Opinion

Steve HeimoffSteve Heimoff’s blog is one I read everyday. As the West Coast editor and critic for Wine Enthusiast magazine, his industry insider experience brings an important point of view and legitimacy to the wine blogosphere. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Heimoff, and even sharing some wine at the first WIne Bloggers Conference, but I don’t think he will remember this encounter since his expression was somewhere between deer in headlights and, “my brain will explode.” Yes, it was after the speed tasting and humbling blind tasting events.

So I was pleased to see an incoming link from his blog just a week after I restarted here. Following the link I found a somewhat humorous post taking me to task over my review of my past years’ predictions. This post was just a, “clear the desks and start fresh,” sort of thing and I never expected anyone to comment, let alone inspire a post. Since Mr. Heimoff took the time to dissect my predictions, I thought it only proper to answer in kind.

On my first prediction, Mr. Heimoff casts doubt to whether the “luxury wine” segment has really come back in any meaningful way. Apparently he thinks I was referring to $100 plus cult bottlings and not the, “$35 and up” range noted in my original post (in fact, I mentioned $60-80 Cali Cabs specifically). I agree with him that the market for such heavily allocated wines has not returned and will most likely never return to levels we saw just a few years back. The consumer has changed and the “new normal” does not have space for such novelties. I’m not sure where he got his point about China but perhaps that will make a good subject for a future post.

My second prediction post-mortem fared a bit better but it is clear Mr. Heimoff looks at social media with a very skeptical eye. He poses a fair question about what I mean by “integrated.” No, the random Facebook wall post, YouTube video or tweet does not make for an integrated marketing strategy. And yes, there are very few examples of best practices in wine social media marketing. But it is clear this is the way wine will be marketed now and into the future.

The knives are being sharpened on my third prediction about wineries using mobile to reach customers. It is clear Mr. Heimoff is unaware of innovative uses for the iPad being pioneered by wineries like Jordan or of apps such as CONVERGE. I’ll give him a pass here as he’s clearly looking for someone to inform him of these sorts of mobile applications.

I knew my next two predictions would meet with some pointed commentary and Mr. Heimoff did not disappoint. On my aspirational prediction of wine bloggers figuring out a business model, he agrees with my assessment of being wrong but seriously doubts anyone will figure this out ever. My only response is if someone can figure out a business model for blogging to professional bloggers, then a wine blogger will figure this out, as well. It’s just a matter of time.

But it’s on my final prediction that, “A Major Wine Print Publication Will Fold,” where his true colors are revealed (in fact if this prediction was not made, I doubt he would have written his post at all). Clearly Mr. Heimoff has a horse in this race and firmly believes wine print magazines will continue on as they have in the past, while slowly shifting their focus to more online distribution. My point of view is the consumer of the future will not be paying for many magazines, and if they do, it will be $1.99 an issue and they will read them on their iPad or similar device. The entire print business model will change very quickly and only those publications with a solid base in the wine trade will have the resources to make the transition. For others, it will not end well. But that is in the future, as Mr. Heimoff agrees, not in 2011.

This exchange reminds me of what attracted me to blogging six years ago. I hope to have many more of these discussions with Mr. Heimoff and other wine bloggers in the future. Perhaps over an old bottle of Ridge Monte Bello Cab or BV George Latour Private Reserve.

Three hundred and sixty four days ago I wrote up a list of predictions for the wine industry. Like many past years, I had great plans for this blog and podcast and was looking foreword to trying some new things. But as it turned out, 2010 was a difficult year and nearly all of my enthusiasm for this new start evaporated and the year passed with few posts and not even a single podcast.

So as we welcome 2011, I am returning to try some of those new things but also return to the essence of what inspired me to start this podcast up some 6 years ago. But before posting a new audio recording I thought it might be good to revisit by past predictions and see how I did. And then never try such foolishness again.

As I recall, I tried to be somewhat less aspirational last time in order to not look too ridiculous a year hence. So how did I do?

