As a wine student, I’m always knee-deep in terroir. Working through the WSET Diploma, the enduring question that runs through every wine is: Why are you the way you are?
The TL;DR answer is usually “Terroir”-that vague French word which encapsulates all the natural elements of a vineyard and vintage. Over the last couple of decades, that term has evolved like the ice cream sundae from a soda float of “somewhereness” to 3 scoops of soils, topography and climate topped by a cherry of tradition.
Somewhereness still matters. But not in the way we think.
Terroir is essential, no doubt. Ultimately the quality of the sundae depends on the base ingredients that are the foundation for the whole dish.
Is it Spanish? Is it French? Secretly Aussie? Most folks aren’t going to care as long as it’s tasty and a good value.
However, wine writers, such as Master of Wine Tim Atkin, have long noted that the increasing globalization of wine (and the general apathy of consumers) is making those folks who are genuinely interested in the nuances of terroir a minority.
But across the world, wineries still need to find ways to stand out from the pack–to trumpet their distinctiveness. They still need to give consumers a reason to choose their sundae over all the other sundaes and derivatives out there.
So why not lean in hard on the quality ingredients you’re using? After all, isn’t that what everyone else is doing?
However, those aren’t the questions that wineries should be asking. They certainly aren’t the questions that most Millennial wine consumers are asking. Instead, with so many options competing for attention and wallets, the more pertinent question is, “How hard am I making it for consumers to enjoy my terroir sundae?”
Wine is a unique commodity in that we willingly create multiple barriers to entry. There are price points and availability, of course, but also a substantial education barrier.
To really “get” the differences between various terroirs and why some wines are worth hunting and paying more for, requires a fair degree of knowledge on the consumer’s part. It’s a level of expertise that we routinely take for granted. There is this assumption that if a consumer likes wine, then they’ll eventually “get serious” enough to invest time and effort into learning about it.
Meanwhile–while we’re waiting for consumers like those pesky Millennials to “get serious”–we still desperately want them to enjoy (and buy!) our sundaes. “You want something distinctive? Here is our world-class terroir with a unique combination of natural factors that gives our wine a ‘sense of place’!”
Granted, it could still be a fun experience. But maybe not the kind of experience worth splurging for top-shelf stuff.
But without the “utensil” of education needed to understand those natural factors and what makes them unique, we’re basically just giving consumers a sundae with no spoon. Sure, they can dig right in, but it’s going to get messy.
Don’t forget the cherry on top.
However, there is one part of the sundae that you don’t need any help or utensils to enjoy–and for many, it’s the best part.
It’s the stories, traditions and people behind the wine. While often overlooked, this is still an immutable part of the terroir sundae. But, more importantly, it’s the tangible part that consumers don’t need a long spoon of wine education to devour.
This is because people relate to people. Even if the stories and traditions are worlds apart from their own, it is far easier for folks to connect to these human elements than it is to soils, topography and climate.
It’s also the one part that every winery can absolutely nail with their marketing message–regardless of how spectacular the rest of their terroir really is.
Your sundae might not have hand-churned, French vanilla ice cream sourced from grass-fed cows that received daily deep tissue massages. But fresh homemade Maraschino cherries make even store brand scoops tastier.
Likewise, you might not have vineyards in the blessed terroir of Chablis, Barolo, Hunter Valley or the Stags Leap District, but remember that consumers are going need a long spoon to dig into what makes those sundaes special.
So work with what you have and don’t forget the best part.
I really shouldn’t be writing at 2 am. I should be in bed, lying next to my gorgeous wife. But instead, I’m downstairs on my laptop so as not to disturb her with ruminations that have been bothering me for the past few days.
There Ron Washam, the HoseMaster of Wine, wrote a satirical tribute to Robert Parker in the voice of wine writer Alice Feiring. The background, besides the announcement of Parker’s recent retirement, is that Feiring is a fierce natural wine advocate who has had deep philosophical disagreements with Parker on how wine should be made.
But I will post screenshots and you can Google the full thing for context if you like. But, believe me, the “context” isn’t much better.
