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Don’t Believe the Hype:  QR Codes are the Pet Rocks of 2011

Cyril Penn does a fantastic job as head editorial honcho for one of the wine industry’s two principal trade magazines – Wine Business Monthly (the other is Wine & Vines led by Jim Gordon).  WBM’s editorial filter is an influential arbiter of prioritization in the industry and a bulwark against noise and distraction.

Given that, I was surprised when the August issue of Wine Business Monthly arrived with a large QR code on the cover.  In the realm of digital marketing, precious little is more representative of “noise” and “distraction” then QR codes – a fad more perishable than a gallon of milk with a shelf life to match.

While the article (written by Paul Franson who writes for both trade magazines) is exceedingly informed and balanced, the reality is, in my opinion, QR codes act as an inexpensive panacea for the innovative disruption that is being wrought in the consumer technology market with smart phones and tablet computers and are not an effective marketing tactic for the wine business.

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As a 15-year professional in technology marketing (Jeez, has it been 15 years?), I’ve had the chance to watch and participate in every chapter of Internet marketing dating to 1996.  And, despite my better judgment, I’m currently involved in two QR campaigns—one with a major mobile phone carrier engaged in niche audience marketing and another with a leading spirits brand.  Because of this, I have a front row seat to execution, usage and value with an eye on the future.

When QRs burst onto the technology and wine industry scene last summer, they represented two aspects of potential value:

  Something tangible and understandable in the realm of the digital hot topic of the day – mobile marketing

  Something reasonably inexpensive, less complex and widely usable on the heels of phone apps which were white hot in 2009, but reasonably expensive, complex and impractical for most wineries.

Despite the momentum in mindshare from wine industry marketers, the numbers don’t bear out a need to implement usage of QR codes in marketing activities.

Consider: According to recent ComScore (Digital research and measurement firm) research, a mere 14 million mobile users scanned a QR code in June of this year.  When considering that there are 78.5 million smart phone users in the U.S., less than one in five owners have used a QR code – and this is the leading edge of technology adopting consumers! 

The numbers get a lot worse when you compare usage against the total number of cell phone users in the U.S. –303 million.  Not exactly resounding validation based on adoption and usage against the potential population.

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Perhaps more damning is the fact that in technology marketing, momentum is everything.  We want to do the things that our peers are doing.  In this case, they’re largely ignoring QR codes.

Now, I can already hear the cries of defense –“QRs are still early in their lifecycle,” or “Our campaign is successful…” so, let me ask a couple of questions:

  Can you explain how to use QR codes in under 60 seconds?

  When was the last time you used a QR code in the store?

If you can answer the first two queries with a straight face, then…

  When was the last time you used a QR in the store and the content provided by the brand was worthwhile?

If you can answer the first three queries with a straight face, then…

When was the last time you used a QR and the content provided incented your purchase decision?

That’s what I thought. The principal challenge with QRs is that marketers are creating them for an audience and for consumers that they think exist based on a cresting wave, but for whom the numbers don’t back it up.  It’s the worst kind of vacuum-oriented marketing when people create something for people to use that they themselves don’t use.

And, secondarily, the consumer value provided by the marketer’s content is often bad, really bad.  So, even if consumers do scan the code, the value is often dubious at best.

However, even more challenging to QR adoption and usage is the hungry maw of technology advancement that isn’t going to stop apace for QRs. 

The next wave of mobile technology is right around the corner.

While the Wine Business Monthly article cites “label photo recognition” as a possible advancement – the process of taking a picture of the label that will return relevant information, this is likely to join a couple of other technologies and one that is poised to be dominant:  Near Field Communication (NFC).

Near field communication is a technology protocol that will allow for wireless payments via your mobile phone.  Your phone is linked to your bank account and when processing a transaction at a store, you wave your phone at the reader at checkout and presto change-o it’s a transaction without swiping our ATM card.

The same capability will soon exist with NFC tags that can be placed on products, and instead of trying to read a QR code, you’ll be able to wave your phone at a tag and a video (or a brand-oriented piece of content) will automatically load.

NFC removes the important bit of challenge that exists with QR codes – humans.  You have to understand what a code is, you have to get and keep an app. to read the code and then you have to use it.  If all that works, then hopefully the content that’s served the consumer isn’t a letdown.

