Archive for: July, 2019

Hunting Unicorns in the Stags Leap District

Even if it’s was just a marketing farce of Horace Chase, I still like the story of how Stags’ Leap Winery (and the area) got its name. Jancis Robinson recounts it in her book, American Wine, with the legend of Wappo tribal hunters chasing a stag. The hunt was close until the cunning beast secured its freedom by leaping across a vast chasm among the craggy palisades.

Stags Leap Palisades

The “Leap” of the Stags Leap District behind Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

Kirk Grace, director of vineyard operations for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, pointed those fabled peaks out to me when I visited the district on a recent press tour. I thought about those hunters often while tasting through a stellar line-up of Stags Leap District wines.

There’s a lot of great wine here, no doubt. Trophies and treasures abound with a close-knit community of growers and producers. It’s hard to find a bad bottle because they all hold each other accountable for maintaining the area’s reputation.

But even with the bounty of treasures, there is still the urge to hunt.

As I noted in my post, Napa Valley — Boomer or Bust?, there’s a dichotomy brewing in the valley. It’s between what the Boomers (and, to some degree, Gen Xers) want to buy against the boredom that Millennials have with seeing the same ole, same ole everywhere. It’s this boredom that pushes us away from Napa in a hunt for something different.

However, from a business point of view, the current Napa recipe is working spectacularly well right now. Folks are making outstanding Cabs and Chardonnays which Boomers and Gen Xers are gobbling up. Of course, the fact that Cabernet Sauvignon grows really well in Napa Valley helps a lot.

Shafer Cabernets.

You can’t discount how delicious these Cabs can be. They are, indeed, “dialed in.”

As Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards noted, the valley has spent the last 40 years or so dialing things in. They have virtually perfected the art of making exquisite Cabernet. I can’t argue against that. The proof was loud and clear in the many sinfully delicious wines that I had on that trip. It has also been solidified over the years by several bottles that I’ve purchased and enjoyed on my own.

But even with all that velvet-glove gluttony, my Millennial heart was still tempted by another sin.

Lust

A craving for something different. Something exciting. Something worth stringing a bow and sharpening arrows for.

While the stag has gotten fat and easy to cull, I was excited to discover other beasts in the Stags Leap District that would have given the Wappos a good fight. These wines are often made in meager quantities and rarely see the light of retail or restaurant wine lists. Instead, these are the gems hidden in the tasting rooms and wine club offerings. But they are absolutely worth hunting down.

Steltzner Sangiovese

The Steltzner Stags Leap District Sangiovese was so good that a member of our tasting party bought another vintage (2015) to take to dinner.

What was even more remarkable–beyond their existence–is that each of these wines was quintessentially Stags Leap. The family resemblance you see in SLD Cabs of bright, juicy fruit with powerful, yet ripe and forgiving tannins echoes fiercely throughout these wines. Likewise, you can see the same care and “dialed in” attention that Stags Leap producers are known for in each bottle.

Of course, with all that care and the SLD banner comes a hefty price tag. With the average price of land in Napa over $300,000 an acre (and hitting over $400,000 an acre in the Stags Leap District), nothing here is going to be cheap.

Undoubtedly, this is always going to be an area where the Millennial Math is a struggle. However, one of the things that enhances value is excitement and uniqueness.

And you can’t get much more exciting and unique than hunting unicorns.

So let me share with you some of the unicorns I discovered in the Stags Leap District.

Again, I’m not trying to downplay the region’s flagship Cabernets. But trumpets have been heralding their triumphs for decades. If you’re like me, sometimes your ears get enchanted by a different tune. I think each of these wines offers notes worth singing about.

Note: the wines tasted below were samples provided on the press tour.

Steltzner Sangiovese ($55)

I’m going to be writing a dedicated piece on Dick Steltzner in the not too distant future. It’s fascinating how someone who is so ingrained into Stags Leap District history would step out of the parade so many times to do his own thing.

Even though Steltzner’s Cabernet Sauvignon has been prominently featured in iconic bottlings like the inaugural vintage of Joseph Phelps’ Insignia and the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon (of Judgement of Paris fame), he’s never been afraid to try new things.

