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Can Wine Enthusiast Magazine Woo the ‘Silent Majority?’  Pt. I of II

The demise of Gourmet magazine has likely caused other lifestyle-oriented magazine editors across the industry to look under the proverbial table to make sure there isn’t another shoe ready to drop in a copycat bloodletting.

As far as wine magazines go, all seems normal, even if health is relative and despite there being significant room for improvement. 

No, there aren’t any wine magazines that deserve to die, but there are a couple that deserve to improve.

By way of background, a few interesting things have occurred over the last two weeks.  As mentioned, Gourmet magazine, the grand old dame of genteel food coverage, closed in an untimely death that wasn’t so much blunt force trauma (978K subscribers) as much as it was asphyxiation by pillow smother in the dark of night. 

I was saddened by Gourmet, as I always considered it to be a magazine that I had a relationship with—I enjoyed the magazine, I looked forward to every issue and I respected its combination of smart literary sensibility with food world refinement.  This is in contrast to several wine magazines for which I subscribe but hold a deep ambivalence towards.

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In addition to my Gourmet sadness, I recently read some eyebrow arching comments from a mainstream wine writer (who doubles as a wine blogger) regarding the landscape of influence in wine magazine publishing.  And, finally, I spent a recent afternoon reading Wine Spectator, Sommelier Journal, Wine & Spirits and Wine Enthusiast magazine with an eye towards critical analysis in comparison and contrast to each other.

Each of the mentioned magazines fills a slightly different niche for the wine world at-large.  Spectator is lifestyle and collector oriented, Sommelier Journal, the newest entrant, is trade-oriented, Wine & Spirits forsakes the lifestyle aspect for a straighter-edge focus on knowledge, assuming a baseline of competency from its readers, and Wine Enthusiast is populist-oriented.

Make no mistake, the stakes are high for wine magazines today and there has never been a better time for reinvention – wine consumption is increasing and getting younger by demographic, current mainstream critics are graying, the 100-point system is being assailed, and wine advertising and marketing is morphing as free content via the Internet puts downward pressure on business models.

Now is not the time for anybody to stand pat with their poker hand.

Regarding the aforementioned comments from the mainstream wine writer, the context isn’t as important as the actual message.  The writer, a critic for Wine Enthusiast, said:

Hell yes I am defensive about Parker and Spectator hegemony. Hell yes I want Enthusiast to be mentioned in the same context. I have fought against the hegemony for years now, because it’s wrong for those 2 to be so dominant and because I want to promote Enthusiast right up there beside them.

Let’s dispense with the facts first.  Wine Enthusiast has 100,000 subscribers while Wine Spectator has over 350,000. Robert Parker is the most influential critic in the world, bar none, and it’s an influence that far transcends the number of subscribers to Wine Advocate. If there is any “hegemony” with Parker and Spectator, it has been achieved through a meritocracy in the court of public opinion.

In fact, according to a New York Times wine article from 1994, much of the current wine publishing landscape (at least in between Enthusiast and Spectator) was foreshadowed years ago.

In the article written by Howard Goldberg some 15 years ago, the following excerpts could have just as easily been written last month:

(Referring to Wine Enthusiast Editor and Publisher Adam Strum) Mr. Strum … is gambling partly on readers’ disaffection about the Spectator’s new identity. Some wine purists complain that the Spectator, in redefining itself as a life-style magazine, has shed its old wine-and-food emphasis.

… In a leap from semipopulism, the Spectator has recently offered articles about Paris (with onion soups rated on a 100-point scale); the cuisine of Alain Ducasse, the Monte Carlo chef; the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, Calif., and collectible Venetian glass—turning its back on wine lovers with thin wallets, its critics say.

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Mr. Strum said of the Spectator: “It has become elitist and narrow. It no longer meets the need to educate the consumer, to expand consumption.” He said his magazine would woo this “silent majority” with more news and practical advice.

Far less polished than the Spectator, the Enthusiast emphasizes only wine and food, with an editorial style that is a mix of sophistication and wide-eyed earnestness. Recent articles have focused on inexpensive California wines and Washington State wines but also on expensive and rare vintages of Krug Champagne.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Shanken said that “the Enthusiast is not a serious contender or threat.”

