July 4, 2012 | REX HILL

This American Grape: Who should wear the sash and hold the sceptre on our shores?

He Said...
- Mike Willison

As the fireworks rage and the barbeques smoke and bellow this July 4th, the cans of High Life crushed on dimpled foreheads and Mike's Hard Lemonades sloshed back in mighty, diabetic gulps, one is left to wonder why there isn't a wine that symbolizes the American spirit similarly. On New Year's Eve we toast with Champagne or sparkling wine as if the French invented the holiday and sing "Auld Lang Syne" as if Robert Burns was Baby New Year himself. Our celebration of our Independence resembles more a rag tag Hillbilly Fallujah than a marked and poignant remembrance of our Nation's emergence. I'd love to see our wine industry take a stab at marketing the 4th as a wine-centric event like NYE. Maybe if only long enough to raise one glass and shout a mighty "Huzzah!," but to do so anyway, convincingly, and with a unified spirit of purpose.

But what to fill one's cup with? Zinfandel? Petite Sirah? Chardonel? Jo Diaz makes a convincing argument for the dark and brooding Petite Sirah here, and I'd buy it, too, if I thought you could actually drink Petite Sirah with anything other than a giant steak, a lamb, or an elk. Zinfandel is too Croatian and Chardonel is disqualified for being a hybrid (I really only brought it up because I had one once and it was decidedly un-terrific). This leaves us with only one clear choice: Norton. Norton is an indigenous variety of the Vitis Aestivalis species, and is grown only in North America, but most famously in Missouri. The best way to describe wine made from Norton is "purple-y", in my experience. Haven't heard of it? That’s because it actually doesn't do very well in California, that place of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, all Frenchified and stuff. So what if we all rallied around a Norton producer from Missouri or Georgia and bought a bottle every year for the 4th? What if we cultivated a relationship with wineries in Virginia that are embracing this American classic (it is said that US Grant stocked his presidential cellars with the stuff)? What if, what if, what if?


She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

As a gal who came to Oregon via Missouri, I tip my hat to your Norton theory. However, Independence Day is all about barbeque and fireworks, hot weather and flip-flops. Only in Oregon are we still enjoying red wine during the day, as summer has yet to actually begin here. Elsewhere in our great nation, and this past year especially, summer has been going on for months - long before its actual calendric date would indicate. In places like Norton's preferred growing region, summer has already reached a scorching crescendo. As I write this, it is a balmy 93 degrees Fahrenheit at 11:30pm in Missouri. I say America needs whites – crisp, refreshing, chilly whites – to go with our potato salad, grilled chicken and blistering heat. We're all about the blending of cultures in our country, so why not allow for the adoption of something with its roots on another continent? After all, that’s who we are as a nation, isn't it- a melting pot of different cultures that fought to gain independence from their oppressive former nations? With that in mind, I vote that we make something like Sauvignon Blanc our 4th of July wine. While it might have its roots in Bordeaux, there the grape’s name is hidden behind the region or village name – oppressed, you might say. In America, it has found its freedom. So let's toast a chilled glass of crisp, clean, fruity, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc at our hot summer 4th of July picnics this year. And, hey, why the heck not… Huzzah!!

Time Posted: Jul 4, 2012 at 9:54 AM
June 27, 2012 | REX HILL

Wine Marketing to Millennials: Who gives a f*$%?

He Said...
- Mike Willison

There's been a maelstrom of articles, blogs, and random blatherings bandied about lately regarding how, exactly, to market wines to Millennials. Apparently, this group of people represents the Most Important Demographic Ever, especially if you ask them, and we all need to unlock their mysteries before it's too late. The general consensus is that young wine drinkers aren't going to react to the same old, stodgy, buttoned up images of wine drinkers in country clubs sipping away at Montrachet after a ripping good game of squash with the same enthusiasm as generations that preceded them, so we should figure out how to be hep cats and get down with their lingo and colloquialisms. As such, we will all begin making wine with labels like this, or this and be wildly successful. Sadly, I believe that we are all missing the point.

