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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 day in the life: My trip to Santa Maria Valley

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Woke up at 6:30 on a gloomy, foggy Saturday morning at the lovely Radisson in Santa Maria, so close to the airport that, walking Gus, I could see the ghostly forms of little planes sulking on the grey tarmac, across a weed-choked lot. Gus kept smelling the gopher holes but nothing came out to smell him back, fortunately.

The hotel is bursting with tourists. They don’t seem to be wine people. Everybody smiles as Gus trots by, off leash, staying loyally by my side. I stash Gus in the room while I grab some eggs and bacon and much-needed coffee. The line for the single toaster is so long, I decide to forgo my English muffin. Ah, the joys of the on-the-road hotel buffet. Two cups of java later, I am sufficiently fueled to get through the day.

It’s still too early to leave for my first appointment, so, back in the room, I flop back and leaf through the new Tasting Panel magazine. Fattest I’ve ever seen it: Life is good for Andy Blue and Meredith May. See Karen MacNeil’s column, a bit of poesy on the virtues of “place.” A photo of my old buddy, Phillip Pepperdine, whom I met when he was brand ambassador for St.-Germain; now he’s with Bowmore.

More pix of handsome, runway-ready Karl Wente, who seems to be a fixture in Tasting Panel. I always like Fred Dame’s “A Conversation With…” article. This month his guest is Ryan Stetins, somm at Parallel 37 in the S.F. Ritz-Carlton, a restaurant considerably “more approachable” (Fred’s words) than its predecessor, The Dining Room, which always got high marks from the critics but is no longer in tune with the weltanschauung. I personally don’t like it when a waiter puts a napkin in my lap. “Thank you, but I can do that by myself.” The overly-formal clearly is on the way out in favor of cazh (as in casual), which is fine by me. I also always like reading Randy Caparoso’s take on things. This ish, he muses on the 2011 Rutherford Cabs, and comes down loving them. As did I. The conventional wisdom is that 2011 was a tough year (nearly every winemaker I’ve ever talked to about it has called it “challenging”), but I found the Cabs pretty good, especially if they were from hillsides. In retrospect, the vintage was not so awful as is commonly said.

Drive up the 101 a few exits, get off at Betteravia, and head east past Pappy’s Mexican down Santa Maria Mesa Road to Cambria, where I have a nice visit with Denise Shurtleff, the winemaker. Then it’s around the bend to Byron, where I meet up with Jonathan Nagy. He takes me on a tour in his truck of the Santa Maria Bench, the uplifted, northern section of the Santa Maria Valley, about 400-800 feet above sea level, where the alluvial sandy soils are fine and well-drained. As with most benches, this is the tenderloin of the appellation, home to vineyards including Cambria, Bien Nacido and Byron’s Nielson, which was the first modern vineyard (1964) ever planted in Santa Barbara County.

The Santa Maria Valley is remarkably cool despite its southerly latitude because its east-west orientation allows maritime air to funnel in. This photo of Jonathan looks toward the west;

 

NagyBench

you can see that fog out there by the Guadalupe Dunes, about 20 miles away. The bench itself is called that because it resembles a bench: The Tepusquet Ranges are the upright back, the seat itself is where most of the vineyards are, and then there’s a big dropoff, which you can see in this picture,

 

dropff

of about 200 feet, down to the Sisquoc River. This shot shows the bench from below.

Below

After my visit, I drove out to the Guadalupe Dunes, on the beach.

Dunes

The nearby little town of Guadalupe, pop. 715, is pretty basic. The interesting thing is how the wind starts howling in every day around noon or so. This picture shows Old Glory flapping stiffly towards the east.

 

Flag

That same wind sweeps into the Santa Maria Valley and is why it’s a cool place (in both senses of the word) for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah. Around 3 p.m. the fog starts piling in, carried in on the winds.

 

Fog

(Sorry about the sideways thing!)

It’s a very dramatic effect. Unfortunately, and from my experience of many years, few people really understand the Santa Maria Valley; in fact, it’s the least understood major Cru in California. The valley itself has few if any nice places to stay or eat, unlike the more famous Santa Ynez Valley to the southeast. Consequently, even wine writers don’t get there much on their junkets. Ditto for sommeliers. We’ll be having an event on Dec. 2 down in L.A. on the Santa Maria Valley and bench, in order to let folks know what’s going on. I’ll be writing more about this later.

It is odd, by the way, that I’m taking notes on my Santa Barbara trip in a Napa Valley Vintners notebook. It’s because I have about a million of them. Memo to Napa Vintners: The spiral is really tough on us left-handers.

