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Taking the “F-U” out of Wine Sales and Putting it into F-U-N

Show me an old wine business sales hand and I’ll show you an old dog with the palor of a corpse, cussing a blue streak, and a gallows sense of humor that would make comedians telling “The Aristocrats” joke wince. 

It’s through no fault of their own: selling wine is significantly less glamorous than it’s made out to be, or so I’m told.
I’m reminded of the night whilst at a non-profit wine tasting when I chatted up a regional sales rep. for a well known Dry Creek winery that started tearing up when she talked of being on the road 85% of the time, away from her daughter and how, as a single mother, her own mother was raising her daughter.  She complained about her wineries packaging and said that the quality had slipped when the winemaker had left a year and a ½ ago and hadn’t been replaced because they were letting the assistant winemaker do all of the work, without the promotion.  She referenced a conversation she had with her sales manager about quota’s citing the popular phrase for the mother of cuss words, “F-U.”  I gulped my generously poured sample and thanked her for, well, for sharing too much information, really.

I moved on to the next table making mental note to never, innocuously say, “Your job must be great.” I also squelched the desire to enter the wine business on the winery or distributor sales side. 

With that in the back of my mind, back in April, I wrote a post on Weimax Wine & Spirits and Gerald Weisl’ deliciously snarky manifesto on “How to be a Wine Sales Rep.” I left out the equally fantastic article by Weisl called “How to conduct a Trade Tasting” for a future post.  At the time I compared the articles to the irascible postings on the wine business by Joe Dressner on his site (found here).  And, despite the embittered, scurrilous contempt they may both sometimes demonstrate towards the stark reality of the wine trade (read:  selling the stuff—a business older than prostitution, by some counts), perhaps their shining beacon is occurring subtly around the country as new entrants come into the wine field.

Cue the music because “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”  In the immortal words of James Brown,

Come here sister
Papa’s in the swing
He ain’t too hip now
but I can dig that new breed babe;
He ain’t no drag
He’s got a brand new bag

Maybe I’m overstating this a bit, but nonetheless my interest was piqued when I saw two recent wine job postings on the site—postings that promise to bring in some fresh blood and treat wine sales, well, differently.

The first is from Web 2.0 favored son, Cameron Hughes Wine.  The job ad to be one of the in-person demonstrators for Cameron Hughes screams,

Do you have an awesome personality?
Do you really enjoy wine?

It continues …

You MUST have a ‘GO-GETTER’ attitude demonstrating confidence & charisma, with a knack for public speaking. You must be reliable, solid, and hard working. No wimps need apply – don’t even try.

The other ad is from a distributor in Illinois called Wine-o-Rama.  Bonus points to them for having a “break the clutter” name and for citing the wine blogosphere in their ad:

Do you find that you idly swirl your water glass or spend personal free time reading and searching for entertainment from online podcasts, blogs, or articles about wine? Perfect! Is your passion for wine uncontainable? How so? Tell us about that. Do you want to work with a company that is quality driven and focused on small-production wines that are worthy of your passion? If so, then we may want you to join our team.

We are looking for someone who is excited about wine and is already selling wine even though you don’t happen to do so professionally; you can’t help but sell wine to those around you. You’re not a wine geek; you’re just its biggest fan. You are smart, motivated and savvy; independent in spirit and mind; someone who cares about the product they promote and know the difference between selling wine and widgets. We’ve already established that you are excited about wine, but what is your strategy to convert the non-excited?

It’s an interesting dichotomy, the romance and glamour of the winery story juxtaposed against what is the reality of wine sales through the three-tier system.  A couple more bright, shiny new hires from the likes of Cameron Hughes and Wine-o-Rama and maybe the wine industry will continue to shake off the shackles of the legacy ways of doing business, gaining a new sense of humor along the way.  May the “F-U” in wine sales mean only that they are the first two letters in F-U-N. 


The Next Wine Varietal Star?

I’ve yet to put my finger on the zeitgeist that creates consumption trends in the wine industry.  Wine isn’t like popular, consumer culture where trends happen at the street-level and work their way up, or, alternatively, they start with media stars and work their way down.

With regulation and distribution being what it is, I think trends happen more conscientiously in the wine industry; it’s based on research and data—whereby the slightest uptick in a varietal can mean a piling on of growing, importing, stocking and subsequent promotion to grow sales.  If the media goes along for the ride—ala Rośe—, than that is all the better.

