Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The problem with Syrah?

Arrrgh! Where to begin? Not to pick on Steve, but his latest post really got my blood boiling. I really love it when the experienced and credible wine writers rush to the defense of Napa Cabs, for too long, they have been overlooked. It's a good thing that Steve Heimoff is bringing these wines to parties, my invite to the next soiree is in the mail. Here is my point by point takedown:
  1. I haven't reviewed too many, so it can't be that great-I'll give credit where credit is due, Qupé has always made great wine, and Ojai is a no brainer, but a handful of others? You are clearly living and reviewing in a vacuum. I'm sure this has everything to do with the fact that arguably the 2 best (or certainly most syrah-foucsed) regions on the West Coast for Syrah are the 2 furthest from your offices (Columbia Valley and Santa Barbara). FYI-Your competition placed 19 syrahs in their top 100 wines of the year, more than any other variety.
  2. Cheap Cab is better than cheap Syrah-Yes and no. If any value winery devoted more than an afterthought to producing some solid versions, I think you'd change your mind, witness, some very good Shirazs from down under
  3. Australia's cheap image and the assumption that people know that Shiraz is Syrah-People may not know that Syrah is Shiraz, but the presence of Shiraz really confuses them. They largely assume that Syrah is a misspelling of Shiraz, and many try to pronounce it Shirah. Try working a big retail store on a Saturday before a holiday, that will get you in touch with the proletariat.
  4. "At its best, Syrah is slightly soft, with velvety, ultra-refined tannins and a chocolate-biscuit taste to the berry fruit flavors, which can range from red cherries and currants through blueberries and blackberries, all the way into cassis." To his credit, Heimoff does mention cool climate can coax out additional flavors. How about this: Syrah has the very unique ability to bring out Umami, that savory mysterious, subtle quality. Few wines, if any, have the ability to highlight subtle, earth toned dishes like syrah. The complexity, nuanced savory quality is exactly what is so appealing in this grape. I understand you prefer tongue scraping tannins, and probably prefer oak to black olives in wine, but understand that this quality exists. Syrah has the ability to hit practically every berry note, fresh or dried along with pork (smoked, cured and roasted), lamb, herbs (mint, sage, rosemary), cedar and black olives, and there's probably a dozen additional appropriate descriptors.
  5. Cabernet is THE Noble variety-This is a completely wrong assertion. Noble refers to varietal wines. Wines that are bottled without the need for blending i.e. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and SYRAH. Last I checked, the predominance of Merlot blended into Cabernet essentially wrote the varietal labeling laws setting them at 25% non-labeled varietal in the blend. Coincidentally, the approx cuvée of left bank Bordeaux, the greatest Cabs in the world, often runs about 75% Cab. Side note, Syrah is considered by many winemakers to be the most sophisticated and versatile grape because it can stand alone, take on other grapes in the blend (even white grapes), or help shore up other wines with just a touch added.
  6. American's attention span wanes after Cab, Merlot, Pinot Noir and um zinfandel?- Malbec, you forgot Malbec. I want to know how you left out the fastest growing varietal in the US, that by most accounts, is the 4th (out of 5) best variety in Bordeaux and is twice as expensive to grow as Syrah. I'd be flat out giddy if Syrah grew to half the sales of Malbec next year.
The bottom line is, you don't want to like Syrah, it's inconvenient to try to include this wine into what you and the wine media have been preaching for 25+years, that big, extracted, youthful, fruit bombs are the best wines in the world. And that outside of Napa, and maybe Sonoma, only value wines can be made in the other regions of the West Coast. It would be so refreshing to hear just one National Glossy Publication wine writer champion something worth championing, the noblest of all varieties, Syrah.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The demise of the Family owned winery has been greatly exaggerated

There is considerable hubbub floating around the wine web world these days as a result of a controversial report by the Marin Institute recently reporting the fallacy of the California Family Owned Winery. As a representative of many "family owned cali wineries" I can assure you, they do exist. This report has been taken perhaps a little too literally by some. The gist of the report is pretty simple: 81.9% of all wine produced in California is under the umbrella of some half dozen or so diversified (often in Liquor and/ or beer) multinational corporations. For those in the industry surprised by these numbers, you simply haven't been paying attention.
While I could rail, and have, about the public being duped, the virtual winery betraying consumers trust, and many other problems. I will instead focus on one glaring reason why the aforementioned statistic is not changing anytime soon: distribution. What was the unspoken reason for Inbev's ludicrous acquisition of Budweiser? The channels of distribution. Trucks and feet on the streets win nearly every battle in this industry.
Now, our good friend Tom Wark probably believes that the way around this is to allow direct shipping to all states. This would in theory, open up the flood gates and change the balance. I believe the impact of this would be minor. As much as we all would like to believe to the contrary, the flow of information does not begin and end with the publications like Spectator and Parker, nor is it with the Gary Vee, but with the traditional 3 tier system. The overwhelming majority of consumers buying the wines mentioned in the report, learn about these from their local vendor. The battles aren't won in the big city wine shops or 4 star restaurants, but in the mid markets with the moderately (wine) educated that want to find a dependable brand with relate able packaging and labels. This is the arena where the marketers have won. The other? suppressing the sophistication. No, not by nefarious means, but by sheer ease of selling the generic crap with a slick package. This is the domain of the big distributors: distilling a wine down to a slick campaign, a few bullet points, and crazy competitive pricing that makes the retailer (or restaurateur) feel like the first person on the block to discover this brand new find from blah blah blah. Meanwhile, here is mister small distributor sulking in the corner with his or her crazy good, small production, single vineyard wine at twice the price and three time more complicated story. How can you win?
Here's how:
  • Your wine is awesome for a reason, proudly explain it, and make it simple
  • Your story had better be good, make sure the distributors know it by heart
  • Listen to where the competition lies, if you can't compete on the shelves, you're doomed before your start
  • Good marketing will only help you, produce great marketing materials, have a great website, and have a strong presence (i.e. Market work)
  • Small distributors are often labors of love, but not always tightly run. Help them where you can, but hold them to a higher standard.
  • Many larger distributors are beginning to realize the cache and credibility of small distributors, and are beginning to start their own smaller divisions to compete, this adds credence to the argument for family owned wines. In some markets, they may be worth taking a look at.
  • It will require 3 times the work to sell your small family owned wine over the next Trinchero product, but it's a noble and winnable pursuit. Building a brand takes sweat equity, but cynicism for the inauthentic wines is turning your way. Your credible story is the best thing you can have (besides whats in the bottle).

Friday, December 18, 2009

There is no good vs. evil in the wine business.

Recognize the image to the right? Every city has one. It's always home to the most shameless, sell-out wine distributor in your market. You will see their trucks around town constantly, their headquarters is always referred to as "The death star". Sometimes, their competitors will hum the Imperial Death March under their breath as these reps enter an account. Evil has a name, and it is [yellowtail].

Just kidding. Here is the shocking truth.. There is no evil in the wine business. Business is business. Most of these reps in the cheap ties and Chevy Malibu's are really just trying to make an honest buck, feed their family, pay their taxes etc. It's really not fair for the wine elite to target them, as they are just doing their job. And if they weren't so good at their job, our job wouldn't be so hard. Many of these companies are philanthropic and stalwarts for the community.

