Category Archives: Wine marketing

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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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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Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

A few days ago I wrote about the “Boredom Factor” that is sapping Millennials’ enthusiasm for wine. But engaging Millennials with things that are new, interesting and authentic is only part of the battle. The industry also needs to reframe the discussion about value and pricing.

Photo by Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

Let’s face it, wine delivers horrible “bang for the buck”–especially compared to other alcoholic beverages. This is true at all price points, but particularly at the low-end (and ironically titled) “value wine” segment.

For smaller boutique wineries, worrying about “value wine” might not seem like a big deal. But the issues impacting the top shelf take root on the bottom.

If you want to know why $100+ bottles of Napa Cab are in danger, head to your local grocery store and look around.

Millennial Math in the Grocery Store

I’ll get to our boutique and more premium wine brands below. But let’s start with a cash-strapped Millennial who want to spend less than $10 for something to drink. You could go to the wine aisle and find stuff like this.

Yellow Tail and other under $10 wines

Then there are other options as well–like Barefoot, Arbor Mist, Cooks, Andre’s and more. At this one grocery store, I estimated that around 40% of their wine selection was sub $10. So, diversity, yeah?

But they all fall into the same “sameness” of sweet, simple or boring Cabs, Chards and Red Blends. Sure, you have the occasional gimmick of things like the “living labels” of Treasury Wine Estates’ 19 Crimes. However, after the novelty of a cute label wears off, it’s still the same boring juice in the bottle.

Now right next to the wine department in many stores is a beer department which has likely been greatly expanded thanks to the craft beer boom.

Let’s see what under $10 options our Millennial shopper has there.

22 oz Beer bomber singles

These are 22 oz “bomber” sizes of beer which is only a tad smaller than the standard 750ml (25.4 oz) bottle of wine. In this one Albertsons grocery store, I counted over 80 different SKUs of at least 20 different styles of beer among under $10 bombers. And this was a rather small grocery selection for the Seattle-area market.

If you think of beer styles (Belgian Tripel, New England IPA, Oatmeal Stout, etc.) like grape varieties, the beer department has the wine industry smoked when it comes to answering the “Boredom Factor.”

Even among the same style (like IPA), you are far more likely to find distinct personalities and differences (hoppiness) among various brews than you ever would dream of finding among under $10 Cabs, Chards and Red Blends.

I have a fair amount of industry folks who read this blog so I’m going to ask you to step back and take off your “wine hat” for a moment. If you were a young post-college Millennial shopper with no personal connection (like having visited a winery) or long-term relationship with drinking wine, what would you spend your $10 on?

Are we just waiting for better times?

Yeah, things suck right now for the broke 20-something Millennial. But can we really predict their future buying potential based on the habits of their 20s?

It’s true that most Millennials have not entered their peak earning ages. Likewise, most have not reached the ages when previous generations started embracing wine.

Jason Haas, of Tablas Creek, makes that later point particularly well as he points out some of the silver linings amidst the gloom and doom assessments about Millennials.

The median age of a Millennial is 30, but the Millennials at the peak of the demographic bubble are just 24. Were many Baby Boomers drinking wine at age 30, let alone 24? No. How about GenX? Not much. Millennials are drinking more wine than preceding generations were at the same age, which should be a positive enough trend. — Jason Haas, Are the gloomy messages about the state of the wine industry warranted? I say not for wineries like us. 2/4/2019

I concede Haas’ point and appreciate his optimism. I’ve certainly not hidden my affection or admiration for Tablas Creek’s business acumen. Though Haas is a “proud Gen Xer,” he pretty much runs Tablas Creek like a Millennial with a brand that embraces transparency, authenticity and sustainability along with pushing the envelope for new and exciting wines.

Without a doubt, if more wineries followed Tablas Creek’s example, the Boredom Factor would almost be a non-issue.

But what I fret that Haas’ optimism overlooks is the habits and perceptions that are being ingrained into Millennial consumers right now. Haas’ generation (and the Boomers) had the benefit of a promising economic outlook before them–where there was the potential for growth in earnings and career development.

That is a luxury that many Millennials don’t have and this is something that we are all too aware of. Even if things get a little bit better into our late 30s and 40s, it’s going to be very difficult to shake the mindset and spending habits of our formative 20s and early 30s.

Valuing “Value”

While things are not as bad as they were during the Great Depression, social scientists and economists are already drawing parallels to the spending habits and mindset of Millennials with those of the Silent Generation born between 1925-1945.

Even though the Silent Generation benefited from the post-war boom, many kept the spending habits imprinted on them during the hardship of the Great Depression. Prominent among those retained habits was the idea of stretching your dollar–even when you had more dollars to stretch.

Millennials certainly like to be entertained. We want experiences and to feel connected. And we avoid boredom like the plague.

But we deeply value “value.”

The $15-25 Sweet Spot

Let’s go back to the grocery store and look at the more premium $15-25 “sweet spot” range of wine pricing–with emphasis on the sweet.

Meiomi & 7 deadly with cheaper spirits

Usually, Meiomi is not over $25 so, for the sake of argument, I’m including it here.

When you get up to the higher price points, wine’s competition is not just beer (with many interesting six and twelve packs available in this price range) but also spirits as well. But spirits adds another dimension because they’re far less perishable and the servings are much smaller.

With wine and beer, you ideally want to enjoy it the same day that it was opened. But a comparably priced spirit can last weeks or even months.

Now I can hear wine folks scoffing at the idea of Captain Morgan or Deep Eddy taking away throat share from anyone older than 23. Yeah, I get it. The “Fireball crowd” eventually grows up. But for those folks who lose the sweet tooth and want something with more complexity, the spirits department still offers numerous options–especially among whiskeys.

Plus, because of how long a bottle of whiskey last, a Millennial could even stretch their $25 drinking budget to $40 and still get some very compelling value.

Old Forester and Woodford reserve

Personally not a fan of the Redneck Riviera but I’d take it over Meiomi any day of the week.

Granted, you have to sometimes deal with the inconvenience of getting the product out of lockup. Also, in some states (like Washington) there are crazy high liquor taxes to account for too.

However, this is all part of the sum-value Millennial Math that we deal with on every trip to the store. What the wine industry needs to concern itself with is how all these figures are adding up.

Banking on Premium Spenders

I want to embrace the optimism that as Millennials feel financially secure, they will turn to wine and start spending in the premium category. That means not only a strong wine industry but also a strong economy overall.

But I can’t shake the feeling that even if Millennials have more money to spend, that they’re not going to be impressed with the value they see in high-end wines. This is something that I’ve personally experienced myself. I’m very fortunate in my financial situation to where I can occasionally splurge on bottles like Opus One, Silver Oak, Cristal and Petrus.

You know what? I’d rather drink Pappy.

I feel this way even though I’m a highly-engaged wine drinker with a personal connection to wine. I’ve been bitten hard by the bug and have a healthy cellar to show for it.

But if you ask me for my brutally honest choice of whether to spend another $2600-4000 on a bottle of Petrus or something like the 1981 Glenmorangie Pride, I would choose the Glenmorangie every time.

And this is coming from someone that keeps a picture of Petrus as their background banner on Facebook!

However, when I step back and let my Millennial nature take over–when I think about the sum-value of what I’m getting compared to what I’m paying–whiskey beats out wine.

If that’s the case with someone like me, then how do you think the math is playing out with my co-horts?

