Archive for the ‘Wine Marketing’ Category

What makes for news

Monday, April 7th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I respectfully disagree with the Wine Curmudgeon’s views in this post that appeared recently:

No wonder figuring out wine prices is so confusing

Wine Curmudgeon

First, let me summarize the post.  Depending on who you read, wine prices are soaring (due to the supposedly short supply of California wines) or plummeting (due to oversupply of European grapes in general, and Spanish grapes in particular). Of course, they can’t both be right. So why this schizophrenic situation where wines prices are going up and down at the same time?

The Wine Curmudgeon offers three explanations. First, journalists have a limited world view, not being able to see past their immediate environs. So if your immediate environs is in shortage, then prices are going up, and vice versa.

Second, the crutch of “conventional wisdom”. Once an idea takes hold, it becomes accepted even though it lacks any real evidence to support it.

And third, if I understand him correctly, the wine world has changed so much in ways that people don’t understand.   The resulting confusion leads to prognostications that are wide of the mark.

I don’t know whether any of these three factors have any merit at all. But even if they do, I think they pale beside another factor. To paraphrase a writer (name long since forgotten) commenting on the Democratic primary season which ended with the triumph of Barack Obama, there are only two stories in a presidential race. Story one: candidate so and so is surging. Story two: candidate so and so is crashing and burning.

It only takes a second’s thought to realize the truth of that statement. After all, journalists aren’t in the business of providing balanced, reasoned articles. They are in the business of selling newspapers, TV advertising, or whatever. An article entitled, “Candidate so and so pretty much doing as well this week as last” isn’t going to sell a whole lot of newspapers.

The same holds true in the art world, the pork belly world, and, of course, the wine world. If you are going to write a story on where wine prices are going, then the answer is simple: they are either going up or they are going down, preferably way up or way down. Wines that will cost pretty much the same next year as they did this year? Not newsworthy. But suppose all the available information in fact indicates that wine prices will be stable? Who cares?

The same applies to pretty much any issue in the wine world (or any other world). In a particular wine region, it’s not much of a story to say the quality of wines from a region has plateaued. Not getting a whole lot better but not getting any worse. Again, who cares?

Unfortunately, when it comes to terroir, it’s hard to make the case that a region’s terrior is getting a whole lot better or worse. But, then again, with global warming may be even this will change.

If you listen to the evening news, it’s floods and drought, polar vortexes and heat waves, that get the headlines. “Continued mild weather”. Not very interesting. “Wine prices stable”. Ditto.

The 100 point system redux

Monday, March 31st, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

It’s a lovely Sunday afternoon here in Napa, and my main concern in life at the moment is trying to catch up on all my recorded basketball games from the NCAA basketball tournament. I still haven’t gotten around to doing my Monday blog so I need something quick, easy, and hopefully a little sexy.

Ergo, the hundred point system. Added to my need to get back to the TV set is the fact that I don’t think I’ve talked about the hundred point system in at least three weeks.

What brought this all to mind was my reading of Tom Wark’s blog on this very subject, which can be found at:

100 Point Wines and My Worry I Might Have Gone Round the Bend


Suffice it to say that I largely disagree with Wark, who thinks the 100 point system has a lot of value. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about today. I’m not to talk about whether the 100 point system is good, bad, irrelevant or anything like that. I’m instead going to talk about why we argue so much about it.

And I think the reason is that for so many major issues in the wine world, the hundred point system is at the epicenter of the debate.

I think if you read Wark’s article, his point of view seems to be that you should not think of the hundred point system as being any sort of objective assessment of the quality of the wine. If you do, then you are way off base. You should view it simply as the one critic’s personal and very subjective view of the wine he is tasting. Does it have anything to do with your personal, subjective view? Maybe, maybe not.

And I think even granting Wark the benefit of the doubt, you end up walking away thinking that if the hundred point system is good for anything at all, then it’s not good for very much.

To me, I don’t think giving a 97 to a wine has any more validity than giving a 97 to a van Gogh or a Renoir. It says more about the tastes of the critic than anything else (a point that I think Wark would concede).

So given that pretty much everybody would agree that the hundred point system occupies a spot someplace between mostly and totally irrelevant, why is it here?

The reason is simple. If there is an epicenter that the hundred point system occupies, I think it is in the crosshairs of where marketing meets winemaking. And let’s face it, if something moves cases then it is going to be embraced irrelevant or not. And the hundred point system moves cases. I don’t know the winemaker whose criticism of the hundred point system won’t suddenly abate the moment that he gets a 97 for one of his wines. What does it matter that some other critic gave the same wine an 87? Or a 77? Well, it doesn’t matter at all, since that 97 is gold when it comes to moving cases.

So, as Joel Grey said in “Cabaret” (or was that “Cabernet”?), “money makes the world go around.”

