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Balance Sheet Marketing

What happens when wine purchasing behavior changes from a consumer accepting, “what you sell it for” to instead dictating “this is what I’m willing to spend on it?”  The answer, of course, is the wide gap between pricing and purchasing activity in the luxury segment of the wine market.

However, it’s not like this gap in the market has gone unnoticed.  With all of the press coverage the upper price spectrum of wine is receiving as it languishes on retail shelves, gathers furtive glances on restaurant wine lists, takes a prolonged respite in winery cellars, and goes unacknowledged in waiting list mailers, you might think this price segment was the new, new thing; a drug-addled Hollywood ingénue – the recipient of paparazzi curiosity and unblinking sympathy from the general public, with the attendant macabre press coverage.

Everybody from the Wall Street Journal to Forbes to Fortune to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat has reported on the deathly pallor of the luxury segment of wine pondering if and when it will return to form.

In early August, I wrote a post called “The Setting Sun on Luxury Wine” that presaged much of what I’m writing today: simply, people are no longer paying for things that aren’t justifiable in cost.

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Despite my feelings in this regard, most of the wine coverage I’ve seen related to our economic climate continues to explore just two market realities – “the high-end of the wine market will come back,” or “the high-end of the wine market has been forever changed along with people’s perception of value.”

What if it’s neither of those, or, perhaps, both of them?  What if the high-end of the wine market comes back, but in a different form?  Stephen King’s Pet Sematary for the wine world.

I’d like to suggest a hybrid circumstance whereby sales in the upper-end of wine will return, but it will be with significantly more justification and transparency.

In doing so, it will counterbalance what the current popular predictions fail to grasp—Lewin’s Equation.  A psychological equation that indicates B=f(P,E),  in simple terms it explains that, “Behavior is a function of the person and the environment.”

Without trying to get too high-minded, what’s likely to happen is that when the economy does recover, a hybrid reality will occur that accounts for the consumer experience of having gone through the worst economic period of time since the Great Depression, while still satisfying a uniquely American trait of desiring more.

It won’t be an “if this, or that” circumstance.  It’ll be door number three.  I hope … but, luxury wineries need to cooperate.

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The problem with wine is that, as a convenient blanket statement, it isn’t branded well on an individual basis so when a consumer goes through their mental cycle to rationalize price versus value for a bottle, they frequently fall back to reasons that are less than rational like, “$40 must be better than $20.”

Unfortunately, not only is that often not the case in terms of the wine quality, but even more egregiously, consumers don’t know “why” one bottle costs $40 and another costs $20, all things considered equal. 

And nobody is stepping up to help them understand, either.

Based on everything I’ve read and heard, I think the upper-end of the wine price spectrum will adjust by price adjusting down incrementally, declassifying wine, and creating second labels, but what if they just accepted a reality of being rational about their pricing?

Help consumers understand why a bottle of wine costs what it does.

Why do this?  It’s no more dangerous than starting a 2nd label and a lot more reasonable.

In a post-recession future, I believe a completely rational wine consumer emerges, one that acts as a function of themselves and their environment, Lewin’s Equation incarnate. 

How does a winery combat this?

They get honest.

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I think the first thing a luxury priced winery has to do is engage in what I call “balance sheet marketing.”

It’s simple and at its core it’s highly transparent – luxury wines need to explain, in very clear terms, why their wine is priced the way it is.

There are radically different economic scales for a winery that produces 2500 cases, versus a winery that produces as little as 10,000 cases.  Is there any reason why those reasons can’t be enumerated in the name of justifying cost structures?

Grape contracts, low yields, land lease, business loans, operating costs, French oak, sales and marketing expenses, distribution costs, etc.  It would be my suggestion that a luxury winery list all of the costs out in detail, along with a reasonable margin.  Explain to a customer why, exactly, a wine is priced the way it is.  Make it a part of the story – the winery isn’t trying to make an unreasonable profit, just a fair profit based on the risk and cash outlay that is the wine business.

This way, absent consumer irrationality, potential customers can at least be armed with an understanding, and likely a sympathetic understanding.

I fear, in this new reality, when customers behave as a function of their experience and their environment, when they say, “this is what I’m willing to spend” that absent greater insight into what they are paying for in wine, the hybrid I suggest, than the reality given by the media, of consumers seeking value at lower price points, might be truer than we want to admit.


