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December 31 2010
Odds and ends from a life lived through the prism of the wine glass …
Of all the holidays, every one of them, New Year’s is my favorite. I love the New Year’s song —Auld Lang Syne—its melancholy exuberance fits my ethos of pragmatic idealism and I love the sense of renewal that New Year’s affords us: Resolving to do better, Setting goals, perhaps falling short of said goals, and trying again; it is all so very American and intrinsically human.
In my mind’s eye, I am still capable of being the person I imagined as a wide-eyed youth. And, yet, I realize that it’s the sum of our experiences—the journey—that make our triumphs, however small, worthy of rejoice in the moment.
Still, every year I get a new chance at making 12-year old me in my minds eye proud of 38-year old me. That is a neat trick even when the 38-year old me is overwhelmingly happy with who and where he is, bank account notwithstanding: 12-year old me fancied a millionaire about eight years ago.
Dime store philosophy aside, a part of my “doin work” bag of goals every year is increasing a knowledge area around wine. In years past, I’ve made a concerted effort to dive into an area of the wine world that I want to know more about – Italian wine, New Zealand, wine history and others.
This year? Simply, my instincts tell me that this golden age of wine we are living in is taking a veer that will be recounted by history. Because of this, my study goal for the New Year is two-fold and much more critically imperative than years past.
First, as highlighted in Wine Spectator as the story of 2010, HR 5034 is likely to rear its ugly head again in 2011, with resolution or consequence.
Over the course of this year, I felt like many wine enthusiasts, myself included, gave lip service focus to HR 5034 without really understanding the underpinnings to the issue, or how to combat it.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we all have really have shoddy knowledge of how our government works, how a bill is introduced, how the trail of money works with lobbyists and how consumers, for whom our government works in a democracy, combats violations against the will of the people.
In the coming year, I want to deepen my level of knowledge about not only how our government operates, but also the insidiousness of the issue that is rife with varying perceptions from those that have decamped for and against it.
Secondarily, I want to be a soldier in the consumer army that Tom Wark is building and doing so capably means having more than a tertiary grasp of the issue.
Speaking of Tom Wark, I would be remiss if I let 2010 end without mentioning his, A Manifesto for Change in the Wine Industry published in March of this year. It is a remarkable white paper (read online at Tom’s site or download as a PDF here) that should be THE primer for anybody interested in following his or her own path to more knowledge on this issue in the New Year.
Pick your sales figure. Reuters reported that wine auctions exceeded $350M in sales this year and Wine Spectator reported sales in excess of $408M, both wine auction market records.
Regardless of the dollar discrepancy, both articles cite the Asian market as being principally responsible for the huge growth in sales.
If you couple that with the various wine investment funds that buy up classified growth wines as an investment vehicle and Liv-Ex, a merchant and collector exchange for fine wine, predominantly Bordeaux, you realize that mother’s milk, Bordeaux wine, is quickly becoming not just unreachable from a price perspective, but also unreachable from an acquisition perspective. There’s not enough of it to go around.
The annual spring parlor game of lamenting futures pricing is going to become moot because global supply and demand will make pricing even more inelastic than today’s standard.
Simply, the wine world’s most precious wines are going to become increasingly precious with China’s burgeoning interest in wine and we are barely at the tip of the spear for how this interest in wine is going to change the dynamics of the global wine world.
Therefore, I’m making it my goal to read up and understand not only about the auction market (this book being one example), but also wine from an investing perspective (this new magazine being an example).
I am doing so not because I am a player in this market, but because I think its influence will ripple enough on the wine Richter scale that it is prudent to understand the dynamics in this rarified arena of the wine world.
What do you resolve to learn more about in the New Year?
December 27 2010
Many would cite the 2010 Winter Olympics as this year’s greatest achievement and export from British Columbia, Canada. However, I would argue that the highlight of the year from the West Coast of the The Great White North comes from two winery ecommerce companies who are succeeding where their spiritual California forebears have stumbled.
2010 was a crossroads year for winery ecommerce. At no point in time has the need been more glaringly apparent for wineries to wrest their customer sales destiny out of the hands of others. Yet, seemingly, all of this year’s online innovation has been with intermediaries including the now ubiquitous flash sales sites.