But the 100 point system sits not just at the epicenter of marketing versus winemaking, but also at the center of the dispute about objective versus subjective when it comes to wine quality. We would all like to think that wine quality is an objective thing. But the evidence seems to be largely to the contrary. Well, not all the evidence. We would all agree that a corked wine is, objectively, a bad one. Most of us would agree that a badly oxidized wine is also a bad wine, again in an objective sense.

But do we all agree that a oaky wine is a bad wine? Or a very tannic one? What about one high in acid, or one low in acid? Of course not. I don’t think raisins have any place in the taste profile for a wine, but obviously lovers of late harvest Zinfandel cherish that flavor.

But we hold on to the belief that wines are subject to objective evaluation as we do to other beliefs that are cherished, beautiful, and patently false. To abandon the hundred point system is to abandon our most closely held beliefs about wine and, for that reason, it will never happen.

Robert Parker

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

One of this past week’s events that was commented on in a number of blogs was the appearance of Robert Parker at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.

Vinography posted a video of the presentation but the audio quality was so poor it was a struggle to try to understand it, so I gave up. I did read some summaries of what he had to say, which I guess were somewhat interesting, but only somewhat.

But this got me thinking about Robert Parker and his affect on the wine business. I can’t say as I had spent a whole lot of time thinking about Parker, at least until this week. But it’s hard not to acknowledge that Robert Parker has had a major effect, in some ways good, and in some ways not so good.

On the good side of the ledger, Parker has certainly brought a lot of attention to wine. And, as they say, all publicity is good publicity.

And, as wine writers go, I think there is a lot to commend with Parker. I believe he sincerely tries to be honest and balanced, and that his ratings reflect his true opinion of the wines he’s tasting, divorced of bias or influence.

Do I put much stock in his ratings? I would have to answer that question “No”. But then again, do I put much stock in ratings by any writer? Not really. I guess there are some that maybe I give a little bit more weight to than others. And, in that sense, Parker is not one that I pay any attention to at all.

It must be granted that everybody has their preferences. And therefore no wine writer has a monopoly on what tastes good and what doesn’t. I think if you can find somebody whose tastes seem to parallel yours, then maybe what they have to say is worth a listen.

But Parker’s likes and dislikes when it comes to wine don’t parallel mine in the least. I would say, as a general rule, Parker likes wines that are soft (that is, low in acid), oaky, and with a touch of Brett. I tend to like wines that are racy (that is high in acid), with little or no oak, and no Brett. So, obviously, Parker and I are not much of a fit.

But that I don’t gravitate towards the wines that Parker likes in no way denigrates his tasting abilities and his recommendations. There are obviously tons of people out there whose likes more closely parallel Parker’s than they do mine. For those people, Parker can probably be a valuable source.

On the negative side of the ledger, I think Parker has done a lot to create the ultra-premium, cult-wine, feeding frenzy that turn off so many people to wine. Let’s face it: a well-made, even exceptionally well-made, wine costing $10-$15 without any name recognition is unlikely to get much attention from Parker. If you are a first growth Bordeaux, then Parker is great for you. But how many people devote much of their wine consumption to first growth Bordeauxs.

I think Parker has also done more than anybody to elevate a few critics to pretty much what counts as superstardom in the wine world. I can’t say as this is a welcome development. Again, it smacks of elitism when what would be of greatest benefit to the industry would be removing so much of the stigma attached to wine. I think we would be better off with more consumers who maybe don’t know all that much about wine, and aren’t interested in spending beaucoup bucks on a bottle. In fact, it is those consumers that even now constitute a large majority of our customers. For the industry as a whole, expanding that market rather than catering to a relative few who are obsessed with the best that money can buy is, in the long run, a better strategy.

But if you look at anyone in any sphere of life who has had a major impact, there are few that are unmitigated goods or unmitigated bads. The more important thing, looked at from a historian’s point of view, is not whether they changed things for the better or for the worse (always something open to debate anyway) but whether they change things at all. In that regard, you would have to say that Parker has been a great success.

Why most wine is in heavy bottles with corks

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

I came across the following post by the Wine Curmudgeon:

Why don’t these wines have screwcaps? which can be found at

The gist of the post is that there’s no good reason why wine isn’t bottled  in lightweight glass  and closed with a screwcap.

I’m going to answer this question  in a kind of roundabout way. I was having lunch a while back with one of our distributors. We got to talking about what it takes for a wine brand to be a success. This is how he ranked the most important factors:

1. Marketing budget

2. Packaging

3 (and a distant third at that). The quality of the wine in the bottle.

Closures and bottle style fall under the second, “packaging”, category.

The primary benefit of a screwcap  fits into category three, because it  pretty much eliminates corked wines.

Bottle weight also falls under the “packaging” category. Does a heavier bottle make the wine any better? Clearly not. In fact, does the heavier bottle have any benefit other than consumer appeal? Again the answer is no.

