Great New Wines Under $15 or $20!

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in How to Buy Wine at Good Prices | 1 Comment

Hi there! Remember me? This summer was beyond the pale with too many balls in the air but I’m back! Since blogging had been set aside for a while, so had drinking all of the lovely wines I’d received over the last several months. I’ve been slowly working my way through the several cases of wine that had built up, with the help of my friends, and now I want to share with you what I’ve tasted and recommend (and what I don’t recommend). Enjoy!

Recommended Wines Under $15 – Courtesy of Gourmet Monthly Wine Clubs (Masters Series)

  • Stefano Massone Vigneto Masera Gavi 2008 – Italy – $10-12 per bottle (No longer available for reorder at Gourmet Monthly)
  • Guigal Côtes du Rhône Rouge 2006 – France – $8-11 per bottle (No longer available for reorder at Gourmet Monthly)
  • FAVORITE! Nine Vines South Australia Viognier 2008 – Australia – $11-12 per bottle (No longer available for reorder at Gourmet Monthly)

Recommended Wines Under $20 – Courtesy of Gold Medal Wine Club (Gold Series)

  • Three Saints Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 – Santa Ynez – (Release price: $23, Published price: $19, Member price: $17)
  • Adobe Road Winery Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 – (Release price: $45, Published price: $29, Member price: $20)
  • Adobe Road Winery Sauvignon Blanc 2007 – Already sold out at Gold Medal Wine Club (it was delicious), $15-20 per bottle

More Recommended Wines – Courtesy of Zagat Wine Club and Barclay’s Wine Experience

  • Le Petit Pauvre Chardonnay 2007 – Monterey County, California – $17 per bottle
  • Granite Ridge Chenin Blanc 2009 – Stellenbosch, South Africa – $12.95 per bottle
  • Ines de Monclus White 2009 – Andalusia, Spain – $12.95 per bottle

Some Not-So-Recommended Wines

  • Home Grown Farms Family Harvest Red 2008 (California)
  • Rosenthal The Malibu Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
  • Monasterio de Santa Cruz 2007 (Monastrell from Tarragona)
  • Chateau les Tuileries 2009 (Bordeaux)
  • Carolena Merlot 2007 (California)

In case you didn’t know, I also review wine clubs. We comb through retail wines to make wine club recommendations and soon we’ll have new ways for you to find the perfect wine club for you or as a gift!

Cheers!

Maximize Your Wine Budget by Going META?

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in How to Buy Wine at Good Prices | 3 Comments

analytics

I’m a geek. I’m not the pencil-neck variety of yesteryear, but rather a modern geek. I dig numbers and analytics and I have an obsessive tendency to dive into the nitty gritty of topics I’m interested in until I have what appears to some to be encyclopedic knowledge of a topic. It’s fun for my friends for a while… until it’s not. Only the other geeks really get me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have something useful to tell you as a result of my geekery.

Odds are good you have no idea what I’m talking about with that goofy title since you’re probably NOT a geek. Let me break it down for you:

META data is a way for us computer geeks (among others) to store additional information about an item. Let’s say that item is a song… We’ll stay on topic and use the song “Red Red Wine” as an example. The song itself has “common attributes” like Artist: UB40, Album: Labour of Love, and Year released: 1983. There are also many “hidden attributes” like Genre, Instruments used, Beats per minute, Track number, Composer, Lyricist, etc. We call this META data.

Wine has META data, too! Its common attributes are Year vinted, AVA, Varietal, and of course Winery. But its META data has a wealth of additional information about the wine that contributes to how the wine tastes.

A wine's META data

You may recognize some of these and not others but, here goes:

  • Percentage of each varietal
  • Age of vines
  • Type of oak used (if any)
  • Winemaking techniques
  • Alcohol percentage
  • Particular aromas/flavors
  • Brix level
  • pH
  • Clone
  • Winemaker
  • Importer
  • And don’t forget all the little mini-bits of information that make up “Terroir,” each of which could be its own piece of META data (was it planted on a slope? which way does the slope face? how many minutes of sunshine did each row of vines get that year? how much granite is in the soil? is the soil calcareous? and on and on.)

Lately I’ve been wondering how useful this META data might be in helping to select wines you’ll like. If it’s effective at choosing wines you’ll like, you might even be able to use the information to maximize your wine budget. Here’s a geeky little example:

  1. Assume that 100% of your wine budget is spent each month
  2. Assume a bell curve for your enjoyment of the wines you’ve purchased
    • 2% of the wines are totally amazing
    • 8% of the wines are really really good
    • 15% of the wines are good and you’d drink them again
    • 50% of the wines are average. You could take ’em or leave ’em.
    • 15% of the wines are not good and you’d prefer never to drink them again
    • 8% of the wines are so bad you don’t finish the bottle
    • 2% of the wines are corked and undrinkable
  3. Pretend that all adds up to an “enjoyment score” of 50.
  4. Now imagine based on hidden characteristics of the wines you buy, you can limit your buying to wines that are only in the first three categories. Suddenly your “enjoyment score” could jump to 80! And now you’re getting more value for your wine because you’re enjoying more of the wine you buy AND you’re getting more wines you are excited to be drinking!