I’m a frequent reader of Tim Atkin’s site. It’s one of my favorite bookmarks. Both he and his contributors–including Celia Bryan-Brown and fellow Master of Wine Christy Canterbury–usually produce excellent and engaging content.
I’m also a fan of witty and biting satire–both written and performance. George Carlin, Amy and David Sedaris, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Frances Burney and, of course, the legendary Jonathan Swift.
So perhaps my expectations were too high when I went to read Ron Washam’s “satirical” take on Alice Feiring and what she might say to Robert Parker in a note.
Instead of getting satire, Ron Washam and Tim Atkin gave us a dick pic.
Instead of skewering both the real and made-up divide between Parkerized wines vs. Natural wines–something ripe and juicy for satire–we get “a woman scorned” as Washam signs off his Alice.
We get a women’s work, her research, her personal journey, her opinions, her philosophy and approach all drilled down to “Oh, she just really wanted to ride his dick! Ha Ha!”
Give me a break.
Now I don’t agree with everything that Alice Feiring says. I think the idea of Parkerization has been vastly overblown and the disdain of “Parkerized wines” has had more of a Streisand Effect than anything. It pushed people into camps and encouraged tribalism–which is just as destructive in wine appreciation as it is in politics.
But I respect her work and even if you don’t agree with Feiring’s opinions and approach, she certainly deserves more than sexually charged mockery.
Yes, she is a strong voice in the public sphere on controversial topics. Then speak to her voice, speak to her words, speak to the controversy.
Speak to the substance of what she is saying. Don’t denigrate and dismiss with a phony portrait of a scorned sex kitten.
That’s not satire and it’s certainly not wine writing.
The post that I should be writing tomorrow (while I’ll now be sleeping) is one answering a poignant question that came up during the recent Born Digital Wine Awards Summit about the nature of wine writing.
During the summit, Felicity Carter of Meininger’s Wine Business International posted this compelling Tweet asking how the industry would be impacted if there were no wine writers.
The post that I wanted to write was in defense of wine writers. In defense of people like Tim Atkin, Celia Bryan-Brown, Christy Canterbury and others who share their joy and passion of wine with their readers.
Yeah, wine writers have their warts and often spend too much time focusing on telling people what to drink. But overall, I think wine writing brings much-needed light to a topic that is both fascinatingly complex but also quite simple in its pleasures.
And that, for me, is the essence of wine writing–bringing light.
Now it doesn’t mean that everything has to be all fuzzy, lovey with everything fabulous.
The disinfecting light of sunshine on dark and uncomfortable topics (like sexism in the wine industry, racial, labor and environmental issues) is just as important as sparking the lightbulb of discovery in consumers to seek out new wines and learn more about them.
It’s also that disinfecting light that makes satire such an important literary genre. Good satire is like yanking the table cloth away from the table. Yes, it may make things uncomfortable and mess up all the place settings. But that’s precisely the point–to shake things up and encourage the reader to look at what’s really being served to them instead of just accepting the ornate way it is presented. Regardless of how modestly it was proposed.
Satire is about bringing light, not heat.
It’s not about being offensive. That’s low-brow and something that any idiot can do. But a good satirist will heed the advice of the greatest satirist of them all.
Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets within the world, and that so very few are offended with it. — Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books and Other Short Pieces
A good satirist (like a good wine writer) can toe the line between the uncomfortable and the offensive without crossing it. And if they do cross, once again they should heed Swift’s advice and never be ashamed to own that they were wrong.
Because that shows that they are wiser today than they were yesterday.
Ron Washam should admit that he was wrong with his sexualized attack on Alice Feiring. And Tim Atkin should admit that he was wrong to publish it and let it hang on his site under the banner of his name and Master of Wine credentials.
That post did nothing to bring light to Atkin’s readers. It did nothing to further the conversation about Parker, Feiring, Natural Wine, Parkerization or even satire.
It was a satirical dick pic and wine writing should be better than that.
Ostensibly, it was meant to be a compliment with Siddle noting that Kiwi wines are “consistent, popular and in everyone’s collection”.
