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36 Hours of Sweet Celebration!

Thanks to El Jefe from Twisted Oak for pointing out what I hoped would go unnoticed—the dubious notion that Winebusiness.com, presumably in a timely fashion, made mention that June is Indiana Wine and Grape Month.  Um, except the notice in Winebusiness.com appears on June 29th—a day or two lead time for, well, July. 

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Any chance that the good Indiana folks decided to send the press release to Winebusiness.com on, oh, say June 28th?  Probably. 

I did a quick spin on the Indiana Wine Grape Council web site to do a cross-check on press release dates and it looks like they posted the release on the site on June 14th.  Bad form.  Don’t these things normally go out AHEAD of the month in which you are desiring promotion?  Heck, I’ve known that September is California Wine Month for eons. 

Indiana is good at a lot of things—basketball, corn, and racing amongst other things, but I can’t always say we’re good self-promoters, humble folks that we are.

At least June is good for summer quaffing wines, and Indiana wineries have fruit wines, perfect for the deck, in spades.  And, mark your calendar for next year, you can’t be guaranteed that a press release will hit.


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Deaf Ears and Wine You Can Buy Online

If a tree falls in the forest, but nobody is there to hear it does it make a sound?  Or, put another way, if a book highlighting online wine sales is published, but nobody buys it, does it make an impact?

I submit the recently published book, “Great Boutique Wines You Can Buy Online” by Catherine Fallis, Master Sommelier and Robert M. Cohen.

All online wine consumers should be excited by the premise and prescience of the above book.  The front matter of the book says (excerpted):

Our goal here is to connect wine lovers like you with little known gems that are hard to find.  With our combined 25 years in the wine business, we have made many friends who have wondered how to reach a wider audience.  Now thanks to the internet, you have access to these gems.  Whether organic, biodynamic, unusual varietals, or just plain great deals, the wines listed here are some of the best in the country.  Most are from small, family-owned wineries with productions of around 5000 cases.

Our selection process was based on quality of the wine, first and foremost, and then internet availability.

The online wine business is undergoing a revolution around the world.  In Europe, the direct shipment to the consumer is on the rise.  Here in the U.S., there has never been a better time to discover, tour and taste the hundreds of great boutique/small production wineries of America, due in part to the recent United States Supreme Court ruling in Granholm, Governor of Michigan, v. Heald, and the fact that overnight shippers now ship wine in and out of approximately 30 states.

In the past, the only way for limited production, or “boutique” wineries to promote their wine was to sell it to those fortunate few who found their way to the winemaker’s door.  Now, however, thanks to the gradual relaxation of wine shipping laws, hundreds of boutique wineries across American offer their wines to millions of internet customers.

Where does the internet come in?

These days, it may be rare to order wine for dinner over the internet and have it shipped to one’s home.  Soon, however, this will be a very common practice.  The internet is the perfect conduit for the process of direct wine sales, creating a direct and practically cost-free link between winemakers and consumers.  Within five years, ordering wine over the internet will be standard practice for millions of Americans.

A toast to the beginning, a look to the future

Wine country is no longer limited to Napa Valley.  Over the past few decades, wineries have sprung up in practically every state in the U.S.  Now, thanks to the internet, you can enjoy virtual tours of wineries from Arizona to Alaska, from Napa Valley to New Jersey.  From hundreds of these internet wine sites, you can order boutique wines and have them sent directly to your home without ever involving distributors and retailers.

This book is the recognition of a new beginning to internet wine buying.  If you are reading this, congratulations.  You are on the cutting edge of the next major trend in American wine.

Wow!  Exciting lead-in, for sure!

Now, here comes the bad news.  This book, a boon to online-savvy wine lovers, has sold a grand total of 166 copies since it was published in November of 2006, according to Bookscan.  80 of those copies were sold during a week in February, probably based on a book signing or two and Amazon.com has 44 books being sold by used/new book sellers as a part of their associate sellers program.  I sincerely hope that this book has sold more than 122 copies in the first eight months of publication.

And, more importantly, what does it say about the wine blogosphere and online wine sales, in general, that this book hasn’t found a more receptive market?