There are a PILE of companies, wine writers, retailers, etc. out there who believe that they can tell you that if you like Wine A, you’re gonna love Wine B. When they’re making those statements, it’s often based on just a few characteristics of the wines or even worse, subjective statements/opinions about the wines.

A lot of geeks like me think that if you collect enough data about what people like and don’t like, they’ll be able to recommend wines even better than their competition in an objective way. Fundamentally though, I think computers are a LONG way from being able to make the subjective into something objective for purchasing recommendations.

Instead of relying on mountains of data and algorithms, or a “consistent palate” from a wine reviewer, what if the WINE could tell you if you’re gonna like it based on its META data? Could these methods be used to create groups of remarkably similar wines and then find the ones at the best prices within those groups?

It seems that I’m not alone in this line of thinking, this is a snippet of today’s WineAccess special deal:

The concept illustrated by WineAccess using the Old Wente Clone

The concept illustrated by WineAccess using the Old Wente Clone

To see more about this wine & deal, check it out at WineAccess.

One-Day Sales… Good Value or Good Hype?

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in How to Buy Wine at Good Prices | 1 Comment
Weighing out value from one-day sale sites

Weighing out value from one-day sale sites

It all started with Woot. They took this crazy idea that if a manufacturer or retailer wants to dump a load of merchandise, why not throw it in front of a mountain deal-hungry netizens and make that merchandise go away in less than a day? And it works! Woot is a successful business model with zillions of loyal fans (and even shoppers).

Then Woot said, hey wait a minute… what if we did Wine.Woot? Would wine shoppers snap up great wines at closeout prices, too? Well, of course they will! Because most wine is expensive.

It’s been said so many times before but “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Several other companies in the wine space have been eyeballing Wine.Woot’s success and thinking they want a piece of that action. They’ve launched these new sites in many forms, some just like Wine.Woot and others with their own spin. Either way, they’re playing the urgency card (making the deal time-limited) to get you emotionally ready to purchase.

We recently launched a new campaign called Hot Wine Deals (@HotWineDeals on twitter and we have a Facebook page, too). As part of this effort we’re combing through these one-day sales on a, yup, daily basis and uncovering some interesting information!

Here’s a rundown on who’s out there and who’s really offering deals:

  • Wine.Woot
    The pitch: “Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday wine.woot.com will uncork a sweet new wine deal.” And we’ll do it with style.
    The analysis: Sometimes these wines are hard to find online to compare for prices or even get a second-opinion about. And their deals are frequently for 3-packs. I don’t love buying 3 of something I’ve never had so I’m always hesitant to buy, but when it comes to reputation you can’t beat Wine.Woot.com. Follow our shopping advice below and you won’t go wrong.
  • WineAccess Special Deals
    The pitch: Our buying power lets us get unbelievable deals on fantastic quality wines and we incentivize you to buy by offering case-prices and other discounts.
    The analysis: WineAccess has two business models, one is selling high-quality wine and the other is referring shoppers to local and online wine stores. I’m almost always impressed with their selections and their pricing. It’s worth getting on their mailing list to keep in touch with their Deal of the Day promotions.
  • WineExpress (Wine Enthusiast) Hot Deal of the Day
    The pitch: For one day, a special wine has been selected for $0.99 per bottle shipping.
    The analysis: Sorry guys, most of the time these deals ain’t that hot. WineExpress’ regular prices are full retail (or more!) and their sale prices are stingy (from my extreme bargain-hunter point of view).
  • Wines Til Sold Out
    The pitch: Much like Wine.Woot, but without all the prose and better shipping deals. 30-70% off store and internet site prices and special Marathon days where they feature anywhere from 2-5 wines per hour from midnight to midnight.
    The analysis: They seem to be delivering on their promises and they have an excellent reputation among bargain hunters. The fine print says they have a parent company and that this is their closeout arm… I don’t like that the parent company isn’t disclosed so I searched the internet to see if I could find out: There’s some suspicion it might be WineBid.com or Roger Wilco Liquor Stores in New Jersey. Whoever they are, they’re worth keeping your eye on.
  • CellarThief
    The pitch: Great wine at killer prices, and we donate clean water with every purchase!
    The analysis: Sometimes the prices are great, sometimes they’re okay. I’m a fan of their Mystery-packs because it’s fun and the wines are all good quality wines. Plus, they have a great website that’s just fun to visit.
    Side note: I’m not sure how I feel about using charitable donations as a marketing tactic. Typically I’d rather buy my stuff at the best price and send a check to my favorite charities… if we over-ask people for money for charities, we’ll make the wells run dry.
  • Cinderella
    The pitch: WineLibrary’s answer to Wine.Woot with a twist (Wine Library is Gary Vaynerchuk’s baby).
    The analysis: Sales aren’t started or run with regularity, but they’re announced well in advance and there’s a huge one that launches on Friday June 18th. Gary’s got a reputation that is a mega-marketing machine on its own. We love that they show us their past deals and the past prices.
  • WiredforWine
    The pitch: One unbeatable deal each until it sells out! Free shipping offer and best price guarantee.
    The analysis: It wasn’t hard for me to find some inaccurate data on their site and a lower price, too, but when I emailed in and asked about the discrepancy, they checked it out and immediately updated their site to reflect the current data… and they still had a better deal. As Ferris Bueller is famous for saying, “Live moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Well, the web moves pretty fast, too, and that makes it hard for all of your claims to be accurate 100% of the time… it’s all about how you respond to them. Keep this site on your list because their free-shipping offers frequently put them among the best deals around.
  • Vinfolio Flash Sale
    The pitch: Specially negotiated pricing on highly-rated, top quality wines offered in limited quantity for a limited time.
    The analysis: Vinfolio is a consignment/auction site specializing in very fine wines. The kind of wines that the under $25 crowd won’t even consider. That said, if you’re in the market for something outstanding that might be hard to find, this is an excellent source. Their Flash Sales aren’t frequent and don’t occur with regularity so you’ll need to get on their email list for notifications.
  • Wine.com
    We hear they’re coming out with a competitive product in this space, too. It hasn’t launched yet so stay tuned for an update when they do.