We can all certainly wish that somebody, perhaps Master Sommeliers, will wield ever growing influence in the swings that mark our consuming public.  In fact, we need this to occur to create a healthy balance, as the wine industry continues to bifurcate on multiple levels between mass production and boutique, points wines and unreviewed artisan production, alongside imports, etc.

With that in mind, I’m curious to see what the next “hot” varietals will be and how they are addressed in the market.  Does the wine industry have an influential star system whereby a winemaker, a Sommelier, or a critic not named Parker, can raise tides and steer ships to new chartered courses?

Last week winemaker Randy Dunn denounced high alcohol wines, so we’ll see how that moves or doesn’t move activity over the course of the next year or two.  We’re already starting to see a groundswell around more organic and “food-friendly” wines so lower alcohol wines may already be well on their way, Rośe being a fine lower-alcohol choice for many and a food-friendly complement to a wide variety of dishes.

A recent feature in Ronn Wiegand’s “Restaurant Wine” caught my attention for similar reasons.  Restaurant Wine is a trade-oriented wine newsletter with a mixture of news, insight and review available by subscription only.  In the current issue (#118) he takes time to profile each of the eight Americans who passed the Master Sommelier exam in March, bringing the total number of domestic M.S.’s to 87.

It may be that their influence will grow as enough voices in the wilderness come together to create a public chorus.

An interesting thing occurred in each of these profiles that asked a number of standard questions, including their “favorite wine types” and “most underrated/underappreciated wines.”  Four of the eight profiles cited Piemontese wines—Nebbiolo-based, Barolo or Barabaresco as one of their favorites or noted as underappreciated. Secondarily, four of the eight also cited German Riesling as either one of their faves, or underappreciated.

Both of these wines, by their naming and/or origin are a confusing, tangled mess for American wine consumers to figure out.

But, again, this is where the influence of the Sommelier in our increasingly wine-centric society can be a positive indicator of trends to come.

For example, Nebbiolo, Barbaresco and Barolo are all made from the Nebbiolo grape and are produced in that same order of intensity-Nebbiolo being the “lightest,” and Barolo being the heaviest.  Not that you would know unless you really tried to figure it out, or had somebody teach you—a Sommelier, for example.

Barbaresco, in particular, is something I would definitely like to see grow in the U.S., driving prices down while they are at it.  Finding good Barbaresco’s below $40 a bottle is a challenge.  Trader Joe’s $13 junk bottles notwithstanding.

I had a bottle of a Barbaresco at dinner in New York City last May that opened my eyes to the beauty of this region.  The 2000 Cascina Morassino Barbaresco paired with a striped bass with white, green and wild asparagus did two things—it paired red wine with fish and it was a complete revelation in seductiveness.  One of the less than five bottles I’ve had that acted as an epiphany while driving introspection—the experience that so many wine lovers orgasmically chase. 

A couple of quotes from the Master Sommeliers:

Fred Dexheimer, Domestic Portfolio Director, T. Edwards Wines, New York on Barolo/Barbaresco: 

They are soulful by nature and reward those with patience.  One is forced almost to meditate while enjoying a great bottle of one of these wines.

Thomas Burke, Sommelier, Red Rock Casino & Resort, Las Vegas on Barolo/Barbaresco:

For me, gaining an appreciation of these wines was like getting my Ph.D. in Understanding Wine Complexity.

Brian Koziol, District Manager – Sales, Southern Wine & Spirits of Florida, Miami, FLA:

Great with food.  Wines with soul (cherries, truffles, roses, licorice).

Brett Zimmerman, General Manager, American Division, Southern Wine & Spirits of Colorado, Denver, CO

Piemontese Wines, especially those that are Nebbiolo-based.  Wines from these regions have high levels of intensity and acidity; are mostly single variety wines (that reach their apogees here); and have considerable history and food culture associated with them.

German Rieslings, for their part, were cited by the Sommeliers, especially the Kabinett-level food-friendly styles.

Generally speaking, I think as the ranks of Master Sommeliers grow in the U.S., so too will their mainstream influence.  While I’m not sure what the next “hot” varietal will be, I’m hoping that the Master Sommeliers can act as “star” influencers in bringing both Riesling and Barbaresco to a greater level of prominence in the U.S., educating us along the way.


Wine & The State Fair Judging, Indy Gets a Turn

Arriving shortly after the completion of the California State Fair Wine Competition is the Indy International Wine Competition, the largest in the U.S., representing over 3700 submissions and currently taking place (July 26th – 28th) in Indianapolis.

