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Are You a Wine Tycoon?

Have you ever longed to start a winery?  The process just got a lot easier.  There’s no financial models, pesky bank loans, land leases or Mother Nature issues … it’s as easy as starting up your computer.

For $19.99, from the comfy perch of your desk chair and the soft glow of your PC, you too can build a wine empire playing the strategic role-playing game Wine Tycoon.

The game, in the vein of other strategic role-playing games like The Sims, is based on managing a winemaking operation in France. It will be released in October to coincide with the French harvest.  Your mission in playing the game, should you choose to accept, is (excerpted from the press release):

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From plant to pick to press to pour, run your very own French vineyard in Wine Tycoon. Create the vineyard of your dreams in 10 of the most important wine regions of France. Commanding operations from your very own French chateau, you must build your winery, plant and tend your vines through all four seasons of the year, and hire staff to harvest and process your grapes. Produce 50 French wines such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Pinot Gris and Champagne from more than 40 different grape varietals, all in the ultimate goal of becoming a wealthy wine baron.

In Wine Tycoon, as in reality, each wine region has its own unique style and flavor, not only in appearance, but also in the different traditional grape varieties grown and the wines made. The two levels of game play—Career and Free Play, both with a tutorial for those who want it—allow players to patiently develop their gaming and wine-making skills, or roll up their sleeves and jump right in with just the funds to start a vineyard from scratch. From your chateau hub in “Wine Tycoon”, you must manage operations at other locations around the vineyard, such as at the fermentation building and the bottling plant.

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Now, I’m not much of a gamer … at all.  I’ve always wished I could be more manly and wile away my hours playing Madden NFL 2010.  I even bought an Xbox a few years back which garnered all of 15 minutes of action before becoming an objet d’art.  My video game career peaked with Donkey Kong on the old Atari in the 80’s and I came out of retirement to play 10-Yard Fight on the Nintendo 64 in the early 90’s, but I’m intrigued by this game.  Alas, Wine Tycoon might get me closer to the unshaven sloth I’m sure my wife pines for.

Seriously, it looks like a lot of fun, and will probably pull $20 ducats out of my wallet, but my question is this – I happened across this press release quite by accident.  However, if you do a search for “Wine Tycoon” all of the gaming sites are absolutely teeming with the press release, so how has this escaped the wine press so far? I’m not sure, but I have an interview lined up with the game publisher to ask some questions about the game development back-story and how they developed the game to ensure technical accuracy. Likewise, I want to know if there is a “game cheat” that will unleash an angry mob of French winemakers crying an injustice.  Or, if you can buy sugar to chap your wine, but risk running afoul of the law … if so, perhaps that would be a natural tie-in to other games from the same developer—Prison Tycoon version 1 - 4.


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2006 Clary Ranch Pinot Noir

You won’t find Clary Ranch listed in many winery guides and it’s definitely not in the romantic and quaintly charming Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma book. 

Without a tasting room proper, the Clary Ranch vineyard is in Petaluma separated from the winemaking operation in Sebastopol.  Neither of these locations happens to kick-up much Sonoma county wine mindshare, at least not compared to Healdsburg and the city of Sonoma where the tourists roam.  However, if there was a book called, “Off the Beaten Path in Between Here and There” Clary Ranch would surely be the crown jewel listing.

In addition to the duplicity of place, I’ve never seen the Clary Ranch vineyards, and I don’t know the owner and winemaker, Paul Clary.  In fact, I’ve never even talked with him. 

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Despite this disconnect in the most basic of wine functions in fandom – the place and the people, I know Paul Clary and I would get along famously because his work product very obviously indicates he makes wine for people like me and that alone puts our unspoken and unknown relationship on common ground, the most stable terra firma there is between producer and consumer.

The nature of our consumer affinity for things like wine, seemingly inconsequential, is an interesting sociological and cultural anthropological study.  Often times, as consumers, we turn into stark raving fans based on something very visceral. Other times, we find a linkage based on a human connection or even happenstance.  The basis for my growing affinity for Clary Ranch is definitely happenstance, but, regardless, it exists.

I’ve been thinking about this connection to wine after having read an interview with comedian Patton Oswalt in the music and culture magazine Paste.  He said (in the context of comedians using displeasure as a comedic foil):

“Pointing out that stuff sucks is not edgy or dangerous anymore.  Everyone knows what sucks.  What’s better is to find something that’s amazing and hold it up.”

