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Tuesday Twaddle: Jon Bonné, Wine Scams, and Can Napa’s Neighbor Steal Their Business?

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For some time now, the San Francisco Chronicle—Northern California’s largest newspaper, and a force in its wine industry for decades—has been cutting back on wine reporting.

The paper used to have a standalone wine section. They did away with that some years ago, and merged it into a weekly wine and food section. Then they put that into a home, garden and food section, in which we were lucky to get much wine reporting at all.

The denouement of all this came yesterday, when we learned that Jon Bonné, the paper’s wine editor, has reduced his involvement at the Chronicle to that of a contributing editor. He now will write only a monthly column, with a “California focus,” in his words. (Here’s another press release announcing Jon’s new job.)

I’m glad Jon is keeping one foot into our California scene (even though he’s moving to New York). I don’t know if he’ll be reviewing wine or not; I hope so. If he does, I ask him this: let us know your guidelines for receiving samples—what you will and will not taste, so that wineries can know whether or not it’s worth it to send you their wine. I hope you’ll review everything you’re sent. I always did, at Wine Enthusiast—and I mean everything. It was only fair.

As for the Chronicle’s wine coverage: I understand business decisions. A paper has to make a profit; otherwise it goes bankrupt. The ownership and senior management of the Chronicle apparently have determined that the kind of broad wine coverage they used to have is no longer sustainable—despite the fact that the California wine industry is a multi-billion one, and San Francisco—where the Chronicle is the only newspaper of importance—stands at its gate.

When I was starting out as a novice wino in the 1980s, San Francisco had multiple publications that covered wine in depth: The Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, California Magazine. All, except the Chronicle, are gone.

One can only hope that the Chron will discover a new-found commitment to alcoholic beverages—wine, beer and spirits. And I hope that, if they do, their coverage will be local, which is to say, California-based.

* * *

The Drinks Business has this article, Wine Investment: How to Avoid the Pitfalls.

Well, you don’t have to read the article to avoid the pitfalls of losing money in bad wine investments. Here’s the answer: DON’T DO IT. Don’t buy wine for investment. The commoditization of wine has harmed it immeasurably. Buying it in the hope of reselling and making a lot of money is contradictory to wine’s spirit.

* * *

The Napa Valley Register reports that little Suisun Valley, just a hop, skip and jump across the road from Napa Valley’s southeastern edge, is looking to capitalize on Napa’s woes. If wineries can’t locate in crowded, trafficky Napa, then they’re welcome in Suisun.

A few years ago, with the help of my friend Jo Diaz, whose communications company was working with Suisun wineries, I toured the region and tasted through some of the wines.

I wasn’t particularly impressed, although I saw the promise. My gut reaction was: There’s no reason why this area couldn’t do very well. All it would take is the proper investment. The terroir is fine. It’s a little warmer than Napa Valley, being further inland, but San Pablo/Suisun Bay is right there, and as we all know, those winds off the water are chilly.

Suisun Valley is a pretty area of little farms and country lanes, but easily reachable via the I-80 freeway. No reason for Suisun not to be a player. I wish them luck.


Enjoying Petite Sirah at Dark & Delicious

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I went to Dark & Delicious, the big Petite Sirah event that my friends, Jo and Jose Diaz, hold every year, through their P.S. I Love You advocacy group. As usual, it was at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall Wine Co. facility,  in an airplane hangar at the old Alameda Naval Air Station, which was given up by the U.S. Defense Department years ago, and whose extensive buildings now are available for rent by private companies, like Rock Wall.

It was a gorgeous night; the island city of Alameda is located across the Bay from San Francisco, and I only wish I’d taken some photos of the S.F. skyline and the amazing new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, all lit up against a starry night sky. But I didn’t. Sorry ‘bout that.