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The Closed Loop

Have you ever been in a discussion with your husband or wife and said something that you thought was inconsequential and suddenly your fecund discussion takes a left turn for the worse and is prolonged for 40 minutes while you bear the wrath of a furrowed brow and animated gestures?

It’s no different than the grade school recess conversation that inadvertently bruises feelings and leads to the loud proclamation, “You must be Crazy!”

I’ve been on the receiving end of the, “You Must be Crazy” this week after writing a post questioning a column Matt Kramer wrote in the October 15, 2009 issue of Wine Spectator.

Normally, I let posts stand as an individual slice of time and perspective, but I want to re-visit this one to ensure my point is clear.

And, apparently, nobody gives a rip when you take a shot at Robert Parker, folks will even help you align your sight adjustment, but people come to the defense of Matt Kramer, bedecked in hunters’ orange in the wine world of life. 

In particular, I wrote a sentence that wasn’t the main point of my original column, it was a small point within a larger point, and was obviously ill-explained based on the feedback I received.

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I said:

While they talk about credibility, they don’t acknowledge the brand boost that they get writing for Spectator, Enthusiast, or other traditional outlets. Speaking of credibility, I really have no idea what gives Kramer and the rest of them any more individual credibility then Joe Blogger down the street, but I know that they write for outlets that help burnish their own image. With due respect to Matt Kramer, without Wine Spectator he probably doesn’t get a chance to write books. Ditto that for others. I’d hazard a guess and say that the Wine Spectator masthead has done more for affording wine writer’s ancillary opportunities than anything else in the modern wine era, 1970’s – to present day.

Specifically, I got some grief for the sentence, “Speaking of credibility, I really have no idea what gives Kramer and the rest of them any more individual credibility then Joe Blogger down the street …” Comments were unfortunately closed on the post due to a technical issue, but several people took issue after the fact and let me know that I was, essentially, an idiot.  Certainly, that’s fair criticism in the realm of “perception is reality.”

However, let me explain my reality with a little more context to the sentence … The column and sentence in question was neither a head-in-the-sand attack nor muckraking.

Matt Kramer is a very talented writer, one of the few reasons I subscribe to a certain magazine, and the author of three books that I have read and own.  I’ve read his seminal book Making Sense of Wine three times, in fact.  It might be the most valuable book I’ve ever read on wine.  In fact, if you search my site for “Matt Kramer” you’ll see numerous references, all of them reverentially tendered.  In addition, if you go to the “Good Grape Recommends” section you’ll see a recommendation for Making Sense of Wine.  My writing style, where I take a long-form columnist-style approach with a beginning, middle, and end with a point, is heavily influenced by Kramer.

So, yes, I know the Matt Kramer of today, a writer with, apparently, 33 years of wine writing experience, according to one blogger who took me to task, explaining he has been writing about wine since 1976. I know he has written for Wine Spectator since 1985 (when I was a 6th grader playing Nerf football during recess at St. Jude’s and drinking Capri Sun’s at lunch). 

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Of course, I know who Matt Kramer is now, after he has written books, after he has written for Spectator for almost 25 years.  But, what was Matt Kramer doing when he was six years into his wine writing career circa 1981, five years hence to his work at Spectator and eight years prior to writing Making Sense of Wine?  Where was he, what was he doing and what were his credentials at that point in time?

This is an important question, because the lifetime of wine blogging is but 6 years old. 

The point that I glanced at, but obviously didn’t get across is: if somebody is going to make suggestions for credibility with online wine writers, then let’s compare apples to apples.  The longest tenured wine blogger has been doing it for 6 years.  Okay, great.  What was Matt Kramer, Jim Laube, or anybody else doing when they were six years into their wine writing career?

My guess is that they were probably somewhere along the same learning curve as many of the best online wine writers.

Credibility is really a function of time and is intrinsically linked to reputation.  The former is the inspiration of belief and the latter is public perception.

Yet, to play the credibility card, to mix apples and oranges, based on their tenure relative to others, seems a trifle off to me … particularly because there is a scant difference between reputation and credibility, and mainstream writers trade heavily on reputation, reputation that is built by several factors. 

First, most mainstream wine writers trade on the brand established by their employer and their historical reputation that gives them a credible whole.  However, their credibility, separate from brand, tenure and reputation, is questionable.

Does that make sense?  It’s a really nuanced point for a blog post and goes to the core to the thumping bass line that is mainstream wine writer’s principal point about online wine media. 

