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Robert Parker's Advice to Wine Writers

Wine-critic-Robert-Parker-010Given the quantity of articles last week on Robert Parker’s appearance at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and the length of this one as it stands, I’m not doing the compleat review I’d intended here. Instead, I’m focusing on his advice to wine writers, which was intended to be one of the primary benefits to us of his talk.

Though some disagree, I believe Parker thought the issue through and was genuinely trying to be helpful. Wine writer Elin McCoy, who wrote the 2005 biography of Parker, The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr. and the Reign of American Taste, also attended the conference and saw his appearance similarly, “What struck me first was his clear desire to reach out to this group of wine writers, certainly generous given his current health issues. – i.e. back surgery, and he has bad knees, too.”

In his opening remarks last week, Parker said, “In the time that I have here today, I’d like to share as much information as I have because I want to see all of you succeed. I came out of basically nowhere… and never dreamed of the kind of success I would have…. I have some ideas how I got there and I want other people to succeed.”

But then he added, “When I retire, I don’t want to see the wine writing profession just sort of dwindle away.” That led to open-mouthed gapes. Does he fear that, without him as shepherd, the huge flock of contemporary wine writers will lose focus and drift off into oblivion? To some writers, Robert Parker seems like one of those fathers who dispenses encouragement and sage advice, urges you to work hard and then pauses to remind you (again) that you’ll never be as good as he is. It can be maddening. But, perhaps, we are hearing what we expect, not what’s said.

Let’s look at his words again. He did not say “wine writing.” He said “the wine writing profession.” He’s not saying that we aren’t good writers. He said the opposite, “There’s a lot of good talent here. I think there are infinite possibilities to do something very, very special.”

He’s worried about the profession. “When I started in 1978, and looking around the room I think this makes me the premier geezer in the room [he and the room laugh], in 1978 when I started most magazines that dealt with any kind of lifestyle involving food had wine writers. I’ve seen a lot of those publications reduce their staffs. They’re under strict budgets and that’s unfortunate.” We have seen most all newspapers cut their paid wine columns too, and trim their culture sections overall.

How many professional wine writers today make a living based solely on that vocation? A survey at last year’s Symposium revealed that most of the attendees made less than $20,000 per year writing about wine. How many wine scribes make the kind of money through wine writing that Parker has? Probably none. Other areas of journalism are little better. This is what causes him trepidation, not our talent. He’s not demeaning our capabilities. He’s realistically appraising the state of paid journalism today. It’s abysmal.

Later, Parker hit on that topic in a different way. “The idea of giving content away makes no sense at all. People will always be willing to pay for independent expertise. In the overall blog world I see content that is derived from other sources, it may be good reading and attract a lot of hits but we’re talking about people willing to pay you for content.” I’ve heard wine writer and educator Karen MacNeil give this advice more bluntly, “Never do anything for free.”

Parker is not criticizing us as writers. He’s cautioning us, bloggers in particular, as business people and he’s correct to do so. Very few writers have the financial wherewithal and stubbornness to continue writing quality articles day after day, year after year, without compensation. And nobody has meaningfully monetized a personal wine blog. Meanwhile, the internet’s demand for new content every day almost guarantees a great many blog articles will be superficial, derivative or navel-gazing—not the kind of thing people will pay for.

Creating enough valuable, unique content to drive a profitable level of paid subscriptions, let alone ads, is hard. The niche isn’t big enough to support everyone that might want to do it either. But the market has already proved free wine content with an ad- or affinity sales-based model won’t support anyone at all. There is a good number of subscription-based content providers who have achieved at least modest success though. Some have done much better.

Parker suggests teaming up may be a way forward. “If you have a website, and there are some really good websites… there’s got to be real content, original content not derivative stuff… We’re talking about making money. People willing to pay you, $9.95, $20 or whatever for that content. You may have to do it with a group of people [to get enough content].”

The already successful sites and newsletters also reinforce something else Parker said. Despite complaints from many writers about the banality of wine reviews, people still want to read them. The majority of consumer-focused, subscription-based wine newsletters have wine reviews at their core. Even so, the market for paid wine newsletters in the United States is small and more likely to decline than improve.

There will never be another figure such as Parker in wine for the western world. “Today,” he said, “the internet sort of neutralizes things. It’s a reservoir almost.” The great ease with which wine writing can now be published and the broad access to it for consumers precludes that. Parker’s empire is being divided among many hundreds of writers and thousands of citizen reviewers.

This leads into Parker’s next point. "“The real growth market, and this is why I sold the majority of the Wine Advocate to guys in Singapore, is in Asia. There is no question about it, even though the economy in China has slowed a bit; it’s still booming.” There is virtually no credible, Chinese-language writing on wine, but many of the wealthy in Asia who can afford fine wine are comfortable with English.

