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Wine and the Story Arc

Rare is the man who is comfortable in chaos.  Most of us wish for some sort of orderly taxonomy that brings structure to our world. 

At the least, we want something that helps us do some mental housekeeping so we can file or filter the information that we do not care about.

This must explain why many books and articles are all some variation of a list, as in:  “9 Ideas for the Thanksgiving Table,” “Top 100 wines of 2008,” so on and so forth. 

This notion, combined with the end of the year when we begin to see recaps of the events that shaped 2008, led me to do some quick research on the “seven types of stories.”

You see, in the world of wine, where our industry is not heavily news driven, we tend to fall into the same patterns of storytelling.  In the past, I have been chief critic of this because, well, sometimes the wine business is … boring. 

Snoozers like an afternoon nap; not exciting like nightlife at three am. 

Wine is more like a small town rife with subtle nuance and not a city environment teeming with the strife that marks conflict oriented humanity.

Check out the below and tell me that you do not see re-occurring patterns around the story types.

1)  Man v. Nature

Wine is, if anything, a product of nature.  We always see stories about the weather.  This year it was a late frost and smoke from wild fires potentially tainting grapes.

2)  Man v. Man

Wine is very political.  Usually these stories have change at the center of them – a recent story that falls into this category is E&J Gallo wanting to expand the Russian River Valley AVA against the wishes of a good many people.

3)  Man v. the Environment

This one saw a lot of action this year with Alice Feiring’s treatise on natural winemaking, natural yeasts, etc.

4)  Man v. Machines

This story angle has been a little subdued this year compared to 2007, but a classic example is Clark Smith and the ongoing debate about micro-oxygenation, de-alcoholization, and the intervention of technology in winemaking

5) Man v. The Supernatural

Hello Biodynamics.  We love to talk about the wackiness of burying the dung-filled cow horn at the equinox.

6)  Man v. Self

Wine loves an underdog story and our industry is especially ripe for folks coming from other industries and finding their true selves within the context of the grape.

7)  Man v. God/Religion

This is, perhaps, the most difficult to analogize because California and the wine industry is seemingly secular—I think the easiest thing to relate here is the concept of “terroir” which is, essentially a religious debate, and one that rages on year after year. 

As we wind down 2008, Thanksgiving, our time for quiet gratitude just passed, the calendar also marking the passage of another year of age for me, I take some measure of solace in the seeming simplicity and relative inconsequentiality of the wine storylines that populate our consciousness.

As I mentioned, most of us are not comfortable in chaos, gripping to order to make sense of things that are beyond our comprehension. 

Frankly, call it my age or the times, but I am coming to enjoy the small town, forsaking the city.

In a world and the attendant news cycle that is ever more complex, uncertain and dangerous, I find myself thankful that the world of wine is an oasis and a simple throwback to times when life was more orderly, and, well, there were seven basic stories to tell. 


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Aftermarket Wine Blends

When my mind wanders, I occasionally indulge in an onanistic parlor game of, “what would I do with a windfall of money?”

I usually think about what kind of business I would start, not necessarily what I would buy; and more often than not, I think about what I would do around the wine business.

I guess I channel my inner Andy Warhol –-especially when he said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

Mostly, my ideas are marketing-oriented and more of a point solution or along the lines of a product than anything truly revolutionary.  I chalk it up to the inured lack of innovation that seems endemic to wine and how it evidently has rubbed off on me.

Along those same lines, as the year winds down, I was thinking about my year of wine and the things that I experienced in ‘08 that I thought were truly interesting.

Bar none, one of the most under-noticed items in the pantheon of wine this year has to be the Fusebox Wine Blending kit from Crushpad wine (I wrote about it in late May).

And, within that Fusebox Wine Blending kit, the thing that absolutely fascinated me were the included recipe cards that allowed you to blend wines to an approximation of famous wines – a 2002 Joseph Phelps Insignia, a 1997 Opus One, a 2000 Chateau Margaux, etc.

It is genius, really. 

I do not know how they developed the recipe cards, but I am certain that Vinovation, who unofficially indicate to their winery customers that they can help develop a wine that will score 90 pts. surely have a good idea of how to both engineer a wine and reverse engineer a wine.

At the same time, earlier in the year I read about a French company called Wineside that was packaging wine in sample tubes – according to a blurb from this site:

… WineSide is taking a novel approach by offering wines packaged in sample-sized tubes.

WineSide offers both sweet and classic wines in patented, flat-base glass tubes with screw tops carefully engineered to protect the wines’ flavour.  WineSide’s collection represents a range of appellations and producers; tubes are available individually or by the box, which can be chosen to provide an introduction to a variety, year or region.

