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In through the Out Door with Tim Hanni

I’m convinced that Tim Hanni, the first American Master of Wine, now turned wine industry Provocateur General, is a teensy bit of marketing moxie away from radically changing the status quo in regards to how we view, review and consume wine in the U.S.

In everyday terms, his proverbial house is fit and structurally sound, but needs some curb appeal, maybe a fresh coat of paint and some blooming flowers.

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This fact is in plain sight to me, even if it’s not to most.  Spend any amount of time with him and you realize that his ideas regarding understanding palate preferences (not to mention food and wine pairing) are grounded, smart, pragmatic and, most importantly, needed.

Unfortunately, they fly in the face of prevailing wine wisdom.

And, in contrast to Gary Vaynerchuk, who carries a similar populist, “understand and trust your palate” torch, but a much bigger platform with attendant distractions, Hanni has the measured bona fides, absent the marketing acumen and mini-mogul status.

You wish they could change places for a week (or three).

In a global wine industry that markets almost entirely to a small set of educated customers while forsaking the engine of volume (the reasonably uneducated wine consumer), Hanni shines a light on that contradiction and indicates that, yes, “The wine business has it backwards.”

In doing so, Hanni is also the subject of journalistic affronts that glance surface deep without seeing an underlying intent – an intent that is obscured by his own tangential thinking that leaves holes in his message causing a general bewilderment.

One recent wine writer, after taking a third-party article completely out of its subtext, similar to watching “Waiting for Godot” as performed by the cast of “Rent,” went so far as to suggest that Hanni was disingenuous in at least one of his advocacy projects for general consumer wine empowerment while intimating that his approach had its own self-interested motivation.

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Harrumph.

Similar to Clark Smith and Fred Franzia in a “devil may care” against-the-grain approach to skewering sacred cows, Hanni focuses on the consumer side of the equation whereas Smith focuses on technology and Franzia focuses on the economies of wine from ground to shelf. 

All of them dress their message in a communicative format that is ill-suited for a broader platform of understanding and acceptance, regardless of inherent truth.

Hanni, in particular, interviews on a plane of consciousness that is 40 IQ points higher than his interviewer; his seemingly self-written press releases from his various business interests are difficult to parse with no nugget to grasp onto as an angle and the web sites for the same business interests look like Stevie Wonder grabbed a box of crayolas.

Despite this, there’s a lot to like regarding his twin passions:

1)  The element of umami as an integral bridge between food and wine pairing, opening pairings possibilities

2)  Understanding what kind of palate you have in order to understand an inherent wine profile

The cause for my examination of Hanni and his work is likewise two-fold:

1)  I’m investigating an agricultural fertilizer/fungicide/pesticide that is 30% glutamic acid trying to determine if anybody can substantiate that when sprayed on wine vines there is uptake that can affect grapes – principally red wine grapes that offer an inexplicable lip-smacking quality. On a sidenote, this would make a great Master’s thesis instead of blog research, and I’ll probably never get straight answers.  Hanni is something of the wine / umami expert so I’ve been following his work on the subject.

2) I saw a hackneyed press release for the Consumer Wine Awards organized by Hanni and others.  The results are nothing if not eyebrow arching – using an opt-in consumer panel of self-professed regular consumers of wine, the top three wines were technically sweet wines with a Barefoot Moscato leading the way with a score of “97.” Meanwhile, one of my favorite value wines, the Toad Hollow unoaked Chardonnay barely made the medal cut with a score of 80.  Robert Parker perennially scores the Toad Hollow in the 90-91 range, which is about right in my opinion.

Hanni’s point with the consumer wine awards (with eye opening scores for sweet wines) isn’t to do a Three Stooges eye poke with the conventional wine industry, but instead isolate the fact that modern wine marketing focuses on a consumer whose palate isn’t necessarily broad-reaching coupled with an over-emphasis on critical acclaim, whose collective palate similarly eschews wines that appeal to a “regular” palate, a palate that, in many cases, likes sweet wine.

