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Power of Suggestion:  The Knife that Cuts Both Ways

Summary:  An examination of Latitude Beverage Co. and their négociant label 90+ Cellars – a newer entrant in a wine business niche that has been successfully updated for modern times by Oriel Wines and Cameron Hughes wine.  90+ Cellars includes the marketing hook of sourcing wines that have scored at least 90+ points in previous vintages.

90+ Cellars founder Kevin Mehra might be a modern day P.T. Barnum, a new millennium consumer crusader like Ralph Nader, or, perhaps, a poor man’s Cameron Hughes, a serviceable if unoriginal knock-off of the man and company who reinvented the domestic negociant trade for modern times. 

It is perhaps ironic that the growth of his nascent business—Latitude Beverage Co.—creator of the wine label 90+ Cellars, is predicated on the latter, a Cameron Hughes-lite with a slight marketing hook. 

Unfortunately, rare is the time when a knock-off deserves a rooting interest, particularly when the differentiating marketing hook is something as polarizing as that alleged and mystical quality line of demarcation – a 90-point score.  Of course, that’s on top of a model that already has its detractors.  To quote top California winemaker David Ramey from a Wall Street Journal profile on Cameron Hughes, “A guy like Hughes has a business model that revolves around other people’s misfortunes.  He’s like a vulture feeding on carrion.” By that rational, a derivation of the Cameron Hughes model makes 90+ Cellars not a vulture feeding on carrion, but by analogy, more like the hot, “now you see them, now you don’t” boy band knock-off O-Town who fed on the leftover carcass of ‘tween female scraps created by the Backstreet Boys years ago.

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Quoting a 90+ Cellars company blog post from October of last year,90+ Cellars is just like Cameron Hughes’ Lot Series except that the wines Latitude Beverage purchases come with a ratings pedigree. While we don’t necessarily advocate buying wines based on their ratings (because everyone’s personal taste is different), we think only selecting wines that are well-structured enough to earn a 90+ rating in the first place is a great place to start.”

Started in early 2009 and located at Faneuil Hall in Boston, MA, a building with deep historical roots that has been co-opted for the tourist trade, Latitude Beverage Co. is doing much the same – trading on wines historical roots to those interested only enough to act as tourist in the wine aisle.

The business model, as indicated by the comparison to Cameron Hughes, is very much what you might expect from a négociant model in this period of economic distress.  Latitude Beverage Co. buys finished wine (in the states it’s through a broker, somebody like Turrentine or Ciatti Co., and internationally it’s directly with the winery) and labels it at a discount to the retail value of the wine that might have gone on the shelf if the source winery had bottled it.  In doing their sourcing, Latitude Beverage Co. looks for wines that have a pedigree of being scored 90-points or more, have “Best Buy” accolades or have won a gold medal at a wine competition.  According to a press release, Latitude “…sources only finished wines that have a pedigree of 90+ ratings.”

It’s that particular marketing spin on the 90+ point pedigree, or third-party accolades where the 90+ Cellars business starts to unravel, in my opinion – it stretches the boundaries of what is good marketing in a skeptical age and the transparency that fosters a “suspension of disbelief” with consumers.  90+ Cellars operate at the dangerous intersection where the positive power of suggestion, and its evil twin, “This is bunk marketing hooey” take hold.

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If the wine delivers, 90+ Cellars is a hero, and if not, they’re a goat; it’s a black and white equation based on expectation setting.

Cameron Hughes, largely has built a reputation for putting exceptional quality juice in the bottle and more than validating their price point, as validated by mainstream wine criticism.  Not so, I fear, with 90+ Cellars.

In reviewing four wines from 90+ Cellars, a California Pinot, a Spanish Garnacha, a Napa Merlot and an Australian Shiraz-Viognier, I found myself ponderously scratching my head after trying each.  Not bad wines, and, perhaps, even an arguable value based on their price, each under $16 a bottle, yet, by the same token I found nary a wine that came close to a threshold of quality that I would qualify as a 90-point wine.  I found myself muttering to myself, “Not bad, but they should have called it 83+ Cellars.”

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In an interview with Mehra, I sought some clarification on my initial impressions, wanting to believe that, perhaps, my palate was a tougher than most, my suspicious nature more keenly negative than the average consumer; the suspension of my disbelief would be overcome, could be overcome.

As it turns out, the business is not intentionally disingenuous, but nor does it deserve the sort of blind faith that is implicit in its labels’ name.