Eliminating as many steps as possible and keeping it stupid simple with a high degree of value is the key to user behavior. 

In sum, I’m a big supporter of the convergence of wine and technology.  Technology will re-define the domestic wine world, both consumer facing and in the industry value-chain, but along the way there will continue to be a number of technology marketing tools that are more hype than reality and parsing the difference between the two sure isn’t easy.  Unfortunately, QR codes happen to have a grip on the wine business and they’re definitely hype.

Later this week I’ll cover several other fleeting bits of technology marketing fluffiness including the wine industry’s equivalent to Hallmark holidays.

Additional background reading on QR codes and Near Field Communications:

Top 14 Things Marketers Need to Know About QR Codes

NFC Marketing and promotions round-up


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Perfection in a Bottle?

In the rolling hills of Tuscany the Frescobaldi family has been making wine for 30 generations and some 700 years.  Yet, it was only in 1995, when the family aligned with the Mondavi’s, America’s first wine family, that a cross-continental collaboration was borne in Montalcino, an area within the Tuscan region famous for its Brunello, a 100% Sangiovese wine.

Luce della Vite, meaning “Light of the Vine,” is the resulting winery even as gyrations in the Mondavi family business have blunted the initial collaboration of the two families in jointly creating a world class winery.  Now run exclusively by the Frescobaldi’s with investment from Michael Mondavi (and imported to the U.S. by Michael Mondavi’s Folio Wine Partners), their flagship wine, sourced from 29 DOCG certified acres, the 2006 Brunello di Montalcino, has been awarded a perfect 100-point score by James Suckling, former European Bureau Chief for Wine Spectator, now leading his own wine project at his eponymous web site.

This introduction would be apropos of nothing besides ornate wine writer affectations were it not necessary to create the milieu for what is an interesting convergence of issues in the wine world.

Encapsulated in this one wine, from an Italian wine family, formerly aligned with the scion of American wine and imported to the U.S. by his son and given a perfect 100-point score by a former critic with the Wine Spectator, many of the contemporary issues of the wine world can be examined and pondered…

Consider:

•  A 100-point score

Is there such a thing as a perfect wine?  I’ll leave the question open-ended while noting that my own scoring only goes to 99.  In the realm of subjectivity, can something like wine or art achieve perfection?

•  The fallibility of wine criticism

Stephen Tanzer, another notable wine critic, gave the same wine 92 points.  Wine Enthusiast scored it 93 points.  Robert Parker’s Italian wine critic (and recently anointed California reviewer), Antonio Galloni, gave it a 90.  While a 90, 92 or 93 is a good score, the difference between a 93 and a 100 certainly points to a margin spread that provides more questions than answers about the wine.

•  Crossing the digital divide

Suckling, ex-Wine Spectator, is out of the paper magazine business and running his own web site with subscriptions, a business that is less than a year old.  He has lived in Tuscany for a number of years and knows Brunello wines well.  However, anointing 100-point wines isn’t something critics do lightly or without thought.  So, when he declares that, “The 2006 vintage for Brunello di Montalcino is the new benchmark…” is he genuinely reviewing the vintage and the region’s most notable vintner or is this his attempt at market-making relevance akin to Robert Parker Jr.’s declaration of ’82 Bordeaux as “superb” when others weren’t as bullish?

•  Critical scores affect on inelastic pricing

While so-called “cult” wines get a bad rap based on their stylistic profile, the reality is that prices are high because of scarcity – more people want to buy it then there is wine available to buy.  Suckling’s 100-point score for the Luce Brunello is oft-repeated on numerous retailer web sites where the retail price has been raised from a suggested retail price of $89.99 to an average price of $127 based on Wine-Searcher.com data.  Meanwhile, the 2005 Luce Brunello is being discounted and has an average price of $84 based on Wine-searcher.com data.  It should be noted, that save for Suckling on the ’06, both wines were reviewed consistently with scores in the low 90s.

•  A global style

It’s interesting to note that Suckling’s tasting note for the Brunello called it, “…A wine with soul.”  Meanwhile Antonio Galloni noted, “The sheer concentration and depth of fruit are remarkable, but ultimately this comes across as a heavy, labored Brunello with limited finesse.”