I love Dark & Delicious for several reasons, among them the quality of the food. Jo and Jose recruit local restaurateurs and caterers, and because the wine is Petite Sirah (and “dark and delicious” are perfect descriptors for the wines), the food tends to be rich and heavy: lots of barbecue, sausages, paella, pork, beef, wild boar, Ahi tuna, not to mention irresistable chocolate. I have to admit I’m a bit of a ravenous carnivore at these things: it’s with a mild sense of guilt that I make my rounds of the tables, inhaling everything, stuffing myself silly. Food, or rather the enjoyment of it, is one of the distinctive properties of being alive, particularly for us humans, who, if we’re lucky, have access to such gorgeously prepared delicacies. If I was a young pup and just starting out, I might consider being a chef, like a guy I met at D&D, Tyler Stone, who was making Petite Sirah sorbet using liquid nitrogen with a huge machine that puffed out clouds of white smoke. Tyler reminded me of a young Tyler Florence or Bobby Flay–an ambitious, good-looking chef whose name just might be a household word someday (well, at least, in foodie households).

The Petite Sirahs themselves were amazing. A Mounts and a Tedeschi in particular blew me away. How good Petite Sirah has gotten over the years. It used to be a big, brawny, tannic wine, a sort of redneck cousin to Cabernet Sauvignon, but nowadays the best wines have polished up their images and become truly elegant–although they still have Petite Sirah’s swagger.

Just for the heck of it, here are the top Petite Sirahs I’ve reviewed for Wine Enthusiast over the last six months: Stags’ Leap 2010 Ne Cede Malis, Ballentine 2010 Fig Tree, Grgich Hills 2009 Miljenko’s Vineyard, J. Lohr 2011 Tower Road, Retro 2009 Old Vine, Raymond 2010, Galante 2010 Olive Hill, Peachy Canyon 2011, Ancient Peaks 2010 and Alta Colina 2010 Ann’s Block. Note the proliferation of Central Coast sources; Petite Sirah no longer is just a Napa-Sonoma phenomenon.

A tip of the hat to Jo and Jose, for always pulling D&D off with such artful precision. Unless you’ve done one of these big events yourself, you can’t even imagine all the prep work that goes into them–not to mention all the opportunities for disaster. That D&D goes off so effortlessly is a testimony to their organizational skills.

Speaking of events, here are a few I’ll be going to in the near future: World of Pinot Noir, the Pinot Noir Shootout, In Pursuit of Balance, the Paso Robles Cabernet Collective, the Chardonnay Symposium and the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. The Wine Bloggers Conference invited me back, after a lull of a couple years, to be on a panel for their Santa Barbara conclave, July 11-13, although I won’t know for two or three weeks if I can make it. I like getting out on the road and going to stuff, especially if I can bring Gus, which I usually can. If you’re planning on attending any of these events, look me up.Gus

 


Has Vintank tanked? Not clear. My thoughts

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Some years ago, around 2011 or 2012, Jo Diaz, the winery publicist, set up an event at U.C. Davis that featured a showdown, of sorts, between me and Paul Mabray, who had created VinTank in 2009. VinTank has been described in this article as “the wine industry’s most powerful social media monitoring and data distribution platform…designed to help revolutionize the wine industry through monitoring and analyzing blogs, social media, and tasting note platforms and distributing that information to those in the wine and restaurant industries.” The idea behind Vintank, I gathered, was Paul’s strongly-held belief that social media was becoming, or already had become, a very important tool for wineries to sell wine, something VinTank could help them achieve, and that wineries had better hop onboard—at the risk of missing the boat.

By that time, I had acquired the reputation, mainly through this blog, of being something of a social media skeptic, although those who portrayed me as such tended to exaggerate the degree of my skepticism. I myself always took the position that social media’s ability to sell wine was limited. As I looked around, I saw an entrepreneurial explosion of social media consulting firms, all making inordinate claims about social media’s power, backing those claims up with Powerpoint-illustrated statistics, and, of course—so far as I could tell—hoping to be hired for the expertise they said they could bring to their clients, who all too often were hopelessly befuddled as to what they should do with this new-fangled gimmickry.

