How to Be a Wine Blogger (and get free wine)

Free Wine but at what price?A couple weeks ago, the annual Wine Blogger Conference wrapped its fifth year, presumably in a puddle of plonk and pixels. According to their official release, there was a “dip in attendance” from previous years, which organizers attributed to the conference’s location – Penticton, Okanagan Valley of the Southern Interior of British Columbia, Canada. Which is to say, nowhere. At least not anywhere known for its bustling wine scene. Hockey – sure, but to a native Northern Californian wino like me, unless I can use the puck as a coaster for my Riedel glassware, it’s useless.
Aspiring wine bloggers have a year to revive their moribund WordPress account and get to some online whining before the conference reconstitutes in Santa Barbara in 2014. You will remember that SB is our sister wine country to the south, which is still basking in the afterglow of that pinot-pushing sleeper hit “Sideways” – hence the “As seen in ‘Sideways’” signage along Foxen Canyon Road in Santa Ynez.

If you missed the great wine blogger rush of ‘07 and have a yen to sip and tell about it (like everyone else within a 100-mile radius of The Sonoma Index-Tribune), here is some historical context to help guide the release of your inner Alder Yarrow (yeah, he’s a wine blogger). Continue reading “How to Be a Wine Blogger (and get free wine)”

Beards, Berets and Bottles: What the Cuban Revolution Can Teach Us About Wine Marketing

The difference between “winemaking” and “wine marketing” amounts to more than handful of letters. One is an ancient artisanal practice to which the other adds its variation on the oldest profession.  Americans have long excelled at both, however, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn more tricks, including those that come from such an unlikely source as the Republic of Cuba.
Yes, Cuba – it’s more than just a four-letter word to U.S. foreign trade policy, it’s a treasure trove of brand marketing insight. What could a commie island, a raft ride from Florida, teach a capitalism-loving ’Merica ’bout marketing? Two words, Guerrillero Heroico.

You’re dubious, you ask “What’s that, a species of primate? The Latin American edition of Guitar Hero?” The answer is no further than the nearest 20-something. Your kid perhaps, or more specifically, their t-shirt. The one emblazoned with the charismatic visage of Argentinean-born doctor-turned-Marxist revolutionary-turned-Cuban demigod-turned-fashion statement for entitled Western-raised youth… Drum roll, please (or conga roll, if you prefer). Señoras y señores – Che Guevara!

Che GuevaraYou know the iconic image of Che, it’s the image of Che, rendered from a photograph originally shot by famed photog Alberto “Korda” Diaz and replicated ad absurdum for the past half century in art both noteworthy and worthless like the fake Warhol’s it once inspired. The image is a killer combination of youth, confidence and sexual prowess rolled in an anti-authoritarian flag large enough to swaddle at least three generations of youth culture.

If Korda received a royalty for every shirt, screen-saver, coffee cup and tschotskes that bore his image of Che, he could have handily relieved the national debt of his native Cuba. Instead, his story is one of rabid artistic appropriation and resignation to his creation’s own power. It’s something of a Frankenstein – cropped, rejiggered and able to rally passion in peasant folk.

This “face that launched a thousand t-shirts” was expertly explored in the documentary Chevolution, with the fitting tagline “the man, the myth, the merchandise.” And therein lies a kernel wisdom every wine marketer attempting to reach the coveted 21 to 35 year-old demographic should embrace. You need to project an image of mythic proportions to knock the Belgian ales and trendy “sour beers” from out of these kids’ mitts. You need your own, personal Che.

Cuban Revolution vs. Cool Kids

As a wine marketing professional, your instinct might be to nominate your winemaker for the gig.  Wrong. Your winemaker is Fidel Castro – a dictator with a spectrometer whose power gets them drunker than their wine. In this scenario, Che is your vineyard manager. Think about it: Vineyard managers are literally “in the field,” they’re on the frontlines of viniculture fighting against everything from weather to phylloxera. They are intrinsically romantic figures invested in the land and its ability to sustain the people. Fidel is Apollo, Che is Dionysus. When it comes to pushing bottles, you want Dionysus the wine god on your label. And trust me, people do judge a wine by its label especially since that’s often where the price tag is.

You ever see a college kid wearing a Fidel Castro t-shirt? Castro’s image doesn’t lend itself to the naive idolatry of youth very well. Quite the contrary, in fact – the hat, the beard and the cigar are all prime for parody. In terms of iconography, Castro is the Groucho Marx of geopolitics. Let’s go further – he’s “Castro Marx,” which makes sense on so many conceptual levels it could rate a dissertation on semiotics.

