All posts by Amber LeBeau

Smoke & Woke – Why this virtue signaling wine writer is tired of stupid heavy bottles

Oh dear, is she doing another rant about bottle weight?

Yes, she is doing another rant about bottle weight.

Photo by ookikioo. Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-2.0

But let’s start with some interesting news. Kiona Vineyards, one of the pioneers in Washington State and the Red Mountain AVA, announced that they will be bottling all their wines–from entry-level to reserve–in the same lighter-weight bottle.

Now I’ve raved about the savvy business sense of Kiona before (Winery Tasting Notes Done Right) and you can see a lot of thought went into the move. They’re staking a strong position in a premier wine region and making “World Class in Lighter Glass” a marketing focus.

I applaud their initiative and was equally thrilled to read Mike Veseth’s latest Wine Economist post detailing the moves of Alois Lageder in Alto Adige towards lighter bottles. Most impressive is that the design for their sleek 450g Burgundy-style Summa bottle has been left unpatented to encourage other wineries to adopt it.

But then I read the comments.

I originally typed out a reply to anonymous commentator ACV on Veseth’s site. However, WordPress’s bugginess kept giving me error messages. There was one particular quote (besides the virtue signaling wine writers) that captured my attention.

Yes, as you point out a premium wine needs a premium package. As one restauranteur in Decanter put it “With so many wines available, the strength of a good bottle and label is often a winning formula. Wine is quite a tactile product and people like nice thick glass; it has a feel of history and heritage.” — ACV

The Decanter quote our friend ACV is referencing is actually from Tatiana Fokina, CEO of Hedonism wine shop, and not a restauranteur. But the point about wine being a tactile product is well taken and this is what I wanted to share with ACV.

Yes, wine is a tactile product.

Which is why every time I’m at a wine shop and pick up an obnoxiously heavy bottle, I put it right back on the shelf.

It’s why I sigh every time I order a bottle at a restaurant, sight unseen, only to be disappointed when a fat ass bottle gets delivered. With every pour and every glass, I’m tactically reminded not to order or buy this wine again.

It’s not because I’m “woke,” it’s because I’m tired. Tired of bullshit.

Especially when that bullshit is being fed to me by a winery touting its “sustainability” while the blatant contradiction is right in my hand. That doesn’t say premium product to me. It doesn’t say heritage or history. Its says con. 

It says fraud.

If there was a practical reason for a heavier bottle (like to deal with the pressure of sparkling wine), I’d be fine. But there is none. Zilch.

It’s just pure smoke and mirrors meant to con consumers into thinking a wine is nicer than it is. It’s putting lipstick on a pig and even if that pig is gorgeously delicious, I’m tired of paying for that lipstick. And I pay for it in multiple ways.

I pay for it in higher pricing from the increased bottle & transportation cost.

I pay for it at home if, heaven forbid, I buy a case of the wine and have to lug it around. Even with empty bottles in the recycle bin, I’m paying for that wasteful extra weight.

And, yes, collectively we all pay for the added carbon footprint and environmental cost.

And for what? Smoke and mirrors. A head fake and ego fluff for a winery’s owner.

No, thank you. Wine is a tactile product but when I pick up an obnoxiously heavy bottle, it’s not my hands that hurt but my head. Because it doesn’t need to be this way.

And I’m tired of it.

Sure, there are consumers who feel differently.

Photo by Alexandr Frolov. Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-4.0

Just like there are consumers who like oaky, buttery Chardonnay and some who would rather drink New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. That’s life. That’s the wine business.

But I do encourage wineries to think about if heavier bottles are truly helping them. If consumers are truly wedded to them as much as they are to their favorite grape variety.

As Veseth noted in his post, producers like Jackson Family Wines have been steadily transitioning to lighter bottles and seeing very little pushback from consumers. So maybe you don’t need smoke and mirrors to convince consumers you have a good product?

Or perhaps you do. Perhaps your wine needs the lipstick.

But if you’re a winery that’s also trying to tout your sustainability cred, you should look for a more flattering shade.

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AVA Avalanche

Wine drinkers know California.
Wine lovers know Napa Valley.
Collectors know Oakville while wine professionals know Oak Knoll.

Kelly, one of my distributor reps when I was a Safeway wine steward, used to quote that axiom to me often. Usually, it would come in response to my grumbles about how boring the displays were with the planograms featuring the same old California and Columbia Valley wines. I was young in my wine career with a lot still to learn about the business of selling wine.

From WashingtonWine.org

One of the lessons I had yet to grasp was that no matter how passionate and enthusiastic I was, there are some consumers who just can’t be bothered with the geeky stuff. For them, geeky meant confusing and that was a nonstarter.

I thought about Kelly’s axiom while reading Sean Sullivan’s Wine Enthusiast report on Washington State’s newest AVAs–The Burn of the Columbia Valley and White Bluffs. It’s been two years since I had left Washington and this will be the 4th new AVA established in that time–bringing the total up to 18.

And while that’s still behind Oregon’s 21 AVAs and a far cry from the 141 or so in California, I can’t help but wonder if the only worth of these new AVAs is as fodder for flashcards.

Are wine drinkers really going to care?

Pour one out for the website designers of online retailers trying to figure out how to make the Search function less beastly and confusing for consumers.


Now, don’t get me wrong. I get terroir and love digging into the nitty-gritty details that make all these AVAs unique. But I’m a geek, the kind that would add Chiles and Wild Horse Valleys to Kelly’s axiom.

However, I reflect such a small percentage of consumers that shop in specialist wine shops, much less the supermarkets that make up the bulk of wine sales.

Yes, there is the expectation that with higher wine education (those collectors who know Oakville), you get a higher spend. I can empathize with wineries who hope that more defined sub-AVAs give them unique selling points to appeal to those consumers.

