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News, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items – The Vortex Edition

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

The Vortex

Newsweek magazine named Tina Brown Editor-in-Chief.  Brown is a well-respected publishing veteran formerly of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, amongst others. 

In Brown’s opening remarks with her new team she said:

“…To have a magazine … of such relevance in today’s spinning vortex of a world that can actually bring sense, bring meaning, bring connection to all the splintered fragments that assail us every day …”

It’s an interesting choice of words and speaks to the value that magazines can bring to consumers in a world of instant headlines and increasing digitization.  Context and analysis become the primary value that magazines offer, helping readers make sense of what’s around them. 

As if to put a finer point on Brown’s statement, the cover story to the current edition of Newsweek discusses the overwhelming demands on the modern day presidency.  The article, titled, “Hail to the Chiefs” with the subtitle, “The presidency has grown, and grown and grown, into the most powerful, most impossible job in the world.”  The ensuing article does a good job of elucidating the complex demands on being the Commander in Chief including the amount of information (briefings) that must be read and understood, the President’s own spinning vortex.

I bring this up within the context of wine because it’s hard not to notice the incredible increase in the amount of complexity and fragmentation in the wine world.  Practically every day brings to the fore a new wine-producing country; a new service is launched; a new initiative is announced, and a new technology upsets the proverbial apple cart demanding relevance and a place within our mental hierarchy of order.

Frankly, most wine-interested people could use a daily briefing book like the President receives in order to make sense of it all … 

Meanwhile, research reports continue to indicate that consumer spending habits have changed, perhaps for the long-term.  No longer is it a part of the U.S. psyche to be spendthrift for the sake of the accumulation of material goods.

However, ironically, most of our mainstream wine media is not focused on context at all, nor are they focused on bringing order to the complex wine world, they are interested in wrapping wine in a lifestyle wrapper, a spending choice that is no longer relevant—the equivalent to junk food, enrobing chocolate over empty calories.

Methinks (and it’s only the 190th time that I’ve brought it up), that the mainstream media that serve the wine-inclined is well-served moving forward by, “Bring(ing) sense, bring(ing) meaning, bring(ing) connection to all the splintered fragments …” while accepting the reality that luxury lifestyle is an anachronism.

Whoever accepts the challenge of providing a monthly wine briefing book wins bonus points.

New Species

Enter a new species in the wine world – the “Asian Whale.”  Long an inhabitant of the gaming tables of Las Vegas where it has been said that up to 80% of the whales are Asian, they are now migrating to the wine world.

A very good article (here) from the Guardian in the U.K. elaborates on the many facets that Asian interest in wine is bringing to the landscape of wine trade.

Sasquatch Spotted

For years and years, people have complained about sulfites in wines indicating that they triggered headaches, flush faces, sinus congestion and more.

Justification for naming sulfites has always been that unsulfured wine, normally consumed on vacation in Italy or France, didn’t trigger an allergy attack so wines that were sulfured must be the culprit.

Meanwhile, people vigorously defend sulfites as NOT the source of allergy issues with no clear counter argument for WHAT does cause the reaction in people.  It is/was a very confusing issue and because I don’t have allergic reactions to wine I generally ignored the conversation.  However, I find it fascinating that an issue that has long been a part of the wine landscape has seemingly been identified.

According to recent research, glycoproteins, a type of protein coated with sugar that develops during the fermentation process might be the allergen culprit –these glycoproteins are very similar to known allergens like ragweed, for example.

Just goes to show that prevailing wisdom sometimes isn’t always that wise.

Speaking of Prevailing Wisdom …

Tim Hanni, and his recent research about taste sensitivities has a piece at Huffington Post.  It’s well-done, but the lone comment to the story again frame’s Hanni’s premise within the argument that a democratization of wine perception will create wines that lack distinction.

Folks, that already exists, what Hanni is talking about is changing perceptions.  The realities already exist. 

As I’ve noted in several recent posts, I like what he is doing.

Increasing your Sense of Smell

On a daily basis I vacillate in between snap reaction and action and more considered thoughtfulness.  One of the things I’ve been considering and researching are detox diets as a part of purging my dependency on caffeine while also losing 10 lbs. in the process.

The negatives to a detox diet are the caffeine withdrawal and the short-term hunger pangs.  The benefit of a detox diet is the fact that most detox dieter’s report that their sense of smell goes off the charts to what might be considered super-human levels.

Color me convinced. 