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As a substantiation of his hypothesis, Hanni has devised a tasting questionnaire called the, “Tasting Budometer” that takes consumer palate preferences around coffee, use of salt and wine drinking in order to classify palates and make recommendations based on current consumption habits.  His methodology then classifies palates into four categories.  By understanding and classifying palate preferences we can then understand that one man’s Parker is another man’s Dan Berger and the translation to understanding who is making recommendations becomes much easier, with an inevitable rise of a peer, consumer class for sweet wines.

It just all makes sense if you can wade through the pseudo-science, backdoor logic and the Brady Bunch popcorn trail from beginning to end.

All of this isn’t intended to be a wet kiss for Tim Hanni.  What I am saying, however, is Hanni’s ideas are good, they are well-founded, they are smart and they need some marketing in order to be packaged into a message that can find a broad audience. Oh, the irony, huh?  In navigating widespread misperceptions about his ideas while he tries to isolate and point out that the wine industry’s conventional wisdom and marketing are askew in order to find a bigger audience, I’m saying Hanni needs to refine his message in order for it to find a bigger audience.

The net-net is, bad marketing notwithstanding, Tim Hanni has a problem with the wine business and is reaching out to consumers. Meanwhile, the wine business has a problem with consumers. The problem is, you see, Hanni and the wine business need each other and neither is willing to admit it.


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By Analogy:  The Sales and Marketing Paradox

Did you hear the one about an advertising guy, a PR guy, a social media guy, a sales guy and a marketing guy that went to a wine party full of beautiful women?
 
The advertising guy shouts across the room and exclaims that he is the world’s most knowledgeable wine expert.  The PR guy spends the evening telling the same story over and over to anybody who would listen.  The social marketing guy runs figure eights amongst the crowd caring and sharing so he was top of mind to as many women as possible at the end of the night.  The sales guy works the room by sidling up to each woman one by one exclaiming his knowledge and charm.  The marketing guy stays back, mentally divides the room in between prospects and suspects, divides the prospect list in half again by blonde and brunette, identifies his target, brings her a glass of the red she’d been drinking all night and says “Hello, I’d like to get to know you better” before eventually introducing his new acquaintance to the sales guy who went home a happy man.

Of course, this example is an exaggeration for effect, but it’s not too far from the truth of the various aspects of creating winery awareness.  And, while it’s fashionable to criticize winery marketing acumen (or the lack of), the reality is that the wine industry is a microcosm of the U.S. marketplace, a commerce landscape that is principally driven by small-to-medium size businesses that are in a perpetual state of figuring out what works from a marketing perspective with limited budget and focus.

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Put another way, it’s a lot easier to be the advertising, PR, social media or sales guy than it is to be a skilled marketer.

The cold hard truth is that most small businesses (and I’ve worked in enough to know) get two things done reasonably well – the business of whatever they produce and the sales thereof.  Marketing?  Eh, not so much.

It’s interesting then (and not completely surprising) that a recent discussion forum at the professional networking site LinkedIN generated over 1100 responses to the simple question, “Do you think marketing and sales differ or both are same thing.”

Think about that for a second.  Over 1100 people in one small discussion group felt compelled to weigh in on the simplest of business fundamentals, many with head-scratching answers that sliced right like a duffer’s tee shot on a par 5, indeed belying the notion that marketing is somehow simple.

And, given that social media is the source of so much conversation, puffery and derision and potentially seen as a panacea to marketing problems, I thought it might be interesting to excerpt some of the marketing analogies that resulted from the LinkedIN discussion (and personified based on the comment type):

The Pseudo-sexual
Marketing is the shaft, sales is the tip of the sword. If the two don’t work together, penetration will not be as effective.

The Cinematic
Sales folks are the actors; marketing folks are the script writers.

The Simpleton
Marketing opens the door and sales close it.

The Sweater Vest
Sales without marketing, is like digging a well every day for a glass of water.