Here are some of our tips for shopping these deals:

  • Before you fork over your credit card, do a quick check of your own!
    Most of these sites’ best-price claims are based on 1-3 data sources which do not represent every deal on the web and may not be 100% accurate (because the data sources might not be 100% accurate). Here are three great sources for you to check out when seeing if that price is really a steal: Google Shopping, Wine-Searcher.com, and WineAccess.com. There are of course others, but unless you’re not satisfied if you’re not paying the lowest price to the penny, these will be more than sufficient to let you know if this is a great deal or not.
  • Don’t forget to check shipping costs!
    Some of the one-day sites offer free shipping on 2 or 4 bottles and sometimes the prices are shipping inclusive. This matters when comparing prices with other wine stores! We often find killer deals at little wine shops in NJ & NY except most of them don’t ship outside of their state. We suspect when the one-day sites quote prices, they’re looking at stores with broader shipping capabilities. You can often find a better deal if you look in your locale, so please do so! Wine-searcher.com and WineZap.com are great for this.
  • If your wine is being compared to others in the neighborhood, check out the prices on those wines, too.
    You might really get a deal on pedigreed grapes from a little-known or stressed winery. Places like WineAccess make killer deals on wine from these unfortunate wineries all the time.

I’m SO curious to know what you guys think…

  • Is this space too crowded?
  • Are there too many deal-of-a-lifetime purveyors in the wine biz?
  • What kind of consequences do these one-day sales have on wineries and regular retailers?

A Really Rough Guide To Budget Bordeaux

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in Arianna's Wine Tasting Notes, Great Wines Under $20, How to Buy Wine at Good Prices | 2 Comments

wine tastingSeveral weeks ago, I had the exquisite pleasure of attending the 2007 Union des Grand Cru des Bordeaux tasting in Los Angeles. For those who don’t speak French, “Union des Grand Cru des Bordeaux” translates, roughly, as “The Incredibly Fancy Wines From the French Region of Bordeaux. You Can’t Afford Them. Don’t Even Bother.” Look it up.

There were over one hundred wineries pouring at the event. Representatives stood behind low tables covered in white tablecloths, ice buckets, bottles and business cards. In the center of one portion of the cavernous conference room were lovely banquets of fresh fruit, colorful cheeses and a variety of crackers to absorb a bit of the booze. Separate tables supported shiny silver spittoons. Guests in subdued attire slowly wandered from table to table, shmoozing, sipping, smiling, spitting.

The room was divided according to the regions of Bordeaux:

Graves (Pessac-Leognan, Sauternes and Barsac); Medoc (Saint Emilion, Pomerol, Listrac-Medoc, Moulis-en-Medoc,

Bordeaux AOC

Bordeaux AOC

Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Saint-Estephe). For the purposes of this piece, I will not go into the history and importance of Bordeaux, because I cannot do the proper justice which many an expert has already done on the region, and I could not begin to match the authority of these historians.

I’ll simply provide some broad stokes.

Red Bordeaux (called Claret, in the UK), is the most widely produced wine type in this region (outnumbering white wine by about 10 to 1), and is generally made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. To round out the “Fab Five” of Bordeaux, Petit Verdot and Malbec are also permitted, although these are blended in less

frequently. While Carmenere is also authorized, this varietal is now difficult – if not impossible – to find in the area, since replanting never quite took hold after the Phylloxera epidemic of 1867.

