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Interstate Importing:  A Developing Situation in Domestic Winery Business Models

Date: Sun, Sep 12, 2010 Wine Tasting

When a flowing river faces an immoveable object like a rock, the water runs around it on either side. The wine business, in a subtle and growing development, is facing its own need to flow downstream and move around the immoveable object that is, “Market reality.”

The solution, of course, in free-flowing commerce around immoveable objects is sales, marketing, and a need to work with distributors in a way that is effective and cohesive, particularly when the challenges of the three-tier system cannot be solved in the short-term.

Simply put, I believe we’re seeing the dawn of a new type of wine business that addresses existing market challenges for small wineries in bringing their product to market effectively. Call it “Interstate Importing,” if you must call it something.

Of course, on this site, it’s not lost on me that I make declarations of fact based on circumstances. Trends are framed based on anecdotal evidence and then circumscribed. In the process of divining understanding out of opaqueness, sometimes the circumstantial and loose corroboration is the closest to fact that we can find until the alleged becomes accepted reality.

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And, while I am not ready to declare a “trend” in regards to a growing shift in winery business models, let’s call it a, “Developing situation” that may have more to do with a winery being a part of a portfolio then trying to go it alone.

Most wine enthusiasts are well aware that the small domestic wineries that we love so much face a near impossible set of circumstances to growing their business, including:

Downward pressure on price levels and demand for wines above $35
Shifts in the three-tier system that has effectively shut down new opportunities for boutique vintners

Yet, when I did a sojourn in the wine business with a Napa-based ecommerce provider from late ’06 to ’08, the biggest barrier to growth for small wineries, as I saw it, was not price nor the three-tier system, it was sales and marketing planning and execution. Period. Exclamation point.

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At that point, I did not see enough wherewithal from small wineries to even get to the place that price and market were an issue, not when basic organizational activity around the process of marketing and selling wine was an obstacle.

Now, to be fair, this statement isn’t an indictment on the level of business acumen on the part of small wineries. Then, as now, much of that segment of the business is agriculturally and production focused, as you would expect. However, it does speak to a potential truism that trends may be converging to the point where an agricultural and production focus is simply not going to cut it in the end, at least not where profits are concerned.

And, pragmatically speaking, if you look at starting a winery today, from a sales and marketing perspective, a disciplined business perspective, the reality is you probably wouldn’t follow today’s current, standard operating procedure. At least not if you wanted to be profitable. Nope, you would develop a business that is purpose-built, addressing the aforementioned downward pressure on price, shifts in the three-tier system and the small matter of marketing and selling the vino.

Given the market realities coupled with a dearth of small winery marketing and sales acumen, I think we are starting to see the development of shifts in the way wineries go about their sales activity that can have a lasting impact on the way we understand how a winery gets its wines into a market so we can buy it.

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A scan of the Wine Business Monthly annual Top 30 Wine Companies list highlights a combination of two types of businesses – large corporations like Gallo, Constellation, Diageo, and Fosters AND smaller wineries or companies that have either:

A portfolio of segmented labels for different markets and/or a collection of small wineries doing the same

Or

Enough production to have a diversity of price points up and down segments, their own national marketing and a sales force that works with distributors on placement and marketing promotion management

What these top wine companies offer are the two things that distributors are looking for:

Depth, breadth and a line-up of wines at various price points
Marketing muscle that creates mindshare alleviating much of the sales function from the distributor allowing them to do what they do best – facilitate logistics.

With this as context, I’ve been keenly watching two developments:

The launch of V2 Wine Group
IBG’s development of their wine logistics services

V2, a new company, led by
Dan and Katy Leese, formerly of Wine Business Top 30 wine company 585 Wine Partners, have already acquired a company in Steelhead Wines from Sonoma and have inked a deal to handle sales and marketing for Toad Hollow, as well.

In their words (excerpted for clarity):

“For V2 Wine Group, Steelhead Wines is a great anchor for what will become a strong international portfolio of exciting, highly differentiated wine products,” said Co-Founder Pete Kight.

“V2 is our collective vision to build a strong differentiated portfolio that effectively utilizes a consolidating three-tier system. We know we have the right tools and relationships to be effective,” commented V2 Wine Group General Manager Katy Leese.

V2 Wine Group is a wine production, marketing and sales organization dedicated to building strong wine brands in the North American marketplace.

Interesting.

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When you couple V2 with IBG’s recent announcement that they have acquired a wine tele-sales company, to complement their direct-to-consumer services along with their existing framework for direct-to-trade sales that allows any winery access to 11 states for on-premise sales, you start to realize that the wine business is adapting to the fact that small wineries can’t sell their wine by themselves.

If you examine, as a complementary counterpoint, wine brands that HAVE been successful from launch over the last several years, you quickly realize that most wine(eries) that haven’t found success as a critical or allocated darling have found success by the dint of their own marketing muscle – companies like Vintage Point (specifically, the brand Layer Cake that Vintage Point represents), Oriel, Cameron Hughes, and Folio Fine Wine Partners.

What I think we are seeing with existing successful wine businesses, V2 and the shifts that IBG is making, is the development of a wine business model similar to a mutual fund or a portfolio of investments: an aggregation of individual assets (wineries) that mitigates risk across a portfolio, leverages strengths, and creates a return for all stakeholders – wineries, the portfolio manager, distribution and the consumer.

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And, in so doing, this new breed of sales and marketing agency for wineries also alleviates the challenges in working within current realities by offering depth and scale to distributors along with cohesive marketing and mindshare building.

While this model is currently and largely proofed on a large scale with the wine companies represented in the Wine Business Monthly Top 30 Wine Companies, I think the future will hold that an emerging class of companies that will manage the sales and marketing presence for a wine, like an import house, just domestically, will develop. And they will be styled like V2, Vintage Point or IBG Wines (as a collection of customers leveraging ala carte services).

As I mentioned, don’t call it a, “Trend.” Perhaps, “Developing situation” is more apropos, but to me, the emergence of this new type of sales and marketing business serving the wine industry is becoming clearer than a freshly rinsed Riedel.

In the future a vintner discussion over eggs at the breakfast joint won’t just be, “How is this year’s crop looking?” The conversation will also include, “Whose portfolio are you a part of,” as well.

Companies mentioned for further reading:

VintagePoint
Folio Fine Wine Partners
Oriel Wines
V2
IBG

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Nine Things Every Wine Lover Must Know How to Make

Date: Wed, Sep 8, 2010 Wine Tasting

Every foodie loves wine and every wine enthusiast loves food, but our comfort-level and expertise tends to lean left or right, as opposed to straight down the middle.

Not that it has to be this way, however. Wine enthusiasts should have a repertoire in the kitchen and foodies should have some pairings down pat. Or, if you’re like me, marry well to help offset deficiencies.

While I’m definitely more comfortable on the wine end of the spectrum, that doesn’t stop me from thinking about comestibles … foodstuffs. Stuff you make. Not stuff you buy.

With the myriad of micro food movements that are fomenting, many people have been getting in touch with a more rooted sensibility about food, harkening back to our Grandparent’s sensibility—before nearly everything could be bought in a package.

Speaking of our Grandparent’s sensibility, I saw a recent news report that said U.S. credit card debt has fallen to the lowest level since 2002. Another seven years to go, I suppose. 1995, with the birth of the Internet, is when our consumer culture seemed to go into overdrive, briefly slowed by the economic dip in ’02, incidentally. If we can just get to 1995 credit debt levels it’ll feel like life has normalized some, I think.

