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Different News, a Single Reality

I sense that the progress made on winery direct shipping and the three-tier system has reached its crossroads—a preaching of the choir to respective constituents without broader implications (or action) for the dynamics at hand.

Five years after Granholm and much progress has been made.  Yet, the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association (WSWA) convention this week indicated that the three-tier is digging in, not conceding to progress, and certainly not submitting to the slightest notion that the three-tier system isn’t just an ideological struggle—it’s a survival struggle for thousands and thousands of domestic wineries.

Put another way, in political terms, there isn’t any, “Reaching across the aisle.”

See the transcript from WSWA President Craig Wolf’s speech this week.

That reality is that there isn’t a single person in the wine business that is a proponent of dismantling the three-tier system.  None.  No, instead, it’s just the simple notion of access to market—where access is currently unavailable or unwieldy.

Yet, while winery shipping advocates are doing noble work, the time is nigh for a functional evolution from spreading the message to implementing action.

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Over the course of the last two days, two pieces of news, while not connected, highlight this all-important point.

First, Wines & Vines magazine reports that the number of wineries in the U.S. has topped 7,000 with almost 30% growth in number since 2005.  California represents an increase of 670 wineries in that same period.

Yet, 76% of these wineries are categorized as producing under 5,000 cases of wine a year – the area that is most impacted by an inability to secure distribution.

In a stunning statistic that bears frequent repeating, according to Wines & Vines: 6% of wineries produce 93% of all wine by volume.  If you look at that from 180 degrees, 94% of wineries produce 7% of wine by volume.

While the WSWA wants to push rhetoric about the three-tier not being a broken system, the cold, hard facts indicate that this is as classic of a case of Main Street versus Wall Street as you’re likely ever going to see.  The sheer numbers indicate that this is akin to the conversation about Wal-Mart and the destruction of the family business. Period. 

Now, I understand the argument that many wineries start their business without a clear understanding of who and how they are going to sell their product within the constraints of the current system, and that there are more domestic wineries than there is market to support them, yet I still can’t get beyond the fact that not only is the three-tier system an artifact of a different era that requires evolution in philosophy if not application, but it’s also a system that is governed by dollars and cents instead of sense.

In a separate news release, winery trade association WineAmerica announced an advancement of an alliance with shipping compliance company ShipCompliant, offering turnkey registration and management of compliance needs for direct shipping in 32 states, called “Easywinelicensing.”

Much of the debate on the three-tier system versus wineries consists of a requested support for advocacy by various groups.  While noble and helpful, the revolution has to start within the winery community itself, one winery at a time. 

By analogy (and pardon the indelicate nature of said analogy), if you have cancer you’re sure as hell not writing checks to the American Cancer Society to support research and advocacy, you’re getting treatment for yourself to get better.

94% of the wineries that produce 7% of wine by volume need to treat themselves like a sick patient, which is certainly more important than supporting advocacy that appears to be at loggerheads. 

While not inexpensive, I can’t imagine a better investment than a small winery stepping up to the plate to secure ease of paperwork administration and compliance by using ShipCompliant for direct-to-consumer sales and then heading over to Inertia Beverage Group for access to market for direct-to-trade sales.

The reality is that without individual progress that marks itself as a broad movement for direct-to-consumer and direct-to-trade sales, and use of the tools for wineries to heal themselves, all of the advocacy in the world isn’t going to matter.

Only when the WSWA and the three-tier system see a fomenting movement that makes up a collective whole that requires them to sit-up, take notice and amend a system that is currently predicated on preservation instead of progress will we see real change.

And, while, we’ve all been drinking in a lot of hot air from all points, I prefer something that sits in my glass.


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Want the Real Skinny on a Wine?

I recently heard a heartwarming tale of a father who made up a thrilling story of bravery and heroism for his son every night for years, each night adding a little bit to the same premise, extending the narrative for days upon weeks upon years until eventually the boy outgrew the charm and ‘The Story’ faded from daily tradition into family lore, waiting to become legend.

Unfortunately, this post has nothing to do with a fanciful story of optimism built chapter by chapter, sounding like a Mitch Albom plot outline—unless stream of consciousness can carry an ISBN number.

No, instead, I want to juxtapose the warm fuzzies against the story of wine criticism, which operates in a bizarro alternate universe to our do-gooding Dad story.