As a very broad generalization, Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux’s second-most planted grape variety) dominates the blend in red wines produced in the Médoc and the rest of the left bank of the Gironde estuary. Typical top-quality Chateaux blends are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 15% Merlot. This is typically referred to as the “Bordeaux Blend.” Merlot (Bordeaux’s most-planted grape variety) and to a lesser extent Cabernet Franc (third most planted variety) tend to predominate in Saint Emilion, Pomerol and the other right bank appellations. These Right Bank blends from top-quality Chateaux are typically 70% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc & 15% Cabernet Sauvignon (Oz Clarke Encyclopedia of Grapes p. 129 Harcourt Books 2001 ISBN 0151007144)

Second in production is white Bordeaux, which is grown only in Graves and is mostly (exclusively, in the case of the sweet Sauternes), made from Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, with neither varietal making up more than ninety percent of the blend. Typical blends are usually 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc. Muscadelle is sometimes included, as well, to round out the flavor of the wine, although rarely – if ever – playing a predominant role. On occasion, one can find small amounts of Colombard and Ugni Blanc mixed in, as well.

For me, the greatest thing about the Union des Grand Cru des Bordeaux tasting was the discovery of amazing Bordeaux whites – specifically from the Pessac-Leognan region. Each region in Bordeaux has its own terrior and as a result, the flavor profile of each wine differs noticeably from one parish to another. While I found most of the Bordeaux Blanc to be pretty special, it was the Pessac-Leognan whites that really took my breath away: Pure peachy-grapefruit refreshment. Silky smooth. Perfectly balanced (I mean perfectly). I cannot overstate how enamored I am of these velvety wines.

But while far, far below the sky-high prices of their darker brethren, bottles of white Bordeaux do not come cheap. What’s a value-minded vino-holic to do?

Luckily, there are several options:

  1. Don’t buy Grand Cru: Right after the Bordeaux tasting, I dove into research and trips to local wine shops, trying to recreate the magic of what I had sampled in that large conference room – minus the hefty price tag.
    Chateau Loudenne Blanc

    Chateau Loudenne Blanc

    What I eventually found was a 2006 Chateau Loudenne. While not from one of the premier Chateaux, this wine is so incredibly delicious that the sommelier at a recent celebratory dinner stopped to comment on our choice to bring it to the restaurant. He did this several times. And then helped himself to a small pour. With a nose of sweet almonds and a soft, velvety mouthfeel rich with grapefruit and lanolin, who needs to spend Grand Cru prices to experience a similar level of deliciousness? Especially when this beautiful bottle cost me only $20. Maybe $21. Let me say that one more time: Even the sommelier at a restaurant with 2 Michelin Stars stopped to praise this “value” wine. It really was remarkable, especially when you consider that bottles from up the road in this region run $80+. I can’t recommend the Chateau Loudenne more highly, but there are plenty of incredible Bordeaux wines out there that are selling for a comparative song, simply because they lack that coveted First, Second or Third Growth status. But if “Cru” matters to you, remember that there is a significant price difference between First and Second Growth (Premiers or 1er and Seconds or Deuxiemes Cru Classe), Second and Third Growth (Troisiemes), Third and Fourth Growth (Quatriemes), and Fourth and Fifth Growth (Cinquiemes). The cost plummets even more precipitously when you go from Fifth Growth down to Cru Bourgeois – which is the class from which the Loudenne comes – although the Cru Bourgeois designation was officially done away with in 2007. Any value vinophile worth his or her salt should simply find the wines classified Cru Bourgeois before ’07 and hunt these bad boys down*. You know you’ll be getting an absolutely incredible value for the money. But one shouldn’t place too much emphasis on growth classification; just because a wine is Second, Third, Fourth, Bourgeois, etc., does not mean it’s far inferior to Premier – especially as the quality of some of the First and Second Growths waxes and wanes over the years.

  2. Don’t buy chateau-bottled Bordeaux: While there is very concentrated hoopla over several important Chateaux in the region, wine making in Bordeaux is not confined merely to grand properties where they grow and ferment their own. Like almost everywhere else in the world, Bordeaux also produces wines blended from several different properties – sometimes even the fancy ones – although you’d be hard-pressed to find this information on the label. This practice is actually borne of the age-old négociant (“merchant”) system – identical to the system that produces Cameron Hughes and Layer Cake Wines in the US. Winemakers source what they feel is some of the best fruit in the area and mix it to create their own special blend.
  3. Don’t buy “Bordeaux”: Instead, opt for the lesser-known appellations in the region, which are producing solid stuff at a fraction of what the classic parishes pull in. Look for appellations like Premières Côtes de Blaye, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Côtes de Francs, Côtes de Castillon, Cadillac, Côtes de Bourg, Fronsac and Montagne-St-Emilion. These are some of the “new” appellations, but they are all within the Bordeaux AOC. For potentially even bigger bargains, look for “Bordeaux blends” in regions entirely outside of Bordeaux – Like Loire, for example. Wines produced in other AOCs will not taste the same as the identical blend from Bordeaux, but there will be a similar and recognizable flavor profile you might really enjoy.
  4. Meet Meritage: The blends that produce Meritage are the classic Bordeaux mixtures, in varying proportions – made in America.
    meritage_assoc

    The Meritage Association

From the website:

Meritage wines are provocative red or white wines crafted solely from specific “noble” Bordeaux grape varieties and are considered to be the very best wines of the vintage.