Steltzner Sangio

The 2016 Steltzner Sangio. Probably my favorite of the two vintages but they were both excellent.

The initial plantings of Steltzner Vineyards in the mid-1960s included Riesling which had been a favorite of Dick Steltzner since he tried Stony Hill’s version. The Riesling didn’t work out, but that didn’t discourage him from experimenting again in the 1980s with adding Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinotage and Sangiovese.

Over the years, Dick Steltzner has gradually parcelled and sold off his vineyard–first in 1990 and most recently in 2012 to the PlumpJack Group. However, he’s kept many of his oldest and favorite plantings including the absolutely delicious Sangiovese as well as some Malbec vines which will occasionally be made as a varietal ($55).

Today, the vineyards are managed by Jim Barbour with the wines made by Mike Smith and Robert Pepi.

The Wine and Verdict

Medium-plus intensity nose. A mix of black cherries and plums. Not as herbal as an Italian example. Instead, there is an intense blue floral component.

On the palate, those dark fruits carry through and are quite juicy with medium-plus acidity. Full-Bodied but not overbearing with ripe medium-plus tannins. As with the Stags Leap District Cabs, the texture and mouthfeel are outstanding. The fruit wraps around your tongue, having a tug of war with the mouthwatering acidity. It makes you want to both hold the wine in your mouth to savor and swallow so you can enjoy another sip. Long finish brings back the floral notes and adds a little oak spice.

Like Villa Ragazzi’s Pope Valley/Oakville Sangioveses, you’re not going to mistake this for a Tuscan wine. But this wine has more than enough character to stand on its own compared to similarly priced Brunellos.

Ilsley Seis Primas ($79)

Not long after Nathan Fay pioneered Cabernet Sauvignon in the Stags Leap District, Robert Mondavi suggested to Ernest Ilsley in 1964 that he try his hand at the variety. The Ilsley Vineyard was already selling their Carignan and Zinfandel to Charles Krug winery. When Robert Mondavi opened his winery a couple of years later, a good chunk of the fruit for his very first Cab came from the young Ilsley vines.

The Ilsleys continue to sell fruit to wineries even after starting their own label in 2000–most notably to Shafer Vineyards where David Ilsley is the vineyard manager. David also manages the family vineyard with brother Ernie running operations and sister Janice handling hospitality and sales. Since 2009, Heather Pyle-Lucas has been making the wines after starting at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Ilsley Seis Primas

Such a delicious bottle. I’m kicking myself for not figuring out a way to bring a few bottles back to Paris.

The 2015 Seis Primas is a blend of 62% Malbec, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc with only 183 cases made. The name pays homage to the six girl cousins that make up the 4th generation of the Ilsley family. The wine is sourced from six separate vineyard blocks including a 1996 planting of Malbec that the girls’ grandfather, Ed Ilsley, added to the family estate.

The Wine and Verdict

High-intensity nose. Rich dark blackberry fruit and plum. Lots of blue floral notes of violet and irises. There is also some noticeable oak spice, but it’s not dominating at all.

On the palate, the oak is more noticeable with a chocolate component added to the dark fruit. But still not overwhelming with black pepper spice emerging that compliments the allspice and cinnamon. Full-bodied with high-tannins, the wine is balanced well with medium-plus acidity that keeps the fruit tasting fresh. Long finish lingers on the spices.

I know that I said that it’s hard to find value in the Stags Leap District, but this wine proves me wrong. I’m stunned that this bottle is less than $100. It was easily one of the Top 5 wines that I had that entire week in the Stags Leap District after visiting 15 wineries and trying lots of heavy-hitters.

Honestly, if this wine had the magical “C-word” on the label, it probably could fetch closer to $130. All the Ilsley wines are sold direct-to-consumer. If you want any chance of bagging this trophy, you need to visit this family winery.

Clos du Val Cabernet Franc ($100)
Clos du Val Cab Franc

The 2016 Clos du Val Cabernet Franc. Still young but impressive already.

Even among Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignons, Clos du Val is a unicorn. From founding winemaker Bernard Portet to current winemaker Ted Henry and assistant Mabel Ojeda, tasting a Clos du Val Cab stands out from the pack. While the use of new French oak has steadily increased over the years (100% for their 2015 Hirondelle estate), it’s never been as overt as it is with many of their Napa brethren.

