Sunday, January 26, 2014

Wine & Advertising: Turning a Principle on Its Head

I would like to open this article with a disclaimer: My conclusions will not apply to every wine maker in the world. No strategy or concept could apply universally to all companies in a given field. As will be obvious, Lafite Rothschild will have no use for this; and, equally obvious but for different reasons, a brand new winery that can only fulfill orders for a handful of cases per year may also wish to demur. But I am confident that to the vast majority of wine makers, as well as wine importers, distributors, and retailers, the conclusions that I reach are very apt and important to consider.

Riding on the Long Island Railroad last summer, I saw a poster advertisement for Vitiano wine. I soon noticed a few such posters around various stations and train cars. And being both the oenophile and the astute marketing student that I am, I came to thinking: "Why is this the only advertisement for a wine that I have seen in as long as I can remember?"

In many cases the answer borders on the anthropological. The Spanish wine business expert Juan Luis Barrera Portillo was kind enough to grant me an interview a while back. When I asked him why so few Spanish wine labels engage in marketing or advertising, his answer was clear: Spanish wineries are generally hereditary proprietorships owned by major families, which have entire portfolios of business interests of which a winery is but one item, and which tend to assign management positions based on familial, social, or political considerations, resulting in leadership that may not either know much or care much about wine – or about business, for that matter. There are upstart exceptions, but they remain mere exceptions.

No doubt that is the predominant situation in Spain, and probably elsewhere, too. But there must be other reasons. There are too many wine labels, including young ones, in too many locations around the world for that to be the only explanation. Many wine labels are only a few decades old at most, and come from places with major traditions of marketing, such as the western USA. And what about importers, distributors, retail chains, trade associations, and other organizations that one would expect to boost marketing efforts? Some importers are small, local sales- and operations-based outfits, but others, such as Pernod Ricard, Diageo, and Kobrand ought to be churning out more brand images and concurrent communications than students like myself would know what to do with.

Am I being unfair? Am I noticing a lack of TV commercials and train billboards, and blowing it way out of proportion? Let's consider how I may be off base. I believe that wine companies would generally defend themselves with two key points.

Firstly, they would say that they do engage in plenty of promotions, such as point-of-sale material and/or wine store tastings, PR work with relevant magazines and other media, cooperation with restaurants, hosted events at the winery, participation in group tours (and of course availability for individual visits), perhaps some social media, and the occasional brand ambassador. Many wineries regularly feature restaurants at their facilities, or at least a kitchen capable of servicing the needs of concerts, workshops, and other such on-site events. Baiting Hollow vineyard on Long Island even has horse stables.

All of this is great stuff. Wine drinking is, by and large, a personal and intimate experience. Engaging the customers, well, personally and intimately is not only a good idea but an essential one. Reach out to them at the stores by having a real, live person offer a glass and a conversation. Pop up with some news as they browse the latest stories and information in their magazines and Twitter feeds. Meet them at a tavern for a sip with like-minded aficionados. Invite them into your home, show them around, offer them a glass of something that they can watch being made, and show them a good time. It all makes perfect sense.

But that cannot be the end of it. Intimate promotions, social media, and PR are all key tactics, but another layer of marketing and advertising must take place, too. For every person who buys wine because he/she loves knowing everything about it, there is a person is buying wine despite not knowing anything about it. For every person buying wine for him/herself, there is a person buying wine for someone else. And for every wine drinker who is social about wine, there are wine drinkers who do not actually care too much. It is the same as with other products: some people go to car shows, others say they like cars but would never bother; some people read tech reviews for fun, others claim to be interested but do not even know what model computer they have; and so on. Wines, I assert, have to brand themselves and engage in broad advertising if they want to succeed in capturing the attention and patronage of this second half of the market.

And to that assertion, as well as to my earlier ones, I believe wine companies would respond with a second point that is, ironically, a major marketing trend – in fact, marketing principle – championed by industry moguls and industry gurus alike, and which a peon such as myself must surely have some gall to address so directly. Basically the concept is to market not less but less broadly; to find a niche and cater to it in a personal and direct manner. For those familiar with the diffusion of innovation model, the principle points to the innovators at the beginning of the bell curve and identifies them as they key targets of marketing efforts; by capturing them, the brand establishes itself as analogous with the product category, generates the best buzz, and sets itself up for eventual popularity among the majority.

