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Focus on:  Mirror Wine Company

Launching what is now an annual, vigorous conversation amongst pro football pundits: “Who should be the first player selected in the NFL draft,” two quarterbacks with intermingling paths were chosen first and second in the 1993 NFL draft inciting the now annual speculation turned conversational sport from the football talking heads while in the process sparking a friendly and competitive personal journey of success that continues between the two to this day, now off the gridiron and in the wine industry. 

Drew Bledsoe, a prep quarterback from Walla, Walla before matriculating to nearby Washington State University, was the first selection in the ’93 NFL draft, chosen by the New England Patriots. 

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Rick Mirer, similarly, a local boy “done good” from Goshen, Indiana became a three-year starter for the University of Notre Dame, just a half-hour from home, before becoming the second selection in the same draft, chosen by the Seattle Seahawks.

This dual “degree of separation” story continued as Drew Bledsoe later was replaced as starting quarterback of the Patriots, infamously losing his job to injury and a young Tom Brady. Charlie Weis, who later went on to become the head football coach at Mirer’s alma mater, presided over the decision as the Patriots Offensive Coordinator.

Today, nearly 20 years later, after successful football careers that lasted more than a decade each, both quarterbacks are now making their mark not by eluding defensive end’s and throwing touchdowns, but by crafting high-end Cabernet.

Bledsoe and his Washington state wine project, Doubleback, has been featured in several media profiles recently.  Looking at the other half of this former NFL quarterback dynamic duo, the subject of my focus is Rick Mirer and his Mirror Wine Company, based in St. Helena, California.

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(On a personal and parenthetical note, having grown up in South Bend, IN, home to Notre Dame, as a lifelong fan now turned wine enthusiast, Mirer figures prominently in my collegiate memories—many a Saturday in the early 90s made better by a Notre Dame victory, including the legendary Snow Bowl game against Penn State in 1992 when, as a senior playing his last game at Notre Dame stadium, Mirer rallied the Fighting Irish to a 17-15 victory in the final seconds.)

Nearly a decade ago,  during a four year stretch from 2000-2003, a period of time in which Mirer played on both sides of the bay, spending two years with both the San Francisco 49’ers and the Oakland Raiders, his proximity to “wine country” sparked an interest in matters of the grape.  In particular, it was while he was with the Raiders that Mirer struck up a friendship with Jeff Smith, proprietor of Hourglass, the high-end Napa cab specialist, charting the beginning of his post-football career.

Already wine curious with a taste for California Cab, and having had discussions with Bledsoe about collaborating on a wine project, Mirer had his wine epiphany during a dinner at Tra Vigne, with an ’98 Hourglass and Smith’s company.

Mirer notes in an interview with Good Grape, “(Bledsoe and I) started thinking about doing something together maybe 10 years ago. There were lots of good ideas in those early talks. I believe the best idea of all was to have two separate programs that we can share and be proud of.  Walla Walla is home for him and he’s started something really cool there. I wanted to stay in (California) and (a) Napa (wine) was a perfect fit for me. So far so good.”

Following that Tra Vigne dinner and an introduction from Smith to winemaker Rob Lawson, former General Manager at Napa Wine Company during the influential and formative period in which cult Cabs like Colgin and Bryant come of age, Mirer would soon launch Mirror Wine Company so named at the suggestion of Lawson, and a phonetic coincidence to the oft-mis-pronounced way of saying “Mirer.”

Starting with the 2005 vintage, now sold out, Mirror is on the cusp of launching a Sauvignon Blanc to go alongside the Cabernet sourced from Oakville and St. Helena fruit.  A single vineyard from Howell Mountain will likely round out the wine offerings in the future with production anticipated to stay small, not exceeding 1200 cases or so.

Envisioned as an allocated offering, but more elastically available given the economy, Mirror is available in select states, mostly California with spot distribution in Illinois, Indiana, and New York.  I picked up my bottle at a wine shop in Mishawaka, Indiana, a stone’s throw from the campus at Notre Dame where Mirer is still a local legend.

