Doctor Pinot’s Thanksgiving

The warming glow of the corner fireplace, the plush seats on the banquets, and the damask covered table set with Haviland china, formal place settings of Rogers silverware and  Eisch stemware seemed so completely incongruous to Doctor Pinot, who days before was sitting in considerably more humble circumstances finishing his assessment of the situation on the ground. Having turned in his report, he hopped on the first transport headed stateside for the required debriefing, his letter of resignation in hand. He was going to let the House and Senate staffers fight this one out with the K Street boys over Cabernet and steaks at the Pennsylvania Avenue Capital Grille. He was exhausted but relieved to have put this thing behind him. The debriefing sessions, while never easy in the past, had taken their toll this time. Knowing that he had made the right choice, he walked out of the building without going back to clear out his desk, eyes forward all the way across the parking lot. Displaying a hard to suppress grin, he jumped into his Audi and drove without hesitation or regret to southwestern suburban Baltimore, now ready to enjoy an early Thanksgiving meal at his cousin’s restaurant.

Mondays were usually dark at the restaurant, except for the annual post Thanksgiving holiday party season, and this year was no different. The K Street consultants’ entertainment budgets were bigger than ever, and even being out of the Washington Post’s constant gaze, Doctor Pinot’s cousin’s culinary star had risen in these circles. The Chef had been smart enough to plan his space so that it was broken up into several small dinning rooms, allowing for the needed and frequently requested privacy for the ensuing policy discussions among Washington’s decision makers. But, Doctor Pinot and his cousin were the only dinners this mid-November Monday evening, in addition to his cousin acting as the lone chef. He put his elbows on the table, something he would only do now that his Mother was no longer here, having recently died close to her 101st birthday. Leaning forward the good Doctor pinched his eyes closed before reopening them to see that he was going to enjoy the most memorable Thanksgiving meal of his life.

The Chef ladled the butternut squash soup from the terrine into his bowl, topping it with a dash of nutmeg and Kendall Farms Crème Fraîche. As his mouth closed around the soup spoon, Doctor Pinot could taste the winter squash soups of his youth cooked in his Grandmother’s Indiana farm kitchen. One taste of the 2008 Navarro Dry Muscat quickly brought him back to the present with flavors that took him to his old backyard in California with tastes of Valencia oranges, Gold Nugget mandarins and Meyer lemons. The bright acidity was the perfect foil for the richness of the soup. There was no talking as both Doctor Pinot and the Chef were lost in the moment. The Chef cleared the bowls and headed back to the kitchen and soon reappeared with the next course.

Maryland Crab cakes cooked in the way that had made them the restaurant’s most popular dish. Fresh Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Cakes, produced from hand picked lump meat, lightly spiced and bound together with egg whites and dusted with a panko coating. Crisp, light, even etherial. One could taste the bay in this dish. The 2008 Mahoney Las Brisas Carneros Vermentino, with the flavors of white peaches and ripe Bearss lemons and aromas of dried wild flowers and bay breezes all worked in concert with the crab cakes, each complementing the other. Doctor Pinot looked up at the Chef with pride. His cousin understood the simplicity of it all. That balance mattered more than volume. It was the quiet, simple things that were evocative, and holiday meals weren’t so much about the present but about the sum of our pasts.

