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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Cover Story Edition

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

The Wine Spectator Affect

When I received my November 15th issue of Wine Spectator on October 11th, featuring a cover shot of Tim Mondavi and an feature article on him and his estate winery Continuum, I captured some online research reference points so I could have a baseline to measure the effect that a flattering Wine Spectator cover story might have on a winery in the digital age.

Using Wine-Searcher, CellarTracker and Google Keywords search data to track various data points, the results, while not directly linked to conclusions, do indicate a small bump in interest as a result of the cover piece.

For example, Wine-Searcher data indicates that the average bottle price, an indicator of supply and demand, rose $2 month over month, from $149 a bottle to $151 a bottle.

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In addition, the Wine-Searcher search rank (always a month behind) indicates that Continuum was the 1360th most popular search in September.  By Friday, November 11th the Continuum search rank had increased to 471st for the month of October. (See the top 100 searches for October here).

Likewise, interest at CellarTracker increased, as well.  The number of bottles in inventory from October 11th to November 11th increased by 177 bottles, likely no small coincidence.

Finally, Google searches increased fivefold from an average of 210 monthly searches to approximately 1000 monthly searches.

What does this all mean?  Good question.  The truth is, a Wine Spectator cover appears to have moved the needle a bit, and while the easy route is to take a righteous Eeyore approach to mainstream media and its blunted impact in the Aughts, as contrasted to what a Spectator cover feature or glowing words from Parker meant just a decade ago, I believe a more tangible takeaway is to realize that these sorts of cover stories don’t happen in a vacuum and that Wine Spectator cover and feature was likely a result of weeks, months or even years’ worth of effort from a PR professional.

In an attention-deficit, social media-impacted, offline/online hybrid world of information consumption with mobile and tablets proliferating, in order to break through to (and ultimately assist) the consumer, the value of the PR professional, an oft neglected part of the marketing hierarchy, in reaching out and facilitating the telling of a winery’s story seems to be more important than ever.

It’s not about press releases, it’s about people supporting and telling the winery story, repeatedly, as a professional function – that leads to media notice, and that leads to 14 cases of wine being sold and inventoried at CellarTracker in a 30-day period of time.  It’s perhaps obvious, but not adhered to.

Wine Labels

To me, a wine bottle is a blank canvas that can either inspire in its creativity or repel in its insipidness.  While I have a reasonably conservative approach to the kinds of wine I want to drink relative to technological intervention, I am unabashedly progressive when it comes to the kind of wine labels that appeal to me.  In support of my interest with wine packaging, I keep an eye on The Dieline wine blog to see what’s happening in wine label design (another example from The Coolist here) and I also pay attention to the burgeoning field of wine label design contests. 

What say you about progressive labels?  Like ‘em?  Loathe them?  I placed a poll to the right.

Below is a slide show of winners from the recent International Wine Label Design competition.

Reconciling the Contradiction

I will lobby the nominating committee of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences on behalf of anybody who can help me understand how it is that in the span of a week I can see multiple research reports (here and here) on a revived sense of fiscal austerity by consumers yet other reports (here and here) indicate that wine above $20 is the fastest growing segment this year.

These two clearly don’t jive with each other, yet I’m witless to understand why wine is “trading up.”  Help! 

 


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Autumnal Equinox Edition

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

The Power of Intent in Biodynamic Wine

I wrote a heady post in September about Biodynamic wine.  The story is too complicated to summarize here (link to post), but one of the things that I touched on (and that interests me on an ongoing basis) is the notion of “intent” in the vineyard particularly as it relates to viticultural quality and Biodynamic preparations.

They say that you can taste “love” in a food dish, so, while not scientifically quantifiable (at least not yet), it stands to reason that extra attention and loving preparation with BioD preps. might have a positive benefit on the vines and subsequently the wines.

This notion of intent isn’t my idea; I culled it from Voodoo Vintners, Katherine Cole’s Biodynamic-related book published earlier this year (she has a different supposition about ‘intent’ than I do).  A passage from the book notes, “The belief is that the preparations aren’t merely herbal treatments for plants; they’re carriers of the farmers’ intentions, which have been swirled into them through the powerful act of stirring.  While it isn’t a requirement for Demeter certification, intention is that little bit of witchcraft that separates the most committed practitioners from the unbelievers.”