Interesting.  It makes you wonder why only plonk wine goes into the 187 ml bottles that are packaged in 4-packs.

As a side note, I have, in a peculiar way, always fetishized wine after visiting the tasting room at Teldeschi where he administered our tasting by pouring from chemistry lab beakers …

So, if you are following my circuitous path to this point and then you look at a company in another niche, Compass Box Whiskey, then maybe the picture turns from Monet to Rembrandt.

This article from Wired magazine sums up Compass Box well (excerpted):

The energetic (John) Glaser, a forty-something Minnesotan whose ready grin mitigates his piercing gaze, is the sole whisky maker of Compass Box, the boutique company he founded in 2000 after quitting his job as a marketing director for Johnnie Walker.

Although the brand sells only some 6,000 cases yearly, Compass Box’s independent ways have made an impression on the whisky world. I’m visiting Glaser here at Compass Box headquarters, but the apparatus of whisky making that surrounds us is limited to desks, computers and some glassware—Compass Box doesn’t do any distilling.
In a role that Glaser compares to that of a wine négociant, the company buys casks of whisky from some 15 Scotch distilleries, chosen for their wide range of characteristics, and assembles them into blends of Glaser’s own careful design. He takes, for instance, Caol Ila whisky, which has all the smoky savor of a barbecue, tempers it with an equal amount of Ardmore, whose likewise substantial peat is mellowed by delicate, complex fruity notes, and adds just a splash of uniquely peppery, briny Clynelish. (Among today’s treats for me is tasting these components separately, then together.)

Really, the idea is to be a dash of Cameron Hughes, a dash of Michael Brill from Crushpad with his Fusebox product with a dash of John Glaser, all delivered in a sampling format with recipe cards for how to assemble famous wines.

If I had a small windfall of money, I would have famous wines deconstructed both historical and contemporary, I would buy quality bulk wine and work the spot market, even buying bottled wine if I had to in order to make a faithful blend.  I would assemble kits of wine samples and recipe cards matched to premiere vintages.  I would sell that wine in a multiple bottle 187 ml sampling format that was packaged for high-end, velocity sales at boutique wine retail for subsequent in-home consumer blending. 

Do you think there is anybody interested in tasting an approximation of a ’47 Cheval Blanc?  Or, a ’97 Screaming Eagle or other scarcely available, uber-expensive wines?  What about the spectrum of Parker 100 pointers?

Does this resonate in a wine environment where the rarified air of the finest wines becomes exceedingly rarer as India and China takes to wine with new money?

I do - for the same reason that, inexplicably, we go to see celebrity impersonators in Vegas.  It is not the same, but it is still a vicarious thrill and we are entertained. 

The traditionalists in wine would hate the idea; the manufactured, cheapening of the art, but as Warhol noted, “business is the best art.”


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Forgive Me Father, for I have Sinned.

As a good (albeit lapsed) Catholic boy with 12 years of Catholic schooling under my belt, I am used to saying these words, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.”

That statement, in a confessional booth with a priest, was followed by a litany of small, inconsequential sins for which I was asking for forgiveness. 

Father would give me three “Hail Mary’s,” four “Our Father’s” and on down the road I would go.

Father Mascott, from the grade school I went to, went on to get married, but that is a post for another day, and much better than the other things priests are usually in the newspaper for … 

To the readers of this blog, I ask for forgiveness because I have been drinking … something … other … than wine …

I have been dabbling in craft beer.

Horrors!

I am not talking Sam Adams or Blue Moon—more along the lines of high-end Double IPA’s from tiny brewers across the country. 

With fall (bordering on winter) weather now gripping the Midwest, my palate has been asking for the gripping sweetness of a nice hopped-out beer.  In fact, I am anxiously awaiting the release of seasonal beer called Hopslam that is released by Bells Brewery in Michigan on January 7th.

I wish I could say I was learning something relevant to wine enthusiasm, but, in fact, it is quite the opposite.

I might need to ask Father for forgiveness for a small rant …

First, it is very educational to drink craft beer as a layperson, because I look at the aisle of a specialty beer shop the same way that 95% of wine consumers look at a wall of wine, all labels and foreign excitement and anxiety; gawky like a teen on prom night.  The craft beer aisle might as well be a double snap bra that requires a simultaneous pinch and twist. While interesting, it is also intimidating because I really do not know what I am buying – by definition, I could not tell you the difference between an IPA and an Imperial IPA – just like most cannot tell you the difference between Syrah from California and Shiraz from Australia.  And, I do not know any of the producers / breweries either. 

And, that is the problem from a consumer perspective.  I am buying a pig-in-the-poke.  Instinctively, I find myself trying to read beer labels, like a wine bottle, but there is scant copy. 

