Monday, May 7, 2007

Why disconnect the dots?

It was important to me to choose a name that was reflective of my thoughts and not my industry. Similar to the approach that advocates of Web 2.0 praise new concepts that are "constructively disruptive to older models." The dilemma that I pose however, is: with a product such as wine, where taste is everything, how do you grow this up to a marketplace defined by analytics and numerical objectivity, while still giving respect to the inherently human efforts contained in the bottle?

So many people allow themselves to qualify wine based upon a 40 point scale that accounts for a handful of "expert" palates. From a web development perspective, it then becomes very easy to market wines based solely on their score. However from a real perspective, why should anyone be so distrustful in their own tastes to subject themselves to a demagogue? The point is this: If wine becomes a quantifiable commodity, the door is left wide open for wine to be homogenized. The film Mondovino does a disturbingly good service to the effect of scores/ globalization/ homogeneity on the wine industry at large.

The main motivation becomes, then, how we grow big and stay small (thanks, Howard Schultz) as an industry? Imagine, if you will, in twenty-five years if all wines labeled Cabernet Sauvignon tasted the same (basing the idea of a "good" wine on a handful of palates.) Now imagine if every cup of "good" coffee wore a Starbucks badge. Now imagine trying to discern a difference between a McDonalds cheeseburger, a Burger King cheeseburger, and a Wendy's cheeseburger. The latter are examples of homogenization.

"Constructive disruption of older models" is the only way to effectively combat the fusion of every unique and different product produced, into a grey, bland, homogenization of "acceptable" and "satisfactory."

Friday, May 4, 2007

Paso or Politico?

I was under the impression that an appellation was designated based on unique and anomalous qualities present in the soil of a region, that were also visible in the wine produced. The debate, detailed on Appellation America by Laura Ness, that has come about in the Paso Robles region of California over the drawing of sub-appellate lines is at least worrisome. The core of the debate rests inside of a proposed Westside AVA. This proposal has nothing to do with soil composition but everything to do with marketing. It was echoed by proponents of the measure:

Justin Baldwin and Doug Beckett agree on one fundamental issue: this is all about “my grapes are better than yours.” It’s an Eastside vs. Westside battle of pride. Notes Baldwin, “Only 10 percent of all the grapes in Paso Robles are grown on the Westside. Let’s not miss the main theme of the plot here. It’s not where the lines are: it’s all about the quality issue.” Doug Beckett couldn't agree more. “In fairness to everyone, what is behind this? Soils? Bunk. There’s a lot more to this issue than people realize.”

This is where my dots are disconnected: We are talking specifically about an issue that pertains to soil, and the subsequent wines produced; and somehow, the above mentioned grape growers have found accessory meaning to the concept of appellate boundaries. This brings me to an analogy:

Grape growers in Paso Robles' "Westside" are to appellation consciousness, as the medieval Church was to the spherical nature of the Earth. Staring at your feet, it is very easy to assert that the Earth is flat. Equally, it is very easy to set self-motivated terms, under the banner of tradition when it is your backyard in question. You cannot effectively gauge a situation that you are in too close a proximity to.

What the grape growers in Paso need to figure out is whether or not they are comfortable with the idea that sub-dividing the appellation may have positive and negative consequences. Napa made the mistake as defining their appellation as a marketing device, proven over and over by the currant of over homogenized, median priced cabernets sauvignon that flood the market. Regional distinctiveness suggests a quality that is chosen by a wine maker, not imparted by one.
In the same regards, wine makers that can buy regional distinctiveness have no need to produce great wines if they can pass them off as produced in a region that makes great wine.

