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Vintage 2014, and California declares war on small wineries

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With the first (light) rain of the season expected tomorrow (today, as you read this) north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought it was a good time to consider the 2014 vintage in California. So, as usual, I asked my loyal Facebook friends, who responded in force.

The story is this: short, compressed harvest. Record early, in many cases a month before normal. (This means that Autumn rains should not be a problem. If they actually come, which everyone is hoping they will.) A good crop, tonnage-wise, not a record, but then, it comes on the heels of two record-setting years (2012, 2013).

Quality? Overall, pretty good. The wines should be plump and approachable. Several people commented on soft acids, but that can be corrected in the winery. On the other hand, others remarked about high acidity, which also can be corrected, partially, through the malolactic fermentation. The exceptional drought has resulted in small berries but that should make for intense flavors.

Potential problems? Smoke taint tops the list. The Sierra Foothills have been hit heavy by wildfires. So has the extreme North Coast, but that smoke drifts down to the south. A second potential issue is that the warmth, combined with the drought, has resulted in fairly high sugars, especially in reds, but true phenolic ripeness lags a bit behind. I wouldn’t call this a statewide problem but it could result in some structural and balance problems. In a few cases, the crush rush could be a challenge for vintners running out of cellar space.

Several respondents commented on the inverted order of picking, with Cabernet coming in earlier than Pinot and some of the whites, a situation that has vintners scratching their heads, and which may be due to the drought.

Overall, the mood among vintners is positive. I’d call 2014 the third year in a row where there’s more cause to celebrate.

* * *

I must say I find this story disturbing. In brief, the State of California has fined a local winery for using volunteers. Seems the winery didn’t pay them wages, or worker’s comp, so Sacramento has cracked down with a fine so heavy, it looks like it will put this little family winery, in business since 1986, out of business.

The story was so preposterous, I called the winery to see if it’s true. I spoke with Westover Winery’s owner, Bill Smyth, who confirmed it. “The State is out of control,” he told me. What will happen now? “We’ll go out of business, 900 of our club members and thousands of customers will lose, and wineries all over California will be devastated.” Bill contacted his state assemblyman, who’s calling for hearings to “do something,” Bill says. But what exactly can be done isn’t clear.

What were the volunteers doing? “The same things as they do at all other wineries: work behind the bar, making wine,” Bill says. They’re friends of the winery who loved participating.

I’ve volunteered at wineries. I’ve punched down, cleaned tanks and worked in the vineyard, and enjoyed and learned from it. There’s something seriously wrong with this development. I hope things work out for Bill Smyth, and I hope that the California Legislature changes the law to allow volunteers to work at wineries. And how about Wine Institute? Guys, it’s time for you to use your clout in the State Capitol.


A tale of two bars: dives and tasting rooms

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1. Is the dive bar doomed?

I have two images in my head of the classic American dive bar. One is from the movies, where so many scenes of intrigue, drama and violence have occurred in them. I think of the Silver Bullet, the bar in Thelma and Louise, for example, with its country & western band, pool table and cowboy drifters chugging beer from the bottle. (You’d never order wine in such a place!)

The other image I have is from my own past. There used to be a place in San Francisco, South of Market, in Clementina Alley, which in the Eighties was not the yuppified haven it is now. It was called, for a variety of reasons, the Headquarters. On any given night you’d have drag queens and businessmen, Pacific Heights doyennes and dudes in leather chaps, hippies and hustlers and young straight couples out slumming, all playing pool or darts, or dancing on the postage stamp-sized dance floor to Blondie’s Rapture. I once brought Marilyn, who found it amusing, but, on emerging from the rest room, remarked that she should have brought her hip boots. That was the Diviest. Dive. Bar. Ever.

The dive bar played a role in America’s mythic development. The old saloons of the Wild West were dive bars, and so were the shadowy joints of film noir, if we go by Wikipedia’s definition: “Dive bars:disreputable, sinister, or even a detriment to the community.” Or, in Playboy’s view, “A church for down-and-outers and those who romanticize them, a rare place where high and low rub elbows—bums and poets, thieves and slumming celebrities. It’s a place that wears its history proudly.”

Yet last Friday’s San Francisco Chronicle headlined on its front page, “In boom time for booze joints, is it dive bar’s last call?” (The online version is headlined “Is it last call for dive bars in San Francisco?”) It seems that with rising rents and shifting demographics, dive bars are an endangered species, especially in neighborhoods like The Mission, SOMA and even to some extent the Tenderloin, that used to be their strongholds. I frankly doubt that the dive bar will go the way of the dodo bird, but the situation in San Francisco does bring to the fore a certain gentrification process that seems to be hitting many of our cities. Old-fashioned dives are turning into fancy little cocktail bars; bartenders are being replaced by tattooed “mixologists” for whom an appearance in The Tasting Panel is their Red Carpet; whiskey rocks has morphed into elaborate concoctions of flavored spirits, sweet liqueurs, bitters, candied fruits and sugar. Dashiell Hammett is turning in his grave. For that matter, so is Herb Caen.