But can you really bank on that Oakville guy wanting to learn the distinctions between Howell Mountain, Snipes Mountain, Spring Mountain, Moon Mountain, Candy Mountain, Sonoma Mountain, Ben Lomond Mountain, York Mountain, Red Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Bell Mountain and all the other AVAs home to wineries trying to capture some of his wallet?

The sum of the many, many parts doesn’t always help the whole.

Sullivan, noting the potential for confusion, highlights in his article that some producers feel that more AVAs may “…also increase awareness of Washington wine more generally.” I disagree and counter by asking you to look at my paragraph above with the many mountain AVAs. How many of those can you peg as being from Washington State? (Hint: There are 3)

Chances are, you fall into the Wine Professional-Wine Geek range. Now think how likely anyone in the wine drinker-lover-collector triumvirate will know?

More importantly, how many do you think would care enough to know that a __________ Mountain AVA wine is from Washington State?

Now, of course, just because an AVA exists, doesn’t mean it has to show up on a label.

This is another point that Sullivan makes noting that many Washington wineries will likely continue to use the broad Columbia Valley designation on their labels. Beyond giving more flexibility for blending, it’s also much more marketable and well known.

Conjunction junction but an increasingly necessary function.


Likewise, regions like Napa Valley and Sonoma County have long used conjunctive labeling–with the broader region like Napa or Sonoma appearing along with the smaller AVAs. That’s smart business and I don’t doubt that at some point in the future, both Washington and Oregon adopt similar approaches.

But that still begs the question–who benefits from all these AVAs? It’s certainly not the vast majority of consumers for whom the massive wall of wine is only getting more mountainous.

Is it the growers who could potentially get more money for their grapes from a smaller AVA? Perhaps.

Is it the wineries with a unique selling point? Maybe. But if you end up having to side strap a larger, more well-known AVA to help spread awareness, is that selling point really that unique?

It’s hard to see who really benefits from the avalanche of AVAs. But all I know is, I’ve got to update my flashcards.

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Please Do Not Let “Wine Racism” (over a grape!) Become a Thing

Let’s nip something in the bud right now. Whether you want to call it varietism or whatever, do not be the jerk who wants to equate people disliking a grape with being “…the enological equivalent of a wine racist.”

Pinotage by Doris Schneider, Julius Kühn-Institut (JKI), Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants, Institute for Grapevine Breeding Geilweilerhof - 76833 Siebeldingen, GERMANY

Poor Pinotage.
Photo by Doris Schneider, Julius Kühn-Institut (JKI), Wikimedia Commons

Seriously! No! Just…wow.

I really can’t fathom what was going through the mind of Californian & South African wine producer Dave Jefferson when he decided to blow that dog whistle in his spat with Wall Street Journal wine writer Lettie Teague.

Why, might you ask, is a privileged white man “hypothesizing” over whether an almost equally privileged white woman is possibly a “wine racist?”

Is it because of how Ms. Teague treats people of color? Is it because of her reviews of minority-owned wineries? Oh no. No, no, no.

It’s because she doesn’t like Pinotage.

A freaking grape!

https://web.archive.org/web/20210602140732/https://news.wine.co.za/News.aspx?NEWSID=37874&CLIENTID=&SPOTLIGHTID=

Note: the editors have since changed the wording to “wine bigot” which, as any LGBT person will tell you, isn’t much better.


You can try to work through Jefferson’s whole tirade against Teague, bizarrely published by Wine.co.za, but it won’t make any more sense. Though Denzel Washington will make an out-of-the-blue cameo just to add some more WTF-ery.

Alas, Jefferson’s debased defense of Pinotage’s honor isn’t the first and, fretfully, won’t be the last appropriation of the seriousness of racism for the silliness of being offended at what other people like or don’t like to drink. Last month, during the marketing holidays of Sauvignon Blanc Day and Chardonnay Day, social media spats erupted over whether distaste for New Zealand Sauvignon blanc or oaky, buttery Chardonnay were examples of “varietism.”

Give me a break!

I know your reaction is probably to roll your eyes and wave away such nonsense. I get it; mine was too. But there is a real risk in letting this continue unchecked. When we anthropomorphize the “struggles” of wine grapes with the language of racism and bigotry, we’re not just creating a false equivalency–we’re diluting it.

We’re desensitizing the sting and meaning of the words racism, racist, bigot and bigotry. These words are supposed to hit hard because the pain inflicted by racism and bigotry hits harder. And for an industry still reckoning with its diversity issues, we can not let this dilution slip into our language.

Varietism isn’t a thing.

Being “racist” or “bigot” because you don’t like a grape isn’t a thing.

But being a jerk who dog whistles about it certainly is a thing.

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Judgment of Today

Forty-five years ago today, the Judgment of Paris happened. I’m sure we’ll see lots of missives commemorating the occasion, all the more bittersweet with the recent passing of Steven Spurrier back in March.

Judgement of Paris SLWC

While I’ll toast the success of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Chateau Montelena, I have to confess that, even as a wine geek, the glow of that achievement is waning for me a bit.

Sure, it’s cool when you first hear about it with American pride and bottles in the Smithsonian. And that Alan Rickman movie certainly was fun. But after that, then what?

What does the Judgment of Paris mean for today’s wine drinkers?

Why should we care about the judgment of history in the wines we drink today?

The Inertia of Nostalgia

At its best, wine stimulates emotions. However, nostalgia is a mellow emotion, one that lulls you in place. It’s wistful and pleasant. And that’s nice…for a moment.

