Category Archives: General

Adapt or Perish — The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Technology

I’ve seemed to have kicked up a little bit of a hornet’s nest with my post No, There’s Not an App For That — Winery Visit Rant.

Seriously, take my money

You can read for yourself the responses in the comment section of the article. Additionally, some interesting points came up on the SpitBucket Facebook page as well as from Paul Mabray’s retweeting of the article. There are a few other Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook threads circling around with more. But these will give you the gist of things.

Admittedly, I was surprised at the responses because there was nothing out of the ordinary about my post or situation.

I’m a consumer wanting to give wineries my money.

I want to use technology that doesn’t require me to jump through hoops to facilitate that.

I had assumed that somewhere out in the world there was a happy medium of wineries who wanted my business and tech companies willing to help bring us together in exchange for getting some money themselves.

You know, capitalism.

Why is there is such a disconnect here?

The irony that this all sprang about while I was planning a trip to Napa and Sonoma is not lost on me. It’s almost like Fry and Laurie wrote a skit.

For the past couple of years, the industry has been buzzing about how tasting room visits to these areas are down. Now some of that has been blamed on the wildfires. But, of course, after acts of nature, the next natural culprit to all the ills of the industry are Millennials.

Oh, we are such a pain in the ass, aren’t we? Why don’t we make it easy and play by the same rules as everyone else?!?

How dare we kill off the traditional tasting room with our “immersion experiences,” yoga in the vineyard and picnic settings?

Photo by Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0)

I’m not vegan or vegetarian but this is one seriously delicious burger.

Yet, here I was, a millennial just looking for regular, plain-jane tasting room appointments.

I wasn’t asking for anything crazy. I have no desire to pack my yoga pants. Sure, picnics are lovely but so is enjoying an Impossible Burger at Gott’s or pretty much whatever Chef Cindy makes at Mustards.

The only thing I wanted was simply the same ease and convenience of scheduling winery appointments that I have booking restaurant and hotel reservations, flights, doctor and lawyer visits; ordering take-out, groceries, household items; purchasing movie and event tickets; checking my bank account, moving funds around, paying bills, etc. All the other things in my life that I can do at the touch of my phone.

I am not asking the wine industry to re-invent the wheel. I’m asking them to do the same thing that wine has been doing for thousands of years.

Adapt

When wine was made only for local consumption, animal skin casks were fine. But then producers wanted to reach larger markets and more consumers. So they developed the amphora, then the barrel and eventually the bottle.

Photo by Pepys/Wheatley. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

Samuel Pepys, the original wine blogger, was a frequent visitor to the Pontacs’ Royal Oak Tavern in London. His writings (and the Pontacs’ good business sense) brought immense attention to the wines of Haut-Brion.

When snags in the supply chain between producers, merchants and consumers emerge, savvy winery owners as far back as the Pontacs of Haut-Brion in the 17th century saw the benefit of “direct-to-consumer sales” and going where their customers were.

When the telephone was invented, I’m sure some winery owners didn’t see the value in the expense of equipment or hiring someone to answer the phone.

We know what happened to those wineries. They eventually adapted or they perished.

What makes this any different?

In response to my last post, one common sentiment was that wineries already have a tough time handling social media.  Online reservation systems are another obligation that wineries will struggle to maintain. That’s a very fair point. I’ve lamented many times the piss poor utilization of social media by wineries.

But the fact that the wine industry currently sucks at one thing is not justification for it to keep sucking at everything else. If anything, that should add to the red flags that the industry has a serious problem here.

However, the slow adoption of common technology is not just the wine industry’s folly. It also a reflection of the poor job that tech companies have done in demonstrating the value of their services to wineries.

Yes, wineries historically don’t like to spend money.
Photo by Tomwsulcer. Uploaded to wikimedia Commons under CC-Zero

Wineries, this is your future customer base. The Boomers aren’t going to live forever.

This was another common blowback I heard. I get it. It’s hard enough to squeeze extra dollars out for barrels and equipment upgrades–much less for point-of-sale, web and software services.

I also know that there are going to be owners who are overly complacent. Right now they don’t need technology to sell wines and bring visitors to their door. They’ve got the Boomers! They’re going to keep consuming wine and live forever, right?

But tell me. How many successful businesses have ever depended on the status quo….staying the status quo?

Wineries are businesses. They have problems that are in need of solutions. Sometimes they don’t realize they have a problem until they see sales and tasting room visits declining. Or maybe it takes hearing consumers like me complaining about how hard it is to give you our money before the light bulb finally goes on.

And then it goes back off because you can’t pay the electric bill.

This is where the solution providers need to step up. Tech companies, I’m talking to you.

Not only do you need to show wineries that they have a problem but you need to demonstrate your value and effectiveness in solving that problem. You can’t sit back and wait for consumers to get fed up at their needs not being met by your potential clients. Otherwise, the goose will be cooked before it even gets a chance to start laying those golden eggs.

Go and look at some of the feedback to my post.

It’s very clear that many wineries,

A.) Don’t realize they have a problem.

or

B.) Don’t see the value in the solutions currently being offered for those problems.

That’s not good.

While wineries might not want to spend money on tech now–each and every one of them is going to have to deal with the changing demographics of their consumers. They are going to have to deal with the reality of the world we live in.

Every winery is going to have face the same “inexorable imperative” that wine has dealt with numerous times before.

Adapt or Perish.

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No, There’s Not an App For That — Winery Visit Rant

For a follow up to this post, check out Adapt or Perish — The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Technology

As part of the visa application process for my upcoming move, I need to head down to San Francisco at the end of this month for an appointment at the French Consulate. Since we’re already paying for a flight, the wife and I figured that we might as well extend the trip to spend a couple of days in Napa and Sonoma.

Photo by Yoni13132. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Appointment slots at many wineries (particularly in Napa) are usually very limited. Often you want to book them at least a month in advance. This typically requires a back and forth email exchange or (gasp) phone call with whatever wineries you want to visit.

I know with the short notice that I’m going to be out of luck at many places. But I don’t like the idea of doing an email fishing expedition with 30 some odd wineries just to see which ones might still have an opening. Picking up a telephone to call is out of the question. I am a Millennial after all.

There has to be a better way.

There has to be an app for this.

Silicon Valley is right next door to the most visited wine regions in the country. Wine drinkers tend to be fairly tech-savvy people and, god knows, how many wineries have been purchased/founded by tech millionaires. Plus, the technology already exists with services like Open Table which makes it easy to search and book on your phone reservations at restaurants nearly anywhere in the world.

Surely, someone has come up with an Open Table-like app for booking winery visits. It is 2019 after all!

Right?!?!

I go to the App Store and search for “Winery Reservations.” I get an ad for Sonic Drive-In and listing for something called Tock for restaurant reservations.

Hmm, alright. Let’s search for “Winery Appointments.” Nope. Just an ad for Vagaro Pro (which I totally misread at first) to schedule salon appointments.

Let’s see, maybe “Winery Visits”? I knew this was going to bring up a lot of results for regional wine apps. Some of these can be helpful with listings of tasting rooms that are nearby and hours. But they all tend to be localized and don’t offer the appointment booking feature I’m looking for.

So I did what any whiney Millennial would do. I whined on social media.

But hey, it worked as Ryan Moore, the VP of Consumer Sales at Ridge Vineyards, came to my rescue.

Alright, I got a lead.

I start checking out the two sites and quickly hit a big ole pothole with Vino Visit.

The initial landing page looked good. However, as soon as you start to search for anything, you get the spinning lag wheel of death with phantom search results. I open up my phone browser and get the same issue with the results page never fully loading.

I double checked the app store to see if there was a mobile app (which is ultimately what I want) and no luck.

Vino Visit screen shot

Sorry Vino Visit, you’re dead to me.

Then I went over to CellarPass (great name, BTW) where I at least found a mostly-functioning website.

CellarPass – close but not quite

I’m going to try CellarPass out for my Napa trip. But playing around its website, I see a lot of missing features and poor design. Again, I was hoping to find something along the Open Table model for functionality and intuitive user interface.

I’ll highlight some areas where I think the CellarPass team can improve. If any of their folks ever read this, my consulting fee is simply a better app to use. 🙂

First, when you go to the landing page and select a region like Napa Valley you get brought to their main search page. Immediately, you see something missing.

Cellar Pass screen shot

Where’s the calendar option?

A calendar. Why is there not a calendar function? Right off the bat, I should be able to narrow down my options to what wineries actually have appointments available on the days that I’m visiting.

The whole reason why I was searching for an Open Table-like app was that I knew that there was going to be a lot of wineries that were already booked up. I don’t want to start clicking on wineries, going to their page, searching for my dates, only to find that I’m wasting my time. This offers little benefit over the “old fashion way” of emailing dozens of wineries and waiting for the reply or rejection.

Sigh. Okay, let’s see what I can search by.

CellarPass gives you the option of searching by varietal. My wife loves bubbles so let’s look at the sparkling wine producers.

CellarPass sparkling wine search

Or not. Or maybe? I don’t know, did it even take my search query?

My page reloaded, so I assumed something happened. It looks like I got a listing of wineries that may have sparkling wines. This is definitely a poor interface with not including the newly added search term up top.

However, I was suspicious why well-known Napa producers like Schramsberg weren’t listed. Neither was Mumm Napa, Domaine Chandon or Domaine Carneros. That gives me reasons to doubt the usefulness of this site. They have pages for all them (like Schramsberg below) though without any reservation link or hours available for tasting. But these pages weren’t included in my search results for Napa Valley sparkling wine producers.

Schramsberg listing

At least include a link to their website.

