I went on a “go with” yesterday. That is (as I just learned) the jargon for a salesperson who calls on an account and brings “someone else” (like me) with him. In this case, I’m the “famous former wine critic” whom most of the accounts have heard of, and whose ratings might even appear on their shelf talkers; apparently, some of them at least like meeting me—a name they previously knew only in print, only now it’s in the flesh.
What I, and other critics like me, used to do is so mystical and mythical to these guys. Many of their questions are basic: How do you assign a numerical rating? What’s the difference between 89 (death) and 90 (glory)? How exactly do you taste? It’s a reflection of the secrecy of so many famous critics that even hard-core industry veterans don’t understand. I don’t think I, personally, am guilty of obfuscation, since in this blog I’ve explained every detail of how I did everything, over and over, for more than six years. But in all objectivity, I don’t think most other critics have been similarly straightforward, and that’s a shame.
I’ve always said I like the sales and marketing aspect of this business. The sales guys, in particular, fascinated me. These road warriors are out there every day, doing battle with on- or off-premise wine buyers who have heard it all, seen it all, done it all. So in other words, you have two battle-hardened guys, sellers and buyers, meeting on the playing field, and may the best man win.
One of the reasons why I took this job at Jackson Family Wines was, obviously, because it’s a great company, with the greatest portfolio of family-owned wines in California, maybe in all the world, IMHO. It was easy for me, in the comfort of my own home, to review their wines and form impressions of Stonestreet, Cambria, Edmeades, Hartford, Cardinale and all the rest, and know in my mind how good they were.
But the seller-buyer relationship is totally different, as I learned up close and personal yesterday. The sales guy I teamed with, Charlie, and I covered 150 miles of Bay Area freeways going from account to account at upscale wine stores. One thing I learned: you have to be very patient at dealing with traffic and driving long distances if you’re going to do sales! Another thing: each account is different. I mean, in terms of their personalities. One guy will be all business: no small talk here. Another might be just the opposite. One of our calls was a guy who majored in history at U.C. Berkeley. I asked him what his specialty was, and he said Post World War II Italy. Well, I’m a WWII freak, and the book I’m currently reading is a biography of Galleazo Ciano, Italy’s foreign minister during the war, and Mussolini’s son-in-law to boot: Ciano’s diaries (which I have), smuggled out of Italy during the war despite the Gestapo’s attempts to find them, did much to shed light—damaging and embarrassing light—on the Hitler-Mussolini relationship. Anyhow, that led to a long conversation between me and the sales guy that had nothing to do with wine—although we did return to that subject. The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve always valued relationships in this industry, and it’s fascinating to meet such a varied range of people with so many different interests and points of view.
I valued yesterday’s experience. It enriched my life, and helps me more deeply understand this complex thing we call the wine industry—such a multi-faceted thing, so driven by human personality. When I was a critic, I lived in a sort of bubble. I’m not complaining: it was a very pleasant bubble. But a bubble nonetheless. I had the time of my life, but I eventually came to believe that there was more to life, and to me and my career, than being a wine critic. I’m extraordinarily grateful for those years. At the same time, I’m also thoroughly ensconced in, and enjoying, this, my newest adventure.
Alan Balik has written a good analysis of tasting young wines in today’s Napa Register. Here’s my approach, which also is the one I took when I was reviewing California wines at Wine Enthusiast.
I start with the declaration that the best way to determine if a wine is going to age well is by knowing the history of the winery. This is easy in the case of (let’s say for example) a Chateau Latour. We have hundreds of years of records by wine professionals attesting to Latour’s longevity, so it’s reasonable to state that if a young Latour, from a good vintage, is balanced to begin with, it will age for a very long time.
In California, of course, we have nothing comparable to Latour’s history. The best we can do is turn to a winery like Beaulieu. Its Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon has been around since the mid-1930s, and we know—well, I know, because I’ve been to multiple vertical tastings of it—that the wine also ages beautifully. It’s pretty much of a slam dunk for its first fifteen years. After that, it gets spottier due to vintage variations and the condition of the individual bottle. But still, it’s safe to predict fifteen years on a good Private Reserve, despite all the changes in vinification, etc. that have occurred over the decades.