“I really think the opportunity today,” Parker continued “is live-streamed video, high-quality video content… I think the future is in an educational wine video program that streams through all of the different Asian countries. If you do it as professionally as possible, and don’t charge too much for it, you’ll have success because the volume of people in these countries dying for education is enormous.”

I know this to be true. The number of applicants to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust for authorization and training to teach WSET curriculum throughout Asia is startling, as is attendance in the resulting classes. Some well-established western wine writers, such as Australia’s Jeremy Oliver, are spending more and more of their time in China serving this thirst for wine education. And Robert Parker, with his reconstructed back and aching knees, wouldn’t be embarking on a month-long trip to China were it not important.

We can laugh at stories about people in Asia mixing expensive Bordeaux with Coca-Cola, as I heard some writers do. Or we can let those folks pay us to help them enjoy the nuances of great wine, straight-up, no chaser. We can titter at the idea of doing videos from home while we write our pajama-clad, freelancing-butts off for fifty cents per word, or we can give Parker’s suggestions a shot.

Nobody in Parker’s audience at the symposium was a serious videographer but video, even mediocre video, will be more compelling to this audience, and many others, than the same content in writing. Jancis Robinson spoke to this when addressing bloggers in Virginia two years ago. She urged them to integrate video into their repertoire. She said it didn’t have to be sleek, if the information was solid and unique. Antonio Galloni has made videos a big component of his Vinous Media site.

In a post-symposium discussion, David White of the excellent told me, “I think writers are still hoping for Parker to become the elder statesman he pretends he wants to be… We still revere him. Yet over and over again, he’s divisive and dismissive.” There were definitely moments of that in Parker’s session and they’ve been well-documented. However, his advice to us as professional writers was solid and well-intentioned.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. Robert Parker photo by Shahrar Azran/WireImage. All rights reserved.

Review: Benziger Family Winery and V Sattui Winery iPhone Apps

On April 22, V. Sattui Winery released an app for the Apple iPhone. Benziger Family Winery released an iPhone app using the same developer and template on May 7. Both apps have excellent ratings in the iTunes store, but no useful reviews there. I downloaded these free iPhone apps Friday and gave them a run through myself.

This is a comprehensive (read long and detailed) software review. I know that some of you just want to know quickly if the apps are “good,” what benefits they offer and whether you should get them. The following seven paragraphs give you that info in a nutshell. The remainder of the article provides a full walk-through of the apps and my additional commentary.

Both the Benziger Family Winery and V. Sattui Winery apps for iPhone are attractive, fast and effective windows into their respective winery. The Benziger app in particular puts details on all of their current wine releases at your finger tip. Both apps provide good information about the wineries and their events.

Multimedia and social media are a big part of these apps for iPhone. They allow you to quickly and easily follow both mainstream and social media news about the wineries. You can see winery and vineyard photos and watch informative videos they have produced. The apps are full of Wine 2.0 connectivity too. Almost every page of the apps allow you to share your thoughts about wineries, wines and news via email, Facebook, Twitter or on the app’s own Fan Page.

While the two apps were built using identical templates, there are slight differences. These differences are presumably based on the types of information provided to the developer by the wineries and options they chose. In general, the Benziger app provides richer content. There is much more detail on the specific wines in their app. They also provide many more useful links to areas of their website than does V. Sattui. For example, Benziger links directly from a wine in the app to that wine in their online store. V. Sattui does not offer any wine buying option at all. Given V. Sattui’s focus on direct sales, this surprised me. On the other hand, I think that Benziger Family Winery, which puts a big focus on biodynamic agriculture, has missed an opportunity by not having making a top level reference to biodynamics in the app.

The apps are not perfect, but they are substantially better than some apps from huge media corporations with (theoretically) big budgets. During my tests, I experienced only one crash and I suspect that was a web issue. There a few things things I would change in the interface, but they are minor and won’t impede your enjoyment of the apps or access to the information to which they lead. My biggest concern is that the apps rely very heavily on web connectivity. If you aren’t connected, there’s not much you can do with these apps. That said, they work well on 3G, so WiFi is not a requirement. I would prefer to see more of the text-based information resident in the app rather than served up via web links. That would make the apps slightly larger, but faster to access, easier to read and usable offline.

These are both very good apps. They represent the wineries well and should exceed your expectations. They make me want to hop in the car and visit the wineries. But, I’m a tough grader. I give the V. Sattui app 3.5 stars and the Benziger Family Winery app 4.5 stars. Functionally, the two apps are identical. The difference in ratings between the two is based on the amount of content and useful links they provide. As V. Sattui adds information via updates, I’ll increase my rating.