* * *

2. My gig at K-J’s tasting room bar

When I gave a little talk to the Kendall-Jackson tasting room staff a while back, and I told them I’d never worked a tasting room, they very kindly invited me to work in theirs! I thought it was a splendid idea, so we made a date, and on Saturday I drove up and did a six-hour stint.

I was as nervous as an opening night understudy as I “went on” but the truth is, there was nothing to be scared of. I quickly learned that all you have to do is be yourself. And since I’m a pretty sociable guy, I had lots of great conversations, always including but not necessarily exclusively about wine.

The visitors are from all over the place, America as well as abroad, but the main thing they had in common was that they’re happy to be in wine country, at a winery they like, on a beautiful summer day. When you’re with happy people it rubs off. I met a Dad from Atlanta who was taking his daughter on a tour of California after she graduated college. I met a surgeon from U.C. San Francisco Medical Center and his wife and baby. I met a pair of chiropractors who told me about nervous system health. There were several folks from my home town of Oakland—even from my neighborhood. I met a family of Cuban-Americans from Miami who love wine and cigars. There was a woman from Canada and a young couple from Silicon Valley. And on and on. People have such amazing stories. Wine-wise, they all have different tastes, of course. Some only like sweeter wines, like Muscat Canelli. Some don’t like Pinot Noir, some shy away from Cabernet Sauvignon. G-S-M is new to almost all of them. Most are eager to learn, and of course one does one’s best to share information with them in a respectful manner. It being a Saturday, in this last gasp of summer, the tasting room was very crowded..

One thing I noticed is that sometimes people are shy about asking questions about wine. You don’t want to lecture them in a high-handed way; you want to respect their privacy and personal space. So it’s a balancing act: you infer when it’s appropriate to talk about the wine and, if so, to what degree. With most of the people, I found that even the reticent ones opened up once the conversation got flowing, and then their wine questions and observations came out. As I’ve always instinctively known, but have to constantly remind myself, there are no dumb questions about wine.

KJWEG


Tales from Content City, or How I Learned to be a Storyteller

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I seem to have established the reputation as someone who knows a thing or two about “content marketing.” We’ll get to a definition of that in a moment, but first, two examples of how that view has attached itself to me.

In the last two days, I’ve been invited to participate in events by two organizations: The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium wants me to moderate a panel called “Content is King: How to Craft and Share Stories that Stand Out.” The other one is from The Exchange, a Nomacorc effort that holds forums on various aspects of marketing, to speak at a Yountville event called “The Art of Storytelling: How wine brands can become both top of mind and center of heart.”

Storytelling. As words go, it’s a marketing neologism (it used to be two words), but the history and myth of storytelling is as old as humankind. I think of shamans telling epic tales of olden times to small groupings of people, clustered in a cave around a fire ten thousand years ago. Aesop was a storyteller; so were Virgil and Homer. After the written tradition took hold, storytelling often found its way onto the page and, eventually, onto the big and small screens. For how else are we to describe the films of (for instance) Steven Spielberg or T.V. programs like The Sopranos except as modern versions of the ancient practice of storytelling? But whether written, projected, broadcast or told, they’re all still stories.

Why we humans should like and need to hear stories has been the stuff of scholarly analysis. Children love fairy tales, which are a part of how our species passes on precious knowledge, often of a moral nature, through the generations. Why adults love stories is harder to define. They take us away from our daily woes and cares; they entertain, enchant and occasionally inform; and humans are, after all, curious and social creatures. From our positions in life we like learning about faraway places to which we may never go, in the physical form; but a good story is transportive. Stories appeal to the imagination, without which life would be unbearable.

* * *

Individuals have always sold things, and one imagines that stories always have accompanied that old practice. Perhaps the camel dealer in ancient Carthage had a story about a particular beast of burden known to go further, faster, on less water than others, and with a sweeter nature, too; that was his sales story. In the eighteenth century sprang the seeds of modern advertising, with billboards and hawkers informing us of the virtues of individual taverns and silversmiths. The twentieth century of course witnessed advertising grow into a planetary behemoth; in 2012, global advertising spending amounted to $542 billion U.S. dollars.