The side dishes came out of the kitchen next, caramelized brussels spouts with pancetta, just like  the dish at Rose Pistola, then a fan of multi-colored yams, and of course the dressing – dressing started with dried sourdough, thrown in a deep saute pan on top of the mirepoix that had been cooked with a Pinot Noir reduction, mixed with Minnesota wild rice and craisins: oh, and enough butter to bring a smile to the face of the late Julia Child. Next came the turkey, and what a turkey. The Chef, a leader in the slow foods movement and a locavore of note, found a Maryland breeder of heritage turkeys and secured a Bourbon Red for the dinner, split open and slow roasted on a bed of carrots, celery and sweet onions. The smells were the smells of childhood, and the tastes were from the days of jumping into Dad’s wood paneled station wagon and driving to Langmeyer’s Farm out along the old creek road, and picking out the bird before quickly dispatching it. Old Mrs Langmeyer would wrap the turkey in newspaper, and within the hour Doctor Pinot and his brother were plucking the bird while their Mom warmed the oven. With the first bite, Doctor Pinot couldn’t help but think that those birds had flavor, but perhaps not as much as this turkey which continued to deepen with each full fork. The Chef had picked two wines to go with the Bourbon Red, both from Doctor Pinot’s friend Eric Sussman. First up was the 2007 Radio-Coteau Savoy Chardonnay. A wine grown for Eric by Paul Ardzrooni on Savoy’s south facing slopes in the North end of Mendocino’s Anderson Valley. Doctor Pinot grimaced. Eric was a good friend, but it had been years since he had a California Chardonnay that he enjoyed. The Chef had been flawless in his wine choices so far, so the worst case being that he would just drink the Pinot. Wow, was this Chardonnay? Couldn’t be. The balance was impeccable, and the flavors of Gravenstein apples and Ponderosa lemons melded into a seamless finish. No, his cousin wasn’t going to enjoy this gem all by himself. The Chef put down his glass and flashed a wry look at his cousin, a non verbal ‘I told you so.’ Pouring the Radio-Coteau 2005 Terra Neuma Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Doctor Pinot’s face lit-up like a Broadway theater marquee. He knew his Pinots and this was one of his all time favorites. Biodynamically farmed by Mike Benziger, on the bleeding edge of where you can ripen grapes between Freestone and Bodega, this wine tasted of both earth and ocean. Flavors of dried Cape Cod cranberries, Burgundian Cassis, with back notes of French train station espresso reconfirmed his prior taste memories of this wine, and transported him to the middle of the vineyard, feeling the wind from the nearby Pacific on his face as he lifted his glass to the fog. Doctor Pinot’s thoughts retuned to the table as he tipped his fingers to salute the Chef for a masterful job.

As he loosened his belt a notch or two, Doctor Pinot looked up to see the Chef deliver a slice of gingered Bartlett pear cake that could have graced the cover of  Gourmet Magazine’s annual holiday issue. The Chef pulled the short cork out of a brandy bottle, a single vineyard Russian River Pinot Noir alembic brandy, and poured two-fingers in each of the small, round snifters. Lifting and clinking the glasses, both men got out of their chairs for a long overdue hug. As he patted his cousin on his back, Doctor Pinot knew that ‘God, it was good to be home!’

Note: Copyright © 2009 Think Wine Marketing® All rights reserved.

A conversation about marketing wine online with Paul Mabray of VinTank

“We make wine work online.” … Paul Mabray, VinTank Founder & Chief Strategy OfficerPaul Mabray at the 2009 Wine Bloggers Conference

The Backstory

WBM charting sales up 7%Against the background of the Wine Business Monthly lead story Tuesday, November 3rd, announcing ‘Wine Sales up 7% in October,’ is last week’s story of AmazonWine’s failure to launch. While the story of Amazon.com’s attempted entry into the online wine sales segment has been well documented, this quick summary will tend to facilitate the following discussion. The Financial Times reported on March 5th 2008 that Amazon.com planned to start selling wine online in the USA market. Amazon had in fact ventured down this path before, investing $30 million in return for a 45% equity stake in pioneer online wine marketer Wineshopper.com in 1999. But that investment evaporated as Wineshopper ceased operations within a year. And then continuing to keep their toes in the water through an association with the longstanding Wine.com selling gourmet food baskets without wine through Amazon.com. During the formativeDini Rao of AmazonWine.com stages, AmazonWine chose New Vine Logistics as its fulfillment partner, but this arrangement was endangered when NVL abruptly ceased operations on May 29th, 2009. Inertia Beverage Group stepped in purchasing NVL’s debt obligation from Silicon Valley Bank, and then via auction on July 27th acquired the assets of the financially stressed NVL. IBG initiated an integration of the NVL fulfillment business into their existing operations. On October 23, 2009 both New Vine Logistics and AmazonWine.com made announcements. NVL filed for Chapter 7 in the US Bankruptcy Court in Northern California, winding down the closure of the corporate entity; and, Dini Rao, Senior Account Manager at AmazonWine, sent an email to potential winery partners stating, “ we have recently decided not to resume shipping. As you know we were excited to work with you to build the AmazonWine business. For that, this was a very tough choice for us.”

