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Move Over Moscato and Make Way for Sweet Reds

Over the course of the last year, I’ve been chronicling trending in sweet wines.  From Jam Jar, the first semi-sweet red to forthrightly come to market with national intent, to Tim Hanni, a Master of Wine who is advocating a respected hierarchy for sweet table wines and their consumers, to the growth of Moscato both in acreage under vine and wines on the shelf.  The growth of sweet table wine is palpable, even if a vocal minority views it as potably unfit plonk.

With national wine companies like Bronco nationally rolling out their Crane Lake Sweet Red in 2011, joining Gallo’s Barefoot Sweet Red that launched in 2010, the big guys see a market niche and sweet reds are taking their place next to Moscato in the opportunistic growth category…

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…An opportunity that, to this point, has been the province of local and regional wineries…and their happy customers.

I recently attended the annual Wine Market Council research presentation in New York City.  Combined with Nielsen data, the presentation presented a number of eye-opening insights into opportunities in the domestic wine business.  Notable amongst many data points was a Nielsen slide that presented wine sales growth from state of origin.

Citing notes I took from the presentation, Indiana had 13.1% growth in sales value and 11.2% growth in volumeNorth Carolina had 9.7% growth in sales value while they increased 12.6% in volume.

Of course, the question that begs to be asked is:  What is leading a Midwest and an east coast wine-producing state to grow their wine sales numbers at such rapid rates?

The answer it turns out is premium-priced, easy drinking sweet table wines – whites and reds—a fact that the national players are just now viewing as an opportunity, joining a party that has been going on for years.

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Indiana’s bellwether winery is Oliver, a favored son and a winery that was named one of Wine Business Monthly magazine’s ‘Hottest Small Brands’ in 2004.  In an interview with owner and winemaker Bill Oliver, he confirmed that Indiana’s growth percentages are largely attributable to Oliver’s increase in distribution throughout the country, from as far west as Colorado and throughout the southeast and eastern seaboard, with more growth on the way.  In fact, Indiana’s top selling wine for the last eight years has been – yes, you guessed it – the Oliver soft red and soft white wine, a sweet wine made from vitis labrusca concord grapes that fly’s off the shelves of grocery stores and big box warehouse club stores.

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In our conversation, Oliver cited two regional winery peers that have similar market profiles – St. James in Missouri who claim to have one of the top selling wines in the state year after year from their line-up of predominantly sweet and semi-sweet non-vinifera wines, as well as Duplin winery in North Carolina who also claim to be the producers of the perennially bestselling wines in their state from their line-up of Muscadine wines.  To their credit, Duplin has been named a 2009 and 2010 Beverage Information Group’s Fast Track Brand Award winner—the award is given based on percentage of sales growth year-to-year, with a minimum of 10% growth each year.

These regional wineries, with case production and spot distribution that would make most producers in California blush, are doing something right.

As virtually every state in the union has fostered a wine industry over the last 25 years, almost every one, save for wineries in California, Oregon and Washington, have a sweet table wine line-up that acts as the profit engine for the winery.  As Oliver noted, “It’s a no brainer.  I want to keep the lights turned on; I want to send my kids to college, and we’re serious about quality.”

What is curious, however, is why it has taken this long for the national players to recognize the trend that sweet table wine sells exceedingly well between the coasts. Simply, why has it taken this long to give the people what they want? 

The answer to why a sweet opportunity isn’t more manifestly addressed by the west coast wine industry is likely two-fold:

1) Sales data is notoriously poor making it difficult to spot trends that don’t start in your own backyard, or are shared over a cup of coffee

2) Save for dessert wines, sweet wines and their customers are viewed in a derogatory fashion by the fine wine segment of the wine industry

To wit, a recent Symposium at the University of California, Davis, the wine industry’s principal academic arm, called, “Sweet, Dessert, and Dried Fruit Wines:  A Worldview” focused mainly on dessert wines, as reported by Wines and Vines magazine.  The lone outlier discussing sweet table wine, Tim Hanni, from the Wines & Vines article said, “There are people out there who would love to drink wine, but we won’t let them” remarking on an institutional perception from the majority of the wine industry.

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For his part, Oliver is hoping that more people don’t catch on to the trend as he cautiously watches Barefoot and Crane Lake move into markets where Oliver sells exceedingly well.  Referring to Barefoot’s Sweet Red, he noted, “It tastes like Central Valley wine with sugar in it,” a stark contrast to the years of craft that have gone into making his Soft Red a high-quality people-pleaser.

