"Irreverence is easy--what's hard is wit."--Tom Lehrer
Thursday, August 21, 2014
The HoseMaster's Guide to Wine Marketing
The longer I’m in the wine business, the more fascinated I become with the marketing of wine. Not that it’s any different than, say, the marketing of movies. In fact, it seems like all marketing makes me think the same thing over and over, “Who the hell falls for that?” Now your question to me might be, “Who falls for what?” And you’ve answered my question.
Let’s first define wine marketing. It’s prevaricating. If you can’t put your hand on a Bible, swear in open court that what you’ve said is true, and not go to jail for perjury, it’s lying. Oh, it’s sophisticated lying, it’s lying by implication and dishonest associations, but it’s still lying. For example, “Our vineyard is right next to Harlan Estate,” which may, in fact, be true, but is meant to imply that therefore the wine is of the same quality. Which is like saying, “That’s my husband, the guy standing next to Brad Pitt,” as proof that Angelina Jolie wants to fuck him and bear his adopted children. (I think Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story about that very situation--“The Pitt and the Pudendum.”) Only, unlike wine, anyone can tell he’s not Brad Pitt without having to put him in her mouth and taste him. Wine marketing relies on the consumer’s ultimate ignorance about wine, and their insecurity about their wine knowledge. Which is why it’s so much fun to be a wine marketer! Playing folks for fools is endlessly entertaining.
I’ve assembled a few rules to remember when reading winery marketing material. This is not a complete list, but it should help you navigate some of the garbage that surrounds the marketing of wine.
It’s Important to Tell a Wine’s Story
Every damned winery has a story. Let’s not forget that a story only has to be good, only has to be interesting, it certainly doesn’t have to be true. I love a good story as much as the next guy, the one standing next to Brad Pitt, but every time I read a puff piece in Wine Spectator (about a winery that, only coincidentally, is owned by one of their major advertisers), or yet another asinine winery review on a wine blog (Alderpated on Vornography passing off winery marketing propraganda as journalism), I cringe. Wine marketing sells you romance when it wants to screw you, just like your ex-boyfriend. Winery stories are the business’ Lifetime movies—they’re “based on a true story.” You see, you always have to qualify “story” with “true,” otherwise it’s not. You don’t have to qualify “true.”
Please, God, can we put an end to telling every winery’s story? The stuff that was made up in marketing meetings? Meetings where they discuss whether to use the word “natural,” or whether it should be “authentic.” I know, I know, let’s use “sustainable.” That doesn’t mean anything legally, and it sounds like we care. Splooge Estate is sustainable! The only question is, is my straight face sustainable?
In Wine Marketing, Two Half-Truths Equal a Truth
“Our winemaker worked in Burgundy. Our vineyards are on the exact same latitude as the Côtes d’Or. So our wine is very Burgundian.” Beware of the word “Burgundian.” It is a word that is only used for the worst Pinot Noirs and the dreariest Chardonnays. It’s marketing shorthand for, “I don’t know shit about Burgundy, but I’m also sure you don’t know shit about Burgundy.” It’s also lazy wine marketing. It takes no imagination or thought, but it flatters the client no end. “Oh, honey, tonight’s dinner was absolutely French Laundrian.” As it turns out, what may sound like praise is basically sarcasm. Remember that the next time a winery claims its wine is Burgundian. They’re probably just being sarcastic. Laugh like you're in on it.
I’m the Expert on Expert Opinions
There’s a reason wine marketing folks praise wine bloggers. They desperately need their opinions to have meaning. There’s no difference between wine writing and wine blogging, they’ll have you know. Just like there’s no difference between your high school production of “Death of a Salesman” and one on Broadway. Teenagers can be actors, too, and they understand the context just as well as the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Only an idiot would think otherwise. You just have to memorize some lines, after all, and you, too, can be Willy Loman. Hey, what’s an MS made of but memorization? See? There you go. (See section above.)
