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Letter to (a) God

Life is funny.  Especially when you strip away that which seems important, but really isn’t.  Down to the core, the essence, the things that make us who we are:  family, memories, food, wine, generations, all in a setting that lets us know we’re blessed. 

This is a letter I wrote to a friend of mine, a friend that we all share.  I suppose Dionysus, in this age of social media, is the connective fiber that ties many of us together.  Just the same, without the support of family, our ability to be a friend is merely window-dressing.  Who we are is what we have to give.

Summer wanes ... and I get reflective about the things that are important in life.
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Internet Marketing’s Unseemly Underbelly:  A Cautionary Case Study for Wineries

Social media marketing isn’t the first internet paradigm where unscrupulous “marketers” have lived to flim-flam and trade on the insecurities of people and companies who don’t know any better, taking shortcuts in the process; it’s just the latest online trend in a long lineage of nefarious evolution dating back to the 1980s. 

What is the first clue in sniffing out hucksters?  Listen to the spiel.  It starts at the web site where, “Monetize your social network to build the wealth you always dreamed of” screams the home page before the video of a dynamic and charismatic speaker says, “The internet, for you guys, is a cash register.”

Uh huh.

Unfortunately, at least one Napa Valley winery and potentially several others are being victimized by this “between the margins” internet marketing.

Hardly a Tom Clancy potboiler, but interesting nonetheless—here’s the anatomy of how this unethical internet marketing is currently being conducted:

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A couple of days ago I received a direct message on Twitter from Atalon in Napa Valley, a well-reviewed winery.  The direct message said, “A must read before hosting your next get together” and included a link to a web site at http://www.wine-specialist.com.  There, I could enter my name and email address and receive free content about hosting a wine tasting party.  I took the bait.  And, when I entered my email address, the web page then took me to the web site of Destination Cellars.

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Hmm.  That’s weird, I thought.

Moments later I received an email from wine-specialist.com that said my copy of, “The Guide to Hosting a Wine Tasting” was attached to the email, except it wasn’t.  I replied to the email asking for the guide and my email was returned to me as undeliverable.  At the bottom of the original email was the contact information for a web site called, “The Steele Method” which, after doing a quick review of the site, was an internet marketer.

Hmm.  That’s weird, I thought.  Again.

At this point, I go back to Twitter to direct message Atalon to ask them not to direct message me again because I consider it to Spam.  Come to find out, I can’t direct message Atalon because they don’t follow me on Twitter.  Definitely Spam, then.

Okay.  So, now I have a Napa winery Spamming me, a wine-specialist.com web site that takes my email address, sends an email that can’t be responded to with the name of an internet marketer in the body of the email and a browser window that has Destination Cellars.

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Whatever.  I have better things to do with my time so I move on.

However, a couple of days later, I get another direct message—this time from Dana Estates winery, another well-reviewed Napa Valley winery.  Similar message, “Just downloaded this wine guide” was the come-on.

Once bitten, twice shy.  Whatever.  I ignore the message.

Then, this morning, I received an email from wine-specialist.com and in the email they apologize for not sending the attachments before—they had a server issue.  My guide to hosting a wine tasting and other content was attached.  I open the attachments and it’s cut and paste generic wine information of the garden variety with no logo, label or anything identifying it with Atalon.

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Curiosity piqued, I go to Dana Estates Twitter direct message and hit the link and it too takes me to the wine-specialist.com site, too.  This time though, the site has been updated with gushing user comments like, “Great post, Love the tasting guide in the back of the e-book.  Made copies for all my friends.”

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One problem, here – the site isn’t set-up to take comments, so they’re obviously bogus.  If my “bogus” suspicion wasn’t valid enough there was a comment from “Drew” at Domaine Carneros, the Napa sparkling house, with a picture with the comment associated with Cardinale, yet another well-reviewed Napa winery.  Now, I’m not the sharpest pencil in the cup, but something is up here. 

I did some research and sent an email to an “Allie Drew” at Domaine Carneros (I found her via LinkedIn) and she verified that not only did she NOT leave the comment at wine-specialist.com, but she was the only person at Domaine Carneros with “Drew” in her first or last name.

Things started to unravel at this point. 

I then tried to direct message Dana Estates.  No can do because they don’t follow me on Twitter, either.  At this point, my morning is shot playing Matlock, but I’m invested in sniffing this out.