I never said social media was worthless. Far from it: I was a player myself, active not only on my blog but also on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. In fact I advised every proprietor I talked to that they should practice social media to the extent of their ability to do so. At the same time, I said that social media was not, and could not be, the be-all and end-all for wineries: that it was but one tool in the toolbox, and wineries had best not forget the other tools, namely, good sales and marketing done the traditional way (not to mention making high-quality wine!).

Well, you know the media loves a good story of heroes and villains, so I got portrayed as this social media hater, and that was the point of Jo’s event at Davis. Jo thoughtful person she is, knew I didn’t hate social media. She knows me as well as anyone in the industry. At the same time, she thought it would make for good P.R. to present Steve vs. Paul as a gunfight, and I agreed to go along.

Things did get testy that day. I remember thinking that Paul’s claims for social media’s effectiveness were hyperbole, or at least unproven, and his comments about me went beyond objectivity towards the personal. Perhaps he felt the same way about me. At any rate, we parted in a friendly way, and, more importantly, gave the U.C. Davis V&E students “a good show,” which is always what these things are all about.

I largely lost track of VinTank after that. I knew that last year it was acquired by something called the W2O Group, when Paul told Forbes that, with the acquisition, “We can truly catalyze the industry into meaningful and healthy change in how they understand and relate to their customers.” But, like I said, I didn’t follow VinTank or W2), until yesterday, when Wine Industry Insight reported on developments with the headline, “Vintank dead? Vin65 customers left in lurch. Signs point to quiet euthanasia by private equity.” (VinTanke and Vin65 had previously partnered in 2013.) The article went on to quote from the Vin65 website that VinTank, “recently rebranded as TMRW Engine, will cease operations as VinTank…” and…”will no longer be supporting clients in the wine industry effective July 31, 2016.”

The actual details of VinTank’s complicated deals of recent years are hard to follow, and it’s not clear to me, at this time, if VinTank will continue to operate in one form or another, or what Paul’s role will be. (I reached out to him via Twitter, but didn’t hear back.) However, I think we can agree that social media has not turned out to be the savior of wineries, particularly smaller ones, who might have looked towards it for its supposedly miraculous abilities. If it’s true, as Wine Business Insight, reported, that VinTank is tanking, I feel bad for Paul, but I haven’t changed my position in nearly nine years. Social media is fun, it can be helpful for wineries, they should do it if they can, but it’s simply not as vital as some people initially portrayed it.

ED. NOTE: This version has been slightly edited from an earlier version.

 


Save the date: Petite Sirah in Paso Robles, Feb. 6

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Old pals Jose and Jo Diaz, who own Diaz Communications in Windsor, have long worked with wineries in the North Coast for their Petite Sirah advocacy efforts, but now they’ve extended their reach into Paso Robles, with the launch of their first-ever Petite Sirah event down in the Central Coast.

Called PS I Love You…in Paso, it’s at Vina Robles on Feb. 6, and will feature ten Petite Sirah producers. Each winemaker will do a feature tasting/presentation of his wines, and as always with the Diaz’s Petite Sirah events, the food will be fantastic.

It’s nothing short of amazing how Petite Sirah has become a major variety and wine. It didn’t exactly happen overnight; there have been plantings of “Pet” (as the oldtimers called it) since the 1800s in California, but consumers never really caught on to it as an independent variety, until the Diazes created their trade organization, PS I love You, in 2002. Many wineries have joined over the years; the organization traditionally has held its tastings in the Bay Area, so this shift to Paso Robles is significant.

California acreage of Pet is way up, clocking in at a record 8,825 acres in 2014, nearly double what it was ten years previously. Granted, that’s not much compared to Cabernet Sauvignon (nearly 80,000 acres) or even Syrah (18,000 acres), but it’s more than either Cabernet Franc or Grenache—and almost more than the two of them combined.

And it’s being planted fast. In 2014, non-bearing acreage—those vines that haven’t yet yielded a crop—accounted to 1,149 acres, fully 13% of statewide acreage. That means a lot of growers care enough about Pet to put it into the ground. And which counties are those new vines going into? Well, here’s where things get a little complicated. The new plantings are mostly in the Central Valley—the counties of San Joaquin, Sacramento and Tuolumne (which extends from the Central Valley into the Sierra Foothills). That deserves an explanation. We tend to view wines from the Central Valley as jug wines, at best, but viticulture has really picked up there, and the wines, especially reds, and especially hearty, full-bodied reds like Petite Sirah and the blends it goes into and often dominates, can be rich, rewarding and affordable.

