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Vin de Napkin - Slice of Vice

There is a reason why having a hunk of bloody rare red meat, a Manhattan and a cigar holds a tantalizing allure for many a man—it’s because it’s legal, but practically verboten in a world gone safe like the blunted edge of a set of safety scissors.

It’s living on the edge ... without having to go to the trouble of doing anything illegal.  Let’s face it—nothing fun is really, theoretically, good for you.  Except wine.  Wine seems to be good for you ...

... and, that’s the problem ...  I really don’t want to see any more research reports about how wine is so ... so ..., well, darn healthy.  It’s kind of a buzzkill.  Yeah, I know, of course, wine is a drink of moderation.  I’ve got that.  Still, wine would be infinitely more interesting if it were considered more of a vice instead of mainstream health tonic enjoyed by “Ladies Who Lunch” after their pilates class.

For that reason, I was glad to see this recent report with the headline, “Red Wine Could be Bad for You, Says New Research.”

Just saying ... sometimes being bad, is good ...

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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Then and Now Edition

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

Nipping it in the Bud

The over/under betting line on how soon an online wine writer will wax philosophic and draw an analogy in between the new Apple iPad and wine is set at three days.  This earnest soul, our online wine writer, his proverbial skirt still blown upward from Steve Jobs’ hyperbolic presentation on Wednesday, will say that the iPad has an opportunity to “change the game” for the wine-interested. 

This writer will urge us to ponder the possibilities:  How amazing it would be to deliver applications and wine books in an elegant, interactive way that is portable.

Or, perhaps, this intrepid writer will suggest that using an iPad to deliver multimedia wine content within the context of a gargantuan wine list at a restaurant is a smart solution to an age old problem.

All of these circumstances could be true.  Or, not.  Or, not right now.

I say: don’t believe the hype.

Almost three years ago, I wrote about a company called Vinio that had a similar solution in providing an interactive tablet for diners at restaurants – a virtual Sommelier of sorts that could provide region, varietal, food pairing matches and a host of other value-added types of contextual information. 

While pragmatic at the time, I also displayed a touch of the, “consider the possibilities” wide-eyed optimism.

Today, ahem, the Vinio site appears as if it hasn’t been updated in two years.

My point is – it’s been tried before.  Sometimes old wine in new bottles is still old wine.

Automated Tasting Notes

In 2006 there was a buzz rippling in the burgeoning online wine community about a piece of Japanese technology dubbed the Robo-Sommelier.

As reported by the BBC at the time, Japanese technology manufacturer NEC developed a two foot tall robot that could “taste” and identify types of wine using infrared light to identify different flavor components.  Eventually, this robot could be personalized to make wine recommendations for its owner based on their palate preferences.

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Now, of course, this is well and good and a little bit like Popular Science magazine articles from the 70s that talked about flying cars in the new millennium. Yet, there is something interesting here, particularly when combined with another developing technology called Stats Monkey.

A developing technology from a research lab at Northwestern University, Stats Monkey can create computer-generated baseball stories.

From the web site:

Imagine that you could push a button, and magically create a story about a baseball game.  That’s what the Stats Monkey system does.  Given information commonly available online about many games—the box score and the play-by-play—the system automatically generates the text of a story about that game that captures the overall dynamic of the game and highlights the key plays and key players.  The story includes an appropriate headline and a photo of the most important player in the game.

Hmmm …

What’s interesting about this is not its use for writing little league baseball stories for a local audience, as reported by NPR.  Instead, the interesting thing is its ability to take information from a set of parameters and accurately construct a story—across a range of disciplines.

Also from the web site:

The applicability technology underlying the Stats Monkey system scopes across any sport or event in which the events produce significant quantitative data.  It also has applications in domains in which recurring story types that are primarily data-driven, including other kinds of sports stories and many kinds of business stories such as quarterly or annual earnings stories, market updates, and so on.  The Machine Generated Sports Stories system could be employed by news organizations or directly by organizations which wish to publish information about their activities, such as college sports teams or businesses.

Ultimately, the system can be extended to generate stories that include quotes from individuals or organizations involved in those stories (when those quotes are available online) as well as stories in different narrative styles for different audiences.

Hmmm …, again.  What niche relies on quantitative data (scores) that can be combined with quotes for different narrative styles?

Forget the “wisdom of the crowds” when it comes to tasting notes.  A far more interesting story to me is a robotic tasting element and an automated wine review story generator. 