The nature of my indescribable connection to Clary Ranch starts off with, perhaps, the very homespun nature of the winery, if not the wine.  Paul Clary acts as the vineyard manager and winemaker with just a shade over 400 cases of total production for a Pinot Noir and a Syrah.  He doesn’t make a whole lot of wine and the bottles I have enjoyed seem (and taste) like a personal endeavor.  Because he doesn’t have a tasting room, there is very much the proverbial, “out of the trunk of the car” sensibility—a labor of love.  In addition, the wine isn’t expensive, at least not by commonly held standards dictated by miniscule production volumes and this level of quality.  Their Pinot is $39.50 and their Syrah is $28. Another connection between Clary Ranch and I might be the charming and hackneyed logo and the poor wine label design that shouts “low-key,” if not “low-budget.” Or, better yet, our simpatico communion might be based on the absolute expressiveness and purity of fruit represented in his two wines (with just three vintages under the belt).

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Whatever “it” is – that unmistakable connection that binds you to something immediately—Clary Ranch and Paul Clary has “it” to me.  This winery is a remarkable addition to my list of wine faves.

Having received the Pinot and Syrah as winery provided samples makes me want to become a brand advocate for Clary Ranch, buying the wine in quantities to share just to ensure that Clary keeps at it under difficult circumstances in the wine business. I’m sensing that Clary Ranch won’t need my help, though … and, as Patton Oswalt indicates, there’s nothing wrong with finding something that’s amazing and holding it up … amazing this wine is … perhaps my most enthusiastic recommendation ever … the Syrah is very good, but for the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on the Pinot.

2006 Clary Ranch Pinot Noir

Price: $39.50
My rating: 93/100

Tasting Note:  Drinking this wine is like describing a marshmallow to somebody who’s never had one. 

Utterly fruit forward, but earthy, this wine is very elegant and restrained.  It’s almost ethereal given its body, but rubenesque in the mouth—a farm daughter who dances ballet. Crystalline and translucent ruby in the glass, the nose gives bright cherry juice, mushroom and rose petals with slight, fresh beet juice.

The palate offers dusty Dr. Pepper, beet juice, fresh rhubarb and tinges of blackberry with a lively acidity.

The finish gives cherry, plum, dark chocolate and hints of sage with a lingering finish that begs for food.

It’s a stunning wine with amazing purity; it will surprise and delight wine lovers who think California Pinot is on the road to “big and extracted” hell.  Hell, it will surprise and delight any wine lover, Old or New World.  Highly recommended.


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Publish or Perish?  The Changing Meaning of Wine Book Publishing

Is there any wine-related business activity that is more difficult than securing wine distribution for a brand?  If there is, it’s probably authoring a wine-related book with a traditional publisher.  However, self-publishing, long the province of the fringe, is changing that as it goes mainstream, giving everybody the opportunity to publish an indie book.

My first job out of school I worked for a large technology book publisher. From 1996 – 1999, I witnessed the beginning affects of the Internet on publishing.  Literally, the word “content” jumped off the page into something more malleable in meaning as online plans were readied and the very first electronic book readers were introduced, pre-Kindle.

Nowadays, I’m only tangentially involved in publishing and it’s mostly related to supporting my wife professionally—she is 10 years into her career as an acquiring Editor at a large publisher that publishes branded consumer reference books.

Publishing is no different than the other media that is experiencing dynamic change– TV, movies, newspapers, magazines, and others.  These cultural gatekeepers, at the center of our consumer consciousness, are experiencing an assault on their top-down hierarchy by alternatives produced and underwritten by the consumer.

And, like wine distribution, the fresh opportunities for those seeking representation in this traditional system are scarce, continuing to narrow, and if found, the final result in execution – support, sales and promotion—is open for debate.

Traditional book publishing is very much the 80/20 rule in action – 20% of the books drive 80% of the revenue.  Likewise, publishers throw a commensurate amount of marketing and book promotional dollars into the 20%, leaving 80% of the authors, each forthright in their belief about the quality of their book, grasping for answers.

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And, unfortunately, most traditional publishers, at this point, have retreated to the safety of unoriginal trope in regards to wine books – annual wine buying guides, wine 101 books and geographical atlases by well-known wine authors with an existing platform.

This leaves would-be new authors in the lurch and branded as “risky” in a business that is already risk adverse.  By analogy, a new author has about as much chance with the traditional publishing route as a new boutique wine brand has in securing traditional distribution. 

Not only are new authors given short shrift, but the meaningful, quality book—narrative-oriented titles—have mostly been relegated to one-off’s or every other year publishing endeavors.  To wit, after a run of books from various publishers over the last two years that overlap with general interest nonfiction, like Judgment of Paris, House of Mondavi and Billionaire’s Vinegar, Randall Grahm’s anthology, Been Doon So Long, looks like the pinnacle moment in wine book publishing this year.  That’s not an indictment on Grahm’s book, more of a reality check vis-à-vis today’s state-of-affairs. 

