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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Coming At You Like a Dark Horse

As a wine writer I’m fortunate to have tasted many incredible wines including expensive bottles as well as rare and unavailable - most recently Bollinger 1914 Champagne, Dow 1970 Vintage Port, 1975 Georges de Latour, etc. But wine is not just for the elite, the few who can afford it (well, to be honest, some of it is), it is a beverage, an agricultural product that is meant to be consumed, which is why just over 90% of all wine is consumed the day it is purchased. The majority of wines are inexpensive and a small majority of those are inexpensive but really good for the price. Case in point – DarkHorse 2016 Rose’. Though mass produced, Dark Horse is a blend of 48% Grenache, 16% Barbera, 13% Pinot Gris, 12% Tempranillo, and 11% “other varieties,” and it offers strawberry, and plum, Bing cherry, with a wisp of smoked paprika, and lime meringue. It’s not a complex wine, but not all wines are meant to be complex, just like not every burger you get is the mist killer burger ever. So this summer, may you get to sample some cool wines you may not typically have the chance to do, but may you also find wines like Dark Horse, which can be in your stable of weekly wines to drink at home.
ORIGIN: California
PRICE: $9/ 750ML

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Do Not Wine Alone: How PR and Winery Associations Improve Your Brand

The author (L) moderating a panel discussion on wine in Santa Rosa
Bill Gates once said, “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations.” But does winery PR equate to return on investment?

With more than 8,000 wineries in the US alone can a winery stand out showcasing their wine and their story by hiring a winery PR firm? In our current age of free “immediate PR” via social media, is paying for winery PR becoming obsolete? To begin with, there are long standing traditional codes of conduct about how alcoholic beverages are advertised in the US and in 1972 The Wine Institute (TWI) developed a code of conduct. “Adhering to the Ad Code is a requirement of Wine Institute membership and members agree to comply,” says Gladys Horiuchi of TWI. The code states in part: “We have a right to advertise and promote our wines to consumers of legal drinking age. Along with this right comes the responsibility to market our wines in a responsible and appropriate manner. Wine advertising shall not: Use music, language, gestures, cartoon characters, or depictions, images, figures, or objects that are popular predominantly with children or otherwise specifically associated with or directed toward those below the legal drinking age, including the use of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.” So forget Santa drinking Sauvignon Blanc while the Easter Bunny binges on Bordeaux, you’ve still got to get your message out.

(L to R: Tim McDonald, Kimberly Charles and Sam Folsom)
Many wineries simply do not have an operating budget to pay a public relations firm. Medium sized houses certainly have more financial flexibility, but often the focus is putting earned money back into the wines. The top tier houses like Gallo, Bollinger, Treasury Wine Estates, for example, certainly have the capital but still no one likes to part with hard earned cash. And even though social media can be “free” it still requires guidance.

Like most wine PR firms Colangelo Partners, with offices in San Francisco and New York, focuses on four essential ideas according to Juliana Colangelo, West Coast Director and Senior Account Executive:
1. Media Relations: pitching writers’ stories about national and regional brands.
2. Events: Anything from small winemaker seminars to 500+ person trade and media shows.
3. Trade Relations: Sharing wines with sommeliers, beverage directors, bartenders, importers, distributors.
4. Marketing: Building websites, designing social media campaigns, TV, print, radio, etc.

Put another way, “Features, scores, awards, and accolades,” as Tim McDonald of Wine Spoken Here suggests. “Above all, we are storytellers,” says Sam Folsom founder of Folsom + Associates, based in San Francisco. “We help with positioning and message development. We write up backgrounder, bios, vineyard profiles, create targeted media lists for trade, consumer/wine, lifestyle, travel, and business.” And there’s more. As Kimberly Charles of Charles Communication suggests, “There’s also media training, speech writing, partnership marketing, special event creation and production, web content and strategy, benchmark tastings, video content.” And the list goes on.

Paying a PR firm means wineries expect tangible results - everyone wants ROI. But how is that measured? “By targeting specific audiences for localized campaigns and programs, we are able to see incremental lifts in sales in any given market where we focus our efforts,” says Senior Director of PR at Gallo, Kristina Kelley. And diversity of media outlets is crucial whether you are large or small. “We reach out to scoring publications with our luxury wines as the readership for those outlets are actively engaged in that category,” Kelley notes. “For a broader demographic, we take a different approach to the outlets we actively engage as the consumer base of products like Apothic, and Barefoot are more interested in an authentic experience that can be shared via social sites like Instagram and Facebook.” And as Kelley suggests, “We think podcasts are an increasingly valuable opportunity to reach a heavily engaged new audience.”

