I haven’t written much about my new job because it’s been important for me to keep steveheimoff.com a place independent of whatever job I have, whether it was the guy who wrote wine reviews for Wine Enthusiast or my new position at Jackson Family Wines.
The reason it’s important for me to preserve and protect this space as a sort of safe house is because I have (or think I have) a compact with my readers. That compact is terribly important to me. It’s almost a marriage—I mean, that’s how seriously I take it.
The thing to understand is how hard I’ve had to fight to maintain this blog’s independence. My former employer strongly encouraged me to end it—why, I never could understand. Obviously, I refused. After that experience, I am tremendously grateful to Jackson Family Wines for being supportive of the blog’s continuation.
My official title is director of wine communications and education. As such—and things are still evolving—my work is mainly confined to three areas: writing (they call it “content” creation), giving advice on various matters of my expertise to colleagues within the company, and working with outside gatekeepers in the ongoing work of tasting Jackson Family Wines.
This latter task is driven largely by the fact that there is a body of opinion among some people that Kendall-Jackson is a single wine company and that all of the company’s other brands must somehow be associated with K-J. That perception—real or imagined—is, of course, nonsense. Mentioning only some of the California wineries, it is clear, or should be to anyone who pays attention to these things, that Champ de Réves, Edmeades, Stonestreet, Verité, Hartford Court, Cambria, Atalon, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, Mt. Brave, Lokoya, Byron and Matanzas Creek, etc. (I could go on) are wineries of the highest caliber; in my years as California editor of Wine Enthusiast I gave many high scores to their wines, including several 100 point scores (and I had the reputation of being stingy with perfect scores). I personally long ago formed the opinion, which was based on fact, that Jackson Family Wines was a large company, with brands at virtually every price point, and moreover, those brands met or exceeded in quality their competitors—and often at a lower price. This gave me great respect for the company.
So when I began to hear, from various others in this company, of an outside attitude that K-J somehow impugns the other brands in the portfolio, it was rather shocking. I wonder how anyone working in this business could fail to make the distinction between price tiers. After all, one doesn’t hear of a gatekeeper’s revolt against Mouton Rothschild because its parent company also produces Mouton Cadet, which is said to sell around 1 million cases annually, making it very much a commodity wine. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Besides, I have never heard anyone offer any reasonable argument to dispute the concept that a large wine company can walk and chew gum at the same time: that is, produce fairly-priced wine in large quantities for the everyday wine drinker, and simultaneously make ultrapremium wine, based on estate-grown grapes from the finest coastal appellations, and vinified by some of the top winemakers in California.
If I have any gripe at all with the upper tier of the industry—not the wines themselves, but the critics and somms who concern themselves with those wines—it’s that they so often give the impression that the everyday consumer doesn’t matter—that everyday-priced wines, the kind you find in a supermarket, are somehow illegitimate when compared to the little garagiste labels. This, too, is nonsense, and patently unfair. At Wine Enthusiast, I developed an affection for the everyday segment of the market (and the magazine reflected that affection). It always made me happy to give a Best Buy to an under-$15 wine, because I appreciated, having come from that part of the population that can’t afford expensive wine, that some wine companies take seriously the notion of making inexpensive quality wine, and I also knew how technically difficult that can be on a consistent basis, across vintages. That is one reason why Kendall-Jackson so often got my nod.
So what is it about some gatekeepers that makes them unable to appreciate the qualities of an ultrapremium wine made by the same company that produces an everyday wine? I have to confess that this is an aspect of my job I take most seriously, as I have great respect for “the truth,” and truth, after all, ought to live at the heart of every conversation about wine. Does the wine taste good? Is it clean and well-made? Does it drink well with food? Does it have the interest and complexity to satisfy over the course of a meal? These are the criteria by which sommeliers and gatekeepers should judge wines—not some hocus-pocus about scarcity or romance or garages.
I mean not to impugn any gatekeepers. I was one myself, so I know how hard these people work, and how honest they feel in their own hearts regarding the wines they recommend. I simply look forward to sitting down with them, as best I can, and asking them to put aside whatever stereotypes they may harbor, and perceive reality as it actually is: the wine inside the glass.
