Sunday, January 29, 2012

That's quite enough about me. Let's talk about you. How did you enjoy my show..?

A column that appears in the December 2011 edition of Meininger's Wine Business International

Hello, my name’s George. I’d like to tell you all about my parents, the place where I grew up and the school I went to and the exams I passed. When I’ve done all that, I’m sure you’ll want me to be your friend”.

If George, or anyone like him introduced himself in those terms at a party, even the most polite among us would be desperately looking over his shoulder for someone else to talk to; the rest of us would already have made our excuses and be heading straight for the door.

But George seems to be a very attractive role model for the wine industry. Give many producers the opportunity to express themselves and the first thing they will do is launch into all manner of technical details about the way the stuff in their bottle has been produced. Take this little offering about its Pinot Noir from the website of a large New World winery.

“Harvest commenced 6th April. The grapes were gently destemmed, allowing whole berries to remain intact. After a cold soak, each parcel was fermented separately, with a combination of wild and cultured yeast. Each batch was hand plunged to extract the vibrant colour, flavour and delicate tannin structure. Each parcel was then pressed separately to a mix of new and used French oak barrels or remained in tank. In the spring after completing malolactic fermentation, each parcel and tank was tasted and blended.”

Once the reader has made their way through the jungle of jargon – “destemmed”; “cold soak”; “parcel”, “cultured yeast”, “hand plunged”, “tannin structure”; “malolactic fermentation” – they are belatedly treated to a brief description of the way the wine looks and tastes.

“Garnet red. Deep red fruit notes with a hint of spice. Generous flavours of cherry and currant combine with subtle oak. The silky dry tannins lead to a generous fruitful finish.”

The sense of priorities is all too clear. Just 31 relatively opaque words (what are "silky dry tannins"? one might reasonably ask) about the stuff a consumer might pay for and get to drink, against 82 on the process used to make it. I haven’t named the winery, because to single it out would be unfair: it is far too typical of the way so much of the wine industry thinks. Of course we are not always so fixated on the technicalities of winemaking. Elsewhere, in the Old World, the focus might be on the age of the chateau or the number of generations of the family that have been involved in winemaking, or even the peculiarities of the soil in which the vines are grown. In other words, we’ll talk about almost anything on earth – apart from the flavour of the wine and the way it might best be served.

Most recently, the arrival on the scene of Youtube and of QR codes that can be scanned by anyone with smartphones such as Blackberries and iPhones, have jointly offered wine producers with an exciting new opportunity to behave like George. Scan the code on some bottles and you will be whisked directly to a video in which the winemaker provides a brief presentation while standing among his vines or barrels. In the best of these, he or she will taste their wine and describe the way it tastes, but in others the focus will be on allowing viewers to admire the incline of the vineyards or the pattern formed by the lines of casks in the cellars.

For anyone involved in the business of selling cars, cosmetics or almost anything else, this way of thinking would seem to be bizarre. Canon and Nikon don’t waste their time informing us who designed their cameras or where they were manufactured; they tell us how they will allow us to take better pictures. Jaguar and Toyota want us to know how fast, economical, safe and sexy their latest models are, not how cleverly their engines were constructed.

What these companies understand is that the only time we – and by that I mean a small minority of us - are likely to be interested in the background to a product is once we have already developed an emotional and intellectual attachment to it. Some of the people who have bought Apple’s iPods, iMacs and iPads might, conceivably, be curious about Sir Jonathan Ive, the firm’s brilliant head of design. Women who daily spray themselves with Guerlain perfumes can delve into perfumer’s website to read about Jean Paul Guerlain and Thierry Wasser the firm’s recently-arrived chief perfumer. But the information about both men comes after a brilliant section called “My fragrance consultation” that invites visitors to discover precisely the kind of Guerlain perfume that is most likely to suit them.

Just reread that last sentence. Yes, Guerlain cleverly puts itself into the shoes of the person reading their website. It’s “My” consultation, not “Your” consultation. Unlike George – and too much of the wine world – they know that what interests most of us, is us. And the reason we buy wine has nothing to do with the people who produced it, and everything to do with the way that it might just improve our lives.


  1. Too bad the people who need to read this are busy talking about themselves...

    1. Very good response. Reminds me - irrelevantly though - of the line that "it's such a pity that the only people who really know how this country should be run are too busy cutting hair and driving taxis to do it themselves..."