The Dreamer
Marketing should be responsible for creating a possibility. Sales is there to make it real.

The General
Marketing represents the “air war” that softens the target from a distance and enables the ground troops to enter the territory with less resistance.

Sales represents your “ground war.” Your marketing efforts have softened the defenses, but now you must go in “belly-to-belly” to capture each prospect, close them on your proposition, and convert them into loyal clients.

The Carhartt Customer
What farming is to harvest, marketing is to sales. Sale is the ultimate fruit of the efforts of marketing.

The Nihilist
Marketing is there to find the target , Get the gun, load the gun, set up the target, aim the gun at the target, and hand the gun to sales.  Sales pulls the trigger.

The Jr. Marketer
Marketing is getting the mouse to notice the cheese. Sales is getting the mouse to take the cheese.

The Glengarry Real Estate Veteran
Every business activity that makes the phone ring is marketing.  From that point on its sales.

The Book Writer
You market an orchard.  You sell a bushel of apples.

The Pragmatist
Sales is what have you done for me today, Marketing is about what you’ll do for me tomorrow.

The Gamer
Marketing is Chess. Sales is Checkers.

The Professor
Sales is the push, Marketing is the pull.

Ironically enough, the quote that I didn’t include, the quote that is the most salient to the wine business these days, particularly with assaults on wine shipping, a three-tier system that is effectively closed off and downward pressure on price points, is a real life quote from “The Management Guru.”  Peter Drucker said, “The aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous.”

For the continued development of the domestic wine business, let’s hope that wineries start to market with enough vigor to make selling superfluous.  It would solve a lot of problems, no joke.


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Change is Afoot at the American Wine Society

Funny thing about wine enthusiasm: the tug to gather together around the good grape is ever present regardless of technological communication advances.

Yet, the oldest wine enthusiast organization in the country, the American Wine Society (AWS), isn’t taking the rapid change wrought by the internet lying down.

In January, I wrote about my observations as a short-term member of the American Wine Society. I noted the aging membership base, the lack of value for the membership monies and the difficulty in piercing the veil that cloaked inclusion.

It wasn’t a piece in which I pulled punches for the sake of politeness.

I also suggested that AWS’ priorities were misaligned regarding how they spent their budget, not to mention the fact that they are running at a deficit. 

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Based on my review of the profit and loss statement, there has been too little money spent engaging in online activities, where the next generation of their potential membership base scratch their wine enthusiasm itch.  Secondarily, their annual conference hasn’t been breaking even financially.

Flash forward a couple of months, and much of what I observed was validated by the organizational changes that are occurring with the American Wine Society on the watch of Willis Parker, volunteer President.

According to a member memo from Parker, the American Wine Society closed the Lawrenceville, GA headquarters of the organization, and released the staff, including the full-time Executive Director.

Parker and I spoke this past week about the changes and the need for a new direction forward for AWS.  In a long conversation that covered a lot of ground, Parker noted several things:

• Fiscal responsibility was of paramount concern

• Another longtime AWS member, John Hames, would assume the Executive Director role through the balance of 2010

• Hames’ role isn’t to remake the organization, the Board of Directors will shape the charter going forward

• AWS is carefully looking at getting membership moving in the right direction – growing and younger

• They understand that they are competing against “free” related to self-organization of wine enthusiasts online and have to offer a compelling, competing value

• There are no sacred cows in terms of legacy and direction forward

• The Wine Judging Certificate will likely be remade and available at least partially online

For me, the American Wine Society is a unique encapsulation of what many businesses and services are experiencing these days– how do you address rapid technological change that alters the fundamental premise of how people do something that is intrinsic to the human condition—connect and share around common interests.

