All posts by Amber LeBeau

The Past and Future of Small Family Wineries

First off, I want to apologize for the radio silence the last couple of weeks. August is “vacation-month” in France and, perhaps, Paris is rubbing off on me.  My brain certainly needed some time away from the wine world to recharge. Still not quite back in the saddle yet but I’m getting there.

However, I do want to take the time to highlight this Kiva micro-loan for a small Georgian winery and what it means for the future of wineries like Tinatini’s.

KIVA loan https://www.kiva.org/lend/1812416

Kiva.org’s loan page for Tinatini and her son to modernize their winery so they can take part in Georgia’s growing wine tourism industry.
Please consider donating and sharing this page.

Most folks in the wine industry have heard this “joke.”

How do you make a small fortune in wine?

You start with a large fortune.

The response is usually a knowing chuckle followed by a small sigh because of how true that statement is. It’s not easy to make money in the wine industry. This is why so many winery owners nowadays are “second career” folks who have made their fortune elsewhere.

But the goal hasn’t always been to make a small fortune.

When you look at the history of wine on a global and historical scale, it’s populated far more by stories of small family wineries like Tinatini in Tsinandali, Georgia than it is by dot.com billionaires and shipping magnates living the “vintner’s life-style.”

Yes, there has always been the grand estates of the gentry like the Pontacs’ Ho Bryan and the esteemed Roman crus extolled by Pliny the Elder.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jacob_Gerritsz._Cuyp_-_Wine_Grower_-_WGA5850.jpg

Jacob Gerritsz’s The Wine Grower. (1628)

But it likely wasn’t all Roman DRC poured at the taverns of Pompei. Of the thousands of ships that have sailed from Bordeaux to London, the fabled classified growths only accounted for a small percentage of that cargo.

Throughout history, the backbone of the wine industry has always been families making wine for sustenance. Both personal sustenance and as a source of income.

Not to make a fortune and to buy a Ferrari. But to pay for a roof over the head.  Support for their children. And maybe buy a few more barrels.

As consumers and folks in the industry, we must never lose sight of this.

The vast, vast majority of people in the wine industry aren’t here to make a fortune. But instead to do something they love. Perhaps, with the hope that they’ll make enough to pass that love onto the next generation.

Photo by Jim G from Silicon Valley, CA, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

If you see a tasting room sign of a winery you’ve never heard of, give it a shot. You never know, it might become your new favorite.

While no one is entitled to a sale (the “Nice Guy Syndrome”) on the merit of being a small family winery alone, I do think these wineries deserve respect and at least the chance to earn your attention.

Today, there are so many agricultural crops that are nothing but commodities. Do you know who farmed your corn? Who harvested the peaches you enjoyed at lunch? Do you know where the grain that went into your bread or the milk in your butter came from?

We’ve lost our connection to so many of our food items because we’ve lost sight of the people behind them.

I don’t want to see the same thing happen to the wine industry. Which is why when small family wineries like Tinatini ask for our support, let’s not lose our opportunity to give it.

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Nitty Gritty Grumble – Are winery websites dropping the ball?

I had a great Tasmanian sparkling rosé that I wanted to write something on. Lovely aromatics. Tremendous mouthfeel. Killer value. Definitely a bottle worth spreading the word about.
Photo by Finlay McWalter. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

So I went to the producer’s website to start researching for a post.

Pretty site, lots of lovely pictures. The bottles moved when I hovered the mouse over them. I found the Méthode Tasmanoise tab charming. Clearly, the winery spent a bit of money and thought to put this together.

But that charm and my enthusiasm for writing about their wine got zapped when I came to its product page.

Now I know that many winery websites are designed with Direct-to-Consumer sales in mind instead of wine writers’ research. I get that. So I expect to see the “nitty gritty” details I crave (blend composition, vineyard sources, aging, dosage, case production, etc.) buried beneath the fold. Or maybe hidden away in a trade section.

But I didn’t quite expect this.

