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The tyranny of the wine list

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What is it about wine lists that gets people so riled up? There’s been a recrudescence of argument lately about whether a wine list reflects the wines of its surrounding region, and why so many restaurant wines are so  expensive. Dr. Vino commented on Eric Asimov’s blog which seemed to criticize San Francisco restaurants for serving non-California wines, even as they promote locally-produced food. This, in turn, prompted the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine editor, Jon Bonne, to chime in on his blog on what he calls “Northern California’s Wine List Exception. We insist on menus that harvest California’s bounty. Yet the same restaurants often look far afield for their wines, despite the fact we have one of the world’s largest wine economies in our backyard.”

In each of these cases the point is made that some restaurateurs don’t feel that California wines fit their foods. Too alcoholic, too fruity, etc., you know the routine. My own feeling, which is based on common sense, is to let the restaurateur, his chef and wine staff decide what wines to put on the list. Wine lists aren’t democracies. They shouldn’t strive for a form of political correctness whereby the list precisely mirrors some perceived regional demographic. The people who assemble the list should feel obligated to include a wine for one reason only: because it’s best for the food.

Then there’s the issue of price and image. Jon Bonne made an interesting remark. He observed that there are decent, affordable California wines that are food-friendly, “[b]ut too often they’re supermarket brands that are unlikely to appear on a Bay Area wine list precisely because they’re so widely available. Where do these wines show up? Chains, if anywhere. Which might be snobbishness on our part, but the truth of the locavore premise is that places that serve Marin Sun beef are unlikely to uncork BV Coastal. I’ve asked this question before: Where are the state’s equivalents of Cotes du Rhone — enjoyable, place-based red wines that go for under $20 on the shelf or $40 on a wine list?”

Well, Jon just answered his own question, didn’t he. California’s equivalents of Côtes du Rhône are all over the place. The only problem is they usually don’t bear famous names and are often sold in supermarkets, just like, well, Côtes du Rhône. Below are some wonderful, balanced, food-friendly California wines, both red and white, I’ve reviewed over the past year that could be on anyone’s wine list. I could have included dozens more. I call these “sommelier wines.” The prices are suggested retail. The issue, as Jon pointed out, is that they lack cachet. Who are the snobs that won’t let them into the gated community of wine lists? Restaurateurs? Sommeliers? Critics? Customers? Or all of us?

Eberle 2006 Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, $18
Lyeth 2006 Merlot, $11
Rendition 2007 Petite Sirah, $9
Toad Hollow 2007 Francine’s Selection Unoaked Chardonnay, $13
Mandolina 2007 Pinot Grigio, $14
Napa Family 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $10
Bogle 2007 Riesling, $9
Brass Tacks 2007 Riesling, $15
Concannon 2008 Selected Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, $10
Educated Guess 2007 Chardonnay, $17
AutoMoto 2007 Riesling, $13
Charles Creek 2008 Riesling, $18
Sterling 2007 Vintner’s Collection Riesling, $10
Robert Hall 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, $15
Beringer 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, $16
Tercero 2008 Camp 4 Vineyard Grenache Blanc, $18
Bedarra 2008 Beachfront Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay, 18
Insatiable NV White Wine, $10 (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio)
Jekel 2008 Riesling, $11

And speaking of critics

here’s a job out of Denver, which qualifies in more than one way as the mile-”high” city:

US paper seeks pot correspondent

“A US newspaper says it has received well over 100 applicants for the post of marijuana critic – many of whom have offered to work for free”


Who’s California’s hottest winemaker?

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We have wine competitions and restaurant competitions and wine list competitions and wine blog competitions and chef competitions and winemaker competitions and every kind of competition you can think of in the wine and food world. Now we have the U.S. Professional Wine Buyer’s Competition.

It’s a forum for marketers (wineries) to get their product, wine, “in front of top wine buyers from all over the nation,” which is the equivalent of giving a college pitching pheenom the chance to show his stuff to MLB scouts.

The winery pays the contest’s owners $75 per wine and gets to pour for buyers from the likes of PlumpJack (that’s Gavin Newsom’s company), the Ritz Carlton, Whole Foods and the Playboy Mansion. Landing a deal with any of them could be the difference, in this lousy economy, between making a profit or taking a loss.