With lively acid and more moderate alcohols, these are always wines that sing in harmony with food. Think Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” Yeah, Fleetwood Mac and the Heartbreakers are great–just like a big, bold, luscious Napa Cab is at times. But, damn, if there’s not something magical about tension and style.

These are also wines built for aging. That’s why it wasn’t shocking that when the historic 1976 Judgement of Paris wine tasting was recreated in 1986, it saw the 1972 Clos du Val Cab nab first place.

The Cabernet Franc comes from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard that surrounds the winery. It’s named after the French word for “swallows” and references the birds that build their nests on the northwest side of the winery every spring. The 2016 vintage was 99% Cabernet Franc with 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clos du Val’s winemaking team aged the wine 20 months in a mix of 80% new French and Hungarian oak.

The Wine and Verdict
Swallows at Clos du Val

Some of the swallows and nests that give the Hirondelle Vineyard its name.

High-intensity nose. Very floral but also an earthy, leather component. Underneath there is some dark fruit of blueberries and blackberries, but they’re more secondary notes to this very evocative bouquet.

On the palate, the fruit makes its presence more known and are amplified by high acidity. Very mouthwatering. The earthy, leathery notes are still here but add a truffle component. It’s not like a Rhone, but it’s almost meaty. Firm, medium-plus tannins have solid structure but are still approachable. Moderate length finish brings backs the floral notes.

This is definitely a completely different Cabernet Franc than anything you would see in the Loire. It’s also not as “Cab Sauv-like” as many new world examples of Cabernet Franc can be (especially in Napa and Washington). The wine is certainly its own beast and is bursting with character. I can only imagine how much more depth and complexity this wine will get with age.

At $100 a bottle, you’re paying top-shelf Cab prices for it. But I guarantee this wine is going to have you scribbling a lot more tasting notes and descriptors than your typical $100+ Napa Cab.

Quixote Malbec ($80)
Quoixote shower

Or step into the shower they have in the visitor’s bathroom at the Quixote tasting room.

Quixote is pretty much the Narnia of Napa Valley. If you want to find unicorns, all you need to do is enter through the Friedensreich Hundertwasser-designed wardrobe and there you are.

Carl Doumani founded Quixote in 1996 not long before he sold Stags’ Leap Winery to Beringer (now Treasury Wine Estates). At Stags’ Leap, Doumani built a reputation for the high quality of his Petite Sirah.  When he sold the property,  he kept many of the choice parcels for his new venture. The current owners, the Chinese private firm Le Melange, which acquired Quixote in 2014, continues to make Petite Sirah a significant focus.

They make three tiers of Petite Sirah. The prices range from the red label Panza ($50) up to their premier black label Helmet of Mambrino ($105-125 depending on the vintage). Quixote also makes a very charming rose of Petite Sirah ($35). All of those are well worth trying. However, the one wine that really knocked my socks off was their Stags Leap Malbec.

Doumani fell in love with the grape after a trip to Argentina in the 2000s. He had a little less than an acre planted with the first vintage released in 2011. Only around 100-150 cases of this wine are produced each year.

The Wine and Verdict
Quixote Malbec

The 2015 Quixote Stags Leap Malbec.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Blackberries clearly dominate the show with some noticeable chocolatey oak undertones. With a little air comes black pepper spice, anise and savory leather notes.

On the palate, this was one of the most quintessential Stags Leap wines I tasted. Totally “iron fist in a velvet glove” all the way. Very full-bodied with ripe, medium-plus tannins. The plush texture is accentuated by the creamy vanilla of the oak. Medium acidity gives enough balance to add juiciness to the blackberries and also highlight a red plum component. Moderate finish brings back the spice notes with the black licorice note lingering the most.

In many ways, I can see regular consumers (as opposed to blind tasters) thinking this was a Napa Cab. There’s the rich dark fruit with noticeable oak. Coupled with the full-bodied structure and mouthfeel, it hits all those hedonistic notes that many consumers seek out in top-shelf Napa wines. But I love what the Malbec-y spice brings to the table. It helps the wine stand apart as a unicorn worth seeking out.