But it’s not incitement. It doesn’t pull you towards something more than simply pleasant. When we look back at the success of the Judgment of Paris, what reasons do we have to look forward? That’s one of the questions I keep coming back to as I work on a project on the Stags Leap District with author Kenneth Friedenreich.

As a millennial, born years after the Judgment of Paris, what pull do the wines of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars have for me today? What’s going to keep me excited and eager to try them tomorrow?

Personality and Presence

Almost every premium brand in the world sells itself on the quality of its wines and their most blessed terroirs. It’s the same old story on every back label and winery website. Now, of course, the ones like SLWC that are lucky enough to have the pedigree of history tout that too. But, as I describe above, these appeals to static, stationary emotions like nostalgia have a short shelf life. By itself, it’s simply not enough.

Instead, it is people, not history, that drive the verve and vivacity of a brand. On this blog, I always hype that the people behind a label are the one truly unique selling point of every wine brand. However, this point is often sadly underutilized and hidden away behind boring bottle shots.

It’s a particular Achilles’ heel of many brands on social media such as SLWC’s parent company Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, a frequent provocateur of bottle porn. So I’ll fully admit to being quite surprised at how seriously good SLWC’s Instagram Lives are.

Headed by winemaker Marcus Notaro, with appearances by vineyard manager Kirk Grace, the entire series is well worth watching.

They’re chockful of geeky insights about what happens in the vineyards and winemaking. However, what’s most enticing is that each one shows shades of Notaro’s personality and his infectious passion for what he does.

The success of these IG Lives (and other SLWC virtual tastings that I’ve found) is that they make you want to drink with Marcus, and, therefore, want to drink SLWC. It encourages you to see the brand in a different light with little tidbits like Notaro explaining his preference for blending early with a nod to his Italian heritage and how the “sauce always tastes better the next day.

Having those personable nuggets rolling around the brain makes approaching even their larger production wines like the Karia Chardonnay more intriguing as you see the wine through the winemaker’s eyes–tasting the different flavors in the sauce from the warm volcanic soils of Atlas Peak, the fruitful loams of Oak Knoll to the cool perfume from Coombsville and Carneros.

A Tale of Two Vineyards

Wines poured at the Estate Tasting

The Estate Flight in March 2019. While these were tasted as a complimentary press tasting, I would gladly pay $50 to enjoy the experience again.

There aren’t many good deals in Napa–especially when it comes to tasting room fees. But one that is absolutely well worth your time and money is the $50 per person Estate Collection Tasting flight.

Along with the Arcadia Chardonnay ($65 a bottle) and headliner Cask 23 ($305), the showstopper is comparing side-by-side the Fay ($150) and SLV ($195) vineyards.

Separated only by a small drainage creek, the stark difference between these two Cabs is eye-opening on a Burgundian scale.  Of course, Napa has tons of different terroirs.  With a vast array of soil types and exposures from two very different mountain ranges flanking it and the spine of the Napa River running through, how could it not?

But, dang, if it’s not always hard to see those differences–especially with Cabernet. With so much of Napa “dialed in” with perfect recipes crafted by a handful of well-known viticulturists and consulting winemakers, can you blame consumers for getting lost in a sea of sameness?

Sure, folks who live and breathe Napa can likely cut through the weeds to find those distinctions.

But for those of us who don’t drink $100+ Napa Cabs regularly, the brush is still broad. And I’m not saying that Burgundy is better (especially when it comes to pricing). However, there’s a lightning strike moment when you try even basic Burgundies from the same producer’s neighboring lots and realize “Holy Cow. These do taste different…” That’s not a moment that happens often in Napa–at least not at an attainable price point.

But it is a moment that happens here with the silky perfumed, blue & red fruit elegance of the Fay segueing into the brooding black fruit power and chocolate dustiness of the SLV. I get why other commentators often compare the Fay to Margaux and SLV to Pauillac. But, continuing my Burgundy theme, I would invoke tasting a Volnay next to Gevrey-Chambertin. But instead of being separated by miles, it’s separated by a creek.  And that is freaking cool!

If you look at the specs, the wines are treated fairly similar each vintage. So some of that difference is terroir between the alluvial Fay and volcanic SLV vineyards. However, there’s also a quirk of personality at play here in how Warren Winiarski wrote the next chapter of the legendary Fay Vineyard when he acquired it in 1986.

As Notaro and Grace explain below in another IG Live, Winiarski took a philosophical approach in replanting the site into separate experimental blocks of different clones, rootstocks, vine density and trellising. In an era of homogeny, the “bug” of miscellany is a fascinating feature.

The Velocity of Incitement

There’s a lot to celebrate today as an American wine lover. The Judgment of Paris did quite a bit to put California and Napa Valley on the global wine map. Though it is a fair bet that the US wine industry would have gotten there anyway, especially with the pioneering work of folks like Robert Mondavi and Martin Ray paving the way. But the events 45 years ago undoubtedly shortened that curve.

However, that was the judgment of yesterday, with most of those bottles long since consumed and sent to museums. The relevance of the Judgment of Paris today is how wineries like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars approach those accolades. Do they take those slaps on the back and rest on the laurels of nostalgia? Or do they use it as a shove to keep delivering something exciting, inviting you to seek it out?

From the Judgment of Today, it looks to be the latter.

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A Round Up of Talks on Virtual Wine Events and More

We’ve zoomed past the 1 year anniversary of VirtualWineEvents.com and I couldn’t be more thrilled with the site’s success. We’ve featured over 12,000 virtual tastings, webinars, IG Lives and other online wine events–reaching a global audience from over 70 countries. Plus, our video search library continues to grow. There are nearly 6000 links to recordings of online wine events, allowing them to continue reaching consumers long after the event has ended.

I’ll share more data and insights in future posts but I wanted to highlight some talks that I’ve had in the last few months.

