Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit!
Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.)
Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)
This post(mortem) is a bit of meditation on the 2009 Contra, a wine I have utterly adored (we’ve just recently sold out) but has been, in spite of very favorable press, very favorable price, and a strenuous, if not Herculean marketing effort—we really pulled out all the stops on this one—a bit of a commercial disappointment. We’re looking to bottle the ’12 vintage sometime this summer—the wine will be great, b/t/w, a worthy stylistic successor to the ’09—but I’m wondering, through the benefit of hindsight, what precisely went wrong, and what we can do to fix the problem if it’s not the world itself which is in need of repair—a possibility not entirely out of the question—hence this meditation. But, this musing arises from a decision that came just days ago to change the Contra label for the upcoming (summerish) bottling.
The decision to make the change came rather quickly, rather like a driving maneuver one must hurriedly execute as a result of some hare-brained driver unexpectedly pulling out in front of you in traffic. This was far from an idealized outcome. In a properly staffed, properly capitalized, properly profitable wine company, decisions to alter the look of one’s label, indeed decisions to significantly change any aspect of one’s presentation to the world, are taken deliberately, thoughtfully. One attends meeting after bloody meeting, debating the pros and cons of any substantive change in the basic design features and one’s presentation of wine-self to the world, and then with lots of discussion and anguish, gnashing of teeth, rending of garment, etc., one comes to a decision.
In our instance the proximal cause of the label change—contra-etiquettage, as it were—came about due to the unexpected problem we encountered in trying to obtain glass for the imminent Albariño bottling—the manufacturer was temporarily out of stock of the particular champagne green claret bottle we use for the AlbariÃ±o as well as for a number of other wines we produce.1 We were told that if we placed a larger order for the same Stelvin-accommodating 750 ml. glass the company might fast-track the bottles in their production schedule, lest we wait months and months for the arrival of the order.2 Of course, when you order bottles from a manufacturer you also need to specify the printed artwork for the box itself in which the glass will ultimately repose. You don’t want to incur the additional expense of having to put bottles in a “content” (unprinted) box, only to then just throw the plain boxes away after you’ve transferred their contents to a nice artistic printed case, one that will inspire customers to stop abruptly in the aisles of retail wine shops and put a bottle or two or six of your wine in their basket, now then, would you?3 Are you still with me? Such is the skein of disparate elements—the wine business itself is just a tangled web of these sorts of seemingly random nexus—that compelled the decision to change the label.
Some background: Just a few short years ago I bethought to introduce a less expensive wine into the portfolio, one that would potentially allow us to do some reasonably good volume and add a modicum of black ink to the balance sheet, a color we hadn’t seen on the aforesaid for some time. Thus was the conception of “Contra.” I had accidentally discovered the brilliance of old vine Carignane in the old head-trained, sandy vineyards of Antioch and Oakley in Contra Costa County many years back when we began working with old-vine MourvÃ¨dre for our Old Telegram and Cigare Volant wines. Indeed many if not most of the vineyards in Antioch and Oakley were interplanted—crazy-quilts of Carignane and Mourvèdre, often with Zinfandel and occasionally Alicanté in the mix.4 The vines were very old, even then—pushing eighty or ninety years of age at the time—not irrigated (who would spend money on irrigation?), non-grafted and pruned in the lovely goblet form.5
Quite significantly, the grapes were not too expensive (that’s changed a bit, alas) and to be perfectly candid, of all of the grapes I’ve met in California, these I believe to deliver the most favorable ratio of intensity/complexity per dollar. Old-vine Carignane was (now it can be told) the secret ingredient of Big House Red, the strong tenor capable of carrying the sometime wayward chorus.
So, with some superior Carignane vineyards identified and some advances in winemaking6 —we have learned a few things over the years—and what I hoped was an interesting story: the old vine “field blend” was more or less congruent with the overall focus of the winery, vis-à-vis an emphasis on southern French cépages but more importantly, on wines of life-force.7 Moreover, the wine would be priced at a competitive price-point, and was seemingly the perfect entry-level wine for those preparing to enter the Dooniverse. All seemed in readiness for the launch of “Contra.” As we often say around here, what could possibly go wrong?
Now, we haven’t had a lot of new labels in the Bonny Doon Vineyard line-up since the downsizing of the company. In fact, the overall direction has been the gradual diminution both in number of products and actual case production of our one-time compendious portfolio. At the same time, we’ve also observed a rather radical shift in the nature of the wine business itself, especially in regards to wholesale distribution. Because there have been so many new brands entering and crowding the market, and that, compounded by the consolidation and net shrinkage of the number of distributors, has created immense pressure—both psychic and fiscal—on distributors to resist with every fiber of their being the impulse to take on new products from suppliers (that’s us), even ones with whom they enjoy a warm and fuzzy relationship. I have heard tell that among larger, Brobdingnagian distributors, there is something like an internal bounty system for purchasing agents who are able to successfully trim the number of products within the company’s portfolio.
