How do you know if you’re being authentic?

“Did you stop beating your wife?” is the classic Catch-22 question. If you say “Yes” you admit to having beaten your wife. If you say “No,” you admit you’re still beating her. Either way, you lose.

It must feel the same way when a winery owner is told that he’s not being “authentic” in his marketing strategy. What’s he supposed to say or do to prove that he is?

Yet “authenticity” is supposedly the Holy Grail that Millennials are seeking. We’ve been told this again, and again, and again over the years, particularly with the rise of social media such as Twitter. Here’s the latest version, entitled “Authenticity Key to Wooing Younger Wine Consumers, Price Says.” (It’s in yesterday’s Bloomberg News.)

The bullet point: “The key thing to the younger drinkers is being authentic — they have super-sensitive noses about what’s not authentic about your brand,” Price said. (William Price is chairman of Vincraft Group, a winery capital investment company that works with such wineries as Kosta Browne and Gary Farrell.)

Winery owners might well read Price’s words, scratch their heads and think, “What the hell does being authentic mean?” The questions pile up. What practices are authentic and which ones aren’t? How do you know when you’re being authentic and when you’re not? Is there an authento-meter you can buy that measures it? (Try Googling Authento-Meter.) How much does it cost to be authentic? Are there people I can hire who specialize in authenticity? (Try Googling authenticist.) How do I find them? How do I know if they know what they’re talking about? And so on and on. It’s enough to turn your hair gray.

Some hint of a solution to frazzled winery owners is offered by Michael Honig, of Honig Vineyard & Winery, who says Millennials “have been lied to so often and so many times about these fanciful brands. It’s like the Wizard of Oz, what’s behind the curtain? Well, there’s nothing behind the curtain.”

All right, our winery owner now knows, he must never, ever lie to consumers. Fair enough. But then, he never did lie to consumers, not to his knowledge, anyway, not consciously. Oh, he might have put something on the back label about “the finest grapes from the finest coastal vineyards,” but everyone does that, don’t they? And besides, they were good grapes; he paid an arm and a leg for them. But was it a lie? True, he might have paid a lot more for grapes from other vineyards, but it was the Recession, times were tight, his financial manager (who happens to be his wife) said they couldn’t afford $4,000 a ton, and so they had to settle for $2,000 a ton fruit. But it was good fruit, wasn’t it?

Even so, our owner thinks, maybe he should get rid of that phrase. If these Millennials really have super-sensitive X-ray noses that can detect the slightest lie–no, exaggeration–then perhaps he might tone down his back label.

But what was that stuff about “nothing behind the curtain”? I’m here behind the curtain. Me, my wife, my kids, my brother-in-law who does our sales, my nephew who helps out in the winery. Are we “nothing”? Are we the Wizard of Oz, phony fakes pretending to be things we’re not? The winery owner grows indignant. Who is this Honig to accuse me of being nothing? Why, I should call that little so-and-so up right now and–

Then he collects himself and takes a deep breath. Maybe Honig’s right. Sales have been soft lately, at least since 2009. Maybe that’s proof that I really am nothing. If I were something, sales would be better, right? Our winery owner sighs. He pours himself another drink. I really don’t know what being authentic means, he thinks, and the thought makes him sad. He’s gone through four Kubler-Rossian stages in less than 10 minutes and is now parachuting into the final stage, acceptance. He turns to the Google machine one final time, to find a number for Vincraft. Maybe this Price fellow can give me some advice about authenticity, our winery owner thinks. I just hope he’s not too expensive…

STEVE HEIMOFF| WINE BLOG Steve Heimhoff, 2, steve-heimhoff

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