Fortunately, we have Woody Allen’s revolutionary drag in Bananas to stand-in to prove my point. Not to mention its bastard offspring The Dictator, starring Sacha Baron Cohen reversing a comedic conceit first explored in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator while making it less great in the process. Still, the equation –  Military hat + beard = Comedy – holds up. This may be useful for prop comedians but its the hearts and minds one wants to win from the people, not their funny bones (or any bones, really, though they often end up in mass graves when revolutions go awry). The fact is, many winemakers bear more than a passing resemblance to Fidel. You don’t want to see a guy with a beard on your packaging unless you’re buying rolling papers.

If your vineyard manager isn’t an enigmatic, brooding cypher, fire him. Then you can get a new one that is young, fiercely handsome and preferably dead. Death confers a certain spiritual provenance upon their work (or lack of it in this case). If Che were alive his handsome mug wouldn’t be on a t-shirt let alone a bottle of wine. It would be on a brochure for a university lecture series and it wouldn’t be handsome so much as “distinguished.”

You need a guy who would pass what I call the “Shepard Fairey Test.” Fairey is the artist behind the iconic “Obey” campaign featuring Andre the Giant and the classic “Hope” poster for then candidate Barack Obama. Fairey’s forte is boiling an image down into its essential elements, using bold lines and negative space such that it’s ready-made for silkscreening and spray-paint stenciling onto sidewalks. Cheekbones and a strong brow help in this regard. Ditto a beret, which can transform a mass of unkempt curls into a trapezoidal silhouette that suggests revolutionary swagger.

Of course, barring the above, you could also just get a dude from Cuba. Winemaking in the country is overseen by the Ministry of Public Health. This is a good because you stand a chance of scoring a wine professional who might also be a doctor – like Che. There are a couple hitches when it comes to hiring a Cuban male model qua deceased vineyard manager. Cuba has all the romantic Cold War era intrigue of the Eastern Block but with better weather. This includes, unfortunately, the fact that “you can’t get there from here” and its reciprocal –  “you can’t get here from there – unless you’re man is an Olympic caliber long-distance swimmer. The last time Cuba medaled in swimming was when they took the silver and bronze in ’96 – so don’t hold your breath.

There are also cultural issues with which to contend. Everything most Americans know about Cuba they learned from the movies. Bad movies at that. Some might have heard Peter Segal of NPR’sWait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me bemoan the metamorphosis of his Cuban-set historical novel into Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, the Dirty Dancing sequel with 100 percent less Patrick Swayze. Consequently, much of our cultural knowledge starts with it’s chief contribution to American culture –  the mojito –  and whatever else can be gleaned from the menu of a Cuban restaurant (and I defy you to find anything that isn’t loaded with plantains, which are a kind of brutish banana the way that Neanderthals are a kind of human).

If this all seems a little insurmountable, you could always hire an actor to portray your deceased-revolutionary-vineyard manager-wine label model. If your marketing budget can tolerate it, I’d suggest someone like Gael García Bernal, Antonio Banderas or Benicio Del Toro, all of whom have portrayed Che in film, which could add some glitz to the production. On the cheaper side, naturally, there’s Cuba Gooding, Jr. who’s been waiting for someone to show him the money since 1996. For that matter, if, contrary to my advice, you choose to go the Fidel route, I might just know a guy…

March Madness Bracket: Belgian Ale & Pork Rinds

March_hareWork with me here: Until recently, I assumed “March Madness” was a reference to Alice in Wonderland a la “as mad as a March hare.” Turns out its about college basketball, which, this time of year, enjoys its own pseudoscience in the form of Bracketology. Apparently, Bracketologists predict the winner of the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament using – I’m presuming – that cousin of the parenthesis, the square bracket. Like so: [bracket].
Inasmuch as brackets are used to frame prospective matches between teams, it seems to me they can be used to pair off more than competitors. They could “bracket” potential complements too. Consider the “stunt pairings” trend of last decade, when all manner of foodstuffs and wines were pushed into a dark closet together as if at a teenage house party. Wine and McDonald’s hamburgers were often thrown together, the thinking being that the combination of “high” and “low” culture could break the seventh seal and unleash the apocalypse. Exciting. Turns out it was just a waste of wine. And sometimes Big Macs.