  2. It's interesting that a lot of advertising of premium (for the consumer not the trade description of it) aspirational products is aspirational lifestyle advertising. Calvin Klein shows that if you wear their perfume you'll be attractive to the opposite (and sometimes same) sex. Magners successfully advertised a lifestyle - people drinking and having fun - beer advertising (and think also about the Marlborough man) is all about lifestyle. The same can be said about Nike - a sports shop will tell you the difference between a pair of Nikes or Reeboks and which is better for a pronating (?) foot but Reebok and Nike websites focus on who wears them and makes you believe that you too can be like Lionel Messi if you wear the right football boots.
    They don't tell you how they are made or constructed (any more)

    John Smiths advertising doesn't do anything with the product at all.

    Whichever wine brand it was that used to advertise with Friends was probably the best (and only) advertising around. Wine is a lifestyle product, it is (generally) aspirational - lets promote it as such.

  3. Thank you Timmy. We agree on all of this. Clever sponsorship/product placement may achieve much, much more than many other efforts - for those that can afford it. Others have to cleverly find ways to hit similar targets with fewer resources

  4. The main issue with such an approach is that it leads to indistinguishable wines. Wines that aren't focused on terroir, winemaker, grape etc. become commodities which shouldn't have origins - who cares where a lifestyle came from?

    Conversely, many wines do play the lifestyle card. Take a look at the Krug website - it's all about the prestige and exclusivity. It is designed to make you think 'if I drink Krug, I too can be extremely successful', or at least portray a veneer of success. I fucking love Krug, not because of its branding, but because they're great wines, though I could only drink it on a very special occasion, and the top wines (though I've been lucky enough to taste many of them) are well oustide of my finacial grasp.

    My point is thus: that if you do away with any technical (or even personal) aspects of wine, we will end up in a situation where everyone buys all of their wines online to fit a particular mood/surrounding. Gone is the magic, the discovery, the excitements and disappointments.

    I may be in a romantic minority, but for me, wine is so much more than a lifestyle choice.

  5. This is an interesting issue but you are throwing around statments that need a little more thought and consideration than what you give them.

    There are about a dozen significant car makers in the world. About the same number of perfume manufacturers (although with a profusion of brands). Even fewer makers of "smart" phones.

    If you had the same industry structure in wine your reasoning would be relevant. Now, you don't have that.

    Why do you buy a sports shoe?

    Why do you buy a wine?

    If the reasoning is similar ("I want to have the glimmer of Lionel Messi"; "I want to feel like a Rothschild") then perhaps yes, you are right.

    It then becomes a question of who the consumer is. And how he reasons.

    Is it a consumer that is "aspirational"? (such a terrible word) Who really does not care much about the taste of the wine but more about what aura it might give to him when his guest reads the label. Then you go down the track of most Champagne producers. Contents does not matter much but form does.

    I have never tasted your wine, Robert, but this kind of reasoning does not really make me interested in tasting it either.

    For me it is not just the image that the bottle conveys that is important. It is of course primarily the taste of the contents. Much like that the comfort of my shoes are more important than if Mr Messi has been paid to endorse them. But it is also a question of who has made it, who is that person. And where does it come from.

    The consequence of your reasoning is that you believe in a world with about a dozen wine producers who manage brand portfolios, is it not?


    1. Jack, my point is absolutely NOT to advocate doing away with technical terms, but to question the way we use them. Shoving them at consumers who have yet to sample the wine (as happens on back labels), strikes me as George-like bad manners. You enjoy Krug for your reasons, just as a footballer's wife might enjoy it for hers. And the same might apply to a £6 S. French red. In both cases, as a wine enthusiast, once you have discovered you like it, you might well want to explore why it tastes the way it does. But I'm not sure why most of us want to do so before popping the cork or unscrewing the cap.

      Per, Britt,

      When you ask if I "believe in a world with about a dozen wine producers who manage brand portfolios", it's not something I want to see, but I believe in it in the way that I believe in climate change - as a trend that is already clearly identifiable and very likely to accelerate if we continue doing what we are doing today.

      I'll bet that in 10 years time there will indeed be far fewer producers than today and, whether we like it or not, the wine world will look a lot more like the worlds of perfume, fashion and spirits - and champagne - with far fewer brands readily available to most people.

      Anyone who doubts what I am saying should take a look at what has has happened to cheese, another once-artisanal product, in one of its historic homelands, France.

      Do I want this consolidation to happen? No of course I don't. I'm working with French growers in Languedoc who struggle to sell their - excellent - AOC Minervois. We take wine from the same vineyards, blend it and sell it as an IGP called Le Grand Noir. It has an attractive label ( and a back label in English that offers no technical information.

      We sell around 1m bottles per year across the globe which seems to make the growers quite happy. Especially as they get a higher price per bottle than they'd get for their hard-to-sell Minervois. Oh yes, and we get medals in blind tastings against other wines from the region.

