Friday, August 30, 2013

Is the 100-pt system more confusing than helpful?

Proponents of the 100-pt system for often claim that the main advantage of the system is that it provides consumers with a clear, concise and relative measure of a wine's intrinsic quality. The problem with that statement is that a wine's intrinsic quality is completely subjective. Every person is born with a unique palate and a distinct set of experiences from which to conjure aroma and flavor comparisons from memory (how else does one know what an "intense sensation of ... gunflint" tastes like? Those experiences also make relative scoring inherently flawed. Do you enjoy green tobacco or do you find it off-putting? Acidity, oh don't start a debate about acidity amongst wine writers! Sure, one person's opinion is easily defensible, but when two (or more) prominent wine publications diverge dramatically on their assessment of a wine (more often than you would expect), the result for consumers could be more confusing than helpful.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Everyone is a critic, and wineries should be listening!

The claim that "Everyone is a critic" is no longer a cliché, but a fact. Anyone can start a blog and write about wine. Anyone can post reviews on TripAdvisor or Yelp. Maybe you don't give these amateur critics an ounce of credibility, but many people do. Lots of people look to others for recommendations on what wine to taste or what winery to visit on their vacation. Wineries need to pay attention to how they are perceived by their customers, real and potential. Real customers are the ones giving those recommendations and potential customers are the ones using those recommendations on blogs, Yelp and TripAdvisor.

Out of curiosity, I decided to browse Yelp and TripAdvisor specifically for tasting room recommendations in the Grand Valley AVA of Colorado. I saw lots of positive and overly glowing reviews of most wineries. However, a few caught my eye and made me want to bang my head into a brick wall. Without naming names, I wanted to share three of these reviews, each about a different winery, with you.

1. This was by far the worst experience I have ever had at a winery. We arrived for a wine tasting about 35 minutes before their tasting room was scheduled to close, and there were still a few people at the bar doing wine tastings. We were immediately greeted by this man who seemed agitated that we were there, who rudely exclaimed that they had already closed their tasting room for the day. Since we had driven an extra half hour to visit their winery we pleaded with him to give us a tasting, at which time he got confrontational and ordered us to leave his establishment...

2. ...We bought a bottle - price is $38 - and stored it at correct temperature. Tasted it 3 month later and the wine had turned into a bad tasting vinegar not at all a Merlot or Port. It was visible the cork had visible holes and I think that is the reason for the spoiled wine. I contacted the winery and I only got a very arrogant email back - not really trying to help me much - so I know I would not taste nor buy any wine there - as what they present is not really what you get. A wine can go bad, but I think customer service is most important. Not found here. 

3. ...Then she launched into a rant against the distillery next door and a few other wine makers. An elderly couple entered as this was going down and the phone rang. She took the call without greeting the newcomers and proceeded to gab loudly while walking towards the back of the warehouse. When it became obvious that she had no intention of coming back we left... 

I still shake my head in disbelief every time I read these. All three of these reviews were uncalled for, not because of consumer critics gone wild but because each winery behaved in ways they should never behave. First, why would a winery turn away customers when they are open? Winery tasting room hours are an issue in Colorado. I've tried to visit a winery when it was supposed to be open, only to find the doors locked and the lights off. When customers take time out of their busy (or not busy, who cares) lives and are looking for reasons to give wineries money, wineries should treat them well. I can see no reason why a winery representative wouldn't want to open a fresh bottle at the end of the day for a group of people pleading to taste their wine (fine, maybe the legal requirement to not serve intoxicated individuals would be a good reason). You never know who the customer might be. I actually spoke with a restaurant owner about this same winery a year or two ago and he relayed a very similar story. He said that he would not serve this winery's products because of the poor customer service.

Ok, now on to the second review. Bad bottles happen. When they do, the winery should do the right thing and replace the bottle at no charge to the consumer. Maybe the next bottle would have been bad too, but the act of listening and caring is what this customer obviously wanted. As I will keep saying over and over, wineries are more in the customer service business than the wine business. Excellent customer service can go a long way. This review could have been glowing had the winery ponied up $38, plus shipping, to make the customer feel appreciated. It amazes me when I hear people complain that wineries or even restaurants won't take back product because of quality concerns. Just a few weeks ago, I tweeted that I was drinking a bottle of Two Shepherds Grenache. I described the bottle to the winemaker, who had responded to my tweet, and he said that the wine sounded off to him and he'd send a replacement bottle. I didn't even ask for him to do that, but that kind of proactive customer service is more likely to secure a loyal customer than an arrogant reply.

I used this third example not to illustrate more poor customer service, but unnecessary industry squabbling. The small alcoholic beverage producers in Colorado all have to work together. Why a winery would bash another winery is beyond me, yet I hear local vintners continually put down other vintners. Instead of focusing on the negatives, producers need to focus on the positives and grow together rather than competing against each other. Complaining about neighbors or industry partners just makes the complainer come across as petty. I know I'd rather support a winery that is support of their neighbors. Just as Robert Mondavi is famous for promoting California and Napa Valley above his eponymous winery, small Colorado producers need to start banding together and promoting each other.

As unfortunate and unnessary as each of those reviews were, wineries should be paying attention and do something about them. I still think negative reviews are the time when a winery's true customer service ability can shine. Thankfully, I was able to find an example of just this. I noticed that Jay Chrisitianson, owner and winemaker at Canyon Wind Cellars and Anemoi, responded to 95% of the reviews on TripAdvisor. To the positive reviews, Jay personally thanked the reviewer. To the one less-than-positive review, Jay thanked the reviewer for her comments and offered a solution to the complaint. Customer service doesn't get much better than that.

