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News, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items

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

What the heck is a Vook?

I read an article about a hybrid video/book concept called a “Vook.”  One of the first examples of this utilization is “Crush it” by Gary Vaynerchuk, a seemingly natural fit.
This video/text application with non-fiction books is pregnant, and, in my opinion, the combination of bringing alive words with visuals is particularly potent for the world of wine – not just books, or so-called “Vooks,” but general winery storytelling.

While it’s seemingly head-scratching in its no-brainer nature, we forget that text and visual-based storytelling haven’t converged to great effect on the Internet, still staying in their respective corners.  This fact becomes important as you consider the Kindle and other digital reading devices and where content may be heading with the decline of newspaper readership, et al.

This is a rapidly changing area with a lot of innovation.  If you’re interested in gaining more context, check out this article from Fast Company magazine and an op-ed piece from Newsweek on Apple’s forthcoming tablet computing.  Taken together, they provide a lot of insight into what the next couple of years will bring.

What they don’t tell you

Over the course of the last six months, I’ve tried to secure more original quotes for posts, getting them directly from the source as opposed to derivations.  For me, this is a natural evolution—the more people read, the more you owe in raising quality.  While I am a journalist by education, much of my knowledge hasn’t been practiced into wisdom, until now. That said, this has been enjoyable and gives me greater control over the direction of pieces, however what other writers don’t tell you when they excoriate blogs is this is damn hard work fraught with a lot of frustration.

Simply, I’ve run into: 

1) Message control – you can’t get somebody to answer the question, instead they give you a non-answer to a question you didn’t ask

2) Statements – sometimes they don’t even give you a non-answer – they give you a statement that says nothing to nobody

3) Pocket veto – sometimes they don’t answer or they’ll answer five days later with lame faux-politeness, “sorry I missed your timeline, I was really busy ...”

4) Not empowered – many PR people are not empowered to talk substantively on behalf of their clients.  Many clients are hard to track down and don’t respect their PR people

5) Rudeness – I had one winery marketing person respond to me with a dismissive, “what can I do for you” and then she proceeded to do absolutely nothing, including not responding to several follow-ups. 

Remind me – this is wine, right?  Based on some people’s reaction, you might think I was a narc infiltrating the Cosa Nostra.

Just a Thought

I’m nervous that people are going to think that because the recession is “officially” over that this bad dream is going to immediately fade to black.  Just as it will take a couple of years for our 401K’s to recover, so too will it take our economy a period of time to climb out of the hole.  This is a particularly important point for luxury wines.  Just because economic indicators are adjusting out of the abyss doesn’t mean that the hard work is over.

Back roads

Last weekend, as I drove home from a weekend at our family lake house, after having attended my 3rd Notre Dame game this season, I reflected on how blessed I am.  I am frequently guilty of looking at what I don’t have instead of what I do have … it’s a mistake.  Just the same, as I drove down state road 13 in the heart of rural Indiana, passing blurs of towns with names like, “Windfall,” “Leisure” and “Aroma,” I was brought back to the fact that if I had a “windfall,” I would surely seek a life of “leisure” filled with “aroma’s” – wine aroma’s.


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An Insider’s View of the Wine World

Despite journalistic reporting and consumer understanding of many of our business industries, attributable to the rise in business news over the course of the last 30 years, the wine business largely maintains an impenetrable veil of “lifestyle” information for consumers; content that is absent insight into the whys and wherefores.

Sure, the business of the wine business bleeds into the mainstream wine press occasionally, mostly around wine shipping laws, but consistent inside-out reporting is rarely seen.  Heck, even the wine column in BusinessWeek magazine betrays the inside-out reporting that is their hallmark and presents standard issue wine content.

Snooooooze.

Perhaps it’s this way for a reason – a wide swath of consumers wants the romanticized visage of a wine country lifestyle?  Despite this reality/possibility/eventuality, I maintain that the true democratizing nature of our shifting media habits has more to do with context, transparency and bi-directional communication then it has to do with the actual delivery vehicle.

When you think about it, “Don’t talk AT me, talk TO me” and “Don’t tell me what time it is, tell me about the watch” has always been good policy, yet it’s only now coming around as it relates to the fourth estate, particularly the fourth estate known as the, “wine press.”

