Friday, January 31, 2014

Turning the tables - or getting rid of them. And a little idea to help wine sales staff

The 2014 London Australia Day Tasting

Yesterday's Australia Day Tasting was a tremendous success - with the kind of buzz I haven't seen at many recent generic events. But there was, if I may say so, still something wrong with it, and it was the same thing that I reckon is wrong with almost every consumer and trade tasting in the world: the tables. If anything amplifies the them-and-us character of the wine industry, it's the tableclothed barrier that stands between the pourers and the pourees. "Can I help myself?" you can see people wondering, as they stand in front of the bottles waiting for the person on the other side to stop talking to a more important attendee.

Interestingly, yesterday, a few canny people such as Amelia Jukes of importers Hallowed Ground and Adrian Atkinson of Jacobs Creek acknowledged this by crossing the line and standing, bottle-in-hand among the visitors. At crowded tastings like yesterday's, this isn't always easy - but nor is pouring-over-the-table. At quieter events, the tables are even more of a barrier; I know because I've stood behind one waiting for circulating visitors to stop at mine rather than the one next door. 

At bigger exhibitions, the table is replaced by that other barrier: the counter. In my experience of a lot of trade fairs across the globe, the most successful stands are the open-fronted ones that invite people onto the exhibitor's turf rather than leaving him or her standing at the doorway.

I know there's no easy answer to the business of pouring potentially large numbers of wines for large numbers of people but, as we head into the trade fair season, I think it's worth a little rethinking.

And while on that subject, I'd briefly mention a simple initiative I encountered when pouring (yes, behind a table) at our distributors - Prestige - in the US. For every wine present, there was a simple business-card-sized card with all of the pertinent details about it, including an image of the label or bottle and any prizes it might have won. With companies like Vistaprint producing customised cards cheaply and incredibly quickly, it would not be difficult to have a set of a dozen or more memory-provoking cards that one could take to all events, and that sales staff could leave with customers on the occasions when they aren't leaving a bottle. Wouldn't that be better than relying on them to decipher their hastily written notes?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Two Faces of Veuve Clicquot

While busily struggling to hit deadlines on a couple of projects, I could not help noticing two tweets out of the corner of my eye. Both related to Veuve Clicquot.

First was a Drinks Business piece describing how the Champagne house was hounding a small Italian sparkling wine producer that had the temerity of using an orange-coloured label. Now, I'm all for producers protecting their brand, but a brief glance at the two labels below would, I think, convince most juries that no attempt has been made to copy the Widow; the two oranges are far too far apart on my Pantone scale. On the other hand, the Champenois have deep pockets and good lawyers, so I wouldn't bet against their victory in this kind of fight.

Clicquot will have a rather tougher time, however, fighting against delicious online teasing like this tweet from South African wine writer Neil Pendock

I don't think any further comment is really necessary; besides, I have work to do...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

In praise of second cheapest wine.

This is (one of the kinds of things I find) funny

For all those people who hated Hosemaster, here's an alternative smile-raiser (recommended to me by Veronica Xu).


Being offensive... A humorous challenge...

My online support for the recent Hosemaster post has engendered a lot of chatter. Here’s my take on the fallout.
  1. A lot of people (to judge by the retweets, traffic to the Hosemaster and my sites, and comments) loved it. (Those same people will almost certainly also enjoy his current offering on in which he refers to penis enlargement, Riedel bongs and Jancis Robinson, but not in the same paragraph)
  2. A vociferous minority absolutely hated it, finding its tone vulgar, angry and aggressive (all of which I’m sure will delight Ron Washam AKA Hosemaster). One person in particular found it "cruel" which left me wondering about the scale he was using and where toughly teasing bloggers stands in comparison to, say, waterboarding. (I'd recommend these same people not to look at the post referred to in 1.)
  3. A number of people (principally bloggers) seem to think that bloggers are somehow above criticism or attack (a strange likening of bloggers to badgers to which I will, unsurprisingly, return).
  4. Some people challenged me to be humorous (I already write a whimsical and hopefully smile-raising column on the third Monday of every month for I’ll try to do more and better.)
  5. And this is the one that interests me. No one really addressed Steve Heimoff’s and my point about the earnestness of most online wine writing and videoing. Not one of the people who complained about Hosemaster offered examples of humour they had enjoyed in the vinous blogosphere. (Though some, I admit, did see the absurdity in bloggers criticising other bloggers for criticising other bloggers)

So here's a bit of amusing writing I came across and I'd like to challenge anyone reading this post to suggest some of their own.