What has changed in the intervening years since the article was published?  Not much. 

In fact, in the Editor’s editorial in the current issue of Enthusiast (November 2009), Strum reiterates his magazines positioning when he says:

“Our goal at Wine Enthusiast Magazine is to encourage America’s wine culture, which has been flourishing for the last decade, to continue to flourish.”

Despite Strum’s consistency in messaging, Wine Spectator has grown to become the dominant force, making Shanken look positively Orwellian.

Unfortunately, Wine Enthusiast is persona non grata to most avid wine enthusiasts for a number of reasons that are self-inflicted, not to say that it has to be that way, though.

In my opinion, Wine Enthusiast magazine has the greatest opportunity, bar none, to transcend the current climate of wine magazine publishing to fulfill the vision of being a magazine that woos the silent majority, while truly competing with the so-called hegemony of other wine periodicals.

In part II of this post I’ll make specific recommendations for Enthusiast doing just that.

Photo credit #1
Photo Credit #2


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At What Price, Value?

The fact that wine consumers are “trading down” and buying “value wines” begs the question, “What exactly constitutes a ‘value’ wine and by whose standards?”

A Google search for “value wine” returns millions of possibilities, yet there is not a single definition for what “value” means in the world of wine.

However, in the consumer world, most of us understand what “value” means – it’s the amount of something we give (usually money) that is equal to or better than what we get in exchange – usually a good or service.  That’s pretty easy, right?  Something is a good value when we feel empowered and in charge of the benefits that we will receive in exchange for the money spent; and, those benefits exceed the value of the money.

As quoted by Wine & Spirits Daily, Danny Brager, VP, Beverage Alcohol at Nielsen says in regards to value, “(Value) doesn’t just mean the lowest price. It’s the right product at the right price in the right place as the consumer defines it for him or for herself.”

The net-net is that consumers ultimately decide what makes for a good value.  Given that, what does it say about the consumer view of the luxury-priced wine market when the upper-end has been abandoned so starkly?

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I know the answer and it’s not a dollars and cents issue – it’s perceived value.

The question then becomes, how do wineries address price sensitivity around the mercurial notion of “value” with a consumer defining it for themselves?

I see the delta in between luxury wine pricing versus perceived value as a significant issue that is not going to go away for wineries, regardless of when the luxury portion of the wine market comes back.

An interesting sidebar: a few years ago I stopped for a shoeshine at the airport in Denver.  When I asked the shoeshine guy how much a shine cost he said I could pay what I thought it was worth.  I asked him, “What if I think it’s only worth a dollar?” He said, “That’s fine, but I betcha you’ll think it’s worth more than that.”

He was right. 

He took his time, I intermittently read the sports section and shared some small talk and, ultimately, I received a good shine.  I liked his pluckiness and gave him $11—about 90% more than a fixed price shine might have cost.  Yet, I walked away from the exchange feeling like I received a value.  I paid what I felt it was worth.

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My shoeshine is an interesting example because I was completely in charge of how I paid for perceived value. 

In August I wrote a post called, “The Setting Sun on Luxury Wine” where I suggested that consumers might be tired of paying for something based on the perception that they were paying not just for the wine but also to support an image of a winery lifestyle by the winery.

In September I wrote a follow-up post called, “Balance Sheet Marketing” where I suggested that wineries would do well to provide greater transparency with the cost inputs that go into a bottle of wine and rightsize their pricing accordingly. I said that consumers want to pay what they think something is worth, not what somebody tells them it’s worth.

Both posts had good feedback, but I also received comments that noted that what I was suggesting was out of touch with luxury wine management and marketing.  While that may be true inside the wine business bubble, I happen to live outside the bubble as a consumer.

To reiterate, what I continue to sense is that wine consumers aren’t “trading down” as much as they are simply NOT buying wines that that they deem “not worth the money” and that happens to be wines that are largely over $25.