But liking a country’s wines to a band that has just as much ink devoted to wondering why they’re so loathed as they do positive press, doesn’t exactly scream “Highly Recommended!”.
With compliments like that, who needs insults?
Dad Music and Mom’s Wine
Nylon columnist Anne T. Donahue aptly summed up the criticism of Coldplay following their 2016 Super Bowl performance as a chafing against “dad music”.
I mean, it’s not that Coldplay was incompetent or bad—they were fine. But “fine” isn’t enough, especially when compared to Beyoncé’s “Formation” battle cry, and her dance-off with Bruno Mars. To appear alongside both artists on stage served only to highlight Coldplay’s normality; to draw attention to the overt safeness of a band we once felt so strongly for, which then reminds us of who we used to be. Ultimately, Coldplay has become the musical equivalent of a friend we had in high school: okay, I guess, but someone you don’t have anything in common with anymore. — Anne T. Donahue, 2/12/2016
I have to admit, that “okay, I guess” sentiment really does encapsulate my thoughts on New Zealand Sauvignon blanc. Maybe Siddle is onto something?
Now don’t get me wrong. New Zealand Sauvignon blanc does have many charms. They’re always exceptionally well made and consistent. Virtually regardless of producer or vintage, you can order a Kiwi Sauvignon blanc and know exactly what you’re going to get.
Grapefruit, passion fruit, gooseberry and guava. Check. Lemongrass, green bean and jalapeno. Check. Crisp, lively mouthfeel. Check.
For students taking blind tasting examinations, you pray that a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is included in your flight. In a world of so many exceptions, a classic Marlborough Sauvignon blanc is as much of a sure thing as you can get.
Which makes it boring as hell.
When you get what you want but not what you need
There’s no doubt that since Montana Wines/Brancott Estate introduced to the world Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough in the 1970s, it’s been a raging success for the New Zealand wine industry. In 1985, it status was elevated even further when David Hohnen established Cloudy Bay as the first dedicated premium Sauvignon blanc producer in New Zealand.
Soon supermarket shelves and restaurant wine lists were awash with the wine of choice for suburban moms everywhere. Led by labels like Kim Crawford, Nobilo, Villa Maria and Oyster Bay, around 86% of all the wine exported out New Zealand in 2017 was Sauvignon blanc.
The flood of grapefruit and gooseberries to the US alone generated around $571 million in sales. Those figures, coupled with still healthy sales in the United Kingdom, pushed the value of New Zealand exports over $1.66 billion NZ dollars in 2017.
Yet the overwhelming dominance of the industry by one grape variety has given many folks, such as Master of Wine Tim Atkin, reason to question if this is “…too much of a good thing?”
Arguably the biggest problem with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the influence it has had outside the country. It’s not just the idiotically named Kiwi Cuvée, produced in the Loire Valley by the French company Lacheteau, it’s also the me-too styles that are produced in countries like Chile, South Africa and Australia. Yes, I know that there are different interpretations of New Zealand’s signature grape, but the most successful is the one that someone described as a “bungee jump into a gooseberry bush”. With some residual sweetness, of course. — Tim Atkin, 3/7/2018
The bounty of options of not only authentic New Zealand Sauvignon blanc but also a parade of facsimiles is like skipping over “Clocks” on Spotify only to have the next song be a cover band version.
Is It All Yellow?
Really fantastic Pinot gris from Martinborough. It had some of the zippy acidity and even gooseberry of a NZ Sauvignon blanc with the tree fruits and weight of an Oregon Pinot gris.
Even New Zealand producers are starting to fret about the risks of having all their eggs in one grapefruit basket.
Lucy Shaw of The Drinks Businessquotes Philip Gregan, CEO of New Zealand Winegrowers, at that London panel with Siddle “The challenge now is to broaden the story beyond Sauvignon Blanc. We’re a New World country so we need to be open minded, think differently and come up with fresh ideas in order to keep our wines exciting and relevant.”
The last chapter of Gibb’s book gives tips about visiting the wine regions of New Zealand. This will be extremely handy next year when the wife & I visit the country either before or after the Wine Media Conference in Australia.