So, which is it?  Is it a soulful wine or one with limited finesse?  The U.S. has the largest global appetite for Brunello with some reporting that upwards of 25% of all Brunelli produced is imported to the states.  Given that, is the Luce Brunello made to appeal to more of a fruit-forward palate that is often found in the U.S., a style of wine that Wine Spectator and Suckling have lauded in the wake of Robert Parker, the so-called, global style?

Summary

I’ll save the full review of the wine for my Forbes.com column…in the meantime, I’m reminded that the conversations about the people, personalities, ideas and issues in the wine world are often as interesting as what’s in the glass and that’s certainly the case with the 2006 Luce della Vite Brunello di Montalcino, a 100-points for interest and conversational fodder and less for the actual wine.  For me, that’s just perfect.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Trend Edition

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

The Devil’s Cut

I’m a sucker for the clever and unconventional, I admit it.  One such bit of cleverness isn’t even wine-related, though it is oak barrel related.

Most wine enthusiasts are familiar with the, “Angel’s Share.”  It’s a term that denotes the wine (or spirits) that is lost from a barrel due to evaporation during the aging process.  Now comes the, “Devil’s Cut” from Jim Beam.

Using a proprietary process that extracts the bourbon moisture that’s left in the staves of the barrel after being emptied, this extract is then blended with regular Jim Bream to create a deeper, more characterful sipper.

I’d hate to think what a wine might taste like if the, “Devil’s Cut” was blended in from a wine-aged oak barrel, but a thumb’s up to Jim Beam for thinking outside the box.  The wine world could use more esoteric and idiosyncratic ideas similar to what the Scholium Project is doing, turning wine on its head.  Can a day be too far away when white Pinot Noir and orange wines aren’t outliers?

Speaking of Idiosyncratic

Last year I wrote a story on Proof Wine Collective and their out-of-the-box wine label design work.  An edgy company of twenty-something’s in San Luis Obispo, they’re set to eschew a services-oriented business helping market other people’s wine projects and start their own wine thing.

Anti-wine by the guys at Proof sets the table for what’s to come with an Anti-wine Manifesto that says in part, “I can hear the death rattle of our industry when salespeople peddle wines made and re-made in the same style, over and over.  I hear it when they glorify classism, pretending that customers own a cellar to age wines for decades, when in truth we buy a bottle to drink tonight…My goal with this project is to be free from the affectations of an industry I can no longer respect.  These wines follow no formulae (Ed. Note:  Nice use of the plural of formula!). They are blended between vintages in order to take the best traits of each.  I regard red and white varietals as equals, and intermix them with no interest in what is “sellable.”

I like idea, for sure.  However, initial reverberations indicate that they’re going to have to do some traditional-type activity in the wine business to get solid footing.  Sales at retail.  Wine events.

If a nascent wine brand truly wants to be free from the affectations of the industry and do so without being shticky then it has to be prepared to swim completely against the current. 

I’m rooting for Anti-wine, but I’d also like to see a completely new playbook written for the wine business, not a statement of intent while coloring inside the lines.

Tastevin

I’ve read a couple of recent articles that indicate that watches are set to become a trend (here and here).  This struck me as odd because I hadn’t received the memo that watches were out of style.  I started to think about accessories for wine enthusiasts that are decidedly out of style and I came to the tastevin.

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Traditionally used by Sommeliers, but long out of favor, the only reason I know it’s not a mythical unicorn, is because a Somm. at my honeymoon resort some years ago was wearing one and checking the quality of the bottles he was serving by taking a quick sniff and slurp.

Now inspired, I’m starting a one-man wine trend.  If you see me at a wine tasting in the future it’s probable that I’ll be using a tastevin instead of the insipid glassware that’s usually provided.

Feel free to adopt usage of a tastevin for yourself.  The key to not feeling douchey is to either be incredibly confident or so hip that others don’t even know its hip.  Either will work for this emerging trend that you and I are starting.  Buy one at Amazon.com.


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Wine and the Thinking Hat (Or Six of them…)

All opinions are valid, but not all opinions are correct, particularly if they’re based on incomplete thought.

Lately, this is what I’ve been thinking about as our national media de-camps into political ideology which itself mirrors our politics.  We’re in a period of time in which demagoguery has dangerously replaced the usual rhetoric.

