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Scores, stores and wineries: a new analysis

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Every day, I get blast email advertisements from wineries or wine stores touting the latest 90-plus point score from Suckling, Parker, Vinous or some other esteemed critic. Here’s an example that came in on Saturday: I’m reproducing everything except the actual winery/wine.

_____ Winery’s ____ Napa Red Wine 2013 Rated 92JS.

Notice how the “92JS” is printed in the same font type and size as the name of the winery and wine. That assigns them equal importance; the rating and critic are virtually part of the brand. Later in the ad, they have the full “James Suckling Review” followed by a full “Wine Spectator Review” [of 90 points]. This is followed by the winery’s own “Wine Tasting Notes,” which by and large echo Spectator’s and Suckling’s descriptions.

Built along similar lines was a recent email ad for a certain Brunello: The headline was “2011 ____ Brunello di Montalcino DOCG”; immediately beneath is (in slightly smaller point size), “94 Points Vinous / Antonio Galloni.”

We can see that, in these headline and sub-heads, through physical proximity on the page or screen, the ads’ creators have linked the name of the winery and the wine to the name of the famous critic and his point score. One of the central tenets of advertising is to get the most important part of the message across immediately and strongly. (This is why so many T.V. commercials begin with the advertiser’s name—you hear and see it before you can change the channel or click the “mute” button.) In like fashion, most of us will quickly read a headline (even if we don’t want to) before skipping the rest of the ad. The headline thus stays in the brain: “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score.” That’s really all the winery or wine store wants you to retain. They don’t expect you to read the entire ad, or to immediately buy the wine based on the headline. They do expect that the “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score” information will stay embedded in your brain cells, which will make you more likely to buy the wine the next time you’re looking for something, or at least have a favorable view of it.

This reliance of wineries and wine stores on famous critics’ reviews and scores is as strong as ever. There has been a well-publicized revolt against it by sommeliers and bloggers, but their resistance has all the power of a wet noodle. You might as well thrash against the storm; it does no good. The dominance of the famous wine critic is so ensconced in this country (and throughout large parts of Asia) that it shows no signs of being undermined anytime soon. You can regret it; you can rant against it; you can list all the reasons why it’s unhealthy, but you can’t change the facts.

Wineries are complicit in this phenomenon; they are co-dependents in this 12-Step addiction to critics. Wineries, of course, live and die by the same sword: A bad review is not helpful, but wineries will never publish a bad review. They assume (rightly) that bad reviews will quickly be swept away by the never-ending tsunami of information swamping consumers.

Which brings us back to 90-point scores. They’re everywhere. You can call it score inflation, you can argue that winemaking quality is higher, or that vintages are better, but for whatever reason, 90-plus points is more common than ever. Ninety is the new 87. Wineries love a score of 90, but I’ve heard that sometimes they’re disappointed they didn’t get 93, 94 or higher. Even 95 points has been lessened by its ubiquity.

Hosemaster lampooned this, likening 100-point scores to Oprah Winfrey giving out cars to the studio audience on her T.V. show. (“You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car! And YOU get a car! Everybody gets a car!”) Why does this sort of thing happen? Enquiring minds want to know. In legalese, one must ask, “Cui bono?”—Who benefits? In Oprah’s case, she’s not paying for the cars herself; they’re provided by the manufacturers, who presumably take a tax writeoff. It’s a win-win-win situation for Oprah, the automakers and the audience.

Cui bono when it comes to high scores? The wineries, of course, and the wine stores that sell their wines (and put together the email blast advertisements). And what of the critics?

Step into the tall weeds with me, reader. A wine critic who gives a wine a high score gets something no money can buy: exposure. His name goes out on all those email blast advertisements (and other forms of marketing). That name is seen by tens of thousands of people, thereby making the famous wine critic more famous than ever. Just as the wine is linked to the critic in the headline, the critic’s name is linked to the 90-plus wine; both are meta-branded. (It’s the same thing as when politicians running for public office vie for the endorsement of famous Hollywood stars, rock stars and sports figures: the halo effect of fame and glamor by association.) There therefore is motive on the part of critics to amplify their point scores.

But motive alone does not prove a case nor make anyone guilty. We cannot impute venality to this current rash of high scores; we can merely take note of it. Notice also that the high scores are coming from older critics. Palates do, in fact, change over the years. Perhaps there’s something about a mature palate that is easier to please than a beginner’s palate. Perhaps older critics aren’t as angry, fussy or nit-picky about wine as younger ones; or as ambitious. They’re more apt to look for sheer pleasure and less apt to look for the slightest perceived imperfection. With age comes mellowness; mellowness is more likely to smile upon the world than to criticize it.

