Sunday, September 29, 2019

Wine writers and their most faithful followers

For those perched inside the balloon of the wine world, a self-contained orb, there’s little to worry about an expanding universe. The problems of string theory or quantum mechanics matter not, to those vying for their spot on the head of the pin, placed strategically in the middle of the balloon. Little concern there is, as well, for any possibility that the sharp end of that needle might pierce their tiny world and all will be lost. Wine writers live in an alternate cosmos. There aren’t the normal repercussions that normal writers must face. The book writer, and hopeful publisher, gnash about in the trendy nosh parlors of Shoreditch, swirling their Manzanilla, while cobbling their strategy to sell 1,000 books. It’s perfect. It must be the alcohol, which casts that euphoric fog.

It seems the gold rush these days is for followers, to find people one can exert influence over, to point them to a journey where they too can hope to drink Chambolle-Musigny from Roumier. “'tis a consummation. Devoutly to be wish'd.”

The revelation came to me during a victory nap. I dozed off while Instagram needles pierced my eye - all those significant bottles held up by all those brilliant iPhone curators. “To sleep – perchance to dream.”

And then, I had the dream.

It’s like this, when you have one foot in that world and one in another (perhaps the grave?). The vision, though, was one from my early days in the wine trade. Sales were growing, the deep funk of the 1980’s was receding like a Venezuelan glacier. People were getting over their petrol-panic in places like Houston and Midland, Texas, and they wanted to drink again.

And over time, buoyed by numerical scoring based on the 100-point scale, wine took off. Pre-internet, pre-Instagram. Pre-influencers. Just a handful of wine writers, and their tasting notes. And their scores.

Wine writers like to think that readers are influenced by them. But what really moves the needle? If a powerful critic makes an impression on their 50,000 readers, or their 500,000 subscribers, is that really the ultimate measure of their influence? For years I analyzed the metrics in my role in the wholesale end of things. And this is what I found out.

Five salespeople, properly motivated and tuned into these things, can sell more wine than 50,000 readers (and potential consumers). Not to downplay the effect of a good write-up in a large newspaper or one of the reigning modern-day wine publications. They sell wine, especially the 95-100 pointers. But those 87-94 wines - the ones that the trophy hunters cannot and will not spare any room in their cellars for, as they’re obsessed with filling them up with the likes of Sine Qua Non and Le Pin - what happens to them? So, the question is, for a wine writer, do you keep writing about those wines, and if you decide to do so, how does this help affect some upward mobility for those wines in the wine world?

Consumers do account for a ton of response (and action), but who’s really doing the heavy lifting? Those five salespeople? In five cities, in five states, in five countries? I think we don’t realize just how much wine they sell, because those metrics are not made available to industry outsiders. That is considered proprietary information by the distributor, if that information is even gathered. I know it can be, because I did so for many years. It was an amazing look into the world of sales. Yes, the writers strike the match, but the salespeople walk around the barn with a handful of straw ablaze setting it on fire.

Oh, I know it’s unpopular to consider the role of those “minor players” in the three-tier world. After all, aren’t we all influencers now, in our own special way? Anyone with an Instagram feed and 5,000 followers thinks so. They’ll tell you; you don’t have to even ask. But ask them to back it up with metrics and you get a fist full of hash tags and fustian tropes. There’s no needle. There’s no vinyl. And there’s no there-there.

Part of the problem is that wine critics might not even have a complete understanding of the industry. I hear often, “that’s the commercial side. We’re on the editorial side.” As if there’s a wall that separates them. And in journalistic realms, rightfully so. One of the commandments, “There shall be no pay-to-play,” is engrained within the ethical structure of such institutions. The mightier and more independent wine critics can choose to adopt that stance, or muddy it with the flaps of their Range Rovers as they run over it in the sodden streets of Sheung Wan.

Ironically, the salesperson doesn’t discriminate. Right or wrong, 92 points is 92 points. And if it’s a Brunello that one can sell 50 cases of to a restaurant or retailer for $25.00, they aren’t going to give a hang “who” writes about it – as long as it’s one of the “BIG” types doing the typing. Yes, that’s the seamy downside to this business. And by the way, the wineries are on board with this in an even bigger way. They think nothing to plunk down $10-20,000 to pour their “97” point-er at an event in the clouds. They move that needle. And their importers and distributors down-line comply. Because everyone wants to sell and make money and have a successful career. I’ve seen it up front, on the windshield, all splattery and sometimes not so pretty.

So, what am I getting at? I think there’s a strategy that wine writers neglect to consider when they take the leap, in the crowded field of wine criticism, where there’s not a lot of money lying around and every nickel-and-dime blogger is vying for their corner of online presence (and FAME!). And that is to take into account - when you write a piece - who will read it and what kind of measurable effect will it have. "Ay, there’s the rub."

I know there are the purists and naturalistas out there who say, “It’s not about sales.” And for every one of you out there who thinks that, you have either minimized the impact in that area or you haven’t gotten into it deeply enough to know the Zen of it. It’s there, it’s real and if you don’t believe me, well, there’s a chap in Maryland who got there first and he channeled into the mindset of the salesperson. And they got behind him and were his most faithful followers. And they moved the needle off the Richter.

“Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.”

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W


Mike Dunne said...

You pressed a lot of buttons here, Alfonso, but...
- Don't equate wine writers with scores. Anybody can dream up a number, but to write of wine with insight and fairness takes more discipline and devotion, as I know you know.
- I'd like to see sales people listen more to consumers rather than tell them what they should be stocking and drinking based on algorithms derived from incomplete data, which it always is.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Hi Mike,
If it were just about the numbers, this blog would probably be just a series of numbers…hmm, an idea there…
I don’t disagree with you, and I definitely agree with you regarding consumers (and the wisdom of the consumer) ..

My many years in distribution working with salespeople and working with retail and on-premise accounts have warped my perception. I distinctly remember one retailer, I was describing a certain wine, getting all flowery and gushy, when he interrupted and said, “Son, cut the crap. What score did it get?”

So, while people like you and I love the insights words deliver, tell that to the buyers. Not all of them. But how many emails do you get from wine sellers touting a particular wine, starting with “A stellar 95 pointer!” and the like…

Chris Stratton said...

thank you for highlighting who really is carrying the water for wine writers. there are thousands of us, we have families, we pay taxes. We may not be "influencers", but we move mountains (of wine).

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