I recommend these apps highly if you are:
A current fan or customer of the wineries

Someone who wants to learn more about two of the most prominent wineries in Northern California
A winery looking for a model upon which to base your own app
A large media conglomerate which needs proof that info-centric apps don’t have to crash every 5 minutes

The Details
The V. Sattui Winery app is 3.0 MB in size and the Benziger Family Winery app 3.1 MB. Both downloaded very quickly via WiFi. I used both an iPhone 3G and an iPad with 3G for my testing. The apps are designed for iPhone, not iPad. That means that they will run on the iPad, but don’t take advantage of unique iPad features or the larger screen size. (The iPad has a feature which can magnify the display size of an iPhone app and this works with the apps, but the graphics in the apps get blurry because they were designed to be displayed at the smaller size.)

The apps load within about 6 seconds of tapping the icon on the iPhone desktop. When you load the apps for the first time, you’ll get two messages immediately. The first is a request to allow push notifications which would enable the winery to proactively send messages to you via your phone. The second message is a request for you to join their mailing list. You have the option of answering yes or no to each question.  If you choose “no,” the app doesn’t ask you again when you reopen it. As with many iPhone apps, this one does frequently ask to use your current location. Again, you  may choose “yes” or “no.”
Once you’ve gotten past these requests, you see the Home screen which features a nice photo. The winery name is at the top of the screen. Just below that is a button labeled “Recent Activity >”. At the bottom of the screen, there are five menu items. In the Benziger app these are Home, Wines, BzTV, News and More. In the V. Sattui app they are Home, Wines, Events, Videos and More.

Both apps include News and Events. Benziger chose to emphasize News and they put Events one layer down in the section called More. V. Sattui did the opposite. The Video and BzTV sections are functionally identical too, Benziger just chose to brand their section.

Selecting Recent Activity> takes you to pages that show social media messages. There are two different pages, Fan and Official, selectable via buttons at the top of the page. Both pages scroll to show multiple messages organized by day (ex. Today, 5 days ago, 6 days ago). The Fan page shows messages posted to the “Fan Wall” within the application. It does not show messages from the wineries’ Facebook Fan Pages.

Tapping on a message takes you to the app Fan Wall. Here, the interface becomes slightly confusing. To return to the Recent Activity screens, you need to tap on the Home icon at the bottom left of the screen. The button in the upper left that would normally say “Back” says “More” because the Fan Wall is in the “More” section of the app. This makes sense given the way the app is structured, but is slightly confusing and you may find yourself in the wrong section. Even more confusing is the fact that clicking on “Home” in this instance doesn’t actually take you to the Home screen but rather back to the Recent Activity screen.

To return to Home, you need to tap Home twice. This appears to be consistent within the rest of the app. This is because he app remembers what page you were last on within each section. So, if you’re on the Home screen and tap More, it takes you directly to whichever section you had been in, the Photos gallery for example, rather than to the top level More page that lists all of the pages in that section. I can see why they choose to do things this way, but I do think that it’s confusing. It’s made slightly more confusing by the fact that the app only remembers what page you were on during that session. If you close the app and reopen it, your last pages are forgotten.

The Official page within the Recent Activity section shows Tweets sent from the official winery Twitter account. It also shows notifications of photo uploads to the app’s Photos gallery. It’s possible other items may show there too, but only the items mentioned above appear at the moment. (It might be nice to show Facebook Fan Page updates.)

Tapping on a Tweet takes you to Tweets tab of the “News” section of the app. Again, to return to Recent Activity you tap Home. Tapping on a notification of photo upload takes you to the Photos gallery (in the More section). However, it does not open the specific photo referred to in the notification. Currently, there aren’t an overwhelming number of photos in the gallery so this isn’t a problem. Later, when there are many more photos, it might become tedious trying to find that new photo you want to see.

Tapping on the Wines button at the bottom of the home screen gives you access to information on what appear to be most, and may well be all, of the Benziger Family Winery current releases. The V. Sattui app shows only 12 wines at the moment. The majority of the Wines screen shows the wine labels in a “Cover Browser” style that lets you flick the central label left or right to scroll through all the wines. Beneath each label, the name of the wine is listed. At the top of the screen, is a “variety bar” on which the varietal (ex. Chardonnay) of the currently shown wine is highlighted. This works like the tabs on a rolodex. You can scroll left and right in the variety bar to see and select a different varietal. Doing so takes you to the first wine of that variety. There are also little “<<“ and “>>” symbols in the corners of the varietal bar. These don’t work very well though because they overlap the varietal names. It’s hard to tap on “<<“ rather than a variety.