That said, they do make money off the inexperience of others,and that's what frustrates us. They sell brand names that are lazy choices in the supermarket, and this competes against complex, terroir driven wines. We take out our frustrations on these people that are just doing their jobs. Their bosses are no different. They are simply reacting to what the consumer is asking for. as long as demand exists for [yellowtail], it will be sold and presented. So should we just submit? No, but here's what to do...
  • Stop treating them like they're the enemy, they are better financed by you, and you don't get in an argument with someone that buys ink by the barrel... or something like that.
  • Understand their products' appeal. Knowing what you re going up against is one area where you can beat them. There is little chance they will ever get what you are selling, you gain credibility by understanding theirs. That means taste it whenever possible.
  • Educate your customer! Explain what oak, butter and .8% Residual Sugar taste like, so they will recognize it on their own next time.
  • Inspire your customers. If you get your base pumped, they will turn around and become evangelists for your wines.
  • Understand that the wine business moves glacially slow, but you can still affect change- We are infinitely more sophisticated now than 5 or 25 years ago. Keep that in perspective and continue to spread sophistication. Who knows, maybe one day, the consumers will be so sophisticated that you yourself may end up driving a company Malibu, and be able to sleep at night.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Our Rock Stars aren't like your Rock Stars

The bigger the wine geek, the more esoteric name dropping we do. Michel Rolland, Jim Clendenen, Josh Jensen, Heidi Barret, Helen Turley and Manfred Krankl all incite deeply held beliefs amongst wine nerds, but why? Are these people the best of the best? Do they know something the others don't? Don't true wine geeks believe that wines are made in the vineyard. I've seen thousands of signed bottles but only once have I seen actual dirt from the different vineyards in a wine shop. I am as guilty as anyone. I hero worship certain winemakers as well. Why? Just like in this commercial, we need to anthropomorph wines, and the winemaker is the very embodiment of these wines. It's less weird than worshiping the guy that invented a USB port, right?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Foodies on stage tonight

If you are in the business of wine, you either "get it" or you don't "get it", as I always like to say. "Getting it", in one manner of speaking, is not about wine, but the culture that nearly completely envelops wine, which is food. "Getting it" is about understanding the importance of great food and a great food culture. The foodie culture has grown by leaps and bounds. For those of us fortunate enough to be in this biz, we get a front row seat, and often participate. The best part of my job, hands down, is the time I spend with chefs writing menus. I feed off their creativity, and the moments that I give them direction or inspiration are unlike any other. Personally speaking, I am fascinated by creativity. I find myself now talking about chefs like I used to speak only of athletes or movie directors. I try to not be impressed by celebrity chefs, but I've been too impressed by too many. It could be worse, I could spend hours reading about Brittany/Paris/Miley/ blah blah blah, instead, I fawn over people that actually create something and that represent something that is essentially art. This inspires me. Sadly, Food Network now largely sucks. Except for a few great shows (Iron Chef, Good Eats, Chopped), they've given up on the chef and inspiration angle and gone towards the "you're an idiot and don't know how to cook, so we'll put someone up there that may or may not know more than you to not intimidate, and in the end, you'll have acquired no new skill set" . So I am left with BBC America, for Gordon Ramsey in the slightly less obnoxious persona, an occasional Mario Batali spotting on PBS, and the guiltiest obsession I have which is Top Chef.
I know, how can artists actually compete, how fair can it really be? Product placements are beyond annoying. Unfair editing. Padma? Lot's of easy knocks on this show. But they get several things right. Tom Colicchio with his flabbergasted eye twitches and rolls,has taught us all where the bar should be set. That Molecular Gastronomy for MG sake is crap. That poorly seasoned and cooked meat is inexcusable. That this competition, as unscientific as it may seem, has raised the bar for an entire generation yearning for a little boob tube foodie inspiration. While it's not perfect, it's the best thing us foodie's have. While I'm patiently awaiting the arival of Ad Hoc at Home , I'll relish in Kevin's victory tonight (after all, the Voltaggios are clearly robots).

Friday, December 4, 2009

I'll give you authentic!

Steve Heimoff, whose wine blog is always outstanding and insightful, really caught my ire today. His recent post Using “authenticity” as an inauthentic marketing tool completely missed the mark for me. A recent study showed that "Gen Y" holds authenticity to be a strong value when choosing wine. Heimoff rightfully challenges this concept as vague and difficult to pin down. Sadly, he also accuses marketers of taking advantage of this vaguery. Here is where he misses the mark: Authenticity, by it's very nature, is more resistant to "inauthentic" marketing techniques. Heimoff's claimed ignorance as to what constitutes authenticity is also sort of lazy. Here are some examples of things that are categorized as authentic in my book:
  • Any sincere attempt at the involvement of terroir
  • Wines that come from a specific location
  • Wines produced by a wine maker with staunchly held beliefs and vision
While these are very loose and certainly open to interpretation, I believe an operative term is sincere. when wines are made sincerely, the ending result is more "authentic". What is an insincere wine you may ask? Rex Goliath, Blackstone, 7 Deadly Zins, etc... While not necessarily bad wines, these wines couldn't be vaguer. They have no vision, no specific place, no style and no sincerity. These wines are all the result of marketing, and are therefore the opposite of authentic. If Heimoff can't tell want constitutes authentic in wine, maybe he should ask a Gen-Y'er, they seem to have a pretty good feel for it.

I know that Heimoff is really attacking the language of this report more than the results, but it's reckless to discount a revolution in consumer sophistication because of the language of the people analyzing the results. These are significant results.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vintage Shmintage

Once upon a time, vintages of wine really mattered. The difference between awful and amazing was dependent upon the vintage. While this certainly remains the case for collectible wines, most wine today is built for consistency.

One of my good friends that is a retail buyer called me this week to see when the 2008 Oregon Pinots would be released. We are right in the middle of the 2007 release in most cases. So I replied that they would start rolling out around April. He replied "I'll just wait until the 08's come out".

For the sake of example, the following is only in regards to Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs:

Now I understand that 2007 was not the vintage 2008 was. 2008 will likely offer more depth and longevity. and 2007 was considered to be challenging to many. In the last few months, I have tasted the 2006, 2007 and 2008 vintage of practically all of my producers. I can say without a doubt that 2007's are showing the best right now, except for the absolute top level bottlings (in which case, 06's are still showing great). This illustrates a problem with buyers. They are often buying on perceived vintage reputations written about in trade magazines. Then the buyers are staking their reputation on the idea that being selective in vintage purchases will make them a better wine shop. In some cases, this is true, but for a $25 Oregon Pinot Noir? Undoubtedly, the best of the 3 current vintages to drink tonight is 2007, and this will be the case even after 2008's are released. In fact, the 2008's won't start being great until they've been released for 6 months,and it still may take another 6 months until they actually are drinking better than the 2007's. Apples to apples it's probably true that the 2008 at it's best will be better than the 2007 but very far from it right now. The best time to sell them the 2008's will probably be December of 2010. So, is this responsible? Are you selling wine for tonight or wine for the future? You would bring in the 08's ahead of the 07's with no impunity for how they're showing today? Furthermore, are your customers stubborn about buying the 08's only, or are you projecting that upon them?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Congratulations, you're connected! How is your reputation?

We always say it, the world of wine is so small. Forget 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon, it's more like 2 degrees of Gary Andrus. Everybody knows everyone in this business. This is why your reputation is so important. Wine knowledge is assumed, it's the understanding of the application of this knowledge that elevates your game. Your reputation is the one thing that will follow you through your career. With so many lists out there right now, here's another one. 9 things you can do to keep yourself connected, and build your reputation:

1) Social Networking-LinkedIn and Facebook. Duh, everyone talks about these, but they are vital. People are skeptical because they have a tough time understanding how this can help in the future. That's what is so amazing about it, that the possibilities are still endless. I have found wineries and solved problem simply by engaging my network. This will keep your degrees of separation even closer. The more you engage your network, the more you will be on people's minds.

2) There's a thin line between self promotion and shameless self promotion- Be careful not to talk about yourself too much. In an industry where the only real accolades are MS or MW (and freakin' impossible to get), your resume may be verbal and you may feel the need to read it off every chance you get. Don't! The past is irrelevant, where you are right now is all that matters.

3) "Have a Take, Don't Suck!"- To quote Jim Rome, having an opinion is important. Can you imagine an art dealer not having an opinion about art? Just make sure you have an interesting and original perspective that give people a chance to challenge their (and your) deeply held beliefs.