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How then do wineries above $25 a bottle combat this?  Is it a “You name your price” Priceline.com model like my shoeshine?  Maybe so …

I’ve been keeping an eye on a marketing tactic whereby the customer names their price for goods or services.  It’s been happening with some regularity with results that suggest it’s more than a gimmick.

There are scores of examples—a taxi driver in Vermont, a restaurant in Utah, an advertising agency in New Jersey, the rock band Radiohead and numerous others …

In each of these examples, there isn’t an explicit price structure – the exchange of money is completely voluntary by the consumer and based on what they think the goods and services are worth—what the perceived value is.

And, a funny thing is happening – the goods and services providers are making MORE money. The taxi driver is getting $6 more per fare than standardized fare taxi drivers, the band Radiohead earned more money from their voluntary payment program than they did on the sales of their previous album, the restaurant is running profitably …

These are interesting times for sure, but if I were a winery I wouldn’t be afraid of risking a perfectly profitable sale that occurs infrequently when I could let the consumer determine value frequently. 

Allowing the consumer to name their price, particularly in a tasting room environment, where the customer is under the spell of the experience, might just lead to not only more sales, but greater profit.  And, by using this first person pricing based on the wisdom of your customers, that makes for a compelling pricing story in other sales channels, satisfying my earlier request for greater transparency—the market has determined the wines worth.

A former boss of mine (when I was tap dancing around the notion of wanting to earn more money), said that I was worth exactly as much as somebody was willing to pay me and he would support me if I found somebody willing to pay me more.  It was a hard lesson, but a good lesson.  Ultimately, a “value wine” is what somebody is willing to pay for it. It might be a hard lesson, but a good lesson for wineries to allow consumers to define the value of their wine for themselves.


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I like to talk about wine, but I’d rather drink it

Unlike many younger Baby Boomers who were introduced to wine with Carlo Rossi Burgundy or Paisano red in the late 70s and early 80s, just prior to the wine cooler movement, I was a bit too young for that era and instead weaned myself on Gallo varietal wines that were a part of their premiumization movement in the 90s; Hello Anapamu Pinot Noir, how I used to love thee.  My wine introduction via Gallo notwithstanding, it seems my generational timing is bad in more ways than one. 

Gen. X being a sandwich generation in between Boomers and Gen. Y means that not only did I miss Carlo Rossi the first time, but I’m missing it a second time as Gallo, the Carlo Rossi parent company, continues to try to rekindle the jug wine with a younger audience – a segment I am sadly no longer a member of despite the repeated playing of Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” in my mind.

Overall, it’s a bummer when you can’t even be a party to nostalgia.

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In 2006, I wrote about Carlo Rossi’s attempt at hitting the urban hipster scene when they rolled out their do-it-yourself campaign called, “Jug Simple.” The campaign tried to instill some fun by promoting the re-use of the empty 4-liter wine jugs into something functional like a desk lamp or a loud speaker housing.  By all accounts, the campaign executed by Seattle agency Cole & Weber was a rousing success and won a Gold Effie award (the advertising equivalent of an Emmy) for boosting mindshare, sales and market share.

Now, Gallo is back again, in a continuing quest to appear more vital, with a revamped web site and a new promotion that launched on October 1st looking for the leader of the, “Carlo Rossi Posse.”

The premise is simple:  Carlo Rossi was a simple, homespun, down to earth man who was a leader.  Using an almost too clever headline for their press release –“Carlo Rossi is ‘4 Liters’—Not Followers,” they are running a promotional giveaway of $10K to the person that best exemplifies the Rossi spirit.  The prize money is intended to outfit a den or a living room for the winner to entertain friends.

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From the press release:

Carlo Rossi was a simple, practical man who loved drinking good, honest wine with friends. He was also famous for saying, “I like to talk about wine, but I’d rather drink it!” In keeping with the long-standing tradition of paying tribute to the man behind it all, the Carlo Rossi Posse Contest will recognize an individual who embodies Carlo’s spirit. And what better way to celebrate his laid-back philosophy than by having the chance to create the ultimate entertaining spot for you and your friends to enjoy?