Wineries should not be afraid that customers might post bad reviews on blogs or TripAdvisor any more than they should be afraid of Wine Spectator publishing scores about their wines. Wineries need to adopt the mindset that every single customer interaction is the most important one. Try not to give consumers things to complain about, but when complaints happen (and they will) please act in an appropriate and kind manner. The goal of every winery shouldn't necessarily be to sell more wine, but make their customers sell it for them. There is nothing quite as powerful free brand ambassadors: consumers need to be thought of as part of your marketing department. In this age of social media, you may not know who your customers are or with whom they will communicate.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Breadth or Depth?

Wine can be a dangerous thing. Sure, there are physical maladies that can arise from the alcohol contained within, but the addiction it can cause can be the most perplexing. I'm not talking about alcoholism. I'm talking about the addictive nature of wine collecting. I know that many of you are also afflicted by this, sometimes, debilitating condition. Whether you know it or not, there are many others just like you.

From the first sip of truly fine wine that gets its vinous hooks into you, to the feeling you get when you make the mailing list of a forgotten winery you signed up with years ago, or the adrenaline rush that makes your heart race when you find that rare wine sitting on the retail shelf with the original (and uninflated) price still on the bottle, makes you want more. Soon that case of wine in a dark closet turns into a modest wine cooler. Then the cooler turns into an off-site storage site where your treasures remain safe from your spouse (and even yourself; how dare you drink that bottle before it has 10 years of age on it...). Finally, you come to grips with your affliction and bite the bullet and build a wine cellar in that extra room in the basement. You're not afraid to announce to the world that you have a problem, and you're proud of it!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Future of Allocations

Over the last few days I received emails from two highly sought-after wineries whose wines are without a doubt expensive and in demand. The wine allocation list is the holy grail for wineries. Allocations go something like this: Our limited production wines are sold by mailing list and are available in select restaurants around the world. Our mailing list is presently full, but we can add you to our waiting list. We move clients onto the mailing list based on when you contacted the winery, as space becomes available.

Demand exceeds supply. More people want to buy the wine than can and the winery limits the amount of wine a customer can purchase. Sometimes, if a client decides to not buy a given vintage, they are removed from the mailing list. Marketing, branding and distribution can take a backseat to the production side of the process and almost an infinite amount of detail can be given to the viticulture and winemaking. Critics give the wine glowing reviews and high scores. Demand increases and the process repeats itself. Waiting lists for the top wineries are often years long, but they've got nothing on the Green Bay Packers' season ticket wait list (see the second-to-last FAQ).

But what does the future hold for allocation lists? Are they really as robust as they seem? Are they the best way to build a customer base?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Breweries promoting wineries.

One of the big stories in the alcoholic beverage industry this week has been the results of a Gallup poll that suggest wine is increasing in popularity amongst American consumers at the expense of beer. Wine, beer and spirits will always be competing for consumer preference ratings. But this post is not about competition. It is about collaboration.

Collaboration is a big buzz word in the beer industry. It is not uncommon to see beers on a retail shelf with two breweries' names on it. Perhaps the most prominent collaboration is when Avery Brewing and Russian River Brewing teamed up to create Collaboration Not Litigation Ale. For a good read on breweries working together, read this Imbibe article. Wineries collaborate in a different way. Winemakers sometimes work at more than one winery and wineries share facilities and equipment at custom crushpads or alternating proprietor licensed premises.

However, there is much less cross-industry collaboration. Sure, distillers, and more frequently brewers, use old wine barrels, but for the most part there is a fierce competition for market share amongst the three segments. I stopped in to the Breckenridge Brewery Tasting Room a few weeks ago to pick up some growlers and I noticed something interesting. They of course had their beer everywhere, but their top shelf of liquor was all Colorado brands. The wines on the bar? There were four bottles of Penfolds. I talked to Stuart Close, the general manager. I asked him why they had Colorado spirits but no Colorado wine. He said that no winery had ever approached him. He told me if I knew of any local wineries that could sell him a few (they don't go through much wine in the tap room) cases of wine for less than $10 per bottle he'd be happy to replace the Penfolds with Colorado Wine. So, Colorado wineries: go talk to Stuart if you want to collaborate with Breckenridge Brewery.

Last week, I was in Wisconsin. Now, Wisconsin is not a hot bed for wine production (though the largest winery, Wollersheim, produces more wine than the entire state of Colorado). However, Wisconsin is known for its beer. It may not have as many craft brewers as Colorado, but the beers are just as good. Just ask anyone who has been to the Great American Beer Fest and seen the line for New Glarus Brewing Co. Another of Wisconsin's "cult" breweries is Ale Asylum, and during my trip I went to their new $8 million brewery with a childhood friend and our wives. We had a couple of beers, but during the second round my friend's wife ordered a Prairie Fumé from Wollersheim instead of a beer.

I was surprised that someone would order a wine at a brewery, but I was even more shocked that it was a local wine. But when you think about, a small craft brewery has invested itself in the localpour movement, so why not support other local producers? It is a bit hypocritical to tout your own local product and then try to sell corporate giant non-local products. It was also refreshing to see local Wisconsin wines prominently displayed at the one grocery store, one liquor store and one restaurant I went to during my week in Cheeseheadland. Only if Colorado restaurants and breweries were equally as willing to support and collaborate with Colorado wineries...