Consider the following:

90+ Cellars gives itself plenty of wiggle room by sourcing wine that has a lineage of a 90+ point score, “Best Buy” accolades or gold medals in competition.  However, the 90+ points isn’t related to current vintage, it’s naturally declassified if it’s on the bulk market, the consumer never knows the provenance by source winery name and 90+ cellars doesn’t submit their vintages to traditional critics for validation, instead relying on bloggers.

It is a lot of blind faith for a regular wine consumer, to say nothing of the perceptive.

In particular, most egregious to me is the fact that according to Mehra, they are not submitting the wines to traditional critics noting, “They can take 6 to 8 months to taste a wine and in many instances our wine is already gone. We like online wine bloggers much better (because) they aren’t biased to big name brands, taste quickly and get their information out much faster.”

What’s left unsaid by Mehra is the fact that wine bloggers are susceptible to the sway of free samples, often have a lack of insight into wine business models, are as easily swayed by marketing shtick as the consumers who read their sites, and they lack a penetrating influence that moves markets.

Quite simply, the quantity of good reviews from wine bloggers will likely outpace bad reviews and the bad reviews can be easily discounted.

Overall, it’s disappointing that a wine whose marketing is predicated on mainstream wine reviews doesn’t close the loop for wine reviews with the same mainstream critics.  In my opinion, the way forward for this wine business is to have their quality claims—natch—the name of the label, verified.

Live by the sword, die by the sword, that’s what I say.  Otherwise, Mehra and 90+ Cellars aren’t just merely Cameron Hughes-lite, it’s P.T. Barnum and his sideshow ...

Alas, a sucker may be born every minute, but I’m not one of them.


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A Letter from the Back Porch

Most days I try to write something that acts as a legitimate article or an op-ed piece – usually there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, mostly with a point, too and enough facts to make my case.  Today isn’t that day, though.  I have other things on my mind. 

I am traveling to Texas to see my Mom and Grandma at the end of this week and I’m excited about that.  My Grandma will be 102 this year and she’s still sharp enough to think the economy is headed for more trouble … I think Depression-era folk have an economic rader akin to divining for water … they know.  Thinking of my Grandma also reminds me of her sister-in-law, Virginia, the widow of one of my Grandma’s brothers, Glen, who passed in the early 90s.  Virginia occasionally writes letters to my wife and I – in longhand, of course.  I always feel bad because I have a hard time writing a birthday card anymore.  I am so used to typing.  My quid pro quo isn’t that great and I know I’ll be regretful at some point for not taking the time to return her gift in the form of my own letter, longer than a note card.

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Virginia’s letters are usually seven or eight pages, mostly non-sequitar remembrances of times gone by—an anecdote about my Grandpa, what a kind and generous man he was, how clever he was with inventing useful things, or my Grandma, what a cook she used to be, the best in the family.  Sometimes Virginia will note how happy she is that my Mom is in possession of a family antique that holds special memories, like the radio that acted as evening entertainment after supper.  I’m lucky if I make it through with dry eyes.  I reread them every now and again when I need to exorcise a burden that only tangential tears can relieve.

I saw some press last week about a new iPad application called the “Flipboard”—it takes all of the content from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, linked articles, photos and such, and turns it into a readable magazine of sorts.  Virginia doesn’t have this in mind when she tells me about my Grandma catching a chicken for supper, life’s riches didn’t cost much back then.

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Mostly, though, I have been thinking about the end of summer.  I’ve been talking about going to see my Mom since earlier this year when the end of July seemed like forever away.  We’ve all heard about seasonal affective disorder – the winter blues, right?  Is there such a thing as the summer blues?  The sadness that happens when you know the summer is getting ready to blow by you, before you even had a chance to say, “hello.”

It’s one of life’s cruel jokes – we spend January til May waiting for summer to get here and then it’s gone in a blink.

Here in the Midwest, you know August is coming furiously because corn and tomato’s are available on the side of the road, the suns’ intensity wanes in the afternoon sky, the locusts sing their symphony, the grass in the front yard starts to wither from its June greenery, football practice starts up and I count down the weekends till kick-off, trying hard not to forsake the glory of August because November will be here soon enough.