If you’re interested in learning more about New Zealand wine–both Sauvignon blanc and the vast diversity beyond that grape–here are a few of my favorite resources.
I highlighted this book back in a July edition of Geek Notes and it has certainly lived up to its billing. By far this is the most comprehensive and in-depth coverage of the New Zealand wine industry that I’ve come across. While a lot of the producers and wine recommendations that Gibb make may be hard to find in the US market, she definitely spends considerable time highlighting the diversity of New Zealand wines beyond Sauvignon blanc.
Chris Scott is a New Zealand native and wine educator in the UK. Sprinkled among the show’s 570+ episodes are numerous interviews with New Zealand wine producers and experts. A few of my favorites are below.
Steve Smith Craggy Range on Terroir (20:27) — Steve Smith is a Master of Wine and here he touches on a lot of the unique aspects of New Zealand terroir–including why not every area is suitable for Sauvignon blanc.
Dr John Forrest of Forrest Estate on Riesling (24:12) — While I haven’t had an opportunity yet to try a New Zealand Riesling, it’s clear that there are some special areas in New Zealand (like the Waitaki Valley in the Central Otago) for the grape.
The production quality is top notch with beautiful cinematography that really give you a feel for a region. Each episode is also jammed pack with useful historical details and insights from producers. Below the video I’ll highlight my notes from this Dec 27, 2016 episode on The Wines of Champagne.
(1:59) Charles Philipponnat of Philipponnat talks a little about the distinction of the sub-region of the Grande Vallée de la Marne from the greater Vallée de la Marne. Most wine books (and even the beginning of this video) treat the entire Vallée de la Marne as a monolith–Peter Leim’s Champagne: The Essential Guide being one of the few exceptions.
But the terroir (and wines produced here) are remarkably different. The Grand Vallée is dominated by Pinot noir with south facing slopes bordering the north side of the Marne river. Heading west through the rest of the Vallée de la Marne, the vineyards flank both sides of the river. Here Pinot Meunier is the main variety with these western sites being more frost prone as well.
(2:52) Rudolph Peters of Pierre Peters highlights the similarities between the Côte des Blancs and Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Both have east facing slopes with abundant limestone that Chardonnay thrives in. Great close up shots of the vineyard soils where you can see the seashell fossils.
(5:46) The difference in Grand Cru designations between Burgundy and Champagne are highlighted here. Whereas in Burgundy the vineyards are classified, in Champagne it is the village. While there are over 300 villages in Champagne, only 17 villages are designated as Grand Cru. If they were using the Champagne model in Burgundy, then villages like Vosne-Romanee, Puligny-Montrachet, Chambolle-Musigny would be “Grand Cru”. Then you would have villages like Santenay, St. Aubin and Marsannay designated as Premier Cru and so forth.
It’s not likely that Champagne will ever adopt the Burgundian model of having vineyards individually classified. However, there are certainly notable vineyards with “Grand Cru” reputations. Vineyards like Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay, Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, Franck Bonville’s Belles Voyes, Billecart-Salmon’s Clos St-Hilaire and Pierre Peters’ Les Chêtillons have a long history of acclaim. Additionally, Peter Leim’s book lists numerous single vineyard bottlings from nearly ever major Grand Cru and Premier Cru village. While some of these certainly can get pricey, I found several on Wine Searcher in the $50-70 range.
(6:48) The topic moves to the difference between Grower Champagnes versus the big negociant houses. Here Rudolph Peters highlights some of the advantages and disadvantages for both. As I noted in my review of Robert Walter’s Bursting Bubbles, while I definitely get more excited about Grower Champagnes and their more terroir driven expressions, I don’t agree with the idea that blended Champagnes (like what the negociant houses do) are inferior.
In fact, I think the master blenders of the major houses have remarkable skills and winemaking talents. It’s just that the proliferation of a “house style” can get repetitive and boring. They may be really delicious the first or second time you have it, but by the third time you have a bottle of something like the Veuve Cliquot Yellow Label, you begin feeling like you’re just drinking the same ole, same ole over and over again.
But that’s kind of the point.
