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Help Steer the Direction of an Award Winner!

Generally speaking, I do very little public housekeeping here, but it’s time for some remodeling and I want your feedback. 

Despite winning some awards and receiving significant positive feedback about the design of this site, I haven’t materially changed the look or the function of Good Grape since November 2006.  Times have changed a lot in the intervening (nearly) five years.  At the time, Wordpress was a very secondary blogging platform choice behind MovableType (I chose door #3).  Facebook had recently announced general availability to the public from its former days of being collegiately oriented; Twitter launched, but was barely a blip on the radar, YouTube was hot (but not ubiquitous) and smartphones were still very niche in general adoption.  Tablets like the iPad?  Nope, at that point people were stoked about rumors of an iPhone that was set to be released sometime the next year. 

A lot has changed in five years and this site has barely kept pace, making due with duct tape and spittle.

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A number of regular readers have let me know that pieces and parts of the site don’t always work, or the site is slow for them, or it’s hard to comment, or archive pages are junky looking, or links take you away from the site, etc.  And, forget about reading this site on your mobile phone – Good Grape equal’s bad mobile mojo.  The list goes on and on and I have my own list of wishes and want-to’s 35 items deep.

So, here’s the question and the crossroads I’m facing:

Do I keep the same general design (with some slight modifications like making the main text area wider and re-doing the navigation) and simply leave a classic design alone, focusing on enhancing functional and technical aspects of the site?

Or,

Do I take this opportunity to blow it out and set the bar for what a quality, beautiful, professional wine blog should look like, plus all of the social and mobile bells and whistles?

Readers, friends, colleagues, and peers: Your feedback is very welcome.  Should I mess with a good thing for a potentially greater thing, or do stay true to the visual identity in place and simply remodel focusing on functionality, familiarity and usability?

Please leave a comment.


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Mollydooker:  A Left-handed Punch in the Gut or Not?

Within the span of 24-hours this past weekend, I had a conversation with an Australian wine marketing representative who described her role as, “The toughest job in the wine business,” and word spread about a wee wine accident Down Under.

In a story that was picked up by Time, CNN, MSNBC, Huffington Post and most major news outlets, it seems 461 cases of a 462 case parcel of the 2010 Mollydooker “Velvet Glove” Shiraz destined for the U.S. was dropped by a forklift while loading a container, creating broken bottles and, at the least, damage to the bespoke bottles with a velvet label and a $185 per bottle price tag.

Initial news reports were quick to point out that the wine was insured. 

I was in the company of wine writer’s this past weekend and they pondered whether this massive wine spill was actually a bad thing—the Mollydooker wines having a certain reputation for their over-the-top blowsy style favored by Parker and Wine Spectator who reviewed the 2009 vintage with scores of 97 and 96, respectively.

On Monday, July 25th the winery issued its own press release answering some “whys and wherefores” in how the accident happened after news reports were largely based on the scant original reporting from the Associated Press.

Yet, interestingly, Decanter.com subsequently reported that the winery press release with the headline, “Years of Tears and Sweat and More Than $1 Million Worth of Fine Wine Go Down the Drain” was rescinded and replaced with another press release titled, “Years of Love and Care, and More Than $1 Million Worth of Fine Wine, Go Down the Drain.”

If you’re ever curious about what happens when a press release is pulled online go ahead and search for the first headline I mentioned and you’ll see pages and pages of empty pages from syndicated press releases that serve as content for news sites.

Aside from the curiosity of all of this – broken bottles and the vagaries of press release headlines—the reality remains that this is probably the best thing that could possibly happen for Mollydooker and their “Velvet Glove” brand.  With an insurance policy, millions and millions of dollars of free press and the not inconsequential fact that despite its incredible critical scores, the 2009 wine (called a “Cult” wine by some) is largely available in the U.S. with plummeting pricing, winery owners Sarah and Sparky Marquis should be just fine despite the quote from Sparky where he noted, “This wine is our pride and joy, so to see it accidentally destroyed, and not consumed, has left us all a bit numb.”

Wine-Searcher tells a more interesting story.  The below graph illustrates the drop in price at U.S. retail over the last 12 months, which is decidedly, non-“cult-ish.”

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To respond to the rhetorical statement from my new Australian wine marketing friend who described her job as, “The toughest job in the wine business,” I would say:  The toughest job in the wine business is convincing a retailer to buy the 2010 Velvet Glove when the 2009 with insanely good ratings is still widely available below suggested retail price.

