There is a problem, and it is somewhat unexpected, even counter-intuitive, if you will. When I blurt out to people that my company is not making any money, many tend to be incredulous. “The brand is so famous, you are so famous,” I will hear, and “the wines are better than ever.” “You’ve shrunk the company, cashed out (handsomely, they are thinking but not saying) and you are now focused on your dream. How great is that?” In the fantasy world of compulsory happy endings, following one’s dream, (especially preceded by a presumably generous payday or two), should lead to guaranteed success/happiness… And yet, it is all very mysterious…
Mystery #1, why the company is not making money, may be a bit surprising, but is not inexplicable. The company – certainly I must bear the responsibility for this – just did not make a lot of good business decisions (my own damn stubbornness and myopia) for the last five or more years. We didn’t make hay while the sun shined,1 as it were, failed to rebrand skillfully,2 didn’t raise our prices and lower our costs – all of the things that a company needs to do to achieve functionality and profitability in a highly competitive environment. Mystery #2, why the mainstream press has not been particularly supportive of our recent efforts (indeed, seeming to relegate Bonny Doon and moi-même to a kind of airbrushed Stalin Era-style of invisibility vis-à-vis the late 20th century Rhône movement in the New World) is also not particularly surprising: I have mocked them, I’m afraid, sometimes mercilessly.3
I’ve stopped that now (pretty much), but remain an outspoken critic of wine pointillism, of the pervasive overblown, overripe style, of the cult of the wine lifestyle/fetishism,4 and other aspects of the modern wine business that I find particularly egregious. In truth, the mainstream wine media and I are no longer members of the same tribe, if we ever were.
Mystery #3 is a difficult and painful one (and partially related to Mystery #4 as will become clear, or not, in a moment): some (mercifully, not all) of our distributors seem to have lost interest in our wines, or at least suggest, when pressed, that, while they personally like the wines a lot, indeed, virtually all find them to be truly better than ever, they also, for inexplicable reasons, find them somewhat challenging to sell.5 It is difficult for me to understand how our brand is truly perceived in the “market,” or seemingly, multiplicity of markets (if not universes), and it all seems rather Rashomon-like to me; I can hardly believe that people have such radically different perceptions of the same brand, the same wines.6
In any event, these distributors (they know who they are) are generally terribly sorry and wring their hands, frustrated that they can’t do a better job for us.7
And in a (perhaps) related phenomenon (Mystery #4), why are many of the cleverest, most switched-on of the wine writers, some of whom I’m happy to count as friends (more or less),8 more than a little guarded or reticent to give a real ringing endorsement of the current or recent lineup of our wines? They seem happy to hang out with me, happy to write lengthy pieces about the fascinating plans I have for the future, but are still, incredibly (at least to me), largely incapable of breaking down and writing the magic words: “The wines are better than ever! Randall is doing important work that should be supported!9 Go out and buy this juice now!” (Exclamation points optional, of course.)
I’ve thought long and hard about this problem, and of the issue of what might one legitimately expect as far as support (putting aside the question of in precisely what form that might be) from one’s friends; obviously, this has something (rather a lot) to do with the degree of closeness, length of association, and a thousand other factors derived from the fabric of human experience.10 We want to help our friends, of course, but generally only to the extent that we are not putting ourselves too much in harm’s way, and if there is some sort of potential psychic pay-off to ourselves at the end of the day. So, why is it so hard for my friends to speak up on my behalf?11
Perhaps they truly are not so impressed with the wines – bear in mind that relatively subtle wines such as ours, not obvious blockbusters, are very difficult for a critic to give that resounding thumbs up.12 This is the fairly obvious hypothesis, and it may be true, but it begs the larger question. If we are producing wines in a style that “enlightened” critics embrace, just why has it been so difficult for them to put themselves out on a medium-sized limb and speak up?
Clearly, I have, in part, been my very own worst enemy. Being the notorious advocate for Bonny Doon Vineyard wines – some good, some maybe less than particularly stellar – for so many years, it is not surprising that there remains some residual skepticism of the sincerity of my declarations.13 Certainly, I was a bit over-the-top with some of my shenanigans – dressing up as Cardinal Zin at public events, accompanied by a coterie of sassy, ruler-brandishing nuns.