In the meantime, in response to all the easily-offended Hosemaster-haters, here's a few classic moments of a 1962 gig by the late great Lenny Bruce. I hope it gives some of them pause for thought.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

No humour please - we're wine lovers

A few days ago, one of the best US wine bloggers Steve Heimoff said in one of his posts, that the wine world needs more humour. Within 24 hours of that call, I found myself reading one of Hosemaster - aka Ron Washam's - latest pieces.
Now, I'd have to admit that Hosemaster, like his countryman Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, is an acquired taste. I happen to find his savage tongue-in-cheek attacks on all sorts of aspects of the wine world wonderfully refreshing. Others, including figures like Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson who have felt the Hosemaster stiletto satirically sliding between their ribs, agree. 

Parker said he is "without a doubt the funniest SOB in the blog-world...[with the] brains and balls to target his laser of laughter on anybody... HoseMaster for Blogger of the Year... although he would be the first to say the bar is so damn low for that award, he should win it every year... No one else is remotely as funny or as talented. And the wine world sure needs someone to poke fun at all the nonsense and phoney/baloney unsufferable crap out there."

The piece I enjoyed was entitled "What Not to Publish on Your Stupid Wine Blog in 2014"  and laid into some of the mainstays of wine bloggery, ranging from lists of favourite wines and paeans of praise to social media, to futile attempts to uncover the truth of terroir and pictures of winery dogs. As an exercise in puncturing the pomposity of the vinous blogosphere, it was well nigh perfect. Which is probably why it did not go down very well with some of the more serious members of the wine blogging fraternity.

Among the people who hated the piece were Sean Piper, publisher of Wine Consumer who defended bloggers as representing "the most enthusiastic of wine consumers" who, in their turn, risked being "alienated" by satire. Hosemaster was described as having a "humorous and vulgar opinion" which was worryingly "proliferated by the experts of wine". (A reference presumably to the fact that, like me, he is commissioned to write a monthly piece on the site).

Another person who evidently shares Piper's appreciation of Hosemaster is Ken Payton, film-maker and decidedly earnest author of Reign of Terroir. Payton is gleefully quoted on the Hosemaster site (along with Parker, Robinson, Heimoff et al) as saying ""I must say you are an idiot. I've never liked you. I have no idea why people find you funny."

And that's the point. Payton and Piper and - from my experience judging wine blogs for a couple of awards - far too many other bloggers, simply don't "do humour". As Heimoff said in his piece, "...part of the reason I have mixed feelings about winery use of social media is that the products (especially the videos) are so damned earnest. There’s no sense of humor, no trace of mocumentary or snicker. "

I've always thought that making people laugh is one of the more honorable human aspirations and that wine and humour are natural bedfellows. After all, much of the art celebrating the subject over the centuries depicts jolly, smiling people who look as though they've enjoyed a few jokes along with their copious glasses of red. They don't usually appear to have sat through a lecture on the subtle differences in the limestone content of Burgundian soil, or the more obscure varieties of Portuguese grape. 

A brief trawl through Youtube reveals that ordinary mortals seem to agree with Heimoff and me - if the viewing figures for "funny" wine videos made by non wine folk are anything to judge by.

People watch these clips in tens of thousands. "Serious" videos struggle to get into four figures.

Fortunately, there are occasional examples of the industry understanding the value of humour in video, and they're rewarded with gratifyingly large audiences.