Photo by Charyn Pfeuffer

The Return of the Luxury Wine Segment - While its too early to claim a full return for wines over $35 a bottle, 2010 did see some growth in this segment. But “the new normal” will be different than before the market went off the cliff in late 2008 with consumers being more choosy in their purchases. When the final sales figures come in I would be surprised if this prediction didn’t come true, however.

Wineries Integrate Social Media Marketing – This was sort of a gimme going into the year, and we did see some growth in this area in 2010, but it is still early days before social media marketing truly goes mainstream in the wine industry. I’ll still give myself this point as nearly every winery is doing something on the social web today.

Wineries Will Go Mobile – 2010 was the year of the iPad and smartphone but few wineries did much with this platform. I expect 2011 to be the year of the tablet with a lot of iPad clones being introduced next week at CES. Although I think there will be some interesting developments in this space over the next 12-18 months, I will give myself a miss here. Perhaps my vision got the best of me on this one but watch for the combination of mobile, local and social this year.

Wine Bloggers Will Discover Business Models –  To be honest I have not kept that close to this subject so I don’t really know if wine bloggers are making any headway in this area. What I do know is wine bloggers like Joe Roberts at 1WineDude are taking a stab at it. Best of luck, Joe; show us the way. I’ll call this one a miss, even if it might have been premature, too.

A Major Wine Print Publications Will Fold - I’ve been hard on wine print magazines partially because I don’t read any of them anymore. But no major wine publication closed it’s doors in 2010 so this one is a big miss. But I still think there is a big opportunity in creating a new type of wine publication tuned to the digital medium as more people consume news on tablets and smartphones. Since even mainstream magazines haven’t figured this out yet I don’t think any wine magazines will anytime soon either.

So 2 right and 3 wrong; about par for this sort of thing here. But as I mentioned, I do think at least a couple of my misses might prove correct in the coming year. And, no, I will not make any more predictions in the future as I plan to take this blog and podcast in a slightly different direction. Stay tuned.

My Wine Predictions for 2010

by Tim Elliott on January 2, 2010

Despite my fairly checkered past in making predictions for the coming year, I am back with another batch. I think 2010 will be a transformative year for the wine business and for wine blogging. The economy will show improvement by the summer which will reverse the “nuclear winter” we have seen for the sales of high-end wines over the past 18 months. But there will also be some surprises in 2010:

The Return of the Luxury Wine Segment – It’s been a tough year for wines above $35 a bottle. In fact, Mike Grgich recently commented he had never seen a more challenging year in his 50 in Napa Valley. But that will change as the economy gains strength and American consumers vote with their wallets. There will continue to be a trend toward value but those $60-80 Cabs will start to sell again.

Wineries Integrate Social Media Marketing – As I mentioned in my review of 2009 yesterday, social media was one of the big trends last year with wineries tweeting and connecting with customers on Facebook. This will be the norm by the end of 2010 with social marketing fully integrated into the go-to-market plans of wineries of all sizes. No longer will it be, “nice to do,” or something to get an edge on competitors. Social marketing will be a requirement for growth by the end of this year.

Wineries Will Go Mobile – This is the next frontier as mobile, local and social all converge on smartphones such as the iPhone. Apple’s forthcoming tablet will also change the way consumers use the web to learn about wine and also buy it. Early adopter wineries are already working on their mobile strategies; by year-end nearly everyone will be playing catch-up as this space heats up.

Wine Bloggers Will Discover Business Models – We have seen the rise of the “professional” wine blogger in the past couple of years and I expect more of us will discover how to turn our hobbies into cash. No, it will not be a full-time living for most, but it will be a significant enough incentive to create content on a regular basis. Some will cry foul as monetization can lead to conflicts of interest but there will be several bloggers who will figure this out.