Perhaps these behaviors were compelled by a deep-seated, visceral, almost genetic fear of failure, (coupled with a perhaps less-than-perfectly-genteel upbringing). In the absence of any real training in (or even for that matter, real comprehension of) the business of business, I had nothing to rely upon but my wits to stave off catastrophic failure. I was, perhaps still am, in short, the stereotypical rude Ostländer: one who has not properly learned his manners.
In the Ordeal of Civility, John Cuddihy wrote about the psychic conflict of shtetl Jews suddenly thrust into modernity and the deep ambivalence of the already assimilated Jewish intelligentsia – Marx, Freud and Levi-Strauss – whose cultural critique of the dominant Gentile culture, Cuddihy argued, mirrored their own psychic conflict.14 I have myself been fighting my own psychic battle – mostly a question of whether I truly dare to aim for greatness (and risk colossal failure) or rely on the safer course, producing wines that are good enough and, in some sense, commercial. Well, my friends, that ship has already sailed, and there is no turning back.15
While the reluctance of my friends to speak up for the wines may be due to their slight embarrassment at my earlier behavior, or perhaps, more realistically, they are just afraid of backing the wrong horse, of appearing foolish, or worse, having their hearts broken if I fail to follow through on my putative commitment to real excellence and originality.16 They certainly grasp the audacity and worthiness of my proposed enterprise, but want to make sure that I remain on the straight and narrow; by praising the current line-up, perhaps they are fearful that I might regress to earlier behavior patterns, modify the trajectory of my arc, and somehow, tragically, settle for less.17
While it would be great to receive greater encouragement from the friendly wine critics I truly care about – it may in fact be the difference between surviving and not – at the same time, in the end it may also prove to be a distraction. I used to worry so much about what Parker and the Wine Spectator would say about the wines; they were always the unseen Superego I was trying to please. Learning that there is no way that I am ever going to please them has proven to be utterly liberating. For now, there is nothing to do but focus on the work18 to be doon.
- Which is not to suggest that the sun was shining consistently throughout this period, especially in 2008 and 2009. [↩]
- Note, this is not the easiest thing to do, even for people who are really good at it, and we were, or at least I was, totally out of my league in this department. [↩]
- Possibly a function of my own narcissism and inability to take either legitimate or illegitimate criticism in stride, with a certain propensity toward total ballisticity when met with the latter. [↩]
- This last item is perhaps a bit disingenuous, as I would likely hesitate for no more than a Beaujolais Nouveau second to trade my brand’s perhaps slightly umbral status for extreme cultdom. [↩]
- This is an incredibly complex problem. In a few instances, the problems may have stemmed from the sale of the Big House and Cardinal Zin brands six years ago, resulting in continuing brand confusion in the marketplace. (Most people are finding it hard to take in new information these days.) But as far as the wholesalers, these mega-brands were a rather important revenue source for them, and, in their sale, we hurt some of our wholesalers (with no malice, of course) in the pocketbook. In some cases, especially in the instance of larger distributors, we have become just no longer economically significant to them – nothing more than a rounding error in some cases; for some of the smaller distributors, perhaps it is now harder for them to sell the more esoteric and expensive brands without Big House as the icebreaker. But certainly the bulk of the issue is related to the deep structural problems inhering in the current state of wine distribution. There has been considerable consolidation in many markets – mid-sized distributors gobbled up or squeezed out by large companies – leaving large suppliers with large marketing budgets to have their way with restaurant chains, hotel groups and mega-retailers. Volume, more than quality of placement, really seems to be the byword. (The notion of “brand building” seems to be something like a quaint anachronism.) Small independent retailers and restaurants (and wholesalers) are still, for the most part, continuing to fight the good fight, but they are heading into a strong headwind. It is my conceit that wholesalers, like wineries and essentially everyone these days, is struggling to find a sense of their own relevance. We have to be making a product or offering a service that is truly necessary. (How many of us can claim to truly do that?) [↩]
- The problem seems to occur mostly in “red states.” [↩]