Let me put a fine point on it:  absent Matt Kramer’s reputation, and long body of work what makes him credible? 

People are credible based on their reputation, which is based on their body of work.  Their reputation is built based on who they associate with and their whole.

Perhaps it might have been better if Kramer took the tone of mentoring with open arms instead of delicately rebuking. He could have suggested that online wine writers work on their craft in long form to build reputation and he could have done so in a paternal sense instead of questioning sense.

So, overall, no, I’m not crazy, but when I say I have no idea what gives Matt Kramer any more credibility than Joe Blogger, what I am really saying is, “All things considered, strip away the books and the brand, and the modern day reputation, and what gives Matt Kramer more credibility than an online wine writer aside from tenure that can’t be duplicated?” And, what precisely was he doing when he was 4, 5 or 6 years into his wine writing career that can act as an equivalent reference point?

Overall, my comments weren’t a statement of lunacy, or a delusional lack of context, not knowing what I don’t know, it was a statement of sobriety.  And, if somebody can help me better understand then I might be more inclined to improve upon my sixth-grade progress report given to me when Kramer started writing for Spectator, “Jeff enjoys recess with his peers, is bright and confident and shows leadership capabilities, but he regularly questions the institutional structure of authority.”

And it’s that institutional structure of authority that is really what this is all about.

*Note* For a differing tact that focus on technical assessment of wine, check out my editorial at Palate Press.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life, Pt. II:  The Bounty

More odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass … part II for the week of September 14th.

Last Chance for Oregon Bounty Cuisinternship

Your time is officially running out for the chance to win a week in Oregon at Penner-Ash winery learning the ropes with owner Lynn Penner-Ash.

The Oregon Bounty promotion, organized by the travel folks for the state of Oregon, is designed to showcase the diversity in artisanal food products from the state (and promote some tourism along the way). 

It’s a really good deal – choose from (or enter them all) an all-expense paid week-long “cuisinternship” encompassing winemaking, fishing, chocolate and cheesemaking, distilling, ranching, being a brewmaster or being a chef.  Enter a 2 minute video, enter 140 characters on “why” you should win and take your chances.

As a volunteer guest judge for the wine portion of Oregon Bounty Cuisinternship promotion, I can tell you the opportunity to win is wide open.

Enter to win by 12 midnight PST on Friday the 18th.  Hint for the time zone challenged – that’s 3:00 am for folks on the east coast.  My dad always told me that nothing good happens after midnight.  I had a 12 year run in between the ages of 18 to 30 where I tested his theory.  He was right – nothing good does happen after midnight, but a lot of fun stuff does.  Make sure you do your video on the 2nd glass of wine, at the point of social lubrication, and not the 4th glass in case, you know, ahem, you choose to maximize the hours between midnight and 3:00 am eastern standard time with video camera in hand.

As a judge, I’m an impartial observer at this point, but the below is a nicely passionate sample of what you’re up against for the winemaking experience.


From the mouth of babes

My cup is full.  Earlier this year, I was plain tired of “social media” this and “social media” that.  Now, I am officially done with the economy.  I’m weary of hearing about, dealing with it, and, especially, reading and writing about it relative to wine.  I have one more post in me regarding wine and “trading down,” and that’s mostly to close the loop on a post I wrote last month.  Other than that … I’m not talking about it … I’m not mentioning it … I don’t want to read about it … the economy is dead to me (err ... no pun intended).

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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Football, Residual Sugar and Best-Sellers

More odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass …

Here Come the Irish

I’m a huge Notre Dame fan, which fundamentally isn’t that much different from my other passion—wine.  Notre Dame football is polarizing, you either love the integrity the program stands for, or you have a strong distaste for Notre Dame’s perceived arrogance.  There isn’t much middle-ground.  Now, wine isn’t THAT polarizing, but there is certainly a large percentage of the public that resents what they think wine stands for.

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One of the things that people often talk about in regards to Notre Dame (besides football) is the “it” feeling you get when you’re on campus.  You can’t describe “it,” but you know “it” when you feel “it.”

That, in a nutshell is the mercurial notion that ties me to wine.  Most often, I can’t quantify why I love wine, aside from what’s in the glass, but it’s not really what is in the glass that interests me wholly, it’s everything else, it’s the “it” and I know “it” when I feel it.