It’s definitely different than Malbecs grown elsewhere in the world (and a lot pricier too). However, this is truly a unique expression of the grape that reflects the Stags Leap District exceedingly well.

Other Stags Leap District Unicorns that I haven’t had yet but am on the hunt for.

In 2014, Decanter magazine noted that the Stags Leap District was planted to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petite Sirah and 1% other. I honestly don’t think the numbers have changed much in the last five years. If anything, Cab has probably gained more ground and relegated Cabernet Franc and Petite Sirah to the One-Percenter Club.

So, yeah, these wines are going to be hard to fine.  But my experiences with the unicorns that I’ve already encountered has me feeling that these are going to be worth the hunt.

Chimney Rock Cabernet Franc ($85)
Author with Elizabeth Vianna.

Yup. Totally fangirl’d.

I fully admit that I’m an Elizabeth Vianna fangirl. I adore her work at Chimney Rock and she also has a great twitter account worth following.  Another upcoming post in the works will see me getting geeky over Chimney Rock’s crazy delicious Elevage Blanc.

From a solely Stags Leap perspective, this Cabernet Franc from their estate vineyard intrigues me. Even though Chimney Rock’s vineyards essentially encircles Clos du Val’s Hirondelle vineyard, I suspect that this will be a very different expression of Cabernet Franc. That’s partly why it would be so cool to try.

Chimney Rock also occasionally releases a rose of Cabernet Franc as well as a varietal Sauvignon gris– when the latter is not being used up in their Elevage blanc.

Update: Oh and there’s now this to look forward to!

Yes! A Stags Leap District Fiano!

Pine Ridge Petit Verdot ($75)
Pine Ridge map

While founded and based in the Stags Leap District, Pine Ridge sources fruit from many places and has estate vineyards in Carneros, Howell Mountain, Rutherford and Oakville.

Founded by Gary Andrus in 1978 and now owned by the Crimson Wine Group, Pine Ridge was also a big player in getting the Stags Leap District established as an AVA. While the winery is well-known for its Chenin blanc-Viognier blend (sourced mostly from the Clarksburg AVA in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties), the bread and butter of Pine Ridge’s Stags Leap estate is, of course, their Cab.

That’s what makes trying this Petit Verdot so intriguing even though a small amount comes from their Oakville property. Petit Verdot is a late-ripening variety that is seeing increased interest across the globe. It’s being planted more to help offset the toll that climate change is having on overripe Cab & Merlot. Of course, it can be a finicky grape to make as a varietal. However, when it’s done well, it’s a spicy delight!

Regusci Zinfandel ($60)
Screenshot of The Taste podcast

If you want to listen to a great podcast, check out Doug Shafer’s interview with Jim Regusci.

The Regusci family has a tremendous history in Napa Valley beginning with the site of the very first dedicated winery built in the Stags Leap District. The stone building, constructed by Terrill Grigsby in 1878, was known as the Occidental Winery for many years.

In 1932, Gaetano Regusci acquired the property and planted Zinfandel with many of those vines still producing fruit today. The family would sell grapes and maintain a dairy ranch on the property for several decades. In 1996, Gaetano’s son and grandson, Angelo and Jim Regusci, started the Regusci Winery.

While Zinfandel has a long history in Napa, its numbers are slowly dwindling. That’s a shame because Zinfandel is the “Craft Beer” of American Wine and a grape that is poised to capture Millennials’ attention. I don’t think anyone else in the Stags Leap District is still growing the grape which certainly makes this a fun unicorn to find.

Stags’ Leap Winery Ne Cede Malis (unknown)

Sadly, this may be a unicorn that is no longer with us. I became fascinated with this wine when I attended a winemaker’s dinner last year with Stags’ Leap Winery’s assistant winemaker Joanne Wing.

Stags’ Leap Winery Assistant Winemaker Joanne Wing.

Sourced from a tiny Prohibition-era block of vines, Ne Cede Malis is a field blend.  Mostly Petite Sirah with up to 15 other different grapes including Sauvignon blanc, an unknown Muscat variety, Carignane, Mourvedre, Grenache, Peloursin, Cinsault, Malbec and Syrah. The grapes are all harvested together and co-fermented.