In sum, we’re at the beginning of the sweet white and red wine trend.  Typically, there’s trend trickle down from the large wine companies into the finer wine segments of the west coast wine industry over a period of years.  Yet, until strapped west coast wineries, wrestling with how to grow, get the gospel, fast-growing wineries in the rest of the country are continuing their growth path on a foundation of high-quality, affordable, people-pleasing wines while muttering to themselves, “How sweet it is.”


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Online Wine Writing and the Trust Divide

For about $100, the cost for a couple of profile tests, I’ve gotten to know myself better and hopefully you’ll get to know me better, as well.

Why would you even care?  Maybe you don’t, but as a reader of this site you are a participant in reading the scribbling’s of an online wine writer.  As Woody Allen said, “90% of life is just showing up.”  By showing up, you are part of my wine life as well as others that take to their computers to live their wine life out loud.

Recently, spurred by year’s long acrimony that continues to rear its head every couple of months, I’ve been thinking deeply about how to overcome what I perceive to be a lack of institutional trust with online wine writers.  It seems it’s not enough to write well, often and with knowledge of the subject.  Derision is still manifest.  This derision is not necessarily directed at me, but of the genre of online wine writing in which I choose to participate. 

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I have identified four contributing factors:

Systemic skepticism.  Our national trust, according to the 11th annual Edelman Trust Barometer, has fallen precipitously low across business, government, non-profit and media.  There’s never been a better time to not trust what you hear, see or read.

Information ubiquity.   There’s too much information and opinion.  The signal-to-noise ratio is dangerously skewing towards noise.  While I don’t have facts to back it up, I would hazard a guess that the last five years has seen a greater quantity of wine writing than the previous 20 years combined.  Here, when everybody is a critic, nobody is a critic.  Put another way, when you’re supposed to trust everybody you end up trusting nobody.

Insularity.  When I made my two year long sojourn into the wine business, virtually every meeting amongst relative strangers started with a recitation of their resume; this is a phenomenon I’ve not seen repeated in other industries.  In the wine business, your credibility was vetted within five minutes based on who you know and where you’ve worked, not your bona fides.  It seems interlopers need to earn their merit badge, a difficult and long proposition denoted by tacit approval and tenure, not a meritocracy.

Brands.  Whether we want to admit it or not, brands, especially media brands, lend credibility to writers.  Without naming names, a review of the weekly Wine Opinions “Wine Review Weekly” will reveal wine writers with column inches in major dailies that possess less experience than many online wine writers who don’t have a masthead with an engendered brand that burnishes their personal star by proxy.  When talent is equal between two writers, the reader will defer to a brand—that’s marketing 101, and true of our media consumption, as well.

But, where to go from here?

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Recently, online wine writer Pamela Heiligenthal asked an open-ended question about whether online wine writers should earn one of the alphabet soup wine certifications.  She took lumps for her opinion, but I have a hard time arguing with her premise.  Those that are serious about wine and writing will undertake a commitment to demonstrate knowledge in the form of academic achievement.  Absent a brand, demonstrated knowledge is a hallmark of credibility.  And, online wine writers will likely always face limited resources in creating a trustworthy brand.

In addition to demonstrated wine knowledge, I would also humbly suggest a move towards conscientious disclosure that leads to a holistic professional view of a writer that engenders trust.

In the realm of consulting and services-based business development, a touchstone is a book and philosophy called, “The Trusted Advisor.”  The premise of the book is the equation that goes into creating trust-based relationships with your clients.  In the case of the online wine writer the clients are readers.

In my view, the notion of so-called “transparency” online is a false positive and a little bit of bullshit, because a reader doesn’t know if you’re trustworthy so quantifiably alleviating that question is an imperative.  Addressing that, a methodology has grown up around, “The Trusted Advisor” and includes a “Trust Quotient.”  In loose terms, a Trust Quotient is made up of your credibility, reliability, and intimacy, divided by your self-orientation. 

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The Trust Quotient begins to alleviate whether an online wine writer can be “quote/unquote” trusted.  But, it’s not the only factor.  There are other factors, as well – what are somebody’s strengths, for example.  A blog like mine that deals in issues and ideas may not engender trust if the style is contrary to my strengths.  Here, the Clifton StrengthsFinder extrapolates on what I’m good at. 

And, finally, a more subtle issue:  How does a wine writer work?  What’s their working personality? Are they subject to irrationality and flights of fancy that impact the quality of their work?  The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator® measures psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions.

These factors combined:

* What is your wine knowledge base?

* What do you do well / what are your strengths?

* How do you perceive the world and make decisions / what’s your style?