It defies my comprehension how our political landscape has devolved to the point where winners and losers are assigned based on who gave what in the national debt negotiations.  The net result is nobody wins and everybody loses, especially tax-paying Americans who have to suffer the fools that are our elected officials.  Even more egregious, I fear we’re inured to this finger-pointing blame game as a new reality.

A respite for most people, the wine world isn’t immune to bickering partisanship.  Consider:  Critics.  Points scoring.  Parker. Biodynamics. Corporate wine. New World vs. Old World. Technology. Oaked Chardonnay. The three-tier system…

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The wine world is no better than the national political conversation when it comes to taking sides and discarding rationale thought.  On wine issues, opinion acts as an article of faith, facts be damned.

But, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Recently, this site was named the most influential wine blog out of 3,000 drinks-related blogs. In spite of this, I don’t carry a burden of responsibility to use that supposed influence in any particular way.  However, if I could do one thing in creating influence (of the outwardly positive sort) it would be this: Urge all wine enthusiasts engaged in wine conversation online or offline to be empathetic and look at a situation and an opinion (that may be counter to your own) from 360 degrees.  Doing so doesn’t always lead to answers, but it does lead to pragmatic enlightenment.

And, we need more enlightened people (to say nothing of pragmatism).  Somewhere along the road of “social” associating itself with “media,” people, regular people, have subsumed the bad habits of traditional media and our elected officials and forgotten the most fundamental rules of the human condition:  “Treat others as you would have them treat you” and “Before judging a man, walk a mile in his shoes.”

Even worse, for all of the benefit that interactivity and social media has wrought for “conversation” and “dialogue” and the exchange of ideas, a whole lot of nothing has ever reached concurrence.

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Can it be that social media might be good for citizen uprisings with attendant violence, but poor for aligned progress?  Does ease of communication inspire our more savage instincts? God, the early returns aren’t great.  Yet, what’s the point of the exchange of ideas and information if it’s not to come to a place of mutual understanding?

Instead, too often it seems, we’re all stuck in the mud and Exhibit A would be the recent online wine points score debate that is the same debate that has been going on in the same material fashion for the last decade.  Yawn.  Wake me when somebody comes up with something better.  Then, there’s a real conversation to be had.

While my own naïve idealism isn’t enough to create a ripple in the pond, there are frameworks of change that can be adopted, even if incrementally.

I recently began exploring a paradigm for critical thinking called the “Six Thinking Hats” created by Edward de Bono.

Six Thinking Hats is as simple as it is beautiful and it offsets the fact that as we’ve perverted the Socratic method of thinking by combining its opposing viewpoint debate with feelings and emotions, losing dimensional thinking that leads to logical conclusions.

The Six Thinking Hats seeks to provide a holistic method of analyzing a situation or a problem.  Where our current thought process is typically duotone, the Six Thinking Hats is a full color picture.

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Think of a recent meeting at work. You were discussing a topic of some importance or consequence in outcome.  Chances are good it was a mud puddle of confusion amongst varying viewpoints that went in circles for an hour before you adjourned with a weak-kneed action item.  Or worse, interpersonal dynamics had the outcome yielding to the dominant ego in the room.

It’s hardly a recipe for success.  And, it’s repeated millions of times daily in the exchange of information on a subject.

Yet, the Six Thinking Hats is not about who is right or who is wrong, it’s about the way forward.  Instead of rewarding ego, the Six Thinking Hats rewards profundity of well-rounded thought – it requires an individual to look at all sides of an issue, moving away from habitual thinking styles that can run narrow and linear.

Represented by the metaphor of six differently colored hats, each hat represents a different aspect of thinking that can (and should) be used in the exchange of ideas to come to an essential truth.  In a group setting, a group would each symbolically assume the role of one hat color at a time to examine an issue to agreement.

The hats are:

White hat:  Facts and information.  With this hat, the focus is on what is known and what is available to be known.

Red hat:  Emotion, judgments, intuition.  Gut reactions.  With this hat, the focus is on instincts.

Black hat: Caution, faults, problems, issues.  This hat focuses on why something might not work.

Yellow hat:  Optimism, positivity, benefits and constructive.  This hat focuses on the value and benefit of a decision.