Consumers make connections to brands, styles and varieties of wine based on any number of diverse criteria, and not all Millennials, Gen X-ers, or Baby Boomers adhere to any cohesive set of strictures except one: authenticity of experience. Sure, any one person from any generation may like shiny things that cost a lot, or weird stuff that they pioneered and are now jaded over because Brand X sold out to The Man, or read about Brand X in the Major Wine Publication Magazine, but you cannot beat the Real McCoy. Seeing a picture of the Grand Canyon isn't the same as flying over, or walking on the edge of the Grand Canyon. So, make good wine, get it in people’s glasses by pounding the pavement, and have a good story about where it came from, the people who made it, or the magical company culture. Make the experience the thing, and make it an authentic extension of the winery as a whole, and people will respond. Otherwise, your target market will eventually outgrow your pinpoint marketing strategy like you outgrew your shoulder-padded oversized blazer and love for NKOTB.


She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

Who outgrew NKOTB? In all seriousness, you absolutely have a point. I think, however, that what these articles are trying to get at (although possibly missing the "how to get there") is that we have a slew of newcomers to the sport of wine drinking each year, and that if we position ourselves as an out of their reach, too-cool-for-school industry, we will eventually become extinct. Now, we know that isn't true, because these kids will eventually grow up, mature, evolve – just like you say. They'll learn how to drink black coffee without making a face, will develop a taste for things like sweetbreads, and will hopefully learn the difference between a Cabernet and a Pinot Noir. But simply saying, "we’ll get 'em someday" isn’t going to increase business during a depressed market.

Authenticity is always the best approach to anything, sure. But we’re still missing that link – that thing that makes our industry approachable to young potential wine drinkers while maintaining its integrity. And it can't be about just making your wine approachable, but further, it's getting them to want to approach your wine. That ingress is crucial when you're attempting to deliver the 'story' of your wine and winery. Without an IN, we're twiddling our thumbs and waiting for them to outgrow this generation's version of shoulder pads and NKOTB.

Time Posted: Jun 27, 2012 at 9:57 AM
June 22, 2012 | REX HILL

Yeah! More posts about the Natural Wine Movement

He Said...
- Mike Willison

"He does it with a better grace, but I do it more natural"

Proponents of the so-called Natural Wine Movement might object to the sentiment that Shakespeare tossed around, taking umbrage with the words, "better", "grace" and, likely, "he." Natural wine supporters argue that there is basically a right and a wrong way to make wine, although the line that separates the two is often as gray and akimbo as the Maginot. The general gist is to limit human and chemical intervention during the winemaking process to almost nothing in an effort to produce wines that showcase not only true varietal character, but also allow the expression of the vineyard site to be exposed. The principle issues are usually about allowing native yeast fermentation rather than inoculating with cultivated yeast strains and using no added sulfites to artificially preserve the wine and prevent microbiological beasties from causing the stuff to get real weird, real fast. There are, of course, other factors: using pigeage (your feet and legs, etc.) to punch down ferments rather more modern methods, small fermentation vats and aging vessels, organic, biodynamic or "do-nothing" farming as advocated by the late Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer-philosopher, and, maybe most importantly, not really doing it for the money.

It should be said, of course, that none of this is really written down, specifically agreed to, or even 100% adhered to by a collective or any governing body. So there are fudge-able allowances for a vintage that needs a pinch of sulfur here or a splash of something-something there. I should also say that I, by and large, agree with this ideal. I love the idea of hands-off winemaking and less crud being put in my body because a winemaker had to sit around all year waiting for harvest so that she could fiddle with everything for the sake of fiddling when harvest comes around. I mean, that’s what all of this stuff in this winery is for, right? Where I have problems is with the attitude of most of the people yelling the loudest, drawing needless lines in the sand, and ascribing demi-god like status to but a lone few untouchable icons of the epoch. The most seriously ridiculous implication of the natural wine movement is that it cannot, or should not be, done by medium or large wineries (Sinskey gets chastised for even trying). What better way to have the natural wine movement actually make a difference (to the land, to the people, to the industry) than for it to be introduced to a wider audience?

Making wine can be done better, and more gracefully than many of the giant, mega-wineries currently do. I long for the day when "organic" isn't a buzz word, but is rather the standard for all industry. For some, it's a matter of old habits dying hard; there are just too many people doing what they’ve done for years that aren't about to change in positions of power and influence. I dare Bronco to go natural, organic, or even some kind of sustainable. At least they aren't dogmatic and precious about it, though. Sheesh.


She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

I, too, have been reading about all of these tiny, French producers who have been telling everyone who will listen that they make better wine because they do it 'naturally.' But as you point out, what does naturally mean?? Without any parameters, it seems like yet another marketing ploy. For example, native yeast strains are used quite often, yet how native are they really when we propagate that same species by plowing pomace back into our fields? Is that considered toying with nature?

