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Renewed U.S.-Cuba ties good news for CA wine

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The first thing I thought, when I heard that the U.S. is about to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, was, “Oh, man, that’s really good news for California wine.”

Before the brouhahas of the early 1960s, Cuba was a favorite tropical destination for American vacationers, especially those along the East Coast. Today, people go to Costa Rica, Belize, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; back then, it was Havana, just 90 miles across open water from Florida. Fashionable resorts, like the Hotel Nacional, lined the Malecón, attracting tourists with cash to spend. And spend it they did, in restaurants and bars, until the break with the U.S. and subsequent embargo sent the Cuban economy into a tailspin.

But with this resumption in relations, there’s every reason to believe that U.S. tourism will once again explode; certainly, expectations are high. Forbes last week, in an article called “Five Industries Set to Benefit from the U.S.-Cuba Thaw,” listed “Tourism” in the top slot, writing that Cuba will be an attractive stop for architecture buffs, food lovers, music lovers, and those interested in literature and the arts.” And where food lovers go, there is wine.

And what wine is more natural to pour in Cuba than California wine? Yes, there’ll be plenty of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and probably lots of German Riesling in that warm climate, but really, California wine is likely to dominate restaurant wine lists, as it dominates wine lists here in the States. At least, that’s what Napans believe. An article last week in the Napa Valley Register described how Napa Valley winemakers are weighing the Caribbean nation’s potential to become its newest market,” although the article also warned that direct sales to Cubans themselves, rather than to wealthy tourists, are likely to be minimal for quite some time, because Cuba remains a poor country. Last summer, of course, a group of Cuban sommeliers famously visited Napa and Sonoma. At that time, they said they “aren’t sure how long it will be before California wines will be in their Cuban restaurants.” So the timing is iffy, but not the interest: the somms want our wine, and they’re going to get it. Pacific Northwest vintners, too, are eying the possibilities.

Because news of the improved U.S.-Cuba ties came so unexpectedly and rapidly, it’s not likely that very many California wineries were prepared for it. I would imagine that late last week, and continuing on into this Christmas week and the New Year, winery sales and marketing teams will be meeting on a contingency basis to figure out how to take advantage of the new developments. They should. Every market counts—and the Cuban tourist market (which will be international in scope, not just comprised of Americans) is likely to eventually be very profitable.

U.S. tourism in Cuba isn’t a done deal—it will take some action by Congress to fully open it up. But, as Bloomberg Business Week reports, even the prospect of travel has provided an exciting jolt of new possibilities. Namely, hordes of U.S. tourists shelling out to visit the formerly forbidden country.” When it happens, those tourists are going to be shelling out a lot of money for California wine.


Zinfandel poised for growth

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Some wine varieties in California are permanently popular with the population. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, for example. In now, in last year, and they’ll be in next year.

Then there are varieties that seem to come and go in cycles, and of them none more so than Zinfandel. It’s had more ins and outs than—well, I won’t go there. But Zin does go through cycles. It was hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when consumers (mainly Baby Boomers) who were seeking “authenticity” in California wine found it in the Zins of producers such as Lytton Springs, Ravenswood, Nalle, Ridge and Rabbit Ridge. Then in the 1990s, Zin trailed off a little; why, I’m not sure (who can ever account for shifting fashion?), except that the 1990s were when we saw the rapid, dramatic rise in importance of “cult” Cabernets. Perhaps they captured the public’s fancy so much that people didn’t have room in their heads (or cellars) for Zin. The 1990s also saw the rise of Pinot Noir, which further crowded the field. Red Rhône-style varieties were also quite popular at that time, with the emergence of the Rhône Rangers. So the Nineties was (were?) not a good decade for Zinfandel.

In this new Millennium, Zin has had a couple periods of popularity, usually when one of the important wine magazines declares that “Zin is back.” But here’s my point: I think that Zinfandel is poised for its biggest, most popular time ever, and here’s why.