The Petruses of the World are not the ones that need to worry.

Petrus is not going to have problems selling their wine. Even if Millennials aren’t spending at levels of past generations, wineries like Petrus make so little at such high prices that they only need a few folks to bite the bullet each vintage. There is always going to be enough people like me who shell out thousands to attend our Super Bowl–even if it ends up being a 13-3 snorefest.

The real hurt is going to be felt by all the wineries making NFL regular-season and playoff-type wines. They’re the ones that are going to have to convince Millennials that their wines are worth the price of the ticket.

Let’s go back and look at our supermarket shelf at some of the $50-100 options.
$50 to 100 wine vs spirits

That is an excellent price on the Grgich. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was wondering how long it had been standing upright under the supermarket’s harsh lights.

Again, why spend $50-100 for something that needs to be enjoyed mostly in one night (unless you spend another $200+ for a preservation system like the Coravin) over something you could stretch for months?

Wine’s saving grace has been that only a small segment of drinkers have developed a taste for brown spirits like whiskey, tequila and rum. But those categories are growing–especially among Millennials and women.

If the boredom factor doesn’t kill off the $100+ Napa Cab, brown spirits certainly will.

But it all starts back in the beginning, with the spending habits and perception of value that Millennials are developing now with their under $10 and $15-25 options. Here is where wineries are losing the battle before the war even begins.

Yeah, Millennials wanderlust is great and can definitely help wineries that are offering different and exciting wines. But that same wanderlust also fuels our openness in trying other beverages like craft beer and brown liquors. The more we try them, the more those other options become players in the “sum-value” game of Millennial Math.

And, right now, that math is seriously working against the wine industry.

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Is the Wine Industry boring Millennials to (its) death?

For a follow up to this post, check out Millennial Math — Where’s the value in wine?

Ah, Millennials. The infamous murderers of numerous industries and institutions. Now, it appears that wine is the latest victim in our crosshairs.

Photo by Ed Yourdon'. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-2.0

As a millennial myself, my first instinct to such breathless takes is to roll my eyes. There are only so many times you can be blamed for economic homicide before it becomes ho-hum. But as a student of wine business and marketing, I know that there are embers underneath all the smoke and silliness.

Because–apocalyptic hyperbole aside–the wine industry does have a “Millennial Problem.”

It’s boring as fuck.

Losing the Millennial Market

This recent hand-wringing over Millennials was provoked by Silicon Valley Bank’s State of the Wine Industry report released earlier this month. The headline grabber was that Millennials were not adopting and consuming wine at the rate of previous generations.

Rob McMillan, the founder of SVB’s Wine Division, commented on his blog reasons why he thinks Millennials might become a generation of “lost wine consumers”.

I’m skeptical about the weight he gives to neo-prohibitionism and health concerns. Cocktails, energy drinks, cannabis, coffee, craft beer, whiskey and other hard alcohols have to deal with negative health-messaging as well. Yet, these categories are growing and taking “throat share” away from wine–particularly among Millennials.

But McMillan absolutely hits it square on the head when he points out how boring wine is making itself seem to Millennial consumers.

We are quickly becoming your parents beverage, and being your parents anything is always the kiss of death for consumer products.

Wine is Boring ..

To this young consumer with a short-attention span – activity, health, the environment, causes with an egalitarianism theme and fun are important both conceptually and as values. The wine industry is just not hitting any of those elements to attract their attention. — Rob McMillian, The Lost Wine Consumer of 2019, 1/27/2019

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Do you know why Merlot sales are still sluggish?
Photo by Benutzer:Stahlkocher. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

The only thing in this picture that gives me joy is the decanter. It’s my ideal shape for form and function.

It’s not because of a movie that came out when the youngest Millennials were still playing on their elementary school playgrounds.

No, it’s because it is what our parents and grandparents drink. And who wants to choose that when you’re out on a date or sitting at home watching documentaries about the Fyre Festival?

It’s boring and anything boring is not worth the time, money or calories.

If there is one area I would give credence to about health concerns impacting wine sales, it is that Millennials and the upcoming Generation Z are not interested in just getting drunk.

What we put into our bodies has to give us some tangible benefit beyond intoxication. It has to edify us–mentally, spiritually, physically or emotionally. To Marie Kondo-it, we want the things in our lives to bring us joy.

So how can wine bring joy back to Millennial consumers instead of boring them to tears?

Combating Wine’s Boredom Factor

A tried and true tenet of Marketing 101 is that successful companies stand out from the pack. Especially in a crowded marketplace, you need to find ways to catch the consumer’s attention and show them that you’re different.

Bottle highlight 90+ score

Yawn…

That’s still true with Millennials. This is not an area where marketers need to re-invent the wheel. But what wineries do need to reconsider is how they are trying to distinguish themselves.

Oh, you got a great 90+ score from a critic?

That’s nice. So did several thousand other wines.

Oh, your vineyard has unique terroir and you let the wine reflect the site?

That’s nice. Most all your competitors say that too.

Oh, you won whatever medals from whatever wine competitions?

That’s nice. Look at all that bling being passed out like candy.

Oh, you have heavy screen printed bottles, colorful die-cut labels and REALLY long corks?

That’s nice. How much of that am I paying for in the retail cost of your wine? And why should I even bother when I can get so many other wines in less fancy packaging for a better price?

You can’t market to us the same way you did to our parents.
Photo by Deb Harkness. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

What a lovely, well maintained and cared for vineyard in Napa!
Kind of looks like all the other lovely, well maintained and cared for vineyards in Napa.

In a talk on how Napa wineries can “future proof” themselves, Paul Mabray, of the market research firm Emetry, noted that the industry can’t stay back in the 1970s and continue to do things like they did when Robert Mondavi wrote the playbook on marketing wine.

Yet, that is precisely what wineries today are trying to do. And then they wonder why Millennials aren’t responding?

To reach Millennials today wineries have to come up with a new playbook. I don’t think anyone has all the answers (I sure don’t), but I can tell you two things that will undoubtedly help.

1.) Stop “Doubling Down” on what’s been done before

Seriously. The absolute worse thing that a winery (or wine region) can do is assume that what’s been successful in the past (i.e., Cab and Chard) is going to continue to be successful in the future. Sure, the gravy train is running along smoothly now but the track up ahead is unfinished. What is the backup plan when the nails and steel run out?

Wineries wanting to capture the Millennial market have to go back to the basics of Marketing 101–they have to stand out and be different.

You don’t do that by offering us the same ole, same ole. You don’t do that by offering us what our parents drank.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Garcia. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD US Air Force

The Wine of Mencía.
Anyone who went to high school/college in the 2000s should get that.

You do that by offering us something different–different grapes, different blends, different stories.

But Amber, consumers often need to be “educated” on these different wines before they buy them.

That’s true. Folks usually don’t look at a wine list and randomly select a bottle of Mencía, Touriga Nacional or Pecorino. People need a helpful nudge to try these obscure grapes.

However, you don’t have to give them a Wikipedia article. For many consumers, the grand sum of education they need about a new wine can be delivered in two lines.

“This is something different from __________ you should try. It’s definitely not the kind of Cab/Merlot/Chardonnay/Pinot grigio that your parents would buy.”

And that’s it. That is enough to hook a lot of Millennial consumers.