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I search for background info on other allegedly bogus commenter’s from wine-specialist.com including Maria T. Hall, whose Twitter page, ironically enough, was started in the third week of July, just as Atalon’s and Dana Estates were.  It links to a health-related scam-oriented looking web site called, “EnergyFactor.”  Each of the three Twitter pages has been promoting the wine-specialist.com web site.

I decide to send an email to the internet marketer, David Steele, from the “The Steele Method,” asking who his client is for wine-specialist.com.  I received a phone call a short time later from Steele who indicates he would email me when I ask for his contact information, while declining to say who the client was, despite Destination Cellars, again, being the site that a user is directed to after an email submission. 

Later Steele emails me and says Destination Cellars is not their customer noting, “Currently we do not have a client in the Wine-Specialists.com we are just gathering statistics and if you know of someone who would benefit from the traffic and name capture we would appreciate it (sic).”

A grammarian he is not.

I email David Keuhner, CEO of Destination Cellars to ask him if he’s associated with wine-specialist.com for internet marketing.  I get the vague response of, “We have various organizations as well as individuals involved.  We’re been (sic) testing various ideas with regards to Twitter, Facebook, etc.  Some things are working and some things aren’t, we’re still evaluating the ideas to determine how much or how little we wish to invest.”

I send another email asking, more specifically, if he’s working with David Steele from “The Steele Method” and Keuhner indicates in a response that, yes, that’s one of the people they are working with.

At this point, I have Twitter spam, bogus comments and two guys who contradict each other about working together.

If all of this isn’t confusing enough, I call Dana Estates winery to ask if they have a Twitter account.  The woman on the phone didn’t think so.  I sent her an email with a link to the Twitter page for verification.  Not 40 minutes later, I get an email from the Dana Estates public relations firm indicating that, no, Dana Estates doesn’t have a Twitter account and they’re going to take measures to have the Twitter page removed.

Representatives from Atalon could not be reached.

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Phew.  That’s a lot of work to get this allegation:  David Steele from “The Steele Method” is trying to work with Destination Cellars on internet marketing.  In the process of doing so, he has set-up an internet marketing proof of concept designed to indicate to Destination Cellars that he can deliver qualified leads (email addresses) for Destination Cellars business.  In so doing, Steele has set-up bogus Twitter accounts under the names of at least one Napa Valley winery, and possibly others.

Of course, I caveat all of this with “allegedly,” but there’s enough evidence that a jury of 5th grader’s would convict.

Is this legal?  A better question might be: is this illegal?  Not expressly.  Twitter’s terms and conditions absolve them of virtually any responsibility, though they do police if prompted to investigate fraudulent accounts.  No money has changed hands and the damage to the winery brand under whose name the fake Twitter account(s) was set-up is negligible.  The email from wine-specialist.com does allow the receiver to opt-out of receiving additional messages (a requirement).  Is it unethical to represent being something you’re not?  Absolutely, but that’s for David Steele to reconcile (allegedly).  He indicated in his email to me that he considers it, “gathering statistics” so he’s probably sleeping at night. 

Fortunately, some back and forth with Twitter will have this resolved for Dana Estates in a couple of days (and with Atalon, as well, if it’s true that their Twitter is also fake).  Destination Cellars will likely eventually see this “grey marketing” for what it is.

The irony of the situation is this messaging to consumers and leading them to a web site (landing page) with a promise of content is standard operating procedure for many technology companies and their business-to-business lead generation activity.  However, typically, it’s done via advertising in email newsletters, calls-to-action and quality whitepapers – all done in an ethical way, supported by marketing dollars, with no bogus accounts and no fictitious comments.  At the end of the day, if done correctly, the business user feels like giving their email address is an even exchange for the content received.

Not so here, or else I wouldn’t have done the sleuthing.

The moral of the story for wineries?  Trust, but verify.  Be wary of “internet marketers” that take hard, legitimate work and try to take shortcuts and, especially, those that promise to “monetize your social network” tapping into untold wealth.

P.T. Barnum said, “There is a sucker born every minute,” but wineries don’t have to be one of them.

Proactive action for a winery in response to reading this is to go to knowem.com and register a winery-related user name at as many social media web sites as relevant, this will at least prevent somebody from using the name in an unauthorized fashion.  In addition, setting up Google alerts for a winery name will allow the winery to keep an eye out for where their name appears online.