After the recent hubaloo with the Charles Shaw gold medal winners at the California wine competition, it will be interesting to see what, if anything, comes out of the Indy competition in terms of press.  It goes without saying that if you’re the competition organizer the last thing you want to have happen is have the boo birds come out when a wine is given a double, or concordance gold medal.  It undermines the good intentions of the judges and the judging criteria, however stringent they may be.

Bronco Wine Company and their Charles Shaw brand are delighted, however.  Cases are flying out of Trader Joe’s by the trunkful.  Just the same, I’m sure the CA competition organizers would have preferred that the complete public tide went in favor of seeing Trader Joe’s as a fabulous value instead of a segment of the population being completely dubious.

I checked out the judges from 2006 for the California State Fair compared against the 2006 list for Indy to see if there were any commonalities.  Mostly, it’s people from the trade with the occasional doctor and layperson thrown in for good measure.  The Indy competition judging is led by Dan Berger.  I would be very interested to hear his thoughts on the quality and caliber of judging at not only the Indy competition, but at others where he is the marquee judge.

In many ways, the Indy competition is an interesting one and a potential challenge for the judges.  Compared to other wine competitions, Indy is the one competition where you get more of the fruit wines, native U.S. varietals and some complete one-off’s—a true test against judging as the judge has a smaller likelihood of having a memory bank of recall to judge standards against—Traminette and Catwaba, anyone?

Depsite my defense of the state fair wine competition as a valid system, safeguards should continue to be taken for integrity.  It’s kind of like what we’re seeing in the NBA and baseball right now.  Just when you think everything is clicking along smoothly a controversy emerges that shakes the foundation of the game.  In the both situations it’s alleged nefarious outside influences that question the integrity of the game.  In wine competitions, it’s judge competence.

This is why I think all of these competitions need to move to unified certification for every judge that participates.  In both the list for the California State Fair Wine Competition and the Indy International Wine Competition, I saw 2006 judges that were, presumably, hard core enthusiasts, but listed as a medical doctor.

The American Wine Society has a “Wine Judge Certification” that appears rigorous—requiring a full three years to complete, combining self-study along with in-person testing.  The self-study, like a lot of wine certifications relies on some of the premiere text books of university wine curriculum including “The University Wine Course” by Marian Baldy along with a good number of other wine sensory evaluation books.  The certification is complete with a capstone test in year three.  In and of itself, the time commitment alone would weed out the average palate, or those less inclined to the time commitment for study.  Those in the trade, could, of course, “test out” of certain requirements in years 1 and 2 to more quickly accelerate their certification.  To read more of the criteria for this certification check out the link here, here and here.

In my opinion, while I think blind-tasting, with scores batched to a mean against the average is an adequate evaluation tool; I think these Wine Competitions would be doing themselves a tremendous favor by using this period of time in the growth of wine consumption in the U.S. to also up their judging criteria.  The AWS Wine Judge Certification seems as good a place to start as any and would prevent second-guessing that undermines integrity.

In the meantime, I think I may pop down to the Indy Competition, because opened, previously judged bottles are tasted with the public, no certification is required—only a gullet and I have a well-qualified one at that. 


Pick 6: The Wine Blogs Earning My Attention

When the American Wine Blog Awards came out earlier this year I thought I had my bases covered, I already read most, if not all, of the sites listed.  What a difference a couple of months can make.  The number of wine bloggers continues to explode in size and my guess is that the voting for next year’s American Wine Blog Awards is going to look at lot different. 

There’s a shift happening in the wine blogosphere …

The recent Fermentation survey, managed by Tom Wark, about the influence of wine blogs is illustrative of this and was a real eye-opener for me—notably around how influential blog wine reviews are—68% of respondents have purchased a wine based on a blog review. 

WOW!  That’s about all I can say.

Well, the other thing I can say is shame on me because I was not in the camp of being actively engaged with blogs that focused more exclusively on reviews.  This is not the case anymore as my blog reader is now a cup runneth over with new blogs to keep up with from all corners of the wine blogosphere.

Ironically enough, this epiphany happens at the same time that I make the conscious decision to not renew my paper subscription to The Wine Advocate.  Perhaps coincidence, or maybe my sub-conscious is guiding me, but If I’m going to get exclusively wine reviews and tasting notes, I think I want to follow somebody who insinuates a personal style in four colors.