One of the most interesting and controversial topics of the modern wine industry is the phenomenon of the “flying winemaker.” This is the term, which I first heard in the 1990s, that refers to a class of men and women who hire themselves out to wineries as consultants; they are “flying” because their preferred mode of transportation is of course the jet plane.
But they are much more than mere consultants. Their name, attached to a wine on a press release, automatically confers prestige, the way, say, Steven Spielberg’s name as producer of a movie is a sort of guarantee of the film’s pedigree.
The name most often conjured up by “flying winemaker” is that of Michel Rolland. I knew he consults for a lot of wineries around the world, but I never knew that the number was up to two hundred, according to this article in Harpers. Among his Napa Valley clients, current and/or previous, I’m aware of are Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Alpha Omega, Dancing Hares, Staglin, Dalla Valle and Sloan—in other words, absolutely the peak of Napa Valley (if not the New World) in terms of price and quality (at least, as judged by the top critics). These are the famous “cult wines” that define a region’s reputation and in fact establish its upper or outer limits of quality and perception by the wine world’s cognoscenti.
This would be all well and good, except that over the last fifteen years or so—let’s say, roughly from the start of the new century—a certain drumbeat of criticism has arisen among some critics, to the effect that an increase in the activities of these flying winemakers has resulted in a standardization or sameness in all the wines with which the consultant is associated. In fact, this critique goes even further: it says that all flying winemakers bring a similar approach to all their client wines, making these wines all taste similarly to each other, regardless of who made them or whether they are from Napa Valley or Pomerol or Chile. This sameness has been referred to as the “globalization of wine” or “the international style,” terms meant to suggest that all wines of the same varietal type—most usually, Cabernet Sauvignon and its allied varieties—smell and taste alike. In the eyes of the critics of such globalization, this is tantamount to a crime, since it obliterates the notion of terroir.
This is a serious debate and a good one to have. I’ve never been one to take an extremist position one way or the other, as some American critics and newspaper columnists do in utterly condemning these “international” wines. Their criticisms usually also have to do with what they perceive as excessive ripeness, over-oakiness and an alcohol level (often approaching if not exceeding 15%) which, they claim, elevates technique over terroir.
My reluctance to join these reporters has been based on the simple fact that many of the Cabernets associated with Michel Rolland and other flying winemakers are, in fact, gorgeous. They are among the richest, most sumptuous wines ever produced in the history of the world, and it is churlish, if not somewhat childish, to object to them based on some philosophical or ideological notion. This deliciousness seems to be what Rolland himself referred to when he told Harpers that all he strives to do is to produce wines that are “intense, full bodied, balanced, harmonious, with delicate tannins and a long finish.” This description certainly fits the Napa Valley wines I’m familiar with that Rolland consults for, but the problem, which you see is obvious by now, is that the same description fits all of them, which seems to hoist Rolland on his own petard. He has provided us with the template for an international style of Cabernet Sauvignon. And here, I must say that, in California at least, there is an ersatz style that mimics the international style on the surface, but that on closer examination results in lazy, flamboyant but eventually tiring wines. One has to be very careful in approaching the international style, lest he throw the baby out with the bathwater!
Harpers headlines their article “Michel Rolland defends his ability to manage wines on up to 200 wineries around the world,” and while the word “defends” is perhaps hyperbolic on Harper’s part, Rolland no doubt feels a little beleaguered. He must be aware of the criticism (although one suspects he cries all the way to the bank). Supporting the critics is the commonsense notion that one can only be in one place at a time, and even in this age of the jet plane, to have to be in so many places all over the world, having to apply one’s conscientious attention to so many properties, especially at the harvest, must be challenging to say the least. Heidi Barrett, herself one of California’s most famous flying winemakers (although she more properly might be called a “driving winemaker,” for she only accepts clients that are “within a half hour” drive of her Calistoga home), notes that she limits her number of clients for the most pragmatic of reasons. “Realistically, when things are fermenting I must taste every tank, every day, and so I’m going to four locations, and that maxes me out. Some days I barely get everywhere.” (These quotes are from my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.”)
