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Good Grape Goes on Hiatus

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” said a very wise John Lennon and that’s exactly what has happened with me.  My life has kept apace, even as I’ve made plans to be a respected wine writer.

By most standards, 2011 has been a very good year.  I was a three-time finalist in the Wine Blog Awards, earning notice in the Best Overall Wine Blog, Best Industry Blog and Best Writing categories.  I started contributing a wine column to Forbes.com.  This site was named the 2nd most influential blog (and most influential wine blog) out of 4,000 blogs in a 2011 Wine, Beer and Spirits study by eCairn, a software company specializing in community and influencer marketing.  I was a panelist at Vino2011 in New York City, I won a scholarship to the Wine Writer’s Symposium in Napa Valley, and I turned down enough worldwide wine trip offers to fill a two-month calendar.

Yet, wine writing has exacted a toll.  I approach anything I do with a zeal and fervor that ensures me the success that I want and I’ve treated my wine writing as a full-time second job, to go alongside the job that I already have that requires 50 + hours a week.

Balance isn’t something that I’ve ever been very good at—possessed of an unassuming mien, a Midwestern work ethic, and a mental make-up whereby I cast myself as the underdog means that I am continually trying to prove something to myself, often times at the expense of real, true priorities.

Even more challenging is the fact that my standards for myself have been raised even as I’ve honed my writing chops.  Instead of figuring out a system to find time shortcuts, the amount of time it takes for me to write has become more deliberate and expansive while my interest in writing has become more professional in nature – less blogging and more credible journalism requiring more work to exceed the bar that I’ve set for myself.

The net result of this, after full-time job plus wine writing, is the rest of my life has received scant attention for nearly seven years and I’ve created a nearly untenable situation for myself, a set of internal expectations that I can’t live up to, requiring a time commitment that I can’t manage.

However, most importantly, the expectations and time commitments that I have assigned to my wine writing isn’t fair to the other people in my life – notably, my incredibly supportive wife, Lindsay.  She has been a saint the past six years, my blogging encompassing nearly the entire duration of our 6.5 year marriage.  But, she is long overdue a husband that takes the trash out without prompting!

I’ll be around the Internets – commenting on wine blogs, doing the Twitter thing, staying connected on Facebook and I’ll probably start engaging more actively on CellarTracker and on the WineBerserkers message board, but I’m taking a hiatus from wine writing to recalibrate, shifting my time to the things that are the most important to me:  Family and career.

Jeff


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Old World vs. New World in More Ways than just the Wine

In the increasingly close quarters of our global village, Europe is responsible for bringing at least three different substantive and prodigious professional wine journals to market over the last several years.  Each is written by a ‘Who’s Who’ of wine experts.  Meanwhile, stateside, the U.S. has experienced an explosion of pithiness with amateur wine writers writing online.

This juxtaposition becomes relevant after reading a recent post titled, “Are wine blogs going tabloid” by professional wine critic and writer Steve Heimoff.  In his brief post, with a decidedly American point of view, Heimoff summarizes his thoughts with the rhetorical query, “Why do certain bloggers revert to sensationalist stories that don’t, in the long run, matter?”

Good question.  The easy conclusion suggests that controversy and hyperbolically bombastic articles lead to attention and traffic. 

Certainly, two recent books that I’ve been reading bear out this discouraging notion:  Newsjacking:  How to Inject Your Ideas into a Breaking News Story and Generate Tons of Media Coverage and Celebrity, Inc.

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Both books cover similar ground in examining how brands can subvert the 24-hour news cycle for business benefit and how the 24-hour news cycle has been subverted by celebrities using easy technology while leading our news culture into tabloidesque territory.

When considered with Heimoff’s point, it is an easy deduction to suggest that 1 + 1 does in fact equal 2 – the sensational does sell and, by proxy, online amateur wine writers are a reflection of our larger media culture.

However, in suggesting this, there is at least one bigger contextual point being missed as well as a caveat.  First, it’s an exclusive view that doesn’t take in the totality of the global wine media village and second, while sensationalism may sell, the lascivious isn’t always what’s shared.