That said, here are six quality blogs that are either new in the last 12 months, or new to my radar.  Check them out and mark my words:  The American Wine Blog Awards coming up will be 180 degrees different in terms of nominees and potentially winners then the 1st edition. 

The Cork Dork:

Domaine 547:

Joe’s Wine:

Purple Liquid:

Rockss and Fruit:

The Wine Chicks:


Fruit of the Wine

In between Eric Asimov’s post on Lambrusco last Wednesday at The Pour and Derrick Schneider’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday regarding fruit wines, I have to say that I’m nearing a state of nirvana.  Then, if you combine those thought-leadership pieces from either coast with all of the press the Michigan wine industry has been getting, I’d have to say that I might soon be able to come out of the closet—the “I can appreciate a semi-sweet fruit wine” closet, that is. 

Plus, maybe, if we’re lucky, maybe the Rose Revolution will have the bloom come off the rose, too.  The Pour has a good post on that, as well.  I think Asimov is a kindred spirit …

I’ve written in the past about my appreciation for a well-made cherry wine, even blackberry, too if it’s not too much on the syrupy Manischewitz side.  Simply, I can get down with fruit wine, but I’ve always felt like it was one of those hayseed Midwest things best left unsaid in polite wine company.

Heck, I also, unabashedly, like Lambrusco and Moscato d’Asti, too.  I’m not too proud to say it.  The Italians know what they are doing.  I even like to drink wine “paisano-style” in a simple tumbler.  Horrors! 

Most, if not all Midwestern wineries have at least one fruit wine and many of the colder climate vitis labrusca varietals grown east of the Mississippi can be made at least semi-sweet.  I’ve never been able to figure out why people look down their nose at a cordial wine, but think a port is just dandy, after dinner.  And, that’s the way a fruit wine needs to be viewed—as a cordial, a social ice breaker before more serious wines are drunk, or not. Maybe it’s just enjoyed on its own for simple pleasure.

It’s always been something of a bittersweet notion because while you celebrate the local winery, the other part of me knows that it’s hard for these guys to be taken seriously with a cordial-style wine.  There always seems to be a difference between art and commerce and the fruit wines are commerce while the fine wines are art, at least that’s my impression for most small wineries not in California, Washington or Oregon.  But, I think Michigan has a chance to change all of that for wine lovers nationwide because many producers make excellent Riesling and Pinot Noir and by god they usually have a cherry wine, too.

I’m not sure if the Michigan Winery Association p.r. person deserves a bonus or if it is a tremendous set of circumstances, but man, they have been getting some press lately.

The New York Times featured an article on Michigan wine country a couple of weeks ago, the article saying:

The shores of Grand Traverse Bay are a country of sandy bayfront beaches, wide water vistas dotted with white sails, historic stop-offs and a variety of inns and restaurants. The long Leelanau Peninsula juts north into Lake Michigan, forming the bay’s western edge, and the smaller, skinny Old Mission Peninsula projects northward from Traverse City, slicing the interior of the bay in two. It all adds up to more than a hundred miles of waterfront.

To ease into your exploration, sidestep Traverse City at first and head due north on Old Mission, a 22-mile strip that’s narrow enough in stretches to let you drive up its spine while taking in bay views in both directions. It’s home to six wineries, soon to be seven, including the Chateau Grand Traverse and Chateau Chantal, both of which have guest houses with rooms overlooking the vineyards. All offer daily tastings of their rieslings and pinot noirs …

“The sweeter the better,” admitted both Dave and Debbie Bridgewater, loading up on bottles of their favorites at Chateau Grand Traverse. They were soaking in the calm of the peninsula on a roundabout route from their home near Detroit to their weekend cabin in nearby Lake City. “We come quite a bit — for the wine,” said Ms. Bridgewater, 48, a hairdresser.

In addition:

Forbes featured an article on the expansion of the Michigan wine industry …

Wines & Vines featured a Michigan distributor that is distributing, exclusively the wines of Michigan …

Appellation America does a fine job of covering Michigan wine news ..., an independent web site covering Michigan wines, just launched …

Here’s hoping that a cordial wine revolution, featuring fruit wines, starts to take hold, pulling Midwestern and East coast wineries up by the boot straps, creating legitimacy for wines that can simply be enjoyed for what they are, and, oh, maybe sneaking in a nice Pinot while they’re at it. 


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