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Bubbly and the Big Fix

On the eve of the biggest sparkling wine consumption day of the year, you’ve surely read the love letter to Champagne penned by the hand of the Grim Reaper – it says in part, “My friend Avarice and I look forward to your companionship.  See you soon.”

This, of course, is a cheeky way of saying that the Champagne business has some problems – more problems than just a rapper with a couple of baby momma’s and a bottle of Cristal; the Champagne business took care of that one a couple of years ago, anyways …

No, the Champagne business has issues with production, pricing, perception, competition and sales volume.

The French Champagne industry is a Harvard Case Study waiting to happen.

For all of these issues, there has been an equal amount of reportage.  The Champagne story in 2009 isn’t wanting for exposure.

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The latest was a Bloomberg report.  That article is joined by a previous Bloomberg article, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Times from the UK, The New York Times and a host of others.

Heck, I even wrote a couple of posts on Champagne in November, so hot are the fireworks in the crucible of the wine world.

The unifying thread amongst all of these articles is some variation on the dire straits facing an industry that has too much inventory, flagging interest and high prices.

My personal ire was raised, given current difficulties, with the US Champagne Bureau’s insistent approach on continuing to protect the provenance of Champagne.  My point was simple – everybody calls all sparkling wine “Champagne” anyways, so why not roll with the punches and accentuate the positives of “real” Champagne instead of spreading negativity by highlighting alleged imposters?

The example I used was the “genericization” of a category similar to “Googling” something on the Internet when, in fact, you are simply searching for something.  By my rationale, it’s a brand attribute and not a negative that the word “Champagne” rolls off the tongue as an entire category – something to be lauded. 

It’s the difference between taking the high road versus the confrontational road that leads to a high noon showdown.

Brands should be so lucky to have their product be the de facto leader for an entire category – Google, Kleenex, Xerox, Jello and others … inherently, everything else is perceived as a pale competitor to the real thing.

Never underestimate the power of suggestion and a consumer’s Lemming-like predilection to follow.  All the better if I buy something that is the “Cadillac” of its category. 

I come at most things from a marketing perspective and the notion that I can work myself out of any jam so it’s not much of a surprise that my perspective was summarily dismissed by readers.

Shortly thereafter, earlier this month, the Champagne Bureau,  the US arm of the French Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC)  organization, in the face of a business climate that makes AIG look like a feel-good story, reinvigorated the Center for Wine Origins, run by the same Washington D.C. based PR firm as the US Champagne efforts.

Oy vey.

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Clearly, people think that “Champagne” has a singular birthright to the use of the word Champagne.  This perspective was subsequently supported and underscored by a 107 comment long discussion in the Wine Business Network forum on the professional networking site LinkedIN.  Comments on the same topic ranged from:

“I strongly disagree with the unfair (ab)use of geographical terms outside of the legal region. Whatever marketing people will say, it is just an unfair (ab)use of a name that ‘sells’ well. It is just taking and making profit out of something that does not belong to you.”

To

“Such a stupid question I wasn’t going to answer.  Champagne is in France end of (story)!  Can’t believe this is still generating replies.  Champagne is in France and that’s final.”

Okay and no problem. 

But, here’s the rub amongst all of this armchair quarterbacking:  Amongst all of the reporting, and all of the consumer and trade sentiment protecting the sanctity of place, nobody really has an answer for the travails of Champagne.

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Instead, we get article headlines like, “Cava, the Champagne Killer.”

Yes, Champagne problems are manifest – US sales have declined 41.2% from January to August of this year, there is an inventory backlog, production has been cut from the 2009 harvest, grower Champagne is increasing in mindshare along with Cava, Prosecco and other sparklers from around the world and slashing prices to spur sales is happening, but anathema to the “brand” and akin to paper cut torture and a salt water bath.

Yet, despite all of these issues, the ongoing marketing support for sanctity of place amidst real problems, and ensuing reporting of such, nobody has offered a real solution to stem the bloodbath that is Champagne sales.  Nobody has offered up any solutions to stemming the tide against consumers choosing practically everything but Champagne.

So, here’s my Harvard Business School Case Study question:  You are the CEO for the CIVC with oversight responsibility for the Champagne Bureau.  What do you do?  You are responsible for fixing what needs to be fixed and you’re faced with more problems than Obama.  What do you do to address the following:

1) Precipitous sales decline

2) Backlog of inventory

3) A price point not supported by the buying climate

4) Declining interest / importance of luxury brands

5) Lower cost alternatives with no discernible consumer difference in quality

6) Pressure from boutique / grower Champagnes from your own country

7) A product associated with special occasions

I know what I would do – and it would begin and end with changing the marketing climate that has created a high noon showdown.  But, what would you do?  Please leave a comment.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life: Marketing Music + Wine

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

Music + Wine

By now, just about every possible wine marketing shtick under the sun has been undertaken by a well-intentioned marketer and most yield results that are deafening - deafeningly bad.  These ploys (usually masquerading as an actual business) quickly appear, are quickly copied and then quickly disappear.  A wine brand that pairs with rotisserie chicken, anyone? 