While the Marquis’ may be “numb” and crying over spilled wine, U.S. wine retailers are crying over dead inventory and there’s no insurance for that.


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On Family and How I Came to Understand that Location Matters

My Dad, Lawrence F. Lefevere, died on Saturday, July 9th and was laid to rest on Wednesday, July 13th.

He was young, just 64 years old.

The last 10 months (to say nothing of the last couple of years), have been hard.  My brother, sister and I carried principal responsibility for ensuring appropriate care for my Dad as he slid into full vascular dementia, the accumulation of brain damage in stroke patients, with the same needs as those with Alzheimer’s.

Accordingly, regular readers of this site have probably noticed that my writing output has dropped off precipitously this year; the result of the increased responsibility with my Dad’s care, which itself coincided with new and demanding responsibilities at work.  I prioritized appropriately, and in so doing my creativity and inveterate curiosity in wine slowed to, if not idle, at least first gear, as did my available time. 

This public acknowledgement of the private challenges I’ve been experiencing should not be mistaken for a eulogy to my father.  I’m not able to quantify in mere words what the loss of my Dad means to me.  In fact, I haven’t come to grips with his mortality yet, still dealing with an open wound and flowers hither and yon around the house. 

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No, instead, this is a brief rumination on wine and, more specifically, what I’ve recently come to understand about wine and the importance of place.

Over the last week or so more than a few people said to me, “Your Dad was ‘Old School’” and “They don’t make them like Larry anymore.” Or, “He was definitely his own man.”

They’re right.  He was “Old School” and damn proud of it thankyouverymuch; he was very much a throwback to a different era, a product of where he came from, the kind of guy that can’t be popped out of a cookie cutter mold and dropped into the suburbs.  My Dad grew up in a place that scarcely exists anymore – a Midwestern post-World War II middle-class clapboard neighborhood with both a tavern and a Catholic church within a stone’s throw of the front stoop.  He was raised by two working parents, one a laborer and the other clerical, neither of whom was educated beyond high school.  He was a Baby Boomer who went to Vietnam raised his family and worked 60 hour weeks for nearly my entire life.

My Dad smoked and drank and cursed; he was stubborn, principled, self-possessed, he spent little, saved a lot, paid tuition for all 16 years of his kids education (Catholic schools through high school and then college), was funny, loyal, loved Notre Dame football and was a complete and utter technophobe, never advancing beyond hunting and pecking on a typewriter.

And, to my knowledge, he never saw anything I’ve written about wine, much less understood my interest in something that didn’t come from Stroh’s brewery.  I am a “New World,” contemporary counterpoint to my Dad’s traditional ways.

Yet, my Dad has helped me come to a new appreciation about wine, at least wine that speaks of where it comes from—in sensibility and stridency.

Over the last several years, The Office of Champagne in the US has been on something of a long-term sustained warpath(Center for Wine Origins) in protecting the value of origins in naming i.e. Champagne comes from Champagne, France and nowhere else. Likewise, in this sensibility, Port wine can only come from Portugal. 

When it comes to this Champagne “Location Matters” campaign, I’ve always played both sides of the fence; never too with the Champagne and Port campaigns nor too against.  Kind of right down the middle, but leaning towards an arched eyebrow and the notion that there are more important things to do and spend money on then marketing and bleating about how, “Champagne only comes from Champagne, France.”  Especially when trying to undo 30 years of ingrained consumer habit.

As I celebrate my Dad’s life and fondly recall what a unique person he was, where he came from, what he lived through, how he was a distinct product of his time, place and environment—unmistakably unique in personality and ethos based on his roots and his life experiences, and ultimately buried just miles from where he was born, I’ve come to realize that location does matter.

I realize that he is the result of a confluence of circumstances that are unique to him, and not able to be duplicated.

As I’ve thought about my Dad’s life, as unique as he was, indeed, he couldn’t have come from any other place than South Bend, IN, just as I now see that dammit, yes, Champagne comes only from Champagne, France.

I get it.

My dad may have been an “Old School” guy that didn’t know anything about wine, but he posthumously taught me to appreciate the, “Old World,” as well.


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Wine Loves “Transparency” Until it doesn’t:  An Ethical Debate

The domestic wine world loves authenticity and transparency – especially consumers.  This is a common refrain albeit more ideal than reality. 