Now let’s say that somebody plants a new vineyard right next to Beaulieu’s, in Rutherford. We’ll call it Chateau Gus. They make a Cabernet that’s pretty much identical to Private Reserve in style. Will it age? If we knew nothing else about the wine, we’d have to hedge our bets, wouldn’t we, and say something like “It seems like this should age well, but given the wine’s absence of any provenance, we can’t guarantee it.” However, if we knew it was right next door to Beaulieu, that would increase the odds of the wine aging well.
So far, so good. Now, let’s make things a little more complicated. Let’s take a wine like Jonata’s El Alma de Jonata Red, a Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. It’s an extraordinary wine—I gave the 2007 96 points when I reviewed it in late 2012—but it’s from a place in the Santa Ynez Valley that has almost no history whatsoever of growing great, ageworthy red Bordeaux blends. So in my review, I resisted the temptation to predict its longterm future. At that point, when it was a little more than five years old, it was so lovely, it seemed to me there was no point in submitting it to the potential ravages of age.
But maybe that Jonata will march on and on to multi-decade beauty. Who knows? This is the risk of such prognostication. Of course, if I’d advised readers to hold the wine until, say, 2027, it might have been utterly undrinkable by then—but what would an outraged reader do, hunt me down and sue me? The problem of ageability is particularly difficult to determine in a young Pinot Noir, much of which in California comes from wineries that are less than ten years old (and the wines often are made from young vines). I think of the Pinots from the Santa Rita Hills, which are so tangy and delicious. We do have the example of Sanford & Benedict, which I know from personal experience ages well; but this does not necessarily translate to wines from (say) Clos Pepe, Fiddlehead or Sea Smoke, whose clones and vineyard management practices are so different. Are these twenty year wines? Ten year wines? I have no problem feeing reasonably certain that they’re six year wines, maybe even eight—but predicting them into their second decade seems to me to be much more perilous.
Anyway, most Americans don’t age wines for a long time. Most of the people I know live in cities, which means apartments or condos. They may have a temperature-controlled storage unit, but they don’t have anything that could properly be called a cellar, so even if they wanted to store a wine for twenty years, they couldn’t. Winemakers understand the realities of modern-day America, and are crafting their wines accordingly. Tannin management methodology enables them to produce wines that are drinkable right out of the bottle, or at any rate within a couple of years. And what does “drinkable” mean, anyhow? A wine that’s tannic and acidic when young might melt deliciously with pork belly, making aging irrelevant.
If wine tasters could be categorized into political categories, I guess you’d call me a liberal. By that, I mean that all wines have the right to be taken seriously, in terms of their own aspirations and self-identity. No wine should be automatically dismissed because it’s inexpensive. As in the case of Justice, the only fair way to evaluate a wine is to do it blind.
This is why I never did turn into a snob, even after 25 years in the trenches as a wine critic. Sure, I could appreciate Harlan, or Colgin or Screaming Eagle, and when I rated them, it was usually with high scores. And while I didn’t formally review non-California wines, for the better part of two decades I tasted every one of the world’s most valuable wines, from Romanée-Conti and Grange Hermitage to Guigal’s LaLas, Petrus and the First Growths. I completely understood what it took to produce wines of that quality and complexity, and I rewarded them accordingly.
But I always could also appreciate a good, affordable wine. I never shuddered just because something was produced in high volume, or because it wasn’t an elite, estate-bottled wine. That didn’t bother me, anymore than it bothers me that some of my neighbors in Oakland are rich while others are struggling and poor. I just felt you have to take everyone for what they are. And that’s how I feel about wine.
My career as a critic was shaped by this attitude. It was reinforced by the basic philosophy of Wine Enthusiast. The magazine could have gone in a direction of elitism, the way the competition did, but very early on the decision was taken to make it more of a “people’s” magazine than one for collectors. This is a tricky game to play if you hope to be taken seriously by wine buffs. On the one hand, you don’t want to present yourself as ignorant and pedestrian, devoid of the taste and discernment required to appreciate great wine. On the other hand, you don’t want “ordinary” wine drinkers, whom you respect, to feel left out of the conversation. You want to appeal to both the aspirational crowd and the folks who are just looking for a nice $12 wine without turning off either side.
If I had any doubts about my approach, they were dispelled through blind tasting. There were times, in large flights, I preferred a $25 wine to a $250 wine. At first, that was a humbling, almost embarrassing experience. But after a while, I grew to expect it. It was almost a badge of honor, because it proved that I hadn’t been mesmerized by labels, or reputations, or whatever trend was then in vogue. Some of my readers will know exactly what I mean when I remind them that some very famous “palates” have been hoisted on their own petards through blind tasting, when what they said was contradicted by what they actually found.