We think major wine critics have their panties in a bunch now?  Sounds like we should just wait a couple of years …


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The Very Best Place to Live for a Wine Lover

Add another tiny ripple to the groundswell that is the Washington wine scene…

…A quick hitter for a Wednesday…

I examined three recent pieces of research for correlations in between wine consumption by state, overall happiness by state and ranking of “healthiness” by state using the following sources of research:

1) Top wine consuming states by volume (Wine Handbook data from 2006)

2) Gallup Healthways Well-being Index (Measures the “Happiest” states, Nov. 2009)

3) United Health Foundation rank of “Healthiest” states (Nov. 2009)

I hypothesized that there would be a strong correlation in between top wine consuming states and general happiness and health.  The reason being, in pop analysis, is that wine promotes an erudite, moderate lifestyle that would (should?) equate to a general state of well-being and healthiness.  Or, at least, that’s what you might think.  The reality is—not so much. 

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In fact, there are hardly any correlations between the three pieces of research results examined together.

However, one interesting pattern does emerge – Massachusetts seems to be the place to be (despite their ongoing wine shipping battles).  And, without question, if somebody was looking for a place to move that combined a wine industry, wine consumption, a “happy” state of being and a “healthy” state of being, the winner would no doubt be Washington!

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The Sweetness Double-Standard

Listen to a wine aficionado for long enough and you’ll encounter a loving soliloquy about the joys of Riesling.  Likewise, if you listen to the same person for a period of time you’ll likely hear a scathing rant about wines that are anything but bone dry, having a hint of residual sugar.

For the life of me, I can’t reconcile why some (most?) wine enthusiasts have opposing views about the same thing – sweetness in wine. 

This contradiction in action is only equaled in propensity by the same wine aficionado paying lip service to welcoming one and all to the world of wine while waxing philosophic about the allocated Pinot that only he and 498 other people have access to, but I digress …

If I had to make a guess about this seemingly contradictory view of wine with residual sugar, I’d posit that it’s not actually sweetness in wine that offends a wine enthusiast’s sensibility it’s the dishonesty in the respective types of wine.

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I think.

A Riesling is classically defined with varying sweetness levels while a Cabernet, for example, is “supposed” to be dry.

In the unspoken view of the wine aficionado, a wine that is historically supposed to be sweet is okay.  A wine that is supposed to be dry (but isn’t) is deemed as some sort of pandering to the palate preferences of unsophisticated Americans weaned on Coca-Cola.

I think.

To me, this is a mildly unexplainable mystery equivalent to Chicago Cubs World Series curses and the allure of the Twilight book series, but I think it comes down to inherent honesty in what a wine is supposed to be, or says it is.

Personally speaking, I hold no grudges against any type of wine with residual sugar.  Live and let live, I say.  I like Lambrusco, I can get down with Prosecco, I certainly enjoy Riesling, I believe dessert wines are an under-acknowledged part of wine appreciation and I live in the Midwest where every regional winery has a cordial-style fruit wine.  In my worldview, even Yellowtail serves a purpose as a gateway wine. 

Given my laissez-faire view, it should come as no surprise that I really enjoyed Jam Jar Shiraz with no hint of malice towards its demi-sec style.

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Jam Jar is a newly imported South African wine that is unabashedly semi-sweet and labeled as such.

According to the web site:

Jam Jar Sweet Shiraz was born out of the realization that there are not a lot of options available to consumers seeking quality sweet red wine. This fresh, fruity, semi-sweet Shiraz aims to fill that void. Most of the grapes are grown in Paarl, a region with a Rhône-like climate that is ideal for Shiraz cultivation, and production is overseen by critically acclaimed winemaker Bruwer Raats. The brand’s packaging has a nostalgic, “retro” feel inspired by classic red and white checkered jam jar lids.

It makes perfect sense.  In American wine culture, many people traverse a gauntlet of wine appreciation by first going through soft wines – a little bit of sweetness and not a lot of oak.  Mostly these are white wines, with few red wine options.  Jam Jar serves to address this intrepid wine audience by giving them a varietal red wine that is balanced with acidity while being a whole lot of fun as a quaffer that can pair with a burger or stand-alone.

My Mom would love Jam Jar.  My wife tried it and gave it thumbs up.  Neither of these self-identified wine drinkers deserves ridicule.

If I were a betting man, I would guess Jam Jar has a bright future as a wine that hits a niche at the right time in the right way.