Christopher “Sommelier to the Stars” Sawyer landed himself a profile in Esquire for successfully abstracting the concept by pairing wine with movies. Likewise, Sonoma music scribe J.M. Berry, a.k.a “Winotone,” briefly paired wine and classic rock. Though he didn’t rate an Esquire profile, I’m sure if he’d stuck it out, Guitar Player Magazine might eventually have become his A.A. sponsor or something.

When it comes to food pairings that A) aren’t merely conceptual art and B) are edible, the benchmark was set in 1928 by H.B Reese when he recognized that chocolate and peanut butter could become something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s in this vein that I’ve recently began bracketing my own pairings in search of two great tastes that taste great together.

Continue reading “March Madness Bracket: Belgian Ale & Pork Rinds”

March Madness Bracket: Belgian Ale & Pork Rinds

March_hareWork with me here: Until recently, I assumed “March Madness” was a reference to Alice in Wonderland a la “as mad as a March hare.” Turns out its about college basketball, which, this time of year, enjoys its own pseudoscience in the form of Bracketology. Apparently, Bracketologists predict the winner of the annual National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament using – I’m presuming – that cousin of the parenthesis, the square bracket. Like so: [bracket].
Inasmuch as brackets are used to frame prospective matches between teams, it seems to me they can be used to pair off more than competitors. They could “bracket” potential complements too. Consider the “stunt pairings” trend of last decade, when all manner of foodstuffs and wines were pushed into a dark closet together as if at a teenage house party. Wine and McDonald’s hamburgers were often thrown together, the thinking being that the combination of “high” and “low” culture could break the seventh seal and unleash the apocalypse. Exciting. Turns out it was just a waste of wine. And sometimes Big Macs.

Christopher “Sommelier to the Stars” Sawyer landed himself a profile in Esquire for successfully abstracting the concept by pairing wine with movies. Likewise, Sonoma music scribe J.M. Berry, a.k.a “Winotone,” briefly paired wine and classic rock. Though he didn’t rate an Esquire profile, I’m sure if he’d stuck it out, Guitar Player Magazine might eventually have become his A.A. sponsor or something.

When it comes to food pairings that A) aren’t merely conceptual art and B) are edible, the benchmark was set in 1928 by H.B Reese when he recognized that chocolate and peanut butter could become something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s in this vein that I’ve recently began bracketing my own pairings in search of two great tastes that taste great together.

Continue reading “March Madness Bracket: Belgian Ale & Pork Rinds”

The Vintners of Our Dissed Content

It all began, as these small odysseys often do, with a misunderstanding. In this case, the issue was entirely my own, and the fact that it persisted for nearly 40 years is not only embarrassing but rather damning to any gustatory gravitas I might’ve claimed.

It went like this: I was strolling through our namesake Williams-Sonoma when I chanced upon a jar of mulling spices. To my untrained eye, it looked like someone had swept their porch and put the results in a jar. I might have figured Williams-Sonoma would try to peddle this kind of foodie chicanery but still, I had to know what made their $25 jar of dirt and twigs superior to others. As I asked the clerk, her eyes narrowed and her brows rose as high as the end of her sentence. “They’re mulling spices, you know, for mulled wine?”

Spore Juice

Wait a minute. I had always thought it was pronounced, “mold wine” and made from mold, not dirt and twigs. Like, for the better part of 40 years, I had confused the “spiced seasonal beverage” with what I assumed was the juice of a spore. Given my delicate palate, naturally, I never imbibed the spore juice when offered. Nor did it ever occur to me that making wine from mold was just stupid. My rationale was (and still is) that humans will make booze out of anything that can ferment. I’ve drunk apple and elderberry wine and have heard tales of prison “pruno” made from everything from orange soda to sauerkraut. I’ve found recipes online for mushroom wine, so why put it past some vintner to slide further down the food chain to mold spores?

Of all the species in the world, we’re the most likely to be sent home from the Animal Kingdom in a cab. There are a variety of reasons for this (we have cabs) but it’s mostly due to our historic inclination for booze. And if we run out, we know how to make more out of damn near anything.

We could be generous and pretend our ancestors developed fermentation as a means of preservation with the happy (and happy-inducing) byproduct of alcohol being more incidental than intentional. We could also pretend the only reason to have sex is to make babies. If our ancestors felt that way, however, most of us wouldn’t be here.

Anthropologists have long conjectured that alcohol was discovered when one of our forebears witnessed some quadruped noshing on rotted fruit (fermentation au natural) and wobbling away with a giddy gait. A similar origin myth recounts the discovery of coffee: A goat herder watched a stray from his trip enjoying a personal disco moment after nibbling some coffee beans from the tree. What this tells me is that “animal testing” came long before Big Pharma, though they certainly pushed it down the road to Hell.