Aussie Wine Chat E24: A Deep Technical Dive into VirtualWineEvents.com Data with Amber LeBeau

What days of the week are the best times to hold an online event? What search terms are users looking for when searching VWE for an online event to attend?

Here’s the link to the full podcast recording where we go more in-depth about the answers to those questions. Below I’ll post the data slides I reference in both this interview and in my Outshinery presentation.

We actually did a double episode with the first part talking about my experiences selling Australian wines in the US that you can check out here.

Outshinery: How to plan a virtual wine event that works

Just follow the link to get the full recording. Here I’m joined by Hardy Wallace of Dirty & Rowdy to talk about the “Secret Sauce” to great online events.

This was a follow-up to an earlier Outshinery’s On The Spot from July where I highlighted some great examples of winery events.

Outshinery’s On The Spot 03 from Outshinery on Vimeo.

Italian Wine Podcast – Ep. 551 Amber LeBeau | Voices

In my interview with Rebecca Lawrence of IWP, we spend a bit of time talking about my background–including lessons learned from working in the retail trenches in the US and writing a good chunk of the wine article on Wikipedia–as well as industry issues that I cover on this blog. But, of course, we touch a bit on virtual wine events as well.

The Jolly Cellar Master – #2: Amber LeBeau And How To Do Online Wine Events

#2: Amber LeBeau and How to do Online Wine Events

Link to full podcast interview here.

Data Slides

Note: This data was originally pulled for the February 24th Outshinery event. I’ll post updated numbers in the next coming weeks.




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Room to Breathe

Oh nelly! I just finished (hopefully, maybe, dear god please…) the last of my WSET Diploma exams with two days of hand cramps and blind tasting. I won’t know for three months or so if I passed but after more than a year of this ordeal consuming my life, I just want to move on.

Photo by Uoaei1 Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0

Photo by Uoaei1 Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0

In future posts, I’ll share more thoughts about going through the WSET Diploma process and the value of wine certifications in general. The most concerning thing for me is how much that studying for this D3 Wines of the World exam has completely sapped the joy of wine from my life. Of course, there was good mixed with the bad. I do feel that my grasp of wine has grown considerably–which is a huge plus.

But, right now, I’m wondering if it was worth it? Was all that stress, strain, time and expense really worth it? I must confess that there is a tiny part of me worried about how much of myself, and my passion, I lost doing this. Like the folks recovering from COVID who haven’t quite gotten back their sense of smell, is there a risk of long-haul “Fuck this Shit”?

So I’m looking forward to getting back in the saddle writing about the things that make me love wine.

I’m looking forward to having conversations, rather than interrogations, with what’s in the glass. I want to listen to what the wine has to say rather than try to suss out every detail and minutiae.

Is this fruit ripe or just barely underripe? What does this say about the climate?
Are these green notes herbal from cooling influences? Pyrazines from the variety & canopy shading? Stems from whole cluster? Uneven ripeness?
How much is the residual sugar impacting my sense of acidity, and vice versa?
Are these tannins firm, fine-grain, grippy, chalky, around the gums, on my tongue, roof of the mouth?

AAAARRRGGGHHHH!

That was my world with every glass this past year. So, yeah, there’s a bit of PTSD from this whole process that I’m working through. But I wanted to drop this note to give folks an idea of what’s to come.

I’ll still be writing about wine industry stuff but you’ll see more geeky writing as I try to reclaim my joy. My 60 Second Wine Reviews will be back with a focus on the wines that bring pleasure and those intriguing conversations I crave.

Because after this year, compounded by COVID, that’s what I really need right now.

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One-Click Drinking

I’ll be honest. The ongoing pandemic and isolation have really done a number on me. It’s incredible how the world feels so jumbled and out of place while also static and frozen at the same time. It’s been tough working up the urge to write, so I’ve spent my time more as a consumer rather than commentator.

Mac Forbes Pinot noir

But that tour of just making due, day by day, has ushered in an appreciation for how screwcaps so brilliantly encapsulate the mood and needs of wine consumers right now. Now this isn’t going to be a post extolling the virtues of screwcap versus corks. But rather I want to give you a little microcosm on motivation and how that impacts the consumer buying journey.

Plus, as the wine industry continues to dig itself out of the rubble of the pre-digital Stone Age, it’s worth wondering how often we “taint” the process in various ways.

Because, frankly, we’re all tired right now.

Mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Even physically. Sure, some folks are handling things better than others but it may be that they’re just better at hiding it. And this sense of tiredness impacts everything.

Even when we initially have the impetus to do something, it’s easy to get derailed. Anything that gives a modicum of stress can be enough to sap the desire to continue whatever journey you started, whether that be the buying journey to discover a new bottle or even the start of the re-buying journey that begins at the consumer’s home staring at their wine rack.

So many times this past year, I’ve gone to that rack, searching for something to drink only to feel the pangs and hesitations of “Ugh, do I really want to deal with this?”

Do I really want to muck around digging out the corkscrew? Do I want to fuss with the foil or fight with some blasted wax capsule that only makes me angry that I bought this wine in the first place? Is it worth the time or effort to enjoy this bottle of wine?

Often, the answer is yes because I’m an “engaged enthusiast.” But sometimes the answer is, indeed, No.

No, it’s not worth it.  And if that is the case with someone who is in the minority of consumers that are engaged enthusiasts, how often do you think “Nah, it’s not worth it.” comes up for the majority who are just looking for something to drink?

How often do they look at their wine rack and think it’s not worth the time and effort to enjoy a bottle of wine?

Of course, this goes far beyond packaging.

wax capsule

Seriously though, fuck wax capsules.
Even with the “good” wax that you can drill through with a corkscrew with little mess, they’re still a colossal pain if you want to use a Coravin for just a single glass.