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My point in September and my point now is that “intent” isn’t witchcraft, its science – science that is still emerging and not completely understood.

To that end, I read an incredible, eye-opening, mind-bending article in the current issue of Time magazine about a new technology device called the BodyWave.  An iPod sized device, the BodyWave is based on electroencephalography (EEG), the study of how brain activity excites neurons to emit brain waves that travel the central nervous system and can be measured.

So, here’s the thing.  Not only can this BodyWave device measure the fluctuations in the brain’s electrical activity, but when connected to a computer it can perform functions based on brain waves.

It’s a holy crap moment to realize that by focusing brain activity somebody can shut off a valve in a nuclear power plant, via computer, with the power of their mind, as elaborated on in the article.

The full Time magazine article is subscriber-protected (darn publishers that try to run a business…), but the intro. to the article is available here.

I’m a liberal arts guy, as far removed from science as one can get by education, vocation and lifelong learning interest, but I do have the ability to suspend my disbelief and it seems likely to me that in 10 years’ time the Biodynamic conversation is going to be around an entirely different set of conversational conditions than the current ‘bunkum vs. belief’ precept that we have now.

On Knowledge

I’ve never reconciled the “demystify” vs. “knowledge frees you” debate as it relates to wine.  Many will say that wine is needlessly overcomplicated for the average consumer and the arcane aspects act as a barrier to entry.

Well, sometimes you find defining wisdom in the unlikeliest places.

Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, noted in a blog post recently what I’ve thought, but have never been able to say quite so eloquently. 

Indeed, you are what you learn.  You don’t have to know much about wine to drink it, but it sure makes it that much more enjoyable if you lean into the door…

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Thanksgiving Wine Recommendation

Thanksgiving is the wine world’s national holiday.  I get that.  It’s my favorite holiday, too. But, the attendant wine pairing articles are exhausting.  Does it really matter what you drink with Thanksgiving dinner?  Nope.  If it did, somebody, anybody would care that I’ll be having Sparkling Rose, German Riesling and New Zealand Pinot, but, really, nobody cares.  At the end of the day, the below picture encapsulates what really matters when picking a wine for Thanksgiving (Hint: Focus on the food).

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It Was a Good Week for Lot18

My eyes bugged out like a virgin at a nudist camp when I saw that Lot18 secured $30M in additional funding.  That money coupled with clarification from the California Alcohol Beverage Control (CA ABC) on some wonkiness in legalities, means the first week of November 2011 will go down as a watershed moment for Lot18.

Perhaps equally interesting to me is a passage noting, “Radical Transparency” in an email sent to Lot18 members from Lot18 (ostensibly founder Phillip James).  The email noted:

As Lot18 moves into its second year of existence, our goal is to ensure that, with more money in the bank and compliance questions behind us, Lot18 can continue to deliver on its responsibilities to our suppliers and to our members alike. We must hold ourselves accountable to ensure we maintain trust with everyone who produces and consumes goods offered by Lot18.

We do this through a policy called Radical Transparency, which simply involves sharing more than was once considered wise. We believe in this because it drives our focus and ensures that all of our employees and our members feel that they have a role in shaping our future. Together we can create a service that will not only help you find great value, but also encourage you to spread the word to friends and family so that they may also share in the delight.

We’re all aware of “transparency” as an online buzzword the last several years.  It’s a word that has been co-opted, commoditized and rendered meaningless, as well.  It seems, transparency is really code word for faux sincerity and empathy and that makes adding the modifier of “Radical” to transparency all the more interesting.

These days, every new business success story comes with hagiographic mythologizing and I wouldn’t be surprised if, in this area, “Radical Transparency” is where Lot18 stakes their claim.  After all, culture and customer service is already taken by Zappos.

Yet, radical transparency isn’t a new concept either.  If you’re interested in seeing how a hedge fund called Bridgewater Associates (founded by Ray Dalio) has codified a brutally honest feedback loop see this profile piece from New York magazine and Dalio’s 123 page “Principles” document (worth the read).


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Media Edition

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

Rex Pickett

If you’re not reading Rex Pickett’s (author of Sideways and Vertical) blog, you are officially remiss.

Pickett is a gifted writer who cranks out perfectly incubated long-form posts with turns of phrase that are both wry and rich, offering insight into the machinations of publishing, film and stage that few culture vultures grasp.

