A comment on marketing, after receiving the latest Bordeaux hype from a press release

 

You know, I understanding marketing. When a winery or wine region touts itself as the “best ever,” or “greatest vintage,” or simply uses self-reverential language that makes it sound like it’s sitting at the right hand of God, it’s merely putting its best foot forward in a formal situation—as most of us do.

Say you’re at a job interview, or maybe meeting your new boyfriend’s family for the first time. Of course you’re going to be charming and try to impress these people with what a special fellow you are. You might even do a little discrete bragging…nothing too over-the-top, just enough to let them know you’re better than the average bear. After all, as Rabbi Hillel said two thousand years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

But really, there has to be a limit. Bordeaux (echoed by its various supportive critics) has proclaimed vintages of the century so often, we might have to reinvent the concept of “century” in order to accommodate all those special years. Its image, conjuring up marble palaces and royalty, is the nearest thing in winedom to regal. And certainly, the proprietors of Bordeaux chateaux know a thing or two about pulling off the elite act! On the other hand, Napa proprietors who try to mimic the glamor, fashion and mansions of Bordeaux–and they’re out there–are plus royaliste que le roi, more royal than the King. Which makes them tres amusant, although they don’t intend to be.

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A word about the commotion over Justin cutting down those oak trees. I have a long admiration for Justin, one of the icons of Westside Paso Robles. I always liked their wines, and when Justin Baldwin himself owned it, I thought he was a great guy who brought a lot of savvy to a region that needed it.

Now, Justin appears to be experiencing a rather serious backlash because of the tree cutting: restaurants are canceling their accounts and longtime customers say they won’t buy the brand anymore. As one of them noted, in the Paso Robles Daily News, Paso Robles itself is Spanish for “Pass of the Oaks.” Cutting down a bunch of old, beautiful oak trees must hit doubly-hard in that lovely part of Central California.

I couldn’t say if Justin’s ownership was right or wrong. I’ve learned not to take fast positions on topics I haven’t studied. But I can say that the owners, The Wonderful Wine Company, showed surprisingly little foresight into how such a thing would be perceived. This is the age of the Internet, of social media; cutting down those trees provided perfect fodder to the nimbyism that often runs throughout wine country, where people like the rural, scenic ambience and don’t want anybody or anything to mess with it. Surely, the Justin brouhaha testifies to the need to have a public relations consciousness within the enterprise—not necessarily a department, but somebody savvy who can anticipate public reaction and warn management of the potential risks. That does not seem to have been the case at Justin. There are lessons to be learned here for all wineries.

Big Pot: The marijuana industry learns from wine

 

I am astounded how rapidly the marijuana industry is growing into a bona fide, full-fledged business. In fact, it’s starting to look a lot like the wine industry

My marijuana days—and they were many—happened when pot was illegal. You could get arrested for possession of a joint; I knew lots of people who were. We used to try and guess which would be legalized in the U.S. first, pot or gay marriage. I always figured it would be pot. I was wrong, but not by much.

California began the legalization process of medical marijuana back in 1996, but even today, marijuana is not completely legal, as gay marriage is. However, this November, California voters will probably pass the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Initiative, provided it can get enough signatures to make it onto the ballot, which seems likely. And with billions of dollars at stake, entrepreneurs are lining up to grab their fair share of the profits from an industry that—like wine—offers ordinary people pleasurable respite from their daily toils.

The latest evidence of this is an email I got yesterday. It’s from a high-powered investor relations firm, IRP, with offices in L.A., New York, Miami and Hong Kong. The email (you can read it below) was a press release touting a new company, Kush Bottles, a California company (with whom I have no relationship whatsoever, in case you’re wondering) to help “ease the pain and eliminate the headache of entering this fast-growing, opportunistic market.” Kush “provi[des] cannabis companies across the U.S. with market expertise, proper branding and high-quality packaging that satisfies the stringent requirements of the law.”

What strikes me is how high-level all this activity is. Almost overnight, it seems, we’re talking about the stock market (IRP has a lot of NASDAQ clients, and Kush is listed over-the-counter), and a level of complexity to the pot market that requires wannabe players to hire expert advice. The tone of IRP’s press release is extraordinarily similar to the press releases I get everyday from wineries: professional, articulate, and crafted in the public relations jargon language we’ve come to expect from a press release.

The wine industry discovered years ago that if it wants to play in the Big Leagues, it has to do so with bigtime marketing savvy and media relations professionalism. The marijuana industry, now in its infancy, reminds me of Napa Valley wineries in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were owned by visionary but rather naïve people when it comes to business. Wine took decades to go Big Business. Pot took a couple of years, and the way it sells itself is changing overnight. The day of the mom-and-pop pot cultivator is over. Welcome to Big Pot.