I’m guessing this is because of “pay to play” with the wineries that do show up in the search being ones that pay CellarPass for their spot. I get that and understand that tech companies need to make money. But come on. Even if the winery is not paying for their reservation link to go through you, they should still be included in a search result. Maybe they get pushed to end of the listings. Fine. But you already have pages created for them. It’s pretty ridiculous not to use them in the results.

Unfortunately, this was not my only search folly. On the sidebar, they give you the option to search by experience and notable features. They provide a lot of great choices that would be almost perfect for a visitor to tailor their experience to exactly what they want.

Almost perfect.

Notable features and experience

It looks like these features are pulled from the winery page that CellarPass has created. Now I’m not a tech person, but it seems like their site should know how many wineries pages they have listed as “Family Friendly,” “Electric Vehicle Charging,” “Food & Wine,” etc. Why not have the number of wineries tagged noted in parenthesis next to each option?

That’s worthwhile information that can help with planning a trip. If there was only something like eight options under “Ghost Winery,” that’s pretty doable to visit in a couple of days. Maybe I change my plans and do a “Ghost Wineries of Napa Tour.” Or if there are only 3 or 4 wineries listed as “pet-friendly” maybe I need to rethink bringing Fluffy along.

Another issue is that you can only search based on one feature or one experience at a time.

What if I want to visit a family-owned, pet-friendly, sustainable winery that does blind tastings?

Well tough luck because apparently that winery doesn’t exist–at least according to CellarPass. Not only can you not add multiple search parameters but even when I search for each of those individually I come up empty.

Cellar Pass screen shot search of blind tasting

Another “pay to play” issue?

However, this may be a technical issue with cookies or caching or whatever. As I said, I’m not a tech person so I don’t know. But I became curious when the very next search I did for “Calistoga” also came up empty. I had to close the webpage and come back before I was able to get results of wineries in Calistoga.

It’s possible that as I was checking to see what was available under each option that it kept adding to my search parameters without telling me that it was. But who knows? Again, poor interface and something that you would think a tester would have uncovered.

What About Tasting Fees?

Another thing that is sorely missing is the ability to search based on the cost of tastings. Fees can easily span the gamut with many wineries offering different experiences at various price points. A search feature based on min/max tasting fees should be front and center (along with the calendar function).

Along those same lines, wineries that offer complimentary tastings (which is become exceedingly rare) should be highlighted.

I suspect this entry for Consentino Winery, which notes that it has complimentary tastings, was written by the winery itself (it’s one of the few listings in all caps). But CellarPass should use a yellow star, green check mark or something to highlight these wineries because this is the type of info that folks (like broke Millennials) want to know about.

Consentino listing

The listing of hours as well as links to social media is a great touch,though.

Finally, WHY IS THERE NOT A MOBILE APP!?!?!

CellarPass mobile screenshot

Is this for wineries? Is this for users? Who knows?

Or maybe there is. I don’t know. When I went back to the app store and searched for CellarPass there is something listed as in development and then a “guest link” app. I downloaded the guest link app where I was greeted by a request for a Member ID, Username and Password.

Clicking the “Learn More” takes you to their support portal where you are asked to log in with an email address and password.

So…is this even something I’m supposed to use? Not intuitive in the slightest.

I went back to the CellarPass website where I saw a tab to “Join CellarPass”.  Clicking that gives you a pop up where you could sign up for a personal or business account. I click on the personal option where I’m sent to an account creation page. I input my details like email and select a password. Then…

I get an error message.

Lovely.

So, yeah, I have no idea what is going on here.

As I mentioned above, I’m going to try and book a few appointments online with CellarPass through my desktop. We’ll see how these go and I’ll write a follow up to this post when I return.

But I’m still stunned that while there are apps to alert you when it’s the best time to get up and pee, so you don’t miss anything good in a movie, that no one has come up a decent app for booking winery visits and appointments.

Come on Silicon Valley! We need to get our drink on!

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The Practical Guide to Picking Out Wedding Wines

If you lurk around on Reddit’s r/wine sub, you’ll often see posts like this one looking for wedding wine suggestions. Back in my retail days, February would be the start of “wedding season” where almost daily through September you’d get customers coming in asking about wedding wines.

Wedding cake

While I understand the sense of not knowing where to start, I actually don’t think going to an online board looking for specific wine recommendations is a great idea. Nor do I think googling “wedding wines under $10” or whatever is worth your time either.

That’s because every wine market is different in both pricing and selection. These lists and helpful suggestions often send you on a wild goose chase looking for something that you might not even be able to get in your area.

Also, the suggestions that focus on mass-produced and widely distributed options (i.e., supermarket wines) may steer you towards wines that you end up feeling self-conscious about serving at your wedding. (More on that down below)

Instead, the best online advice for picking wedding wines is going to be more general. Both Wine Folly and The Knot have good guidelines that are worth a read. I disagree with a few of their suggestions, but they’re solid starting points.

Below I’m going to lay out the practical approach to picking out wedding wines. This is the same advice that I’ve given hundreds of wedding customers during my career and it all begins with the most important rule.

1.) Don’t Stress About the Wine

Photo by Tracy Hunter. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under  CC-BY-2.0

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

Seriously. There is SOOOOOOOO much about wedding planning that you’re going to be stressing over. Picking out the booze should be at the bottom of the worry list.

Take a step back and think about the weddings that you’ve attended. How many of them can you remember the wines from? Most likely you’re not going to remember much–maybe the varietals at best. That’s because you weren’t attending the wedding for a wine and dining experience. You were there to celebrate the couple getting married. That is what you remember.

Even though I was in the business of selling wine, my number one advice to couples was to always focus more on the things your guests will remember–the ceremony, venue and maybe the music and food. Those are worth stressing over far more than picking out the perfect wine that will please everyone and pair perfectly with every dish.

Because, frankly, that wine doesn’t exist.

What does exist is a bounty of enjoyable wines that will fit whatever budget you have. That should be your starting point.

2.) Start Planning Early and Have Fun

Picking out the booze should be the fun part of wedding planning. It certainly should be more enjoyable than getting measured for tuxes and dresses or deciding seating charts.

Photo by Geoffrey Fairchild. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Starting early also gives the wine shop time to order any additional quantities needed. Keep in mind, even in big stores with multiple skus, they may have less than a case of a particular wine at any given moment.
But with enough time, they can usually order more in.

The best way to keep it fun is to start early by visiting a good wine shop that is staffed by stewards you can talk to. This is key because a real live person is going to be able to listen to your wants and concerns. They’re also going to know what wines are available in your price range that the online “Best under $XX” lists can’t cover.

Most importantly, though, you can ask them the very pointed question “What would YOU serve at your wedding?”

If you’re dealing with a good wine steward, a question like that gets the wheels cranking. They’re going to pick out gems (maybe different grapes or unique regions) at whatever price point you give them. You are essentially borrowing their expertize to make you look like a wine expert.

People still probably aren’t going to remember exactly what you served. But if you want a better chance of having “wowzer wines” that impress, this is where you’ll find them.

Don’t be afraid to give a budget–and don’t feel like you have to bust it either.

Again, there is so much good wine out there at all price points. Maybe not blow-your-mind level great but good, solid and enjoyable. Any wine steward that is worth their salt is going to find you the best bottle at your budget that they would feel comfortable serving at their wedding.

But if you are starting early, you don’t have to take their word for it. Take home bottles of a few options. Open them up at a dinner party with friends or family. This is where the fun part of wedding planning comes in.

If you want to add a twist (and are worried about your budget), do the tasting blind and include wines at different price points. Go a little under your budget and a little over. Taste through them and see if you or your friends can notice a difference. That will help you zero in on if your budget is reasonable. It will also let you know if the wine steward you’re working with is a good one.

If all the wines are duds, try a different wine shop or steward. Starting early gives you that flexibility to have fun and explore your options.

3.) Keep It Simple

Mauro Sebaste Moscato d'Asti

I like combining the something slightly sweet and something bubbly together.
A nice Moscato d’Asti or a Demi-Sec sparkling wine is a far better pairing with sweet wedding cake than a bone-dry Brut.


I would hope that the wine steward would also be giving you this last piece of advice. Don’t go crazy with multiple options and multiple varieties. Not to sound like a broken record, but your guests aren’t there to attend a wine tasting experience. They’re there to celebrate you! You don’t need to try and cover all the bases to please every person.

For nearly every wedding, you only need 3 to 4 options.

Something red and something white.
Something slightly sweet and/or something bubbly.

Rosé wine is also a popular substitute for one of those last two. The idea of a dedicated sparkling wine for a toast is falling out of fashion so many couples just have people use whatever is in their glass for the toast.

Whichever direction you go with is up to you but you should always default back to Rule #1–Don’t Stress About the Wine!

Addendum: If you’re self-conscious about your wedding wines, avoid the mass-produced brands

Now, this last one I’m including because even though I bang the drum on not stressing, I know there are folks who will stress over everything. (My wife is one of them!)

By far, the biggest stressor regarding wines seems to be the fear of what the wine selection “says” about the couple. (It doesn’t say anything, really!) Often that fear centers on the cost of the wine and if the image it projects makes the couple look like cheapskates. This can lead to the temptation to bust your budget and spend way more on wine than you need to.

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

But if you’re not self-conscious about your wedding wines and are in a last-minute pinch, Costco is a good source for a large quantity of cheap booze.


With all the things that you’re going to get nickel and dimed on with wedding planning, I would discourage falling for that temptation. Again, the vast majority of your guests are honestly not going to care and just want to celebrate with you. (Plus, it’s free booze!)