There were a couple of false steps in our launch. For one, I forgot to mention on the label the essential value/sales proposition of the wine itself—that it was an “old vine” field-blend.8,9 I also neglected to mention the grape varieties contained within the blend. (Old-vine Carignane, Mourvèdre, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, along with some younger vine Grenache and Syrah), though it certainly would have been very clunky or at least graphically challenging to indicate all of them on the front of the label. But, certainly, we might have mentioned them on the back. Some of this was a mental lapse, especially in light of our proclaimed commitment to transparency, though we never indicated the grapes that went into the colossally, almost criminally successful Big House blend. In retrospect, I think it was mostly a function of the fact that I had already written so much copy (very clever, I imagined) for the back-label, there was just no room at all for anything more.
The label itself: It’s not really a secret that we had been experiencing a financial crunch at the time we were designing the label (and still, for that matter), but for good or for bad, in the interest of saving a buck, we had gotten in the habit of designing the labels in-house. Philippe Coderey, our viticulturist at the time, had taken a photograph of one of the vineyards in Antioch, and couldn’t get over the fact that a) someone had had the poor form to dump their trash in a vineyard, and b) even more worrisome, one of our growers had not the wit nor wherewithal to pick up the trash from aforesaid vineyard. Philippe was just appalled. For me, the picture perfectly captured the terroir of Antioch, CA, home of meth labs and rusted muscle cars up on blocks, which I sometimes refer to as “Appalachia by the Bay.” We Photoshopped the picture a bit, mostly removing some (additional!) unseemly trash from the photo, and tweaking the color value of the cover-crop a bit to get the most felicitous contrast with the color of the type. As you likely know, I am pretty much a total sucker for visual puns, and I just couldn’t resist the joke to be found in the militaristic typeface, “Exocet” with its sniperscope “O.”
It’s often very difficult if not impossible to be objective about one’s own work, and truly grok its possible artistic deficits. I think the label is a pretty clever juxtaposition—the cool shades of the bucolic vineyard and the anomalous sofa (ever since Freud, sofas are funny, at least in my book) with the subtly militaristic Exocet font and its intimation of a hot, shooting-war/ passing reference to Contra Rebels. While we have in fact gotten a number of positive comments about the label, it’s certainly possible that there are some folks out there who are significantly less keen.10 When we did not experience the home run with the bases loaded success with the wine that I had anticipated, we looked hard for answers and the culprit that was most often mentioned was the label itself. A number of people were luke-warm to it, but were somewhat hard pressed to describe precisely why. “Too obscure…” “Why a couch…?” No one mentioned the Exocet font, but if there’s a tragic flaw in the label, it is perhaps that women (whom I’m convinced, absent scientific study, mind you, are the primary customers of our wines) who are put off by the aggressive, if not militaristic font. Read blog post “Chick Vit”
But, if in fact, it wasn’t the label, might it have been something else? The obvious culprit would have to be the wine itself, especially as it presented upon release. Carignane, when bottled early, surtout en Stelvin, has a certain tendency to express a sort of stoniness—maybe this is the reductive tendency of the variety itself, or a manifestation of the phenomenon of “minerality,” especially in virtue of the age of the vines (perhaps these phenomena are one and the same?). In any event, the taste was presumably not for everyone, especially those tasters who favor ripe fruit as the primary signifier of hedonic excellence. It seemed as if many were slightly put off by the aspect of austerity, though this quality of “stoniness” is what I live for, a signifier of “life-force” or qi in wine. Perhaps I am in the minority in this regard, but I think that it is this stylistic differentiation that is really the wine’s greatest strength, not its weakness. Oddly enough, my thoroughly contrarian friend, Clark Smith, when he tasted the ’09 upon release, felt that it was “too fruity, too pleasurable,” hence not quite European enough.
As I mentioned, we really tried everything possible in the marketing the wines. Because I thought that the iconography of the wine’s presentation was itself a little edgy, I imagined the wine might track to the biochemical radar of the younger imbiber, the Millennials, soi-disant.11 So, we made Contra tattoos in various sizes, which I observed, in fact, to go over rather well at tastings.12
But we didn’t stop there. Oh no. We made Contra berets—again, reinforcing the quasi-militaristic association, and of course we had to make Contra tee-shirts to complement the ensemble. These were done by the brilliant designer, Steven Solomon, who has done all of the graphics for Terroir Wine Bar in New York.13
Back to the subject of gnashing of teeth and rending of garments: After scores, I mean scores of iterations, in collaboration with Mr. Solomon, we also produced an incredibly handsome, limited edition silk-screen poster of Contra. It’s absolutely beautiful, as you can see, and I think we still have some in stock.
