Wine and Forgivable Luxury


I was at a the new Flowers Winery unveiling in Russian River not long ago. It was a soft opening and as part of the seated tasting they served a very nice 2017 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. Underneath the wine title on the tasting sheet it said, “Estero Gold gougére with lemon zest + wild fennel pollen.” Having been party to many exotic and far-fetched wine descriptors over the years I asked the wine host “What’s the Estero Gold in the wine descriptor?” Much to the rest of my companion’s amusement the host pointed out that it wasn’t a wine descriptor. It was the shortly to arrive pairing, that went with the wine.

A few days later the same winery came up in discussion with a Bay Area gentleman who is an executive at Mandarin Hotels and his partner who was an architect. We were talking about the Napa and Sonoma winery aesthetic and where each valley is on its journey. He observed, as many do, that they enjoy Sonoma as “You can spread out, there’s less traffic, and it feels more real and authentic.” I work on both sides of the hill and the phrase “Sonoma is what Napa used to be” is used quite a lot by visitors. Whether this is really true or not is not the point. Perceptions are reality.

We talked about how many of the early luxury brand wineries of Napa were about dominating the landscape. They existed to make the customer feel like they were entering a place to worship, part hallowed ground and part entering an impressive old bank to get a loan.

This new winery is an interesting teasing out of the folds of wine, luxury, and experience in an evolving Sonoma. We are now firmly in the era of ‘farm to table’ and our ‘woke’ customers are increasingly sensitive to the impact of their luxe desires on the world around them. What this winery appears to have done cleverly is walk that fine line between offering luxury while not being ostentatiously assertive about it. It does this in two simple ways. The winery and its outdoor seating areas are impressive but consciously set into the landscape rather than above it. You feel enveloped by the earth. The second is the use of soft tones and natural colors throughout. The accumulating natural textures and build materials used throughout give a feeling of environmental vigor. I put my bright red Moleskin notebook down on the tasting table for memorializing my impressions. As soon as I did, it felt so jarringly out of place that I hid it down the side of my chair. Some people are going to look horrendous in this new wine world. I suspect they will have to ban many customers in the more lurid Tommy Bahama shirts. I was glad to have randomly picked out a green linen shirt that morning. It’s always such an added bonus when you go to a place and sit down feeling on brand.

They will work out a few identity kinks as they progress. Once you have created this kind of endearing aesthetic, name badges take it in a heartbeat from being sensitive and environmentally empathetic, to expensive spa resort.

The exemplary visit felt like a watershed winery moment for Sonoma. Like a new evolved form of Napa is germinating in the valley next door. I suspect that they will do very well. There are some savvy people in charge, and you sense that the winery is at the right point on the cultural wave. Many visitors are looking for a counterpoint to the brash and gaudy conspicuous celebration of consumption in the highest offices of the land. This winery deftly makes our desire for luxury forgivable.

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Zin Label Collage.JPG

I received two e-mails about Zinfandel from Napa producers within the space of a few days. One offering said, “There is this inescapable fact that Zin grapes taste really good, and the resulting wines, can often be transcendent!” The other proposed that, “Our Favorite Summer Wine is Zinfandelicious!”  Herein lies the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the varietal in our culture.

I really like that Zinfandel has a real people, no BS, air about it. A grape and a wine for those who like to drink something tasty and don’t need a masters in fruit sciences or a lengthy ‘educator’ lecture to go with their bottle. A lot of Zinfandel is consumed in that casual part of your life, the European way, the one that we all claim we want to emulate in the new American lifestyle.

Is there a Napa Valley resurgence of Zintrest beyond the perennial Biale, Turley, Tofanelli, and their ilk? It feels like some Napa Valley producers have realized that they have priced their Cabernet Sauvignons, and most other Bordeaux varietals, into unicorn status. I suspect that there are going to be more Napa folks taking another look at this poor relation called Zinfandel. Suddenly those Zinfandel shotgun shacks on the poor side of town look authentic and might look nice if dusted down, renovated, re-painted, flipped, and sold as “charming.” It wasn’t long ago that if you said you were going to sell your Zinfandel for over $50 people would console you, fan you with a Reader’s Digest, and ask if you were on medication. Now it’s not uncommon and people seem to be buying it.  

Some think it was ‘White Zinfandel’ that sullied Zinfandel’s status. I believe it was a bad sort of Zinpun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an offer for Cabernet Sauvignon that said, “Our favorite winter wine is Cabalicious.” Why not?  Because we don’t think like clever rednecks when naming any other varietal.  For some reason with Zinfandel “Zin Phomaniac” becomes a fascinating and alluring brand name for your wine label. Maybe it’s something to do with the ‘Z’ in Zinfandel that prompts this desire. The wine is at the end of the alphabet and needs a helping hand. Or maybe the everyman nature of the wine was elevated by making the names, and language around them, as informal and as ‘punny’ as we could. I went onto the internet and in no time at all had an impressive, but I’m sure by no means exhaustive, list of Zinpuns and related efforts. Zinfandelic, Zinfinity, Seven Deadly Zins, Zen of Zin, The Immortal Zin, Poizin, Artezin, Brazin, Sin Zin, and XYZin.

