I woke up this morning thinking about wine lists. Not that I spend a great deal of time thinking about wine lists, but we have a new restaurant that just opened in my Oakland neighborhood. It’s called Lake Chalet, and the restaurant critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Bauer, recently reviewed it and complained that the wine list wasn’t exciting. That made me wonder: What does it mean for a wine list to be “exciting”? And does this say more about us as people than it does about the actual wine list or wine?
Michael wrote that the wine list contained “boring” brands, such as Silver Oak, Pine Ridge and Sterling. “It’s not that these wines are inferior,” he explained, “but there’s nothing to add excitement.”
It’s strange, isn’t it? A restaurant sells good wine, but because it comes from 25- or 30-year old brands instead of new ones, it’s “boring.” Do we say that Lafite is boring? It’s, like, what? Five hundred years old.
Still, I know exactly what Michael (an acquaintance of many years) means. I have the same reaction when I see a wine list with Pine Ridge, etc. And, just as Michael did, whenever I have that reaction, I frame it into a sort of courtroom trial where I’m plaintiff, defendant, judge and both attorneys. “It’s not as if I don’t like Pine Ridge’s wines,” I testify. “It’s just that, couldn’t the beverage director have found something a little newer?”
Prosecuting attorney: So “newer” is better than “older”?
Witness: Well, no, but…
Prosecutor: But what?
Judge: Witness will answer the question!
And here my testimony falls completely apart. What is my excuse for being bored by Pine Ridge? (I don’t mean to pick on Pine Ridge, but I’ll use it because Michael did.)
Then I think of my reaction, sometimes, when I note which wines I’m going to taste through on any particular day. I have to admit, there are certain brands (and regions) that don’t excite me (which makes it all the more important that I not know which ones they are at the actual time of tasting). And then there are brands that excite me the way a meaty bone excites a dog. (A low-production Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast usually has that effect; see my above parenthetical remark about not knowing what I’m tasting.)
Can I justify these emotional reactions? No. Can I explain them? I can try to, but as the imaginary courtroom dialogue points out, my explanations fall apart on rigorous cross-examination. And yet, there’s no doubt at all about the “wow” factor in wine. Here’s an example of a wine that excited the heck out of me. It was a brand I was unfamiliar with: Evening Land. It was a 2007 Pinot Noir, with an Occidental Vineyard designation and a Sonoma Coast appellation. I knew absolutely nothing about it, except that I know where the town of Occidental is (southwest of Sebastopol).
How dazzling that wine was! It thrilled me to the bone. So, when I investigated it and discovered the vineyard had been planted by the Duttons for Steve Kistler, who hadn’t renewed his lease on it, which caused the Duttons to sell it to the group that invested in Evening Land; and that the wine was made by the talented Sashi Moorman (Ojai, Stolpman), who had been recommended to Evening Land by Larry Stone, the GM of Rubicon, I wasn’t surprised. There’s usually a reason why a wine is exciting.
Still, that explains why the Evening Land Pinot was so good. It doesn’t explain the ennui that can result from a boring wine list. Ultimately, there’s something irrationally unexplainable concerning our reactions to wines and wine lists. Maybe we Americans just don’t like being bored. We crave constant newness, amusement and distraction. I also suspect that people heavily involved in the wine business, such as Michael Bauer and me, might react differently to a wine list than the average diner, who’s just looking for a good wine at a fair price.
Gone are the days when we could poke fun at the Chinese for mixing Petrus with Coke. Maybe some still do, but the Chinese are fast gaining a sophistication with all things wine, and the market is realizing that the future may well lie in East Asia.
Hong Kong is the epicenter for wine in China. Here in the States, we take wine festivals for granted, but in China, they’re new and exciting. Starting tomorrow (Oct. 30), the first-ever Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival, a multi-day event, launches, sponsored by the Hong Kong Tourism Board and American Express. Hong Kong’s wealthy collectors are increasingly turning to rare old bottles of wine as investments, which is pushing the price up for stalwarts like Lafite, Petrus and DRC; “Sotheby’s and Christie’s both said this month [October] that the southern Chinese city has overtaken New York and London as the world’s largest market for rare vintages.” Other auction houses are taking notice; Zachy’s, the big New York wine retailer, will conduct its “first ever Hong Kong Evening Sale” tomorrow and Saturday.