At the same time, domestic ecommerce providers in the wine value chain have been experiencing transition, opening the door to our friends from the north who view U.S. winery ecommerce as not a challenge fraught with compliance issues that require decoding, but as an easier path to growth relative to their own byzantine legalities as well as an opportunity to lead U.S. wineries through the forest of trees.
Direct-to-Consumer Wine Ecommerce
In June of this year, the former Inertia Beverage Group (now “IBG”) announced a licensing agreement with Vin65 from Abbotsford, British Columbia (BC) to use Vin65’s ecommerce and customer management platform as IBG’s standard going forward.
“As an outsider, we can relate well to all of the other outsiders placing orders online. I’m 932 miles from Napa and all I really want is great wine without a huge hassle. A local Napa person can walk into a winery – I have to wade through the website, the checkout, the shipping, and deal with that experience,” said Andrew Kamphuis, President of Vin65, commenting to me on his company’s detached perspective.
With the IBG deal, Vin65 cemented their growing reputation amongst the wine and technologically savvy set that they were the new leader in the direct-to-consumer winery ecommerce space.
Not mentioned in that deal, however, was the impact Vin65 might have on the other direct sales portion of IBG’s customer solutions—Direct-to-Trade (DTT), a void that may soon be filled by a BC neighbor to Vin65.
Direct-to-Trade Wine Ecommerce
DTT is a program that allows wineries to legally sell to trade customers, at retail or restaurants, currently available from IBG in 13 states (with more states legally able to be accessed).
When officially announced by IBG in 2007, DTT was heralded as an industry game changer – an opportunity for small and medium size wineries (who have had near-term historical difficulty securing distribution in states) to control their sales destiny and get their wines on and off-premise in a compliant way, enabled by technology.
Simply, upon launch, wineries could legally sell their wine into a given states’ retailers and restaurants via ecommerce-enabled self-distribution, or legal routing through the three-tier system (read: paperwork). I should know: I helped put the program in place at IBG leading the Direct-to-Trade efforts under Paul Mabray’s (now founder of VinTank) leadership.
By all accounts, what the DTT system afforded in access it lacked in usage. Wineries weren’t (aren’t?) ready to command their own sales activity. Though efforts were made to bridge supply with demand via a marketplace at the still existing WineRevolution.com, those efforts were met with more sales potential then reality.
Shortly after leaving IBG, I talked to a wine industry insider with both technology and distribution experience who remarked, “Direct-to-Trade is a good idea, but they’re trying to solve the wrong problem. Wineries won’t put feet on the ground to sell and it will take 10 years for the program to get off the ground. With the venture capital money invested in IBG nobody is going to have the patience for that long of a development life.”
It was sage wisdom. Yet, one harbinger of successful development around Direct-to-Trade that did come from IBG was a press release announcing an, “Online Wine Wholesale Platform” in October of ’09.
The premise behind an Online Wine Wholesale Platform is to attack the problem of small-to-medium size wineries now being able to access a market (yet not knowing where to sell into said market) by focusing on the small-to-medium size distributor who is as equally challenged as his wine brethren in managing cash flow and inventory.
By turning the situation 180 degrees and giving a distributor a “virtual” inventory of wine to sell that can be fulfilled from the winery (or winery fulfillment operations) it seemingly solves the problem of winery sales effort while giving the distributor a bigger book of wines to sell with little risk in cash outlay.
That’s called a win-win.
Quoting from the IBG press release, “We expect this new model to bring a significant boost to wine distribution in the states where we are looking to launch it,” said former IBG CEO Ted Jansen
The press release continued, “By incorporating IBG’s producer clients into their wholesale portfolio, distributors can expand their product line for retailers and restaurants, giving those customers access to products which allow them to differentiate themselves from competitors.”
Since the time of the announcement in October of ’09, IBG has been quiet on the DTT front with a new stable of senior leadership who have, perhaps, different priorities, which may include pacifying venture capital investors.
Another Shot on Goal
However, filling this void in Direct-to-Trade progress brings us to the other shining star from British Columbia—Onlineorderdesk, who recently announced that their technology was going to be used as the online ordering system in Virginia facilitating sales between wine producers and trade retail and restaurants, very similar to the IBG program, with a keener focus on reporting and ease of use for users.