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Yet, there is an internal body clock that shifts with the seasons.  My fall cravings for a cheese plate with salumi, port wines and IPA beers happen subconsciously, and happened early this year, too; perhaps owing to the early spring we had, 80-degree temperatures through much of April.  This past weekend I bought a mixed six-pack of bruising IPA’s and stouts, and opened a bottle of Port, all without too much conscious thought; it’s happening – fall is around the corner and I have a bunch of Sauvignon Blanc to drink, not to mention the Rosé.

One good thing about this summer has been I have not been without ice cream.  Not at all.  My waistline and my scale verify that, as well.  I have my winter fat layer ready to go.  Perhaps that is part of the reason for the Port – that 9:00 pm sweets craving can be mollified with a finger of Port instead of a big bowl of ice cream.

I like to follow the grinders of the wine business, the folks that are passionate about wine without the gravitas to make the juice, working on the periphery instead, trying to make a mark.  I identify with people that start with not much and end with not much, despite the effort.  There’s a nobility in the struggle. 

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StemGrip is one company I’m going to profile in the near future, a device that holds your glassware upright in the dishwasher.  There’s always an interesting story in the development of a product.  My latest inspiration is trail mix for dessert wines.  Forget stinky wine cheeses.

Ports and dessert wines need a revolution – and the answer is …, well, the answer isn’t blue cheese.  Who eats a hunk of blue cheese at 9:00 pm at night at home, before going to bed?  Nobody, I tell ya.  No, instead, the world needs dessert wine trail mixes, a delicious mix with a sipper.

My fave dessert wines are the Quady Essensia and any 10 year Tawny Port.  To make a trail mix for the Essensia, or any non-Port style dessert wine, get some white chocolate baking chips, some vanilla almonds and unsalted cashews and mix that up with some dried chopped apricots, and peaches.  Add in anything else that sounds like a good complement. 

For the Tawny Port trail mix, Sandeman is nice, take toffee, butterscotch, and dark chocolate baking chips, mix in some dried blueberries, dried cherries, diced dried plums, maybe some cocoa roasted almonds and some unsalted cashews and nibble alongside a generously scant pour of the Port.

Heaven.

I’ve been going on too long, but I get that way when time is more of a function of operating between now and then, and not a milemarker to an unknown destination.  Love to you and yours and best wishes on the rest of the summer and travels to visit family.


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The Luxury Wine Story Framework:  A Cliffs’ Notes Version

It is no secret, and definitely not a revelation: wine business marketing is all about the story.  But, what does that really mean?

A story carries value only if it’s memorable, and connects with an audience – an audience of one or an audience of hundreds, if not thousands.  A litany of facts does not a story make.  If a “story” does not connect then it’s merely information, soon to be forgotten like a kids’ math lesson over the summertime.

However, if a story is memorable, it becomes shareable, like a good joke that can be recalled on command.  And, when something is shareable, well, that is the good stuff—that’s when a winery has other people doing their marketing for them because customers are sharing stories with their friends, and oftentimes including a dash of brand ambassadorship and a hint of positive projection all wrapped in an anecdotal, personal brand package.

I have been thinking about the nature of stories and was motivated into further research by a recent Wine Business Monthly (WBM) article (magazine only).

WBM offered a recap of the Fine Wine III conference held in April of this year in Ribero del Duero, Spain.  Presenting research from U.K. based wine research firm Wine Intelligence, the research breaks down demographic data for luxury wine buyers (over $25 a bottle).  The research is drawn from the U.S., U.K and Switzerland.  According to Wine Intelligence, a stunning 60% of all luxury wines is based on 12% of luxury wine buyers – these are the regular high-end buyers.  Put a different way, 88% of all luxury wine buyers are occasional purchasers and drive 40% of the high-end market.

In a nutshell, based on a deduction even I can make, the reason the upper end of the wine echelon has seen a protracted buying recession is because 88% of luxury wine buyers who buy occasionally, driving 40% of the market, reduced the frequency of their “occasional.”  Simple enough.

However, as the market rebounds, and if reports are true that occasional trading up is by this buying segment may be stunted by the quality consumers are seeing at lower price points, how does a winery induce interest?

It’s all about the story.

The WBM article and the Wine Intelligence research went on to detail the top cues for occasional wine buyers, noting: “…Unlike their luxury counterparts, they seek reassurance in their purchasing because they are not as familiar with fine wine.”  Reassurance in the form of a story. 

