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Good Wine that Does Good

Wine is a natural complement to many things – food, obviously, being its most natural companion. Wine is also a natural companion to our philanthropic spirit – non-profits and the notion of social responsibility.

In cities across the country non-profits use wine events as a fundraiser for their social cause.  In Indianapolis alone there are at least five major annual events with a wine tasting experience acting as the centerpiece for separating money from donor wallets.

The non-profit that I’m involved with, Second Helpings, a food rescue and job training program, has an annual event called Harvest where the food and wine flow freely in the name of good works.

These sorts of things happen in every city in the country.

However, overlooked in the bacchanalian spirit of giving are the distributors and (more often) the wineries that are providing the wine for the event.  And, typically they are events.  Folks convene in one spot, pay their entrance fee, have a good time and then leave.

But, what would happen if a non-profit started selling their own private-labeled wine—the Girl Scout cookie equivalent for the wine interested?

With that in mind, it was with curiosity that I saw Crushpad Wine recently rolled out a fundraising program.  More often than not, when I see something new that Crushpad Wine is doing, like their Bailout wine, I smack my head and say, “Good idea!”

Their newest endeavor, the Crushpad Fundraising Program, is another example of playing to strengths while finding a worthwhile market to expand into – a good idea.

Make no mistake, Crushpad’s core business of consumer-based custom crush is for that thin-slice 1% of Americans who are crazy about wine, but stop just short of picking up and moving to wine country to start their own winery.  At an average price coming close to $10,000 a barrel, countered with Crushpad’s mission of democratizing the winemaking experience, there is work to be done for their business model to match the mission.  For that reason, we’ve seen Crushpad expand into a more consumer-oriented productization – the Fusebox wine blending kit being a notable example.  For example, a consumer can buy a blending kit and blend a wine to their specifications and subsequently buy that blend with a much more humble cash outlay than a 25 case commitment.

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That notion, coupled with the fact that Crushpad is on speed dial for California non-profits seeking wine donations, and you might deduce that they have a good business rationale to think creatively about growth and tapping new markets.  According to fundraising program manager Pamela Topper, commenting on the new program said, “Instead of ‘giving the man a fish,’ which would bring in a few bucks at single fundraiser, we decided to ‘teach a man to fish’ by providing a program that is easy, quick, and requires no investment by the organization, that would provide reoccurring revenue throughout the year, year after year.”

Kind of like the Girl Scout cookies.

Non profits are struggling right now, like virtually every other sector; there has been a pull back.  For most people, when the wallet tightens, there is a natural pullback from checkbook conscientiousness.  But, what if you were to combine many people’s twin passions of wine and being philanthropically engaged and do so outside of an event?

The Crushpad program is simple and there are two options depending on how serious the non-profit is about the juice. 

This first option is straightforward – a non-profit can select a pre-blended, pre-bottled option that Crushpad has already created (selecting based on price points, etc.), create a custom label with Crushpad, have Crushpad set-up an online store (like this), and start selling wine, taking the margin spread on each sale, without the risk of the acquisition of inventory.

Heck, Crushpad will even ship the wine to the purchaser and pay the appropriate taxes.  It doesn’t get much easier for the non-profit. 

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The second option, more involved and engaging, has the non-profit creating a custom blend using the Fusebox.  To me, this is a great idea.  There’s nothing better than getting donors and volunteers in a room for a blending session to stoke the giving (and the wine buying) fire.  The same sales protocol follows for label creation, creation of a store and the non-profit taking the margin spread.

And, the numbers can add up in a meaningful way.  Harvest, the Second Helpings fundraiser I mentioned, is the largest fundraiser for the organization and significantly drives their budget.  A miss on revenue for an event can have a very meaningful impact on their business and the work that they do feeding the underprivileged and training culinary students.  In a financial example provided by Crushpad, if donors or volunteers buy a “collectible” wine for $50 there can be as much as $25 a bottle that goes directly to the non-profit.  It doesn’t take much math to see the yield a non-profit can reap from such a program.