But I can empathize with not wanting to look like you’re “cheaping out” on your big day. Even though you’re not really cheaping out–you’re being reasonable and working within a budget.

However, if you know that is going to be an issue for you, avoiding the big mass-produced names is the easiest way to skip that stress. Because then your guest really won’t know how much you paid for your wines.

Picking a big name wine that is widely distributed at every grocery store, gas station and Costco is like leaving the price tag on a gift.

It’s also like serving McDonald’s at your wedding. Everyone knows the price of a Big Mac and where you got it at. Likewise, anyone that drinks wine or shops at a grocery store has gone by the huge displays of these big name wines and have seen the shiny SALE tag on them. There are no surprises. They will know pretty much exactly what you spent.

Again, this shouldn’t be a big deal. But if you are truly self-conscious about the image that your wedding wines are going to project, avoid the “McDonald wines”.

If you’re working with a good wine steward, they should be able to recommend wines from smaller producers or less widely known grape varieties/wine regions that are going to over deliver on the price. You can get an under $15/10/5 wine that doesn’t taste like (or that everybody knows is) an under $15/10/5 wine.

That way you can remove another stressor from what should be one of the best days of your life. Most importantly, it lets everyone get back to focusing on what really matters on your wedding day.

Figuring out what the flower girl is putting up her nose.

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The Lost Storytelling of Wine

Now that we’ve talked about the Millennial math that is stacked against the wine industry, let’s work on reframing the discussion about value.

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

To appeal to Millennials, the industry has to demonstrate its value. They have to show us why a bottle of wine is worth shelling out our hard earned cash to purchase. As I mentioned in my post Is the Wine Industry boring Millennials to (its) death? the old playbook of marketing is not going to work.

We don’t care about high critic scores.

We don’t care about exclusive, high-priced cult wines that are famous for….being exclusive and high-priced?

And we certainly don’t care about the “lifestyle” image and traditions that enticed our parents’ generations.

But do you know what does entice us? A great story.

The Reading Generation.

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

If you give a mouse a cookie, make sure he doesn’t pair it with something too dry.
A very dry wine will taste tart with a sweet cookie.

LeVar Burton would be proud because Millennials are leading the pack when it comes to reading. The popularity of digital formats are a big driver but even tried and true paper and hardback books are seeing an upswing in interest.

Millennials are infusing bookstores with new life because of the sense of nostalgia and authenticity they give us. When we feel overwhelmed with the world, books offer a haven and sure-fire antidote to the “Boredom Factor” we disdain.

Gosh, wouldn’t it be great if the wine industry could capture some of that?

If only we had a product that could convey a unique sense of place, crafted by people with a passion and personality?

If only we had something that constantly changed, both in the glass and in the bottle, like a great thriller with all its twists and surprises?

Hmm…if only.

A Story in a Bottle

The wine industry will continue to have problems converting Millennial consumers if it sticks with the old playbook of treating wine like it’s a commodity or status symbol. Neither of those interest us.

The health-consciousness of Millennials are moving us away from the idea of drinking cheap wine just to get a cheap buzz.

Photo by Jami430. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Let see, should we spend $25 on a bottle of Meiomi or an order of organic avocados sliced on toasted nine-grain bread with sesame seeds?
…or we could buy a house?

We don’t have the money or inclination to buy luxury “status” wines because we’d rather pay rent, go on a trip or enjoy avocado toast.

Yes, the gameboard has changed with Millennials. But what should send a spike excitement through the industry is that it’s changed in a way that is tailored to the strengths of wine.

Step back and think about it–what beverage beyond wine can so perfectly cater to a Millennial’s sense of wanderlust or their cravings for authenticity and uniqueness?

What beverage can tell a story better than wine?

We just need to stop thinking of (and promoting) wine like its a commodity. We need to reclaim our lost storytelling.

Compelling Characters

This is the personality and people behind a wine. By far, it’s a winery’s most important asset and should be the number one marketing focus.

Print made by Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

Watson, it was clearly the sulfites in his wine that poisoned him. Jenny McCarthy said they were bad.

The key to every great story is a compelling central character–our heroine or anti-hero. The central character is what separates one book from the myriad of others in the same genre. There are thousands of detective stories but there is only one Sherlock Holmes, one Alex Cross, one Hercule Poirot or one Kay Scarpetta.

And while there are god knows how many Cabernet Sauvignons, Chardonnays, Red Blends, Pinot noirs and Sauvignon blancs out there, what distinguishes each of them is their own central character–for better or for worse.

Maybe its a bulk wine with its central character a boring, non-descript narrator. They come and go like cheap penny dreadfuls.

A winery that wants to capture the attention of Millennials doesn’t need to be a Sherlock Holmes. But they do need to aim for more than non-descript and dreadful.

What makes a character compelling is that they come to life, they’re relatable. The readers learn details that add color to their understanding of the character. This lets the character jump off the page and resonate with them.

What makes a bottle of wine become more interesting and compelling is the character behind the bottle–not the grape or terroir (the backdrop). Of course, the plot (the wine itself) is important but readers will accept a few underwhelming books in a series (I’m looking at you Alex Cross’ Trial) if the character is still compelling enough to follow.

For a winery to appeal to Millennials, they need to build and promote this character.
Photo take by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as user:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

And, honestly, a bottling truck is kind of cool.

Show us the details that add color to our understanding of your wine.

Who are you?

Why are you making wine?

What drives you and is distinct from all the other characters out there?

Show us the hard work and setbacks. Your consumer has setbacks too. Show us the excitement and joy of many months/years of labor coming down the bottling line. There are things in our lives that take months/years to come to fruition. We can relate to that.

Let us connect to your wine by telling us your story.

Because that is really the only compelling reason we have to pick up your bottle over every other option that is clamoring for our money.

The Backdrop

J. R. R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling and Stephen King certainly had compelling central characters in their works. But they also brought the settings of their stories to life, even in short-stories that weren’t part of a larger world-building series. While the stories would still go nowhere without the central characters, the backdrop was an essential piece of the puzzle.

In wine, the backdrop is the grape varieties and places that the wine is from. One of my favorite definitions of terroir is “the story of a wine,” and this includes things like the climate of the vintage and the culture/traditions that a wine is brought up in.

Photo by Olivier Colas (http://olouf.fr). Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Fun Fact: The Battle of Pelennor Fields was filmed only about an hour half away from the wine region of Central Otago.
“I am no Burgundy!”

A Pinot noir from New Zealand is distinct from one from Oregon, California or Burgundy for many reasons. All those reasons add richness to the story of the wine just like Middle Earth, Hogwarts and Shawshank added richness to their narratives.

When I encourage wineries to focus more on marketing the unique character of themselves, I’m not telling them to ignore the grapes or terroir. But they should recognize these things for what they are–the backdrop.

This is why making wine from unusual grape varieties or emerging wine regions is not enough to entice Millennials.

As fascinating as visiting Gondor is, we only care about that place because of Aragorn, Faramir and Boromir. Likewise, unique grape varieties like Fiano, Xinomavro, Cinsault and Trousseau or emerging wine regions in Denmark and Sweden are exciting but the novelty of new wears off quickly.

To keep consumers turning the page, you still need a compelling character to drive the story.

The Plot

However, you can have the most compelling character ever written with an imaginative world, but the plot still needs to deliver. As I mentioned above, readers will forgive a weak book or two in a series if the character is worth following. But the strength of that character gets weakened with every dud.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4032043

Yeah, I know it was the Oxycontin but *shudders*.

Similarly, the strength of a winery’s character weakens with every subpar bottle they release. Plus, there is always the risk of a consumer’s first impression coming from that “off-vintage” and them deciding that the character is not worth waiting for another book. If your first experience with Stephen King was Dreamcatcher, it might take some coaxing to get you to try another bottle.

Most importantly, though, the plot of what’s inside the bottle is where wine separates itself from other options. Above all, here is where we can highlight a wine’s value above a similarly priced beverage.

Yeah, you can get flavor and a buzz from craft beer, cider, spiked seltzer water, cocktails and spirits. But each of those items is a short-story that stays static.

The story of a wine doesn’t end when the cork is pulled. That is merely the end of one chapter.

A Continuing and Changing Climax

The evolution of wine in a bottle is something that the wine industry does a poor job of explaining or marketing. And we wonder whatever happened to aging fine wines?

We promote “drinking windows” and isolate people/wines into camps of “instant-gratification” or “cellar-worthy.” We treat enjoyment of wine like it’s a timestamp on a theater ticket. Better get your butts into the seats before they lock the doors.

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

What they didn’t tell you was that the toxins were really kombucha.

All of that ignores the storytelling that adds value to wine.

Even after the cork is pulled, a great wine (like a great story) will unfurl itself over the course of each glass. Change of direction, build-ups and plot twists are around the corner with the next pour.

What equivalent priced beverage offers that? Yeah, your beer could get warm and change. Or your ice sphere could melt into your diluted whiskey. But that’s more discovering that trees are releasing toxins to purge the planet than realizing that Bruce Willis is dead.

Plus, with many wines, there are still chapters that have yet to be written and are waiting to be experienced months, years or even decades down the road. The bottle you open today is not going to be the same bottle–the same story–that it’s going to be when you pick up the book again.

That’s fascinating and exciting!

It’s something that not even the Choose Your Own Adventure series can top.

Leveraging our strength and adding value.

In hindsight, it will be silly if the wine industry continues to have a “Millennial Problem.” Our greatest strength is that our product has such potential to be compelling, unique and authentic.

We just need to get back to telling our stories.