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It’s for this reason that I’ve been a frequent and vocal critic of how the mainstream wine press (read: wine magazines) covers the industry – we need more wine information from a 360 degree perspective, and not a mouthpiece that maintains the façade of lifestyle artifice.

And while Wine & Spirits magazine, an exemplary example of wine magazine publishing, forsakes most of the “lifestyle” while hewing towards winery stories, there’s room in the market for a wine magazine that is center-trade as a counterbalance to Wine & Spirits center-consumer approach.

Given this, I continue to be impressed with the Sommelier Journal, a newer magazine launched in April 2008.

Straddling the gulf in between trade magazines like Santé, and Restaurant Wine and their consumer counterparts Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, the Sommelier Journal takes a smart, literate approach to wine content that treats their readers as a peer on the wine journey, not a steerage passenger looking forlornly at the revelers on their suite’ veranda.

When I caught up with Sommelier Journal Publisher David Vogels to talk shop, he noted, “When people refer to us as the most “serious” or “geeky” wine magazine out there, I like that because it means we’re getting our message across.”

Duly noted.

Based in Boulder, CO, Vogels started his wine publishing career as an outlet for his wine passions, first initiated in the mid-90s.  After taking the introductory course from the Court of Master Sommeliers and then moving on to the Culinary institute of America and their “wine immersion program,” Vogels realized the extent that education and certification serves as a career advancement tool for wine professionals.  Drawing on his professional experience in trade magazine publishing in another industry, Vogels started doing his due diligence, quickly realized the gap in the market, the delta between the various magazines where education and knowledge advancement is a seldom addressed concern, and launched the Sommelier Journal to fill this niche, noting:

Sommelier Journal is a magazine written by wine professionals for wine professionals. No pretentious ratings, no fluffy travelogues—Sommelier Journal presents the wonderfully complex world of wine in a lively format for both professionals and enophiles to enjoy.

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Amen.  And, can I get a Hallelujah?

In response to my query about the presentation of straightforward, smart information with less “lifestyle” Vogels said, “That was part of our objective from the beginning.  We intentionally stay away from travel and lifestyle.  The consumers I’ve talked to who read Sommelier Journal feel that they’re getting an insider’s view of the wine world.”

It’s that insider’s view without the trappings, the real and authentic absent the vineyard dog, which makes for interesting reading with the Sommelier Journal – an emphasis on raising the bar in education without the draftiness of sunshine being pumped up the proverbial skirt.

Several other interesting aspects of how the Sommelier Journal is developing itself include two “in through the out door” differences from other wine media approaches– first, they have an editorial advisory board that provides counsel and direction on content to ensure that the magazine is relevant, an important factor when so many wine enthusiasts feel disenfranchised from the media that serves them.  Secondarily, they have a tasting methodology that doesn’t score wine so much as graph wine, using a 20-point scale on a box plot graph, to represent the disparity in opinion from their Tasting Panel members.  It’s an interesting and insightful approach that does much to act as a counterbalance to the empiricism of one palate.  In total, it makes for a refreshing change of pace for wine professionals and astute enthusiasts.

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Vogels categorizes their readership in concentric circles similar to a bullseye—on-premise restaurant professionals (i.e. Sommeliers and Wine Directors) are the core audience with other on-premise staff making up a larger target outside of the core.  Next are trade professionals like importers, distributors, retailers, wineries and educators and, finally, the largest potential audience, making up the last circle, are consumers – enthusiasts, those that are deeply interested in wine.

Will Sommelier Journal ever become a leader in the wine publishing industry?  It’s doubtful, but that’s not a bad thing, all they have to do is become a leader in their carved out niche and continue to grow at a healthy clip. 

Understanding that many people don’t analyze wine, much less the wine information that serves them, there are still a significant number of people that think about the drink and want to know more.  Kudos to the Sommelier Journal for filling this niche because they have my attention and likely many other consumers who are looking for an insider’s view of the wine world heavy on knowledge, light on romance and that’s something we can all raise a glass to ...


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Before the Bubbly goes Flat

I am no grave dancer, but as the holiday season approaches, I’ve made a small sport of watching the French Champagne portion of the international wine industry completely flounder under the weight of their ongoing missteps and hubris.

The folks from Comite Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), the trade association that groups all the grape growers and houses of the Champagne region in France,  are radically cutting their production this vintage so as to not undercut their existing luxury pricing with too much inventory, they are floundering to figure out marketing and whether Champagne is a wine for celebration or for food (they wish it was considered a food wine, when in fact they should be doubling down on the celebration aspect—small acts of celebration that occur daily and weekly) and they are continuing to reinforce their ridiculous trademark protection.