Jansz product page for rose sparkling wine

Side note: The gift bag marketing on the product page is very clever.

Wait.

You’re going to tell me what the pH and acidity specs are even though few wine writers and hardly any consumers care about them. But the best answer you’re going to give me about the grape composition is…. sparkling rosé?

Really?

Photo by Randy OHC. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

I wonder if, at my next WSET tasting exam, I can get away with identifying the composition of the red wines as “red wine.”

I highly doubt this is some top-secret proprietary blend. Even if you don’t want to give the exact percentages because they change often, it shouldn’t be that difficult for someone to find out if this 12.5% ABV sparkling wine with a 3.11 pH and 6.7 g/l acidity has Pinot noir and Chardonnay.

I suppose I could email the winery or tag them on social media to ask what’s in their wine. Maybe I’ll get a reply? Or not.

But that still begs the question of why in the world do so many wineries make it hard for somms, retailers and wine writers to find meaningful information about their stories and products? Why is this an area where wineries regularly drop the ball when it comes to helping folks sell and talk about their wines?

Above the Fold – Entice

A winery’s website serves two audiences. Consumers and the communicators who are going to be presenting your wines to those consumers.

I haven’t seen any good traffic studies on who is more likely to visit a winery’s website. It very well may be industry folks and writers. But the smart move is to always keep the consumer (and what they’re thinking) front and center. That means making sure that the “above the fold” content of a page is enticing as numerous scroll map studies have shown that website visitors are not likely to scroll further down the page.

Unless, of course, they’re looking for something. But more on that later.

Here is where I think the Jansz page does a decent job. The tasting note is not too jargon-driven, using words that consumers respond to such as “vibrant” and “mouthwatering.” As I mentioned above, I think the gift bag suggestion is an excellent idea for add-ons.

Brunnello di Montalcino

Even world-renown wine regions that are monovarietal will get the “What’s in it?” question from consumers who are not geeks or connoisseurs.

For a lot of consumers, this is perfect. But some will want a little more detail. Maybe stuff like, oh I don’t know, grape composition?

What’s in it?

When I was on the sales floor, this was always the question I got asked the most. No one asked me about pH, acidity, yields, harvest dates or trellising.

Occasionally, folks would want to know if the wine was “natural”, vegan or “green-friendly.” The “butteriness” of Chardonnay would come up for customers who loved or hated that style. Sometimes I would get general questions about how oaky a wine was or if it was sweet. But, even then, I never had a consumer expect me to give them exact oak aging and residual sugar details.

Often consumers wouldn’t ask any questions whatsoever and were happy with just a strong recommendation that the wine was worth trying. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t still have questions that would send me to a winery’s website for answers.

Below the Fold – Educate

What kind of “nitty-gritty” info should you have on your site for the folks who really want to learn more about your wines?

A lot of that will depend on if you want everything on the consumer page or in a separate trade/tech sheet section. If it’s the former, you still want to keep the page focused on enticement and driving home why this wine is worth your attention. Again, details like pH and TA are great for geeks, but most consumers aren’t going to care.

illustration by Luigi Chiesa. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-self

Seriously, I only had one customer ever ask me what the pH of a wine was. That was because he just had veneers put on and his dentist told him not to have any beverages with a pH less than 3.

One example I like is from Arlo Vintners in Victoria with what sounds like a fascinating white field blend.

In a few brief paragraphs, this product page tells me:

What’s in it.
Where the fruit comes from and why this is unique/interesting.
How it was made (co-fermented, ambient yeast, tank, no acidification, unfiltered).

The biggest things missing are details about how the vineyard is farmed–i.e. organic, sustainable, biodynamic, etc. This is definitely an area that consumers are asking more questions and becoming increasingly mindful about.

Tech Sheets/Trade Sections

Personally, I think every winery website should have a trade section. When I worked in the industry, it was always the first thing I looked for and, as a writer, my heart still drops when I visit a website without one.