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Total Wine and the Amazon of Liquor

Followers of the SpitBucket Facebook page know that I’ve been closely watching the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association vs. Blair Supreme Court case. It just wrapped up oral arguments on January 16th.

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

It’s been my hope that the Supreme Court would issue a broad ruling that would expand on 2005’s Granholm v. Heald, opening up online sales of wine across state lines. Few things frustrate me more than trying to locate a wine that none of my local shops carry. If I could buy freely online from out of state retailers, that wouldn’t be an issue.

This was a large reason why I also donated and signed onto Wine Freedom’s Friend of the Court Brief for Byrd.

As oral arguments were finishing, it wasn’t long before analysis from in court observers trickled out. While it seems likely that the Court is going to strike down Tennessee’s residency requirement for retailers (which is at the heart of the case), legal experts like Sean O’Leary, the Irish Liquor Lawyer, predicts that the ruling is going be narrow and not tackle the broader issue of consumer freedom.

And that likely will be because of one of my former employers–Total Wine & More.

The Amazon of Liquor?

I have no particular knowledge about Total Wine & More’s involvement in Tennessee or the Supreme Court case apart from what has been publically reported.  When I worked there, I was only a sales floor associate, wine class educator and new store trainer. Essentially just a worker bee, if you will.

But even with my very limited insight, there was one Supreme Court exchange that O’Leary related to Forbes contributor Liza B. Zimmerman that jumped out to me.

O’Leary also thinks that the scope of the case has also remained narrow as the attorney for Total Wine—a large enough chain that interstate shipping is not key to their profit model—refused the invitation to go towards a discussion of direct-to-consumer sales. He adds that “Justice Gorusch challenged him and said ‘But isn’t the next business model just to try and operate as the Amazon of liquor? ‘ ”

In response, O’Leary says that “Total Wine’s attorney indicated that his client wanted to operate as a bricks-and mortar [store] and wants to be subject to Tennessee’s laws.” The long-term goal for the chain would be to “not to be discriminated against.” — Liza B. Zimmerman, Forbes.com 1/20/2019

Sidestepping or Something Else?

This “Amazon of Liquor” exchange has been featured in multiple reports on the case. It is often coupled with surprise at Total Wine’s demuring from aggressively fighting for online consumer channels. The initial response seems to be that Total Wine was sidestepping the issue.

The New York Times even noted Justice Elena Kagan’s skepticism to the answer of Total Wine’s attorney that those broader issues could be debated another day.

“Well,” she said, “we’re leaving a lot of things for another day, but they all seem to be demanded by the principles that you’re asking us to adopt.” Elena Kagan, as reported by Adam Liptak of The New York Times, 1/26/2019

While I’m disheartened at the likelihood of a narrow ruling, Total Wine’s stance doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. That’s because the mythos of Total Wine having eyes on being the “Amazon of Liquor” is way off course.

In fact, their entire business model is actually seriously threatened by a broad ruling opening up online sales.

Face-To-Face Contact

Shelf at Total Wine

Many wine lovers don’t know about David & Karen Dunphy’s 16 x 20 Wines. They only make a few hundred cases and have limited distribution.
Total Wine trains their associates to listen for clues so they can add-on bottles from small producers like this.
So if they hear that a customer enjoys Paul Hobbs’ winemaking, they may suggest the Dunphy’s wine.

Again, these are just the observations of a former worker bee. But from my past experience, the strength of Total’s business model doesn’t translate well to online sales.  Total Wine only succeeds if people physically walk into their stores and interact with their associates.

Total Wine’s model is built around three pillars–low prices, large selection and customer service. They utilize the first two pillars to get people into the store. Then they rely on their staffing to deliver on that third pillar of service.

Associates are trained from day one to work on building relationships with customers, listening to their likes and dislikes. They are instructed to use that feedback to “build the basket”. This is essentially recommending new wines that the customer may not have had yet and to keep adding bottles.

If someone comes in looking for a particular wine, the goal is that they don’t leave with just that one wine. Hopefully, they will have at least 2-3 more bottles of something new to try as well.

Often these extra bottles will be small producers and limited releases that Total Wine seeks out to bolster their selection. It’s the associate job to listen to the customer and make strong recommendations of wines they’ll like.  The hope (and key to Total’s success) is that the customer returns looking for these new wines.

But That’s Hard to Do With Online Sales

Total Wine’s best leverage of their large selection is by having customers fall in love with wines that they can’t find easily elsewhere. That’s not likely going to happen without face-to-face contact and relationship building by their staff.

While I don’t have any concrete data, I strongly suspect that people who go to a website for a particular wine likely only buy that one wine. Anecdotally, this was often how the online orders received at the stores I worked at played out. As an associate, these “in-store pick up” and later Instacart delivery orders were sources of endless frustration since our ability to build relationships with these customers was near non-existent.

Without building relationships, learning customer’s tastes and being able to “build the basket”, Total Wine’s strength as a major retail player is significantly reduced.

In fact (and, again, I have no special insight here), I would wager that the management of Total Wine actually dreads the idea of an “Amazon of Liquor”. Because such an entity would be their fiercest competitor and neutralize most of their strengths.

Low Prices
Wine Searcher screen grab

Since I can’t buy freely online, right now I use WineSearcher.com to get a general idea of how competitive the pricing is of the retailers in my market.

Take out your phone and look for a particular wine on WineSearcher.com. Not only can you easily find the average retail price but you can shop around to find the retailer with the lowest price.  That’s not always going to be the same retailer or even one that is local.

If you open up the floodgate for more online sales, retailers will be competing with more than just their local market in pricing. While that’s great for consumers, that’s not great for retailers like Total Wine who aim to have the lowest price in their market.

Large Selection

The typical Total Wine store leverages their large retail footprint to carry thousands upon thousands of wines. This is often far more than their local competitors. But that’s only a pittance of the amount of wine that could be available if consumers could shop freely online.

There are only so many skus that a physical retail store can carry. Total Wine might be the “big dog” now in markets. But online sales tosses that calling card out the window.

More like the Argonauts of Liquor

Total wine class

With online sales potentially neutralizing the strength of low prices and large selection, retailers like Total Wine would have to up their game to get people to shop in stores with more in-store education classes and tasting events.

Far from desiring to be the Amazon of Liquor, the Supreme Court testimony of Total Wine shows that they are more like Jason and the Argonauts trying to carefully navigate away from Themiscyra.

Right now things are going really good for Total Wine. Over the last 20 years, they’ve seen explosive growth with nearly 200 stores in 22 states.

Their business model of low prices and large selections makes their brick-and-mortar stores destinations for consumers. The relationship building and customer service of their staff keep those consumers coming back.  But that all begins with customers physically shopping in stores.

This is the irony in Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association vs. Blair.

Total Wine clearly wants to win the case, keeping their Knoxville location and opening up more stores. However, winning with a broad ruling could be worse for them than losing.

Many local retailers and governments try to keep Total Wine out by clinging to protectionist and discriminatory laws. They think these laws hurt Total Wine and will slow their growth. Yet it is the antithesis of these laws–allowing more consumer freedom–that would deliver the hardest blow to Total Wine.

In many ways, protectionist laws actually end up protecting Total Wine.

 

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Want to know the next trends in wine? Follow your stomach

All across the globe, the wine industry is ringing in the new year with prognostications. Everyone has a crystal ball trying to nail down what the next big trends will be.
Sourced from the Library of Congress. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US expired

Some of these predictions bear fruit, while others are just throwing spaghetti at the wall. But in an industry where it takes vines at least three years to be productive and another 1 to 3 to get wine to the market, wineries and retailers need to be a step ahead of the trends.

The difference between success and failure in the wine industry is to be more proactive than you are reactive.

That is what makes trends and prediction articles worth reading–even if you have to take them with a grain of salt.

One recent article by Andy Young of The Shout, an online news service covering Australia, caught my eye. While written from an Aussie perspective, these predictions of Cellarmasters’ Joe Armstrong do hold intriguing relevance to the American market.

First up, Armstrong says that “Cava is the new Prosecco”.

“Our palates are getting fatigued with Prosecco’s fruit-forwardness, so Cava’s dry and biscuity characters are welcome flavours,” he said. — Andy Young, The Shout, 1/7/2019

It wasn’t so much the preference for Cava over Prosecco that surprised me. I’ve been bearish myself about the Prosecco market. I expect its bubble to soon burst as over-expansion and poor quality examples flood the market. Yet it’s not overproduction that has Armstrong and Young seeing Spanish Cava poaching Prosecco’s market share in Australia.

It’s a craving for something drier and less fruity.

Young and Armstrong also predict growth in rosé wine–particularly domestic rosé. But it is not wannabe influencers and #YesWayRosés hashtags that’s fueling its growth. Instead, domestic Aussie rosés are moving towards a style that has been a trademark of French rosé long before anyone made their first duckface on Instagram.

“Due to the popularity of French rosé, more Aussie rosés are being made in that typical, French dry and savoury style. The rise of domestic, dry rosé is a win for consumers as they are affordable and of great quality,” Armstrong said. — Andy Young, The Shout, 1/7/2019

Lanzavecchia Essentia

More people definitely need to get on the Italian wine wagon with wines like this crazy delicious Piemontese blend out drinking bottle more than twice its price.

Additionally, Armstrong sees Australian consumers gravitating towards wines coming out of Spain, Portugal and Italy–countries that have been popular picks with prognosticators in the US and UK as well. These folks also see in their crystal balls an uptick of interest in wines from European countries as part of what’s being dubbed “The Year Of The Curious Wine Drinker.”

Why?

Despite the vast diversity of grape varieties and terroirs, there is a common theme among these European wines.

