Friday, June 26, 2009

The body's not even cold yet

I can't believe that City Winery is already trying to make money off of the death of Michael Jackson. To wit, I have the latest email from them (7:46 PM last night - a scant 5~6 hours after MJ's passing):
Granted they want to do this tonight, and they feel they have to work fast at it...but really, do we have to do this?
I suggest we rename the event "City Winery's Tasteless Tasting", and the subtitle should be "How to Milk the Legacy of a Dead Celebrity"...
From the email:

5 Wines paired with 25 songs, $25
City Winery will celebrate Michael Jackson's career with a mix of music and wine by paying homage with a wine pairing—listening to 25 of his classic songs with wines paired with 5 eras of his music. As Michael has touched the entire world with his music, City Winery brings its own special way to honor him with loud music from the venue's concert sound system accompanied by 5 selected wines for this once-in-a-lifetime memorial. Starting with a toast to the King of Pop, to a young period with the Jackson 5, smooth textures, developing into deep and complex personalities, and funky tastes. Michael Jackson's flavors will be lingering in our minds and age for long after he is gone.

Needless to say that Michael Jackson's connection to wine was, shall we say, "infamous" as it came to light during testimony in his trial for child molestation....and that's not really the sort of thing we should be remembering him for. What will be "lingering in my mind" is the poorly thought out marketing idea this was/is, and the aftertaste of desperation it leaves on my impression of City Winery. They get $25/head for playing some music & capitalizing on a dead celebrity.

Quite frankly, this is as offensive as it gets. Maybe South Park got away with their Steve Irwin joke only 2 weeks after his death, but pairing wine with MJ?
What, will it be served out of soft drink cans and be called "Jesus juice"?

And dudes - the guys' body isn't even cold yet. Talk about disgusting.

I'm open to anyone from City Winery who'd like to rebut this. Feel free to pony up & let us all know how you justify this sordid event...

And for those of you out there who feel like I do, here's their email address from their website (I've already forwarded this posting to them):


Thursday, June 25, 2009

France "dysfunctional"

Top wine industry insiders have labeled France (and Bordeaux in particular) as "dysfunctional".
I've been saying that for years....maybe they don't read the Zinquisition?
Highlights from the Vinexpo conference via
'Bordeaux should be selling everything,'says Tony Spawton, an associate professor for wine marketing at  University of South Australia.
This is blatantly false...he's implying that just because it carries a Bordeaux appellation it should sell, but there are always less desirable wines from any locale, and just because it's Bordeaux doesn't make it GOOD wine...
'The fact the world's leading wine region is having to distill wine is a bad sign,' said Spawton.
What? They've been doing it for years...why wasn't it a bad sign back then? Weren't they paying attention??
C'mon, I've been blogging about the perpetual "crisis distillation" program and its ill effects since 2005....
Another speaker, UK wine writer Robert Joseph - who produces wine in France - said dysfunctionalities in Bordeaux, and France in general, existed at many levels.
He cited a 'lack of wine branding, poor marketing - with the exception of Champagne' - and the fact that Bordeaux customers are 'blackmailed' into buying.
No $hit...again, something I've been saying since '05...
Well, who knows. maybe they'll get their act together and finally move into the 20th century. Then they'll only have one more century to make up for to be on par with the rest of the world!
I've saved the best quote for last:
'The biggest change will be producers actually asking themselves who is drinking, why, and questioning the blind assumption that there is a market out there for this kind of wine.'                 -anonymous French wine producer
 Yeah, that would be a change for the better, wouldn't it?

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What's going on at Foster's Wine Estates?

I hear rumors flying about layoffs at Foster's Wine Estates...
Two I can confirm, but the number & locations of the others are still amorphous...some reports are saying there may have been many more, but until I can get my sources to confirm where and when they are happening I don't have concrete info to pass along. I will update as soon as I can....
It is interesting to note that Foster's was until very recently looking for a few more production staffers for their North Coast operations. I counted three local openings on for that company, but only two are production positions, and six positions advertised there total with locations all the way to Florida. Perhaps this is a management /marketing department weighted reduction? But perhaps this was in the works for a while as Foster's has been in the process of separating their wine and beer portfolios from each other, and follows on the heels of some $240 Million worth of vineyards and property going onto the market (which they likely won't see full price on). They have also recently changed the marketing director for their Australasian Wine division. Reports are that they originally were looking to sell off their wine holdings, but couldn't get a good price for the ~$4 Billion estimate they were hoping for.
Not good news for the industry as the California layoffs continue from the big players.
So far we've seen Kendall-Jackson, Diageo, and Brown-Forman...all of them tightening their belts back toward the start of the year (Feb~Apr).  Is Foster's now joining the ranks?
Good luck to you all out there....