We do so many things as an industry to keep piling on the effort we expect consumers to endure to enjoy our products. How much thinking do you want to do at that wine rack while picking out a bottle? Which pairing will work? Do I need to decant this? Is this wine ready to drink? Will this be sweet? Tart? Tannic? Earthy? What grape is even in this bottle?

Sometimes you don’t want to do any of that. You don’t want to think. You don’t want to work.

All you want in this godforsaken crazy world is to simply enjoy a glass of wine.

That is the intent. That is the desire. Now, how many obstacles are you willing to deal with to get to that goal? In this day and age, not many.

Sometimes, all you want is just One-Click Drinking.

Copper Crew Rose

Perhaps this is another reason why canned wine is taking off? Less fuss and thinking, more fun and drinking.


Last night, the perfect antidote to that “Do I really want to deal with this?” mood was a bottle of 2019 Mac Forbes Yarra Valley Pinot noir sealed under a screw cap. I was alright with the thinking part of the equation, but I really didn’t want to mess around with finding a corkscrew. Pure, simple laziness but damn if that wasn’t the exact place I was in.

I didn’t care about the romance or traditional “pop” of a cork. I wanted the romance of less fuss and nonsense in my life. Give me the swift motion of a simple click–a smooth consumer journey from bottle to glass. No interruptions. No gadgets. Just me, my intent, my desire, and the easy achievement of that goal.

Why can’t everything in wine be as easy as screwcaps?

At every step of the consumer journey, there will be multiple opportunities for that “Ugh, is this worth it?” to pop up. It’s the “cork taint” of sales–able to spoil an entire basket with a single drop. And it’s both systemic and endemic. While you can’t always account for everything going on in a consumer’s head, there are still many things under a winery’s control–especially at the beginning of the buying process with DtC sales. From poorly designed and hard to navigate websites, impersonal and joyless shopping experiences, to even unexpectedly high shipping costs–you want to limit as many of those hiccups as you can.

You want the buying experience to be as smooth and simple as opening a screwcap wine. No need to jump through hoops. No hesitation arising while digging around to find things–whether that be a particular wine on your site, shipping details, or a corkscrew. Don’t make consumers have to cut through the foil of multiple clicks and pages to get to their end goal–that glass of wine. That only increases the chance of bugs & site errors nicking their fingertips like a bad foil cut.

The one thought I want you to leave with is to remember this time that we’re living in now. Be mindful of the scars and habits that are being engrained. People may still want your product. They may still desire it and initially seek it out.

But there’s always going to be opportunities for that “Ugh, is this worth it?” cork taint to seep in. Identify those trouble spots and put a screw cap on them.

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Ending the Year with a (Wine) Bitch

In a year of so many surprises and scandals in the wine industry, maybe I shouldn’t be shocked to see it end with a brand trying to torch any goodwill or bridges it had left. That’s 2020 for you.

So let’s give a toast to The Wine Show for putting on a masterclass in crisis management gone awry.

Now I don’t really want to rehash the gory details of the Great Wine Bitch Saga of 2020.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons in the Public Domain.
But I know that many Americans (the bulk of my readership) aren’t familiar with the scandal that roiled the UK wine scene earlier this year. So I will point you to a couple useful summaries published on Tim Atkin’s site from Anne Burchett and Peter Pharos. Vinka Danitza of Bottled Bliss first broke the story on her site with a post taken down after threats of legal action. On Power and Privilege, her follow-up post, gives a good sense of the fall out–even if the details were muzzled.

Finally, we have the words of the Wine Bitch himself, Joe Fattorini, in the public apology he posted.

So how did I get dragged into this mess? Oh lordy! Read on.

I’ve been a fan of The Wine Show for quite some time. I enjoyed watching clips and TWS @ Home series on YouTube until I moved to a country where my Amazon Prime account finally let me watch the full shows. I was also a fan of Joe Fattorini, one of the first influential wine figures on Twitter that I regularly interacted with. I’ll admit that I was quite tickled and even fan-girly when I got the chance to work with him earlier this year (Pre-Wine Bitch) on a couple panels for ARENI Global’s Fine Minds 4 Fine Wines conference.

I found Joe to be quite charming, insightful and, to me at least, a gentleman and generous mentor. So when the Wine Bitch scandal broke out, I was disappointed and disgusted at seeing this side of him. My heart ached for the women (many of whom I follow on social media and highly respect) he slandered. Not only did these women feel the sharp sting of his words, but they had to endure these wounds in public with their names attached to Joe’s vile depictions of them.

So I thoroughly supported the voices that called him to task–and I still do.

But one area where I wasn’t critical was with The Wine Show continuing with Joe Fattorini. And I’ll tell you my reasons.

I firmly believe that to enact change, we must always push for change–pushing for justice, pushing for accountability (even with ourselves). However, that change will never happen unless we also give those offending parties a chance to show their growth.

The gravest ill of “Cancel Culture” is that it wants the scorched earth of accountability to be the endgame. Yet a lesson that those of us in the wine industry know all too well is that the wake of devastation following a scorching wildfire is not a period. It’s an ellipsis.

It’s a new chapter with fertile earth that has the potential to become…something. Something new, something different and, hopefully, something better.

Now, of course, there’s a chance that all that emerges are weeds and thorns.

Old habits with no contrition nor growth. But we’ll never know if all we do is keep lighting matches.

Those of us who strive to hold people like Joe Fattorini accountable, and push them to be better, need to allow them a chance to do just that. To grow and show that growth. There is no victory (moral or otherwise) in banishing them to live like a troll in a cave—just loss.