 

NapaBook

Anyhow, after Guadalupe, it was back to the Radisson, where I ended the day with a perfectly fine dinner of crab cakes and Ahi tuna salad in the hotel restaurant, followed by my fave, a vodka gimlet with freshly squeezed lime juice at the bar, which even had a decent three-piece rock band. I sometimes complain about life on the road, but you know what? I kinda like it, especially when Gus is with me.

Gus


To Santa Maria Valley, and my dinner at RN74

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Off to Santa Barbara today, for a quick trip to the Santa Maria Valley and Cambria and Byron. I always like traveling through coastal wine country, especially at this time of the year; as you pass by the Santa Lucia Highlands, and the vast stretches of southern Monterey and the San Bernabe Vineyard – as you zip through the Central Coast, with Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley just to the east, marked by the Seven Sisters – as you come into Los Alamos and the vineyards pick up again, sprawling on both sides of the road – you get a real sense of the terroir of the coast. Always just to the west is the mighty Pacific. Sometimes you can see it, sometimes the road curls too far inland, cutting the ocean off from sight; but always you can feel it in the cool winds, and I swear I can smell it, a sort of ionized, salt-laden scent that reminds me of Manzanilla sherry.

This sense of terroir is very different from the more technical analyses that we writers love to engage in, but to get a more generalized sense of the lay of the land – one which you feel subtly in your fingertips but can’t precisely define – is perhaps the more important way to understand terroir. The emotive and intuitive sense always has been important in a thorough understanding of wine. I had dinner last night with the Master Sommelier, Sur Lucero, who spoke of perceiving wine in terms of colors and shapes. I, myself, do not. When it came my turn to describe what we were drinking, I turned to human characteristics, for different wines always remind me of different sorts of people. There are shy, reticent wines, boastful wines, wines of elegance and charm. There are common wines, rude and ill-raised; then there are what I can wines of breed. We drank, courtesy of the sommelier at RN74, an older Burgundy, a Latricieres-Chambertin, whose vintage was unknown; the label bearing the year had fallen off. Sur guessed it to be 1985. It was a magnificent specimen that changed constantly in the glass, never drying out even after several hours but always gaining in force. With beef tartare it was excellent; ditto with gnocchi, and at the end of the meal, when the server brought a little plate of chocolates and other sweet dainties, that Burgundy was a fine partner. As I ate my first little chocolate and sipped the wine, and before I could say anything, Sur observed – correctly – “Stripped away the fruit, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” I replied, “but still a good pairing.” With the fruit, which was massive, now having receded, one could appreciate the wine’s structure even more. Sur seemed to like that, so I continued. There is a concept, I told him, of being raised properly by one’s parents, to be kind and respectful to everyone, King and servant alike. I always had been struck by interviews with people who met Queen Elizabeth. “Such a nice lady” is the usual take. “Puts you at your ease. So easy to talk with.” This is the sign of good breeding. In the same way, that red Burgundy got along with every food I had it with. I’m sure someone could have come up with something it clashed with, but it was a wine whose very universality was perhaps its greatest recommendation. A wine like that possesses, not so much a distinct personality, as the absence of a personality: it is the Platonic ideal of wine, and as such embraces, with love, any food with which wine, even theoretically, can be enjoyed. For that reason it was what some people call a conceptual wine.

At any rate, it was a lovely evening, and even though Sur and I didn’t agree 100% of the time on things like In Pursuit of Balance, I was very grateful to benefit from his take on wine. He also has a great (if frightening and sobering) personal story of the Napa earthquake.

Have a great weekend!


Vintage 2014, and California declares war on small wineries

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With the first (light) rain of the season expected tomorrow (today, as you read this) north of the Golden Gate Bridge, I thought it was a good time to consider the 2014 vintage in California. So, as usual, I asked my loyal Facebook friends, who responded in force.

The story is this: short, compressed harvest. Record early, in many cases a month before normal. (This means that Autumn rains should not be a problem. If they actually come, which everyone is hoping they will.) A good crop, tonnage-wise, not a record, but then, it comes on the heels of two record-setting years (2012, 2013).

Quality? Overall, pretty good. The wines should be plump and approachable. Several people commented on soft acids, but that can be corrected in the winery. On the other hand, others remarked about high acidity, which also can be corrected, partially, through the malolactic fermentation. The exceptional drought has resulted in small berries but that should make for intense flavors.