Lest anyone thinks I am blemish free in my casting of Zinpuns, I have to confess that GoDaddy and I had a late night Zinfueled encounter and I now own (a lawsuit waiting to happen) and Lord knows what I’ll do with them, so feel free to make exceedingly generous offers. Even while you shake your head in disbelief at what others are doing, the puns can be Zinsidious and creep into your thoughts as, “I know, I know… but this one would be witty and amusing.”  I was helping a great Zinfandel brand in Sonoma with their storytelling not long ago. Upon arrival I looked at the bathrooms by the parking lot and thought, “It would be cool to change the signs to ‘Zinfangals’ on one side and Zinfanguys’ on the other. I held on to this delusion till one day I was talking to couple and their daughter, doing a bit of informal research. The parents were in their 60’s and the daughter was a 29 year old bright spark working for a venture capital firm in San Francisco. When one of them came back from the restroom I happened to mention the idea. One of the parents thought it would be hilarious and memorable, the other was non plussed. The young lady said firmly and quietly, “Don’t do it.” The two positions based on age might be telling. Whatever it means, my bubble burst immediately, and I realized the crassness of the idea. Having said all that, a couple of weeks have now gone by and the idea doesn’t seem so bad again. As always, the Zinpuns return pervasively to my Zinconscious…

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The Eight Foot Wine Story


A lot of wine is pitched from an eight-foot table.  Even some of the most highly sought-after wines of Napa Valley and California will end up being presented at an 8ft. table at some point.  The off-site tasting venue might be grander and the crowd smaller, but when it happens, the eight-foot table is still that great leveler of the wine business. (Never stoop to a loser six-foot table.) The reasons why you accept this dip into the muddy mercantile waters may be many: money, status, relationship, even desperation.  However, when it happens, you leave the ivory tower where you control everything and end up peddling your wares like you were a carpet dealer at some dusty, sweaty souk. 

In my former life as a winery GM, I avoided participating in these offsite tastings because it meant stripping down and casting off all the home game advantages that elevated your identity and brand.  What was left was a pleading bench of 8 feet, a few bottles of wine, a flower arrangement, the inevitable 3 Liter, a photo of the winery, and a few order forms.  Then came the hordes of starlings with their beaks open, deciding whether to bestow their love on you or not. 

If it had to be done, the exciting part was rising to the challenge.  Stabbing out in various directions attempting to pierce the veil between us and them. Finding a way to encapsulate everything you do in a phrase that could be shouted across the divide.  Some poetic line to forever connect the taster to the quality of what you just poured.  Mastering the one-minute relationship is a whole different kind of thing from the seated love fest that you can have at your high-end winery. 

Very few do it really well.  Most try and say and convey too much.  Have you ever stood on the other side as a taster at one of these cacophonies? Do that then think about your pitch. You hear:  Something, something, “ 2016…” some vineyard name “Cabernet Sauvignon with…”  then a mumble and “2nd of October…” followed by something incoherent then “32% new oak,” with another mumble, concluding with “…and Petit Verdot.”  You nod thoughtfully while not admitting you only heard one word in five of what was said.

I remember working with winemaker Andy Smith at a few of these events.  I liked his “come to the mountain” style.  He’d pour the wine, state what it was, and make no attempt to say any more.  No quips, no tag lines, no scores…  If the taster had something intelligent to ask as a follow up, he’d engage and answer.  Otherwise you didn’t know you were talking to the man who made the wine.

The other approach I watched in admiration was the dementia stance.  It was at a very high-end tasting.  There was an impeccably dressed wine host from an iconic Napa Valley winery who had perfected his slightly bemused countenance.  It was as if he was The Duke of Edinburgh and had somehow awoken to find himself among the populace on public transport. His face said, “I’m pouring for you now, but I don’t really know how this came to happen.”

What prompted this rumination was a brief encounter with a master of the eight-foot art. I was at the impressive Grand Cru custom crush facility in Windsor in Sonoma Valley for an open house for most of the producers who make wines there. Donald Patz is a seasoned hand in the wine world, but I don’t know him personally.  He poured me a tasty single block Chardonnay from a very respected Sonoma County grower.  “I pay more for this fruit than any others I buy.”  Ha! Immediately he has your interest piqued, and potential quality and credibility is established.  By using “I” he also gently established his personal authority.  “The fruit is from right outside the grower’s old family home.”  With that he anchored a sense of place and why the wine might have emotional value.  “Their old Mom watches the vineyard guys out the window. If she doesn’t like the way they are pruning the vines, she goes out there to correct them.”  The succinct pitch ended with a nice compact story flourish that was memorable.  It was a great example of the eight-foot story.


VINFABULA – “Improve your performance with a story audit of your business from a fresh perspective. Then profit from selecting, aligning, and telling the right stories, powerfully.

Wine Tribes

It’s no coincidence that rookie wine hosts are taught to ask where else a customer has tasted on their trip so far.  The answer immediately speaks volumes.  Do they have money, do they have access, are they searching out the cool and cultish, are they wine focused, or are they ‘wine tourists’ wandering aimlessly around Wine Country?  Who is their wine tribe?