Yet, the U.S. beer world is blindly following the same marketing tactics as the U.S. wine world, just 25 years later.

I want to tell somebody, anybody, to STOP!

It is maddening.

Increasingly, craft brewers are:

1) Bottling beer in large format 750 ml bottles

2)  Bottling beer with corks

3)  Creating marketing shtick with special glasses – ex:  Sam Adams here

4) Increasing price points to luxury levels (I paid $8.49 for a single 12 oz beer from Dogfish Head Brewery—do the math for a 6-pack)

5) Naming beers with wacky names like Dreadnaught and Gumballhead

6)  Rating beers on a 100 pt. scale. 

7)  Using lifestyle marketing tactics

8) Creating celebrity, “midas touch” brewers

9) Pairing beer with food

In an interesting bit of irony, I am currently drinking a beer called Ommegeddon in a large format bottle, with a cork/champagne-like enclosure that has been inoculated with Brettanomyces – yes, Brett; the bane of every winemaker.  Next up is a lambic with a cork finish – the cork has a grape bunch on it because, well, I do not think nomacorc makes corks for beer quite yet.

And, here is what I want to tell every craft brewer –

“We (speaking on behalf of the wine industry) have tried the tactics you are trying and the thing that we have found that works best is engaging with customers on a one-to-one basis, providing meaningful education, being accessible, but not goofy and, most of all, demonstrating our passion for creating a high-quality product with a compelling storytelling narrative that is authentic.”

The rest is all marketing.  And, while marketing is a sin that a Priest forgives, what they do not forgive are capital sins – that is what purgatory is for.

Here’s hoping the craft brew industry learns some lessons from the wine industry before going into consumer purgatory without getting a chance at heaven.

Links of Interest:  Craft brew article in this weeks The New Yorker


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Video Interactivity in the Wine World

For most of the past two years, I have been consumed with work, making this blog a welcome relief and outlet for individual expression.

Or, in other words, aside from the Facebook explosion that took place last summer and the social networking explosion that occurred with the Open Wine Consortium earlier this year, work is my excuse for not having kept as close of tabs on the online technology scene as I might like.

That said, an interesting thing happened at the Wine Bloggers Conference a couple of weeks ago – I realized three things:

1) There are groups of cliques in the wine blogging scene that I am not a part of …’

2) Twitter is huge and I am not doing it (yet!)

3) Video is happening in the online wine world in a big way

All three of these things are of interest to me, because, well, frankly, to keep currency, you have to adapt with the times.

In my opinion, blogging, as we have known it the last couple of years, is fragmenting into different areas of user-generated content and Twitter and video are becoming increasingly important and influential.

This is not to say that blogging is going away, in fact, I believe more than ever that blogging is enduring and a rising influence.  However, other interesting, enduring and important influencing functions are happening for the wine business.

Between Twitter and video, video, to me, holds the more tangible promise.

First, we are seeing TV move online that means eventually television is going the way that traditional written word content has turned –- professional and pro-am. 

Essentially, user generated content will be pro and proletariat; networks vs. public access content ala Wayne’s World. 

I think Twitter has potential as well, but the jury is still out on their business model, let alone how you use it for your business purposes.

One of the shining stars and pioneers in video for the wine industry is Bret Lyman.  The “Warren Miller of Wine” as I have dubbed him.

Bret has been doing some beautiful and amazing work for clients like Don Sebastiani & Sons and, recently, Wilson Daniels.  You can see a series of videos for Wilson Daniels here.

Interestingly and progressively, Bret is teaming up with a Los Angeles producer named Bob Asher from Chilmark Media to create a revolution in the way that wines are marketed online, using video.

In a recent interview I conducted with Bob, he stated:

The wine business stands at a similar crossroads.  As a sector, for the most part, wine brands and retailers have been dangerously slow to embrace the media marketing revolution that has swept every other sector.  This was crystalized for me when I heard the brand manager for a giant consumer brand say at a recent industry event “I have an $8 million marketing budget and I spend $8 million on magazine ads.”  I was literally speechless.  This is 2008… have you heard about this little thing we call the Internet?  I think it may catch on, but I’m not sure.

Needless to say I raised my hand and asked about the company’s Internet strategy.  The response was “I don’t think that click-on ads work.”  Wow, that is so not what I’m talking about.

I’m talking about branding, marketing and selling in new and innovative ways.  The YouTUBE, Facebook, MySpace revolution has changed the way people consume media and receive marketing messages.  You have to reach those people where they are which is online, but NOT through click-on ads but through targeted and creative video content.

In the wine space this means telling your story and creating a community of customers who have an emotional attachment to your brand.  there is so much clutter out there, so many wine brands competing for attention, that savvy brand managers have to do something to cut through the static.  Consumers too are overwhelmed by all of the choices they face and the persistent desire to have someone guide them through the wine maze at the local supermarket.

