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Has Yellow Tail hurt Australia’s reputation?

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I’ve never had Yellow Tail, I’ve never slammed it, but nonetheless I was intrigued by this article about how John Casella, whose Casella Wines produces Yellow Tail, “slammed critics who blame his winery’s Yellow Tail label for undermining premium wine sales abroad.”

Not identified in the article was just who those critics are, but perhaps this four-year old article from Slate is indicative of them. “[W]hat was good for Yellow Tail wasn’t so great for the Australian wines as a whole,” it argues, adding that “consumers came to equate Australia with wines that were flavorful but also cheap and frivolous.”

Mr. Casella takes this theory head-on and counters with a strong argument: “Is Barefoot…destroying the image of American wine?” he asks, logically, concerning the top-selling wine in the U.S. (Yellow Tail is number two.) The answer, obviously, is no, Barefoot is not harming anything. Mr. Casella hits the nail squarely on the head when he asserts that Yellow Tail is “supplying one end of the market that has one type of consumer.” That type of consumer clearly is the value-oriented person who wants a sound varietal wine, at a fair price, which is exactly what Yellow Tail offers.

I’ve never understood this argument that low-priced wine drags down the reputation of its region. That’s just dumb. We have something called market segmentation in wine, as in clothing, cars and just about every other consumer good and service; that’s the way economies work, particularly in complex societies. Nobody ever suggested that a Chevy Aveo was dragging down Cadillac’s reputation, simply because both cars are manufactured by General Motors. Similarly, nobody ever said that Two-Buck Chuck was harming the reputation of California wine. (And by the way, oceans of plonk certainly didn’t interfere with France’s reputation for fine wine.)

I’ve long been a proponent of cheap wine. It allows people of modest means to drink wine (which I believe is in and of itself a good thing, since wine has a civilizing effect on humankind). Throughout all of history, people have had a need for inexpensive wine, and producers like Yellow Tail, Barefoot and Two-Buck Chuck fulfill that market niche with professionalism and aplomb.

Now, it may well be that some Americans viewed Australia through the lens of Yellow Tail (or other low-priced brands that flooded the U.S.). But that’s not Yellow Tail’s fault: it’s the fault of wine educators, including writers, somms and merchants. It’s a big, complicated world out there; I think consumers are interested in learning more about imported wines, if only someone would give them the chance.

Incidentally, although I’ve never reviewed Yellow Tail, my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Joe Czerwinski, routinely does, and he’s given it lots of “Best Buys.” I have a feeling I would, too, if I covered the wines of Australia. So I give credit to Yellow Tail.


Where are the Faces?

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In the 1950 movie, Sunset Boulevard, a slightly gaga Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond, an aging Hollywood movie star past her sell-by date, sits in the gloom of her mansion’s movie room watching old silent films of herself with her employee, played by William Holden, who tries to pretend he’s not freaked out by his boss’s increasing dottiness. At one point, Norma’s dipsy stroll down memory lane bursts into an insane marathon.

“We didn’t need dialog, we had faces,” she muses, as Holden’s character squirms. “There just aren’t any faces like that anymore.” Then, she begins to shriek. “Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” [Here’s a clip of that great scene.]

“Where are the faces”? was the theme of a speech given last week by California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom. Speaking at the California Wine Summit, Gavin didn’t use that precise phrasing, but the absence of faces in promoting California wine was clearly what he meant by the lack of “high-profile personalities” to “project our image. I argue that there is now a vacuum of leadership and we as an industry need to reconcile that quickly.” 

It is demonstrably true that the California wine industry no longer has giants of the stature of Robert Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff, Jess Jackson and Ernest and Julio Gallo. These men were famous beyond their considerable achievements; indeed, they were “high-profile personalities,” as well known to millions of Americans as movie stars or sports heroes. They were Faces. It’s impossible to imagine California wine being what it is today if they hadn’t been here to promote it.

Do we have faces today? Some years ago, I speculated that Bill Harlan was emerging as a replacement in Napa Valley for Robert Mondavi (not that anyone ever could replace him). Bill was building up his winery empire and increasingly emerging from his relative seclusion to make himself available to the public via the media. But, for whatever reason, Bill changed tack. Perhaps sticking his toe in the water determined for him that this was not something he really wanted to do.