Sure, there will be a few geeks like me who want to know a little more. Your tasting room staff and the restaurant sommeliers you partner with should be well trained to answer those questions. That is why they’re important influencers.

But the vast majority of Millennial consumers care more about the experience of trying something new than the nitty-gritty details.

2.) Show the people behind the wine

Millennials crave authenticity and transparency. They like a story that they can connect to and share with friends and family.

But when the wine world talks about “authenticity”, what is the first (or only) thing they talk about? Terroir, vineyards and farming.

Back label with marketing blurb

“Being famous is great, it’s not like bad or horrible or anything.” — Dave Chappelle

Now that’s all fine and good. As a geek, I love that stuff. But I am the minority. For most Millennials, hearing talk about soils and climate and all that is marketing gobbly-gook. Especially when they are hearing the same spiel from every winery and reading it on the back of every wine bottle.

We get it. Every vineyard claims to be special. Every winemaker claims to take care of the land through careful farming and to let the site speak for itself. Gold star for you.

Yet there is one unique thing that wineries (especially small wineries) have that you hardly hear a whisper about–their people. The very heart and soul of their brand.

It always baffles me how little that is promoted–especially because the best showcase of personality is a person.

Showing personality through Social Media

By far the most significant area that wineries’ fall flat in is how they use social media. I’ve talked before about the woeful state of many wineries’ Twitter use but those same woes can be seen on Facebook and Instagram.

Bottle Porn is useless.
Photo by Petar Milošević. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Pics like this probably sell more take-out meals then they do wine.
Great use of a winery’s time and social media feed, eh?

Again, this is what everyone else is doing. So what makes your bottle porn special? And, no, a fancy near-impossible-to-replicate food dish next to the bottle doesn’t do much to keep us from just scrolling by. Granted, if we’re hungry, it may encourage us to close Instagram for a moment to order something from Door Dash or Uber Eats.

Bottle porn and food pics are recipes for boredom. If you want to capture people’s attention, study after study has shown that featuring people in your posts is the way to go. For wineries, you want this to be the people who are the personalities behind your brand.

Behind-the-Scenes Story Telling

It’s kind of ironic that the wine industry has such a boredom factor when there is so much cool stuff going on. At least it’s cool to consumers who aren’t surrounded by it 24/7.

Every winemaker I know has stories about how taken back they are at the giddiness of consumers at barrel tastings. Sommeliers, wine writers and buyers get blasé checking out barrel rooms because they’ve seen them before. But for the average wine drinker, it’s quite a thrill.

I remember at one of my internships when we were doing pump overs, a few consumers in the tasting room heard the sound of the pump and wanted to know what was going on. One of the staff brought them into the winery to see and they thought it was the coolest thing ever.

So why not try to “bottle” that excitement?
PVPP fining agent.

During this Facebook Live, we’re going to learn the difference between PCP and PVPP (polyvinylpolypyrrolidone). While both are vegan-friendly, only one of these will help remove bitter tannins from wine.

Nearly every day in the winery or the vineyard is a chance to do a quick Facebook live or Instagram story. Right now, producers across the Northern Hemisphere are pruning their vines. Give a quick 2-3 minute tutorial on your Facebook page. Show us what’s the difference between cane and spur pruning and why this time of the year matters.

Again, not everyone will care about those nitty-gritty details. But they will care about a winery giving them something different to experience on their social media feed.

If you want a Masterclass in how to use social media to show personality in a brand, check out the Instagram accounts of the Kitzkes of UpsideDown Wine (@usdoingwine) and the Garretts of Serrano Wine (@serrano_wine). Spoiler alert. They’re both Millennial-owned wineries so they may know a thing or two about not being boring.

These behind-the-scenes moments don’t have to have fancy production value. In fact, it’s even better if they don’t. That makes them feel more personable, more sincere, more authentic.

And that is far less boring than being told about yet another 90+ rated Cab and Chard that was “…sourced from the finest vineyards, handcrafted to let our unique terroir come through.”

Oh please, somebody get me a joint.

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Champagne Mystery — Who makes Drake’s Mod Sélection? And will it be worth it?

Ace of Spades, part II?

Photo by The Come Up Show. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Canadian rapper Drake and Brent Hocking (founder of DeLeón Tequila) are partnering to produce a new high-end Champagne called Mod Sélection. Right off the bat, the line-up will feature a $300 non-vintage Brut and a $400 NV Rosé.

That’s a hefty price tag for a Champagne house that is being created virtually out of thin air.

In comparison, consumers can pay $300-400 and get things like:

1996 Bollinger R.D. (Wine Searcher Average $328) aged ten years on the lees. Only 750 cases imported.

1996 Duval-Leroy Femme de Champagne (WS Ave $346) from 100% Grand Cru fruit that was aged 14 years on the lees. Only 1000 cases made.

Dom Perignon “P2” Brut, 2000 (WS Ave $351) aged 15 years on the lees.

Jacques Selosse Substance Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut (WS Ave $312) from a solera that started in 1986. Usually only around 250 cases released at a time.

Pierre Peters L’Etonnant Monsieur Victor (WS Ave $301) from 100% Grand Cru fruit, including the best parcels of Les Chétillons, aged as a perpetual cuvee (similar to solera) that started in 1988. Only around 150 cases imported with each release.

And tons more great Champagnes for a heck of a lot cheaper.

Plus, these are all houses with established track records. We can figure out the grape source and know how long these wines have been aged. We can also get a general sense of how limited and prestigious these wines truly are. Yet, Drake and Hocking want folks to pay an equivalent price for Champagnes that no-one knows anything about?

Even Ace of Spades had a bit of a backstory.

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

From $60 to $300, not a bad business deal for Cattier.

Offended by comments by the CEO of his-then favorite Champagne house, Roederer, the American rapper Jay Z began promoting a brand called Armand de Brignac in 2006.

The gold plated bottle, now known as “Ace of Spades”, was made by the Champagne house Cattier. The Champagne was essentially a rebranding of their Antique Gold line which previously sold for around $60.

But once Jay Z got involved, including acquiring partial ownership of the brand in 2014, the price of the Champagne skyrocketed to around $300 for the basic non-vintage brut, $450 for the NV Rosé and approximately $600 for the NV Blanc de Blancs.

Yeah, you can see why Drake would want to follow suit.

But, again, consumers at least know about Cattier’s involvement. The brand is even prominently featured on their website.  Even though they’re a négociant-firm that purchases grapes, the Cattier family does own over 30 ha (74 acres) of vines in the Montagne de Reims including the notable premier cru Clos du Moulin in Chigny-Les-Roses. For their top cuvee from the Clos, the house only produces around 25,000 bottles.

In the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine, Tom Stevenson & Master of Wine Essi Avellan offer some more details about Armand de Brignac (presumably provided by Cattier). They note that across all the Ace of Spades wines, only around 3200 cases are produced. They also mention that at least the NV Brut is aged for around four years on lees.

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

Jean-Jacques and Alexandre Cattier who continue to operate their brand in addition to making Jay Z’s “Ace of Spades.”

 

Another Champagne Mystery

Perhaps more details about Mod Sélection will eventually come out. But it is clear right now that its proprietors are purely marketing it based on its association with a celebrity rapper. Still, I’m always down for a good mystery (especially when Champagne is involved), so I decided to see what I could dig up.

Like with Armand de Brignac/Ace of Spades and Cattier, Drake and Hocking are probably partnering with an already established Champagne house. They’re not going to buy vineyards, start aging stock and truly create a brand from scratch.