Once you’ve found a wine that you want to know more about, touch the label. That opens a detail screen. At the top is the name, the variety, a thumbnail of the label, a red “like” button and text showing the number of times the wine has been “liked.” Below this section are two tabs. One tab is for Comments and simply shows any comments that may have been left by users about the wine. The primary tab is for the “Info” page. Here, the Benziger app provides very detailed information whereas V. Sattui just provides a brief descriptor of the wine. For example, “Rich estate-bottled Cabernet with aromas of cocoa and dusty earth, flavors of raspberry, herb and sweet oak.” Benziger includes several paragraphs on each wine, including the vineyard and winemaker’s notes. The latter includes alcohol percentage, dates (harvest, bottling and release), production volume, and info on yeast, total acid, pH, and both type of and time in oak.

At the bottom of the individual Wine screen are two “social media” tabs. On the right is a Comment button which opens up a text edit screen and keyboard so that you can write a message about the wine. On the left is a “forward icon” which opens a pop-up allowing you to share info about the wine via email, Facebook or Twitter. The email option automatically puts the name of the wine, a picture of the label and a link to get the app from the App Store in the body of the email. The Twitter and Facebook options do essentially the same thing, but you don’t have the opportunity to edit the message. I think that’s unfortunate as a person may wish to communicate more about the wine than just that it exists on the app. And I believe the feature would be used more often if people could personalize the message rather than sending out a generic advertisement for the wine and/or app. Using the Facebook and Twitter options require you to authorize, the app developer, to push notifications on your behalf.

The retail price is not listed anywhere on the Wine Info page in either app. However, the Benziger Family Winery app provides a “Buy the Wine >” option. Tapping that takes you to another page that simply says “Buy In Our Online Store >.” Tapping that opens the Benziger Family Winery web store within the app, complete with the pop-up window asking you to select your state or opt for “pickup at the winery.” While taking you to the web store isn’t ideal from a convenience standpoint on an iPhone, it does seem to be effective. And, once you get through the initial pop-up, you are taken directly to the page in the store for the wine you had selected. Having experienced the feature in the Benziger app, I really miss it in V. Sattui’s.

The intermediate page listing only “Buy In Our Online Store” seems to have been designed with the idea that other purchasing options may be added in the future. These might include a “quick buy” option for repeat customers or deals with specific resellers that you allow you to buy from your favorite shop rather than winery direct. That said, the latter type of arrangement is always difficult to manage because of issues with inventory tracking, real-time exchange of data, etc. I wouldn’t hold my breath while waiting for such an option.

The third button at the bottom of the Benziger app Home screen is “BzTV.” In the V. Sattui app, this is labeled Video and is button number four. The buttons do exactly the same thing though. Tapping the button takes you to a scrolling list of videos provided by the winery. The list shows a thumbnails on the left, the name of the video in the middle and a comment button on the right. Tapping a video in the list opens it as a YouTube video within the app. Some of the  items are actual videos, others are photo montages with text and audio overlays. They all load quickly on WiFi. The load time was okay for me on the 3G as well, but your experience may differ depending on your exact location. Some of the V. Sattui videos are a little choppy, even on WiFi, because they are hi-res.

Tapping the “News” button at the bottom of the Benziger app Home screen takes you to an area showing the latest chatter about Benziger. [In the V. Sattui app, News is not accessed via the Home screen but rather from the More screen. News functionality is identical in every other way though.] The default News screen is Tweets. Using buttons at the top, you can elect to see all Tweets about and by the winery, only their “Official Tweets” or only Mentions. A button allows you to comment on the Tweets.
The other screen within News is called Buzz. It shows a scrolling list of articles about and accolades for the winery from the media.

Tapping an item in the list takes you to a digest page that shows the first 25 words or so from the article and the url. Tapping on the url or the headline link takes you to the article on the source website using the app’s built-in browser. You can also share or comment on the news item from the digest page.  The bottom of the digest page has forward and back arrows so that you can move through the various news items without going back to the main Buzz page. That’s very convenient.
The last button at the bottom of the Home screen takes you to the More section. The More screen shows the following list for Benziger: Photos, Events, Links, Benziger Bio, Store Locator, Mailing List, Fan Wall, and About. For the V. Sattui app, the list is as follows: Photos, Wall, History, Links, Mailing List, About, Accounts, News. Photos and Fan Wall have been covered sufficiently above.

Tapping Events (on the V. Sattui Home screen  and on the More screen in the Benziger app) opens a screen showing a list of upcoming events in which the winery is involved. [You can also choose to see past events.] Tapping an event in the list opens a screen with details about the event. This includes general information and other options that may include the ability to view a map, buy tickets, see who’s going, see or add comments, and view photos related to the event. Of course, you can also Share the event.

Beniziger’s Links item opens to the following list: Benziger Website, Come Visit, Shop our Wines, Events Calendar, Wine Clubs, Facebook, Twitter, Winemaking Practices, Our Story, The Benziger Family, In The News, and Imagery Estate Winery. Facebook takes you to their Fan Page and Twitter to their feed. Imagery Estate Winery in Sonoma Valley is within the Benziger family and that link opens the Imagery site. The other items open the relevant pages from the Benziger website using the built-in browser.