* Are you trustworthy?

All make up the whole person that fills in the credibility gaps that are otherwise deficient in a one-dimensional view of a writer through his or her writings.

So, I’ve created my own equation.  If you know me, you would know that a math equation is the last thing that’s a strength, but this is relatively simple.  My equation says: Respect = Your Knowledge + Your Strengths + Your Style divided by your Trust Quotient.

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Assuming that those factors come out positively, than, ultimately, an online wine writer should stand in judgment against any other wine writer regardless of the masthead they write for.

In that vein, here are is the $100 bucks worth of analysis that I’ve spent to understand myself a little bit better.  As my profiles indicate, I’m driven, work towards expertise, I’m self-confident, strategic and an achiever.  To that end, I’m willing to stand in the court of public opinion in order to earn your trust and respect.

Jeff Lefevere’s Knowledge (Goodgrape.com archives from 01/05 – 02/11)

Jeff Lefevere’s Trust Quotient (initiates a PDF download of my actual report)

Jeff Lefevere’s StrengthsFinder (initiates a PDF download of my actual report)

Jeff Lefevere’s Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (initiates a PDF download of my actual report)

Finally, if it seems like I’m defensive, I’m not.  My personality profile indicates that I’m a leader, responsible and accountable; it’s a mantle I take on for all online wine writers.


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Wine Research and Amazing Coincidences

Wine Intelligence, a wine research firm based in London, released their “Portraits USA 2011” report this week highlighting six distinct groups of consumers based on their relationship with wine.

According to the press release and marketing materials, the research provides insight into six prevailing consumer-based wine segments.

To this I say, “Fantastic.”

I also say, “Constellation Wines did this in 2006 with their Project Genome study and the Wine Intelligence bracketing of consumers has more than a passing resemblance to the Constellation study that was hailed at the time as a ‘landmark’ piece of consumer research.”

Take a look at the three images below and tell me that they aren’t materially the same.  The only difference I can determine is you can read a substantive summary of the Constellation research for free and the Wine Intelligence research will cost you $3,750.

No mention in the Wine Intellligence marketing materials about methodology or inspiration for their market segmentation, either.

PT Barnum said there’s a sucker born every minute.  PT Barnum didn’t acknowledge, however, people with a memory like an elephant.

Wine Intelligence
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Constellation Project Genome
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Comparison Chart Between the Two
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Wine Accessory Review: Wine Shield

It comes packaged like a condom sized for the Jolly Green Giant and it preserves your wine.  With that incongruent image now seared into your mental retina, you’d be doing yourself a favor to check out a newcomer to the wine preservation market – Wine Shield.

Packaged for retail in packs of six and 10, Wine Shield is a food grade quality plastic disc that is approximately the circumference of a bottle of wine.  Using a provided prong applicator, the Wine Shield is inserted into a bottle of wine where it floats on top of the remains of the bottle and acts as an oxygen barrier preserving the integrity of the wine for up to a week according to its inventors – an Aussie group called Wine Preserva.

Distributed state side by the same folks who sell WineSkin (the bottle transport bag), additional benchmark lab tests were conducted by ETS Laboratories in Napa.  Using a Wine Shield against control bottles with no preservation method, ETS found a marked difference in the quality of wine preserved with a Wine Shield as indicated by oxidation over a period of three to seven days.  Wine Shield, in their marketing materials, splits the difference and claims it, “Will preserve the taste and aroma of the wine at restaurant quality for up to five days.”

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While lab tests are great, they are no match to kitchen counter testing so I set out to do my own trial.  Using two bottles of an identical red blend (the appropriately called HOUSE WINE from The Magnificent Wine Company), I put a half bottle under the Wine Shield for five days and tasted it against a freshly opened bottle.

Color me surprised.  I’m an avowed Vacuvin and refrigeration guy, so the notion of keeping a bottle of wine out on the countertop created more than a hint of skepticism.  Yet, five days later not only was the wine preserved by the Wine Shield perfectly potable, but I’d dare say that is had imperceptible levels of degradation.  It merely tasted as if it had been nicely decanted next to the freshly opened bottle.  The nose was still delightfully intact, the fruit was abundant and the tannins had softened to a smooth, fine grain.

Yet, the Wine Shield is not without room for critique– the application process with the prong thingamajig is awkward and for the average wine enthusiast a Wine Shield is probably more of an occasional use item for expensive bottles of wine that won’t be finished in one sitting. Yet, at an inexpensive $5.95 for a six-pack and $6.95 for a 10-pack, I’d have a stash sitting around for when the need arises.