I know the California wine industry pretty thoroughly. When I ask myself, “Who are the modern faces,” some names arise. Peter Mondavi, Sr., Joseph E. Gallo and Mike Grgich remain actively at their posts. There also are many men and, thankfully now, women in their 50s and 60s who are carrying the torch forward; I wouldn’t begin to list them because I’d have to leave some names out. But I think it’s fair to say that no one alive today carries the sheer weight that our late, great giants did. So, in that sense, I have to agree with Gavin.

Could Gavin himself be the man? He’s pretty actively involved in all aspects of his wine business (the PlumpJack Hospitality Group). But he’s also a professional politician holding a fulltime job, and he may well have ambitions that would carry him considerably further than California’s Lieutenant Governorship. To be a Face in the wine industry pretty much requires a 24/7 commitment to your work, which is something that Gavin is not capable of at this time.

Why do we no longer have faces? Another speaker at the Summit, Wine Institute president and CEO Bobby Koch, observed, “It’s only natural that when you lose the pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Ernest Gallo or Joe Heitz you lose something important to our industry, and the next generation are not the founders so it is a bit different.” We tend to lionize founders and discoverers, the Christropher Columbuses who found new worlds. Those who follow in their footsteps may be equally accomplished, but may find themselves overshadowed by the giants.

Koch added, on a hopeful note, “We will see more of the second, third or fourth generation stepping up.” I have no doubt that that is happening now; from Santa Barbara to the Sierra Foothills, the kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids of pioneers are keeping the wine industry moving forward.

But I do wonder if California will ever again boast superstars, famous the world over, whose very names are household words that imply everything California wine has to offer. So if I conclude by asking, “Where are the faces?”, it’s not an accusation, it’s a lamentation.


Let’s hear it for emerging wine regions

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It’s gratifying to see such a well-written and informative article about Sonoma County written for a Chinese audience (albeit an English-speaking one?).

While there are some technical inaccuracies, writer Euan McKirdy largely got the details correct in her story, which was published yesterday in the South China Morning Post. (It’s funny that, there as well as here in the States, wine articles are relegated to the Lifestyle section. What’s that all about?)

We hear often about a certain naivete when it comes to Chinese comprehension of California wine; they are supposed to know the Big Names, and Napa Valley, of course, but in the conventional wisdom, the Chinese are woefully ignorant of the rest of California.

That may have been true in the past, and may still be the case among millions of Chinese emerging into the upper-middle classes. But McKirdy’s article proves that the level of journalism provided to Chinese wine lovers is on a rapid upward trajectory. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you know that Sonoma is not exactly an “emerging” premium wine region; it emerged some time ago. But these things are relative; it depends on your knowledge base. One person’s local wines are another’s emerging discoveries.

I Googled “emerging wine regions” and got interesting hits. From askmen, which seems to be an online pub for all things guy, I got this list: England, Brazil, Canada, Greece, Romania, Ukraine and Switzerland. A few years ago, another online pub, Food Republic, published this list of emerging wine regions: Istria (Croatia), Guerouanne (Morocco), Virginia, Montevideo (Uruguay) and Sopron (Hungary). I like the regional specificity. The International Business Times wrote an article called “Beyond Napa: The Best Emerging Wine Regions in America,” and on their list are Walla Walla, the Texas Hill Country, Traverse City (Michigan), Loudoun County (Virginia) and the North Fork of Long Island. That also is a very interesting list. I’d love to do comprehensive tastings of these regions, if only I had the time!

Are there any emerging wine regions in California? I don’t think so. We know which appellations do the best, which provide good value, etc. I don’t see anything out there just waiting to be discovered. Anyway, it’s wonderful that so many countries in the world are tinkering with wine. It’s also wonderful that consumers are getting interested in them, and writers are writing about them. The world is rapidly shrinking, which is good news and scary news: scary for wineries, because competition, already fierce, is only getting fiercer.


Telling a story? Some are better than others

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There’s long been this meme out there that “story telling” is the key to wine marketing and P.R. The theory goes that we humans are social critters who like hearing about each other. So wineries have been urged to “tell their stories.” This is why their newsletters and websites talk about the family dog, or the owners’ new grandchild, or the Mexican vineyard director who’s been with the winery for 23 years.