4) Take control of the conversation-
This is broad, but it refers to a few different things. You can be the beginning of a chain reaction of enlightenment. Whether this is in a public tasting where it's one on one with a consumer, a wine dinner where you can sway the hearts and minds of the adoring crowd, or your daily dealings with retailers that believe they have no control over consumers' behaviors. Don't be afraid to engage.

5) Tell the truth & be sincere-Being honest in sales seems contradictory, but nothing builds credibility faster. If you truly care about the long term success of your customers, this is the best way to prove it.

6) Think long term- If you chase the acute sale, you'll never build brands. You'll always chase a dollar number. Put the right wines in the right places, practice diligence and patience when training, and you will be rewarded.

7) Give everyone a fighting chance-
Don't prejudge customers or distributors. Give them to tools to succeed, if they don't succeed, they'll know why,and it will never be you.

8)Be a grown up-We are in the business of alcohol. Keep it under control. Never give anyone in the industry a story to tell. Out drinking anyone is never good for your reputation.

9) Be tough, fair and unemotional (i.e.-leave ego and pride at the door). You are an advocate for many things, the wineries you represent, your customers, maybe your employer. When negotiating any of these, it's very important to be that advocate, no matter what it means for your bottom line or for your pride. you are always a representative of something, sometimes many things. Understand what is important, and your needs are the bottom of the list, unless you want to go back to selling copiers...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Another charity wine tasting? woo. hoo.

First and foremost, it's of paramount importance for everyone that has resources, whether they are time, financial, or other, to give back to their community. Get involved in organizations. Sit on the board at least once in your life. Community service is a great way to exercise your skills for a good cause. Believe in a worthy cause, and put significant energy towards making that cause as much money as possible.

We are well into the season of the year in which Wine Galas abound. Each year, countless charity organizations decide that the best way to raise money is to host a wine tasting extravaganza. Make people feel like their $50-$500 ticket is worth it because of all of the awesome food and wine. Consumers pay the money, come taste the wines, and everybody is happy. Right? Well, not really. What is happening is these events are not only losing their caché because there are so darn many of them that they all blur together, but the supplier of the wines are starting to lose enthusiasm quickly because there are a dozen requests or more per year. The resulting donations end up being last years samples at best. The more events the more you need to say no. The more duplicate events, the worse it gets. I have been personally involved in planning several of these events, and it's always the same thing. The organizers of these events simply assume that the mere forum to taste this broad array of wines is a great way to promote one's products, and ultimately result in recognition and retail sales. this does not happen. In addition to the charity landscape sucking ass right now, no one has been able to reinvent the wheel.

I have a solution, sort of. The 2 battles that each of these events is fighting are originality/ differentiation and enthusiasm from the organizers and participants. It's time to change the format of these events. The reboot is long overdue, and as the economy is transitioning, it's time to differentiate from the crowded event landscape. Here are my suggestions of how to elevate your game:

1) Pick a new time of the year-Oct-Dec is so crowded, it's impossible to thrive
2) Pick a new venue. -No more Hotels or convention centers. Get creative. Outdoors is an awfully good place to start.
3) Pick a new format-Just because people are getting finger food and glasses of wine doesn't mean that they don't feel like cattle.
4) Act like a business. People want to help, but you're competing against other charities. You can't sell one cause over another, but you can sell them on what is beneficial for the people participating. Find out what would make them excited and want to participate, and don't assume restaurateurs and wine people will want to sit on a board. you need to go get the answer from them. Make it worthwhile
5) After someone says yes, stop asking for more-This is a huge turn off. If someone will come to an event, and stand there for 3 hours and pour wine at their expense, it's unfair to ask them to for more product. You'll inevitably get crap anyways.
6) When asking for donations, ask for something specific-sometimes the hardest thing is not deciding if to donate, but what to donate.
7) Make your event original and able to withstand the "elevator pitch" test, this is how you spread word of mouth for next year.
8) Always build towards next year. Better enthusiasm, will result in better word of moth, ticket sales and participation.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In defense of the criticism of plonk

[yellowtail] is plonk. In an attempt to keep it short and sweet, I didn't explain why. In fact, [yellowtail] is short and sweet. Back story time. Randall Grahm took some heat earlier this week for his comments on splendid table. It's worth mentioning that Randall did say that his comments were not meant for every aussie Shiraz producer, but many that have defined the style. Secondly, he was trying to defend the noblest of all grapes, syrah. He raised some very important points about syrah/ shiraz, one of which is that most shiraz we experience, is pure winemaking. Terroir is out the window. Shiraz we think of is pure unadulterated fruit juice. Easy to make, easy to drink, sweet, simple. blah! I don't believe anyone in this is evil or less sophisticated, many Aussies have made quite a bit of money from this formula that Americans love. Making money is truly acceptable. And there are some amazing world class producers in Australia that are turning out amazing wines like Kaesler, Langmeil and the Burge Family.

That said, like it or not, when you make wine that is soda pop, and you have essentially confused an entire wine drinking generation about arguably the worlds greatest grape, you're going to get some heat. And you deserve it. So take it and say, I deserve it because I've made a choice in my career to make money off of people that don't know any better. And if, as Aussies, you really take umbrage with Randall's dead on comments, take it up with the people that are turning out the grape juice that has more in common with Mogen David than hermitage.

No one makes technically flawed wines anymore, we know too much and have come too far, so when I say these wines are crap, I don't mean that they have technical flaws, I mean that there's no wine in these wines. And the argument that the people that drink these wines will eventually become fine wine drinkers makes as much sense as saying that Shirley Temples are a gateway to Old Fashioneds.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The infectious wine snob

This weekend, back to back incidents have given me a little perspective on my effect on my friends in regards to their wine snobbery. Not once, but twice, I had people close to me make comments about Yellowtail and 2-buck chuck. while both of these wines are pure plonk and a hindrance to the credibility of fine wine everywhere, I'm a little concerned that I have created a culture of wine criticism around me. I am a critic of practices of dumb-ing down wine. I have a good palate and recognize good wine in a very broad sense and can easily imagine all real world applications. I recognize a great inexpensive wine,and don't for a second feel that all wine needs to be expensive. That said, yellowtail and shaw are crap because they are a confection and sell a lifestyle, not because of their price. Maybe I need to be a little more diligent about explaining this side of it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

ahhh, the mouth breathing masses...

*The following is meant to be in good humor, please don't be offended by anything that follows, I realize it comes off as elitist, but hey, it's the wine business.

Insulated by layers of wine geeks, I find myself rarely coming into contact with the average wine consumers. I feel like I have a very good grasp on their habits, preferences, and the influences of the restaurants and retailers in their lives. But I rarely need to actually deal with them. Surprisingly, my home market of Toledo is a really sophisticated wine market with solid tastings on a regular basis hosted by people that love to teach. When I travel, I quickly realize how spoiled I've become. While at a consumer event this week, I couldn't believe the way these people acted around wine. Here is my open letter to wine consumers that attend tastings. If we are worth our salt as wine educators, we will teach each of these people the errors of their ways.

1) Most Important-you don't know as much about wine as I do (caveat-wine consumers only. In the trade, 1000's of you know tons more than I do). This is not a problem. I hope you don't know as much as I do, otherwise I suck. You on the other hand, should stop trying to impress me, and just listen for 3 seconds.

2) Yes, I've been to wine country, no I've never been to (fill in the blank). I'd love to hear all about your picnic drinking (blank winery), but there are 30 people behind you that just want to taste the next wine.

3) Forget you ever heard the word dry, there is no such thing as medium dry. It's a binary system, it is either dry or it isn't. Dry isn't a catch all. If you like sweet wines, just say it.

4) Have an open mind. You already paid for the tasting, quit looking for familiarity, the entire idea is to sample new wines. expand your horizons.

5) Blends are neither good nor bad. The next person that tells me they have started only buying blends is going to get smacked.