Neat idea. I bet a ton of wineries will enter, thereby giving the competition’s owners a hefty profit. So I set about thinking, what segment of the wine and food industry doesn’t yet have a competition? Can I horn in on the competition bubble and grab my share of the booty? So my fertile little mind immediately comes up with an idea.

First, I figured, why not have a literal wine buyers’ competition? Take these frontline buyers and let ‘em do gladiatorial mortal combat with each other, maybe in a caged, UFC-style arena. After all, everybody always says that selling wine these days is a bloodbath. So let the actual buyers bash each other and draw blood!

But no. Not such a good idea. So herewith, I am announcing a new competition, of which I am sole owner and sponsor. Ladies and gents [drum roll], it’s….

America’s Hottest Winemaker Competition

in 2 divisons, male and female.

I don’t know if you realize, but there are some pretty good-looking winemakers out there. Think about it. Winemaking is a laborious job, physically-speaking, what with stomping through all those vineyards, dragging hoses, climbing ladders and scampering up to the top of a four-barrel pile to thief off a pour. Winemakers are forever driving their pickups into town to buy a clamp, and when they’re not making wine, they’re traveling all over the place selling it. As a result, many winemakers have lean, mean, muscled bodies (we’re talking about gals as well as guys). They’re tanned from time in the sun, with the ruddy look of farm kids. Which, actually, they are.

I never asked a good-looking winemaker if he/she was aware of his physical attractiveness and used it as a marketing plus, but, come on, can we talk? Happens all the time. I am envisioning a particular male winemaker right now whose face and body are used in print advertisements precisely because of his Hollywood good looks. We all know that good looks in politicians are almost a requirement. Mitt Romney tried to ride his square-jawed whiteboy cutsie-pie face all the way to the White House. Gavin Newsom was twice elected Mayor of San Francisco because he looks like a younger Mitt Romney (despite his addiction to hair gel). There is a certain female winemaker, also heavily used in print advertisements, who has one of the most toned bodies I’ve ever seen. It’s basic advertising 101: People would rather buy a product from someone who’s good-looking than from someone who’s ugly.

So let’s get to the bottom line: Who are the hottest winemakers out there? Inquiring minds wanna know.

Here are the contest rules:

- California only. As the competition grows, we’ll expand it to the West Coast, then the U.S., then the world!

- $1,000 per entry fee.

- Send a face and body picture (clothed, please) to me.

- I’ll line up some celebrity judges to give the thing buzz.

- We’ll put up a YouTube. If you don’t think we’ll get a billion views, you’re crazy. (And think of the P.R. for the winning winery!)

- There will be a talent portion and a swimsuit portion.

- The top twelve winners get to pose in the “Hottest Winemaker” calendar of 2011.

- No. 1 winners (male and female divisions) get the Mr./Ms. Hottie Trophy and the chance to audition for a leading T.V. series.

I’ll be posting updates, including deadlines, so keep watching this blog!


Wednesday wraparound

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I enjoyed Tom Wark’s blog yesterday where he reported on his readership. Tom frequently writes about his inner state of mind — his feelings. Now, you might wonder why a wine blogger’s inner state of mind would be of importance or interest to readers. The readers of a technology blog or one on the petroleum industry might not want to hear about the blogger’s inner life, and might even be put off if the blogger admitted to having an inner life. But for wine blogs, the rules are different, which is proven by the fact that Fermentation remains the most read blog in America.

I think I know why. It’s because wine drinkers are different.

After all, wine is one of the few (legal) consumer products out there that actually alters the psyche of the person consuming it. (Well, maybe you could include chocolate on that list.) When all the swirling and sniffing and tasting is done, the fact remains that our brains get high from a glass or 4 of vino. Our perceptions and moods change, and for the better, in my (considerable) experience. We get more mellow and relaxed, more social, less stressed out. Drinking wine reminds us that the essence of our state of mind is benign and loving — qualities that can get seriously unhinged during the craziness of the business day.

I think wine drinkers, and people in the wine business, have richer and more liberal interior lives than the average person because we drink more. Is that controversial to say? Very well, than I am controversial. Blame it on Bacchus. It may be that wine drinkers were drawn to wine in the first place due to greater creativity and imagination and generosity of spirit. (Why is it that so many religious conservatives don’t drink alcohol, or, if they do, stick to beer or hard liquor, accusing wine of being — gasp — for effeminate, brie-chewing lefties?) The most interesting people I know all love wine. They combine pleasant, funny personalities with an introspective bent, intellectual curiosity and a progressive compassion. There are a lot of authentic people in the wine business. That’s why industry folk read Fermentation. Tom wears his heart and mind on his sleeve, and people relate.