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That said, in January of 2009, in the throes of some very bleak economic times, I wrote a post about ‘living well’ not necessarily meaning living beyond our means. As a sort of homage to that post, an acknowledgement that our consumer credit debt is going in the right direction and a nod to my wife who is excellent in the kitchen with a penchant for sharing recipes with girlfriends like she’s Martha Stewart’s Midwestern ombudsman, I give you a highly subjective list of nine things every wine lover should know how to do / make (and the bonus is they all make for a nice, unified spread for a wine party). Each of the links are to a representative book or recipe:

Artisan bread
Much easier to do then you might think. Makes an excellent and tasty bread made tastier when it comes from your oven.

Ricotta cheese
Stupid simple to make (actually many cheeses are easy to make at home). Drizzle cherry tomatoes with olive oil, roast in the oven at 225 for two hours, smear some ricotta on the artisan bread you just made, layer some roasted tomato’s on top and you’ll think you’re in the French countryside.

Red / White Wine vinegar
This is also stupid simple. Buy a vinegar mother. Buy an ice tea jug with a spigot. Dump old wine with vinegar mother.

Smoked salmon
Cheaper and tastier than what you can buy, goes great with crackers, cheese and a charcuterie plate

Quick pickles
Speaking of charcuterie plate, I’m not at the level where I can recommend making salami at home with a straight face, but pickles are easy

Condiments: Mustard, ketchup, mayo and hot sauce
The Saveur web site has excellent recipes for all manners of condiments including Worcestershire, and steak sauce, besides the mentioned mustards, et al

Port wine jelly
Jams are a touch easier, but jellies are sexier. Is it time consuming? Yes? Slightly messy? Yes. Easy? Yes. Totally worth it? Yes. Some brie and port wine jelly and you’re ready to roll.

Spice rub
Nothing ruins a backyard bbq buzz more than having to cop to using Montreal steak seasoning from a shaker. Man, make your own. Totally easy.

Limoncello
You know that time at the get together when conviviality is flagging and you sense the call for either departure or ignition for another two hours is necessary? Pulling out some homemade limoncello and putting some Bla Fleck on the stereo will do the trick. Actually, any homemade liqueur will do the trick, but limoncello will kick you in the pants, and that’s always nice.

I only provided nine because I figured a reader would have a good suggestion for the 10th item that every wine lover should know how to make. I’m thinking more food making skill, not necessarily a recipe. Leave a comment and round out the list!

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Field Notes from a Wine Life – Into the Mystic

Date: Tue, Sep 7, 2010 Wine Tasting

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

Get your Chi in Check

10-years ago, it would have been a full-fledged fad and cultural phenomenon, a meteor heading to a flameout, with collateral damage occurring in its wake. In today’s Internet-driven world, you have to tune your radar and watch the slow burn ... too many competing interests nowadays. Nonetheless, there are many people that are buying and using these so-called “energy bracelets,” including unpaid college football players and professional athletes.

Going by brand names like, “PowerBalance,” “iRenew,” “Trion,” “Phiton” and “Deuce brand,” these bracelets generally, in one form or another, promise to positively affect a wearer’s energy. PowerBalance, with a hologram, claims to effect energy with energy waves at specific positive frequencies. The frequencies react with the wearer’s naturally occurring energy fields. Once the hologram encounters a user’s body, energy flow is then supposedly improved for the wearer and therefore improves balance, flexibility, and strength.

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Uh-huh.

At around the cost of a nice bottle of wine—$25 or so – it’s a lot of “suspension of disbelief.”

The thing is, however, who is going to call bullshit on it? Even without a scientific claim, and a business predicated on eastern philosophy, some well-respected athletes are endorsing it (which probably also explains the unpaid trickle down to college athletes) – NBA center Shaquille O’Neal, NFL Quarterback Matthew Stafford, MLB baseball players and niche professional athletes in sports from surfing to volleyball.

And, with those endorsements, robust consumer sales aren’t likely too far away.

This sounds familiar right? Junk science, unsubstantiated claims, premium prices, and respected people doing it with correlating consumer interest … the difference is that Biodynamic wine isn’t going to be a fad. Nope. It’s here to stay as a trend with some endurance.

The only real difference between an “energy bracelet” and BioD however is the origination of the shtick … PowerBalance and the energy bracelets based on “eastern philosophy” and BioD based on an Austrian into progressive western philosophy.

Methinks that if BioD originated in eastern agricultural practices, or alongside the ancient art of acupuncture treatment, or a Tao of some sort, the backlash wouldn’t be as swift as it was against a twentieth century philosopher and esotericist, somebody who, allegedly, should have known better.

You see, precious few really understand eastern philosophy and our politically correct nature means we are not going to dump on an entire culture, NYC mosques notwithstanding. However, an ex-pat Austrian philosopher whose death in the twentieth century is within spitting distance of our contemporary cultural understanding is easy pickings for the naysayers.

There are literally thousands of things that humans do not fully understand, but it’s easier to take a dump on something if the dumper isn’t likely to get a backlash based on cultural insensitivity from the dumpee and dumpee sympathizers. BioD then is the perfect foil. Its assailants commit almost a victimless assault.

Meanwhile, while the ant-BioD folks duke it out, I’m going to wear my energy bracelet, find my chi, and hope it translates some life-force energy to a glass of wine.

360-degree Wine Reviews

Speaking of naysayers … the anti-point brigade doesn’t grow weary of the conversation, do they?

I have been paying attention to points of all kinds and I think it’s going to grow deeper before it goes away.

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As an example of points (this time a 10-point scale), GoodGuide is a modern day Consumer Reports that provides proprietary analysis of everyday consumable items measured against the so-called “Triple bottom-line.” They measure a product based on a producing company’s performance against three criteria – health, green and social responsibility.

According to their web site:

GoodGuide is in business to provide authoritative information about the health, environmental and social performance of products and companies. Our mission is to help consumers make purchasing decisions that reflect their preferences and values. We believe that better information can transform the marketplace: as more consumers buy better products, retailers and manufacturers face compelling incentives to make products that are safe, environmentally sustainable and produced using ethical sourcing of raw materials and labor.

While GoodGuide does not feature any wine at this time, it’s probably a short leap before they start doing so. However, the thing is, wineries are already measured in a number of areas at present – product quality via mainstream media criticism, product quality via consumer criticism (CellarTracker), hospitality via Yelp.com, and a persistent drumbeat of popular opinion regarding their marketing efforts.

If you ladle in Wal-Mart’s attempt at a widely adopted sustainability index and you start to see how a confusing consumer culture can be governed by points of all kinds.

So, unfortunately, for the anti-points brigade, I think a future outcome is likely whereby wineries are measured against a point score for their wine from a mainstream critic (perhaps even touted based on aggregation from a service like Wine BlueBook), an aggregate score from consumers via CellarTracker, a hospitality score from Yelp.com, a score from a sustainability index AND a score against the Triple-bottom Line from a service like GoodGuide.

Points going away? I don’t think so. In fact, one could argue, that a winery who is proactive against developing and leveraging this scoring would be serving themselves well as most of these measurements are well within the positively achievable for the way most small-to-medium size wineries conduct their business.

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Analog Marketing for Wineries

Date: Fri, Sep 3, 2010 Wine Tasting

After a day filled with staring at a screen while consuming more than a hundred emails, thousands of tweets, 45 wine blog posts, dozens of Facebook statuses, a half-dozen voice mails, several text messages, and a few online digital marketing white papers, I wearily came home, checked a nearly empty mailbox and promptly sat down in a moment of quiet and proceeded to read the Kermit Lynch newsletter from front to back. The tactile feel of the 8.5 x 11 paper folded once and stapled twice felt calm, permanent, and positively antediluvian, but wonderful ... a 10 minute respite from my day.