1893 Edvard Munch, The ScreamIn light of an apparent wine market uptick, the subsequent gnashing of teeth, and what to me was an overly pessimistic take by journalists and bloggers alike rang as an overreaction to the actual events. The collective ennui displayed by many in the wine industry seemed more reflective of recent difficult financial times, and of hopes unfulfilled. And, many of the comments tended to be colored by the respondents particular points-of-view based on their involvement and specific roles in the wine industry. To get a clear picture of the effects of the AmazonWine decision not to move forward, I reached out to experienced digital wine marketer, Paul Mabray of VinTank for his take on the wine industry’s ecommerce marketplace. What follows are key bits of wisdom from this conversation covering digital marketing and the online sale of wine in the United States.

The Conversation

VinTank LogoTWM: What was the genesis of VinTank?
PM: After Inertia Beverage, I was looking for a way to continue to contribute to the wine business, to continue to add value, and I wanted to help wineries adopt an agile business process. The key idea was to provide thought leadership on the synergistic future between wine and technology, to keep innovating in the wine industry.

TWM: You have a significant background as one of the pioneers in winery e-commerce.
PM: I was lucky to work with some of the pioneers in DTT and DTC efforts at WineShopper.com/Wine.com, as a Beverage Industry Consultant with Sumitomo Mitsui Banking, and as the Founder/CEO of Inertia Beverage Group, but as the saying goes, most of the pioneers died with arrows in their backs and those that survived became the guides to help settlers safely go westward.

VinTank's sign outside the Napa OfficeTWM: This history is somewhat mirrored by your VinTank partners/team members.
PM: Having assembled a very strong team with collectively over 50 years experience in the wine and tech industries most notably eSkye, BevAccess, Inertia and Wine Trade Network, Vintank is now the recognized leader in online sales strategies and execution. The partners include Eric Hsu/Director, Creative Strategy, Patrick Angeles/Technology Strategy, Clay Wallin/Business Development/Operations and Ashley Bellview/Marketing and Social Media Associate.

TWM: Looking at the Wine Industry today what do you see?
PM: Now, looking at the wine industry VinTank sees a product category mired by antiquated laws, complex distribution paradigms, unique product qualifications and innumerable complexities. Through technology and innovative strategies, we are dedicated to finding solutions.

TWM: So, what are the challenges facing wine marketers?ecommerce marketing solutions
PM: The wine industry is tremendously fragmented and insular. It also suffers from one of the most antiquated, regulated and complicated distribution paradigms. It is an extremely long tail product with approximately 250,000 individual SKUs entering the market annually with many remaining in the market from 3-10 years. Plus there has been a tremendous proliferation of brands with ever decreasing market access through traditional distribution channels. Mix this with technology and you have a lot of complicated puzzle pieces to cobble together to help make a frictionless transaction occur.

TWM: Is there a key to a successful ecommerce strategy?
PM: To be successful in the digital end of the wine business you have to focus on the right things, focus on a multi-channel strategy, focus on a direct business model, and make your strategy consumer centric.

TWM: I’m thinking that the disparity of compensation between traditional sales management and DTC sales management shows a lack of awareness by many wine businesses of the potential of online wine sales.
PM: The disparity in traditional sales management salaries and DTC management salaries is a sad reflection of the myopia of traditional wine beliefs. DIRECT in all its forms (marketing, consumer and B2B sales) is the most profitable and important channel for the majority of US wineries.

Focusing on ecommerceTWM: I’ve heard traditional marketers say sales is sales, so, is a different skill set required by ecommerce managers?
PM: Out of 6,000 plus wineries in the United States there are only 20 dedicated ecommerce managers. Wineries view their primary DTC efforts as their tasting room, or their wine club, but like the broad market with on and off-premises requiring different skill sets there are different segments in DTC. Tasting rooms are DTC’s on-premise and the Internet its off-premise, and they each require different skills. Ecommerce requires a new type of online sales channel expertise and relationships. It also requires a commitment to creating and growing online brand presence, and a dedicated online sales and marketing strategy.

TWM: Given the new construct, just who’s the most important customer at a winery?
PM: All customers are important but I’ve been told by most wineries that their most important customer is the one who visits the winery and buys wine during their visit. An important customer, but your winery’s most important customer is the one who Googles your wine and through your winery store, and inspite of paying what is most likely the highest MSRP, buys the wine.

TWM: The adoption and integration of DTC and DTT technology solutions for wineries seems to be slow and fragmented.ecommerce interface
PM: The adoption and integration of applicable software technology including CRM/POS/Accounting is very clumsy. There are as many as 20 different systems that have to be integrated between hospitality, CRM, ecommerce, wine club, compliance and accounting. Unfortunately accounting system integration usually drives the process in a winery. My question is do you want an accounting centric system driving your business or a sales centric system…?