The article continues, quoting Erica Donoho of Wine Intelligence, “It’s important for them when they are buying less frequently to have some sort of measure of safety.  A well-known wine producer is a safe bet for them.”  Left unsaid is the fact that “well-known” is a relative term, but “familiar” is obviously the antidote and stories can create that sense of familiarity.

However, as news articles are wont to do, they provided the list of story cues that occasional luxury wine buyers are looking for, but no larger context for what constitutes a good story.

I did some additional research analyzing two books on the topic – Made to Stick and The Story Factor.  The below acts as sort of recipe book for a winery to create their own story that resonates. When viewed sequentially, the first visual offers the six fundamentals of a “sticky” idea, ending with a good story.  The second visual offers the six types of stories.  The third visual offers the seven types of story themes that occasional luxury wine buyers are looking for and the fourth visual, well, that’s when you know you’re hitting all cylinders.

Made to Stick:  6 Keys to a “Sticky” Idea
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The Story Factor:  Six Distinct Types of Stories
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Wine Intelligence Research: The Seven Top Buying Cues / Story Angles for Occasional Luxury Wine Buyers
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What Happens when a Story Hits the Spot?
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News, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items – Reconciliation Edition

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

Managing “The Conversation”

I have an appreciation for couples who share their wine enthusiasm.  My wife Lindsay enjoys wine, but is far removed from having enough interest to be considered a wine enthusiast.  My interest in wine is, largely, an individual pursuit. 

Because of the gulf that can be created by passionate interests that aren’t shared in a relationship, there are situations that need occasional massaging.  The act of buying wine when you have a basement full of wine is one situation that requires careful explanation.  Spending a significant amount of time writing about wine, sometimes in lieu of time spent together, is another landmine that requires careful and persistent navigation.

Now, I’d be lying if said there hasn’t been a conversation in which my perspective was different than Lindsay’s perspective about how I prioritized my free time around the good grape. 

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In her view, there’s a sense of, “Why do you spend so much time doing something for strangers, when you could be doing something with your wife.”

It’s a rational argument, unless you’re consumed with the victory of creating something from nothing, a blank page that is soon filled with 800 words that mean something. Men are from Mars and Woman are from Venus was written for a reason.

However, recent research distills the notion of conflict in a relationship into as tidy of a bundle as possible.

Dr. Keith Sanford, a professor at Baylor University conducted a research study, created a conflict assessment and determined that there are two primary issues when there is a disagreement in a relationship.  According to Sanford, it all boils down to a “Perceived threat” – that one’s partner is being hostile, critical, blaming or controlling.  And, “Perceived neglect” which is a perception that one’s partner is failing to make a desired contribution, commitment or investment in the relationship.

Within the realm of wine, wine writing and time spent, the biggest contributor to relationship strife has to be “Perceived threat” – as in, spending too much time with mistress wine.

Something tells me that armed with this knowledge I’m going to be more diligent going forward about taking the dog for a walk together and making sure the trash is never so full that you have to do the double arm compactor.

Another Noun to Lose its Meaning

The word “transparency” is one of those words that has transcended meaning and moved into nothingness cliché.  Another word quickly traversing the same path is, “artisanal.”

A recent, lengthy piece in Details magazine discusses the cultural phenomena of “artisanal” products.

While overall, the piece is mostly a frothy first-person narrative absent much in the form of a takeaway, there was one excerpt that jumped out at me.  Quoting the article:

”… We’re all agents of the artisanal movement now—call us authentivores, hungry for backstory, intrigued by provenance, hooked on the high of ever more specialized knowledge, and willing to spend to get it.”

It’s a good observation.  And, it’s an observation that the boutique portion of the wine industry is well-poised to continue to capitalize on – “artisanal” for the wine industry isn’t marketing schtick to back into, it’s the reality.  “Artisanal” as a word may lose its meaning, but it will be replaced by something else that really just boils down to finding an audience and telling a story.

Supertasters, So What?

In May, fueled by a “Supertaster” test released by Cornell University, there was a mini-spike online in discussion about the phenomenon of being a “Supertaster.”  Tim Hanni has a test and multiple other online resources have a test, as well.  They all vary slightly in form.

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Related to wine, however, who cares?  It really means nothing at all.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the nature of wine reviews and palates.  It seems to me that one persistent argument about the 100 point systems, critics and such is the advice to find a critic who aligns with your palate.

Well, that’s good and simple on the surface, but aside from third-party definition of Robert Parker, Jr., I’m not sure that any critic has a stated palate definition, nor would they want to.  It would require them to indicate bias, and objectivity is sacrosanct to the art of being a wine critic.