In fact, as highlighted in the newsletter, I wish I were going to be in Berkeley on September 18th because I would go to the Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant’ Provence Day party and get down with some bouillabaisse with a crisp Ros. That is a starkly different sentiment than what I feel from the repeated Tri-tip party invites I get to the Central Coast via Facebook and the email invites to tastings in New York with a visiting winemaker.

I’ve found that I make time for catalogs and paper-based communications from other retailers and wineries, as well – Crush Wine & Spirits, allocation letters, etc.

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Back in April, I talked about a burgeoning trend that has brands, brands of any size, approaching their marketing less like a sales effort and more like an enveloping concierge service. It is a trend that I think has significant relevance for the wine industry, half hospitality and half, “I’m there for you” sensibility.

Then in July, I made mention that I think the days of a winery creating a vanity web site with ecommerce was a waning need, particularly when you can embed ecommerce on Facebook and enable legitimate one-to-one marketing, as opposed to marketing to nameless, faceless consumers at your web site.

Pete Blackshaw, a highly respected digital marketer and Executive Vice-President at Nielsen, indicates much the same in an Advertising Age article a couple of weeks ago. He noted:

So with all this relentless talk about Twitter accounts, Facebook fan pages and cool new apps, I have a serious and timely question. Do brand websites still matter?

At the end of the day, brands today live a decentralized, if not fragmented, existence. The brand “home” has line-extended itself into a network of smaller residences and rented apartments—or what we might call “brand stands”—all primed for meeting and interacting with the consumer at various stages in the purchase, loyalty or advocacy cycle. A Facebook fan page is a classic brand stand.

Well, after careful, sure, and highly non-scientific analysis, what I’m sensing is that now is the time for wineries to re-calibrate their marketing efforts on zagging because everybody else is zigging. Or, more precisely, now that virtually all wineries have at least a toe dipped in the social media pool, now is the time to start swimming upstream against the current, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor.

Maybe the approach isn’t forsaking social media marketing, but it’s definitely time for a more holistic approach to building relationships with customers and potential customers.

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Old is the new, “new.” And, a combination of social media and offline (analog marketing) seems to be a very good way of creating relationships with people, especially because so few wineries are engaged in what I call, “permanence marketing” – something that is paper based.

There’s another trend that plays into this, as well – Social CRM. CRM, or customer relationship management, isn’t new, it’s been around since the late 90s and is the discipline of knowing, managing and archiving customer feedback information. Social CRM takes that notion to a new level because it’s essentially the same with the added dynamic of managing two-way feedback instead of being broadcast in nature.

But, what Social CRM will allow a winery to do is to use all of the arrows in their quiver to build a relationship with somebody. What these trends in combination with each other tell me is that very shortly wineries will have the capability to manage a converged database or living, breathing archive of not just their wine club members, or those that have purchased from their brand web site, but also who follows them on Twitter, who likes them on Facebook, who follows the company page on LinkedIN and they’ll have contact information for each —phone, email, mailing address.

While possible to build now, once the data gathering evolves to a place where information can be gathered in an easy fashion, wineries will be able to truly mix up their messages in any way they want to have a two-way conversation with consumers.

So, the long and the short of it is, honesty, transparency, storytelling and one-to-one communication isn’t going to go away, but what will become very important in a bits and bytes, hyper-current, throwaway, “yesterday is old” digital culture will be wineries mixing it up and using permanence marketing, something tactile that exists in the real world, as another means to envelop customers and potential customers and provide value.

Postscript

The interesting thing about this combo online and offline marketing is that offline marketing is radically changing. Here are a couple of resources for using the Internet to do permanence marketing:

Create Your Own Font

Send a card

Send a postcard

Create a magazine

Create stickers

Print a newsletter

Manage letterhead and letters

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When Downtown Comes Around:  Changes in the Business of Wine

Date: Wed, Sep 1, 2010 Wine Tasting

Interested wine enthusiasts love to talk about a back-to-basics approach to wine—a terroir-driven, minimally invasive, natural sensibility that is more Chez Panisse than expense account steakhouse. Yet, it’s no secret, big wine business drives better than 90% of domestic wine sales in the U.S.

Despite the sales velocity of the big boys, the wine industry, cast artistically, as most ardent wine enthusiasts know it, is the province of the small and artisanal, a sleepy hamlet of agrarian idyll, German Mittelstand as manifest reality.

While wine enthusiasts are fixated on the romance in the glass, subtle changes are happening on the business side of the small to medium size domestic wine industry that speaks to a long-term shift with wineries that is more akin to slacks and a button down shirt moreso than dungarees and a chambray.

Simply, a growing counterpoint may reshape our understanding of wineries in the U.S. in the coming decade.

As reported in the North Bay Business Journal, Mario Zepponi, a principle at Zepponi & Company, gave a presentation at the recent Impact Napa event (organized by the North Bay Business Journal), focused on issues important to the Napa business climate.

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Zepponi, a Cal Berkley undergrad and a Notre Dame MBA/JD graduate brings significant education and wine industry experience to the table. In his presentation (slides and audio available here), Zepponi covered a great deal of territory survey-style (well summarized here). Two of Zepponi’s nuggets that jumped out to me include an increasing awareness on his part that winery owners may be experiencing, “owner fatigue.” Zepponi said, paraphrasing a common winery owner sentiment about economic conditions, “I don’t know (if) I have it in me to tough it out this time if it’s going to be a longer cycle than I’m prepared for.” Zepponi also noted that, in facing tough business challenges, professional management is frequently needed while also acknowledging that long-time winery owners rarely are able to take a back seat to a hired gun.

These are compelling comments rarely seen – “owner fatigue” and a need for professional management in the wine business.

Last summer when I interviewed Scott Becker, formerly of Global Wine Partners, he too noted a need for more professional management saying, “(In the future) more professional talent will be required … Napa Valley will need to develop the systems and the talent to support a maturing, complex industry in an increasingly competitive market.”

So, what happens when our pastoral ideal meets a need for b-school?

Put another way, what happens when a winery owner, raised on the production side, or coming from out of industry with skills in one functional area, faces a set of business challenges that exceeds their capability to lead successfully?

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It’s a good question, certainly, and all wine enthusiasts have a stake in the outcome. But, let’s face it: an MBA program is impractical for most. The time, expense and commitment for an MBA program for an existing business owner rarely makes sense, particularly when case studies and group projects are focused on solving problems that have limited application for an owner already in the proverbial weeds.

And, as mentioned, bringing in a professional manager rarely ends well when somebody’s lifeblood, their baby is involved.

As a trend, there has been an increasing interest in business coaching, a sort of peer mentoring program for those lonely at the top to bounce ideas off and be held accountable. Some reports indicate the business coaching industry is growing at 18% annually.

Yet, the business coaching industry, filled with sages that have done more talking than doing, isn’t perfect, either.

For these reasons, it was with interest that I noted the launch of a program from a company called ShortTrack CEO that takes a hybrid business coaching and educational approach to working with mid-market CEO’s, those that have revenue in between $1M and $100M annually.

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Led by a former CEO of three businesses and based on research with over 2,000 mid-market companies, the program is a 12-month long immersion that can be undertaken with existing professional responsibilities combining training, consulting, mentoring, seminars and self-study focused on the four fundamental growth areas of a business– infrastructure, market, people and operations. The outcome of the 12 months of work is an actionable framework for re-shaping a business to address specific needs supported by tools that lead an owner or CEO down the path to creating lasting, tangible, measurable results in their business:

Find the hidden numbers in your P&L and balance sheet that indicate if time, energy, risk and money are being invested wisely

Increase the accuracy of managing and hiring decisions to 80%

Foster morale and galvanize culture to lead people to a shared vision

Learn how to win mindshare to build competitive advantage and grow sales

Of course, this all sounds good and nearly like a silver bullet. I’m as jaded as the next person is by consultants, particularly because I’ve spent the majority of my career, by choice, in businesses under $100M in revenue where the challenges are real and the solutions aren’t easy. However, ShortTrack CEO does offer an incredible downloadable book (download here) that had me nodding my head in agreement on page after page as they describe the challenges in mid-market businesses before laying out the business concepts and how they affect a business. It’s an excellent read, and highly recommended for most people in the wine business as a precursor to examining the ShortTrack CEO program.