This all adds up to a continuing bloodbath in Champagne with total volume down 20% (almost 6 million cases) since 2006.  And, winners are coming from, well, just about everywhere else – domestic sparklers, Cava from Spain, various Italian sparklers, Cap Classique from South Africa and even Georgian sparklers from producer Bagrationi, newly imported to the U.S.

I say bring them all on – especially if it’s at a price that is more fitting for “every day celebration” and less “the promotion of my career.”

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Most U.S. consumers think about sparkling wine in one of two categories – “it tastes good,” or “it doesn’t taste good,” and this continuing assault on the sanctity of Champagne only coming from the Champagne region of France (at luxury pricing) has reached its weary nadir, at least in my book.

Frankly, I would posit, as a consumer, that precious few wine consumers actually care where their sparkling wine comes from, mostly because nobody studies it as a thinking person’s drink – it’s an aid du jour for celebrations, big and small – not much more and frequently very less than even that. 

Because of this, it makes the vigilant French defense of Champagne as only coming from the Champagne region of France all the more head-scratching, you think they might see the handwriting on the wall, ease up off the dogmatism and focus on Champagne being the best and the original while inserting themselves into the “celebratory” drinking conversation with the rest of their brethren.

Consider this for a moment:  what if Google went after everybody who referenced they were going to “Google” something?  What if they demanded that in order to use the word “Google” it couldn’t be in the form of a “verb” it had to be used as a noun – “I am going to use the Google search engine to search for that bit of information” instead of “Google that.”  And, what if Google’s reason for doing so was they didn’t want their brand to become a generic catch-all for searching the Internet?

It would be mighty curious, right?  This day and age, one might ask the rightful question, “Why wouldn’t you want your company name to become the de facto standard reference point for searching the Internet?”

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With the product launch of Google competitor Bing from Microsoft, the New York Times has an article that talks about the shift in thinking from legacy brand protection to the “verbing” of brand names, an article that the Champagne folks would do well to read.

As the article notes (excerpted):

“… the speed at which reputations are made and destroyed in the Internet age has changed the thinking about the danger of brand names’ becoming verbs. Better to get the market share when you can and worry later, when the brand becomes part of the popular vernacular and less distinctive in the process.

‘The risk of becoming generic is so low, and the benefits of being on the top of someone’s mind are so high,’ said Rebecca Tushnet, an expert on trademark law at Georgetown University.”

Why is this an important point to reinforce?  Because everybody calls it Champagne anyway – and they go out and buy Spanish Cava.

My frustration in this regard reached its peak last week when I received a press release from the US arm of the CIVC.  The release noted (excerpted):

This Halloween, don’t be “tricked” by misleading disguises pretending to be something they’re not. This includes wines at your local retailers and restaurants using the names of world class wine regions, like Champagne, even though the grapes used in the bottle do not come from those places. The tricks aren’t limited to Halloween: 50 percent of the U.S. sparkling wine market at any given moment is improperly masquerading as “Champagne.” 

On Halloween, leave the masks to the goblins, ghosts, and ghouls and make sure you’re not paying for sparkling wine disguised as Champagne. For more information about the name protection issue and to take a Champagne trivia quiz so you can know what is real and what is disguising itself as Champagne, visit http://www.Champagne.us

Now, to be fair, I’m not entirely laissez-faire on this “sense of place” protection.  I get that Napa wine should be from Napa wine, but what I am saying is that in this particular instance where Champagne is quite literally the catch-all equivalent of “Kleenex,” “Jello,” or “Google” (whereas Napa isn’t the catch-all for Cabernet, for example) the notion that they continue to spend pr and marketing effort on trade protection in a period of rapid decline indicates that they are so far removed from the vagaries of consumer wants and needs as to be rendered impotent.

Does the CIVC want to get the train back on the tracks; do they want to avert continued declines of 20% over the next three year period?  If so, they need to focus on Champagne being the original, focus on thought-leadership with the innumerable sparkling wines from around the world that use the classic méthode champenoise technique created and perfected in France, build up the lore and history, focus on Champagne being an accompaniment to everyday celebrations and ease off of the vigilance—ease up on the consumer watchdog aspect of their marketing that “warns” me of being “tricked.”  They need to do so before their bubbles go flat pounded by a $13 Spanish Cava that tastes good, which is about all most consumers care about anyway.