A top Hong Kong government minister, speaking at an Australian business roundtable two days ago, described Hong Kong’s “initiatives regarding the wine industry,” which are about “grasping opportunities when we see them, and we saw an opportunity to establish Hong Kong as a wine trading and distribution hub in Asia.” (Hong Kong abolished all duties on wine in 2008.) He added, “New storage facilities for wine have opened up; jobs have been created for sommeliers and wine imports and logistics have soared.” Hong Kong has been forging relationships with Australian producers, and just yesterday signed a new agreement with New Zealand to “strengthen cooperation in the promotion of wine-related trading, investment, tourism and education and in the fight against counterfeit wine.” (This last item is of interest given the ongoing problems of fake rarieties, so well described in The Billionaire’s Vinegar.)
And now, Hong Kong is set to launch Asia’s first world wine competition. On Nov. 4-6, the 2009 Hong Kong International Wine and Spirits Fair opens. It will follow the traditional pattern of awarding gold, silver and bronze medals to the world’s wines; judges include Hong Kong’s first M.W., among others. The fair will also go where no U.S. wine competition (to my knowledge) has gone: it will award trophies for best wine pairings with food, including abalone, dim sum, kung pao chicken and Peking duck.
And just today, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council is reporting on Hong Kong’s first winery, “which, from the inside, at least, resembles those found in Napa, Barossa, Tuscany or any other of the world’s major wine-growing regions.” The winery, called 8th Estate, makes Merlot, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon and other varieties, from grapes flash-frozen and flown in from Italy and Washington State. The winery’s founder told the council, “Asia looks towards Hong Kong to lead the wine market, and I think it’s been brilliant that Hong Kong has established itself that way.”
It’s an exciting time to be a wine lover, or in the wine business, in Hong Kong.
Communal, or township, tastings in Napa Valley are always wonderful, valuable experiences. The comparisons between the five towns along Highway 29 — Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga — and Bordeaux/Medoc’s 5 communes — Graves, Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac and St. Estephe — are too tempting even for the most cynical of journalists to avoid.
Yesterday was the annual St. Helena tasting, produced by their regional association, Appellation St. Helena. The event is held at the Rudd Center, located on the campus of the Culinary Institute of America, just north of tony St. Helena. The tasting is for the media, us ink-stained wine writers (in this age of computers, the fourth estate can no longer be called “ink-stained,” but it’s a phrase that conjures up a lovely image), but this year, there were only about 1/2 or 1/3 the usual crowd, and I’m not sure why. Have so many wine writers lost their jobs?
I’ve spent years trying to “figure out” St. Helena. After last year’s tasting, I remarked, in my blog, that the St. Helena producers always seem to have a little of that Rodney Dangerfield “I don’t get no respect” feeling, Oakville and Rutherford being better known. I still, after all these years, wouldn’t be able to describe to you a St. Helena character that would apply broadly to all of its esteemed Cabernets. But I did write these words down after this year’s tasting: St. Helena 2006: ripe, classic, elegant. Dry. Great structure and acidity. Ageworthy. Admittedly, that’s pretty basic stuff, but it’s the best I can do to include all the 90-plus point wines (and there were many of them).
I sat next to Dan Berger, as I do every year, and he made an interesting remark. He said, concerning the 2006 vintage, “This is a vintage Wine Spectator will trash, because it’s elegant.” (I don’t know how the Spectator rated the 2006 Cabernet vintage in Napa.) I originally wrote, in Wine Enthusiast, that it could be “even better” than the magnificent 2005, although subsequently I rated it 5 points lower, with a 90 rating. However, all this points out the difficulty of sweeping vintage generalizations, especially over so broad an area as Napa Valley.