Selling wine is like big game hunting. The ammo you use matters. For the somms, wine stewards and writers looking for more info about your wine, here is where you’re either going to properly equip or send them on their way with Nerf darts.

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

The Nerf Strike Vulcan aka a fancy, expensive winery website that offers little to no useful info about a wine.

This is the section to geek out with nitty-gritty technical specs but keep in mind that those are “low caliber” details. They’re not going to bag a sale on their own.

You need high caliber equipment to really nab the prize. Few things pack a punch like personal story tidbits.

And you can slip this powerful ammo into a tech sheet.

A perfect example comes from the vineyard details that Pedroncelli provides with their tech sheet for the Courage Zinfandel.

Dave and Dena Faloni are the neighbors behind Courage Zinfandel, a three-generation grape-growing family located two miles west of the winery. While most Zinfandel in the valley is head-pruned, Dave has trained his vines on a trellis. He knows every quirk of the soil and every vine on their 24 acres having farmed it all of his life.

I love that line “… the neighbors behind Courage Zinfandel” and how it invokes the picture of neighbors and families working together to make something that a consumer would want to share with their family. Great personal connection. The other lines also add personality that makes this Zin feel different and distinct from all the other Zins competing for attention.

Likewise, I also love how Ramey drops several details in a tech sheet about how their Napa Valley Claret is different from its many, many peers.

10% Russian River fruit. (Remember, AVAs are only 85%)
8% Syrah.
12 months lees aging with monthly bâtonnage.

How cool is that?

If you take me back to my sales floor days with a customer asking why they should get this $35-50 Napa wine over other $35-50 Napa wines, this is the type of stuff that I’m going to be telling them–along with my personal recommendation of how delicious the wine is.

Knowing these details gives communicators ammo to highlight the unique and interesting points that make a wine worth paying attention to. So why not give it to them?

Here’s one more.

While I would like a little more “ammo” from an enticement perspective, I’m impressed with the technical design of how Juniper Estate in the Margaret River incorporates their tasting notes on their product pages.

Juniper Estates Malbec

Next to each bottle is a link to view tasting notes as a popup window. No need to click around and visit multiple pages to learn about different wines.

That’s a lot of nitty-gritty info packed into a small space. But it’s done in a fairly elegant and unobtrusive way. Many wineries would be wise to imitate this design.

The Bottom Line

The people who visit your website came to your site for a reason. There was something about your wine that captured their attention and here is where you are either going to foster that intrigue or lose it completely.

A well-designed and functional website is a critical piece that shouldn’t be overlooked. It affects not only consumers and potential DtC sales, but it profoundly impacts what kind of tools you’re giving sommeliers, retailers and writers to sell and talk about your wine.

The ball is in your court. Go to your website and take a look at your armory. Is it well stocked with useful and meaningful tidbits that entice, excite and inspire folks to want to learn more?

Or is the room mostly empty except for some scattered Nerf darts?

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60 Second Wine Review — Gonet-Médeville Extra Brut Rosé

A few quick thoughts on the Gonet-Médeville Premier Cru Rosé Champagne.

The Geekery

Gonet-Medeville rose Champagne

In 2000, Xavier Gonet started the Champagne house with his wife, Julie Médeville, in the premier cru village of Bisseuil in the Grande Vallée de la Marne.

Gonet hails from the notable Champagne family of Philippe Gonet in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger with that house now run by Xavier’s siblings. Médeville comes from Bordeaux where her family owns several estates in Graves and Sauternes including Ch. Respide Médeville, Ch. Les Justice and Ch. Gilette.

Gonet-Médeville farms all 10 ha (25 acres) of their vineyards sustainably. The vines are located entirely in premier and Grand Cru villages and include the Champ Alouette and Louvière vineyards in Le Mesnil as well as La Grande Ruelle in Ambonnay.

For many years, Champagne Gonet-Médeville has been brought to the US by legendary importer Martine Saunier. The 2014 documentary film, A Year in Champagne, features Xavier Gonet prominently along with other Saunier clients–Stephane Coquilette, Saint-Chamant and Diebolt-Vallois.