In a private conversation, which she’s given me permission to share, diversity consultant Kirsten MacLeod perfectly sums up this point and the opportunity that The Wine Show and Joe Fattorini have in front of them.

To help move the Diversity and Inclusion dial forward, there is a need for active allies in the form of white middle-age men, often occupying positions of influence and power in the industry. These advocates with a voice, sitting at the decision-making table, need to be onboard to make change, not ignored or constantly berated.

— Kirsten MacLeod (@TheKirstenMac)

We live in a world that is still profoundly influenced by Salty Old White Men. While we should never overlook or excuse away their misbehavior, if there is a chance that in the fertile earth following a scorched “canceling” that wisdom earned and lessons learned produce a better ally, then we need to see if that’s the case.

So, like many other industry folks & viewers of The Wine Show, I was watching.

Watching to see how this next chapter would proceed. How will they address this? What overtures and amends would they offer to the women and other figures hurt by Joe’s actions?

With such an immense platform in the UK and growing global reach through YouTube and streaming services like Amazon Prime & Hulu, think of the good they could do. Think of the spotlight they could shine on issues of sexism in the wine industry and those faced by POC and other underrepresented communities.

Even if the Wine Bitch missives were not published under The Wine Show banner, they’re inextricably linked now to Joe’s name and persona. So a platform like The Wine Show, which aims to not only profit from but project that persona, is inextricably linked as well. It’s unavoidable and inescapable. That is why The Wine Show needs to step up to the task. They owe that to their viewers–viewers like me who were willing to give them and Joe another chance.

But, sadly, it doesn’t look like The Wine Show wants to go down that path.

Instead, they seem to want to burn bridges and keep the embers of the Wine Bitch controversy alive.

The latest gasoline pitch came a couple of days ago when a wine writer based in Italy, Sarah May (@naturalwinerome), noted that both The Wine Show and Joe Fattorini were blocking voices that had been critical of them during the Wine Bitch saga.

While I didn’t take issue with the private account of a public person blocking people, I was quite bewildered as to why a business account like The Wine Show would think this was a great idea. What could they possibly gain beyond scoring petty points? Was that something worth stirring up more animosity towards your brand?

Sarah May wasn’t the only one.  And while I wasn’t blocked at that moment, I woke up this morning to find that that tweet above had earned me my own kiss of derision.

(Note: Hours later, after the outcry, I was no longer blocked by the TWS account. Though many others still are. We’ll see if any of that changes.)

That’s one hell of a message to send to your viewers.

That’s a message that says, “No, we don’t care what our viewers think.”
No, we’re not going to learn from mistakes–even mistakes originally made by someone else. No, we’re not going to use the power we have–the power that viewers like you give us–to make a meaningful difference.

Even more bizarrely, for a business, this is a message that says, “We want more controversy.”
We want to pull the plug on any goodwill that might still be in the reservoir. We want to alienate voices before they even get a chance to speak in our favor.

And it is a masterclass in burning your brand.

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Three Lessons Learned After 7 Months of Virtual Wine Events

Today marks the 7 month anniversary since the launch of VirtualWineEvents.com. Despite still being a very young site, I’ve been thrilled with its growth. We’ve had more than 7400 events featured with over 5700 unique site visitors. Additionally, more than 400 folks have created accounts to submit events.

Image by Pixabay

But the most exciting part is seeing the data from the site about what kind of virtual events consumers are seeking. It’s one thing to have anecdotes, but the hard numbers about what people are actually clicking on are deeply fascinating.

So today I’m going to share some of these insights gleaned from seven months of data from VirtualWineEvents.com. As I said when I first launched VWE, my goal has always been for this site to be a tool for the wine industry to help reach consumers. It’s why I have no interest in monetizing the site with things like sponsored listings or ads. I want to keep the richness of organic feedback–something that anyone can see, anytime, in things like the Trending Events and Trending Video Replays sections.

Though first, some caveats.

One, the data is deliberately very limited to protect the privacy of users. Not only do we respect GDPR on the site, but I have no interest in demographic details of users or what they do elsewhere. It’s only what they do on the site–which listings they interact with–that I care about. So if you want details about age, gender, income brackets or other interests, then you’re not going to find it here. The only data is from people who intentionally allow cookies and even that is limited to just very general details like location. Thus, the data below reflects the actions of only about half the nearly 6000 users of VWE.

Finally, the current audience for VirtualWineEvents.com is significantly biased towards the US.

After that, a good segment of our audience comes from the UK and South Africa and then Australia, Canada and India. While we’ve had visitors from over 70 countries (including growing traffic from New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, France, Netherlands, Brazil and Sweden), the US’s influence will still be highly reflected in these numbers.

In future posts, I’ll dive deeper into buzz ratings–highlighting events that have seen the most interaction on the site. In October, I did a lengthy Twitter thread about the Top 10 most popular listings ever featured on VWE. Since then, that Top 10 has shaken up a bit as video replays become an even more significant buzz generator.

But now, let’s get to the three biggest insights that have emerged about virtual wine events.

Lesson 1 – When is the best time to host virtual events?

Answer – It depends.

Overall, the time slot that has seen the highest number of pure interactions is 19:00 GMT (2 pm EST, 11 am PST). This is prime time for the UK, Central Europe (8 pm) and South Africa (9 pm). It also overlaps with viable US times (especially on the weekends). But I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is the most popular time slot. While that time has had the greatest cumulative number of interactions (clicks, bookmarking, calendar adds, etc.), users only interact with an average of 2.4 events that are scheduled to start in that time slot.

