Wine bottle “product photography” using only natural light (even an amateur like me can do it).

Credit owed where credit is due: I developed my approach to naturally lit wine bottle product photography using this educational video by photographer Karl Taylor.

After a business partner of mine recently asked me lend a hand in creating wine bottle photographs for a new website they are launching, I set about watching instructional videos on how images like that are created.

With the skill set of an amateur photographer (emphasis on amateur), some low-cost tools of the trade, and my iPhone 11 Pro Max, I was able to shoot the bottles successfully without the use of professional lighting.

That’s my rig, above, in our kitchen dining room. See the video in the link for how it works.

The white poster board (purchased from a local arts supply store) was ideal for creating my “light box.” But the key to getting the “clean” shots was a used Lastolite 33″ Tri-Grip Diffuser that I picked up curbside from a local camera and photograph shop. You can see the diffuser to the right.

Another key element was eliminating any light from behind the camera. I did that by covering the window in our kitchen door with a blanket.

As per the video, I changed the aperture on my iPhone camera and used my Apple Watch to trigger the shot (that made a huge difference in the final product). In the video, Taylor uses a professional-grade trigger. I found that my Apple Watch, “paired” with my phone, worked great for this.

As Taylor writes in his blog post: “No studio lights? No problem!”

One last crucial element was creating the right “table” for the shots. I did that using a smaller piece of poster board (luckily my library, the possession I’m most proud of, offered an ample selection of books for setting up my rig and mounting the table).

Ever since online platforms and digital media became a sine qua non tool for wine marketing and sales, bottle photography has been one of the field’s greatest challenges for wine professionals. The lack of professional training (as in my case) and the high cost of professional lighting and the skills needed to implement said lighting have been seemingly insurmountable obstacles in my quest to obtain clean, professional-looking “product” photography. Until now… I hope others will find this post helpful.

Be sure to check out Taylor’s blog post and video.

“Crisis in the dark”: Italian government collapse exacerbates wine industry challenges.

Above: Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome, seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies (counterpart to the U.S. House of Representatives). Image via Adobe Stock.

Although it wasn’t entirely unexpected, Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s announcement yesterday that he would resign set into motion what the Italian media have called a grave “crisis in the dark” (a reference to the political turmoil of the 1970s when the country faced a complete economic meltdown).

The collapse of the Italian government comes as the country faces cascading health and economic challenges.

(See the links above for the New York Times coverage.)

For Italian winemakers, many of whom are relying on domestic sales to keep their businesses afloat as exports have dropped precipitously, the political infighting couldn’t come at a worse moment. With nearly all of the country under lockdown, Italian restaurants and wine shops are required to shutter their doors at 6 p.m. every evening. As a result, major supermarket chains and other national retail outlets, which are allowed remain open in the evening, are seeing a boost in sales. But because the chain retailers source their wines primarily from larger wineries, this shift leaves smaller estates, who depend on boutique shops and independent restaurants, without a means to sell their products.

Earlier this month, Andrea Terraneo, president of the Italian association of wineshop owners (Vinarius), sent an open letter to prime minister Conte and his health and economic ministers asking him to amend the restrictions crippling the independent wine retailer industry. The “discriminatory” 6 p.m. cut-off, he wrote, has led to a 30 percent drop in sales in a sector already decimated by the pandemic fallout.

The restrictions add to the woes of a hospitality industry already besieged by the pandemic.

For small-scale growers, the government collapse only exacerbates the economic pain felt across the nation. Tasting room closures and restrictions had already shut off one of their main sales channels. And now, with the government on hold, there is little hope that the restrictions will be lifted in the near future.

If Conte or one of his rivals (namely, the self-described “Machiavellian” Matteo Renzi), are unable to form a new coalition, it’s possible a technical government will be installed to oversee the country’s current covid response and the management of forthcoming financial aid from the European Union — another crucial element in the wine industry’s recovery. Although unlikely, snap elections would take months to be implemented.

How virtual wine dinners saved our restaurant in Houston.

Image by the Corkscrew Concierge, a regular attendee at Roma’s virtual wine dinners.