Along the Coast, San Luis Obispo County, which is where Paso Robles is, also is seeing rapid plantings of Pet: 130 non-bearing acres in 2014, giving that county a total of 1,647 acres of Pet altogether, or about 16% of the statewide total. So SLO growers and vintners are doubling down on Petite Sirah.

Beyond acreage, the number of Petite Sirah producers in California continues to soar, from fewer than 100 in 2001 to more than 900 last year.

Having this event in Paso Robles makes perfect sense. For years I’ve admired Paso for the uniqueness and quality of their red wines and off-beat blends, of which Petite Sirah often is a part. This ability to craft such wines was the main reason why I successfully argued for Paso to be Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Region of the Year, in 2013.

Try to get to Paso for the Feb. 6 event, which is in Vina Robles’ splendid new amphitheater. It’s a chance to get up close and personal with the wines and the winemakers, and to learn more about up-and-coming Petite Sirah, as well as the charming wine region of Paso Robles. I might even be there myself.


Another dark side of social media, especially blogs

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Hardly a day goes by when I, as the author/owner of this blog, don’t get at least one pitch from someone selling a product or service. The pitch usually begins with the writer telling me how much they enjoy reading steveheimoff.com, and then they identify themselves, tell me about the product or service they’re selling, and add that they’re convinced that my audience—my readers—will be interested in said product or service. This is followed by an invitation to me to be sent a free sample of the product (it can be a bottle opener or an aerator or whatever), or, if it’s a service, the writer will sometimes offer to pay me a fee of some kind.

Well, I don’t even bother responding to these pitches; into the Trash bin they go. I’m a fairly polite person when it comes to replying to personal communications (and Lord knows I hate it when somebody doesn’t respond to mine), but these pitches don’t feel like they were written expressly to me. They feel like templates that just happen to arrive in my in-box, but really the identical email could have arrived (and probably did arrive) in 1 Wine Dude’s in-box, or Jo Diaz’s, or any of hundreds of other bloggers who are perceived to have some impact in the wine industry.

I suppose there’s nothing legally or morally wrong with such an approach. But it does raise, to me anyway, questions about transparency. If I were to blog about some sensational new aerator, would it be incumbent upon me to let you know that the owner of the aerator company sent me a few of the gizmos? If I told you that, would it color your perception of my review? Or let’s take it a step further. This morning I got this article in my in-box detailing “marketing strategies that don’t involve social media.” One of them suggested that bloggers might be asked to host a giveaway on his or her site by collecting email entries you can add to your newsletter.” The way that would work, I guess, is that I, the blogger, would announce a contest on my site in which you, the contestant, would send me your entry via email, which I would then “share” with the manufacturer of the thing to be given away. Now, that would pretty much make me a marketing agent of the manufacturer, not an independent blogger, wouldn’t it? And what would I get out of it? A quickie post, for sure, but also the author of the “marketing strategies” article adds this: “Understand that you may have to give them [the blogger] a freebie of your product and/or a fee to be featured or reviewed.”

Wow. I have a lot of problems with wine blogs, but this non-transparent collision of editorial independence and paid shilling takes the cake.

It is very, very important for readers to thoroughly know if a blogger is benefiting in any way, shape or form from the content of a post. Ideally, the blogger will volunteer that information upfront (and the Federal government has taken and is taking steps to ensure such candor). Still, there are ways for bloggers to hide indirect forms of compensation. I would never do that; neither would most bloggers I know, but some would; and the problem extends beyond blogs to other forms of social media, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where a positive word or image about a product or service can be advertising. If somebody sends me that aerator, and I praise it on Facebook, do I have an obligation to inform my “friends” that I got a freebie? Just asking.


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