, if we haven’t already left, the “classical” era of winery P.R. and are chugging along into one that—as with all futures—we see only “through a glass, darkly.”

Tom has it exactly right when he states “The Number One Golden Truth of Wine Public and Media Relations [is] YOU MUST ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.” In past “classic” times, this wasn’t always appreciated by the crafters of publicity messages. Back then, advertisers felt free to lie, knowing that no public agency or consumer outrage would check them. This 1930 ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes actually had the nerve to suggest that smoking was good for your throat and lungs!

LuckyStrike

 

Tom’s claim notwithstanding, not all wineries always tell the truth. There are lies of commission, and lies of omission; you can’t know what you don’t know, and wineries sometimes don’t want you to know all the stuff they do (like adding mega-purple, or blending in Central Valley grapes, or putting a little Syrah into that nice Pinot Noir, or soaking the Chardonnay in wood chips, or reducing the alcohol by technical gizmos).

But in this day and age, it’s awfully hard to keep anything secret, so wineries are better off figuring out how to be completely candid, even when it’s uncomfortable for them to do so. You can always turn a lemon into lemonade, as Dear Abby used to say.

However, the bigger questions remain: Why does a winery need a P.R. and communications firm? If they can’t do the job themselves, how should they choose an outside firm? How can they measure the return on investment they pay to the outside firm? Answered in reverse order, it can be awfully hard for a winery proprietor to tell if his P.R. firm is worth it. The P.R. people will tell him it takes time for plans to achieve fruition, which is true; they say, also, that some of their results aren’t measurable, which also is true. This is why some wineries remain locked into unholy matrimony with P.R. companies for years, yoked to firms that are not helping them. It’s also why, on the opposite end of the spectrum, wineries will peremptorily fire a very good P.R. firm that actually is advancing their cause: they get nervous, or their brother-in-law tells them he has a better firm, and so the pink slips go out. (Do firing managers still give out pink slips, or am I dating myself?)

How a winery should go about choosing an outside firm is one of the biggest decisions they’ll make, and also one of the most difficult. If I was a winery, I’d ask my successful friends, who represents you and how are they doing? But I’d also apply good, old-fashioned common sense: Do you like the firm’s owners? Do they seem honest, up-to-date, familiar with digital communications and social media? Or are they stuck in anachronistic approaches? Finally, why does a winery need a P.R. firm? It’s all about communication, stupid! The days are long gone when a winery proprietor could sit alone, in splendid isolation, and think that his wine will go out there and sell itself. That used to be true, in certain circumstances and to a certain extent: for example, wineries that were located on well-traveled tourism routes could depend on an influx of visitors who would buy the wine, even if it was horrible. That’s increasingly hard to do, as consumer’s palates are educated. And some wineries coast on their reputations for years, depending on their old customers to continue buying them. But guess what? Old customers die.

Finally, I’d say that the relationship between a winery and it’s P.R. firm cannot be one based only on occasional exchanges. It’s all about intense teamwork these days: neither side—winery or P.R. firm—can generate the best ideas, but only both sides working together, so that brains can rub against each other, causing sparks of imagination and creativity that are geared toward the winery’s specific needs and talents. The winery that blithely accepts from its P.R. firm a template with a boilerplate approach is asking for trouble.

Anyhow, like I said, I’m sure Tom’s and Julie Ann’s new venture will be a success. I wish them good luck, and I’ll be reading SWIG (and often commenting on it) whenever they post.


Fake wine? Nothing new

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Everybody’s shocked, shocked about what Rudi Kurwanian did, but faking wine is nothing new. Below is an extract from Cato the Elder (234 BC-149 BC), a Roman statesman, on how to fake Coan wine—a wine that should have been made from grapes grown on the island of Kos, but that, as Cato points out, can be fabricated using cheap Italian grapes. The addition of all the salt water was because Coan wine apparently was salty, perhaps like Manzanilla sherry.

“If you wish to make Coan wine (Cato says), take water from the deep sea on a calm and windless day, seventy days before the vintage, from a place where no fresh water can reach. When you have drawn it from the sea, pour it into a vat. Do not fill the vat, but leave an empty space of five amphorae [about 30 gallons]. Cover up the vat, but leave a space for the sea water to breathe. After thirty days, rack it off cleanly into another vat, leaving its sediment. After another twenty days, rack it again and leave it till the vintage.

“Leave the grapes from which you intend to make your Coan wine on the vines, and let them be thoroughly cooked and ripened. When it has rained and dried up again, pick them and expose them to the sun for two or three days out of doors if there is no rain, or if there is rain set them out on hurdles under cover, and pick off any moldy berries. Then pour ten amphorae of your sea water into a fifty-amphorae cask. Then remove the berries from the stalks and press them down into the cask with your hand until it is full, so that they may soak up the sea water. When you have filled the cask, close it, leaving a small space for the air to pass. After three days, take the grapes out of the cask, press them and store the wine in good, clean, dry casks.