Berger and me
I agree with Dan that, based on the St. Helena tasting, the 2006s are not as flashy or fleshy as the 2005s (or the 2007s, for that matter). But they are very good wines that need time to show their stuff. The more I taste, the more I appreciate structure – not taste, so much, as the architecture that frames taste. You can call the 2006 Cabernets “lighter” (a relative term: lighter than what?), or earthier (tobacco, dried herbs), or more tightly reined (acidity, tannins). Whatever, the pedigree of these 2006 St. Helenas is evident: these are brilliant wines to lay down for at least six years. Among those that impressed me the most were Sabina Estate, Spottswoode, Vineyard 29 Aida Estate, Vineyard 29 Clare Luce Abbey Estate, Anomaly, Boeschen, Corison Kronos Vineyard, Crocker & Starr, Egelhoff, Hall Bergfeld (which I rated for Wine Enthusiast last spring and gave 93 points), and an impeccable Whitehall Lane.
Back to the Napa town comparisons, I’m not sure we’ll ever have a definitive assessment of what “Rutherford” or “Calistoga” or “St. Helena” or any of the other towns really is, when it comes to Cabernet Sauvignon. Too many variables in the mix. But one conclusion I can support is that St. Helena certainly has no reason to feel short-shrifted against Oakville or Rutherford. And I agree with what Charlie Olken commented on this blog yesterday: “In time, it is my hope that ‘commune’ style appellations like St. Helena, Rutherford, Oakville and others will be augmented by smaller distinctions that are more given to wine-style similarity rather than geographic proximity.” I’ll add this: the ultimate “smaller distinction” is the individual estate.
It was nice to see my blog listed the other day as one of seven “Must-Read Wine Blogs” on Forbes.com. Also on the list were Tyler Colman (Dr. Vino), Alice Feiring, Alder Yarrow (Vinography), Tom Wark (Fermentation), Wineanorak, and Eric Asimov’s The Pour.
Not bad company for a little blog!
Everybody’s doing the Millennial Stomp
Meininger’s Wine Business International headlines “How the Millennials think” and writes an analysis of how the wine industry can capture the their interest. I was reading it (“To communicate better to young people, we also use the Internet”) when an email came in from the Wine Institute. In conjunction with the California Association of Winegrape Growers, they’re having a “dialogue session” where we will “hear young California vintners and growers” talk about such things as “Hip and Trendy Marketing” and “The Next Generation: Passing the Torch.” An interesting move for these two old organizations — both fairly stodgy and not known for being “hip and trendy.”
So did the rains hurt, or not?
We won’t actually know for a while if the October rains harmed the grapes still on the vine (mainly Cabernet and Syrah) in the North Coast. Common sense suggests they did, along with the humid days that followed. I’ve gotten emails in the last 24 hours saying, in essence, no harm done. For example, the Russian River Valley Winegrowers put this out yesterday: “Contrary to popular belief, recent rains haven’t been the worst case scenario for most of the growers in the Russian River Valley.” And today’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat quotes Bob Anderson, executive director of the United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, as saying, “I think it has been a mad scramble ever since that big rain, but it looks in pretty good order now.”
True, the weather for the last week has been pretty spectacular: warm, dry days, gentle breezes, just about perfect. My concern, though, is whether the damage was already done, with botrytis in those bunches, especially in the cooler areas. Anderson’s money quote cuts to the heart of the matter: “Growers and wineries are still looking at some of the ‘cab’ and the debate is whether there are going to be some warming up days ahead of them this week…The problem is that the sugar levels have not changed much over the last couple weeks, so time is running out.” Yes, time is running out, and more rain is coming in. Unripe Cabernet is not good, especially if it’s infected with botrytis, although the “noble mold” may make for some spectacular dessert wines.