No, it seems our schadenfreude and more primal instincts are kept private, while our shock and awe comes to the fore, at least according to one study.

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania recently examined the most emailed articles on the New York Times web site in March of this year (link initiates a PDF download), looking for the triggers for what causes somebody to share an article, what makes one thing more viral than another?

Their conclusion?  Positive content is more viral than negative content, but both, in general, are driven by “activation” – the notion that high arousal (emotive pleasure or outrage) drives shareable content.  According to the research abstract:

Content that evokes either positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions characterized by activation (i.e. high arousal) is more viral.  Content that evokes deactivating emotion (sadness) is less viral.  These results hold (dominance) for how surprising, interesting, or practically useful content is, as well as external drivers of attention.

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This brings us back to my earlier mention regarding the European wine journals that have come to market in recent years.  Simply, they’re an antidote to the U.S. proclivity for the vapid.

The World of Fine Wine, the family of Fine Wine magazines based in Helsinki and Tong based in Belgium all represent an Old World counterpoint to what can be deemed as the extemporaneous and superfluous coming from the New World.

As Tong publisher Filip Verheyden notes in the Tong manifesto (link initiates a PDF download) :

We live in times of “instant” gratification.  If we want to talk to someone, we pick up our mobile phone wherever we happen to be.  If we want to know something, we click an internet button.  We’re going at 200 km per hour. 

What we seem to forget in this race against time is the trustworthiness of this quickly-acquired knowledge, and that is something we have to find out for ourselves.  But who takes the time to do it? 

…The articles that appear in Tong demand the reader’s attention.  You can’t read them fast and put them away; you have to take the time to understand.  I’d say it takes an evening to read and think about each article.  These are not issues to put in the recycling bin.  Even after five years or more, each will continue to convey the essence of its theme…

The World of Fine Wine and Fine Wine magazine are both similarly endowed with length and verve.

My takeaway based on the Wharton research and the stunning dichotomy between what we’re seeing in the U.S. vs. European wine content is two-fold:

1)  The sometimes sensational aspect of online wine writers, especially domestically, should heed the research and focus their pot-stirring ways on matters that provoke an emotional response from readers, ideally with a positive consequence – like HR 1161 for example instead of tired, lame attempted zingers aimed at Robert Parker.

2)  In addition to a legacy sensibility about the nature and style of wine, the Old World is also drawing a culturally defining line in the sand in how they view and report on wine – it’s with substance, permanence and integrity.

The conclusion is anything but.  However, as the world becomes a smaller place and the U.S. and our wine media becomes a part of the world chorus, losing lead vocal, I would hate for our place in the gallery to be rendered completely voiceless based on a lack of substance which is the seeming trajectory that we’re on. 

It’s just a thought…

If you’re interested in seeing an example of Tong’s long-form think pieces, you can see examples here, here and here.


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Australian Wine:  The Once and Future King?

You’ve never heard of Campbell Mattinson:  He’s a young, urbane Australian wine wordsmith who forsakes the academically erudite and plaintive wine writing style of legends past for a muscular writing style that is jocularly loose yet incisive, showing every bit of the wunderkind talent of his global English-language contemporaries, Jamie Goode and Neal Martin.

Likewise, you probably haven’t heard of Mattison’s *new* wine book, Thin Skins: Why the French Hate Australian Wine first published in Australia in 2007 and now just released in America.

Seemingly stillborn upon its October publishing date in the states and updated with a scant epilogue where the author notes, “The headiness described in the early passages of this book is now long gone,” the book formerly offered in situ context on the boom and looming bust of the Australian wine landscape and is now something of an ipso facto think piece on the manifested reality. 

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With recency in absentia as one negative checkmark, Thin Skins as a body of work brooks no favors for itself either.  Even when first published four years ago, it represented a compendium of articles and profile pieces, individually quite good, but collectively never quite transcending its constituent parts, especially one that supports the premise of the title.  And, unlike its subject matter, time has not aged the book into cohesion.