A Major Wine Print Publications Will Fold – OK, so this is my outrageous prediction for the year. And I don’t think this casualty will be the Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast or newsletters like the Wine Advocate. But the times are changing and I don’t see a great future for print wine magazines particularly after new technologies that fundamentally redefine what a magazine is hit the market early this year (e.g. Apple iSlate or whatever this will be called). I hope to see some true innovation in online wine coverage, too.

So that’s all I’ve got this year. Let me know what you think in the comments. I wish everyone a very happy and prosperous 2010 (and that’s, “twenty-ten”).

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My Wine Predictions for 2009

by Tim Elliott on January 1, 2009

Photo by Charyn Pfeuffer

Photo by Charyn Pfeuffer

A couple years ago I made 8 bold predictions for 2007. I decided to sit last year out after only the most obvious of the eight actually came to pass (increasing direct to consumer wine sales). But some progress was made on the list in 2008 with Tyler Colman, a.k.a Dr. Vino truly “going pro” with the publication of not one, but 2 wine books. Not to mention the entire Gary Vaynerchuk story which played out in a big way since I made that prediction. Some of my other predictions also made some progress toward fulfillment so I’m going to add six more for 2009 today.

The Year of Value – This prediction is really not that much of a stretch since the world economic downturn has made it a lot more challenging for wine producers to sell higher priced wines. Anything above $25 a bottle will be a tough sell in this environment with a lot of competition for consumers in the $10-15 price category. Look for some producers to just lower their pricing while others, such as Cameron Hughes, Mark West and Castle Rock, will be perfectly positioned to gain market share. 2009 is the year of extreme value that might also spark more interest in wine auctions as consumers look to maximize their purchasing power.

Wineries Really Go Direct – More wineries are exploiting direct to consumer sales and I expect to see a lot more growth in this area particularly for higher priced brands. The economics of direct sales and shipping will be a major advantage for wineries who can create enough pull with consumers. With wine tourism down due to the recession, I see the winners being those who create this pull online via ecommerce and, increasingly, a social media presence.

Yellow + Blue MalbecAlternative Packaging – As wine lovers become more concerned about the carbon footprint of their favorite beverage, more will look for wine packaged in bag-in-box or TetraPaks. As I’ve blogged here in the past, I hope to see better quality wines in these packages particularly those wines intended for immediate consumption.

Wine 2.0 Will Produce A Star – I’ve written about the intersection of Web 2.0 and wine for some time now but there has not been a breakout success story yet. This year will produce at least one star who will finally validate this space. My money is on Snooth right now but this could change as the year progresses. Stay tuned for a lot more on this subject here soon.

Wine Media Goes Digital -The traditional glossy wine magazines such as Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast will be forced to rethink their print business model this year and go more digital. I still think there will be the same amount of wine publications produced but the ones that are left will have figured out how to make money from their online presence and not just by print advertising sales. Of all of these magazines, Wine Spectator is the best positioned to flip the switch, open up their subscription site and become supported by their online advertising inventory. But I don’t expect to see them do this because they will see too much short-term risk in their current, but doomed, business model. 2009 will be a great year for new entrants trying to figure out this territory like Mutineer.

Americans Drink Less Wine At Lower Price Points – This prediction is linked with my first one but I think it’s important to note that the wine market in the U.S. will not grow as it has in the past. Not only will consumers drink less wine they will trade down to lower priced selections. With the U.S. dollar increasing in value, this will make imports more attractive especially from the Old World where vineyard land is a long sunk cost.

So there you have it; six bold predictions for 2009. I’ll revisit these in June and again in December to see what really happened.

Which ones do you think are right, dead wrong or what did I miss?

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Amazon To Sell Wine Online

by Tim Elliott on September 11, 2008

As reported by the Wall Street Journal and Reuters, Amazon.com will begin to sell wine in a just few weeks here in the U.S. The announcement came from The Napa Valley Vintners association and not directly from Amazon. Also reported was that New Vine Logisitics will be Amazon’s shipping partner when they go live.