No less a wine enthusiast than Thomas Jefferson said, “Honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom.”  Jam Jar Shiraz calls itself, “simple, pure and honest.”

Taken together that honesty is a lesson (and wisdom) some wine enthusiasts could learn, as well.


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Locapour and Geo-targeted Marketing

The micro-trend of being a “locapour” – a derivative of being a “locavore” meaning to advocate and practice drinking wine from close geographical proximity—is about as difficult of a commercial trend to execute as they come.  It’s close to (but not quite as difficult) as a nascent winery relying on three-tier distribution for growth.  Yet, in between conflicting market trends, wineries still need to divine a path to grow their business.

Enter Direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales, available in some form in 33 states.

Now, of course, DTC isn’t anything new, but given the economy in the last year and a half, it seems as if wineries are paying more heed to direct consumer engagement with dedicated focus and planning.

According to news reports from the well-attended Direct-to-Consumer wine conference that took place in Santa Rosa this week, alongside continued froth over the importance of social media, another bright, shiny object was added to the “must-do” list – mobile.

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While these types of marketing strategies can work, I have a hard time reconciling the “me-too” nature of following the flavor du jour.

Can it really be that last year’s winery “must-do” of having a Twitter and Facebook account along with video will now evolve to the “must-have” of an iPhone application?

It’s no wonder wineries are in a constant state of dizzying disarray when it comes to marketing.

I’m not a winery marketing consultant, but if I were I would be advocating a Led Zeppelin-like, “In through the Out Door” strategy instead of running with the pack … more salmon swimming upstream than a Lemming running off the cliff.

Specifically, If I said: “Come up with a marketing solution for penetrating a specific geographical market for Direct-to-Consumer sales, leveraging video assets you’re already doing for your winery while trying to actually sell wine, and do so in a 90 day time period,” what would you come up with?

Personally speaking, I would learn to love local TV.  I would ride the balance between creating a local presence while also moving faster than the slow burn that is a Twitter following.

If a fleece blanket with arm holes (the Snuggie™) can become a pop culture phenomenon there might be something to low budget TV advertising.

In addition, if there is enough room in the online market for at least five online wine-a-day direct response companies like the very reputable Wine Spies to sell on behalf of wineries, there might be room for direct response in a different execution.

In fact, there might be something to the extent that a national campaign for beer trades on this type of phenomenon – witness the ubiqitious Bud Light “Tailgate Approved” campaign this fall – which is earnest and falls just short of irony, while actually creating mindshare and selling products.

Every television market in the country has a recognizable local cast of characters in the form of auto dealerships, hot tub manufacturers, residential realtors and punctual plumbers.  These local “personalities” are always exuberant, mildly cheeky and definitely memorable in an endearing way. 

There’s nary a reason that a winery couldn’t pick a specific TV market, come up with several low budget commercials, and blanket the area with fun, kitschy ads that drive viewers to their web site.  If customers happen to buy wine, well, all the better and kind of the point ...

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In fact, this national / local approach is, in its own right, a burgeoning trend.

A small business services company called MicroBilt has deployed two ace videographers to do free local-style commercials based on nominations that can be made via the web site, http://www.ilovelocalcommercials.com.

It’s a brilliant idea and their work is brilliant. Acorn Winery in Healdsburg has been nominated for a commercial, as well as several other wineries across the country.

Here’s the other dirty little secret about local TV advertising – we’ve been conditioned to think that TV advertising is too expensive.  Super Bowl commercials cost $3 million dollars.  But, the reality is that buying in local markets is pretty affordable and made more affordable by the week with the declining traditional media advertising market (see also:  “I need a Facebook Fan Page”).

In sum, my overall point is I wish wineries would think specifically and creatively about driving business.  If a winery is serious about ramping up direct-to-consumer sales there are specific factors that go into success – 1) focus 2) focus 3) focus.

Social media and many Internet strategies don’t lend themselves to focus (geographical or otherwise), nor do they lend themselves to specifically moving the sales needle.  But, we all love local messages and we can all name a local TV commercial.

It’s something to think about.  With trends moving local and wineries needing to sell wine in ways beyond the tasting room and distribution, the answer may be in identifying markets one-by-one and joining the coterie of zaniness that is local TV advertising.

The below links are resources for more information:

F.A.Q on Television Advertising

Spotrunner for local TV media buys

Wine Institute Guidelines for Advertising


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