V. Sattui’s Links item opens to this list: V. Sattui’s Facebook Fan Page, @VSattui1885 (their Twitter feed) and Weather. Weather takes you to the Weather Channel web page for V. Sattui’s location. This is a very nice idea, but the site loads so slowly that, even on WiFi, it’s not very practical.

The Benziger Bio item in the More section shows a group photo of Benziger staff, provides a bit of winery history, information on their philosophy and some contact info. The Store Locator item takes you to that page on the Benziger site which allows you to search for stores by zip code. Mailing List opens a sign up form in the app.

About in the Benziger app is just legal text and a link to I believe this item is named inappropriately. To me, About should list details about the app: who made it, what version you have, when it was released and perhaps an option to check for updates. The legal disclaimers should be listed under a separate Legal heading.

The V. Sattui app About provides general info about the winery rather than legal text. However, it doesn’t provide any details about the app either.
These apps are said to work with iPhone, iPod touch and iPod running iPhone OS 3.0 or later. The apps support English, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish. I have not tested the foreign language support. However, I suspect that the localization is for the app itself, not all of the specific wine information.

In Conclusion
My overall conclusions are in the summary at the beginning of this article. I won’t repeat them here. However, I would like to share some other thoughts. Both of these apps are good, but they are really compelling if you are a fan, particularly a local fan, of the wineries. If you live in the Finger Lakes region of New York, or in Europe, there’s not much reason to download them.

I think that Benziger could make their app a “must download” for a vastly wider audience by leveraging the winery’s experience in biodynamics and adding significant content in this area. There is a big focus now being put on green initiatives by wineries, the media and consumers. But there is also a lot of confusion about how the different initiatives are defined, the differences between them, certifications required and definition of terms. Many people still think biodynamic growing is all about burying cow horns and dancing under the moonlight.

There are lot of “fan targeted” apps being released now. Not just wineries, but restaurants, clubs, car companies, etc. doing so. While these apps may be well executed and of genuine value to fans, I see a future in which there are so many of them that it will become impossible to find new ones above the noise. And, like those discount and membership cards for airlines, coffee shops and burrito joints, eventually people will stop using most of them because there are so many and it’s a hassle keeping track of them.

Eventually, the only apps that will get long-term and frequent use will be those which offer significantly more value than just connecting with a company and it’s products. As I suggested above, for Benziger that added value could be related to biodynamics. For V. Sattui, it could be expanding their event listings to include non V. Sattui events in the immediate vicinity of their winery. Once people are attracted to the area by some other event listed in the app, the odds of them stopping by the winery on the same trip are high. Or, they could offer recipes from their deli or information about Italian foods. Those are just suggestions and any company should be able to better pinpoint the right hook for their app than I. But I do hope such a trend starts soon.

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Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check outour comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Harvest 2011 in Paso Robles and Freshly-Picked Roussanne at Tablas Creek Vineyards

I have just spent three days visiting with wineries in Paso Robles. The weather was great with cool mornings and warm, occasionally hot, days under a clear blue sky. Harvest for some grapes is underway, though most varieties have yet to achieve necessary ripeness.

The harvest is late this year due to poor weather in previous months. At Terry Hoage Vineyards, for example, harvest will probably start next week. That’s at least two weeks behind normal. Even then, brix levels may be lower than average. Because of the cool growing season and the need to pull in fruit slightly prematurely should there be forecasts of substantial rain, many winemakers are suggesting 2011 Paso Robles wines will be lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than is typical. The difference may be noticeable, but not extreme.

The biggest problem for Paso Robles growers and wineries this year is not ripeness though. It's low yields. A series of early April frosts are primarily to blame. Vines that had already entered budbreak were damaged and didn’t flower. Viognier was the most affected. [Some varieties tend to reach budbreak early, others late. The timing of the frost this year happened to hit Viognier the hardest.] Tablas Creek figures their potential Viognier crop may be just 20% of average this year (or less). On the positive end of the spectrum, Grenache yields should be at about 90% barring heavy rains during the remainder of the season.

Tablas Creek GM Jason Haas told me on Tuesday that Paso Robles has had much less trouble due to weather than most of California's AVAs. The previous day his blog post was, “Why Paso Robles will make California's best wines in 2011.” It is an interesting read. The calcareous earth beneath the thin topsoil holds water like a sponge. It soaked up the heavy winter rains, aiding those vineyards which are dry-farmed. But Paso Robles' specific location isolated it from most of the untimely rain and heat spikes.