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Thankfully, the University of California Press is publishing Grahm’s book giving a larger audience to his trademark irreverence.  UC Press, in fact, should be commended for their ascending role as the central voice for meaningful, traditional wine book publishing. Their backlist of titles over this decade reads like a contemporary must-have library for wine lovers, written by some of the wine world’s leading voices.

According to Blake Edgar, a Sr. Editor who oversees the UC Press wine book publishing program:

I think there are plenty of basic level books available about wine.  I saw our opportunity as publishing rigorously researched and informed yet accessible books about wine in our region (California and the Pacific Northwest), other leading and emerging wine regions, and topics of increasing interest, such as terroir.  Some of these would be reference books, some more like guidebooks, a few possible textbooks, but I try to publish books that will appeal equally to wine industry professionals and curious wine consumers.

Edgar, unfortunately, is in the minority amongst publishing professionals who “get” that wine enthusiasts have a craving for deeper knowledge.

In response to a question about online wine writers honing their craft in order to find publishing opportunities, Edgar noted with palpable insight:

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(Online wine writing) is an excellent medium for going in depth and providing backstory compared to what most print sources do.  That could mean describing wine in greater sensory detail, including aspects of the production process from vineyard to bottle, getting away from obscure adjectives and numerical scores.  It could mean delving more into historical, geographical, and cultural context, which often is lacking in discussions about wine.  I like the way that Rod Smith describes his reporting; for him, wine is simply a lens through which he examines broader topics and issues.  It doesn’t have to be only about the wine.

Within this context of smaller traditional publishing opportunities and online writing, an interesting thing happened in 2008:

Self-publishing, also called “indie” publishing exceeded traditional publishing in titles published.  According to a news release from Bloomington, IN based Author Solutions, the largest indie publisher in the world:

For the first time ever, the number of new U.S. on-demand titles brought to market in 2008 (284,370) exceeded new U.S. traditionally-published titles (275,232). Overall, the number of new on-demand titles produced increased 132 percent, while the number of new traditionally-published titles fell 3.2 percent.

Not only is that a shocking statistic – that independently published books exceed the amount of professionally published books, but so too is the sheer growth percentage.

Author Solutions partially accounts for this explosive growth when Keith Ogorek, VP of Marketing says,

“When it comes to business and establishing yourself as an expert in a specific area, nothing provides more credibility than a book.  A book instantly establishes you as someone who has reached a level of expertise and that people should listen to what you have to say.”

Leading off this movement forward in the wine world – the notion of indie publishing, the idea of an author with a voice finding his own path to market, and managing his own promotion, developing content that acknowledges that “wine is simply a lens through which broader topics and issues (can be examined)” is Elliott Essman.  His book, “Use Wine to Make Sense of the World” will be self-published in November.

I expect Essman to be the first wine author to find a reasonably wide audience and public consciousness amongst wine enthusiasts with a book that hasn’t been turned out by a traditional publisher.

With credibility such a flashpoint topic in the wine world, the last area of credibility, a published book, and who has one, appears to be dissolving with the rise of indie publishing.  It’s not outside the realm of possibility that the old phrase, “may you live in interesting times” long considered a blessing, will be seen for the curse it is by many traditionalists.  Upheaval and turbulence is finding its way into the last bastion of normalcy in the wine world and a curse for a few is always an opportunity for many.


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Feeding the Beast

Our consumer habits say more about us than we want to admit.

When I was in my twenties and looking for “Miss Right,” having grown out of “Miss Right Now,” I always took a keen interest in scoping out a couple of things in a young relationship.

19th century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had it right when he said, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” What he didn’t mention is that our cars and their relative cleanliness, our books and our music can pretty much sum a person up (not to mention our wine choices).

I would always eyeball how clean a car was because it would tell me how clean they are on the home front.  I’d check out the music collection to see if it transcended Madonna’s Immaculate Collection and Bob Marley Legend.  And, of course, books (or the lack thereof) would tell me if they read as an escape, to learn, or not all.

Based on my own variation of the eHarmony personality match, I could ixnay a date inside of 10 minutes, presuming I could check out the refrigerator for a soda in order to eyeball any dangerous white zin and to see if there was anything weird that would scream, “Picky Eater Alert” which, to me, translates to “difficult.”

