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The New York Times discovers IPOB

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Nice, balanced treatment of the In Pursuit of Balance movement and those who think it’s silly by Bruce Schoenfeld in the New York Times magazine. The very fact that this phenomenon has hit the pages of the Gray Lady is indicative of how important IPOB has become in the weltanschauung of our wine conversation.

Let me get this out of the way immediately: I’ve thought since IPOB’s inception that they’re too ideological in declaring that some wines are “balanced” and some aren’t and that the dividing line is some ill-defined notion of alcoholic strength.

I don’t believe I’m one of the “invective-filled…partisans” who opposes IPOB, in Schoenfeld’s words; he catches the family quarrel well, but does tend to exaggerate the animosities a little bit—bringing in Robert Parker and his stinging critiques of IPOB (“jihadists,” “anti-pleasure,” “useless”) makes things sound worse than they are. For my part, I certainly wouldn’t use inflammatory language like that. But then, IPOB’s supporters haven’t gone after me the way they’ve gone after Parker. (I’m not important enough.)

If you believe IPOB you’d think that their members all make Pinot Noirs below 14%, but at the recent San Francisco tasting, there was Calera, whose wines can exceed 14.5%. For example, the 2007 Ryan I reviewed was 14.7%, and it was a very good wine I gave 93 points. But how do you explain Calera’s presence in IPOB? This is not a diss of Calera, whose wines I quite like, or of Josh Jensen, whom I respect, but it is a question posed to Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch. Why is Calera there? Are you saying that most other Pinot Noirs of that alcohol range are “unbalanced” but by some divine intervention, Calera isn’t? Enquiring minds want to know.

I give IPOB credit for sparking this conversation. Whether it’s a conversation that actually leads to any responsible conclusions, however, remains to be seen. Some years ago, the conversation in California was all about “food wines”—what they are, what they aren’t. Then, it was the application of oak that was at the heart of the chatter. This IPOB thing is a modern rendition of that discussion, which actually did have the positive result that it led to a renewed consideration of the proper application of oak to wine. There seems to be something self-regulating in the American wine industry—helped by social media and the chatty opinionizing that characterizes the wine industry—that perceives excesses almost as soon as they occur and tries to curtail them. This is a good thing.

But I suspect that IPOB will run its course in due time; other organizations will arise and fall, people’s attention will be diverted elsewhere, California’s climate will certainly play a role, and Raj, Jasmine and IPOB will go on to other, less contentious things. In the meantime, they’ve already succeeded in making wineries (which means winery owners) make, at the very least, contingency plans for what to do if, in fact, there is a serious consumer swing towards low-alcohol wines. I don’t think there is, yet, although if you read the wine press voraciously you might be forgiven for thinking it’s already happened. But this is how the media works nowadays: somebody stirs the pot, everybody starts talking about it, and the next thing you know, self-fulfilling prophecies pop up all over the place.

Have a great weekend!


Blend or single vineyard? It depends on the variety

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Sauvignon Blanc is one of those grape varieties that seems to benefit from judicious blending from multiple sources in California. Cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc can be audacious and savory in gooseberries, with a touch of pyrazine that can be too green for many people. Warm-climate Sauvignon can have delicious tropical fruit flavors but be a little candied. Either, by itself, can have limitations, especially in an off-vintage; but blending them together seems to smooth out the divots. While it’s true that some of my highest-scoring Sauvignon Blancs ever were Mondavi Tokalons, this is a rare exception in California; Sauvignon Blanc in our state veers towards the ordinary, and it takes some great grape sourcing and careful blending to come up with a serious wine.

Pinot Noir, on the other hand, is considerably more interesting as a single-vineyard wine. I’m not sure why, other than to trot out the usual theories of site-specificity, thinner skins and terroir transparency. Perhaps psychically we’re more forgiving to a slightly flawed Pinot Noir from a vineyard. I used to wonder why a great Pinot Noir couldn’t be a blend of, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. It can in theory, of course, but while I’ve experienced many, many very beautiful blended Pinot Noirs, the wine always seems more interesting and complex when the grapes are from a single vineyard.