This point has been underscored for me recently with David Darlington’s new book, An Ideal Wine: One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection – And Profit – in California.  Darlington spends much of the book elucidating the use of technology tools in the wine business.  These tools are principally from service providers like Enologix and Vinovation. 

While many vintners are quoted (and seemingly forthright) in the book, the reality is that both companies have cloaked client lists and the respective businesses operate on the margins of the industry with precious few of their clients willing to go on record about their use of analytical and corrective wine tools. 

Transparent?  When it comes to the production side of the business, not so much.

There’s another area where wine isn’t exactly transparent, and that’s on the pricing side of the equation in between distribution and retail.

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Wine media members can secure a subscription to the Beverage Media price list magazine in their geography (used as a retail reference) and see monthly wholesale pricing, comparing that pricing to the actual prices on local store shelves, or even restaurants.

Who is gouging who?  Who offers legitimate deals?  The information is available.

I’ve always had a slight desire to re-publish wholesale pricing, comparing it against actual store pricing, shining a light on a couple of retailers in my town who are less than magnanimous in the alleged “deals” they are offering.  Yet, societal mores have precluded me from doing so.  I’d probably bear the wrath of enough people to earn a Scarlet Letter.  Or, worse, I would violate some Beverage Media terms and conditions that I wasn’t aware of.  At the least, I would break an unspoken rule in the gentlemanly sport of business – similar to the unspoken baseball rule that says you shouldn’t break up a double play AND use your cleats as a weapon whilst doing so.

Well, in the Netherlands, an online wine shop lacks the compunction that I possess and for the better.  At least I think it’s for the better.  Anything that can blunt the criminal blow that is restaurant wine pricing the world over should at least deserve an, “Atta boy.”

Sterwijnen Thuis, a Dutch wine web site, loosely translated as “Home of Star Wine,” has taken wine list selections from the top 60 Dutch restaurants, and they then sell some 350 - 400 of the same labels online for considerably less, listing the name of the restaurant where the wine is featured.  In doing so, the spread of margin in between what Sterwijnen Thuis sells the wine for versus the restaurant pricing becomes glaringly obvious.

As you might imagine, not everybody is happy about this, especially the restaurants.

The Dutch Alliance Gastronomique is conferring with restaurateurs and some are talking lawsuit.

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Sterwijnen Thuis, reflexively perhaps, indicates that they are simply making publicly available information, well, publicly available.  It’s not their fault if they can sell the same wines as a restaurant for much less money.

Ahem.

Unfortunately, in order to follow this story you’ll need to use an auto-translation tool in your browser (I use Google’s Chrome browser), and you can find the story here and here.  An English-language blurb can be found here.

I open this up to readers.  Is Sterwijnen Thuis within their right to baseline their inventory against the gloss of very reputable restaurants while showing cost savings in the process?  Is all fair in love and war?

Or, is this an egregious lack of decorum worthy of brush back pitch to the chin in the top of the inning as recompense?

Leave a comment with your thoughts.


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The Domestic Wine World in a Nutshell

Constellation Brands, the 2nd largest wine company in the U.S. behind E&J Gallo, has turned a nice trick.  Since May, their PR activities and the ensuing media coverage (across a diversity of topics) largely encapsulate the trends in the domestic wine world if not the larger American business environment. 

I pay attention to Constellation Brands.  I read the annual report, dry though it may be, and while I find that Constellation tends to get painted with the, “Corporate wine” brush that suggests a blend of big business and wine is necessarily bad, I haven’t found that to be the case with Constellation, at least anecdotally.  In fact, most former employees of Constellation that I’ve talked with offer respect for the organization while citing a host of more individual reasons for why they moved on.

No business is perfect, but Constellation hardly seems to be the bogeyman that the Agrarian Utopianists would have you believe.  Though, one quote from their 10-K seems to summarize the largely unspoken tension that exists between wine big business, the land and the globalization that tugs at both of them.

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“We are primarily a branding consumer products company and we rely on consumers’ demand for our products.  Consumer preferences may shift due to a variety of factors, including changes in demographic or social trends, public health policies, and changes in leisure, dining and beverage consumption patterns.  Our continued success will require us to anticipate and respond effectively to shifts in consumer behavior and drinking tastes.”