Can wineries afford to thumb their noses at modern technology and actually make wine from just the set of circumstances that nature gives them in any particular year? I say no way. The American wine drinker demands clean, fruity, (and sadly in many cases sugar-y) wines. French wines are misunderstood by many palates, and in fact elicited an emphatic, "EW," from a winemaker friend just last week. I think you nailed it with your comment, "…not really in it for the money." Sure, it sounds romantic and could work in France, but that poop isn’t going to fly here.

Hey, I'm all for making wine in the most natural way possible – after all, this is a food product we are talking about. But it should just be DONE, not preached.

Time Posted: Jun 22, 2012 at 10:01 AM
May 3, 2012 | REX HILL

Dear Marketing Department: It's Willamette, Dammit!

He Said...
- Mike Willison

The US has gone Sub-AVA crazy. We have long believed in the "specialness" of everything that we do (now more than ever), possibly motivated by over-protective parents trying to convince themselves that their progeny isn't a dud. We then believe that we are amazing and that-- despite the fact that we haven't learned to tie our own shoes by 10 years-old—we can do no wrong no matter what you say. If you don’t believe me, just ask Kanye West, he'll set you straight, because everything he does is the best, too. Shirley Bassey also sang, "Nobody Does it Like Me", but then a whole bunch of other people did it exactly like her including Valerie Harper on the Muppets. I actually like that version better. To be sure, nobody did it exactly like her, but c'mon. These days it’s pretty easy to put together a rag-tag bunch of homeless-looking bon vivants and assemble a pretty fair approximation of the Kings of Leon using ProTools, Antares Auto Tune, a Line-6 amp modeler, some clever airbrushing and 19th century beard management theories. A high school kid with a laptop can do this in a matter of minutes.

In the wine world, AVA identity and terroir have been largely eliminated by hoodwinkery, fancy machines, and winemaking auto-tune all at the hands of some high schooler with a laptop calling the shots from a Mallorcan beach whilst launching an IPO. Who cares if your wine comes from the tiniest corner of an AVA that no one has ever heard of when you use the exact same centrifuge and spinning cones on your wines as the guy making the wine with the dancing kookaburra on the label? Meaningful wines come from meaningful places and are made to respect that. In that sense, the place should eventually carry some cache and become, potentially, marketable if that is the desire.

Oregon is finding its way. We have a very small piece of the US wine market share at a thimbleful (less than 1%), although all indicators show growth. Pinot Noir is, no doubt, what is leading the charge here, although there are places in Oregon that can grow grapes with higher yields and fewer stress-related trips to their therapists at a much lower cost; and they do. Albariño, Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto, Baco Noir, Gruner Veltliner and more are all being produced in Oregon, and these are varietals that are still struggling to gain a foothold here when autochthonously produced. Good luck getting everyone on board! In this vein, perhaps the best marketing strategy would be to consider Oregon the winemaking home of a "Pioneering Spirit". This is in line with the general M.O. of most Oregonians anyway (or transplants) and also includes the maverick nature of those rugged few that first planted Pinot here, against everyone's better judgment. Take that and run, marketers. You may have it.

Otherwise, we should just concentrate on making great Pinot Noir here in the Willamette Valley, reflective of place, and support our brothers and sisters in arms as best as we can, regardless of the foolish decisions they make, and hold hands with the ones that see the fight like we do.


She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

Marketing a wine region is tough business. There's all manner of back and forth regarding how to best go about this. For some, the best route seems to be yelling OREGON PINOT NOIR at whoever will listen. For others, the chosen route is to jump wildly ahead of the middle ground and onto the sub-AVA marketing train. Neither of these will market a successful wine region. Here's why:

"Oregon Pinot Noir" is vague. Although Pinot Noir is certainly grown in other places around Oregon, these other regions aren’t known for their Pinot Noir. Further, we’re doing them no favors by pigeonholing them into ONLY Pinot Noir, when they grow over 40 different varieties in Southern Oregon alone - Pinot Noir not even being the most notable. I've heard it argued that we're doing some sort of service to ALL the Oregon wine regions by marketing this way. (How magnanimous.) Let’s call a spade a spade: Oregon Pinot Noir means Willamette Valley Pinot Noir – at least for the time being. Let's leave it at that and let the rest of the state figure it out for themselves.