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In talking about wine and fellowship, in a moment of weakness that undermined my conversation with Parker under journalistic intent, I agreed to assist the American Wine Society on their path forward.
In my estimation, the AWS challenge isn’t as difficult as one might think, and the opportunity is based precisely on that need for connection.  The American Wine Society simply needs to:

• Significantly increase their online presence in order to build mindshare amongst wine enthusiasts

• Radically increase their partnership marketing with other wine / consumer resources

• Provided a value that exceeds expectations for the $62 annual membership (free magazine subscriptions, books, other desirable educational value and/or perks from partnership marketing)

• Deploy a unique hook that isn’t duplicated elsewhere (the Wine Judging Cert. is a good place to start)

• Create a turnkey program for building chapters and chapter activities that are conducted offline

If they can do the above, effectively blend the online with the offline, while getting younger and hipper, stanching the bleeding in membership, they’ll have a fair shot at building on their existing 40 + year history.

Near the end of our conversation, Parker asked me about my background and my relationship with wine.  I noted that wine blogging was a tremendous creative outlet for me, but the one thing that I enjoyed most about the online wine scene and writing were the friendships that I have made with like-minded people all over the country.

In an ironic moment, that brought our conversation to a close, Parker noted that 35 years ago that was what drew him to the American Wine Society.

As times change, the challenge for the American Wine Society in moving forward is marrying those two realities together, allowing the AWS to age gracefully like a fine wine while incorporating the vibrancy of youthfulness.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Flying the Bird for Freedom Edition

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

Taking the Fight into the Street:  HR 5034

By now, you have probably heard of HR 5034, the Stalinesque, protectionist, anti-wine shipping bill that was introduced in the House of Representatives last week. 

Cough, cough. 

As if anybody who follows wine online could possibly miss it. 

On Sunday, I Googled “HR 5034” and about 6500 results were returned.  Today, Wednesday, I Googled it and there were 444,000 results.

That’s what you call “viral.”

And, I was pleased to see that the major wine associations came out with coordinated announcements denouncing the bill, as well – just as Tom Wark, the white hat Don of wine shipping rights, suggested.  Good stuff.

These punk National Beer Wholesalers have officially brought a knife to a gun fight.

A brief mea culpa, too.  I’m guilty of writing a recent post where I said that advocacy on winery shipping issues was a bit of windmill chasing until wineries fomented a significant movement that supported the advocacy with commensurate action.  That is a valid opinion until a nefarious bill is introduced by the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) that proposes to cut the head off the wine shipping snake with partisan politics.

Ironically enough, in the 444,000 results on Google related to HR 5034, do you know who is scarcely represented?  The craft beer movement.  It’s a weird quirk.  I contacted the PR contact for the NWBA asking for comment and have neglected to receive a response.  I have to believe that there is no way they anticipated the wine counter-movement that has taken place.

My hope expectation is this bill will be stopped in its tracks, largely due to the coalition of wine lovers that have united online.

This alignment in disdain for HR 5034 got me thinking – I write all the time, what possibly could I add to the HR 5034 conversation that hasn’t already been said?  I came up empty, but then I realized that an issue of this magnitude required a level of commitment that exceeded mere words.

I’ve decided to ink my body in protest.  Below is the tattoo that I got yesterday.

Instead of writing a lengthy post about the mechanics of lobbyists, campaign donations, paybacks and B.S. bills attempting to become law, I decided to get a tattoo that takes my level of commitment to another level.

Let me know what you think.

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* FTC Disclosure statement: The tattoo is sponsored by Wrecking Balm Tattoo removal system

Toot, Toot

Thanks to the good folks at Snooth, as well.  In their wisdom (or lack of it), they ran an interview with me today and allowed me to pontificate on all sorts of fun things – value wines, wine for beginners, my deathbed wine and other bits of wine conversation.  Check it out here. 


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Green and the Winery Kumbaya

Thursday is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, a notable celebration if for no other reason than its duration in the public consciousness, started as an environmental awareness tool and so-named by suggestion from marketers.  And, while much continues to be said about the continued need for sustainable practices from businesses as stewards of green principles, signs point to the accountability rolling down hill to consumers.