Now, this isn’t to say that such private-label non-profit wine offerings don’t exist elsewhere.  They do.  But, what is unique about the program with Crushpad is the ease of use that requires virtually no thinking for the non-profit outside of marketing the wine to their donors and volunteers combined with quality juice in the bottle.  I’ve never had anything but good wine from Crushpad, the rugs match the drapes, so to speak, which isn’t always the case with other wine companies that private-label.

Overall, I’ve always been an admirer of Crushpad Wine, their business model, their wines and their inventiveness in tapping new markets and experimenting.  This is another example and hits my personal sweet spot for acknowledging and supporting non-profits that are often times the silent engine in our societal success.  Good wine that does good, I can drink to that.


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Finding the Perfect Online Wine Case Study Candidate: Beaux Frères

With good traditional distribution but no discernible consumer marketing activity, especially online, I have found that rare gem of a winery – under-promoted and pedigreed, positively old school in marketing; a winery who can act as the perfect foil for demonstrating the positive impact that online engagement represents for wineries and the wine world.  This winery is a veritable wine blogging and online marketing case study waiting to happen. 

By way of background, I’ve been thinking about finding a winery to “discover” based on the ongoing dialogue about the evolution of wine writing online.  What could be better than helping a specific winery “get” the gospel, so to speak?

My motivation is simple.  If the elder statesman of wine criticism rebukes wine bloggers derisively as Robert Parker, Jr. did recently, then wine bloggers (I prefer “online wine writer,” by the way) need to get serious about their craft and the positive impact of their craft.  A rising tide raises all ships and, in addition to convincing wineries at-large, some rehabilitation needs to occur with Parker, as well.  Not all “wine blobbers,” as he referred to online wine writers, are writing hackneyed purple prose and bad reviews.

I’ve been aided in my thinking by several other independent sources of information, as well.  There was a recent post at Tom Wark’s Fermentation blog about the nature of wine samples and the ethical implications of their receipt by a wine reviewer.  The premise of his post is the notion that wineries should liberally send out samples and serious reviewers should request winery samples – all in the name of fostering a vibrant community of wine writers.

Now, creating a vibrant community of online wine writers is something I can get behind!

On Monday, research conducted at Sonoma State University concluded that, yes, wine bloggers are an influential community, though mileage will vary, and that, by and large, wine blogs were talking about under-promoted wines, mentioning that, based on a content analysis of 212 wine blogs, there were 813 different wine brands mentioned with just three brands listed more than three times.  The study analytically demonstrates the richness of the conversational funnel that occurs online around wineries and wines – essentially what is promotion of a winery via word of mouth advertising – word of mouth advertising that can be harnessed.

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If you combine the above with a post I wrote in February of this year in which I said the value of winery sampling is in creating awareness, mindshare and, ultimately, a brand ambassador that works alongside the correlating benefits of content creation that aids in online search engine optimization, than what you have collectively is a pretty good case for wineries to seriously consider an expansion of what they view as traditional media.

I’m no brainiac, but the thought of organizing readers of this blog to contact a winery who is not a participant online and encouraging them to send out samples to demonstrate the power of creating conversation online seems like a benevolent exercise that can yield very positive results!

Located in the Chehalem Mountains, a sub-appellation to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, Beaux Frères produces world-class Pinot Noir and Grenache from estate vineyards.  With just four to six thousand cases of production, Beaux Frères is well-distributed in the U.S. with representation in 36 states and exporting relationships to 14 countries.

In an interesting twist for a serious winery of this size, in our current Pinot mania, despite good reviews, their winery/brand recognition is under-developed. 

Again, this is perfect for an online wine marketing experiment!

That said, one might suggest that a small Oregon producer like Beaux Frères (that has distribution relationships in 36 states with an export relationship to 14 countries) is in the catbird seat without need for additional mindshare and awareness. The fact that they’ve managed that level of development in their sales infrastructure might be a minor miracle not to be tampered with.  But, the reality is that the wine isn’t allocated per se, but does have a mailing list. The wine can be purchased off of their web site, and it’s not inexpensive—$50 - $80 for the Pinots.  In addition, a mere distribution relationship is no guarantee of sales.