As the famous marketing expert Seth Godin has put it, promoting "average products for average people" is something to avoid. The same old things for the same boring people – the market is saturated with such products, and nobody is inspired by a message that reflects such things. "Be remarkable," Godin sums up.

I do not know if Godin, and the other marketing experts who adhere to this principle, had the wine industry in mind when they came up with it, but it is surely a case study in avoiding average products for average people. In most product categories, at least mature ones, expensive premium brands are a small percentage of production, and most money is made by selling to the majority – not necessarily by selling "average products" with average features or average brand images, mind you, but by acquiring a majority of people to the feasible pool of consumers by rejecting the aura of expense and exclusivity. Wine is a rare category of product (diamonds are another) in which both appearing as expensive and hoity-toity, and backing it up with as premium of a product as possible, is seen as the natural way to sell to most people.

And yet, so many wineries and vineyards continue with so many of the same methods of demonstrating superiority, that an ironic paradox has arisen in which they all blend in with each other again. It is as if there were a crowd of people, and, hoping to escape the crowded conditions, the people decided to move away – but each and every one of them ended up moving to the exact same place. The tactic failed to serve the principle.

Consider just one aspect of an average wine's image: the label, which I bring up advisedly for a reason soon to follow. What can be less remarkable than a wine with a fancy label on the bottle; with a story about some old aristocrat, lucky wayward adventurer, or bored millionaire; with a picture of an estate worth more than my entire ZIP code; with tasting notes that illuminate little in return for reading so dense it feels like homework; and with excess script lettering and a fine line between legitimate information and faux verbiage? Sure, such a bottle looks extraordinary sitting in the average wine drinker's kitchen, but on the shelf at the liquor store it is quite conspicuously unremarkable.

Some wine labels try certain tricks, but seeing modern art on the label, or the words "Fat Bastard" next to a hippopotamus, may make me notice the bottle, but does little to illuminate its contents, and rather misses the point about why wines appear unremarkable. They appear unremarkable because, for the average person, all that there is to know about them short of having drunk them already is to stare at the sea of bottles flooding the aisle in the store. And that is the fault of the wine makers, importers, distributors, and retailers. It is also an opportunity for some to jump ahead of the rest by making the masses think of their wines before even entering the store.

Godin and his intellectual ilk were almost certainly not talking about advertising when they developed their ideas; in fact, Godin explicitly condemns old-fashioned, basic advertising. But if we distill their work into a principle and apply it to wine, then what we have is the need to push remarkable products to average people through mass media. In order for the principle to be served, it needs to be turned onto its head.

Now, a caveat here, to address what I think many readers may be shaking their heads about: For people who are into wine – sommeliers, connoisseurs, aficionados, and adventurers – the label means little, and advertising would not mean much more. They already know what to look for with a wine. If anything, mass advertising would appear crass. It would make the wine seem like it aims for the lowest common denominator, like it were some modern manufactured product instead of an authentic historical tradition. Those predisposed to extreme sentiments may even feel that no self-respecting wine maker would engage in advertising, and no self-respecting wine lover would appreciate it. Forget for a moment that advertising has not detracted from the grandeur of diamonds, whisky, and other fine products. Wine is different, is it not?

To say that advertising would ruin it, of course, would be to diminish the importance of what is ultimately inside the bottle. If the advertising would mean nothing to many people one way or another, that is fine – it is true for most product categories, in fact. I see advertisements for dish detergent all the time, and I do not care because I intend to stick with the brand I already use. That hardly means that dish detergents should not advertise. Similarly, people who are really into wine already know what to expect from different regions and varietals, maybe even from different years. Advertising is not for them. But what about everyone else? Remember, for every wine drinker who already knows what he/she likes, there is someone buying a bottle for a friend, or looking to experiment, or simply not sure what to get.