They tend to be dry.
They tend to be savory.

Kind of like the food that we’re eating now.

Mama, this ain’t the Coca-Cola generation anymore

In the US, there is an old marketing adage that Americans “talk dry, but drink sweet.”

For many years, there has undoubtedly been truth to that saying. Mega-corps have sold millions of cases sneaking residual sugar into “dry wines.” But it’s not only faux dry wines that have caught Americans’ fancy. This country was also at the forefront of the recent Moscato boom that is just now starting to wane.

Photo from : The Ladies' home journal1948. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under the public domain with no known copyright restrictions

Margaret dear, you know that is shitty stemware to be serving your Sagrantino in.

And why is it waning?

For the same reason that Pepsi and Coke are seeing declining soda sales.

We’re moving away from sweeter flavors towards sourer (acidity), more exotic and savory ones.

Part of it is health consciousness–with the upcoming Generation Z being particularly “sugar conscious.”

But it is also driven by a desire for balance. (Sounds familiar?)

Food and wine, wine and food. Tomayto, Tomahto

In New World regions like Australia and the US, the association of wine and food hasn’t been as culturally ingrained as it has been in Europe. But that’s changing.

However, you don’t need to have wine with food to understand that our taste in cuisine goes hand in hand with our tastes in wine. When we craved sweet, boring dishes, we ate TV dinners and jello pops.  We drank with them Blue Nun, Riunite and high alcohol reds.

Now that our tastes are going more savory and exotic, what are we eating?

Mushrooms
Sourdough
Chickpeas
Grilled Meats
Cauliflower
Avocado toast
Dry-aged poultry and pork
Turmeric
Pumpkin

Among many other things.

The Takeaway

Wine doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The beverage that goes into our body has to appeal to the same eyes that see our food, the same noses that perceive aromas and flavors and the same taste buds that respond to umami, sour and sweet flavors.

Wineries that cater to the tastes of the past are going find themselves left in the past. You don’t need a canary to see that American (as well as Australian) tastes are changing.

Likewise, you don’t need a crystal ball to predict what the next big wine trends will be. You just need to follow your stomach.

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2018 SpitBucket Year in Review

I just returned from vacation and am working on my blogging calendar for 2019. As I plan my content goals for the year, I decided to take a look back at what I did in 2018.

TruthTeller and the Wine Fool at WBC18

Winemaker dinner with Chris Loeliger of TruthTeller Winery and the Wine Fool at the 2018 Wine Bloggers Conference.
Going through my Google Photos, this one jumped out to me as an apt summary of 2018.

While I technically started this blog back in 2016, I didn’t dedicate myself to full-time writing until last year. I spent a good chunk of 2018 feeling my way through and figuring out what I enjoyed writing about–as well as what resonated with readers. I’m a bit shocked at how much my traffic and subscription rate has jumped over these past 12 months and am very humbled by the support.

So as I look back on 2018, I’m also going to share a few of my thoughts on what content I’ll be producing going forward. The primary purpose of this blog will always be to serve as a study tool as I work on my WSET Diploma. But I am an inquisitive geek and a slutty boozer so it’s hard not to write about other alcohols that catch my attention. They also seem to grab the attention of readers (and search engines) as my top posts by traffic reveal.

The 8 Most Read Posts on SpitBucket for 2018

1) Apothic Brew Wine Review — Published on April 8, 2018
2) What We Know So Far About the Master Sommelier Cheating Scandal — Published on October 14, 2018
3) Johnnie Walker “White Walker” Limited Edition Scotch Review — Published on October 15, 2018
4) 60 Second Whiskey Review — Tullamore DEW Caribbean Rum Cask Finish — Published on March 9, 2018
5) Wine Clubs Done Right — Published on January 14, 2018
6) 60 Second Whiskey Review – Alexander Murray — Published on November 28, 2017
7) 60 Second Whiskey Reviews — Jameson Caskmates IPA edition — Published on January 20, 2018
8) Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures — Published on July 11, 2018

Some Thoughts
https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

For several weeks after the MS scandal hits, folks were searching for details about Reggie Narito, the somm at the heart of the scandal
Screenshot from Narito’s public blog.
https://rnarito.wordpress.com/

I’m quite surprised by how much traffic I still get on the Alexander Murray whiskey review. I wrote that piece back in 2017 and get weekly, if not daily, hits on it. While I’m not very familiar with search engine optimization (and only recently learned about how readability plays into SEO rankings), it’s clear that a lot of people are searching for info on this relatively obscure independent bottler.

Likewise, the eruption of the Master Sommelier scandal drew big interest from search engines. I also benefited from having my article picked up by various news aggregators like Wine Industry Insight and Flipboard. Admittedly, Flipboard is a platform (like Pinterest) that I still haven’t figured out. I plan on spending some time this year learning more about them.

My early January post about deciding to join the Tablas Creek wine club took off when Jason Haas wrote about it on the Tablas Creek Vineyard Blog. I was very shocked and honored that Haas would even read, much less seriously consider, the viewpoints of a random blogger. But as I learned in my continuing journey as a wine club member, this is just par for the course with the Tablas Creek team’s outstanding engagement of their customers.

It’s clear that they are continually striving to improve and actively want to hear from consumers. They’re not hiding out in some ivory tower or behind a moat-like tasting bar. The folks at Tablas Creek make wine because they enjoy it and want to share that joy with others. This is a big reason why they, along with Rabbit Ridge, are one of the few wineries on Twitter that are worth following.

It’s not all Champagne and Bordeaux

Working at grocery stores and wine shops, you learn quickly that the vast majority of wine drinkers don’t necessarily drink the same things you enjoy. You can respond to that in two ways–get stuck up and snobbish about it or try to understand what makes wines like Apothic Brew or its whiskey barrel aged brethren appealing.

Mamamango wine

The fluorescent glow of Mamamango in the glass was a bit weird.

I prefer to take the latter approach which is why you’ll find me researching the backstory of wines like Apothic Brew, Capriccio Bubbly Sangria, Mamamango, Blanc de Bleu and non-alcoholic wines with just as much attention as I do for my reviews of Petrus, Lynch-Bages, Giscours, Krug Clos du Mesnil, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque or Louis XV Rose.

Going forward, I will continue my exploration of new wine trends that emerge. While I am sincerely dreading the advent of cannabis wine, I will nonetheless try it–for science.

A Few of My Favorite Posts from 2018

These articles might not have gotten the search engine traffic that my whiskey and other wine posts did, but they were ones that I had fun writing. They’re also the posts that I think most convey who I am as a wine writer and my general approach to wine.

January

Snooty or Flute-y? — Published on January 13, 2018
Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit — Published on January 22, 2018
Don’t Be a Jackass and Blindly Listen to Bloggers — Published on January 25, 2018
Thought Bubbles – How to Geek Out About Champagne — Published on January 29, 2018
Cab is King but for how long? — Published on January 31, 2018

So apparently I was a bit feisty back in January (and drinking a lot of Champagne). While I’ve always had little tolerance for know-it-alls or folks who dish out bad advice–my language is usually not that stark.

Still, I stand by those words I wrote back then regarding the ridiculous assertations of so-called “wine prophets” and bloggers who aim to stir anxiety and doubt in newbie wine drinkers. These folks don’t do anything to improve the dialogue around wine or promote exploration. They deserve to be taken down a peg or two. And I sincerely hope that if I ever stray that far that someone will come along and knock me down as well.

February-March

Under the (Social Media) Influence — Published on February 13, 2018
What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines — Published on February 25, 2018
Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care? — Published on February 28, 2018
The Mastery of Bob Betz — Published on March 5, 2018
Jancis Robinson — The Beyoncé of Wine — Published on March 8, 2018
The Legend of W.B. Bridgman — Published on March 31, 2018

As I mentioned in my note about the Apothic Brew review, being in the trenches in retail gives you a lot of insight that you don’t glean from wine books or blogs. The typical wine consumer thinks about wine in a completely different way than most wine writers. That experience fuels my skepticism about the true reach and influence of “influencers”.

I noted in a later post in November, What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews?, that I never once had a customer come up to me on the floor with blog review or seeking a wine that they said they saw on Instagram and Twitter. Never. In contrast, nearly every day I had customers looking for a wine they had at a restaurant. When major newspapers or magazines came out with their yearly “Best of…” lists, they were also far more likely to bring people in than a blog or social media posting.

In October, I may have annoyed my fellow bloggers at the Wine Blogger Conference when I told a few winemakers that if I were running a winery, I would focus more on the influencers at national and regional publications as well as getting my wine on by-the-glass programs at restaurants. I would also enter every wine competition I could find because, even though these competitions really shouldn’t have the influence that they do, consumers respond to seeing shiny medals on bottles.

Putting the Pieces Together
Bob Betz and Louis Skinner

A highlight of my year was being invited to Betz Winery where I got a personal lesson on Washington State terroir by Bob Betz and head winemaker Louis Skinner.

Though the posts in March are genuinely some of my favorites. I love getting knee deep into the history of influential figures in wine. Wine lovers across the globe should know about people like Bob Betz, W.B. Bridgman and (in later articles) Martin Ray and Nathan Fay. The world of wine is a quilt with many people contributing to the stitches that keep it together. It’s easy to focus on the patches, but to understand the quiltwork, you have to look at the stitching.

My piece on Jancis Robinson, though, has a bit of a personal bent that goes beyond an academic profile. This one I keep prominently featured in my Author Bio because anyone wishing to understand who I am as a wine writer is well served by understanding the immeasurable influence that Jancis Robinson has had on my career.