Sadly, however, this kind of thing is not usually associated with - or appreciated by - terroirism-obsessive bloggers.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

How a tiny producer hit the Youtube jackpot by telling people how to remove a cork with their shoe

Stephen Cronk owner of Mirabeau Wine in Provence, is quite a keen social media user. One of the first successful participants in Winestars World, he has 1,871 followers on Twitter and - since this weekend - 6,500 Likes on Facebook. He has also produced 223 Youtube clips on a wide range of subjects - from Louis Jadot's use of oak, to How to Cellar wine. Most of these have been seen by an average of 30-200 or so Youtube viewers, a typical figure for wine clips on the platform.

Then something extraordinary happened. Video number 223 - a 50-second piece on how to remove the cork from a wine bottle using your shoe rather than a corkscrew -

caught the eye of  This was despite a clip demonstrating precisely the same technique having been posted on Youtube over three years earlier.

Then Cronk's clip was noticed by Mailonline.

and a few other media outlets. And then everything went crazy. Over a million - yes, a million, people visited the Mirabeau website.

and over 500,000 watched the clip on Youtube.

Quite what lasting effect this flurry of interest will have remains to be seen, but Cronk says that 2,500 people have now also watched his "about Mirabeau" clip, he's already collected around 700 more Facebook likes and 100 more Twitter followers, and the numbers are still growing. Most importantly, however, Cronk already credited his video efforts for helping him get a listing at UK supermarket chain Waitrose. Maybe other doors will open for him now...

The lesson wannabe Cronks should take on board is that throughout his video-creating efforts, he has never sought to use the clips to directly promote his wines or the brand. They are all intended to be interesting in their own terms and often contain no direct reference to the brand at all. People who watch them are merely invited to visit the website if they want to know more.

Mirabeau is a tiny, family-owned and run operation with a miniscule marketing budget and a video camera of the kind owned by millions. The men and women responsible for promoting globally-famous brands will, I imagine, be reading this story with interest.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

So you want to write a wine book....

So, you think you've something to say about wine and you'd like to write a book. You've tried contacting a few publishers and you might even have attempted to find an agent. All to no avail.

Or maybe you did find a publisher who said they might be interested in your lovingly penned ode to the Unique Wines of Bluemeania - but only offered an advance of £3,000 or £4,000 to cover all your research costs and the actual writing of the book. Of course, that figure is based on 10% of the revenue from hardback sales (7% for paperbacks) and if the world were to develop a sudden interest in Bluemeania, you might get a bit more money, but the chances are pretty small. Even if your book is about a really popular region, sales tend to be disappointingly low.

But don't give up. There's another option: you could publish and sell it yourself. And you could guarantee that you get paid enough to make the exercise worthwhile before you even write a word. The key lies in offering people the chance to help you get the project off the ground via Kickstarter. For those who are not familiar with this website, since its launch in 2009, some 5.5m users have, between them, pledged nearly a billion dollars ($940m) to the people behind 56,000 projects - 44% of the ones that have appeared on the site.

Unlike many other crowdfunding sites, Kickstarter is not looking for investors into the projects on its site; it's offering an advance chance to buy something that does not yet exist - and indeed may not ever exist unless 100% of the target set on Kickstarter has been achieved. (And if a project does fall short of its target by the date that has been set for it, the pledges are cancelled.).

So what has Kickstarter to do with wine books? Well, nine would-be authors have pitched their projects on the site; three of them got the thumbs up - a rather poorer success rate than Kickstarter's 44% average, but still reasonably appealing odds. The projects that persuaded people to put their hands in their pockets were the Essence of Wine by Alder Yarrow of the Vinography blog and; Jura Wine by wine travel specialist Wink Lorch and the wonderfully named Mommy's Favourite Juice - a Children's Book About Wine by Mike Nemeth. 

The six failures were The Wine Diaries; Secrets of the Wine Whisperer; Southern France Wines & Vines; Blood & Wine; North Coast Wines; and A Wine Book Written by Winemakers. I leave it to wannabe authors to discern a pattern here.