Smart, Bob.  Equally smart to work with Bret who has an incredible eye and a knack for emotional narrative.

Elsewhere, Dan Chapin, a friend and former colleague at Inertia Beverage Group recently left IBG to develop and expand his own company, Artisan Media Services.

I expect big things out of Artisan.  While the business is still developing, it sounds like Dan is working on a content delivery vehicle in addition to the content development via video. 

According to their site:

Artisan Media is a media production company committed to creating media assets that capture the unique personality of artisan companies within the beverage and food industry. Our focus is to help you broadcast the personality of your brand and the essence of your company’s message to both prospective and loyal customers. As growing numbers of people turn to the internet to gather information about various products and services, video on the web has proven to be one of the best vehicles for helping convert website visitors into customers and brand ambassadors.

Now, mind you, not all video work online is happening at a professional/services level.  In addition to Gary Vaynerchuk, there will be other personalities that emerge in true guerilla style fashion. 

Probably one of the most interesting is Dirty South Wine.  Dirty’s mix of food and wine with contemporary music and pro-style editing is first class, interesting and authentic. 

Regardless of what you think about internet marketing, the intractable truth is the printing press gave way to the television and so it is with the internet and video.  Wineries should Ignore at your own peril.  Early adopters are encouraged, as well.


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News, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items

… Random flotsam and jetsam from a life lived through the prism of wine …

From the Grandma Funk File (if you ain’t Cheating, You ain’t Trying):

A thief in Denver had been systematically stealing expensive wines from retail stores by wearing an elastic back brace, sliding bottles into his waistband and then reselling them online.  A store manager who was checking sales against inventory alerted the authorities who found the stolen wine for sale on WineCommune. 

I have met Michael Stajer before and I am guessing he was not too stoked about this …

See the full story and news channel video package at this link.

From the “Not All of Gen. Y Drinks Wine” File

Headline writing, long the province of cub journalists, is apparently still a young man’s game, though we can now verify that not all Gen. Y drinks wine.  Witness: the headline from the Colorado Springs Gazette with the headline stating, “California penoit noir ideal for Thanksgiving.”

Good Grape makes Wines & Vines

In print media, I have a column in this month’s issue of Wines & Vines.  Thanks to Jim Gordon for the opportunity!  You can read the column, which is slightly revised from a previous blog post, at this link.

Why Didn’t I Think of That!

Sometimes there are just head smacking moments … wine palate cleansers … duh!  Why didn’t I think of that?

Over the last couple of weeks, I have seen Vino Chapeau, a wine aroma concentrator, a wine wand, customizable wine neckers (a clever and charming idea), and a couple of other items.

In terms of coolness, just ahead of the bottle neckers, is the idea to create a palate cleanser.  SanTasti is a bottled, slightly fizzy palate cleanser.  Early accounts are positive.  It is a niche of a niche, but a good idea.  I wish I had a bottle at the Wine Blogger Conference. Check out the SanTasti at this link.

Speaking of SanTasti, I turn the page on another year this Friday.  On tap for the birthday is a nice California Pinot line-up:  Bouchaine, Green Truck, Patz & Hall, William Selyem, Cellar Rat Pinot (Crushpad), and some other less expensive wines.  I am going to want a palate cleanser after that … Birthdays (and recessions) are a great excuse to drink nice wine!

Some partially finished bottles will probably be going home with a couple of friends.  That in mind, I have mentioned it before, if you want to buy an incredibly cool handmade gift, then head to www.etsy.com and search “wine.”  All kinds of cool stuff, including wine bags for gifts.

On a separate, but related note, if you are at a wine party and want to immediately buy a wine that you have tasted, Richard Shaffer, the man behind Israeli Wines Direct, is getting ready to launch a new service called mywinetxt.comCheck out a recent post at his blog for more details.

All a Twitter

At a Wine Blogger Conference after party, El Jefe had some fun with me by proclaiming to a room full of people that I was going to start Twittering, as a previously avowed non-Twitter’er.  I have not lived up to my promise to get going, but I will by the end of the year.  Sigh! 

I was at a conference last week and listened to a breakout session by the founder of ShareThis. He related that the guys at Facebook had more than a passing concern about Twitter.

And, I do have to give legitimate and due credit to Tim from Winecast who really lead the Twitter movement in the online wine space when he started almost a year and ½ ago.  Tim has a real knack for being an early adopter on the social media tools that seem to prevail, so kudos to him. 

Speaking of Twitter and technology in the wine related space, video is exploding in wine online and I am not talking about Vay-ner-chuk.  In my next post, I will look at a couple of interesting things that are happening and on the horizon.


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