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...