Meritage, pronounced like heritage, first appeared in the late 1980s after a group of American vintners joined forces to create a name for New World wines blended in the tradition of Bordeaux. The word was selected from more than 6,000 entries in an international contest. Meritage combines “merit,” reflecting the quality of the grapes, with “heritage,” which recognizes the centuries-old tradition of blending, long considered to be the highest form of the winemaker’s art.

While many bottles may contain the Bordeaux blend, only those that belong to the Meritage Alliance can use the name on the label. The Good: It’s generally really good wine at non-Bordeaux prices (although this doesn’t mean they’re necessarily value priced). The Bad: It isn’t true Bordeaux.

One final note: Good wine – whether it’s from Bordeaux or anywhere else in the world – is the wine that tastes good to you. I’ve spoken to several industry veterans who have had the good fortune of experiencing several of the most renowned and celebrated wines on the planet. In each case, these experts remembered some of the wines as being perfect and lovely and delicious and incredible…and some of them tasting like…well…crap. Undrinkable. They poured their – otherwise perfect – glasses down the sink. I spoke to one man who said he went to a special winery dinner where, unbeknown to the head sommelier, they switched the bottle of the 3- or 4-figure wine of the evening with a bottle of Charles Shaw. The sommelier’s reaction was tepid: He thought it was a pretty decent bottle of Two-Buck Chuck and that the “exceptional” wine was quite a disappointment.

My point is this: Bordeaux is known for producing some truly special wines – for people who like to drink Bordeaux. There are no points given for paying top dollar for something you don’t want to drink. A region or a designation only makes the wine better in the way that a designer label improves a pair of jeans: Perhaps it’s an indication of quality or a certain cut or style, but there are a lot of other factors that determine the right fit.

Have fun, try a bunch of stuff, and buy what suits you. Maybe that’s Chateau Lafite-Rothchild, or maybe it’s something with a pretty label and a small price tag you buy from Trader Joe’s. In the end, you are your own expert, and only you can determine what you like to drink and how much you’re willing to pay for it.

* Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels:

Exceptional AND value-priced, too

Exceptional AND value-priced, too

Château Chasse-Spleen (Moulis-en-Médoc, Moulis-en-Médoc)

Château Haut-Marbuzet (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Labegorce Zédé (Soussans, Margaux)
Château Ormes-de-Pez (Les) (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Pez (de) (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Phélan Ségur (Saint-Estèphe, Saint-Estèphe)
Château Potensac (Ordonnac, Médoc)
Château Poujeaux (Moulis-en-Médoc, Moulis-en-Médoc)
Château Siran (Labarde, Margaux)

Why Social Media is Not the Solution to Selling More Expensive Wine

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in How to Buy Wine at Good Prices | 8 Comments

On February 16th, The New York Times published an interesting article titled “Try the Red: Napa Learns to Sell” that caught my attention thanks to Twitter. The main focus of the article relies on this assumption,

“…in 2009, sales of wines priced at $25 and above dropped 30 percent nationwide, according to Nielsen. While global wine sales increased, California wine shipments fell for the first time in 16 years. Searching for a way out of the crisis, many Napa wineries are increasingly pinning their hopes on direct-to-consumer sales.”

As someone working in the front-lines of direct-to-consumer sales of wine and 5 years of ecommerce experience at some of the Internet’s largest properties, I groaned a little. I didn’t really start groaning and moaning until the article started talking about Facebook and Twitter as a great shining beacon of hope for direct-to-consumer sales.

In particular, Rick Bakas, a man who makes his living via promoting Social Media services to wineries (and does a good job at it), was quoted as saying,

“Where wineries need to focus most is on signing up new wine club members through social media,” he said, “rather than rely on cementing relationships with tourists who drive up to the tasting room.”

I happen to know more than a little about this particular challenge as this is how I make a living, too. At the end of this post there’s a quick rundown on how I’ve acquired the expertise I have, and it ought to inform the comments I’m going to make about why Social Media is not the solution.

Here’s the short answer about how it’s all a numbers game that doesn’t add up and then I’ll go into detail:

  1. It’s really hard (and takes a long time) for a brand to grow a huge, meaningful, Twitter or Facebook following.
  2. There are too many brands competing for consumers’ limited attention online to gain real online market share.
  3. Consumers are still skeptical of buying things online that they can’t experience first. Especially so with wine.
  4. There are MANY fewer people buying wine over $25 per bottle than under.

And the full(er) explanation for those of you who are interested, strap yourself in for a long ride:

  1. Meaningful Twitter & Facebook Followings
    There’s a difference between building a following that includes people who are genuinely interested in most of what you have to say or are selling and creating an enormous flock of people who are willing to commit to sometimes seeing your messages amongst the thousands of other messages they get every day or week. This is the part where social media falls down most aggressively, all on its own. The reality of all those social media connections is that when you send messages out to your Twitter and Facebook flocks, only a portion of those people will ever see your message, and a really teeny tiny portion of those who do, will act. That really teeny tiny portion might generously be 1% of those of who see your message. That means that to get 100 new sales, you’d need 10,000 people to see your message. Let’s be generous and say that 25% of people who are in your flock actually saw your message… that means that you’d need 40,000 people in your flock to generate 100 new sales. I wonder how long it took Rick to build up 40,000+ followers on twitter, but I bet it wasn’t fast enough to turn a winery around in a single fiscal year.
  2. Capturing Market Share
    The NYTimes article mentions this:

    “Distributors, they say, pay attention only to their biggest accounts, while small independent wineries, which predominate in Napa Valley, have to figure out ways to promote themselves.”