Potential problems? Smoke taint tops the list. The Sierra Foothills have been hit heavy by wildfires. So has the extreme North Coast, but that smoke drifts down to the south. A second potential issue is that the warmth, combined with the drought, has resulted in fairly high sugars, especially in reds, but true phenolic ripeness lags a bit behind. I wouldn’t call this a statewide problem but it could result in some structural and balance problems. In a few cases, the crush rush could be a challenge for vintners running out of cellar space.

Several respondents commented on the inverted order of picking, with Cabernet coming in earlier than Pinot and some of the whites, a situation that has vintners scratching their heads, and which may be due to the drought.

Overall, the mood among vintners is positive. I’d call 2014 the third year in a row where there’s more cause to celebrate.

* * *

I must say I find this story disturbing. In brief, the State of California has fined a local winery for using volunteers. Seems the winery didn’t pay them wages, or worker’s comp, so Sacramento has cracked down with a fine so heavy, it looks like it will put this little family winery, in business since 1986, out of business.

The story was so preposterous, I called the winery to see if it’s true. I spoke with Westover Winery’s owner, Bill Smyth, who confirmed it. “The State is out of control,” he told me. What will happen now? “We’ll go out of business, 900 of our club members and thousands of customers will lose, and wineries all over California will be devastated.” Bill contacted his state assemblyman, who’s calling for hearings to “do something,” Bill says. But what exactly can be done isn’t clear.

What were the volunteers doing? “The same things as they do at all other wineries: work behind the bar, making wine,” Bill says. They’re friends of the winery who loved participating.

I’ve volunteered at wineries. I’ve punched down, cleaned tanks and worked in the vineyard, and enjoyed and learned from it. There’s something seriously wrong with this development. I hope things work out for Bill Smyth, and I hope that the California Legislature changes the law to allow volunteers to work at wineries. And how about Wine Institute? Guys, it’s time for you to use your clout in the State Capitol.


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!


The World Wine Guys on their new book

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Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, “the World Wine Guys,” have a new book out, Wines of California: The Comprehensive Guide, with a foreward by Michael Mondavi and a preface by Kevin Zraly. It’s quite good, certainly the best of the genre in a long time, and a useful companion for the wine lover’s bookshelf. We met up yesterday at one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants, Chaya, where, over sushi and wine, we had a little chat. Mike and Jeff are, of course, the entertainment and lifestyle editors at my old stomping ground, Wine Enthusiast, so we’ve been buddies for years.

SH: Why another California wine book? It seems like there’s been a lot of them recently.

MD: Actually, it’s been a long time since there was a comprehensive California wine book.

JJ: The last book was by James Laube, back in 1995, California Wine, but it was really focused on Napa and Sonoma.

MD: There’s a number of books that have covered specific regions, or a specific area, for example The New California Wine, which covered some of the new producers. We wanted to cover the entire state, top to bottom, Mendocino down to Temecula. And we wanted to create a book that reaches people in different ways, because there’s geography, history, there’s an explanation of AVAs, major grapes, up-and-coming grapes, and specific listings on wineries we consider to be the most notable in the state.

SH: You guys live in New York, but you’re in San Francisco for your book tour. Where else are you going?

JJ: Wow. Besides San Francisco, there’s New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and Boston. We’re really excited. It’s a big book tour.

SH: Do you like being on the road?

JJ: I love it. We’ll be traveling today, back to New York, then flying back here to go out to Lodi, where the winegrowers have invited us to do a party out there. Then Saturday night, we’ll be at Ordinaire

SH: In my neighborhood!

JJ: So for all your readers in the area, please come down to Oakland and see us.

SH: You guys started as lifestyle writers and now you’re doing wine.

MD: We like to do both. If you look at the book, we have interviews with wine people, but we also have recipes from noted wine country chefs. So we really do straddle the lifestyle, because wine in a vacuum might be more for your collector, but really, I think wine should be enjoyed with food, and with friends.

SH: Finally, what’s next for World Wine Guys?

MD: We’re actually working on another cookbook and another wine book. I’m not going to say what it is; we’ve done the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve done California. Next time, we’re doing something that’s more general, but we’ll talk about that when the time is right! And we’re working on a couple T.V. projects. We have a lot of stuff going on.

The World Wine Guys will be at Ordinaire Wine Shop and Wine Bar, 3354 Grand Ave., Oakland, this Saturday, Sept. 20.

Mike&Jeff
That’s Jeff on the left, Mike on the right


Thinking about tasting

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Lots of food for thought in the Fall 2014 issue of Wine & Spirits, which is devoted to “The art and science of wine tasting.” There’s so much thoughtful content, I could write a post on each sentence. Surely that’s the mark of a good wine magazine.