A detox diet and a zinc supplement, another recommendation to increase sense of smell, and I might turn into a robo-wine taster, which would be okay by me.

Harvard Business Case Study

I don’t know what kind of deal with the devil I’ve made to be on such a good run of luck, but I was recently named best wine blog by a third-party web site, I was asked to write for a Financial Times property and now a blog post that I wrote is going to be a part of a Harvard Business case study.

I like it, particularly the Harvard part, because I went to Ball State University, an average school for people with average grades, where I was barely granted admission before finally figuring out how to leave my wayward studying habits behind while balancing my extracurricular activities. 

The post that will be a part of a Harvard case study can be found here.


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News, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items – Personally Speaking Edition

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

Prank call, Prank call!

Back in the days of cassette tapes, having a 14th generation bootleg copy of something from a friend of a friend’s cousin was a rare and precious gift, a bit of insider cachet that felt cool and special.

The day I borrowed a Guns N’ Roses tape circa 1989, covertly taped by *somebody* at a concert, the guy I borrowed it from called me that evening to remind me to bring it back to school the next day, so precious were the goods.

Likewise, when I heard The Jerky Boys around that same era, their prank phone calls were the stuff of high school legend, hilarity for kids who weren’t very worldly or well-traveled, pre-internet.

These days, nothing’s a bootleg. Hell, so-called bootlegs are now professionally taped, marketed and sold.  And, forget about trying to do a prank call—who answers their phone from an unrecognizable number?

Despite that, if ever there was an opportunity to have some prank call phone fun (of course, I’m too old to engage in such shenanigans, but that wouldn’t stop me from listening to your prank calls. Cough. Cough.) now is the time.  Now, of course, again, I’m not advocating that anybody prank call anybody, tape it and subsequently share it online (Skype and Skype Recorder should work just fine) … but please let me know if you do …

Turning Leaf has a wine hot line that will be staffed live on November 20 – 22 from 2:00 – 8:00pm EST. Turning Leaf winemaker Nicole Hitchcock will pick up the phone, amongst others.  1-877-TLWINE-3

On Terroir

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I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of months studying the philosophical underpinnings to the notion of terroir.  A lot of reading, a lot of thinking, a lot of opinion analysis from others, a lot of trying to understand what my own definition of terroir is ... because there isn’t a standard definition. 

To me, the word “terroir” is in the same realm of nebulous definition as pop culture phraseology like, “war on terror,” and “weapons of mass destruction” – yeah, the concept is there, but specifically, what the eff does it mean so I’m not a sycophantic mynah bird? This thought is also important because I believe that in order to reconcile thoughts on natural wine and biodynamic wine, two wine trends that are not going away anytime soon, you have to start with an understanding of where you come down on “terroir.”  Without having done so, any opinion on BioD and natural wine (pro or con) is like saying the Star Wars prequel trilogy movies suck because you watched Return of the Jedi and thought the Ewoks were lame.  A sound opinion has to be made in totality, with full context.

Wine writer Matt Kramer calls terroir a sense of, “somewhereness,” as in it tastes like the place it came from – an amalgamation of soil, region climate, microclimate, the grapes and the winemaker. Where the notion of terroir becomes really murky to me is the relationship terroir has to grapes AFTER soil, macroclimate and microclimate, but before it goes in the bottle.

Simply put, personally speaking and henceforth, I will never speak of a wine as being terroir-driven, or better or different than a wine of perceived lesser quality or mass scale for the simple fact that I hardly ever have enough information to speak with any authority.

Too often, I think wine enthusiasts make the simple-minded mistake of associating terroir with a wine that is evocative of earth, instead of being fruit-driven.

That’s a mistake.

Ask yourself when the last time was that you drank a wine and you knew all of the inputs into that wine that made up so-called “terroir.”  Clonal selection, irrigation practices, yeast strains, and the oak program can all be included in the broader definitions of terroir, but I usually haven’t the slightest clue what the clone or yeast strain is—two significant factors that can have as much of an impact on wine as the soil and the climate.

My point in all of this is that terroir is a word that has a million interpretations, but too few people have thought about it deeply enough to form their own opinion, aside from repeating assimilated and subsumed prevailing thought.  I would encourage everyone reading this to do a little reading and reflection on the subject to form your own unique point of view because, if nothing else, it will give you a foundation to form educated opinions on Biodynamics and natural wines, two newer peas in the same pod.


