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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.


DTC, snobs and market segmentation: A personal view

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“Wines delivered to your door” has been the business theme of direct-to-consumer entrepreneurs since as long as I can remember.

I used to be a member of one of these subscription services, back in the early 1980s. I can’t remember the name (I’m sure someone out there will remind me), but they sold German wines that “arrived at your door” on a monthly basis. I didn’t continue, because I eventually reached the point where I preferred shopping for wine myself, in a store, especially if I could taste it or see a recommendation—and that is the point of this post.

There’s now another “delivered to your door” service, Club W, and while I wish them well, I don’t see how they overcome the challenges that led to failure of almost every one of these ventures.

They all promise the ease and convenience of having pre-selected wines that arrive at your door once a month. They all say the wines are “curated” by experts or, in this case, actually produced for Club W “by noteworthy winemakers who develop their ‘juice’ for Club W exclusively.” And they all make claims that they offer lower prices [even with shipping?] than traditional outlets.

That may well be true in Club W’s case. The claim that their “exclusive” winemakers “have great talent but may lack access to capital enough to get their wines made and into the market” certainly rings true. That is a common challenge for winemakers, especially younger ones, who may have access to interesting grapes, and are making interesting wines, but have no realistic way of getting them to far-flung customers.

What are those wines? I went to Club W’s website and tried it out. They ask you to answer a couple of (kind of silly) questions, and then, after you give them an email, Facebook or Twitter account, they “recommend” appropriate wines. For me, they suggested three brands I’ve never heard of: a Wonderful Wine Co. red blend from Paso Robles, a Black Market Cabernet-Petit Verdot blend from Livermore, and Casa de Lila Airén, a white wine from Spain. Beyond these three wines, there are others on the website I could buy. They all have attractive labels, and I wish I could go to a tasting and try them out, because at $13 a bottle, that’s pretty affordable. There’s also a “Curator’s Choice” menu for wines costing $14 and up.

Now, any and all of these might be wonderful wines. Or they might not. The problem is, even thought they’re just $13 a bottle, I don’t want to buy a pig in a poke: A wine I’m not familiar with. Under their “Tastemakers” dropdown menu they have the names and pictures of folks I guess are some of their winemakers: a fine-looking bunch of men and women, young and appealing. There’s also a cool recipes link. That’s all good.

So I have mixed feelings. A lot of thought obviously has gone into Club W. The website is really nice. But I just don’t see how they get around the fact that you can’t taste the wines before you buy, or even see what the critics have said, since they’re club exclusives and have never been professionally reviewed. (I do make an exception for winery wine clubs: people join them because they know and trust those wines, so even if they haven’t had the latest vintage, they possess plenty of prior evidence that they’re much more likely to enjoy the wine than not.)

Finally, although this isn’t Club W’s fault, I hate the way the Wall Street Journal portrayed Club W; their headline reads “Club W Raises $9.5 Million To Appeal to Wine Lovers, Not Snobs.” Can we please get over this “snobs vs. everybody else” nonsense? I mean, does Lettie Teague write for the “Snobs” in the WSJ? I have news for you: All wine writers write for the people who read them; all wineries produce wine for the people who buy them. There are indeed snobs in the world of wine, as there are in other arenas, but they are the exception to the rule, and to toss the word “snob” around so much is really misleading to young people, who may end up thinking that wine isn’t for them because they’re not snobs and don’t like being around snobs.

Instead, why can’t we talk about beginners, amateur wine lovers and experts? The experts aren’t “snobs,” they just have a lot of experience, nor are the beginners “idiots” because they have little experience. Some “beginners” will be “experts” someday; will that make them “snobs”? So really, anyone (writer, blogger, winery, ad agency) who throws around the snob word so insouciantly is just indulging in lazy language that moreover insults a significant number of wine lovers.

And then there are new wine companies targeting everybody: I got this blast email from one of them just this morming: I omit the winery’s name: “We here at ___ have created a wine that will capture thegrowing new generation of social media savvy, adventurous, health consciouswine drinkers as well as the seasoned, more experienced ones.” Talk about something for everyone! Beginners, Millennials, twitterers, greenies and granola munchers, Baby Boomers, old folks, and snobs. Sic semper, market segmentation!


A writer and his voice

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It’s been six years since I started steveheimoff.com. I had no idea what I was getting into back in those pre-Recession days. But I knew that blogging was something I wanted to do.

People sometimes ask me why I started blogging. After all, I already had a pretty good job, was rather well-known in the wine community, and I didn’t envision blogging as a career move, as apparently others did.

The truth is, I wanted to develop my writing skills further—to push into new areas of creative expression, in a way that had previously been denied me. As California editor of Wine Enthusiast, my writing style was severely restricted by the formal norms of the genre: 40 words per wine review, “Voice of God” tone, avoid the first person singular, stay away from emotional or political content, etc. etc. True, in my books for University of California Press, there was more leeway. But still, a part of me that felt essential—the first consciousness I’m aware of when I awake in the morning, the “me” that I tune into when I meditate—seemed unable to find a place in my writings. That’s what I wanted to capture in my blog.

It turned out to be not so easy. There are many pitfalls in capturing that essence. What writers call “the writers voice” isn’t immediately discernible, drowned out as it often is by other voices in one’s head. These other voices clamor for attention, can be sulky or petulant or angry, and of they are expressed, they lead no one to enlightenment, for they are false voices. Good writers struggle for years to find their authentic voice, which is why avid readers seek good writers: No one wants to hear a false voice.

It took me a few years to find my proper blogging voice. I tinkered here and there, trying on this persona, then that persona. Of course, they were all “me,” in the sense that all came from my mind. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2008 that I found it: the voice that came from my deepest, most seamless place, and one moreover that connected with readers.

Finding your voice as a writer is very similar to finding your palate as a wine professional. In both cases, you have to do the same thing over and over again (writing or tasting) before the pieces begin to fall into place. You begin to see the forest for the trees. It might be, say, Raj Parr developing an appreciation for lower alcohol wines, or Bob Parker falling in love with the big Napa style. I doubt that either of them knew, in advance, what wines they would come to appreciate, and which in turn would help to formulate their reputations in the industry. This is good, and as it should be. What we want, in our writers and in our critics, is authenticity: to find a voice that’s been around the block a few times, knows what it’s talking about, and knows how to express itself. Now, this isn’t to say that all strong and self-confident voices are equal. There is a regrettable tendency in wine blogging for shouters to drown out reasonable conversation. Like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, these voices certainly are heard—but it’s the wrong thing to do.

The nice thing about finding your voice as a wine blogger is that even when you have nothing in particular to write about, you can crank out a readable post, like this one. It’s like they say about the First Growths of Bordeaux: Even in an indifferent vintage, they make wine that’s interesting.

See you tomorrow!


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.


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