Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Decant this

A literary agent once took a copy of a memoir proposal of mine and without saying anything about why or what he had done, he sent it back with a yellow mark over every appearance of the word “I.”

His message got through loudly and with painful clarity.

The agent provided me with a needed look into potential self-absorption on the theory that a good memoir is as much a good story as any novel, and although a memoir centers around one person, that person need not be the absolute center of the story.

Maybe wine critics and reviewers can use this lesson.

The other day my friend Mitch posted on a wine forum a piece published in Scientific American 2004; volume 291; issue 5. It was by Andrew L. Waterhouse, a professor in the department of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis. The piece concerned itself with decanting wine.

While Waterhouse laid out his rationale for decanting either red or white wine, the section Mitch quoted offered little in the way of scientific reasoning. Essentially, Waterhouse reiterated what many people believe: younger red wines benefit from decanting because they, “can be harsh or astringent if consumed directly after opening the bottle,” older reds may benefit from decanting because it “…leaves the sediment behind, yielding clean wine,” and whites don’t benefit from decanting because “…decanting actually results in a wine with much less of the aroma than the winemaker intended,” and “…because white wines contain fewer tannins and pigments, they don't produce the same quantity of sediments that red wines do.”

Nothing of what Waterhouse said isn’t true, but the blanket statements are so definite that it makes me ask: where’s the proof?

A brief conversation ensued on the forum and Mitch went on, as he often does, to post a few scientific excerpts—he is a scientist by training and occupation, and he is interested in the science behind the concept of decanting wine. More to the point, he’s trying to find out what happens to a wine when it is decanted and whether or not there is any way of knowing beforehand what the outcome of decanting will be.

Mitch got one truly long-winded response from a wine reviewer. This was when my agent entered my mind.

The approximate 1100-word response to Mitch’s exploration of decanting included numerous personal pronoun references but not one bit of scientific evidence either for or against decanting wine, which in effect renders it a rather long piece of opinion writing. Nothing new there with wine critic/reviewers, but it does leave me wondering if they can ever get out of their heads, even for just five minutes. There are times when the science behind wine is too baffling even for those who know the science, imagine what you are getting back from those who haven’t a clue but have volumes in opinions.

Here’s an idea for those interested in the affect decanting might have on wine:

Get four bottles of the same wine. Set a time for a blind tasting. One hour before the set time, open two bottles and let the wine sit in one bottle for an hour and pour the other bottle of wine into a decanter to sit for an hour. Five to ten minutes before the tasting, open a third bottle and pour wine into a glass. When the tasting time arrives, pour the first two wines into a glass each, open the fourth bottle and pour wine into a glass and have someone taste all four glasses of wine right away without telling that person what you are trying to find out.

Let the person tell you how each wine smells and tastes—nothing more.

Do the above experiment more than once with different red and white wines until you are certain that you know whether or not to decant wine in the future; either that, or don't bother decanting at all.

Ask Jamie Goode about decanting and see what you get back:

Ask Emile Peynaud about decanting and see what you get back:

Ask Ronald S. Jackson about decanting and see what you get back:
(go to page 566)

Whatever you do, don’t ask a wine reviewer or critic about decanting wine.

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
October 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Not a tweet--a squawk

OK, this blog post is all opinion, and in keeping with the subject matter, I call it “squawk,” as in crow noise or a loud, raspy tweet.

Certainly, all you wine blog readers and Tweeter-savvy have heard of Fledgling. You haven’t? Well, get over to Steve Heimoff’s blog (see link below).

Fledgling is Twitter’s new wine, to the tune of a $10,000 investment with Crushpad, the winemaker.

For those who may not know it, Crushpad is a so-called custom crush winemaking facility, which literally means that you pay them, tell them what you want, and they will make it for you. You are responsible for selling, advertising, marketing, and even designing the packaging for your wine—with their help, of course. This is the outfit that brought us Vayniac Cab, made for Gary Vaynerchuk—you’ve heard of him, haven’t you?

The people at Twitter say they got the idea to have a wine brand from employees at the company who also happen to be Crushpad customers.

Light bulbs flashed: if we can use Twitter, the latest gift from God, to network our new brand, we can make a killing.

Not exactly: Twitter claims that the wine is for charity, or at least $5 of its $20 price tag is. The charity is Room to Read.

Am I the only one who finds the incongruity behind the fact that a company that invented a way to pare inanities to 140 characters wants children to learn to read? Talk about newspeak?

I’m not sure yet if I even like Twitter, but I’m certainly getting tired of celebrity wines and networking schemes connected to wine brands. This is truly cheapening the soul of the product.

There’s a reason that only a choice number of people on this earth can offer beautiful wines to the rest of us—it has something to do with study, talent, and passion. What happens to all that when everyone is a virtual winemaker—worse, what happens to the wine when no one makes it except a committee?

