Nothing illustrates the entrepreneurial challenge of a cult Napa Cab staying relevant than Yao Ming’s turning to crowdfunding for his winery’s financial needs.
When his wines hit the market, I was as excited as anyone. I gave the 2009 Family Reserve 97 points—the highest of any critic I’ve yet seen (although only by a hair). It was a big, big score for stingy old me—and the next year, I was even more generous, with 98 points for the 2010. The wines were glorious examples of modern Napa Valley Cabernet, but the prices were absurd: $625 the bottle for both vintages. I figured Yao Ming figured he had a lock on the wealthy Chinese market, at a time when it was seemingly willing to spend anything on great wine, so why not go for the gold? After all, he was one of the biggest Chinese-American superstars of the decade, maybe ever.
Now here we are five years later, when the Wall Street Journal is reporting that “As China’s luxury wine market cools,” Mr. Yao is being forced to change his business model. “With Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign sapping demand for expensive wines,” the paper says, “Yao Family Wines is shifting its focus from Chinese banquet tables to US steak houses.”
Wow. That’s quite a radical change in business model. Do you think that $625 retail bottle price can survive the transition to steak houses? I don’t. Who’s going to pay $1,000 for a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to drink with the rib eye and baked potato? Perhaps the wine Yao Ming is aiming at American steakhouses is their second-label Napa Crest brand that retails for $48. It’s a solid wine: I gave the 2010 91 points, and my successor in Napa Valley reviewing, Virginie Boone, gave the 2011 90 points. But I think they’re talking about the Yao Family Cab. Whatever the case, the crowdfunding suggests that Mr. Yao is having some difficulties earning enough money to keep his business going through sales alone and is turning to this new, promising but largely unexplored area of crowdfunding to raise money from the masses.
Is there any shame about crowdfunding? I’m undecided. It may well be a wave of the future type thing. After all, we think nothing of a startup Silicon Valley firm taking venture capital from wealthy angels; in fact, it’s a source of pride that a smart, rich investor would think highly enough of a company’s prospects to put her money into it. I suppose that crowdfunding, of the sort Mr. Yao is engaging in (“as little as $US5,000 per person,” the Wall Street Journal says), is simply venture capital for the hoi polloi.
Still, it does make one wonder. What would we think if, say, Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Harlan, Bryant Family or Colgin announced they were crowdfunding? I think there would be a lot of raised eyebrows, and even, perhaps, some upset people on their mailing lists, who might feel that turning the reins over to “the crowd” was impinging on their notion of exclusivity.
Perhaps this is the way to expand an empire that’s already flourishing and can flourish even more. Yao Ming says he wants the money to (in the Wall Street Journal’s reporting) “build a visitor center in Napa Valley and a tasting room in Shanghai.” Given the current blowback from wine country residents against new tourist facilities, Mr. Yao may have some ‘splainin’ to do in Napa Valley. But I suspect that hundreds, if not thousands, of people will want to send him their money, to be connected with his brand, to get whatever perks or discounts they’re entitled to on the wines, and to just have the feeling that you don’t need to be a multi-gazillionaire to have a little bit of ownership in a Napa Valley winery.
I used to go to every P.R. event I was invited to—which was a lot—when I started out as a wine writer. With Wine Spectator cred, I was on all the A lists in San Francisco. When I moved over to Wine Enthusiast as chief California critic—a big step up in power—the invitations only increased.
It was really cool, I thought, to be welcomed at all those top restaurants and clubs, to be wined and dined on wine and food I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, to be treated with a certain respect and courtesy. But guess what? I soon tired of the scene, which, it seemed to me, was populated mostly by networkers looking to sell their products or services. I wasn’t networking; I already had the job I wanted.
For some years now, I’ve been pretty selective about what I go to. The invites still pour in, but I seldom feel the need to go: I’m happy snuggling up with Gus at night and reading a good book, watching something on the telly, or getting some work writing done on the computer. But last night was an exception. I’d gotten invited to a client meet-and-greet by Postcard Communications, an up-and-coming S.F. agency, whose offices are located in a cute little building on uber-cute Maiden Lane, two blocks east of Union Square. The firm represents restaurants, artisanal food producers and wineries.
I’m not entirely sure why I went; something prompted me to. So I took BART into the city (four stops) and was there promptly at six. It was the usual thing: grazing through tables of delicious foods and wines. Met some nice people; traded business cards; had some superficial chats. There are two or three individuals I plan to follow up with.
I stayed for about an hour, then—feeling like the old uncle in a group whose average age seemed to be about 24—I left. On the way home on BART four young men were break dancing for contributions. It was fun to watch and I wished I’d brought something less than a couple twenty dollar bills so I could give them a few bucks. (It felt weird asking for change. Should I have?)