April-June

Why I Don’t Use Scores — Published on April 4, 2018
Playing the Somm Game in Vegas — Published on May 7, 2018
Naked and Foolish — Published on May 21, 2018
Pink Washing in the Booze Industry for Pride Month — Published on June 24, 2018

Tokay Eccenzia from Lago

Still can’t get over the jackpot I scored playing the Somm Game when I was in Las Vegas this past May.
It pretty much made up for the disappointment of the 2018 Wine Spectator Grand Tour.

I also keep a link to Why I Don’t Use Scores in my bio as it is an indelible part of my approach to reviewing wine. I know I’m sacrificing traffic and backlinks by not providing magical numbers that wineries can tweet about or feature on their sites. Likewise, I’m sure many PR firms scan over postings like this that convey my love/hate relationship with reviews only to close their browser tab quickly. Frankly, I could care less.

Perhaps it’s privilege in that, with my wife’s career, I don’t need to make an income from writing. I don’t need to count on a steady stream of free wine samples for topics to write about. Truthfully, I prefer paying for the wine that I review or the events I attend because I feel that it gives me a better grounding in measuring their value.

I rate with my wallet instead of with scores because that is how most regular wine consumers judge wine. Did the bottle give you enough pleasure to merit its cost? Great, that’s was a good bottle for you. It doesn’t matter what points it got from a critic. Nor how many stars it had on an easily gameable rating system (Naked and Foolish).

While as a blogger this view is thoroughly self-defeating, I can’t ever see myself straying from the mantra of “Ignore the noise (i.e. bloggers like me) and trust your palate”. I’m not here to tell you what you should buy or how you should drink. I’m just geeking out over whatever is tickling my fancy at one particular moment in time.

September-October

Birth Year Wine Myopics — Published on September 6, 2018
Zinfandel — The “Craft Beer” of American Wine — Published on September 11, 2018
The Fanatical But Forgotten Legacy of Martin Ray — Published on September 29, 2018
The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials — Published on October 8, 2018
Race From The Bottom — How Should Wine Regions Break Into New Markets? — Published on October 25, 2018

A drum that I will continue to beat loudly in my writings is that the biggest threat to the wine industry over the next several years will be the “Boredom Factor” of the next generation. In 2019, Millennials will outnumber Baby Boomers as the largest demographic in the US. As I touched on back in my January post Cab is King but for how long? and in The Wine Industry’s Reckoning With Millennials, wineries are foolish to rest their laurels on the old-standbys of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

Millennials crave new experiences and are notorious for getting bored quickly. We crave uniqueness and distinction. As the influence of Baby Boomers and Gen Xers fade from dominance, wineries are going to have to figure out how to stand out from the pack of “same ole, same ole.” The wineries and wine regions that aren’t planning for this (or, worse, doubling down on the old guard) are going to struggle mightily.

November
Wagner Pinots

Pitting these Joe Wagner wines against various Oregon Pinot noirs in a blind tasting yielded some surprising results.

Wine Media Musings — Published on November 9, 2018
Viva La Vida New Zealand — The Coldplay of the wine world? — Published on November 13, 2018
What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews? — Published on November 15, 2018
Joe Wagner vs the Oregon Volcano — Published on November 30, 2018

While I’m coming around to the Wine Bloggers Conference’s name change to Wine Media Conference, I still hold a lot of the same sentiments I expressed in Wine Media Musings. The mantra Show, Don’t Tell is another one that I’m not likely to abandon. I see little need to puff up my credentials or try to claim a title of “Wine Media” for myself. I’m a writer. I’m a communicator. But ultimately it will be readers like you who decide what is Wine Media and what is just noise. My job is merely to put my head down, do my due diligence and work, and create content that will hopefully show that it’s credible and original.

December

The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews — Published on December 10, 2018
Stop Scaring the Newbies — A Look at the Wine Hierarchy of Needs — Published on December 16, 2018
Winery Tasting Notes Done Right — Published on December 17, 2018
Nathan Fay’s Leap of Faith — Published on December 31, 2018

Image source https://medium.com/@crypto_maven/bitcoin-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-7bf1be0a366c

The Wine Hierarchy of Needs.
Original image from Bitcoin & Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Drawing by Kenneth buddha Jeans with text added.

I’ll try to make a New Year’s resolution to stop writing about wine reviews for 2019. But I will say that posts like The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews have done a lot to solidify in my mind just what the hell I’m doing here. Even though I often draw on my experiences working retail, at restaurants and wineries for posts, at my core, I’m just a regular wine consumer like most of you. It’ll always be hard to separate from that mindset when I deal with wine reviews as well as winery tasting notes.

While there are aspects of those things that are undoubtedly helpful for consumers making buying decisions–a lot of it is also a heap of bullshit. (Sorry, must be a January-thing)

Finally, two of these year-end posts–the Wine Hierarchy of Needs and my piece on Nathan Fay–were my absolute favorites posts that I’ve written on this blog to date. It felt good to end the year on a high note.

My Favorite 60 Second Reviews of 2018

I went back and forth about whether or not I wanted to do a Top Wines of the Year post. Ultimately I decided against it for a few reasons. For one, I haven’t yet published my reviews on all the great wines I had last year–especially from the past three months. While I have my tasting notes written down, the Geekery sections take longer to do because I’m a stickler for research and fact-checking. I want to find multiple sources beyond just a winery’s website for details I publish. This means that many of the wines I review are ones that I might have had several days or weeks prior. (I do consider that when I make verdict calls relating to a wine’s aging potential or pratfalls.)

The second reason is that I don’t want this blog to be all about reviews. In general, I try to post reviews only around 2 to 3 times a week with the bulk of my articles being on other wine topics. For me, it will always be about the Geekery section. So while I will likely do 60 Second reviews in 2019 with the same frequency as last year, I may turn more of them into Getting Geeky with… posts.

With that said, this list below is not necessarily my favorite wines of the year (though many of them were excellent) but of the posts that I had the most fun researching for the Geekery section.
Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape

I learned a lot about Beaucastel’s approach to blending while researching this post.

Winderlea Shea Pinot noir — Published on January 29, 2018
Pierre Gerbais L’Originale — Published on January 31, 2018
Domaine Coquard Loison Fleurot Chambolle-Musigny — Published on February 28, 2018
Guardian Newsprint Cabernet Sauvignon — Published on March 14, 2018
Gorman Evil Twin — Published on March 15, 2018
2000 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape — Published on April 9, 2018
2004 Nicolas Joly Coulée de Serrant — Published on April 21, 2018
Domaine des Pins St. Amour Les Pierres — Published on April 23, 2018
WillaKenzie Pinot blanc — Published on May 8, 2018
2007 Efeste Final-Final — Published on August 22, 2018
Adobe Road Bavarian Lion Cabernet Sauvignon — Published on September 28, 2018
Ch. de la Perriere Brouilly — Published on October 9, 2018
DeLille 2015 Rose (Can Rosés Age?) — Published on October 17, 2018
La Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 — Published on November 17, 2018
Accordini Ripasso — Published on November 19, 2018

Speaking of Getting Geeky

Few posts convey the spirit and focus of SpitBucket more than my Getting Geeky and Geek Notes features. Here is where I get down and dirty with the type of material that wine students pursuing higher levels of wine certification should aim to master. They make up a good chunk of the 350+ posts that I’ve written so far so I will narrow this down to just my ten favorites of each from this past year.

Getting Geeky with Domaine du Grangeon Chatus — Published on February 18, 2018
Getting Geeky with Soaring Rooster Rose of Counoise — Published on March 7, 2018
Getting Geeky with Gramercy Picpoul — Published on March 19, 2018
Getting Geeky with Henri Gouges La Perrière White Pinot — Published on April 6, 2018
Getting Geeky about Malbec — Published on April 17, 2018
Getting Geeky with Davenport Cellars Ciel du Cheval Rosé of Sangiovese — Published on August 4, 2018
Getting Geeky with Robert Ramsay Mourvèdre — Published on August 17, 2018
Getting Geeky with Otis Kenyon Roussanne — Published on August 25, 2018
Getting Geeky with Rabbit Ridge Petit Verdot — Published on October 13, 2018
Getting Geeky with Welsh Family Wines Blaufränkisch — Published on October 21, 2018

Geek Notes

This section changed focus in the latter half of the year. Previously, I used Geek Notes as a curated news feed featuring interesting weblinks with added commentary. After attending the Wine Bloggers/Media Conference in October, I realized that I needed to come up with a game plan for my social media channels. I moved the curated new feed over to the SpitBucket Facebook page and refocused Geek Notes to highlight useful study aides like podcasts, maps, videos and books for wine students.

Out of all the features that I do on the blog, this is the area that I will be increasing the frequency of my postings the most for 2019.

Barolo Cru map

A section of the Grand Crus of Barolo map with the full version at http://www.jdemeven.cz/wine/Barolo_map.pdf

Killer Clos Vougeot Map — Published on January 9, 2018
I’ll Drink To That! Episode 331 Featuring Greg Harrington — Published on August 23, 2018
UK Wine Show Episode 111 with Ian D’Agata — Published on September 23, 2018
Super Cool Map of Barolo Crus — Published on September 30, 2018
Grape Radio Episode 391 Interview with Hubert de Boüard of Ch. Angélus — Published on October 10, 2018
Insider’s Peek Into Champagne — Published on November 7, 2018
Top Audiobooks on California Wine History — Published on November 11, 2018
Five Essential Books On Champagne — Published on December 5, 2018
The Process of Champagne GuildSomm Podcast — Published on December 8, 2018
More Champagne with GuildSomm Podcast — Published on December 22, 2018

Additionally, in 2018 I launched my Keeping up with the Joneses in Burgundy series which dives into the family lineage and connection of Burgundy estates. I started with the Boillot family and have completed cheat sheets on the Morey, Gros, Coche and Leflaive families as well. I will definitely continue producing more of these posts over the next several months.