Pickett recently wrote an extensive (3900 word) post on the reasons why a film sequel to Sideways (directed by Alexander Payne) would not be made from Vertical, Pickett’s book sequel.  In doing so, Pickett offered a discursive meditation on Payne’s artistic pathos and the factors that may be playing into Vertical’s stall on the way to celluloid.

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Unfortunately, Pickett removed the post after re-publishing a second version that deleted much of the armchair psychologist rumination he originally channeled from Payne’s psyche.  An email inquiry to Pickett on why he removed the post (in either iteration) has gone unanswered.

If I were a muckraker, I would publish the post because Pickett’s deletion of the post from his site did not delete the post from RSS feed readers like Bloglines or Google Reader.  But, I’m not a muckraker…

Hopefully, Pickett will revisit the topic in a manner that is less confessional and more elucidation because it was worth the extended read time.  Until then you can read the other posts on his site and gain tremendous insight into the vicissitudes of the publishing process, what the afterglow is like after capturing the cultural zeitgeist and how he’s helping bring Sideways to the theatre with a stage version.

It’s definitely recommended reading.

A Discovery of Witches

While we’re on the topic of books and authors (and with Halloween around the corner), a reinforcing mention goes to Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20.  Earlier this year a little book she wrote called, “A Discovery of Witches” was published and immediately shot up the best sellers lists.  The movie rights were acquired this summer by Warner Bros, likely securing Harkness’ financial future in the process.

While I read fiction infrequently (the last fiction book being Vertical by Rex Pickett), those that I know who can tell the difference between kindling and a classic call A Discovery of Witches “mad genius.”
Any conversation about a wine blogger doing good should begin with Deb Harkness who is now dabbling in rarified air.  Pick up her book if you haven’t yet.

Bargain Wine Books

There’s little doubt, in the prolonged US economic malaise we’re experiencing, that “value wine” and “bargain wine” are hot topics.  Heck, an entire channel of business has been defined with “Flash” wine sale sites.  Given that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a couple of wine books would be published with this specific focus.

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What is a surprise is that the books are authored by wine writers with real chops engaged in offering a deeper narrative than the slapdash compendiums of wine lists that has passed muster in years gone by.
Just in time for the holidays, Natalie MacLean has Unquenchable: A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines publishing on November 1st and George Taber, a wine writer on a tear with his fourth book in six years, has A Toast to Bargain Wines: How Innovators, Iconoclasts, and Winemaking Revolutionaries Are Changing the Way the World Drinks publishing on November 15th.

An Idea worth Duplicating?

Celebrity deaths come in threes and new wine ideas come in twos.

We’ve seen this duplicative market entry in recent years with winery reservation systems CellarPass and VinoVisit and now we’re seeing it with quasi-wine search engines.

WineMatch and VinoMatch are both in the early stages of launch purporting to help a consumer match their likes with wines they might enjoy.

Meh.  The problem with these sites isn’t that consumers don’t need help finding a wine they like, the problem is that most wine consumers don’t understand what kind of wine they like.  Yes, it’s the tannins that dry the back of the mouth and its residual sugar that makes that K-J so delectable…

By the time consumers figure out their likes and dislikes graduating beyond the “go-to,” they don’t care about having somebody help them “match” their wines to their tastes because they’re on their own adventure.

It’s just my opinion, but these sites face looooong odds of finding consumer success and short of the slick willy seduction that happens with some wineries who haven’t been bitten and as such aren’t twice shy, they won’t find *any* success.  But, I’ve been wrong before, at least once.

Pictures and Pithiness

While we’re on the topic of online wine services, I’m not sure whether I should be happy or aghast that I’ve been a habitué of the online wine scene for long enough to see a derivative – it’s like watching a remake of the movie Footloose when I was saw the original in the theatre.

There’s a new wine site called TasteJive that takes the concept of a wine blog called Chateau Petrogasm, popular in 2007 and 2008, to new heights.

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Around the premise that a picture is worth a thousand words even if that picture has nothing to do with wine, they have created a site that provides nothing but visual metaphors with a 140 character description for finding wines you might like.

I loved the idea of Chateau Petrogasm, I like the idea of a perfectly crafted 140 character slug, but I’m very uncertain about the community aspect of TasteJive—the users who control the uploading of pictures and descriptions.

As noted mid-20th century photographer Diane Arbus said, “A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”

Not exactly a recipe for success in bumping into a wine.