The appellate designation should be held as an immovable constant, not a flexible marketing tool. The moment it is bought, it becomes worthless. If the TTB were concerned, they would contract geologists and an unbiased tasting panel to look for distinctive qualities in the wines of Paso Robles. Until then, we have a pissing contest. Wine makers, please take care not to taint the wines.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Winemaker archetype

After much thought, I have decided that winemakers do, in fact have an archetype of their own. The Winemaker Personality Cuvee, if you will, is 45% Farmer, 30% Surfer, and 25% Stoner. The most easy-going bunch on the face of the Earth are winemakers, and that is absolutely to their credit.
I recently spent a few hours with a winemaker at a tasting of his wines. At first he was noticably anxious, having his wines dissected by a panel of discerning tasters. Not many people noticed, but he also wasn't spitting, again, much to his credit. It takes a very special person to be able to put every ounce of their effort into 750 mL bottle and sit by as it is broken down to its base. He did it with grace.

It was to everyone's surprise, save mine because I had invited them; when the "Sugars" walked into the tasting to be introduced. The "Sugars", or women of are a diverse and charismatic bunch from the 6th floor of our building. These lovely ladies immediately put our tense winemaker immediately in his element. The concept of Popsugar is really intriguing. It is a comprehensive portal to everything cool and relevant to the modern female sophisticate, and these women were its very essence.

Our winemaker was in tasting heaven. The "Sugars" answered with polite eye-rolling (sorry, Stacia). All in all, it has further engrained that which I already believe, that winemaking is a culture, occupation, and lifestyle all to itself, and 100% for me. Nothing sappy, just good wine and great people.

Until we meet again,

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Why distributors are dumbing down your palate.

In addition to identifying the regional characteristics that make every wine distinctive, should we also define the regional characteristics that make each buying region distinctive? In San Francisco, where wine is a greater part of the mass existence than the automobile, the knowledge and thus market is more discriminating. Whereas in Georgia, for instance, the wine market is defined by distribution companies that read metrics produced through the sale of wines at the local grocery store, by a standard of buyer that is recognizably and measurably less savvy. This being said, is either side of the latter “coin” incorrect? Does each decide how the market works? And, equipped with the same tools (i.e. the internet, Wine Spectator, etc.) why is the outcome ultimately different?

First observation, savvy, as it pertains to market allowances, is unfortunately relative. In a market that opens its doors to well-known and obscure wines alike, buyers are more apt to follow their own course. Using the example of Newspeak as was set forth by George Orwell in his masterpiece, 1984; we understand that by limiting the vocabulary, or in this case the selection, the “herd” or buying populous is essentially forced into a mold, created by those in power in order to keep the status quo of buyer/seller relationship in check. To offer greater selection is to risk losing your clientele to their individual powers of choice. The less fearful side of the equation is to offer a selection of wine that is based on a selection of choice products and to meet the challenges of the market with an invitation to explore, rather than acquiesce to the greatest common factor.

To understand how a regional savvy is affected, we must look at the potential factors influencing the market. In a savvy market, a buyer will possess a plethora of market resources, human and publication. If a buyer has the opportunity to consult a variety of sources prior to making a decision, the likely outcome is a purchase made in the absence of great fear of the unknown, ultimately a purchase of greater value. For example: Customer A is at a wine shop with a shelf tag describing each wine with 15 words and a score, 1-100. Customer B is at a wine store with hand written descriptions of each wine and a knowledgeable sales person to assist. To ask Customer A to qualify a wine based on a vague scale of 1-100 is to first ask the customer, “Do you know who wrote this recommendation?” And to follow with, “Why do you trust that person?” The dangerous part of that line of questioning is that the path of questions leads away from a very core issue: “Why do you not trust yourself to make a decision about the purchase you are about to make?”

To tie this back, it is in the best interest of the small-minded merchant, and the power-minded merchant to keep the buyer at all times with a sense of fear about the purchase that the buyer will soon make. It forces the buyer to choose from a limited selection, based upon limited information. However, if the buyer is not aware of the intention of the seller, or his agent(s), the buyer will not believe otherwise. Regional savvy is foremost and primarily affected by the constraints placed upon him, unwittingly, by the merchant.

To answer question two, taking into respect, the answer to question one; then the market may be effectively divided between two segments: the segment that is knowledgeable and dictates is own selection via buying power, and the market that has never seen the alternative to having its choices dictated to them via a distributor. The latter is equitable to asking a cowboy to describe surfing.

More later.