- Most everyone is scared about the future (and about the present in most cases, too), whether one admits it to anyone, even to oneself. When you are operating essentially on a survival basis, it is hard to remain focused on the potentially sublime, transcendental and inspiring elements of the wine business. In a practical sense, time is money, and you’d prefer not to spend any of those precious commodities, explaining the great virtues of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc grown on gravelly soil with an eastern exposition, and how the resultant wine is so utterly brilliant for gastronomy, viz. paired with a lobster and fennel risotto. [↩]
- Important note: I would not characterize most of them as “close” friends, but certainly as “friendly” – respectful and always a pleasure to spend time with. [↩]
- It is horrifying for me to spell this out so baldly. I seem to be saying that they are just “not getting it.” (I think that, in fact, they are not getting it.) But in their defense, I would suggest that the reasons may well be due in part to the deep problem of evaluating the real value of New World wines, and, in part, to the psychological issues I will very foolishly attempt to elucidate (see footnotes infra). There is also the very remote possibility that the wines are, in fact, not as great as I think they are. On a certain level, the friendly critics may believe they are currently supporting me by being somewhat parsimonious in their praise of the wines. Perhaps they imagine that the rigorous standards to which they hold me – no easy “A”s or grading on the curve – will inspire me to work harder and perhaps “live up to my potential.” [↩]
- It is a source of shame to me that I am generally so self-absorbed as to not take a more active interest in the affairs of my friends and loved ones. [↩]
- If there ever was any doubt about the degree of my narcissism, this should settle matters once and for all: while there is absolutely no doubt that my friends wish me (at least with their conscious minds) the greatest success in all of my ventures, it is not inconceivable that their good wishes may be tinged with the teensiest bit of ambivalence. I’m not exactly saying that they are on a subconscious level jealous of my (putative) success, but rather, that I may have triggered an innate competitive response by inadvertently drifting into their No Fly Zone, upsetting the Natural Order of Things. As a published author (who enjoyed some critical success), how could they not want to be a little tougher on me than on anyone else? I am the Winemaker after all, not the Wine Writer, and where is it geschriven that I might have the last word? And then, there is this other thing I do that just utterly pisses guys off. I seem to change my direction rather too often (it’s all utterly consistent from my own point of view), thus coming off as, if perhaps not a weasel, at least as someone whom one has to watch closely and warily. Men, in general (in comparison to women), are far less tolerant of other men whom they perceive to be mercurial shape-shifters. At least I am. It is a cardinal rule among men that we not allow ourselves to be duped or even to look remotely foolish. [↩]
- This itself is an important question that I’ve wrestled with elsewhere. I believe that to evaluate the qualities of a wine is an incredibly difficult, often largely subjective, virtually always non-replicable exercise, utterly fraught with many variables (time of day, air and wine temperature, fluctuation of atmospheric pressure, influence of lunar/solar phenomena, physiological and emotional state of the taster, degree of turbidity of the wine, degree of turbidity of the consciousness of the taster, etc.) Because of all of these variables, it is not surprising that most wine critics have chosen to look for certain polestars to which they might orient themselves. For Parker and the Wine Spectator, it has been concentration, “ripeness,” power, low acidity, soft but detectable tannins and the presence of a certain amount of the very best oak that money can buy. These are qualities that can be detected with some degree of consistency, and this is incredibly helpful to the critic who wishes to maintain consistency of his own personal brand. For “counter-critics,” it may well be the absence of the aforementioned qualities that make wines interesting, though the positive presence or sensation of “minerality,” acidity, appearance of optical turbidity and other signifiers (volatile acidity, 4 ethyl-phenol) of non-interference in the winemaking process may also be relevant. [↩]
- I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion the opprobrium permanently affixed to one’s name after having enjoyed but one capriotic liaison d’amour. [↩]
- I remember Cuddihy writing something to the effect of, “Scratch the surface of an “id” (or “it”) and what you find beneath is a “Yid.” In my case, of course, it would be a “Vit.” [↩]
- It just remains for me to perhaps be a lot more convincing, as I am the Boy Who Cried Terroir, and virtually everything else. [↩]
- The real commitment is to making the sincere effort to produce a vin de terroir, and to following that resultant path wherever it leads. [↩]
- (There is, by the way, no chance of that.) [↩]
- “Work!” quoth Maynard G. Krebs. [↩]