But there is such a thing as too much…

Down in the Peachtree State, a judge ruled that the mistress of a deceased millionaire was not entitled to the $7,900 a month his will bequeathed her, because she was “a canny manipulator who used sex and alcohol to influence [him] into changing his will.” Seems that the guy “was drinking more than a gallon of wine a day by the time he made changes to his will…”. Yikes. I am assuming it was not wine, and if it was, it was Two Buck Chuck, not Petrus.

Best non-wine headline of the week

From the N.Y. Daily News: Neighbors thought dead man on balcony was Halloween display

Sounds like one of those “only in New York” stories, but in this case, it was in El Lay.

The House that K-J Built

Huge wine warehouse soon to open in American Canyon trumpets the Napa Valley Register.

Kendall-Jackson will use the 650,000-square foot building, the size of 9 football fields, to consolidate existing distribution facilities. Background to the story: The warehouse connects to Union Pacific’s rail line via newly built spurs. This will greatly decrease K-J’s carbon footprint because they won’t have to depend on trucks so much. It’s also an economic booster shot for American Canyon, a burgeoning city between Napa and Vallejo. K-J officials tell me that although the huge new facility was planned before the Recession, there are no financial problems. Sounds like a win-win for everybody: K-J, AmCan, the environment. It’s also a throwback to a bygone era: Viticulture developed in the Alexander Valley in the 19th century because the trains ran through it, connecting the North Coast to the Bay Area.


The day Social Media died

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We’re interviewing Dr. Marvin Wankman, a Ph.D specialist in media history at Harvard University, about the demise of social media and why all the predictions about its rise were wrong. Welcome Dr. Wankman.

Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Let me start by reading you a few things that were written in the media about social media in the year 2009. From TIME Magazine: “Social media takes over the world.” From The New York Times: “Soon, we’ll all be tweeting 24/7/365.” From The Economist: “It’s a social media world and we all just live in it.” From Wired Magazine: “There is no doubt that social media will revolutionize the way humans communicate with each other.” Now here we are in the year 2017 and the social media landscape is a shambles. What happened?

Well, it was just another case of media hype. After Sept. 11, 2001, Americans were in great uncertainty. Couple that with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, the election of Barack Obama, and the difficulties of traditional media, and people were in an apocalyptic state of mind.  It seemed that the world as we had always known it was changing fast. So with the boom of social media, it was natural for people to think it represented some major new paradigm in human development. But, of course, it didn’t. It was just another bubble.

Didn’t anybody at the time point out that social media was not as revolutionary as everyone said it was?

A few people, here and there. But by and large, their viewpoints were swept away by the avalanche of media coverage that insisted social media was the wave of the future.

What was the turning point for social media, the point at which things began falling apart?

There were many and they were incremental. One of the first was in mid-2009, when reports surfaced that people were leaving Twitter faster than they were joining it. Another early warning was when Baby Boomers took over Facebook, which drove the Millennials away from it, toward a chaotic mix of bizarre alternatives that splintered the community and further confused it. And certainly, in 2010, when Nabisco bought Facebook, that generated a lot of hostility. And it didn’t help when, that same year, Gary Vaynerchuk announced he was quitting all web activity on being hired as the new host of American Idol, after Ryan Seacrest was killed in that freak balloon accident. But I think the real turning point was more subtle. It was when people starting realizing that spending all their free time on social media was boring and non-productive.

There was also a psychological aspect. Remember that case in 2011, when a woman in Omaha sought coverage from her HMO for addiction to Twitter? Saturday Night Live had that Tina Fey parody where she was “twaddicted to twack.” Twitter became a laughingstock. Suddenly, it wasn’t cool to be pecking away on your iPhone all day and night, it was seen as a form of deviancy. Human beings realized that actual speaking — talking to the person next to you — is better than obsessively sending off vapid messages into the ether. Young people began re-engaging with one another. As more and more people distanced themselves from social media, the only ones still using it were the elderly. (It was no coincidence when the AARP declared 2011 “The Year of Social Media.”) The crowning point — the coup de grace — was that episode of The Simpsons in 2012, where Grandpa Simpson was trying to text message, and Bart and Lisa were gagging because it was so uncool.