Points, medals, blurbs from bloggers, it’s all the same. Make them all seem meaningful. But it’s something of a descending order of preference for wine marketing. No Parker score worth touting? Talk about the one Gold Medal you received out of the ten competitions you entered. No Gold Medals? Well, you got a nice little mention on the blog that won “Best Reviews on a Wine Blog,” an award given by marketing folks. In fact, any blogger that mentions your wine is an expert! He’s a wine writer. Which implies he’s a wine expert (see paragraph two). Hell, we’re all wine writers! I know, let’s put on “Death of a Salesman” and we can all be actors, too! I got dibs on Biff.
Words Have No Meaning
Marketing people love language the way troubled teenagers love razor blades. It’s a sick and destructive relationship. There are countless words that have been deprived of all meaning in wine marketing. Words that are tossed around like so many dwarves in a bowling alley. Here are just a few.
Terroir—Once a word that was used by winemakers of an appellation to say that a particular wine possessed telling characteristics of its origins, much as a person might reflect his culture. “Terroir” has now come to mean whatever the person uses it thinks it means—sort of like the word “truth” on the Internet.
Old Vines—How many 35-year-olds think they’re old? Humans and grapevines have similar lifespans, if anything, grapevines can outlive us. So how is 35 old? Or 50? What are we, still in the fucking Middle Ages? Are the best wines in the world made from old vines? I always thought the best wines came from the best vineyards. Old vines are just a novelty in the United States, I guess. Like watching Harrison Ford or Woody Allen get the young girl in a movie. I guess it’s because their balls have had longer hang times that the girls want them.
Balance—We pursue it. Every other winemaker ignores it. We now own it. Want to have balance? Submit a sample. We’ll tell you if you do. Otherwise, fuck off.
After 19 years as a Sommelier in Los Angeles, twice named Sommelier of the Year by the Southern California Restaurant Writers' Association, I moved to Sonoma County to explore the other aspects of the wine business. I've spent, OK wasted, 35 years learning about and teaching about and swallowing wine. I am also a judge at the Sonoma Harvest Fair, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the San Francisco International Wine Competition--so I can spit like a rabid llama. I know more about wine than David Sedaris and I'm funnier than James Laube. Stay tuned for an informed but jaded view of everything wine and everything else.
I'm living proof that alcohol kills brain cells.
What the Critics Are Saying About HoseMaster of Wine
"If you want a great hoot and howl moment or two...go read the HoseMaster's year-end reflections...that guy is without a doubt the funniest SOB in the blog-world...and thank him for having the brains and balls to target his laser of laughter on anybody...HoseMaster for President...HoseMaster for Blogger of the Year...although he would be the first to say the bar is so damn low for that award, he should win it every year..." --Robert Parker
"No one is immune from California sommelier and wine judge Ron Washam's skewering. He polishes that skewer with boundless enthusiasm and acuity."
"As serious as the world of wine is, it does allow time for humor. Each Monday and Thursday, Ron Washam customarily posts a commentary on his needling wine blog HoseMaster of Wine. Washam, a former sommelier and comedy writer – he might say they are closely related – is the most opinionated, humorous and ribald observer in the wine world. His body of work is irreverent and remorseless. It’s almost always satire and parody, though he occasionally drifts into straight commentary, sometimes even with tasting notes. This past year, one of his posts was named the best of the year in the Wine Blog Awards. His success has spawned several imitations, which in their awkwardness show just how difficult satire is."
--Mike Dunne, Sacramento Bee
Read more here: http://www.sacbee.com/2014/01/21/6089630/dunne-on-wine-wine-blogs-and-bloggers.html#storylink=cpy
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--San Francisco Chronicle
"Ron Washam, former sommelier, is easily the most bitingly funny blogger/wine writer that we have ever come across. He is an equal opportunity crusader who pillories big wineries and amateur bloggers alike, as well as everything and everyone in between...One needs a sense of humor and a tolerance for earthiness to enjoy reading The Hosemaster. We must have both because this guy deserves a wider audience, in our humble opinion." --Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine
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