6) Don't tell me you love wine, but all you drink is Napa Cab. I already don't like you.

7) No French jokes. You can rip on Italians all you want, and any Southern Hemisphere bashing is encouraged. The French rule! You don't have to like the wines, but understand this is the most important wine country in the world, and if you stopped eating ketchup and drinking soda for 3 seconds you might like their wines.

8) No, 2-Buck Chuck isn't good, it never won any wine tasting competition, and when you think you're smarter than the average bear giving it as a gift, everyone know you're cheap, even if you buy a whole case.

9) Don't give the wine I'm pouring a score. I don't really like most of the people that do it for a living and have infinitely better palates than mine. Just pick up your case of Insignia and leave me alone.

10) You're not at a bar, quit acting like it!

Thanks for letting me air my frustrations. I'm glad I waited 2 days before posting that one, could have been offensive if I didn't have a cool down period...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sometimes you just need to take out the kick ass wines to show 'em who's boss!

A wine rep always struggles with what to sample. There are dozens of factors that go in to every choice in a bag. Yesterday, I just decided to go out with guns blazin' and knock em' dead. I picked the entire lineup of Jaffurs, an elite Rhone producer from Santa Barbara. The wines aren't cheap, but they're amazing. I took 4 wines around,and at the end of each stop, the line was, "I can't remember the last time I had such amazing wine". at that point you're not even selling, you're just agreeing with them. This is a great approach for 3 reasons a) You sell a bunch of great wine b) for whatever isn't bought that day, surely the wines will be remembered for years to come c)it helps to give you credibility for not wasting anyone's time. I especially love when the guy in front of me a s crappy $9 Malbec. Always make sure you're the one they want to see.Next time you balk about taking out the pricier models, throw caution to the wind, you be glad you did, and so will your customers.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Distributors on the Defensive

My world has flipped upside down. My new role is to hold distributors accountable, while my old one was being held accountable. On the receiving end of the accounting, I had a great rapport with wineries. I was always brutally honest, built evidence to back up claims, and most importantly, knew what needed to be done to make each brand succeed and make sure we were giving it the best effort. I rarely needed to go on the defensive because as I laid out the evidence and gave my input, the wineries all knew that we were their best chance at success.

Now, I am in constant contact with many distributors. Very few act as if they are ahead of any issues that may be brewing. Disseminating information is practically non-existent. Getting valuable work-with time is tough. Want to schedule time in front of a sales meeting? You can get a reservation sooner at The French Laundry. Many distributors are doing everything they can to keep their head above water. They are all stressed about the season. I understand and appreciate all of this, and all of their competitors are going through the exact same thing right now.

While each of these complaints are frustrating, ampelography is built on the notion that all of this is going to happen. Distributors, when it comes to handling small brands on a large scale, suck without exception.This is why we have a job, to shine through their challenges, and elevate the conversation back towards artisan producers.

My knock on distributors is when they don't own up to the obvious. They aren't pumping their sales teams up about our producers, they are sending out sales sheets, they aren't stocking products to the appropriate par levels,and frankly, they aren't educated on our producers. I don't expect them to do all of these things, but when sales fall flat, it's my job to identify what needs to happen on both ends. When confronted about what is happening, the distributors end up acting like children that broke something of daddy's. I know admitting failure is tough, I expect them to fail, I just want to know how they're failing. I know I'm small potatoes in their world of $7 Malbecs and $6 Pinot Grigios, I don't help them "move boxes". But what I represent to them is a chance to exert minimal effort and have success. I am a boost for their more stagnant products. I'm not their competition, but they treat every supplier like they are. It's time for distributors to see the big picture. If they'd quit being so defensive, we'd actually both benefit.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

OND has lost it, Don't Panic!

Once upon a time, wine sales, as were many retail item sales, were driven by OND. OND or October, November & December, the last sales quarter of the year, historically represented 40% of annual sales. It is when companies were made or broken. Many retailers didn't go into the profit column for the year until black Friday (you know, the day after Thanksgiving). Last year, OND, or lack thereof, killed many businesses,and just about every one's business plans. The remaining inventory clogged up the 1st half of 2009 wine sales. Now, 2 weeks into OND, what is happening out there? Nothing. Seriously, nothing. Sales haven't picked up yet. In fact, they probably won't pick up that much.It's been years since the "O" in OND meant anything except everyone talking about how the season would be.
As a wine culture, we've changed forever. The economic downturn only clouds people perception of wine sales trends. Here has what has happened to kill OND:

1) Wine Gift Giving has decreased-There was a time when everyone gave bottles of liquor or wine at holidays, that has gone away quite a bit. And with corporate tightening, the big companies that used to buy dozens of cases of Jordan or Ferrari Carano to give as corporate gifts has also dried up.

2) Wine seasonality is changing!- Americans now drink wine everyday, and this is a great thing. Wine is no longer the domain of special occasion only. Americans have grown their wine consumption "JFMAMJJAS" (that doesn't exactly roll off the tongue does it?), or the other months of the year so much, that the expert predict the growth to be constant, and the fact is, people already drink wine routinely, they're not going to drink extra wine on Thanksgiving. We are reaching good velocity through the season change that the increase, while existent, is not dramatic. When the last time you went to a big party on New Years and really whooped it up?

3) Wine purchasers have lost their bearings, and as a result, their "balls"-As a result of buyers failing to recognize point #2, they have over purchased, over projected,and in general been their own worst enemy. Buyers do 2 things when times are weird, they either try to buy themselves into higher sales, often jumping on closeouts,which in turn knocks down their avg sale and profitability. Or they flat-out stop buying. Keeping their inventory in check, but now are relegated to stock monkeys. If a buyer doesn't buy, what is their job? Advice to all wine buyers, please plan accordingly in the future, budget less seasonality into your annual plan, and prepare your bosses for the inevitable disappointment come November, regardless of the economic conditions.Your sales will continue to grow,just be cool. Nationally, we are still growing wine consumption around 5%, it's not the 10% it was a few years ago, but it is still growth.

In this business, people's memory's are very short. I have vivid memories of 2001 OND when everyone said things would never be the same, and they weren't, we grew this industry faster between 2002 and 2008 than any other 6 year span in the last 50 years. In the late 90's all of the money spent was on obnoxious high end cabs, now it has been converted to dozens of different categories. Americans have never been more sophisticated,and are only getting more interested in wine. everything will be fine, just don't panic!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lange Estate

I've been waiting to post about Lange for some time. It's really all their fault. They sent me a book called The Grail, which is all about a year in the life of Lange Estate. Great read, but I haven't finished it yet.This is the crazy season after all.
Tim Brislin, who we've known since his Anne Amie days a few years ago and now National Sales for Lange reached out for me over the Summer. He was looking for a little help in our neck of the woods. Having been to Pinot Camp,and knowing they were a participant, I rushed home to check my notes. Sure enough, they were a host the year I attended. Oddly enough, I had no notes about them anywhere. I had comments good or bad about pretty much every wine I tasted sniffed or saw, but they were noticeably absent. To this day, I can't figure out how I missed them.
Hidden in plain sight is how I describe Lange. I somehow missed them my entire career. When Tim contacted me over the Summer I was intrigued, and agreed to first taste the wines. I was absolutely blown away. The wines were stunning. Each of the reds displayed a house style of balanced acid/ tannin structure. These were Dundee Pinots for sure, but even more so, showy and from the challenging 2007 vintage. Perhaps most impressive was their Chardonnay. All you cynics can just shut up, I still love great Chardonnay,and so do you. Lange makes good on the promise that Oregon produces the best Chardonnays outside of burgundy. Clearly I had missed something along the way. Proud of my new "discovery" I immediately signed them up. As I began talking with my colleagues that had also been to Pinot Camp, they all went bonkers for Lange. Somehow, I was late to the party, but very lucky to have them on board.
Don & Wendy Lange started the winery conceptually while in California. Their first vintage was 1987,and their lineup hasn't changed much since then, except the addition of Jesse, their son, to the team. The Langes have built a reputation for consistency and a blend of Estate and contracted fruit. Along with our other great Oregon producers, Lange represents another facet of what needs to be considered the true Oregon style (which probably consists of at least 6 different Pinot Noir styles).