Like many independent concept restaurants across the U.S., the barely four-year-old Roma in Houston was eager to shift to virtual events as soon as the shutdowns began to be enforced across Texas in the early days of the growing pandemic.

At the time, prospects for the restaurant’s survival were dim. As for tens of thousands of American restaurateurs (and for hundreds of thousands across the world), business had ground to a halt. Regulars, mostly middle-aged professionals, were reluctant even to order take-out in those early days of the health crisis. And for a “neighborhood,” “date night,” and “special occasion” restaurant like Roma, the world of plastic containers and utensils was as distant as Mars. The expression curbside available, now a workaday locution in the American restaurant lexicon, was as exotic as H.G. Wells’ “Martian herbs and trees.”

When the owner was approached by an energetic supplier/sales rep (a salesperson for a locally based importer and distributor), he gladly accepted her offer to organize a virtual wine dinner and tasting. Her idea — as brilliant as it was simple — was to have a winery representative in Italy on the other line, as it were, while the guests tasted through a three-bottle flight of wine paired with regional dishes. Yes, it would be 2:30 in the morning for the estate ambassador, but the sacrifice of a little sleep was well compensated by the potential sales and brand building — especially considering how business had declined precipitously in the early days of the new normal.

The initial virtual gatherings were unsurprisingly (at least in retrospect) clumsy. Zoom links that didn’t work. Guests who didn’t know how to mute their microphones and the subsequent TMI intimacy. Seafood dishes that were cold and rubbery by the time the guests opened their containers at home.

But the turning point came when the featured guest, the enologist son of a legacy Italian winemaker, began to insult the restaurateur over the pairings — in Italian. It didn’t occur to the dim-witted nimrod (excuse the pleonasm, merited in this case) that one of the guests, who happened to work as the restaurant’s media manager, was fluent in Italian.

The disconnect issue was only compounded when another microcephalic brand ambassador joked to the guests that the proprietary name of one of the estate’s wines could be loosely translated as “end of the world.” Appropriate, he quipped, for the times (despite the fact that he was employed by the estate, he didn’t realize the name was actually a reference to the nec plus ultra of Homer’s Odyssey).

And that’s when it dawned on Roma’s owner: the dinner’s “content” was being driven by the supplier rep and the brand ambassadors on the other side of the Atlantic; and the brand ambassadors, often export directors with poor English skills, were treating the events as if they were “supplier meetings,” as they are called in the trade, educational affairs where the brand ambassadors share insights with sales reps from regional distributors.

It was mid-July and the restaurant was still struggling, literally teetering on the brink of failure, when the owner made a radical shift: he would only host virtual wine events, he decided, with “principals” from the wineries, the winemaker or an immediate family member, and the featured guests had to speak English well. He also brought on a moderator, a wine professional with experience in public-facing wine education and public speaking, a veteran events organizer.

And that was what turned out to be the key: instead of letting commercial interests shape the events, his team would choose the wines, the pairings, and — most importantly — the winemakers who would represent the wines. The idea was to deliver a media “product” that was as entertaining and engaging as it was delicious.

He also made sure to keep the cost moderate. By negotiating aggressively with the distributors, whom he approached as opposed to them reaching out to him, he made sure the price per person remained palatable. What he found was that distributors were so keen to “move boxes,” as they say in the trade, that there was ample flexibility in pricing, “sampling,” and other strategies to offset the wine cost.

Almost as if by magic, the attendance at the dinners grew rapidly from 10-20 guests to 40, 50, and 60. By the fall even though the events were held on a weekly basis, he was regularly fielding 70-80 diners every Thursday evening. By the time the restaurant hosted its last event of 2020, it counted 90+ guests including some of the city’s leading wine mavens.

The secret, says the owner, is that he gives the guests what they want and not what the distributors want. And dulcis in fundo, the distributor reps aren’t complaining (anymore) either.

I’ll be joined by three other leading Italian-focused food and wine professionals a week from Friday as we discuss the mechanics of running a successful virtual tasting event for a webinar hosted by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central. See this link for registration details. All are welcome.