With a NV Champagne needing a legal minimum of 15 months aging on the lees before release, it’s very likely that the initial release of Mod Sélection is going to be a Champagne that was originally harvested and aged to be labeled as something else. Probably a Champagne that was going to be sold for a much lower price.

That is a big reason why the identity of the house will likely be kept under wraps.  But can we still figure out who makes Drake’s Champagne?

On the Mod Sélection website, details are scarce. However, we do get two solid clues that slip through the marketing flourish.

1.) They’re based in the Vallée de la Marne.
2.) They claim “a legacy” dating back to 1892.

Cracking into some of my Five Essential Books On Champagne, I can eliminate a lot of prospective houses. The Christie’s Encyclopedia is, in particular, really good at noting the location of many houses so I can focus in only on the ones based in the Vallée de la Marne.

Clue #1 – The Vallée de la Marne

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

Vineyards in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ–the most prestigious in the Vallée de la Marne.

This area is broken into three sub-regions. The most prestigious is the Grande Vallée de la Marne which is home to the Grand Cru village of Aÿ as well as several notable premier cru villages like Hautvillers, Cumières and Dizy.

The other two sub-regions are the Vallée de la Marne Rive Droite and Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche (Right bank, Left Bank) which are home to autre cru villages that are ranked below premier cru.

Peter Liem’s book, Champagne, does an excellent job of explaining the differences between these sub-regions.

While it is possible that Mod Sélection’s mystery house is in one of the lesser Rive Droite or Rive Gauche villages, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and focus on the houses in the nine villages of the Grande Vallée de la Marne.

Clue #2 – Founding date 1892

Photo by Arnaud 25. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Bollinger wouldn’t even give James Bond his own made up Champagne house. It’s not likely that they would partner with Drake and not use their own label.

We can rule out major Champagne houses based in the Vallée de la Marne like Deutz, Jacquesson, Bollinger, Philipponnat and Billecart-Salmon because they have little reason to create a branding apart from their own. Plus, their founding dates don’t match up with Deutz (1838), Jacquesson (1798), Bollinger (1829), Philipponnat (1910) and Billecart (1818).

This clue is going to require more heavy digging since many Champagne books don’t list founding dates and sometimes even a winery’s website isn’t very forthcoming with details. Still, we can gradually start to eliminate notable Champagne houses and well-regarded growers like:

Gaston Chiquet (founded 1919)
Gonet-Medeville (founded 2000)
A.R. Lenoble (founded 1920)
Mousse Fils (founded 1923)
Bereche & Fils (founded 1847)
Gatinois (founded 1921)
Marc Hebrart (founded 1964)
Laherte-Freres (founded 1889)
Georges Laval (founded 1971)
R. Pouillon & Fils (founded 1947)
Tarlant (founded 1928)

But eventually, with a little bit of online sleuthing, I was able to come across at least one estate that fits our bill.
Photo by 2005 Zubro. Uplaoded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Vineyards in the premier cru village of Cumières in the Grande Vallée de la Marne. Is this the home of Drake’s $300+ Champagne?

Champagne Philippe Martin in Cumières. Founded 1892.  They produce around 12,000 to 80,000 bottles which range in price from 18 to 34 euros ($20-39 US dollars). While they apparently have a healthy enotourism operation, as far as I can tell, the wines of Champagne Philippe Martin have never been exported out of France.

This kinda aligns with the Mod Sélection description of partnering with a house whose “highly sought-after champagne had never been exported for sale to the general public.” Though you have to eye roll at the “highly sought-after” part.

Is this our mystery Mod Sélection house? Perhaps. There are still at least 30 other small growers that I need to investigate. But so far Champagne Philippe Martin is our most solid lead.

Will the Champagne be worth $300+?

I highly doubt it.

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The Real Influencers of the Wine World

Earlier this month, the Drinks Insight Network published their top ten influential wine experts in the beverage industry. They highlighted 10 Twitter accounts with 17,000-245,000 followers and a ranking of at least 54 on GlobalData’s “influencer score”.

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

Yes, that is Kevin Bacon.

I follow all these accounts on Twitter and it’s not a bad recommendation to check them out. But I only actively interact and read 2-3 of them–Jamie Goode (@jamiegoode), Robert Joseph (@robertjoseph) and Ken Alawine (@alawine). I follow Goode and Joseph for their engaging dialogue about wine topics while Alawine’s feed is a nice diversion of fun memes and infographics.

I don’t think I’ve ever been influenced to buy a wine mentioned by any of them.

And I’m an active social media user who is already motivated to seek out wine stuff.

If I’m so minorly influenced by the most prominent influencers, then what kind of influence do these folks (as well as other influencers/bloggers) really have on the typical wine consumer?

Do You Want The Brutal Truth? 

Very little.

I know this post is not going to make me friends among my fellow bloggers or “influencers”. But I can’t forget about my past life before I really started blogging. In addition to several years working wine retail, I studied winemaking at the Northwest Wine Academy with thoughts of one day opening up my own winery.

Bottling wine

One of my favorite photos from winemaking school. Featured here is my mentor, Peter Bos.

While I’ve moved on from that goal, I still have many friends who work at or own wineries in the Pacific Northwest. When I talk to them about my experiences working in the trenches selling wines like theirs, I’m not going to bullshit them.

I know how tough it is for a small winery to compete in a saturated market. With time and money scarce, I’m not going to encourage my friends to waste either chasing the favor of “influencers”–especially if it’s not really going to help them sell wine.

Yeah, this is a self-defeating post for a blogger to write. Oh well. But I will share with you the same advice I give my winemaker friends. While this is, of course, anecdotal, it’s drawn from my years of helping tens of thousands of consumers while working as a wine steward at a major grocery store chain and a big-box retailer.

It’s also the advice that I would put into practice myself if I started my own winery. There are real influencers out there that drive people to a store looking for wines. But few of them would rank an “influencer score”.

The #1 Influencer — Friends and Family

In over seven years working on the floor, I’ve never had a customer come in with a blog post, Instagram or tweet on their phone looking for a wine. Again, anecdotal, but that is the stark truth.

However, every single day I would have multiple customers come in looking for a wine that a friend or family member recommended to them. These personal recommendations are, by far, the most valuable currency in the industry—and not just in wine.

Of course, friends and family are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can consider some social media influence from outside sources. But the reach of a blogger or “influencer” is going to be indirect and weaken with each link away from that personal connection.

The Bacon number of wine

A Few Good Men and some Sleepers

Essentially if we want to “Kevin Bacon” this, your best influencers are going to be the folks with a Bacon number of 1. When you start getting 2 steps or more removed from the consumer, the amount of influence dwindles considerably.

Advice for Wineries

Remember, keep your eye on the Bacon.

Personal recommendations from friends and family are more valuable than 90+ points from a famous critic. Wineries should seek these recommendations out every bit as aggressively as they court a high score.

Many wineries allow wine club members to bring guests to the tasting room for free. But I can’t think of many who do “friends and family” wine club events. Most events allow their members to bring only a single guest who is usually going to be a spouse.

How does that help you grow your clientele list? Think about expanding that allowance to 3-4 guests as well as promotions that reward current customers for referrals.