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Copia: an idea too large for the canvas

“Our mission is fairly simple: we are essentially leading an effort to reopen Copia for the benefit of the community and preserve as many of Mondavi’s goals as we can, but in [a] sustainable way,” said John Salmon, a member of the Coalition to Preserve Copia, created about four months after the December bankruptcy announcement. [link to article here]
So in this context I take it "sustainable" is used to mean "keeps itself afloat"?
And perhaps "for the benefit of the community" means "give them another place to drop their hard earned cash"?

You have to hand it to Ol' Mondavi...he did mean well, and his vision was on the grand scale. Years ago I was talking with an artist friend of mine at her house, and I spotted a large canvas (maybe 4'x8') with a panorama in various stages of completion across it. I commented on how it must be nice to have the ability to put together such a painting, when she said that it was a pain in the ass because it wasn't falling into place. And her killing comment was that overall the idea was "too large for the canvas"...
It was beyond anything I could ever do and I told her so, but to an artist that's little consolation. Her disappointment lay in the fact that the project wasn't what she had envisioned in her mind's eye - that she couldn't translate what she imagined onto canvas. It just wasn't coming out of her and onto the fabric.
I think Copia has the same flaw.
Build a huge complex right in the middle of Napa, design it for international food and wine events...but in the end, fail to get the locals (who are needed for supporting something like this) to buy into the idea they need to use the center too. Too much pretension, perhaps? Maybe it was a pricing issue or management structure issue, we probably won't know for sure because it was likely a combination of factors. Don't get me wrong, there's always room for another pretentious complex in Napa (or so the conventional wisdom goes)...provided you can convince the clientele of that. Hell, you could probably build a Castle and get people to pay for it...damn, that's been done already. But Copia couldn't draw enough people. Didn't it always operate in the red? Wasn't there a huge amount of cash needed every year to keep it operating?
I think the logical thing to do is carve the complex into manageable chunks and sell it to various businesses which want a beautiful spot on the Napa River. There's a huge parking lot for them all to share, and some of the garden plots on the south side can be turned into stores or restaurants, but I think we need to scrap most if not all of Mondavi's visions for the place and think up some of our own.
Bully for John Salmon and the group for thinking about how to preserve what's there. The reality is that people need to see a reason to go there, and by people I mean PLURALITY! Many people need to use the spot, and that means a mix of business types and of different price and pretension strata . It's bold to declare that you'd love to keep the old vision alive, but sometimes that's the danger. It failed because it was "too big for the canvas"...and a new vision is needed for what that property will hold in the future.
And what happened to that old picture I started this rant with?
I saved it from destruction by the artist, and put it up in my house for a number of years. Later, after I had grown weary of looking at its incomplete nature I locked it away in my storage to collect dust. It was finally destroyed by one of the floods we have from time to time around here when the water got several feet deep in my barn.
Hopefully the complex formerly known as Copia fares better.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Nobody "makes" Wine Anymore

Have you noticed how nobody "makes" anything anymore?
Take a look at the picture of Heinz Ketchup, and pay particular attention to the "Grown Not Made*" slogan  below the tomato:

Compare these two statements:
      "Wine is made in the vineyard"
      "Ketchup is grown, not made"
Say, where in either of those statements is there room for the person who takes the ripe fruit and processes it into the end product that graces your tables? I can see an argument for the farmer being present in either case, but not anyone else, and this is not right.
Originally I had contemplated posting on the "Death of the Rock Star Winemakers", a breed which has declined over the past 5~7 years. Sure, there are still many big names out there, but the frequency you used to hear about all but the top hoity-toity "rock stars" has all but died off. And while I feel this is still a valid topic I might get around to in the future, one of the reasons winemakers roles are being downplayed actually eclipses the topic completely. But I do see the point, after all who needs a winemaker if the fruit has done all the work already?
I was going to start by mentioning how the last few years have had more involvement from owners, with winemakers public exposure as "rock stars" diminishing. The main reasons were the need of the owners to make sure that if/when a winemaker left their brand, that the "loyal" following that had migrated there with them didn't then leave. But I think the real reason is that winemakers as a whole are being displaced by the rush back to authenticity and naturalness - by the need to be greener than the next guy - even to the point that we remove ourselves from the equation entirely...and I mean ALL of ourselves, not just winemakers!
And that is why something as common and kitsch as ketchup is now modeling itself as having been dropped into the bottle by Mother Nature herself, without any interference from mankind at all!
The "authenticity" debate maximizes value of non-intervention while minimizing role of the winemaker and cellar staff. This also allows the owners of the brand to maintain the focus of the trade upon what THEIR vision is, and not that of the winemaker (who was making sure the fruit was harvested properly, fermented correctly, then blended, filtered and bottled correctly). We see the people who do all the heavy lifting get the shaft in the PR/Media, while the brand continues forward as an unblemished rose or virgin snowbank, neither of which had been contaminated by the Human hand.
But WE ARE part of Nature...and we DO need to make decisions about how fruit is handled, and what the final taste should why can't we acknowledge that? 
I'll acknowledge here that we are the only species which has developed the earth (for both good and ill) to the extent it's been changed...
But why is it that Mankind isn't allowed to "make" wines anymore? Why is it preferable that "we" haven't made anything? Why does "manipulate", which foremost means "to handle, manage, or use, especially with skill in some process of treatment or performance", get used in nothing more than its negative connotations when referring to foodstuffs - and wines in particular? Certainly there are reasons people have gone this route, and there have been numerous times in the past that fraud has occurred - and no doubt it will happen again in the future, and not just with the highest priced bottles...but I fear we've gone a bit overboard in our reaction. Listen carefully to all the winery representatives talk up their wines at the next big tasting you go to. Likely that the majority of what you hear will be about how fantastic the vineyards are and how "the wine is made in the vineyard"...
I know many people who read this blog will have gotten tired of hearing this explanation, but much of this is rooted in the 17th century Romanticism and the back-to-nature movement it spawned. However, it now goes to lengths that dismiss many natural treatments which were in play back then as well as now: isinglass, egg whites, milk protein (casein) are all now somewhat vilified in the popular wine press as "manipulation" (only negative connotation). 
Filtration, too, is a victim of the authenticity drive, and is spun by many producers as a evil process which robs the wine of fruitiness, structure, or both. Frankly I don't let anything I work on go out the door without filtration - it's your last chance to secure the wine from subsequent spoilage of microbes present in the wine. And that means better consistency for the consumer, which is never a bad thing. Does filtration diminish your wines somehow? Not in my experience. But I do take good care to educate all the staff on how to do it properly, as its when its done wrong that you can screw up your wine. If everyone is vigilant and well versed on how to get it done, then there shouldn't be any problem - though I'll acknowledge that there's quite a spectrum of opinion on this subject, and you'll no doubt hear from well educated people on the other side of that argument as well.
They'll have different experiences, and I can respect that and their different opinions here.
But I still don't think you can separate Man from Wine. 
Wine just doesn't exist without willfull interference from mankind, any less than ketchup could exist without mankind. Raise a glass in honor of your favorite cellar, and remember ALL the people it takes to bring that product to your table - from the vineyard through to the grocery store.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

In Tweetum Lucrum?

I had the misfortune recently of having to sit through a few presentations on how wineries can use social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, etc. to further their own marketing ends. Maybe it was the sheer lack of data in the presentations, but frankly I don’t buy it and my read from the other attendees suggested that they felt the same way. I just don’t think that wineries will be able to effectively use these sites to sell their wines, at least not in enough quantity to justify the investment of time and money. 
And certainly not enough to justify spending $10k/Mo for 6 months as some people are looking to do!
Let me give you my reasons:

1. Wine consumers crave an authentic experience. Without a doubt, the continued proliferation of wine brands and the inertia of the industry to consolidate as beer and bourbon have done is the ability of a winemaker or winery owner to give a consumer a genuinely personal experience. The only way for this to happen in web 2.0 is for winemakers and winery owners (not heads of the marketing department!) to commit several hours each day to blogging, facebooking, tweeting, etc. I know lots of winemakers and lots of winery owners and exactly zero of them have the time to commit to this. Even during a strong economy, these people are working non-stop and have no time for that “instant-response” needed in social media. I see many wineries start down this road with the best of intentions, but then they can’t follow through with something so minor as a simple blog update, due to time constraints. My own Twitter personality suffers form exactly this...maybe when I'm on the road I can tweet occasionally, but otherwise I just don't have the time to post in a stream-of-conciousness fashion.
2. As a corollary to the above, concepts like Murphy-Goode’s (a brand owned by Kendall-Jackson) are doomed to fail because they lack authenticity as well. Wine consumers want to hear from the winemaker or the owner, they don’t want some hired gun whose full-time job is to tweet and give status updates to be selling them on a brand made by somebody else. They want Mr. Murphy or Mr. Goode (neither of whom is involved in the brand anymore) to give them updates and tell them about their “honest” “artisanal” and “hand-crafted” wines. In the Jackson’s favor, they do have David Ready Jr. as the winemaker (the original partners being Murphy, Ready & Goode), but even so the tweets they get more than likely will be from the person they hire and not him. This also invites the consumer to look for Murphy-Goode's winery in the hopes of finding the authenticity they desire, only to sadly have them realize that the M-G team sold the brick & mortar facility they had to a Sonoma custom crush company and the wines are now made at various K-J wineries instead.
[2a.  In the application legalese fine-print for the job referenced above, there is a nice clause about how the "Winery" doesn't need to hire ANYONE if they don't feel they have the right candidate in their applicant pool. Now this is boiler-plate standard release clause for the "Winery" to back out of the deal should they feel it isn't going in the right direction...but should they actually NOT HIRE anybody for the position then they risk losing any sort of authenticity and credibility they might have otherwise. I mean, they've already reaped the rewards of this whole stunt, right? I have seen many, many Tweets, articles, emails and blog postings about what appears to the outside world as a Dream Job in the wine industry (and its been described as such in many articles)...if they then DON'T hire, they look like they've been shilling the brand the entire time because of all the media buzz they've collected to date. Plus, they're owned by K-J which just laid off 15~20% of their workforce a few months ago, and let's face it, there's already enough bad feelings in the industry regarding the business moves that Jess Jackson and his team have made in the past 25 years. Add to that impression a guy who sacks his labor, continues to buy expensive horses, and then pays $60k to someone to sing like a canary (Tweet!) about his wines. Albeit that they were apparently solid business decisions which have put them ahead of the pack in many ways (some might say ruthlessly), but a failure to cement this carrot-and-stick-type-PR-event would do nothing but reinforce the already jaded consumer that K-J was more interested in the mighty $$ than in the reality that people now expect them to make good on the reward they offered for keeping this brand in the public consciousness for the past few months. And why do I use "Winery" in quotes when I mention this topic?...because the "Winery" is K-J, not the M-G that many people might associate with the brand on the face of the offer. The stakes are high for a failure to complete the deal...]