Historically, we are at a point now where there is more or less an equilibrium between the international or global style, which admittedly is a ripe, expressive one, and a more restrained (one could almost say timid) approach, encouraged if not caused by the critics of the international style, who tend to have big platforms and the egos to fill them. I said we’re at “a point,” not “a tipping point.” I don’t think the balance will alter anytime soon, one way or the other. The wine market is simply too big and fractured for any large-scale revolutions to happen, despite alleged claims from some quarters that one is underway now. In the midst of such a complex market, winemakers hedge their bets; better to stick with a style that’s worked for you up to now, than to throw the dice and risk unnecessary changes that might alienate your customers. Finally, we come to the cases of new entrants to the production game, a younger generation that’s decided to live the wine life. They have, it seems to me, two choices, in the widest sense: to appeal to the international style, or to make wines more severe and that will, they hope, win the praises of the newspaper columnists who like that streamlined approach. They might as well flip a coin, given the standoff, and follow their hearts—always the best thing to do.
The standard meme for marketing wine is: Ours is better than theirs. In just about every wine advertisement you read, this quality argument is there, whether implicit or explicit. Producers claim that their wine is rounder, smoother, more mellow, more delicious, better balanced, cleaner, more fulfilling, more [fill in the adjective] than the competition. The hope is that consumers will be swayed, for, after all, when you’re spending money on a product, you want the highest quality, right?
As it turns out, the quality factor may not be the best way of promoting wine anymore. From ProWein, the big international wine trade event held last month in Germany, came mixed messages concerning the value of using quality claims to sell wine.
The reporter asked attendees from different countries (Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, China, etc.) what they thought of the pushing-quality approach to selling wine. The answers were remarkably similar: “the excuse that your wine is top quality does not work anymore.” “Quality is not a competitive advantage anymore.” “Far too many wineries appear to rely on wine quality alone.”
Ouch. So if quality isn’t the message to be sending consumers, what is?
Well, let’s begin to answer this by assuming that the 50 people queried were all on the young side; they are described as “students from the Masters programme at the School of Wine & Spirits in Burgundy,” so they’re probably Millennials. The question therefore becomes, What are Millennials looking for in wine marketing?
For starters, they’re not “looking for” anything, if by the action verb “looking for” you mean a pro-active search. Marketing and its hand-maiden, advertising, are by their nature insidious: they come at you from the sidelines, entering your consciousness by osmosis at a time when your guard is down. That’s why marketing works [when it does]: it captures your imagination.
How it does so is complicated. Here are some of the things the students said wineries should be doing to market their products, instead of stressing quality:
“start telling a different story.” We know all about “the importance of the story line.” It’s easy, however, for an outsider to say this to a winery, but much harder for the winery to actually do it. What “story” should the winery tell?
“producers need to ensure that their brand’s representative is up to scratch.” This comment, by a South African student, referred to the actual employees who represented the various brands at ProWein. It was echoed by an Italian student who asked for representatives “with an easier and friendlier outlook,” by a Russian who found many representatives “simply boring,” and by a Brit who complained of “too many [representatives] sitting on stools behind their stands using wine bottles as a barrier.” An Italian was positively scathing in his critique of reps, particularly from his own country. “Everyone was thinking just for themselves—creating a sense of fragmentation and confusion.”
Clearly, what these young students were looking for was engagement. They wanted to feel like they were interacting with representatives who were fully human and alive, not a bunch of bored-stiff zombies giving off the vibe that “If it’s March, it must be ProWein.”
We all can relate to this. I was chatting with a friend the other day about how, when I take a cab ride, I like to have a little conversation with my driver. (This is why my friend recommended Lyft and Uber.) But I’ve been on the representative side of the table at wine events and know that it can be hard to always be chipper and put on a good face. You get tired, bored, cranky, especially at multi-day events when you’re expected to be “onstage” all day long and into the night.