Then there’s Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m tempted to say it, too, wants to be from a single vineyard, but there are so many interesting, great Cabs that break that rule. I, personally, am a huge fan of Cardinale, which is a blend of various vineyards in Napa Valley. Yes, I work for Jackson Family Wines, but I didn’t when I gave the 2006 100 points, and I’ve never had a Cardinale I didn’t find dazzling. So I can’t say that Cabernet has to be from a single vineyard to be world class.

I think Zinfandel is probably best as a vineyard-designate, although it has to be a super-great vineyard, well-tended, and, if possible, old vines. As for Chardonnay, I’m divided on that one. It’s such a winemaker’s wine (barrels, malo, lees) that the sourcing doesn’t seem like it should matter, as long as it’s from a cool climate. And yet, as I look over my Wine Enthusiast reviews, I notice that my highest Chardonnay scores were reserved for single vineyard wines: Failla 2010 estate, Williams Selyem 2010 Allen Vineyard, Rochioli 2010 South River Vineyard, Dutton-Goldfield 2010 Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard, Ramey 2012 Ritchie Vineyard, Flowers 2011 Moon Select, Shafer 2009 Red Shoulder Ranch.

There’s something intellectual about a single-vineyard wine, especially if you’ve been to the vineyard, walked it, had it explained to you by the winemaker or grapegrower. The Allen Vineyard, for instance, is such a distinctive place; every time I have an Allen Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, I imagine that particular place, the slight slope, the vineyard tucked up against the hills to the west, Westwide Road on the east, and the Russian River just on the other side of Rochioli. It’s a “sweet spot,” midway between the chill of the southern valley and the warmth of Dry Creek Valley, a lovely corner of the Russian River Valley that I hope will someday be appellated as The Middle Reach.

The market, of course, rewards single-vineyard wines. I can’t prove it with data, but I bet if someone crunched the numbers, they’d find that single-vineyard wines are more expensive, on average, than blended wines. I think that a winery that produces a single-vineyard wine as a very special bottling, superior in their view to their blended wines, is in the catbird’s seat, but you can’t simply assume that a vineyard-designated wine has special properties. I’ve had plenty of sad vineyard-designated wines; some have been horrible. So you never know; you have to taste the wine. Consumers want assurances, but there are none in wine. Every rule has an exception.


Whither wine writing? Hosemaster’s post makes me think

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The Hosemaster has a pretty good spoof up on his blog. It’s a little harsh, even for him, but that’s Hosemaster for you, unsparing and direct, whose unblinking eye sees all and tells it like it is (and never with malice. Well, maybe a little…). But he does hit on some truths about the state of wine writing that require further comment.

Like Hosemaster, I peruse many of the wine blogs out there and in general stay abreast of the latest wine books. And like Hosemaster, I’m bemused by the quality of what I read. It’s not that these wine writers are stupid or unambitious or untalented, it’s that wine writing itself has undergone a sea change that makes traditional approaches to it anachronistic, and so these wine writers and bloggers are trying to do something that, fundamentally, has already been done, and better than any of them will ever be able to do it.

The problem is that wine writing implies wine readers, and we have a problem, Houston, when it comes to the latter. There are basically two kinds of wine readers in America: older ones and younger ones. (Let’s set an artificial boundary at 40 years of age.) The older readers, most of them Baby Boomers, already have read widely and deeply on the topic of wine. If they’re serious winos, chances are their bookshelves contain numerous books and handbooks and guides. So they neither need wine blogs to tell them what to think, nor do they have any other reason to read, much less trust, blogs, unless they’re on the marketing and P.R. side of the business, a thankless place where you have to read everything, even the dullest blather, and make nice to the dullest people, on the off-chance that someone, somewhere, will say something nice about your wine which you can then use in your promotional efforts.