Worse still, brought to the U.S. market by publisher Sterling Epicure, the book is likely supported with little more than the gas it takes a truck to drive a meager allotment of books to an Amazon.com warehouse and the dwindling number of Barnes & Nobles that still populate the landscape, a veritable line item in an editors’ fourth quarter publishing spreadsheet under the header, “wine.”

Thin Skins seems destined for a hastened half-life and quick retreat to the remainder bin at Half-Price Books…it’s an ignoble fate heaped upon by my damnation.

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But, I’ve feinted purposefully, misdirecting by caveat because, despite everything I’ve mentioned having some inherent truth(including the author being very talented), Thin Skins is a wildly entertaining book that delivers on providing a teasing glimpse into a distinctly Aussie viewpoint on the factors that led to the Australian wine boom (Parker points, market forces, greed and drought) and in so doing the author makes three key points worth repeating:

1) The Aussie wine industry, save for its Gallo-like equivalents, is NOT happy about their country’s production being viewed globally as syrupy supermarket plonk

2)  Our U.S. perception IS NOT reality regarding Australian wine; their wine industry has an abundance of refined, terroir-based wines from small vintners

3)  The Aussie wine business will rise again on the international scene (in an entirely different form).

One key takeaway for me from the book is that Australia is remarkably similar to the U.S. 

In the U.S., some reports indicate that 90% of the wine sold is “corporate” wine, the kind found at supermarkets across the country.  However, what IS different is that 90% of our national conversation about wine focuses on the 10% of the wine production that ISN’T in the supermarket i.e. everything non-corporate – the boutique, artisan and interesting.

Yet, when it comes to Australian wine, we don’t continue our conversation about the small and beautiful.  Instead of talking about the superlative, we view their entire country production through the lens of the insipid, the Yellowtail and other critters that cost $6.99 at Safeway.

American wine consumers would be rightfully indignant if the world viewed our wines not as we do, a rich tapestry, but as industrialized plonk from the San Joaquin Valley.

This is where Australian wine is at today—a ‘perception is reality’ mistake of colossal proportions.

While offering an abundance of stories from small producers along the way, Mattison suggests that while it may take time, with Australia having 162 years of winemaking history, the day will come, sooner rather than later, when Australian wine forsakes its near-term reputation and is viewed on the world stage as a wine producing country that can proudly stand next to its New World peers.

I wrote recently that I’ve noticed a slow change in tenor from American influencers regarding Aussie wine, they’re becoming more sympathetic, they’re starting to speak less dismissively and more optimistically and holistically about Australian wine, discussing the merits and great diversity in the land of Oz.

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Recent Symphony IRI sales data bears this out as well.  According to a Shanken NewsDaily report from this week, Australian wine in the $15 - $19.99 category rose 23% in September.  In addition, growth is coming from varietals not named Shiraz (see also syrupy supermarket plonk).  Instead, Semillon, Riesling and Pinot Noir are showing growth.

Still, it’s not the land of milk and honey here in the states for Aussie wine, as it once was.  Overall sales are down by volume and dollars, but as Mattinson alludes the correction in the U.S. market isn’t going to be pretty, but it will be healthy and it’s quite possible that Australia will decrease in overall volume and dollar sales from persistent decline at the low-end for years to come as the high-end grows, but not at a rate to replace what was lost.

The net sum of that doesn’t balance a spreadsheet, but it does balance mindshare.

Pick-up Thin Skins if you want to get turned on to a great wine writer while also enjoying a greater understanding of Australian wine – where it has been and where it’s going—perhaps not as a future King, but definitely not in its current role as court jester.

Campbell Mattinson’s Wine Site:  The Wine Front


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Cover Story Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

The Wine Spectator Affect

When I received my November 15th issue of Wine Spectator on October 11th, featuring a cover shot of Tim Mondavi and an feature article on him and his estate winery Continuum, I captured some online research reference points so I could have a baseline to measure the effect that a flattering Wine Spectator cover story might have on a winery in the digital age.