Every winery seeks to advance their message but unless that message is strategic it can get lost. Folsom + Associates has been in the wine PR game for over 30 years. “A PR firm can directly help sales when it generates a review or accolade that can be used as a selling tool in a sales presentation to distributors or accounts and when it prompts a consumer to buy,” says Sam Folsom. “Such credible, third party reviews have the added weight of implied endorsement – more so than a paid advertisement. More broadly, a well-executed public relations program can help build brand awareness and shape trade and consumer mindsets - which directly affects sales.” And sales are the name of the game. “A client often only sees a small part of the effort that goes into getting coverage, especially in a very competitive field,” suggests Kimberly Charles. “I think the most misunderstood part of the PR world is that it is often sacrificed first when a company is having financial challenges. That is often the time that you need an experienced communicator to help navigate misconceptions and to be sure it's you telling your story, not other parties.” The hard data? “Media impressions are vital to brand building and what we in PR actually accomplish is storytelling and ink procurement over time,” says Tim McDonald. “Sales sustainability, new distribution, and healthy depletions rely on PR to be successful in the long term.”

Joe Roberts of 1 Wine Dude educating wineries
But say you’re a small winery with extremely limited or no budget. What can you do? Obviously, word of mouth is important, as is the social media landscape. Facebook, for example, has some 50 million business accounts, and every winery should have an active account. But it’s less about the number of likes and shares and more about actively engaging with people who contact you. A Facebook “like” does not equate to a wine sale, it’s that simple and if that’s your goal, you’ll be sadly disappointed. As a wine writer however I can tell you that wines I’ve written about for national publications as well as a single Tweet have indeed translated to physical sales, but that is never a guarantee. However it’s not all that cut and dried and with limited money, what can you do with social media? “The problem with most wine brands is that if you tell them to, say, evaluate what percent of their customers respond to social, and dial-in a percentage of their media budget in accordance with that, they look at you like you have three heads and then don't do anything on social at all,” say Joe Roberts, of 1 Wine Dude who has innately understood the nuances of how social media is crucial, and one of the top wine bloggers on the planet. “If wineries do social the right way, then the money spent engaging with the bigger influencers online will almost certainly be very cost-effective,” he tells me.  But he’s also an advocate of balance between traditional media and social media. “Magazine features have a ton of value, though it will be shorter-lived. Social engagement will have less overt value, but it will be ‘sticky’ and will provide benefits for a long time with respect to Internet searches on your brand.” But even he acknowledges that many people have a hard time adapting to new PR methods. “I often start my speaking gigs by telling wine brands that they could have avoided hiring me if they'd listened to what I told them four years ago for free, which was to use social media to take control of their brand messaging. Wineries are used to being a few layers removed from consumers in one sense, especially in the USA being in 3-tier alcohol distribution system, so they willingly cede there power to influencers like me, in the hopes that we will tell their stories for them. But in another sense, they are great at dealing with consumers, from the tasting room side of things; and those same exact skills can be used to create and control their brand message on social media channels, so they can take some of that power back for low cost.” Linda Parker Sanpei of Parker Sanpei in San Luis Obispo agrees. “All social media has an audience, there’s a younger audience for Instagram, and a little bit older one for Facebook. It's a complicated wheel but it all equals PR. And we have to look at all opportunities be that interstitials on YouTube or a feature in a glossy magazine.”

Linda Parker Sanpei in her clients' (Allegretto Resort) wine room
And there is yet another avenue for PR via local wine trade associations. The Washington State Wine Commission, for example, runs a social media account across three main platforms - Facebook, Twitter and Instagram representing all 900 of their wineries and 350 growers. “Through these channels, we educate and engage, share photos and links about wine education, promote the Washington State wine industry and what makes it unique, including information about our AVAs and vineyards,” says Averyl Dunn, Communications Manager, Washington State Wine. Additionally, the Commission trains wineries so they can “use their own platforms the loudest,” Dunn says. And this is where many wineries fall short, not utilizing their association, or not comprehending the magnitude of social media to begin with. As evidence of this, Dunn provided me with the following growth in their profile with data from January – March/2017.
·         gained 7,452 new fans
·         interacted with 47K unique people
·         content reached 1.2 million people
·         content was seen/impressions 1.8 million times