    If you think more than a handful of consumers are going to be more receptive to promotional information from small independent wineries than Distributors you’re mistaken. Distributors benefit from knowing about all of the wineries, even if they don’t carry/promote them. Their opportunities are in making fantastic deals with huge beverage companies and in finding “The Next Big Thing” which probably includes independent wineries poised for commercial success. So the Distributors have a vested interest in finding the best small independent wineries—consumers, on the other hand, do not.

    Small independent wineries are competing for consumers’ attention amongst all of the other brands in all of the other goods & services industries out there, on top of the consumers’ other personal interests which include oh, I don’t know, the rest of their lives, making ends meet, keeping up with friends and family, etc. Bottom line is: As a consumer, a no-name winery I’ve never heard of is not going to get my attention without a referral from someone I know and trust (a very small group of people and companies to be sure).

  3. Purchasing Wine Online
    The percentage of current online wine sales is somewhere in the 5-10% of all wine sold in the US. [This is not fact, but anecdotal data based on conversations with many other people in different areas of the Trade.]

    There are reasons this number is so small and it has much more to do with how people buy wine today than it does with people’s online shopping behavior. I spend a lot of time talking to consumers about wine (every chance I get pretty much) because they’re not in the wine industry and they don’t think the world practically revolves around wine like I do. Most people I’ve talked to buy a bottle or two of wine at the grocery store, buy six bottles at a time at places like BevMo! and World Market, or are given wine as a gift when guests come over for dinner. Most of them talk about how their friend or family member told them about some great wine that they loved and they can’t wait to tell me about it, too. Most of them can’t conceive of buying a case of wine, much less buying a case of wine online. A case of wine is a financial commitment… and people don’t like to commit to things they don’t know.

    Most online wine-buying behavior is people who are reordering something they already know they love or gift-giving. A reasonable percentage of people who are buying wine online are wine enthusiasts who don’t have access to a good wine store or are too busy to physically hunt down the latest treasure they’ve read about somewhere. A small percentage of people buying wine online are buying winery-direct because that’s the only way to get those wines—and I mean small.

    The wine industry seems to be hoping that the Gen-Y whippersnappers who are so comfortable with the Internet and computers will just switch their buying habits to online because it’s not as awkward to them. As one of the Gen-Y elders with a healthy household income, a 12-year online shopping habit, and 5+ years working in ecommerce, I’m no more likely to start buying my wine online than you are… because I want to taste it first. I want to know what I’m buying before I shell out money for 3 or more bottles (which is how retailers want me to buy it online because it makes it cheaper and easier for them to ship it to me).

    If returning wine online were easy, say as easy as returning 3-6 pairs of shoes that don’t fit properly, I might consider it. Unfortunately though, once I open a bottle, I can’t return it. And let’s say I order three, open one and don’t like it… it’s still not easy to return the other two. THIS is why consumer behavior around buying wine online is unlikely to change anytime soon.

  4. The Wine Price Pyramid
    Who's Buying Wine at What Price Points

    Who's Buying Wine at What Price Points

    While a great deal of wine by volume and by revenue is sold at the over-$25 per bottle price point in the United States, I perceive that growth market to be limited. The people who are already spending $25 and up for a bottle of wine LOVE wine. They drink it every day, they order bottles in restaurants, they have subscriptions to Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate, they have personal wine cellars, and wine is a passion for them. In a recession, there aren’t going to be a lot of people “moving up” to this level of wine-consumption. This recession in particular is teaching us all a lesson about not living beyond our means (I hope) and that luxuries are for people who live luxurious lifestyles… the rest of us need to focus on value and quality and getting our money’s worth because there’s less money to go around.

    Before the recession most Americans couldn’t conceive of buying a bottle of wine at the grocery store that costs more than $25. Today, the chatter is all about wines under $15 or even under $10. That’s where the growth market is. You can sell 10x more wine to “the average consumer” because there are so many more of them. Would you rather get 10 new customers who spend $500 per year ($5,000) or 100 new customers who spend $100 per year ($10,000)? The math should be easy, even with the lower profit margins in the cheaper wines.

  5. Wine Clubs
    You know when I join wine clubs? When I’m standing in a tasting room, buzzed and happy and really wanting to take this fantastic wine-tasting trip home with me in a bottle to be relived whenever I feel like popping a cork. The trouble is, I have to love most of what I’ve tasted to join your wine club. Not just one bottle that was great… but several. Every wine Fiddlehead Cellars makes is outstanding, so we joined their wine club. We were blown away by the 10 wines we tasted at Stolpman Vineyards so we joined their wine club. My favorite Rose is a Grenache Rose made by Beckmen Vineyards and I’ll drive 2 hours to Santa Barbara wine country to buy 3 bottles, but I won’t join their wine club because I was unimpressed by the rest of what I tried.