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At $75 the ’06 Cabernet is a lush beauty in the cult Napa Cabernet tradition with a price tag that DOESN’T match.  Bargain hunters looking for velvety Napa Cabernet would do well to pick up the Mirror.  I do have some question about the ageability of this wine given the fact that it drinks like it’s at its peak right now with minimal decanting, but buyers who live for the moment will be triumphantly pleased like a touchdown strike to win the game.

Tasting Note: Opens with some dustiness, big blackberry, spice and dark chocolate on the nose before giving way to a lush, velvety smooth mid-palate.  Tastes like 72% cacao Ghirardelli chocolate bathed in Kirsch and crème de cassis liqueur, dashed with nutmeg with a menthol undertone.  Seamlessly balanced and structured with a silky, velvety smooth, rich character.  An impeccable wine and worth every penny of its $75—so good in fact, I bogarted pours to our guests while eating our Saturday night NY strips, unsure of their appreciation for this beauty. Score:  94/100


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Will Less Buying Choices Mean More Shopping Choices at Wine Retail?

In the realm of business bon mots the Cheshire Cat quote from Alice in Wonderland is an oft cited classic noting, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

That sums up the domestic wine business circa 2010–a snaked road of twists and turns near the perilous edge like a Sunday drive to parts unknown on the Pacific Coast Highway, at once beautifully majestic while being mere moments away from potentially driving off the cliff.

Perhaps that’s overly melodramatic, but not by much.

These days, for small wineries to succeed, it seems like it takes an iron will and stomach to match. 

If the old saying was, “It takes a lot of good beer to make great wine” the new saying might be, “It takes an antidepressant and Pepcid AC to make great wine.”

And, for all of the armchair quarterbacking that happens about what wineries should or shouldn’t be doing to expand their business, the reality is it’s very difficult to make strategic decisions in this business climate, for any company, in any industry.

In particular, for wineries to parse out current trends they have to sift through a morass of information at all levels of the business – production, direct-to-consumer, distribution and retail to glean a nugget of essential truth that makes sense, at least sense enough to use as a guiding light.

And, for the longest time the conversation has been focused on direct-to-consumer, distribution, and on-premise sales, but not retail, hardly ever wine retail, the domain of big brands, with some small bottle shops thrown in for good measure.

I’ve often thought that the wine business doesn’t have a distribution problem; it has a wine retail problem – as in not enough places to shop.  Simply, there aren’t enough niche wine shops.

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Some people may disagree based on their own geography and experiences, but living in the heartland, I can attest that most major metro areas in between the coasts are long on liquor stores and short on wine shops.

Big on Bud Light and vodka case stacks and light on wine.

Yet, we’re in the golden age of consumer interest in wine …

Simply, distributors are in the business of moving product from point A to point B.  If there were enough “point B’s” there would be distributors to sell to them and thus winery access problems would be solved, because at the end of the day it’s all about shelf space.

Fortunately, the expansion of shelf space may be nigh, even if it happens in an untraditional way.

Professionally, I’ve been privy to some “futures” trend analysis by a large consumer brand conglomerate (I think that’s sufficiently vague).  While the research trend data is proprietary, one of the scenarios, looking from the future backwards, like the classic business white paper, The Merlin Factor: Leadership and Strategic Intent, outlines one likely scenario that could occur over the next decade.

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The scenario outlines a future in which retailer’s value ideas from manufacturers and shoppers possess significant power and influence – i.e. “You better sell what I want to buy.”  This futures scenario could include significant retail innovation, personalized experiences, niche stores, completely new shopping formats and a dynamic in which the path to purchase is highly influenced as a counter to the weariness of the impersonal nature of online shopping.

Specifically, this future scenario could include:

Retailers innovate in order to “win” consumers by enabling them to get excited about the experience of live shopping again

Shopper-centric means more than customer service as concierge services enable an average consumer to have support at their beck and call (think Nordstrom at the small retail level)

Future shopper’s will live in an enveloping blanket of information making the physical experience of shopping an important counter to too much information

Shopping has transformed into an engaging and fun experience—one that places the interests, needs and desires of shoppers at the center of the business of retail, not selection

The takeaway from this “futures” analysis is four-fold – manufacturers and retailers innovate to serve the customer in new and dynamic ways.  “Niche and specialized” stores support general retailers in new ways, product information is omnipresent and retail service transcends satisfaction to become concierge-like.