Typically originating from academic research with research sample sizes smaller than the ensuing press release distribution list, one of the latest ploys bound to get curious marketing traction in the future is the notion that a wine tastes best in a room that is backlit by blue or red ambient lighting.

Likewise, in the states, we’re sure to explore the biodynamic calendar that suggests that wine tastes best on certain days of the month.

It won’t be long before we’re sipping wine in a padded room at midnight under a full moon, such is the nature of research that usually finds wine to be compatible on an exclusionary basis.

However, one piece of research-cum-marketing tactic that appears to be moving out of “fad” territory into “trend” territory is the pairing of music and wine.

Based on a number of people doing research including domestic wine industry raconteur Clark Smith and a U.K. academian, Adrian North, doing sponsored research for Chilean producer Montes, it seems that the pairing of wine and music is here to stay, with substantive findings.

“Wine manufacturers could recommend that while drinking a certain wine, you should listen to a certain sort of music,” Said Professor North.

Earlier this year, Sony Music actively engaged in music promotions with both traditional and new wine media, as evidenced by a promotion in conjunction with Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Of course, wine brand Sacre Bleu is pushing the envelope in marrying a music lifestyle with wine consumption, as well.

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Also taking the musical cue in a form that I find to be well-executed and nicely done is Hope Family Wines (HFW).  HFW, a Paso Robles producer of Liberty School wines (found nationally at Cost Plus World Market) and other smaller brands, have released an iPhone app. called Wine DJ that matches their wines (seven from three different labels) to a dynamic and streaming list of songs (using streaming music service Grooveshark). 

This would all sound well and good and a little on the booster-ish side were it not for the fact that I’ve been involved in several iPhone app. development projects this year and I understand the difference in between utility and uselessness, with the latter far outweighing the former in terms of iPhone applications available. 

The Wine DJ application includes some nifty functionality that lets a user select a wine, select the vibe for the evening, and the application will then select an appropriate playlist to listen to while drinking the wine.  For the low, low cost of free, the Wine DJ application also delivers some geo-tagging to find Hope Family wines near you, as well.  It’s a genuinely useful application that is elegantly designed.

Of course, it also helps that the Hope Family generally produce wines that are well-noted for value at their price level, living up to one important criteria of marketing – the product delivering. 

Yet, I find that this app. comes up short in at least one critical area – namely, the scope of wines offered being limited to their brand(s).  Given the HFW roots in Paso Robles with Paso wine also being a key source of wine for branded labels in national distribution, I would like to see the app. expand beyond simply the Hope Family brands.  Casting a wider net to be more inclusive of other wines will ensure that this application becomes something more than a simple one or two use branding tool supported by a press release.

File under “J” as in the “Jury is Still Out”

Also leveraging music is “Wines that Rock” a new wine label that attempts to create the perfect wine to drink while listening to iconic music.  Mendocino Wine Company has created a Merlot to pair with the Rolling Stones greatest hits package called “Forty Licks” to go along with a Chardonnay for Woodstock and a Cabernet for Pink Floyd’s, “The Dark Side of the Moon.”

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The challenge I have with this is they’ve already bastardized their own commitment to their messaging.  If they truly stuck with a wine that would pair well with an album than the Pink Floyd effort is notable.  However, am I supposed to believe that Chardonnay goes with Woodstock?  For what reason exactly?  There isn’t much about mud, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix that gives me a Chardonnay vibe.  A Merlot goes with the Stones greatest hits?  Groan.  Give me an inky Syrah with “Exile on Main Street” and I’ll pick up what you’re putting down, but matching to the greatest hits seems like Baby Boomer pandering.

Unfortunately, this one feels like shtick to me.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Year End Edition

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

Understanding Life and Wine

New Year’s is my favorite holiday – a time to reflect, wipe the slate clean and set new goals for what are surely better days ahead.

Everybody has at least one resolution, right?

I take inventory of everything and try to fix the things that need fixing and strive to improve in areas that require evolution.

Two things that I come back to year after year are my professional life and wine – not surprising since they both comprise a large part of my whole and require lifelong learning.