Here’s the full text of the IRP email, if you’re interested.

Dear Steve,

My name is redacted and I am contacting you to arrange one of the first interviews with the CEO of Kush Bottles, Inc. (OTCQB: KSHB) – – a rapidly growing Southern California company that is helping entrepreneurs across the U.S. enter the rapidly growing cannabis industry. Nick Kovacevich, the CEO of Kush Bottles is traveling to New York this week and will be available for any live interviews.

Entrepreneurs all over the nation are eager to enter the legal cannabis market, which could approach $9 billion by the end of 2016, according to massive expansion projections in existing medical marijuana markets, which estimate as much as 99% growth.  More states look to implement medical marijuana programs as doctors and researchers continue to uncover the medicinal benefits of cannabis. In addition to the growing medical industry, four states and the District of Columbia have approved recreational/adult-use programs, which further propel the expansion of legal cannabis nationwide.

Unfortunately, cannabis is still one of the most complex industries within the United States. As the laws evolve, new rules are put into place, making it difficult for cannabis businesses to keep up with the challenging regulations that govern legal marijuana. Growers and dispensaries must understand and carefully follow a multitude of laws that govern their business operations. Packaging, branding and labeling represent some of the biggest hurdles that a business must overcome. If any of those elements are mishandled, the business could be fined and/or shut down.

Kush Bottles, a California-based company, publicly-traded under the symbol “KSHB,” on the OTCQB, at approximately $1.35 per share, was founded in 2010 to ease the pain and eliminate the headache of entering this fast-growing, opportunistic market. This forward-thinking startup is a one-stop shop for any business looking to get going in the legal cannabis trade. Using its first-mover advantage, Kush Bottles is providing cannabis companies across the U.S. with market expertise, proper branding and high-quality packaging that satisfies the stringent requirements of the law – all without incurring massive legal fees.  In addition to saving clients thousands of dollars in legal expenses by helping them navigate compliance hurdles, the company also allows their clients to bring in more sales by using proven branding and marketing techniques to help make their products stand out to consumers.

Offering high quality innovative packaging solutions while also providing clients with crucial regulatory insight is the magic formula behind Kush Bottles’ success.  The company has proven its model by continuously growing revenues and posting net profits, which is rarely seen amongst other cannabis-related companies.  Furthermore, as a result of using their regulatory knowledge to help cannabis entrepreneurs achieve compliance, they have built an expansive network of growers, processors, and retailers across the United States.  With over 5000 returning customers to date, Kush Bottles is one of the largest suppliers of packaging and ancillary products for the legal cannabis industry.

We would like to offer you one of the first opportunities to interview Nick Kovacevich, the Company’s Co-Founder and CEO.   Nick has tremendous insight into the challenges that face the legal cannabis industry.  He is always excited to share his vision for helping entrepreneurs overcome these challenges and discuss how Kush Bottles has become the industry-leader in cannabis packaging and branding.

I can be reached via email at psugarman@irpartnersinc.com or via phone at 818-280-6801.

Sincerely,

redacted

Vice President, Media Relations

www.irpartnersinc.com

Is classic marketing an anachronism?

 

I take Reka Haros’s point that there is “deep confusion around the term ‘marketing,’” specifically that marketing all too often is confused with sales and… marketing tactics confused with marketing strategy.” I’ve been in this business for a long time and even I can’t be sure of the differences; but after all, these are only words we use to describe slippery and overlapping concepts. Let me explain.

Haros, a marketing manager who wrote her op-ed piece in the “Trends” blog of the alternative closure company, Nomacorc, identifies three phases of marketing (similar to my five-phase analysis of West Coast Pinot Noir), stretching from the 1950s (think of T.V. automobile commercials of that era), to Marketing 3.0, our present time, when the Internet has empowered people, leading to all sorts of challenges to marketers.

What kinds of challenges? Marketers, says Haros, now need “to access [consumers’] hearts too,” through such concepts as “emotional marketing,” which itself is based on establishing “trust with consumers through identity, integrity, and authentic image.”

