Sunday, May 17, 2009

Capote, Mondavi and Vaynerchuk

The idea of the brand, in the wine business, in American culture, has become so pervasive that now we are all being exhorted to build our own personal brands. Fame, fortune and fun have become the mantra for the American Dream. But there is also a dark side to this. Two of these three people (or brands) have become modern day morality tales for what happens when the brand and the person, from which the brand has been created, often don’t go the way it was intended. The third person is approaching critical mass and will have to hash it out. I’m hoping he will succeed.

Truman Capote was a young literary genius whose emotional maturity never quite caught up with his talent. His writing was fierce, fearless and so very sharp for the times he found himself in. A child born from a child, his life raced furiously in the fast lane until he was 59. And then, it was finished. Much has been written about his life, bio-pics have been made, numerous books and articles about his life, his writing, his escapades, his demons. But when he was alive, Truman Capote became a big star. A bestselling brand. Along the time his star was traversing across the winter skies, television and heightened attention to the new media brought many people into contact with him. I still remember seeing this funny little short, squatty man on the TV in my parents’ home when they were watching Mike Douglas or Jack Parr or Johnny Carson. He seemed a lot like some of the people in my home town (Palm Springs) so it wasn’t too out of context to see it on TV. But the number of times he kept showing up registered in my brain. I once saw a copy of “In Cold Blood” on the table in the living room and picked it up. I was probably 12 at the time. I was more interested in tennis or getting out of my parents home, going outside and riding my bike. But Capote was big. So big. What people thought of him, be it the high-society types or the artistic ones, they shaped the Capote from there on. He never had a chance. Partying and drinking and smoking and talking and twittering about. What great works of literature were stolen by taking his time? It was an era when a writer as a media star was something new, and he was so damned talented. But he was diverted. And before long, the brand “Capote” overtook the man.

Robert Mondavi was a visionary, a leader, driven to pursue a dream that shaped Napa Valley and beyond. Because of his relentless stubbornness any of us who work in the wine business today are in a better place, thanks to Mondavi. He was Moses and he led us out of the wilderness. I remember the early days in the 1970’s, when what he was talking about was so rare. Single varietal wines made in a fashion, at a level of quality that there was no market for. Yet. But he persevered, and everyone around him did too. And Mondavi became a monster brand.

I sold the wines in the 1980’s and 1990’s, at a time when the Mondavi brand was growing faster than most of us could keep up with. I remember talking to a friend of mine who was a regional manager, right after the winery went public. He was feeling good about the money the stock represented, but we also talked about what it was going to do to the family, and to the man himself.

In those days, that kind of talk was blasphemy. But the brand was careening so far beyond the bounds of control that now, what is left? It seems an American tragedy to me that someone who so defined fine wine for America and was so successful at it, lost the battle to his “brand”. Some might not agree with me on this, but I see the Mondavi battle of the man against the brand, in the latter years, as an epic battle of success vs. the soul. And what did the victorious one win?

Gary Vaynerchuk. He’s on top of the world. Thousands visit his sites daily. His number of followers on the new social platforms like Twitter have grown six-fold in two months. He’s on CNN, his American Express miles must be in the stratosphere from all the travel. He has a ten book, seven figure deal with a major publisher. And he still has time to personally return an e-mail. How does he do it?

Like he said, without the chops, he wouldn’t have gotten to where he was. And when it comes to wine, he does have passion. Youthful, unbridled and fearless. And I’m not really all that worried about it for him. But there they are, perched on the fringes, waiting to swallow him up whole, the brand-cannibals.

I hope Gary V doesn’t ever end up like Capote or Mondavi. I hope he makes enough money to buy the New York Jets. Right now that’d be about $900 million he’d need to cough up. And to raise that kind of dough, he’s gonna have to do a lot more than sell wine out of a store. And he probably will.

The wine world might lose him. I’m sure he doesn’t want that to happen. You see it in a person when they are called to do things beyond their initial plan. And he is being called. But he’s in this game early and he’s young; he’s got 20-30 years for the game to play out. And what he has to say is damn important – he sees it coming and sees it clearly.

So I just hope he has a strong enough vision where it won’t be covered over by the brand of “Vaynerchuk”, because that would be a tragedy of the American dream. It’s not like others before him haven’t been scooped up in the momentum of their brand.

25 years ago Robert Parker’s star was ascending. And while he still hangs in the heavens, he never let his brand get the best of him. He has endured and he is tremendously influential to this day. Everything has a cycle and someday his cycle will come full circle. Is Gary V’s cycle faster? Shorter? More timely for now? Is he really, as Gaiter and Brecher of the WSJ describe him as the “wine geek of the moment”? If his brand grows beyond wine, as it is doing, perhaps they are correct. But he made his mark with wine. He seems to love it. Will the power of his brand force him away from what he loves?

"The true harvest of my life is intangible - a little star dust caught, a portion of the rainbow I have clutched” - Henry David Thoreau

photo of Capote by Tom Palumbo


gary said...

I love wine ..adore it, but I love business too and branding and people and how we will never lose me, but the definition will be held by each person. I just want to work hard and do right for my family. Loving my family and doing the best I can drives me, wine, the jets, branding those are all things that excite me!

Fermented Thoughts said...

All great things evolve. Most start small, building with time and momentum. Those that stay grounded, never forgetting where they're from, the main goal, their true drive - that which burns inside them, are the ones destined for success, be it large or small.

Good luck, Gary.

BK said...

Interesting post, AC.

Me, myself and I never heard of this Gary Vaynerchuk until today. Thus, methinks any China Syndrome there is still a ways off... ;-)

Amy Atwood said...

Nice comparisons and unexpected as well. Seems to me that Gary Vaynerchuk is building a rather broad base, one which encompasses mass marketing strategies beyond the wine vertical. Hopefully, like Mondavi he will hire the support team he needs to maintain the momentum.
cheers, amy

Eli Cash said...

Amazed BK never heard of gv.....anyone on point in business development, branding, marketing, or social media has by now....whether he will succumb to "brand canibals" is analogous to questing whether a gazelle will eat the lion. This guy bleeds caring. Once you give up caring is when you get eaten.

BK said...

The reason that I likely have never heard of him till today is because I practiced caring before it was fashionable again, knew "social media" when it was first called MSN (and CompuServe) and they were proprietary services (before MS & CS ever took it to the Interwebs), already bought one house because of the aforementioned, and don't spend my time on video blogs or online wine stores... except K&L.

Beyond that, is even more likely because I'm over 50, spent more time at early MSFT in Seattle and Redmond than I care to count in AA-Miles, and "everything old is new again."

Beyond that, I'm an idiot and continually thank AC for directing me to new places to buy choos. So, that's it! ;-)

Jennifer said...

Branding itself and its affect on society as a whole is an amazing phenomenon. I find it easy to become passionate about branding, especially looking at its history and where it is headed. How fun to read your post right next to Gary's response. We'll all be watching and making our own interpretations.
It's interesting to see how Obama is getting branded now!

Anonymous said...

There's a lot of wine critics out there. GV essentially pioneered doing it on a video-blog. Timing (and opportunity) is everything.

Find something you like, start a video blog, and hope it catches.

If so, you've been branded.

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