In Vino Veritas
Ok so this is going to be less coherent than usual (I know. But hold my beer) as my back is sore enough to make thinking even more of a challenge for the small simian head. No I haven’t actually done anything stupid, or lifted anything bigger than myself. It’s my pelvis that’s a bit out of alignment, a problem women often have after having babies. How I fit this category… is nearly as well as I fit most categories.
While my kids were at school back in South Africa, Barbara would drive them in from the farm and then go to work in ‘The Wine Cellar’ until they finished school. It was a specialist wine shop in a little village called Nottingham Road – it was heart of the Mink-and-manure horsey part of the country, cool and green, not what you think of as Africa. Thus there were plenty of customers for unusual and often expensive wines. Some of them knew something about wine. (My wife if from Cape Wine background so she was one of those who did). It was a fascinating if not very well-paying job, and gave her something to do besides sit at home with a husband who might well call her by the current heroine’s name, if he spoke at all.
There were a couple of thousand labels – mostly wine but they carried beers and unusual spirits as well. Barbs was expected know something about at least the varietal and vintage, and the ‘if you like such-and-such, you should try so-and-so. The owners operated under a very sensible ‘a happy customer is a return customer’ and not ‘how much profit can we make off this customer by selling them expensive crap’ model. They’d built up a substantial family business from almost nothing as a result, but it wasn’t fast or easy. There were always tasting bottles open, and there were larger tasting events every couple of weeks. Winemakers heading for the bigger centers loved coming – especially those from the smaller wineries. Not only were owners knowledgeable and hospitable – they’d also get a crowd of 50-100 people which they didn’t share with any other wine-maker, and almost inevitably placing orders (I know one tasting sold around 200 cases. Poor little guy was expecting to sell about 5-10 and had brought 20 cases with him, including his tasting stock. And he still had several stops. He came back every year after that.) Also, quite a lot of these people could tell white from red without a color chart – and hadn’t just come to drink free wine.
Now, you can produce a surprising amount of wine off a relatively small acreage, it was trendy, socially acceptable, and potentially very profitable – production costs for a $1.50 bottle were not that vastly different for a $150 bottle. The cellar took all stock on consignment – they would return unsold or unsellable bottles – so huge wineries with thousands of acres under grapes were on the racks, next to the place that had five acres and made one label. The problem wasn’t so much getting in there (as it would have been in a general bottle-store) as getting the customer to pick your Chardonnay out of a hundred.
If this sounds a bit like a bookstore… it’s because, yes, this was not dissimilar. A specialist bookstore, with shop attendants who read, knew and loved the product.
I certainly enjoyed her working there, and I really didn’t mind at all when she brought work home, or I had to attend her work events. Wine tasting were a great chance to taste wine, and study characters. It was something of an education, and not just about wine.
Success, sadly, did not always go to the best winemakers (There were some real geniuses. I learned that it is possible to make vastly different wines from the same grape, same block of land – just different processing –again, very like writing) The problem was just how (especially outside that specialist environment, where the hand-selling was effective, and the staff knew and tasted the wine) you actually got noticed.
Again: very like the book world. The place was like the handful of Independent bookstores where I’ve often way outsold what I had in the nearest B&N.
It was also a great insight into marketing and the response of people to marketing – very like books again, the problem was getting enough customers to even pick up your bottle. It was easier and worse here, as bottles were racked – in grape varietals – and every kind just got one display bottle. So Tassenberg (mass produced Cheap red, comparing favorably to a well-aged Kerosene with delightful undertones of hangover) would get the same display as Alto Rouge (A large estate producing a reliable a plummy heavy red, good for hand-to-hand combat, with a sweaty saddle bouquet bespeaking its Shiraz component), as would Joe’s 2 acre Froggy Farm Red blend. Now this was a vast improvement on a typical wine section in a South African Bottle Store, where there’d be a thousand bottles of Tassies on display, twenty of the Alto, and Froggy farm wouldn’t even get into the store, or if it did would be on a bottom shelf in the dark corner. Once again – the book selling world writ large.
