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That’s How We Roll at Good Grape

Really funny comic from Bill Amend, the cartoonist behind FoxTrot.

And, how true for me—I write really long posts, take a ton of time on the computer and barter with my wife so she can check Facebook.  That’s how I make money from blogging. 

If you can’t read the cartoon below, hit this link and it will link directly to the FoxTrot site and the larger size original.

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Behind the Scenes:  A Post-Thanksgiving look at making the Pairing

As we push aside the leftovers, the Thanksgiving table in our rearview mirror, our sights set on the holiday season and the New Year, have you ever stopped and wondered what occurred behind the scenes that led to the Thanksgiving wine pairings that dominant mainstream wine media coverage?

If you think the local newspaper wine columnist has a test kitchen, recipes at hand, a wine cellar to practice pairings and a lot of time, think again.

Continuing a re-occurring theme of examining “the business of the business,” I went behind the scenes on a recent Thanksgiving press release to better understand how Thanksgiving wine pairings and recipe recommendations(link starts a download) were constructed.

The short answer is: More carefully and thoughtfully then you might anticipate.

The shorter answer is:  Public relations pros have a lot to do with it.

The shortest answer:  A professional chef is a good thing.

A few of weeks ago I received a press release from the PR agency representing Rancho Zabaco wines (an E&J Gallo-owned winery), with suggestions for pairing their wine along with a few provided Thanksgiving recipes from Chef Bruce Riezenman, the noted Chef/Owner of Park Avenue Catering in Sonoma County and winner of “Best Caterer” in 2002 and 2004 as noted by NorthBay Biz magazine.

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Taking the PR prompt, I received the Rancho Zabaco wine samples and got in contact with Chef Riezenman, who acted as Rancho Zabaco ambassador.  He has worked with Gallo off and on in various capacities for over a decade– catering and pairing wine for industry dinners, conducting food and wine pairing seminars for their sales team and doing ambassador-like media work, as well.  This Thanksgiving PR campaign is an example of the media work.

One of the more interesting things to note is that, yes, we’ve been having Thanksgiving for nearly four hundred years and the flavor profile doesn’t materially change.  Therefore, the recipes sent out this year are the same recipes that were sent out in 2006 when Rancho Zabaco coverage was received by the Oakland Tribune, amongst others.

While it’s easy to cast a weary, jaded eye and suggest that these sorts of PR programs are put together in a slap-dash self-serving effort (you can’t update the recipes, guys?), intended to cater to lazy writers, my conversation with Riezenman proved contrary.  I found a thoughtful, contemplative guy who has “bona fides” and is serious about wine and food pairings and the people he associates with.

In addressing my query about Zinfandel being down the list (way down the list) as a match for the Thanksgiving table, he noted, “There is a natural connection between Zinfandel and Thanksgiving.  (Zinfandel) is considered our ‘indigenous’ grape … same with Thanksgiving.  It is considered an American holiday.”

He continued, “What a good Zin has going for it is this magical combination of ripe fruit, good acidity, firm tannins and alcohol that is balanced by the fruit.”

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What Reizenman artfully didn’t mention is that most California Zinfandels are flabby fruit bombs, but he did note:

”(Rancho Zabaco) Zinfandels have good fruit, and also bold flavors all around.  Turkey white meat is general is pretty bland, and on its own Zin might not be the 1st choice, but once you start adding side dishes and sauces it all changes.  You are adding bigger and bolder flavors to your plate.  It’s all about creating something that is bigger than the sum of its parts when you are putting together a Thanksgiving dinner.”

Riezenman knows that which he speaks, emphatic in his counterintuitive approach.  His style of food and wine pairing is exactly the opposite of what most people traditionally do – match the wine to the food.  Instead, Reizenman matches the food to the wine.  It’s a 180 degree difference in perspective that allows him to philosophically get to a pairing that works while, perhaps, uncovering some nontraditional insights into what goes well with what.  “I usually begin with the wine and its unique characteristics.  Then I decide what food, flavors, textures, weight and nuances will complement the wine.  I emphasize flavors that work with wine and introduce people to a broader spectrum of possibilities,” he said.

Reizenman continues, “There are many times when the food will ‘improve’ the wine but my goal is to ‘enhance’ it or at the very least do it no harm and allow the original character of the wine to shine through.  The real goal is do this with full flavored and satisfying food.  I am not shy with my pairings.  I prefer to be more bold and daring and to challenge many preconceived notions of what will work.”

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In proving his food and wine pairing prowess, Reizenman has released an iPhone application called Pair It! In developing the application, Reizenman said, “We tend to be very specific when recommending pairings for a particular dish.  The truth is, there are many wines that will work beautifully with any dish you can think of.  That is the basic philosophy behind (the application).  Each dish has on average 20 different varietals that (it) can work with.”

