Saturday, March 31, 2007

Wine Culture Online

This blog is still in its infancy and who knows how long it will last, nor if it will establish any regular pattern. I suppose random thoughts on a regular-ish basis is the nature of blogging, but to become a regular destination for people you need to establish your "voice" and your "theme", just like any other publication.

So, while I muddle my way through, I thought I would maybe point to a few of the others that I read and who are contributing a great deal to the same debate in their own way, and which appear in my blog roll. These are pretty much all blogs that write about the nature and business of wine rather than tasting the wines themselves.

Jamie Goode
Jamie's site is an engaging mix of wine tasting notes (some great and varied ones), thoughts on matters vinous (particularly closures) and his own life (dogs, films, music and making his own wine). I get a lot out of his blog and this post is a recent example of many of these threads in a single post.
Andrew Barrow has a number of different sites and blogs, and a variety of interests, but seems to be the main one. His blog combines a lot of news relating to wine as well as his enthusiastic support for a series of food & wine matching posts called "Combinations". Not only are the dishes and wine matches explained, but he takes some cracking photos too.

Tom Wark is a California based communication and PR specialist who has an interesting view on the business of wine. Some of the "business" he discusses is specific to the US, so the regular reviews of the unbelievably complex and protectionist US wine distribution business are not always relevant, but are usually entertaining anyway. However, he has a lot of interesting points to make on branding and communication, and he recently set up an award for the best wine blogs (hence the link above) that is worth taking a look at.

Alder Yarrow is a well known US blogger on wine (and won the award above for best wine reviews) and is well connected to what is going on with the wine culture online in the US. I like his take on most aspects of wine culture and would recommend reading anything that falls under the heading "Ramblings and Rants". He also includes reviews of wines (heavily California weighted as you would expect) and local wine bars which could be of interest to anyone travelling out there. Also, check out the main page where you will find a reasonably comprehensive list of wine blogs (I only say "reasonably complete" as I am not yet included, but it has hundreds of others, including ones in Spanish, French, German, Chinese, etc.)

These are just a few blogs I read regularly and that influence my own thinking and posting. Of course there are other sites (not blogs) like Jancis' site, Decanter, and more as well, but you probably already know about these.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Great with ... wine.

I was alerted to a new US based wine branding business earlier today.

Wine That Loves™ is a concept that has been seen before, at least in this country, in Tesco under the name "Great With" (something like Great With Chicken and Great with Fish). They did not last, but some wines did OK for a time.

This new drive supposedly comes from a top sommelier with credentials, Ralph Hersom, so I would assume the wines themselves are of a reasonable quality.

On the positive side, many people starting their personal exploration of wine want to have it at home, and most likely with food. The sheer range of wines available in most countries is off-putting if you have no knowledge, so any pointer as to what is "good" will help. I know that the limited food matching suggestions on the back labels of supermarket wines can have a big impact on their success, so it makes sense to offer this information up-front.

The problem for most regular wine labels is that they want to appeal to the broadest possible group of people, so they try to be helpful whilst also not trying to turn anyone away.

"This wine is great on its own, but is a perfect match for fish, chicken, beef, vegetables, pasta, and any other food I don't have space to mention."
Not very useful.

These wines, on the other hand go to the other extreme.

"Wine That Loves Pizza".
Erm, nothing else? Might it not be OK with some pastas then?
"No!" Screams the bottle. "Buy Wine That Loves Pasta for that instead. Oh, and it must be Pasta with Tomato Sauce"

What I find particularly unusual is that they don't even seem to want to tell you what the wine is. If you do use this as an introduction to wine, then you might discover that wines can be a great match for pizza and pasta, but how do you then take it to the next level, 'Fly Solo' as it were? Maybe it is on a back label, but the site certainly doesn't give anything away. In fact their descriptions are somewhat vague and unhelpful, but simplicity is a key I suppose.

From the perspective of building a Wine Culture, I applaud the effort to reach new audiences with a very specific message. However, taken to the extreme this could result in the further commodification of wine as merely a food match, so maybe this should be accompanied by some ongoing wine education?

Oh, and if I were starting a company like this, I might include some mention of how to get hold of the wines that have been so carefully selected and packaged. Just a thought.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Alternate truths and statistics


Time is a factor. I will continue to monitor this, but this does not look like much of a major change from the background levels, certainly not over time.

Of course mentioning this skews the stats, so no reference to the viral marketing campaign nor to the originating site, but you can follow the link here and read the previous views here if this rings any bells.

I have done research and analysis, but not for some time, but these graphs would seem to support my view that although there has been an undoubted spike recently, it has not lasted nor did it have the lasting effect of the first campaign. I have also searched on both potential versions of the retailer's name as it has an impact on the results (as you can see).