The specificity with which the Virginia program launched appears to be a beachhead for Onlineorderdesk who are poised to launch a larger scale Direct-to-Trade effort in the U.S., capitalizing where others have sputtered.
I caught up with Onlineorderdesk founder Kevin Blucke who was coy on his plans, but did note, “We don’t replace sales reps. or distributors. We work with these individuals to give them the tools they need to do their job better. We want to turn a sales rep. into a relationship builder not an order taker. They should be focused on doing their job and making more people aware of the wines they want to focus on selling – we will give them the tools they need to do their job and the confidence that we will handle the ordering process.”
Blucke’s statement to me substantiates the press release for the Virginia wine deal where he noted, “Now that we have entered the USA marketplace, we plan to aggressively pursue other jurisdictions at the state level and the wholesale distributors.”
In other words, Blucke’s plans sound very similar to the Online Wine Wholesale Platform initiated, but never fleshed out by IBG.
As 2010 draws to a close, I’m comforted that despite U.S. progress in faddish intermediary wine sales, our friends to the north have their eye on the prize and the bigger goal – affecting positive change with domestic wineries and wholesalers. If the question is: Can the Cancucks save winery ecommerce, the answer should be: Let’s hope so.
December 24 2010
With new wine sales channels (like wine clubs) proliferating like mushrooms after a spring rain, I’m contemplating creating a new law of popular thought—like Murphy’s Law—except my law is about the forever altered line that once separated wine editorial from wine commerce.
I call it Vee’s Law of Compunction. The name of the law itself is a misnomer, and maybe that’s the point – compunction indicates a distress of conscience, and I don’t think that exists, even if it should.
208 weeks ago or 48 months ago it would have been unfathomable and heretical for an organization that notably reviews wines to also sell wine. Hidebound tradition dictated that those that review wine should not be a party to the commerce of wine. This extended to magazine mastheads as well, yes.
Then, Gary Vee, owner of a wine store in New Jersey, started doing reviews. Sure, he took some flak based on the suggested impropriety of reviewing what you’re selling (he was also greatly abetted by the notion of, “new territory, new rules”), and he artfully deflected that criticism with statements indicating that he reviews fairly and often dismisses wines that he sells. Of course, his is an accurate statement even if a violation of the wine world’s unspoken rules of propriety and clearly a gray area when contrasted against his ethos of, “Trust YOUR palate.”
With that watershed moment, proverbially speaking, the horse left the barn, the ship sailed and the genie left the bottle ... A precedent had been set and the blurred lines of what wine content is and where it comes from organically disappeared along with these unspoken rules of fair, ethical play.
Since then, traditionally ethical media properties like the Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine magazine and other beacons of wine editorial have started their own wine clubs (along with a slew of others) and have filled the breach of branded (and implicitly recommended) wine club sales with consumer’s to near overabundance.
To fully understand the implications of new areas to sell wine is to understand the notion of sales “channels.”
When I interviewed for my first job out of school I needed the HR recruiter to explain to me what “channel” meant as she referred to the channel sales job for which I was interviewing. My business naiveté faux pas aside, I now well know that a “channel” is one specific sales focus area for an organization.
Wineries have the three-tier distribution channel (and within that channel you have on and off-premise placement), the tasting room channel, the direct-to-consumer channel and, now, exceedingly, the gray market channel with intermediaries that are little more than short term pimps for a tarted up darling.
Despite the inherent nature of the gray market, all wineries (all businesses!) are looking for alternate sales channels. Where can a winery sell its wine where, perhaps, they haven’t sold it in the past?
This background brings us to the latest entrant in the “I recommend wine and, by the way, I can sell it to you to” school of New Thought—The Winery Club by Wine Enthusiast.
Lost in the din of the holidays, The Winery Club by Wine Enthusiast is likely going to miss the au courant naysayers in the online court of public opinion. However, I can’t help but feel reticence, perhaps even my own compunction, about its launch despite being a bystander.