If I had to choose between drinking only expensive wine or inexpensive wine for the rest of my life, I’d choose the former. Fortunately, I don’t have to. If I had a magic wand, I’d wave it around and try to change the attitude of elitists who will only drink this, or that, or something else, and tell everyone else to do the same. That’s what the writer Michael Gerson calls “the soft bigotry of expectations,” which means: You’ve made up your mind about the wine before you even taste it.
While we’re on the subject of storytelling (we are, in case you haven’t been reading steveheimoff.com lately), let’s consider the role of personality in a story. “A personality” is what people call a person who isn’t bland or forgettable, but instead someone who impresses himself on others through the sheer force of—well, personality.
Keep in mind the origins of our word “personality”: from the Latin persona, literally, “an actor’s face mask.” While each human being by definition has a “personality” (in the sense of a collection of personal characteristics), I’m more interested in what we mean when we say of someone, “He’s a real personality,” as Jennifer Garner did of Matthew McConaughey, her co-star in Dallas Buyers Club. “He’s a fantastic actor and he’s a real personality and he’s charismatic as hell,” she said in an interview.
“He’s a real personality” is also how a sports commentator referred to former Packers quarterback Brett Favre.
Clearly something more than just a collection of traits is going on here; people who impress us as “real personalities” have extra qualities that grab our attention and make us remember them—for better or for worse. That, I think, is the key to understanding the remark yesterday by a Tuscan winery owner concerning Chianti’s top-tier classification, Gran Selezione.
“The problem,” said Lorenzo Zonin, “was that Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva were almost a commodity, wines that didn’t have such a strong personality, so they said we have to find a way to give a value to such products that are outstanding.”
“Strong personality?” Is Mr. Zonin talking about the wine’s organoleptic qualities, or is he talking about the perception of the wine among the critical community and consumers? I confess I don’t know, but this meme of “personality” in wine ties in nicely to the storytelling aspect that has enveloped wine lately. It seems that every winery—and its marketing team—wants consumers to form a personal bond with the wine—as if they have a stake in it. This is the elusive “personality” of the wine that makes it distinct from every other wine.
Does having “a personality” add value to a wine? Why? Is it because the wine really does have objectively valuable extra qualities, or is it because the winery says it does? This is the eternal question.
I asked it six years ago, five years ago, four, three and two years ago, and I’m asking it now. And it’s not just me: That bastion of U.S. capitalism itself, the Wall Street Journal, is asking the same question. Under a five-column headline in last Monday’s Marketplace section, they wondered “What is all that data worth?” (The online version of the article has a slightly different headline.)
The “data” they’re referring to comes from “companies [that] traffic in information and use big-data analytic tools to find ways to generate revenue.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been the underlying theme of every conversation about the revenue-generating possibilities of using social media.
We know beyond a doubt that the metrics of social media use are huge. Everybody is Facebooking, tweeting, Instagramming, pinning and so on. They’re liking and following and retweeting each other like crazy. For this reason, wine companies feel, with “the fierce urgency of now,” that they have to get onboard, before the train leaves the station. And indeed, as I’ve argued for many years, wineries should board that train. As I’ve suggested to anyone who’s ever asked (and quite a few who haven’t), winery personnel should engage in social media to the extent they feel capable of doing it.
But what I’ve wondered since Day One is what all these metrics, which are easy enough to obtain, mean. Reach, followers, friends, engagement, acquisitions, referrals, hits, unique visitors, bounce rates, click-through rates, conversions and all other ways to track activity—companies, including wineries, are pursuing them with a vengeance. Yet “The problem is that no one really knows what all that information is worth,” says the Wall Street Journal article.
Such data is called an “intangible asset” because, unlike real estate, durable equipment and money in the bank, it has no objective value. This is not to suggest that data is valueless. As the article explains, data has value because “it allows [companies] to tailor their products and marketing to consumer preferences.” For wineries, though, what does this mean? It’s not at all clear that counting your Twitter followers, or measuring your online engagement rate, suggests anything at all in terms of strategy. “The squishy world of intangibles,” writes the Wall Street Journal, means that “Data is worthless if you don’t know how to use it to make money.”
That statement is patently true on its face. But there’s a more fundamental question: What if social media data, in and of itself, is incapable of being used to make money? Even if real-time data gives you some true insight into your (potential) customer’s online behavior, “Information on individual users loses value over time as they move or their tastes change,” making data “a perishable commodity.” Data looks real and solid enough: after all, what can seem more representative of reality than numbers on a page or screen?