Like an army of clones…or the Borg. You will be assemblage! La résistance est futile!
It’s certainly a successful business model (much like McDonald’s) but it’s one that I get easily bored with—as I was at last year’s Champagne Gala at Daniel’s that was headlined by two vintages of Dom Perignon.
While there were some differences between the two vintages (with the 2004 being far superior to the 2006) neither of the bottles were any more distinctive or exciting than the other Moët & Chandon wines with the NV Rosé Impérial being the best Champagne of the evening.
This video was uploaded on Nov 21, 2012 by YouTube user McWilliamsWinesVideo who hasn’t uploaded anything else in nearly 6 years. I strongly suspect this was a sloppily edited recording of video series in the 1980s produced by First Growth Productions for the Wine & Spirit Education (WSET).
I tried to find the original broadcast on the WSET website but to no avail. Nor could I find an online presence for First Growth Productions either. WSET does have its own YouTube channel for their 3 Minute Wine School videos taught by Masters of Wine Jancis Robinson and Tim Atkin. While it hasn’t been updated in over 2 years, the 21 videos featured do have a lot of great content worth viewing.
The quality of this video is no where close to that of the GuildSomm video above. But the illustrations and up close view of the winemaking process used in Champagne has a lot of value.
(1:46) A discussion and illustration of the transfer method. This is how most 187ml airline splits are made but apparently was quite popular for Australian sparkling wines when this video was produced.
(2:28) Here the video switches to Champagne where they note that the grapes are often harvested in October. Boy has global warming changed that! This year’s harvest started on the 20th of August and was the fifth harvest since 2003 to start in August. And several vintages, like the very stellar 2015 vintage, have started the first week of September.
(3:45) A little subtle dissing of the Aube which is not out of line for the mindset of this time period. The Aubois led the Champagne Riots highlighted in the GuildSomm video when they were threatened with expulsion from the Champagne zone. It’s only recently that a wave of high quality grower producers from the Côte des Bar sub-region of the Aube have turned this into one of the most exciting regions in Champagne.
A crazy delicious blend of 25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier, 25% Blanc Vrai (Pinot blanc) and 25% Chardonnay. It’s a hunt to find this unicorn but will certainly be worth it if you can score a bottle!
Producers like Pierre Gerbais, Cédric Bouchard, Vouette et Sorbée, Jacques Lassaigne, Marie-Courtin, Nathalie Falmet, Drappier and more are making outstanding bubbles. I’m still trying to hunt down another bottle of Pierre Gerbais’ L’Originale (100% Pinot blanc) and the Drappier Quattuor Blanc de Blancs that I had while playing the Somm Game in Vegas is a strong contender for my Wine of The Year.
Seriously, if you love Champagne, you need to start looking for bottles from the Côte des Bar and Aube.
Getting Into The Nitty-Gritty
(3:52) A really good demonstration of the traditional pressing process in large wooden basket presses. Champagne’s wine laws strictly regulate the press yields. Producers can use only the first 100 liters of juice from every 160 kgs of grapes they press. The first 80 of these liters (the cuvée) are highly values as the best quality. The next 20 liters are the taille. This is often used for producing fruity, aromatic wines that are meant to be consumed young.
(4:45) The video doesn’t explain why but says that the houses who ferment their wines in oak prefer casks from Hungary. Will need to research this more. Wines and Vines has a pretty in-depth article about Hungarian oak (though doesn’t mentioned Champagne houses using them) while the home-winemaking site MoreWine! has a simple breakdown of the difference between French, American and Hungarian oaks.
(6:54) This is probably the best segment of the entire video. A fantastic explanation and illustration of riddling. At the 7:15 mark they show an illustration of the two different types of sediments that form during the autolysis process. Again, this is something that wine books rarely draw out and explain. But learning about these two different types of sediment (heavy & sticky vs light & dusty) helps explain why the riddling process needs to be so methodical.
Enjoy the videos! If you find these Geek Notes breakdowns helpful, post a comment below!