Over 2 months

Over 6 months

As I committed myself to be a nay-sayer from the start, I am monitoring this with interest, but would be very interested to know more about the impact on sales (as opposed to mere "mentions"). I wonder if we'll ever get these?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Love that wine, or do I?

I came across a reference to his site today: in off licence news (no website! tsk, tsk).

To be entirely honest with you I had seen them before at the BBC Good Food Show (in fact an ex-colleague works there) but had failed to take in the concept before.

I believe the idea is to have a reference site for all wines in UK retail, with reviews by 'real people'. Thus the site allows any consumer to register to add their tasting notes on any wine and thus to create a shared database of wine notes.

You can read the details of what they offer here, so I won't do their pitch for them, however the concept is one I have toyed with myself before.

"Wouldn't it be great if you could go to a site that told you what wines, from the vast number available in any particular UK supermarket, are actually any good."

The issue is 1) how you get the information and 2) how you get it to pay for itself? The second would probably sort itself out if you go the first right, so I have wondered about it.

Love That Wine has decided to aggregate the views of tens of thousands of consumers. Presumably with a broad enough base the scores would reflect a general consensus. The problems with this approach are:

* quite how many people do you need to post regularly to ensure the number of views on any particular wine are actually representative? LOTS!
* that consumers are likely to post only on wines that generated strong feelings (positive or negative) so results will be skewed
* that consumers may not 'understand' a particular wine and put off that small niche of drinkers who might actually like the wine (e.g. old style white Rioja or anything German)
* they make regular references to "unbiased opinions" and "like-minded wine shoppers", but how true is that really?

This is the usual debate about tasting notes, points, reviews, etc. that all such sites contend with. Apparently they have a registered database of 50,000 consumers so maybe their reach can become broad enough, but it will take a lot more than that I suspect.

The alternative is a site such as Quaffers Offers. The design is awful, but the notes are useful as they are always by the same person/people and thus you can achieve some level of consistency.

Despite the reliance in both cases on "offers", the fact that these are linked to tasting notes and reviews means that the value of the wine (quality relative to price) is also addressed.

My ideal solution would be to take the Love That Wine model and combine it with the Quaffers one, to get a headline "expert" view on each wine that would be supported, or not, by the members. Something akin to's book reviews, with both the main review and the customer comments.

Of course it would be difficult for one expert to manage to taste all these wines alone, so you'd have to put together a team of 'experts' with some commonality of taste to review the wines. Now, where might such a group of people be found, I wonder?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Marketing Innoculation

So Threshers and Stormhoek are at it again (no I will not link to it, but I suspect you can find it easily enough) - you can read my previous views here and here.

Having just spent 6 weeks trying to rid my body of an infection, I don't have the energy to fight a marketing "viral" campaign too, but I think that the consumer "body" will be better able to resist it this time around - although I may be wrong.

My own view is that resistance is low at Christmas, but that at the moment the word of mouth element will be sufficiently dilute for it not to take control. It would be amazing if it did, but there are probably enough deal junkies and gapingvoid 'disciples' to spread the word. However, how many times can Hugh do this before he ruins his own credibility and that of the brands he works on?

Let's wait and see. I suspect the answer will be inconclusive, with a rise in sales to justify the action but not nearly the same impact, vindicating the opponents.

RSS arrogance?

Yes, I have added a feed link to this site (courtesy of feedburner and RSS).

It is a little bit self-important to think that anyone out there reads this site often enough to warrant it, but it seems to be de rigeur and it wasn't complicated, so why not?

You can click on the link on the right and add this site to your reader or aggregator and stay up to date with the ramblings of ... me.

I have started using the Google Labs' Google Reader and it seems to be pretty good. If you haven't tried it, give it a go as it helps to keep blogs under control.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Thresher virus lives to fight again

Hugh MacLeod over at gapingvoid, the architect of the online success of the Stormhoek wine brand, has set the question:

"In short, I think there are enough people out there wiling to have another go at redeeming the coupon one more time, even if this time the story isn't as newsworthy to break into the mainstream media machine like it did last time.


See the full article here

I have left a comment (to be moderated) with my view. Don't do it!

* I think that the fact that it happened at Christmas, when everyone was pre-disposed to look for a bargain, was the main reason it took off.

* I think that many potential customers for Threshers felt cheated when they understood that the regular discount is 33% and so 40% was not nearly as big a deal as they had expected.

* I think that focusing on price alone is a depressingly familiar, and dead-end, campaign concept.

Having said all this, I should point out that I spoke up in favour of the marketing success of the campaign back in December - it was clever and it was well executed. Doing it again, would tarnish that.