In a subsequent post, I’ll highlight a winery that is doing a good job with legitimate internet marketing.

Here are links to various Twitter accounts, web sites and my sleuthing trail:

Twitter page for Dana Estates

Twitter page for Atalon wine

Twitter page for Maria T. Hall

Wine-Specialist site

The Steel Method site


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New, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items – The Best of What’s Around Edition

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

Mainstream Wine Media

If you’re not already a subscriber to Wine & Spirits magazine, do yourself a favor and at least head to your local bookstore and pick up the current issue.  Focused on the issue of alcohol in wine, it is an incredible read from cover to cover – literally.  Tyler Colman from Dr. Vino leads off with a piece on the TTB, taxation and alcohol levels that is highlighted by a table that lists deviations in wines from their stated label alcohol and third-party testing (also referenced on his site).  The last piece in the magazine is a fascinating editorial from Frog’s Leap owner John Williams on the cause of high alcohol in Napa Valley wine.  Williams’ opinion may surprise even the most knowledgeable of wine enthusiasts.  I won’t play spoiler, but it doesn’t have anything to do with global warming. 

The entire issue is really well thought out and an example of excellence in wine journalism; it is the sort of deep dive coverage of an issue that is being lost in the bytes online.  Kudos to Josh Greene and team at W&S.

Speaking of wine magazines on the newsstand.  The current issue of Wine Enthusiast has a two-page spread advertisement from the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office.

On the surface, it’s two pages that most readers quickly flipped through.

However, on closer inspection, it speaks to a seismic change in potential focus that will take place over the coming decade for the U.S. wine industry.

The summary copy to the word intensive two-page ad says:

“An overnight boom in wine trade occurred in February 2008, when Hong Kong eliminated the wine duties.  Merchants are seizing the opportunity to increase shipments and establish a greater presence in Hong Kong.  Companies from various sectors of the wine industry are seeking to uncork the huge potential market in Asia and particularly mainland China – a region on the verge of becoming the driver of global wine sales in the next decade and beyond.”

Whoa.  For reinforcement it said, “…The driver of global wine sales in the next decade and beyond.”

That’s enough to pique somebody’s curiosity.

Now, to be fair, the opportunity in China isn’t new with this ad.  W. Blake Gray had a nice piece on it yesterday, Robert Parker is heavily engaged in Asia and there’s a general awareness that the international opportunity in Asia is on a serious upswing.  However,  I’m always interested in the things that have public awareness, but no actual supporting knowledge – things like healthcare bills, NAFTA and other large scale initiatives that provide vacuum-oriented conversational fodder.

The “in a vacuum” conversation goes something like:

Bob:  “I hear the Chinese are really getting into wine.” 

John: “Yeah, I heard that, too.” 

Bob:  “Hey, when is your fantasy football draft.”

Practically speaking, nobody really knows much except that something is happening.

And, happening it is.  In addition to the lift on duties (taxes), Hong Kong and the U.S. signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on Co-operation in Wine-related Businesses (MOU)” in May of this year.  And, Washington state and Oregon signed a similar deal with Hong Kong, as well.

Quoting Rita Lau, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development,  “Today, our relationship with the U.S. takes another major step forward. Riding on this MOU, we will strengthen our joint efforts on promoting wine-related trading, tourism, investment and education.

“The MOU also covers a number of special areas. These include promoting wine alongside regional and local cuisine, facilitating the organization of wine auctions in Hong Kong for U.S. wines, and encouraging the provision of quality wine storage facilities in Hong Kong,”

It’s anybody’s guess how China will impact the domestic wine business, but we know that the existing auction market and Bordeaux futures are largely being driven by the Chinese. 

According to reports, US wine exports to Hong Kong totaled $49 million in 2009-2010.  And, it’s been said that the U.S. wants to be the number one exporter of wine to Hong Kong and mainland China.  If that revenue number increases by 5X in the next ten years will that have an impact in focus from our wineries and the U.S. customers they serve? 

If for nothing else other than edification purposes, I would encourage all wine enthusiasts to dig into this a little deeper and develop an understanding early in the process.

Google:  “Hong Kong U.S. Wine MOU” and you’ll find plenty to research.