      We have also helped to direct the winery into greater environmental consciousness by getting it certified by Carbon Trust (the first winery in France to do this) and by working with them to launch a certified Sustainable wine called Greener Planet.

      If these wines are produced honestly, give sufficient pleasure to consumers for them to buy another bottle, and put some money in the pockets of the growers (as well as my own), I'm not feeling too ashamed.

      And given the fact that we have almost zero marketing funds, if, as has happened, our eye-catching labels attract consumers away from wines from multi-national corporations' fare, I don't mind that either.

  6. My point about lifestyle was really aiming at still wine market - Champagne is very different to pretty much the rest of the wine market and does contain strong aspirational brands.

    Per/Britt - when referring to brands as Aspirational - agree bad word however it refers in its own right to a particualar type of product and not necessarily something that all people aspire to. Ribena for instance is an aspirational brand - wine above basic own label is also therefore aspirational.
    I should say that I've tweeted with Robert over the last month on these sorts of things and see where he's coming from apart from this article.

    Also my comments about lifestyle etc are about getting people to engage initially with a brand - once they have a little interest you can tell them more - but telling people that a grape was harvested at a Baume' level of whatever on the 18th October isn't going to make people buy 'Little Black Pig' - BUT get then to aspire to it and they will try it (assuming the price is right) once they have tried it, then the further communication can happen. I happen to think that it is a two stage (at least process).
    Individual mechants can do a bit of stage one on a local level - but it's a drop in the ocean - as an industry - far less so.
    We can be pretty good at stage two, but if we don't get people to try and aspire to be wine drinkers then we won't get people drinking wine.

    Why has the craft beer thing taken off? It's on the back of people like John Smiths - they get people into beer to start with, people then try other sorts of beer, listen to what they are told and move on from there (a very simplistic description but it's bed time!)

  7. Tim, we agree far too much on this. Champagne is in a field by itself. Cleverly, Dom Perignon exploits the luxury-goods market with its private rooms in Shanghai night clubs, and the "Fine Wine" market via tutored tastings by winemaker Richard Geoffroy.

    Also, I fear that the craft beer market is, like organic food and finer wine, more talked about than of genuine broad interest. Most people are content with simplicity.

    The notion that wine is a special sector that enjoys - or deserves to enjoy - a separate destiny, is no more valid than the notion that France can permanently sustain its own form of economy and 'l'exception francaise'. I've referred to the plight of independent French cheese makers, but I'd also mention the explosive growth in sales of Nespresso colour-coded coffee pods (the antithesis of everything wine people believe in, surely, but to be found in many a wine person's home).

    Sometimes I feel like the small boy in the story about the emperor's new clothes, or the messenger sentenced to death for delivering unwelcome news.

    As a (venture capitalist) friend with experience of the food world said to me over the weekend, "the trouble with the wine industry" (an expression I get shot at for even using) "is that it's like soccer. Too many people are in it for the wrong, non financial, reasons". On the other hand, soccer can rely on the passionate interest of rather more fans than wine.

  8. Per, Britt. Perhaps I should also say, having re-read your note, that for 25 years of my like I focused very much on the contents of the bottle rather than the appearance - as founder of the International Wine Challenge and chairman/organiser of over 50 wine competitions across the globe. For all those years, my religion was focused on the supremacy of the quality and typicity of each wine and the value it represented when tasted blind.

    Then I returned to the real world and began to listen to real people. Some, of course, trusted our medals, and thankfully still do. Some trusted the US critics' scores that we Europeans like to treat with disdain. Many, many more trusted recommendations from friends and family and attractive labels and pricing. Wines with medals remained glued to shelves while highly promoted examples flew into shoppers' baskets.

    Maybe, in a well-ordered world, they shouldn't. And similarly, quite certainly when employers come to take on staff they shouldn't be influenced by the way they look or the tone of their voice - if the candidates are otherwise qualified. But they do. Just as the people who run classical record labels somehow rarely seem to be eager to put out recordings by fat, plain young pianists or violinists.

    So, would I say to my kids "Don't worry about your appearance when going to that interview?" or "There's no point dieting before that audition"?

    Believe it or not my aim is to try to help individual producers to survive. I know far too many who find every vintage a financial struggle and in the current climate that's hardly likely to improve.

    Pretending that there is nothing wrong with the way things are being done at the moment does no one any favours. Not the producers who are going out of business (or at the very least are unable to make the investments they need) and not the consumers whose choice will simply continue to shrink.

    Your comment about Champagne is revealing. I know of plenty of Champagne producers who care intensely about quality. The fact that their product is aspirational enables them to charge a premium price for it and to pay their bills while their counterparts in Spain struggle.