The only additional outlier from the above is animal prints and purses.  If a woman wore animal print shoes, scarves, or accessories and carried a $300 purse, that’s also not a program I was interested in signing up for.  Perhaps it’s not fair, but it worked for me. 

Of those criteria, the most important thing to me is somebody who considers themselves a lifelong learner, or at the least somebody who reads to continue to gain wisdom on the human condition.  Books matter.  As much as I try not to be a wine snob, I’m that much of a book snob – not the classics, just things that indicate you can transcend the gossip rags and have an intelligent conversation about ideas instead of just other people and events.

I have my own book quirks – which begins and ends with the fact that I can barely read any fiction.  There’s too much to know about the world around me (let alone wine) for me to spend too much time with Harry Potter (much to my wife’s chagrin). 

Interestingly, in terms of wine, I don’t find myself as interested in learning about the 1855 classification as much as understanding various things that can help me put wine into context.  Because I look at life either through the lens of family, work, or wine (and this blog) most everything I read I can filter into some new context.

At the risk of inadvertently summarizing myself in a way that I don’t want, here are the books that are in my reading queue (literally piled next to the bed) and what I hope to gain from them.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I continue to be fascinated by the notion of living simpler.  Our consumer habits are hard to break, and sometimes McDonald’s is right there, but I want to continue to seek inspiration around simple and simple food.

Boonville by Robert Mailer Anderson

It’s fiction, but it’s by a first time author and I like to see how young authors come out of the gate. Plus it takes place in Boonville, CA in the Anderson Valley so there’s probably a tangential relation to wine.

Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self by Alan Webber

I’m a sucker for business books.  This one is well-reviewed and supposedly packed with good nuggets.  We’ll see.

In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-the-Counter Look at the Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All the Rules by Stacy Perman

I love business biographies and I love In-N-Out burgers.  Now, if I could only get a double-double animal style in Indianapolis.

The Whuffie Factor: Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business by Tara Hunt

This book explores the notion of the “paying it forward” model in the online world.  Most technology books of this sort disappoint me because they’re written so abstractly as to be totally invaluable for anybody with two brain cells.  This may be a skimmer.

From Demon to Darling: A Legal History of Wine in America by Richard Mendelson

I should have an annual subscription to UC Press’ wine publishing schedule.  I buy them all.  They’re all good, too.

Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch

A classic I need to notch on my belt.  I bought it used on Amazon for a couple of bucks.

Emergency by Neil Strauss

This is basically escapist non-fiction.  The author talks about surviving in the event of a world emergency.  Need to fake a passport to get to Playa Del Carmen in order to live in a $100 a week rental?  This book will tell you how.  I bought it because the guy that wrote 4-Hour Work Week, which is a good book, recommended it. 

The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures by Dan Roam

I think in words, a lot of words. I wish I thought more in pictures.  Hopefully this book will help me train my brain.

The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil

I try to read this every year over and over again just to stay fresh … generally I’ll poke through a couple of pages every now and again before I fall asleep.

Strunk and White The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

This is a thin manual on how to write clearly and concisely.  This is another book I try to read over and over.  Someday it will stick and I’ll stop using $2 words.

Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell

The last book I purchased.  I keep looking for logic that tells me Fred Franzia is somehow corrupting wine for the long-term, maybe this book will give me that insight.

The Chaos Scenario by Bob Garfield

Garfield is the longtime columnist for Ad Age magazine.  Here he puts the dynamic shifts in our media into context within a bigger picture.  He’s a really relevant writer.

Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Olgilvy

The Robert Mondavi of the advertising business, this is the last Olgilvy book I haven’t read.

Gallo Be Thy Name: The Inside Story of How One Family Rose To Dominate the US Wine Market by Jerome Tuccille

If it’s a wine book and new, chances are I buy it.  This is no exception.

Overall, what wisdom will I gain from these books?  Who knows, but I’ll feel better for the added knowledge.  And, I need to keep up with my wife, who bless her soul (I picked right), is a reader.  The challenge I didn’t realize is she is an amazing reader.  46 books year-to-date.  Sweet Jesus, that’s a lot for me to keep up with.  Now that I think about it, that might be why we haven’t started the family yet.  Scratch this whole post.  Ahem, I’m not going to read any of these books, I have other things to attend to.


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Class vs. Mass and the Battle for Your Tasting Notes

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, many wine lovers will soon have their day of reckoning as tasting note sites self-select into enthusiast categories.

It’s somewhat de rigueur for wine enthusiasts to state that they believe in the democratization of wine: a chicken in every pot and a wine glass on every table.  As the saying goes, “if I had a nickel for every time somebody said they wanted to ‘demystify’ wine I’d be a very wealthy man, indeed.”

