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2005 Rockaway Cabernet Sauvignon:  One Year Later Pt. 1 of 4

Last week quietly came and went like any other week in the online wine world—a stark contrast to the fiery events that occurred just a year ago in what some have called the, “Rockaway Follies.”

Last year at this time a marketing experiment in conjunction with the launch of an allocated brand from Rodney Strong Vineyards created a tsunami of attention online with bloggers and observers taking sides about the correctness of bloggers engaging in coordinated activity even if under the freedom of their own editorial choice.

One year later, what was learned, what has changed and how can the Rockaway skirmish act as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” as online wine media continues to evolve?  For the first time, provided in four parts, here is the full story. 

The Back-Story

Robert Larsen, Public Relations Director at Rodney Strong Vineyards was preparing for the first release of an “allocated” Cabernet called Rockaway from Strong’s Rockaway Vineyards.  This wine was going to be the first new label from the Rodney Strong “winery within a winery” concept. 

In Larsen’s public relations planning and preparations he reached out to Carole Loomis, an Account Manager at Inertia Beverage Group, their ecommerce partner.  Within the scope of those conversations, Robert inquired about bloggers as a vehicle for sampling.

At the time, Robert, by his own admission, was studying the wine blogosphere, but was far from in tune with the landscape, the “jet stream” as I like to call it.  Like many wineries today, he was struggling with the “who is who” and “how do you make sense of it all.”  It’s a sentiment I have empathy for because it’s not easy to “get.”

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The wine blogosphere, by analogy, is like working for a large corporation.  If you’re a new hire, it takes a good 6 months to a year to figure out the landscape – I’m not talking about your job function, that’s the easy part, I’m talking about the dynamics of the organization – who are the power brokers, who is an apple polisher, who does good work, and who can be trusted (or not).  These are all things that are difficult to figure out unless you’re in the “jet stream.” Unfortunately, figuring out the “jet stream” isn’t easy unless you have some help.

A short time later, based on a recommendation from Carole at Inertia, Larsen sent me an email introducing himself.  Working with a level of discretion, he wanted to talk on the phone as opposed to email.  Robert wasn’t familiar with my blog and wasn’t sure who I was exactly – and, naturally, he was a little wary about talking about new brand launch activities with a stranger.

We set-up a time to talk and on my drive time home from work one evening and we chatted about wine bloggers – what’s the online blogging community like, what are the varying topical genres (reviewers, columnists, the weird and the absurd, etc.), are reviews valuable, how sophisticated are bloggers, etc.  It was a 100,000 foot conversation about the landscape of the online wine world.

It should be noted that Robert, aside from a familiarity with Alder Yarrow from Vinography (a frequent occurrence for those new to wine bloggers), really had no insight into the wine blog landscape at the time, and had no notions of a program of any sort.  He was really only interested in gleaning some insight. 

In that initial conversation, and subsequent conversations, Robert and I discussed ideas that I had been mulling over about coordinating wine bloggers into some level of a tasting quorum. 

Originally, I had the idea of a coordinated blog tasting group in ’07.  Hardly a novel idea, but at the time the semi-annual “wine competitions are useless” conversation was occurring (which, incidentally, is rearing its annual head right now). Always ready to be a pragmatic contrarian, I wanted to stick a fork in that conversation.  In contact with private label wine company Adler Fels, who have several of their own brands in the marketplace like their “Big Ass” brand, I wanted to blind sample some of their “Big Ass” Zin (a wine that was winning major, multiple competitions) to a select group of bloggers.  Bloggers would do a review and I would then do the “reveal” on what the wine was and the price point.  My hypothesis was that this inexpensive wine would be extremely tasty, other bloggers would think so as well and I could use it to make a larger point to the anti-wine competition brigade.

Ultimately, this “Big Ass” plan was a non-starter because Adler Fels ran out of the wine.  I mentally filed the idea for a later date.

Flash forward to early summer of ’08 and I mused out loud on my blog about a similar “tasting quorum” idea.  This time I called it the Wine Blogger Review Coalition (see posts here, here and here).  As presented on my site, this “coalition” would be a small group of bloggers who would, with no editorial restriction, review sampled wines on a coordinated weekly and monthly basis, while receiving a stipend based on sponsorship monies.  The notion for doing so would be to gather momentum and legitimacy for wine bloggers, particularly as a complement to traditional media, while creating a small trickle of income, countering the notion of bloggers as just another target for public relations people.

Flash forward another couple of months to August and my interest in “beta testing” a coordinated review of a wine was palpable, and made all the more interesting by having a potential “beta test” be an allocated brand freshly launching to market with a revered name like Rodney Strong as the umbrella.