They could use the help—Beaux Frères could benefit from the conversational spark that that the wine blogosphere provides! 

Without much buzz online about the brand, a Google search that yields very little in the way of consumer based activity (mostly retail-based information), no discernible social media engagement via a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or consistent content or updating of their web site, this winery represents a great opportunity to increase mindshare, brand awareness and purchase intent with the help of the online wine world.

But, I need your help to convince the winery. 

Here’s where I’m asking you to do:

1)  If you’re a wine consumer please Google “Co-Owner of Beaux Frères Vineyard” and find the co-owner’s name who is not the winemaker (I think his name is Bob) and then send an email to: info@beauxfreres.com and tell them that you think they should send wine samples to your favorite wine blogs – please state your favorite wine blogs by name

2) If you’re in the trade please Google “Co-owner of Beaux Frères Vineyard” and find the co-owner’s name who is not the winemaker (I think his name is Bob) and then send an email to info@beauxfreres.com and tell them that as a colleague in the wine world you think Beaux Frères might be missing an opportunity to expand their awareness in the world of wine in a positive way.  Provide the co-owner with any positive anecdotes related to your engagement online that comes to mind.

3) If you’re a wine blogger please Google “Co-Owner of Beaux Frères Vineyard” and find the co-owner’s name who is not the winemaker (I think his name is Bob) and then send an email to: info@beauxfreres.com and tell them that you think they should send wine samples to you.  Please cite your URL, your tenure in writing online and anything else that you think lends credibility.

Together we can do this.  By harnessing our collective power, picking a benevolent winery to support and engaging with them, we can help demonstrate the power of online wine writing as a part of a larger support mechanism for a winery to engage in social media.

Again, this is very important.  At a minimum, please Google and send the note.  I’m pretty sure the co-owner’s name is Bob, but you’ll want to get his last name to make sure you know who you are addressing (after all, we’re a polite bunch).  That Google search string one last time is “Co-Owner of Beaux Frères Vineyard.” If you can’t find the co-owners name who is not the winemaker, you might be able to find information at this link. We need to help these winery owners understand the power of the Internet and the power of wine bloggers – power that can be harnessed for the greater good, categorical “wine blobber” rebukes by major critics notwithstanding.


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The Wall Street Journal Wine Columnists Carry the Biggest Stick of All

Saber rattling between Fred Franzia and Casella Wines, the company that produces Yellow Tail wine, was clicking along just fine until the unthinkable happened:  somebody with influence said Franzia’s new “Down Under” brand was actually good.

Consider for a moment that when the announcement of the new Aussie wine brand, officially called “Down Under by Crane Lake,” starting with just a chardonnay, was announced in mid-June and then with more feverish coverage in the first week of July, the response from Casella wines was tepid.  John Casella, managing director of Casella Wines, quoted in an Associated Press article that ran in the Modesto Bee on July 4th said, “A lot of brands compete with Yellow Tail and this will be another.”

Hardly a shot across the bow; the quote was more of a dismissive “go ahead, pal.”

Casella continued in the same article, “It’s not sustainable.” The article continues by paraphrasing and saying that Casella noted that Australia is experiencing a wine glut and its currency is recovering strength against the U.S. dollar after a sharp downturn.

Franzia, preemptively, had addressed this very issue in a June 17, 2009 article at winebusiness.com.  The article noted:

Asked if Bronco will be able to maintain such low pricing over time, Franzia responded, “I heard the same thing about Two Buck Chuck seven years ago.  If you choose to be competitive you make yourself competitive.  The facts are we are pricing it so the retailer can sell it at half the price of Yellow Tail if they want. We think it’s just as good as anything else that comes from Australia.”

So, what changed in the last two months in the public and quotable jousting between Fred Franzia and Casella Wines that has caused Casella Wines to sue Franzia for trademark infringement? What causes a brand that sells a reported 5 + million cases a year in the U.S. to go after an upstart brand that just launched, particularly when the lawsuit is fairly flimsy and, according to a statement issued by Casella Wines, they hope to, “resolve by mutual agreement?”