The Extra Brut Rosé is 70% Chardonnay and 27% Pinot noir with 3% still red wine added for color. The wine was aged for seven months after primary fermentation in neutral oak barrels before bottling. Gonet then matured the wine three years on its lees with around 8000 bottles produced.

The Wine

Photo by 4028mdk09. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The rich pomegranate adds some savory complexity to this Champagne.

Medium-plus intensity nose. Tart cherries and pomegranate with an interesting ginger spice note.

On the palate, the red fruits carry through and add some ruby red grapefruit as well. Here, the spice morphs into a toasty gingerbread note. The medium-weight of the fruit balances well with the silky mousse. But what’s most remarkable is the long saline/minerally finish that is almost lip-smacking.

The Verdict

This is a charming Rosé that’s very solid for around $65-75 retail. The restaurant I enjoyed this at had it marked up to $130 which is still a good value for its quality.

BTW, if you want to check out the trailer for A Year in Champagne, I highly recommend it!

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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 secondary notes in 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 ($150)

I became fascinated with this wine when I attended a winemaker’s dinner last year with Stags’ Leap Winery’s winemaker Joanne Wing.

Stags’ Leap Winery 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), I do fret that maybe these old vines came into some misfortune. If any of my readers know differently, do leave a comment. (UPDATE BELOW)

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.

UPDATE: The Ne Cede Malis lives on! I was very excited to get an email from Stags’ Leap Winery letting me know that these old vines are still going strong with the 2016 vintage slated to be released in the fall for a suggested retail of $150.  Only around 500 cases were produced so this is still a unicorn worth hunting!

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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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How Can Wineries Use Instagram Better?

It’s been a little over a month since I wrote my post Why Do Winery Instagram Feeds Suck So Much? which garnered some tremendous responses. Many folks have emailed me, including wineries, to share their thoughts.

Photo by Today Testing (for derivative) featuring work from Pexels. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

I was most surprised at the number of wineries that asked me to “audit” their feeds. I have to give them massive credit for seeking honest feedback. It’s effortless to get lulled into the status quo, thinking that if you’re getting an okay amount of “likes” and “shares” that you must be doing good.

The vast majority of responses to my original post has been agreement that, yes, winery Instagram feeds do tend to suck.

But that’s not a universal sentiment. There was one really thought-provoking comment left by an owner of a social media agency that sharply disagreed with my take. You can go to the article to read her six-point comment as well as my reply. I appreciate her contrarian view and suspect that it’s probably shared by quite a few folks who run social media marketing firms.

But while we both agree that “authenticity” is vital, there are a few things about that contrarian view that I just can’t buy into–especially when it comes to marketing to Millennials who are the biggest users of social media.

Brand Awareness: The Be-All, End-All of Marketing?

One of the main points that commentator made was that “Regular pictures of the bottle help to keep the label top of mind is pretty basic, crucial even, to drive awareness and brand recognition- especially for new or boutique wineries.”

Now, I’m not against any pictures of wine labels appearing in social media feeds. My issue with “bottle porn” is the gratuitousness and oversaturation of it. Essentially many wineries take the idea of “Brand Awareness” and drive it off a cliff trying to emulate McDonald’s or Starbucks.

Here’s the thing. Wineries (especially small boutique wineries) are never going to be McDonald’s or Starbucks. It’s silly to take their idea of branding as benchmarks to emulate. People don’t look for the same things from wineries that they do from MacDonald’s or Starbucks. With those latter behemoths, they’re banking on the “top of mind” impulse buy.

I’m hungry. There’s a McDonald’s. You’ve got a Starbucks cup. You know, I could use some coffee.

Photo of image Created by Street Advertising Services for the Barefoot Wine Reverse Graffiti campaign in UK. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Don’t mind the bird poop on the sidewalk. It adds street cred.