I guess I would argue that “emotional marketing” is nothing new. Look at this advertisement, from the Nov. 7, 1960 issue of TIME:

It shows a mom and her little boy, on their way presumably to or from school. The little boy wears a Mackintosh (raincoat to you non-Brits) made of Burlington’s waterproof fabric. The ad capitalizes on the emotional bond between mom and son, on her sense of security that her boy won’t get wet in the rain, on the boy’s innocent trust, and on the “comfort and safety” Burlington Industries provides to Americans in the everyday pursuit of their lives. That is emotional marketing from nearly sixty years ago, right down to the scrawled drawing in the boy’s hand, of a sun shining on a stick-figured little boy much like himself.

The problem with wine marketing today, says Haros, is that the wine industry has “a confused idea” of what it means. She accurately concludes that, too often, social media is used by wine marketers as a strategy, rather than the mere tactic it actually is. Haros also accurately understands that marketing and sales people speak entirely different languages: marketers propose, but sales people dispose; and sales people—hard-driven road warriors, as opposed to the desk-bound creators in marketing–can be “hard to convince.”

For these reasons, Haros concludes that “wine marketing is still in its first stage of evolution.” It is here, however, that she runs out of solutions: it’s easy to diagnose a problem, hard to fix it. Granted that wine marketers need to develop “a long-term vision,” but this is easier said than done. The chief obstacle to this development, as I see things, is that marketing, as classically understood, may be an anachronism. [Italics mine] Marketing used to be based on the [true] assumption that most consumers were idiots who would fall for craftily-conceived campaigns designed to convince them to buy products and services they might not even really need. Using “emotional” and other [misleading] tools, marketing agents could appeal (often subconsciously) to consumers’ secret fears and desires, manipulating them in desirable directions. To refer back to the 1950s again, this approach worked: Marketers (and advertisers) were dealing with a naïve, credulous population that proved over and over again that it could be manipulated, even without being aware of it.

We have now in America, by contrast, an entirely different population, especially the young. No longer naïve, they are suspicious to a fault. No longer credulous, they believe practically nothing, except if their friends believe it. They particularly disbelieve anything deriving from authority. If it’s a billboard, a pop-up ad on the computer screen, a television commercial, a radio pitch between songs, it’s automatically tuned out.

If marketing indeed is as outmoded as rotary phones, then why do wineries still engage in the practice? Because they know that, if they do nothing, the chances are close to zero that they will continue to exist. This is their dilemma: thrust between the devil and the deep blue sea (or a rock and a hard place), they see, on the one hand, the necessity of spending time and money in a practice with no guaranteeable results and, on the other hand, doing nothing, in which case the result is guaranteeable: catastrophe. Given such a choice, it’s easy to see why wineries continue to engage in marketing.

And the truth is, every once in a while, lightning strikes: a marketing tactic actually achieves something. It’s also true, though, that serendipity is probably as effective as marketing; sometimes you just need to be in the right place, at the right time, and then do nothing to screw things up. As for marketing strategy as opposed to tactics, well, it sounds grandiose, but it’s really a unicorn. I’m not big on strategies, which our modern world seems to dismiss.

Can sales succeed without marketing? Probably. If a winery has to choose between the two, obviously sales is vastly more important. You do need a properly educated sales force, one that has at least some grip on the winery’s basic facts and ideas, but this isn’t necessarily hard to do. At some point, though, you have to wonder whether or not classic marketing can be updated to the 21st century, or whether it’s time has come and gone. If there’s a next phase of marketing, I don’t know what it is…and neither do marketers.

Another wine-rating system, this time based on 1,000 points

 

Forget about arguing over the differences between 96 and 97 points. Now we can debate the finer distinctions between a score of 875 and 876. Or 943 and 944. Or 563 and 562. Whaaat?? That’s right. There’s a new wine rating kid in town, called Wine Lister, and it uses, not the familiar 100-point system, but a thousand point system.

No, this is not The Onion. How’s it work? Well, according to their website, they gather data from multiple sources “to give a truly holistic assessment of each wine,” and the reason for a 1000-point system is because Wine Lister “can actually differentiate to this level of precision [which protects] the nuance and meticulousness of the exercise.”

Well, yes, I suppose a 1000-point system can be described as more “nuanced” than a 100-point system. But really, people who believe in score inflation now have a powerful new arrow in their quiver with which to criticize numerical ratings. From their press release, Wine Lister seems to be using only three critics at this point: Jancis Robinson, Antonio Galloni and Bettane+Desseauve (a French-based, sort of a Wine-Searcher website).

At first consideration the notion of a 1000-point system sounds dubious. It does present us defenders of the 100-point scale a certain conundrum: after all, if the 100-point system is good, then a 1000-point system has to be better, right? Maybe even ten times better. Of course, this can lead to a logical absurdity: How about a 10,000-point system? A million-point system? You see the problem.