The younger readers, on the other hand, are famous for not reading anything at all! They acquire their information (such as it is) from other sources. And to be frank, I do not have the impression that even the most ardent younger wine drinker these days has been possessed of the “demon” that drove their parents and grandparents to plunge deeply into the intellectual and literary side of wine. Younger drinkers, bless their hearts, seem content to see wine, not as something to be studied and understood, but as something to drink at the end of a day’s work. And clearly, there’s nothing wrong with that! I mean, isn’t that what we’ve all been urging since, like, forever?

So where does that leave wine writers? Nowhere, alas—between the devil and the deep blue sea, so to speak, or perhaps “a rock and a hard place” is more apropos. They have no audience to whom to speak, or for whom to write penetratingly or passionately. No one follows them. They know, or sense, that almost no one is likely to read what they write, and so why should they take the time and effort to write deeply when they can write conveniently and get away with it and maybe even win an award?

These are harsh realities and they underscore what Hosemaster was saying. He sums it up with “Wine writing is running out of energy,” an apt metaphor in that you can compare wine writing with the consumption of fossil fuels. American industry was built on the use of oil, coal and gas, but we all know that fossil fuel’s day has come, and gone, even though it might be 100 years before we’re fully weaned off it. Wine writing is in the same boat. Like the use of fossil fuel, there’s something hopelessly retro about it—reading a blog post about the Finger Lakes or somebody’s latest 400 reviews is like seeing a ’55 Cadillac chugging along with giant tail fins, filthy exhaust coming out the rear end, and getting 8 miles per gallon. The driver’s having fun, that’s for sure, but it’s not something that benefits anyone else, and certainly isn’t a template for the future of driving.

Should we mourn this crossroads in the history of wine writing? Well, whom and what you mourn depends on where you sit. For myself, I don’t, because I recognize that change is in the nature of the Universe, and you can’t hold onto the past no matter how pleasant you thought it was. We’ve come through a Golden Age of Wine Writing in the past century, but all Golden Ages—Greece’s, Britain’s, television’s, rock and roll’s—have their natural lifespans. They just run out of steam. Besides, there’s no reason why a healthy wine industry even requires wine writing in the first place. People love their cats and dogs, and yet America has no overwhelming pet writing industry; what few pet magazines are out there don’t have any influence on what breeds we buy, nor are there American Pet Writing Awards, nor is there a history and tradition of great pet writing, nor are pet writers showered with perks, or invited to stay at kennel guest houses with all expenses paid, or sent free samples of kibble, or in general as fussed over and pampered by pet stores as wine writers are by wineries. It’s easy to imagine America being a fabulous wine-drinking country without any wine writing at all.

Nonetheless, and despite the natural shrinking of consumer interest in wine writing, it’s likely to continue for a while, for two reasons: One, blogging is free and simple, so people will continue to do it regardless of how few others read them. And two, wine advertising will continue to underwrite wine writers, especially print ones, because that’s what advertisers do: they’re given money by wine company owners and then are expected to spend it somewhere, even if they can’t prove any return on the investment. The logical (although far from the only) place for wine advertisers to place their money is in wine magazines and, to a far lesser extent, on wine blogs. In this sense, there’s a direct linkage between wine advertising and wine writing—although one would hope that every wine publication has a firewall between the advertising and editorial departments. But that’s an entirely different story for me to tell one of these days.


The vagaries of vintages

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I’m calling this post the vagaries of vintages because you never know what the weather is going to be during the growing season.

Farmers have known this forever, of course, ever since our farmer ancestors began harvesting crops, which is one of the things that made us human and led to civilization. European grapegrowers have known it, too, for thousands of years, but here in California, we’re still learning that not every vintage is the same, as was long thought. Granted, our annual variations are far less extreme than they are in, say, Burgundy, but they’re extreme enough, in their own way, and with what appears to be the effects of climate change, they’re becoming ever more bizarre.

For example, this past winter of 2014-2015 was exceptionally warm and dry. During January and February we had temperatures in the 70s, even the 80s. As a result, budbreak was early in wine country, and it looked like it would be another record early harvest.