Where the real opportunity exists for Wine Shield, in my opinion, is in restaurants that serve wine by the glass, but don’t have earnest wine programs.  We’ve all been to a Thai joint and ordered a glass of Riesling that, to put it mildly, was way over the hill.  Here, where argon systems and wine preservation aren’t on the restaurant priority list, the Wine Shield would do wonders.

Overall, the Wine Shield is a winner and a little slice of genius when you consider how simple of an idea it is.  Even the most jaundiced of wine enthusiasts will be pleasantly surprised at its performance.  Consumers can buy it here and on-premise can buy wholesale here.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Junk Food Edition

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

Pizza in the Crosshairs

If you’re a foodie you like wine.  If you’re a wine enthusiast you appreciate good food.  Regardless of which side you lean, you appreciate the other side.  And, in my estimation, the common ground for wine enthusiasts and foodies is pizza. 

I’ve never met a single person who couldn’t wax philosophic about their favorite pie.  From New York thin crust to Chicago deep-dish to California-style gourmet pies, everybody loves pizza.  And, pizza, in a foodie society that rightfully denounces our Fast Food Nation, generally gets a hall pass.  It’s like M&M’s.  The locavore/whole foods/white table cloth person who swears to never eat junk food will bottom out a bowl of M&M’s, right?  The same thing happens with the foodie and their favorite pie.

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Yet, despite the wino/foodie familial alignment, a distressful situation happened a couple of weeks ago:  On January 31, the USDA released the 2010, “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”  In typical, “Good enough for government” fashion, the 2010 guidelines were released in 2011, and noted in not so subtle terms that pizza is public enemy #1 in battling the near epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes in the US.

Ahem.  I liked it better when the devil’s spawn was McDonald’s and not the staff of life … a slice of ‘za.

Aside from the truly scary fact that pizza is the number two source of calories for kids aged 2-18 (link initiates download of the entire report), it seems that pizza has everything that is bad for us – saturated and solid fats, sodium, added sugar and refined grains.

All I can say is I’m glad I’m on the wine side of the foodie/wino equation because Resveratrol, the little wine miracle compound, has been shown to have great potential in reducing obesity and diabetes.  So, to the USDA and Obama’s Victory Garden I say, “I’m in your corner more often than not, but don’t demonize pizza, my man.  All things in moderation, and paired with a nice red.”

You can read the Dietary Guidelines at this link.  Mark Bittman and his book Food Matters is the antidote (if you’re interested) and Resveratrol research is as prevalent as pizza joints in the suburbs.

Speaking of Junk Food

Palate training for a wine enthusiast is a process that is fraught with challenge.  No two people are necessarily going to get the same secondary or third-level notes on the same glass of wine so training is often a singular pursuit measured by much trial and error – bottle after bottle of wine, an aroma list by varietal and many tasting notes cross-referenced against a wine critic whose palate you respect. 

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But, what if you trained your palate not with wine, but with a soda and what if you knew the list of ingredients so you could test your palate in a quantifiable manner?

I saw an NPR news report earlier this week that noted the proprietary recipe for Coca-Cola was revealed in a 1979 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.  With the republished recipe, the NPR report isn’t so much news as it is a consumer interest piece – secret recipes the likes of the Colonel’s 11 secret spices or the 23 flavors in a Dr. Pepper always garnering attention.

The recipe itself is a bit of an aha moment for those that grew up in a Coke household, as I did – allowed one glass of Coke a day.  Containing a number of essential oils, a glass of Coke and a review against the alleged recipe allows for a simple palate test, as I did yesterday.

Give it a try.  I wouldn’t use a fountain Coke, but any old bottle from the convenience store will do, probably better if you go to a Mexican grocery store to get the version with pure cane sugar for purity of flavors.

I picked up the lime juice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and Neroli which is similar to orange peel, offering an orange-tinged bitter note in my own palate exercise.  The lemon oil presented itself on the latter portion of the mid-palate.  Though, coriander and vanilla eluded me.  How will you do?

The alleged original Coke recipe (from NPR at this link):

Fluid extract of Coca 3 drams USP
Citric acid 3 oz
Caffeine 1 oz
Sugar 30 (qty. unclear)
Water 2.5 gal
Lime juice 2 pints
Vanilla 1 oz
Caramel 1.5 oz or more to colour
7X flavour (use 2 oz of flavour to 5 gals syrup):
Alcohol 8 oz
Orange oil 20 drops
Lemon oil 30 drops
Nutmeg oil 10 drops
Coriander 5 drops
Neroli 10 drops
Cinnamon 10 drops


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