The opposite end of the spectrum, jumping right into sub-region marketing, is simply too much, too soon. If we’re struggling to make it known that we grow grapes in Oregon - to the extent that many still feel the need to lump the whole state together just to get the word out - then attempting to market "Eola-Amity Hills" is, at least at this point, just silly. Not only does it confuse people who don't live or work in the Willamette Valley, the idea that this mini-marketing will impact sales or visitors nationally is way ahead of its time.

Take California. (Yes, comparisons to California are growing tired, but there's a reason we make them, so bear with me.) California's major regions are well-established, at least as far as American wine regions are concerned. Whatever your personal opinions are of these regions, they're doing something right, and it would be worth our time to pay attention. For example, the Napa Valley is arguably the most famous American wine region, pulling the most visitors and commanding the highest prices on a relatively easy to grow grape. People visit ‘Napa’, not ‘Calistoga’ (a sub-region of the Napa Valley), and they know which airport to fly into and which direction to head for all of that famous Cabernet.

Marketing the Willamette Valley specifically as the home of award-winning Pinot Noir would give visitors a destination. It would make Willamette Valley-designated Pinot Noir worth more, the way that Cabernet grown within the confines of the Napa Valley can command ridiculously high prices just based upon geographical designation. This type of marketing creates familiarity. And familiarity sells wine.

Time Posted: May 3, 2012 at 10:03 AM
Bill Hatcher
April 11, 2012 | Bill Hatcher

Adaptable Strategy

Strategic plans probably fail more often than they succeed.  Perhaps the most prevalent reason is the practice of starting from the numbers and working backward toward strategy, a tendency common to financially driven companies that set their goals for revenue and earnings growth then cast about for a strategy to underwrite those goals.

This approach fairly abrogates the integrity of strategic planning.  It is tantamount to a military general saying to commandants, “We can afford to lose 15% of our troops; what kind of battle strategy will that buy?”  In that context, the proposition seems absurd but in corporate practice it is common.  “What strategy will achieve an 8% growth in earnings next year?”  But, in so doing, was a strategy discarded that would produce little increase in earnings for two years but 15% for the five following?

David Collis, who was cited in an earlier blog post for his seminal Harvard Business Review article, Can You Say What Your Strategy Is? (April 2008), cites three dimensions to a successful strategy.  The first is objective.  As Professor Collis puts it, what end is the strategy designed to achieve?  In the case of A to Z, it was to become Oregon’s leading high quality value wine brand.  Seems simple enough.  However, that could mean a number of things.  In what categories would we compete?  From what regions?  Where would we sell?  Into what channels?

While at the time, the objective was a largely untapped opportunity, how we defined the scope of how we would compete (Collis’ second dimension) was critical to the success or failure of the objective.  The categories of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris were fairly defined for us as the state’s flagship varietals.  However, when we tried to extend the scope of the brand to produce big reds from Southern Oregon, we met considerable resistance.  Our brand was not sufficient to leverage even excellent wine from a relatively obscure region into a highly competitive global segment.

Similarly, we faced a scope decision of where and how we would sell.  Seeing that over 40% of wine produced in Oregon was sold in Oregon and that relentless distributor consolidation would only circumscribe national opportunities further, we opted for something of an inverted market strategy where we worked from the outside in, developing national markets before the home market.  By broadening channel scope from the outset, we hoped to stay ahead of the curve of consolidation.  Conversely, with respect to international sales, we only enter markets that are “transparent”, i.e. where we can compete without a direct and costly presence.  Thus, looked at concentrically, we defined the optimal channel scope for our resources to lie in the middle rings so to speak.

Resources is the keyword and third dimension of Collis’ structure.  The most unique objective and focused scope are academic if the company lacks the necessary resources or competitive advantage to achieve them.  This is the second common failure of strategic planning—the most creative strategy will inevitably fail if its execution is impracticable.  While maintaining a limited market presence, home grocery delivery with the associated objective and scope of time-saving for over-extended individuals and families seems at first glance an extension of other home delivery services past and present such as milk delivery and dry cleaning.  However, there was no competitive advantage as what was overlooked is that milk delivery and dry cleaning services are largely undifferentiated while a large share of grocery purchases and meal planning is done in the store.  Few grocery lists account for all that is purchased.  Moreover, the paper-thin margins of grocery could not support the weight of delivery service.