As a Paso Robles producer, Mr. Haas is not an unbiased observer. His arguments are sound though and there has been no shortage of dire reports from other AVAs. I expect top Paso Robles vintners to sell out of wine even earlier than usual. If you have favorite Paso Robles wines that are tough to get in normal years, consider joining the wine club/mailing list to improve your access for this year.

While at Tablas Creek, I had the opportunity to see freshly-picked Roussanne grapes. They looked healthy and tasted great. The fruit was perfectly ripe with sweet flavorful juice and dry, crunchy seeds. A sip of frothy juice straight from the press was equally promising. The other varieties I saw on vine — Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Tannat — looked good as well.

Freshly-picked Rousssanne at Tablas Creek Vineyard. The name Roussanne is a reference to the grapes' russet color.

The Roussanne is sorted and then put into this horizontal bladder press.

Juice coming out of the press looks like this.


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Brand Building in the Wine Business, It Ain’t Easy

A brand is a set of expectations. We think of McDonalds and Coca-Cola as brands, but those are just the names. The golden arches and red can with white script are the brands’ symbols. The real brands are the collected expectations those names and symbols represent. Whether you like the products or not, you know exactly what a Big Mac is, how McDonalds french fries differ from those of Wendy’s and can tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in a blind tasting.

320px-McDonalds Times SquareMcDonalds and Coca-Cola are strong brands not because we recognize the name but because we know what they stand for. Decades of advertising and your personal experience with their extremely consistent products have almost literally etched their products into your brain. How many wine brands can you say that about?

Building a brand is difficult and expensive. It requires uniformity of products, seemingly endless repetition of messaging and many, many personal experiences with the product by each target consumer. This presents serious challenges for the wine industry.

The first problem is that the quality and character of wine is subject to change from year to year because of weather, harvest dates, increasing vine age, circumstances during fermentation and numerous other factors. Compounding that lack of constancy is the fact that wine changes as it ages in bottle. Consumers may drink it any time from the date of release to many years later. And then there’s the way serving temperature affects a wine. The only wineries that can achieve anything like the product consistency of a McDonalds or a Coca-Cola are those that produce at very high volume and don’t mind using additives—or at least blending multiple vintages as in Champagne— to build wine to a relatively simple and specific flavor profile.

Another issue is that fine wines often have complicated, multi-part names. In one hand we hold a McDonalds Big Mac sandwich. In the other we clutch a 2011 Wind Gap Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles. Which is easier to understand? The Big Mac is, or was, a cute but generic name. Today we know it to be just one thing, a two-patty, three-bun burger with cheese, shredded lettuce and special sauce.

wind gap bottleshot whiteBut the wine’s name is full of variables. You can tell Wind Gap is the winery name and you may be aware they make small-production wines of individual character and high-quality.

Next we see “Chardonnay.” Okay, that’s easy. Most wine lovers know that Chardonnay is a white wine. Experienced sippers will know that Chardonnay is a dry wine... except when it’s a little bit sweet.

What else do we know about Chardonnay?

  • Chardonnay smells and tastes like lemon or green apple or yellow apple or pear or peach of varying degrees of ripeness. And it can have accents of chalk or limestone, lemon curd or cheese rind, baking spice or flowers...
  • Chardonnay is fermented with native or commercial yeast
  • Chardonnay undergoes malolactic fermentation making it round and buttery or partial malolactic fermentation making it a little crisp, a little smooth and not very buttery or no malolactic fermentation keeping it very crisp and medium-bodied.
  • Chardonnay is fermented in oak, stainless steel or, very rarely, concrete.
  • Chardonnay is aged in new oak, probably French, or aged in neutral oak or it’s not aged at all.

So far so good? We also know 2011 was the vintage and have heard it was a cool year. But then the grapes came from Paso Robles which we know to be warm. So that means...? And wait, isn’t Paso Robles best-known for Cabernet Sauvignon? No worries! It’s from the James Berry Vineyard which is kind of famous. Um... for Syrah.

Please allow me a brief aside. Lately it’s been fashionable to bash tasting notes and call them unnecessary. If, after simply reading the name of this wine— that was made from America’s most popular grape by a famous, small winery from a vineyard that has produced 100-point wines in an AVA that’s one of the United States’ best-known—you can honestly say you know what that wine is like, then you’ve either tasted the wine before or your name is Larry Stone. For everyone else, here’s my tasting note which is way better than nothing.

2011 Wind Gap Chardonnay James Berry Vineyard Paso Robles
The grapes came from the vineyard’s last remaining block of Chardonnay (own-rooted, 50-year old vines of Wente clone). The juice was fermented with native yeast in concrete and stainless steel tanks, then aged 12 months in neutral French oak barrels. The wine is medium to medium-plus in body with matching acidity and light-grained texture. The nose is controlled but expressive, the palate even more forthcoming. Aromas and flavors of yellow apple are embellished with notes of baking spice, apple blossom and dusty soil. Highly Recommended.