I’ve been thinking about this since word came out last week via a press release and an article at TechCrunch that tasting note and social community site Cork’d relaunched with a new CEO (Lindsay Ronga—a freshly minted Harvard MBA hired by Gary Vaynerchuk who assumes the mantle of “Chairman”).

In my opinion, watching these various communities develop and grow is some of the most dynamic and interesting water cooler action in wine today.

Historically, tasting note sites like CellarTracker, VinCellar and Cork’d started out as a closed-off combination of personal cellar management and tasting notes, but has quickly morphed into their own communities on par and exceeding many of the most heavily trafficked wine sites on the web.

Pick Your Flavor

Each of these sites brings the same basic premise to the table, with very different executions.

VinCellar is the Wine Advocate of the online wine tasting note scene – collectible wines with a very high-end user.  CellarTracker, easily the largest service of its kind, is more of the Wine Spectator / Wine Enthusiast audience –- educated and smart while casting a wider net of inclusiveness for wine lovers.  And, Cork’d.  Well, Cork’d is a bit of a mystery and deserves time to develop under focused leadership, but it’s not a stretch to say that their audience consists of a significant population of those just earning their first wine merit badge.  How else to explain the fact that one of the top rated wines is a Temecula dessert wine, alongside a ’95 Chateau Margaux?

It is ironic that these three sites represent the three different strata of customers in the wine world.  And, each takes different approaches to their ongoing development strategies.

VinCellar is one of a myriad of services offered by wine company Vinfolio.  VinCellar aids the Vinfolio cause as a complementary vehicle for their high-end audience interested in cellar management and other wine portfolio needs, with tasting notes acting as an ancillary benefit.

Credit where credit is due, Alder Yarrow, the online wine community’s most influential writer is, by day, a user-experience expert who worked on the VinCellar redesign project. His combination of wine knowledge and usability expertise creates a very elegant site experience.

CellarTracker, the grand old dame of this space, is more community and tasting notes driven with a very high-level of activity from their user base, having recently notched their one millionth tasting note.  Compare to VinCellar’ self-reported number of 29K tasting notes and you can see the wide delta in user engagement, if not quantity of users.

Offered as a donation-based service with some premium offerings, CellarTracker sprung out of founder Eric Levine’s desire to create exactly what he has today – an online community of wine lovers trading thoughts and notes on their bottled wine adventures.  What’s lacking in elegance in design (Eric’s rolling out a new version sometime in the next couple of months) is made up for by depth and breadth.

Cork’d, on the other hand, is definitely more proletariat if VinCellar and CellarTracker are bourgeoisie. With a decidedly more common touch, Cork’d is re-launching with the idea of bridging the gap directly between winery and consumer.

Leveraging Facebook Connect, a universal web sign-on of sorts, with direct integration into Facebook, Cork’d has a tremendous opportunity to tap into the very significant segment of the wine consuming public that drinks the stuff, but doesn’t wax poetic with purple prose.  The fact that Cork’d is directly integrated with Facebook also allows them to ramp up number of users very, very quickly.

Here’s the thing about these tasting note sites – they haven’t been tapped for marketing from wineries, though Cork’d is looking to change that.  Their business model is to engage wineries to set-up a page on the Cork’d site for an annual subscription fee of $999, allowing the winery to directly engage with consumers.

It’s a smart move, with a lot of implications.

Life Gets More Complicated

I can imagine a very near future where even the most casual of wine fans is avidly logging their notes as an ongoing historical journey of their wine adventure.  And, given my belief that winery marketers will come to tasting note sites, all tasting note sites, coupled with what could be a huge expansion in people doing tasting notes online, this has me wondering what it all means.

Unfortunately, people want to associate with people that are like them.  Sure, I want to demystify wine and I want more people to enjoy wine because a rising tide raises all ships, however, I’d prefer not to have to spend a whole lot of time around somebody who thinks Burgundy is a jug of wine, or somebody whose self-proclaimed love of wine takes them about as far as the wine aisle at Safeway looking for a $7 Riesling –especially if I have a choice of where I hang out online.

So, ultimately the question is this: as tasting note sites become a widespread tool in the arsenal of people who pursue their love of wine online, and wineries engage on that turf, what will ultimately happen?  Will we promote the democratization of wine, or will we decamp to our respective knowledge comfort zones with birds of a feather, perpetuating the gap in between the wine elite, wine enthusiasts and newcomers? 

I’m afraid I don’t like the answer to my own question …


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