Larsen and I continued to talk and he continued to do due diligence on my credibility, essentially trying to ensure that I wasn’t going to lead him down the primrose path to ruination because, while not risk averse, Rodney Strong was not cutting edge in their marketing techniques.

We finally agreed to a program whereby I would coordinate a small group of wine bloggers to receive samples of the Rockaway wine.  I was interested in doing a marketing experiment, and he was interested in spreading the word about Rockaway.  Both of our needs would be served.  His risk was larger than mine because free from editorial restriction, reviews of the wine could have been negative.  The wine would be sent out at the same time as samples to traditional media, but because of the immediacy of blogging, reviews from bloggers would be posted first. Again, the program with the bloggers called for freedom in editorial, but the stipulation was that in order to receive the sample you had to write about the wine – good, bad or indifferent and the bloggers had to do so within a time window – August 18th – 21st 2008.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the bloggers selected and the launch of the program.

*Note*

My intention with this series of posts isn’t to conjure up hard feelings or to validate the “correctness” of any one opinion.  Instead, I want to get the narrative down and, perhaps, put it into ebook form on my site as a case study.  That said, I expect any comments to NOT dredge up mud-slinging about any one particular viewpoint.


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On Gender Roles and being the Chief Wine Officer

I am Chief Wine Officer (CWO) in my house.  In this divisional responsibility role, I am the leader, manager and strategist wrapped up in one powerful omniscient wine-loving package and until recently I ruled with an iron fist, answering to no one.

Saturday afternoon visits to wine shops (manly places occupied by mostly men) occurred with unchecked regularity. Of course, I bought wine, a lot of wine; it was wine I didn’t need – it was wine I wanted.

Without question, in the wine buying hierarchy, wine shops are every bit the Saturday afternoon testosterone equal to an outdoor outfitter and, as mentioned, de rigueur for men, particularly when compared to the grocery store.

However, with my CWO responsibilities, the household balance of power is shifting, my division is in peril and I don’t think I am alone.  My controller and COO made a judgment call and my wine buying line of credit has been frozen. I’ve also been effectively demoted.  I’m moving out of the c-suite—relegated to mid-management as my powers have been stripped.

By way of background, my wife Lindsay and I like to joke that I am the CEO of our house, albeit a figurehead, an empty suit as it were, and she is COO, where all the work gets done and most of the power exists.  We split the role of CFO – I have responsibility for overall financial strategy and she has responsibility (as Controller) for managing our personal P&L statement (the checkbook). 

Lindsay takes her Controller responsibility seriously, with a hawk-like eye for detail on all household expenses, including spending from our increasingly smaller pool of discretionary income.  Naturally, wine comes into play out of that pool of discretionary income.  Like many people, my wine purchase activity has gone down.  Way down.  It’s now less of the powerful omniscience and more workaday wonder.  Instead of heading to the wine shop to spend money on a Saturday afternoon, I’ve been frequenting the grocery store wine aisle.  This is primarily at my wife’s behest, I might add; dollar savings, you see.  In fact, if my wife were wine aisle savvy enough she might simply takeover wine shopping and include it in the grocery store runs, benignly neutralizing my looseness with the ATM card on solo wine hunting trips.

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In total, my wife, as COO and Controller, rules the roost and renders my CWO role reasonably impotent based on her prudence and sensibility for preservation, balancing out my bouts of fecklessness.

I’ve been thinking about this trading down not for what it is on the surface, but what it is as a trend just below the surface.

Without getting bogged down in the empirical correctness of any one perception of gender roles or biases, let’s assume that based on the denizens of eRobertParker, wine blogs and anecdotal analysis of shoppers at wine shops that men have a slight edge in percentages in buying fine wine relative to women.  Where men find geeky pleasure, a woman finds a relaxing beverage without much need for the artifice.  Let’s also assume that woman, on the other hand, buy the majority of their wine at the grocery store, less inclined to dive into the minutia of it all.

Now, of course, these are imperfect categorizations with many exceptions, but as a rule with the broad brush of percentages, I’m assuming that men geek out on wine and drive the upper-end of the price spectrum while woman take more comfort in wine as a household staple and buy more at the grocery store.

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The reason I bring this up – the balance of power in operations in my household, the shutting off of the wine-buying spigot in my house and the perception of a division in wine buying based on gender roles is the simple fact that the fine wine and luxury portion of the wine industry should be scared shitless.

The fact is, statistically women buy the majority of wine – and there are a number of varying statistics.  Woman & Wine says 60% of wine is purchased by women.  In 2006, Adams Wine Handbook, as reported by the Wine Institute, noted that 57% of all wine is purchased by women. A news release today, based on research conducted by international research firm RNCOS, indicates:

According to our report, the main reason behind the growth of the US wine industry is the increase in the number of female wine drinkers. Women make up to 52% of the adult population, consuming 60% of the wine sold in the country and accounting for more than half of the country’s sales. Moreover, women comprise 55% of marginal wine drinkers in the US. The report highlights that wine quality, label design, bottle shape and the philosophy of winery are more important to female consumers as they tend to judge the entire product before going for its purchase.