A small blessing in my life is I have been guided and have chosen to accept a passion for two things that, to me, represent a true north compass, and a way to live a dignified and gracious life.

I’m okay with “it” and being on one side of the fence compared to others, stout in my beliefs and my compass.

It’s the Sugar

This is a complete hypothesis on my part, with no facts other than perception (I’m okay with this, too), but I wish I knew what the secret marketing sauce was for Rombauer, Conundrum and Silver Oak.

All three of them seem to be some of the first “expensive” wines that wine fans, who aren’t particularly knowledgeable, gravitate towards.

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Trust me, it’s not hard to get into a conversation with somebody who is into wine, (but not ardent in their pursuit) and bump into a Rombauer, Conundrum or Silver Oak reference.

Now, I understand the “why” portion of why people gravitate towards these wines, I think.  Rombauer Zin is big and fruity with residual sugar, their Chard is big, fruity, and oaky, with some residual sugar, and Silver Oak is a quaffable wine that represents acquirable luxury.  All of these things are mile markers on increasing wine fandom. 

However, “how” each of these three brands have earned their perceived niche in the market, ardent fans who know wine, but aren’t particularly knowledgeable, almost in an unspoken way, is really fascinating to me, and I have no idea “how” they did it. 

Dan Brown, The Lost Symbol and Wine

I read a really interesting quote in New York magazine regarding Dan Brown and his literary niche with faux-intelligentsia pot-boiler’s.

It said:

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I believe the power of Dan Brown is very simple:  he exists entirely to make us feel smart.  He is devoted to reader empowerment like Keats was devoted to euphony.  Every clause, every punctuation mark, every plot twist, puzzle and factoid is engineered precisely to flatter our intelligence.  This isn’t necessarily something to sneer at; I don’t think Brown is a cynical panderer.  It’s just that his “pleasure-the-reader” instincts (an unconscious authorial cocktail that every writer has) push him, very urgently, to satisfy one of our most primal human needs:  the lust to be oriented, to master one’s environment, to recognize patterns, to process chaos into order.  The Da Vinci Code is intelligibility porn:  You get the satisfaction of understanding, over and over, without any real-world effort.

And the thought that struck me while reading this was wine needs a like equivalent.  It’s definitely not a book, but something that invites people in to understand, to be oriented, to master one’s environment, without much effort.  The reality is that the wine world is chaos, and doesn’t have order.  And, that’s a barrier that most people aren’t willing to tackle.

And, it might help people understand that their acquirable luxury is produced in 50,000 case quantities. 

If I were Wealthy

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have both been in the news over the course of this year regarding their wealth and their philanthropic largesse.

Certainly, both of these guys are notable for their business success and their growing commitment to solving big, global social issues.

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However, if I had that much money to burn, in addition to trying to tackle big issues regarding humanity here in the states, I would also take some flights of fancy to try to fix some issues in the wine world – the kind that on the surface seems like a “fool’s bargain,” given the amount of time, effort and money they would take to overcome.

Yup, I would definitely embark on a Forrest Gumpian adventure of trying to alter the course of the future by tackling niggling little things like the exceptional craptitude that marks wine marketing, restaurant wine mark-ups and other issues that are manifest in the wine world.

Things that make you go hmmm …

Aside from a glancing understanding that The Traveling Vineyard is kind of like Avon for wine, I don’t much understand their business.

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However, what makes me exceptionally curious is that my site analytics tell me that my site gets consistent traffic on a monthly basis based on a mention I made of The Traveling Vineyard over three years ago.

Over 900 posts and something like 630,000 words written and I get consistent traffic based on a mention of in-home wine tasting parties.  I’m not sure if that’s good or a reason to dab at the corner of my eye with a tissue while looking off into the distance ponderously and wistfully, but it seems like something I need to look into.


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Vin de Napkin - Champagne

Alice Feiring had a nice article in the Wall Street Journal magazine over the weekend. This isn’t a surprise as just about everything she writes is nicely wrought, researched and presented in her unmistakable voice.

The article paints a grim picture for Champagne in the short-term, certainly.

However, as Alice points out, the problem with Champagne sales in the U.S. isn’t necessarily an economic issue, it’s a marketing issue.  Champagne is burned into the retina of U.S. consumers minds eye as an infrequent special occasion wine and an uber-luxury.  Not a good combination, particularly when an off-dry Prosecco can be had for $15.  Marketing isn’t an issue that will be solved in more flush economic times.

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