Anyhow, it is passing strange to see how intertwined the worlds of wineries, wine stores and wine critics have become. Like triple stars caught in each others’ orbits, they gyre and gimble in the wabe, in a weird but strangely fascinating pas de trois that, for the moment at least, shows no signs of abating.


Why wine is cool

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Years ago, during the heyday of Sex and the City, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a spoof piece on what “the girls” would be doing if they lived in the “cool gray city of love.” Samantha, you’ll recall, had her own high-end P.R. firm in Manhattan, where she represented restaurants, celebrities, clubs and so on.

In San Francisco, the Chronicle’s writer determined, Samantha would still be in P.R.—only it would be winery public relations. When I read that, I remember thinking that wine had finally and definitely come to dominate the zeitgeist. It was the cool-hot thing to do, the field everybody wanted to work in, whether in PR, writing or production.

(Sidebar: When I started out, nobody, but nobody, wanted to be a wine writer. I sometimes wonder, if I was beginning my career today instead of in 1989, if I’d even be able to get a writing job at a magazine, much less Wine Spectator. The field has become that competitive.)

Wine remains a highly coveted field for young people to work in, maybe hotter than ever, according to this article in the drinks business, which claims that winemaking and beer brewing are “among top dream jobs” for young people just starting their careers or thinking of changing. (The study was done in Britain, but there’s no reason not to think attitudes here in America are any different.)

So desirable are these winemaking and beer-making jobs that over a third (35%) of people said they would consider quitting their job to re-train in their chosen profession – regardless of money.” That’s good, because these types of jobs typically don’t make a ton of money. Funnily enough, Security guards (95%), IT consultants (91%) and accountants (87%) were by far the most eager to pack in the typical 9-to-5 and take up a craft career” such as winemaking.

I know people in both the wine industry and craft brewing, and most of them seem to be very happy. It’s true that the pressures can be difficult, but the joy seems to outweigh any of the inconveniences (such as basically having your normal life put on hold during crush). When I look back over my years in the wine biz, despite all the bitching and stress I went through (or put myself through), I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to do what I have. Coming up through the Golden Age of wine in America—the boutique era, the rise of the wine print media, the enormous popularity of wine (and beer), and the emergence of social media—has been a privilege, and also a great opportunity to see history being made, close-up, and perhaps to have been a tiny part of it. No wonder people want to work in this industry.

Have a wonderful weekend.


Are Millennials killing CA wine? NY Post says for sure

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The New York Post long has been famous for its outrageous headlines: “Obama Beats Weiner,” “A-Hole” (about A-Rod’s steroid scandal), “Cloak and Shag Her “ (the Gen. Petraeus love affair). Now they have this tasty little tag, “Millennials are ruining the American wine industry,” and if you don’t feel compelled to read the actual article, you’re not a real wino!

After all, Millennials have been perceived to be the holy grail of the wine industry for years. Every winery wants a piece of the Millennial action; nobody cares about Boomers anymore—we practically have one foot in the grave–it’s all about the generation born between the early 1980s to about 2001, who within ten years will be “the largest fine wine consumer demographic in the U.S.”

So why are they suddenly villains?

Because “We’re training Millennials to drink foreign wine,” explains Rob McMillan, one of the best-known wine economic forecasters in California. The “We,” in this case, seems to be the collective industry, including media and Internet-based retailers, who apparently have convinced 30-somethings that wines from abroad are better buys than domestic wines. “[H]ow do we brand American wines?” McMillan asks. “We have to be able to say something more than price.”

What would that “more” be, besides an ineffective appeal to patriotism? Not clear. McMillan’s full report, the Silicon Valley Bank State of the Wine Industry 2016, details the major factors impacting Millennials’ economic and cultural outlook: “the digital world,” of course; “the Great Recession,” and a generally bleak outlook concerning their future prospects. Millennials do “not have the same financial environment to push [wine] spending compared to the baby boomer and Gen X cohorts.” They are “more value conscious [and] greener than Baby Boomers,” facing “significant headwinds” in their ability to spend money. They also, unfortunately from a winery point of view, “are inclined to substitute craft beer and spirits for wine.” Nonetheless, and despite this dreary prospect, McMillan writes, Millennials “are the future fine wine consumers.”

So what’s a wine marketer to do?

Well, the report doesn’t come right out and make “do this” reccos. But reading between the lines, there are some things wineries can to do take advantage of certain Millennial trends. One is to experiment with “blends” rather than varietals, and this is a trend I think is here to stay. Another is to be very cognizant of label design; Millennials “select a wine based on its label…they look for personality and originality.” The report also cites a study suggesting that Millennials “prefer fruity or semi-sweet wines,” which no doubt explains the success of something like Meiomi; but the report also acknowledges that, as they mature, Millennials, like their baby boomer predecessors, are likely to “migrate to wine that [is] more complex” and, presumably, drier. And, of course, Millennials also are prime targets for direct-to-consumer sales, which have been sharply up over traditional retail outlets this past year.