The app itself is clean and elegantly designed with a deep amount of information.  There are over 1000 recipes from Reizenman’s repertoire and 20,000 pairings, all written and tested.

Overall, It would be easy to mark this conversation as the work of a paid professional staying on message; that is, of course, if his message didn’t work.  It does, however.  The 2007 Rancho Zabaco Reserve Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) and the 2006 Rancho Zabaco Toreador Zinfandel (Monte Rosso Vineyard) all scored with my Thanksgiving dinner putting a Pinot Noir to shame as a complement to the rich food on the table.  A Zin would not have been within my first six choices for a wine pairing, but the Rancho Zabaco wines were indeed a genuinely good complement.  They are high in alcohol at 15.5% with a touch of residual sugar (0.4) and while that will put them in the “do not drink” category for many, I choose to look at wines for their individual merit instead of choosing categorical brushes with dogmatism.  These wines are good, and especially good with the sweet/savory sides of many holiday meals.

My takeaway in talking with Chef Reizenman is three-fold – don’t overlook a well-structured Zin as food complement on an order more sophisticated than BBQ, food and wine pairing is a well-considered art, and being a Chef is as much about being entrepreneurial and getting the word out as much as it is about the food.

Chef Reizenman (and by proxy Rancho Zabaco) score with this press release offering.  The wines are good, and a good match to Thanksgiving – and that’s a pairing I can support, PR or no PR.

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Monte Rosso vineyard photo credit: Elliot Essman / Stylegourmet.com


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When Then Gets Here

When I see the daily headline proclamations like, “The Future of …” and “Top 10 Trends …” I usually arch an eyebrow, clear my throat, mutter “bullshit” in a guttural voice akin to advanced bronchitis and read on with bated breath.

After all, most predictions aren’t revisited ipso facto for accuracy so what exactly is somebody going to say that is so prescient it transcends the obvious to revelation?

I guess I’m the worst kind of jaded consumer of content; I’m not even a skeptic, I’m glancing into miserable cynic territory.

Yet, I read on …

In fact, I trade in some of these predictions, as well.  So, mark me in the column of cynic AND part of the problem. 

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However, I read all of these predictions for reasons entirely different than insight into the future, what’s around the corner.  I read them for wisdom.  It sounds funny, but wisdom in action, which is really experience and accumulated knowledge, is very beneficial for brainstorming and idea generation.

So, a particular innovation or trend may not have any application to me, but stored in the mental file it becomes a jumping off point for something that is interesting down the road.  It’s the “one idea leads to another” school of thought.

That said, I have no idea when or how the following wine trends knowledge will turn into manifested wisdom, but at some point they probably will.

And, as a sidebar, it’s particularly ironic to me that Europeans, perpetrators of Old World charm, often lead the way in technology-related marketing innovations.  I see this all the time in the digital space.

As identified by Springwise, a global trend spotting web site and another research company called Trendwatching.com, they have noted several wine items and some 2010 trends that have wine applicability.

First up is Aromicon, a German web site that presents a visual display of a wine by flavor component.  It’s written in German, but you can translate it if you use Google toolbar in a FireFox browser.
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I’ve long held the belief that one of the most daunting aspects of wine appreciation is the two-headed monster of florid tasting notes on the back of the wine labels coupled with a consumers own difficulty in palate training.

In fact, I’m helping a budding wine enthusiast friend do a tasting at Christmas with his family whereby he’s going to get edible flavor components of a selected wine as a palate training exercise.

As well, I’ve pitched a wine book concept in the past that is a scratch and sniff for adults – a book by varietal that has the flavor components commonly found in the wine in scratch and sniff form.  A Chardonnay book would have green apple, lime, white peach, butter, etc.

That idea found a receptive audience with all of the enthusiasm of a wet dog who rolled around in a fetid cow pasture.

Aromicon effectively aids in that wine aroma knowledge development, though.  If a user drinks a wine while viewing the web site they could presumably concentrate on the wine while evaluating it—thus aiding in their identification of aromas.

I would love to see something like this state side.

Or, alternatively, if this visual engine for individual wine flavor components is too much, then there is a Dutch company called 94wines that does wine by the number, but with a twist (also translatable with Google toolbar in a FireFox browser).

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We’re all familiar with palate profiling of the sort that retailers use – wine varietals classified as “soft & fruity” or “silky” – that sort of thing.  94wines takes this one step further by creating wines (94 of them, hence the name), that matches with your taste profile based on a short quiz.  This becomes your “WineID”

94wines goes a couple of steps further by doing other customization aspects including a QR code (geek speak for a phone readable scan tag) that a user can upload and view custom content on, in addition to creating a social aspect with an iPhone app (allowing users to look at others WineID, amongst other things).

