My two cents on wine scores, Millennials and the like

The twitter-verse the past few weeks has been all, well, a-twitter with dozens of posts from wine writers spewing forth (and I use the term “spewing” intentionally) their opinions about the future of wine scores and just how, exactly, Millennials make buying decisions about wine. Given that I am now a wine writer I have decided that I have every right to chime in on the subject.

The issues of wine scores and marketing to Millennials are really separate subjects, but they do overlap (“Do Millennials give a rat’s ass about wine scores?”) I will give my opinion on the two subjects separately.

As for the wine scoring system, it is my opinion (and I have never been wrong when it comes to my opinion) that scores will continue to be given by many critics, but not all. It’s a way of comparing one wine to another…and it’s not. I despise wine scores, personally, for reasons I will list in a moment. But will scoring continue? Of course it will. It’s established, it’s easy, and Robert Parker is coming back to rate Northern California wines, which means we are doomed.

Why do I detest wine scores? For one thing, many of us “common-folk” (people who aren’t wine bluebloods) don’t trust the scores in the first place. People have always speculated that reviewers could be bought off, either directly (cash) or indirectly (“Please accept my year-long advertising campaign in your magazine.”) To be clear, I am not saying that any of this actually happens. But plenty of people think it does, enough to make many buyers skeptical about wine scores overall.

Second, many times high wine scores result in the prices of those wines increasing to ridiculous amounts. Obviously this is opportunism (read “greed”) on the part of the vintner. I used to occasionally buy a few bottles of Vérité wines from over in Windsor, even at $225 a bottle. Then Parker gave all three of their wines (Le Désir, La Joie and La Muse) 100 points in 2007 and all of a sudden the price soared to $450 a bottle. Thanks, but I won’t be buying any more at that price.

Finally, who is to say that some person I don’t know (any reviewer) would evaluate a wine the way I would? I recently tasted at Cardinale winery in Oakville, and was allowed to sample the 2006, 2007 and 2008 releases. They were priced at $250-300 a bottle, and had scores in the low- to mid-90s from well-known reviewers. I didn’t like any of them. Then they served me their sister wine, Lokoya, and I sampled the three same vintages, which also had lofty scores and were priced even higher at $350-400 a bottle. I disliked them, as well. Even if they were $100 a bottle I would not have bought them. And therein lies the problem with scores for me.

So if scores are questionable, result in higher-priced wines, and are subjective, what do I suggest instead? At the recent Wine Writers Symposium at the Meadowood in Napa Valley, we discussed this topic at length. Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle and Susan Kostrzewa of the Wine Enthusiast chaired a discussion on how to write better wine reviews that would allow people to understand what a wine may actually taste like using terms people could relate to. In this discussion, scores were either relegated to lesser importance, or eliminated altogether. I happen to be one who agrees with this approach. A well-written review using a limited list of common terms and descriptors, which also suggests appropriate food pairings, would help me decide if a wine fit my personal preferences.

Now with all of the above considerations, let’s briefly address the Millennials. (For those who are not certain, Millennials are also known as “Generation Y,” and were born between 1980 and 2000.) These younger buyers, in their 20’s and early 30’s, are a huge segment of the buying public and are now shifting from beer and cocktails to wines. They are the future of the wine market. (I should point out that they are not moving away from beer and spirits, but are adding wine to the mix.) As their earning power grows, so does their interest in and budget for better wines. The big question is how to reach these buyers, because they are children of the digital age and do not read Wine Spectator like their fathers do/did.

Many “experts” (tongue planted firmly in cheek) insist that Millennials only communicate via smartphones over social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever else is hot at the moment) so therefore scores and wine magazines are irrelevant. Others insist that “wine-ignorant friends who post online” and other unknown amateur wine analysts on Cellartracker will never replace the wisened old wine reviewers who are in print and online.