  1. A younger generation is curious about red wines other than Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Of course, they’re looking all over the world, but Zinfandel is right in their back yard, an American classic.
  2. Sommeliers always have a soft spot for varieties that make good wine, but aren’t necessarily appreciated by people. Zinfandel is such a wine. It has just the right balance of geeky and accessible.
  3. Zin is a marvelous matchup for grilled meats, but also for the wide range of spicy ethnic fare that’s so popular today. Mexican, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indian, Ethiopian, Cuban—if it’s beef or chicken, grilled and spicy, Zin will love it.
  4. Zinfandel prices have remained fair. The variety hasn’t exploded in cost, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet.
  5. Zinfandel is deliciously fruity, which people like, and it’s full-bodied. But the tannins are smooth and supple, not hard, like Cabernet’s.
  6. There’s a Zin for every palate. There are high-alcohol Zins that are blood-warming and heady, if that’s what you want. There are Zins below 14% for the lower-alcohol crowd. And everything inbetween.
  7. Winemakers have gotten very good at making more balanced Zins than in the past. A big part of that is more sophisticated sorting of berries. Zinfandel is cleaner than ever.
  8. Zin just sort of has something special going for it. Everybody’s heard about it and knows the name; it’s got good vibes. People don’t have negative associations with it; they’re willing to try it, especially on a personal recommendation.

A couple weeks ago I was invited to moderate a Zinfandel tasting at wine.com’s San Francisco headquarters, together with their Chief Storyteller, Wilfred Wong. I remember thinking that if wine.com, the country’s biggest online wine retailer, believes in Zinfandel, it must have a good future. Growers, who always have a finger to the wind, apparently think so too: Zinfandel acreage rose 4.3% between 2012 and 2013, the biggest increase of any major variety, red or white, in California.

Have a great weekend!


Wine as “the good life”? The Wall Street Journal says so!

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I’ve been watching the case of the New York Times for many years, to see what would be the fate of the Gray Lady. At the height of the Great Recession, the paper was said to be perilously close to going under, the result of (a) declining readership because younger people were not reading newspapers, and (b) the dramatic falloff in advertising that crippled nearly all print publications.

The Times tried to stave off its financial problems: they went to an online subscription model that didn’t work, and they laid off or bought out employees. A year or two ago, the paper seemed to enjoy a modest turnaround, but apparently it wasn’t enough: A new round of layoffs has occurred because the paper had not received enough voluntary buyouts to cover newsroom budget cuts.” Despite executive editor Dean Baquet saying “We are coming to the end of a painful period for the newsroom,” those of us who grew up with the Times and love it can only hope that, this time, the paper will survive, and I expect it will. I point this out only because the Times is the example par excellence of the difficult journey print pubs have had over the last decade or so. It’s not just that I prefer reading print over digital, although I do, it’s that the Times represents the culmination of an epoch that was centuries in the making in which the idea of independent journalism, free from the grasp of lucre, or the ignorance of ideology, was ascendant in America. When our Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution, with its First Amendment guarantee of Freedom of the Press, they did so with the understanding and assumption that the Press really was fearlessly free. I wonder if they would do the same thing now that personal opinion and for-profit hidden agenda has largely taken precedence over independent reporting.

Speaking of newspapers, many of my readers will know I’m no fan of the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. But the newspaper itself, when freed from the op-ed ideology of Mr. Murdoch, is top-rate, and I love, love, love this graphic they created for WSJ+,

 

WSJwine

 

which they tout as “a complimentary addition to your Wall Street Journal experience” for subscribers. How about that glass of wine? Don’t you just love it? The Journal is implying to readers—no, telling them, in compelling visual form and with all its magisterial New York City authority, that a glass of wine is as important to the complete, good life as anything else they could indulge in, from sports to fine art to “much more of the finer things of life.”

We can differ over our politics. But it’s wonderful that all of us, left, right, center, whatever, can agree that wine is central to the good life—the life that is examined, and self-examined, and enjoyed, with harm to no one–life that adds joy and laughter to the world. So bravo to the Wall Street Journal for putting wine right up there.


When is a review not a review?

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The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, really stirred up a dust storm with this post, “DNR: Three restaurants I’m not reviewing,” on his blog.