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The Blending Trials

While I am a fan of Trader Joe’s and love their wine selection and prices, I find most of their private and one-off labeled wines to be deficient in at least one discreet way. 

Sometimes the nose is muted, the finish is short, the fruit isn’t developed or perhaps there is a bit of heat, etc. 

Many of the TJ wines are like a beguiling woman on a first date – the package seems like the real deal – she’s beautiful, smart and sexy while not being high maintenance.  Anticipation is high!  Then, in the blink of an eye, upon uncorking, she goes into an anecdote about putting a restraining order on her ex-boyfriend from three days ago while she nervously and incessantly giggles with a laugh that is part rooting pig and part hyperventilating hyena.  Your fifteen minute flash love connection has been dashed at the 17 minute mark and you’re figuring out a graceful exit.  Such is life and so goes Trader Joe’s branded wines, too. 

In my ever present quest to unearth the perfect Trader Joe’s wine find, undaunted by wisdom, I picked up a bottle of the 2007 Trader Joe’s Yountville Grand Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon for $12.99.

I suppose it’s inevitable that high-end finished wine that is left unbottled (for any number of reasons) would hit the bulk wine market only to be bottled for TJ’s.  These days, in particular, you expect a high level of quality of juice to trickle down to the “deal” portion of the private-label market.

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The TJ “Grand Reserve” is such a wine.  Sourced from “Hole in the Hedge Winery,” a winery that, apparently, exists only in name and a bottling line somewhere in Napa County, this wine shows incredible potential pedigree at price point, emphasis on “potential.”

A straight cab, it is inky garnet in the glass with a well-developed nose, an appealing first impression on the palate and a nice, high-quality finish.  However, like the incessant giggle that detracts from the whole of the package, this wine, made in a Bordeaux-style, is missing a little something – notably some stuffing to round out the mid-palate.  Showing an abundance of earthy complexity, nice mouth feel and depth, it seems to be a wine that was intended to go into a Bordeaux blend with a dash of Merlot, a smidgen of Cab Franc, and a pipette of Petit Verdot.

Alas, it was bottled as a straight varietal offering, which is too bad because a little artful blending could have made this $12.99 wine a deal of the century – major quality at a discount price … a $12.99 offering comparable at $50.  Seriously.

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However, absent straight-line creative problem-solving by TJ’s (I’m on to you), evidenced by the fact that putting together a meal from the store requires nine purchases thereby transferring the success of the end product to the consumer (the Tikka Masala simmering sauce needs chicken, basmati rice, frozen peas and naan, at a minimum, and TJ’s otherwise low prices lulls me into a sense of bargain when I’m actually paying $21 for a meal for two—more than two all-you can-eat Indian buffets),  and consumers quite rightfully should make some adjustments to the wine.

I grabbed a 2002 Caparone Merlot from my stash, a Central Coast winery that stylistically produces rustic table wines with an Italian bent, and blended in a splash to give a boost to the mid-palate of the TJ’s Cab.  It worked.  The results were remarkable, despite the blending incongruence between a Bordeaux-style Cab and a vin da tavola-style wine.

Obviously, this is a clue that kitchen sink blending more artfully considered than my own could yield something even better.

Here’s my recommendation – run out to Trader Joe’s and pick up a bottle of the TJ’s Grand Reserve Cabernet from Yountville.  Likewise, pickup a bottle of Merlot.  Don’t overthink your Merlot choice, as long as it carries some fruit heft it’ll be fine.  The Grand Reserve has enough depth and finesse everywhere except for a thin mid-palate to carry the wine.  Add some Merlot at a 1:5 ratio and enjoy.

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I think most wine enthusiasts view wine in a linear fashion – an end product that is what it is.  However, with more private-label wines coming to market and with Trader Joe’s wines, in particular, where costs are reasonable and risk is low, I’m finding that a dash of this and splish of that creates a more satisfactory whole experience.  Give your own kitchen sink blending experience a try and let me know which wines you used to create your own winning combination.


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Thinking about Drinking … Wine

Flotsam and jetsam from thinking about drinking wine …

Umami

I’ve never felt completely comfortable with the “Parker’s Palate” globalization paint brush.  Parker has vigorously and consistently denied that winemaking has changed to a riper, more fruit forward style based on his palate.