#2 Restaurant By-The-Glass Programs

While Millennials tend to be more adventurous than previous generations, there is always a risk in accepting a recommendation. For many, the risk of paying $7-20 for a glass pour of wine at a restaurant is more appealing than spending $25+ for a full bottle at a store.

After personal recommendations from friends and family, the second biggest driver of consumers to my wine shops was the desire to find something they had at a restaurant. Once in a while, a customer would be seeking something they ordered a bottle of but the vast majority of the time it was something they had from the BTG list.

Advice for Wineries
Photo by Iwona Erskine-Kellie. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

There is a reason why the big mega-corps focus so heavily on their on-premise accounts.

Getting on restaurant wine lists should always be a priority for small wineries. In many ways, it is the perfect setting for people to have their first experience with your wine–with great food and great company.

Placement on the BTG list is even more valuable than being on the general wine list. The intimidation factor is less while the openness to explore is greater. Of course, well-run programs will have talented sommeliers that can hand sell the entire list. However, there are very few consumers (like me) who indulge in things like playing the Somm Game.

Plus, for those consumers who are open to recommendations, the odds are better for your wine getting a BTG recommendation from the sommelier than getting one of your bottles recommended from the full list. Think about it. You’re competing against a dozen or so options by-the-glass versus potentially hundreds of bottle options.

I know competition for placement in these programs is high and brings a lot of challenges. But I firmly believe that the effort pays more dividends than chasing online influencers.

#3 First-Hand Winery Experience

While the influencers above drove more people to my shops, this is the area where wineries most control their destinies. Of course, the quality of your wine should be of paramount importance but second only to that should be the type of experience guests get in your tasting rooms.

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

I know the sight of a “Bridesmaid Brigade” fills tasting rooms with dread. But they are all prospective customers, even if they don’t buy jack on that first visit.

Living so close to Woodinville Wine Country and within driving distance of all the major wine regions in the Pacific Northwest, I’ve seen the best and worst of tasting room experiences. I’ve also heard on the floor, from consumers, the best and worst as well.

The best experiences give people a reason to be excited about a winery. Often people visit 2-4 wineries on a trip, so the goal should be to stand out positively. Every tasting room is going to be pouring wine. That’s old hat. The memorable wineries are the ones that give their guests something more than just booze.

Advice for Wineries

I can not emphasize enough the importance of making sure you have a great staff working your tasting rooms. Pay the good ones well and work like hell to retain that talent. They are truly the difference between bringing home the bacon or burning it to a crisp.

I can’t count how many times I recommended a wine only to have a customer recount a bad tasting room experience that they (or friends and family) had. Even if it was several years ago when the winery was owned by someone else, it was a non-starter.

If I started a winery, I would take this Maya Angelou quote and frame it in my tasting room.

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

#4 Published Media “Best of…” lists and Wine Competition Awards

My last retail holiday season was 2017 but I remember it quite well. This is when all the “Top Wines of the Year” and “Best of….” lists come out. It seems like every newspaper and magazine publishes some year-end compendium.

For retailers, these lists are both blessings and a royal pain in the ass. They’re easy sales because consumers come in ready to buy and you can fill their basket in 3 to 5 minutes—that is, if you happen to have the exact wine and vintages. The pain in the ass comes from nearly all these lists featuring wines of limited availability (sometimes even winery-only) or from a vintage long sold out.

Advice for Wineries
Photo by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-4.0

Customers coming into a wine shop with an actual print copy of a wine magazine is becoming rarer and rarer.

I ranked this one #4 but it could have easily been #5. The influence of traditional print media is certainly fading. When I first got into retail, I would almost weekly have customers coming in with the latest copy of Wine Spectator or the local newspaper critic’s column. Now it seems mostly concentrated on these year-end lists.

I’ve also noticed that the clientele that actively uses these lists skew older as well. Again, only anecdotal, but I suspect that the influence of these media sources will only continue to wane with the growing prominence of Millennials and Generation Z in the market.

Likewise, I see less excitement and influence surrounding wine competitions every year. But there is still some fight in the old girl. Personally, I don’t think they should have much any influence but people like shiny things. Wine competitions dish out lots and lots of shiny things.

For my own winery, I would still be entering competitions and sending samples out to the traditional print media. However, I wouldn’t put all my eggs in these baskets and focus more on the top #1-3 influencers above.

But you ultimately can’t discount the easy sales that a winery can get with prominent list placement. Nor can you downplay the influence that even a silly bronze medal sticker has in making a wine stand out on the shelf.

#5 Wine Apps

Wine apps with Yelp-like rating systems are another thing that I think shouldn’t hold much influence–but they do. As I described in my post Naked and Foolish, I think these apps are incredibly gameable and ripe for misuse.

My apprehensions aside, I realize that wine consumers (particularly the younger set) are downloading and using them. It’s not yet a considerable quantity, hence my #5 ranking, but it is growing. Before I left retail, I would see maybe a handful of customers a week whipping out their phones and scanning bottles to see how many “stars” something got. I can only expect that number to increase.

Advice for Wineries
Wine Searcher screen grab

While not necessarily a rating app itself, I often saw consumers on the floor using WineSearcher to check prices and critic scores.

While I doubt that wine apps would ever supplant the top 3 influencers, it is nonetheless a Bacon number 1 influencer that shouldn’t be ignored.

At the very least, I would recommend that wineries download these apps and pay attention to what scores their wines are getting from consumers. For small wineries that aren’t likely to get many inputs, it is probably not a bad idea to upload nice pictures of your labels. That way when someone is searching for your wines they can find them more easily.

I would avoid the temptation to add your own ratings and take part in the easy gaming of these apps. But that’s just me.

#?? Recommendations of Wine Stewards/Sommeliers

As a steward on the floor with face-to-face contact with consumers, I carried a Bacon number of 1. But how influential I truly was depended on a lot of factors. This makes it difficult to give a blanket ranking on how influential stewards (and in the same vein, sommeliers) really are.

For customers that I interacted with often and built a relationship, my influence would be only behind that of the #1 influencer–family and friends. I earned trust by learning their palates and backing up my recommendations with my knowledge.

But more broadly, my influence probably fell in the #3-5 range depending on the consumer’s personality (i.e. willingness to seek out a recommendation) as well as their past experiences with other stewards and wine shops. It’s very easy for a consumer to feel burned by a bad recommendation that they received one time, from one person, and then be skeptical about any recommendations they get–from anyone.

The hiring prowess and training programs of a wine shop/restaurant have an immeasurable impact on how influential their stewards and somms will be.

Advice for Wineries
Picture with Jean Triaud of Ch. Gloria

A pic from my retail days where I had a chance to meet Jean Triaud, the grandson of Ch. Gloria’s founder Henri Martin.
Trying the wine was nice, but I was able to introduce many more consumers to Ch. Gloria’s wines through the stories and insights that Jean shared.

After family and friends, wine stewards and sommeliers have the potential to be the second most potent influencer selling your wine. I would give the nod to a winery’s own tasting room staff vis-à-vis, but when you add up how many people visit your tasting room versus the numbers that visit wine shops and restaurants, the potential is higher with the latter.

It is undoubtedly in a winery’s best interests to influence these influencers. These are the folks that are in the trenches presenting your wine to consumers. They have the potential to move far more cases of your wine than a blogger like me ever will do.

But it is not just about getting wine stewards and sommeliers to try your wines. Keep in mind that they’re likely getting samples, trips and other perks from dozens upon dozens of other wineries.