A wine brand (maker/importer/distributor) should want the customer to walk into the wine store already confident about wanting to buy that brand, about what will be found in the bottle, about what it will mean to him/her when drinking it or what it will say about him/her when gifting it, and about how he/she will feel afterwards. Needless to say, the quality of the wine itself is what is paramount, but aside from that, as with any other product, the brand image already planted in the consumer’s mind has its own huge role to play in the experience. Intimate promotions, PR, and social media all are important. But frankly, the best way for a wine maker to have its brand image and product stand out and be remarkable in a segment nearly devoid of advertising is to engage in advertising.

How would this work? Well, I, no average dope myself, saw that Vitiano poster ad, and… bought some. I probably would not have otherwise, having been at the time in the midst of surveying various French wines. But I saw the ad, and I thought, "A wine I haven’t heard of? It might be nice for a casual evening? Sure, I'm game." It may sound trite to talk about "raising awareness," "educating the consumer," and all that. But when the customer goes into the wine shop and looks for a certain wine already in mind, then it will definitely stand out from the rest just by virtue of that fact. The sale is mostly made.

Alright, you get it. Enough. About the Vitiano, by the way: Both red and white are Umbria IGT, and made by Falesco. The 2010 red was a little disappointing. It shows its youth still, and while the aroma is pleasantly sophisticated and in fact quite promising, the palate comes off a little harsh, abrasive, overly-acidic. Breathing helped, which means that there is potential. But the wine needs another 18 months in bottle to mellow out before it can be given a fair assessment; for now, it is not great.

But the 2012 white – that one I like. The aroma offers a crisp bouquet of florals and fruits. Specific notes include apple, lychee, snapdragon, and an umbrella of citrus under which the other notes frolic. I say frolic, because the personality that comes about is the best feature. It is vivacious, while still balanced, and enticing. It knows what it is doing, it knows what it wants, and it is going to have a good time going to get it. Kind of like a lovely cougar getting up to dance.

The palate is, in a keen twist, much more mellow than the aroma, but still quite delightful. There are notes of honey, apple, and florals, and the wine is a bit buttery. The citrus has all but disappeared, and the lychee remains around the edges. All in all, it is a cornucopia stretching from spring until autumn. The body is even and balanced. The wine is ever so slightly acidic.

Falesco is typical of wineries today: a decent spot of land, fair business, a variety of wines to offer. Many would say that the principle business of such a winery – or any winery, for that matter – is to continue to strive to improve their wines and produce the very best libation possible. That "R&D", let’s call it, and production, are certainly crucial focuses for a winery. But as with any business, it is also important to be proactive in bringing in customers. It is the right thing to do for the employees, for the vendors, for the viticulturists and viniculturists and their work, even for the industry as a whole – for all stakeholders. The work has to mean something, it has to have a chance at success, and it has to be underwritten. Advertising is the best way, in the context of the wine world today, to set a wine apart from the rest and get the customer’s attention. Look again at the poster from the train. There is nothing about it to detract from an image of authentic bucolic tradition; on the contrary, it is a lovely depiction of a pleasantly romantic scene, perfect for wine. Falesco and Winebow, the importer, did well to take the simple step of putting up some nice posters. Other wines should follow suit.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Organic Darjeeling Selimbong 2013 First Flush

Name: Organic Darjeeling Selimbong
Origin: Selimbong Garden, Darjeeling, India
Flush: First Flush
Harvest Year: 2013
Type: Black Tea
Purveyor: McNulty's
Preparation: One teaspoon steeped in about eight ounces of boiling water for 3 minutes, sipped plain

Has this ever happened to you: You learn, you practice, you learn and practice some more, you start to master, you work very hard and devote a ton of energy, maybe you even teach a little (or, perhaps, you really just pontificate to however many of your friends will listen), you build a reputation, you exhaust countless nooks and crannies of whatever the subject is, and then, when you think you are finally approaching the pinnacle, you stumble almost mistakenly into a big pile of knowledge or understanding that you never even thought to consider might be an existent phenomenon. It happened to me recently. Not that I ever thought I knew everything about tea, I promise. But the “insights” into which I tripped and fell head first were so simple that it is absurd I should never have thought to consider them. Some people emerge from the scenario above knowing that they have discovered new, uncharted depths and forever altered their fields of inquiry; in my case, on the other hand, the word “duh” is quite apt.