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In sum, while most wine enthusiasts prefer to view the wine industry as their own oasis from a harried life, an agricultural ideal that can be escaped to, I don’t think there’s any doubt that future success in the wine business requires a blending of the art with a real business sensibility that drives success.

Or, as Andy Warhol said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art ... Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” Like it or not, this may be something that the wine enthusiast is forced to allow into their consciousness, alongside thoughts about ambient yeast.

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Letter to (a) God

Date: Sun, Aug 29, 2010 Wine Tasting

Life is funny. Especially when you strip away that which seems important, but really isn’t. Down to the core, the essence, the things that make us who we are: family, memories, food, wine, generations, all in a setting that lets us know we’re blessed.

This is a letter I wrote to a friend of mine, a friend that we all share. I suppose Dionysus, in this age of social media, is the connective fiber that ties many of us together. Just the same, without the support of family, our ability to be a friend is merely window-dressing. Who we are is what we have to give.

Summer wanes ... and I get reflective about the things that are important in life.
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Internet Marketing’s Unseemly Underbelly:  A Cautionary Case Study for Wineries

Date: Thu, Aug 26, 2010 Wine Tasting

Social media marketing isn’t the first internet paradigm where unscrupulous “marketers” have lived to flim-flam and trade on the insecurities of people and companies who don’t know any better, taking shortcuts in the process; it’s just the latest online trend in a long lineage of nefarious evolution dating back to the 1980s.

What is the first clue in sniffing out hucksters? Listen to the spiel. It starts at the web site where, “Monetize your social network to build the wealth you always dreamed of” screams the home page before the video of a dynamic and charismatic speaker says, “The internet, for you guys, is a cash register.”

Uh huh.

Unfortunately, at least one Napa Valley winery and potentially several others are being victimized by this “between the margins” internet marketing.

Hardly a Tom Clancy potboiler, but interesting nonetheless—here’s the anatomy of how this unethical internet marketing is currently being conducted:

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A couple of days ago I received a direct message on Twitter from Atalon in Napa Valley, a well-reviewed winery. The direct message said, “A must read before hosting your next get together” and included a link to a web site at http://www.wine-specialist.com. There, I could enter my name and email address and receive free content about hosting a wine tasting party. I took the bait. And, when I entered my email address, the web page then took me to the web site of Destination Cellars.

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Hmm. That’s weird, I thought.

Moments later I received an email from wine-specialist.com that said my copy of, “The Guide to Hosting a Wine Tasting” was attached to the email, except it wasn’t. I replied to the email asking for the guide and my email was returned to me as undeliverable. At the bottom of the original email was the contact information for a web site called, “The Steele Method” which, after doing a quick review of the site, was an internet marketer.

Hmm. That’s weird, I thought. Again.

At this point, I go back to Twitter to direct message Atalon to ask them not to direct message me again because I consider it to Spam. Come to find out, I can’t direct message Atalon because they don’t follow me on Twitter. Definitely Spam, then.

Okay. So, now I have a Napa winery Spamming me, a wine-specialist.com web site that takes my email address, sends an email that can’t be responded to with the name of an internet marketer in the body of the email and a browser window that has Destination Cellars.

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Whatever. I have better things to do with my time so I move on.

However, a couple of days later, I get another direct message—this time from Dana Estates winery, another well-reviewed Napa Valley winery. Similar message, “Just downloaded this wine guide” was the come-on.

Once bitten, twice shy. Whatever. I ignore the message.

Then, this morning, I received an email from wine-specialist.com and in the email they apologize for not sending the attachments before—they had a server issue. My guide to hosting a wine tasting and other content was attached. I open the attachments and it’s cut and paste generic wine information of the garden variety with no logo, label or anything identifying it with Atalon.

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Curiosity piqued, I go to Dana Estates Twitter direct message and hit the link and it too takes me to the wine-specialist.com site, too. This time though, the site has been updated with gushing user comments like, “Great post, Love the tasting guide in the back of the e-book. Made copies for all my friends.”

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One problem, here – the site isn’t set-up to take comments, so they’re obviously bogus. If my “bogus” suspicion wasn’t valid enough there was a comment from “Drew” at Domaine Carneros, the Napa sparkling house, with a picture with the comment associated with Cardinale, yet another well-reviewed Napa winery. Now, I’m not the sharpest pencil in the cup, but something is up here.

I did some research and sent an email to an “Allie Drew” at Domaine Carneros (I found her via LinkedIn) and she verified that not only did she NOT leave the comment at wine-specialist.com, but she was the only person at Domaine Carneros with “Drew” in her first or last name.

Things started to unravel at this point.

I then tried to direct message Dana Estates. No can do because they don’t follow me on Twitter, either. At this point, my morning is shot playing Matlock, but I’m invested in sniffing this out.

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I search for background info on other allegedly bogus commenter’s from wine-specialist.com including Maria T. Hall, whose Twitter page, ironically enough, was started in the third week of July, just as Atalon’s and Dana Estates were. It links to a health-related scam-oriented looking web site called, “EnergyFactor.” Each of the three Twitter pages has been promoting the wine-specialist.com web site.

I decide to send an email to the internet marketer, David Steele, from the “The Steele Method,” asking who his client is for wine-specialist.com. I received a phone call a short time later from Steele who indicates he would email me when I ask for his contact information, while declining to say who the client was, despite Destination Cellars, again, being the site that a user is directed to after an email submission.

Later Steele emails me and says Destination Cellars is not their customer noting, “Currently we do not have a client in the Wine-Specialists.com we are just gathering statistics and if you know of someone who would benefit from the traffic and name capture we would appreciate it (sic).”

A grammarian he is not.

I email David Keuhner, CEO of Destination Cellars to ask him if he’s associated with wine-specialist.com for internet marketing. I get the vague response of, “We have various organizations as well as individuals involved. We’re been (sic) testing various ideas with regards to Twitter, Facebook, etc. Some things are working and some things aren’t, we’re still evaluating the ideas to determine how much or how little we wish to invest.”

I send another email asking, more specifically, if he’s working with David Steele from “The Steele Method” and Keuhner indicates in a response that, yes, that’s one of the people they are working with.

At this point, I have Twitter spam, bogus comments and two guys who contradict each other about working together.

If all of this isn’t confusing enough, I call Dana Estates winery to ask if they have a Twitter account. The woman on the phone didn’t think so. I sent her an email with a link to the Twitter page for verification. Not 40 minutes later, I get an email from the Dana Estates public relations firm indicating that, no, Dana Estates doesn’t have a Twitter account and they’re going to take measures to have the Twitter page removed.

Representatives from Atalon could not be reached.

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Phew. That’s a lot of work to get this allegation: David Steele from “The Steele Method” is trying to work with Destination Cellars on internet marketing. In the process of doing so, he has set-up an internet marketing proof of concept designed to indicate to Destination Cellars that he can deliver qualified leads (email addresses) for Destination Cellars business. In so doing, Steele has set-up bogus Twitter accounts under the names of at least one Napa Valley winery, and possibly others.

Of course, I caveat all of this with “allegedly,” but there’s enough evidence that a jury of 5th grader’s would convict.