Every day, someone, somewhere, is committing thought, energy and tap-taps on the keyboard in examining the state of wine criticism, both historically and in its current form, sometimes extending the narrative, sometimes not.  Amateurs versus professionals, blind versus non-blind, points versus non-points, all of it is open season.  What is certain in this verbal jousting on the simple act of examining a wine is that little is left to the imagination; it’s a coarse nude shot when a little cheesecake would do just fine.

Frankly, the examination of wine criticism induces somnambulistic slumber akin to reading the healthcare bill.

My recommendation as an alternative to the onanistic pursuit of wine evaluation and those that proffer opinion on viability of said criticism?  Drink and analyze wine only in the company of friends and food and read criticism only from those who analyze wine in the company of friends and food.

You want good stories as a result?  You’ll get good stories.  And, some laughs, too, absent a natural conversation starter.

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I recently joined David Honig, Publisher of Palate Press, and Louis Calli, a retail wine buyer, for a Napa tasting.

The line-up was a nice representative sample of Napa Cabernets across price points, and they were, indeed, all samples sent by the wineries.

What truly was interesting about the tasting is the running commentary that is at least as equally interesting as the wine analysis—particularly when many of the wines don’t have an evident story, more on that in a second, though.

We tasted through:

2006 Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.2 / SRP: $27

2006 V. Sattui Preston Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet ABV: 14.6% / SRP: $45

2005 Swanson Vineyards “Alexis” Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.8% / SRP: $75

2006 Wallis Family Estate “Diamond Mountain” Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.6% / SRP: $85

2005 Hunter III Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.5% / SRP: $50

2006 Bennett Lane Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.5% / SRP: $55

2006 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon ABV: 14.5% / SRP: $59

For me, all of the wines were nice, each representing something positive, as if that’s not faint praise.  The V. Sattui was very approachable; the Hunter III was interesting and compelling with something funky going on with the nose that reminded me of bilge water, in a good way.  The Bennett Lane was a superstar.  Cornerstone is an exemplary wine, and the one that Louis deemed “worth $100,” which is ironic given that it doesn’t cost $100 anymore.  The Louis Martini was dark and complex, a hint of candied sweetness and a touch of heat marring an otherwise dandy wine.

The wines were generally fantastic.

But, more fantastic was the conversation, which stands in for legitimate criticism and evidentiary marketing from the winery that indicates any type of story or hook.

Absent a story, I learned:

• Sometime in the last 10 to 15 years MSG variants were legalized for spraying in vineyards.  Come to find out that there is/was a semi-controversial product on the market called AuxiGrow that is about 1/3 L-glutamic acid, the “G” in MSG (thanks also to Thomas Pellechia for helping me with some independent insight on this).  Perhaps, a reason that California wines have taken a turn for the savory over the same period.

• Maple and brown sugar Life cereal is a good product for Cali Cabernet palate training.

• Fruit Loops are a good product for Central Coast Viognier palate training

Wine Notes is a good iPhone wine app.

Here’s the thing about the wine tasting amongst friends and food.  All of the running commentary and analysis of the wine would be made more interesting if there was a back-story to the wine, which was otherwise absent in all of the marketing materials that accompanied the wines.

In the business bestseller “Made to Stick” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, they examine the reasons that some ideas “stick” in our consciousness and others miss.  The book itself is a can’t miss and outlines six steps to making an idea “sticky”:

• Simple
• Unexpected
• Concrete
• Credible
• Emotional
• Story

None of the wines demonstrated a story that indicated anything approximating a “sticky idea.”  And, irony of ironies:  My takeaways from the tasting were about simple thoughts conveyed cleanly – “sticky” ideas:  cereal palate training, MSG and wine and on and on.

The state of wine criticism, from all corners of seers and naysayers is in a state of disarray.  With discernible quality hitting the $15 mark, imports bringing to bear economies that can’t be equaled from domestic wines and wine criticism coming from every corner, the story is all wineries have.  Ultimately, the question of, “why should I care” isn’t a question about a rating or a score, but rather, about the hook that makes me interested – a story that builds on itself chapter by chapter.


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Hello Kitty and Wine:  It Means Nothing and Everything

As my four nieces opened their Easter baskets (which include Hello Kitty Jelly Belly Jelly Beans), my thoughts turned to the launch of Hello Kitty wine this past week, an event that drew scrutiny from many people for its puzzling marketing applicability without a tableau to place it into context.

