What do you do when you’re tasting wine with a novice in a tasting room, and there are points you want to make—and the other person says something about the wine that you don’t understand?
Over the weekend I worked a shift at the Murphy-Goode tasting room, the second time I ever did that (the first was last month, at Kendall-Jackson), and I found there’s a very typical kind of taster: perhaps a little younger, enthusiastic, friendly, curious, there to learn about wine, open-minded in a way that older folks may not be. My approach is, I’m not going to do a hard sell. I’m not going to lecture them with some pre-set spiel. I’m going to find out where their interests lie—what direction of thought their mind is going in—what sorts of things they might want to learn more about. And then I’ll take it from there.
So, with this one guy, we were tasting a reserve Zinfandel, and we had it following the winery’s other tiers of Zin, Liar’s Dice and Snake Eyes. These three tiers are absolutely rational in terms of price and quality (which you can’t always say about tiers). I had joked with the guy (he was a firefighter), “I’m going to test you after we try the three Zins, and I’ll ask you how you perceive the reserve versus the other wines.” After we tasted the reserve, I asked him again to compare it to the first two. He was silent for a moment, thinking, and then he said, “The reserve is more consistent.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, because “consistent” isn’t a word I normally use to describe a wine. It’s more of a term I’d use to describe a wine that’s pretty much the same year in and year out from the winery (in which case, consistency is a good thing). But I don’t know I’d call an individual glass of wine “consistent.”
So I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Well, with the other wines, the flavors were kind of all over the place, but this one is more consistent.” And I thought to myself, “You know, it’s not how I would phrase it, but I kind of see what he means.” That made me really happy: the guy wasn’t using language that I’d use, but he was talking about the wine, describing it, in a way that perhaps was beyond his usual comfort zone.
I had wanted to point out that the wine was more full-bodied, richer and more complex than the other wines—more multi-layered. But I didn’t want to step on his remark: I wanted to understand how what he meant by “consistent” might actually be the same thing I meant by “more complex.” So I told him, “I know! You’re exactly right. It is more consistent.”
Now, in a certain sense, that was not an entirely true statement, because, as I said, “consistent” is not an adjective I would use under those circumstances. But I thought I knew what he meant by it, and what he meant was the same thing I meant, which was the thing I was trying to point out that actually made it a better Zinfandel, which justified its higher price.
I wondered where to go from there (I’m basically winging it). I didn’t think he wanted a whole lot of blah blah technical non-sequitors from me. And, having done this only twice, I don’t really have what you can call a “tasting room approach” (if there is one). So I said, “Do you know, achieving that sort of consistency is one of the hardest things to do for the winemaker?” Since he knew what he meant by consistency (and it was clear he really liked the wine), I figured we could build on his understanding of it by me describing some of the steps that go into making a very good wine: the terroir of the vineyard, the age of the vines, controlling the yield, and so on. It’s not an accident that a wine is “consistent.” I could tell he was really into it by now. After a while, when he went away, he thanked me, with a big smile on his face. He had learned, not only that different wines made from the exact same grape variety can vary in quality, but why, and that is something he’ll carry with him for the rest of his life.
This scares me: “Calvin Lee, a graphic designer, is a massive tweeter. ‘I really can’t stop,’ he joked. In Twitterland, Lee has become a rock star. ‘I’ve gone through life wondering what my ‘thing’ would be. I believe I’ve found it.’ Lee describes himself as a ‘social media ho. I tweet at least 200 times a day.’ He has been quite successful, amassing nearly 80,000 followers. ‘I was not very popular in high school,’ Lee says, ‘but now I’m like the big jock on campus.’ Lee’s growing influence has won him celebrity-status perks. In addition to a free Virgin Airlines flight to Toronto, brands have reached out to him and provided
- a brand new Audi A8 to test drive for a week
- hundreds of dollars in gift cards
- a pass to a House of Blues VIP event
- a free Samsung Focus smartphone
- flight, hotel and meals to attend an exclusive conference
- eight passes to the VH1 Do Something Awards
“Anybody has a chance to experience life on the other side of the velvet rope. Anyone who is willing to work for it…can have true celebrity status and all the associated perks.”
The writer of all this is Mark W. Schaefer, whom I met while we were both on a recent panel. This quotes are from his new book, “Return on Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring, and Influence Marketing.”
[I edited the above remarks for brevity.]
I suppose if I were looking for the poster child of what I consider the dark side of social media, it would be this. Not Calvin Lee so much: he seems like a nice, ordinary dude who’s enjoying his cool new freebies. No, it would be Mr. Schaefer, who celebrates Mr. Lee’s “accomplishments” as though they were right up there with achieving something real and lasting and contributory to society, not to mention providing Mr. Lee with an actual living.
I don’t gainsay Mr. Lee having his fun. I understand the world of swag. I don’t think I ever did anything egregious, but heaven knows I’ve had some freebies in my day. However, two points: (a) I never exulted over them, nor considered them my ‘thing,’ and (b) I always understood they were irrelevant from the point of view of making a living. Test-driving an Audi and going to the House of Blues are fun, I suppose, but at the end of the day, I still need a paycheck to pay the bills. So what exactly does “being a tremendous success at social media and having a high Klout score” really mean to a person’s life? Maybe Mr. Lee has found his ‘thing,’ and that’s fine, if by ‘thing’ he means a hobby, like following the San Jose Sharks or collecting Pez containers. Everybody should have a nice, interesting hobby.
But to treat this kind of addiction to social media—especially if it’s fueled by the hope of getting free stuff—as an admirable goal for a young person, is troubling. This is not something I think young people should view as an attractive potential way of making a living or spending one’s time; nor do I think it’s healthy for the larger society. In fact, it can be downright detrimental to making a living. If you work in an office, can you really tweet 200 times a day (not to mention all the other online activities you’re probably engaged in) without your co-workers feeling some resentment that they’re carrying your work load? Wouldn’t your boss object? How would you concentrate on your work, anyway? I don’t know Mr. Lee, but he seems like one of the people I see on the sidewalks of Oakland or San Francisco coming towards me with their heads down, eyes fixed on their smartphones: I’m the one who has to get out of the way to avoid a bodily collision.
I don’t mean to entirely disparage Mr. Schaefer’s thesis that an “epidemic of influence” by a new group of “Citizen Influencers” has the capability of reshaping our society in certain admirable ways. I love it that the street demonstrations in Tahrir Square, tweeted around the world, helped topple an ossified government in Egypt, or that instant “citizen reporting” from disaster zones informs people what’s happening before the mainstream media even knows it. When Occupy Oakland was at its peak, I was in the middle of it, tweeting like mad, and people were thanking me for giving them the news before they got it anyplace else. I love staying in touch with my family and friends online, anytime, anywhere. I’m glad social media is in my life.
But we’re talking about apples and oranges. There is a positive, plus side to Twitter and a side that should concern us all, when it turns into the mindless addiction to constant tweeting with the expectation of “celebrity perks” that, in the end, are worthless from a moral, family and human perspective. Is crashing the “velvet rope” to some kind of faux-“celebrity status” really what Millennials aspire to? If Mr. Lee reads this, I hope you find a “thing” that’s more productive and lastingly satisfying than tweeting 200 times a day. It may mean less swag, but it could lead to a fuller life and a better job, and you might even discover that your neighbors are real people worth knowing.
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.