Stories are nice things, and I’m not saying that wineries shouldn’t tell them. But there’s always been something suspect about the theory that stories boost sales. The first fallacy is this: Since everybody has a story, if they’re all telling them, then they all cancel each out, resulting in a net effect of zero.

Are some stories inherently more interesting than others? I suppose so. I mean, human interest gravitates toward tales about redemption and struggle; the story of a blind winemaker is more touching than that of yet another multi-millionaire who decides to buy a lifestyle and then tells everybody about it in agonizingly pretentious detail. (“Bob and Mary tired of life in their Beverly Hills mansion, so they bought 120 acres on Pritchard Hill and…” Well, we’ve all heard versions of that one a little too often, haven’t we?)

Still, they story-telling myth persists. Yesterday, I got a blast email from a marketing company that contained this link to an article entitled “The Art and Power of Digital Storytelling.” It held some undeniable truths: “One of the most valuable skills any writer and content producer may have is the ability to tell a story. Good stories draw the audience in. Great stories make them care. And when people care, they share those stories—and keep coming back for more.”

Now, it’s hard to deny any of this. Humans sat around fires in caves tens of thousands of years ago listening to stories. Maybe the men folk described how one of them died while hunting this woolly Mammoth they were all eating now. Maybe a shaman told how the sun god jumped up onto the back of a turtle every morning, thereby assuring the continuity of life. Even today, a good story told ‘round the dinner table will get everyone laughing. And every Saturday or Sunday morning, in church or synagogue, a priest, minister or rabbi tells stories to enlighten and inspire.

It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly what I find so cynical or off-putting about using stories to sell products. It’s even more than that: it’s when consultants, who earn their living at this sort of stuff, tell their clients to use stories to sell products, and then hire them to do it. I like and respect P.R. and marketing, but when I see this sort of thing, it creeps me out. For example, in the above-cited article, one piece of advice the author gives is for story tellers to “Find the humanity at the center of a situation.” Now, speaking as a journalist, I can tell you that if you’re writing a story about someone, if there’s something intensely human at its core, that will make the story better. Indeed, it’s hardly worth writing otherwise. The other day, I was reading a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about inner-city teens who are managing to create lives for themselves despite the grinding poverty and fearsome crime rates of some of our cities. (I live in Oakland and this is of particular resonance to me.) There are some truly inspirational stories about kids, and the brave, committed mentors who are trying to help them.

But it’s a lot different telling a story about winery owners who, let’s face it, are usually affluent, haven’t particularly suffered, don’t have much inspiration to offer, and who, after all is said and done, are telling their stories in order to sell their wines! In fact, in the article, it says the author should ask himself or herself “What is the point of telling this story?” Good question. Is the point to sell wine? That’s not a very good reason to tell a story. Well, maybe it is, from the proprietor’s point of view, but it’s not a very good reason for anyone to read it, much less to “keep coming back for more.”

Incidentally, have you noticed a very important issue that’s been absent from this discussion? Quality. You can have the best story in the world, and if you’re making mediocre wine, nobody cares anyway, unless all they care about is a “story.”


How people buy wine: friends vs. scores

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I was pleased to read yesterday that Wine Enthusiast is considered to be one of the two most influential wine magazines in America.

That’s the result of a survey taken by respected veteran market analyst, John Gillespie, who runs Wine Opinions, which describes itself as “the only Internet research organization devoted exclusively to wine.” (John also is President of the Wine Market Council. You may not have heard of it, but it’s a hugely important wine industry trade group whose Board of Directors includes Michael Mondavi, my friend Xavier Barlier of Maisons Marques & Domaines, Mel Dick of Southern Wine & Spirits, and the publisher of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Adam Strum.)

There are several nuggets of interest buried in the Wine Opinions survey. Besides the obvious good news about Wine Enthusiast (which I don’t think is particularly surprising, as it’s been generally known in the industry for years), the other point John makes is that even more influential than any wine magazine or newsletter is “a wine knowledgeable friend” [or] sommelier.”

As an anecdotal example of this, John is quoted in the article as saying, “If you work at Binny’s [Beverage Depot] in Chicago and you have worked years to get [wine] certifications, and two people walk into your store and one leans into the other’s ear and says, ‘Buy that one,’ you’re finished. You can’t do your job. That must be frustrating.”