Instead, the overwhelming leader in terms of average event interactions is 0:00 GMT–midnight in London but entering prime time for the US from 7 pm East Coast to 4 pm Pacific. Users interact with an average of 6.1 events during this time slot, followed by 23:00 GMT (average 4.5 interactions) and 22:00 GMT. Again, significant US-bias at play here. Below I have a chart of each time slot ranked by the average interactions they see from users. In blue, I’ve highlighted the “prime time” hours of 5 pm to 9 pm (4:30 to 9:30 pm in ACST and India) when most events are held.

Engagement times on VWE by interaction

AUS Central is ACST, which includes South Australia (Adelaide, Barossa Valley, etc.)

Another time slot that jumped out to me was 17:00 GMT (Noon EST, 9 am PST) when many trade webinars are held. Many individual events in this time slot have generated a fair amount of buzz ratings (often through video replays), though overall it’s not a big hour. But the near-even distribution between US and UK users does seem to bear out the value of these times for industry events.

17:00 GMT interaction

Takeaways:

Be mindful of your audience and err towards the prime time hours when you can. (Though I’m curious about that 8 pm drop in the West Coast US. Dinner time conflicts?) This is particularly true if you’re doing an event that involves tasting. Because let’s face it, not many folks want to drink wine at 9 am. But for more educational and informative events, the 17:00 to 19:00 GMT slots make a lot of sense to maximize overlap with engage audiences in Europe, South Africa & the US.

Lesson 2 – Virtual Tastings or Webinars? What is more popular?

To some degree, this is a question of who the audience for virtual wine events really is. Is it “regular” consumers who tend to gravitate towards tastings? Or is it more industry folks and highly engaged “winos” who tend to look for more educational events?

On VWE, I allow submitters to self-categorize their events as Virtual Tastings, Webinars, Social Events, IG Lives and Other. I leave the definition of the event up to them, but in the FAQ section, I offer this guidance:

Virtual Tastings– Events focused on specific wines to be tasted, usually with an expectation that participants have pre-purchased the wines ahead of the event.

Webinars– Events focused on a particular topic (such as Old Vine Zinfandel or the Wines of Rioja) that may include tasting specific wines but are structured to where participants don’t necessarily need to have those exact wines in order to enjoy the event. This would also include master classes and other educational events.

Social Events– This is a broad category that includes trivia, quizzes and other wine games, virtual happy hours, yoga, painting and cooking classes, book clubs, Twitter chats, movie viewing parties, etc.

Instagram Live– Due to the growing popularity of these events, we’ve created a separate category to highlight them. IG Lives often incorporate elements of Virtual Tastings, Webinars and Social Events with the common link being the convenience of being able to easily drop in on them while they’re happening.

While the popularity of Social Events & IG Lives ebb and flow (both were way more popular during lockdowns but still have some legs in the US), virtual tastings and webinars have shown remarkable staying power. And it’s pretty darn even between the two.

Virtual Tasting Engagement
webinar engagements

Takeaways:

Obviously, we’ll need to keep watching these numbers whenever things hopefully, someday get back to “normal.” While it’s easy to envision webinars still going strong post-COVID, I know many folks have been skeptical about the long term viability of virtual tastings. I don’t think we can pull any concrete takeaways from the data just yet. However, after seven months, there’s enough here to suggest that there will be some sustained interest in VTs.

Lesson 3 – Free or Paid events?

Outside of the “When should I hold my event?” question, the topic of whether an online event should have the cost of wine included upfront or be a free BYOB (bring your own bottle) event is one of the most frequent queries I get. This was the subject of another lengthy Twitter thread I did last month while looking at the data for the top 100 events based on buzz ranking.

That was more back of the envelope extrapolating. But looking at the hard data, events categorized as “Free” do get significantly more engagement. The average user engages with 3.6 free events compared to 2.3 engagements with all other events. However, as I noted in the Twitter thread, it does seem like that trend is changing with more consumers having their interest piqued by paid events.

Free events on VWE

Note: If an event lists a cost range like $0-20, it is not categorized as a “Free” event.

From Impulse to Intent.

In the Twitter thread, I shared my suspicion that one of the drivers of this change is that the mindset of consumers looking for online wine events seems to be shifting. At the beginning of the year, with the COVID pandemic and lockdowns freshly sprung upon us, folks were looking for an escape, for entertainment. That search for distraction played well with the novelty of virtual tasting and easy to consume options like IG Lives.

But as we settle into our new normal with (hopefully) more entertainment options opening up, wine consumers aren’t necessarily looking for distractions anymore. Instead, the ones who continue to seek out virtual events are looking for particular things. It’s more active engagement instead of passive consumption. We’re moving from a mindset of impulse (Hmm, is there anything to do tonight?) towards one of intent (I want to do ________). And consumers are usually more willing to pay for something that fits what they are explicitly seeking versus what strikes them on a whim.

This relates to another trend I see on the site.

The average user is spending a lot more time on VirtualWineEvents.com, clicking and engaging with listings. Right now, the average engagement is 3 minutes and 6 seconds. But compare the numbers from our first two months (May & June) with those of the past two (October & November).

May June engagement time

Oct Nov engagement time

Not only is the overall average engagement time higher but the average per session is also nearly a full minute longer (1m 06s to 1m 53s). And it’s not because there are more events to look through each calendar day. On the contrary, May and June were the two most prolific months with nearly 2600 events. At the other end, October and November only featured around 1200 events.

But even though the number of events has waned since the pandemic-induced frenzy of virtual tastings, the overall quality of events has improved. And accordingly, the seriousness and selectiveness of the consumers looking for these events have risen in response.

So what comes next?

While there was a lull in events during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, activity has definitely picked up in the winter. It surprised me to see already 412 events submitted for December and another 91 for January. Typically that number slowly builds throughout a month as events get submitted on average 3 to 7 days before they happen. Quite a few only get submitted the day of or day before.