I should note, I like Wine Enthusiast magazine, I’m a long-time subscriber to the magazine, a confirmed recycler of the catalog, and I send emails to the publisher and I get replies. In addition, I am an admirer of their principal wine critic, Steve Heimoff; an affection that has grown over the last several years. Yet, I’m not an apologist, either …
Neither a Huck Finn whitewash nor a Gary Vee traipse across boundary lines of traditional demarcation do not create validation for a business decision. A mandate from the Gods of Capitalism doesn’t become so just because the rules of engagement have changed.
In short, I’m sorely disappointed that Wine Enthusiast has chosen to create a wine club, indelibly erasing the lines for ethical behavior that separated those that opined on wine from those that sold wine.
Now, Wine Enthusiast Companies will rightfully and fully say the wine club is separate from the magazine; more aligned with the wine accessory catalog business than the magazine. Yet, to me, it still feels like a shift in the force, to use a Star Wars reference – instead of the recognition of an area of profitable commerce, it smacks of the loss of the last vestige of integrity.
Destroyed in the process of what’s right has been a decision for right now.
Now, make no mistake the majority of the soon-to-be members of their “The Winery Club” have no idea that a wine magazine selling wine crosses the border into the dubious, nor do they care. Yet, that’s exactly the point. Perhaps, Vee’s Law of Compunction isn’t required because that indicates the opportunity for regret, but simple common sense is required …
For me, the wine world is a respite from the real world, an oasis of integrity and the right side of right and wrong.
Wine Enthusiast launching a wine club feels like the end of innocence, and the realization that my Mom was, indeed, right—just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And, failing that, compunction is the feeling you get when you violate your own standards.
December 16 2010
Have you ever read a wine article and when you finished it you had more questions than answers provided? Of course you have; much of journalism is like this—when a piece is straight reportage and balanced, vital context is often missing. Is this important? Should I care? Why do I care? These are all questions we silently calculate when reading something that has context for us.
Information without context is, well, just words on paper or a computer screen.
That pretty much sums up the international wine scene for me.
I have a good grip on the U.S. wine scene. What I see and hear makes sense to me because I can place the news in my mental jigsaw puzzle. However, what confounds me is the fact that the international wine scene is difficult to penetrate. I don’t have the same level of dimensional understanding. Something’s been going on in the New Zealand wine business this year, not that I can figure out what. And, a lot of news has been coming from Bordeaux this year, as well. Still, it’s mostly a riddle to me.
As the potential start to a “Kitchen Cabinet” group of international wine analysts who occasionally contribute here, I start with Jeff Leve from Winecellarinsider.com who takes us behind the headlines in Bordeaux.
Jeff’s a longtime, self-taught wine enthusiast with bona fides. He’s a moderator for Robert Parker’s message board, a habitué of Bordeaux and an up and coming authority on the Bordeaux trade, their Chateaux’s and wines.
I gave Leve a news article and a question and asked him to provide some background, which he does in good spirit and good form, and usually with a complementing link to his coverage of the issue.
News example: Link to Decanter article on 2010 vintage
Good Grape: Early reports indicate the 2010 Bordeaux harvest was stellar … again. What’s your take on quality and what’s your take on an incredible run of quality in Bordeaux?
The Wine Cellar Insider: It’s too early to tell. Many producers have not finished malolactic (fermentation). Blending won’t take place until January. And I have not tasted the wines yet. So it would be precipitous to have a strong view on the vintage. However, based on what producers have said about the harvest, my guess is, 2010 will be a good vintage. The style of the wines will be different than the previous vintage, 2009. 2010 should be a more structured vintage. Acidity will be higher than in 2009 and probably than in 2005 as well. The wines will feel fresher. By fresher, I mean they will have a bigger pop in your mouth, or more lift from the acidity. The wines will probably express slightly more red fruits than they did in 2009.
2010 (may) favor the cabernet based wines from the Medoc and Pessac Leognan. The year was one of the driest vintages in decades. But the wines will not be like ‘03. 2010 was shaped by drought, not heat. 2003 was hot morning, noon and night. 2010 was dry, but the nights were cool.
Good Grape: Is there more room to the Bordeaux ceiling from a price perspective?
The Wine Cellar Insider: Sadly, probably not. American wine consumers have been fortunate. We have purchased the majority of the great wines from Bordeaux, along with the top wines from most European wine producing nations for almost 3 decades. Plus, many of those wines were bought with a strong dollar. There was no competition. Things are starting to change.