First, let me say that I’m a Bauer fan. If I’m checking out a restaurant in the Bay Area, I first want to know what Michael said about it. I might look at Yelp, but I don’t entirely trust Yelp. At least I know that Michael is independent and has no skin in the game.

I also trust the very concept of a trusted critic. Yes, I was one myself, so maybe that makes me more empathic about them and their jobs. A good critic actually works very hard; just as a wine critic doesn’t just sit around the house all day, sipping wine and snacking, a restaurant critic doesn’t just go out to eat. The research and writing are hard, and the critic has to know what he’s talking about, not only to land a prestigious job at a paper like the Chronicle, but to last as long as Michael has.

So what was so controversial about Michael’s post? Go ahead, read through the comments—they’re hilarious—and see. For the most part, people said that although Michael said he wasn’t reviewing the three restaurants he wrote about, he then went ahead and kinda-sorta did. As one commenter said, satirically rephrasing Michael’s post, I won’t write about these places. Let me write about them to tell you why.”

Well, let me come to Michael’s defense. First of all, he said upfront that he “decided not to move forward with a full-blown three-visit review.” (One of his rules is to eat at a place three times before he does the formal review, which makes a lot of sense to me.) But these are not full-blown reviews, they’re mini-takes. And keep in mind that they appear, not in the pages of the Chronicle itself, but in Michael’s blog. Michael’s blog is less formal, more easy-breezy than his full-blown reviews. So the readers who criticized Michael are a little off-base.

Plus, I think Michael is doing a great service to the three restaurants. It’s nice that he has some way of alerting them to his concerns, before he actually publishes the review. That way, the restaurateurs can fix the problems (which don’t seem to be major), so that when and if Michael does come in for a full review, it’s more likely to be a good one than a bad one.

Finally, the snarkiness of some of the commenters leaves something to be desired. It’s fine to say you don’t agree with his conclusions, but to resort to pique, like being mad at Michael because he doesn’t have to pay his own food bills (the Chronicle does), is just silly. Some others criticized Michael for not reviewing local places, but he does. He’s reviewed thousands of restaurants over the years, not just the famous, expensive ones but plenty of local joints. Just last week, he reviewed Hawker Fare, one of my faves, just a ten-minute walk from my house in downtown Oakland, where the most expensive item on the menu is about $13. So, yes, Michael does review local places.

 


Tuesday Twaddle: “Offloading” brands, and the old spinning cone

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When is it time for a winery to “offload” underperforming brands?

It happens. You’ve had a line, or SKU, in the market for years, but for some reason, it’s never gained traction. So the hard decision must be faced: Is it time to pull the plug on Grandma?

This is the situation Treasury Wine Estates is facing. The Australian company, which lost more than $100 million in 2013-2014, has brands “that [are] not a priority and may be retired [or] offloaded,” according the industry publication, The Drinks Business.

This can never be an easy decision for a big company like TWE. Companies love all their brands, the same way parents love all their children. You can’t throw an underperforming child under the bus, of course, but companies aren’t families, they’re business; and sometimes, “retiring non-priority brands”, or repurposing them in some way, is the only way to stay healthy.

 

* * *

Does this shock you? It shocks me. “One in four bottles of Californian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been through the industrial alcohol removal process supplied by ConeTech in the past year.” That’s another report by The Drinks Business, which adds that the spinning-cone process of lowering the alcohol content of wine is more popular than ever because “winemakers would rather take out alcohol from a ripe wine than risk creating lighter, possibly greener wines from harvesting earlier for naturally lower abvs.”

Well, as Dana Carvey’s character, The Church Lady, used to say on Saturday Night Live, Isn’t that special?

I’ve written before that I don’t mind some technological intervention to produce sound, clean, drinkable wines. These are what Americans want. Critics denounce them as Franken-wines, but to me, that just seems derogatory and mean. Besides, the truth is, since this de-alcoholization is done secretly, no one can ever know just which wines have passed through the spinning cone, so before you give such a wine 96 points and then have to appear foolish when someone outs you, restrain thy criticism.