    (Why, by the way, is "aspirational" such a terrible word? According to Wikipedia "an aspirational brand (or product) means a large segment of its exposure audience wishes to own it, but for economical reasons cannot. An aspirational product implies certain positive characteristics to the user [but]... thinks of itself as having a fair probability of at a certain point in the future being able to do so.... As a general rule, an aspirational brand and its products can command a price premium in the marketplace over a commodity brand."

    What would I rather be? An aspirational or a commodity brand? You may respond that you'd rather not be any kind of brand at all... Its a perfectly valid view, but I fear it's one that puts you in rather a minority situation.

  9. As a long time member of the wine industry (former part owner of Jonata and Screaming Eagle and currently owner of a new brand) I couldn't agree more with Mr. Joseph! He is dead on!!!

    My husband and I love nothing more than to gather around the table with friends, great food, and great wine! We feel honored and privileged to make our living creating products whose sole purpose is to be consumed and shared by others! However, at winemaker dinners, I dreaded moment when we had to stand and do our "George"! I watched as people's eyes glazed over! Lots of our friends are vintners as well and it became the joke in our house as to what words were we going to plug in our "vintner mad lib" to sound better than the next guy! This soil, this aspect to the sun blah, blah blah! When our George moment was over was when the momentum picked up. People got busy doing what they had come to do...engage with the other people there; to improve their own lives through social interaction and connection. The wines were put back in their appropriate place as an addition to a special night. Wine : a social glue with amazing gift of connecting people!

    A year and a half ago my husband and I (along with a lot of our fabulous team from Jonata and Screaming Eagle) launched a new brand and named it Cultivate. For exactly the reasons you mention in your blog post! We wanted a name that expressed wine has the power to do: improve lives! Or, as we like to say at Cultivate, cultivate life! We wanted to take the best of what we had learned and make it even better. We started making lower priced wines that could be enjoyed more often! Forget collecting them or cellaring them, open them and share them! Like you, we had learned that most people don't put a wine on the table to solicit a compliment for the winemaker or vineyard owner. They weren’t really interested in the factoids from our “George” talk. Nope! By and large, they wanted to talk (doesn’t everyone really like to talk more than listen?!) and connect with both us AND the rest of the people at the table.

    After a decade in the wine industry, we had seen first hand the power of wine in philanthropy. Wine is present at nearly every fundraiser. Wine auctions across the country are powerful and effective capital sources for communities. We decided to put a “why” in our wine. Why not have our wines give back every day and not just at auctions? Why not price our wines so everyone could enjoy them and give back at the same time? Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, proved to the world that people are eager to express both their selfish side and their selfless side through their consumer purchases. They just need the opportunity.

    Our mission at Cultivate is to create wines that facilitate the cultivation of life! Building friendships, creating memories, sharing life with the people around you and all the while being a part of something larger: The GIVE!

    So, thank you Mr. Joseph! We too believe that wine is about improving our lives…. And the lives of everyone around the world!

    Ali Banks

  10. Hi Ali
    Thanks for your thoughtful response - and your acknowledgment of the reactions when one "does a George" at dinners etc (I've done plenty over the years). The aspect I didn't address, I suppose is what happens when two Georges meet. I suspect that they are simply happy to talk at each other, only really paying attention when the other George says something with which they agree. This has the convenient quality of removing the requirement to question their own views

    So we do those dinners for the same reason that we eat turkey at Christmas (or Thanksgiving, depending on your location) and serve Champagne to people who might prefer Prosecco (on the basis of taste rather than price). And of course, there is always a number of people in the room who genuinely DO want to know about soil structure, the origin of the oak from which the barrels were made and the number of daysfor which the juice was left on its skins.
    The people I most enjoy conversing with are the ones who force me to add new thoughts to the pot that's simmering on my stove. Screaming Eagle did that in fact. To be brutally honest, while not having too many opportunities to sample it, on the occasions when I did, including a couple of verticals, I did not fall in love with it as a wine. I also thought the prices people paid for it on the secondary market frankly ludicrous. However, on the reverse of that coin, I hugely admired the direct relationship you created with the people who bought the wine from you. I also had to concede that my notion of a ludicrous price for a bottle of wine might stand alongside someone else's notion of a ludicrous price for a shirt, a ticket for the opera, a painting, a pot of skin cream or a car. If the buyer is happy with what they have paid for, the relationship that counts is the one between him or her and their wallet.

    I like what I've seen of Cultivate, and the principles behind it. I wish you well with it and look forward to sampling when I'm next on your side of the ocean.