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On Self-Actualizing Wine Interest, Purple Pages, the Kindle Fire and Gutenberg

While it has been cited that we’re living in a “Golden Age” of wine writing, what is interesting to me these days is NOT the subject of wine writing.

My interest is in a broader understanding of the consumption of the wine writer’s output – self-identified wine interest by consumers who are seeking out wine information.  This is a seismic shift more important than the vagaries of who writes what, where, when and for how much.

Something much bigger and amorphous is at work.

It used to be that people self-identified by their job or some other affiliation that produced recognition from others, a status-marker of sorts—“I work for IBM, I have two kids and we’re Protestant.”

However, nowadays, people, principally online (which is moving center stage in our life), are self-identifying by their personal interests which, often times, diverges greatly from their profession and their family situation.

Look at Twitter profiles or a body of status updates from somebody on Facebook.  People are no longer duotone and defined by work and family. They’re multi-layered and complex and defined by their interests.  The modern day self-description goes something like this: “Passionate about wine and travel.  I build furniture, follow the San Francisco Giants, and work in a non-profit by day.  I also volunteer to ensure clean water for sub-Saharan Africans.  Dad to two wonderful kids”

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In diamond-cutting terms, it’s more Peruzzi than table cut and it seems we’re all on a journey to be the most interesting man person in the world.

This kaleidoscopic advancement in sense-of-self is a very important development because, on an individual level, we tend to project externally how we see ourselves in the mirror.  By stating publicly online that we’re a wine enthusiast, a foodie, a jazz lover, who does dog rescue and loves college football with a fascination for all things digital, it’s like writing down a goal.  A goal written down means something to most people and people are likely to actuate their activities around it, even if aspirationally.

This is a very subtle point and I hope I’m conveying it faithfully:  Societally, we’re changing how we view ourselves, we are stating how we view ourselves and consequently we’re more likely to pursue knowledge around those interests because we’ve put it out there.

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’re all self-actualizing.

So, when it comes to wine writing, while I’m very happy for Alder Yarrow’s assignment in writing a monthly column for Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages, I also tend to look at it within a much broader context because there will be more Alder Yarrow Horatio Alger-like stories in the years to come.

More to the point however, and within a bigger picture, what Alder writes now and in the future on his own site or at Jancis’ site is likely going to be viewed by an increasingly larger audience who, based on the aforementioned self-actualization, have become more inclined to seek a wide-range of information that supports a myriad of personal interests, including wine.

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This online growth in information-seeking is, indeed, a very good thing particularly for the wine business who is caught up in a focus on Gen. Y, when the more important point is that there is a mass of people of all ages who have increasingly ready access to information online that allows them to easily pierce the veil of wine.  And, the implications for that for shouldn’t be understated because the view of the wine world is likely to be altered to be much more inclusive of all types of viewpoints – think the streets of New York instead of Pottery Barn.

The Kindle Fire tablet by Amazon.com may represent the next step in this evolution, driving the potentiality of mass on-the-move content delivery. No, it’s not as important as the printing press or any other God Complex hyperbole that is assigned to Steve Jobs, but it’s an important step forward nonetheless.

Where laptop computers are functional machines designed to execute work, and tablets (like the iPad) are a lightweight, portable device that act as a multi-functional hybrid between a smartphone and a laptop, here comes the Kindle Fire which is a device designed almost exclusively for content consumption, all kinds of content – blogs, digital magazines, digital books, videos, music, etc.

The Kindle Fire, to me, is a device that enhances the trend we’re seeing in the increased complexity of how we define ourselves because here’s a device that lets users pursue content around their interests anytime, anywhere and it’s reasonably affordable at $199, at least half the cost of other tablets on the market.

For example purposes, let’s say I have an interest in German Riesling, but I don’t really want to buy another paper-based book because I already have a stack of 14 books at my bedside that I haven’t read (or, perhaps, I don’t buy that many books, period).  Likewise, it isn’t convenient for me to read a book on my laptop because, well, that’s not really a form factor that works for me because I’m already hunched over my laptop for 12 hours a day.  In addition, I don’t want to print out a 150 page pdf because that’s paper I have to carry around.  Previously, with all of the aforementioned caveats, I would have let a deep dive into knowing more about German Riesling be a fleeting thought—an opportunity that would lay fallow.