Green hat:  Creative, out-of-the-box and crazy alternatives.  This hat focuses on innovative ideas.

Blue hat: Guiding, facilitating and managing the process.  This hat acts as a calibrator for thinking about thinking.

As you can see, most people tend to skew towards one or two hats, but not all of the hats in totality.  However, what a difference a conversation might be if a group of people were committed to looking at a subject with all six hats.

Perhaps Biodynamics wouldn’t be considered voodoo to a percentage of the population.  Parker wouldn’t be a bogeyman.  Corporate wine wouldn’t be a scourge… A level of common ground could be found in conversation amongst differing viewpoints…

I don’t presume that everybody is going to download the PDF linked below and really absorb the notion of the Six Thinking Hats, particularly in the realm of wine issues, but in the future I will be creating a thinking hat outline for topical issues that seem to be particularly rancorous in the online wine discussion – if for no other reason than to save us from ourselves on the next go around of debate about the 100-point system.

As a final thought, it should be noted that Six Hats Thinking is taught to pre-school and kindergarten students as a thinking tool-set for their pliable minds.  Perhaps the kindergartener in all of us that plinks on the keyboard should pay heed to what four and five year olds can comprehend. 

Six Thinking Hats download


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The Best Door Stop you can buy

It weighs in well over five lbs. measures nearly a foot in length and contains over 2500 pages. 

Bed time reading?  Only if you have the energy to wrestle the massive tome into bed.

While it’s odd to consider such a book in an age where reading the newspaper is quaint, magazines are building their proverbial bridge to cross the digital divide and e-book sales are skyrocketing at the expense of their paper-based brethren, I’m here to encourage you to not only buy a relic of the 20th century, but to buy a used 1980s version before it’s too late; they won’t be available forever.

The Bern’s Steakhouse wine list is the stuff of legend and a worthy addition the wine enthusiasts’ book collection.

Bern’s boasts the largest wine list of any restaurant in the world and not so coincidentally they have the largest private wine cellar in the U.S.  A winner of Wine Spectator’s Grand Award every year since the award’s inception in 1981, they have earned their wine bona fides. 

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The wine list itself has grown in legend comparable to the cellar. 

The story goes that as Bern Laxer’s wine cellar and wine list at his eponymous restaurant gained notoriety, the lists intended for patron perusal would frequently go missing by diners who wanted a souvenir of their meal (albeit a very large and unwieldy souvenir).  Out the door these wine lists went covered by a dinner jacket or (in)discreetly tucked into a purse or satchel. 

To combat the nicking, Proprietor Bern Laxer started publishing the wine list in book form and selling them complete with plenty of personally written wine region overviews, photos from travels and hand drawn maps. 

Discontinued in its gargantuan form with the 1994 edition when the updating process became too cumbersome in an already cumbersome process, the handsome, large format leather-look books are entirely charming, comprehensive, personal in authorial style and, dare I say, a must have.

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But, to repeat, you need to buy a used, vintage copy.

I only recently purchased my copy from Amazon.com.  The 1984 edition came to me in nearly perfect shape for the absurdly reasonable price of $23 plus $4 in shipping and handling.  The foldout maps are clever, the prose is folksy and to the point and the unpretentious historical perspective on the regions of the wine world and the great vintages dating to the mid-to-late 1800s is nearly impossible to find in other books.

It’s a tough sell these days to advocate buying a wine reference book.  Who has the time to read a doorstop?  These books are better used for occasional review and even then it’s better to know where to find the information then to have the book, or so goes conventional wisdom.  Where do you even put it?  It’s something else to collect dust…

Perhaps that perspective is valid, but there’s a lot to be said for looking at wine books, particularly vintage wine books, as equivalent to snatching up classic greatest hits of musicians in LP form – the recording as the artists intended it, a snapshot of a time and place that is entirely authentic.

You may want to buy a dictionary stand for it (another quaint relic of a bygone time) in order to have it at-hand and handsomely displayed near your wine, and you’ll have to sleuth out used versions on Amazon.com, eBay or your local used bookstore, but I can confirm definitively that having a copy of Bern’s Steakhouse Wine List from the 80s or 90s won’t be the most important wine book you own, but it will become your most treasured.


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