And I thought: I don’t really need these networking events anymore, but they’re fun to go to occasionally, and moreover, they really are the bloodstream of the younger part of our wine and food culture. Everyone I met had already had three or four “careers” in their search for one that suited them. One guy had been a teacher, a techie and had worked in publishing, before ending up in the food business. These folks, at their tender age, are still figuring out where they want to be and what they want to do insofar as work is concerned. They’re happy to be living in San Francisco or the East Bay (although prices are killing them). For a veteran like me, it was refreshing to see such burgeoning passion and talent incubating in the Bay Area, which is such a remarkable fount of creativity, from the programmers of Silicon Valley to the musicians and chefs of Oakland. I sometimes think of it as a kaleidoscope of personalities, dreams, ambitions and skills, always shifting and transforming into beautiful patterns of symmetry and color. From it will emerge the successes of tomorrow.
The wine industry is always worried about something, especially here in California. (Maybe it’s because we live in earthquake country!)
The theme is almost always some version of “The sky is falling.” Back in the 1990s it was phylloxera: it was going to wipe out everything. Didn’t happen; the wine industry not only survived the bug, it emerged better than ever. Growers tore out sick vines and replanted, using better rootstocks and clones, often reconfiguring their vineyard orientations, and more precisely matching variety with terroir. It was another happy instance of “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
The latest gloom and doom? The Wine Market Council’s fear that craft beer and spirits will turn younger consumers away from wine. But it, too, has a potential silver lining.
One can’t dispute the facts the WMC cites–facts underscored by anecdotes. My younger friends, those in the so-called iGeneration (born after 1995, and 61 million strong), really love their craft beers and whatever cocktail they’re into. But when it comes to wine, meh. It’s all pretty much the same to them. Try as they might, they can’t really understand why one wine costs ten times the price of another, when they seem to taste pretty much the same. Their social lives are centered around noisy bars, house parties and clubs, not the sedate dinner table. One of wine’s central messages—often promoted by its loyalists—is lost on them: that wine is the intellectual alcoholic beverage. Intellect, schmintellect: it’s not that they’re not thoughtful, but they want to laugh and dance—carpe diem!–and beer and spirits are way better at promoting a party than wine.
Among my younger friends also is a surprisingly high number of people who don’t drink. Whether it’s because they’ve had drinking problems in the past, or for health or religious reasons, I don’t know and don’t ask, because it’s none of my business. But even the WMC survey found that more than one-third–36 percent–of the population abstains from alcohol.
These are all formidable findings, but I remain optimistic about wine’s future in the U.S. For one thing, people’s drinking habits change over time. Wine has never been the preferred booze among young people: it’s always been beer and spirits. When the iGeneration gets older, there’s no reason not to believe they’ll discover wine, the same as their forebears did. Even some proportion of non-drinkers will realize that a glass or two of something won’t hurt and might even make them feel better.
The WMC survey also points the way towards opportunities for the wine industry to better market itself. There’s nothing wrong with the meme that wine is family, life and celebration, but these terms have to evolve, in order to appeal to younger consumers. Consider the contemporary meaning of “family”: The Norman Rockwell scenario of mom, dad and two kids sitting around the nightly dinner table no longer holds true for tens of millions of adult Americans. Families now are just as likely to be single parents, or same-sex parents, or interracial parents, or childless couples, or people living alone with a cat or dog. They’re just as likely to be Vietnamese, Mexican or Somali as they are to be of European descent (at least, here in multi-ethnic Oakland, which is the face of what America is going to look like).
So wine has to figure out a better way to present itself as the alcoholic beverage for everyone. Beer’s managed to do that for decades. So have brandy and cognac, and even sparkling wine to some extent, which is why its sales are surging. The spirits industry, led in my opinion by vodka, has done an amazing job over the last twenty years promoting itself as exciting and cool, especially with this current surge of celebrity mixologists.
But wine? It persists with the same tired message that you have to be old, white and rich to drink it. It’s time for wine to glam up. The good news is that a younger generation of wine marketers has arisen. Born with an easy comfort around computers and social media, literate in the changing demographics of America, and armed with an urban sensibility, they understand the challenge of appealing to the new consumer.
A few days ago, the one and only Hosemaster of Wine caused a dustup in the world of sommeliers with his blog post, “The six people you want to avoid in the wine business.”
One of his “six people to avoid” was “the Master Sommelier Working for a Corporation.” It was a good spoof in the best Hosemaster tradition, of course, and—having been the recipient of numerous Hosemaster barbs over the years–I appreciate his wit and am happy when he mentions me. Hosemaster, AKA Ron Washam, is a satirist, in the great twentieth-century tradition of Mort Sahl, Joseph Heller and even Stephen Colbert. But he is never mean-spirited.