Asia and other emerging markets are only starting to compete for the top wines. It will take some time, perhaps 10-15 years, but sooner or later, and probably sooner than later, much of the wines that American’s have been able to buy will be allocated to countries that have never had the opportunity to buy the wines before. They never knew what it was like to buy wines at a cheap price. To them, the price is the price. It might seem expensive to them but it will not appear overpriced. It’s a different mind-set. They have the money and the willingness to spend it on wine.
News example: Decanter article on Asians in the auction market
Good Grape: Asia is becoming a dominant world player in Bordeaux. Both futures and the auction market. What do you think this means in the long-run? Are First Growths destined to be museum wines for rest of the world—seen, but never drunk?
The Wine Cellar Insider: I am not sure this is the case. Asia is not yet a dominant player for Bordeaux futures. In fact, very few Bordeaux wines are selling in Asia as futures. I imagine this will change. But selling futures on a wide variety of different wines to Asia will be a difficult hurdle for the Bordeaux negociants to overcome.
The First Growths are already expensive and that small, select group of wines is destined to be more expensive as time goes on. They will only be opened by people who were lucky enough to have bought them a few years ago for low prices. Or, by people with vast amounts of wealth. I can say without a doubt, many of the First Growths are being opened and consumed in China. They are not being bought for the sole purpose of investment.
News example: Decanter article on Burgundy and Bordeaux in China
Good Grape: A recent Decanter article indicated that Bordeaux and Burgundy were engaging in a competitive battle for Asian mindshare. For readers that are more New World inclined and as such don’t follow Burgundy and Bordeaux closely, what does this mean?
The Wine Cellar Insider: From my previous experience along with what I learned from two weeks in China during November, at the top end of the market, Bordeaux is the only game in town. Burgundy does not have the same level of demand.
The two regions do not really compete. They are different wines, in different styles that sell at different price points. Most consumers buy one region or the other. Although a few consumers purchase wines from both areas.
News example: Bordeaux politics in action ( link,link and link)
Good Grape: For much of the past decade it seems like the CIVB has had one plan after another to help the lower-end of Bordeaux flourish, all while there has been political turmoil amongst its members. How can readers get a sense for what the issues are? And, will there be a day when Bordeaux will be out of planning mode and growing?
The Wine Cellar Insider: The CIVB actively promotes Bordeaux and tries to help the wines at the lower end of the price point scale. There are over 10,000 different producers making Bordeaux wine. Most of the generic wines are not that good. Bordeaux has a hard time competing in the $8 and under price range. There are stronger wines in that price being produced in South America, Australia and Spain.
The smaller growers are unhappy with the results being achieved by the CIVB. In fact, within the past few days, several growers recently defected from the CIVB hoping to set up a rival alliance called the CAVB, The Bordeaux Wine Growers Action Committee. The disenchanted growers claim the CIVB has not helped promote their wines in the marketplace.
News example: Women in Bordeaux
Good Grape: Some of the male-dominated tradition in Bordeaux was hinted at in Mondovino, but we’ve recently seen some more news reports celebrating female vignerons in Bordeaux. Help readers understand some of the cultural issues that have prevented women from playing a more dominate role in Bordeaux.
The Wine Cellar Insider: Mondovino is more fiction than fact. It’s a skewed look at the wine world from one point of view. Bordeaux has had strong women at the helm for decades. A few examples from the Medoc and Pessac Leognan are:
In Pomerol, the most famous proprietor who helped promote the success of Pomerol as well as the most expensive Bordeaux wine was a woman. Madame Loubat is responsible for much of the success at Petrus. In St. Emilion there are numerous women that run properties:
Juliette Becot at Beau-Sejour Becot who also works with La Gomerie and Joanin Becot
Sophie Fourcade with Clos St. Martin who also manages two other St. Emilion estates, Grandes Murailles and Cote de Baleau.
Helene Garcin runs four properties. Two in Pessac Leognan and one each on Pomerol and St. Emilion.
Murielle Andraud runs Valandraud, Clos Badon and Bad Boy.
I can cite a lot more examples. This was just a short list. Bordeaux has been open to women for ages.