You need to sell them on what makes your winery unique and distinctive, just like you do to a consumer face-to-face. Successful wineries reach out to wine stewards and sommeliers and give them tools (great stories, behind-the-scenes insights, etc.) that they can share to the thousands of consumers they interact with yearly.

I’m not saying that bloggers and social media influencers have zero influence, though.

I don’t want to come across as slamming my fellow bloggers or denigrating their efforts. I know we’re all working hard to make original and useful content that people will want to read. Believe me; I feel the same flutter of excitement and gratification looking at page views and subscription numbers as you do.

But the truth is, is that we are, at best, Bacon number 2s when it comes to the true reach of our influence. We have some influence, but it is quite limited.

We can contribute content that shows up on Google searches when an already engaged and intrigued consumer looks for more info on a wine. Indeed, this is the area where we probably exert the most influence which is why creating original and compelling content is critical.

But that audience of actively engaged consumers is still relatively small. And those prospective consumers needs to be initially “engaged” by something else before they start searching–often by things in the Bacon number 1 realm like sommeliers and wine stewards.

Photo from Renee Comet of the National Cancer Institute. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD-author

Engage bacon is by far the most influential bacon.

Now bloggers and social media influencers can certainly influence those sommeliers and wine stewards. Stepping back and thinking about my retail days, I most certainly read blogs and got intrigued by wines.

However, when I step back further and look at the blogging and “wine influencer” scene–when I look at what I’m doing–I realize that we are mostly just influencing ourselves.

Spend any amount of time scanning the comments and likes on Instagram of notable wine influencers and you start seeing a pattern. Take a look at the retweets and replies on Twitter as well as the various #winechat hashtags and you see a similar pattern.

It’s the same people talking to each other.

Now, truthfully, that is great because this is a community that abounds with terrific friendships. One of the most edifying results of attending the Wine Bloggers Conference was meeting fellow bloggers that I could geek out with.

But we can’t mistake shared passion for influence.
Photo by J.Dncsn. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Non-engaged bacon.
This is how I view my blog posts. They’re an ingredient that needs to be “cooked” before its sweet aroma influences anyone.

Wineries that invest hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars sending out samples to influencers are not getting their money’s worth. Especially compared to the return on investment they could get focusing on the Top 3 influencers I noted above.

Preaching to the choir will never bring people off the streets and into the pews. And getting people off the streets to check out wines is the whole point of marketing. It’s what wineries need to do in order to survive.

That is why when my good friends with wineries approach me about sampling their wines for review, I’ll accept them–but I’m not going to mislead them about my “influence.” I know that there are better ways that they could be spending their time and money.

And sharing that might be my real influence.

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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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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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Sip or Spit — Looking at Wine Predictions for 2019

This time of year, a lot of smart folks in the beverage industry lay down their cards to predict what major trends can be expected next year. As with pop culture and sports, these articles are fun to read but you don’t want to put too much stock put in them. (I mean, come on, you really thought Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would sign during the Winter Meetings?)

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

Sip or Spit? How seriously should we take these wine predictions for 2019?

Of course, the value of such predictions rests in the quality of the source. I’ve always found the folks at Wine Intelligence, a UK consulting and research firm, to be sharp tacks. So I ascribe a little more weight to their assessments than I do other sources. Still, while there were some thing from their Five Predictions for 2019 worth sipping, there were others I certainly spat out.

1.) Alcohol intake will continue to fall in developed world markets (Spit with a little sipping)

As I noted in my article The Kids Will Probably Be Alright — Looking at Generation Z Trends, I don’t buy into the idea of Gen Z as the “teetotaler generation”. It is far too early and too small of a sample size to make that assessment. For Christ-sakes, 95% of them are still under 21! I surely hope that most of them are teetotaling right now.

However, I do think that the trend of “Drinking Less, But Better” that we’re seeing in the Millennial generation will continue with Generation Z. Alcohol is expensive and is full of calories. It’s clear that my generation, and likely the following one, have been adopting the mindset that if we’re going to spend the money and calories on something, it better be worth it.

Which is a good thing and something that should serve as a curb to the idea that moderate consumption of alcohol (like wine) is incompatible with a healthy lifestyle. That “incompatibility” seems to be the crux of the scare reports of Generation Z and Millennials turning away from alcohol.

From keg stands to Brose´
Photo by ProjectManhattan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Ramen–the lifeblood of the broke Millennial. Also a great pairing for under $15 Cru Beaujolais and Chenin blanc.

Yeah, we might be turning away from weekend keggers, cheap jug wine sangrias, Smirnoff and Fireball jello shots, but what we’re turning to is more mindful moderate drinking. Younger generations, like myself, are not drinking for the sake of drinking. We’re looking for something more than just a buzz.

Growing up in the age of technology and easy access to knowledge, we’re aware of the risks of binge drinking. But we’re also aware of the benefits of moderation. Plus, our “foodie” nature is far more incline than past generations to embrace the role of a glass of wine in enhancing the pleasure of even everyday meals—like ramen noodles.

So while bulk and mass producers may have reasons to worry about the upcoming generations, I don’t think quality minded producers need to fret as much.

2.) Overall knowledge levels about the details of wine and where it comes from will decline (Spit)

This prediction is based on Wine Intelligence’s 2018 US Portraits report of wine consumers. I don’t have an extra $3500 to buy the full report and dive deep into what methodology led to that conclusion, but on the surface this doesn’t pass the “sniff test”.

When you look at other observations and reporting, the level of wine knowledge among the average consumer has never been higher. For one, enrollments in wine certification programs have been booming. Google “Wine Appreciation Class” and you’ll get over 34 million hits, confessing to a wide interest among consumers to learn more.

This is something that I touched on in my article It’s Raining Masters, about the influx of successful Master Sommelier candidates. (This was before the cheating scandal broke) We are in the midst of a golden age of wine knowledge.

Yet, somehow, we’re getting “wine dumber”?

Even the post’s author, Richard Halstead, acknowledges the counter-intuitiveness of his prediction.

Over the past couple of years we have started to see an interesting and counterintuitive trend. More people in more markets around the world are saying they care about wine, that the category is important to them, that they take their time when buying wine – sentiments which we bundle up into a collective measure called “involvement”. At the same time, overall objective knowledge about the category – understanding of grape varieties, countries of origin, regions, and so on – has been in decline: people know fewer things about wine any more. — Richard Halstead, Wine Intelligence, 12/12/2018

One theory they propose is smartphone reliance. That does makes some sense and has been debated in other contexts before. There is also the idea that the globalization of wine has brought more stuff to the table for the average consumer to know about.

More to Discover, More to Learn, More to Enjoy
Photo taken my self and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Once pursued only by the wine trade, now more and more wine lovers are signing up for advance certifications like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)

It’s no longer Napa, Champagne, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Pinot grigio. Now we’ve got Coonawarra, Franciacorta, Fiano, Touriga Nacional, Chenin blanc and so much more.

I suppose when you consider how much more is out there to learn and explore, the average wine consumer’s “overall” grasp of details may go down.

But that is like comparing the “knowledge level” of a middle schooler with that of a college student. The former is exposed to far less. Of course, it is easier to “master” more of that knowledge within their little world. However, the later’s exposure to exponentially more gives the potential for even greater knowledge.