This sort of bravura performance requires a certain type of personality—outgoing, extroverted, friendly. This may not have much mattered in decades past. But clearly, the rules have changed. Younger consumers understand that 99% of all the world’s wines are now faultless and drinkable. They also suspect that too much has been made of the famous “cult” wines their fathers and grandfathers worshipped; they feel no need to genuflect at that altar. But they are, after all, consumers; and nowadays consumers want to feel some sort of personal connection to a company whose brands they buy.
I sometimes think that wineries don’t pay enough attention to these rules of the road: When you send someone out to represent you, that person needs to have certain skills of charm and engagement. A winery’s representative, after all, is part of its “story.” If this hasn’t been immediately obvious until now to marketing managers and sales directors, it long has been to those of us on the receiving end of pitches. Just yesterday, Forbes’ food & drink columnist, Cathy Huyghe, in a piece called What Makes a Wine Sell, and What Doesn’t, wrote that “a producer’s story trumps any detail about a wine’s technical profile or even their numerical rating,” arguing that “tablestakes”—the technical details of the wine—“aren’t a point of differentiation” because “Everyone has them.” Huyghe described her interviewing approach to winemakers: after “the preliminaries—the…logistical data—are over with,” she looks for “the lightbulb of recognition…that illuminates what it is that makes that particular wine and that particular producer unique and different…”.
That “lightbulb of recognition” is something wine marketers hope to ignite in the minds of consumers. Wine itself, unidentified and without a human connection, cannot do that; the winery’s frontline representative is the spark that lights the bulb.
When I began writing about wine in the 1980s the “celebrity winemaker” had not yet been invented. I use this verb “invented” deliberately, in the sense that it was the media that came up with the concept that the guiding hand behind a great wine or, more accurately, a series of great wines must be a “genius” winemaker, the way Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs was a genius in his field.
It’s odd, because for hundreds of years the world had enjoyed great wine (Bordeaux, Burgundy) whose winemakers were unknown. Credit had used to be given to the winery and/or the terroir. Suddenly, by the 1990s, writers were proclaiming this or that winemaker as “stars” and, the ultimate accolade, “superstars,” almost as though the vineyard and its terroir were irrelevant.
Tom Wark recently opined intelligently on this topic, and included a list of superstar winemakers, from olden times to today, whose names make them as famous (in our little world of wine) as rock stars or movie stars. His theory is that this celebration of the winemaker continues today because “[W]e live in an age of self promotion and elevated promotional opportunities,” which surely is the truth; and, given this current zeitgeist, the media loves nothing more than to elevate someone to the pantheon of “star.” And, after all, a magazine can give a big award to a living winemaker and bask therefore in her glory!
I’ll just add to Tom’s trenchant analysis that I think today people want more of a personal connection with the winery and winemaker. They didn’t used to: Lafite and Latour became famous despite no one knowing anything about who made them. Even here in the U.S. a wine like Beaulieu Private Reserve was famous before many people had heard of André Tchelistcheff. But the advent of the modern media and the Internet in particular has given people the ability to know more about their wines and other things, and they want to know everything about these celebrated vintners behind the brands. Call it the People-magazinization of the industry.
I would think this phenomenon creates some difficulties for shier winemakers who don’t really enjoy all the fuss of public appearances and endless schmoozing with adoring fans. They may find that their reticence has economic consequences. Nowadays it’s so important for vintners to hit the road for winemaker dinners and tastings with important clients, such as sommeliers, merchants, writers and even distributors. These people are called “gatekeepers” or “tastemakers,” for it is they who decide what is sold (on wine lists and store shelves) and what isn’t. This gets us into the intricacies and difficulties of the distribution system, which is so infamously replete with problems; gets us, also, treacherously near to that Holy Grail of the modern wine industry, direct-to-consumer purchasing, through wine clubs and the like. DTC may indeed be the solution for the small winery that finds it difficult to get picked up by the large distributors, but DTC is not the end-all and be-all of sales: winemakers still have to get their faces out there, whether via You Tube, the winery’s blog or what have you.