Well, a brand that undercuts the major competitions price by half is a good place to start, as is the public broadside that is Franzia’s media quotes where he says, “It’s time that the American consumer paid the correct price for Australian wine.  They’ve been overpaying for it.”

But, I would suggest that the more egregious happenstance in this new wine launch that assails an incumbent is the simple fact that somebody said it was good; and good, when combined with cheap and thrown into the blender with influence, yields danger—danger for Yellow Tail.

Dottie J. Gaither and John Brecher in their Wall Street Journal wine column, Tastings, noted in a July 31st article that:

One other wine stood out. In our notes we wrote: “Crisp with crackling acidity and good, lemony fruit.  Quite fruity, especially on the finish, with a summery mix of fruits like grapefruit and pineapple. Lovely, fresh wine.”

This quote, of course, is now being used by “Down Under by Crane Lake” in marketing materials.

I’m sure Casella would humor an entrant that was more bluster than siphoning sales, particularly if the Franzia label competed like any of the other dozens of brands that Franzia produces, steady, but not lightening in a bottle.  Not lightening in the bottle like the sales velocity of a “Two Buck Chuck,” for example.

So, the Casella lawsuit, likely, is a half-hearted speed bump thrown up to prevent capturing lightening in a bottle.  The easiest way to do that (perhaps the only way) is to go after trade dress—the label.

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But, a quick analysis of the respective labels yields, well, not much similarity and certainly not enough similarity to cause confusion to a customer.

In fact, in another article from the spring of this year, Yellow Tail has changed advertising agencies.  Mike Burns, a managing principal at the new agency, Burns Group, noted that the agency’s primary task would be to shift the brand’s marketing efforts from merely creating brand awareness, and to shift it to “brand affinity.”

If that’s the case, and if Yellow Tail merely has “brand awareness” is it likely that the Franzia label and the Yellow Tail label, both very different from each other, would cause confusion to the customer?

I think not. I think this is business as usual where lawsuits are used as a diversion tactic, and a blow to the kneecaps might stave off a tsunami of consumer success by Franzia, but that’s my opinion.  What do you think? 

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Secondarily, am I crazy in suggesting that the two labels are nowhere near being confusingly similar to each other for a wine shopper?

I’m not sure if I agree with Fred Franzia’s approach to business very often, and even the notion of selling wine that was purchased for pennies makes me blanch, but in this regard, I’m sure he’ll fight with his trademark (pun intended) gusto and with my support—to go alongside the recommendation of The Wall Street Journal, of course.


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Now Hiring

One of the silver linings of the current economic swoon is the simple fact that there has never been a better time to be under-employed.

Forget about money (I say that sincerely) and consider all of the amazing opportunities available for people to gain life experiences – Murphy-Goode being one example in addition to two others I’ll mention in a second …

Now, I must confess, one of my great regrets in life is my headlong rush into getting a job after college.  If I had to do it over again, working with perfect hindsight vision, unencumbered by youthful idealism and the naïve notion that I could be a captain of industry through simple hard work, I would most assuredly spend a good portion of my first year or three out of school gaining the life experiences that only travel can provide.

I’ve always had more than a glancing bit of admiration for friends that did Europe by backpack and youth hostel, or another dear friend who spent three years traveling the globe with a guitar and no itinerary.  In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I highlighted a guy who danced his way around the world.  Suffice to say, I am simpatico … it wouldn’t take much for me to live a peripatetic existence, at least for a while.

Flash forward almost 15 years and life isn’t without reward, I have much to be thankful for.  However, my life now comes in the form of obligations and responsibilities bigger than myself.  And, while grateful, my vita of cultural experiences is largely viewed through the lense of career.  However, with more freedom, I would surely seize this moment in time, presented almost as a zeitgeist, to try and capitalize on the opportunities that are being presented in abundance, the chance to earn life experiences.