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In fact, more often than introspective flagellation, I often just determine that I need to know something that I don’t currently know and I set goals to fill in the knowledge gaps.  But, sometimes the learning required is bigger than what I can plainly see.  More on this in a second …

In my 15-year professional career in technology, I’ve been on something of an itinerant journey … emblematic of Generation X, I’ve always sought out new challenges, new learning curves and new goals, never hanging around any one place long enough to be called an old-timer (or accused of complacency or entitlement); Instead, it’s usually just long enough to master the learning curve and achieve the initial challenge (while getting jaded in the process—another Generation X characteristic).  College, my relationship with my wife and this blog – that’s all I’ve ever done in my adult life that equaled or exceeded four years time. 

Now, to be sure, the dynamic change of technology every 18 months (called Moore’s Law) has something to do with this, but I haven’t done myself any favors by perpetually deciding to dig out instead of digging in.

While this restless career vagabonding hasn’t been easy, and nor is it a path I would recommend for others, it’s also not something I can imagine occurring any other way, despite the scars.

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In spite of my resolute confidence in the path I’ve traveled, I tend to pacify my nagging self-doubt with the rationalization that life is a journey and not a destination. 

In contrast though, in my personal life, I have always looked for wine to be my rock in the stream, a blanket of comfort noted for its warmth and reliability. It’s the rhythms of the season and the cyclical nature that is at once progressive and changing, but entirely the same—that’s what I find appealing about wine.

The other aspect of wine that holds great fascination for me is the fact that it’s an unconquerable subject.  You can never have mastery of wine – as a business discipline or a consumer subject.

Likewise, nor am I able to understand why my professional life sometimes zigs when I want it zag.

Most of us are good at looking at life within a broader context, but I want to look at life with some subtext.

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In an ongoing effort to understand wine and the world writ large, I’m undertaking some advanced study in the coming year.

The Teaching Company is an adult learning company that provides courses via DVD and audio.  A series of lectures given by some of the most gifted professors in the country, the top 1% of academics, according to the company, they offer a wide range of non-credit class offerings that the inveterate learner would find of interest.

My curiosity was piqued with three subjects all interrelated to the crazy, complex wine world, while also potentially helping me understand my world, as well.

Games People Play: Game Theory in Life, Business, and Beyond

(From The Teaching Company web site):

Ever since modern game theory—the scientific study of interactive, rational decision making—achieved prominence in the mid-20th century, it has proven instrumental in helping us understand how and why we make decisions.

Game theory plays a crucial role in our lives and provides startling insights into all endeavors in which humans cooperate or compete, including biology, computer science, politics, agriculture, and, most importantly, economics.

Chaos

(From The Teaching Company web site):

It has been called the third great revolution of 20th-century physics, after relativity and quantum theory.

But how can something called chaos theory help you understand an orderly world? What practical things might it be good for? What, in fact, is chaos theory?

“Chaos theory,” according to Dr. Steven Strogatz, Director of the Center for Applied Mathematics at Cornell University, “is the science of how things change.” It describes the behavior of any system whose state evolves over time and whose behavior is sensitive to small changes in its initial conditions.

Understanding Complexity

(From The Teaching Company web site):

Complexity science can shed light on why businesses or economies succeed and fail, how epidemics spread and can be stopped, and what causes ecological systems to rebalance themselves after a disaster.

In fact, complexity science is a discipline that may well hold the key to unlocking the secrets of some of the most important forces on Earth. But it’s also a science that remains largely unknown, even among well-educated people.

Now you can discover and grasp the fundamentals and applications of this amazing field … learn how complexity science helps us understand the nature and behavior of systems formed of financial markets, corporations, native cultures, governments, and more.

See any similarities to the above and the wine world?  A big giant chess game, perhaps?  Or, the “chaos Theory” in action – can I make sense of something that doesn’t make sense?  Or, how about, the emerging social science of “Understanding Complexity” – it provides insights into the mercurial, “market forces.”

Overall, watching some lectures on DVD isn’t going to decode the wine world, or turn me into a captain of industry, though I would like for both to happen.  More likely, they will help me get a little bit better at understanding things that I don’t currently understand, and that’s the real point of New Year’s and the infamous resolutions – try to fix something for yourself and make your tomorrow just a little bit better than today. 

Best wishes to all for a much better 2010!  Thank you for being a reader!


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Home(made) for the Holidays

One of the side benefits of the economic malaise we’ve experienced over the course of the last eighteen months (if there is a silver lining) is an appreciation for simpler things.

The unspoken demands of competitive consumerism, the spending treadmill, if you will, has given way to a more pragmatic sensibility about “stuff” and its relative value and dubious need.