I reached out to the public relations folks that represent Gallo to get a couple of questions answered, but the PR team isn’t authorized to speak on behalf of the brand, which is mighty peculiar, and Gallo didn’t respond by the time I posted this (in fact I don’t expect them to respond at all given that I asked questions about strategy and they only seem to do unidirectional communication).  Given that, I’m not sure if Cole & Weber is doing this campaign, but credit to whoever does their advertising because they’re going about the “Carlo Rossi Posse” work without a hint of pandering irony, which marks too much advertising these days.

It also seems the Gallo folks are heading off the quality issue at the pass, as well.  Entered into a number of wine competitions over the last year, the wines have showed serviceably with a number of bronze and silver medals.  Not too bad when you consider the price point.

As a student of wine marketing and advertising, what I like about this campaign is the attempt at being relevant through nostalgia.  Since the campaign targets 21 – 29 years olds, nobody in that age bracket actually remembers or was alive for the original airing of the Carlo Rossi commercials in the late 70s and early 80s, so dusting these old chestnuts off and making them available on the web site seems like a good idea, particularly because namesake Charles Rossi is an affable, likable sort in the vintage commercials – kind of like your Uncle who used to tell dirty jokes at Thanksgiving, but completely get away it, something we can all identify with.

Similar to what Canadian Club is doing with their advertising (playing on lifestyle and the fact that Gen. Y is very family-oriented) the notion of propping up and mythologizing Rossi seems like an idea that should resonate.

Still the campaign isn’t without problems.  There are far too many promotions going on online and their usefulness is diminishing.  If I were unemployed I could fill my days entering contests.  The $10K prize money seems like a pittance after taxes—barely affording a nice big screen TV and leather couch let alone the “ultimate entertainment spot.” And, perhaps, most egregiously, the Rossi commercials aren’t on YouTube, just the web site. And, the web site is a stand-alone, not integrating with the Facebook fan page.  Yet, something endears me to this campaign.  I like advertising and marketing and I like to see the wine industry do different things that break out of the, “look at my quality” and the aspirational “wine lifestyle” schlock that passes itself off as effective.

Regardless of what you think about jug wine, the quality thereof, and Gallo, the fact that they try new and different things, targeted at different audiences, is a step above and beyond 98% of the rest of the industry and that alone should be commended.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life—Harvest Edition Pt. II

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

1st Annual Good Grape Wine Label Design Award

I am hereby awarding the 1st Annual Good Grape Wine Label Design Award.

Given to the wine label that best blends an artistic sensibility with arresting visuals, my award is intended to honor the best in annual label design – a label that appeals to wine “culture vultures,” AND “poseurs” equally.

I’ve always appreciated art, but my current employ with a digital design firm has me appreciating the artistic process on a whole new level.  I had an epiphany a few months back when our Creative Director described the difference between graphic design and art.  He said, “Graphic design is the assemblage of visual elements.  Art is creating something entirely new, fresh and thought-provoking.”  I had never thought of it precisely in those terms, or with that level of delineation, but I’ve found that I have started looking at the things around me with a more discerning eye.

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The winner of my inaugural award, earning the honor of being mentioned on this site with a readership equaling that of a high school playbill for a weekend run of “Grease,” is R Wines from Australia.  Imported by noted Aussie importer, The Grateful Palate, and sold as “Southern Gothic,” the Riesling, Grenache and Shiraz each represent arresting visuals and edgy label design executed as art.

The young artist for the series, James Jean, comes to package design as an illustrator and artist with a non-wine background.  His take on “Southern Gothic” is refreshingly free of any artifice for what a wine label should be and is delicious enough where you don’t want to drink the wine, instead leaving the bottles intact as something to be admired externally and not for what is actually inside.

Congrats to Jean for doing something fresh and for The Grateful Palate for running with it. You can see the art and three different label themes (nine in all) at both the Grateful Palate and artist web site.

“Formula” Ordinances

A recent news notice from Bloomington, Indiana indicates that the Mayor of the city is considering enacting an ordinance that would prevent a so-called “formula business” (essentially a chain store) from locating in certain portions of the downtown area, just adjacent to the Indiana University campus in what is effectively the campus entertainment district.