While you can make a valid argument that supermarket wines need to bank on some of this recognition impulse buying, this is not going to work the same way for a small boutique winery. Seeing a few random bottle porn pics on Instagram is not going to help these wines stand out in the massive wall of wine.

If you’re a small boutique winery playing in the arena of “Brand Awareness,” you’re always going to get trampled underneath the bare feet of the big boys.

Instead, small wineries need consumers who are actively looking to find their wines. They need consumers who are engaged and motivated.

They need intention, not impulse.

Brand recognition only gets you so far. Relationships will take you further.

The goal of small boutique wineries should not be “top of mind.” You’re never going to achieve that. But you can most definitely squeeze a little place in the hearts of consumers who feel connected to your wines because they feel like they know you and know a part of your story.

Photo by Matt Pourney. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the public domain.

If you’re expecting to win the “Battle of the Wine Wall” with brand awareness and bottle porn, then you’ve already lost and dragons won’t help you.

That should be the goal of every winery’s social media strategy–building the relationships that consumers have with their brand.

Saturating your feed with nothing but bottle pics and fake poses doesn’t give the consumer anything to connect with. It doesn’t tell us anything about the people and places that makes a wine worth finding. There is no motivation to want to search online, get in a car, visit a store or winery.

It’s just…porn. Pretty pictures. A cheap thrill. Well, maybe not so cheap for the wineries that pay beaucoup bucks to marketing firms for the staged photoshoots.

So how can wineries inspire (good) intention on Instagram?

Well, the first thing you should not do is to treat your social media like “one big commercial.” Just no. Don’t.

This is especially vital if your winery is trying to capture the attention of Millennials. Because, if you haven’t heard, Millennials hate ads. Like we really, really, really hate them.

Now sometimes we’ll allow the subtle stuff, which is where the “bottle porn phenomena” got its start. But eventually too much is too much and all the subtlety is lost. Then you start venturing into the area where we feel like you’re ruining our social media experience.

Instead of putting you “top of mind,” you’re moving to the top of our shit list. That’s inspiring a bad kind of intention. I’m not kidding. Ask any Millennial you know and they’ll name a few brands that they absolutely refuse to buy because of how annoying their advertising is.

For me, Jared and Coit Cleaning can go to hell.
Photo by M.O. Stevens. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Maybe this is why Millennials are supposedly killing the diamond industry? So that no one will ever talk about going to this godforsaken store again. I’ve never set foot in here and never will because of their annoying ads.

And, honestly, while I wouldn’t say that they’re on a “shit list,” there are several wineries that have completely zapped any enthusiasm or interest I had in finding their wines simply because of how boring and porn-saturated their IG feeds were. It’s not like I would adamantly avoid their wines, but with so many other options competing for my wallet, “Why bother?”

That’s what you have to remember. There are so many other options competing for your consumer.

The ones that are going to get their attention are the ones that give them a reason to bother. For a demographic that craves connection and engagement, you have to meet them where they’re at.

You have to enhance their social media experience, not ruin it. Show us something interesting and engaging.

Show us something like Grgich Hills which lets visitors stomp grapes during harvest.

Or Long Meadow Ranch which, during Pride Month, subtly let all its followers know that everyone is welcomed there without nary a rainbow flag or pinkwashing in sight.

Show us some history like Charles Krug Winery or Buena Vista in a way that lets us know that we can take part in that history.

Share what makes you unique even if it’s your passions outside of wine like the art of James Frey of Trisaetum or beekeeping at Spottswoode.

Or just share your geeky love of doing what you do like what comes through in every IG post by the Mullineux family.

Show us your people because that is the one thing that most sets you apart from every other winery. From the vineyard workers, to harvest interns, the winemaking team, hospitality, everyone–they each put their own unique imprint on your wine.

I raved about this on Twitter during my #WineMktMonday chat, but I absolutely adore this IG post from Côte Bonneville.