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News, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items – Falling Forward Edition

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

Naturally Late Slow to the Party

In August of 2007, I wrote and wondered (here) why the Slow Food organization didn’t have a “slow wine” equivalent. 

Of course, over the last three years I’ve had an opportunity to gain more insight into the nature and spirit of the “slow” movement and, in hindsight, my original post was a little off base, particularly given how much mindshare “natural” wine is developing in our current wine climate, a presumed bedfellow with “slow.”

With that as background, I was interested to see that Italian Slow Food mothership is releasing their first “Slow Wine” guidebook for 2011 (Italian language only).  The guide, new competition for their former partner, the historically predominant Gambero Rosso guide to Italian wine, forsakes ratings for … subjective analysis … and follows the “slow” philosophy of anti-globalization. 

If you use Google Chrome as your Internet browser you can translate the page found here.

Methinks that adding “slow wine” to the global wine conversation is good and interesting and entirely confusing for the already confused natural wine folks.  For in-the-know wine enthusiasts who already watch the natural wine movement with bemusement this should add immeasurably to the rich pageantry.

Euphemisms

I’ve never been able to reconcile why most of the wine business is generally left of Stalin politically, but also conservative literalists when it comes to interpreting right and wrong with wine terms and phraseology. 

We’ll see more of this contradiction in terms with the announcement that the TTB has just provided “advanced notice of proposed rulemaking.”

The net-net is the TTB is considering adding some provisos to TTB regulation for, amongst other things, the use of the word “Estate” associated with “grown,” “bottled” and that sort of thing.  They’re also looking at “single vineyard” for potential definition, as well (see document here). 

We do live in a democracy and the TTB is asking for feedback by January 3rd.  Personally, I don’t have an opinion on it, at least not yet, but I do plan on commenting and exercising my democratic right. And, if anything, I have some additional suggestions – notably, I would like for the government desk jockey’s to take a moment to stop looking at the front label of wine bottles and turn it over to look at the back label.  The sales copy on the back of wine bottles with “boutique” this, “artisan” that “hand-crafted,” “terroir-driven” and more has evolved into meaningless slop just as egregious as “old vine.”

Much of the nomenclature that we take for granted as in-tune wine enthusiasts has as much meaning as a soliloquy from Charlie Brown’s parents … doing anything to fix that fact is a slow burn solution, but a solution nonetheless to many of the marketing issues that plague the domestic wine business and U.S. wine culture writ large.

Just saying …

Kentucky Wine

My wine enthusiasm isn’t always for naught professionally.  I recently had the opportunity to meet with some marketing folks that work on developing the Kentucky wine industry.  The charter is to help them increase awareness and sales, primarily in the “golden triangle” of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.

To say that they’re working from a zero baseline would be polite.  The entire state has 500 acres under vine, most of which is new in the last decade.  The Kentucky wine output for a year (100,000 cases) equates to a rounding error for Fred Franzia ...

However, there are some interesting contrasts that can be drawn especially with Brown-Forman (parent owner of Sonoma Cutrer and Bonterra, amongst others) based in Louisville.  Bonterra, by itself, farms over 1100 acres.

I’d like to see them create a positioning statement – something like, “Hard to find.  Worth the effort” and draw an analogy between big(ger) and small(ler) wineries, especially those in their backyard, while reinforcing their “Kentucky Proud” program that supports local products.

We’ll see …

One interesting thing is both Kentucky and Indiana claim John James Dufour as having the first successful viticultural effort in the U.S. in the late 1700s / early 1800s.  I’ll explore this in a later post.

Reading Between the Wines with the Fuzz of Vinyl

At this point, I’m on the verge of being a sycophantic fan boy of Terry Theise, so frequent has been my mention of his book on this site.  Well, dammit, it’s a good book.  If I were a professor of wine it would be on my reading list … what can I say …

Early in my career when I worked for a book publisher I handled electronic licensing which included licensing books for international language localization, derivative works, and audio and Internet publishing—basically any way book content can be used alternatively by a third-party separate from the book publisher and the author.  It was a good experience, and gave me some insight into how the world of content works.

At this point, I should also mention that I sometimes get on tangents that fly in the face of logic.  In contrast to Ayn Rand acolytes who follow the money, I think that sometimes things should be done for the sake of being done, even if it means breaking even or losing money in the name of what is right.  Given that, I freakin’ really, really want to go to UC Press and license the audio rights to Reading Between the Wines.