* * *
I am off this morning to an Appellation St. Helena tasting at the Rudd Center. This is always a fun, instructive event at which I try, and usually fail, to find something truly “St. Helena-esque” in the Cabernets and Bordeaux blends. I think I “get” Oakville (blackcurrants) and Rutherford (sour cherrry), but St. Helena confounds me. Is it possible to isolate a flavor or textural particularity, or is that paradigm a dated, 19th century one appropriated from the Médoc? I’m more inclined toward the latter explanation, although I’m sure some of the speakers will describe for us some St. Helena attributes that, once we hear them, we will instantly find in the wines.
Michael Wangbickler, whom I know chiefly through his work at the winery P.R. firm of Balzac Communications, last week in his blog gave advice to wineries that are thinking about blogging. “Before starting a winery blog, here are a few things you might want to keep in mind,” he began. Then he asked them to answer six questions:
1. What are your goals?
2. What is the subject?
3. How often will you post?
4. Who is going to write it?
5. How will you promote it?
6. How will you measure it?
It’s a thoughtful piece that I’m sure will be tweeted and considered by many people. But I also suspect that some winery folks who have considered blogging will read it and think to themselves, “Wow. I’m not sure I can answer any of those questions.” Then, feeling depressed and defeated before they even begin, they abandon the idea of blogging, probably forever.
When I started this blog (less than 1-1/2 years ago, although it seems like forever), I had no idea what I was doing. I couldn’t have answered any of Michael’s questions, either. In fact, I’m not sure I could now! Let me try.
1. What are your goals? Well, it’s hard to say. To be read, for sure. To have fun. To be able to express myself, in writing, in a way I can’t elsewhere. Since I’m not selling anything, I have no goals along financial lines. So I can’t even say I actually have a “goal” when it comes to my blog. Some things that I do are goal-less; I do them because they’re part of my daily habits and they provide interest and an outlet for my energies.
2. What is the subject? I can’t answer this either, other than to say the subject is wine, or the wine industry, or things connected to the wine industry. You see? Already I’m getting mixed up. Come to think about it, the subject of this blog is actually me.
3. How often will you post? This is easier to answer. Five days a week. I knew that when I started, because Tom Wark told me you have to post five days a week if you want people to visit your site, and I believe almost anything Tom says about blogging.
4. Who is going to write it? This is also an easy one. My blog is written by the president/CEO/janitor/chief bottle washer of my company, me.
5. How will you promote it? I never considered this from Day One and still don’t. I’m a horrible self-promoter. I’d rather stick pins under my fingernails than trumpet myself. A year ago, in a posting, I asked readers to please vote for my blog in the American Wine Blog Awards, and I was so embarrassed afterward, I never did it again. So any success my blog has experienced has had almost nothing to do with promotion.
6. How will you measure it? I didn’t think about this either when I started. Nowadays, certain metrics have been brought to my attention, and I do have some bookmarks I look at every once in a while to see how many visits, etc. my blog has. I’m happy to see the numbers continue to rise month after month, and there’s lately been a spate of articles that put me among the most widely read wine blogs in the U.S. But I’m also superstitious. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Pride goeth before a fall. I know that one of these days the numbers will stop going up, and I don’t want to suffer when that day comes. So I’m not big on measurement.
I blog as though each day were my last on earth. I blog because some people say it gives them pleasure to read my blog and that makes me happy. I blog because I love to write. I blog, sometimes, because there’s something I have to say, and, sometimes, because there isn’t. I blog for the same reason the trees outside my window grow. Blogito, ergo sum.
Hence my headline: “An argument for chaos and spontaneity in blogs.” With all due respect to Michael Wangbickler (and keeping in mind that he’s advising actual businesses, not home-bound hobbyists like me), I’d advise would-be bloggers to toss the business plan. I don’t have a blueprint everyday when I blog. It’s how I feel that day, what I’m thinking about, what strikes me as I achieve consciousness, what excites me on the edge. If you scheme out a blog with the mechanistic precision with which you construct, say, a bottling line, your blog runs the risk of having all the warmth and charm of a bottling line, e.g. with no humanity. Better to keep it (as we say here in the streets of Oakland) real.