    Sometimes, when I’m feeling generous, I might be someone a 3-month subscription to a wine club from Wine.com or the Wine of the Month Club. Maybe life’s getting too busy and I just want the wine delivered to my house at a good price, then I’ll look at the Wall Street Journal Wine Club or Zagat’s new Wine Club. This is consumer behavior, folks. Only your fanatical fans will join your wine club for a meaningful length of time. The rest who join last, on average, 4-6 months or 2-3 shipments whichever comes first. And the rest of us won’t join at all.

    I’ll reiterate here because it’s important: I make a living selling wine club subscriptions… and I don’t think increasing wine club sales is the way to grow your winery’s business. And incidentally, I don’t think Social Media is a way to meaningfully increase wine club sales either.

Okay… so I’ve blown holes in ecommerce and social media as a growth opportunity for wineries. Do I have any solutions or am I just a critic blathering on? Yes, I have solutions!

  • Wineries should take a hint from the fashion industry (the similarities are practically limitless) and go “High-Low.” Do you produce wines at $30 and up? Come up with a line of wines, made by the same winemaker so they carry the same reputation, and sell them at the under $15 price-point in mass-market settings. Introduce new consumers to your brand and create a following who, when they can afford it, will upgrade to your more expensive wines. Many wineries already do this: Ravenswood, Mondavi, Stag’s Leap, etc. come to mind.
  • Still taking a hint from the fashion industry, go “Private Label.” This has been a BIG hit for many winemakers and vineyards with brands like Cameron Hughes, 90+ Cellars, Oriel, and even Bob Lindquist who’s making wine under the label VINTJS at Trader Joe’s. Reaching a broader audience where they’re already shopping is a great way to expand your revenue channels.
  • Incentivize your wine clubs better. The wine geeks want access to special events because they’re saving their pennies for trips to Napa and Bordeaux, but the rest of us want a reason to join your wine clubs, too. We’re already getting discounts on your wines, but maybe I’d join your club if you offered me discounts to other wineries in a “collective.” So by joining the St Supery wine club (which I’d like to do some day) I could also get discounts and new-release information for Rombauer and PlumpJack, too. You’ll get increased brand-exposure (from Rombauer and PlumpJack’s fans) and you’ll get more subscriptions because there’s more in it for the consumer.
  • Invest in focus groups and user testing. Build your brand’s reputation around consumers who have blind-tasted your wine, liked it, and are willing to say so on your website, in non-industry publications, and disclose that they’re not being paid as spokesmen so other consumers can trust them. Let’s face it, most people talking about wine are paid to do so and are immediately lest trustworthy because of it.
  • Host wine-tasting events in major geographical locations and bring the wine-tasting experience to consumers where it’s convenient for them. Parties are cheap and drunk people buy a lot of wine. It’s a low-risk and fun way to find about your wines.

Then publicize all of that via Social Media… which is what it’s for. Getting the word out (as opposed to driving direct sales).

My Background & Qualifications for this Rant

While working in Product Management, User Experience, and Search at Shopzilla.com, the largest and most successful comparison shopping engine, I learned an inordinate amount about people’s online shopping behaviors, some about their offline shopping behaviors, and the web-marketing channel known as Cost-per-Click advertising (or CPC). I also learned how to test consumer behavior using actual shopping data as they were/are among the very best at it.

Later, I ran Product Management at Social Shopping hopeful ThisNext.com. Here I delved deeply into determining the power of user recommendations for generating demand that generates sales for, typically, high-end products. I learned a great deal more about online business models like Cost-per-Impression Advertising (or CPM) and Performance Marketing (Cost-per-Acquisition, or CPA). Unlike CPC and CPM models, when you’re working in the CPA business model, you get conversion data. For those of you whom I haven’t bored right off the site, CONVERSION DATA = ACTUAL SALES.

Currently I run a property called WineClubReviews.net. As you might imagine, we review wine clubs and rate them. Because wine taste preferences are so subjective, we don’t rate the taste of the wine and whether or not you’ll like the wine, we rate whether or not the wine club is delivering good value for your monthly subscription. Among all of the wine clubs we’ve reviewed to date, only one is from a single wine producer, and it’s not a winery, it’s Oriel wines who has engaged an innovative business model to capture wine consumers’ attention.

Innovative Wine Businesses

Posted on by Arianna Armstrong in How to Buy Wine at Good Prices | 6 Comments

As is the case with every industry, clever business people with big ideas and great connections often find ways to accelerate industry growth and take a cut of the market for themselves.  These entrepreneurs figure out an angle on how to get their own piece of the pie by targeting the consumer market. The wine world is no exception.

While you may not know the names of these companies, you have likely heard of a few of their wines. This post covers the different approaches these innovators are taking: Bronco Wine Company, Cameron Hughes Wine, Latitude Beverage Company, and Oriel Wines.