I hope this trend is pointing towards hosts being more proactive in scheduling events with enough time to promote them.  We really need to move beyond a “fly by the pants” mentality of throwing things together and just hoping people show up. Allowing more time to promote gives events a chance to build buzz and reach more consumers. As people move from what’s happening now? to actively searching for events that they want to attend, you want to show up in that search even if your event is still several days or weeks away.

And you want them to find you after the fact as well.
Add past event

Even if your event wasn’t originally featured on VWE, you can still add a video replay link.

I can’t overstate the value of video replays–especially webinars and winemaker events. That archive of quality content is truly the future of virtual wine events and where folks can find their most significant ROI. This will be another area that I’ll explore more in future posts as I keenly keep an eye on what’s popping up on the Trending Replay section.

Another thing I’m working on is categorizing the buzz rating data by keywords in their descriptions to compare events. I want to see how events with things like cooking class, blind tasting, cheese pairing, etc., fare in generating engagement. Which grape varieties or wine regions generate the most buzz? Does featuring a well-known moderator, Master of Wine or Master Sommelier help set some events apart? Tons of great stuff to sink my teeth into.

Of course, folks are welcome to ping me (amber@spitbucket.net) anytime about virtual events. As I said above, my goal for VWE is to be a tool for the wine industry. So if there are ways that this data can help wineries, wine shops, restaurants, educators and influencers better reach consumers, I’ll do my best to share it freely.

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An Apology to the Pretty Influencer on Instagram

I’m sure you don’t know me and probably will never read this. I don’t follow you because I never bothered to learn your IG handle and I doubt we share the same social media circles. But we once shared space together attending the same Wine Spectator Grand Tour at the Mirage Hotel back in 2017.

Selfie image by https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49829170

Image by By Anders Lejczak – CC BY 2.0

You were gorgeous. Wavy brown hair falling below your shoulders and an emerald green top which matched your eyes. Slender tan legs peeking out from a modestly short dress skirt and heels. Dangly gold earrings that you would repeatedly hit as you brushed your hair back to bend down towards the spit bucket. I admit you were a sight to behold.

And I hated you for that.

I remember the first table that we “bumped” into each other. It was a Super Tuscan producer that I was eager to try and wanted to ask questions about the blend. But the charming Italian man at the table only wanted to speak to you, barely looking my way to give me a splash. It wasn’t long before I was butted out by other attendees–men, of course–who similarly wanted a taste and to ask the pretty lady next to them what she thought of the wine as well.

It was at a California Pinot producer’s table that I overheard you say that you were an influencer, prompting an eye roll behind your back.

Dear god, she’s actually using the term influencer!

The winery rep was eager to get your card and got out his phone to make sure that he followed you at that very moment. When I finally worked up the nerve to nudge my way towards the table for a pour, I didn’t bother staying to ask any questions. The rep wasn’t going to give me any time. After all, we were standing in the presence of an influencer!

Similar scenes would play out at other tables that we kept bumping into. There were over 200 exhibits but damn if it wasn’t my luck that we kept hitting the same ones. There were times that I would turn the corner towards a desired destination only to see green and then “noped” my way to another section of the floor–trying to get away from the pretty Instagram influencer that was fouling my night.

I was sitting near the food table with my wife, when you paused to grab something yourself.

It didn’t take long for another man to approach you for a chat. Picking among the charcuterie and cheeses, I overheard you mention that you just started as a sommelier at one of the hotel restaurants in Vegas. I made a crack to my wife that we should mark that restaurant off our list of places to play the Somm Game at.

By that point, in my mind, you were a caricature of everything that was wrong in the wine industry. The influencer who takes more selfies than bottle shots–more tits than tasting notes. The ones who keep feeding into the mantras that “Sex Sells” and “Horses for Courses“–making it difficult for all the rest of us women in wine to be taken seriously.

Never mind that likely none of that was true. You were an easy target to funnel my internal anger and jealousy towards. Though I never approached you or spoke a word of snark your way, I still did you a grave injustice. And for that, I’m deeply sorry.

I thought about you when reading The New York Times yesterday.

Reading the words of the brave women featured in Julia Moskin’s piece, I couldn’t help but put you in there. As a young somm starting out in a place like Las Vegas, how much of their stories is yours as well?

Thinking of that made me cry.

I cried because in the same breath that I ardently wish for things to be different and despair that they’re not, I know that in my own way I’m complicit. I may speak the right words and do the right things to build up other women, but I know in my heart that I’ve also torn them down.

While that makes me feel immense guilt, there’s also immense rage when I think of the perverse privilege at play. No, I’m not talking just about male privilege.

But rather my own as a “not pretty girl.”

Outside of one handsy customer during my retail days, I’ve been fortunate in my wine career to have not encountered anything close to the kind of harassment and compromising positions that other women have been put into.

The pain of being violated or having your entire career depend on whether or not you give in to a man’s advances is one that I’ve never had to deal with. While I’ve chafed and burned with jealousy at the access and attention that the “pretty girls” get, it was my own privilege of not having to deal with unwanted attention from men which kept it from dawning on me that there was a price to pay for that access. Sometimes a very terrible price.

And the mere fact that something like that is a privilege in this world is a whole other level of fucked up shit.

It’s fucked up that we live in a world that encourages this “Mean Girls” dynamic among women–of the haves (Access & Harassment) and have nots.

It’s fucked up that we live in a world that still tries to tell us that sex sells. Or that we shouldn’t balk when our industry seeks to leverage that.

This should be the funnel for our anger. This fucked up dynamic that divides us and puts women of all shades in terrible positions. The pretty girl. The mean girl. The outgoing girl. The shy girl.

When all that we really are are just tired of this fucking shit girls.

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