At home highlight wines 2020: California, French, Italian.

Beyond Eric Asimov’s excellent Times column “The Pour,” some of the paper’s most compelling wine writing has been delivered recently via the Gray Lady’s “Wealth Matters” rubric.

“Stuck at Home, People Are Splurging on Wine and Spirits” (December 18, 2020) by Paul Sullivan informed us that in 2020

    Sales of wines, for instance, dipped in the first quarter, before the pandemic. But they are now selling at a brisk rate, making up for the slower months… And sales of premium wines during the post-pandemic period have grown more than other categories.

The trend has been driven, at least in part, by the fact that

    [people are] not traveling and not going out to dinner. Instead, they’re looking to buy something that will make yet another dinner at home more interesting. And because they’re not paying the markups that bars and restaurants usually charge, they can afford higher quality bottles.

Not only do these (partly anecdotal) observations align with what wine sales agents from across the country have been telling me (one rep told me that his company’s retail program grew so significantly that it bested its 2019 sales last year), but they also dovetail with our personal experience: because we stopped going out to dinner (completely in our case), we were able to spend more on our retail consumption.

Here are some of the wines that we enjoyed in 2020 “despite,” as Weird Al put it, “things.”

Robert Foley 2018 Chardonnay

Yes, we loved this Napa Valley Chardonnay. The fruit was classically new world bright but balanced by vibrant acidity and wonderful freshness. I’d never had anything white from Foley but the reasonable pricing for this mid-level Chardonnay kept bringing me back.

Dominque Lafon 2018 Bourgogne Blanc

I was curious about this “second label” by Dominique Lafon after reading up on him in the course of my work for the Boulder Burgundy Festival where he was the virtually featured winemaker this year. It’s not cheap but this wine was spectacular, a great value for those who want to dip their toes into Burgundian greatness. One of my favorite wines of the year.

Vignai da Duline 2018 Friulano

Classic, focused, elegant, and genuine. Vignai da Duline is one of those estates that all the cool kids — from the classicists to the enohipsters — in Italy love. And with good reason. We’d never had the monovarietal Friulano and both Tracie and I were blown away by the depth and beauty of this stunning wine. Highly recommended and another great value for a premium wine.

Faury 2018 Saint Joseph Blanc and Rouge

I was drawn to this producer because of the rarity of white wine from Saint Joseph. Both of these wines, each under $40, were nothing short of spectacular. Kermit Lynch has always had a knack for sourcing under-appreciated wines that land at reasonable prices and both of these wines delivered 1,000 percent.

Pertinace 2016 Barbaresco

Pound for pound, Pertinace is the greatest value in Barbaresco today imho. After I tasted this wine for a virtual wine dinner I led, I bought a case and we drank it for all of our holidays. What a wine and what a value! This is one of those wines that I’ll remember for the rest of my days. No joke. I have my suspicions as to why this cooperative is not more popular in the U.S. and that’s fine with me. My recommendation: run don’t walk.

Oddero 2016 Barolo

I’ve followed Oddero for more than 15 years now and I’m always blown away by the wines’ consistency over time. A perennial classic that always lands with reasonable pricing. I believe that’s because the Oddero family has always remained true to their original vision: old school, traditional winemaking with immense focus and elegance. We opened this with Pietro for a virtual wine tasting I led and it was magical to share the experience with other like-minded tasters.

Mastroberardino 2016 Taurasi Radici

Another magical experience, tasted with Piero Mastroberardino for a virtual wine tasting I led. I have such a deep connection to this wine: back when I first started tasting and collecting, it was one of the few wines I could afford to lay down (anyone else remember the extraordinary 1995 vintage for this wine?). Tasting with Piero is always such a compelling experience and this wine was extraordinary the night we shared it virtually with the host restaurant’s guests. What a wine! And what a fantastic value, another one I’ll be cellaring from the year of the pandemic.

Happy new year, everyone. I hope this finds you and loved ones all healthy and safe. Thanks for being here and thanks for all your support in 2020. Looking forward to brighter times and more great wine in 2021.