Friday, October 2, 2009

Finally catching back up...

Great news, we've been busier than we ever imagined! That means that we've been showing hundreds of consumers and trade our wines. The drawback is that we've been away from the daily routine and our homes so much that the blog has been neglected, although, it has been on our minds and we've seriously missed blogging.
Sincere apologies to all producers we haven't yet blogged about. You've been on our minds, but we've devoted more time to showing and placing your wares than talking about them in Wine Web 2.0 (Tim-you're up next I promise).

So what's been happening in the world of ampelography? First, we hosted our launch parties in Cleveland and Toledo. Thanks to everyone that came out to support us! Our invite is pictured above, that would be "Tangle" by the amazing artist Amy Casey who generously gave us permission to use her image. We have a business concept that can sometimes be difficult to describe in one line, so your support and appreciation is amazing. We had over 200 attendees at our events, we showed over 120 wines at each event. Collectively, we've been in Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee and all over Ohio. Nashville has a found a place in Walt's heart, and he's been there twice as opportunity has presented itself. This will be a great market for us moving forward, and is a great example of how a market that wasn't originally part of our master plan presented itself, and is now a vibrant segment. Adapting as opportunity arises is a major component of success. We've been fortunate enough to participate in some great trade events along the way, with a few more coming. The 55 degrees shows were great. Cleveland and Cincinnati really embraced the wines. We've made new friends at Wine Trends, and Domaine and Estates in Ohio, 3 Tears and Vinture in Indiana, Best Brands in Nashville, and re-upped with the good folks at Cutting Edge and 55 degrees in Ohio.

Here is what we've learned:
1) David Shiverick is the man, seriously, check out the confidence to which he brings thrift store fare:

2) Chinon rocks-duh, right? There's so much great wine out there that sometimes you forget how much you love a tiny corner of say the Loire. Domaine du Roncee, nicely done.

3) There is something special about Europeans with class. Michele Scamacca- you are a true gentleman. amazing Italian wines, proud to have you in the fold!

4) I heart the Queen City! My brother lives here (Cincinnati), so it's always held a place in my head, but aside from the seriously f-ud up layout and duplicity of streets on the west Side, this is one of my favorite places to visit. The people are great. sophisticated without having an ego. The perfect mix of wine geeks. Go Bengals!

5) Showing people Chave is one of the great joys in life.

6) Wild Hog has aromatics in Pinot Noir that I've never seen that are nothing less than enthralling.

7) We have a seriously kick ass portfolio

8) the World wants and needs more French Wine-The long national nightmare may finally be over, time to break out my neckerchief

9) Randall Graham is back in a big way!

Cant's wait to see you out on the streets!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Beyond word of mouth

During these economic times (I can't wait until I don't have to hear that phrase anymore), marketing dollars need to stretch further than ever before. The institution of marketing has turned squarely towards Word of Mouth. The concept that the most effective and sincere way to get depth of sales is through people telling other people about their positive experiences with the brand or product. The challenges with such an approach are numerous. The least of which may be that it's nearly impossible to track. The other is the seeming insincerity of exploiting such behavior.Even with all of the problems, word of mouth can be a very powerful tool. In regards to wine, perhaps even more powerful.
The landscape for the wine consumer is very confusing and complex. People don't like to ask for help unless they absolutely need it.If they find a wine they like, they are likely to champion it among their social circles because finding that wine they like in the first place can be a journey. It also can give the consumer the air of credibility within their group.It would seem that the wine marketers and producers should be as eager as any to utilize this inexpensive and effective marketing approach. The obstacles of tracking effectiveness and credibility can be solved in one fell swoop. Open the wine! If you have a great product, the best way to turn people on to your product is to let them taste what's behind the label. If they love it, you get instant feedback. If they buy it, you see the effectiveness.If you tell a good story while tasting the consumer, then they have knowledge to take back to their social circle. If you are promoting your wine and aren't there to actually pour it or talk about it, be damn sure the person that is knows everything inside and out there is to know about your wine.
People are just looking for affirmation of what they like, or a reason to like it. The want to be the one to discover it. Getting a handful of consumers to seriously taste may be much more effective than a huge crowd in a grocery store. It's more important to incubate the word of mouth cycle than to sell as many $2 tastes that you can pack into a grocery store on a Saturday afternoon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

McCrea Cellars

One day, 10 years ago, while employed as a buyer for a restaurant in Santa Barbara, a sales rep came in and showed me a Syrah from Washington State. I had tasted a few, but nothing that had impressed me up until that point. In fact, I was having a difficult time finding a good Rhone Varietal outside of France or Santa Barbara. I vividly remember my reaction as I tasted this new WA Syrah. My head was spinning. This was like a biologist discovering a new species. It was Syrah, without a doubt. It was silky and had beautifully balanced sweet fruit tannins. The wine lasted and lasted. It was the 1997 McCrea Cuvee Orleans Syrah (375ml no less!). I immediately added it to my list,and happily hand sold it as long as I could keep it in stock.
Somehow this quirky little winery with a funky purple label and I would cross paths a few more time before all was said and done. A few years later, after moving back to Ohio and while traveling for a supplier, I bumped into Susan Neel (né McCrea) in Missouri. We hit it off instantly. I spoke of my love for her wines and told her that I wanted to represent them in Ohio. It took her 2 years to be convinced to sell Walt and I wine (he had also known the wines as he was a Hospice du Rhone Groupie for several years). Eventually Susan started traveling to see us and support our efforts selling the wine,and we became very close. My son even received a birthday present from Susan that was an autographed bottle of Grenache from his birth year saying "Happy Birthday Eli, do not open until 2022!
Doug McCrea, winemaker and partner, hails from New Orleans. He and Susan were really the first significant winery producing Rhone varietals in Washington. They started in the late 80's. I'm told they really hit their stride by the mid-90's, and to this day, craft some of the most incredible, elegant version of many of the Rhone grapes. Sleek, elegant and balanced, they have really tapped into and defined the terroir for an entire generation of up and coming wineries. We are very proud to announce the addition of McCrea Cellars to the ampelography portfolio.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mentors-Teaching how to learn

One of the thousands of perks of my job is to attend ridiculously cool food and wine events. That was the case this past Sunday when I scored a ticket to a big SOS dinner at Lola. This was no ordinary dinner, guest chefs included Bobby Flay, Jonathon Waxman, Paul Kahan, Jonathon Sawyer and Nate Appleman. The theme was mentors and their students. It's strange to think about Michael Symon or Bobby Flay before they were Iron Chefs when they didn't know anything. Today, they are all experts at what they do. Having mentors is undoubtedly an important part of their success. This event made me think about my mentors over the years in the wine business. I am fortunate to have had many, and the thing I learned more than anything was how to to learn.

In the wine business, there is a tendency to puff your chest out and pretend like you know more than everyone else. This is a sure sign of knowing enough to be dangerous and that's it. I'm sort of arrogant by nature (thank my father), but that shouldn't be confused with acting like I know it all. I was told many years ago that the second you realize how much you don't know about wine is when you begin to really learn about wine. I've always liked this and It has guided me well. I didn't know everything,and will never know everything. But I do know a lot, much of it arcane, but more importantly, I know how much I don't know. It's this attitude of always learning and never feeling like the master that I picked up from many people I thought of as mentors. I'm never afraid to ask questions, and I feel like the cocky wine geeks have forgotten how to ask the question.