I hate this whole idea. But the part in the interview that truly set me off is when Steve asked this question of Crushpad CEO and Prez, Michael Brill:

“What is the significance of this, beyond raising money for charity? I mean, Crushpad getting involved in social media. You’re already calling it “social winemaking.”

…and Brill answered:

“We’re all about getting people involved in the winemaking process and co-creating a product with the customer.”

If that isn’t the most asinine comment about wine that I’ve read in my whole career I don’t know what is. I just finished talking about what I think of winemaking by committee and from afar, and now this fellow talks about getting even more people involved in making wine. What a concept—a reality show that isn't on TV!

All right, so Crushpad was a good idea to capitalize from those who love wine, want to make their own, but haven’t the stones (and I don’t mean Biz Stone) or money—or both—to go out and do it, you know, like grow grapes, press them, ferment them, nurse the wine, bottle it, and deal with every supplier, bureaucrat and annoyance that comes between the harvest and the bottled nectar.

All that stuff gets in the way, yet you want to tell your friends and neighbors that you own a wine label—fine. But puleeze, don’t have the boss try to make it sound like this is just another good old American networking event to “get involved.”

Custom crush for the consumer is a business built on an ego trip. There’s no disgrace to admitting that, but it is unseemly to try to explain it as more than what it is.

Steve Heimoff blog

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
October 2009. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

FTC and Social Media

If you have been in a coma, away from computer access, or generally impervious to the blogging world, you might have missed the big to-do recently concerning new disclosure guidelines by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This is the federal organization that keeps watch over “truth-in-advertising,” among other things. You can see how well this outfit does its job by watching a few television ads, especially the pharmaceutical ones—does the name Jarvik bring up memories?

Among the many things the FTC tries to curtail are connections between celebrities and the products that they endorse. Being paid to do a TV ad is not exactly the same thing as saying something in the ad that isn’t true.

One of the things that did in the Pfizer ad with Dr. Jarvik (the man who engineered a heart pump) was that the ad showed consumers that since Jarvik takes Lipitor he’s able to row a boat, but the guy rowing the boat was a double. That is not truth in advertising.

The rowboat affair was a worse offense than the possibility that Jarvik, who has an MD but has no medical license, may have been practicing medicine on TV without a license when he recommended Lipitor. The point was that consumers were not informed that he is not a practicing physician and the word “doctor” left the impression that he was.

Along with overseeing what goes on with TV, radio, and print ads and endorsements, the FTC now plans to get serious about the Internet. Regarding online network marketing, the Commission says:

“The Commission disagrees with the assertion that modern network marketing programs are just updated versions of traditional supermarket sampling programs. The primary goal of those programs was to have the shopper who tasted the advertiser’s product continue down the grocery store aisle and purchase the product. The primary goal of the new viral marketing programs is to have these individuals ‘spread the word’ about the product, so that other consumers will buy it.”

Its viral nature is one fear the FTC has about the Internet, and it is a fear that doesn’t seem aimed at wine reviewers. It’s aimed at social networking.

Another thing the new FTC ruling looked at is the concept of endorsement. Here’s what they have to say about that:

“The Commission does not believe that all uses of new consumer-generated media to discuss product attributes or consumer experiences should be deemed ‘endorsements’ within the meaning of the Guides. Rather, in analyzing statements made via these new media, the fundamental question is whether, viewed objectively, the relationship between the advertiser and the speaker is such that the speaker’s statement can be considered ‘sponsored’ by the advertiser and therefore an advertising message…is the speaker: (1) acting solely independently, in which case there is no endorsement, or (2) acting on behalf of the advertiser or its agent, such that the speaker’s statement is an ‘endorsement’ that is part of an overall marketing campaign?

Even if that consumer receives a single, unsolicited item from one manufacturer and writes positively about it on a personal blog or on a public message board, the review is not likely to be deemed an ‘endorsement,’ given the absence of a course of dealing with that advertiser (or others) that would suggest that the consumer is disseminating a sponsored advertising message.”

Those two paragraphs alone should alleviate the concern of wine bloggers, provided they are not endorsing wines for anyone and provided they are not asked by anyone to produce a review. I’m remembering a conversation months ago when Tom Wark expressed on his blog, Fermentation, dismay that wine bloggers agreed to work with a marketing team—that could easily be seen as an endorsement by the FTC, and Tom was correct to point it out. But he was also screamed at by many bloggers.

In the last two FTC paragraphs above the words “consumer-generated,” and “new media” appear. This points to another contentious issue with wine bloggers.

The FTC clearly states that, with regard to product reviews, its new disclosure guidelines apply to new media (social media online). If free samples of product come with strings attached, the FTC holds the print media outfit and the advertiser to the same rules of endorsement as it holds any other media; it just does not require that the print media make disclosure to its readers. The reason it gives for this separate treatment is that the reviewer is an employee of the print media (magazine, newsletter, or newspaper). The reader knows this, and also knows the lines of responsibility. It’s understood that the review is at the end of that line.