So, back to branding. The complexity of wine makes it very difficult. That is true whether we’re talking about a single bottle of wine, a winery producing many different wines or even a growing region.

If you’re trying to build recognition for an AVA, you have to educate consumers on it’s character. That character is determined at minimum by its climate, topography, soils and principal varieties, plus the quality and style of its wineries. There is also a danger that the region will be overshadowed by individual producers or the grape varieties.

French wines are labeled by region rather than variety. That’s great at building awareness for the region, perhaps too good. I can’t tell you how many Americans I meet who think Burgundy is a grape variety.

Here in California we tend to label varietally. I’m convinced this straightforward approach helps the average consumer. It doesn’t help regions though. As with the wine above, our eyes go first to the winery and then to the grape. People often stop reading at that point, especially if the producer is recognized and the variety something common like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

So how do you go about building the brand for a region? Next week I’ll tell you about one winery’s attempt to do exactly that. It’s a cool, if quixotic, project.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Photo of McDonalds in Times Square by Sallicio. McDonalds and the golden arches are registered trademarks of McDonalds. All rights reserved.

An "Interview" with Roger Ebert on Wine Criticism

You probably don’t know that Roger Ebert had thoughts on wine criticism. It may have surprised Mr. Ebert too. He didn't address wine writing directly. [He was actually a recovering alcoholic, dry since 1979, and wrote well on that topic.] However, much of what he’s said and written about film criticism is directly transferrable to wine reviews.

ebert620MontyBrintonI first thought of Ebert in the context of wine criticism more than a year ago during the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. There were lengthy discussions on the nature of wine notes and the style of wine reviews, a pitched battle about how to address readers. How much reader knowledge do you assume? Are 100-point scores, or any scores, too simplistic? Are they artificially precise? Do you describe a wine or tell a story, detail the flavors or recount the drinking experience? Do capsule reviews have value? I realized that Roger Ebert had dealt, very successfully, with essentially the same issues for years.

How cool, I thought, would it be to do an email interview with him about this? That never happened. But, through his writings and interviews, I’ve been able to assemble a virtual interview pairing questions I would have asked with things he’s said relative to film. That interview makes up the latter portion of this article.

Roger Ebert vs. Robert Parker, Film vs. Wine

Wine-centric people might say Roger Ebert was the Robert Parker of movie criticism. It’s really the other way around though. Ebert preceded Parker in criticism, in gaining a national audience and in finding a way to make his work accessible to a broad base of consumers.

Both men have been champions for certain producers and genres. Both eventually supplemented their print work with alternative media, Ebert with much a greater enthusiasm and following. Roger Ebert wrote more than 40 books, his articles were widely syndicated, his television show, Sneak Previews—the most popular “entertainment” show ever on PBS—eventually went network. He embraced blogging and collected more than 800,000 followers on Twitter.

Like Parker, Ebert created a controversial, and extremely popular, new rating system that massively disrupted his industry. Ebert primarily used a four-star rating system that included half-stars. (In essence, it was an eight-point system. Zero-star ratings were reserved for films that were “beneath contempt.” Four stars were awarded to “first-rate” films.) However, he later created the even more accessible thumbs up/down system, popularized by his television shows with Gene Siskel. Thumbs resonated with consumers but enraged many of Ebert's colleagues who saw it (and the TV show) as the ultimate dumbing-down of criticism. Ebert argued, among other things, that it made film criticism much more accessible and created more film enthusiasts who would go on to want more analysis.  [See Richard Corliss and Ebert debate this subject through published articles, collected in Ebert's book, Awake in the Dark.]

Ebert knew that the “right length” for a review depends on the medium, publisher, audience, topic and audience intent. He wrote reviews of various lengths: multi-page, column and “minute reviews.” Full-length reviews allowed him to cover worthy films and their related subjects in detail and with meaningful digression. Columns suited some publishers’ needs while still providing readers with useful context. Minute reviews covered the same films and more in four or five sentences, briefly addressing plot, cast and quality. Many films got coverage of each type.

Film criticism and wine criticism have many things in common. Both have transitioned from a predominating style that was long and writerly, appealing to a small, passionate audience, to a period dominated by experts writing brief, easily digestible reviews and then to today’s world of ratings without context, aggregated scores, one-line exhortations and the notion that anyone with five senses and access to the internet is a valid a critic. The film and wine industries have grown more savvy in their media relations. Newspapers and magazines are much less willing to pay for good content and, after a decade or so of vastly expanded coverage, are reducing it drastically or going out of business entirely. Critics in both fields like to write about other critics and the state of criticism.