Coming from the Latin family motto of Horace Chase, Ne Cede Malis means “Don’t give in to misfortune.” But with the last vintage of Ne Cede Malis on Wine-Searcher being 2015 (Ave price $86) and no mention of it on the SLW website, I do fret that maybe these old vines came into some misfortune. If any of my readers know differently, do leave a comment.

Of course, that is the risk that comes with all unicorns. One day they may simply cease to exist. But that is also part of the thrill of the hunt.

Sometimes you bag your prize. Other times you’re standing on the edge of a cliff watching it leap away.

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Wine Influencers and Thinking Like a Consumer

I’m working my way through Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass where I just finished Chapter 17 on editing. I adore the advice that Gaiman gives here on the importance of looking at your work through the eyes of the reader.

Photo by nrkbeta. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

When he finishes a draft, Gaiman sets it aside for a week or so. Then he returns to as if he’s never seen it before in his life. He brings with him all the expectations that he would have as a reader–to be entertained or enlightened and wanting to follow a good story that makes sense with no dangling loose ends.

Often in his first draft reading, he’ll find many unsatisfying marks that he’ll annotate for Gaiman the author to later revisit. It might be a character that Gaiman the reader wanted to learn more about or a battle whose descriptions felt far too truncated to immerse himself into the story.

I love the simplicity of that advice. Yet, I don’t doubt that it’s difficult to follow through on. Beyond the troubles of divesting yourself emotionally from something you’ve created, there’s also the challenge of “forgetting” all the knowledge you take for granted.

I see these same difficulties when it comes to wine marketing where we rarely stop and think like a consumer.

Now I’m not talking about market research and consumer studies.

Photo by Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD Van Vechten

Do note that you don’t need to take off your shirt for this exercise. Though, seriously, DAMN… Marlon Brando.

I’m talking about walking into a store or sitting in front of a restaurant wine list and looking at it like you don’t work in the industry at all. Think Marlon Brando-ing instead of branding.

I’m talking about asking the question “What influences me?” and “How do I decide?” in those situations as if you were a regular consumer.

By doing that, by taking fresh eyes to a marketing dilemma, there are many insights to gleam that are not going to be measured by metrics. To win consumers’ hearts and wallets, you have to first get into their heads.

So what influences you?

When you’re standing in the wine aisle or staring at a wine list, are you recalling wines that you saw random bottle porn shots of while scrolling through your Instagram feed?

Are you remembering wines recommended by any of Global Data’s Top 10 Wine Influencers, Social Vigneron’s Top 40+ Wine Influencers of 2018 or the Beverage Trade Network’s “Top Wine Influencers In 2019 You Need to Pay Attention To“?

Well, you might be. But if you’re truly channeling your inner Marlon or Meryl Streep, the odds of these influencers actually influencing most regular consumers are fairly low.

Photo by Financial Times. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Pretty much any list of top influencers should prominently feature the Beyoncé of Wine.

Even among some of the genuinely notable influencers on those lists like Jancis Robinson, Jamie Goode, Robert Joseph, Fiona Beckett, Alder Yarrow, Karen MacNeil, etc., the extent of their influence is felt far more on wine industry folks than consumers.

Yes, there is a segment of highly engaged consumers who subscribe to wine magazines, read wine blogs, comment on forums and follow influencers on social media. But even in the wettest of winery owners’ dreams, this segment is rarely ever more than a minority of wine consumers.

How do I decide?

Go back to that wall of wine. Pick up that wine list and look at them again as a consumer. How would you decide?

Depending on your mood and the occasion, you’re likely going to do a couple of things.

1.) Go with what you know or at least what you see everywhere (i.e., the McDonald’s/Starbucks wines that dominate supermarkets)

The Bacon number of wine

The Bacon Numbers of Wine Influence.
The further you are away from the consumer, the less influential you will be.

2.) Phone a friend or ask the wine steward and sommelier for advice (Folks with Bacon numbers of 1 in the Wine Influence Sphere)

3.) Google “Best wine for blah” or pick the most interesting label or wine name and Google it to see if it’s not plonk.

