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Power of Suggestion:  The Knife that Cuts Both Ways

Summary:  An examination of Latitude Beverage Co. and their négociant label 90+ Cellars – a newer entrant in a wine business niche that has been successfully updated for modern times by Oriel Wines and Cameron Hughes wine.  90+ Cellars includes the marketing hook of sourcing wines that have scored at least 90+ points in previous vintages.

90+ Cellars founder Kevin Mehra might be a modern day P.T. Barnum, a new millennium consumer crusader like Ralph Nader, or, perhaps, a poor man’s Cameron Hughes, a serviceable if unoriginal knock-off of the man and company who reinvented the domestic negociant trade for modern times. 

It is perhaps ironic that the growth of his nascent business—Latitude Beverage Co.—creator of the wine label 90+ Cellars, is predicated on the latter, a Cameron Hughes-lite with a slight marketing hook. 

Unfortunately, rare is the time when a knock-off deserves a rooting interest, particularly when the differentiating marketing hook is something as polarizing as that alleged and mystical quality line of demarcation – a 90-point score.  Of course, that’s on top of a model that already has its detractors.  To quote top California winemaker David Ramey from a Wall Street Journal profile on Cameron Hughes, “A guy like Hughes has a business model that revolves around other people’s misfortunes.  He’s like a vulture feeding on carrion.” By that rational, a derivation of the Cameron Hughes model makes 90+ Cellars not a vulture feeding on carrion, but by analogy, more like the hot, “now you see them, now you don’t” boy band knock-off O-Town who fed on the leftover carcass of ‘tween female scraps created by the Backstreet Boys years ago.

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Quoting a 90+ Cellars company blog post from October of last year,90+ Cellars is just like Cameron Hughes’ Lot Series except that the wines Latitude Beverage purchases come with a ratings pedigree. While we don’t necessarily advocate buying wines based on their ratings (because everyone’s personal taste is different), we think only selecting wines that are well-structured enough to earn a 90+ rating in the first place is a great place to start.”

Started in early 2009 and located at Faneuil Hall in Boston, MA, a building with deep historical roots that has been co-opted for the tourist trade, Latitude Beverage Co. is doing much the same – trading on wines historical roots to those interested only enough to act as tourist in the wine aisle.

The business model, as indicated by the comparison to Cameron Hughes, is very much what you might expect from a négociant model in this period of economic distress.  Latitude Beverage Co. buys finished wine (in the states it’s through a broker, somebody like Turrentine or Ciatti Co., and internationally it’s directly with the winery) and labels it at a discount to the retail value of the wine that might have gone on the shelf if the source winery had bottled it.  In doing their sourcing, Latitude Beverage Co. looks for wines that have a pedigree of being scored 90-points or more, have “Best Buy” accolades or have won a gold medal at a wine competition.  According to a press release, Latitude “…sources only finished wines that have a pedigree of 90+ ratings.”

It’s that particular marketing spin on the 90+ point pedigree, or third-party accolades where the 90+ Cellars business starts to unravel, in my opinion – it stretches the boundaries of what is good marketing in a skeptical age and the transparency that fosters a “suspension of disbelief” with consumers.  90+ Cellars operate at the dangerous intersection where the positive power of suggestion, and its evil twin, “This is bunk marketing hooey” take hold.

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If the wine delivers, 90+ Cellars is a hero, and if not, they’re a goat; it’s a black and white equation based on expectation setting.

Cameron Hughes, largely has built a reputation for putting exceptional quality juice in the bottle and more than validating their price point, as validated by mainstream wine criticism.  Not so, I fear, with 90+ Cellars.

In reviewing four wines from 90+ Cellars, a California Pinot, a Spanish Garnacha, a Napa Merlot and an Australian Shiraz-Viognier, I found myself ponderously scratching my head after trying each.  Not bad wines, and, perhaps, even an arguable value based on their price, each under $16 a bottle, yet, by the same token I found nary a wine that came close to a threshold of quality that I would qualify as a 90-point wine.  I found myself muttering to myself, “Not bad, but they should have called it 83+ Cellars.”

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In an interview with Mehra, I sought some clarification on my initial impressions, wanting to believe that, perhaps, my palate was a tougher than most, my suspicious nature more keenly negative than the average consumer; the suspension of my disbelief would be overcome, could be overcome.

As it turns out, the business is not intentionally disingenuous, but nor does it deserve the sort of blind faith that is implicit in its labels’ name.

