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The personal touch: Talking about wine

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I’ve always liked talking about wine with whomever—I mean, it can be someone more knowledgeable than me, or someone who’s just starting out. As long as they’re interested, I’ll go on all day.

It’s amazing how much information we store in our brains about certain subjects that attract us. I’ve forgotten many things in my life, probably most of what I’ve experienced—but my store of wine knowledge appears to be intact. When I really get going, facts spring to my mind and thence to my tongue that I read about decades ago. But they’re still there.

This is so, I think, because of the passion I have for wine. From the very beginning (1979), I learned everything about it I could. I read, read, read, asked questions of people, and took tasting notes. I would have thought most of it was long gone, but it’s still in there, because it was assembled with loving care, and what you learn with love seems to stick with you.

And I’ve been talking about wine a lot, more than I usually did when I was at Wine Enthusiast. That was a fairly solitary gig. You’re tasting at home, and most of the writing is done at home, too. Of course, there are road trips, but when you’re a working wine critic, being on the road has to be balanced with work: the more you travel the less actual work you get done. It’s important to get out into wine country and meet new people, experience new things and walk the ground, but I found, in my later years at the magazine, that it was increasingly difficult to balance work and travel in a way that was comfortable for me. That was one of the reasons—although far from the only one—that I left Enthusiast.

In the past few weeks I’ve been on a number of trips for Jackson Family Wines, representing the company in various capacities. The people I’ve been meeting range from beginners (such as at tasting rooms) to the most sophisticated sommeliers and merchants. So, as you can imagine, the subject matter of our conversations varies. But one thing that doesn’t change is what I think of as the essence of a wine conversation: And that is that we’re talking about a beverage that lends itself to extended conversation regardless of your level of knowledge.

Isn’t that something? I suppose the manufacturers and salesmen of soup can talk about soup all day and all night, but this probably isn’t a topic that would interest most of us. And, with all due respect for soup, there’s less history, romance and intellectual interest about soup than there is with wine.

One interesting thing I’ve found being out on the road tasting with somms and other high-end buyers is that the technical stuff about the wines doesn’t seem to be what they want to talk about. This may partly be a function that it’s me they’re tasting with—there’s a great deal of interest in my former job—but, as someone remarked to me, they talk about technical stuff all day, and besides, if they’re really interested, they can always refer to a tech sheet.

Instead, our conversations seem to go more in the direction of stories, anecdotes, personal experiences we’ve all had, and it’s fun to share them. Of course, there’s also a lot of opinionating. I’m watching, as I write this, one of those innumerable sports talk shows on Fox where the TV guys are talking about who will win Tuesday’s game in Kansas City. (Go Giants!!) I love listening to this kind of stuff, even though in the long run it’s totally meaningless, because it has no bearing whatsoever on the actual game. It’s just a bunch of guys talking through their hats. But these guys love baseball, they live it and study it and thrive on it, and so their conversations are worth overhearing (assuming you like baseball). Same with wine. Put two of us together who live, love and thrive on wine, and you’re gonna get a gabfest.

To me here’s really no difference talking about wine with an expert or an amateur. When it comes to a nice conversation, it doesn’t matter. Someone always knows more than you, and someone always knows less. So just say what you have to say, and let the conversation begin!


The Wall of Wine, Stories, and Consumer Psychology

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I was on the panel of a wine event last week, and one of my fellow panelists was from one of the nation’s biggest Big Box grocery retailers. I asked him, “Will the infamous Wall of Wine be always with us?” and he answered, “Yes. Retail is here to stay.”

Indeed it is, as a basic function of human interaction: I buy something wholesale and sell it to you retail, for a profit. But as experience shows us, retail changes its external face constantly; and the Big Box, with its Wall of Wine, will not be with us forever—at least, in the form we know it.

The reason things are changing is simple to understand: Millennials.