Of course there were hundreds of boutique to medium sized wineries, all just trying to get noticed, in any shop. Sometimes they were just trying to get into the shops at all. Yes. Just like books. It’s never been an even playing field. There were very different strategies.
One of the saddest parts of this were the smaller guys who made pretty good wine (not absolutely head-and-shoulders the best – but the kind of wines that were consistently in the top 5%. Depending on tastes, they would easily have been ‘the best’ for some buyers.) Unfortunately, make good wine was all they could do. They didn’t play the politics needed to win prizes (or as it turned out, pay bribes for ranking). If you thought that the literary world was only area that the Awards and review process was a crock, think again). At marketing they sucked.
Awards, however might have sold the wine to big bottle-shops – but they really had fairly little impact on the buying public – probably because even the most gullible buyer soon figured out that a Gold medal seemed to mean it tasted like it came out of the nether end of a cat, and had a bouquet of draino. Anyone who bought much wine steered around ‘award winning’ – but it did get them into the bigger shops. Not that we’ve seen ANYTHING like this in the book world. Never.
The next thing all too many aspirants followed was ‘fashionable-vin-du-jour’ – someone would produce something great in a hitherto minor or obscure cultivar or style – get noticed, and you’d have fifty wineries suddenly produce the same thing. And, because the first was good, some of the first on the new bandwagon would make money because people tried it– and trash their reputations for producing good wine. The rest… the slower ones, mostly might as well have stuck to what they did well, rather than follow fashion. It never sold well. The saddest of these were always the fashions the industry thought really cool and going to go somewhere – that the public didn’t. I suspect that’s a huge problem in Trad at the moment. They’re all over queersexual and gender fluid and whatever… but are readers?
Curiously, the same trend followed through the artwork on wine labels. You’d get the lesser known wines following fashions. We saw everything from mud-colors to what looked like Irene Gallo’s taste in art… come and go. The wine industry is a lot harsher than the trad book industry. They won’t support incompetent asshats that don’t appeal to the public, not for long. The big brands tend not to do the it anyway: what they have to sell is their recognition – and, rather like the real market for sf/fantasy customers like to look at a cover and have some idea what they’re getting – there is some requirement to meet their expectations. Seriously – if you’re trying to sell your book signal content to expectations. Live up to them. No, it isn’t the route to quick wealth – but it isn’t the route to probable failure.
Of course there are literally thousands of attempts – funny labels, weird shaped bottles, ones that stand at an angle – gimmicks per se, to get noticed. The curious thing about these is that some do outsell, often, short term, that small guy who just makes great wine with an ordinary label.
Some of them ended up doing very well. Think of them as Scalzi taping bacon to his cat gimmick catching attention. It got the bottle noticed, the wine was ok, showing potential. It lifted the wine high enough that it didn’t matter that it didn’t actually get any better, and the subsequent years were a slow downhill trend. It was no longer one bottle competing with 50 other bottles. It had its own shelf in the supermarket. The specialist wine shops don’t carry it, because it is expensive plonk. But it’s in the supermarkets.
What one misses in this is that for every one that makes it – a thousand trash themselves. Firstly the hard-core wine buyers steer away from ‘gimmicks’ (a funny label, a skew bottle… great for a joke-gift, don’t drink it.) It’s almost always mediocre at best, and usually bad. I’m not sure it’s quite as bad in the book-world… but you can go too far. I mean you get noticed all right – like Boggy Whatsiface having a loud public melt-down tantrum about the fact its made-up ‘preferred pronoun’ didn’t get used by Worldcon. It is famous, you know. At least as many people as there are in the Tor office and their camp followers (nomination numbers have dropped to trivial) must have voted for it. Boggy got noticed… but how many readers outside that circle – will being the subject of rolled eyes and laughter get you? Trust me, even being able to climb palm trees and throw coconuts with my feet didn’t do that well for me.
The key is to get noticed, but not in the way the puke-covered wino downing the slop-buckets at wine-tasting does. When you do get noticed, have something that readers will enjoy, not mutter about being suckered.