The fun starts with editor Josh Greene explaining why he never pursued a Master of Wine certification. Although Wine & Spirits is rather M.S.- and sommelier-oriented (IMHO), Josh says his mind isn’t geared toward “dissecting wine.” Instead, he’s interested in what he calls “pattern recognition,” a softer, more intuitive way of experiencing wine. This leads him to be struck by “how many ways there are to approach wine.” Amen brother!

This multiplicity of approaches is nicely illustrated early on, in a section in which a couple dozen wine pros describe how they “improved their game.” These include Master Somms, MWs, restaurateurs and retailers, critics and writers. Their individual approaches are all over the board, as you’d expect, but a read-through of them all suggests two over-arching themes that are inextricably at odds with each other. These are:

  1. a focus on, indeed practically an obsession with, identifying precise food-related aromas and flavors, versus
  2. a tendency to pooh-pooh this approach in favor of something broader, which we can call “structure.”

In the first grouping, we might place Josiah Baldovino (Bay Grape, Oakland, and former lead somm at Michael Mina). He looks for “the nuances of wine. Not just, ‘this wine is fruity,’ but: ‘What kind of fruit is it? Citrus, stone fruit, orchard, tropical…maybe durian?’” Also in this group is another sommelier, Geoff Kruth, M.S.: “When I taste blind,” he writes, “I don’t worry about what the wine is; I worry about understanding the underlying aromas and flavors…”.

In the second group, the structuralists, there’s Eric Asimov (The New York Times): “The precise specifics of the flavors and the aromas [are] unimportant. The notion that we must challenge our senses to concoct a list of overly specific references…does not convey much of significance.”

Well, you can’t get any more opposite that those two points of view! My own tendency conforms toward that of Eric and Josh Greene. I veer also toward the approach taken by Patricio Tapia, a Wine & Spirits critic, who “realize[d] that I should be approaching wine in terms of structure rather than aromas. I’d never been particularly good at discovering roses or wild cherries in my glass…”.

We have to ask, at this point, if the reason some people (Asimov, Greene, Tapia, me) shy away from “overly specific references” is because we’re simply not very good at finding them (as Tapia concedes) or because we’re philosophically opposed to that methodology. To doubt oneself is an implicit part of the wine critiquing business. Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, from Champagne Louis Roederer, calls describing wine “a true act of humility,” while David Lynch, at St. Vincent Tavern & Wine Merchant (San Francisco), quotes Pio Boffa, of Pio Cesare: “When it comes to wine, I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance.”

Knowing one’s own ignorance can be scary, especially for those in the public eye who are expected to know everything. Josh Greene, for instance, in explicating his “pattern recognition” approach, concedes that another reason he never studied for the M.W. is because “at the time, I feared the M.W. study process.” Who wouldn’t? It’s incredibly rigorous, takes a lot of time, and results most of the time in failure. Why would someone deliberately undertake such a perilous journey when it’s likely to end in an embarrassing (and public) rebuff?

One must then ask the question, What is the point of wine tasting, anyway? An obvious answer is that some people are paid to do it. But wine tasting—the kind practiced by the people interviewed by Wine & Spirits—is a very odd, even unnatural practice. Nobody would do it in real life. If we were simply drinking wine for the purpose it was made—which is to drink it—we all would agree with Paul Draper, who points out that analyzing and comparing is “wasting great wines…instead of enjoying them as they were intended: one or two at a time with friends and good food.”

(“Wasting great wines…” I couldn’t help but recall all the wine I poured down the kitchen sink, after I took my one-ounce tasting pour. I hated to do it—but what was the alternative?)

I think we’ve fallen through the rabbit hole into the “overly specific references” looking-glass world, and we’re not about to climb out of it anytime soon. My personal approach will remain what it was for all those years at Wine Enthusiast: to speak of wines in more or less general terms and refrain from the precious and pompous. To me, the ideal wine review is to give people some idea of the aromas and flavors – of the relative dryness level and acidity, the structure–a little bit of the history of the grape, winemaker or region–to touch on terroir, where appropriate, in order to explain its influence on the wine–and, of course, some recommendations for food. With this latter, too, I want to avoid “overly specific” or exotic references, and keep it veered towards stuff that real people actually make at home. When I review and describe a wine, I do so with a very specific person in mind: that average American wine lover who wants a memorable wine (and food) experience, and wants to know a little more about the wine than he or she otherwise would– nothing that’s going to weigh them down, or make them believe that enjoying wine is super-complicated or only for experts. My way, then, is K.I.S.S., keeping in mind Leonardo da Vinci’s observation that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”


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