This is a long and overly wrought way of saying to those in their 20’s, or those that, for whatever reason, are under-employed, who have an interest in wine, food and travel – screw ‘the man’ and soak up some experience.  Soul-sucking work will always be there. The cubicle can wait, as can the knowing laughter that comes with reading the comic strip Dilbert.

Oregon Bounty

Travel Oregon’s new culinary trip planning web site launches on August 24th.  It will aggregate and feature all of the soul enriching things there are to do in Oregon – wineries, distilleries, breweries, artisan producers like cheesemakers and more—you know, things that feed the mind, body, and spirit.

To promote the richness that Oregon offers, they are also launching a promotion called, The Oregon Bounty Cuisinternship Contest.

Winners of the contest will win one of seven all-expense-paid trips to Oregon for a five-day, six-night culinary hands-on apprenticeship experience.

Categories for the job categories include:

1) Artisan producers – chocolatier and cheesemaking

2) Craft beer

3) Foodie / high-end restaurant

4) Craft spirits

5) Ranching

6) Seafood / Fishing

7) Wine – with Penner-Ash Cellars

While all of the categories hold interest to me, the wine category is something I can really get behind – long known as a boutique producer of lush, elegant and well-reviewed Willamette Valley Pinots, spending a week at Penner-Ash sounds like a dandy idea to me.

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The Travel Oregon Bounty contest starts next week, more details forthcoming, and I will be a judge for the wine category.  So, my exhortation to forsake the soul-sucking is grounded because I will be a participant in selecting the winner.  Any guess on how my judging might be skewed?

Firestone Vineyards

Firestone is hiring a “Discoveries Pathfinder.” That’s a euphemistic way of saying that somebody is going to be one lucky guy or gal and get a chance to hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, eating some amazing food from the other winner of the contest who will act as the “Chef” on the trip while co-mingling with the folks from Firestone and drinking Firestone Vineyards wine.

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My guess is that however good Firestone Vineyards wine might be in your kitchen, it will elevate to the level of transcendental in Peru, which is good considering that memorable wine experiences can rank in the highest echelons of our minds eye memories.

Taking place from April 17th to the 25th, all expenses will be paid.  Pesky technology issues aside, it’s almost better that the winner will catalogue their trip, but post their account AFTER the trip, staying in the moment.  Besides the trip of a lifetime, the winner will earn $1000 for essentially doing what you would normally do on a trip like that – keep a journal and take pictures.

The program just launched on Friday and all details on the contest can be found at the Pathfinder web site and the blog.  Details for submitting an application look thorough and well-conceived and the trip is being organized in conjunction with friend of wine blogging, Zephyr Adventures.

Notions of under-employment aside, both of these trips are week-long experiences, doable within the scope of a vacation.  Perhaps, I have it wrong.  It might not be the notion of forsaking the soul-sucking for the under-employed, it might be just the simple notion of taking back your life, which is never a bad idea, even for those who have most of their cultural experiences through the lense of career.


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Tasting Notes and Wine Scores Miss the Big Picture Regardless of Reviewer

Lost somewhere in the ongoing wine world debate about the validity of wine ratings and the validity of those wine ratings coming from enthusiasts who don’t have 20 years worth of tasting experience with historical antecedent is the simple fact that people on both sides of the debate are focusing on the wrong thing.

This is the topic that won’t go away—a bad rash on the wine glass of life: the “my palate or yours” notion of whether experience is a legitimate arbiter for the ability to competently provide a wine review, particularly when there are few barriers to entry to providing an opinion on wine.

The cacophony of who exactly is qualified to provide wine reviews smacks a little bit of our current healthcare reform debate.  Democrats nor Republicans want to find the essential truth.  Instead, they’d prefer to decamp to the fringes to yell at each other.  As related to wine, this is too bad because the essential truth is close at hand.

Unequivocally, it’s not about the score and it’s not about the tasting note, mine or yours, it’s the sensory evaluation that goes into that score and that tasting note.  Unfortunately, these days, the lack of true sensory evaluation across the board goes beyond a bad rash and moves into epic plague territory.

