Thursday, November 7, 2013

Naked Wines founder: Winemakers are underpaid, terroir is overpriced

Not THAT Naked Wines. Courtesy clothing-optional Terra Cotta Inn
Naked Wines is an interesting new model for wine sales, combining social interaction, user funding and winemaker worship -- and diminishing the importance of terroir.

I spoke with Naked Wines founder Rowan Gormley earlier this week about US Sen. Charles Schumer's proposal to let the US postal service ship wine. He's for it; so am I. Not only could it give competition to the arrogant, crappy wine delivery service from FedEx and UPS; it could help the struggling USPS generate revenue.

It's more interesting to chat with Gormley about his website's model for selling wine. Naked is kind of like CellarTracker meets Kickstarter.

Every wine is listed by winemaker. Most  wines list the region the grapes come from, but it's not the major selling point.

And Gormley says that's as it should be.

"The wine industry has made a living out of claiming that, 'This exclusive piece of soil and this microclimate makes these unique flavors'," Gormley says. "The truth is that the most famous regions are overpriced, and the least famous regions don't deserve their discounts. If you go to Lodi and you crop down and use the right amount of oak and time, you can produce a stunning wine. But you'll never get $100 for it because it's Lodi."

Rowan Gormley, not naked
And with a few exceptions, when a winery does get $100 for the wine, that money goes to the owner, the CFO and the marketing director, but not the winemaker.

"If you look at the restaurant business, 20 years ago the chef was a guy in a greasy apron behind swinging doors," Gormley says. "Now the chef is the restaurant. And people will drive 50 miles to go to the restaurant because Morimoto's there. I think the same thing will happen in the wine industry. The wine industry underpays the real talent, the winemakers and the growers, and they value marketing too much. If you go look in an winery carpark, the beaten up old truck, that's the winemaker. The shiny new BMW, that's the marketer."

It's interesting to read through the user reviews on the Naked Wines site. As with CellarTracker, while many people are positive, real consumers are far more likely to be negative than critics like the Wine Advocate, which rarely publishes scores below 87 anymore.

Just a couple random examples: "The wine was slightly bitter. Wasn't a hit with my husband or myself."

"Good initial flavor. Watered down after taste."

But the great majority of reviews are positive, and many of the winemakers respond to the customers who leave them, which is a lot more interaction than you get with most traditional wineries.

The business model is that consumers agree to spend $40 a month to become "angel investors," and then are able to buy wines at a much lower price. Some of that investment money goes to the winemakers to make the wines.

The winemakers are an interesting group: Randall Grahm is in there, but the majority are people who have or have had production jobs at wineries and are using this opportunity to make a little wine on their own.

It's an interesting startup, founded in the UK in 2008, and opened recently in the US. And as Gormley, a South African entrepreneur, points out, "It's not like a traditional club in which the club chooses what you get and when you get it."

I'm not sure why it's called Naked Wines. But it did give me an opportunity to run a photo from a wine-tasting promo at a nudist resort. And when you heard the name, that's what you were thinking, right?

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Robert said...

One question I would like to know is how he selects who will be on his site and who will not. I am sure he get hundreds of submissions a week. Also of interest is would be the number of people on the tatsing panel.

Unknown said...

I've been a Naked winemaker since summer 2012. Although I initially had my doubts about Naked Wines and how it would play out, I can say it's been an amazing experience so far. The value proposition for the consumer is terrific and the benefits to the winemakers are also terrific. The tasting panel is the customers, all of them. We each get hundreds of comments and reviews and as Blake says above, not all are positive. You need to have thick skin and not take the bad reviews personally. Thankfully there aren't many of those. From a consumer point of view, it's an opportunity to try lots of wines at great prices. And instead of relying on gatekeeper (Laube, Parker, WE, etc.) reviews, people can see what hundreds of their fellow Angels like and dislike prior to ordering. It's a brave new wine world and this winemaker is happy to be part of it. Cheers!

Naked winemaker Jim Olsen said...

I've been a Naked winemaker since winter 2011/12. Like Tim, I had my doubts, but I have to say that working with Rowan and the genius Naked staff has been the most rewarding development of my career. And I particularly like the concept of making wines specifically for the Angels - not for the reviewers. It just feels right!

Anonymous said...

I'd rather pay the piper than the organ-grinder to mix a metaphore!

And having been a very satisfied Naked Wines customer over the years, as Tim alludes, the winemaker's welcome feed-back - big-time - whether good or bad! The interaction with the people that actually consume the product that the winemaker provides is really powerful.

On the one hand it helps the winemaker fine-tune their product to the consuming market as part of the process, but also it helps the consumer define what they want the winemaker to provide too. It is really hard to deny the win-win in this situation... The immediacy of the feedback is also an asset, allowing a "sub-optimal" product, whether by virtue of closure, Brett or any other anomaly to be readily identified and damage limitation provided. That is a rare situation though in my experience - which is extensive of their range, both by wine and vintage...

Back to the original tenet "winemakers are underpaid, terroir is overpriced" and I know of plenty of examples where Naked Wines achieve that sweet spot of getting real value for money wines. And, simultaneously ensuring a long-term relationship with a winemaker - not his/her financial backer's or whatever! But creating a shackle free zone to enable them to perform at their best.

Now that has got to be a win-win as Tim's comment above clearly demonstrates.

Erika Szymanski said...

Hey, Blake; warn us if you're going to post pictures of naked women. Some of us read your blog at work, and this one could have been hard to explain to my office mates!

W. Blake Gray said...

Sorry, Erika. Tell them it's science-related.

On the plus side, my friend Sarah's father told her first thing yesterday morning, "I really like Blake's blog post today!"

Anonymous said...

First off, we have to admit that most of the wine that comes through our household comes in a box...

Ok, now that we're past that shame, we have to say that this article came up on a newsfeed for 'nudist' articles, then the mention of Lodi caught our attention; Lodi, Wisconsin being right down the road here in the wine region of Wisconsin (don't laugh!).

Anyway, we'll be sharing this article on our website (one of the top ranked nudist/naturist websites in the world, like, #1)and nudists have been known to occasionally imbibe in between dips in the pool and rousing volleyball games!

As to your question regarding where the 'naked' comes from in 'Naked Wines', right off the bat on their website they say, "You can be sure that all our wines have been... stripped of all the costs that add nothing to the flavor or quality of the juice in the bottle."

We're guessing that 'stripped' is the operative word here; 'Naked' being a great term to attract attention! Believe me, we know how that works (got US here!).

Well, this isn't really related to social nudism but we'll post it anyway just 'cause it's fun! We've done the same for different 'Naked Beer' companies. Gotta be fair!

Besides, it's winter now here in the Frozen North and there's not a lot else to write about, nudist-wise!

W. Blake Gray said...

Allnudist: Thanks for posting. Don't be ashamed of box wines. There are some very good wines in boxes in Europe and Australia and I have had some good ones here. They're around if you look. The packaging makes sense from both an environmental and consumer standpoint: why not have wine from a resealable container?

Speaking of packaging: stay warm.