Some might say that people disposed to buying wine online are technologically-savvy and aren’t looking for a book to tell them where to buy wine online.  That may be true, but in a book publishers eyes, they would deem this as a market not ready for primetime.

I posit that people buying wine online are buying it based on the Radcru’s, WineQ’s, Wine.com’s of the world as well as their own personal experience with wines they desire.  If viewed that way, then a giant curve of growth is still pending based on the adoption of buying by millions of consumers still to come. 

What do you think?


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What I would do for my 7 ½ Minutes of Internet Fame

As I recently read through the Chocolate & Zucchini cookbook while my wife read Julie & Julia, both books borne out of a blog, I got to thinking about what I would do if wanted to do an “e-stunt” related to my blog.  After all, first-person and memoir-related narratives are all the rage in the publishing industry, surely something from a wine perspective would sell.

And, there have been other, more hoary publicity-oriented items, as well, —the guy that sold all of his possessions piece by piece on eBay, the guy that photographed EVERYTHING he ate for a year and so on …

The epiphany happened while I sat in a rented RV while on my recent vacation.  I was sans laptop and Internet connectivity for the first time in two years (since my honeymoon) and I had traversed 700 miles in what would end up being about a 1300 mile trip in 7 days.  Sitting in a nicely appointed 2008 23 foot RV at June Lake, near Mono Lake east of Yosemite national park, my dog at my feet, the sun setting, I was drinking a very enjoyable ’05 Eberle Zinfandel (gold medal at the SF Chronicle tasting) and my wife and I had just polished off a beautiful light charcuterie and cheese dinner.  A book beckoned; after I finished the previous days LA Time sports section, before turning in early for a long slumber.

“Ah, Life is good,” I thought.

“These RV’s are pretty comfortable, too.”

“Man, it’s nice to be on vacation, but what I’d really like to do is kick my shoes off, fire up my laptop and write a blog post.”

Ding.  Ding.  That’s it!

I want to be a wine vagabond. 

As a child of the 80s, I have indelibly etched memories of Alan Hunter, in the early MTV days circa 1986, going “Amuck in America,” a tour of the U.S.

I want to do the same thing, except through a wine filter.

If I could take 3 months off of work and do some promotional masturbation, I would head up to Elkhart, Indiana, the recreational vehicle capital of the world, sweet talk my way into a loaner RV for 3 months, subsequently sweet talk my way onto some sort of sponsorship with Appellation America, Americanwinery.com or another wine-related company interested in the wines of the U.S. (hey, those vehicle wraps for sponsorship are pretty cool) and propose the following:

I’m going to write a book that starts out as a daily blog, which would be found at the recently registered http://www.winevagabond.com, and I’m going to travel the country from New York to California traveling as much as possible (exclusively almost) on established wine trails and their connecting highways.  Taking a meandering path from New York, to Pennsylvania, down to Virginia, through North Carolina, doubling back to Ohio, shooting up to Michigan, cutting through Illinois, traversing Missouri, crawling Texas, I would find a circuituitous path to hit all 48 contiguous states on their established wine trails, if each state had one.

Along the way, I would create a daily chart of places visited, sites along the way, via www.platial.com or a similar service, stop at the wineries, meet the people, learn their stories, drink their wines, and blog about the whole experience.  The end result would be a lifetime of memories, a kick-ass blog and a book that re-crafts the American experience for every road trip vacationer that that longs to drive Route 66.

Maybe this has been done in some form, but as a Wine Vagabond, I would strive to strive to transcend mere tourism in order to capture the American wine experience, no, the human condition via first person experiential travel.  How’s that for a lofty goal, especially for a minstrel like me.

How would you incorporate wine into your adventure if you could take off from work for 3 months?


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Stay Gold, Cameron Hughes!

Taken collectively, both Cameron Hughes and Oriel Wines hold plenty of interest and intrigue for wine lovers.  Their business models, new, different and interesting to the wine industry are practically ‘kissing cousins,’ yet their position to market for consumers is radically different.