And here, with this last option, do we find where wine influencers can actually make a difference.

Influencers aren’t helping you at the beginning of the consumer journey, but near the end.

Every marketing student has seen the familiar consumer journey map documenting the path from brand awareness/familiarity to consideration and then purchase with hopefully loyalty/advocacy coming soon after. The reality is not that linear, but it’s a solid starting point.

The problem with the wine industry’s relationship with influencers is that we’re often thinking more like marketers instead of consumers. It’s easy to assume if we see influencers work in other sectors such beauty, fashion and tech with generating brand awareness then that is how they’re going to work with wine.

But wine is not like beauty, fashion or tech. Consumers aren’t scrolling through social media feeds and blogs looking for something to “inspire” them to drink. Again, step back and put yourself in a consumer’s shoes. Think about how you shop for things–what catches your attention on impulse versus something that you deliberately look for.

If you want a better comparison with wine, think about taking a vacation.

Yes, sometimes the inspiration to travel can come as an impulse. A picture or a story of an exotic location can come out of the blue to capture your imagination. But more often you have a general sense of where you’d like to go–if not a particular place in mind.

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Somewhere with a lot of feral cats…

Somewhere warm.

Or somewhere not too expensive.

Somewhere with great food, great history or great beaches.

Somewhere….blah.

And then what do you do? You start Googling about your somewheres until eventually you find just the right “where” that fits your mood and occasion.

Wine consumers do the same thing.

I can’t tell you how many times on the sales floor I witnessed a consumer break out their phone and start googling. Of course, I was trying my best to be their in-person influencer but, for whatever reason, some customers just want to ford ahead on their own. However, it’s not really on their own because they still want some sanctification of their choice.

So they turn to the almighty influencer of Google to see what comes up. Sometimes they’ll have a particular place/wine in mind–like a Napa Cab or a German Riesling. Sometimes it’s more generic like “Best wine to pair with risotto” or “Best red blend under $20”.

Often it’s a particular wine that caught their eye or even a double-checking of what the wine steward or sommelier recommended. You know, just to be sure.

This is the consideration stage of the consumer journey.

Photo from Nick Nijhuis. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Wine blogs and most non-consumer social media (i.e., influencer posts) are most effective when you’ve got the consumer already considering your wine.

This is where the consumer is looking to buy. They already have an awareness of “Brand Wine” and even a vague familiarity of what they want. But they’re honing their choice down to a particular wine and looking for something to verify that they’re making the right selection.

Often winery websites will show up on these Google searches. They might be clicked so wineries shouldn’t overlook how valuable this experience is. However, let’s again step back and think about this as a consumer. If you’re looking for an unbias confirmation, you’re probably going to skip the winery website.

Instead, you’re going to look for links that seem to be objective and knowledgable. And you’re probably going to find a lot of sites belonging to wine influencers. (Hopefully, those influencers are upfront and ethical about noting wines received as samples.)

This is why it’s absolutely vital for wineries to be paying attention to what kind of content shows up on these “consideration searches.”

A Winery’s #1 Influencer Metric — What kind of content are they producing?

Photo by Victorgrigas. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Smartphones are the new Wine Spectator.

And where does it show up on Google rankings of search terms that my consumer might actually be googling?

The entire marketing community is waking up to the fact that influencers’ engagement metrics and followers are hugely gameable. I honestly don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface with the extent of fraud that is going on in the influencer community.

However, the marketers who are telling wineries to invest in micro-influencers aren’t necessarily blowing smoke up the bum. Though I would be very wary of the ones who don’t strongly advocate thoroughly checking out and doing research on an influencer they’re partnering with. But a massive part of that research should be spent on looking at the quality of the content that the influencer is producing. Metrics can be gamed, but good content stands on its own.

But wait, Amber, aren’t you one of these so-called influencers?

Eh, maybe. I dunno.

Yeah, I have a samples policy and will write posts about wines and tasting I’ve received. But I don’t buy into the “influencer lifestyle” and have no problems being blunt about that.

That’s because I tend to think more like a consumer and winery owner instead of a blogger/influencer.