While I’m open to hearing more thoughts on the matter, there so much counter-intuitiveness about this prediction that I’ll remain skeptical now.

3.) Vegan wine will become a thing (Sip)

This I buy completely. It’s a topic that I explored earlier this year with my article What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines.

I have no doubt that we are going to see more wines labeled as “Vegan-friendly”. But I am concerned with the obsession over fining agents. Especially for people who adopt a Vegan-lifestyle for ethical reasons, it seems like a bigger quandary is to be had over viticultural practice like biodynamics that regularly employ the use of animal products. Furthermore, there are issues with what alternatives wineries may use to produce highly manipulated (though “Vegan-friendly”) wines.

Are the most “vegan-friendly” vineyards the ones being farmed with heavy saturation of pesticides and chemical fertilizers? It seems like it when you compare it to organic and biodynamic vineyards with high insect MOG and animal-derived fertilizers.

Mass produced wines like the PETA recommended Sutter Home and Moët & Chandon often employ these conventional, chemical dependent styles of viticulture.

While avoiding using animal-based fining agents to remove excess tannins and haze forming proteins, big mega-corps can use other tricks to manipulate the wine with things like lab designed enzymes, oak adjuncts and Mega Purple which will “smooth out” bitter tannins and cover up off-flavors. — What’s fine (and not so fine) about Vegan Wines 2/25/2018

4.) Wine brands with sustained investment strategies will prosper at the expense of second-tier competitors (Sip)

Unfortunately, this is a sad reality of business. Branding often trumps quality and care. W. Blake Gray had a great article on Wine Searcher recently that highlights this as part of the Gloomy Outlook for Smaller Wineries.

Gray ended the article with a very ominous quote from Dale Stratton of Constellation Brands.

“The game is going to be stealing share,” Stratton said. “The pie is only as big as the pie is. The game is going to be stealing share from other places.”

Watch your pie, small wineries. Watch your pie. — W. Blake Gray, WineSearcher.com 12/7/2018

While not every winery can afford a fancy marketing department, it is imperative of every winery to focus on what makes them unique.

For the small winery competing against the big mega-corps, your “brand” is your story and all the tidbits that set you apart from the mass-produced wines that line supermarket shelves.

It’s simply not good enough just to make good wine. There are thousands of producers across the globe making wine as good, if not better, than yours. But what those wineries (and certainly what the big mega-corps) don’t have, is you and your story.

Finding ways to weave yourself into the narrative of your brand is only going to become more important for small wineries to succeed. That is one of the reasons why it is a shame that many wineries have abandoned or don’t know how to successfully use social media platforms like Twitter.

5.) A mainstream producer will introduce cannabis-infused wine (Sip and then toke)
Photo by Bogdan. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Does cannabis have terroir? We’ll probably be discussing that over the next decade.

This is probably the surest bet that any prognosticator can make. For an industry that will happily dive into whiskey barrel aging and weird coffee-infused hybrid wines, you know that development is already well on its way towards releasing a cannabis-infused wine.

The only question is, who will be first? Gallo or Constellation Brands?

Gallo has been leading the way on a lot of these trends with their Apothic brand. They’re a solid contender and a likely choice. Part of the fun is guessing what they’ll call it. Apothic Blaze? Apothic Kush?

However, Constellation Brands does actually have its own investments in the cannabis industry to the tune of $4 billion.

I’d be more incline to wager on Constellation developing a stand-alone brand for cannabis-infused wine. But I honestly wouldn’t be surprised to see them roll it out under an established label, like Robert Mondavi, to try to give this trend more legitimacy.

When that happens, be sure to pour one out for poor Robert spinning in his grave in St. Helena.

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Joe Wagner vs the Oregon Volcano

Joe Wagner, with his Copper Cane Wines & Provision, has been one of the most successful wine producers of the 21st century. But that fame and success doesn’t shield him from the ire of lawmakers and Oregon wineries who feel he has been playing fast and loose with state and federal wine labeling laws.

Joe Wagner's Elouan

These producers, led by Jim Bernau of Willamette Valley Vineyards, believe that Wagner’s wine labels confuse consumers and devalue the branding of Oregon. Wagner contends that he is being truthful about where the grapes are coming from and that his wines bring Oregon to the attention of more drinkers.

While the legal aspects of labeling will be debated and hashed out by government agencies (with so far Wagner and his labels losing the battle), I wanted to investigate the idea of whether Wagner’s wines help or hurt the image of the Oregon wine industry among consumers. To test that, I held a blind tasting featuring the offending Wagner wines against more traditional Oregon Pinot noirs.

I wanted to see if Wagner’s wines stood out and if there’s smoke behind this controversy erupting in Oregon.

The Background

Joe Wagner started his winemaking career with the establishment of Belle Glos in 2001. Focusing on vineyard designated Pinot noirs, Wagner was inspired by the wines of Kosta Browne and soon built Belle Glos into a 100,000 case production. In 2006, he introduced Meiomi–a unique Pinot noir with Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and sometimes Grenache blended in.

By 2015, Meiomi was selling more than half a million cases a year. Wagner cashed in that success by selling the brand to Constellation Brands for $315 million. That sale allowed him to focus on his other brands–including Elouan which was founded in 2014 to highlight Oregon Pinot noir.

The Controversy and Current Rules for Oregon Wines

Elouan Reserve labeled as from the Rogue Valley.

Wagner makes all his Oregon wines (Elouan and the Willametter Journal) in California–primarily at Copper Cane’s Rutherford winery.  In interviews, Wagner has stated his reasoning for trucking the grapes down to California was to maintain quality control.

Compared to federal standards, the rules for labeling wines in Oregon are more restrictive. For instance, to have a wine varietally labeled from Oregon, it must be at least 90% of the stated variety. Federal laws only mandate 75%.

To list an AVA on an Oregon wine, it must contain at least 95% of fruit sourced from that AVA. Crucially, the wine must also be produced solely within the state of Oregon. While the federal standard for AVA designation is only 85%, like Oregon, Federal laws also dictate that a wine using an AVA needs to be “fully finished” in the state containing the AVA. However, it does allow wines to be finished in adjacent states if it labeled under a more generic state designation such as “Oregon”.

While the basic Elouan has Oregon listed as it designation, the reserve wine uses the Rogue Valley AVA. With the wine being “fully finished” in California, this does seem to be a clear violation of labeling usage. Likewise, the case packaging of Elouan makes reference to the Willamette Valley, Rogue and Umpqua Valley. For the Willametter Journal, the grape source is listed as the “Territory of Oregon” which is a fanciful term not currently recognized as an approved AVA. Additionally, Willamette is prominently highlighted in red ink on the label as if it was an AVA designation.

Mega Purple — Mega Illegal In Oregon

The Willametter Journal has the word “Willamette” highlighted on the label in bright red.

Another unique aspect of Oregon wine law noted by Jim Bernau, is the use of additives like Mega Purple, Ultra Red, Purple 8000 and Red 8000. These are illegal in Oregon since they are based on teinturier grapes like Rubired that are not currently grown at all in the state. Essentially, the law views the use of these color and mouthfeel enhancing additives as illegally blending in grapes grown elsewhere.

Wagner and Copper Cane’s representatives have denied using these additives. However, there is wide spread belief in the industry that they are used frequently in California–particularly for inexpensive Pinot noirs.