My immediate family decided this year that we wouldn’t exchange gifts amongst ourselves.  Instead, we all made a donation to the same cause and focused gifting on the kids. 

I, for one, am thankful.

Personally, I don’t anticipate missing a single DVD, or shirt.

In fact, if you think book trends are a larger indicator of cultural trends, you might believe that I’m in good company with forsaking the mindless gifting.  While I don’t need to buy these books to tell me what is already obvious, three books have recently published that focus on frugality – not penny-pinching, but being judicious with your money relative to the acquisition of unnecessary material things—the opposite of being “penny-wise and pound foolish.”

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One book, in particular, is called Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays. Its central premise is that gifting at the holidays, from an economic perspective, is flawed and wasteful.  Not only could the money be better spent for different uses, but the monetary value in action is wasteful.  Rare is the time that the actual cost of the gift that we give is valued at the same level by the recipient –a $50 sweater costs us $50, but the receiver may only marginally like the sweater and value it at $15. Or, how many “Secret Santa” office gift exchanges happen nationally where you purchase a $10 candle for Betty Sue in accounts payable, but Betty Sue hates the scent of lavender and puts the candle in the attic.

It’s that kind of wasteful gifting that is predominant during the holidays.

In another book called, “The New Frugality” the focus is on living a consumer life that matches up with “sustainable” lifestyle.  “Sustainable” is spending that is commensurate with your income; it sounds so simple, even though that sensibility hasn’t been the case over the course of the last 15 years as savings rates have plummeted.

All of these macro trends – cutting back on mindless gifting, living a more reasoned consumer life and another trend that I haven’t yet mentioned, more of a “do-it-yourself” reliance, all have an impact on the wine world – notably a sense that good wine doesn’t have to cost in multiples of $15, nor is it requisite that it come from a well-recognized region.  In fact, if anything, it seems that “offbeat” and “affordable” are the sweet spots in the wine market.

This triage of trends all came to roost for me recently as we got together with friends for a holiday gathering.  My wife and I hang out with a wide cross-section of people that are collectively known as the, “Pottery Hippies.” These are folks that have one time or another taken a pottery class together at a local art center and all have a down-to-earth artistic sensibility.

There is a gift exchange at this annual holiday get-together with one rule – the gift has to be homemade.

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My wife and I hit the jackpot on the potluck-oriented gift exchange.  We gave a homemade holiday wreath and received a cigar box guitar, a jaw-dropping beauty that rivals my previous all-time favorite Christmas gift—the Millenium Falcon –given to my twin brother and me in 1980.  Until this point in my life, the Millennium Falcon was my Red Ryder BB gun, a gift of unspeakable beauty.

Now, of course, based on this guitar, I know it’s possible for a grown man to get verklempt based on awe other than observing childbirth and winning a home team championship, so inspiring is this three string gitbox. Handmade right down to the inlaid frets on the handmade poplar neck, the sound this guitar makes conjures up images of Robert Johnson sitting on a dusty porch coaxing a bittersweet fat wail, playing “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Fittingly enough, we drank the 2006 Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon at the party – a wine described by Joseph Carr of Joseph Carr Cellars, the vintner for this second label, as a “Vin de Garage” – an unassuming and approachable wine designed to be enjoyed amicably with friends.

It was and we did.

Amongst good friends with an artistic sensibility, eating well, but simply, drinking a very nice wine that didn’t break the bank, a so-called “Vin de Garage,” and receiving a stunning homemade gift, yes, if there is a lesson for 2009 it is, indeed, that sometimes the simple things in life are the best.

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Revisionist History and my Wine Bio

It is no mistake that a person’s background in wine plays a significant role in how they are perceived.  It’s practically a badge of honor that a persona of knowledge and experience would symbolically enter a room before the person does, regardless of circumstance or venue.

Outside of academia, the wine business is perhaps the one industry where previous history is afforded more accord than current results.

For example, when I took a brief professional sojourn into the wine industry I watched with interest as virtually every meeting between people who did not know each other began with a recitation of background and experience, a sort of verbal resume that established credibility, or, at the least, established what the six degrees of Kevin Bacon was as the mutual canine butt sniffing gave way to the purpose of the meeting

Another example: in social situations people of all stripes are quick to acquiesce to the person they believe has the most wine knowledge.  Drop the name of an obscure 500 case producer in Anderson Valley at a kitchen wine tasting, take a sip of whatever you’re drinking, make an ethyl acetate reference and watch the crowd hang on your every word thereafter. 

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Of course, amongst mainstream wine writers, credibility and experience is everything.  The places you have traveled, the wines you have drunk and the company you keep with the bread you break are all very important in building up the indefatigable nature that is perception.  A published book or two helps, as well.