In fact, apropos to ponderous wonderment, Dr. Vino conducted a poll on his web site in which he asked for reader feedback about whether Hello Kitty wine was marketing to kids.  19% said “yes” they are marketing to kids and 18% of the vote said, “I have no flippin’ idea who they are targeting but I’m strangely confused and disturbed!”

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Preschool backpacks and Easter jelly beans notwithstanding, Hello Kitty wine isn’t marketing to kids, at least not implicitly.

In fact, the source article on Hello Kitty wine from LA Weekly hints at the age-spanning phenomenon when it paraphrases Drew Hibbert from Innovations Spirits (the marketer for the Hello Kitty wine).  Author of the LA Weekly article, Gendy Alimurung, notes, “They see the Hello Kitty brand identity as being somewhat mature at this stage and open to all kinds of product interpretations.”

It’s exactly that notion of, “open to all kinds of product interpretations” that makes Hello Kitty wine a more interesting wine marketing story than your usual wine-related cause célèbre, celebrity wine or fleeting story of questionable interest.

And, the answers about the elusive appeal of Hello Kitty aren’t too far away, either.

Buying In

Coincidental to the launch of Hello Kitty wine, I’m in the middle of reading Buying In by Rob Walker. His 2008 book discusses the increasing meaning consumers are finding in brands as a proxy for symbolism that used to be filled by other things in our life.

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Buying In references (in lengthy, early passages in the book) the interesting cultural phenomenon that is Hello Kitty.

The book notes, in reference to Hello Kitty creator Sanrio, a developer and distributor of character-branded products:

“Sanrio has been in the “character goods” business since the 1960s.  By one count, its artists have dreamed up more than 450 cute little creatures.  The word ‘character’ is a little misleading.  The characters created by, for example, the Walt Disney Company or Marvel Entertainment first reach(es) the world through a comic book or a movie or television show.  They have attributes, personalities and backstories.  Sanrio’s characters (often animals) do not.  They first reach the world by being emblazoned on products.  Although they might be aesthetically charming, they are empty of specific meaning.”

A Sanrio designer, in 1974, created Hello Kitty (absent a mouth because she couldn’t design it in a ‘Cute Way’).  The designer, Yuko Shimizu, later said, “I felt the power of Hello Kitty … and felt that it could be used as a tool for communication between people.”

According to Buying In’s secondary research, Hello Kitty is not:

“ …like Snoopy or Mickey Mouse, a character who has engaged in memorable adventures or has developed a personality of any kind.  This is intentional.  We work very hard to avoid things that would define the character … the simplicity is what made people understand Hello Kitty …”

Quoting a cultural scholar, Walker highlights that the most compelling factor of Hello Kitty success is, “projectability.”

The book goes on to quote both the cultural scholar and a Sanrio representative who say:

“Hello Kitty’s blank ‘cryptic’ simplicity … is among her greatest strengths; standing for nothing.  She is waiting to be interpreted … without the mouth, it is easier for the person looking at Hello Kitty to project their feelings onto the character … the person can be happy or sad together with Hello Kitty …”

The analysis continues:

“Hello Kitty … is a mirror that reflects whatever image, desire, or fantasy an individual brings to it … what makes (Hello) Kitty so intriguing is that she projects entirely different meanings depending on the consumer … the cat is an icon that allows viewers to assign whatever meaning to her that they want …”

So, About that Hello Kitty Wine …

Hello Kitty wine, for me, is a very interesting case study-in-waiting.  The wine business is excellent at developing a back-story as a part of a brand – think any one of thousands of wineries.  Likewise, the business is also very good at manufacturing a brand that has arbitrary symbolism – think any one of hundreds of critter brands. 

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What the wine industry has no experience in whatsoever is a brand whose symbolism and meaning is based on “projectability” —the notion that users can use the wine as a prism to refract whatever they believe onto the wine drinking experience.

Wine is one of the most malleable of consumer products – it seemingly changes with every circumstance – light, mood, food, circumstance, etc.  It seems only fitting that a brand play into that mercurial notion as well.

So, in sum, I hope your takeaway is not that Hello Kitty is or isn’t appealing to youth; I hope the takeaway is that Hello Kitty might be the very first wine brand in which the experience of the brand is defined not by the winery and their creation story, or a brand manager, but rather the user whose interaction with Hello Kitty is unique to them, and by virtue of that, it’s unique to the world of wine, as well. 


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