Master Somms, like the rest of us, have to work somewhere. They may not choose to work in a restaurant; they might want different sorts of opportunities, and many go through a series of different jobs as their careers develop. So after you’ve invested all the expense and time of obtaining the coveted M.S., where are you gonna go?
Into the business world, as so many Master Sommeliers have done. As you can see if you browse through the membership page on the Court of Master Sommelier’s website,
some go to work for wineries, big and small. (And, yes, Master Somms work for my company, Jackson Family Wines, which by the way is not corporate, but family-owned.) Others work for distributors or in retail trade. Some consult; some are independent wine educators. The latest Master Somm to rock the business world is Ken Fredrickson, whose investment group just took over Brewer-Clifton.
In other words, Master Somms do all sorts of interesting things.
What’s wrong with a Master Somm working an honest day for honest pay? There are only 140 of them in all of North America, and 219 worldwide. With such limited numbers, these men and women are in high demand. They can essentially work anyplace they want. Actually, in going into the business world, they move beyond rarified sommelier circles into networks of on- and off-premise professionals and consumers—democratizing, as it were, the world of fine wine, which is as it should be.
I don’t think Hosemaster actually believes it’s “sad” for a Master Somm to work for a winery. After all, he’s a former sommelier himself and understands the terroir. But for anyone who does think along those lines, let me quote Hosemaster’s own words, on Charlie Olken’s blog, “[G]ood sommeliers…understand that their only job, their ONLY job, is to help assure that the customer has an enjoyable evening.” No matter where they work or what they do, good sommeliers do exactly that: they help customers enjoy their wine.
In 1999 the futurist Stewart Brand, whose Whole Earth Catalog galavanized a generation of environmentalists and alternative lifestylists, published “The Clock of the Long Now,” in which he introduced the notion of “pace” into the analysis of history.
Brand came up with six “layers” of human existence;
each layer proceeds at a different pace, in a sort of celestial-mechanical model whereby Mercury rounds the Sun far faster than Neptune. Only in Brand’s model, the speeds are reversed: The outermost layer, “Fashion,” moves at the quickest pace. This is why hemlines go up and down every season on the runway, and why wine writers are able to proclaim new “styles” with each passing vintage. Fashion changes constantly; the mullet is now hopelessly out of fashion. Not that long ago, everybody wanted to look like Andre Agassi.
Brand’s inmost layer, Nature, moves at the slowest pace. Evolution and geology are its most visible indices. The Sierra Nevada has taken tens of millions of years to rise; the Grand Canyon did not spring into existence overnight due to the whimsy of some flood. Not for nothing do we refer to the timespan of Nature as “glacial.” (We can have a discussion of global warming some other time!)
Inbetween Fashion’s furious rush and Nature’s leisurely progression, from inmost to outermost, are Culture, Governance, Infrastructure and Commerce. Culture requires a long time to change; witness the world battles currently underway that have been going on since the dawn of history. Governance is almost as hard to change as Culture, but when change does occur, it can come swiftly, as with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Infrastructure occupies a sort of midway point between Fashion’s speed and Nature’s lethargy; as we are reminded every time a bridge collapses in America, or our cars bounce over an urban pothole, changing the Infrastructure requires human will, such as that shown by President Eisenhower, a Republican, when he promoted the Interstate Highway System.
Between Infrastructure and Fashion sits Commerce. Brand sees Commerce as occupying a vital place the scheme of things: If it derives its impulses from the outermost layer (Fashion), it risks becoming “unfettered [and] unsupported by watchful governance and culture…it easily becomes crime.” And yet, we don’t want commerce to become too regulated, lest it lose its ability to flexibly react to changing conditions.
We can apply Brand’s “pace” model to the situation we find ourselves in with regard to wine. It is, in fact, a useful tool for analyzing every issue, from the continued popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to the contemporary debate over alcohol levels. It’s apparent that the latter—alcohol content—is purely a matter of Fashion. As Brand writes, “The job of fashion…is to be froth: quick, irrelevant, engaging, self-preoccupied, and cruel. Try this! No, no, try this!” What is in today may be out tomorrow, as Heidi Klum always warns contestants on Project Runway.
By contrast humankind’s liking of wine stems more from Culture, “the work of whole peoples” as Brand describes it, and of Nature itself, “inexorable and implacable,” which somehow has programmed us (and other forms of animal life) to delight in the slight intoxication of alcohol, and in wine in particular, that most natural of alcoholic beverages.