“Online retailers have a huge edge with Millennials,” according to this 2013 study which took the example of a popular woman’s athletic tank top to illustrate Millennials’ disinclination to buy things in stores. “’I logged on, I found my Under Armour top, I pressed a button and got it 4 days later,’” a representative of the company that sponsored the study air-quoted a hypothetical Millennial on her satisfaction with the online experience. He added, “The younger respondents got, the less physical experience mattered” to them.

Contrast that with the number-one reason Baby Boomers cite for their preference to shop in traditional bricks-and-mortar stores: “instant ownership,” with 79% of them in the study citing that “as the most appealing attribute of any retailer, online or off.” This is why, according to the study, even though Amazon is the world’s biggest online retailer, its earnings in 2012 were only 13% of what Walmart cleared.

Baby Boomers may not have a problem with supermarkets, but it’s clear their children and grandchildren do. But Big Box heavyweights like Safeway aren’t about to roll over and go away. Instead, the study predicts, stores will “integrate the digital with the physical,” acquiring “online characteristics.” Such as? “Expect to see a place to pick up the stuff you bought online,” in a “retail locker” concept of retailing. Imagine buying a couple bottles of wine online from any site, and then—instead of waiting for days for it to be delivered to your house (and you might not even be home when it comes)—it will go straight to the “retail locker,” where it will not only be waiting for you, but will be presented to you “by people who like people,” not the often surly floor staff of supermarkets.

That sounds like a pleasant experience. What are the implications for the Wall of Wine? Not good. If inventory is purchased just-in-time, stores will have no reason to buy thousands of bottles they don’t even know they’ll be able to sell. The Wall of Wine will vanish, for the simple reason it will have outlived its usefulness.

* * *

And then there was the tasting I went to on Sunday at a local wine shop. It was of various coastal California Pinot Noirs. One of them (Porter-Bass 2012) started out smelling very funky, a phenomenon everyone who remarked on the wine noticed. (The funkiness, whatever the cause, blew off after a while.) I didn’t particularly care for it. Our host, however, liked it quite a bit, and explained, in some detail, the winery’s biodynamic approach to grapegrowing. Her preference for this wine was apparent to the guests, most of whom were amateurs with only little knowledge of wine. After she was finished speaking, one of the guests, who had noted the funkiness with what I thought was a critical attitude, said, “I thought it was too funky, until I heard your story. Now, I love it.”

Well, the top of my little head exploded at that. You know that we’ve been talking about “stories” quite a bit here at steveheimoff.com. Stories are the new black of marketing: the latest, hottest trend in the industry. Until my experience at that tasting, I had not perhaps appreciated the power of a good story, told by a trusted authority figure, to completely change the thinking of someone else. And not just to change their thinking: to actually change the way something smells and tastes to them!

I am in awe. Have to think more about this one. The host’s story didn’t work on me, but I’m not your typical wine consumer. Are average wine drinkers so unsure of their own perceptions that a testimonial from an expert can redirect them? Or does a good story, told passionately by a believer, somehow open up the mind of a skeptic so that he can perceive reality on a higher plane? If the latter is true, then what about a good story told passionately by someone who doesn’t even believe it, but is telling it only in order to sell a wine?

I don’t know the answers. There may be none. There may be different answers for different people. But I think all of us had better bone up on our story-telling abilities.


Telling a story about stories

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I speak later today at The Exchange, an organization, sponsored by Nomacorc, that periodically gathers “to improve the marketing of wine by creating a forum for the sharing of ideas related to wine marketing.” The topic of today’s gathering, which is at Bardessono, in Yountville, is “Telling the Story.”

I’ve been amazed the last few months at how this meme of “storytelling” has invaded corporate America—not just the wine industry but everywhere. It’s grabbed the attention of marketing and communications departments and the budgeters who fund them, which means that CEOs and company presidents also are onboard. Never in my professional career has so much attention been paid to this aspect of companies; marketing used to be a sort of minor adjunct to sales, finance and product development. Now, it’s the tail that’s wagging the dog.