Is this legal? A better question might be: is this illegal? Not expressly. Twitter’s terms and conditions absolve them of virtually any responsibility, though they do police if prompted to investigate fraudulent accounts. No money has changed hands and the damage to the winery brand under whose name the fake Twitter account(s) was set-up is negligible. The email from wine-specialist.com does allow the receiver to opt-out of receiving additional messages (a requirement). Is it unethical to represent being something you’re not? Absolutely, but that’s for David Steele to reconcile (allegedly). He indicated in his email to me that he considers it, “gathering statistics” so he’s probably sleeping at night.

Fortunately, some back and forth with Twitter will have this resolved for Dana Estates in a couple of days (and with Atalon, as well, if it’s true that their Twitter is also fake). Destination Cellars will likely eventually see this “grey marketing” for what it is.

The irony of the situation is this messaging to consumers and leading them to a web site (landing page) with a promise of content is standard operating procedure for many technology companies and their business-to-business lead generation activity. However, typically, it’s done via advertising in email newsletters, calls-to-action and quality whitepapers – all done in an ethical way, supported by marketing dollars, with no bogus accounts and no fictitious comments. At the end of the day, if done correctly, the business user feels like giving their email address is an even exchange for the content received.

Not so here, or else I wouldn’t have done the sleuthing.

The moral of the story for wineries? Trust, but verify. Be wary of “internet marketers” that take hard, legitimate work and try to take shortcuts and, especially, those that promise to “monetize your social network” tapping into untold wealth.

P.T. Barnum said, “There is a sucker born every minute,” but wineries don’t have to be one of them.

Proactive action for a winery in response to reading this is to go to knowem.com and register a winery-related user name at as many social media web sites as relevant, this will at least prevent somebody from using the name in an unauthorized fashion. In addition, setting up Google alerts for a winery name will allow the winery to keep an eye out for where their name appears online.

In a subsequent post, I’ll highlight a winery that is doing a good job with legitimate internet marketing.

Here are links to various Twitter accounts, web sites and my sleuthing trail:

Twitter page for Dana Estates

Twitter page for Atalon wine

Twitter page for Maria T. Hall

Wine-Specialist site

The Steel Method site

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New, Notes and Dusty Bottle Items – The Best of What’s Around Edition

Date: Tue, Aug 24, 2010 Wine Tasting

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

Mainstream Wine Media

If you’re not already a subscriber to Wine & Spirits magazine, do yourself a favor and at least head to your local bookstore and pick up the current issue. Focused on the issue of alcohol in wine, it is an incredible read from cover to cover – literally. Tyler Colman from Dr. Vino leads off with a piece on the TTB, taxation and alcohol levels that is highlighted by a table that lists deviations in wines from their stated label alcohol and third-party testing (also referenced on his site). The last piece in the magazine is a fascinating editorial from Frog’s Leap owner John Williams on the cause of high alcohol in Napa Valley wine. Williams’ opinion may surprise even the most knowledgeable of wine enthusiasts. I won’t play spoiler, but it doesn’t have anything to do with global warming.

The entire issue is really well thought out and an example of excellence in wine journalism; it is the sort of deep dive coverage of an issue that is being lost in the bytes online. Kudos to Josh Greene and team at W&S.

Speaking of wine magazines on the newsstand. The current issue of Wine Enthusiast has a two-page spread advertisement from the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office.

On the surface, it’s two pages that most readers quickly flipped through.

However, on closer inspection, it speaks to a seismic change in potential focus that will take place over the coming decade for the U.S. wine industry.

The summary copy to the word intensive two-page ad says:

“An overnight boom in wine trade occurred in February 2008, when Hong Kong eliminated the wine duties. Merchants are seizing the opportunity to increase shipments and establish a greater presence in Hong Kong. Companies from various sectors of the wine industry are seeking to uncork the huge potential market in Asia and particularly mainland China – a region on the verge of becoming the driver of global wine sales in the next decade and beyond.”

Whoa. For reinforcement it said, “…The driver of global wine sales in the next decade and beyond.”

That’s enough to pique somebody’s curiosity.

Now, to be fair, the opportunity in China isn’t new with this ad. W. Blake Gray had a nice piece on it yesterday, Robert Parker is heavily engaged in Asia and there’s a general awareness that the international opportunity in Asia is on a serious upswing. However, I’m always interested in the things that have public awareness, but no actual supporting knowledge – things like healthcare bills, NAFTA and other large scale initiatives that provide vacuum-oriented conversational fodder.

The “in a vacuum” conversation goes something like:

Bob: “I hear the Chinese are really getting into wine.”

John: “Yeah, I heard that, too.”

Bob: “Hey, when is your fantasy football draft.”

Practically speaking, nobody really knows much except that something is happening.

And, happening it is. In addition to the lift on duties (taxes), Hong Kong and the U.S. signed a “Memorandum of Understanding on Co-operation in Wine-related Businesses (MOU)” in May of this year. And, Washington state and Oregon signed a similar deal with Hong Kong, as well.

Quoting Rita Lau, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, “Today, our relationship with the U.S. takes another major step forward. Riding on this MOU, we will strengthen our joint efforts on promoting wine-related trading, tourism, investment and education.

“The MOU also covers a number of special areas. These include promoting wine alongside regional and local cuisine, facilitating the organization of wine auctions in Hong Kong for U.S. wines, and encouraging the provision of quality wine storage facilities in Hong Kong,”

It’s anybody’s guess how China will impact the domestic wine business, but we know that the existing auction market and Bordeaux futures are largely being driven by the Chinese.

According to reports, US wine exports to Hong Kong totaled $49 million in 2009-2010. And, it’s been said that the U.S. wants to be the number one exporter of wine to Hong Kong and mainland China. If that revenue number increases by 5X in the next ten years will that have an impact in focus from our wineries and the U.S. customers they serve?

If for nothing else other than edification purposes, I would encourage all wine enthusiasts to dig into this a little deeper and develop an understanding early in the process.

Google: “Hong Kong U.S. Wine MOU” and you’ll find plenty to research.

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A Growing Retail Concept Imports Wine Country to the Heartland

Date: Sun, Aug 22, 2010 Wine Tasting

Nestled between Olive Garden’s populist promotion of wine, the explosion of wine bars across the country, the resurgence of restaurant and micro brewery concepts and emerging trends like community hubs that make wine (City Winery in New York), is a growing restaurant concept that has its eyes set on importing wine country culture to the heartland.

A rising tide raises all ships; the more that a pragmatic wine culture is understood as comfortable, and not the province of the elite, the better.

Related to this, I was talking with family friends recently who are keen wine lovers (of the ‘normal’ buy and drink variety), who are aware of my total immersion in matters of the grape. They asked, “Is it hard for you to find a wine culture here?” “Here” being Indianapolis, IN, the Crossroads of America. My answer was something along the lines of, “You have to work at it. It would be easier if I were on the East Coast and living in a place that has a legacy, euro-centric wine culture and wine bars or the West Coast that has the embedded wine sensibility from production.”

Yet, slowly, but surely, the Midwest is chipping away.

Local wines and the quality thereof are making inroads across the country. New York State, Michigan, Virginia, Texas, Missouri and other states all make wine that can hold their own against West Coast wineries if only perception met reality in a favorable way…

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Taking a slightly different twist on what it means to be a winery while borrowing heavily from the aforementioned restaurant and microbrewery concept is Cooper’s Hawk winery and restaurant based in the ‘burbs of Chicago.

Founded by entrepreneur Tim McEnery in 2005, Cooper’s Hawk is the Midwest’s first winery and restaurant concept under one roof. The name, an homage to both the art of barrel making and the Cooper’s Hawk, a bird of prey found in the Midwest, is a clever and catchy take on the rootedness that denotes most winery names. And, the concept is a mash-up of familiar, but uniquely combined elements that has created a new category of restaurant.