Disney wrongly assumed that the American love of Disneyland was ubiquitous and would be embraced in France with the same cultural curiosity as Levis and McDonald’s.  What was overlooked is that Levis and McDonald’s were whimsical tastes of American culture (with McDonald’s going so far as to architecturally integrate its stores into surrounding cityscape) whereas Euro Disney was a sprawling American occupying force overrunning and profaning French culture and sensibility.

Frequently, strategic failure is simply a combination of errant scope and the loss of competitive advantage.  One of the most glaring failures was the introduction of New Coke in the early 80’s when Pepsi claimed that younger drinkers preferred Pepsi’s sweeter taste.  Wanting to broaden its appeal to a younger demographic (scope), Coke bit, and was bitten.  The traditional Coke taste was its most important asset and without it, New Coke was just another new product introduction.

In 1989, Ford bought Jaguar, thinking that it would extend its product line into ultra-luxury automobiles.  The strategy never succeeded for two related reasons.  One was that in the U.S., Ford was indelibly identified as a producer of American cars; you were a Ford man, A GM man or a Chrysler man.  The second was that despite the limited market for Lincoln, Jaguar was a great leap beyond.  People weren’t interested in buying a $75K Ford.  In other words, Ford did not have the marketing resources to compete in the ultra-luxury segment.  Since selling Jaguar in 2007, Ford has masterfully returned to its American roots, selling durability and reliability, traits that had comprised its competitive advantage.  The company has been so successful in building on this advantage that, ironically, it is now selling $75K pickup trucks.

Occasionally, there are marketing coups where in giving up one segment, a company attracts an even larger one.  Pabst Blue Ribbon had been known for decades as a workingman’s beer since its founding in the 19th century.  Its sales peaked in 1977 and then began a long decline.  When the efforts to regain its consumer base failed, Pabst rebranded itself as PBR and marketed blue collar “authenticity” to the hipster crowd with fair success.

Nevertheless, it is a risky strategy and is best undertaken as a last resort.  Virtually no company is big enough to strategically control industries or to redirect markets.  Google is a rare exception.  Ford, IBM, Sony, Microsoft, Apple and many others have all failed in their times.  Fundamental to successful strategy is the ability to adapt to evolving technology, competitive changes, alterations in consumer desires or behavior, channel shifts, supply reconfigurations or regulatory conditions.  This may mean compromising opportunities to avoid an unmanageable risk of unexpected outcomes.

Many years ago, a man I knew was talking about why he didn’t expand his stock brokerage business into other products such as bonds or into other markets.  He replied that while he believed that he knew as much about stocks as anyone, he knew little about bonds.  As to markets, he further knew that people chose a small brokerage for the personal relationship and that to expand to distant markets would obviate that resource.  Summing up his experience, he said, “I used to think that successful people and companies were about big ideas; I’ve learned that instead it is about figuring out what you do better than anyone else, then getting up each morning and putting one foot in front of the other do it.  It’s when you get bored that you get into trouble.”

Time Posted: Apr 11, 2012 at 2:11 PM
Ryan Collins
April 11, 2012 | Ryan Collins

Bee’s Paradise

We celebrated Equinox in the vineyards 21 days ago and it is starting to look and feel like Spring.  Equinox is the day when the hours of daylight equal the hours of darkness.  Because the Earth tilts, the days grow longer after Winter Solstice but the quickening change and the longer days become undeniable and exciting after Equinox.  The cherries have been blooming for a week now and the daffodils, too.  The old-timers used to gauge the blossoming of the vines by the cherry blossom.  We’ll see.  Tulips are starting to show their vibrant colors and there is a buzz of activity when the sun comes out.  Deciduous trees are starting to take the edge off of what has been a long grey winter with all their fresh green shoots.

Yesterday the sun came out and so I turned off my computer and went for a walk around our REX HILL vineyard.  The vineyard was just radiating life and color.  Not more than a week ago, the vineyard looked like the picture on the left.  Today it looked like the picture on the right!