The List

When it comes to controlled substances, I’ve always done my own testing, if not out of moral conviction then because it stops my hands from shaking long enough to type one of these pieces. Seeing as I’m a full-time writer, my ability to type is an important part of my skill set, like thinking, which, like any machine, runs better when well lubricated, right? This is why I’m grateful I’m on “The List.” It’s something of a media profession accolade, like winning a National Newspaper Association Award but inherently more useful.

The List is a directory of accredited members of the media who are known to write about wine and spirits. Publicists use this list when doling out samples on behalf of their booze clients. It’s a peculiar phenomenon – gallons of wine pour in and a trickle of words comes out. And sometimes they make sense.

I first witnessed the power of The List while visiting Christopher “Sommelier to the Stars” Sawyer in Petaluma, CA. When a UPS guy came to his door with a dolly stacked high with wine cases Sawyer all but sighed as he rose to sign for the shipment. His cellar already looked like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with crates of wine piled high and ominous. Did he really need more wine? Perhaps not, but his friends need him to need more wine because he frequently has us over to help with his storage woes.

I did the math: if a man were to continuously drink one glass of wine after another, it would take him three years to make an appreciable dent in Sawyer’s cellar. And that man would be dead.

Of course, the purpose of The List is not to kill imaginary people in hypothetical scenarios (which sounds like a prospective sequel to Inception) but to help the publicists transubstantiate wine into ink or its contemporary equivalent – pixels today, perhaps brain waves tomorrow. This is where I’ve actually witnessed one of the “Miracles of Chris.” Sawyer actually writes about the wine he receives. And often starts taking notes the moment the cork is popped. I don’t. I take terrible notes. I can’t read my own handwriting. I stand a better shot at getting a prescription filled from one of my own notes than decrypting it myself. It only gets worse the further into the bottle I get. By the time the bottle is done, so am I. This is why my published wine reviews have always been purposely vague: “The Sonoma Brut was a fine curtain opener – a spiny, mean little thing with an acid tongue that suggested a smack on the lips from a femme fatale’s kid sister–haughty, brash and delightfully immature.”

A publicist has yet to send me mulled wine. Nor, I suspect, will Williams-Sonoma send me a jar of dirt to mull my own. Instead, I figured I’d save the $25 and Google a recipe. Interestingly, “mold wine” autocorrects to “mulled wine.” Google must have been expecting me.

To Drink or Not to Drink

One of the results is the Old Hamlet Wine & Spice Company in Bury St. Edmonds in the county of Suffolk, near the southeast of England. It dawned on me that the wine and spice company might be having a bit of fun with its name. First off, Hamlet, at least Shakespeare’s Hamlet, never lived to become “Old Hamlet” and secondly, you’d never want Hamlet, young or old, near your wine since poison tends to end up in it when he’s around.

I dug deeper into the Google rabbit hole and found that several years ago, the Cambridge University Press published scholar Paul A. Cantor’s Shakespeare: Hamlet in which he recounts the misguided efforts of composer Ambroise Thomas to spruce up his operatic version with a raucous wine drinking scene and a song to go with it. The 19th French adaptation included a bit wherein Hamlet throws a wine party when the Players arrive in Denmark and “celebrates [wine’s] enchanting power to bring balm and oblivion to his heart,” according to Cantor. The scholar rightly suggests this is quite out of character for the Melancholy Dane (though it would prop up a sluggish second act, which is usually when people drift back to the lobby for wine).

Perhaps more galling was the happy ending, which completely sidestepped all the poisoned wine. In a version of Thomas’ reconception, Hamlet and Laertes patch up their differences, Gertrude gets “thee to a nunnery” and the Ghost returns to appoint Hamlet king. A quick running through of Claudius with a blade and – tada! – everyone lives happily ever after, if they’re not already dead, which is nearly the entire supporting cast. This also means that a lot of perfectly good, poisoned wine went to waste.

Though Shakespeare referenced wine frequently in his work, he only used the word “mulled” once so far as I can tell. In this case, it meant “insipid, flat” and was uttered by a character simply known as “First Servingman” in Coriolanus: “Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible…”

If I were ever to review mulled wine, I’d simply quote the above, then pour another glass and lay down on the couch to await what dreams may come.

Via Sonoma Magazine.