The problem that the FTC has with the consumer-generated media is that it is impossible for both the consumer and the FTC to understand and know the lines between the producer/advertiser/marketer and the reviewer. Because of that ambiguity, the FTC requires that some social media product reviews must come with a disclosure, and that it is the advertiser/marketers responsibility to tell that to the reviewer.

In addition, it’s the advertiser’s responsibility to make every effort to ensure that what a blogger says is accurate. Here’s what the FTC says about that:

“The Commission recognizes that because the advertiser does not disseminate the endorsements made using these new consumer-generated media, it does not have complete control over the contents of those statements. Nonetheless, if the advertiser initiated the process that led to these endorsements being made—e.g., by providing products to well-known bloggers or to endorsers enrolled in word of mouth marketing programs—it potentially is liable for misleading statements made...”

After reading the many blogs that are “up in arms” over this issue and then reading the FTC explanation of the new guidelines I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing for reputable wine bloggers to worry about—provided they simply state the facts. To me, the crucial point of the new FTC guidelines is summed up in the following paragraph:

“…a blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an ‘endorsement’ within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be endorsements…”

The FTC wants the advertisers to tell the bloggers that they must make a disclosure statement with their reviews.

The FTC also threw down a gauntlet to bloggers that I find interesting.

“…to the extent that consumers’ willingness to trust social media depends on the ability of those media to retain their credibility as reliable sources of information, application of the general principles embodied in the Guides presumably would have a beneficial, not detrimental, effect.”

The way I see it, wine bloggers have two options when they review wine: buy the wine or make a disclosure statement on the blog explaining that the wine was free but there were no strings attached to the review—none—and be sure to be able to prove it in the unlikely even that FTC asks (in an interview, one FTC spokesman said plainly that they haven't the intention to monitor the thousands of blogs on the Internet, which once again implies where their focus is).

It’s probably a good idea to also say how you go about evaluating the wine (blind, not blind, with food, without food, with a group, by yourself, under water, on a mountaintop, whatever). It has nothing to do with disclosure for the FTC or for legal reasons, but it would make sense to the consumer.

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
October 2009. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Control the grapes

Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ARS scientists recently revealed that they think they are closer to improving grape hardiness in North America.

Like certain trees and shrubs, grapevines shed their leaves in the fall. Scientists have been looking for the genes that control the process in the hope that they can help breeders identify cold-tolerant traits for establishing new grape varieties.

Geneticists at an ARS unit established at Cornell University's agricultural station along with others at the University of Minnesota and South Dakota State have been studying the wild North American species Vitis riparia because of its unusual trait to start shedding in late August in New York, when daylight drops below 13 hours daily while other vines retain their greenery.

By crossing Vits riparia with the French hybrid species variety Seyval, which is insensitive to day length, the researchers learned that when grown in a greenhouse a chromosome of the crossed vine guides the growth cycle. But when grown in the field, the crossed grapevine seems to react to multiple functions that include day length, sunshine, rain, and temperature.

If scientists can map what makes grapevines cease to develop and go dormant, they believe they may be able to control the activity so that North American vineyards can benefit from extended grapevine life cycles. That would be good.

Control the state

After Repeal of Prohibition in 1933, states were given the freedom to regulate their commercial wine industries. Some states decided not only to regulate commercial wine traffic but also to control its wholesaling and retailing.

Pennsylvania is one of about 18 so-called Control States. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) not only makes the rules, it also buys wines from producers and importers and it sells wine to consumers. Many residents of the state think it’s a horrible system that limits choices, and the Finger Lakes region certainly benefits as many Pennsylvanians come here to buy what they cannot get in their state.

It appears the PLCB is ready to relinquish a piece of its grip and give the private company, Simple Brands, Conshohocken, Pa., the chance to provide kiosks where wine can be dispensed. Yep—dispensed.

In a pilot review, kiosk wine dispensers will be placed in up to 100 grocery stores throughout the state. To check for age and identity, a consumer must insert a driver’s license. The picture on the license is matched with a video image of the consumer taken by the kiosk.

The kiosk also has a built-in breath sensor that supposedly takes an accurate blood alcohol reading instantly, without the consumer doing anything more than breathing normally. Right.

Like Big Brother, PLCB workers monitor the kiosk transaction from a remote location somewhere, and they lock out anyone the kiosk claims is underage or drunk.

The Big Brother aspect, the fact that the kiosk takes only credit cards (something that many Americans have lately learned to shed) and that its choices can’t be much in that little vending machine, make this one of the dumbest ideas I have ever heard, and all in an attempt to maintain CONTROL.

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
October 2009. All rights reserved.