Sunday, August 30, 2009

What wine blogs can do for you?

Liz Thach, Wine Business Professor at Sonoma State University wrote a synopsis of a wine blogging study done at the university; her report appeared at (link below).

Ms. Thach starts her story with an emphatic yes to answer the question whether wine blogs have an impact on wine brands. She recommends that wineries pay attention and then she produced a list of what wineries should be doing. But before getting to the list, she passed along some astounding information.

There are more than 700 blogs devoted to wine (and the blog count continues to grow). She got that information from a list that Alder Yarrow compiled a while ago for his blog,

What about overkill? At, say, 1,000 blogs (it’s coming) and with 52 weeks in a year, how much duplication and contradiction do you think is possible? The wine print magazine world never came close to approaching that kind of influence.

The many wine blogs out there today come in approximately 14 languages with English accounting for most of the blogs.

After developing sampling criteria, Thach’s study group followed 222 blogs for a content analysis. It turns out that blogs fall into several categories. By far, the top category (by number of blogs) is wine reviewing. There are far fewer blogs by wineries than either wine review, wine and food, and wine education blogs. Wine business, winemaking and viticulture, and “other” blogs are the three bottom on the list—vinofictions likely is at the bottom of that category; someday, I’ll discover the secret to titillation.

Less than 50% of the sampled blogs included advertising. In her report, Ms. Thach dutifully noted that bloggers have discussed the ethics of accepting advertising from brands that are reviewed. She did not, however, give the outcome of the discussion. The report mentioned that the 222 blogs in the study managed to name more than 800 different wine brands over the course of the study.

Thach is a business professor and so her report focused on the business angle of blogs for wineries: how best to capitalize from their existence. Mainly, she claims that wineries with especially small PR budgets need to monitor blogs because there is a following of consumers and that's good for advertising on blogs.

The professor gave another reason to monitor blogs, which has to do with the “Wild West” atmosphere of the blogging world. Thach called it “democratization of media.” She pointed out that there are bloggers who may know what they are talking about and there are bloggers who may not. The latter group can hurt with negative reviews and comments. She doesn’t mention it, but bloggers without knowledge can also pass along a lot of misinformation.

Not long ago, Wines and Vines Editor, Jim Gordon, addressed the issue of blogger knowledge. He urged bloggers to become responsible by gaining knowledge before spouting off. On that subject, I know exactly what he means. An awful lot of people have a tendency to tell others how to grow grapes and produce and market wine without spending an ounce of energy to study the subjects beyond what they drink, what they are told, and what they choose to believe.

Ms. Thach ended her report with a list of seven things wineries need to do to stay on top of the wine blogging explosion. They are common sense suggestions and probably aren’t being done by most wineries because they are time consuming plus, they are connected to a technology that many wineries have yet to understand.

As I read the report, I wondered what I would have done in the days when I operated a winery had I this opportunity to monitor, and to attempt to control, the message being spread about my wines. As I thought, I could not help pondering the monumental danger that lurks with the citizen-generated social media revolution. There’s a kind of blackmail quality to having judgment passed on a product or brand by people who may or may not have knowledge or smarts, let alone taste. And what about those who may have an agenda of their own?

If I operated a winery today, I would definitely want to monitor the blogging world. I would be quite afraid of the impact it could make on my business should some nut garner enough nuts to follow the lead and start a massive negative campaign, maybe because I refused to send free wine, or because I pissed off someone’s brother at my tasting room. This kind of thing happened to a California sparkling wine producer, and I read a news report that it might have been a disgruntled family member who started the negative online campaign.

In any case, it looks like the academics are getting a handle on what blogs and social media can do for wineries.

Does anyone know of an academic study to determine what all these blogs can do for wine consumers that isn’t already being done?

The Thach study

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, August 17, 2009

It's the sign of the (NY) Times.

Not long ago, after having taken to task a blogger for what seemed to me like a lapse in journalism standards, the blogger called me “an old school journalist.” The message was that times are changing and guys like me ought to get used to it.

Of course, my response was that if journalism has come to the point of blurring the lines between standards and gratuitous conjecture, then old school I’ll remain.

Speaking of old school, this is no dig at Eric Asimov (he does a fine job) but when Frank Prial left the NY Times weekly wine column, it was a big loss.

The people seeking scores and direction to the futures market didn’t care for Prial’s wine writing. Instead of wine reviews, Prial wrote wine stories. Surely, because of the personal experiences, some of his information was one-sided, biased, and even could be mean-spirited (like the time he said that white wine gives us something to do with our hands). But his columns generally included tidbits as well as important bits of information, and they always came wrapped in a literary package, which is why some of his die-hard fans mourned his leaving.

In fact, there was a time when reading the NY Times was a pleasure almost akin to the old pleasures of the New Yorker Magazine. These days, however, while the latter is close--but not up to--its old standards, the former seems to have slipped immeasurably, to the point where being concise often means writing convoluted English—and the “corrections” column in the paper these days is almost as long as feature articles.

Not to worry. The NY Times has the answer to its woes. The newspaper is going into the wine club business. Why not?

The wine club business is like those credit cards that started popping up a few years ago seemingly issued by the companies that have their logos attached to the cards. Of course, the company credit cards have always been issued by banks or credit card companies that are parts of banks, no matter whose logo is on them. And so, Global Wine Company will operate the NY Times Wine Club. That company does with wine club partnerships the same thing that credit card companies do with other businesses—they handle the transactions for a fee. The only difference may be in how the fee is applied and who pays it.