Method 1: Reach the most consumers by making cheap wine widely available

Two-Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw Wine)

You may not know the name Bronco Wine Company but I’ll bet you a year’s salary you know their biggest brand–Charles Shaw (a.k.a. Two-Buck Chuck). Did you also know that Bronco Wine Company has over fifty other brands, too? According to Wikipedia (the only web-presence the company maintains), Bronco Wine Company is the fourth-largest wine producer in the US with total annual sales of approximately 20 million cases.

Bronco is a 30-year old wine company that has had some troubles along the way, but it’s never easy for the pioneers; CEO Fred Franzia (no relation to the wine in the box) has successfully executed his vision of bringing wine to the masses. (See earlier comment about you knowing the name of their #1 brand.) They did it by buying grape and wine overruns from existing wineries and repackaging them. They did it by buying 35,000+ acres of grape-growing land in California and making their own wines in less-expensive areas than the Napa Valley. They did it by specializing in distribution and getting their wine into grocery stores like Trader Joe’s and other national chains.

Bronco can safely claim they did a tremendous amount to contribute to the explosion of wine-consumption in the US because at $2 a bottle, it’s a risk-free experiment for nearly everyone and since most consumers don’t know good wine from bad they’re happy drinking the two-buck bottles. Some people refer to Two-buck Chuck as a gateway wine–it introduces people to wine and when they’re ready for something more adventurous, they’ll step up and start buying better wines. I don’t know what percentage of the Charles Shaw audience are upgraders, but I’ll bet brands like Yellow Tail and Coppola are thrilled they do.

Method 2: Diversify in different methods of selling oversupply and partner with others to help do it

Cameron Hughes Wines - Lot Series

Cameron Hughes Wines – Lot Series

Another innovative company aiming to bring more value to the consumer market is Cameron Hughes Wines. They’ve diversified their approach to include purchasing oversupply and backblending some of it into their Rock Ridge series while maintaining the integrity of the better wines in their Lot Series. When they find good winemaker partners, they create ongoing relationships for their Flying Winemaker Series, even going so far as to choose one uber-partner for their Evergreen Series.

Cameron Hughes also cultivated strong distribution channels with major retailers maintaining great brand loyalty like Costco, Cost Plus World Market, and Safeway. These are stores where consumers aren’t looking for fine wines, but good quality wines at a good value and Cameron Hughes thinks they can build lifelong consumer loyalty for their brands through these distribution channels. If the quality is there, and the prices are fair, I’ll bet they keep growing at a record pace.

Method 3: Specialize in high-end oversupply and only source the best varietals from their best regions

90+ Cellars Malbec

90+ Cellars Malbec

Latitude Beverage Company is an example of an innovative business which sees that the fine wine market is declining and that there’s more growth opportunity in bringing good quality wine to the mass consumer market. They’re doing it in two different ways under two unique labels–90+ Cellars and Ku De Ta Wines.

90+ Cellars is just like Cameron Hughes’ Lot Series except that the wines Latitude Beverage purchases come with a ratings pedigree. While we don’t necessarily advocate buying wines based on their ratings (because everyone’s personal taste is different), we think only selecting wines that are well-structured enough to earn a 90+ rating in the first place is a great place to start. When you purchase a 90+ Cellars wine, you’re getting premium quality at value pricing–a great way to win over sophisticated wine buyers on a budget.

Ku De Ta Wines, Rioja

Ku De Ta Wines, Rioja

Ku De Ta is more like Cameron Hughes’ Flying Winemaker Series in that they’ve hand-selected varietals from the regions where they perform best. When you want to produce consistently high-quality wines, why buy your grapes from a region that doesn’t have the best terroir to support superior winemaking? Why buy your Cabernet grapes from anywhere other than the Napa Valley? Why buy your Malbec from anywhere other than Mendoza? You get the point. I can’t tell if they make their own wines or if they contract with winemakers (probably the latter), but it’s almost irrelevant because winemaking that starts with the best grapes and that respects the varietal’s characteristics produces wonderful wines.

Method 4: Leverage winemaker contacts to produce the best line of wines from around the world

Oriel Wines

Oriel Wines

Among myriad platitudes there are two popular truisms in the business world that help companies focus: “know your strengths” and “stick to your core competencies, outsource the rest.” Oriel Wines understands focus and knows their own strengths don’t lie in vineyard equipment and property operations, but in evaluating wines and winemakers for greatness. Oriel has created partnerships with the world’s finest winemakers from the best regions and hand-selected varietals to be crafted into world-class wines. They then bottle these wines and distribute them under the single brand, Oriel.

The difference between Oriel and Cameron Hughes in this area is that Oriel is specialized. Specialists tend to excel at their niche and often can bring exceptional quality to their work. Oriel has managed to do this and still sell their wines at consumer-friendly prices, and they consistently get top ratings on their wines, too. With a range of pricing from $15 – $75 per bottle, Oriel knows that consumers who get to know their brand through one of its well-priced selections will become a loyal brand follower and continue to discover a world of wines as their wine experience and appetite for more extraordinary wines grows.

Bottom line: If you buy wines that are priced according to innovative business practices (as opposed to local real estate prices and ratings-driven demand), odds are good you’re getting better quality wine for your money–who doesn’t want that?