Using Wine-Searcher, CellarTracker and Google Keywords search data to track various data points, the results, while not directly linked to conclusions, do indicate a small bump in interest as a result of the cover piece.

For example, Wine-Searcher data indicates that the average bottle price, an indicator of supply and demand, rose $2 month over month, from $149 a bottle to $151 a bottle.

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In addition, the Wine-Searcher search rank (always a month behind) indicates that Continuum was the 1360th most popular search in September.  By Friday, November 11th the Continuum search rank had increased to 471st for the month of October. (See the top 100 searches for October here).

Likewise, interest at CellarTracker increased, as well.  The number of bottles in inventory from October 11th to November 11th increased by 177 bottles, likely no small coincidence.

Finally, Google searches increased fivefold from an average of 210 monthly searches to approximately 1000 monthly searches.

What does this all mean?  Good question.  The truth is, a Wine Spectator cover appears to have moved the needle a bit, and while the easy route is to take a righteous Eeyore approach to mainstream media and its blunted impact in the Aughts, as contrasted to what a Spectator cover feature or glowing words from Parker meant just a decade ago, I believe a more tangible takeaway is to realize that these sorts of cover stories don’t happen in a vacuum and that Wine Spectator cover and feature was likely a result of weeks, months or even years’ worth of effort from a PR professional.

In an attention-deficit, social media-impacted, offline/online hybrid world of information consumption with mobile and tablets proliferating, in order to break through to (and ultimately assist) the consumer, the value of the PR professional, an oft neglected part of the marketing hierarchy, in reaching out and facilitating the telling of a winery’s story seems to be more important than ever.

It’s not about press releases, it’s about people supporting and telling the winery story, repeatedly, as a professional function – that leads to media notice, and that leads to 14 cases of wine being sold and inventoried at CellarTracker in a 30-day period of time.  It’s perhaps obvious, but not adhered to.

Wine Labels

To me, a wine bottle is a blank canvas that can either inspire in its creativity or repel in its insipidness.  While I have a reasonably conservative approach to the kinds of wine I want to drink relative to technological intervention, I am unabashedly progressive when it comes to the kind of wine labels that appeal to me.  In support of my interest with wine packaging, I keep an eye on The Dieline wine blog to see what’s happening in wine label design (another example from The Coolist here) and I also pay attention to the burgeoning field of wine label design contests. 

What say you about progressive labels?  Like ‘em?  Loathe them?  I placed a poll to the right.

Below is a slide show of winners from the recent International Wine Label Design competition.

Reconciling the Contradiction

I will lobby the nominating committee of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences on behalf of anybody who can help me understand how it is that in the span of a week I can see multiple research reports (here and here) on a revived sense of fiscal austerity by consumers yet other reports (here and here) indicate that wine above $20 is the fastest growing segment this year.

These two clearly don’t jive with each other, yet I’m witless to understand why wine is “trading up.”  Help! 

 


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Autumnal Equinox Edition

Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass…

The Power of Intent in Biodynamic Wine

I wrote a heady post in September about Biodynamic wine.  The story is too complicated to summarize here (link to post), but one of the things that I touched on (and that interests me on an ongoing basis) is the notion of “intent” in the vineyard particularly as it relates to viticultural quality and Biodynamic preparations.

They say that you can taste “love” in a food dish, so, while not scientifically quantifiable (at least not yet), it stands to reason that extra attention and loving preparation with BioD preps. might have a positive benefit on the vines and subsequently the wines.

This notion of intent isn’t my idea; I culled it from Voodoo Vintners, Katherine Cole’s Biodynamic-related book published earlier this year (she has a different supposition about ‘intent’ than I do).  A passage from the book notes, “The belief is that the preparations aren’t merely herbal treatments for plants; they’re carriers of the farmers’ intentions, which have been swirled into them through the powerful act of stirring.  While it isn’t a requirement for Demeter certification, intention is that little bit of witchcraft that separates the most committed practitioners from the unbelievers.”