Wine Events of 2018 and Some Personal News

Last year I had the opportunity to attend many fun wine events. Some were great (like the Wine Bloggers/Media Conference and Hospice du Rhone) while others (like the most recent Wine Spectator Grand Tour and Taste Washington’s New Vintage) were a bit of a dud.

Morgan Twain-Peterson

Meeting Master of Wine Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock at the Hospice du Rhone was another highlight of the year for me.

Walla Walla Musings — Published on February 15, 2018
Quilceda Creek Release Party — Published on March 18, 2018
Event Review — The New Vintage at Taste Washington — Published on March 27, 2018
Event Review — Washington vs The World Seminar — Published on March 29, 2018
Event Review — Stags’ Leap Winery Dinner — Published on April 22, 2018
Hospice du Rhône Weekend 2018 — Published on April 30, 2018
Déjà Vu at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour — Published on June 2, 2018
Getting Ready (and a bit nervous) For WBC18! — Published on October 3, 2018

My schedule of events for 2019 will be quite a bit different from last year. My wife and I are moving to Paris sometime in March as she takes on a new job opportunity in France. I will be making frequent trips back to the US to see family and work on a research project about the Stags Leap District AVA. But I’m not sure which events I’ll be able to attend–at least in the United States.

I do have my tickets already booked for the 2019 Wine Media Conference in the Hunter Valley this October, so that is a definite. I will also be transferring my WSET Diploma course work to London for an online/intensive classroom block schedule. This will give me a chance to explore some of the various wine events going on that side of the pond. Stay tuned!

Bordeaux Futures Posts

2015 Ch. Margaux

While I’ll likely never score as great of a deal as I did for the 2015 Ch. Margaux, I’ll still be a regular buyer of Bordeaux futures.

I started my coverage of the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign on May 1st of last year with an examination of the offers on Ch. Palmer, Valandraud, Fombrauge and Haut-Batailley. I completed 15 more posts, covering the offers of 64 chateaux, before it got too late into the year for futures offers to be relevant.

While my post Why I Buy Bordeaux Futures was one of my most popular of the year, admittedly I’m not certain if I want to continue this series with coverage on the 2018 campaign. These posts take a considerable amount of time to research and write and, overall, they don’t seem to get much readership.

But I will still be buying futures and doing this research on my own. I’ll likely do a modified version of the series in more of a summary format of the offers. I don’t need to necessarily repeat the geekery sections for each estate. I can shift that focus to individual Getting Geeky with... posts as I did for the 2007 Léoville Poyferré and 2008 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose.

However, if you were a fan of my coverage on the 2017 Bordeaux Futures campaign, I would love to get some feedback in the comments below.

Book Reviews

One area that I want to make a commitment to work on is posting more book reviews of useful wine books. Last year I only completed four.

Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers by Robert Walters — Published on January 16, 2018
Rosé Wine: The Guide to Drinking Pink by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan — Published on January 27, 2018
Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide by Paul Gregutt — Published on March 15, 2018
Oregon Wine Country Stories: Decoding the Grape by Kenneth Friedenreich — Published on August 20, 2018

While these are a bit of work, they are a lot of fun to write. I’m such a bibliophile that few things give me more joy than a highlighter and a good wine book. Writing these reviews is a way for me to relieve the delight of discovery I had when I first read them. They’re also terrific learning tools as I inevitably pick up something new (as I did with Oregon Wine Country Stories) when I go back to the text to write a review.

I’m going to set a goal of posting at least one book review a month for 2019. Some of these may be new books but most will probably be old favorites that I feel are particularly of benefit for wine students. I also enjoy putting together the Geek Notes for the Five Essential Books On Champagne and will continue that this year with listings of essential books on Bordeaux, Burgundy, Italian Wine, Winemaking and more.

Onto 2019!

So that is my look back at 2018 and thoughts for this year. Thank you to everyone who has subscribed as well as follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I had a lot of fun last year and look forward to more geeking in 2019!

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Wine & Politics — Strange Bedfellows or Drinking Buddies?

A few days after Christmas, the South African Twitter account @WineMag decided to resurrect the ghost of controversies past by revisiting Jon Bonné’s provocative article Why Is the Wine World So Un-Woke?.

By Neeta Lind - IMG_0416, CC BY 2.0,

Written in the aftermath of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide last summer, Bonné wondered why we didn’t have more writers who embraced Bourdain’s willingness to “tear down the false romanticism” around wine. Instead, wine writers seem to actively avoid covering sensitive topics or the industry’s unsavory elements.

Food, and food writing, may be guilty of its share of glossing-over, of preening and celebrity and the lionizing of malcontent, egoist chefs—not even at the Batali-Friedman-Besh level, but more subtly. It’s no different with tech, where Steve Jobs’ iconic status could overshadow the fact he wasn’t a terribly nice person. But when it comes to whistling past its problems, wine asks those other industries to hold its beer. Jon Bonné, PUNCH magazine, July 18th, 2018

Bonné certainly garnered a lot of attention (and interesting comments) when his post was originally published. But then, like many things in our ADD-driven culture, it faded from the conversation. At least it did until the December 27th tweet from @WineMag. That piqued the interest of Master of Wine Tim Atkins who retweeted it on his feed.

Then Whoa Nelly!

While I’ll comment on a few things below, I can’t possibly do justice summarizing all the many excellent points and divergent opinions in the thread, as well as the many side threads, that sprung up from Atkins tweet. Instead, I’ll encourage you to take a trip down the rabbit hole to read the insightful comments from Atkins, Artisan Swiss, Felicity Carter (the Editor-in-Chief of Meininger’s Wine Business International), Master of Wines John Atkinson and Elizabeth Gabay, Petri Pellinen as well as Bonné himself.

While Bonné’s original post wasn’t explicitly about wine & politics, several of the threads converged on the question about how “political” should we expect wine writers to be. Things took a particularly charged turn when Maureen Downey, probably the wine world’s foremost expert on wine fraud, shared her stark disagreement that politics and wine should ever mix.

This set off another cascade of replies and threads–including one where I finally poked my head. My tweet came in response to Felicity Carter’s comment that wondered if American and European folks were looking at Bonné’s article from different angles.

Why Go Red or Blue When You Can Go Rosé?

As I learned later, through a series of tweets by Jon Bonné, my political views and Maureen Downey’s are very different. I’m a moderate who disdains tribalism that puts people into red/blue, liberal/conservative camps. I personally don’t believe that any ideology has a monopoly on good ideas (or bad ones) which is why we should listen to each other and compromise.

While the vitriol of Downey’s political posts disheartened me, they still don’t sway my overall respect for her work. I feel it would be foolish to shun her expertize or boycott her company just because our beliefs outside of wine are so different.

But I fear that such a public outing of personal politics (even if they’re made in a public forum) would cause others to rethink their esteem of Downey. And that disheartens me just as much as Downey’s politics.

Simply put, I don’t want to lose the “safe space” of a wine community. I love that people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs can set aside their differences and share a common joy. Losing this sense of community is exactly what we’re risking when wine writers dive too much into politics.

Exceptions not Expectations

However, I don’t believe that the world of wine needs to avoid politics completely. I do somewhat agree with Bonné yearning for a Bourdain-type figure in wine. We do need writers who aren’t afraid of poking sacred cows or exposing the ugly side of the industry.

But I think those people, like Bourdain, are rare breeds. I shared this sentiment in a further reply on Carter’s thread.

It would benefit no one if wine writers were judged by how “woke” they were and how actively they covered political topics. Not everyone has the skills set (or tact) to tackle those issues in ways that move the conversation forward instead of disintegrating into pontification and invectives.

Those that have those skills should be valued and encouraged to write when they’re inspired. But for the vast many who don’t, their dabbling into political tussles is more apt to produce a landscape of replacing facts with opinions and emotionally charged slurs of SJW, liberals, right-wingers or conservatives slung about.

And where does that help? It certainly doesn’t help enhance the appreciation of wine. Nor would it edify anyone’s understanding of sensitive political issues.

Maybe We Need More Esther Mobleys Rather Than Anthony Bourdains?

If you want an example of a wine writer that has the skills and tact to write effectively about politically charged issues go check out Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle. Over the years, she has tackled some thorny subjects like the role of immigrant labor in sustaining the California wine industry and gender issues.

While you might be able to infer Mobley’s politics by her topic choices, you would be hard-pressed to peg her exact personal views down. That is because her work rarely speaks to her opinion. Instead, the scalpel she uses to cut deep into her topics speaks loudly enough for her. Sure, she’s not as blunt as Bourdain was in calling out perceived ills. But her thoughtful approach moves these delicate conversations forward.

That makes her far more effective as a wine writer than a wannabe Bourdain being a bull in the china shop.

If there were more Esther Mobleys writing about wine, I wouldn’t feel as cringey about the thought of wine writers being political. But just like Anthony Bourdain, Esther Mobley is a rare breed as well.

Not many can fill those shoes. I know I can’t. Which is why I’ll continue to keep my two Twitter accounts separate.

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An American Wine Geek In Paris

I’ve had some unexpected travel plans drop in my lap so I’m flying off today to Paris. While I should get some time to write for the blog, I’ll likely miss a few days.

Postcard from 1910 by anonymous photographer. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD Old

However, I will still be posting regularly on SpitBucket’s social media channels about the wine discoveries of my Parisian excursion. If you haven’t followed me on those channels yet, you should check them out.