However, I will venture to say that winemakers are resorting to this somewhat risky procedure because the public drumbeat against higher-alcohol wines has reached such a fever pitch that they feel they have no choice. Many of them, themselves, probably hate themselves for doing it—for giving in. Some of them may be under orders to do it, by the people who sign their paychecks. It’s hard for me to believe that any winemaker willingly and happily sends her wine to the spinning cone.

Speaking of those “greener wines” that are the potential result of picking early—which is the natural way to produce lower-alcohol wines—I’ve tasted some of them at big Pinot Noir tastings, and they’re dreadful. Well, I suppose if you like dried oregano, mint and green tomatoes, they’re all right, but if you prefer cherries and raspberries (which I do), you’ll be disappointed.

Thus we find ourselves staring directly at the schizophrenia running through our modern California wine business. The bullet quote in The Drinks Business article is this: “The consumer preference is for riper style wines, with juicy fruit, but consumers want this with more moderate alcohol levels.” Someone should politely tell consumers you can’t get ripe fruit without high brix, which in turn translates into healthy alcohol.

But that’s not a message that consumers want to hear, and so producers—caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place—increasingly are turning to the spinning cone. And if California goes back to a series of warm vintages, like we used to have, we’ll see even more wines spun out.


Twelve Tips for Better Content Creation

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I recently came across this statistic in an infographic on content marketing: “64% of B2B content marketers say their biggest challenge is producing enough content.” (B2B means business-to-business.)

I would suspect that “producing enough content” also is the biggest challenge for B2C (business-to-consumer) content marketers. Cranking out content, especially in the constantly-changing world of social media, is really hard. I mean, good content. It’s easy to generate what my Grandma would have called dreck. Coming up with high-level stuff is hard.

I should know: In addition to this blog, which I write five times a week, I do blog posts for Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Cambria and, soon, Byron for Jackson Family Wines. So, even without Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of the writing I do, blogs alone keep me on the hunt for content.

The problem is that I have high standards. I refuse to publish something, even a tweet, until it’s as good as I can make it. For me, a post has to rock. I don’t mean that everything I’ve ever written will be in the Blog Post Hall of Fame. Far from it. But everything I’ve ever written has been conceived and crafted with the utmost care, something that the end-readers may never be aware of, nor should they be. But to the extent anyone actually reads and enjoys what I write—and I think they do—it’s because I have overcome the “biggest challenge”: producing enough content.

Readers can tell when content has been produced by people who are just out to sell stuff, the same way they can tell the difference between a cheap suit and a good one. Bad content is a witch’s brew of spin and hype, the very things consumers hate. They can tell the difference between something meant to help, educate and amuse them—which is an article–and something meant to part them from their money—which is an ad or commercial. If a content creator doesn’t thoroughly understand the difference, he or she will not be a success.

I would suggest to anyone working in the world of content marketing that they decide to get really good at it, or else it’s not worth doing. This is why, if a company is serious about producing quality content on a frequent basis, it should hire talented people, pay them well and let them do their thing. Creating quality content—by which I mean interesting content–is an expertise that stands alone: top quality content producers have insights into the psychology of personality and the consumer behavior of the masses, which themselves require an entire spectrum of understanding, ranging from art and literature to history, politics and popular culture. They also understand their particular niche in the market, which requires a kind of bird’s-eye view of things. High-caliber content creators, especially those working in the social sphere, are always going to be a little weird because their talents are more of an art form than a skill or craft.