What of the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in America? We can see in this a balancing act between the slow-motion pace of Nature and Culture, which act to keep change from happening too quickly, and the “froth” of Fashion, which, if it dominated, would have had us by now become a nation of Fioletovy Ranny drinkers. There always will be wine critics, sommeliers and others who try to push the nation’s tastes towards the exotic and rare; also always will be pushback from people who know what they like and don’t want to change. This tension—between the more conservative elements and the more radical ones—is healthy. The system itself reinforces dialogue: “the pace layers…provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing negative feedback [loops] throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health.”
We may even use Brand’s pace system to make predictions. Will the three-tiered system survive? In its favor are the slower-moving layers of Nature and Culture, both of which tend to abhor change and to support the status quo. Against the system’s continuance are Fashion and Commerce: both suggest greater flexibility, innovativeness and individual choice for the consumer.
Between Nature and Culture, on the one hand, and Fashion and Commerce, on the other, lie two key layers: Governance and Infrastructure. The former right now is largely immobile, from many points of view; the U.S. Congress is unlikely anytime soon to interfere with the three-tiered system, while the Courts likewise have not shown that they’re particularly eager to take up the issue (despite the 2005 Granholm v. Heald decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has resulted in hardly any change, and was in any case a 5-4 vote that could have gone either way).
That leaves Infrastructure as the sole remaining hope for upsetting if not ending the three-tiered system. A nation of consumers that has happily embraced the Internet, with its notions of untaxed online transactions, net neutrality and infinite choice, may decide on its own that it does not want its shopping decisions hampered in any way, by Governance, by Commerce or anything else. As the Infrastructure of online commerce develops in ways that are completely unpredictable, we can be sure of this: The arc bends towards freedom. That is not a good sign for a confusing, paperwork-swamped system that currently restricts what and how people can buy.
I love this article by Karen MacNeil in the latest issue of The Tasting Panel on “Somms and Salespeople.”
I don’t think I would particularly have cared about the topic when I was a wine critic, but now that I work for Jackson Family Wines and have hung out with sales people (I’m what they aptly call a “ridealong”), the article resonated with me. For I’ve seen, up close and personal, how “the relationship between sommeliers and the reps who sell them wine…is often fraught with tension.”
As the somms whom Karen interviewed point out, they have quite a few “pet peeves” when it comes to salespeople. I wish, though, that Karen had asked salespeople what they think of somms! From my experiences, I’ve seen somms treat salespeople with haughtiness and even dismissiveness. “Rudely,” as my southern-born mother would have said.
We all work in a very small world, those of us in the California wine business. And I’ve always believed that there should be no room for negativity or animosity. I’ve seen bad attitudes from winemakers toward wine critics, from wine critics toward winemakers, from wine writers toward each other, from small wineries toward big wineries, and so on. I’ve tried to avoid such stuff. Why can’t we all get along?
Look, somms depend on salespeople for their business. And just because a sommelier is “more educated” (an arguable point) than a wine salesperson is no reason for them to take a superior attitude. Didn’t we all learn in kindergarten to get along with each other—to be nice and polite and treat others as we would have them treat us?
Reading the somm quotes in Karen’s article, I can sympathize with some of their peeves. Certainly, people shouldn’t be late for appointments if they can help it. And I can see why a busy somm would object to a cold call—somebody stopping by who didn’t even bother to make an appointment.
I can also see why some of the somms would complain about salespeople not knowing very much about the wines they’re selling! I don’t believe that’s a problem at Jackson Family Wines, because our sales force is highly trained. But, on the other hand, it’s probably impossible for a salesperson to know as much about wine in general as a sommelier, so I would hope that somms would temper their expectations. If I have a tip for salespeople, it’s to be sensitive to the somm you’re with. If you detect that they’re not really into a conversation about the terroir of the wine you’re selling, or its acidity and sugar level, then don’t go there.
In the end, I have great sympathy and empathy for salespeople. They have what is perhaps the toughest job in the wine business. They’re road warriors who spend half their lives in cars or on planes, schlepping from account to account even when they’re tired and not feeling so good. Selling is difficult; you have to have a certain calling for it, and also have a high tolerance for rejection. And you always have to keep that smile on your face—a rule that apparently doesn’t apply to somms in the sales interaction. (But somms do have to keep that smile on the dining room floor, where they may encounter rude, supercilious people. So I’d remind somms to think of their own experiences when they’re tempted to be haughty with a salesperson.)
To all the somms out there—and I love you all—I say, be nice to your salespeople. If you have a problem with one, explain it. Try to realize that, just like you, the salesperson has a job to do. We’re all in this together, so we might as well make life as pleasant as it can be for each other.