All that aside, don’t look to the Silicon Valley report for a set list on how to increase sales to Millennials. No such list exists, nor can it. Every winery has to figure it out alone. The report ends on an up note: “we are quite confident the industry will find creative ways to overcome and succeed”; but this rah-rah will be of little relief to wineries struggling to figure out how to sell wine to the elusive, fickle, always unpredictable Millennial. And don’t blame the Millennials. They’re just doing their thing, as do we all.


When generational leadership changes at a winery

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The drinks business reported the other day, based on a 2013 interview, that Aubert de Villaine is “training [his] nephew, Bertrand,” to take over the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. That must surely have caused some to wonder if Burgundy’s most famous winery will still be the same when Aubert is gone.

My 2 cents: I doubt, actually, that the change will have any impact on DRC’s quality, reputation or price. Bertrand has worked alongside his uncle for years; the de Villaines have been preparing people for a long time. This entry, from French Wikipedia, states that, as long ago as 2009, Aubert “presented his nephew Bertrand” as his “futur successeur.” Two years later (2011), the online magazine for American Express reported, “[P]eople are watching closely as [Aubert] grooms his 40-year-old nephew, Bertrand de Villaine, to take over.”

 In other words, many times, over several years, the de Villaines have prepared people for the changeover. One certainly can appreciate, in retrospect, with what careful choreography the family has rolled out the succession, fully understanding that collectors invariably get nervous when something changes at their favorite winery: the loss of a prized vineyard, a buy-out, a change in barrel regime, financial difficulties, all these can be major causes of worry. But a change in top management, with its commanding vision of winemaking style and technique, is perhaps the most concerning, and surely prompts people to “watch closely,” especially when the wines are among the most prestigious and coveted in the world.

I can think of few things that are as emotionally fragile than the connection people have with a favorite winery. You may own a stock: it goes up and down: you ride with the tide. With a winery, as soon as the perception hits that it’s changed for the worse, it’s almost impossible for the proprietor to correct course. So many things can go wrong and derange the winery-consumer relationship. Think of all the products that have had to go into damage control, not because their quality actually suffered, but because doubt had been strewn in consumers’ minds. And when it comes to succession at wineries, things don’t always go smoothly. The classic example here in America is, of course, the case of Robert Mondavi Winery, where the succession—let’s face it—was a disaster. This is not to say that anyone did anything wrong, just that somehow misperceptions were allowed to spread, which led to actual impacts on sales, and the next thing you know, the Mondavis are out and Constellation is in.

I could cite many other examples of failed successions. Napa Valley alone is strewn with the remnants of once-great wineries that slipped after their founders ceded control. What are the lessons to be learned, then, concerning succession, for wineries that wish to remain vital for generations? One is to make sure than someone—a son or daughter, a nephew, anyone close to the family—is ready, willing and able to step in when the time comes. Second, the family has to thoroughly saturate the future leader in best practices; even the greatest winemaker, if she takes over the helm of a great winery on short notice, will require a period of time, usually measured in years, to get up to speed. A young family member who’s been working alongside the father all his life can much more easily step into dad’s shoes.

Finally, the older generation has to prepare the general public well in advance of the coming shift, not spring an overnight surprise on them. Wine consumers do not like surprises. As we’ve seen, this careful fore-warning is something the de Villaines accomplished with superb finesse and timing, which is why nobody is going to worry about DRC’s future under Bertrand’s leadership.


Does DTC mean the death of the wine store?

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Yesterday’s big new from ShipCompliant that direct to consumer wine sales grew four times faster than sales from traditional wine retailers is quite stunning. If you project the rate of increase out into the future, you can easily foresee a time when the DTC sales line crosses the retail sales line, eclipsing it. And the sooner the pesky states that currently do not allow direct shipping come around and enter the 21st century, the faster DTC will become the default mechanism by which consumers buy most of their wine. I’m talking to you, Alabama, Delaware, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Utah. There’s hope they may actually come around: Last year, South Dakota finally allowed direct shipping of wine.

Will DTC really be the next big thing? I mean, everybody talks about it as the Holy Grail, but let’s face it, there are difficulties. For one, consumers have to pay the added cost of shipping in DTC, which they may be reluctant to do on all but expensive bottles—the kinds of wines they buy for gifts, to impress somebody, to cellar, and other special purposes. They’re not going to buy, say, a $10 bottle direct from the winery, then pay for freight. As Forbes Magazine recently pointed out, “Shipping is the top deterrent to buying wine online.”

Another reason why DTC may prove to have its limits is because consumers seem to enjoy the browsing experience that off-premise stores allow them. I do. I like to look at bottles, pick them up, read the front and back labels, talk to the floor staff (at least, in a decent wine store) and maybe even check out a few reviews on my smart phone if I have the time.