And, while soothsayer analysis from an unnamed source is well and good, tangible evidence indicates much the same.

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A recent Marketplace report from American Public Radio notes:

Generally customers say they want more stuff to choose from, but what we know from observing how customers deal with products is that they’re actually are better off with less choices.

Better off because fewer choices mean customers spend less time searching and tend to be more satisfied with the final purchase.

The idea spread during the recession, when retailers were forced to scale back. Even mega-retailer Wal-Mart announced plans to eliminate some 15 percent of the items in its stores.

(Quoting Morgan Ward, a consumer behaviorist at the University of Texas) says the process of better understanding one’s customers pushed companies to go with their strengths, at a time when many retailers were trying to do too much.

WARD: If you’re a generalist, you really get lost in the crowd, oftentimes you’re not serving anyone that well, and so you’re not on any customers top three. So you’re K-Mart essentially, right; you didn’t figure out what your customers wanted and people slowly phased you out.

And it’s not just big-box stores who’ve gotten on board with the “less is more” idea …

So, the takeaway for me, from two seemingly disparate pieces of information is the fact that wine retail, currently undergoing a “wine bar” development phase, is due for a wine retail phase over the course of the next decade—due to the simple fact that right now the process of retail selection is broken: dominated by large retailers providing too much choice that isn’t coherently focused on the consumer, instead based on what can get to market with efficacy.

In doing so, I think it’s a very likely outcome that not only will wine retail shops develop in greater number all over the country, but they will specialize as well. 

Therefore, you may know what to shop for at your Target or the grocery store, but when you’re looking for a small production wine from Washington, or Oregon, or New York, you’ll also know where to go – a neighborhood wine shop that specializes in cool climate wines from the New World, for example.  Or, there’s just as likely to be another store that specializes in Old World wines from France and Italy which will be down the street from the store that focuses on wines from emerging regions like Argentina, Portugal, Spain and Chile. And, all of this means that small domestic wineries, who need a place to land, may also find the shelf space they are looking for, resolving the three-tier problem in the process.

Far fetched?  Maybe so, but a decade ago getting email on your phone was a novelty, too. 


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Voting is Now Open for the 2010 Wine Blog Awards

Its been a good week.  First, an Editor at Web100 let me know this site was ranked as the 30th best food and wine blog in a curated list and I found out that Good Grape is a finalist in two categories in the 2010 edition of the Wine Blog Awards.

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Certainly, while I’m happy to be a finalist in the categories of “Best Industry or Business Blog” and “Best Graphics, Photography or Presentation,” I’m mostly happy to be the *only* four-time finalist, adding that notch to my belt along with the two wins in the “Best Graphics” category in ‘07 and ‘09. 

I’m not sure why fickleness in not making the cut has come upon excellent blogs like the former Lenndevours in 2008, Dr. Vino in 2009 or Vinography this year, but I’m happy to carry the wine blogging “old school” torch and represent ...

And, I really, really would like to represent with a win that isn’t based on my blog design, which, while very nice, was also very paid for by my checkbook.  I do appreciate the fact that a professional presentation adds to trust in the writing, but my goal has never been to have the prettiest site, it has always been to write well about wine and the business of wine for wine enthusiasts with a beginning, a middle and an end (like an op-ed columnist) while chipping away at the lifestyle facade of wine marketing and to do so in a manner that abuts the quality of professional writers.

I’m getting there slowly, but surely, which might also play into the four-time finalist thing because slow and steady definitely wins the race.

Finally, I’m perpetually thankful to the readers and commenter’s on this site.  The process of researching and writing induces learning and I’ve learned as much in the past four years about wine and the wine business as the previous 10 years combined.

Back to the business at hand, there are a bunch of blogs in various categories that require your vote, so please do vote (here).  Vote for this site, vote for somebody else, but please vote and support wine blogging and thanks again for reading Good Grape:  A Wine Manifesto.


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News, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items – Miscellany Edition

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

Dot Wine

In December of last year I wrote two posts (here and here) that covered the hypothetical development of a new top-level domain for .wine.  The premise was that a benevolent and unified approach to winery data and subsequent ecommerce using a URL extension like .wine (example: http://www.wineryname.wine) was an important necessity for the growth of winery ecommerce, taming what is now an unruly and fragmented beast (and chaotically typical of the wine industry which is splendiferous in its iconoclasm).