My daughter, about to turn 27, is a Millennial, and perfectly fits the group being talked about. She lives in an over-priced apartment in San Francisco, makes a very good 5-figure salary, doesn’t own a car, and works in a hip young ad agency downtown with an in-office bar on the top floor. Wine is consumed regularly after work with colleagues, and trust me when I tell you they aren’t drinking Haut-Brion. Every week they try new, inexpensive but drinkable wines that they can afford. They share their findings and opinions with one another. And yes, they post on all those social media sites and share with ever greater circles of friends. While they may occasionally spend $200 on wine, it’s for a CASE, not a bottle. Many join wine clubs…. like Ram’s Gate, or Jacuzzi, which appeal to Millennials and have approachable price points. They aren’t joining the Bordeaux-of-the-month club. According to my daughter, she does pay attention to scores, but only while at places like BevMo when choosing among several cheap wines. She says “it helps to see that some reviewer gave the wine a good score,” but admits that the descriptive text is more important to her than the scores.

Many wine sellers have caught on to these younger drinkers and are attempting to earn their business. A fascinating business in San Francisco called “Rewinery.com” offers up daily specials via email to subscribers who work in the city. The email may go out at 1pm and offer the first 30 or 50 respondents the opportunity to purchase (for example) a bottle of spaghetti-worthy red wine along with a bag of pasta and a jar of pasta sauce, for $30, delivered to your office before 5pm. Okay, that’s different… and it works. The pairings change all the time, and include late-night deliveries in the city on some nights to your home “in case you have run out of wine.” Wineries sign up with the company to participate in these packages, and provide wines at a discount, but at least the numbers are finite. Customers can buy more bottles if they liked it, at higher prices, but you also know they will be sharing the experience with their friends online. This is a great way for a winery to take a lower-priced SKU and offer it to these new buyers in hopes of building some brand loyalty. It’s definitely worth looking into.

The way I see it, the wine market will always be fractured in different segments, and those segments will utilize different forms of information gathering. Today’s Millennials will become tomorrow’s mainstream market, and another generation will slide into their spot at the bottom of the market totem pole. There will always be different forms of marketing used to reach the defined segments. In other words, anyone who says “scores are dead” or makes any other such de facto statements is wrong. Savvy vintners will employ multiple strategies and tactics to reach their audiences, or they will watch other folks pass them by.

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My award-winning limerick from Wine Writers Symposium

During the Professional Wine Writers Symposium this week, we were challenged to write a poem about Tuesday night’s after-party, featuring some noted 2002 Napa Cabernets. The following limerick, written in about five minutes just prior to the deadline, was awarded second prize at the gala dinner last night. Since I was asked to produce a copy of it, I am attaching it here:

A wine writer, knowing my sentiment                                                                                        offered a decade-old Cab, quite pre-eminent.                                                                          “Pour me a glass, my friend!                                                                                                  And we’ll drink to the end                                                                                                          of the bottle, or ’til we hit sediment.”

Thank you, thankyouverymuch.

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The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

symposiumIt seems somewhat ironic that, while I am retired, this could turn out to be the most significant week of my entire career.

I have the good fortune this week to be attending the ninth annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at the Meadowood Resort in St. Helena. With a grand total of three published news stories (all in January, but several queued up for the coming weeks) behind me, I am thrilled to be able to participate in this exclusive gathering of writers and “faculty.” The funny thing is, when I applied to the Symposium last November I was declined, because while my blog was considered good, I had not been published in mainstream media. I was politely encouraged to spend the next year getting 3-4 pieces published and then I could register in 2014.

Well, that was just not acceptable to me!

So I immediately reached out to the Napa Valley Register and asked if they needed someone to write wine feature stories, and the editor replied with a resounding yes. My writing commenced in December, with my first story appearing January 4th. But even before that first story appeared, I re-applied to the Symposium in December and explained my course of action. The Director called the newspaper to verify my claim, and replied back to me congratulating me on my tenacity, and approving my attendance.

And now the week is here. The Symposium runs from Tuesday through Friday. I am equally excited and intimidated.