Leaving those concerns aside, the big shipping companies are eagerly trying to grab their fair share of what they perceive as a booming DTC market. GSO hopes to compete with FedEx and UPS by pitching itself as the DTC wine shipper of choice; they just presented their Select Wine Delivery Service at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.

At any rate, wine stores don’t have much to fear from DTC at this moment, but they’re going to have to figure out ways to make themselves more relevant over the coming years. One way to do it is for the wine store to become the direct shipper, not the winery itself. This is the position taken by the National Association of Wine Retailers.

But is “retailer direct shipping” the same as “winery direct shipping”? In both, the consumer ends up with the same bottle of wine. But wine consumers who buy direct from wineries tend to have a greater emotional attachment to the wine than they do if they buy from stores, and this is why the Holiest of the Holy Grail for wineries is to form a personal relationship with the customer, a relationship they hope will last for a long time.

Anyhow, it’s great to witness this growth of DTC. It’s too bad that, for so long, the anti-alcohol, anti-common sense forces in this country have had so much sway over what Americans can drink and how they can buy it. That is so unconstitutional, so contrary to our value, so inimical to the free market system, it deserves to be buried once and for all.


Fred Franzia largely got it right

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I’m largely in agreement with Fred Franzia when he defends the Central Valley and “California”-appellated wine, as he did the other day when he presented the keynote address at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.

Fred’s affection for the Central Valley comes naturally: he runs Bronco Wine Co., whose scores of brands, including Two Buck Chuck, are based on Central Valley fruit. Fred’s point, if I understand it correctly, seems premised on two things, one explicit, the other implicit.

The explicit point is that wine production in the Central Valley could be greatly increased, offering consumers greater opportunities to buy inexpensive wine, as well as for restaurants to sell bottles for $10 each. This latter point is something Fred’s long called for.

As a diner myself, I wouldn’t mind $10 bottles of wine in restaurants, where a bottle can frequently exceed the cost of the food itself. Indeed, everyone I know who isn’t rich—and that’s most people I know—sees expensive wine as the single biggest hassle of eating out. So I’m all onboard the Fred Franzia train on this one.

Fred’s implicit point, or so it seems to me knowing the man a little and reading between the lines, is that there long has existed a certain disrespect and dismissiveness towards California-appellated wine on the part of the establishment: sommeliers, high-end restaurateurs, certain wine critics and, through trickle-down, some consumers. According to this crowd—and I think Fred is sensitive to their attitudes—if the grapes come from the Central Valley then they wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

Actually, the way I see the Central Valley is as California’s Midi. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Midi is the vast, sprawling region of southern France that produces oceans of vin de pays wine that is inexpensive and quaffable. These are the kinds of wines I personally drank and immensely enjoyed in the 1980s, when I was a broke grad student living in San Francisco. And such wines can be, as Hugh Johnson reminds us, “charming trinkets.”

I’ve long given Fred and Bronco immense credit for allowing Americans the opportunity to drink affordable wines on an everyday basis. I, personally, never turned up my critic’s nose at his brands, to which I gave dozens of “Best Buys” over my years at Wine Enthusiast. So I think Fred has the right to feel a bit of righteous indignation at what he perceives are the snubs and slams he sometimes endures.

I do differ, though, with his statement, reported in the Modesto Bee, that “’California’ should be the one and only appellation for our home-grown, best-quality wines.” That’s stretching things a bit. The best table wines in California come from the coast, where weather conditions are more compatible with the nobler varieties of vitis vinifera. Winemakers back to the Greeks and Romans understood the importance of proper terroir, and so too did the Holy Roman Emperors and the monks who planted the great vineyards of Europe. When Charlemagne noticed the snow melting early on a certain slope in Corton and ordered grapes to be planted there, he acknowledged how vital mini-terroir conditions were for wine quality. When the Duke of Burgundy banished the “very evil and very disloyal” Gamay grape from growing in his kingdom of Burgundy, he too testified to aspirations for a higher union of grape variety and local terroir. And when Andre Tchelistcheff turned to the Carneros, not Napa Valley, to grow Pinot Noir, it was because The Maestro understood that Pinot Noir had to be planted in what he called “my North Pole,” Carneros, “because it’s cooler” (a realization Louis Martini also experienced).

I just think that not all wines are created equal, and that the Central Valley does not produce wines of the quality of the coast. But I recognize that reasonable people can disagree. Still, the fact is that Fred Franzia has a knack for saying things that drive the elitists crazy, and I like him for that. The Modesto Bee article reported that, at the conclusion of his keynote, The speech drew a standing ovation…”. I suspect that was because, no matter what you say or think about Fred Franzia, the industry understands he’s been good for it. Very good.


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