·         gained 881 new followers
·         650+ people engaged
·         interacted with Twitter followers 5K times

·         gained over 1K new followers
·         engaged over 23K times

PR is a numbers game and there is no one correct way to accomplish your goals. What is needed is help – help to create a voice, build public opinion and increase brand loyalty, not to mention a willingness to be adaptable and learn new tricks, but also to be fearless. That is accomplished in a myriad number of ways – but you need to act. Bottom line? As Tim McDonald says, “The brands with the most friends win...we help brands make friends.”

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Scottish Gin with a German Twist

New gins hit the market frequently and, sadly, many of them are not very good, or they so deviate from what gin is, it’s merely a clear spirit. So leave it to the Scotts to make some cool gin. Distilled at Balmenach Distillery in the Speyside region of Scotland (known better for whisky) the CaorunnSmall Batch Scottish Gin includes five specific botanicals including Rowan berry, heather, bog myrtle, dandelion and apple, all from the region, and so unlike other gins in that they simply don’t have these natural resources. Think of it as a New World London Dry style. No these elements are not specifically distinguishable but together they produce a lively gin with a clean, pure expression. There are back notes of pepper spice, juniper, menthol, and fresh mint. It deviates from heavy juniper gins instead providing more zesty citrus, slightly sweet and a great sipper on its own. It’s 83 proof and runs about $35.
Since gin is colorless, why not use the Nachtmann Highland Tumbler in Reseda (that’s the green color) that is made of Bavarian machine-cut un-leaded crystal. Sure, tumblers come in many styles but holding this glass is nice to the touch, the grooves not so deep that it’s awkward in your hand. It’s also not a heavy tumbler (some have such thick glass it’s like you’re doing free weights). This is cool looking, with a soft rounded lip and it’s dishwasher safe. Nachtmann started in 1834 producing glassware and today has an extensive line of glassware, of which this tumbler is a nice addition to my bar set. Retail for a single glass is $19.99.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Love Whisky but not sure about Japanese Whisky? Let me make it a little easier for you...Read my review of Whisky Japan from The Whisky Reviewer here:

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Getting Zapped. Zinfandel. The Experience.

Flights of older & newer Zins
Zinfandel is considered “America’s grape” because it was widely planted when the California wine industry began to grow in the mid to late 1850s, but it is not, however, a truly American grape; it’s an immigrant – it originally came from Europe. Though heavily planted in California, you see far too many iterations that are all jammy fruit and sweetness. Nothing wrong with that, but Zinfandel can also be elegant, structured, earthy and subtle; a wine of diversity breaking away from typical Cabernet/Merlot flavors, and nothing like Syrah at all. But most people’s perception is Zin as a pizza and burger wine. Oh, the horror. Yes, I’m a ZinFan. And any ZinFan should really attend the annual ZinEx - the Zinfandel Experience - in San Francisco, as I did in February 2017 to get a well rounded, truly authentic look (and taste) into how diverse and exceptional Zinfandel can be.

Dedicated Zinfandel fans
ZinEx is like most multi-day festivals; there are special “flight” tastings with older vintages (I had some 2002, 2004, 2007 vintages), winemaker dinners, an evening auction, and grand tasting. But what sets this apart is the near fanatical nature of Zinfandel fans. You don’t really get this from Cabernet or Pinot - sure there are die-hards – but Zinfandel excites a primal sense in wine lovers; there’s something nearly visceral, emotional and instinctual. During ZinEx there were events at the terrific One Market Restaurant (including some of the best calamari I’ve had outside of Crete), the Bentley Reserve (formerly the San Francisco Federal reserve bank) not to mention the Grand Tasting held at Pier 27 overlooking the San Francisco Bay, which saw more than 1,500 attendees. Over the course of that day, over 20,000 appetizers from 18 artisan purveyors and chefs were available – of which I had maybe five or six, which reminds me to eat more next year. Rounding out the afternoon were more than 600 different Zinfandels poured from California growing regions and appellations from diverse places including Mendocino, Redwood Valley, Lake County, Napa, Sonoma, El Dorado, Amador County, Shenandoah Valley, Calaveras County, Lodi, Contra Costa, Livermore, Paso Robles, and as far south as Cucamonga. So if you are addicted to Zinfandel, or if Zinfandel is still something of a mystery, a visit to ZinEx will open your mind and your palate to California’s First Grape, so do check it out.