Last week, wine writer and blogger Steve Heimoff wrote a blog post called, “Keen on Green?  The consumer isn’t, yet.”   It was a lucid post in which he detailed his personal belief that what’s good for earth-friendly agriculture and business practices also happens to be good marketing schtick, regardless of whether there’s a receptive audience to receive that message.

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Heimoff’s takeaway point was, “…however true or effective green practices are, from a marketing point of view the ‘So What?’ factor currently dominates.”

He’s not alone in this perspective, at least as it relates to wine.  Last month, an environmental economist from UCLA published a study that suggested that wine with an organic denotation on the bottle had a 7% lower price than conventional wines from a similar peer grouping with no organic labeling, regardless of what was in the bottle.

Elsewhere, Advertisingage.com notes in an article called, “Marketers Blame the Consumer in New Save-the-Planet Pitches:  Focus Shifts from What Companies are Doing Right to What People Who Buy Their Products Are Doing Wrong” that the real market makers in consumerism – large marketers—are increasingly turning the tables in their consumer messaging and focusing not on their own practices, but what consumers should be doing in a sort of joint advocacy program with the brand(s). 

Citing several marketing campaign examples, the article notes:

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Green marketing “used to be more about the journey [companies] were taking,” said Adam Werbach, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi’s sustainability practice and former Sierra Club CEO who was instrumental in spurring Walmart Stores’ sustainability efforts.  “Now it’s more about taking the journey along with the consumer.  I think it’s generally a very good trend.”

The article continues and quotes Jan Valentic the chief sustainability officer at Scotts Mircle-Gro:

“I actually think it’s part of companies’ responsibilities to educate consumers on how they can incorporate more sustainable practices into their everyday life,” she said.  “I liken it to some of the beer manufacturers educating people on responsible drinking and having designated drivers.”

Part of the reason marketers are shifting the focus to consumer behavior is that they’re increasingly armed with data showing this is where the biggest opportunity for improvement truly lies.

Adam Werbach’s coy quote in Advertising Age is particularly interesting because he is something of the “green” guru for Walmart.  He is also the sage author of Strategy for Sustainability and leader of the “Blue Movement,” a groundswell that seeks to unite consumers in large-scale change, noting in his seminal speech introducing the concept:

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I ask you to consider joining me in building a movement that goes beyond the political to the personal, that views the existential threat of global warming as a chance to change the way we treat ourselves and the planet, that aspires to have one billion active participants across the earth. Tonight I’ll contend that we need to invest more time in making a difference through our routine activities and the things we buy every day. To achieve this we need a broader platform than green.

In a document at the Saatchi and Saatchi site for the Blue Movement, they note:

Shopping is one of the ways Americans express their community and political beliefs.  Wal-Mart and Target are community centers to most Americans.  Grey’s Anatomy and American Idol are the periodicals of an entertainment-driven culture.  In this context, the question for social progress advocates should be:  how do we employ these new venues to achieve our goals?

Since consumer behavior is driven most effectively through media, our effort is to provide a set of metrics and processes that those seeking to reach consumers can use to engage them in a set of behaviors that drive personal behavioral change, helping to form a society in which we all want to live.

In a separate, but related topic, last week I wrote a post about a significant marketing trend in which brands are acting as value-added service providers to consumers in acting as a concierge of sorts, or “Brand Butlers” as the trend research report put it.

These three large-scale trends – green, consumer accountability in green practices and brand concierges all point to a need for the wine industry to pay attention to not just their sustainable practices, looking at their business backwards while using it as marketing fodder in the message forward, but also their position in collaboration with consumers.

It’s not enough to be green yourself.  It’s not enough to get your message out about green.  Brands are being asked to be friendly mentors and follow the “show me, don’t tell me” axiom.

In the era of marketing that manifests itself with an existential bent via social media, the message is becoming louder and clearer for wine brands on how they need to engage with consumers, from one of the great writers from the existential movement no less (Albert Camus), “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.  Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.  Just walk besides me and be my friend.” 

Confucius wasn’t an existentialist, but, indeed, we are living in interesting times. 


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