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A Growing Retail Concept Imports Wine Country to the Heartland

Nestled between Olive Garden’s populist promotion of wine, the explosion of wine bars across the country, the resurgence of restaurant and micro brewery concepts and emerging trends like community hubs that make wine (City Winery in New York), is a growing restaurant concept that has its eyes set on importing wine country culture to the heartland.

A rising tide raises all ships; the more that a pragmatic wine culture is understood as comfortable, and not the province of the elite, the better.

Related to this, I was talking with family friends recently who are keen wine lovers (of the ‘normal’ buy and drink variety), who are aware of my total immersion in matters of the grape.  They asked, “Is it hard for you to find a wine culture here?”  “Here” being Indianapolis, IN, the Crossroads of America.  My answer was something along the lines of, “You have to work at it.  It would be easier if I were on the East Coast and living in a place that has a legacy, euro-centric wine culture and wine bars or the West Coast that has the embedded wine sensibility from production.”

Yet, slowly, but surely, the Midwest is chipping away. 

Local wines and the quality thereof are making inroads across the country.  New York State, Michigan, Virginia, Texas, Missouri and other states all make wine that can hold their own against West Coast wineries if only perception met reality in a favorable way…

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Taking a slightly different twist on what it means to be a winery while borrowing heavily from the aforementioned restaurant and microbrewery concept is Cooper’s Hawk winery and restaurant based in the ‘burbs of Chicago.

Founded by entrepreneur Tim McEnery in 2005, Cooper’s Hawk is the Midwest’s first winery and restaurant concept under one roof. The name, an homage to both the art of barrel making and the Cooper’s Hawk, a bird of prey found in the Midwest, is a clever and catchy take on the rootedness that denotes most winery names.  And, the concept is a mash-up of familiar, but uniquely combined elements that has created a new category of restaurant.

Plus, there is a little bit of genius involved in the concept, as well.  Given that upscale restaurants rely on their wine and beverage program to fuel profits, there is something simple and smart about cutting out the middleman to make all of your own wine and then have that wine program be simpatico with the restaurant concept.

Making their own wine akin to an on-premise microbrewery and restaurant, using the wine sampling concept that is de rigueur at Olive Garden, while creating an atmosphere that is super-charged winery tasting room and direct-to-consumer marketing program with a casual upscale restaurant attached, Cooper’s Hawk is poised for growth. 

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With four existing locations blanketing Chicagoland, the “don’t call it a chain and please call it a winery before restaurant” (my reference) is venturing out of state for the first time and opening a winery and restaurant in Indianapolis with additional expansion plans for two to three additional locations in 2011, with Missouri, Minnesota and Ohio potential destinations.

With a full winery production facility in Countryside, Illinois, and using varietal grapes from the west coast as appropriate, Cooper’s Hawk makes approximately 10,000 cases (50,000 gallons) of wine served in their casual upscale restaurants and via sales to their wine club.

According to Melanie Pierce, Director of Marketing at Cooper’s Hawk, “We really have a wide demographic range, mostly 21-65.  Our menu is designed to have something for everyone and part of our success is attributed to our broad appeal.”

She continued, “The restaurant drives most of our sales revenue, but the wine club is instrumental in the growth of the restaurant.”

Sarah Stukas, a Psychotherapist from Darien, IL commenting on the comfortable nature of the restaurant concept said, “The vibe at Cooper’s Hawk is lively and there is a lot going on at a time. On a typical Saturday night you will find a small group having a tasting party in the front of the restaurant, people in the bar watching a game or listening to the piano player, a private gathering in the barrel room and a dining room full of patrons.  It’s a fun place with attentive, professional service and consistently good food.”

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She continued, “One of the great things about Cooper’s Hawk is that there’s something for everyone. While you will often see singles and couples in the bar or wine-tasting areas, the dining room is filled with groups, families or couples out for a romantic evening. We never feel out of place dining with our two children (8 & 11 - who actually order from the adult menu), but we’ve also enjoyed it quite a bit out with other couples.”

A scan of Yelp.com for Cooper’s Hawk yields similar exuberantly positive feedback with the occasional grumble bunny mixed in.

Of course, being based in the Midwest, it wouldn’t be an appropriate winery concept if there weren’t wines to suit all types of wine drinkers.  Their wine list is an eclectic mix of sweet fruit wines, White Zinfandel, and varietal wines that cover the gamut of tastes and entry points for wine lovers across the spectrum of education.  And, this might, ironically, explain why Cooper’s Hawk has both a Shiraz and a Syrah at the same price on their wine list.