Since advertising is simply storytelling, there’s little wonder that wineries want their stories told, too. The assumption is that having a good story is good for sales. Why this should be so—what the precise connection is between a winery telling its story and the consumer buying its wine—is a little obscure. As with many other areas of soft science, there are some assumptions going on, mixed with anecdotal information. For example, companies pay huge amounts of money to advertise—tell their stories—on the Super Bowl, on the assumption that it will result in increased sales. The evidence is mixed: Some studies suggest that this simply isn’t the case. Yet Cheerios, Audi, Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Microsoft are some of the most successful companies of all time, and one thing they have in common is that they advertise on the Super Bowl. So even though the final proof of the success of any particular ad can’t be determined with the rigor of a mathematical equation, enough CEOs believe strongly enough in the ROI of advertising for them to devote considerable sums of money.

I did not set out to be an expert on storytelling (if in fact that’s what I am). I set out to be a wine writer and critic. Telling stories didn’t seem to be a part of my job, but looking back, in retrospect, that’s what I was doing from Day One. It’s just that the concept and terminology of telling stories didn’t invade the wine industry until comparatively recently. Yet when I wrote about the early history of Napa Valley, or how the Russian River was born, or how Bill Harlan came about being a winery owner, or how Boz Scaggs ended up with a winery on Mount Veeder, or how Francis Ford Coppola gambled his Godfather money on Rubicon, or how the Talleys of the Arroyo Grande Valley decided that winegrapes, not row crops, were the path to the future, or how Gary Pisoni let other wineries establish the fame of his vineyard before starting his own brand, or how Ehren Jordan cleared his land in the remote wilds of Fort Ross with his own hands—what are these besides stories, tales, adventures, myths, movies in the mind?

Which brings us to “content marketing.” I don’t know when this rather inelegant term arose. Probably fairly recently, I would think. It sounds modernish and scientifikky, but it really isn’t. It’s just one of those neologisms, like B2B and social media, that describes phenomena whose antecedents have long existed. And of course, like all other forms of marketing, there now exist scores of content-marketing consulting businesses making claims like “marketing is impossible without great content” and “content marketing is educating people so that they know, like, and trust you enough to do business with you.”

Well, this latter formulation is pretty spot-on. Wine companies want people to like and trust them, just as the producers of other commodities do. I like and trust Whole Foods, so I shop there even though they’re expensive. But I’ve come to absorb the Whole Foods story enough so that I’m willing to pay the premium for that positive experience (which is reinforced every time I shop there). Yet storytelling can exist at any price point, for any product.

Why storytelling should have become the huge 800 pound gorilla in the wine business it now has, is explainable by looking at the market in our 21st century. It’s a cliché, but true, that competition never has been fiercer. I hear the tales of road warriors out there on the blood-soaked sales trail, with hard-nosed buyers demanding $3 less per case and some competitor always willing to give it to them. It doesn’t matter if you’re Harlan or Fred Franzia or anybody inbetween, you’re looking for that extra edge. And that’s what stories give you.

Then too, stories never have been easier to tell. With the press of a “send” or “publish” button, a storyteller can send her tale across the entire face of the planet—and beyond, into the endless reaches of interstellar space. Given that ease, it’s a wonder why the wine industry, taken as a whole, was relatively slow to get into social media, blogging and all the rest. I always attributed that to the fact that winery owners tended to be older types who didn’t understand computers and were in fact intimidated by them. But they’re catching on now, with a vengeance (or they’re hiring young people to do it for them).

Where all this is going, I don’t know. Since I like writing and telling stories, it’s good for me. It can’t hurt a wine company to have its stories told. Telling its story, though, can be only one part of the marketing mix—but it’s a vital part, a lung or kidney, if you will, not the whole organism, but without which the being would have a hard time getting on.

And finally, this: if the storyteller doesn’t have credibility, neither does the story. In fact, the storyteller and the story are inextricably linked. This is why star athletes get fired from their pitchman gigs if they’re caught in scandals. Their stories haven’t changed; but their credibility and likeability have eroded to the point that they’re rendered functionally useless. As people turn against them, personally, they turn into the wrong messengers.

By the way, storytelling works when you’re tasting wine with others, too. I’ve long been a steadfast defender of tasting wine blind to get to its root worth—but there’s clearly much more to the winetasting experience than merely what happens in your mouth. Your conscious thinking is involved, too, which is why some winemakers will allow critics to taste only in their presence, at the winery. They want to get their story across. We will never, ever, all agree on the best way for critics to taste—openly, closed, single- or double-blind, at home, at a winery—but that is not to take away from the value of telling a story that’s real, credible and compelling.


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!


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