Of more interest to me than how many points the best system ought to have are the larger questions concerning the need for a new rating system, and the entrepreneurial aspects of Wine Lister’s owners to launch one at this time. Consumers already have many, many wine rating and reviewing sources to which to turn, both online and in print. They don’t seem to be demanding yet another one. Why does Wine Lister feel their time has come?

Well, maybe it has. Any startup is a gamble, and in the entrepreneurial world of wine reviewing, which seems to be undergoing tumultuous changes, anyone can be a winner. Antonio Galloni took a huge gamble when he quit Wine Advocate to launch Vinous, which has turned out to be such a huge success. Will Wine Lister be? I don’t know, but it has good credentials. What it has to prove is that it’s more than a simple compilation of Jancis-Antonio- Bettane+Desseauve reviews. They’re also factoring in Wine-Searcher, and there’s even an auction-value component (although most consumers won’t care about that). But beyond being a “hub of information” (from the press release), I think Wine Lister’s limitation is that wine consumers seem to want a personal connection to the recommender they listen to, which an algorithm cannot provide. I could be wrong. I’ll be following them on Twitter @Wine_Lister and we’ll see what happens.

* * *

While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.

Scores, stores and wineries: a new analysis

 

Every day, I get blast email advertisements from wineries or wine stores touting the latest 90-plus point score from Suckling, Parker, Vinous or some other esteemed critic. Here’s an example that came in on Saturday: I’m reproducing everything except the actual winery/wine.

_____ Winery’s ____ Napa Red Wine 2013 Rated 92JS.

Notice how the “92JS” is printed in the same font type and size as the name of the winery and wine. That assigns them equal importance; the rating and critic are virtually part of the brand. Later in the ad, they have the full “James Suckling Review” followed by a full “Wine Spectator Review” [of 90 points]. This is followed by the winery’s own “Wine Tasting Notes,” which by and large echo Spectator’s and Suckling’s descriptions.

Built along similar lines was a recent email ad for a certain Brunello: The headline was “2011 ____ Brunello di Montalcino DOCG”; immediately beneath is (in slightly smaller point size), “94 Points Vinous / Antonio Galloni.”

We can see that, in these headline and sub-heads, through physical proximity on the page or screen, the ads’ creators have linked the name of the winery and the wine to the name of the famous critic and his point score. One of the central tenets of advertising is to get the most important part of the message across immediately and strongly. (This is why so many T.V. commercials begin with the advertiser’s name—you hear and see it before you can change the channel or click the “mute” button.) In like fashion, most of us will quickly read a headline (even if we don’t want to) before skipping the rest of the ad. The headline thus stays in the brain: “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score.” That’s really all the winery or wine store wants you to retain. They don’t expect you to read the entire ad, or to immediately buy the wine based on the headline. They do expect that the “Winery” “Wine Critic” “90-plus point score” information will stay embedded in your brain cells, which will make you more likely to buy the wine the next time you’re looking for something, or at least have a favorable view of it.

This reliance of wineries and wine stores on famous critics’ reviews and scores is as strong as ever. There has been a well-publicized revolt against it by sommeliers and bloggers, but their resistance has all the power of a wet noodle. You might as well thrash against the storm; it does no good. The dominance of the famous wine critic is so ensconced in this country (and throughout large parts of Asia) that it shows no signs of being undermined anytime soon. You can regret it; you can rant against it; you can list all the reasons why it’s unhealthy, but you can’t change the facts.

Wineries are complicit in this phenomenon; they are co-dependents in this 12-Step addiction to critics. Wineries, of course, live and die by the same sword: A bad review is not helpful, but wineries will never publish a bad review. They assume (rightly) that bad reviews will quickly be swept away by the never-ending tsunami of information swamping consumers.

Which brings us back to 90-point scores. They’re everywhere. You can call it score inflation, you can argue that winemaking quality is higher, or that vintages are better, but for whatever reason, 90-plus points is more common than ever. Ninety is the new 87. Wineries love a score of 90, but I’ve heard that sometimes they’re disappointed they didn’t get 93, 94 or higher. Even 95 points has been lessened by its ubiquity.

Hosemaster lampooned this, likening 100-point scores to Oprah Winfrey giving out cars to the studio audience on her T.V. show. (“You get a car! And you get a car! And you get a car! And YOU get a car! Everybody gets a car!”) Why does this sort of thing happen? Enquiring minds want to know. In legalese, one must ask, “Cui bono?”—Who benefits? In Oprah’s case, she’s not paying for the cars herself; they’re provided by the manufacturers, who presumably take a tax writeoff. It’s a win-win-win situation for Oprah, the automakers and the audience.