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My point in September and my point now is that “intent” isn’t witchcraft, its science – science that is still emerging and not completely understood.

To that end, I read an incredible, eye-opening, mind-bending article in the current issue of Time magazine about a new technology device called the BodyWave.  An iPod sized device, the BodyWave is based on electroencephalography (EEG), the study of how brain activity excites neurons to emit brain waves that travel the central nervous system and can be measured.

So, here’s the thing.  Not only can this BodyWave device measure the fluctuations in the brain’s electrical activity, but when connected to a computer it can perform functions based on brain waves.

It’s a holy crap moment to realize that by focusing brain activity somebody can shut off a valve in a nuclear power plant, via computer, with the power of their mind, as elaborated on in the article.

The full Time magazine article is subscriber-protected (darn publishers that try to run a business…), but the intro. to the article is available here.

I’m a liberal arts guy, as far removed from science as one can get by education, vocation and lifelong learning interest, but I do have the ability to suspend my disbelief and it seems likely to me that in 10 years’ time the Biodynamic conversation is going to be around an entirely different set of conversational conditions than the current ‘bunkum vs. belief’ precept that we have now.

On Knowledge

I’ve never reconciled the “demystify” vs. “knowledge frees you” debate as it relates to wine.  Many will say that wine is needlessly overcomplicated for the average consumer and the arcane aspects act as a barrier to entry.

Well, sometimes you find defining wisdom in the unlikeliest places.

Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, noted in a blog post recently what I’ve thought, but have never been able to say quite so eloquently. 

Indeed, you are what you learn.  You don’t have to know much about wine to drink it, but it sure makes it that much more enjoyable if you lean into the door…

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Thanksgiving Wine Recommendation

Thanksgiving is the wine world’s national holiday.  I get that.  It’s my favorite holiday, too. But, the attendant wine pairing articles are exhausting.  Does it really matter what you drink with Thanksgiving dinner?  Nope.  If it did, somebody, anybody would care that I’ll be having Sparkling Rose, German Riesling and New Zealand Pinot, but, really, nobody cares.  At the end of the day, the below picture encapsulates what really matters when picking a wine for Thanksgiving (Hint: Focus on the food).

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It Was a Good Week for Lot18

My eyes bugged out like a virgin at a nudist camp when I saw that Lot18 secured $30M in additional funding.  That money coupled with clarification from the California Alcohol Beverage Control (CA ABC) on some wonkiness in legalities, means the first week of November 2011 will go down as a watershed moment for Lot18.

Perhaps equally interesting to me is a passage noting, “Radical Transparency” in an email sent to Lot18 members from Lot18 (ostensibly founder Phillip James).  The email noted:

As Lot18 moves into its second year of existence, our goal is to ensure that, with more money in the bank and compliance questions behind us, Lot18 can continue to deliver on its responsibilities to our suppliers and to our members alike. We must hold ourselves accountable to ensure we maintain trust with everyone who produces and consumes goods offered by Lot18.

We do this through a policy called Radical Transparency, which simply involves sharing more than was once considered wise. We believe in this because it drives our focus and ensures that all of our employees and our members feel that they have a role in shaping our future. Together we can create a service that will not only help you find great value, but also encourage you to spread the word to friends and family so that they may also share in the delight.

We’re all aware of “transparency” as an online buzzword the last several years.  It’s a word that has been co-opted, commoditized and rendered meaningless, as well.  It seems, transparency is really code word for faux sincerity and empathy and that makes adding the modifier of “Radical” to transparency all the more interesting.

These days, every new business success story comes with hagiographic mythologizing and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in this area, “Radical Transparency” is where Lot18 stakes their claim.  After all, culture and customer service is already taken by Zappos.

Yet, radical transparency isn’t a new concept either.  If you’re interested in seeing how a hedge fund called Bridgewater Associates (founded by Ray Dalio) has codified a brutally honest feedback loop see this profile piece from New York magazine and Dalio’s 123 page “Principles” document (worth the read).


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