Likewise, Sommeliers and wine educators all dash towards an alphabet soup of letters in the form of certification – its own form of glinting, brandished wine weaponry that can be used for perpetuity.

All of these various steps you can take to developing a wine mythology came to a head for me as I reviewed the winemaker bios at Oriel Wines.  Of course, each of the winemakers who make wine for Oriel has pedigree, that’s not the point.  The point is that some of them have a bio that makes it seem like they were with Jesus at a wedding in Cana turning water into something celebratory, so impressive is their history with the grape.

There seems to be an art to building a biography.

This importance of wine background, of pedigree, in summation, of course, gives me pause and a moment of insecurity – the equivalent of the pubescent high school locker room shower peek at the kid who develops a 5 o’clock shadow during 4th period.

You see, my wine bio, my credibility, has no such extrapolated grandeur or renown.  I didn’t drink first growth Bordeaux out of a sippy cup.  My Grandfather didn’t smuggle vineyard cuttings for the family estate from France by way of Canada.  I don’t keep a pair of work boots by the back door, caked with mud from a harvest internship in Italy.  In fact, I am not one of those people to whom you defer and say, “He’s forgotten more about wine than I’ll ever know.”

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Nope, in fact, I grew up in a house that was as charmingly traditional and middle-class as any kid who came of age in the 80’s could hope for.  Plenty of fire-brewed goodness in the form of Stroh’s beer was around, and save for the Bartles & Jaymes that languished in the fridge, indulged in once quarterly by my Mom, the only exposure to wine that I had was a bottle of Cold Duck at my Grandma’s house, nestled next to my real object of affection:  Mountain Dew.

In short, when it comes to a wine background, I’m not playing from a position of strength.  The “About” page on this site is one of the most heavily trafficked areas of this blog.  It’s the place where I talk “about” me and note much of my wine back story.

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Despite a real passion for wine kindled over the last 12 years with ardent study over the last 10 of those 12 years, and possession of a wine web site that is four years old with over 750,000 words written, I get a real sense that in the best case I could be perceived as a wine neophyte and in a worst case a piker, a rube, or a poseur.

So, faced with this dilemma I’m resolving to fix it in the coming year.  Will I earn my own wine certifications, or take junkets around the world?  Will I refer to myself in the third person and name drop hard to find wines on a repeatable basis?

No. Well, actually, kind of.

I may let the flourishes of a story overshadow the substance.

I’m re-writing my bio in an effort to mythologize myself.  It’s revisionist history on the order of the pampered trust fund baby turned ne’r do well actor with the alleged hard scrabble background, experiences he tapped to give an Oscar-winning performance with poignancy.  Here’s my first draft.  Please leave any comments if you have helpful suggestions.

About the Author

Jeff was raised by wolves until the age of three.  As a toddler, he began to develop his palate with the wild vitis labrusca grapes that grew in the Midwest, members of the pack charitably allowed him first crack at the vines.  Rescued by a wealthy family seeking publicity through altruism, Jeff transitioned into a life of comfort.  His father, a second generation American from a small town aristocratic family, ran a Michelin-starred fine dining establishment where he famously built the largest wine list and cellar in Northern Indiana and Southwestern Michigan.

Wine was always a part of the dinner table in Jeff’s family and vacations always centered around wine buying trips internationally.  Jeff received more passport stamps before he turned 18 than most receive in a lifetime, having visited every major wine region in the world several times.  For his 8th grade confirmation, a Catholic tradition, Jeff celebrated with a ’47 Cheval Blanc cut with water and was famously given a jeroboam of 1787 Lafite, which he holds in a secret location to this day.

This international experience and his fine wine palate, developed in the wild and fine-tuned with the assistance of a pilfered key to the family business wine cellar and aided by the family maid, Calpurnia, led Jeff to pursue his studies at UC Davis where he graduated from the Viticulture and Enology program Summa Cum Laude.

Poised to become an up and coming star in the wine world, Jeff embarked on two years of International travel participating in harvests at some of the finest wineries in the world including Chateau Latour.

Finally settling in at Harlan Estates, Jeff was the Asst. Winemaker for the ’94 and ’97 vintages famously given 100 points by Robert Parker, Jr.

Taking a respite from the industry that had so graciously given to him, Jeff pursued philanthropy in the next phase of his life by being a Caddy at Pebble Beach while acting as a personal wine buyer for the wealthy.

Now in semi-retirement and weary of friends and family asking for wine recommendations, Jeff now maintains a wine blog called Good Grape:  A Wine Manifesto.


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