I know that Symon et al, are amazing chefs, but they would never call themselves experts, even though they truly are. It's this humility that breeds excellence. It's the patience of a teacher that helps instill the thirst for knowledge. Thank you chefs for reminding me an important lesson, oh, and for the bacon ice cream too!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jaffurs Wine Cellars

This has been a story I've been waiting to tell. Somehow, someway Craig Jaffurs and Dave Yates have been a part of my wine career almost since the beginning. As a young wine buyer, Craig explained the concept of Brix to me. I can't even tell you how many wine dinners I've been to with Craig. I do know that for each dinner, Craig's wines have brought out the best on some of my favorite Chefs, and closest friends. When I became a sales rep, one of the wines in my portfolio was Jaffurs. I know I sold a lot of their wine because I still always hear about the good ole days from these guys. When I decided to move to Ohio, Craig and Dave put me with Walt for a lunch at La Super Rica in Santa Barbara (You have no idea how great...). Walt eventually hired me, and again I was selling Jaffurs. As I was putting together the concept for ampelography, Dave and Craig were 2 of my first phone calls.
This is one of those phenomenon in this business that makes it so special. We are all members of our own mutual admiration society. And it is these types of relationships that can last a lifetime.
Oh, by the way, the wines are ridiculously good. I remember back in the day when we would speculate as to why the press hadn't wised up to these wines. Now, they are famous for the huge scores. The thing is, the style of these wines has remained the same all these years. The guys make Rhone wines in Santa Barbara. They make the best examples of nearly every single vineyard bottling they produce. I have had countless winemakers tell me that Jaffurs Roussanne is the absolute best White Rhone Wine from the U.S.! Their Syrahs all have a sense of place. Each single vineyard bottling has it's own personality, but all have that commonality of of balanced structure and minerality. These wines age as well as their Rhone counterparts. I'd rather drink Jaffurs Viognier than almost any Condrieu. I could go on, but I'll just say that we are thrilled to add Jaffurs Wines Cellars to the ampelography portfolio!

Monday, July 13, 2009

What I learned on the Central Coast last week...

I had a tremendous vist to Wine Country-South last week. I've always loved the people and wines of Santa Barbara. My opinions were further solidified. Everyone was so hospitable, and i learned a ton about each winery and personality. I also learned a few things about how to handle multiple appointments and etiquette.

1) Foxen's new winery is going to be the "Toy" that Bill always deserved. Bill Wathan has always been a great winemaker, now he will have plenty of room to maneuver in Foxen's new "green" winery that is nearing completion. Solar Panels, Low profile, native plants, Foxen has done a great job of keeping this project as environmentally friendly as spossible. Along with their Tinnaquaic and now Tinnaquaic 2 vineyards, they are expanding their organic grape growing program.

2) Dave Corey of Core is a mad scientist! Dave somehow juggles seemingly dozens of different cuvees and know intimately where everything comes from. Why so many different bottlings? Because he does them all well.Exciting things to come from Core, especially the 2007 Reds!

3) Buttonwood's indelible style comes from their micro climate and own rootstock Bordeaux varieties. We talk a lot about "House Style", it amazes me how Buttonwood has developed just that, their own house style.

4) Niner has an amazing operation coming on line in the next year. The 2 vineyards, Bootjack Ranch and Heart Hill Vineyard are going to be some of the best known vineyards in Paso within a few years. The placement of these vineyards helps to keep the breezes flow through the vineyards. No raisin flavors! It was great to spend the day with my old friend Ken Bryant.

5) Silver has a few tricks up their sleeve. Despite a few setbacks, keep an eye on Benjamin Silver, his next vintage will turn some heads. His farming and winemaking philosophies are unique, and his attention to detail and steady hand have always served him well.

6) Rebecca and Peter Work of Ampelos are some of the smartest and most resourceful winemakers I've ever met. Trading in their management consultant jobs for the familial closeness of Ampelos Vineyard and winery, they brought the most important element to the table:knowing who to ask questions of and never assuming anything.

7) The wine business has a way of keeping everyone close, and relationships separated by years and thousands of miles can continue to last a lifetime.

8) Some wineries don't want to share the stage/ It is possible to overbook your day, and it's a good way to insult some people.

9) You can't make all the people happy all of the time

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Syncline Wine Cellars

I hate to name drop, so I won't. Let me say this, one night, about 3 years ago, a pretty famous and cultish Oregon and Washington winemaker was out to dinner with the management team of my former employer. We asked him who was he most excited about in Washington right now. He said 1 name that we already knew and coveted (and ended up getting) and 2 more producers we'd never heard of. One of those was Syncline (otherwise this is a stupid story). So we reached out for James and Poppie Mantone to try the wines. We were all immediately smitten. Syncline crafts Rhone varietals in Columbia Valley. This is turning into one of my favorite regions for these types of wines.
Columbia Valley Syrahs have this Old-World acidity with bright fresh fruit. The wines have a feminine quality to them that is especially noticeable in the texture. Syncline is at the very top of my list of producers that exhibit this style of winemaking. Syncline is specializing in making wines that have character and finesse. I know that Poppie has a background in biodynamics, and now with an estate vineyard bearing fruit, we shoudl see even better wines from them with a great pedigree. I'm very proud to announce the addition of Syncline Wine Cellars into the ampelography portfolio.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Foxen Winery

I have been very lucky over the years to have met some amazing people in this business. Dick Dore of Foxen ranks up there near the top. Tall, charismatic and with a twinkle in his eye, he loves to tell the story of his Great-Great Grandfather, Benjamin Foxen establishing the Foxen Canyon Trail and building the church that sits on Rancho Sisquoc's property. Dick comes from Santa Maria Royalty! He and partner (and winemaker) Bill Wathen, established this winery in 1985, naming it after his ancestor. This estate winery lies on 2000 acres known as Rancho Tinaquaic. On the western ridge of the Dry Sisquoc River Bed. The vineyard,as well as some of the purchased fruit they bring in (Bien Nacido, Julia's, Vogelzang and Sea Smoke) is some of the best fruit sources in Santa Barbara County. Their diversity of wines, including Sangiovese, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, as well as their ubiquitous Pinots, Chards and Rhone bottling represent a great breadth of lineup. Dick and Bill are always trying something new, and were certainly among the first producers to understand how to handle Chardonnay and Bordeaux varieties with restraint. A new winery construction is underway, but you can still taste through the lineup in the aluminum and wood shack they use for a tasting room at the norther edge of the scenic Foxen Canyon Trail. Foxen represents some of the best Santa Maria has to offer, and we are very excited to add them to the ampelography portfolio!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Bonny Doon Vineyard

Growing into wine in the 90's, Bonny Doon was a tremendously important producer to me as I learned about wine. Randall Graham's embrace of Rhône varietals, as well as obscure Italians, gave hope to the idea that the world of wine did not begin and end with Chardonnay and Cabernet. His quirk and wit said that you can make serious wine without being self-important. There aren't too many rock stars in the wine world, Randall is definitely one.

This is the 3rd time I've sat down to write about Bonny Doon's addition to the portfolio, each time, finding myself at a loss for words. As I have discussed my portfolio with my colleagues, their amazement at the fact that I coerced them into the fold is compounding my writers block. I always try to think of the cliche, "act like you've been there before" whenever I approach something big and new and scary. I have a couple of funny stories that I'm going to keep in my pocket for now about Bonny Doon and Randall Graham. Somehow, though, I needed to give this brand all the sincerity I could muster. Fortunately, their National Sales Manager thought it would be wise for me to taste through the current lineup. This was a brilliant idea, as I guess I haven't tasted the entire lineup in a few years, since which time, Bonny Doon has reinvented themselves.