Internship days photo

Ah, yes. Internship days. The boss didn’t want to pay to use a sorting table but wasn’t happy about the number of jacks that were coming out of the crusher/destemmer.
So he stationed the interns underneath the crusher bin to pick out jacks while grapes rained down on us.
I swear I rung at least a 375ml of juice out from my hoodie.

While I’ve studied wine marketing in school and continue to study it with my WSET Diploma studies, a considerable part of my outlook stems from years working in the trenches of wine retail. I didn’t cut my teeth in conference rooms telling wineries what will help sell their wines. Instead, I spent it on the floor actually selling wine and learning first hand what consumers responded to and what they didn’t.

But, as I noted in my bio, I also worked at wineries and gave a lot of thought to starting a winery.

My wife also studied winemaking and while we’re finding that the technology sector pays significantly more, the idea of “a retirement winery” somewhere down the road is still on the table. Only I know that running a winery is not really retirement but a heck of a lot of work. Making wine is the easy part. Selling it is the challenge.

So when I write posts like this, I’m not just sharing sentiments earned through my studies and experience. This is the advice that I’m taking to heart and what I will do when it’s my money, my brand and my success on the line.

And here’s exactly how I would approach partnering with influencers.

1.) I would Google, Bing and Yahoo the shit out of my winery’s name and any phrases that would be tangentially related to my wines. Brainstorm away with things “Best Cab under X”, “New York wines to try”, “Best wine to go with toasted ravioli”, “Dry Creek Zinfandel”, “Sustainable Sangiovese”, etc.

2.) Note which wine writers and bloggers show up in results on those queries. While search engine optimization is its own Pandora’s box to figure out, it’s never a bad place to start with influencers who are already trending on pages 1 and 2 of relevant search terms.

3.) Check out the sites, look at the quality of their content–particularly with how they show up on mobile phones. Again, think through the eyes of a consumer who is likely going to be doing their Googling in stores and restaurants. Also, note that search rankings are often different on mobile versus desktops with sites like Google favoring mobile-optimized websites on mobile devices with a higher ranking. (Oh, clear your cookies/go incognito with your searches for more accurate results too!)

I would also do searches on Instagram and Twitter under relevant hashtags. Make sure to check out what kind of cross-platform content your potential influencer partner creates here as well.

Now I’ll freely admit that I’m not acing all these things here on SpitBucket.

But I’m not writing this for my benefit as a blogger.

Instead, I’m taking Neil Gaiman’s advice and looking at this through the eyes of the reader–which these days on SpitBucket is mostly wine industry folks. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll spare you the pandering and BS.

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60 Second Wine Review — D’Oliveira 1908 Boal Madeira

A few quick thoughts on the 1908 D’Oliveira Boal Madeira.

The Geekery

Joao Pereira d’Oliveira founded his namesake winery in 1850 originally to supply wine for other shippers. It wasn’t until the 1970s that D’Oliveira began bottling under their own name.

Still owned by d’Oliveira’s descendants,  the estate produces around  150,000 liters of wines a year. After many acquisitions of other Madeira shippers, D’Oliveira is home to some of the oldest stocks of Madeira. All their Madeira is bottled on-demand, which means that these wines spend a considerable amount of time in cask.

The Bual/Boal grape tends to ripen to higher sugar levels than Sercial and Verdelho. The resulting Madeiras are often sweet though usually not as sweet as Malvasia.

The Wine

Photo by Andrea Levers. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

The savory balsamic note is mouthwateringly delicious.

High-intensity nose–An interesting mix of caramel, ginger and balsamic. With some air, there is also a little herbal note like rosemary and mint that emerges. Crazy complex.

On the palate, those savory balsamic notes come through. As you roll it around your tongue, the tart fruit emerges (citrus, a little fig, and even some tart red cherries). It’s remarkably fresh-tasting given this wine’s age. Intensely mouthwatering and intensely rich–such a textural juxtaposition. The sweetness and caramel also carry through but are balanced so well with the acidity. The more you engage the wine, the more different notes come out.  Even some white floral notes emerge with the long (2 minute-plus) mouthwatering finish.

The Verdict

I had this at a restaurant where I paid $40 for a 1.5 oz pour and it was worth every penny. A full bottle is averaging around $738 and I would honestly say that’s tempting as well.