Then came May. Wham, a persistent trough parked itself over the eastern Pacific, and for the last three weeks, we’ve had fog, drizzle, rain, below average temperatures and a generally gloomy blah to the atmosphere all along the California coast. Everyone’s talking about it. The grapevines are feeling it.

What this dreary weather does, of course, is to slow down the ripening process, which is good in a way, because you don’t want the grapes ripening too quickly, but is bad, because the longer those grapes hang on the vine, the higher the possibility that Autumn rains will strike before the fruit is gathered. We haven’t had a bad rain harvest for a long time—1998 comes to mind—but it’s always a worry.

What this May reminds me of is 2011. That was the year that summer never came to California, and it was, of course, an unsuccessful vintage, in some cases disastrous, although I wouldn’t want to paint the entire vintage with an overly-broad brush. It was a year that botrytis hit many coastal grapes, and I don’t think vintners would like a repeat.

It’s only May 26, of course, way to early to predict anything, which gets us back to the vagaries of vintages. The seven-day forecast calls for some modest warming up, but nothing radical, and I see that near the end of the coming week, temperatures are set to fall back. That means virtually no sunshine along the coast, only occasional afternoon sunshine here along the Bay, and cool temperatures in wine country. But even winemakers who have followed vintages for many decades have no idea what’s to come. Regarding California’s historic drought, May rainfall has certainly helped, although it’s been under-reported in the media, and apparently a strong El Nino, which brings bigtime rainfall to California, is in the works for this coming winter, although we’ve heard those predictions before, and they failed to come true. If you’re a grapegrower, all you can do, really, is to cross your fingers and hope for the best. Which is funny, because, for all our modern sophistication, farmers today are basically in the same place they were thousands of years ago.

P.S. I want to apologize to my readers who tried to comment during the past week and found that the capcha! code wasn’t working coherently. Thank you to those who contacted me through Facebook or email; if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have known there was a problem. We think we’ve corrected it now. I hate it when weird computer stuff happens that’s beyond my control, but that’s how it is when we assign our fates to these machines—or to the weather, as do our farmer friends.


Musings on Diageo’s rumored sale of its wineries

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I hope Diageo is doing all right financially, but to judge from all these rumors that the London-based company is going to sell its iconic wine brands, maybe they really are experiencing some difficulty.

Their California brands from Napa Valley or County include Sterling, Beaulieu, Acacia and Provenance. The first two will be familiar to anyone who knows the history of Napa Valley. Beaulieu, founded in 1900, defines the classic old-line, pre-Prohibition winery; Sterling, which began in 1967, was one of the boutique wineries that made Napa famous in the modern era. Meanwhile, Acacia, dating to 1979, helped launch Carneros to the forefront of Pinot Noir. Provenance, whose inaugural vintage was 1999, is far younger, but has had a good run—I always did like their Cabernets.

So what’s up with Diageo? To begin with, the company’s stock price had a pretty good run-up to the Great Recession, but then plunged like everyone else. In 2009, it hit its nadir, then peaked again in 2013, only to experience a steady slide since then—leading the Motley Fool to recommend Diageo as a good buy.

That same article, suggesting Diageo is going through a “phase of lackluster performance,” attributed the drinks giant’s problems to “tough trading conditions in emerging markets, subdued consumer demand in some developed markets” and bad exchange rates.

Concerning that “subdued consumer demand in some developed markets,” I would suggest that the problems at Sterling, Beaulieu et al. stem from the consumer (and sommelier) perception that those are tired brands. Indeed, you could teach a college seminar on the ups and downs of an American winery by using the example of Beaulieu alone.

That Beaulieu was one of the great wineries of Napa Valley, and California, for many decades is indisputable. The winery helped to invent Napa Valley; it pioneered in Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford Bench, and in hiring Andre Tchelistcheff, in 1938, Beaulieu gave California is greatest and most influential winemaker ever. “The Maestro” was mentor to multiple generations of winemakers before passing into the Great Vineyard in the Sky, in 1994.