According to our team of experts, a greater marketing awareness aimed at women consumers is emerging as a trend in the 21st century. This has been partly brought about by women themselves as they gain significant stature in the industry. 

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That paragraph alone should give pause.  Consider – there is “trading down” in wine, an exit from the upper end of the price spectrum, women consume 60% of the wine sold in the country and 55% of casual wine drinkers in the U.S. are female.  If you add in the fact that women also lead household purchase activity, like mine, with significant influence on discretionary spending, then what the fine wine portion of the industry is seeing is not just an economic correction that is affecting the upper-end of the wine market, but also a seismic shift in wine buying patterns, potentially away from men who have driven the luxury portion of the wine market.

Perhaps it’s not a stretch to say that instead of proliferation of wine in the high-end, we might see a proliferation of second and new labels coming to the market—quality juice packaged to sell ... to women.

Or, put another way, germane to my situation, having been demoted from Chief Wine Officer, the fine wine portion of the wine world might see a significant rise in the power of the household COO.


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Single Servings – Wine Quick Takes

187ml of wine thought …

Luxury Wine Market

How soft is the luxury wine market?  Very soft.  How do I know this?  I made the allocation offering for Harlan and the Maiden.  I’ve been on the list for two years.  If they’re getting to me that means they are throwing a very wide net to ensure a full allocation.  The ’07 Harlan Estate won’t be released until spring of 2011.  At $500 bucks a bottle, the aftermarket for Harlan will have recovered a bit where the upside outweighs the cash outlay ... maybe.  Wine-searcher indicates that the current average bottle price for the ’06 is $794.  That’s an excellent return on your investment, but at what cost when your money is being held for at least 20 months?

Sacre Bleu and Mommy Bloggers

Galen and Ashley from Sacre Bleu did a nice interview with me last week.  In that interview I was quoted as saying, in regard to blogging, “it’s much easier to personally say something interesting, than be a person of interest.”

The very next day I had lunch with a prominent “Mommy Blogger” who gave me a bunch of feedback.  I seek out unbiased feedback on my blog from people outside of the wine niche to get a better perspective on what I’m doing and how well the content resonates with somebody who may not be that wine savvy.  Since I’m in the belly of the beast, this helps me see the forest for the trees.

This “Mom Blogger” told me that my site lacked first person-personality and that I needed to inject more of my life into the site. 

Hmm …

Words with Meaning

I just finished reading a book by social media superstar Chris Brogan called, Trust Agents.  In it, he cites a statistic that indicates that 7% of our communication is words, 38% is vocal expression, 58% is body language.  The reason I don’t talk about my life to a great extent is because it’s 34% not that interesting.

Actually, the real reason is because I think first person narrative related to wine is deadly dull and only more interesting when it’s put into context, with a touch of research, framed anecdotally. 

Holy Sheep Shit

Natural wine has been getting a lot of mindshare lately.  Natural Wine Week in San Francisco took place last week and Reuters has a very nice article today on natural wines.  In the article, Helen Comoutos from Domaine Comoutos in Greece is quoted as saying, “Sheep manure is the secret ingredient.”

Note to Helen: in the U.S. market where virtually every store has sanitizing gel so you don’t have to touch the germ infested shopping cart without some sort of germicidal protection, calling sheep manure the secret ingredient to wine is probably going to turn off even the most ardent of natural wine lovers.

Thinking about Drinking

In the past two weeks it was reported that Diageo spent $690K lobbying the government on various issues in a 3-month period earlier this summer – some self-interested lobbying and other activities that are more altruistic in nature.

At the same time Brown-Forman launched a web site called, “Our Thinking about Drinking.”  It’s an issues related web site about underage drinking, binge drinking, health and marketing. 

Now, I understand why large beverage companies do this sort of thing, particularly when it’s around social responsibility, but somehow I can’t get away from the feeling that most of this is window-dressing at its best and mildly disingenuous at its worst.

Random Thoughts

Why does 93% of the wine industry sign off their emails with not a “Best Regards” or “Thanks” but a “Cheers?”

I would find this charming were it not for the preponderance of occurrence that marks it as completely unoriginal.

Airline Feel-Good

ReCORK America announced a relationship with American Airlines and their Admirals Club – the club will now recycle all wine corks.  While I love the notion of recycling cork for the sake of the environment, if they really wanted to do something that would engender goodwill they should rescind their checked baggage fee, a fee they just raised last month from $15 to $20 a bag.  That would take the bad taste out of my mouth, regardless of how good the wine may be in their Admirals Club.


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