Cui bono when it comes to high scores? The wineries, of course, and the wine stores that sell their wines (and put together the email blast advertisements). And what of the critics?

Step into the tall weeds with me, reader. A wine critic who gives a wine a high score gets something no money can buy: exposure. His name goes out on all those email blast advertisements (and other forms of marketing). That name is seen by tens of thousands of people, thereby making the famous wine critic more famous than ever. Just as the wine is linked to the critic in the headline, the critic’s name is linked to the 90-plus wine; both are meta-branded. (It’s the same thing as when politicians running for public office vie for the endorsement of famous Hollywood stars, rock stars and sports figures: the halo effect of fame and glamor by association.) There therefore is motive on the part of critics to amplify their point scores.

But motive alone does not prove a case nor make anyone guilty. We cannot impute venality to this current rash of high scores; we can merely take note of it. Notice also that the high scores are coming from older critics. Palates do, in fact, change over the years. Perhaps there’s something about a mature palate that is easier to please than a beginner’s palate. Perhaps older critics aren’t as angry, fussy or nit-picky about wine as younger ones; or as ambitious. They’re more apt to look for sheer pleasure and less apt to look for the slightest perceived imperfection. With age comes mellowness; mellowness is more likely to smile upon the world than to criticize it.

Anyhow, it is passing strange to see how intertwined the worlds of wineries, wine stores and wine critics have become. Like triple stars caught in each others’ orbits, they gyre and gimble in the wabe, in a weird but strangely fascinating pas de trois that, for the moment at least, shows no signs of abating.

Content, schmontent and impact

 

The subject of the impact of social media on the actual sale of wine, as opposed to merely creating some short-lived buzz, has long been considered in my blog, as well as throughout the greater Internet community.

The question always has been: What do all those page views and visits mean? Do they translate into moving cases—or are they merely feel-good statistics that, from an economic point of view, are meaningless?

Attempts have been made to measure the “metrics” of such statistics, and sometimes these analyses look very good and thorough. But behind the spreadsheets, graphs and pie charts has been a continuing mystery wrapped in an enigma: What’s the point of it all? It’s rather like that old Zen koan, “What if they created a site that had big numbers, and nobody ever bought anything?”

This is the topic of an important article two days ago in BuzzFeed. It quoted the company’s founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti: What matters most, and what all these metrics should try and point to is impact.”

Impact! Now we’re talking.

He asks pertinent questions: “Does [social media] have an impact on people’s actual lives, are people using the content, is it something that matters to them?” Because if the answers are no, no and no, then content, schmontent, none of it matters.

BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, illustrated the unimportance of fancy metrics by comparing them to “artworks hang[ing] on the wall.” They may be pretty to look at, they may make you feel good, but they don’t pay the bills.

Peretti and Smith don’t claim to have definitive answers for achieving impact as well as metrics. Too bad, because that’s the Holy Grail. But then, after all these years, we shouldn’t expect instant solutions. However, Peretti does offer some ideas, which he poses as questions:

Does the editorial asset work across platforms?

Does it help people connect with each other?

Does it help people improve their lives?

Does it inform the public and change institutions?

Does it make the world more open and diverse?

Now, if you’re thinking that these are pretty lofty ambitions for a winery, you’re right: Peretti is thinking in terms of his company, which is making a play to be a serious media outlet. BuzzFeed may worry about making the world more peaceful and diverse; a winery is more concerned about moving last year’s inventory before the new one comes piling in.

But what Peretti is onto, I think, is that successful social media campaigns—the ones with impact—somehow are more than just themselves. They are created with intelligence and passion, such that readers or viewers feel that connection to the winery. They are inclusionary: they make all people feel part of the story. They’re not just slammed out willy nilly, like auto parts on an assembly line, in order to fulfill today’s Twitter quota. Rather, they form a continuing narrative—sort of like a really good T.V. series—that people want to revisit, to see what happens.

You know, there’s been talk of the evolution of social media as a selling platform, and maybe, in some cases, that’s true. But, as a wise man once pointed out, “There isn’t a version two or three if there isn’t a great version one.” People involved in the creation of social media campaigns should keep this in mind, and that word “impact” at the forefront of their consciousness.

As consumers turn against Big Box stores, supermarkets feel the heat

 

The death of the Big Box store (think Wal-Mart) has been widely predicted, as for instance here, here and here.