I want to rent an old farm house with creaky floors in upstate New York, lube Theise up with some Riesling and cut an audio book of “Reading between the Wines” with a “Director’s Cut” of stories from the import trail and I want to press it to vinyl as an old-school album with the pops, hisses, and the warmth that only vinyl can provide.

I think I might sell about 16 of them and lose my ass in the process, but dammit, it needs to be done.  I have a mental image of drinking vino in my basement, taking Miles Davis off the record player and putting on Theise, communing over something funky in my glass.

It needs to happen …

Secrets of the Sommeliers

In my utterly charming (unless you’re my wife), but scatter brained way, I pre-ordered two copies of Secrets of the Sommeliers by Rajat Parr and Jordan McKay.  It’s a good book – worth a read and worth a spot on the bookshelf.  Because I have two copies, a commenter to this post will be selected at random and win a copy. So, leave a comment.  I’ll send you an email for your address and drop my spare book in the mail.


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News, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items – Compost Heap Edition

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

Missed by a Country Mile

Two weeks ago, I did a playful handicapping of Wine Enthusiasts Wine Star Awards making my guesses at the potential winners.  For the effort, I received a, “You are quite intuitive” comment from publisher Adam Strum and a, “They are VERY well educated guesses” from Communications Manager Jacqueline Strum. I subsequently basked in the notion of, “What if I nailed all of them …?”

What were my results against the actual winners announced, you ask?  I hit a measly four out of 11 categories correctly – not exactly a winning day if I were wagering …

My Bad Etiquette

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about my woeful disdain for the oft incorrect spelling of the word “palate” and the people who use it incorrectly.  Hard to believe, but there are wine enthusiasts (who should know better) who refer to their palate in writing as a “pallet” or a “palette.”  Now, I’m no grammarian, but it drives me nuts … and, well, I have another small peccadillo, too …

One of the joys of this digital interconnectedness is you make friends and acquaintances with people all across the country, and, if fortune favors you, the opportunity for privilege from PR folks may arise as well, even if far-flung. 

In fact, some of these newfound acquaintances and PR folks might invite you to events via email with an RSVP – usually an RSVP with difficult to discern contact information and no deadline.

Ahem.  My mother raised a polite boy grateful for fellowship and opportunity for experiences … but, can we all agree that an RSVP required invite when coming across email or Facebook to a mass of people that can be, at best, charitably described as an acquaintance coming from an acquaintance or professional contact, may be better served by not using the Mrs. Manners approved, but inadequate abbreviation for the French, “Répondez s’il vous plait?”

This isn’t a wedding for a dear friend, after all. 

How about using this instead of “RSVP” at the end of the invite:

“Thank you in advance for the courtesy of your reply so that we may conduct appropriate hospitality planning for guests of the party.  Please reply, “Yes, I’m coming” or “Regrets, I can’t make it” by this date at this time to this person via this email or this phone number.  Thank you and we hope to see you.”

It is simple, sets expectations and places the onus on the recipient to reply by a certain date and time while also absolving the guilt-inclined who don’t like to be ungracious by giving them their next action.  Easy peasy.

The World is Flat?!

There was a couple of month period last year when I thought the recession might bring the U.S. back to a cultural sensibility governed by U.S. provincialism, but no longer ... indeed, the world is quickly becoming a global village.

This is by no means analysis … more observation … but, the last couple of weeks continue to indicate the changing nature of our wine world with a strong international wine sensibility coming in (from almost everywhere, but the traditional Francophile movement) with our wine going out to Asia.

As examples, see the ability to buy a brokered vineyard in Argentina and Spain here and here.  Likewise, check out this article on a Hong Kong trade visit to the Finger Lakes and see also this article on Hong Kong’s increasing interest in Napa wine.

The time is coming hard and fast when the first decade of the 2000s is going to seem positively quaint from a global wine perspective.

Make note because we will all remember when …

Eastern Europe Here we Come

Speaking of the global wine village, the worldwide demand for attention from U.S. wine consumers continues unabated and either one of two things is happening – either my radar has become more finely tuned lately or Eastern Europe is starting to more heavily push their wine – how else to explain Web sightings of the wines of Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia in the past couple of months?


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News, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items – Observations and Updates Edition

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

Everybody’s in the Online Wine Media Pool.  Now What? *Update*

Last week I wrote a post about the abundance of great wine writing online while wondering who was reading it. 

As if on cue, research released from eMarketer, a technology marketing research company, indicates that blog readership will continue to increase over the coming three years projecting that 60% of internet users will read blogs at least once per month in 2014, up from 51% now.  The report also noted, “One reason for the rise in readership is that blogs have become an accepted part of the online media landscape.”