Screen shot from Côte Bonneville IG https://www.instagram.com/p/ByiIlengOyO/

Rock on, Rosa! You better believe that I’m going to find some Côte Bonneville wine (like their gorgeous DuBrul Cab or crackling off-dry Riesling) to toast to her and the Côte Bonneville team’s efforts.

Heck, show us their family like this excellent post that Frog’s Leap Winery did to highlight a proud papa moment of one of their cellar crew.

And, well, cute animals never make a bad post. Seriously, you have to look at these baby sheep at Hanzell!

Now if you look at the IG accounts for all of those wineries, yeah, you’re going to see some bottle shots.

But their PPP ratio (People:Places:Porn) is far healthier than what you see on most winery Instagram accounts. And every single one of them gives me a reason to pay attention–a reason to feel a connection to their brand.

As a consumer, those kind of IG posts motivate me to seek out their wines with intent. They’re not crossing their fingers and hoping that brand recognition and impulse blows customers into their tasting rooms like tumbleweeds. Instead, they’re creating the wind that’s doing the moving.

Bottom line: People are always going to be better than bottle porn.

Photo from Nationaal Archief / Spaarnestad Photo, SFA006004681. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons with no known copyright restrictions.

Maybe we need to get him frolicking on the beach? That should score some “likes”!

A consumer is always going to be able to make more of a connection with a real, living breathing person than an inanimated wine bottle. Every time. Everywhere.

You’re not selling vacuum cleaners. We don’t need to know all the products and features. But a HUGE part of wanting your wine is driven by knowing you. After all, the wine is a product of the passion and people behind it.

While I respect the hard work and effort of marketing firms, and I’d like to think that their hearts are in the right place, I need to be brutally blunt here.

If the people you’re paying to market your wines are telling you that you need to treat social media like “one big commercial,” then you’re wasting your money with them.

Yes, I’m sure they can point to plenty of metrics showing how many “likes” or “shares” and “comments” that a fancy, professionally shot and beautifully curated spread has. But tell me this…

Can anyone buy your wine with a “like”? With a “share”? How many comments of heart-eyes emojis can you point to that turned into real customers motivated to seek out your wines?

I’m not saying that metrics aren’t important. But they can be overstated. Ultimately the question that every winery should ask about their social media strategy is:

Do I want to chase likes and shares, or do I want to chase connections and sales?

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60 Second Wine Review — 2007 Vilmart Coeur de Cuvee

A few quick thoughts on the 2007 Vilmart & Cie Coeur de Cuvee Champagne.
Vilmart 2007 Coeur de Cuvee Champagne

The Geekery

Laurent Champs is the 5th generation vigneron running his family’s estate in the premier cru village of Rilly-la-Montagne in the Montagne de Reims. Despite this region being world-renown for Pinot noir, the 11 ha (27 acres) of Vilmart are majority Chardonnay.

While his father, René, experimented with biodynamics, Laurent practices sustainable and organic viticulture with AMPELOS certification.

The Coeur de Cuvee is 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot noir sourced from a single parcel of 55+ year-old vines. Vilmart uses only the first 14 hl of pressing (the “coeur/heart”) instead of the full 20.5 hl allowed. The vin clair is aged in white Burgundy barrels for ten months with no malolactic fermentation taking place.

The wine then spends six years aging on the lees before being disgorged with a 7-9 g/l dosage. For the 2007, only 150 cases were imported into the US.

The Wine

Photo by Brisbane Falling. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lots of apple pastry action going on with this Champagne with some almond marzipan making as well.

High-intensity nose–lots of apple pastry and vanilla notes with racy citrus peel. A little air lets a white floral note come out that’s a mix of lilies and acacia.

On the palate, those pastry notes come through and are very creamy with an almond marzipan note. Noticeable oak spice is also present, but it complements the spice pear that emerges adding another layer of depth. Very full-bodied mouthfeel but ample acidity keeps it balanced and fresh. Long finish ends with the oak spice and the creamy marzipan.