Just about every major trend we’re following right now bodes poorly for power center retail,” says the Business Insider article. Those trends include the facts that “Americans are driving less than they have in decades. Populations are flocking to smaller, urban communities over sprawling suburbs. And consumers in their 20s and 30s increasingly prefer small, local shops to big-box retail.”

It took a little longer for this rejection of the Big Box concept to spread to the big supermarket, but now, it has. The U.K. last year saw its first decline in supermarket sales in two decades, and America isn’t immune: “U.S. supermarkets are stuck in time-warp,” USA.com announced, adding, “The bland midmarket, hi-lo, be-all-things-to-all-men strategy is not working.”

Speaking of Mid-Market and supermarkets, today’s San Francisco Chronicle has a front page article, “Trying to mimic Ferry Building on Mid-Market” [link not yet available], that tells the story of how a big supermarket, Market on Market, faltered, precisely because it tried to “be-all-things-to-all-men.” A little background: The Mid-Market stretch of S.F.’s Market Street has for years been a sorry spectacle of homelessness, drug dealing, prostitution and low-end stores. That all began to change when San Francisco persuaded Twitter to headquarter there (in exchange for controversial tax benefits). Now, Mid-Market is becoming a yuppie haven: rents there are going up as fast as anywhere in the city. Mid-Market had never had a nice supermarket. So the owners of Market on Market thought the time was ripe to open one.

Turns out their assumptions were wrong. Those young tech workers don’t want a big supermarket. They want what Whole Foods offers: ready-to-eat food, often impulse-driven, and small, specialty cubicles run by independent purveyors: a pizzeria, ramen shop, créperie, sushi bar, fish monger, tea shop, microbrewery and so on. They want, in other words, to feel as though they’re in the marketplace of some old European village. So that’s what Market on Market will now offer them: similar to what famous Ferry Plaza has been offering shoppers for many years.

San Francisco being the trend-setter it is, this movement likely will spread around the country, first to other urban areas and then to hipper suburbs. It’s reflective of the same yearning for authenticity and quality we see in the wine industry and the consumer’s preference for wines of terroir, connected to the land and owned by a family—wines with stories that make people feel more human. I know that, speaking for myself, it’s almost unbearable to shop at Safeway anymore. The place just seems like, well, it’s stuck in a time-warp from 1965. Whole Foods is much more in my comfort zone (although it’s more uncomfortable from a dollar point of view); and Rockridge Market Hall is even more of a trip for me: I can’t exactly explain the exaltation I feel when shopping there, but where Safeway feels pedestrian, Market Hall feels like a trip to the Marché International de Rungis without leaving Oakland.

It always surprises me to see so many young people thronging my local Whole Foods: I wonder where they get the money. But they do, and whatever their financial situation maybe, it’s clear that they’re voting with the wallets for higher quality food, the feeling of being philosophically and organically connected to what they put into their bodies, and a more welcoming shopping experience. The wine industry could learn from this example.

Wine, beer and spirits for Millennials: which is cooler? (Hint: It’s not wine)

 

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I’m interested to the point of obsession with industry issues, such as who’s buying wine, how it’s doing with Millennials, price points and so on. One thing I’ve been keeping my eye on is restaurants. Everybody loves to eat out, but what are they drinking with their food?

The conventional wisdom of the past few years is that wine is losing ground to craft beer and cocktails. I’ve tended to agree: Beer and mixed drinks are getting a lot of love from the media, with all those tattooed mixologists and craft brewers grabbing the headlines (and spotlights; layout editors know exactly who looks good on the page or screen). Wine by contrast seems stodgy. It’s not, of course, and never has been, and remains my favorite; but for some reason, wine seems less hip lately than beer and mixed drinks.

Forbes has written an interesting article along these lines, citing Paul Franson, of Wines & Vines, that Millennials [have] gravitated toward cocktails and craft beer,” and moreover, that when Millennials do drink wine in restaurants, the wines tend to be those that are “hot,” which I take to mean things like Muscat or orange wine, which have no lasting value at all.

This squares with my observations of my Millennial friends in Oakland, a very hip town, on the cutting edge of most cultural things, and thus an interesting case study. What happens in Oakland, from hip hop to fashion in clothing not to mention politics, often leapfrogs across the country.

And the truth is, my friends in their 20s and 30s like to drink; in fact they drink a lot, bless their little souls, but what they’re not drinking is wine. They are, as Forbes and Franson point out, downing cocktails and beer.