Ah, but the Kindle Fire will let me consume this German Riesling content in a nice, portable, convenient, lightweight manner that is designed to do expressly that.  I’m now looking forward to pouring through Terry Theise’s 2011 German Riesling catalog and reading part II of Mosel Fine Wines 2010 vintage report.

All of this distills down to an essential takeaway:  When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type, the tangible output was the ability to have ready access to print books.  However, the bigger impact was the spread of knowledge which led to the Renaissance period which inalterably changed the culture of the world.

That’s where I think we’re at now, particularly with wine and the spread of information.  The conversation can be about who is writing and where they come from, but the conversation with far greater impact is what the end game is for this mass adoption of personal nuance lived out loud.

In simpler terms, the wine writer, like Descartes in the Renaissance era, had a great, lasting influence, but the Renaissance period was much bigger than Descartes.

The key for the wine business in this seismic shift in wine affiliation and the pursuit of information thereof is to decide whether they want to support the status quo and perpetuate business as usual or open themselves to all kinds of thought.

Wine writers already are and so are the consumers seeking out this information.


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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Power Structure Edition

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

Naked Wine and Occupy Wall Street

It’s not hard to notice the parallels between the natural wine movement and Occupy Wall Street - both are valid causes sorely lacking coherence and a rallying point that would move them from fringe head-scratcher to mainstream momentum.

  Natural wine is about purity of wine expression—shepherding grapes grown without chemicals to the bottle with as little human manipulation as possible, representing the place where they came from in the process.


  Occupy Wall Street is about re-calibrating the world’s best economic system – capitalism—to preserve the middle-class, the labor force that has allowed the U.S. to create the most productive economy in the world.

Neither movement represents fringe radicalism as some would have you believe.  I look at both as being valid inflection points and, at their core, about keeping a balance between big and small, allowing every man and woman an equal opportunity at pursuing success around their particular truth.

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What reasonable person would deny the validity of either if not clouded by confusion?

One idea well-conceived and well-communicated can change the world, but, unfortunately, both the natural wine movement and Occupy Wall Street are prevaricating from their essential truth, rendering them both toothless and feckless.

No need to crib from Che Guevara, but appealing to base logic and the common denominator would do both movements some good.

Just one man’s opinion…

On the Aussies, Redux

A few weeks back, I noted how the Australian wine industry was poised for a rebound in public perception due in part to two things happening in concert – public backlash to Yellow Tail wine, what I call the, “Derision Decision,” and an unspoken coalition of influencers recognizing Australia’s artisanal wine production – the antithesis of Yellow Tail.  I cited recent sympathetic mentions from Jay McInerney in the Wall Street Journal and Dan Berger, wine writing’s current patriarch, as proof points.

You can add to the list of sympathetic mentions about artisanal Australia with recent mentions from Jancis Robinson and James Suckling.

Don’t sleep on Australia.  It’s making a comeback slowly, but surely in public perception.

Tim Mondavi and Wine Spectator

Thomas Matthews, the Executive Editor for Wine Spectator magazine (WS), has commented on my site a few times.  Each of these instances has been to protect or project Wine Spectator around its editorial goals.

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Good on Thomas for not being afraid to get in the ring.  Certainly, WS takes its fair share of shots from the wine chatterati, mostly with grace and aplomb.

Lest I cast myself as anything but objective, I should note that James Laube’s article on Tim Mondavi and Continuum in the current issue of WS (November 15th issue) is everything right about what mainstream wine media can offer wine consumers that online wine writing (mostly) doesn’t –long-form, depth, first-person access and an effort that takes weeks and not hours.

Laube’s piece is excellent - well-written and balanced; acknowledgement thereof is in order.

Besides the Wine

Jordan winery has two wines – a Cabernet and Chardonnay, but they really have a triumvirate in terms of things to buy.  Jordan focuses on food and wine as being partners at the table and, to that end, any purchase from Jordan should also include their olive oil.  Wow!

The Jordan olive oil makes Trader Joe’s EVOO seem like Two Buck Chuck, comparatively speaking.  A little whole wheat Barilla pasta, some homemade pesto using the Jordan olive oil and some artisan bread in five minutes a day and you’re assuredly living the good life.  The rub is I wouldn’t pour the round Jordan Chard with the pesto, probably a Sauvignon Blanc, but don’t let that dissuade you from picking up their olive oil – it’s good stuff.


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