I know my preference is generally cool climate.  I like food-friendly New World wines, fruit forward, but with depth, structure and an acidic backbone.  I enjoy New Zealand and northern Rhone wines, as well.  Yet, most mainstream critics would rather be caught dead then focusing in on a stylistic preference.

Even Parker bristles against such categorizations of his palate preferences.

Going forward, however, with the explosion of wine reviews online and what that means as wine criticism becomes more democratized, yet chaotic, I think a scenario of having a wine critic, any type of wine critic, quantify their palate and palate preferences by some independent, objective means is going to occur.  Think of it like a fingerprint, or a passport of sorts—validating security credentials as a credible measure for their reviews. 

Having a palate tested and then quantified by bias as a known reference marker for wine reviews then becomes an important criteria for credibility that can then be augmented by embedded knowledge and wisdom – how much does a wine critic know about wine, separate from the validity of their palate profile – that then begins to separate the wheat from the chaff in an increasingly confusing world of wine criticism.

The wine world might not be ready for a quantifying benchmark in the realm of the subjective, but neither is it ready to spin into the chaos, the trajectory it’s headed with the online wine world increasingly complementing mainstream media. 

Something is needed to make sense of it all.


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The Wine Conversation that has worn out its Welcome

Part of the beauty of the wine world is its gentle nature, which is good because the storylines move at a pace more aligned with the rhythms of nature instead of a 24-hour news cycle and not only that but the stories don’t change that often, except when they should.

Frankly, I am ready for the story on Biodynamic wine to change.  If it were a TV channel, I would have long ago surfed past – and not for reasons of interest in the story itself, it has more to do with the fact that the rancor around BioD is starting to resemble our partisan political climate, including the absence of reason.

Give me a lament about wine media, wine critics, the 100 point system, New World vs. Old World, high alcohol, the three tier system, and any number of other issues that dominate a reasonably staid wine conversational climate and I can drink it all in inexhaustibly.  These issues are a part of the wine world’s rich pageant and all reasonably benign.  After all, most of what passes for controversy in the world of wine is a gentle disagreement along differing points of view and no more dangerous than a high school debate match. 

I kind of like it like that, too.

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Even Randy Dunn’s Molotov cocktail against high alcohol wines three summers ago was met with interest, but also a, “Yup, he has an opinion and he’s entitled to it” sensibility, not necessarily fawning nor fanning the flames. 

Within the context of these issues that bubble, but never really reach a flashpoint, I think most wine insiders and hardcore enthusiasts take a measure of solace in the pace of the wine world, an anchor in a sea of continual change.

However, one wine topic is taking on an escalated level of verbal vengeance:  Biodynamics.

By now, I think most seasoned wine enthusiasts are not only familiar with BioD, but they’ve formed an opinion on it.  If you are like me, you take BioD for what it is – a belief system, nothing more and nothing less.  Maybe you agree with it, maybe you don’t, but it’s like walking down a New York City sidewalk and accepting an “All God’s Creatures” point of view, instead of living like Travis Bickle.

Yet, read the comments to any article or blog post discussing Biodynamics and you will inevitably see a comment denouncing Biodynamics as the work of hucksters, crackpots and loonies.
What happened to reasonable people being able to respect differing belief systems—particularly when there is no right or wrong answer?

In a world that is striations of gray, people want to reduce the Biodynamic argument into simple black and white terms.  Biodynamics is a Hoax. Biodynamics is perpetuating a fraud.  Rudolf Steiner made this shit up.

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Okay.  Maybe so.  But, what if biodynamics is not a fraud?

What if the health care bill actually ends up being a good thing, protecting the uninsured while bringing a check and balance against healthcare insurers run amuck?

What if Santa Claus is real for six year olds and he brings out the spirit of Christmas for 60 year olds? 

You know, I’ve never seen a ghost, but that doesn’t mean I dismiss claims from those who have.

Yet, this is where we’re going with BioDynamics.  Right or Wrong.  Black or white.  Right vs. Left. 

It’s all very unseemly. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good argument, but Biodynamics is still so very early in its formation in our wine consciousness that I worry that the vigorous side-taking that goes on today can only lead to a divisive polarization in our little segment of the world, that, yes, acts as an anchor in a sea of change.  Excuse me if I’m not anxious for name-calling politics to enter my sanctuary.


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