Why? The answer is important, but not simple. On one level they see wine as the alcoholic beverage of their parents if not their grandparents. Why is that? Because beer and cocktails don’t make a big deal about their intellectual components, the way wine does with notions of terroir, etc. Another is that beer and cocktails don’t pretend to be about anything else but getting buzzed. Wine tries to hide the impact of its alcohol. It always has, especially at the top levels, where it portrays itself as offering an experience that is intellectual, sensual, hedonistic, imaginative, fabulous—anything and everything but a liquid that makes you high. Wine seems almost embarrassed by its alcoholic content, which is why this entire argument against alcohol levels has arisen. Is vodka embarrassed by alcohol? Is tequila? Are IPAs? Of course not. But wine likes to pretend it has no alcohol.

I don’t know how we got into this situation. Possibly it’s because the intellectual conversation about wine got started a lot earlier than our conversations about beer and spirits. Between the Bible, the medieval references to wine, Thomas Jefferson and so on, wine has assumed an august place in the culture. Nobody was praising beer and spirits two and three hundred years ago. Maybe, back then, they were ashamed of wine’s alcoholic effects on the brain and body, so they avoided writing about them. We have inherited that tradition today.

I’m not suggesting we should brag about how high wine gets you. But the fact that beer and spirits tend to be grabbing Millennial attention strongly suggests a new approach to how we portray wine. We need to make wine cooler, sexier, and more relevant to a generation that instinctively recoils against canned messages and cheap advertising slogans. There is, in its essence, no reason why wine is less attractive than beer and spirits. But the way we’ve been communicating about wine hasn’t been enough to convince Millennials that it’s something they should feel cool about ordering in a restaurant. Can we change that?

From Mexico, a great wine and food pairing, and the perils of poorly-conceived advertising

 

I’m down here in Mexico on the fabulous Maya Rivera, at the Karisma El Dorado resort, south of Cancun, where I’ll be doing a bunch of wine education classes and dinners, some of them with the chef/partner of San Francisco’s new Aaxte restaurant, Ryan Pollnow. This is a very exciting opportunity for me. The resort itself is huge, more like a good-sized village, so yesterday afternoon some of the staff toured me around in a little shuttle cart so I’ll know where the various venues are located. The wines I’ll be talking about are from Jackson Family, representing a good cross-section of the portfolio.

In fact, we had our first wine dinner last night, and I must say it was really great. Chef Julio, of Karisma, prepared our food, creating wonderful Mexican dishes, and I found it thrilling. It was in one of Karisma’s food theaters; I was sitting with Chef Ryan, watching Chef Julio under the spotlights and in front of the cameras, which showed him on two big screen TVs, and when I suggested to Chef Ryan that the event had a certain theatricality about it, he said “Gastro-tainment.” That was a new one on me. I love it.

As soon as I got to Mexico I heard about a brouhaha concerning a Coca-Cola T.V. commercial that aired here that some people found culturally insulting, but that others thought was just fine. The commercial, which you can see here, keenly illustrates the potential mine fields companies must navigate in the images and messages their promotional materials convey.

The Coca-Cola commercial shows a group of young people (they look like American tourists to me)—good-looking hunky guys and long-haired young women in tight jeans and T-shirts—who seem to be on a Habitat-for-Humanity-style mission to build a giant Christmas tree in an indigenous Mexican town. To the saccharine strains of orchestral music, they paint and labor, high-fiving each other with white-toothed smiles, while the natives look on wondrously and gratefully. And, of course, there are coolers of Coca-Cola everywhere.

The style of the commercial is straight out of Coke’s 1971 “I’d like to teach the world to sing” post-hippie playbook: inspirational Kumbaya love. But some people didn’t get the good vibes. “Outrageous” and “racist,” they called it. Somebody tweeted, “When a company as big as Coca-Cola is saying #AbreTuCorazon [Open Your Heart] by giving Coca-Cola to indigenous ppl. what they are really doing is using them.” On the other hand, lots of the comments on the YouTube video either praised Coca-Cola for a sincere desire to help poor people, or wondered what the big deal was. “Couldn’t care less,” one person said; another pointed out a certain political correctness at work: “I love to laugh at freaking crybabies getting offended over nothing.”

At any rate, things got so hot that Coca-Cola issued a “rare apology” and pulled the ad, but versions it can still be found all over the Internet, as for example here, where it’s been retitled “The White Savior Ad.”

The take-home lesson for companies is that they really have to have culturally tuned-in people on their marketing and P.R. staffs. You can’t just let creative call the shots: you have to ask yourself how your images and messages will be perceived, not just by the people you think you’re talking to, but by everybody. Nobody thinks the Coca-Cola ad was intentionally racist or derogatory; no doubt the people who created it, and the managers who approved it, felt they were doing something lovely, in the spirit of Christmas. And perhaps, after all is said and done, that is exactly what the commercial is: a salute to cross-cultural brotherhood, good will and mutual respect.