We shouldn’t wonder why. Doing business in America is more complicated than ever. The nation is a welter of different, competing points of view, and a company that’s selling things (products or services) has to figure out how to make itself attractive people who are utterly different from each other. But why the sudden popularity of “the story”?

Well, for one thing, it’s not sudden. Companies, through their advertising divisions, have been telling stories for years. They didn’t call them stories; they called them “messages,” but it was the same thing. When Camel cigarettes said, in the 1940s, that most doctors recommend their cigarette—and the ads showed a “doctor” happily puffing away—that told a story. The human brain has a talent for seeing patterns where in reality only scattered bits of data exist. We see a stain on a wall and all of a sudden it’s a witch or Julia Roberts. In the same way, companies today put out creative tidbits of information and hope that we, the recipients, will fill in the blanks by interpreting the story in a way that makes us more likely to be attracted to the product.

Anyhow, that’s as close as I can come to understanding this modern infatuation with “the story.” Here’s some of what I’ll tell the audience at The Exchange:

A good story is always about something. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about a person: for example, I love books that explain plate tectonics. A good story is like a good wine: it has structure, tension, grip, an intriguing beginning and a long, satisfying finish. A good story can indeed have a formula: fiction writers like Steven King and John Grishom have been writing the same formula for years. That’s not to put them down: Shakespeare had a formula well-known to students of English literature. But a formula isn’t enough. One must know how to tell the story, which involves an intuitive sense of drama. (I say “drama” because even comedies are based on the dramatic conflicts between human beings or humans and their environment.) A good story also evokes feelings of compassion and empathy in the readers.

A good story has to be well-written. Many great stories have been mangled by writers who just didn’t know how to write. Sloppy writing, poor grammar and syntax, superfluous words and sentences all can kill a good story. I believe in Thoreau: Simplify, simplify!

If you think about it, every human interaction is a system of mutual story telling. Scientists have long speculated about what makes us “distinctly human,” different from all other animals. Some have said it’s our ability to laugh. Maybe it’s our ability to tell stories, and to listen to the stories of others. On the other hand, one of my Facebook friends once said—in reply to my question of why Gus sniffs lampposts and fire hydrants to much—that those repositories of canine scents are Facebook for dogs—that each scent contains a vast amount of information that only dogs can detect: the gender of a previous visitor, the dog’s age and so on. So maybe dogs, too, tell each other stories, not through the use of words (they can’t speak) but through chemical emissions. We know that ants communicate through chemicals their bodies emit. Maybe the essence of the Universe is that all its infinite parts are constantly telling their stories, from the quantum atoms to the biggest black holes. The Universe is a dazzling babble of stories.


Understanding temperature data? Not so easy!

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One of the toughest parts of my job—of any wine writer’s job, actually—is finding reliable, historic data on which to base conclusions about terroir.

Lord knows, we have endless discussions about terroir, yet most of them are based on anecdotal information and as we all know anecdotes are not reliable. They may be interesting, they may be well-meaning on the part of the teller, and they may even be true. Yet there’s nothing like accumulated, provable data to underscore a scientific claim.

Having been in this business for a long time I can’t tell you how often I’ve been given directly conflicting info by winemakers who often couldn’t agree on the characteristics of their region’s terroir even when their vineyards were right next to each other! Or, along similar lines, they couldn’t agree on the qualitative aspects of the wines from the appellation they shared. Needless to say, this makes the wine writer’s job more difficult, so in the end, we’re forced to come to our own conclusions—for which the winemakers who couldn’t agree in the first place then criticize us. Sigh…