My Top Zinfandel Finds at ZinEx/2017
NV Lava Cap River Red (Zin blend), $18
2013 Steele Old Vine Mendocino County, $19
2014 The Federalist, Bourbon Barrel Aged, $25
2015 Day Zinfandel Sonoma Coast $30 
2014 Dashe Cellars Todd Brothers Old Vine, $35
Terra d‘Oro 10 Year Tawny Port, $50
2014 Miraflores Trilegato, $55

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Locations, Locations, Locations…Wine

Wine is a global affair, yet most wine production facilities/wineries, only make wine from one place – where they are located. Some have a few vineyards in say France and California, or something like that, (Paul Hobbs for example has vineyards in California and Argentina) but few wineries offer wines made by them from places across the globe in a single portfolio. Yes, it’s been done before, but with little success. But Locations Wine is finally getting it right.

Just after the 2010 harvest, Dave Phinney was at the Charles de Gaulle airport, lamenting how existing wine regulations were limiting his ability to make the kind of wine he wanted. He joked about possibilities, imagining what he could do if there were no rules. What if you could blend across French appellations? What if there were no rules. Standing at the airport a taxi pulled curbside and he noticed the very distinctive “F” sticker on the license plate. His mind exploded with thought and possibility. What if he could take this idea and do this not only in France, but also in Italy, Spain, and Portugal? Since great wine is made all over the world, what if you could produce a range of wines across all of the major wine regions of the world paying homage to each country? Enter Locations, with wines from California, France, Portugal, Texas, Italy, Spain, Argentina, Oregon, and Washington. Pretty impressive. I sampled through three of the wines – line priced at $19.99 - the Portuguese being my favorite of the three, though terrific quality with all of them.

The Italian, a blend of Negromaro and Nero d’ Avola offers black berry, brambleberry, pomegranate and cedar, bing cherry.
The Portugal blend of Touriga Nacional, Trincaderia, and Touriga Franca is full of black cherry, black berry, rhubarb, cassis, boysenberry and is earthy and vibrant.
The French Rosé, all Grenache, is strawberry, hibiscus, rose water and violets with a bold acidity, and that mineral/earthy quality that Grenache offers. Locations Wines is a capital idea that lets you travel the Big World of Wine.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Moon-Shining: Sugarlands Distillery Shines On

Moonshine, white lightning, hooch – whatever you call it, there is a burgeoning industry these days making the stuff. Sure, it’s not true moonshine in that you can legally obtain it, but it still hearkens back to the good ‘ol days of guys illegally distilling something in the mountains of Tennessee while evading the authorities. Now you can proudly walk directly into Sugarlands Distilling Company in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee and taste samples of their Sugarlands Shine, 2o versions in fact. And there’s behind the-scenes tours of the production facility, live music, Appalachian storytelling, and outdoor adventure tours in the Sugarlands, an area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I recently sampled two of their ‘Shines, the Root Beer Moonshine and their Appalachian Sipping Cream, what they call Electric Orange Sipping Liqueur. Using mainly corn and rye as their base for a neutral spirit, they then add in various flavors (they have a Peanut Butter and Jelly, Blueberry Muffin, and Coffee versions as well) to create a proprietary moonshine. And I can tell you this, these are damn good.

With the Root Beer you are immediately hit with the noticeable smell of root beer. You still get the notes of sassafras, molasses, and cinnamon and there is a slight sweetness to this, which underlies the idea that you don't really notice much of the alcohol note. This also means it’s easy to drink and it’s ideal for a grown-up root beer float.

Admittedly, I’m not a fan of orange drinks and as a kid if there was orange sherbet or an orangesicle bar or cream soda, I would avoid it. And then I tried the Appalachian Sipping Cream, and wow, what a great surprise. The Orange is wonderfully creamy with notes of orange, nutmeg, citrus zest and so compelling and terribly fun to drink. I’m a huge fan of limoncello crema (where they add cream) and this is exactly like that, smooth and velvety and the orange is light, bright but not heavy or acidic. And if you’re like me, this will be gone quickly. Bottom line? You’ll grow sweet on Sugarlands.