This potential ordinance against a “formula business” follows similar ordinances in San Francisco, Portland, ME and other culturally rich cities.

Now, on the surface, I get this.  I am by no means a chain store apologist.  It’s important to keep our city centers unique and local, this much I know.  The tapestry of a city isn’t materially abetted by the addition of another Starbucks, at least not if a local coffee store can open instead. 

However, and this is a big however, this legislation of business by government reminds me of the ongoing derision that occurs with so-called “corporate” wines, something I have a small ongoing issue with. 

Granted, in a blind tasting I probably couldn’t tell the difference between a 2004, 2005 or a 2006 Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve because they are “formula” wines, but that doesn’t mean I want to legislate the availability of that wine.  Many wine enthusiasts see K-J Vintners Reserve as a pox on humanity, just like another Starbucks opening.

Everybody loves small business.  We all celebrate the unique stores that are unique to our area; we praise them and heap them with affection.  Small business is the driver for our economy, but the thing that we tend to forget is that every big business – every Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Mondavi Winery and McDonald’s started out as a small business.

I just wish that in business and in wine that we weren’t so fickle—celebrating business success as a company or winery grows, but then turning on them when they grow too big by some unspoken standard.

There is a place for Yellowtail, K-J, and Mondavi’s Woodbridge line, just as there is a place for the local, small and unique.  And they should not be mutually exclusive—both are better for the contrast and competition they offer against each other in choice for consumers. 


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Harvest Edition

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

Turn off the TV, Open a Book and Drink a Glass of Red Wine

I have an ongoing issue with the marketing of resveratrol.  It seems like hucksterism … and, now I have to contend with something called Mothervine Nutraceuticals (Google it—I don’t want to validate it with a link).

I guess I’m jaded.  Six or seven years ago when I was burning the candle at both ends, a health nut buddy suggested that I get on a regimen of Velvet Antler (from Elk antlers) and Blue-Green algae supplements for energy and stamina.  I took the advice, and, well, a fool and his money are soon parted … 

That experience probably explains my ambivalence about a supplement that allegedly takes the pomace from the Muscadine grape and turns it into a supplement while using marketing shtick that intimates that it comes from the grapes of the oldest living cultivated grapevine in the country, a vine that produces scuppernong (an indigenous muscadine varietal) in North Carolina.

A 30 day supply only costs $19.95. 

The reality is that the supplement, legally, only makes a claim of “wellness” and it only very loosely links itself to this so-called “mothervine.”

I love good marketing, but I hate disingenuous marketing.  I mean, drinking eight glasses of water a day promotes wellness as does a reading a book and drinking a glass of wine.  All of these wine-related supplements, at best, seem to be little more than a way to separate people from their money and I’m bummed that wine has go along for the ride, even if it’s tangentially.

An Athlete in his Prime

In the NFL, conventional wisdom says that running backs hit their peak at the age of 30.  Production, speed, and durability all decline precipitously after that magic age marker.  In the NBA, centers and forwards rarely exceed the age of 34 before Father Time begins to take his toll.

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I’ve been thinking about athletes in their prime and the quick drop off that occurs in physical skill.  Unfortunately, sports (and most fields of competitive endeavor) have a steady supply of those eager to take the place of the deposed so we don’t often focus on the past, but rather the present and the future, stepping over those who have lost their skill.

It’s all reasonably ruthless in its bloodlessness.

I’ve been thinking about this notion of athletes losing their physical gifts and relating it to our senses – taste and smell.

While certainly not conclusive, there is plenty of scientific research that indicates our taste buds diminish and our sense of smell drops off as we age – most put that age range into the 50s and 60s.

Incidentally, most pedigreed mainstream wine reviewers are Baby Boomers in their 50’s, if not 60’s.

To suggest that many wine critics are losing their tasting prowess and sensory acuity would not be fair because we don’t know that, but as science continues to spend significant time in olfactory research, it may be that wine critics in the future will have a life span just like NFL running backs, having to capitalize on their peak years before giving way to youth.

Just a thought ...


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