Indeed it must be. That’s the power of peer review, or word of mouth, whatever you want to call it. We all know that a friend’s recco is the strongest thing there is, particularly if the recommendee believes that the recommender knows what he’s talking about.

I do have a question, though. What percentage of wine do people buy based on a personal recommendation (from a friend or somm), as opposed to a score or review originally published in a magazine? I bet you it’s an extremely low percentage. I mean, Sure, if you walk into Binny’s with the guy in your office who’s known for his wine connoisseurship, and he tells you to buy bottle “x,” of course you’ll buy it, even if you see a bunch of shelf talkers touting 96 point wines, because he’s your friend, he means well, and his knowledge is far greater than yours.

But is every wine shopper accompanied by a trusted friend? I don’t think so. That’s not really how people shop. The way people really shop is to walk up and down the infamous Wall of Wine alone, trying to figure out what the heck to buy for dinner that night. There is no “wine knowledgeable friend” around. There’s not even a wine knowledgeable staff person around. The shopper is on her own, adrift in a sea of labels. As for buying on the advice of a sommelier, I do that whenever I eat at a nice restaurant. But I don’t eat out very often, and I suspect most other people don’t, either. Probably 90% of the wines people drink are at home, wines they themselves bought in a store.

This is precisely when the professional review has impact. The shopper may be aware of it through a shelf talker or bottle-necker, or perhaps an ad in the local newspaper. Scores and reviews are remarkably fungible things. Once they are born in a magazine or newsletter, they are apt to make their way around the world, through a variety of media and means, especially in our digital age.

So my feeling (not based on scientific research, obviously, but it makes sense) is that, while people might rate “the recommendation of a trusted friend” or a sommelier higher on a survey than “a score or review in a wine magazine or newsletter,” the majority of their wine purchases actually are influenced by scores and reviews. Which is just another way of saying that wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, play a vital role in influencing wine buying patterns in the U.S.


Number of corked wines is down, but TCA is still a BIG problem

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The number of corked wines is definitely lower than it used to be. I’d estimate about 1 in every 30 bottles is notably tainted by TCA. It used to be about 1 in every 12 (humans vary widely in their sensory threshold to TCA; I’m about average), so let’s give credit to the cork industry for improved performance.

Wnen I say “1 in every 30 bottles” I mean that 30th wine reeks of mold to the point where I detect it immediately on pulling the cork, in an “Ugh!” reaction that is always unpleasant. However, a new study on the effects of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) leads me to worry more about the impact of sub-threshold TCA, which is far more common than overtly corked bottles.

The study acknowledges that TCA has long “been thought [to introduce] off-flavor substances [and] unpleasant smells” in affected wines. That would be the Ugh! factor. But the scientists also found–and this is the key sentence–“that …TCA…inhibits ciliary transduction channels…even at extremely low…concentrations.”

Lots of verbiage here, so let’s break it down.”Ciliary” is the adjectival form of the noun “cilia,” which are short, hairlike outgrowths from cells.  “Transduction” is the transfer of energy from one system to another–in this case, the transfer of olfactory sensations (smells) from the wine to our nose and brain. This energy transference occurs through the cilia in our olfactory neurons; they are the receptors that are stimulated by external odors, which then are passed along to the brain via olfactory nerve channels.

The worrisome aspect of this statement lies in its implications: Even if a wine does not smell overtly moldy or corky, there may still be enough TCA in it (“extremely low concentrations”) for its vinous aromatics to be inhibited or tamped down. This means that the wine will lack a vibrant aroma. If you’re a wine taster, you know that the aroma is possibly more important in judging a wine than anything else. It is certainly the first important signal (other than the color) that the taster receives about the wine (discounting foolishness like the weight of the bottle and length of the cork), and thus is likely to shape the taster’s subsequent [oral/flavor/palate] impressions. A wine whose aroma does not attract the taster’s attention is unlikely to be one he will signal out for praise.

I wonder how many dull, inert wines I review are actually infected with extremely small quantities of TCA, sub-threshold but with a consequent inhibiting effect on the aroma. It’s impossible to know, of course, without sending everything to a laboratory for testing. So my advice to the cork industry is to intensify their efforts to make every cork in the world 100% TCA-free.

P.S. I apologize if you’ve been experiencing access issues the last two days with my blog. My web host has been having huge server problems. Next week, I’m going over to a Linux server which, they say, will make everything faster and more dependable.


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