Plus, there is a little bit of genius involved in the concept, as well. Given that upscale restaurants rely on their wine and beverage program to fuel profits, there is something simple and smart about cutting out the middleman to make all of your own wine and then have that wine program be simpatico with the restaurant concept.

Making their own wine akin to an on-premise microbrewery and restaurant, using the wine sampling concept that is de rigueur at Olive Garden, while creating an atmosphere that is super-charged winery tasting room and direct-to-consumer marketing program with a casual upscale restaurant attached, Cooper’s Hawk is poised for growth.

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With four existing locations blanketing Chicagoland, the “don’t call it a chain and please call it a winery before restaurant” (my reference) is venturing out of state for the first time and opening a winery and restaurant in Indianapolis with additional expansion plans for two to three additional locations in 2011, with Missouri, Minnesota and Ohio potential destinations.

With a full winery production facility in Countryside, Illinois, and using varietal grapes from the west coast as appropriate, Cooper’s Hawk makes approximately 10,000 cases (50,000 gallons) of wine served in their casual upscale restaurants and via sales to their wine club.

According to Melanie Pierce, Director of Marketing at Cooper’s Hawk, “We really have a wide demographic range, mostly 21-65. Our menu is designed to have something for everyone and part of our success is attributed to our broad appeal.”

She continued, “The restaurant drives most of our sales revenue, but the wine club is instrumental in the growth of the restaurant.”

Sarah Stukas, a Psychotherapist from Darien, IL commenting on the comfortable nature of the restaurant concept said, “The vibe at Cooper’s Hawk is lively and there is a lot going on at a time. On a typical Saturday night you will find a small group having a tasting party in the front of the restaurant, people in the bar watching a game or listening to the piano player, a private gathering in the barrel room and a dining room full of patrons. It’s a fun place with attentive, professional service and consistently good food.”

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She continued, “One of the great things about Cooper’s Hawk is that there’s something for everyone. While you will often see singles and couples in the bar or wine-tasting areas, the dining room is filled with groups, families or couples out for a romantic evening. We never feel out of place dining with our two children (8 & 11 - who actually order from the adult menu), but we’ve also enjoyed it quite a bit out with other couples.”

A scan of Yelp.com for Cooper’s Hawk yields similar exuberantly positive feedback with the occasional grumble bunny mixed in.

Of course, being based in the Midwest, it wouldn’t be an appropriate winery concept if there weren’t wines to suit all types of wine drinkers. Their wine list is an eclectic mix of sweet fruit wines, White Zinfandel, and varietal wines that cover the gamut of tastes and entry points for wine lovers across the spectrum of education. And, this might, ironically, explain, why Cooper’s Hawk has both a Shiraz and a Syrah at the same price on their wine list.

According to Pierce, Riesling is their number one selling wine.

Overall, I’m somewhat ambivalent that a non-native restaurant is moving into Indianapolis, the capital of the free world for concept restaurants. Yet, at the same time, I’m excited that the place is well reviewed, planning to grow in other parts of the Midwest and, most importantly, that they’re bringing a higher level of mindshare and acceptance to a wine tasting room environment coupled with high quality food that pairs well with their wines.

As I mentioned, a rising tide raises all ships and the tradeoff of exported culture (or imported based on your geography) seems to be a reasonable one if it brings a greater level of appreciation for wine to the province of cultural morass, truly bringing the U.S. into a wine culture from sea to shining sea and not just the coasts.

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Bordeaux, the WineBlueBook and Free!

Date: Thu, Aug 19, 2010 Wine Tasting

Yeah, yeah, yeah ... I know ... real wine enthusiasts—learned folks who have sense enough to understand their palate and form an opinion about wine—typically run in the opposite direction of wine scores, leaving the score whoring for the Chiropractor with the half full cellar of Mollydooker and Marquis Phillips.

I get that.

And, I also get that you can have a commanding knowledge of the New World and still not know how to pronounce “Gironde.” For the record, it sounds like “Jerome” after a six-pack and a buddy’s dare to gargle a bag of marbles. It could be worse, though – you could call it a “river” instead of an “estuary.”

For that reason, and for every other wine enthusiast who started in the New World before moving backwards, I’m thankful that the Bordeaux marketing people are pulling together an iPhone application that will release in October.

As reported at Decanter.com, the iPhone application (and the CIVB) hopes to provide a wine fact sheet based on a user photograph of a bottle. Brilliant!

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All that’s required is for Bordeaux’s 9,000 wine estates to upload the appropriate information for some 15 -20,000 different wines from now until October 1.

Um, if a bookie handicapped this one I’d take the under.

Thankfully, for the inveterate learner, there are options for navigating the Bordeaux maze: Like the WineBlueBook (WBB).

I’ve long been a fan and have written about WineBlueBook on several occasions. Publisher Neil Monnens aggregates wine scores from popular wine publications and produces a monthly buying guide that groups individual wines by score, lists them by price, and then assigns a value percentage. He helped popularize the notion of quality-to-price ratio (QPR) in wine, a phrase that has taken on its own life and is reasonably unique to the wine world.

Really, Neil’s system is a beautiful way to provide meaning to scores and flatten the hegemony of a singular palate, as well.

Plus, it takes a yeoman’s effort to do the data aggregation and WBB does what CellarTracker does except it’s based on professional criticism. As I mentioned, I’m a fan. And, I use it for value judgments. As aggregated by WineBlueBook, if at least three professional critics profess a wine to have a mean average score of 92 and it’s a $35 bottle, I’ve just given myself a bit of purchase insurance, all for $25 while receiving 12 issues measuring 1000s of wines over a year’s time.

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Now, my point in bringing up WineBlueBook in a reasonably non-sequitar fashion is Neil published a Bordeaux special edition issue this month – it’s 107 pages of aggregate scores and value rankings on thousands of Bordeaux wines.

If you are even slightly Bordeauxlexic, this is a tremendous resource. Now, don’t get me wrong, the WineBlueBook isn’t going to impart wisdom or pontificate about the resplendent joys of a particular varietal, region or country, but it does get down to brass tacks regarding what professional critics think of the wine, how much that wine costs and whether that wine is a value relative to its price in peer rankings.

A copy of the WineBlueBook and Wine-Searcher.com and you’re in business in cutting through significant morass in the wine aisle on Consumer Saturday.

And, Neil, good guy that he is, at my request, is giving a PDF copy of the Bordeaux report to Good Grape readers for FREE. Personally, I email my issues to my Kindle and read them there, but you can view it on your PC or print a copy off for leisure reading, you’ll receive the issue as an attachment to email.

To get your Bordeaux issue, leave a comment on this post and tell me the first name of the first person you French kissed (you don’t really have to do that, but you do have to leave a comment … or, just send me an email at jlefevere AT gmail DOTCOM) and I will have Neil send you a no obligation / no additional harassment copy of the August Bordeaux issue.

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Paying it forward with a Wonderfully Obscure Wine Varietal with a Weird Name

Date: Tue, Aug 17, 2010 Wine Tasting

It’s true; I have never been affected by a wine book as I have been by Terry Theise’s “Reading between the Wines,” a book that invites both searching introspection and external exploration (review here). Therefore, when Theise waxes philosophic about Scheurebe (SHOY-ray-beh) in his book, a heretofore-unknown German varietal wine that has just 4,400 acres under vine in Deutschland, I take the sleuthing challenge.

And, so too should you …

Now, I am not always so moved to search out answers, particularly when you consider that my consumer jade-o-meter realizes that Theise has a stake in inviting intrigue about such things. Yet, when Theise describes Scheurebe in his book as, “… Riesling just after it read the Kama Sutra,” the intrepid wine explorer in me becomes curious.