The lineup now includes the Ca' del Solo wines as well as the Cigare Volant wines, some dessert wines,and the Le Posseur Syrah. Gone are the larger production wines that you may have associated with BD over the years. Randall has always loved the old world analogues to his varieties, but without the overwhelming desire to replicate. This thought was crystallized in tasting through the wines. The Cigare wines are dead ringers for Rhône wines. great structure from the grenache made the red drink just like a great CDP. The white, with a healthy backbone of Grenache Blanc is one of my favorites white wines of this year. Rose, always rocks. Then we got to the Ca' del Solo lineup. My first thought was " this is the first Albarino from California that tasted like it came from Rias Baixas. Great minerality (California, really?),and that signature under ripe mandarin orange character.Then came the Nebbiolo and Dolcetto. Again, dead ringers for their Italian counterparts. Nebbiolo from California NEVER has this kind of Tannin and earthiness!

So with a few wines left to go through yet, I felt like i had a firm grasp on what is going on inside the bottle. These are all wines that make you reconsider whatever you feel or felt about Bonny Doon. They remind you why Randall Graham got to be so famous in the first place, by making great, interesting, challenging wines.

The Bonny Doon story can't really be told without discussing the other exciting concepts Randall has championed over the years. Remember his burial of corks? How about his take on Dante's Inferno? The story of the alien spacecraft? So what is he up to these days? First, all wines are now from either sustainably farmed vineyards, organic or biodynamic. How about Bonny Doon is now including all ingredients on their labels? And then there's sensitive crystallization. I can't think of the last time a concept in wine was so complex that it required hours of reading to just begin to understand what it means. The Ca' del Solo wines all have an image on the front of the sensitive crystallization of that particular wine. Sensitive crystallization is basically taking the wine (or grapes or plant material) combining them with cooper chloride in a petri dish and letting the liquid evaporate. What is left are these images of crystals that apparently tell one (that knows what to look for) all about the wine. They should show life force, balance, health in the wine. This is a concept that goes hand in hand with biodynamics. This is all an attempt from Randall to peer a little closer into the grape, the vineyard, the terroir, analyze what it gives back and frame this in a visual representation. Pretty heady stuff indeed.

Perhaps the thing that's makes Bonny Doon such a special producer is their spirit. Embracing something new and exciting not just for changes sake but for the progression of quality, discourse and responsibility. Bonny Doon takes risks everyday in the noble pursuit of enhancing your wine drinking experience. All I needed to do to understand this was drink some of their wine.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Drawing Inspiration

I am a failed film student. I've always had an eye for "that thing" the power of the word, or the music, or the action, or even the choreography to inspire, and give emotion. I've never been able to create it though.

In deciding to begin this upstart luxury business, I was often struggling to justify the why. I felt like I was standing at the end of the diving board saying: "This is Crazy, this is crazy, this is crazy" (a la Clark Griswold). I was in need of inspiration and courage. I felt like I had the concept down cold, but it can be difficult to make that leap.I remember feeling sorry for myself, when I came across this:

Most of you have already seen this, I was late to the game. But it blew me away. It was perfect. I tend to get obsessive,and I became obsessed with this. I looked up Matt, and on his site I discovered "TED".

TED is Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, made up of 20 minute speeches by extraordinary individuals.

It was here that I began to watch these inspiring videos about people thinking differently, solving problems everyone says are unsolvable, and generally succeeding in the face of naysayers. People I already respected, like Malcolm Gladwell, and Tim Ferris, Nate Silver, and even Bill Gates, along with physicists, biologists, atheists, athletes, activists & authors. The theme was the same, we, as a society have a very myopic view of reality, and society tends to want to keep individuals at the baseline of success.

I also long ago discovered Vaynerchuk, and I'll mention him again here. His business blog, not his wine blog (although I subscribe to this one too), is the one that draws me in. He's not revolutionary, but he has vision, and he's sharp and adaptive. His comments are inspiring on a daily basis for me as well.

All of these factors made me want to put together a video that inspired wineries to take action to make their voices heard. My first few versions were enough to get my brother Brad involved (although, the correct term is probably intervened). Brad works for an amazing company called Bridge Worldwide. He is a project leader for teams that develop really amazing web content for a diverse array of companies. He took my crappy 20 min Powerpoint, interviewed me, helped me distill down my ideas, and publish a kick ass site and video. This in turn was my presentation to recruit each of the wineries I now represent (18 and counting).

This journey thus far has been amazing! I have already accomplished so many of the early critical factors for success that I drew up that I've needed to adopt a new strategy that uses my time in markets a little more efficiently. Building this portfolio has been far easier than I thought it would be. I need to give all the credit to my chain of inspiration. If you would have asked me 6 months ago what the road map would be, i didn't know. But I knew I wanted the outcome to look like this. At some point, all of these inspiring personalities, putting it out there on the net for free, got me to jump off the diving board. Thanks!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Robert M Parker-Socialist? In the best possible way...

Robert Parker is an easy, slow moving target. We in the wine industry like to dismiss his motivation, power and palate. I'm here to defend him. When Parker started, about 30 years ago, when ratings didn't really matter much. He didn't envision a world where his scores would fill the void. His intention was to bring a little organization and reason to the vast, confusing world of wine. Labeling was different back then.The consumer was easily confused. Wine also was much cheaper than it is today, so ratings were taken a little less seriously.
In the years since, Parker has remained consistent in his Independence and palate.I know what he's going to like just as I know what my wife will like. We sit around and talk about "Parker wines". He likes concentrated jammy, almost sweet wines. This doesn't make him less of a person, even though he and I like different wines. This doesn't mean he has less of a palate than anyone else. His writing is astute and descriptive. His editorial comments are always right on. I've heard he doesn't write tasting notes while at the wineries, but remembers everything.
He has also remained independent. When is the last time you though he was giving a higher score to Columbia Crest than they deserved and suspected that they may be in his pocket? With all the "controversy" surrounding the little travelgate thing happening right now, it's really a testament to how clean he has always been.
Here is why Parker is great: He has given voice to the small wineries. By treating every producer the same regardless of marketing budget, distribution, etc, he has leveled the playing field. Thus, allowing small producers to emerge in this wine-saturated landscape. Because he cares only about the highest quality wines, he searches far and wide to taste everything possible. Think about how many tiny, mailing list only wineries have thrived because of what Parker said about them. You may not agree with his ratings, but at least you don't need to put your arm around Marvin Shanken to get them...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Herding Cats

I am truly lucky. I was able to put together a "dream list" of wineries to represent quite a bit easier than I expected. I represent many producers that I have tremendous respect for. They took a leap of faith with me, and rightfully so, that leap only will last so far on goodwill alone.
My primary goal is to find homes (distributors) in each of my primary markets for 17 wineries plus 1 importer. Last week was a big week, I found 5 new homes over 3 states. Progress is expectantly slow, but with solid wines and presentations and good market intel, I'm confident I can find the right long-term fit for everyone.
I was (naively) expecting that each of these small wineries would eventually take on a collective conscience. A diverse, but unified voice. What I am instead seeing at this stage of the game is that each of these wineries likes things done a little bit differently. At some point in the future, I will have a strong track record I can point to, and I will be able to take a different tact when dealing with these differing philosophies.I love that each day, and each interaction presents a chance to learn a lesson and develop my approach.

Lesson #1-"Trust Me" is not reassuring. That leap of faith is not solidified by that famously laughable Indiana Jones quote, but in the back of my mind I wish it were.

Lesson #2-Any concern is a real concern. The collective white noise of communication can easily drown out subtle concerns about details. It's important to recognize each concern and give it the respect and credibility it deserves.

Lesson #3-I should always be available and accountable- I know I'm busy, but that doesn't matter to the client. What matters is how well I am representing them and their vision. From afar, it may be tough for them to see until I can produce results. For many producers, this hasn't happened yet.Sensitive to this, I need to be available and have a strong vision and strategy for each producer.

Lesson #4-My brand and the other winery's brands within ampelography are irrelevant to the winery I am dealing with at that moment. The winery wants to know I am focused on them. Talking about other wineries makes it sound like I'm focused on someone else.