It is a bee’s paradise  in our Biodynamically farmed estate vineyard. Just in this photo there are five plant species flowering, all providing them with nectar and pollen. The white flowers are English daisies (Bellis perennis,) the purple flower in the left hand corner is Red Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum)and just beyond the English daisies are Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), Cat’s-ear (Hypochaeris radicata) and Field Mustard (Brassica campestris). When I walked up to the first stand of Field Mustard, I noticed there was a bumble bee, a honey bee and a mason bee all within a yard of each other. That’s cool!
All of these plant species I identified using the book Northwest Weeds: the Ugly and Beautiful Villains of Fields, Gardens and Roadsides by Ronald J. Taylor. It’s a nice simple book that catalogs most of the common weeds in the Pacific Northwest. These plants are found in a book about weeds  but to me they aren’t weeds. To me, these plants play an important role in the farm’s ecosystem.  They add biodiversity, provide habitat and a food source for a wide range of organisms. They also help reduce compaction from machinery,  prevent erosion and help keep the soil healthy. In summary, it’s good to remember how important plants are to us and what they do for the environment. Next time you get out your hoe or your herbicide have another think about why you’re trying to kill that plant. It could be doing you a favor but you’ve just never realized it.

Time Posted: Apr 11, 2012 at 10:36 AM
Bill Hatcher
March 20, 2012 | Bill Hatcher

The Silicon Valley Bank State of the Industry Survey: How Reliable are its Responses?

Too often, desired conclusions skew analysis to produce self-fulfilling results.  While keeping faulty data from contributing to sampling error is simply a matter of objectivity and basic arithmetic, more subtle are the subjective factors that yield non-random samples.  In the case of the Silicon Valley survey, the psychological disposition of the respondents is a significant distorting factor.

At the February Oregon Wine Symposium in Portland, Silicon Valley Bank principal, Rob McMillan, gave a preview of the bank’s 2012 State of the Industry Report, projecting Oregon industry growth of between 7% and 11%.

In presenting his data, Rob noted that 80 of some 400 Oregon wineries had responded.  This corresponds to a confidence level of 95% (a generally standard target for researchers) with a confidence interval of plus or minus 10%.  Thus, with 80 of 400 wineries reporting, if the sample were random, there is a 95% certainty that the range of growth will be between -1% and 19% (plus or minus 10% against the reported average of 9%.  This describes industry conditions ranging from stagnation to boomy growth, random indeed.

Adding to the uncertainty is the definition of sales growth.  Is one speaking of unit growth or revenue growth?  Unit growth may well be accompanied by a drop in revenue (“We lose a dollar on every sale but we make it up on the volume.”)  Or, the data may just be GIGO (Garbage In / Garbage Out) as with the 2011 Oregon Winery and Vineyard Report covering 2010.

In that report, industry revenue was reported at $252M on 1.93M cases, which works out to $131 per case.  In 2009, the respective figures were $202M and 1.66M cases or, $122 per case.  In the environment of rampant discounting that existed in 2010, a growth in case value simply was not possible.

Expressed as a story problem, if in 2009, I sold 10 cases of $600 wine for total revenue of $6000, I would have had to sell $7500 of wine to achieve the 25% reported revenue growth of 2010.  Average industry discounting of only 10% below 2009 pricing (not much $50 Oregon Pinot Noir was going at frontline pricing or at least going very fast), would have required a nearly 40% increase in case sales to achieve 25% dollar growth.

If one’s winery is failing, it is highly unlikely that receiving a business conditions survey in the mail is going to be very appealing.  Who would want to be reminded, question by question, of how bad things are?  Even those making ends meet don’t particularly want to see what others are presumably doing at the top of the scale.  Rather, surveys such as Silicon Valley’s tend to be overly optimistic as, even anonymously, people want the world to know how well they are doing.  Moreover, as the Silicon Valley survey gives the option of identifying one’s winery, there is even more incentive for the haves to trumpet their success.

Sociology also plays a role in sample error.  Electoral surveys that are as statistically well-constructed as possible have two inherent sociological flaws.  First, opinionated people are more likely to pick up a telemarketing call during dinner and thus don’t necessarily represent the deliberating voter.  Second, as the preponderance of calls go to land lines, the results are slanted to an older, more traditional demographic.

Similarly, surveys of customer satisfaction are more likely to be completed by people either very happy or unhappy with their purchases.  In the case of fashion or durable goods purchases such as automobiles, buyers may rationally cite the reasons for their decision but, in the end, people buy to satisfy the complex Gestalt of ego.

Survey responses tend to attract a non-random sample by their very nature: those who perceive something to gain by responding, those more desirous of having their opinion heard or those inclined to boast of their success or distinguish a particular prowess.  These factors coupled with conclusion driven analysis and poor sampling methods yield only a superficial view, like the 50 mile setting on a car’s GPS, a level of detail anyone familiar with a map of the United States already knows but doesn’t provide sufficient direction for where one wants to go.