But as we all know, statistics can be slippery or, to use the Journal’s word, “squishy.” I used to get in trouble with some of social media’s adherents by asking them how they “knew” that engaging in social media made money. The answer always was a form of “We can’t prove it, but we somehow believe it.” Occasionally, someone would cite a winery that was doing social media bigtime and whose sales were rising. But even if the connection between doing social media and selling cases could be established directly (which it couldn’t), I always wondered if the winery’s success had legs—if it could be replicated over time, because, after all, any winery can have a good quarter, but wind up on the butcher’s block.
Lest any of this be interpreted to suggest that I don’t think social media has value, or that every winery shouldn’t be exploring it, let me go on the record: If you’re a wine company, you should be doing social media. Period. End of story. What I am saying—or, really, asking—is the same question I’ve posed since 2008: What is all that data worth? If you don’t like the question don’t blame me, blame the Wall Street Journal’s headline writers for coming up with it in the business paper of record.
Back in 1999, a wine writer, Randall Murray, called Sangiovese “the next Merlot,” by which he meant that the red grape native to Tuscany was poised to become one of the leading red wines of California.
Never happened, did it? Actually, by 1999, Sangiovese already had one foot in the grave. Ten years prior, one might have been forgiven for betting on it, but by the approach of the new Millennium, I think most of us knew that Sangiovese was in trouble in California.
Sangiovese in California was, in fact, a trend. Those who invested heavily in it, like Piero Antinori, failed to make good their hopes. Another more recent trend might be Moscato. After an amazing leap to prominence in the previous decade, sales of the wine were off dramatically last year, compared to the previous two years. Will the growers who installed so much Moscato regret their decision in 2020? If they do, it will be because, by then, we’ll know that Moscato was yet another trend.
This is the risk growers face. How do they know what variety has staying power? It’s quite easy to know when something is not a trend. Pinot Noir is not a trend. The wine company that invests in Pinot acreage in prime growing areas can be confident it is making a wise decision. It’s a lot harder to know when something is a trend. Growers exist in a tense world torn always between the realities of the past, the urgency of the present, and the exigencies of an unpredictable future. Granted, if they make a mistake, they can always graft their vines over to another variety. But this still causes them to lose precious years of productive time and money.
The ability to tell the difference between a trend and a real paradigm shift extends beyond the wine industry into all areas of retail. Companies have always hoped to cash in on trends (baby products, skincare, technology and fashion are among the top exemplars in this category). Apple Computer obviously succeeded better than anyone else in tech in trendspotting. In the fast-changing culture of 21st century America, where nothing seems fixed and permanent anymore, you might think CEOs are constantly looking for the next trend. But in what the Wall Street Journal is calling “a broader shift in retail,” more and more companies are showing “a preference for operators over trend spotters,” causing them to seek leaders “whose strength is in the nuts and bolts of retailing rather than flashy merchandising.”
The word “operators” refers to the operational skills of CEOs and their teams: the ability to actually move product, in a nation in which the middle class is uncertain and online shopping threatens traditional retail. Under such circumstances, it may only be natural for company leaders to take more conservative positions than in boom times, when experimenting on trendy new products—flashy merchandise–makes more sense because everyone has more money, and a company can afford a temporary setback. Nowadays, even a temporary setback may be a company’s tomb. Since one can never predict the future, and the success or failure of strategies can be measured only in retrospect, it’s too early to say whether or not this new, back-to-basics approach is not itself a trend.
For the wine industry, the portents are hard to read. A smart wine company cannot assume that what seems popular today will be popular in five years. At the same time, the smart winery can’t bury its head in the sand, ignoring evidence that things are changing. Success is always a matter partly of luck, but also of wise planning and an uncanny sense of what the future will bring; and planning itself involves no small degree of risk. My own advice to wine companies is to resist being seduced by the allures of current trends; what has worked in the past is likely to work in the future. If you’ve been doing something well for a long time, and there’s something glittery on the horizon that makes you worry because some people are all mesmerized by it, take measured steps. Don’t take the glitter for granted: check it out, understand it, be smart in analyzing what is it and where you think it’s going. But don’t make a wholesale leap and change your entire strategy just to ride a trend. If you do, you risk becoming the next Sangiovese.
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.
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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.