Alas, in our world, even the most well-intended message can be wrongly interpreted.

Is it possible to create a new cult wine?

 

Some years ago (and I quoted her in New Classic Winemakers of California), Heidi Barrett told me that the success of Screaming Eagle surprised even her, the winemaker. It was like a “prairie fire,” she said: lightning struck ready ground, and the winery became a legend.

Recent developments and discussions have led to me inquire about the possibility of creating a new cult wine in California. A “cult wine,” of course, is one that is of relatively low production, that amasses, not jus good, but ecstatic reviews from the most influential critics, that has a “story,” and—bottom line—fetches the highest prices. The sanctum sanctorum of cult wines is a situation where the wine doesn’t even appear in retail contexts. In order to buy it, you must get on a waiting list for a mailing list.

Before analyzing how a cult wine might be created, let’s look at a few that already exist and see how they happened. I spoke of Screaming Eagle: before it became Screaming Eagle, it was just another Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Heidi Barrett was not then the ultra-famous consulting winemaker she has since become. Screaming Eagle’s location, off the Silverado Trail in east Oakville, was not considered the best. There was indeed a “lightning strikes” serendipity to the process that is very hard to explain.

Another cult winery is Saxum, which I also wrote about in New Classic Winemakers. Rhône blends from Paso Robles weren’t exactly cult darlings when young Justin Smith began his West Side project. It took some stellar reviews from top critics to launch him to the top. Ditto for Helen Turley at Marcassin, Williams Selyem and Rochioli, Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non, John Alban and, up in Washington State, Charles Smith and Cayuse. They would not be where they are today without the help of famous wine critics.

On the other hand, there are wineries that have spent tens of millions of dollars to produce quite respectable wines that, while very good, have not launched into cult status. They hired the most famous flying winemakers, the hardest-to-get viticulturalists and the most expensive P.R. firms, and still they remain on the almost-cult list. Napa Valley is replete with such examples. Could it be that the era of the cult winery is over—that it’s not possible to make a new one from scratch?

That is a plausible theory. The field is so crowded that it hardly seems to have room for yet another cult wine. A younger generation is not as interested in them as were their parents and grandparents. A meme has swept the country, along the lines of “Just because it’s expensive and gets high scores doesn’t make it better.” In fact, people, especially below the age of 30, understand that to some extent the system is rigged. They may not know the details, but their cynicism has been sharpened by exposure to a U.S. media that seems to advance people and things for its own purposes, rather than for the general well-being. In this sense, it would be very, very difficult if not impossible to make a new cult wine.

On the other hand are a couple of traits of human nature. One is that we seek novelty. Even cult wines gradually lose their appeal; I could name several that have over the last twenty years. Wine people are notoriously fickle. They are also are notoriously insecure, which is why wine critics are so easily able to influence them. Since we still have wine critics—and are likely to into the future—there is the distinct possibility that “the critics” (whoever they are) could anoint a new cult wine anytime they choose to do so. Yes, the Baby Boomer critics are leaving the scene but, as I have long predicted, they’re being replaced by a younger generation (Galloni is the prime example) that’s as influential as ever. Meanwhile, the most important wine magazines and newsletters maintain their critical power; even if their newer writers aren’t as well-known as Parker or Laube, they retain the power of the Score. So we still have the infrastructure in place to create new cult brands.

What varieties are most likely to be the new cult wines? Pinot Noir for sure. In my opinion, its future is unlimited; someone, somewhere, is going to make a single-vineyard Pinot Noir that rockets to the top. Cabernet and red Bordeaux blends are more problematic. There are so many; the market is so saturated. I suppose if a First Growth started a new Napa Valley winery (the way Petrus, or rather Christian Moueix, did at Dominus), the media at least would be waiting with baited breath for the first release, and if they universally praised it, it could soar to the top. But that’s unlikely. Nor is it likely that there will be a cult Chardonnay or Zinfandel. What about Syrah? It’s poised for a comeback. Growers are putting in new plantings in the best coastal locations, especially along the Central Coast. Prices for grapes are up. In selected locales, Syrah and red Rhône blends are doing very well, hand-sold by gatekeepers to audiences who don’t seem to be aware of, or care about, the conventional wisdom that red Rhônes are dead. So, of all the varieties, I think Syrah, or a Syrah-based Rhône blend, is in the best position to give birth to that rarest baby in the wine world, a cult wine.