I almost did a spit-take on reading that the organization that oversees the 1855 Bordeaux classification is applying for UNESCO World Heritage status.
UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which is sort of the U.N.’s kumbaya wing; and part of it is the World Heritage Centre, which recognizes world sites of great historical and cultural importance and seeks to protect and preserve them. Among the 962 recognized World Heritage sites are Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the historic center of Vienna, the Magao caves of China, the Acropolis, Israel’s Masada, the Pyramids of Egypt and, here in the States, Mammoth Cave, Yellowstone and the Statue of Liberty.
And now–let me get this straight–the Bordelais want to include a list of wineries? What am I failing to understand here?
The Classification was drawn up, let us remember, by wine brokers, who had been asked by the Emperor Napoleon to choose wines to display at a Paris exposition. It was nothing more nor less than a price list. True, it has assumed far more importance over the decades, but it’s hard to see how a “classification” can be included on a list of World Heritage sites. I suppose I might have more sympathy with the nomination if they had suggested Bordeaux itself as a region, rather than the 1855 Classification. But then, Bordeaux already received World Heritage status (in 2007), so what is it that the nominators are looking for, beyond that? All we have to go by is the Decanter story; I could find no additional information on the Internet. Here’s how the magazine quoted Phillippe Castéja, president of the Conseil des Grands Crus Classés, in explaining his group’s nomination:
The 1855 classification is the fruit of both natural and human factors and it has only gained in importance over time. Its value lies not just in the excellence of the wines, but the architectural richness its chateaux have brought to Bordeaux, the artisanal trades that it supports, from hand-picking of grapes to traditional vine pruning skills, to the renown that it has bought to France across the world.
This is true, as far as it goes, but Bordeaux’s architectural heritage already was honored in that 2007 World Heritage status, and it’s not clear to me (from an admittedly inadequate but nonetheless fairly closely scrutinized review of the existing list) that there are any other World Heritage sites that are devoted to “trades” and “skills,” as opposed to places. Nor is it clear from the Operational Guidelines whether such recognition is even possible.
It may be that the Bordelais are seeking recognition, not as a “natural heritage” (such as Mammoth Cave) but as a “cultural landscape,” which is allowed. The Guidelines define “cultural landscape” as, briefly, “the combined works of nature and man,” and as “illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time.” But it’s very hard to see how the 1855 Classification would qualify as a “cultural landscape” the way, say, the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces of China (which is currently nominated for Heritage status) are. It looks to me like the Bordelais, having achieved their World Heritage status six years ago, are looking to gild the lily.
Maybe I’m wrong. But if the 1855 Classification is worthy of World Heritage status, then so are the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. I therefore officially nominate our founding documents.
I meet a great many people in the wine industry. They are of all ages. Many of the older ones are big successes, while many of the younger ones are just starting out. They may someday be big successes, but not yet.
Part of my job at Wine Enthusiast–an increasingly bigger part–is to be alert to trends. Magazines perceive their role, in part, as educating the public to what’s happening before everybody knows it. (I remember a criticism of the old Esquire magazine was that it was always discovering the avant garde when it already had become the rear guard.) So, when I’m chatting with people, I invariably ask, “What’s new?”
From Millennials I am hearing about a focus on “authenticity.” Now, I know what the word “authentic” means: it means real, not phony. There’s an authentic hundred dollar bill, for example, and a counterfeit one. But I’m never sure what “authenticity” means when someone in the wine industry tells me they’re trying to be authentic. I mean, there are gigantic brands out there that lay claim to the mantle of authenticity, and there are tiny little family winemakers who don’t claim to be authentic, but nonetheless are, if you know what I mean. (And of course, each of us is going to be the judge of what we perceive as authentic.)
But this isn’t about what I perceive as authentic, it’s what Millennials mean when they say they perceive a lack of authenticity in the older generation, and wish to replace it with the real thing. This is where the Socratic method comes in handy. When I don’t understand what someone means, I’ll ask, “What do you mean?” They need to explain it in terms that a simple guy like me can comprehend.
Now, I don’t want to get anyone into trouble or embarrass anyone or for that matter harm any friendships I have with millennial winemakers, so I’m going to avoid identifiable specifics. But I was talking to a young winemaker yesterday who told me he and his Millennial gen friends don’t think the older generation of winemakers is authentic. Well, I did my Socrates thing and as it turned out, he had a difficult time explaining to me just what was unauthentic about the older generation, or how he hoped to replace it with authenticity. He’s making the same kinds of wines as people in their 50s and 60s, is charging the same [high] prices, so he didn’t seem to be doing anything differently from the older generation.
The journalist in me has had a long time to develop a radar that picks up on inconsistency, vagueness, spin and just plain incoherence. That radar detects these things, and something in me can’t let them go unchallenged. If you tell me you’re seeking to do business in authentic ways that the older generation did not, then I’m afraid you have to explain to me (a) how and why they’re inauthentic and (b) how you plan not to be. And you’re going to have to be specific. You can’t just say “Well, I won’t hype anything.” That dog won’t hunt. Give me a specific example of a wine brand that hypes (and where do they hype?). In their marketing? In the production of the wine itself? Do you mean you’ll make unadulterated wines while everyone else is adding Mega Purple? Then say so.