But if you’re a wine producer, it doesn’t make any difference how good your wine is if you can’t sell  it. And when it comes to selling wine, consumers don’t like screw caps and they don’t like lightweight bottles. You can talk about the environment all you want, or how great screwcaps are at finishing a bottle of wine. A lightweight bottle with a screwcap benefits you not at all unless somebody is willing to plunk down some cash for it.

I’ve been at this wine thing now for quite a while, and I have to admit that my view about what makes for a successful wine brand  has undertaken a 180° shift. I started off thinking that if you produced really good wine, as with the proverbial mousetrap, consumers would  beat a path to your door. I now realize that this was naïve in the extreme.

I don’t know if  our distributor is 100% correct in his view, but he might well be. He certainly far more  closer to the truth than I was starting out.

And, when you think about it for a minute, you can certainly see his point. If I’m out buying a bottle of wine in the supermarket or wine store, the chances are very good that most of the wine I pick up I’ve never tasted before. So that’s a strike against quality counting for a whole lot. Now that’s not totally fair, because I do tend to pick up  wines from producers that I’ve had good experiences with in the past. But I think I’m a lot more cognizant of producers than most consumers are. Many of my friends will comment that they tasted a  wine last week that they really liked, but  they’ve forgotten what it was. So lots of good putting a quality product in the bottle did for that producer.

I suspect the place where quality counts the most is on direct to consumer sales. At least if you’re selling to a local clientele (as opposed to tourists), I do think your repeat business is going to depend upon your buyers being happy with what they bought.  Not to mention that if the buyers are coming into your tasting room, if they don’t like what they’re tasting,  you are not going to make a sale. But when it comes to any sort of regional to national distribution, I think the quality of what’s in the bottle definitely takes a backseat to other factors.

If you doubt this, maybe you should take a good look at the products available the next time you’re in the wine section  of your super market. And ask yourself,  “By and large, is what I’m seeing in front of me reflective more of the quality of the producer or its marketing power?”

The decline of Bordeaux

Monday, January 27th, 2014

jeff-smby Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

While going through my weekly reading of posts, I came across this one from Steve Heimoff:

For Bordeaux, selling to Millennials will be harder than it seems, which can be found at

The gist of the post is that  Bordeaux is doing really well among the elder set, and not so well among the young.  Like the business model for any industry (with the possible exception of tobacco), it’s not so good when your main customer base is dying off. So Bordeaux finds itself in the sobering situation of being the premier wine in the world, but in decline.

So why is Bordeaux having such a hard time with the younger set? I have little doubt that, at least in part, it is, as Heimoff claims, that the elitist and pricey image of Bordeaux doesn’t  jive so well with the trendy and cutting edge.

But I have a simpler explanation which, I think, accounts for even more of the problem. Bordeaux just isn’t that good. By that, I don’t necessarily mean to say that Bordeaux is a bad wine, or, more accurately, most Bordeaux’s are bad  wines. Because most of them are not. And probably most of them are “good”  wines.

But most consumers factor in not just the quality of the wine but its price. Viewed in this way, Bordeaux doesn’t stack up that well.

Because, truth be told, there are tons of good wines in this world. Now those of you who are regular readers of this blog are probably aware that Bordeaux is not my favorite wine. But, I have to acknowledge, that like all assessments of wine, that’s my personal and very subjective opinion. I may find them, by and large, to be fruit challenged,  and endowed more with the tight green tannins  than the soft round ones that I prefer.

Bordeaux has done an excellent marketing job. It has taken what should be a negative, the need to put the  wines down for extended periods before they are drinkable, into a positive, making “being age worthy” a big plus.

But even  if you grant that the quality of Bordeaux is, by and large, pretty good, it’s hard to make the argument that a $100 bottle of Bordeaux is twice as good as a $50 bottle of wine from many other wine regions throughout the world. In fact, I think if you  pitted those $50 bottles of wine against $100 bottles of Bordeaux in a blind tasting, you would find the Bordeaux doesn’t rate any higher. I wouldn’t be surprised if in fact the Bordeaux rated  lower. After all, when you’re buying Bordeaux, in large measure your paying for the name, and not what’s in the  bottle.

There is no doubt that many name brands  have managed to survive and charge what, by all objective standards, is a price higher than their products warrant. Think Tiffany, Mercedes-Benz, Louis Vuitton. You get the idea. But there are  always newer competitors coming to market (think Lexus), which can provide a product of equivalent quality for less. The name brands survive, but market share suffers. At least Bordeaux does not have that problem, since its market share is pretty much set and pretty small.  But, then again, it’s customer base is pretty small as well.

But to a certain extent it’s fighting an uphill battle in a marketplace where consumers that are not impressed by its brand (i.e. younger consumers) are simply not going to be willing to pay the premium that Bordeaux seeks (and maybe even needs) to extract.