It’s all very fascinating, especially if the wine is good.

Innovation stateside seems to be more on the pedestrian side.  We had a spat of brands a couple of years ago that purported to be a match with various foods – “Wine that Loves … Chicken” or “Wine that Loves … Steak,” for example, but those pale in comparison to really cool, new things, though.

Two less concrete and more abstract trends for 2010 that Trendwatching.com did note, that have application to the wine world state side, is the notion of:

1) Maturialism

This is a glom word that combines “mature” and “materialism.”  Net-net – marketing looks to be getting naughty in the coming months, across many consumer categories.  Take Chupa Chups lollipops fashioned in the form of “Ben Wah” balls (the first and last reference to Ben Wah balls on this blog), for example.  The wine world already has “Little Black Dress” wine and “Cleavage Creek” will the double-entendres give way to “Walk of Shame” red?

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2) Mass Mingling

This is an example where the U.S. wine world has a lead – “Mass Mingling” is the notion of taking your social networks offline in the form of meet-ups – something we see extensively already with TasteLive and events like Wine 2.0, a trend that will no doubt find additional competition in the future.

Overall, as I mentioned, trends and futurism, for me, is something of a cynical sport, not for its practical usefulness, but more so as another glint in the memory bank that may prove useful down the road.  Mileage varies, but staying ahead of what’s *potentially* next is always useful for when “then” gets “here.”


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Giving Thanks Edition

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

Making the Muse (Follow-up)

After I wrote about country and international varietal association marketing last week, I checked out Nielsen Scantrack wine sales data as presented in Wine Business Monthly.  Sure enough, when you look at sales by dollar value by country – who is growing and who is not – you can practically draw a straight line in between marketing efforts and sales volume.  Argentina, Chile, and New Zealand are all growing significantly.  Notably, the French are tanking in dollar value as are the Australians.  It’s interesting to note because the Cotes du Rhone campaign has rolled out in the states in a big way over the course of the last 90 days and Australia is desperately trying to position to higher ground above the Yellowtail fray (more on that in a subsequent post).

Also interesting to note that according to another Wine Business Monthly article, they noted Nielsen Scantrack data as showing Washington wine having the largest domestic increase from July of ’08 to July of ’09 – volume and value are significantly outpacing that of general wines sales.  That factoid makes the Wine Spectator Top 100 for 2009 all the more interesting with a Washington wine in their #1 spot (2005 Columbia Crest Columbia Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon).  Does the dog wag the tail, or does the tail wag the dog?  In this instance, it seems the dog (Washington) wags the tail.

Paraphrasing here, but I saw a quote from Willie Nelson earlier this year commenting on the “outlaw country” movement in the 70s.  He said (from memory), “We didn’t create the movement; we just got in front of it.”

Wine + Music

My birthday was on Saturday.  Notre Dame lost (again) marring an otherwise dandy day, the highlight being seeing Will Hoge live on Saturday night.  This is the third time I’ve seen him over the last five years, and he’s finally starting to get some notice nationally.  Well deserved.  He’s a cross in between early Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams delivering Americana-tinged, Troubadour rock.  If I had to pair Will with a wine I’d make it Anglianico – earthy, spirited, brooding.

Check out Will Hoge at this New York Times podcast (12:20 mark).  The YouTube video is the single from his CD released in September.

Too much advice is bad advice

I’ve been technically editing a wine iPhone app. that will be released in the next month or so.  It’s a good app. and I’m mostly checking for accuracy in the content.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much “technically” incorrect with the following statement, I just don’t happen to agree:  “To really know wine, you must know French wine, to know French wine, you must know Bordeaux.” 

The Snootiness of Runners

When my wife and I started dating she was doing a lot of running – training for an annual mini-marathon that takes place in Indianapolis.  For whatever reason, I wanted to call her training “jogging.”  I came to find out repeatedly that “jogging” is very different than “running.”

Okay.

The New York Times had an article last month about the rise of non-competitive runners entering marathons for the challenge and soiling an otherwise competitive sport.

In news magazine The Week, they note:

This debate may not seem momentous, but it actually speaks to the character of our nation.  The question is, do we prohibit the masses from competing alongside elites, or do we foster as much participation as possible?

Hmmm … sounds like debates in areas of the wine world, doesn’t it?


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What is the “New, New Normal?”

Bar none, the one piece of research I look forward to reading every year (and get the most value out of) is the Silicon Valley Bank “State of the Wine Industry” report.