“That it may have a good bouquet, do as follows: Take a pitched potsherd and put on it a glowing live coal, perfume it with various scents to be found at the perfumery, put it in a cask and cover it up, so that the fragrance may not escape before you put it in the wine. Do this the day before you rack your wine into the cask. Transfer your wine from the press to the cask as quickly as possible and leave it for fifteen days with a cover, leaving an air space, and then seal it up. Forty days later you will bottle it in amphorae, adding to each amphora a forty-eighth part of must boiled down to one half. Do not fill the amphora above the point where the handles start. Put your amphorae out in the sun in a place where there is no grass, cover them so that no moisture can get in, and do not leave them in the sun more than four days. Then remove them to the cellar.”

* * *

So you see, counterfeiting wine is just about as old as wine itself.

By the way, speaking of the Ancients, when they described their wine, in their treatises and poems, they didn’t use the kind of language we do today, which is of comparatively recent derivation. (I mean the analogies to fruits and flowers, and talk of acidity and tannins and oak.) Our winespeak would have puzzled them, perhaps even appalled them, as hopelessly mean and barbarian. They saw wine as a gift of the gods, and when they wrote of it, they tried to grasp—sometimes with success—its essential mystery as well as its divine properties. They did not attempt to describe what wine tasted like (as we do) so much as what drinking it felt like (as we do not). Here, for example, is Bacchylides, a Greek poet who lived around the time of Socrates and Alexander the Great, on a certain wine:

“Sweet compulsion flowing from the wine warms the heart, and hope of Love returned, all mingled with the gifts of Dionysus darts through the brain, sending the thoughts of men to heights supreme. Straightway it overthrows the battlements of cities, and every man dreams that he is heir to a throne. With gold, yea, and ivory, his house is gleaming, and wheat-laden ships bring him from Egypt over the flashing sea, wealth beyond count. Thus does the drinker’s heart leap with fancies.”

Are we better off with “notes of blackberries and cherries”? Not really. But we’re stuck with it, for the time being.


Print down, but not out, yet

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Observers of this nation’s media environment might be forgiven for being slightly manic-depressive. One day, everyone’s convinced print publications are headed for the trash heap; and the only question seems to be, How fast will this happen?

The next day, having imbibed the bracing tonic of some academic study or other, we remain confident print isn’t going anywhere. We hear that more Millennials are subscribing to magazines; that advertising is returning to print, having previously abandoned it during the Great Recession; that even young people are tiring of their obsession with (and enslavement to) mobile devices.

I, myself, have been consistent over the years in my position—which is not to say I’ve been correct, just that I’ve been saying the same thing all along. And that is in line with the “print isn’t going anywhere” theory. It has seemed to me that print publications are in a strong position to not just survive but thrive going forward, although I may be prejudiced, in terms of both my age (I grew up on newspapers and magazines) and my past career as a print guy.

Given the obscurity of the situation, no one really knows what’s going to happen to the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Which is why we so eagerly grasp every new study or factoid that comes along, hoping (perhaps against hope) that it will accord us some tidbit of understanding. The latest information comes via the Wall Street Journal, which last week reported that “Print Magazine Sales Decline in 1st Half of 2014,” a situation that must depress print fans. For the data—down 12% in newsstand sales compared to the 1st half of 2013—are especially troubling, since “Newsstand, or single-copy, sales have been considered the best gauge of consumer demand because they can’t be propped up by deeply discounted subscriptions or free copies distributed in public places such as doctor’s offices.”

(This last sentence strikes home. The discounts I’ve been offered to the magazines I subscribe to make me wonder how those magazines can stay in business at those prices; meanwhile, the three publications I see given away free, in almost all the hotels I stay at in California wine country, are the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Wine Spectator.)

Well, that’s print magazines. And what of digital? Up from 10.2 million last year to 11.6 million this year, a rise of 13.4 percent. But there’s this catch: “However, the category [digital] accounts for just 3.8% of the industry’s circulation,” a very small slice, and thus not particularly reassuring to financially-pressed publishers.

THE META-TAKE

Does any of this matter, except to publishers and their bank accounts? It does, if you think of a nation’s wine consumers as part of a community, in which group decisions are made, after a give-and-take (this is, after all, how wine trends become ensconced into traditions; for example, the rise of California Cabernet Sauvignon was a group decision, driven largely by the power of the media).

If you don’t care about group decision-making, then the dissolution of the media won’t bother you. After all (you may reason), a group that was based around print will simply cluster into a group based upon digital. Yes, but…If that happens, there will be, not one group, but many; not a single conversation (such as has always existed) but multiple ones. And when you have multiple conversations, each driven by its most vocal adherents, but none of which really touches upon the others, you have chaos, whether it’s in domestic affairs or in something as relatively calm as the wine industry.

All this drives wine marketers bonkers. They try to come up with messages that appeal to all groups, and realize how difficult that can be. The broader the message, the less refined it is; the more refined, the less broad; but this, at least, keeps marketing people employed.

Is this then the cloud, or the silver lining around it? I’m an eternal optimist. The marketing of wine is more fractionated than it has ever been, but this simply means that wineries have to work smarter, in order to succeed. Part of working smarter is producing better wine. Part of producing better wine means having your finger on the market’s pulse, and divining where the public is going. This, in turn, requires knowing how to tell the difference between a trend that is going nowhere, and an authentic shift in public preference. No easy task.


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