According to Pierce, Riesling is their number one selling wine. 

Overall, I’m somewhat ambivalent that a non-native restaurant is moving into Indianapolis, the capital of the free world for concept restaurants.  Yet, at the same time, I’m excited that the place is well reviewed, planning to grow in other parts of the Midwest and, most importantly, that they’re bringing a higher level of mindshare and acceptance to a wine tasting room environment coupled with high quality food that pairs well with their wines.

As I mentioned, a rising tide raises all ships and the tradeoff of exported culture (or imported based on your geography) seems to be a reasonable one if it brings a greater level of appreciation for wine to the province of cultural morass, truly bringing the U.S. into a wine culture from sea to shining sea and not just the coasts.


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Bordeaux, the WineBlueBook and Free!

Yeah, yeah, yeah ... I know ... real wine enthusiasts—learned folks who have sense enough to understand their palate and form an opinion about wine—typically run in the opposite direction of wine scores, leaving the score whoring for the Chiropractor with the half full cellar of Mollydooker and Marquis Phillips. 

I get that. 

And, I also get that you can have a commanding knowledge of the New World and still not know how to pronounce “Gironde.”  For the record, it sounds like “Jerome” after a six-pack and a buddy’s dare to gargle a bag of marbles.  It could be worse, though – you could call it a “river” instead of an “estuary.” 

For that reason, and for every other wine enthusiast who started in the New World before moving backwards, I’m thankful that the Bordeaux marketing people are pulling together an iPhone application that will release in October.

As reported at Decanter.com, the iPhone application (and the CIVB) hopes to provide a wine fact sheet based on a user photograph of a bottle. Brilliant!

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All that’s required is for Bordeaux’s 9,000 wine estates to upload the appropriate information for some 15 -20,000 different wines from now until October 1.

Um, if a bookie handicapped this one I’d take the under.

Thankfully, for the inveterate learner, there are options for navigating the Bordeaux maze:  Like the WineBlueBook (WBB).

I’ve long been a fan and have written about WineBlueBook on several occasions.  Publisher Neil Monnens aggregates wine scores from popular wine publications and produces a monthly buying guide that groups individual wines by score, lists them by price, and then assigns a value percentage.  He helped popularize the notion of quality-to-price ratio (QPR) in wine, a phrase that has taken on its own life and is reasonably unique to the wine world. 

Really, Neil’s system is a beautiful way to provide meaning to scores and flatten the hegemony of a singular palate, as well. 

Plus, it takes a yeoman’s effort to do the data aggregation and WBB does what CellarTracker does except it’s based on professional criticism.  As I mentioned, I’m a fan.  And, I use it for value judgments.  As aggregated by WineBlueBook, if at least three professional critics profess a wine to have a mean average score of 92 and it’s a $35 bottle, I’ve just given myself a bit of purchase insurance, all for $25 while receiving 12 issues measuring 1000s of wines over a year’s time.

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Now, my point in bringing up WineBlueBook in a reasonably non-sequitar fashion is Neil published a Bordeaux special edition issue this month – it’s 107 pages of aggregate scores and value rankings on thousands of Bordeaux wines.

If you are even slightly Bordeauxlexic, this is a tremendous resource.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the WineBlueBook isn’t going to impart wisdom or pontificate about the resplendent joys of a particular varietal, region or country, but it does get down to brass tacks regarding what professional critics think of the wine, how much that wine costs and whether that wine is a value relative to its price in peer rankings.

A copy of the WineBlueBook and Wine-Searcher.com and you’re in business in cutting through significant morass in the wine aisle on Consumer Saturday.

And, Neil, good guy that he is, at my request, is giving a PDF copy of the Bordeaux report to Good Grape readers for FREE.  Personally, I email my issues to my Kindle and read them there, but you can view it on your PC or print a copy off for leisure reading, you’ll receive the issue as an attachment to email.

To get your Bordeaux issue, leave a comment on this post and tell me the first name of the first person you French kissed (you don’t really have to do that, but you do have to leave a comment … or, just send me an email at jlefevere AT gmail DOTCOM) and I will have Neil send you a no obligation / no additional harassment copy of the August Bordeaux issue.


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