Sunday, March 25, 2018

How Influential is an Influencer?

From the Navel-gazing Observatory on the Italian wine trail

Recently, I peered into the petite armoire of a colleague in wine who passed away a few years back. I was looking in on her husband and had time to dig around the wine collection. What I found was a cornucopia of disparate bottles - some deeply iconic wines, and some which just happened to find themselves ensconced in the little closet along with the rest. There were “unicorn” wines in there by the boatload, and there was a bevy of unadorned wines as well. It sent me down a rabbit hole, wondering “Why do we long for what we long for?”

There was a 1982 Pape-Clement. A 1994 La Chappelle Hermitage. A 1979 Silver Oak Bonny’s Vineyard. And so on. Next to a youngish Napa Syrah, an aged Charbono and a potentially over-the hill Napa Valley Pinot Noir from the ‘70’s. But for some reason, every one of those bottles in that collection, as well as in one’s own (mine included) were put in the wine closet for some reason. What influenced that? Or who?

What are the metrics for influence? Is it something as basic as bottles sold? I bring this up, because what I define as success might not be everyone’s definition. In the wine trade, a most definite measure of success is how many bottles (or cases) a wine sells, and an essential progression in which a wine becomes a brand. Now I know branding, these days, is thought to be the purview of sole proprietors (and curators) of one’s Instagram feed. But in the evolution of grapes-to-wine-to people drinking and enjoying said wine, there is a cycle that needs to be completed in order for someone to do it over and over again, successfully. And that is the idea behind the building of a brand.

So, was Filippo di Belardino an influencer? Filippo worked as the brand ambassador for Banfi until he died (I can hear the hipstas among you who are initiating the required eye-roll). I hear you, Banfi is not your cuppa tea. But Filippo influenced many people to follow him and the wines of his choice. And Banfi sold (and still sells) lots of wine. Filippo was (and still is, from his perch in Heaven) an influencer.

How about someone like myself? If you were to poll some of the wine buyers in my city, I’m sure you would get the kind of reaction that would indicate that I am not influential, in any way, to them. In fact, I daresay that some of them do a 180˚ when they see what I am interested in, in a commercial sense. Not the unicorns I post on Instagram, but the stuff I’ve represented in the trenches for 30+ years (and for not much longer, by the way). Regardless, at the end of the year, when I look at my numbers, and my team, and all the work we do, the four of us, to move 170,000 bottles of fine Italian wine, well, that isn’t chicken scratch. Is that influence? Or sales?

Well, if you think influence exists in a vacuum, and doesn’t touch sales, then the wine business is just a hobby. But for most of the winegrowers in Italy, it is their lifeline, their way of supporting themselves and their family. It ain’t no passatempo.

What about folks like Antonio Galloni or James Suckling? These gents, wildly different and appealing to radically diverse followings, move the commercial needle, especially in the luxury/premium/highly allocated realms. I don’t know how one can apply a solid metric (although I bet both have an idea of just how “influential” they are). Nonetheless, these guys move their markets and sell wine. So, yes, to me they are influential.

Take someone like Eric Asimov. Eric does write about specific wines, and when he does, those wines move, even in Kankakee. I’ve seen it (in Plano, Texas, not Kankakee), so I know he has “reach.” But what about when he plunges into the arms of the wine god and ruminates, like he did recently in the article, “Everyday Wines: The Most Important Bottles You Will Drink.” I cannot recall any specific wine he mentioned (he didn’t). What I can tell you is that he moved someone like me (and not just me) to drift into the lane of tellurian wines, which many of us can afford, but not in an arid attempt to “settle.” Rather, he wants the reader to embrace the everyday as if it is a pretty special thing. And seeing as that is what we get, every morning when we wake up, is an everyday kind of gift, why shouldn’t we elevate and celebrate wines like that, whatever they may be? Eric is definitely an influencer, in both the concrete and abstract.

What about someone like a Raj Parr? I don’t think anyone would dispute Raj has been a huge influence in fine wine circles. These days Raj is a winegrower, a winemaker and he must sell the wines he makes, n'est-ce pas? And he has a fiduciary responsibility to his investors, his partners, his growers and employees (and his distributors) to make wine that will make goals and sell, over and over again. We’re not talking about posting a rare bottle of 1999 Chevalier-Montrachet from Domaine d’Auvenay or 1955 Barolo Monfortino from Giacomo Conterno. Those are iconic bottles, and we all want to drink them, or at the very least, lust after them as we drool over Raj’s Delectable/Instagram feed. But he is now involved in a commercial drive to succeed. And he has to parlay some of that influence towards his wines and build those brands into his version of a Domaine d’Auvenay or a Giacomo Conterno, while still retaining the aura he has so carefully curated as an influencer. No easy feat, by the way.

Obviously, I am spellbound by all the different ways and places in which wine lovers are influenced, in both objective and subjective processes. And to think this all came from peering inside the petite armoire of a friend’s wine collection. Fascinating, as Spock would say.

What do you think? Who (or what) influences you?

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