The beauty of Madeira is how long it last after opening, much like a great whiskey. One bottle could give months, even years, of pleasure. This is definitely something that every wine lover should try.  Well worth at least $40 for a taste of such a complex wine that is essentially living history.

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The Wine Industry’s “Nice Guy Syndrome”

I’ve been working with Kenneth Friedenreich on his follow-up book to Oregon Wine Country Stories about the Stags Leap District. He’s been sharing some of his drafts on the prologue and, not to spoil anything, he includes a remarkable moment we had on our research trip watching a hawk swoop down into the vineyard to pluck a vole out amongst the vines.
Photo by Michael Warnock. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Friedenreich expands on this imagery as a metaphor for many of the themes that he’s weaving into the SLD book. But reading his prose and recalling my memories of watching the cold realities of nature in action,  reminded me of Lisa Perrotti-Brown’s article last year for The Wine Advocate called “The Big Parkerization Lie.”

Now I’m not going to rehash the old Parkerization debate or drill deep into this article. But the image of the hawk and vole struck a similar chord with me as Perrotti-Brown’s three-point rebuttal of the Parkerization mythos. While I disagree with her that Parkerization is a “useful lie”, I do think people’s response to Parker (painting him as a villain) and Parkerization (This is why I’m not selling my wine!) is symptomatic of the “Nice Guy Syndrome” poking its head out in the wine industry.

No, I’m not going to make this post about sex either.

Photo of Cabernet Sauvignon aisle

Passionate winemakers working with great terroir is behind every wine on the top shelf–or so the story goes.

That’s because it’s not sex that wineries feel entitled to when they make good wine, but rather sales. There is a sentiment that if you have great land, work it diligently and put your passion into making wine that it’s going to sell. That it should sell.

And if it doesn’t? Well someone is to blame. From wine critics who promote particular styles of wine to distributors and gatekeepers with a stranglehold on consumer channels, they all throw up obstacles. Even pesky consumers, themselves, can be an obstacle such as those maddening Millennials turning their noses up in boredom at the old guard wines and grape varieties.

Those are all valid concerns and serious impediments that wineries do need to deal with. However, there is an even starker truth that is just as raw and stinging as watching a hawk snuff the life out of another animal.

No one needs to drink your wine.

There is no entitlement to sales. No entitlement to attention.

photo by gdcgraphics. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Well the actual line is “If you build it, HE will come” so maybe you can at least bank on Ray Liotta showing up at your tasting room.

It doesn’t matter if you have the most blessed terroir on earth, tended to by the best viticulture and winemaking teams that money can buy. It doesn’t matter if you have generations of heritage and tradition. None of that guarantees that people are going to care, much less beat a path down to your door.

The wine industry has never followed the quaint narrative of “If You Build It, They Will Come.”  You can build the best and be the best, but in the end, it doesn’t matter if you are the hawk or the vole. You stand just as good of a chance of missing out and going hungry as you do of being dinner yourself.

That is the nature of life and the nature of capitalism.

And, really, there’s no villain here.

I did have a Bambi “Oh My God!” moment watching the hawk snatch up that little vole. But the hawk is not a villain. Heck, from a vineyard perspective the vole is a dirty little bastard wreaking havoc among the vines. There is a reason why wineries build nesting boxes to encourage birds of prey to patrol the vineyard.

Photo by Marisszza. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

But he’s just trying to support his little vole family!

But, honestly, the vole isn’t the bad guy either. It’s just trying to survive in the environment that it was born into– a situation that humans have shaped far more than a rodent species ever could.

Likewise, critics such as Robert Parker and the frustrating web of distributors and gatekeeping aren’t truly villainous either. Though I’ll give you that many of their tactics can make them prime, juicy targets. But, in their own way, they’re just hawks and voles doing their thing among the vines too.

The lesson of the hawk and vole is that nothing is owed to anyone. In the wine industry, there’s always going to be some combination of luck and circumstance that leads to success or failure. Some of that you can influence. But a fair amount of it boils down to being in the right or wrong place at any given time.

Ultimately, all you can do is just be glad for all the dinners you get and grateful for all the dinners you’re not.

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