In retrospect, what lessons can be learned from the demise of social media?

Well, in view of the fact that Twitter went bankrupt in 2013 and wiped out $40 billion in stock value, one lesson would be to be careful where you invest your money! Another is to be wary of anything you hear in the media — especially when it’s the media talking about itself to itself. But probably the ultimate lesson is an optimistic one: when all is said and done, humans are social creatures who like to associate with each other. Social media was too divisive. Rather than allowing us to come together, it pushed us apart. It was an ersatz community, a Potemkin Village of virtual, not real,  relationships. A reaction was bound to set in.

Thank you very much, Dr. Wankman. It’s been fun.

Yes, it was. Thank you.


Michael Brill on Crushpad’s big new deal with Twitter

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They’re already calling it “twine.” San Francisco-based Crushpad will make wine for Twitter, in a move (dubbed the Fledgling Initiative) to benefit the charity Room to Read.

I talked with Brill, Crushpad’s president and CEO, last Friday.

SH: How did the deal come about?

MB: We have a couple Twitter employees who are customers of ours. They contacted us about making some barrels for employees, as a team building exercise. They also at the same time were trying to hook up with Room to Read, their favorite corporate charity. Over the course of 45 minutes, we all came up with the idea of why don’t we create a wine, sell it, and the profits will go to Room to Read.

What is the significance of this, beyond raising money for charity? I mean, Crushpad getting involved in social media. You’re already calling it “social winemaking.”

Great question. We’re all about getting people involved in the winemaking process and co-creating a product with the customer. So this is an extreme exaggeration of what we normally do. Instead of 5 or 10 people involved in the process, we’ll have hopefully tens of thousands [buying the wine]. And all this is being tweeted as we go along. It’s a way to expose winemaking to many thousands of people who could not ordinarily afford it or be involved in it.

Tell me about the wines. Varieties? Sources? Price? Production?

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The grapes are from different vineyards — Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Rita Hills, Russian River, Sonoma Coast, all the stuff we normally deal with. The price is $20.

I read that only $5 of that will go to Room to Read, with $15 going back to production costs. That seems high.

Well, if you look at our hard materials costs and labor, we’re not making any money on this. And we’re eating shipping costs. We’re probably losing money. People making wine from the same vineyards [charge] $40 or $50.

Why is the brand is called Fledgling?

That was Twitter. Biz Stone [Twitter's co-founder] came up with that. They like things that are bird-related.

What is case production?

Between 1,000 and 10,000.

Can you be more specific?

No. Twitter is concerned about not wanting to commit to specific dollar amounts to give to Room to Read, so they don’t want to set specific expectations, even though we have internal targets. I think Twitter’s taking a huge risk on this. Some people have been snarky on the blogs [such as]  “Twitter should figure out its business model.”

Is this a one-time thing? Will production and variety type increase?

We’ll see how it works. We’ve never made anything on this scale. This is an order of magnitude larger than our Vayniac Cab [which Crushpad made for Gary Vaynerchuk].

Crushpad has a Twitter account with 63,425 followers. Has that resulted in any additional business, or is it mainly a P.R. device?

It’s the latter. Social media and Twitter are fine for brand building, relationship development, getting your name out there, but it’s a horrible mechanism for generating revenue.

Could that change with a killer app?

Well, there are challenges with Twitter in that there‘s no structure. Personally I believe Twitter for business will only be successful when there’s structure built into it, whether by Twitter or a third party. A tweet is just an event. How do I take advantage of it? So my perspective is, Twitter is great for updating people, but not great now for selling.

Has the recession affected Crushpad’s business?

It’s put a crimp in, especially in the first half of this year. Most of our clients are pretty affluent, but the uncertainty about the economy earlier this year pushed people back. But there’s more optimism now. We saw a big jump this harvest.

That brings up another point. You speak of “democratizing” wine, yet doesn’t the Crushpad model actually only apply to wealthy individuals?

It’s a process. Ten years ago, you needed tens of millions to make wine. Then custom crush facilities brought it down to $100,000. We brought it down to $10,000.

Last words?

I think a lot of the Room to Read piece gets lost [in media coverage]. It’s a great story. Twitter doesn’t get any P.R. value from this; they have nothing but risk associated with this project. It’s about all of us helping Room to Read, which in turn helps kids.


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