Without overstating the fact, a .wine URL extension can be a game changer for the wine business provided that there is a level of collaboration amongst the industry for the purposes of unified usage – like having each winery’s ecommerce on the domain http://www.wineryname.wine.

This subject is timely because nobody “owns” the internet, especially domain names.  However, ICANN, which has traditionally administered domain names is now undertaking the process of permitting “sponsored” ownership of domain names.  Therefore, Coca-Cola could apply and secure .coke as a URL extension, using it for marketing and profit purposes, as one example.

Now, mind you, securing a “top-level domain” like .wine is an expensive undertaking full of red tape, making it predisposed to entrepreneurs with OPM (other people’s money) or large corporations, but the gist of my posts were to focus on the positive benefit of this for the entire industry.

While my writing and reflecting on this topic were largely in the vein of, “Somebody should do this,” I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find out that, yes, somebody is doing this.

DotVinum is a project based in France that does endeavor to create a .wine URL extension for what appears to be reasonably benevolent means.  The charter for the project, as presented on the DotVinum web site notes:

A .WINE LIKE A .COM - .WINE is the first level domain for amateurs, consumers and wine professionals. It is the domain name extension that brings together all the wine community on Internet.

CREATION OF THE WINE CULTURAL IDENTITY ON INTERNET,
FOCUS POINT FOR ALL THE WINE INDUSTRY PROFESSIONALS,
CROSS-ROADS FOR “WINE” ON INTERNET,
A REFERENCE FOR ALL.

The DotVinum project also notes that domain name extensions won’t be available until 2011, at the earliest.  I revisit this topic of a top-level domain for .wine because it bears watching and I stand by my assertion that winery ecommerce is still in its infancy with a need for order.  Dynamic innovation in wine-related, consumer-focused winery ecommerce with a special focus on ease of purchasing and shipping is still on the horizon as both a need and an opportunity.

Google Maps and Wine

Also in the technologically “geeky” category for the wine enthusiast is the recent announcement that Google Earth is now directly integrated into Google maps.  Want to check out the “terroir” of that wine?  Get an up close and personal view of vineyard terrain by going to google.com/maps and type in the address of your favorite vineyard and then click on “Earth” on the right hand side of your screen.

Taking a slightly different and more stylized twist on this is King Estate in Oregon.  They’ve combined some really nice illustration and interactivity with the Google technology to create a very well done tour of their property.  If you can’t physically be there, viewing this map feature is a very cool alternative.  You can see the map at this link.

Food Revolution

I’ve never met a single person that was serious about wine that also didn’t have a special interest in food.  Sometimes the foodies dabble in wine enthusiasm and sometimes the winos dabble as junior foodies, but regardless of which side you’re coming at it from, it’s manifest reality.  And, mostly, anybody interested in food also has a vested interest in ensuring that fast food doesn’t completely clog our path to the table.

With that in mind, if you missed Jamie Oliver’s reality-based docudrama on ABC this spring called Food Revolution, you’re in luck because the essence of that six-part show which acted as a healthy, real food, “get rid of the junk diet” manifesto is distilled down to about 20 minutes in a TED talk that can be found on YouTube.

I like TED because it takes big ideas and presents them in a consumable way for anybody with desire for knowledge.  Oliver’s talk is no different.  Check it out below. 


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Google and Wine Allocations Make Interesting Bedfellows

How does an allocated winery, with a superstar consulting winemaker, in a competitive environment, get more sign-ups for its allocated list? 

That’s the million dollar question, or, perhaps, it’s the $4-7 dollar question, which is around the cost of a click for the word “wine” from Google Adwords.

By way of background, I use web-based Gmail for my email.  The web interface for Gmail includes context-based advertising from Google Adwords.  Ads will show up when the contents of my email indicates a particular subject matter.  As you can imagine, on a daily and weekly basis I’m receiving and sending a great deal of email that contains the word, “wine.”  Interestingly enough, over the last several weeks, on at least a daily basis when I get an email with the word “wine” in it, I get a Google Adwords ad for Fantesca Chardonnay and their 2008 release of Heidi Barrett’s Chardonnay, her first for the winery where she’s had total control from grape to glass, and the only Chardonnay she makes as a consulting winemaker.  Interesting. 