So what am I doing wrong? Nothing. I am just learning how to communicate better (not necessarily more).When I set meetings, present wine, or decide to not set meetings, I need to be accountable in each instance. I need to be able to say what is going on with the strategy, and ideally head off concerns at the pass before they feel they need to approach me with them. Keeping the client happy is not about appeasement, but about helping them to eventually "trust me". I can't possibly expect them to do this out of the gate. I've already asked them to trust me more than any sane man would. I need to prove to them that my methods and strategy are sound. I need to let them see how the proverbial sausage is made. Many of these wineries are run by winemakers and all are family owned. Something that should not be taken lightly. I will need to make sure I do everything I can to earn their trust. I need to be a sincere advocate for their business and the health of their growth. I will also need to make sure I am sensitive to their concerns and make sure I put them at ease with each concern.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ampelos Cellars

I have known about Ampelos Cellars for a while now. My good friends Dave and Craig at Jaffurs Wine Cellars turned me on to their vineyard with what Jaffurs claims to be his best bottling of Syrah. Then I heard about their embrace of Biodynamics. Eventually, they showed up on Vaynerchuk for a 2 parter about blending (see both videos below). This time, it stuck. I reached out for Peter and Rebecca on the same day they reached out for me (they heard about me from the guys at Jaffurs!). We hooked up and discussed opportunities. Once we all decided that it might be a good fit, they sent me some samples. This is often one of the great perks of my job! We tasted through the wines last week. The Syrache, The Gamma Syrah and the Lambda Pinot Noir. Each had tons of personality and concentration. I called a few friends out that way, and the feeling was as I suspected, Ampelos is one of the hot rising stars of Santa Barbara. I am thrilled to announce the addition of Ampelos Cellars to the ampelography portfolio.

Part 1

Part 2

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


One of the most crucially important figures in the evolution of Santa Barbara Wines was in the background for much of the region's development. Schooled under Andre Tchelistcheff at Buena Vista, Rick Longoria was greatly influenced by this master of the craft. Beginning with Firestone, then J Carey and eventually with Gainey. Rick helped to establish a European style with the fledgling SB County vines. Longoria started his own winery in 1982, but continued to work for other wineries until 1997. He eventually saw his dreams come to fruition with opening his own tasting room in Los Olivos and most importantly, he planted his estate Fe Ciega Vineyard in Sta Rita Hills.The centerpiece of his production, Fe Ciega yields some of the most dramatic and refined Pinot Noirs in the region. Rick also has a thing for Spanish Varietals (as do I)and produces an Albarino and Tempranillo. One of Longoria's most famous wines is the Blues Cuvée, a proprietary Red Blend largely based on Cab Franc. The wine always carries a different artists interpretation of Rick's musical passion-The Blues.Additionally, Longoria is making great Syrahs and Chardonnays as well a a bevvy of non-estate Pinot Noir. ampelography is thrilled to represent this true pioneer and visionary!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Vaynerchuk on CNN

Gary Vaynerchuk is quickly becoming ubiquitous in this industry. It's very important to listen to him and imagine for a second what his audience looks like. He has 350k followers on twitter. He is younger than us, and is audience is much younger. This is where the opportunity lies. If you/ we can connect to these people or using these methods, we will drive our own business.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Greenhouse Tavern

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to visit The Greenhouse Tavern just before they opened. This is one of the most exciting new restaurants in the midwest if not the country.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mediocrity and the Art of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

I read the papers just like you. I watch the news, I catch the scroll at the bottom of the 24hr news networks while sitting in my accounts. Despite the popular opinion, the media isn't driving us into a recession, it's likely inevitable. I can make a pretty compelling case that the people in the wine industry most affected by the economic state, are making it worse for themselves.
Distributors and Retailers are in full on panic mode. I keep hearing the line "in order to sell more wine and remain more competitive, retailers need to sell $10 and under wines". I keep hearing from distributors that they can't sell mid-priced wines and higher anymore, and that the market doesn't have room for these wines anymore. I believe these are dangerous approaches. Wine sales are slumping a bit, but they are above this point last year. And they are about flat with 2007, which is much higher than 2005 or 2001. We have been spoiled by a seemingly endless growth cycle in wine sales. The growth will be much slower from here on, at least for a little while, but it's still growth. Consumers that I've spoken with haven't really changed their habits much either. I'm sure that there are consumers that previously bought $20 bottles on a regular basis, but are now buying $12 instead, but I haven't come across any.
So, retailers, thinking they are ahead of the curve, have bought big on cheap wines and promoted them heavily. They have in effect sold their customers down. This is a bad plan. Rather than focusing on getting customers excited about new and exciting wines and great vintages in Europe and California, they are looking for the next yellowtail (which single-handedly created a depression in sales for quality Aussie Wines).
Distributors have panicked even worse! Since every retailer overbought during the holiday season, they had plenty of remaining inventory during the already slow months of Jan-March. The sales numbers were down percentages that make managers fear for their jobs. But they were down these percentages in the smallest months of the year, so the real dollars down was not as bad as the percentage said. As a reaction, the managers started dumping quality mid-priced brands in favor of finding the next yellowtail. In essence validating the retailers stance.
I have no less than 4 shirts in my closet that have an argyle pattern on them. I didn't go out and buy 4 at once. Argyle was a pattern of choice for the last few seasons in many of the clothing stores I frequent. Subliminally, they sold me on the latest trend. And when all was said and done, I had at least 3 more pieces of Argyle patterned clothing than any self respecting man should have. I like argyle, but I didn't need it. The clothing industry embraced it, and I bought it. The wine business is doing the same thing right now, except this years "fashion" carries a lower price tag and lower profitability. The people that already sell the cheaper wines are rejoicing, for them, these are the salad days. "Of course consumers are looking for value comfort wines".
So now, sales and profits will go into the tank. Guess what else? Consumers that were shopping independent retailers because their wines were better than the grocery stores now have no reason to go to these shops. When independent retailers try to go toe to toe with grocers, they have no chance, and that is the path they are leading their customers down.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Brand Gap

This is a great presentation about Brands vs. Logos, etc. Wineries seem to need a little help with the whole branding thing. This is a pretty good calibration tool to make sure you're pointing in the right direction.

The Brand Gap
View more presentations from coolstuff.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Raptor Ridge

What is Pinot Noir supposed to be? This is the question that Oregon Pinot producers often ask themselves and each other. I was fortunate enough to attend the famous Oregon Pinot Camp in 2004. It was here I met Annie and Scott Shull, owners of Raptor Ridge Winery. During our several days in camp, Scott hosted a seminar about Oregon style and how the Pinots in Oregon live in a 3-dimensional spectrum of styles defined as opulent, elegant and age worthy, with each sharing a common space. After tasting through many wines that demonstrated the diversity of style, I really began to classify all Pinot in this spectrum. The fact I kept coming back to over and over, is that there are many excellent examples of opulent new world Pinots, and opulent and age worthy wines.For some reason, the intersection of elegant and age-worthy seemed inconsistent at best. Many producers that try to occupy this space fall short and are very vintage dependent. I felt at the time, that Raptor Ridge was one of the few producers that was really hitting this balance well.
I have been chasing Raptor Ridge for almost 5 years, ever since Pinot Camp. As I built an Oregon portfolio with my last distributor, I kept harassing Annie. Finally, through a series of fortunate coincidences and timing, we finally hooked up, and now I am proud to announce the inclusion of Raptor Ridge in the ampelography portfolio.
These Pinot Noirs are outstanding! The alcohols ride in the mid 13% range, and the wines have both fresh acidity and nice tannin backbone. Beautifully aromatic, I imagine these wines will really develop in the 3-5 years from vintage range. Located on the side of Chehalem Mountain, and with fruit contacts from Shea Vineyard and Meredith Mitchell, Raptor Ridge Scott knows how important vineyard work is, and spends most of his time during harvest in the vineyards. The winery is named after the birds of prey (Red-tailed Hawks, Kestrels, Sharp-Shinned Hawks and Owls) that make Raptor Ridge their home.