As a brief aside and a blogging disclosure, Cameron Hughes proactively sampled me several bottles of wine a few weeks back.  In November of last year, I wrote a post on them completely independent of any outside influence.  Later, I noticed that they turned my honest and uninfluenced post and turned it into a downloadable pr piece on their site.  I think their sampling, in small part, was probably a goodwill gesture since I don’t do a lot of wine reviews on this site.   

Cameron Hughes, the Costco huckster and Internet sensation, focuses on the value consumer—a species of wine lover that transcends demographic boundaries, but generally can be found at Costco buying a 10 lb pork shoulder, 48 rolls of toilet paper, a $1000 grill AND wine for $11.99 that drinks like it cost 3X more. 

Meanwhile, Oriel Wines focuses on value, but with a more upscale, educated, globally-centric twist—and a bent more towards the restaurant wine list while trying to be less hoi polloi than Hughes.  Though, price points remain reasonable.

I’ve studied both of their business models and aside from the sales channel differentiation and the slightly different marketing twist, about the only different between the two that I can find is that Hughes focuses on the bulk market while Oriel Wines focuses on contracting winemakers for one-off batches.  In the end, that difference might be in and of itself more alike than different.

Regardless, both are at the consumer center of the nascent Wine 2.0 movement having both sponsored the recent wine technology gathering held in San Francisco in early June.  And while they are not in any way competing with each other, they are fighting for mindshare from overlapping customers.  So, in a sense, the comparison is inevitable. 

In a benign and friendly way this pairing of Cameron Hughes and Oriel, authors of differing, but compatible non-winery business models of selling wine, has the potential to be our Ali/Frazier, an enduring rivalry that everybody looks to in order to provide a framework for our times, in this case, our wine times.

The compare and contrast reminds me of the movie “The Outsiders”—the classic movie, based on the book of the same name by S.E. Hinton, where the Socials (Socs) and the Greasers (Grease) battle in neighborhood class warfare, set against a backdrop of moral redemption. 

Or, if two brands like Old Navy and Brooks Brothers squared off with moral purpose, it might be something like the difference between a graphic t-shirt (Hughes) and a button down oxford (Oriel).

If the battle to be fought is measured by ink on paper, then both are certainly landing plenty of punches measured by clippings.  You can hardly read a magazine, newspaper, or online article without running into a mention of one or the other.  The blogosphere has certainly supported Cameron Hughes and to a lesser extent Oriel Wines, who is still navigating this jet stream to figure out how to best engage.  Nonetheless, the PR for the both of them is breaking a sweat, for sure.  To see press clippings for Cameron Hughes, click here.  To see press clippings for Oriel Wines, click here.

And, in many ways, public relations are my concern for both of them.  In the mad dash to build sales and a distribution channel, while supporting the Wine 2.0 movement, I hope the Wine 2.0 movement can in turn continue to support them, even as their business expands beyond what can reasonably support one-to-one engagement that is so dear in our slice of the world. 

As both brands press to create consumer mindshare that drives sales, the discovery factor leading to a brand comfort level is certainly going to wither the bloom from the rose.  It’ll take some work on both sides to not make this a carpetbagging affair into and out of the blogosphere on to bigger and better things.

Nobody wants to see what I call the “derision decision”  of a wine brand when it moves to the end cap at the retail behemoth (akin to the decline that artists see when they go from consumer popularity to mass acceptance:  See Alanis Morrisette and Hootie and the Blowfish) and that might be the eventual result if the early brand champions aren’t groomed into long-term ambassadors. 

One of the key pieces in the movie version of “The Outsiders” is a poem by Robert Frost called ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ that also happened to introduce legions of teens in the 80s to Frost and poetry, in general.  It goes,

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

The pivotal scene in the movie has one of the characters saying to Ponyboy, one of the protagonists who risked his life to save others in a burning church, to “Stay Gold.”

The point is to always fight the notion that there is a lifecyle to all things, a birthing, a growth, a maturity, a decline and an eventual death.  ‘Stay Gold’ is a plea to remain true to whatever roots you come from; stay young and of pure essence.