Consider the following:

90+ Cellars gives itself plenty of wiggle room by sourcing wine that has a lineage of a 90+ point score, “Best Buy” accolades or gold medals in competition.  However, the 90+ points isn’t related to current vintage, it’s naturally declassified if it’s on the bulk market, the consumer never knows the provenance by source winery name and 90+ cellars doesn’t submit their vintages to traditional critics for validation, instead relying on bloggers.

It is a lot of blind faith for a regular wine consumer, to say nothing of the perceptive.

In particular, most egregious to me is the fact that according to Mehra, they are not submitting the wines to traditional critics noting, “They can take 6 to 8 months to taste a wine and in many instances our wine is already gone. We like online wine bloggers much better (because) they aren’t biased to big name brands, taste quickly and get their information out much faster.”

What’s left unsaid by Mehra is the fact that wine bloggers are susceptible to the sway of free samples, often have a lack of insight into wine business models, are as easily swayed by marketing shtick as the consumers who read their sites, and they lack a penetrating influence that moves markets.

Quite simply, the quantity of good reviews from wine bloggers will likely outpace bad reviews and the bad reviews can be easily discounted.

Overall, it’s disappointing that a wine whose marketing is predicated on mainstream wine reviews doesn’t close the loop for wine reviews with the same mainstream critics.  In my opinion, the way forward for this wine business is to have their quality claims—natch—the name of the label, verified.

Live by the sword, die by the sword, that’s what I say.  Otherwise, Mehra and 90+ Cellars aren’t just merely Cameron Hughes-lite, it’s P.T. Barnum and his sideshow ...

Alas, a sucker may be born every minute, but I’m not one of them.



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Posted in, Wine: A Business Doing Pleasure. Permalink | Comments (17) |


Comments

On 07/31, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

I started reading what I thought to be a great taste manifesto exposing the implications of objectifying wine while promoting it. And although I am not complaining on your expose of 90+ Cellars, I think you got a bit sidetracked on what is really important: misleading advertisement. Sure, you had to vent your frustrations (which I emphatically agree). But the real issue is the misleading intent of “Latitude Beverage Co.” with the choice of name. It implies validity. It implies credible and legitimate certification of quality by people that actually rate wines as a profession. I could go even further in suggesting that implies accreditation by Parker and other names that use the 100 point scores. And in my opinion, this has a darker hue than the tasteless PT Barnun show. One could argue if LB does or desn’t have criminal intent but you definitely have to agree that ethics is far and gone.

On 07/31, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

There may be a sucker born every minute, but there’s a con artist born every second. It’s hard to beat that pace, especially in a consumer business where no standards are applied to the product evaluation process and the federal regulations that oversee the AVA system are as transparent as a black suit.

On 07/31, Dale Cruse wrote:

So now a wine blogger is telling people not to listen to what wine bloggers have to say? Now I’ve seen everything.

On 07/31, Fred wrote:

I have always found it odd that the wine industry which loves to romanticize itself as a heroic struggle against the vagaries of Nature—always presumes victory. Prices only go in one direction, regardless of vintage.

Now here comes an outfit that is completely divorced from the whole notion of vintage and yet is attempting to build its brand on it. That is, on scores derived from past vintages . . . on wines they do not actually sell.

The only Latitude here is with the truth.

On 07/31, Jeff Lefevere wrote:

Dale,

Is that really what I said?  In 1100 words is that your takeaway?

I probably should have mentioned that bloggers skim and jump to incorrect conclusions, as well.

Jeff

On 07/31, tom merle wrote:

You can’t discount good lineage.  A decade or more of highly regarded wines tend to get similar accolades with later vintages, unless…  the winery is dumping.  That the shiners didn’t live up to their standards.  This is the danger.

However, it should be offset by the blogger opinions which as Thomas knows I take very seriously.  Latitude should be able to correct for the tendency toward grade inflation.  Actually what they should do is have a tasting panel of typical consumer palates and pick the standout wines.

On 07/31, Dale Cruse wrote:

Jeff, I actually disagreed with a lot more of what you said in this article. In fact, I’ve never disagreed with you more.

Unlike those who sit back & poke at a marketing plan from afar, I actually know Kevin Mehra & his partner Brett Vankoski personally. I’ve only spent a little time with Kevin but Brett is a great guy who I place a tremendous amount of trust in.