Rumors have been circulating for some time that Amazon would enter the market but most observers thought they would concentrate on high volume brands. But the Amazon head wine buyer was on the floor checking out wines at the recent Family Winemakers of California and I have spoken with several smaller wineries who have been in discussions with them.

As I posted back in March, I think his is the most signifiant development in wine distribution since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. And Amazon’s actions in the past 6 months have validated my hypothesis that medium to small wineries are their target. Their decision to work with regional wine associations is a good one from an industry relations, recruitment and PR point of view. I don’t think it was an accident the announcement came from the Napa Valley Vintners and think we’ll see announcements from other winery associations before Amazon formally launches their wine business later this month or in early October.

This is a great development for both wineries looking for online distribution and for consumers looking for small production, artisan wines. I expect the shipping fees to be reasonable like Amazon does for all their other products but their Prime service will be a must for serious wine lovers. For $79 a year, you get free shipping on all purchases with second day delivery. No word on if that speed will be honored for wine but if it’s just free ground shipping for wine, that will be huge for sales. With increasing fuel costs, shipping is becoming a real problem for wineries as it adds significantly to their customer price. If this is a non-issue, then wineries stand to benefit greatly from what Amazon if offering.

This is not good news for other online wine retailers who do not have the deep pockets to cover the significant shipping costs or the economies of scale that Amazon has. But I still think there will be a place for niche e-tailers like domaine547 and wine marketing sites like woot and The Wine Spies.

I think this is the biggest wine story of the year and will be blogging about what this means for wine marketing over at my company blog.

Cheers to Amazon and welcome to the wine business.

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Blogger Ethics and Disclosure

by Tim Elliott on August 28, 2008

The current controversy over a group of wine bloggers accepting a wine sample under the condition to write something — good or bad — about that wine has me reflecting over my code of ethics. Since I have commercial interests in the wine trade, I think it is very important to make full disclosures in order to avoid any conflicts of interest. It’s a simple code really… I accept samples but don’t agree to post a review, disclose when samples are provided in the post or podcast and I don’t review wines from producers I work with. It’s been posted on my “about” page for two years now since Alder brought the issue up and posted his own disclosure.

So I was deeply distressed to see two posts this week suggesting I was not ethical in my review of Rodney Strong’s “Rockaway” Cabernet as part of a blogging experiment. The first post was by Wine Enthusiast critic Steve Heimoff who thought that we were “manipulated” by the folks at Rodney Strong. This touched off more comments with Mr. Heimoff directly questioning our ethics as wine bloggers. That might be a valid assessment if Mr. Heimoff had done his homework — no, journalistic duty — and investigated this story further with those of us involved before posting his thoughts on the matter.

The second post that disturbed me was one from Tom Wark who took Mr. Heimoff’s logic one step further concluding, “I do think, however, that by agreeing to work on behalf of their subject they risk compromising the inherent independence that wine bloggers possess.”

Where did Mr. Wark get his facts for this post? Not from those of us who took part in the Rockaway experiment. Just like Steve Heimoff didn’t. And they are professionals not enthusiasts like many of us involved.

Do you see something wrong here? I do.

Before I get into the ethical implications of a professional journalist and seasoned wine PR professional not doing any investigation before making some serious accusations, let me backup and fully disclose the chain of events that got us here.

On July 30th, Jeff Lefevere of Good Grape contacted six wine bloggers with an invitation to participate in what he called a “blogging experiment”. The bloggers were Dr. Debs from Good Wine Under $20, Tyler from Dr. Vino, Megan from Wannabe Wino, Renee from Feed Me/Drink Me, Kori from the Wine Peeps and myself. Only Tyler declined and Joe from 1WineDude was added. To my knowledge, “several other leading wine bloggers” were not contacted or declined to participate. Robert Larson from Rodney Strong Vineyards was copied on this and all future emails from Jeff about the experiement but did not have any role in the dialogue.