My hope for both of the brands, supporters of the tenants of wine direct and Wine 2.0, in addition to surgical channel development, is that they don’t forsake the hand-to-hand development that creates ongoing relevancy for a brand in the new millennium.  If Cameron Hughes, and Oriel for that matter, can grow nationally while still staying in tune with the Wine 2.0 movement then we all wine … er … win.

Or, as S.E. Hinton might have put it, “Stay Gold, Cameron Hughes.”


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Bottled Poetry and Ignoring Art

There has been a lot of chatter in the wine blogosphere about wine ratings, kicked off by W. Blake Gray’s San Francisco Chronicle article from a week ago Thursday; I’m a couple of days late to the party.

Stephen Bachmann from Vinfolio, Tom from Fermentation, El Jefe from Twisted Oak, Tim from Winecast, Josh from Pinot Blogger and a good number of others via post or comments have weighed in.

Most of the discourse is along the following lines:

1)  Wine ratings are too subjective

2)  Wine ratings are valuable tools

3)  Let’s not use a 100 point system, let’s use this system

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s really hard for me to care too much.  I don’t rate wine myself, except under exceedingly rare circumstance, and I don’t tend to buy a lot of wine that gets rated, mostly due to availability.  Neither have I seen the destructiveness that wine ratings can wield—both pro and con—to vintners. 

For the most part, I only get worked up about things that I can change.  Frankly, I would rather teach summer school math to high school delinquents then try and change the 100 point system.  At least with the math teaching I know I could influence one kid; that’s how strongly I believe we’re entrenched in the system.  I also tend to write stories around wine, generally speaking, so that may be an indicator of where my general politics around wine ratings lay. 

El Jefe from Twisted Oak had a reasoned, passionate and poetic response on his blog when he said, in response to a suggestion for a five star system:

Tell me what you ate with the wine.
Tell me how the wine made you feel.
Tell me how it smelled.
Tell me what memories the wine evoked.
Tell me what senses were engaged.
Tell me what flavors excited you.
Tell me how it connected you with the people who made the wine, the people that grew it, the people who thought to share it with you.
Tell me about your friends, tell me about your family, tell me about the lover you shared the wine with.
Tell me about their passions. Tell me about your passions.
Next time you make love, tell me how it rated on a five star scale.

I don’t have much of an answer for this philosophical debate, but I do have some food for thought. 

I urge everybody to go this blog, based of this Washington Post article (it’s a feature piece, so it’s long, but worth reading in its entirety) and read about a social experiment that, in the summarized words of the blogger:

Here is what this “experiment” - which had been set up by the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten - was all about: On January 12, 2007, the 39 year old, amazingly handsome virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell who, according to Julie, “gets something like $1,000 per minute for solo performances in the world’s fanciest halls” performed, for a period of 43 minutes, six classical pieces on his $3.5 million Stradivarius. The one particularity of this performance is that it took place during the morning rush hour (from 7:51 to 8:34) in the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in Washington, D.C.

This experiment was, according to the Washington Post one “in context, perception, and priorities - as well an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

The Washington Post article notes:

No crowd ever gathered for Bell at L’Enfant Plaza, not even for a second.  In fact, for the nearly three-quarters of an hour that he played, only seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around, at least briefly, and take in the performance.  Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run—for a total of $32 and change.  That meant there were 1,070 people who simply hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

It may be that our virtuoso ignored offers two parallel points for the world of wine, related to scores.

1)  In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
2)  If a great musician plays great music but no one hears . . . was he really any good?

Or, to say it directly, without a rating, if there is a beautiful, carefully crafted bottle of wine sitting in a wine shop, does it transcend its place and circumstance in order to become bottled poetry to whoever acquires it?

There’s another compelling piece to the article:

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter.  Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us.  It may be true with music, too.

It may be true with wine, as well.  Perhaps ratings help us fill our cup with poetry lost so that we may gamely use wine to subsequently fill in our need, as humans, to fill our lives full of story and meaning with a rich patina? 

In this regard, ratings help us find the art that we need to fill our lives up with, to stay human, refined, a reasoned animal that feels.


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