Hugh, Gapingvoid and Stormhoek are all well respected. Surely there is more they could do with this respect they have generated? How about a campaign to support your high street specialist wine shop? What about a plan that educated consumers about South Africa, offering better deals for buying three from that country? What about involving the consumer by getting their feedback on the wines?

There is so much that we do not do to get consumers interested in quality wine, and we do not need to feed that craving for more discounts any further.

So, Mr MacLeod, thoughts?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Who wants to win a wine competition?

It is that time of year again. Lots of forms to complete, samples to request and deliver, and monies to pay.

The 2007 wine competitions "open their doors" in March so they can announce their results at the London Wine Trade Fair (or London International Wine and Spirit Fair to give it its full title - although I see they cheat on their URL as well themselves).

Are they worth the effort and cost? So many people are involved in the logistics of organising and running these events, and so much money is spent by producers to take part. What for?

Do the consumers really care?

There may be the occasional award that captures the public's imagination (I imagine Decanter Man/Woman of the Year has some impact in certain circles), but does an IWC/Decanter/IWSC/etc. Gold/Silver/Bronze medal mean anything to the person being asked to spend their money?

I am dubious.

What are the key influencers on consumers these days beyond their "internalised" decisions (target price, recognised brand, previous experience, ...)? Is it the Press? Is it recommendations? Is it extra gold stickers on the bottle? Can they even be influenced (I think the evidence points to "yes")?

As with many things today a good thing has been taken to the extreme, so much so that it has become worthless. If there is only one award event, then communicating its results, and its value, would be easy. When there are multiple events, with competing messages and rules, conflicting results, innumerable categories and interminable lists of "winners", they become worthless.

Worse than that, they become one more bit of the 'noise' facing a consumer trying to make a decision. Instead of making it easier, they make it harder.

Of course there is no going back, so maybe the trade needs to decide what it wants, who offers the best solution for achieving this, and back a single horse instead?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

New Packaging - Wine Tetrapack

I have been suffering from one of the worst chest infections in my life and have been unable to taste or even think about wine clearly for the last month, so apologies for the extended silence.

As I was shopping for milk in my local co-op convenience store the other day, I came across one of the latest novelties in packaging for wine. The tetrapack.

I have seen the format before, (I am thinking of French Rabbit from Boisset) but I hadn't actually seen it on shelf before. I was intrigued to find this in a small store in my local area, so I bought it for curiosity's sake. Unfortunately, when I opened it to try it, I couldn't taste it, so I have no comments on the quality of the wine.

The wine in question is Andrew Peace's masterpeace Australian Chardonnay, launched at the Australia Day Tasting in January.

Is this the future for wine? Let me think about some pro's and con's first.

On the positive side;
  • It weighs less so it is cheaper and more environmentally friendly to ship

  • The opaque carton protects the wine from the harmful effects of bright sunlight and UV

  • It is a sterile, sealed environment unlikely to become "corked"

  • It gives greater surface for marketing messages and useful information

  • It is easier to store; no wine rack required

  • I believe it is supposed to be recyclable

  • It is not all that different from the bag-in-box format we are already familiar with and which is becoming more popular

  • On the negative side;
  • It has been done before for the cheapest of the cheap wines in the days that these were undrinkable (things have improved even at this level in the wine trade), and is therefore tarnished with this perception

  • It is still made from plastic and various metallic compounds, so how environmentally friendly can it be?

  • You get no visual clues at all about the wine. Think of the attractions of rose wines, deep gold sweet wines, etc. All wines will look the same, or at least the colour the marketer/printer want you to think it is

  • Bottle shapes have always been a differentiator, not just on weight for 'better' wines, but classic regional shapes like the tall bottles from Alsace, or embossed Chateau-neuf-du-pape

  • It is not all that different from the bag-in-box format we are already familiar with

  • None of the pros and cons immediately jump out at me as "killer" reasons for or against. This packaging is likely to be used only for cheap, young wine to be drunk immediately, so convenience will matter. And if, on balance, it is more environmentally friendly to produce and dispose of, then even better.

    So, is this the future of wine? I don't consider myself an old-fashioned wine purist. I am all for the screwcap and other modern closures for example. However, I am not convinced by this format for the simple reason that it further reduces wine to a mere convenience beverage, one that happens to contain alcohol and be made from grapes.

    If we are to educate consumers about responsible drinking, encouraging them to drink wine but to do so in moderation and hopefully at a quality level that will bring them pleasure, then it is important we do not "dumb it down" too much.

    Wine branding is not only about building a name and image for the producer, or even of the region, but for the product category itself. This isn't about being elitist (although I recognise it could sound that way), it is about building a sensible Culture of Wine. Quality packaging is integral to that I think. That isn't to say we should stick to glass per se, but I would like to see something better differentiated than a carton.

    Unfortunately, I don't think this is it, but it is certainly something to ponder further.