There you go.  Online wine media readership will grow accordingly and probably more so given the continued and growing mindshare about wine.

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Speaking of online wine media …  It used to be that members of mainstream wine media both rebuked and jabbed online wine writer’s for a sense of narcissistic self-worth that wasn’t deserving.  Fair enough.  However, a short time later when, yes, everybody is in the online wine media pool, you have to scratch your head at the current irony… 

I’m not stating the following as an indictment against any one person.  It’s merely an observation:  the sniping that I’ve seen lately from “professional” wine writers against their peers, other professional wine writers, is troubling and unbecoming (Ex: here and here and yes I realize the hypocrisy in even pointing it out).

The Business of the Business

The annual Wine Industry Financial Symposium was held in Napa earlier this week.  Robert Smiley, Director of Wine Studies, Graduate School of Management, UC Davis gave a presentation, the contents of which are available online.  Smiley surveyed a who’s who of senior executives in the wine business and some of the takeaways from the presentation are worth noting, giving insight into the really big trends that are impacting the wine business (responses from survey participants were anonymously presented in the presentation and provided here as excerpted quotes):

“I personally believe there is going to be a permanent re-pricing of wine.”

“I think the volume of the luxury market became overweight and irrational.  I think the category just got bigger and collapsed under its own weight.  It was all tied to an irrational economy.”

In reference to the Wall Street crash, “There were the guys who were buying the wine … I think that we have lost a third of the buyers.”

“… It seems we have shifted from aspirational buyers to value buyers.”

“Retailers have discovered that they want to control their own brand … I would say, on average, US retailers have 7-10% private label, but you also have a lot of major retailers say, ‘I want to be in the 20-30% range.’”

In reference to consolidation in distribution, “These guys just have way too much to sell.  I think consolidation is a terrible threat for almost any winery.  I don’t even think Diageo feels like they get enough share of mind.”

“Some respondents believe that distributor consolidation will open up new opportunities for niche distributors to cater to the higher-end brands.”

“… it is going to be a challenge for the industry in terms of grape supply.  We are definitely heading for a shortage.”  “I think (the shortage will be filled) by more imports.” “We could be in a position where we lose another 10-15% to imports.”

Aside from the trends above – continued compression on luxury wine pricing, the long-term value buyer, private label at retail, consolidation in the three-tier, and growing importation of wine for domestic labels, I also noted that Ray Chadwick, EVP at Young’s Market (a distributor), spoke on a separate panel regarding the competitive landscape in wine and consolidation in the three-tier system.

If you want to see the second set of trends related to the wine business, one need look no further than the director/advisory positions that Chadwick has secured over the last twelve months – he’s a Director for IBG (logistics for DTC and Direct-to-Trade) and for the Wine Business Management program at Sonoma State University. 

Wine trends for the next decade and beyond continue to point towards globalization, big business and near impossible pressure on the small producer. I am seeing trends from small producers to combat this, including an increase in “velocity labels” a lower-priced, but still luxury priced wine that is a sort of a hybrid between a second label and flagship wines.  I will cover this in a separate post shortly.

Facebook eCommerce

Recently, I wondered why a young winery or wine brand would even build their own web site when they could do a Facebook Fan page with embedded ecommerce. 

I’m at a digital marketing conference this week and saw a Facebook ecommerce application called “Off the Wall.”  If I were a small winery interested in ramping up DTC, I would pay close attention to online sales via Facebook. 

Interstate Importing *Update*

Last week, I wrote a post about the rise of a new class of wine business that acts as a sales and marketing agency for small producers, essentially leaving a winery in the business of growing grapes and making wine while the front-of-the house activities are handled by agreement with an aligned third party.

Several examples abound of this emerging class of business.

Since I wrote that story, I was tipped off to a business called Flow Wine Group based in Chicago.  Flow is another example of this emerging class of business with services focused on selling, sampling, promotion, events and distributor account management.

Another example I failed to cite in my previous post is Pelican Brands led by wine industry veteran and fellow Indianapolis resident, Smoke Wallin.

Their approach is similar to other business models I’ve described – generate mindshare and consumer demand, get the product to market via an effective distribution solution, and support brand building over the long-term.  My overall point in bringing both of these examples up as an augmentation to my post last week is to reinforce that the times are changing quickly and radically and the signposts are there to see. 


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