Written by Rob McMillan, using plain language that is artfully juxtaposed against a pop culture reference point, he typically nails not only his predictions for what is around the corner, but he puts current events into a context that leads to “a-ha” moments.

McMillan has clarity of thought that is refreshing.  I find that he synthesizes information in a way that I “feel,” but can’t quite articulate or substantiate.

As a precursor to the full 2010 report released in late spring of ’10, McMillan has published short-form guidance for 2010 at this link.

True to form, it’s a good read.

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This past summer, I wrote a couple of posts about what I sensed as intractable shifts in the view of luxury-priced wine.  I used a book called Reset as a backdrop for the posts; the book by Kurt Andersen optimistically describes our current hardship with hopefulness, not in the sense that we will return to the old ways of living, but, triumphantly, we will not do so, learning from the lessons of our near-term past.

In the post(s) I suggested that luxury wine and the attendant pricing needs to be radically adjusted to current reality, not only for what people are buying but what the sensibility for spending money will be in the future. In response, I received numerous comments from industry-related folks that essentially said, “People will return to their old ways of buying luxury goods, they always have, they always will.”

Yes, of course, that is a true statement.  But, “when” is a better question because it doesn’t look like it will be for several years, or in the previous form.

Mind you, I live in a suburb of Indianapolis, IN.  That’s the filter I view things through.  No offense to Northern California, or the East Coast, but both are a bubble in relative affluence, wine culture and politics.  Indy is affectionately known as the “Crossroads of America.”  What the geography lacks in true wine culture, it makes up for in temperature readings of our culture at-large.

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As an example, the lease to my car is coming up in a couple of weeks.  In a previous era, I would have been pushing to get a new lease, a better car, something in the “near-luxury” category that I felt denoted how I perceived myself and my place in society.  What am I doing instead?  I’m going to buy the car out of the lease and drive it until the wheels drop-off.  Why?  It’s because a “functional” and “affordable” car have become more important to me than a status marker.

I think I’m in good consumer company, too.

What the “Crossroads of America” have told me, as an abstract set of tea leaves, if you will, is that the days of buying a $65 dollar wine Pinot just because you can are as distant of a memory as meeting your wife at the arriving gate at the airport, or driving an Acura because it speaks to a self-concept.

Two very salient quotes from McMillan’s report include,

“Defining a new normal is more prudent than waiting for the old normal.”

“When will the market return to normal?”  The real answer is not very soon.”

The report concludes by noting,

“We do believe we are in the midst of a price reset in fine wine that will lower the wannabe cult wine prices and collapse brands into narrower price bands below $50.”

It’s an interesting set of points.  As an aside, somebody should take note of the price bands quote because price segmentation above $25 hasn’t yet been stratified into consumer categories.

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In a nutshell, similar to post-9/11, what was previously accepted as “normal” has changed.  Just as our airport routines are radically different, so too are our consumer patterns, particularly around wine.

One thing is certain, if I were a luxury wine producer, I would completely rethink my go-to-market planning around a new structure of consumer categorization.

Acting as a complement to the Silicon Valley Bank research is recent consumer research that goes to the core of this “new normal,” defining new consumer segmentation.

In the study, entitled “Marketing to the Post-Recession Consumers” by Decitica, they state, “This research decisively shows that marketers need a fresh lens through which to view consumers in the post-recession world …”

The abstract of the summary notes:

Experts posit that the household deleveraging process is far from complete. Adjustment of household balance sheets, which had begun in earnest in the thick of the recession, continues apace with nary a sign of ending anytime soon.

With this backdrop, the debate continues whether American consumers are so indelibly scarred by the recession that they have forever abandoned the profligate spending habits of the past in favor (of) a more restrained approach.

This study goes beyond superficial measures of consumer sentiment.  …this research not only concludes that the recession has caused a profound, deep-rooted change in consumers’ spending habits but also that there are four distinct consumer segments emerging from the recession.

The report goes on to highlight four consumer categories:

• Steadfast Frugalists
• Involuntary Penny-Pinchers
• Pragmatic Spenders
• Apathetic Materialists

At this point, it’s a manifest reality that our “normal” is a fresh coat of paint over a near-term past, both from an industry perspective looking at consumers and consumers looking at producers.

Where the rubber meets the road is what happens now.  Rob McMillan used the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” as the pop culture context for his report.  The key for boutique wineries with luxury pricing is to figure out how to tap into that “wonderful life” in a way that is sustainable for both them and the consumers that buy from them.

With McMillan’s words echoing in my ears, ““Defining a new normal is more prudent than waiting for the old normal.” 

I hope producers take his advice.

Additional Reading

More Wine Unsold During Economic Slump

Post-it Note Image Credit


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