Dr. Maynard A. Amerine, the creator of the UC Davis 20 Pt. system should be rolling in his grave.  Designed in 1959 to be a critical evaluation tool for reviewing experimental student wines, the UC Davis system has been THE baseline for critical analysis for decades.

In my worldview, where I strive to be pragmatic, reaching across the aisle as it were, if you’re educated and/or equipped to do sensory evaluation than the rating and the tasting note is the logical end result of the evaluation.  I view sensory evaluation and the tasting note to be inclusive of each other and the end result shouldn’t be exclusive.

Make sense?  Basically, if you can analyze a wine, you can analyze a wine.  The end result should be a holistic view of the wine and NOT the distillation that equates to a score and a flavor descriptor.

The biggest problem the wine world faces with thousands of “citizen reviewers” isn’t the score or the experience.  No, the problem is nobody who reviews wines provides a sensory evaluation for a wine, including major magazine critics to whom citizen reviewers are respectfully looking to as models for behavior. 

We’ve moved away from sensory evaluation with the growth of wine criticism and the ensuing cult of personality it has spawned, not to mention a focus on points scoring.

However, I believe firmly that stripped of this “cult of personality” the fact remains that tasting notes, by and large, all suck.  Yours suck.  Mine suck.  Parker’s tasting notes suck.

They suck because they say nothing to nobody.

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And, that’s a problem that can’t be solved by me or anybody adding 20 years of mileage to my nose and tongue drinking library verticals.

If all of the tasting notes in the word were nuked tomorrow, nobody would miss them.  They are 60 words of nothing staring into the deep abyss of emptiness because they don’t provide enough context.  Absent meaningful context, we get lazy—hence the rise of the score as the end-all be-all, almost a deductive offset because tasting notes are so bad.

Now, many will argue that CellarTracker, who just registered their 1 millionth tasting note, might be a good indicator of the validity of consumer tasting notes, but this just isn’t the case.  Absent a “cult of personality,” tasting notes only have value in that what people are really looking for when they go to CellarTracker is enough collective wisdom that says a wine is worth trying.

Four years ago, as published in Wine Business Monthly, George Vierra and a team of students at Napa Valley College presented a revised sensory evaluation form called the Napa Valley College 25-point score card.  This scorecard offsets some of the more technical deficiencies of the UC Davis scoring methodology which has limited consumer usefulness.

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As excerpted from the article:

Taking the history, analysis and use of existing wine rating systems into account, a new scorecard was created by the Napa Valley College class. Because a rating system has to accommodate a multiplicity of functions, the NVC Scorecard is designed to allow the user to wear two hats: The wine can be objectively and thoroughly analyzed as is done under laboratory conditions, but the rating sheet also allows for findings that can advise the wine buyer and fulfill the historical role of the wine merchant. For example, the wine style, character and recommended aging windows can be noted as well as how the buyer might locate the wine and what it costs.

I like this model and I’ve used it in the past on this site.

Another model, as taught in a four day seminar called Discovering the Professional World of Wine at The Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies, at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, is the process of evaluation using Body, Acidity, Texture, and Aroma as a baseline for the physical construct of the wine and then discussing Aroma, Flavor and Finish. If done correctly, this kind of review of a wine gives a holistic presentation of the attributes of the wine while not reducing it to raspberry, crème de cassis and vanilla.  88 pts.

If the wine community is really earnest about righting the perceived wrongs of the wine review, and the empirical correctness of who is giving those reviews based on experience, they should focus not on the granular and arbitrary nature of a rating with a couple of flavor descriptors, but instead focus on moving the conversation to the higher ground of sensory evaluation.  This higher ground also happens to be common ground, a place where healthcare debates and reasonable expectations about wine reviews can co-mingle. 

*Note*

This post trades on ideas presented by Arthur Przebinda from the wine blog Winesooth.  Arthur’s post called, “It’s Not About You, It’s About them” will be posted at Palate Press in the next day or so.  Tip of the cap to Arthur for his always well-reasoned approach to wine issues.


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