Understanding the Paradigm Shift in Wine Writing

Paradigm shiftIt seems like the traditional, legacy media is dropping its coverage of wine at a pretty swift pace whether it be a pull back from wine coverage in Chicago, St. Louis or San Francisco. It points to a circumstance that every wine publicist and every wine marketer must accept and embrace: YOU ARE THE DISTRIBUTOR OF WINE JOURNALISM, WHILE THE JOURNALISTS ARE THE CONTENT CREATORS.

This, of course, never used to be the case. All the major media had good wine coverage and good circulation and distribution, assuring that if you or your client were covered, word would be spread by the folks who created the content.

Today, with the legacy media reducing their coverage and its circulation being gobbled up and cut up, there does remain a vibrant independent and largely new wine media that is exploring the subject on blogs, podcasts, online media and elsewhere outside what were the normal information distribution channels. However, few have much reach or circulation.

What this means is that the subject of the coverage (the winery, the importer, the distributor, the retailer, etc) must do the distribution.

That subject as information distributor model has a variety of tools at its disposal:

Your Email List
Your list of trade/accounts contacts
Your tasting room or Retail Store

If any of the many wine writers and commentators endorse your project, it must be you who gets that word out to those you hope will see it and take it to heart.

This is such a profound and certain and cemented shift in the way companies and concerns use third-party media endorsements that it qualifies as a paradigm shift.

Yes, there remain various media that, when they give you an endorsement, their distribution of that endorsement will get the job done and get their word out. But that list is shrinking on a daily basis. Perhaps this will change. Perhaps media companies with large circulations will return to serious coverage of the most important and refined and culturally significant beverage the world has ever seen. But don’t count on it. For now, you are on your own. Either be the distributor of the content created by the media or don’t count on good coverage having any impact at all on your brand and product.

Describing Wine…Is There a Different, Better Way?

TrueTasteWhether you are a publicist, a marketer, a hospitality professional, a winemaker, an owner or a consultant in the wine industry, at various times you are going to be called upon to write a tasting note or description of a wine you want to sell. How should it be written?

This is a fundamental question that has no right answer. Well, that’s not true. “I like it” simply won’t suffice. Neither will, “Damn!…Yumalicious!”

If you are like that vast majority of people, you will end up writing a tasting note or wine description that strings together a series of flavor descriptors: “A nose of ripe Cassis, summer herbs, vanilla and hints of chocolate, etc, etc, etc.”

Read any wine review and the chances are 10-1 that this is what you’ll get. In fact, since this is exactly what consumers and the trade have been trained to embrace when it comes to wine descriptions, you are probably better off not going too far outside the box.

But I want to bring to your attention a new, very small book by Matt Kramer, the renowned wine author and wine columnist for The Wine Spectator. In True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words Kramer makes the case that a simple string of flavor descriptors really tells the reader (or consumer) anything about your judgment of the wine and that it is your judgment of a wine that is most likely to contain the kind of insight that is truly useful.

Kramer believes that we (consumers, members of the trade, and writers) ought to think of wine not so much in the context of specific smells and tastes, but rather in the context of “Harmony,” “Textures,” “Layers,” “Nuance,” “Finesse” and “Surprise.”

Put another way, what if the description of the wine on that product sheet explored the degree of “harmony” the wine possesses and why? What if the description dwelt on the way the wine is revealed through “layers” of aromas, tastes and textures? Perhaps the way the wine delivers up unexpected or revealing messages about the terroir its fruit was grown in is the content of the wine description.

Kramer, in this really wonderful small book, is an advocate of moving way from the scientism that has had a grip on wine writing and wine descriptions since the academics introduced the notion of product quality descriptions that were easily communicated and put on display. Instead, he calls on us all to embrace a more subjective approach to wine writing and writing about wine.

What’s notable about this suggestion is that its much easier for a publicist or marketer or winemaker or another member of the trade to follow than it is a professional wine writer or wine reviewer since we have more leeway in how we talk about wine.

Kramer’s “True Taste” is a book that every member of the wine trade would benefit highly from reading two or three times (it can be opened, read and finished within an hour or two). You are likely to come away with a new understanding of how your wine can be presented to your customers. You may come away with a new appreciation of what a wine can represent. And in the end, what a wine represents is the key to a buyer’s purchasing decisions.

How far does The New York Times reach?

Please take a minute to read Bruce Schoenfeld’s article in the Sunday May 31 New York Times Magazine called “The Wrath of Grapes.”

The sub-head defines the piece as “…a band of upstart winemakers is trying to redefine what California wine should taste like — and enraging America’s most famous oenophile in the process….”

In a ‘mainstream’ consumer newspaper you will see a story detailing some fairly inside-baseball wine industry marketing issues. How interesting, right?

Just as importantly (PR 101, we might say), this piece has sparked discussion across the blogosphere and elsewhere.

I thought I’d gather some of the reactions to Mr. Schoenfeld’s piece in one convenient place, namely, here!

The lengthiest responses are Ron Washam

Steve Heimoff

Tom Wark (who of course is also the other founder/writer here at Swig)

Next are several writers and online forums who discuss the article:

Dr. Vino

Robin Garr

David Rosengarten



And The Colorado Springs Independent.