Once upon a time (I’ll revert back to old Harry Waugh), the gatekeepers traveled to the wineries. These days there are simply too many wineries for gatekeepers to go to, even such well-traveled ones as Jancis Robinson; they can visit only the smallest proportion of properties in any given appellation. So, in an version of the old saw, “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed then Mohammed must go to the mountain” (attributed to the 17th century statesman and essayist, Francis Bacon), today’s winemakers must go to the tastemakers and show them what they’ve got. This assumes that the tastemakers themselves are fair and honest. The worst thing a tastemaker can do is to be biased, either for a winery they’re impressed by, or against one they assume cannot be top tier. You’d think it was hardly possible for someone in the powerful and sensitive position of being a tastemaker to be biased, but guess what? There is bias out there, ranging from overt to subtle–and sometimes the tastemakers themselves don’t even see the beam in their own eye (Matthew 7:1). If I were writing a Consumer’s Bill of Rights with respect to tastemakers, especially critics, I’d insist that all tasting resulting in a review be conducted under formal blind tasting protocols–or, absent that, that disclaimers be published alongside the reviews!
Gus ate a pound of salami a couple days ago. It was an accident on my part. Someone sent it to me in a box–I thought it was a book and left it in the iivingroom, unopened. In the middle of the night, Gus’s magnificent olfactory sense discovered it. The next morning, there was nothing left, except the shredded box.
The next morning, Gus was vomiting it up. He knew he’d been a bad dog. He got that guilty look in his eyes, tucked his tail down below his hind legs, and followed me around the house wherever I went, looking morose and mopey. Dog owners know that look: “I’ve been bad, I feel terrible about it–but really, I just couldn’t help myself. Please don’t hate me.”
Now on to winemakers. Yesterday I heard from one, whom I respect a great deal, and whose wines I usually–not always–score well into the 90s. He wrote of his 2011s, “they probably won’t get high scores, they are not showy wines, but there is not a musty or lacking wine in the bunch.”
In other words, he was apologizing for his wines even before I’d tasted most of them! (He’s already sent a couple of the less expensive ’11 early releases, but not his heavy hitters.) This is what reminds me of Gus. My dog didn’t have anything to apologize for–really. I wasn’t angry at him; he was just doing his doggie thing, and after all, it was my fault for leaving the meat out where he could get to it. If I was mad at anyone, it was me.
Now, this isn’t to single this winemaker out. He’s a fine gentleman who’s earned his celebrity status in the wine industry. But I do want to use his “probably won’t get high scores” comment to make an important point. Why do people feel the need to apologize for not making the kind of high alcohol, ripe, oaky wines that tend to get the highest scores? (Believe me, he’s not the only one.) If this winemaker sticks to his guns (and he has) and lets his terroir tell him what to do, rather than to try and appeal to the palate of 2 or 3 critics, then he’s going to be a better, more honest winemaker.
The wider problem is when winemakers are so insecure and needy that they deliberately undercut their own terroir, not to mention their natural instincts. They take fruit that is not naturally geared toward high alcohol, ripeness and oak, let it hang until the last possible minute while the acidity drops lower and lower and the sugars rise as much as they physically can, ferment the hell out of the grapes to maximize every molecule of fruity essence, and then load up on the new oak (and possibly the Mega Purple too). That may fool some critics, but discerning ones will simply find the wine overworked and tedious, and say so in their review.
I think a certain steadfast attitude is necessary for a winemaker, as it is for all of us in every aspect of our lives. One should not fear letting the wine be what it wants to be, just because it might not get 97 points. If winemakers need scores to market their wines, they should know that there are many critics around who can appreciate a lighter-bodied, more elegant wine just as much as a big, heavy one. Winemaking at the highest levels should be all about what the terroir wants to express, guided perhaps by the winemaker’s hand, but gently.
If the winemaker who wrote me those comments reads this, I’d tell him not to worry, not to apologize, to stand tall and respect the values that got him into winemaking in the first place. I’m sure that, 25 years ago, he didn’t stress out over scores. He doesn’t have to today. His wines are respected in the right venues, and so is he.