Time Posted: Mar 20, 2012 at 2:17 PM
March 7, 2012 | REX HILL

Size Matters: Quality & Scale in the Wine Industry

He Said...
- Mike Willison

A recent article in the Wine Spectator suggested that small wineries are better than large wineries, for a variety of reasons. "Big wineries are all about predictability," the article proffers, while small wineries are catering to a shift in American wine consumer habits that demands an esoteric or unusual experience in every glass. "Today, if you want to experience a wine that is at all different from anything that might be understood as 'mainstream,' you have to drink 'small'", the article asserts. I agree. But most Americans are still totally confused, intimidated, and put off by the minutiae of the wine world and seek something they can rely on. Sure, the sommelier in the nappy suit and bow tie has seen it all already and demands the weirdest, most obscure variety aged in petrified goat viscera and made in a 13th century artisanal style. Gary from accounting, on the other hand, just wants a wine that doesn't taste like petrified goat viscera and/ or cost the better part of his paycheck.  In other words, Gary likes a predictable wine that looks good, smells good, tastes good, and occasionally makes him feel better about his meaningless life. Gary isn’t crouching behind a row of shrubs looking for the smallest producer of Bourboulenc in the Shire. Gary lives in Pickaway County, Ohio and hasn’t even heard of the Scholium Project, or Bonny Doon, or even Byron. Gary can find the big brands at his Buehler Food Market on the way home from work. I’m okay with Gary. Most people are Gary. Better a critter wine than a can of Bud and an hour of "Dance Moms". Maybe one day he will go to California and try something that really piques his interest from a picayune producer of 100 cases and join the wine club. I doubt it, though.


She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

It does seem that many of today's wine writers write for the niche market, rather than the Gary's of the world, doesn't it? Why not simply accept that there is a market for both, instead of pretentiously proclaiming the obscure stuff 'better'? The small-production winery will thrive because there is a large enough percentage of the wine drinking population who seeks out the new and obscure, and the larger producers will thrive because of Gary's desire for consistency. Like you're saying, the big guys act as a gateway to the little producers. How do we think that we got to the 'shift in American wine consumption', anyway, but for the bigger producers and their now-maligned "predictability?" Further alienating an already timid customer by making him feel idiotic for loving Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling sends the wrong message, and creates an ever-widening gap between the geeks and the novices. It’s still wine he's drinking, after all. Far better to say, yes, this is good and consistent and a great value, but also this smaller thing is cool too, rather than separating them into 'good' and 'bad' categories, which the use of the term "better" does.

As wine writers, we would do well to remember our own humble wine beginnings. We all started somewhere, and I highly doubt that the wine writer at Spectator you speak of was weaned on grower Champagne and Williams Selyem Pinot Noir.

Time Posted: Mar 7, 2012 at 10:05 AM
Ryan Collins
March 5, 2012 | Ryan Collins

Biodynamic Farming: following the moon

What most of us may not notice is that like the sun, the moon has a similar pattern when traveling through the night sky. The difference between the sun and the moon is that the moon’s cycle is only 27.3 days instead of one year. When the moon is progressively getting higher in the sky, we say the moon is ‘ascending’ and when it is getting lower in the sky we call this ‘descending.’ We believe these rhythms are akin to the seasons. For example, the ascending period is like spring & summer and the descending is like fall & winter. During the ascending period, we believe there is a subtle shift of the energy to what is above the ground. During the descending period, the energy is shifted inward to the soil and roots. By altering certain practices to work with these lunar rhythms, we are trying to work with the rhythms of life and reinforce these rhythms to the organisms on the farm.

Some examples of how we work in the vineyard with these rhythms are:
Descending moon  (energy directed inward to soil and roots)
1.    Pruning  the vines
2.    Planting dormant vines
3.    Making and spreading compost
4.    Cultivating
5.    Spraying preparation 500 and barrel compost*
Ascending moon (energy directed above the ground)
1.    Spraying preparation 501*
2.    Harvesting fruits, vegetables and flowers
3.    Sowing seeds – Although germination happens below the ground, there is an upward striving in the plant

*Biodynamic Preparations

Time Posted: Mar 5, 2012 at 10:26 AM
February 29, 2012 | REX HILL

Our rules suck: What should we do about American labeling laws?