In fact, there may not be one. It is quite possible that the three winners owe their success to the efforts of the authors; to do well on Kickstarter you have to get a lot of people to look at your project there and what you have to offer. As Arnold Waldstein rightly points out in a comment to this post, Kickstarter only offers a platform; if you don't direct enough of the right kind of traffic to your offer, it will fail.

Alder Yarrow and Wink Lorch both listed a set of options, ranging from the cheap - Yarrow's $10 offer of a laminated "Aroma Card" to the extravagant - his $3,500 package that included a day's tutored tasting for six, by him in Napa, including the limo journey from San Francisco. No one took him up on this last proposal and only seven people opted for the Aroma Card. Far more - around 150 of the 183 pledgers - bought his book in print form or as an e-book. By my estimate, these sales add up to around 160 or so books which Yarrow will have to print, plus some e-book versions. His income from the campaign was $24,240, minus Kickstarter's 5% commission (non Americans pay an additional 3-5% I understand) which compares rather well to his original target of $18,000. Wink Lorch did even better - proportionally - raising a wapping £14,076 from 376 backers, against her target of just £7,500.

Alder Yarrow's offers - and the numbers
of people who were sufficiently tempted
to pledge to buy them.

Obviously, both Yarrow and Lorch have to write and print their books and deliver them by the deadlines they set themselves - along with anything else bought by the pledgers, but having myself profitably produced a 256-page full-colour wine book in the late 1980s when "self-publishing" was a synonym for "vanity publishing", I can heartily recommend it. Even without the Kickstarter element of a) testing the market (if one's friends, family and social media "friends" and followers won't commit to buying your book, you really have to wonder whether it's worth doing) and b) getting a potentially substantial chunk of cash into your bank.

I never thought about Kickstarter when I began writing the Wine Marketing book I'm busily struggling to complete - but who knows, maybe I should give it a try...

An idea I wish I'd had: Downton Abbey Claret

The notion of launching Downton Abbey wine* seems so obvious now that I'm kicking myself for not having thought of it myself. I'm not actually a follower of the series - I'm more of a Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Newsroom and Breaking Bad fan - but I'm well aware that 120m people across the world are hooked on it, and that's a pretty good number if you're looking for brand awareness.

I haven't tasted the wines either, but I know the credited winemaker, Jean-Marc Dulong, whose family n├ęgociant business was bought a few years ago by Grands Chais de France, the company behind the best-selling JP Chenet. I'm ready to bet that both red and white are perfectly honest examples of Bordeaux but probably not the best value for money on the shelf. On the other hand, I'll also bet that the red probably doesn't taste any worse than Mouton Cadet, or many of the bottles that were being drunk in the grand houses of England a century ago. Any supposition that the English upper classes regularly sipped the early 1900's equivalent of '61 Lafite or '45 Latour is ludicrous. There simply wasn't enough of that quality of wine to go around.

Basic Bordeaux is a very tough sell in the US (the target market, I'd guess) - and in the UK nowadays - and anything that tastes ok and gets people to pick up a bottle gets my vote, even if I know that a fair chunk of the $17 price tag is going to pay for the use of the name rather than the grapes. It's also worth saying that Bordeaux could do with some more decent, high volume brands. Wine buffs may love browsing their way along shelves full of indistinguishably labeled bottles of Chateau De Pot d'Or Dure, Chateau d'Or Dure du Pot and Chateau Dure-Pot d'Or or whatever, but common mortals look for a name they recognise and can rely on. Like JP Chenet or Downton Abbey.

Of course I may be wrong. A wine-knowledgeable person I respect reckons that it's a gimmick that will enjoy a brief moment in the sun. The Wine Curmudgeon takes a similar view in a blog post in which he lives up to his name.

But I don't think that the producers of Downton Abbey Claret are too worried about the people who read wine blogs when they could be wallowing in fantasies of life in English country houses. If I'm right, Downton Abbey wine could well follow in the globally successful footsteps of another fictional vision of English upper class life: the one popularised by an American called Ralph Lauren.

*Thanks to Stuart George for drawing it to my attention