There were two new items of information revealed as I read up on Darjeeling tea. The first is that Darjeeling tea has a protected designation of origin, or “GI tag” (“geographical indication tag”), as the Tea Board of India calls it. Tea certified to have been legitimately grown in the Darjeeling region and processed properly receives a seal (seen below) from the Board to certify its authenticity, and no other tea may call itself “Darjeeling” or receive the seal. Wine and spirits of course have such things, and I learned last year that coffee does, too. I never even asked if tea might, and shame on me for that.

India has a few GI tags for tea, actually, including Assam and Nilgiri (as well as a handful of tea-growing regions without such commercial protection). But Darjeeling tea was the first to get a GI tag, and for good reason: people who drink tea have long thought it the best. As with most protected designations of origin, Darjeeling tea’s came about because there was a major problem with fraudulent labeling; that is, a significant amount of tea being sold around the world was labeled as Darjeeling but, in fact, contained little to no legitimate Darjeeling-grown tea. Naturally, this was because the “Champagne of teas,” as Darjeeling tea is known, was simply the most preferred among paying customers. Consequently, it became the first ever Indian product of any kind to receive a GI tag. To this day, Darjeeling remains the darling of the Tea Board of India, as any perusal of its website will show, and it is one of the very few single-region teas that mega tea brands (Bigelow, Twinings) market to the masses. Darjeeling tea’s fame and popularity endure, and for good reason.

The world’s producers of tea would do well, I think, to invest more time and energy into getting their products protected designations of origin, much as Darjeeling has. It is expensive and time-consuming, yes. But consumers generally are more informed about their products than they have ever been, and the legions of tea aficionados specifically are growing rapidly. The drink’s importance, once upon a time, used to be the fact that tea – any tea – was in the cup on such social occasions as tea time in Buckingham palace, a knitting club meeting in the American Midwest, or anything in between. The details of the tea were rarely a matter of comment, and if they were, it had to do with outside flavoring, such as with Earl Grey. Such things are still of great import, of course. But they are not the future. In the face of plateaued interest in tea as a centerpiece of formal gathering, tea is experiencing increased technical interest: Where is the tea from? What kind of tea is it? Is it authentic? How was it processed? Is it organic and/or fair trade? How much caffeine is in it? What are its health benefits? What is the history of this variety? What else can I learn about it? These are the questions that people are asking, and a designation of origin, though certainly no simple or direct ticket to fame and fortune, is precisely the kind of thing that gets consumers’ attention and tells them what they want to know. And of course, it protects legitimate tea producers from fraudsters intruding upon their market share. It would only be a boon for consumers, producers, and merchants alike.

The other item I learned – and it really is preposterous that I never even thought of this – is that teas from different years’ harvests taste different. Not radically different by any means, but naturally different, according to the differing weather patterns, soil conditions, etc. that accompany the advance of time. This got me thinking: Why are teas, and coffees for that matter, not labeled with a harvest year?

With wine, it has always been standard procedure to list the year on the bottle, even for blends. But with coffee and tea, that was never really how it worked. There are craft coffee and tea movements aplenty, but consumers and professionals alike are so accustomed to the mass-produced blends, designed to reduce taste variation over time to practically zero, with which we all grew up and which we still encounter with great frequency, that it has not really been demanded of anyone to label coffee or tea as being from a particular year.

To the coffee and tea connoisseur, there is a better explanation for this that will occur immediately and appear quite obvious. Wine, you see, ages. It can be kept on the shelf for a few years, a few years more, decades perhaps, and either drunk, sold, or stored yet longer. Furthermore, wine is not even distributed before it has aged for a long while, usually a year at bare minimum. What with most serious wine consumers, collectors, and merchants having hundreds or thousands of bottles of wine on hand, procured after being stored at the winery for years in the first place, a harvest year on the label is a most convenient datum. Coffee and tea, on the other hand, are not meant for that. Tea may last a while in brick form, or if kept in airtight containers, but it is intended for more or less immediate distribution and foreseeable consumption. Coffee especially has a brief shelf life, being ideally drunk within a couple weeks of being roasted. But let’s be generous and stipulate that the mass-produced coffee that sits in warehouses for up to months on end is somehow legitimate. Still, after a year or two, coffee or tea would almost certainly be no good unless kept in the very best of conditions. Which begs the question: what producer, merchant, or enthusiast would store coffee or tea away for so long in the first place? So why even bother with a year on the label? The coffee or tea is between one week and two years old, and either it tastes properly fresh or it does not. Isn’t that all that counts in this discussion?

