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GP8Jan2003: CHIFF

The Critic's Paradox.  Parker's Wine Buyer's Guide (sixth edition) is just over 1600 pages, but it is the 40-page introduction that we find most compelling.  There you can learn that Australian and California vintners pump a lot of extra acidity into their concoctions.  And a careful reading suggests that just as wine criticism is reaching new heights (due to stalwarts such as Hugh Johnson, Robert Parker, and Jancis Robinson), wine itself may be on a downward course.  This is frequently the plight of the critic:  we remember New York theater of the 1960s onward where some of the critics were at their brightest, but they had to make a lot out of nothing, because theatrical fare was in rapid decline.

Factory Wine.  In his introduction, Parker bemoans the practices of several high-volume producers.  Over-fertilizing, they are going for excessive crop yields while harvesting too early:  their grapes lack taste.  Then centrifuging, fining, and filtration produce stable, standard, very average wines that Parker characterizes as lifeless.  Mass manufacturing and mass marketing are putting increasing amounts of expensive wines on the shelf that are much less than they should be.  Parker, whose massive influence was celebrated in "The Million-Dollar Nose," an article very much worth reading that appeared in the December 2000 Atlantic Monthly, seems to know he cannot staunch the flood of quantity (annual wine production exceeds demand by some 25%, according to the article) that is sweeping away quality.

Fitting Jeans.  We have said in several of our letters (see "Going Upmarket in Stormy Weather," 18 September 2002 ) that the right strategy in tough markets may be to go upmarket, offering much better quality at a price.  Indeed, this may be, longer term, the right strategy for a post-industrial world where commodity, mass market products, even those draped in lots of marketing, may be less and less viable.  The wine titans who are squeezing out more and more "C" wines could have it all wrong.  The goal may not be too use technology to grind out too much mediocre product dressed in old-style marketing, but to produce the special and the particular, using cheaper yet more innovative marketing to connect to the discriminating consumer.

In coming days, you will learn on the Global Province how Land's End produces semi-custom jeans for you at a premium by letting you send in your measurements and a few other particulars over the Internet.  Three weeks later you've got the goods, straight from Central America.  Old Brooks Brothers has restored some of its made-to-order capabilities by putting some scanning machines in its store which, once again, net the customer a better if not quite custom look.  In other words, technology can lead to choice, quality, and individual distinction rather than a bottle of wine with no je ne sais quoi.  Using technology to go upmarket is, in fact, permitting new competitors to steal market share from the mass market leader in industry after industry.

Best of the Week.  We reread last week a great article that appeared on Forbes.com in November titled  "Inside the Smartest Little Company in America."  It's Cranium, the board game company.  We'll have more to say about the article and Cranium on the Global Province.  We liked best the company's celebration of CHIFF by which it guides all its actions.  CHIFF stands for "clever, high quality, innovative, friendly, and fun" which about sums up where we think business has to go in the post-industrial age.  And, by the way, next week we will have a note about Sid Sackson, who invented some 500 board games and who could have given Cranium a run for its money.

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