The Verdict

This is a bloody gorgeous Champagne that is worth every penny as a prestige cuvee in the $140-150 range. Truthfully, it blows many more expensive bottles out of the water.

However, I do suspect with the strong lingering oak notes–even after 10+ years in the bottle–that younger vintages (like their current 2011 release) will be more overtly oaky. While this 2007 was in a beautiful spot right now, this may be a Champagne worth focusing more on older vintages.

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Book Review — Drive Through Napa

The folks behind I Like This Grape were gracious enough to send me a copy of their latest book, Drive Through Napa: Your Ultimate Companion to Napa Valley’s Wines Regions.

Drive Through Napa cover

Photo courtesy of Naushad Huda, ILikeThisGrape.com

While working on a research project about the Stags Leap District, I had several opportunities to check out the eBook version written by Paul Hodgins and Naushad Huda with Kathy Lajvardi providing graphic design.

Below are a few thoughts about this modern primer on the most famous wine region in the United States.

The Background

Naushad Huda came up with the idea of Drive Through Napa after wandering,

“If Pharrell or Complex Magazine were to write a wine book, what would it look like? What would it sound like?”

Previously, Huda had founded the digital creative agency XTOPOLY that focused on interactive marketing. They worked on T-Mobile’s first mobile eCommerce site and created campaigns for several global companies including Vitamin Water, Nestle, Emirates Airlines, Nivea and Google. After merging XTOPOLY with the Finnish software company Vincit in 2017, Huda served as their Director of Strategy and Partnerships.

It was during this time that Huda, along with his wife Kathy Lajvardi, wanted to take a fresh approach to the traditional concept of a regional wine guide.  Lajvardi is an accomplished artist whose done graphics work for the Iron Man and Transformer movie trailers. Her photographs and paintings are also regularly featured in major art galleries.

Partnering with Paul Hodgins, a longtime writer for the Orange County Register and author of The Winemakers of Paso Robles with Julia Perez, the Drive Through Napa team embarked on their project with Millennials as a target audience.

The Book

With that Millennial-focus in mind, Drive Through Napa is designed to be easily digestible within a 1-hour read. One of the goals of the creative team was to avoid many of the cliches that they saw in other wine guides–such as endless photos of vineyards that all look the same. The main graphics in the book are maps and price-to-rating charts taken from data provided by Vivino.

Another focus of the book was to steer clear of being a “what to drink” guide. Instead, Drive Through Napa takes more of a high-level approach to exploring the 16 AVAs (or “neighborhoods”) in Napa with brief blurbs on climate, elevation, rainfall, soils as well as principal grapes and their characteristics.

SLD Screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Screenshot of winery listing for the Stags Leap AVA which also includes notable vineyards.

Each AVA section touches a bit on some of the history and key pioneers. They also include a listing of most all the wineries and many notable vineyards that call each region home.

A critical distinction between Drive Through Napa and other regional wine guides is that there is no contact information about these wineries. Nor are there any details about which wineries are open to visitors and if appointments are necessary.

I suspect part of the reason for this stems from the goal of not being a “what to drink” guide.

The book does include a note directing folks to check out each individual AVA associations’ website. However, they unfortunately don’t include what those websites are so folks will have to Google them.

In addition to the AVA chapters, the introduction of the book goes into some of the history of California wine and the role that Napa has played in bringing prominence to the state. It touches on the usual characters of the Catholic Church and early 19th-century pioneers but also devotes time to post-Prohibition figures like Brother Timothy Diener of the Christian Brothers and putting the “Mondavi Effect” into context.

Additionally, the intro chapters include a short glossary of essential wine terms used in the book and briefly touches on a few of the major California wine regions beyond Napa.

Things I really liked about the book.

Photo by Sarah Stierch. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 4.0.

Burgundian winemaker and Raymond Vineyards owner Jean-Charles Boisset is one of several subjects interviewed for Drive Through Napa.

The team behind Drive Through Napa certainly achieved their goal in creating an approachable primer. There is brilliant simplicity in the graphics and design that makes it easy to digest even when a fair amount of information stray into technical viticultural details.