Jeff’s request was pretty specific with the following portion salient to the current controversy:

“Here’s the give to get and this is my suggested execution path, not Rockaways:

  • In agreement for receipt of the sample you agree to write a blog post on or around the week of August 18th.  You do not have to write anything favorable, but you do have to write a post with a word count between 300-500 words
  • You can choose to write a review on the wine or if you choose not to review it you can write around any number of story angles about the wine/winery/concept, etc.
  • I would encourage you, as I will do, to be fully transparent about the sampling.  In fact, I plan doing a lead up with a post or two about my interactions with Robert and the fact that wineries are starting to get wine blogging, take wine bloggers seriously and to engage us with a level of rapport usually reserved for only established media.”

There was no request for review, only a post. And this post could be anything of our choosing including negative reviews or commentary. In short, we had complete editorial freedom. Since my own ethics state that I do not promise a review, I thought that this request was within my personal code as long as I disclosed I received this wine as a trade sample. Yes, I thought is was somewhat of an unusual request but Jeff’s concept was several posts about the same wine happening the same week, so I agreed.

On August 11th, Jeff send out another email to the entire group with Arthur Black added as a guest blogger at Good Grape. Here he made to following request:

” I have committed to Robert [Larson of Rodney Strong Vineyards] that we would post in between next Monday, August 18th and Thursday the 21st.  300 + words is the requested minimum.  The notion here is to do something thoughtful and meaningful.  There is no editorial restriction, but I’d like the piece in whatever form you decide to take it to be something you are proud to stand behind.”

Attached to this email was a variation of the label graphics and a fact sheet. There was no press release or any other coaching. I tasted the wine over three evenings from August 11 without food and not blind, as I taste most wine samples. My notes were recorded into Evernote for future posting here. Over the next few days I did research online made notes and eventually turned this into an outline. At this point I took a vacation from blogging and enjoyed Disneyland with my family for 3 days.

When I returned, I flew to San Francisco and then went on to Sonoma where I intended to finish and post my review along with an analysis from a marketing standpoint for my company blog. Where I was staying lost their internet connection and later their power so I was not able to post until Saturday, August 23rd, 2 days after the requested deadline.

And that’s where this story should have ended but Mr. Heimoff, who makes his living tasting wine for Wine Enthusiast, posted his pointed critique on his blog. I think the context is important for everyone to understand here because just a week before the meme in the wine blogosphere was over the Wine Spectator‘s giving an award to a fake restaurant exposed by a blogger (well, at least they used a blog to do their sting operation). A firestorm of hatred for all bloggers was unleashed in the Wine Spectator’s apparently unmoderated forums. Even senior editor James Molesworth got into the act calling bloggers, “…lazy journalists.” It was not their finest hour which I will dissect in another post.

I believe both of these events are directly related.

The traditional wine press has not acknowledged wine blogs exist even as they begin to employ the medium. Their business model is challenged by social media and they are starting to feel the pain. It will get a lot worse in coming months and years as the wine buyer increasingly looks for wine recommendations online and are used to finding this information on search engines. And most wine buyers will not find their reviews, published late behind subscription barriers, but they will find reviews on wine blogs. For free. Without advertising from wine brands mixed with the editorial. And fully open for their comments.

I think the traditional wine press is getting concerned about us and are trying to use this blogging experiment to discredit all wine bloggers. But this will not work and the reason why is simple: Disclosure.

Everyone who has taken part in the Rockaway experiment has been totally transparent about the conditions and have made the proper disclosures. But where are the disclosures from Steve Heimoff and Tom Wark? They don’t exist on either of their blogs. How wine ratings are done is not even on Mr. Heimoff’s employers’ website which I would find disturbing if I read that publication.

So the bottom line for me on this whole thing is that Heimoff and Wark did not check their facts. They did not speak with any of the bloggers involved or Rodney Strong Vineyards (yes, I checked). I think they need to reassess their own blogging ethics, post a retraction of erroneous facts and offer an apology.

But that’s just me and my ethics talking. What do you think?

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