Then, when Theise notes, “Put another way, (Scheurebe) is what Riesling would be if Riesling were a transvestite. If Riesling expresses all that is Noble and Good, (Scheurebe) offers all that is Dirty and Fun. It is Riesling’s evil, horny twin,” I’m called to action …

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And, I’m called to action not because I have a particular fondness for panty hose and transvestites, but because I do have a curiosity about the fringes of societal norms, understanding, expectations and the neglected margins in any subject matter, Adam’s apples, razor burn, lipstick and stilettos notwithstanding. That, and, well, anything that contextualizes wine as more “reverse cowgirl” than “missionary” is intriguing …

The fact is Scheurebe is on the fringe, a niche before anybody knows it is a niche. It’s Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray to the layperson.

Scheurebe might not be as obscure as a transvestite in Indianapolis, but it’s obscure nonetheless … In fact, according to a Google keyword search analysis, the keyword, “Scheurebe wine” garners just 36 global searches a month. And, near as I can tell, the only domestic bottling of this mercurial grape is a late harvest dessert wine from Joseph Phelps. So slight is the awareness of this grape varietal in the pantheon of varietal esoterica, the Wine Century Club, known for highlighting esoteric grape varietals, doesn’t list Scheurebe on its varietal worksheet.

Developed by German viticulturalist Dr. Georg Scheu in 1916 as a cross between Riesling and an unknown wild vine, the science experiment was an attempt at developing cold hardiness by creating a Riesling hybrid.

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The resulting wine is aromatic (as you might suspect) and has a reputation for picking up aggressive and unpleasant grapefruit aromas and flavors if picked underripe, or if it’s planted in the wrong location – Riesling sites being the top choice for plantings, obviously a conundrum for a varietal that is scarcely known. It makes little sense to rip and replace the proven for the quirky. That is, unless Theise has his way.

In a Wine & Spirits article by Peter Liem, Theise is quoted as saying, “I liked it from the first sip I had, because I thought there was something joyful in its gaudiness.”

And, indeed, the Scherebe you’re likely to run across would come from Theise’s portfolio, significantly mitigating the chance of picking up a wine that is a drag (pun intended), with the aforementioned under ripe grapefruit notes.

As commerce goes, so to goes plantings. If Theise is successful, he may single handedly create a category of interest amongst wine enthusiasts.

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That said, finding this rare German wine is difficult. Based on Theise’s description, you might think you could find the wine in the classifieds of your local alternative weekly. Close, but not quite.

According to Wine-Searcher.com, unless you are a habitu of online wine retailers in NY, NJ and CA, it is doubtful you’ve ever run across a bottle, or seen it at your local bottle shop.

I purchased three different bottles of the reasonably priced wine ($13.99 - $19.99) from Chambers Street Wines in New York City, a wine shop known for its selection of natural, artisanal and quirky wines.

• Darting 2008 Pfalz Durkheimer Spielberg Scheurebe Spatlese ($19.99)
• Gysler 2009 Rheinhessen Scheurebe Halbtrocken ($13.99)
• Geil 2009 Rheinhessen Bechtheimer Heiligkreuz Scheurebe Kabinett ($13.99)

While it’s an outlier to actually review the wines because I have so little frame of historical reference and Theise is a part of the anti-points brigade, suffice to say that Scheurebe merits your own investigation and inquiry making it a wine varietal that is a part of your vocabulary – honeyed, with predominant stone fruit flavors, balancing acid and a subtle herbaceousness that is completely in tune with its larger surroundings.

Scheurebe is, indeed, a wine, that may be, “Riesling after it read the Kama Sutra.” More important (and fun) for the curious wine enthusiast, however, is the ability to describe a wine as, “Riesling’s evil, horny twin” and have the wine deliver for you. Scheurebe does ... in spades ... or pantyhose, as it were.

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The Meta View:  Right and Left Bank-Styled Meritage Blend Wines Trending in the U.S.

Date: Mon, Aug 16, 2010 Wine Tasting

Trend watching in the wine world is something of a sport as Sommeliers, writers and pundits observe, parse, distill and then explain what is happening in the wine zeitgeist as the stories develop at the micro-trend level. Reporting on the ripple in the pond, something that can penetrate the wine lover’s consciousness over the coming years as the story grows larger, influencers act as an agent for isolating and highlighting what is next.

Sometimes this subtle focus from influencer’s and wordsmiths is noticed, other times not so much (witness: Riesling’s status as the next big thing for the last decade, consumers never quite receiving the memo). Yet, this never-ending exploration of what’s new and interesting ends up being a self-fueling machine that fosters and builds intriguing storylines until the ideas become acknowledged reality, or are replaced by the new, new thing.

An example in the realm of wine (and an emerging trend to pay attention to) is the contrast between declining Bordeaux wine sales here in the states at the same time that Old World-styled California wines grow in mindshare and sales. I call it the “N California” style – fruit forward, food-friendly, and dimensionally blended wines with a component of place evident.

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Not only is there a restrained “Old World-ish” style of California wine taking shape, but there are also specific nods that vintners are making to Left and Right Bank-style blends from Bordeaux. Left Bank-style blends lead with Cabernet and Right Bank-style blends lead with Merlot and/or Cabernet Franc.

What we are seeing in a post-Sideways world, related to Right Bank-style wines, are an increase in blends that lead with the formerly forsaken Merlot along with Cab Franc (sometimes taking center stage), despite long ago being given a Scarlet Letter as a, “blending varietal.”

Here are three recent press examples highlighting the emerging trend of Right Bank-influenced wines done in a “N California” style (example one, two, and three).

Of course, emerging trends do not occur in a vacuum. Sometimes, they are given lift.

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The Meritage Alliance has been working to grow mindshare and influence regarding Bordeaux-style blends since 1988.

Started by a group of winemakers who wanted to acknowledge the vintners art form of blending, paying homage to Bordeaux-style blends, yet creating a new name to be respectful of names and origins, Meritage, a made up combination of the words “merit” and “heritage,” has become wildly popular, joining the English lexicon in ways not normally associated with marketing-oriented naming conventions.

In an interview with Bill Smart, Director of Communications for Dry Creek Vineyard (DCV) and a marketing contributor to The Meritage Alliance helmed on a volunteer basis by Kim Stare Wallace of DCV, he noted:

“(We’d) like to have (wineries) use the term Meritage, whether it’s on their label or not to describe their blend. Using the word Bordeaux to describe these wines is incorrect in my opinion. Sure, the wines incorporate the Bordeaux varieties; however, that is where our similarities with Bordeaux end. We are California wineries, producing wines in our style, to our taste, using the noble Bordeaux variety grapes. In my opinion, the correct name for these wines is Meritage blends or Meritage-style blends.”

With firsthand experience with the Mariner, a consistently fabulous Left Bank-style Meritage blend from DCV, Smart knows that which he speaks …

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The Meritage Alliance boasts 220 members in the organization. In 2011, they are poised to launch a consumer-oriented tasting in San Francisco similar to ZAP and the Family Winemakers of California tastings, increasing awareness of Bordeaux-styled California blends as a “Meritage.”

Of course, an emerging trend must have an upstart hero, as well. Within the scope of growing awareness of Meritage blends and the niche of Left and Right Bank-styled wines, a pre-launch wine company called Virage is focusing on Right Bank-styled N Californian wines.

Named for the French word meaning a “turn in the road,” that’s exactly what has happened as a former investment banker and assistant to Karen MacNeil, Emily Richer, has swerved right and teamed with winemaker Aaron Pott of Quintessa and Blackbird fame.

Focused on the cooler climate growing areas of Napa Valley, Virage will highlight blends based predominantly on Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

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The Virage blend won’t be released until the fall of this year. I received an early, unlabeled bottling from Richer. If early tastings hold true, you’ll be hearing a lot about this upstart. Priced with a value sensibility at $45 a bottle with initial production slated at 900 cases and focused on re-shaping the perception of Napa as a hot weather Cabernet Sauvignon playground, Virage is poised to be a breakout star of 2010.