You don’t need to be a “wine geek” to pick up this book and find it useful. But if you are a geek, there is most certainly something in it for you as well.

My favorite part of Drive Through Napa was the interviews they included in several AVA chapters. Here Hodgins and Co. asked very pointed questions such as  “What effect does your region have on the grapes that are grown here?”, “What will we notice when tasting a wine from your AVA?” and What do people misunderstand about your AVA?”

This is where Drive Through Napa moves beyond just being an easily digestible primer on Napa Valley towards something that wine students will find immensely useful. In particular, I would encourage folks working on blind tasting exams to pay careful attention to the answers about AVA characteristics and their influence on the resulting wines.

The interview subjects have some serious pedigree.

Richie Allen, Director of Viticulture and Winemaking for Rombauer Vineyards (Carneros)
Taylor Martin, Managing Partner of Italics Winegrowers (Coombsville)
Dave Guffy, Director of Winemaking for The Hess Collection (Mt. Veeder)
Lorenzo Trefethen of Trefethen Family Vineyards (Oak Knoll)
Celia Welch, consulting winemaker of Keever Vineyards and many others (Yountville)
Jon Emmerich, winemaker of Silverado Vineyards (Stags Leap District)
Jean Hoefliger, winemaker of Alpha Omega Winery (Atlas Peak)
Nicole Marchesi, winemaker of Far Niente Winery (Oakville)
Ivo Jeramaz, winemaker of Grgich Hills Estate (Rutherford)
Jean-Charles Boisset, owner of Raymond Vineyards and many others (St. Helena)
Stuart Smith, owner and winemaker of Smith-Madrone Vineyards (Spring Mountain)
Danielle Cyrot, winemaker of CADE Winery (Howell Mountain)
Dawnine and Bill Dyer, owners and winemakers of Dyer Vineyard (Diamond Mountain)
Bo Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena (Calistoga)
Andy Erickson, consulting winemaker and owner of Favia (Napa Valley)

Things that were “Meh.”

Diamond Mountain screenshot from Drive Through Napa

Good luck trying to find those $30-40 Diamond Mountain wines. My best guess is that these are white wines and roses.

I found the Price-To-Rating charts to be pretty useless. Using Vivino’s 1 to 5-star ratings, Drive Through Napa featured a bar chart for most of the AVAs. Here they highlighted what the average score was of wines at various price points.

Spoiler alert: In every AVA but Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain and Carneros, the wines with the highest ratings are the ones that cost $70+.

And really, the $70+ wines are still the highest rated segment even in those exceptions. They just happen to share the same rating as another price category.

I honestly don’t think a single person is going to be surprised at these charts.

I also do wish they did little more with the winery listings for each AVA. In particular, I think they should have found a way to signify which wineries had open tasting rooms, those that needed appointments and which ones that there is no way in hell you’re getting into.

I doubt including little icons (asterisk, smiley faces, etc.)  next to each name would have added much to reading time. Plus, even if they didn’t want to be a “What to Drink” guide, anyone that is buying this book is likely going to want to visit Napa. And they’re probably going to want to drink something.

Steering folks to the individual AVA associations is fine (though, again, would be helpful to have their web addresses in the book). But that one small change to the winery listing pages would have significantly enhanced the overall utility of Drive Through Napa.

The Verdict

While I was fortunate to receive my e-copy of Drive Through Napa as a sample, I would buy this book without question. For $18 paperback and $9.99 for Kindle, it more than delivers in content and usefulness.

In particular, I wished I had this book back when I worked at Total Wine and helped train their wine staff in my region. I would have recommended Drive Through Napa to every wine associate there, especially those studying for their California TWP certifications. Likewise, I can see this book being handy for sommeliers–especially with those interviews I mentioned above.

You can’t talk about American or Californian wines without talking about Napa. If you want to understand this famous wine region, Drive Through Napa is a great place to start.

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