A nice example of my current challenge is to determine, precisely and clearly, the temperature and climate differences between the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Rita Hills, especially for growing Pinot Noir. The two AVAs are, of course, close together. Both are open to the west winds from the Pacific; both are east-west-running valleys. Is one cooler than the other? How does one define “cooler”? This is where the tough part of my job kicks in. Where is the data? Who controls it? Is it a government agency, like NOAA? Do individual vineyards have weather sensors that could tell us? Is that data proprietary or is it sharable? Over how many years does the data span? I don’t want data only from a single year; to be credible the data should span multiple years. Who’s been measuring degree days or daytime and nighttime lows for a decade? How long does the high temperature remain high during the day—for 30 minutes? An hour? Both AVAs are long, in an east-west direction: how much does the daily high temperature vary as you move inland? A degree a mile, as is commonly cited? What part does elevation play (both AVAs contain significant hills). This only begins to describe the complexities. As the great Saintsbury winemaker David Graves notes, “What do you mean by cooler? Hours above or below a threshold? Nighttime lows? Daytime highs? The period between veraision and harvest? Bloom-harvest? And what role does relative humidity play?” For the wine writer these are difficult things to determine, but they seem central to me, if you’re trying to pick apart the differences between neighboring appellations. After all, if an appellation means anything to begin with, it consists of these very complexities and ambiguities.

Yet if a writer wants really to tackle issues of terroir, these data points need to be accumulated. The trouble is, where are they?

It’s hard work, which is why there are so many shibboleths and myths in this business. Who’s got the time to research this stuff, or even to figure out how to begin? So, too many wine writers look up something Matt Kramer, or Oz Clarke, or Steve Heimoff or Larry Walker or somebody else once said, and repeat it, as though it were the gospel truth. Which it might or might not be. It’s not that any of these individuals would deliberate misstate something (Heaven forbid!) but that they might have got it wrong to begin with, without knowing it and without having subsequently been corrected.

Anyhow, this is one reason why the more I last in this business the less I trust “the conventional wisdom.” Still, understanding appellations is as central to my job as breathing is to life. I hope to just be able to contribute some small part to it that will stand the test of time.


When wine writers host public events

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I’ll be co-conducting a wine-and-food pairing event at Saturday’s big Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival. It’s the eighteenth time the event, which is one of the biggest in Sonoma County, has been held—and I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never gone. Everyone has told me how amazing it is, so I am totally looking forward to it.

My particular role, which I’ll share with Pedro Rusk, one of the winery’s educators, is to talk about some white wines that make good summer drinking. Of course, I’ll also point out that no wine needs to be limited to just one season, despite the media’s penchant for suggesting that Big Reds (Zins, Petite Sirahs, Cabs) are good for warming the blood in winter, while delicate light whites are “the perfect poolside sippers,” to use one of the many hackneyed clichés that wine writers so often trot out.

Wine writers and wine critics, such as I used to be, possess many skills, but presiding over public tastings and food-and-wine pairings isn’t necessarily one of them. On the other hand there is a population of people out there in the wine industry who are quite proficient at the entertainment aspects of public educational tasting events, but who would make lousy critics and writers. The two skills are separate, yet they also are related. Both call for a knowledge of wine. Both call also for some understanding of the food pairing properties of wine. My own approach to this latter has never been overly precious, as readers of this blog might know. There is the danger of pretentiousness in suggesting that such-and-such a wine must be paired with such-and-such a food; or that certain pairings are lethal to both the wine and the food. There are very few “perfect” pairings, just as there are very few “lethal” ones. I was trying to think of an awful pairing, and came up with oysters and Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, that would be over-the-top, nausea-inducing horror. But fortunately most wines will go with most foods, and you won’t have to worry about the Pairing Police knocking down your door and busting you. My attitude towards pairing is exactly the same as that expressed by the French sommelier, Gerard Basset, who was quoted in today’s South China Morning Post: “If there’s one area that can be over-thought… it’s pairing wine with food. [Basset’s] advice is to keep it simple.”

The other aspect of doing these educational tastings is, of course, to have the type of personality that is comfortable being in the spotlight, can yak it up with a smile and induce people to want to hear more, and one moreover that doesn’t have stage fright. I’m pretty good at being in the spotlight, so that doesn’t throw me. But I think even the best of public speakers has a little trepidation prior to going out there, live, before an audience. You just have to know your stuff, take a deep breath, pull out your natural charm and have confidence.