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This is mostly interesting because Fantesca’s call-to-action once you click through to their web site isn’t to actually sell you a bottle of Chardonnay, at least not right now, it’s to get you to watch a video of Heidi talking about the Chardonnay and then sign-up for their allocated mailing list.  So, it’s not a call for a transaction, it’s a call to sign-up so you opt-in to communication, which presumably leads to a relationship with the winery over a period of time that will eventually consummate in a purchase—like trying to get to that elusive third date in a relationship, ahem. 

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Of course, in that allocated and shrouded in mystery kind of way, there is no pricing on the site for the Chardonnay.  So, a consumer is left to wonder and await an email for their presumed allocation offering of said wine, more on this in a second …

However, in regards to price, checking out wine-searcher.com, it looks like the ’07 (pre-Heidi Barrett total control) Chardonnay’s (two bottlings - one from Napa and one from Sonoma) go for somewhere in the $40 neighborhood, while the 2008 available at Wally’s in L.A. goes for $75 a bottle.

Hello superstar winemaker price increase!

Now, of course, you have to be a reasonably savvy marketer to figure this Adwords stuff out, but this really gets to the heart of a couple of things in the direct-to-consumer portion of the wine business:

How do you move pricing up and down the price ladder (having the cred. of Barrett helps you move up)

How do you grow an allocated list of members when your previous bottling is widely available at retail (i.e. how do you find them, if they’re not finding you – Google Adwords and contextual based advertising is one way)

What do you do to facilitate an opt-in to a mailing list that will turn into a relationship (what are they going to do with me now that I’ve signed up)

How do you measure customer acquisition costs and the lifetime value of a customer (do you measure your cost of acquisition versus purchasing habits to see if I’m a profitable customer?)

Now, while I’m guessing, I know I’m in the ballpark when I say the Google Adword cost for the word “wine” is somewhere around $4-$7 per click, maybe it’s a little higher, maybe it’s a little lower, but the point is I signed up for the allocated mailing list, as I’m sure a number of other people have, and the cost to Fantesca is slight, at least slight relative to the costs of having Heidi Barrett making your Chardonnay and slight compared to buying a list and doing traditional mailings and that sort of thing. 

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If a 1000 people sign-up at a cost of $6 per person and 10% of those people buy a bottle of wine at $75 per bottle, that math makes a lot of sense to me, especially if amortized over a couple of purchases and a bigger topline revenue number.  A customer acquisition cost of $6 if you can get me to buy two bottles of wine for $150 is ridiculously inexpensive.

There are a couple of flaws, however.  First, I’m in the camp that no Chardonnay is worth more than $30 to me, making a purchase unlikely.  Secondarily, while I know who Heidi Barrett is, the majority of other people who click on the link can’t be assumed to have similar awareness.  Finally, the process itself has gaps.  For example, after I signed up and opted in, the web site tells me that there is no offering in this allocation season.  However, I did get a follow-up email from Angela Duerr, who is their National Sales Manager, sent from her iPhone, asking me to let her know if she can help with an allocation.  Huh?

Despite these peccadilloes and a process map that hasn’t likely been thoroughly vetted for water tightness, this all strikes me as very smart marketing from a guy who isn’t a stranger to smart marketing.

For all of the hot air about social this and social that, at the end of the day, what every marketing tactic boils down to is execution and service.  Solid, point-to-point execution and satisfying service, which I believe Fantesca offers.

Fantesca owner Duane Hoff, also the originator of the cutting edge “Adopt a Grape” program a couple of years ago, wasn’t available for comment, but he did reply to my inquiry while on his vacation, another nice service touch.  I expect to catch up with him in a couple of weeks.

I’ll be curious to see if I can dig into the mechanics of the campaign and share some results.  The funny thing about online marketing is getting details on what works is difficult, and, well, if Hoff has figured out a way to increase the retail price of his wine by 90%, while finding customers in this climate, selling direct-to-consumer and not via distribution, then he has a future not as a winery owner, but as marketing consultant.


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