Only 50 writers may attend, and the agenda is packed. Some sessions are in listen-only mode, some involve wine tasting (one of my specialties), but most of the sessions are hands-on (meaning we will be interviewing, writing, and/or critiqued) or individually focused. For example, I get to have two 1:1 sessions with faculty members that I pre-selected. One will be with Gary Walther, a regular luxury lifestyle columnist for Forbes.com and contributing editor at ForbesLife magazine. He has a big hotel/travel writing background. My second 1:1 is with James Conaway, author of the two “bibles” of Napa history: “Napa: The Story of an American Eden,” and its sequel “The Far Side of Eden.” He is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.

Other faculty members include a number of other decorated editors and authors, including Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle food and wine section.

Wine writers do not earn much money for their work. Very little, in fact. But vintners rely on the writers to provide coverage of their wines and wineries. So, the Symposium is subsidized by a number of vintners, who provide scholarships for writers who need them, as well as amazing wines for us to taste and learn about. I did not ask for a scholarship. Still, I know the vintners are helping to keep the costs amazingly low for a program of this caliber.

An added bonus (and one that makes the week completely ridiculous for those of us in attendance) is that the big Premiere Napa Valley wine auction takes place this week, and we, as members of the media, get to cover it. Hundreds (if not thousands) of people in the wine trade (resellers, not consumers) are in Napa this week to participate in the auction, which takes place Saturday. At this auction, 200 vintners auction offer 5-, 10- or 20-case lots of specially blended wine, with all the proceeds going to the Napa Valley Vintners. The NVV is the organization that promotes Napa Valley wine around the world and supports all its vintner members. This auction provides most of NVV’s annual operating budget.

(The better-known Napa Valley Wine Auction takes place in June, is open to consumers ((if you can afford the $2500 ticket)), and benefits numerous local charities.)

Prior to Saturday’s grand barrel tasting and auction, there will be countless meetings, luncheons, private tastings and gala parties during the week for the buyers who are in town. As members of the press, we get to attend a lot of them–to the best of our ability, given our Symposium commitments.

My goals for the week are to learn as much as I can, make as many connections as I can to people who can help me further this writing career, and stay as sober as possible.

At some point I will summarize the experience here, but it may take a while to decompress first. Stay tuned for more info. Meanwhile, I may be in over my head, but it sure as hell will be an interesting week!

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Third story in four weeks. Does this make me a veteran?

photo[1]I was very happy to find out yesterday afternoon that my latest story would be running in today’s Napa Valley Register. When I write my own stories, the editor just holds them until a week when the Friday wine section has room, or the story becomes timely, or someone else fails to come through with a story. So, I never know exactly when they will run until they do.

I must say, though, it’s a small thrill when it does go online on Thursday night, and a bigger one when I see the actual ink on paper Friday morning.

Yes, ink on paper. A revolutionary concept.

Please take a look at my latest story (you can see the entire piece and the photo, which I also took) here, and let me know what you think. I have three more interesting pieces in the works! Thanks for all your words of encouragement and support; they more than make up for the meager paycheck!

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New Year, New Job: Reporting for the Napa Valley Register!

Register story 1One of the great things about life is never knowing what’s going to happen next. Take my new job, for instance.

As I spent more and more time becoming immersed in the Napa Valley, I kept meeting people and learning great stories–about the land, the history, the wines, and the people themselves. This blog allowed me to tell some of those stories. As my readership grew, my friends encouraged me to write articles for mainstream publications, like travel magazines, wine publications, or other high-end lifestyle media. While that is certainly a goal, I realized it is important to get published first, so I reached out to the Napa Valley Register, my local newspaper, which is the only newspaper in the country with a weekly wine section. (Others have food and wine sections, certainly, but not one solely focused on wine.) The editor of the wine section was thrilled  (thrilled, I say!) to meet me, and very open to my initial list of story ideas. So I set about working on my ideas, and she soon started to send me stories to work on.

Long story short, my first feature story ran in today’s Register, and you can view it here. More stories are forthcoming, although I have no control of how often they may appear. The good news is that there are plenty of stories to be told, as there is no shortage of material. I hope this will be a springboard to bigger and more profitable assignments. (And in fact, I am already being invited to attend events as a member of the media, so keep your eyes peeled for my byline!)

Thanks to all of you for your encouragement and support, which pushed me to take this new and exciting step. Cheers!

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