The Big Questions

In setting up the blind tasting, I wanted to look at three focus points that I’d hope would answer the overarching question of whether Wagner’s wines help or hurt the branding of the Oregon wine industry.

1.) Does Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines stand out when compared to other, more “traditional” Oregon producers?

2.) If his wines do stand out, is this because of a signature winemaking style that overwhelms terroir? While we can’t prove if he is blending in other grape varieties (like he did with Meiomi) or using additives such as Mega Purple, a strong winemaking signature could give credence to the idea that his wines may “confuse” consumers about what Oregon Pinot noirs usually taste like.

3.) And finally, when compared side by side, what wines do people enjoy drinking?

The Tasting Format and Participants

Several of the folks who graciously offered their palates for the blind tasting.

To help with answering questions #2 and #3, I included 3 of Joe Wagner’s California wines in the lineup to go along with the 3 offending Oregon wines. While not part of the controversy, I thought the inclusion of Wagner’s popular California Pinot noirs could shed light on if he has a signature winemaking style that his Oregon wines would also demonstrate.

The Wagner Wines

2017 The Willametter Journal Oregon
2016 Elouan Oregon
2015 Elouan Reserve Rogue Valley
2014 Belle Glos Diaryman Russian River Valley
2016 BÖEN Santa Maria Valley
2016 Tuli Sonoma County

Included in the tasting were 15 Oregon wines from other producers. Additionally, there was 1 wine from British Columbia–the 2016 Quill from Blue Grouse Estate–that a guest brought. While originally I wanted to limit this to just Wagner and Oregon wines, I thought the Quill could serve as an interesting control. Would it be pegged as an “outsider” or “Wagner wine”? Or would it slipped in seamlessly with the Oregon wines. If so, that could indicate that perhaps the distinctiveness of Oregon wines are not as clear cut.

Oregon wines featured:

2016 Erath Oregon
2016 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster
2015 Domaine Loubejac Selection de Barriques
2015 Citation, Willamette Valley
2014 Domaine Drouhin, Dundee Hills
2016 Stoller Estate Reserve
2013 Patton Valley Vineyards West Block
2014 Welsh Family Wines Bjornson Vineyards, Eola-Amity Hills
2011 Siltstone Guadalupe Vineyard, Dundee Hills
2016 Marshall Davis, Yamhill Carlton
2014 Noel Vineyard, Willamette Valley
2012 Colene Clemens Margo
2016 Ayoub Pinot Noir Memoirs Dundee Hills
2012 Cristom Pinot Noir Mt. Jefferson Cuvée Willamette Valley
2009 Coelho Winery Pinot Noir Paciência Willamette Valley

The wines were all served blind with only myself knowing the identities. Since some of the Wagner wines like the Belle Glos and Elouan Reserve had visible wax capsules, I placed those wines along with random Oregon bottles in one of 8 different decanters.

While there was a handful of industry folks from the retail side, the vast majority of the participants were regular wine consumers.

The Results

More traditional Oregon wines like the Stoller Reserve, Patton Valley West Block and Marshall Davis were the runaway favorites of the tasting.

During the tasting, many participants began noticing a trend of some wines being noticeably darker and fruitier–especially compared to other wines. A couple wines even stained glasses in ways that usually aren’t expected of Pinot noir.

The conversation emerged that in order to “Pin the tail on the Wagner”, one needed to look for the least “Pinot-like” wines of the bunch. This would turn out to be a worthwhile strategy that several tasters adopted.

After the tasting I asked the participants to first pick out their favorite bottles. The results were overwhelming for Oregon with the 2016 Stoller Estate Reserve, 2016 Marshall Davis and 2013 Patton Valley West Block getting multiple votes. The BC wine, the Quill, also got some votes as a favorite with many tasters thinking it was an Oregon wine from areas like McMinnville.

But the surprise of the favorite reveal was the inclusion of one of the controversial Oregon Wagner wines–the 2017 Willametter Journal. While the wine was more lush than the others, tasters compared it favorably to warm vintage Oregon Pinot noirs from AVAs like Ribbon Ridge and Eola-Amity Hills.

Pin the Tail on the Wagners

With the Willametter Journal already revealed, the quest then moved to see if the tasters could identify the 5 remaining Wagner wines. It should be noted that several participants had the Willametter Journal pegged as a Wagner.

Voting on what was a Wagner wine.

In the end, the tasters identified all but one Wagner wine blind. The 2015 Elouan Reserve Rogue Valley was the most obvious Wagner. It was near unanimously picked as being the least “Pinot noir-like” wine in the entire tasting. Several tasting notes alluded to a “root beer soda-like” quality and compared it to other grapes like Syrah and Zinfandel.

The only Wagner wine to escape detection was the 2016 BÖEN Santa Maria Valley. This one reminded a few tasters of Oregon wines from areas like Dundee and the Eola-Amity Hills.

Most surprising of all were two Oregon wines that were pegged by multiple tasters as Wagner wines–the 2016 Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster made by Jim Bernau and the 2015 Citation made by Howard Rossbach who founded Firesteed Cellars. The 2016 Erath Oregon also got some votes for being a “Wagner wine” as well.

Takeaways

Both the Citation and Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster were popular picks as Wagner wines.

For the most part, Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines stood out and tasted noticeably different compared to other Oregon Pinot noirs.

However, it is extremely interesting that the best selling Oregon wines (at least from a volume perspective)–the Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster and Erath–struck so many tasters as potentially being Wagners. While we didn’t have a bottle of Firesteed Cellars (recently sold to Vintage Wine Estates in 2017) in the tasting, the identification of Rossbach’s Citation as a potential Wagner goes along with that trend.

Together, those three wines (WVV, Erath and Firesteed) dominate restaurant wine lists and supermarket retail for Oregon wines. They’re popular wines that appeal to many consumers’ palates.

Likewise, Joe Wagner has built his success on producing wines that strike a cord with consumers–especially at restaurants and supermarket retail. While his style is distinctive, it is a style that sells. It’s also very telling that the Willametter Journal, one of the wines at the heart of the controversy, was selected as a favorite even as it was noted for being very different from the other Oregon wines.

However, overall, the Willametter Journal was an outlier. While wines like Stoller, Patton Valley and Marshall Davis might not sell at the volume of Wagner’s wines (or WVV, Erath and Firesteed for that matter), when tasted side by side–the vast majority of tasters went towards these more traditional-style Oregon Pinots.

Help or Hurt?

The Erath Oregon Pinot noir, now own by Ste Michelle Wine Estates, is made in a style that reminded quite a few tasters of Joe Wagner’s wines.

Now to the question of whether Joe Wagner’s Oregon wines help or hurt the image of Oregon wines among consumers.

The results are a mix-bag.

Does his wines represent Oregon? Definitely not at the top tier.

But at the entry-level? That’s a hazier question.

It’s hard to make the argument that Wagner’s “hurting” Oregon when many of the most popular Oregon wines seem to appeal to the same palate his wines do. These wineries (like Willamette Valley Vineyards, Erath and Citation/Firesteed) may not be using the same techniques as Wagner but, whatever they are doing, they’re making easy-drinking and crowd pleasing wines that hit the same notes as Joe Wagner’s wines.

While I’m sure there are a few Oregon wine producers who would like to throw Joe Wagner into a volcano, I don’t think we can dismiss the likelihood that his wines (or similarly styled Pinots) will be the tipple of choice at the luau.

Regardless of how they’re labelled.

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