If you read this, either directly through my blog, or through Facebook or Twitter, and you’ll be at the Tomato Festival, please drop by Pedro’s and my seminar and say hi.


Why young wine drinkers should know about the classics

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Okay, well, first, I don’t mean they have to know about the classics. It’s not like the occasional wine lover is going to die and go to some awful place reserved for ignorant drinkers if they don’t. Knowing about the classics is not mandatory if you’re like most people—occasional drinkers who like wine’s salutary, gustatory and social effects, all of which are fantastic.

But knowing about the classics of wine is important for people who aspire to be more than they are, to know a little more, to achieve a deeper level of understanding. Again, this isn’t for everyone. What do I mean, then?

By “aspire” I mean the person who, for whatever reason, finds that wine has struck a chord in their intellect and soul, a chord that prompts them to up their game. It is human to aspire; everyone wants to be more than they are, in some area. You may aspire to great wealth or power. You may aspire to be the greatest dobro player, or third baseman, or rapper, or jewel thief or brain surgeon or tattoo artist. Don’t we all want to be greater than we are, in some area? So there’s always going to be that 1 percent or 5 percent or whatever it is of wine drinkers who aspire to hit a higher level. (I like to think those are the kinds of people who read this blog.)

Okay. So two questions:

  1. Why should aspirational wine drinkers know about the classics?
  2. What are the classics, anyhow?

Aspirational wine drinkers should know about the classics because people who know about the classics say they should. Now, that sounds tautological and elitist, and I suppose it is. But you can’t know where you are without knowing where you’ve come from, and people who know where they’ve come from know that, and are best listened to. Baseball fans need to know how Babe Ruth led to Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, if they are to understand why we make such a big deal of Adrien Beltre. You can be a big baseball fan without knowing history (actually, that’s pretty unthinkable, but it’s theoretically possible), but knowing history will enable you to comprehend the game and talk about it (which is half the pleasure) at a higher level.

But there’s more reason than that to know about the classics. If you’re aspirational, you’re probably going to spend more money on wine than the occasional wine drinker, so if you want to know you’re getting your money’s worth, and not getting ripped off, you’d better know how that bottle of wine stands in relation to the wines that history, which after all is just your predecessors, has pronounced them to be. If you’re spending $50, $90, $200 on a bottle of wine, you want to know that it’s not some overnight sensation—a one-hit wonder that won’t stand the test of time, but is a wine that will justify your investment. If you know that your investment is justified, it makes that purchase all the more worthwhile—which increases your pleasure of the wine—which is what buying wine is all about.

I would even go beyond this and say: You cannot experience as high a degree of pleasure from a wine without knowing how it stands in relation to its peers and predecessors, which is to say, how it stands in history. Perhaps I can’t prove this; perhaps it’s an ideology I suffer from that breaks down under analysis. Perhaps. But I think that most experienced critics would agree with me. The same is true of any creative endeavor that requires people to spend their money. If you don’t understand how and why that thing (painting, suit, auto, whatever) is as good as it’s purported to be, then you might as well not buy it.

So that’s my argument for understanding the classics. What are the classics? That’s a whole other post. Suffice it to say that, since I specialize in California wine, for me the classics are those brands that have stood the test of time. We don’t have very many proven older brands in California. Most of our most celebrated wines are new: 15 or 20 years old at most, and often younger than that. But there are brands that were famous 30, 40, 50 years ago, and remain famous today, for a reason: Not just because they’re old (age is not a plus in itself) but because they have remained relevant all this time. And no wine brand remains relevant for a long time, in such a fickle culture as ours, unless it offers something truly remarkable. This remarkableness consists of two things: greatness in its own terroir and region, and ageability. This necessarily limits the number of remarkable wines. But if too many wines are remarkable, then remarkability is meaningless.

This is why I recommend to younger wine drinkers, who aspire to be more than they are, to investigate the classics.


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