Though I’ve been to Bordeaux, Burgundy and Provence, this is my first time visiting Paris. As an American wine geek who doesn’t speak French, I have some questions that I’m going to explore while I’m there.

1.) What kind of wine will I find at the wine shops?

The French are notoriously provincial about their wine. In Burgundy, nearly all I saw was Burgundian wines. In Bordeaux, it was Bordeaux, etc. Paris, meanwhile, doesn’t really have its own wine. It’s the market prize that all these other French regions are competing for. What kind of mix will I see? Is there any region that captures the Parisians hearts more at the moment?

Plus, along those lines.

2.) How many obscure AOCs/VDQS can I find that I don’t ever see in the US?

This will be my wine geek scavenger hunt and what I’ll be geeking out over on SpitBucket’s Instagram. Sure, I’m excited to see the Eiffel Tower but what I really want to see is a Château-Chalon or L’Etoile from Jura or one of the crus from Roussette de Savoie like Frangy, Marestel, Monterminod and Monthoux.

And what about the prices?

After working retail for more than 7 years, I’m very familiar with the typical assortment of French wines at American shops. The contrast and comparison with French wine shops will be fascinating for me.

How different is their idea of customer service and wine education?

3.) How easy will it be for me to explore and geek-out without knowing French?

While I can speak “wine” and will have no issues with a wine list or perusing a wine shop, I’m curious about the conversations at the cafe or with the shop’s steward. I’d love to be able to learn more about Parisian wine culture while I’m there. But I have no idea how open or easy it will be.

These observations and general thoughts on the city’s wine culture are what I’ll be sharing on SpitBucket’s Twitter.

Daily News and Tidbits on SpitBucket’s Facebook Page

This won’t be very Paris focused but I’ll still be going through my daily scouring of interesting wine news and blogs that I’ll feature on SpitBucket’s Facebook page.

Even when I don’t have time to get a blog post out, I’m still doing daily posting on Facebook of things that I feel are worth reading and geeking out over. It’s definitely a different approach than what I take to my other social media channels with a lot of content featured that doesn’t make its way to the blog.

As for the blog, again, I’ll probably get a few posts up over the next week. But most likely I won’t get back to regular features till after Christmas.

Happy Holidays!

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Winery Tasting Notes Done Right

JJ Williams of Kiona Vineyards did a terrific write-up on the problem with winery tasting notes. If you own a winery, this is a must read. Tasting notes are certainly one of the necessary evils of selling wine.

Photo by Simon A. Eugster. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Next time you’re at a wine shop, look at back labels. Try to count how many times you see the words chocolate, mocha or cacao used in tasting notes.

For wine students, particularly those studying for Unit 1 of the WSET Diploma on the Business of Wine, it’s helpful to critically examine the usefulness of these notes.

Whether on the back label or website, we should ask if tasting notes really help consumers in selecting wine. Do flourished descriptions of flavors, bouquet and mouthfeel help distinguish one winery’s wine from its thousands of competitors?

Do they answer the important question of “Why should I buy this wine?”

Probably not.

In his post, Williams notes the usual results of these tasting notes.

Enter the wine marketer. We interject ourselves into the equation by telling you what to do, and how you’re going to do it. If I say, “now this Cabernet has a really nice chocolate note,” there are three potential outcomes that I think are the most likely:

1.) The power of suggestion is very strong. If I say chocolate, you taste chocolate.
2.) You don’t taste chocolate. You’ve been eating chocolate for a long time, and this is not that. Since I am speaking from a position of authority, you decide you’re doing something wrong, and slowly nod your head in faux agreement.
3.) You don’t taste chocolate. You’ve been eating chocolate for a long time, and this is not that. You are suddenly aware that your eyebrow is twitching because you’ve just realized that I must be full of $*%#. You slowly nod your head in faux agreement.

None of these are good outcomes.
— JJ Williams, Hitting the Wrong (Tasting) Note?, 12/11/18

What are the benefits of telling consumers that a wine has notes of chocolate? Sure, there may be a halo effect on the wine from positive associations with chocolate. That may help someone pick up a bottle. But there is also a risk of negative associations backfiring too. Back in my retail days, I once had a customer get turned off by a wine described as chocolaty because she was lactose intolerant. (Yeah, I know.) But you get the same issues with virtually every descriptor.

If you think of the tasting note, on a website or bottle, as valuable real estate—are overly common (and, ultimately, subjective) words like “chocolate” truly worth that space?

Putting That Real Estate To Work.

Photo by Aromaster. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Some winery tasting notes feel like they threw darts at the Aroma Wheel and wrote down what they hit. I once had a California red blend with a back label describing flavors of orange blossom, fig, hazelnut, chocolate (*ding*) and hay.

Consumers pick up bottles to read back labels and will often visit wineries’ websites to buy wine or find more details. This space is valuable. Extremely so.

As much attention and care that a winery puts into crafting stylish front labels and web-page design, should be put towards their tasting notes as well. Wineries need to leverage this space.

Writing the same boring tasting notes populated with platitudes and whatever descriptors they get from the Wine Aroma Wheel is not going to cut-it. Wineries have to give consumers a reason to take home their wine over the multitudes of other bottles being described with those same tasting notes.

A tasting note should convey what sets one “balanced, Bordeaux-style wine [that] coats the palate with a velvety richness and fine tannin structure” apart from every other balanced, velvety rich and finely tannic wine.

Otherwise, it is just blowing the same useless marketing BS that virtually every other bottle is blowing. Where is the consumer being helped in this?

Outside the Bottle — In the Consumer’s Cart

Williams highlights a brilliant approach that Kiona uses in crafting their tasting notes. They categorize their “wine speak” into what relates to “Outside the Bottle” details and what pertains to the more vague and subjective “Inside the Bottle” experiences.

1.) Outside the Bottle. This category encompasses everything that is interesting about a wine that happens outside the bottle. Vineyards, geography, growing philosophy, winemaking goals, winemaking process, blending process, etc.
2.) Inside the Bottle. This category encompasses everything that the drinker experiences once the cork is pulled.

We make a concerted effort to talk about the “OtB” aspects of a wine only. This extends up and down our operation, including our website, our tech sheets, our tasting room collateral, our employee training and our general vernacular. In the rare circumstances where we dabble in “ItB” language, it’s almost always in generalities. You might read something along the lines of “fresh black fruit characteristic”, but never “brambly vine-ripened summer blackberries.” — JJ Williams, Hitting the Wrong (Tasting) Note?, 12/11/18

Kiona's Lemberger tasting note

Example of Kiona’s “Outside the Bottle” approach for their Lemberger.

Inside the bottle, almost all wine is the same–especially before a consumer pulls the cork. It has potential and possibilities but every wine is promising potential and possibilities.

However, what is outside the bottle makes the wine unique. It’s the people, the place, the story and craftsmanship that sets it apart from each and every other bottle.

That is real estate that pays for its space.

Examples of Tasting Notes That Work

On their website, Kiona has several examples where they use “Outside the Bottle” tasting notes to make their wines distinctive and interesting. One I particularly like is for their Lemberger shown above. This is a bloody hard wine to sell because of the name. But Kiona gives some intriguing history as well as details about what makes their Lemberger different from other domestic examples and Austrian Blaufränkisch.

Personality Not Platitudes
Upside Down Malbec's tasting note

I don’t know why but “Dead Poplar” sounds like an awesome vineyard name.

Upsidedown Wine by Seth & Audrey Kitzke note that their 2014 Gold Drop Malbec is made from one of the fastest growing varieties in Washington State. That piques curiosity. Why are people so excited about Washington Malbec? Maybe I should buy a bottle and find out.

The tasting note also shares that the wine has some Petit Verdot (another grape getting a lot of buzz) blended in to make it distinctive from other Malbecs. Additionally they highlight the small production (only 98 cases) and single vineyard sourcing. While it does have the typical big dark fruits and pepper descriptors of many other Malbecs, those notes act as side bars rather than the main feature.

For their 2016 Viognier, Serrano Wines injects a ton of personality into their tasting note by sharing that this wine was inspired by drinking Guigal’s Le Doriane Condrieu.

Instead of being grown with the typical cordon or guyot vine training methods that most domestic Viogniers use, Serrano points out that they’re using a special tee-pee (or eschalla) training common in Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. (Their website has pictures of this unique–and very labor intensive–vine training.)

While many consumers are not going to care much about vine training, Serrano’s tasting note works by highlighting why the consumer should care–i.e. why this bottle of Viognier is different from all the other options they have.

That is leveraging every bit of precious real estate to stand out from the pack.
Serrano Viognier tasting note

When evident care is put into crafting a great tasting note that tells a story, it tells the consumer that a lot of care went into crafting the wine as well.

Instead of being a “necessary evil”, tasting notes can be tools.

Wineries should follow the advice of JJ Williams of Kiona. They shouldn’t farm this task to marketing departments writing the same blathering blurbs. They need to think “outside the bottle” and use these notes to tell consumers their stories.

Of course, wineries will benefit by selling more wines. But consumers will benefit as well from better tasting notes.

Instead of standing in an aisle, reading label after label of fruit-forward, divinely complex, approachable and exceptionally food-friendly and layered aromas of black currant, blueberry and cherry [that] are accentuated by an authentic barrel bouquet of hazelnut, cocoa powder [ding], and dark roasted coffee, they actually get words that have value and meaning.

They get words that tell them something–about the people and place this wine comes from. Most importantly, they get answers to the question that all consumers have when they pick up a bottle.

Why should I buy this wine?

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