He Said...
- Mike Willison

The laws governing the making, selling, labeling and manipulating of wine in the US read like stereo instructions translated from the Dead Sea Scrolls into the Wookiee language of Shyriiwook and then into American English. You can find them here. The sad part about them is that they basically boil down to a very scant few loose rules about what you can and cannot do, but sometimes can anyway if you feel like it or if no one is looking. There's a lot of text there, but the main threads with respect to grape-based wines are these:

  • To label a wine with a grape name like, "Pinot noir," the wine must be made up of no less than 75% of that grape.
  • To label a wine with an AVA such as, "Willamette Valley," at least 85% of the fruit must have come from that place (the rules are a slightly more generous 75% when it comes to states and counties).
  • To label a wine with a vintage date, or a single-vineyard designation, 95% of the wine and fruit must come from that vintage or vineyard.
  • "Estate," may be used to signify that a wine has been mostly put together under one general roof.
  • Table wines shall not exceed 14% alcohol by volume, but no specific designation exists before "Dessert Wines" at 17%.

I know that when buying certain foods there is an assumption that it’s not 100% that specific thing, but 75%?!  These rules were/ are likely designed to give the American farmer a better chance of being successful, and I respect that. But go to Napa Valley and look at the excesses all over the place. Explain to me how adding 25% Ruby Cabernet or Alicante Bouchet to your Cabernet Sauvignon does anything other than extend your yield and lower your overhead, and buying you another Maybach for your armada.

Here's an idea: let’s get together and classify the AVA's according to variety, like the French do, and create real standards for quality. Sure, it’ll be confusing for some, but it will also make the wine industry criteria valid. The county, regional and state appellations can remain under the current system, but the AVA's will have significance beyond some broad suggestion of what the wine might be.


  • A wine labeled with the AVA, "Napa Valley," must:
    • Be comprised of 100% fruit grown in the Napa Valley
    • Be made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon if red
    • Be made from 100% Chardonnay
    • 95% of the fruit must come from the designated vintage
    • Brix at picking is not to exceed 25.8˚
    • Maximum yield at harvest is not to exceed 3 tons/ acre

And if they don't like it, they can call it California Red Wine and make it however they like. Until then, our system doesn't have any authority or credibility. Sure, Americans like varietal labeling, but we also expect it to mean something, don't we?


She Said...
- Carrie Kalscheuer

I agree with the assessment that we need a stricter set of rules, but not to the level that you're proposing. I've always liked the idea that we exist outside of the stringent rules like those that France imposes.

The rules as you propose them don’t allow for the best part about our current leniency: artistic license. Going from nothing to everything will upset the balance to a staggering degree. Consider France and Italy. France has been doing the same thing for centuries, yet has only been making wine under the current wine law since 1935. Their regions were tried, tested, marketed and set. They knew where to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet, etc. through decades of trial and error. Placing rules around these was for marketing purposes and an afterthought as far as regulations are concerned. They were already doing it that way, in order to market what they were doing to other nations, they slapped a strict-looking label on the bottle and away they went.

Italy, on the other hand, has only been a country since 1856. They were growing grapes willy-nilly on every available surface then and they're still doing that now. They had no rhyme or reason to their wine program until 1963, when, in an attempt to achieve the success enjoyed by France, they mirrored France’s wine laws and, in my opinion, jumped the gun on regulations – same as you are suggesting we do now. They still don't have their business together to a degree that they will anytime soon be enjoying the wine marketing success of France, and some of their most successful wines have actually had to secede from the DOC union in order to thrive both from a quality perspective and a marketing perspective. Too much, too soon.

Our wine program has really only been growing since 1933, when we repealed Prohibition. Since then, we’re advancing at a rapid rate, but are still discovering exciting new wine regions and determining which varieties grow best in them. I agree wholeheartedly with your call for accountability, but are you really telling me that Merlot is just off the program in Napa? That’s a shame. I think that a better plan for us is to start small. My take:

  • Yes, 100% if it's called by a varietal name.
  • Yes, 100% from the AVA it says it is from.
  • Yes, 95% from the stated vintage.
  • But no to your Brix proposal. What ever happened to letting the vintage speak for itself?
  • Also no to your tons per acre. If it has to be 100% from the AVA and 100% of the stated varietal, these yields will work themselves out naturally.
  • And finally, a big, emphatic NO to your proposal that we begin, at our very young wine age, to limit our regions to specific varieties. It's too much, too soon.
Time Posted: Feb 29, 2012 at 10:09 AM