TWM: It seems that grape growing and production are years ahead of winery sales and marketing on the adoption of cutting edge technology solutions.
PM: We are a production centric industry. Viticulture and winery production departments utilize bleeding-edge technology and software. However software vendors for other functions have to deal with such a fragmented industry and slow technology adoption that they have to struggle to support themselves with such a small market share to divide (6K US wineries) that it causes lesser investment in R&D and artificially helps to create friction for innovation.

TWM: Can you identify the various DTC market segments?
PM: Online retailers, marketing agents, consumer marketing portals and direct to trade.

Thinking of the futureTWM: What does VinTank see as future trends in the wine industry?
PM: We think you’ll see more B2B marketplace attempts. The industry sorely needs alternative routes to market. We also think you’ll see more market agents explode once they get confident in understanding the ABC Regulatory Advisory. Finally we see mobile continuing to grow to be a stronger force that drives wine education and point of purchase decisions. Mind you all these items require wineries to lead the charge and adopt the alternative channels but in this current environment, they have all the advantages, they just need to commit the resources.

TWM: Do online wine sales have a future now that AmazonWine.com has failed to launch?Wine Library logo
PM: We believe it does in a big way. Without demeaning the approach and choice of partners that Amazon made, it only saddens us that Amazon did not launch. Anything that would have help catalyze online wine buy activity we are 1000% behind.That being said there are many other companies succeeding online with Vinfolio Marketplacewine (both retailers and marketing agents like Vinfolio, Winelibrary.com, K&LWall Street Journal Wine Club, Wine Tasting Network) despite sub-optimal conditions(regulatory environment and compliance especially). And yet we are still waiting for one of the giants to emerge that would make our industryK&L Wine Merchants logo comparable to other luxury good verticals. We think that time will be soon and there will be more than one winner (probably a few of the companies mentioned above). However, one of the key challenges is winery participation. Only by supporting and feeding an alternative channel can it become healthy and the rewards will benefit the industry. We believe in wine online and we hope wineries start believing too. The internet is the most powerful and ACCESSIBLE tool we have ever seen in our lifetime. We (the wine industry) should be using it better.

TWM: Can you recommend five must read books for digital wine marketers?
PM: Sorry, I couldn’t do just 5…

Purple Cow by Seth GodinPurple Cow‘ and ‘Tribes‘ by Seth Godin

Free‘ and ‘The Long Tail‘ by Chris AndersonFree by Chris Anderson

Drilling Down‘ by Jim Nova

Wine Brands: Success Strategies for New Markets, New Consumers and New Trends‘ by Eve Resnick

The Cluetrain ManifestoThe Cluetrain Manifesto‘ by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Wineberger and Mckee Jake

Trust Agents‘  by Chris Brogan

Crush It‘  by Gary VaynerchukCrush It by Gary Vaynerhuk

Wikinomics‘ by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams

Good to Great‘ by Jim Collins

The Take Away

J. Smoke WallinFour years ago, Smoke Wallin in his 2005 Wine Industry Technology Symposium keynote address said “The time is right for each of us in the industry to take a strategic review of our business practices and make sure we are optimizing the business using the most appropriate technology tools and strategies available.” Well, four years later that time is now. Paul Mabray and VinTank are moving the digital online wine bar forward and upward. If your winery is not yet diversifying its channel strategies, and/or maximizing its execution within the ecommerce channel, then this should be part of your 2010 brand plan. However, the execution of your DTC and/or DTT strategy will require the allocation of resources, both human and capital towards the establishment of an ecommerce platform management position, either as a direct hire or through a digital business development partnership. Contacts matter, relationships matter, and experience matters. The skill set required for onlinePaul Mabray profile picture sales and marketing efforts, while exhibiting some crossover capabilities, are unique to the channel and should be valued as such. As Paul Mabray recently tweeted “Twitter is not a strategy. Facebook is not a strategy. Customer service and communications need to be core to your strategy.” So, while it is laudable that some winecos are now developing social capital and evolving into savvy communicators by incorporating Social Media Management into their core tactics, what may be necessary for long term wine brand success is the establishment and execution by your wineco of a viable online ecommerce sales and marketing program.

Note: Copyright © 2009 Think Wine Marketing® All rights reserved.