My response to that is to return to the consumer profile described above. Casual imbibing of coffee and tea is as popular as it has always been, but not growing very much. It is not where the potential is in the market; it is not the future. Aficionados, on the other hand, are on the rise. More and more consumers are switching from major chains to craft coffee roasters and fine tea purveyors. More than ever before, they notice origins, processing methods, taste profiles, and numerous other data. They read the literature, and look for the new. Key here is that they record experiences more than ever: Is it only the emergence of the Internet that gave rise to Steepster and Coffee Review, or is it also the fact that people are there to take interest and participate in the first place?

By including a harvest year among the data for tea and coffee, merchants would not necessarily distinguish it from other tea and coffee sitting next to it on the shelf like with wine, of course. But, they would:

  • Confirm the freshness of the product.
  • Give consumers a sense of something new, thereby keeping up interest (“Oh, the 2014 Assam is here,” as opposed to, “Oh, Assam is here again.”).
  • Create the likelihood that reviewers will mention harvest years in their reviews. This sudden consciousness of a new variable would make them increasingly interested in continuing to consume from the same region to observe firsthand the differences and similarities among the years, as any good aficionado would be. It would also mean that readers of reviews would be drawn back into that product by becoming conscious of the new variable. (“Oh, is that what there is to taste from the 2014? It’s different than what I tasted that other time,” as opposed to, “Oh, is that what this guy tastes? It’s different than what I tasted that other time.”). Finally, producers and merchants can mine the data for all it is worth.

Maybe it is the old product data manager in me (my old position when I had a day job, before I switched to a full-time school schedule), but I really do think that more attention to authenticating and publicizing the variables of tea and coffee is the best way to draw people in to the product.

Anyhow, on to the good stuff: It is time to explore the tea that finally got me to learn and think. McNulty’s was kind enough to confirm for me that this tea was harvested in 2013. The dry leaves of the Selimbong garden’s first flush are rather pastel hued, dark, all twisted tightly but alternately curled up or straight and long. Packed into the glass jar, the visual texture is akin to that of a Van Gogh painting. In stark contrast to the Darjeeling leaves that I reviewed in 2012, which had an aroma like wine and fruit, these leaves smell like a rainforest. There is some caramel, some tannins, some traditional florals, but mostly the rich maltiness that one might expect from, say, a huge mouthful of the dry leaves.

The brewed Darjeeling tea has a rich, smooth, brown color, like a deep, dark honey. The aroma is of sweet, sweet florals. Specific notes are smooth and include principally honey and flowers, with light hints of toffee and caramel as well. The palate offers a light body, although I was not confident noting that at first because there is such a thoroughly generous symphony of flavors that together with the malt they actually make the body of the tea seem rich! It took a little while before my mouth was able to sort it all out. Truly it is a most impressive, sophisticated, and unique tapestry that is woven, and I was reminded yet again why Darjeeling tea is my favorite black tea. (Well, some would say it is an oolong, but you know…)

Could it be that in my prior Darjeeling tea review, when I thought the tea was rich and thick, I was deluded by a similar phenomenon? I suppose it is quite possible.

The tea is not too acidic, not too tannic, not too malty (although the malt augments some as it cools), and not too brisk: just enough of each. The prior Darjeeling tea had some fruit flavors that are absent from this year’s crop. The 2013 offers good floral notes, though they are not quite as sweet as in the aroma. The flavor notes are of toasted things: toasted toffee, toasted caramel, even toasted marshmallow. Again, the body of the tea is light. It has a light body and constitution, even a light heart and soul – the flavors are bright, sprightly, and numerous. It is really curious how such a light body flatters the swirling bouquet of spirited tasting notes. The palate is balanced and even throughout, but it smooths out as the tea cools. The finish is of caramel and florals, with a drop of honey.

I recommend to all of my kind readers to get some Darjeeling tea – authentic Darjeeling tea, that is – and compare it to teas past and teas future. It will make for an exciting, and delicious, adventure.