My advice for content creators is probably not needed, for they are an iconoclastic bunch, who come up with their own ideas. However, for what it’s worth, here it is:

  1. Be familiar with the product or service you’re writing about, and love it. As the late, great ad man, David Ogilvy, observed, he would never write an advertisement about a product he himself did not use.
  2. Know the people associated with that product. Be friends with them. They are part of the content.
  3. Study writing and literature, and read a great deal—stuff that inspires you. Have dictionaries and Thesaursi by your side, as well as books of quotations and sayings.
  4. Interesting content is informative, yes, but it’s also conversational. Would you rather have a conversation with an interesting person, or with a boring one?
  5. If you can work visuals (videos, photos, graphics) into your content, so much the better.
  6. Be curious, inventive, bold in your writing. Take risks. Great content production isn’t for the lazy or faint-hearted.
  7. Make yourself laugh with your content creation. If you think it’s funny, so will others. Putting your readers in a good mood will make them more loyal.
  8. Never underestimate the intelligence of your audience.
  9. Remember, your reputation and credibility are riding on everything you publish. The only thing separating you from complete irrelevance is the trust of your readers.
  10. But trust yourself first and foremost.
  11. Always tell the truth.
  12. If you experience writer’s block, re-read this list. It will always give you ideas.

P.S. If you use Wikipedia—I do—please consider making a small donation to keep them in business.


On a rainy day, a trip down Memory Lane

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We’ve been shut in our homes for the last 24 hours due to this torrential rainstorm, so I’m feeling a bit stir crazy, which is making me nostalgic—not a bad way to feel when the weather is grey and depressing, and memories are brighter than reality.

I began keeping a Tasting Diary on February 16, 1983. I know the exact date, because I still have it, along with six others I kept until 1997. This is that first diary:

Diary

I always liked these hard-bound leather notebooks with the pretty covers. I’m not sure why I began keeping a diary. I mean, if there had been a conscious line of reasoning, I no longer recall it. I suppose it was because I like books, and writing, and collecting books; also, because I’d turned into the world’s biggest wine geek, and some part of me must have assumed that keeping tasting notes was the thing to do. I think I’d seen Michael Broadbent’s “Great Vintage Wine Book” by then, so maybe that fed into the decision. And I was subscribing to Wine Spectator by then, too, and that must have had something to do with it. Whatever the reasons, I’m glad I did write those diaries, and I’m glad I kept them.

The first wine I reviewed in it, on that long-ago Wednesday, was Georges Duboeuf 1981 Morgan. Here’s the page:

 

Morgan

 

In those days, I liked to steam the label off and paste it in, although later, when I was reviewing a ton of wines, I stopped with the labels and just went with text. Here, for example, is a page from a 1998 diary:

 

Notes

If I’d put in the labels, the diary would have been much thicker. Also, by that time, lots of wineries had starting affixing their labels to the bottles with glue that wouldn’t steam off, which was very frustrating for us label lovers. I vaguely remember knowing that the wineries started doing that, but I no longer remember why they did. Maybe my readers can enlighten us.

My reviewing style was pretty much what it remained over the years: brief. Although in 1983 I was still years away from professionally reviewing wine, that brevity came in handy at Wine Enthusiast, where I was limited to 30 or 50 words. I used five categories in my earliest diaries: date of tasting, color, taste, food I paired the wine with, and price. Since I had the label attached, I didn’t have to fill in all that producer-vintage-varietal stuff. But I didn’t use a numerical score back then.

As you can see, that Morgon cost me all of $6 in 1983. I Googled the same wine; today, you can get a Duboeuf Morgon for around $13, not a bad case of inflation given that more than thirty years have passed.

By 1998, my notes were lengthier, and I’d begun using the 100-point scoring system. If you can read the text in the 1998 diary, you’ll see I was kind of harsh in my review of the Atlas Peak 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon, which I gave a stingy 82 points. Nor did I care much for the two Hanzell Cabs I reviewed on that page: the 1986 (81 points) and the 1991 (84 points). I think I was not alone in thinking that Hanzell should stick to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; the winery stopped making Cab with the 1992 vintage.

I love going through my diaries, these ghosts of the past. When I think about how writing both expresses and preserves the past, I think of this quote, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

My wine memories may be airy nothings in the real world, but they do inhabit a locality in my mind, and its name is sweet. And the best thing is that my wine memories are still building up.

Anyhow, I don’t know when we’ll ever be able to get out of the house: the rain continues to come down in buckets. As I write this (early Thursday evening), there are increasing reports of flash floods along the creeks in the Bay Area but, mercifully, nothing serious…so far.

Have a great weekend!


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