One might think wine and film are very different to consumers. I’m not so sure. Both have casual consumers who just want a tasty beverage or diverting flick. Both have enthusiasts longing for something challenging, a memorable experience, a spark for conversation with friends. Either way, people want to know whether the product is two hours of pleasure or a waste of time and money. And the price of either a bottle of wine or a movie for four people can easily range from $3.50 to $80, not including popcorn.

A Virtual Interview with Roger Ebert on Wine Criticism

[Change the words “movie” and “film” to “wine” as appropriate. Footnotes indicate sources.]

Fred Swan: Do you feel badly when writing negative reviews about wine?

Roger Ebert: You have to realize you're not writing for the filmmakers, you're writing for the potential film audience. And I would much rather hurt somebody's feelings who made the picture than send somebody to see a movie and spend two hours of their life seeing a move that I don’t think is worth seeing1.” [However,] what you must do is take them [the movies] seriously, and consider them worthy of your attention. You cannot be a useful critic if you dismiss them or condescend to them... If you believe a movie is good or bad or wins its audiences dishonorably, that can be a splendid beginning for a review, but you must remember that the people making it and seeing it have given up part of their lives in the hope that it would be worth those months or hours.2

FS: How do you approach wines from a region, or intentionally made in a style, to which you’re not partial?

RE: “You must be open to artistry and craftsmanship even in a movie you disagree with... It is meaningless to prefer one genre over another. Yes, I “like” film noir more than Westerns, but that has nothing to do with any given noir or Western.2

FS: What are your thoughts on wine writing heavy in jargon?

RE: "If you cannot write about it so that anyone who buys the paper has a reasonable chance of understanding it, you don’t understand it yourself.2"

FS: There seems to be an endless supply of “best lists” for wine. You’ve written a lot of lists yourself. Are these lists fair to the wines, do they really mean anything?

RE: “I avoid “best” lists whenever possible, this is a duty I fulfill. Because ranking films is silly and pointless, but gathering a list of good ones is useful.2

FS: As a critic, you’re committed to your opinions. How do you react when you get the inevitable negative comments from people who hated a wine they bought on your recommendation?”

RE: “When people write me saying they hated a movie I recommended, I am not inclined to write back telling them why they’re wrong—because they’re not wrong. You can never be wrong about your own opinion.3

FS: Critics, some in particular, are sometimes criticized for the style of wines they seem to appreciate and for giving high scores to wines that many people feel are of an inappropriate style.

RE: “As a critic, I am at the service of my personal reaction. If I laughed, I have to say so. I can’t suppress that information and lecture the filmmakers on their taste.3

FS: The internet—with blogs, user reviewer sites, message boards, Twitter and Facebook—has led to a proliferation of “critics.” How can the average wine lover tell the difference between an authoritative critic and someone merely offering well-written opinion?

RE: “The genuine critic will write in such a way as to acknowledge that he had a subjective personal experience that he wants to share with you, and which reminded him of other films or other subjects. He will wear his knowledge lightly and never presume to speak for other than himself.3

FS: You’ve talked about reviews reflecting your personal experience. Many people think wine reviews should be objective.

RE: “I have no interest in being objective or in reflecting the public’s opinion... The only critics of any use or worth are those who express their own opinions, which the readers are then free to use or ignore.3

FS: There’s often a popular backlash against critics, a complaint that reviewers have rarified tastes and don’t give good scores to mass appeal products. And then there are the “studies” that show consumers often prefer inexpensive wines to high-priced bottles in blind tastings. Should critics make recommendations based on consumer preference?

RE: “Any person who believes a critic must reflect the views of the public has not thought much about the purpose of criticism.3

FS: But you made an obvious appeal to those consumers, creating a rating system which is a vast simplification and leads people to make yes/no decisions without context.

RE: “There is a gulf between people who go to the movies (the public) and people whose lives revolve around them (critics, movie buffs, academics, people in the business). For most people with seven bucks in their pocket and an evening free there is only one question... that is relevant: Will I have a good time?... Writing daily film criticism is a balancing act between the bottom line and the higher reaches.4

FS: What are your thoughts on the the multi-tier system of wine distribution and the degree to which it limits consumer access to a broad assortment of wine?

RE: “The most depressing statistic I know about patterns in American film exhibition [] that an average subtitled film will take 85 percent of its box office gross out of theaters in only eight American cities and will never play in most of the others4.


Sources: (Page numbers not available due to Kindle format. Some of the quote appear in more than one of his books.)

1 "Fresh Air" broadcast of an onstage interview with Terry Gross and Gene Siskel, 1996

2 Roger Ebert, Ebert's Bests (Chicago Shorts), The Ebert Publishing Company, 2012

3 Roger Ebert, Questions for The Movie Answer Man, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1997

4 Roger Ebert, Awake in the Dark, The University of Chicago Press, 2006


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook. Also check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Photo of Roger Ebert by Monty Brinton. All rights reserved.