If you’re a marketer in the wine business today, you might enjoy reading through these assorted commentaries just to make sure you know where YOU stand on these issues….and…..who knows, maybe even contribute a comment here or there?

Off with their heads! Or is it “let them eat cake?”

Is there a “perception vs. reality” problem in Napa Valley? This publicist thinks so. And if it doesn’t get fixed soon, there may be unfortunate consequences. Let’s dip into a real world scenario. In case you haven’t heard, the Napa Valley is now in the middle of a whirlwind of controversy about whether there should be a moratorium on new wineries and vineyard development (among other related issues). Celebrating the winning bid of lot number 1 at Auciton Napa Valley 2014. Photo by <a href="http://www.tinacciphoto.com" target="_blank">Jason Tinacci</a> for the Napa Valley Vintners. To that end, the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission appointed a task force to consider these issues. Called the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee, it’s composed primarily of environmentalists with a couple of token wine industry people. The Napa Valley Register reports “The Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee is trying to figure out whether Napa County is choking on its own wine country success and, if so, what to do about it. Residents have brought up issues ranging from too much traffic to a perception that winery tourism is trumping agriculture.”

What does it mean to be a winery today? In a time when distributors are disappearing isn’t having a chance to present your ‘brand’ in your ‘home’ crucial? At yesterday’s Committee meeting, some members proposed that a Napa Valley winery be at least 40 acres in size. Say what?! In these fast-changing times, where a garagiste winemaker can present unique wines in a unique and perhaps “tiny” spot (certainly smaller than 40 acres)? How can the public not understand that a “winery” can come to life in any number of unusual configurations?

Back to perception vs. reality. I would suggest that “real” people are confusing hard-working vintners with the marketing of wineries. Namely, let’s look at Auction Napa Valley, coming up in early June. Live lots this year are full of bling, no question. They include a private concert by a rock star at a vintner’s home, trips to Europe and the Kentucky Derby, tickets to the Emmys, private jets, SEAL immersion and of course much more; the online e-lots are a marketing triumph as well for their creativity and diversity.

Here’s the disconnect. Auction Napa Valley is in a race to be the world’s biggest, best, most lavish, most written about wine auction. How do you achieve that? Flashier, ever more outlandish, more wow factor. But just as the Auction is ever more extravagant, it increases what you might call the squirm factor. Who is the beneficiary of all of this lavishness? “Real” people, disadvantaged kids, vineyard workers, senior citizens. No one that you will run into strolling the grounds of Meadowood sipping sparkling wine and eating caviar.

The real conundrum, from a publicity point of view, is that by masterfully marketing Brand Napa Valley through the Auction, you set up unintended consequences—alienating locals, who might not realize that the wining and dining which vintners do all the time is actually real work and hard work. As a ‘real’ person living in the Napa Valley, you’re watching this. Maybe a vineyard is going in next door or the winery down the road seems to have more cars on weekends. How can you not be resentful? The 1% are twirling around right in front of you. Where do you channel that frustration? What do you do about resenting that conspicuous consumption beginning to engulf you?

So are there really too many wineries in the Napa Valley? I doubt anyone really knows (how could anyone know?). Only the marketplace will tell us. But….that’s the perception that zealous environmentalists are trying to turn into reality. Where are the winery marketers portraying the reality, of wineries who give back to the community, who send superb products into the world, who fight for every sale and every customer? It’s too tough a balancing act—to equate the lifestyle of the rich and famous (aka Auction Napa Valley) with ‘real’ people.

So what have years of glitzy auctions created? A rumbling of class warfare, of the haves and have nots….and sadly, a failure of targeted publicity and marketing on home base, where it matters.

Pop Culture & Wine PR

This weekend brought us two vivid examples of why the media still matters…

PHOTO: Bruce Jenner sat down for a far-ranging exclusive interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in a special edition of “20/20.”

First of course on Friday April 24 there was the multi-hour Diane Sawyer 20/20 interview with Bruce Jenner. Even if you didn’t watch it, you heard about it. Not only did ABC promote it enormously beforehand, not only did it attract lots of eyeballs, but there was definitely a dollop of pop culture news to be broken. Bruce Jenner chose one journalist to be the conduit to the public, someone to ask the questions, keep the revelations coming and be the stand-in for all of us watching and listening. Going on national tv to explain what he’s going through was a choice. Not writing a book (maybe that’s in the works). Not writing an op-ed. Not finding a magazine to do a profile. TV—which would offer the world a treasure trove of sound bites to use and keep him front and center. And it worked, right?!

Where’s the wine PR connection here? It might be the premise of finding specific journalists to tell your story. That means being familiar with the journalist’s work and style. That also assumes you know your story; that you are certain you have enough content and substance and guts to support a spotlight.

 Example #2: The White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Both President Obama and Cecily Strong did stand-up routines which were intelligent and edgy enough to keep a room of jaded journalists chuckling and applauding. Both of them peppered their talks with references to all of the major media outlets, so notwithstanding the tsunami of social media we move through, “real” journalism seems to be alive and thriving.

Where’s the wine PR connection here? Humor. Intelligence. Hip and edgy. Great qualities to keep in mind as you write and pitch and correspond with the correspondents.