3. How to close the sale? I can see social networks generating fans and followers, but how do you get a fan to stay brand loyal when your wine is $14.99 at Safeway and Gallo’s new brand is running a deal for $11.99? Wine consumers, due to the 9,000 wine brands in this country, are notoriously fickle and have been increasingly “trading down” lately to lower-priced wines. I don’t see how you convert followers into sales, and most importantly, how do you measure the conversion from one to the other?

4. You say the answer to #3 is not to sell through Safeway but to use the internet? The internet in general has not been a boon to wine sales. Yes, there are successes out there (Wine Library), but there have been some big failures too (the first several iterations of Further, ask a winery owner or winemaker if they’re able to rely on web-based marketing, eschewing travelling the major wine markets like they were 5 or 10 years ago. Those that I run into say they’re having to do it more than ever due to the challenges of the economy as well as lack of distributor commitment to any non-corporate brands. I know I'm travelling much more than I have in the past for just this reason. Few wineries sell more than a single-digit percentage of their monthly sales through their website and most all will tell you that club sign ups come from their tasting room, not from the web and this after most wineries have had websites for 10 years or longer. If not by now, by when?

5. Being marketed to is a turn-off on the internet. Web users are increasingly bombarded with ads and messages, most of which are ignored. Overt marketers are shunned. The social network proponents concede this up front and will tell you that you have to engage on a different level. Tell your story less directly, interact with wine pages and sites other than your own, be personal not preachy, etc. Frankly, I think that just dilutes your marketing story and makes you a friend – the type of friend whose parents own a winery and whose parents expect to get free tastings and other comps when they show up. Me, I rarely buy wines from friends in the business because I expect them to bring some when they come to my house….If I’m going to buy your wine, I’ll buy it because I like the quality and/or price, not because you ‘friended’ me. 
6. In support of #5 above, I feel the need to mention the sheer lack of any sort of "style" or "etiquette" by wineries when dealing with the web currently - blogs in particular. I'll hold up a comment on my post the other day by "Trecini", which appears to be nothing but a veil blogger ID from a company shill of the same name...
I was "honored" with a comment on my post the other day by said blogger, and the entire 188 words were nothing more than a PR note re their wines. What a turn off! Talk about how NOT to do was clumsy, just outright clumsy!
And if we want to make it appear that we've "just been to a blind tasting party and discovered the wines" from said winery, maybe you should choose a blogger ID name which isn't so obviously transparent. (BTW, tracking down this ID brings you to a "blog" which was created within the past week and touts 2 [yes, TWO!] posts; the first is a word-for-word repost of the 188 words left in my comments section, the second is an ad for a wine brokerage.)
In case you're looking for the comment proper, don't bother yourself as I've already deleted it (I have a copy in my email of the original).

Now I’m not suggesting that wineries give up and ignore web 2.0 altogether, but I think it should be approached with a healthy skepticism until someone actually demonstrates that they can convert followers into consumers. Today’s wine environment is more challenging than I can remember and one’s focus needs to be on getting the best sales results for one’s time spent.

Maybe following the sales performance of Murphy-Goode would be the bellwether here. I’ll check back in six months and let you know how they’re doing.

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