Ed Note Pt. I: Yup, glad I asked for context …
Good Grape: With Suckling and Parker both carrying en primeur influence, do you think James Suckling loses currency by not having the Wine Spectator masthead for 2010 barrel tasting in early 2011? Parker influence aside, does the magazine make the critic, or does the critic make the magazine?
The Wine Cellar Insider: First of all, I wish James all the best of luck in his new endeavor. It takes a lot of courage to go out on your own. He’s a nice guy and a good taster with a lot of experience. However, it remains to be seen how well James will do without The Wine Spectator. His site only went live (very recently). Time will tell.
As far as influence on Bordeaux wine prices and sales, Robert Parker has no peer. His report is the number one quoted report in the entire wine world. Bordeaux price their wines after Bob’s report comes out. While all professional critics (including James), yield some influence, Bob is at the top of the pyramid.
Most people read The Wine Spectator because it is The Wine Spectator. The Wine Spectator is a hugely successful brand. At the Spectator, individual critics are not as important as the masthead or brand. They can be changed at will and sales of the magazine are not going to go up or down. But when it comes to Bordeaux, Parker’s journal, The Wine Advocate remains the most important buying and selling source all over the world for Bordeaux consumers, merchants and the chateaux.
Good Grape: Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate the insight.
Ed Note Pt. II: Leve has a lot of content on this site covering many of the great Bordeaux Chateaux’s. Have a look around and spend some time.
December 14 2010
I am a hundred pages into Rex Pickett’s new novel called Vertical (the sequel to Sideways) and I’ve realized two things: First, despite having seen Sideways the movie four or five times, I wish I had read Sideways the book first (Admit! You haven’t read it, either) and second, having a dictionary handy adds tremendous enjoyment to my reading.
Since I’m only a hundred pages into the book this isn’t a review, nor am I likely to do a review. As an avowed reader of non-fiction, I’ll leave fiction criticism to people who are qualified to do so. I can say, however, that the premise of the book is a mind-bending one (not quite to the level of Inception, but definitely on the order of Being John Malkovich), which is why I recommend reading Sideways the book first.
It goes something like this: Riding high from the fame found in writing a fictitious book called “Shameless” and having a movie made of those adventures (the same adventures made famous in Sideways), Miles, Jack, and crew embark on more wine-fueled madcap adventures.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s really odd to have the adventures in Sideways that we all know referred to as a fictional book and movie called “Shameless” with Miles called “Martin.” Not having the context of the book Sideways makes it hard to track whether the incongruousness of the first-person narrative from Miles in Vertical is confounding because of my simpleton nature, or something I should *get* from the source book, which supposedly varies slightly from the movie. This peccadillo aside, the real purpose of this post is to encourage you to do two things – buy Vertical and support a wine-loving writer and dust off your dictionary, as well. You’re going to need it.
To say the protagonist, Miles Raymond, has a big vocabulary is an understatement akin to saying Michael Jordan was merely a “good” basketball player. I’m known to throw off a $2 word every now and again, but I can’t hold a candle to author Pickett and the narrator, Miles.
Nestled into some overt, ready-made for the ensuing movie product placement (Revo sunglasses, Riedel Sommelier glasses, an iPhone, Silverseas Cruises, Toyota Sienna, et al) while, oddly, Viagra is referred to by its medical name, Sildenafil, and some wine name-checking (David Family, Bonaccorsi, Justin Wines, St. Innocent Winery, Witness Tree Vineyard, Sokol Blosser, Bergström), and what seems to be a strong authorial voice breaking through pissed that he’s not getting sales commission from The Hitching Post, along with the inclusion of a song ready made for the movie trailer (Harry Belafonte’s Day-O), are the following words you should brush up on (links to dictionary.com).
Vertical Vocab Primer / Pt. I (Chapters 1 – 6)
My wife, the Book Editor, tells me that the Twilight series of books is the baseline for a series of vocab study guides for high school tests—the SAT, ACT, etc from Cliffs Notes. Learn the meaning of words in context with passages from the Twilight books. It’s a good idea, but methinks Vertical vocab is Post-Doctoral quality and there ain’t no testing after a Ph.D. ...