Even had Beaulieu maintained quality in the 1980s and 1990s it probably would have slipped in the public’s estimation, due solely to the natural lifespan of most wineries. But quality did vary, and the winery seemed to lose focus. I always admired, and gave high scores to, the Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and their Bordeaux blend, Tapestry, also was quite good. But the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays were inconsistent, and whenever Beaulieu tinkered with Rhone-style varieties, as they frequently did, they seemed in over their heads.

As for Sterling, which was such an exciting winery in the 1970s, the glitter wore thin, as the winery hit a patch of averageness. The Cabernet, particularly the Reserve, could still be quite good; but really, there was little to differentiate it from dozens of others, a dilemma given the fickleness of the American wine consumer, who’s always looking for the next new thing. Despite a considerable marketing budget from Diageo, both wineries also were debilitated by the release of large-production, inexpensive lines, in Sterling’s case the Vintner’s Collection, in Beaulieu’s the Coastal Estates, both of which tended to confuse gatekeepers and consumers as to what either winery actually was. In this, Beaulieu and Sterling erred in the same way as did Robert Mondavi Winery, which tried—and failed—to be all things to all people.

Beaulieu remains a good winery and Sterling can be restored to glory; it’s never too late. If Diageo does sell either or both, I hope it’s to a new owner who will love them for what they have been and for what they can once again be.


Moving away from “the wine list”

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Lucy Shaw’s interview with Christopher Cooper, reported in the drinks business, contains some wise and useful insights, especially Cooper’s contention that sommeliers “need to work harder, take more risks and open their eyes to the bigger world of drinks, taking in beer, cider, cocktails and spirits.” Declaring the traditional wine list “dead—boring…wine bibles [that] are crap,” he even charges that customers “are being forced into buying wine rather than other drinks in restaurants as it’s profitable.”

Wow, lots to break down here. It’s true that restaurants make a lot of money selling wine, although I don’t know if wine is more profitable than beer and cocktails—perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Since I’m a wine guy, representing wineries, I do wonder if this suggestion—that restaurants open their wine lists more or less equally to beer and spirits—will cut down on wine sales. This would be a serious impediment to wineries, especially in this day and age when on-premise is so important to them. But I don’t think so. Here’s why.

To begin with, the gigantic wine list—the size of the Manhattan telephone directory—has clearly had its fifteen minutes of fame. It won’t disappear overnight, but I assume and hope than eventually it will be seen for what it is: a bloated appeal to snobbery. Diners don’t even want such mammoth wine lists anymore; they want something with, maybe, 30 wines and an attractive by the glass selection, creatively chosen, moderately priced and—this is key—curated by someone who knows and loves wine, and doesn’t just throw the Big Names on there for the hell of it.

So restaurants shouldn’t just add beer and spirits to already-overweight wine lists, they should shorten their wine lists. Who gets to stay on such coveted real estate? Ahh, glad you asked. It’s the wineries that offer the most bang for the buck.

The real action these days isn’t in the critical scores or the latest magazine cover stories, it’s on the sales turf. Everybody—Bill Harlan to Fred Frenzia—is out there thinking of how to stay relevant. Nobody really understands the rules because frankly, my dears, there aren’t any, or very many, and such rules as there are tend to get broken quickly as the landscape undergoes constant mega-change. There’s a lot of bull out there that masquerades as expertise when in reality it’s just another service being pitched. The details differ at each price scale, but basically, the question for vintners is: Am I still going to be able to sell this stuff five, ten, twenty, a hundred years from now?

This is a worthy question for a vintner to ask—indeed, the only worthy one. I have a feeling that wineries that can prove to the world that they are in this for the long haul, will find themselves a leg up, because having a real long-range plan means they’re performing at the top of their game. Nobody wants overnight successes, built on some phony formula, that won’t exist tomorrow. We want to support wineries that have been doing a good job for a long time and haven’t gotten complacent.