Opinion with the most strident wine conservatives holds that a winery should be a rock in the stream, rooted in terroir, not yielding to the fashion of the day and certainly not functioning as a branded, “consumer products company” answering to the vagaries of fickle, “consumer preferences.”

Yet, pursuant to the essential truth or not, that’s where the domestic wine world is today.  Let’s take a look at Constellation headlines dating to May of this year to see the domestic wine world trends in a nutshell:

Targeting Millenial Wine Drinkers Online / May 12, 2011      
Key reference(s) in the article:  Sensory analytics to understand consumer preferences.  Brand building akin to Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola.  Expansion of its Project Genome research that studies wine drinkers’ buying habits.

Under the Microscope:  Constellation Brands’ push into digital marketing / May 13, 2011      
Key reference(s) in the article:  “Social media has caught executives’ interest, given that most wine is discovered by consumer(s) via personal recommendation.”  “Since implementing the psychographic targeting, the company has seen an increase of click through rates of 150%, increased fans of 75%.”

Constellation Takes Long-View Approach / May 15, 2011                    
Key reference point(s) in article: “Much of the work Constellation did in reshaping the company came during the recession. For a time, sales took a hit and losses were evident.  But the company continued to pay down debt and build cash flow. ‘We could have pulled back and stopped investing in the business.  That would have been dangerous.  But we didn’t overreact,’ said CEO Rob Sands.’”

Europe:  Constellation plots greater push into Eastern Europe / May 18, 2011      
Key reference(s) in article:  While Constellation divested itself of the majority of this business earlier this year, they did maintain a minority stake in the organization renamed Accolade Wines on July 1st.  “Speaking on Eastern Europe more generally, (Constellation’s General Manager for Europe, James Lousada) said that Constellation is prepared to play a long game in the likes of Poland, Ukraine, Czech and Russia.  ‘If we start now then in five years we will have a significant business in those countries.’”

Constellation Plans Major Innovation Push In 2011, With Launch of 20 New Wines / May 18, 2011            
Key reference(s) in article: “Constellation Wines U.S. President Jay Wright said today that the company is planning a blitz of 20 new wine products this fiscal year (ending next February), targeting fast-growing segments like sweet red blends, Prosecco, Moscato and Malbec. Among the new rollouts will be a sweet red blend in the $8 to $11 range, Primal Roots, and a new offering in the rising unoaked wine segment, Simply Naked (around $10 a bottle). Both will launch June 1st. A new premium Spanish brand, Rioja Vega, is also poised for rollout.”

What Does China Need?  More Table Wine / May 20, 2011
Key reference(s) in article: “Chief Executive Rob Sands of the New York-based beverage company said he will formally announce a top executive for its Asian business.  Sands says he sees a sweet spot in the Chinese market in imported table wines … that market has grown 20% a year in the five-year period leading to 2010, according to a report by Rabobank.”              

Constellation Unveils Winery Expansion / June 8, 2011      
Key reference(s) in article: “’This expansion is a cornerstone for the future of our business,’ (COO Jay) Wright said.”

Constellation Brands to Cut Jobs to Save Money / June 30, 2011      
Key reference(s) in article: Despite higher than expected earnings in its first quarter of fiscal year 2012, Constellation plans, “…to cut about 100 jobs, or 2.3 percent of its workforce, as part of a business realignment meant to save money … the company expects the moves to save it more than $10 million …”

Constellation Sales Slide in First Quarter / June 30, 2011      
Key reference(s) in article: “Constellation has rolled out around 50% of the 20 new wine products it has slated for this year, with Rex Goliath Moscato, Ruffino Prosecco, Arbor Mist Pomegranate Berry Pinot Noir and the Simply Naked unoaked line already making their debuts.”

Summary

By looking at the wine business through the prism of Constellation’s news, I see a number of trends that are palpably present for the entirety of the domestic wine business:  Globalization, digital, Millenials, investing in growth, layoffs, new “hot” segments or varetials like Prosecco, Moscato, unoaked chardonnay, sweet wines.

While these trends are on a more granular level than the seismic macro shifts that Mike Veseth describes in his new book, Wine Wars, the point continues to be reinforced for me that we’re at the tail end of a Golden Age of wine, the agrarian ideal is quickly becoming a slippery slope necessitating changing with the times and 20 years from now the first decade of the millennium will be viewed as the halcyon days of old. 


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