In addition, unbelievably, the Virage matches up with Pott’ bold quote in the San Francisco Chronicle when he told writer Jon Bonn that, “The best expressions of Cabernet Franc are much more interesting than the best expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon.” The Virage, offering layer upon layer of nuance, is a tapestry compared to a Napa Cabs afghan of primary flavors.

Pay attention to Meritage blends and Left and Right Bank styles coming from California. Below are reviews of the Virage and a Left Bank-styled wine from Napa compatriot Beaucanon.

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Illustration #1 and #2 credits: Christophe Vorlet and copyright holder(s)
Interested in California Meritage/Bordeaux blends? Buy Wine Online: Purchase 6 or more bottles and get 50% off shipping with coupon code “grape35”

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Does Following Your Wine Passion Equal Crazy?

Date: Fri, Aug 13, 2010 Wine Tasting

There is a cottage industry of people writing self-help books and giving trade show speeches about following your passion. “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” goes the mantra. But, if you’re a wine enthusiast is following your passion crazy talk?

In fact, there’s a perfectly easy way to enjoy the fruit of the vine and it doesn’t require masochistic tendencies … it’s mostly at the kitchen table with a glass … as a consumer after work from a day job that presumably pays you commensurate with your capabilities. It’s a lot easier that way, surely.

Yet, the notion of jumping into the wine business has been top of mind lately … I’ve been thinking about it because there are precious few wine enthusiasts who are passionate enough to write online or engage in leading social media activity who don’t have a desire to make their way into the wine business either as a member of the media, on the production side, in marketing, or in the supply-chain.

That’s a lot of people ready to pounce on an opportunity if it presented itself.

Some have acted on it; others are attempting to act on it. I’ve already made a sojourn in and out of the business and I still think about it. It’s the genteel nature, the collegial spirit, the rhythm of the seasons. It’s the unfolding drama of watching something grow from nothing in between bud break and harvest and then turn into something magical during the winter quiet, the end result fostering conviviality and joy.

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However, despite the mind’s eye mental picture of idyll, the question about going into the wine business has to be asked: Why invite the agony?

It’s not like it’s easy. In fact, I know it’s hard—harder and less lucrative than the industry and job that most people are coming from.

I’ve been reading the stories about the difficult sales environment that persists for most small vintners.

I’ve been reading the stories and watching acquaintances with marketing chops hang their own shingle.

I’ve been reading the stories about the weather in California and the stress of whether grapes will ripen, Mother Nature’s sub-plot this year.

Privately, I’ve been talking with a Mendocino vineyard owner who has 120 tons of very good fruit ripening at this moment. Its 120 tons that’s separate from what goes into his own luxury wine from the same vineyard—and he can’t find a buyer this year after contracts weren’t renewed.

Production in California is “rightsizing,” as they say.

Here’s the math he gave me:

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A ton of Chardonnay costs about $1300 to grow and get to market. If he’s lucky, on a contract, he can sell it for $1100 a ton – it’s a paper loss, but a loss that can be rationalized as profitable against hard costs, but certainly not good business by any standard; it’s not “get ahead” living, more “get by” living.

However, if he makes wine from the tonnage, that creates another set of circumstances that has to be dealt with—there isn’t a market for expanded volume with his luxury label so he has to look at a second label. One ton of grapes will yield about 60 cases. So, our grower/vintner has a potential 7200 cases on his hands. This grower can produce an exceptionally high quality wine from these grapes, but would have to forsake oak barrels for oak by-products. Why oak at all you ask? Because the price point and style of wine that’s selling right now requires it.

If he has $4 in costs per bottle and he sells the wine for $8 a bottle wholesale so the wine can go on the shelf at $12 a bottle he has a chance to earn a nice return on the grapes.

But, here’s the rub. The second label hasn’t been created yet and creating a brand takes time and money. Nor is there a sales channel for this to-be-created wine, either.

This marketing and sales activity is outside of his manpower and capabilities, so he would have to get outside assistance – branding, web development, marketing, sales activity. Those are all costs with uncertain returns.

Of course, forget about bank financing because that has become exceedingly difficult to earn, especially for efforts that can’t be associated with hard assets like land or buildings.

It all adds up to this – take a total loss on the grapes by not doing anything with them OR take a huge financial risk by making wine that doesn’t have a brand and doesn’t have a sales destination.

These sorts of stories aren’t isolated to one person, or one segment of the wine business. Every aspect of the wine business supply-chain has a similar tale of woe where getting ahead of “getting by” meets consequential risk.

Yet, undaunted, the allure of the wine business holds steadfast for most.

Getting into the wine business? Crazy talk? Not unless you have an iron stomach, a penchant for hardship, a love for “poker chips in the middle of the table” risk and an opportunity for success that that gives the house a material edge.

Me? I just might simply open a bottle after a hard day’s work of doing something else, passion notwithstanding.

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Signposts on the Road to Ruination Part 234 and 235

Date: Tue, Aug 10, 2010 Wine Tasting

On a daily basis the wine world has its own bizarre but true “news of the weird.” It could be another celebrity wine, another wine-related health benefit, or more madcap antics from the French. What we don’t always get however are clear signals that society is careening off the tracks. Without further ado, I present to you two examples of society lurching perilously close to the cliff’s edge.

Wine Flavored Swisher Sweet Cigarillos

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Rumor has it that Winston Churchill used to dip his cigars in port. Somehow, I’m guessing that modern day dignitaries aren’t buying up the already flavored Swisher Sweets, though. The only people I know smoking them are wayward Jr. High kids and people that think Purple Haze is something you put in a bong and not on the stereo.

I fancy myself a culturally literate guy even though my frame of reference for these sorts of things ended at the keg in college, and I’m guessing that a Brand Manager at Swisher International determined that women who smoke blunts need a wine flavored cigarillo ... no word on whether James Suckling has bridged his dual passions and reviewed the smoke ...

Psychological Warfare in the HR 5034 Campaign

A couple of months ago, the advertising community had a “great idea” smack to the forehead moment when an enterprising creative talent named Alec Brownstein bought Google adwords next to the names of five Creative Directors at advertising agencies he wanted to work for.

When the Creative Director Googled their name there was a Google ad that said, “Googling yourself is a lot of fun. Hiring me is a lot of fun, too.” The ad linked to Brownstein’s portfolio site. From the five ads, Brownstein had interviews with four of his targets and earned two job offers. He now works for Young & Rubicam, one of the largest agencies on Madison Avenue.

Clever idea, right?

It’s so clever that it has been copied.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about a change in leadership at WineAmerica. At the time, what I alluded to, but didn’t explicitly state is that WineAmerica was getting seriously outworked by Tom Wark, author of Fermentation, wine Public Relations pro and the Executive Director of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association. In the fight against HR 5034 Tom has been a one-man wrecking crew. And, when the dust settles and the HR 5034 story ends happily (hopefully) every wine lover in the country can thank Tom for acting as the pivot in fomenting consumer awareness and coalescing industry wide support.

A guy like Tom, who already wakes each morning with intentions of fighting the good fight for wine shipping, has risen to the occasion in regards to creating awareness around HR 5034.

Other people have noticed, as well.

Without further comment, I’ll direct you to Google in order to do a search for “Tom Wark” and see the Google Adwords that our friends from the National Beer Wholesalers Association have purchased.

if you feel particularly mischievous go ahead and click on the link and charge the NBWA a nickel for the ad placement.

Keep at it Tom. Like a cornerback jamming a wide receiver at the line scrimmage, you’re in their head!

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