HOW the Wine Industry can Recover in 2011: Use Less Oak

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Oak wine barrels at the Robert Mondavi vineyar...
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Positive signs of recovery for the wine industry in 2010.  We can all breathe a sigh of relief that consumers are drinking again.  Well, they never stopped drinking, just now they're drinking the good stuff.  Consumers are now buying $25-$50 bottles of wine whereas last year and the year before they were buying bottles under $15.

I got to thinking about what it costs to produce a bottle of wine.  Things that factor into the price have a lot to do with the work done in the vineyard.  Each time vineyard workers go through the rows and touch the vines, it costs money.  In good vintages, a winery will get good fruit with less touching of vines, hence, less cost basis.  In a bad year, a winery might have to do a significant amount more work just to get fruit to a good place by harvest.  From vintage to vintage, these are unfixed costs that can't be controlled.  If a winery is buying fruit from another vineyards, there might also be a fluctuation of what the fruit costs per ton.  In 2010, many vineyard in Northern California lost 20-30% of their crops because it was a cool summer.  Grapes weren't getting ripe, so vineyard managers cut leaves off the vines that normally act as shade from the sun.  Mother nature, it seems, has a sick sense of humor.  Shortly after leaves were cut off, there was a heat spike over 100 degrees for a few days.  That turned 20-20% of grapes into raisins.  Without the normal leaf shade, the grapes didn't stand a chance.

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One (somewhat) fixed cost in wine is the cost of oak barrels.  A brand-spanking new French oak barrel costs somewhere around $800-1200.  A barrel can be used a few times before it becomes "neutral," or doesn't impart oaky flavor.  American oak is an option, but French oak is the preferred choice.  Wineries order pallets of oak barrels each year.  Do the math with me.  If a winery buys 500 new oak barrels at an average of $1000 per, that's $500,000 in barrels.

Here's where my brilliant idea for financial recovery comes into play:  Use less oak.  Simple, huh?  In 2010 I tasted more overly oaked wines than I cared to.  Why on God's green earth are winemakers oaking the shit out of their wines?  This is a debate that's been around for years, but I'm really baffled.  Cut the amount of oak down 25% on your next barrel order.  Actually make wine that expresses the vineyard and don't cover up flaws with an orgy of French oak.  Not only could wineries save a few hundred grand, but they might actually make a better wine.  Why has nobody done this?

Take for example the 2007 Quilceda Creek Red wine from Washington state.  For years I've been a lover of QC wines, and have ordered from their mailing list.  After drinking (or trying to drink) this wine, I decided to drop off the list.  At 15.2% alcohol, the lower tier QC resembled Vodka and Robitussin rather than a world class wine.  There was so much oak on this wine, my wife and I literally could not finish it.  We ended up making a sauce instead.

In Napa and Sonoma I've experienced something similar.  Dozens of overly oaked wines that really have no reason to be so oaky.  Robert Parker isn't helping any by giving these behemoth's inflated scores, and essentially rewarding them for oak.

So there it is, use less oak.  That reduces the carbon footprint for shipping.  It saves more trees.  Wineries save on costs and wine drinkers get a better wine.  What do you think?

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Santa Claus, Loch Ness Monster and Social Media Experts

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Santa Claus with a little girl
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A few weeks ago I was pitched (again) by a "social media guru" from San Francisco.  After meeting him through a friend of a friend, and about 17 emails I finally gave in and invited him to stop by the winery.  Seems like I'm getting pitched every week by another social media expert who has all the answers to our wine business needs.  I was hoping this guy would have something different to say, or at least I was hoping he would take the time to look at the wine industry for real, and not just the romanticized vision of it.

I see him roll up in his recently buffed pearl white Mercedes SUV and slicked back hair, and I knew right away what this guy was about.  In my mind, he represents what's wrong with the social media landscape right now.  So many businesses are realizing they want to "socialize" themselves, but they don't know how to do it.  Suddenly, out of the woodwork comes armies of "gurus" and "experts" with all the answers.  The wine industry is especially susceptible because wineries aren't especially tech-savvy.  It's easy to be confused by snake oil salesmen promising big numbers.

So I listen to the pitch about all the powerful social media ROI his team can produce, and I wait until the end.  I asked the guy what he knew about our winery.  "Nothing," he replied.  I asked him who he thought were the wineries who were succeeding with social media.  "There's a winery in Illinois called Lynfred Winery, but no one around here," he said.  I thanked him for his time and sent him on his way.  He failed to do any research about me as a potential client, and he failed to look at the wine/social landscape.  I think they call that due diligence.  I had looked into his online efforts before he arrived, and discovered he didn't even have a Twitter handle, nor a Facebook page.  Basically, he and his team go into blog comments on behalf of clients and essentially spam the hell out of wine blogs.

It seems many wineries may have similar experiences, which is probably causing confusion.  In my job as the Director of Social Media for St. Supéry, I live and breathe this stuff every day, and I feel like we're just now starting to understand it.  Through a lot of trial and error we've had some successes and some things that didn't work.  After a year and two months in my role, I am just now starting to feel like I'm getting enough experience to no longer be called a beginner.  Maybe intermediate...maybe. . .

Some people say you have to do something at least 10,000 times before you can be considered an expert in anything.

. . For wineries trying to make sense out of who to trust and who not to, I put together a few tips that should help determine if someone is capable of executing any sort of social media campaign: 1. What is their Klout score? Klout.com is a tool that helps measure influence.  Influence is established by having an idea of what you're doing.  Amazingly, many social media experts have very low Klout scores.  Hmmmm  Bullshit meter is already starting to hum.

2. Do they have a LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and blog presence? Those are kind of the main social sites these days.  If they're going to build your business online, they need to show mastery of those sites.  Understanding how all the social sites fit together is critical because web 2.0 is all about open source, or the ability to share between sites.

3. Are they promising ROI? Hardly anyone has figured out how to manufacture and measure ROI.  Even the Old Spice campaign, which is considered to be one of the best social media efforts in history isn't fully understood yet in terms of ROI.  You can't promise a certain increase in followers, fans or ROI because all those things are out of your control.  Free will can't be manipulated, and that's what social media is.  You can't make someone become a Facebook fan or follow organically.  The only way is through gimmicks like contests or something that bumps numbers up, but doesn't create an authentic connection.

4. What do their online conversations look like? There's a social media "expert" in Northern California who's Twitter stream is only Foursquare checkins.  No actual conversation are taking place.  Having engaging conversations is a pretty important part of the equation.

5. If they can't build their brand online, they can't build yours Sounds obvious, but there's truth to that statement.  Walking the walk and talking the talk is important because it demonstrates how well someone can do what they're saying you should do.

I'm going to make a blanket statement and say anyone who refers to themselves as a Social Media Guru or Expert isn't.  Ironically, this is the easiest way to find the people are aren't.  Like Santa Claus and Nessie of Loch Ness, Social Media Experts don't exist.

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Artesian Sea Salt from Mendocino

I met Captain Bob La Mar at the San Rafael farmer's market.  Bob and his wife, Lora were looking for a way to share their love of the Northern California ocean with others.  Lora created a seasoning to give out as holiday gifts by simmering down the ocean water until it was salt.  The result was a salt with a unique taste and texture.

I'm going to experiment with some of their seasonings, especially the Sea Smoke.  It has a smokey BBQ salt smell that might be perfect for seasoning ribs.  Another possible use that might be fun is on popcorn.  I told Captain Bob there was a Pinot Noir producer called Sea Smoke in California.  Might be fun to do a Sea Smoke wine+food pairing one night.

Check out Mendocino Sea Salt on Foodzie

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