No matter who issues the credit card and no matter whose logo is on it, the consumer gets to buy on credit, receives some sort of bonus or points benefit, pays the same introductory low interest on outstanding balances (that rises to Mafiosi proportions as time goes by), and goes into penury when the outstanding balances become anvils.

No matter who runs them, wine clubs perform one service: they ostensibly bring together the consumer with “unique” wines or at least wines with a “unique” story. Some clubs tout their ability to save consumers loads of money; some clubs tout their ability to make consumers feel special; and some clubs simply sell plonk and make it seem to consumers like they are saving money while being members of an exclusive group of connoisseurs.

In the case of the NY Times Wine Club, consumers are promised access to wines from small, family-run wineries at an average $15 a bottle and below, based on volume.

Global Wine Company calls the NY Times a partner. A quick glance at the Global Wine Company Web site shows they have a few partners. It also shows that many of the wines available at one partner’s site are available at the other partners’ sites—so much for exclusivity. And each partner offers about the same discount of 20%, which is what a good shopper can normally get at a good “bricks and mortar” retail shop—so much for saving money.

There is, however, something exclusive going on at least at one of the partnerships: that outfit charges an average 10% and more for the same wines that two other partners of Global Wine offer—so much for feeling special.

One of the pleasures I get from wine is shopping for it. I like people, so I like talking with the retailers and the checkout cashiers. I also like touching what I intend to buy, reading its labels, looking at the package, comparing its price with the prices of the hundreds other wines in the shop—hell, I even like the smell of a wine retail shop, which seems always to have a residue of a bottle broken long ago but not quite out of the carpet yet. You can understand, then, why I don’t get the wine club craze.

I do understand the Internet craze, and that is what wine clubs have tied into. In fact, that’s what journalism is tying into also, and that’s why companies like the NY Times have had to seek new revenue streams. Wine is a $30 billion industry in the U.S. The NY Times is a big business, too. Seems like a perfect pairing, no?

Seems to me like rare steak with Auslese; but again, I don't get the club craze.

Incidentally, if you are in the market for a classical radio station or a Boston newspaper, the Times has one of each up for sale. On the other hand, if you are interested in, say, Breggo wines (a nice little producer in the Anderson Valley north of Mendocino) right now they are listed at three Global Wine Company partner sites, at two different prices.

Maybe the Times can do better.

Global site

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2009. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Manipulating critics?

A long ago acquaintance of mine, Craig Goldwyn, started up but no longer operates the magazine International Wine Review.

One of the things that Craig did, and that was to be respected, was to institute a policy that for regular review in the magazine, wines were bought off the shelf.

The magazine hosted a wine competition, too. Wines submitted for evaluation in the competition had to already be on the market, so that the reviewers would evaluate what consumers can buy. Plus, Craig’s team randomly bought wines at retail to compare with the competition submissions.

As simple and smart a policy as the above was, it is not the general rule for some of the major wine critics today.

The general system is to evaluate wines supplied by producers and/or importers. The Robert Parker franchise likely does not go out and buy the wines at retail before, during or after they have evaluated them. Often enough, wines are evaluated before the wines are released to the market.

In other words, major wine critics don’t practice quality control of their product—they don’t test what they are evaluating either for consistency or for accuracy.

It’s been suspected by some for many years that a few producers would take advantage of the ability to manipulate the critics by sending to them a wine under one label for evaluation, but sending to the marketplace a different wine under the same label. Since the critics don’t check up on them, the chances are that a great numerical rating has helped move inferior product in the marketplace more than once.

The evidence clearly shows that tasters can be fooled by ratings, but that subject is for another blog entry. The issue here is either fooling or manipulating critics.

2005 Sierra Carche is from Spain’s Jumillia region. Jay Stuart Miller, one of the critics working under the Parker franchise, gave the wine 96 points.

Later, after consumer reports that the wine they bought was pretty awful for a 96-point score, the importer, Well Oiled Wine Company, said that they uncovered a mistake and that one of three lots of that wine had been mislabeled and sent to market. In other words, a different wine was labeled as 2005 Sierra Carche.

Was that the wine Miller had evaluated?

According to the importer, the two other lots were lab tested and found to be sound. The only explanation they could give to address the bad bottles on the market is bottle variation. But with so many consumer complaints, that sounds like a truly lame explanation.

The rest of the story is involved and it includes the requisite and justified sniping by wine geeks at wine producers, importers, and critics—see below links.

Sniping aside, the point of this situation is that first, wine critics should compare what the producer provides for evaluation with what the importer brings into the U.S.--mostly, they don’t.

Second, wine critics should taste blind, make their assessment and then have the labels and pricing revealed to them--mostly, they don’t do this either. They know the (ostensible) identity of what they are evaluating, which seems rather easy for bias to seep in, knowingly or not.

Third, wine critics should never, ever evaluate at the producer’s place of business (except when doing a barrel evaluation for futures).

This episode is the second in the past few months that involves one particular critic under the Parker franchise. The franchise on the ebob wine forum site mishandled the first episode so poorly that it was painful to watch. So, what do they do this time around?

Read it for yourself.


And here’s another link

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
August 2009. All rights reserved.