While, it’s undeniable that this “Parkerization” theory has enough credibility that people have altered their style of winemaking, I still can’t quite wrap my head around Parker being a dictator of style to the extent that he has a created a cottage style, a phenomena that dates back to the late 80s and early 90s to present day.  The world just doesn’t work in such a tidy fashion.  It doesn’t work in a tidy fashion any more so than the mortgage industry collapsed as a result of Alan Greenspan economic policies – there are just too many moving parts to isolate a single point of failure.

Factor in that the wine world is more complex in disparity than other industry that I’ve been in and it’s consequently impossible for me to isolate a single factor that has led to a predominant style in richness.

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While I would love to prove it (it would make for a fascinating non-fiction book or Master’s Thesis and I have plans for neither), something that I keep coming back to time and time again as a possible counter explanation to the development of richer, fuller wine styles is the notion of “Umami.”

Defined as the “fifth taste sense,” Umami means “delicious” in Japanese.  It’s exactly that deliciousness and richness that creates palate satisfaction.

If you think about big Aussie and California wines, they all have that mouth-filling savory quality.  The extractedness of a wine (another word like spoofulated and typicity that doesn’t live outside the world of wine) seems to be the same mouthfeel sense of fullness that food scientists have been developing since Umami was scientifically discovered in the mid-80s.

We’ve all seen the commercials and marketing for food that is “craveable.” It’s the sensation of umami that we crave in those foods, something really smart people and well-heeled restaurants and food manufacturers try to create in their menus and food.

In my mind, at a minimum, any movement over the course of the last 20 + years to a richer style of wine has to at least partially account for the movement in awareness of what creates happy taste buds, and that includes winemaking.  In fact, a search for the word “Umami” yields a first page search result from Kalin Cellars where they say:

Most modern wines are made for immediate consumption and evoke the taste sensations of sweet, salty, bitter and sour. These “Fast Wines” are well matched to the spectrum of flavors found in “Fast Food.”

They go on to say, “Kalin Cellars wines achieve Umami by the use of artisanal methods: barrel or (cuvee) fermentation, sur lies aging, malolactic fermentation, extended barrel development, bottling with no filtration, and aging in temperature and humidity controlled underground cellars.”

While it would take more research than a blog post can provide to make a credible case, anybody that gets on the stylistic Parker-bashing bus should at least pause for a second and look at the bigger picture – that Panera chicken salad sandwich is formulated to evoke a certain satisfaction and it’s highly likely, though perhaps more innocently executed, that winemakers are responding to our collective American palates and not just Robert Parker’s.

Man’s Search for Meaning

There are a raft of wine books that have been recently published or are getting ready to hit the market that try to use wine as context for understanding the human condition and the world around us.  Notable amongst these is the somewhat eponymous forthcoming book called, “Using Wine to Make Sense of the World” by Elliot Essman as well as “The Psychology of Wine” by Evan and Brian Mitchell. This is all interesting because those that are passionate about wine tend to look at life through the prism of the wine glass, gleaning profundity where possible.

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I am certainly one of those people that believe that virtually every experience in life holds some thread that can tied back to wine in some form, heck, it’s a principle of my writing … that said, man does not live on wine alone.

Given that the last several years of my life have been a struggle in which I have not attained success at the caliber that I feel I am capable of or satisfied with (throw in some adversity, too), I recently bought Viktor Frankel’s world famous book,“Man’s Search for Meaning.”

Deemed by a survey jointly conducted by The Book-of the-Month Club and the Library of Congress as one of the 10 most influential books in the U.S., it has been on a sales tear throughout 2009, reaching its sales peak in late June of this year while significantly outpacing sales from the last three years.

The sales are obviously a response to the economic conditions we’re living in causing many people to rethink their life and the path they’re on.  And, the sales peak may too be an indicator of when the economy hit the bottom.

The main premise of the book is far too complex and personal to summarize in a sentence, but to say it provides enlightenment above and beyond the minutia of the moment is an understatement.

In general, this quote is an example of one piece of wisdom that resonates:

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

“Man’s Search for Meaning” has nothing to do with wine whatsoever, but certainly makes for a happy companion to a glass of wine, preferably three of them.  Read the wine-related books after the fact, they require lucidity.


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