And in the interest of creating a more viral presence – the apotheotic outcome envisioned by the gurus of social media—we made and posted a Contra video, which I think was reasonably clever, though I confess that here I was more or less channeling Woody Allen in Bananas.14)
The reviews. There were very good reviews to outstanding raves about the wine pretty much all around, including one from Robert Parker, who has historically not been overly lavish in warm and fuzzy sentiment vis-à-vis Bonny Doon wines. His review was so positive that I took its appearance as an incontrovertible validation of the likely accuracy of the Mayan prediction of the end of the world. We liberally circulated to our distributors and agents these splendid reviews, and again, how these glowing accolades did not seem to really move the needle much at all, also deepened the mystery.
Undoubtedly, the issue is multi-factoral, and one might require the services of the late Jack Klugman, in a turn as the fictional Dr. Quincy, to really properly diagnose the relevant malignancies. While the dysfunctional label hypothesis is really yet to be fully tested, perhaps we might yet be able to exclude it (alas, too late for the purposes of the new boxes!) if we observe a strong uptick in sales with the new vintage (2010).15 We’ve gotten some nice reviews for the new wine, though perhaps not quite as many as for the ’09. The earlier vintage was perhaps a wine critic’s (or winemaker’s) wine, but the ’10 may be more of a typical wine drinker’s wine, a (God help me) crowd pleaser. It’s a bit early to tell how it will do, but if it does fare well, this might be an argument for the decline of the power of the wine review. Alternatively, it may be that people who buy $15 bottles just don’t have much time for wine reviews. Maybe they buy the first time for the label (or in spite of the label), and the second time by how much they’ve enjoyed the wine.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the 2010 and 2011 vintages of Contra. They’re not precisely my preferred style of an extremely restrained, taut red wine. In both vintages we ended up picking the grapes a little bit riper than I might have wished—harvesting in a timely fashion can be a tricky proposition in Antioch, CA, with the intermittent availability of labor crews and other logistical snafus that seem to be endemic to the area. Luckily, in ‘10 we had the wit to take appropriate evasive action on the potential alcohol level by blending in some cool climate, lower alcohol Syrah, which added some much needed coolth to the cuvée.16 Maybe I’m becoming far too neurotic about the whole thing, and worry that the ’10 and ’11 will be wildly successful. Then what?
I’ve taken the ’09 out a lot personally on sales calls to all sorts of venues and I’ve observed consumers reactions up close. If they really know and love wine and also happen to work in a store or restaurant that appreciates and can sell real wine, they will virtually always purchase the wine. At least when I’m around. The whole exercise reminds me a bit of what is called in quantum physics the phenomenon of SchrÃ¶dinger’s Cat. There is almost a sort of quantum effect (which is in fact not supposed to happen on a macro level), i.e. when I attend/observe the wine, the wine presents one way, which leads to a certain discreet outcome (a sale), but when I don’t attend/observe the wine, the wine presumably presents a different way (how would I know?), resulting in a rather different and decidedly less agreeable outcome.
The proposed new label, based on the poster that Steven Solomon did for us, is quite beautiful, certainly far more interesting from a design standpoint than the present “sofa” label. But I can’t help but think that the decision to go with the new label represents a sort of personal failure, a capitulation to the reality principle, a principle I’ve never much cared for, rather just on principle. The sofa label—one of the few Bonny Doon labels featuring a photographic image—despite looking nothing like any of our other labels, strikes me as if it could only come from Bonny Doon.17 There’s a certain sensibility present (albeit warped). The new label, in some sense could really have come from any of the supremely clever marketers—ones far more clever than we—who’ve emerged in recent years, honing their marketing chops through the Darwinian brutality of the insanely competitive environment in which we work. The new Contra label, for example, could easily have been made by the ultra-modernist/hipster Charles Smith of K Vintners, a very clever marketeer, indeed.18
Perhaps I have become too dualistic in my thinking—imagining that one has to choose between a slick label and a somewhat ordinary wine or a more idiosyncratic label with a more original wine. Or, maybe I’m just imagining that an overly slick label—so slick that it might verge on the generic—would slightly undermine the case for the unique and distinctive wine? Perhaps I’m overthinking this. For a $15 bottle of wine, maybe you just suck it up and put on the flashiest label you can conceive of, swallow your pride in that you are not the cleverest marketing person on the block, and move on (whatever that means). The other possible lesson of this inquiry may be that in fact there are few lessons any more, simply occurrences that behave according to rules that are too complicated for us to predict; perhaps we live in a universe of Black Swans, pace Nassim Talebian.19
There has definitely been a real paradigm shift in the wine business, which now more consistently resembles the real world. The wine business was, not so long ago, more like a large pond; it is now a vast ocean and one has to deal with the associated peril.20 Put another way, you can no longer really make waves, but there are still plenty of waves to deal with; you now have to learn how to surf them. It is a new skill for me, but one that appears to be Contra-indicated.
Join us for the second annual CIA Sommelier Summit!
Randall Grahm will be presenting at the Tuesday, April 25th (10-11:15 a.m.)
Natural Wines: WTF? (What’s the fuss?)