If you take the time to meet these guys & talk to them & break bread with them you’ll realize how far off base this article is. Not even close, actually.

These guys aren’t shysters. They’re good, honest people - not just names on press releases. They’re trying to source good juice & sell it at fair prices. The producers win, Latitude wins, the consumer wins.

The only one who doesn’t win is the blogger who judges them from afar & draws incredibly incorrect conclusions based on opinion rather than fact.

On 07/31, Jeff Lefevere wrote:

Dale,

I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that knowing Brett and Kevin wouldn’t change my opinion.  I’m sure they’re great guys, but that’s not the point. 

The FACT remains that there isn’t a closed, verifying loop on what they’re touting as 90+ wine (easily solvable), there’s isn’t disclosure on where the wine comes from (requires my blind faith) and, by virtue of my palate I don’t think the wine is close to being at the level of quality of what’s on the label.

Heck, by their own admission, even the business model is a knock-off.

If they submit one of the four reds I mention to Wine Spectator or any mainstream wine critic and that critic scores it 90 points or above, I’ll write you a check for $900 dollars.  Care to take the wager in the event that a mainstream critic scores it lower than 90 points?

What am I missing?

Look, I’m not trying to sit on a high horse here.  I’m sure they’re good guys, trying to do the right thing, but I don’t think the wine in the bottle matches up with the premise.

Jeff

On 08/02, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Our goal is simply to offer a good bottle of wine at a great price. We understand that many of todays wine consumers are looking for value, and so Ninety+Cellars was created with the intention to deliver high quality wine for less money. The wine is named Ninety+Cellars because it best represents the process we use to acquire wine for the label.

It is not our intention to mislead the wine buying public. Information about the ratings history of the source wine is disclosed on our website. We believe these scores provide customers with an idea about why the wine caught our attention and the quality that the source winery is capable of achieving. However, we also realize that ratings should not be the only factor that determines if a wine is good fit for a particular customer. Therefore, we also include information regarding the way the wine was made, a tasting note, videos of retailers tasting the wine, and consumer reviews.

Additionally, our wines must meet all of the same labeling standards relating to country/region of origin as any other. You may not know the name of the mom and pop who crushed the grapes, but you can be confident that you are getting a wine that is true to its origin.

We have yet to submit our wines to the established wine media because we do not believe the customer cares to learn that a wine was rated 90 (or 83) points months after it can no longer be purchased. Instead, we have chosen to submit wines to respected bloggers who tend to work more quickly. You being one of them. This is the best way we know to close the loop in a manner that is useful to customers.

I respectfully disagree, and am even quite shocked, by your comment about wine bloggers. In general, the wine bloggers I have met are independent, intelligent, and less likely to be influenced by marketing and a big advertising budget. For me, wine blogging represents the future of the wine media because it can provide objective and intelligent analysis in a way that is more relevant, timely and useful to the wine buying public. If Robert Parker created the Wine Advocate today, Im sure it would be a blog.

We regret that the wine we sent did not live up to your expectations. However, I encourage your curious readers to try the wines themselves and to form their own opinions.  And, we would be happy to send you samples of future wines as they become available. We trust that you will evaluate them based on the wine in the bottle and not merely the label attached

On 09/14, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

I can’t understand why these guys are called “vultures” by winemakers.  The winemakers are free not to sell to them.  Someone must think it is a good idea, right?  Someone is benefitting by selling their unwanted juice to these guys, no?  Ramey sounds like a bitter fool.

It cracks me up to see wine people railing against marketing tactics and the free market in general.  Most people who drink wine are beneficiaries of that system!

On 01/07, cilt bakimi wrote:

I’m not trying to sit on a high horse here.  I’m sure they’re good guys, trying to do the right thing, but I don’t think the wine in the bottle matches up with the premise.

On 11/23, شات حلا السعودية wrote:

h horse here.  I’m sure they’re good guys, trying to do the right thing, but I don’t think the

On 03/25, TN Pas Cher wrote:

se here.  I’m sure they’re good guys, trying to do th

On 07/12, custom logo playing cards wrote:

many thanks for sharing this information…have been searching all over google and bing and could not even look for a good post about this.

On 01/15, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

90+ Cellars are one of the best wines I have ever had.

On 07/26, شات wrote:

horse here.  I’m sure they’re good guys, trying to do the right thing, but I don’t think the

On 07/26, عاتبوها wrote:

90+ Cellars are one of the best wines I have ever had


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