The value in gauging “influence” is always going to be imprecise. You can base it on the number of followers that one has on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram but that metric is easily gamed with purchased followers, bots and other “tricks.” Digital influence metrics like Klout scores have their own issues with Social Vignerons noting that they stopped using Klout for their rankings because changes in social media platforms have made the score less relevant.
What are Social Media Influencers?
A standard definition of a Social Media Influencer is “an individual who has the power to affect purchase decisions of others because of his/her authority, knowledge, position or relationship with his/her audience.” These include celebrities, recognized experts in a field, journalists, bloggers and “micro-influencers” who are regular people with a sizable social media following within a particular niche.
Marketers value these influencers because they believe that they can deliver on the 3 Pillars of Influences–Reach, Resonance and Relevance–to steer potential customers towards their brands.
Social Media Influences in the Wine Industry
Still got a lot of mileage and helpful info out of these books though.
In many ways, the use of social media in wine marketing and sales is Star Trek territory. Wineries and marketing firm are exploring strange new worlds where the old rules often don’t apply.
At the core of Marketing 101 is that to be successful you need to reach new customers so even if wineries have to learn how to utilize social media influencers via trial and error, it is still an endeavor worth taking. That is why lists like Social Vigneron’s Top Wine Influencers is worth looking into but it’s also worth thinking about critically as well.
What Influences Me?
As a married millennial adult with no kids and plenty of disposable income, I’m squarely in the crosshairs for many wine businesses. I also understand that I am influence-able and will spend money on new wines, travel to new wine regions, attend wine events, etc. based on interactions I have on social media. That is why I’m selective about the sources I follow because for a social media influencer to fulfill the 3 Pillars of Influence and “reach” me, they need to demonstrate Resonance and Relevance.
Are you creating new content that excites me? I’m a wine geek. I want to read about new wines, wineries and regions. Sure, your opinion can be helpful in adding color, but everyone has an opinion. I need more than just that.
Some social media influencers don’t create new content but merely “retweet” or “repost” content created by others. That can be useful to some degree, especially if you are bringing to my attention something that I may have missed. But I often end up following and paying more attention to the original content creator than I do to the reposter.
And speaking of reposting, PLEASE don’t repost the same thing multiple times a day! Once, maybe twice, is fine after several hour intervals to hit online audiences that are active at different parts of the day but few things get me hitting the ‘Unfollow’ button quicker than seeing the same post tweeted out three times within a single hour.
Be credible (i.e. “know your shit”) and be on topic. The first is easy. I’m not going to follow an account that passes off blatant errors and marketing crap as fact–like Champagne Masters and Their Bull Shit. The article that inspired that post came across my timeline via Food & Wine magazine. While I will give them a mulligan, I have no interest whatsoever in following any of the author’s social media platforms. But if Food & Wine keeps publishing shoddy pieces like that, then they will no longer reach me as a willing audience.
The second part of staying on topic is a little grayer. While I know we are all humans who lead multi-faceted lives, if you are going to be a Wine Social Media Influencer, be a Wine Social Media Influencer. A few comments here or there about trending topics is par for the course, but too many off-topic posts about politics, TV shows or posts about your pets gets boring quickly. The beauty of platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is that we can create multiple accounts to engage our varied interests. The short of it is this–I’m following you for your wine content which is the area you are most able to influence me so focus on that area instead of off-topic stuff.
My Social Media Wine Influencers
I am one of 267,000 that belong to the J-Hive.
Looking at Social Vigneron’s list, I saw many wine influencers that I already followed. But more than half were individuals that I’ve never heard of prior. I started following several of them, but if I find that I’m not getting any Resonance or Relevance, I will unfollow them and move on.
Among the ones on the list that I currently follow and have positively influenced me include:
The common theme with all of the above is that they are content creators. These folks regularly produce compelling content that I want to consume. They also clearly “know their shit”. Other content creators not included on Social Vigneron’s list that I follow include:
Perhaps these lists will be updated to include some of the new names I discovered from Social Vigneron’s Top 40+. Just like with trying a new wine, I’m open-minded and hoping to be pleased. But if I’m not finding what I get very compelling, I have no qualms spitting it out.