And that gets us back to wine lists, which, according to the Cooper theory of reality, should actually be called “wine, beer and spirits lists.” It’s a good idea that will upset the wine industry temporarily, but in the long run will be good for consumers, and that’s what it’s all about.


Why expensive wine doesn’t always offer more pleasure

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I’ve long been a critic who agrees that expensive wine isn’t always or necessarily better than inexpensive wine. This conclusion is based, not solely on common sense, but on experience. It’s a topic that’s of interest to people because, after all, we’re all limited in how much we can spend on stuff (especially a discretionary item like wine, although I realize that for some people wine isn’t discretionary but mandatory, and I’m one of them). You can’t blame anyone who likes a $12 wine for wondering what they’re missing in a $120 bottle.

Well, I’ve tried to wrestle with this concept for a long time, and here I go again. This video quotes a “Princeton economist” on the topic of expensive wine to this effect: there is an unhappy marriage between a subject that especially lends itself to bullshit and bullshit artists who are impelled to comment on it. I fear that wine is one of those instances where this unholy union is in effect.” This quote leads the article’s author to opine that “layered onto [objective qualities] is a mountain of subjective opinions, people trying to prove their sophistication, and a whole lot of marketing. The nature of wine makes it really hard to tell the difference between expertise, nonsense, and personal preference.”

The writer strongly implies that “subjective opinions” are irrelevant in wine appreciation—that they distort the wine experience so much that the drinker is hopelessly misled by her own feelings about the wine, which have nothing to do with its objective qualities.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, it’s true that a very expensive wine might not be objectively better than an affordable one, in the same way that, say, a Jackson Pollock splatter painting may seem to be nothing more than the dribbles of a child. However, the art market doesn’t view things that way, and neither do I. Having tasted a gazillion wines in my career, here’s what always gets overlooked in claims that there’s no difference between amateur and high art beside subjectivity: People don’t drink wine simply for its objective quality. Or, to put it another way, wine is one of those life experiences that can’t be reduced to simplistic analyses.

The best way to appreciate the truth of this statement is to think about your own life and the things you love. It may be a partner, or kids, or a job or hobby, a favorite sweater or hoodie, a café, a dog, a plant in your yard, a house in your neighborhood. There’s something about it that turns you on. You don’t look at it objectively, you look at it in terms of how it makes you feel. And feelings, I would argue, trump objective qualities every time.

In terms of expensive wine, people buy it because of the way it makes them feel. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the wonderful thing about wine always has been that it makes us feel better about ourselves, the people we’re with, and the world. Even after all these years of tasting and reviewing wine, I still get excited when I pop certain bottles. I suppose that means I’m biased in favor of liking them, but it could also result in disappointment, if a highly-anticipated bottle disappoints. But that’s beside the point. The point is, my emotional pleasure in drinking certain wines is at least as important to me as the external, objective qualities of the wine.

So it’s rather mean-spirited for people to point to these laboratory studies as “proof” that “expensive wine is for suckers.” That is a very cynical, naïve way of looking at things. It disregards romance, love, intuition and creativity, which are the true wellsprings of pleasure. It disregards how what we eat, drink and experience adds pleasure to our lives—and who is anyone to dictate to me what pleasure means?

It seems to me that these writers who are constantly trying to disparage expensive wine are missing the point. Perhaps they’re not really wine lovers. The love of wine is impossible to define: It’s irrational. It has nothing to do with blind tasting and everything to do with emotions that get us swept up into the moment. As a former critic, I do agree that wine reviews ought to be conducted blind and thus objectively, but as a wine consumer I understand the objections to this rule. I’m caught between the two extremes. Look, the writer in the piece I referred to talks about how a white wine that was dyed red “can dominate wine students’ sense of smell” in a laboratory study. Well, sure, that’s always a possibility. But what does that have to do with the love of wine—with the way it makes you feel? Nothing. It’s like reducing human behavior to that of a rat running through a maze. Don’t we feel we’re more than that?


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