I believe that these younger winemakers mean it when they say they want to be authentic. I want them to be authentic. But if they can’t explain to me what authenticity means, then how can they be? It’s just a word to express a feeling. If I can insinuate myself into their heads (never easy or guaranteed, but you have to try), it may be that they see a certain stuffiness that’s infiltrated the wine industry, especially in a place like Napa Valley; and they wish to air the place out, make it more accessible and friendlier, more human, as it were. If that is their goal–if that’s their definition of “more authentic”– then I’m all in favor of it. Young people, in particular, don’t like people who put on airs; they sense them the way Gus smells stuff on the sidewalk. I’ve recently met a lot of young winemakers in Paso Robles (I’ll be writing about this in the magazine in a few months) and am thrilled by their attitude down there: Let’s not do things the old way, let’s try new things. They’re not just talking about it, they’re doing it, with wacko (but very good) red and white blends that no one in Napa could or would ever consider (because Napa is so tradition-bound. It would be like someone in Pauillac making a blend of Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc).
It may be easier in a place like Paso for a young winemaker to be “authentic” than in Napa Valley, because the marketplace inserts itself more potently in the latter than in the former. Doing business in Napa is expensive, no matter your age, and you have to sell your stuff, so you have to hew to a tighter template in order for the marketplace to take you seriously. This means, in effect, that regardless of how “authentic” a young Napa winemaker wants to be, he or she is probably going to end up making an expensive Cabernet Sauvignon–which may or may not be “modest” in alcohol. So where is the authenticity? Is it in the tasting room, where Rhianna is playing instead of Bach? Is it at a winemaker dinner, where the winemaker shows up in blue jeans and tattoos instead of a suit and tie? Is it in the places the young winemaker hangs out–dark, hip clubs instead of The Restaurant at Meadowood? Is it because the young winemaker is hot while the 60-year old winemaker no longer is? And what does any of this have to do with the actual quality of the wine (or, if the wine is authentic, maybe quality doesn’t matter?).
You see where this is going. It’s one thing to talk “authenticity” but quite another to pull it off. Whatever “it” is.
If you live in California, you know what happened this winter and spring.
In December, it rained, and rained, and rained or, if you were in the mountains, snowed and snowed. In parts of the Sierra Nevada, December, 2012 was the second snowiest ever measured.
It was reassuring news to a state that gets most of its water from snowmelt–especially after the parched December of 2011, when the snowpack was only 14% of average.
But a funny thing happened as soon as 2012 turned into 2013. The rain stopped. Seriously stopped. January and February were the driest months ever recorded in California. March brought a little rain, but not enough to help. Last week, the government released its “drought monitor”, which declared that most of Central and Southern California is suffering from “severe” drought, while the north is experiencing moderate drought.
Moreover, the National Weather Service is predicting “Persistent” drought throughout all of California (and most of the West).
Just this past week, the California Department of Water Resources published, on their website, a drought statement that begins with this alarming statement: “It’s official. The 2013 January-May period is the driest on record (since 1920) for all regions of the Sierra.”
The arid conditions already are beginning to threaten vines. San Luis Obispo County (including Paso Robles) “face[s] spending hundreds of millions of dollars for new water sources…leaving the area even more short of water at a time when vineyards are planting as many as 8,000 new acres of wine grapes.”
In the North Coast, Sonoma County has been under an official federal “disaster declaration for drought” since January, 2012,
Grapes being the thirsty plants they are, California growers are having to look at their options, including more efficient use of existing water sources. Those who dry farm–a minority–are on safer ground than those who depend on irrigation. California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, just two days ago, noting “how bone dry the state is so early in the summer season,” called for “[e]xpanding and improving California’s water storage capacity”; if that is not done, she predicted, “California is at risk of becoming a desert state.”
Water shortages are nothing new for California, but they seem to be happening more frequently; and with vineyard acreage expanding, water–or, more precisely, the lack of it–could emerge to be the biggest problem the wine industry faces.
When I started writing about wine, I met a lot of wealthy collectors. They had cellars in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of bottles, almost always the usual suspects: Bordeaux First Growths, Burgundy Grand Crus, Yquem, and California Cabs that were popular then, like Dunn Howell Mountain and Opus One.
I would talk with these gentlemen, who seemed perfectly normal in every respect, except for the obsessive-compulsive disorder they seemed to suffer from in their mad accumulation of wine. But the fact was that they were crazy-passionate about wine, which was good. If they went a little overboard, well, that was their business, not mine.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I came to learn about collecting wine, not for the pleasure of aging and drinking it, but for investment. At first I was surprised, although maybe I shouldn’t have been. Then I came to see it as pernicious. Reselling wine to make a profit drives up the cost of wine, which is bad, but it also is responsible, at least in part, for the way so many people still perceive wine: as a snobby, elite thing. Every time people read about a bottle that costs $50,000 or $100,000, it reinforces that notion that maybe they better stick to beer.
During the Great Recession, investing in wine for resale seemed to drop off a bit. But now, it’s roaring back, in troubling ways. For instance, here’s Fox News reporting two days ago that an Italian firm is asking for a minimum investment of $50,000 to invest in a wine portfolio that’s pretty much exactly the same as a stock portfolio.
And here’s Forbes, that bastion of capitalism, writing on the same phenomenon, also from Wednesday, with the punchy headline, “Will More Collectors Turn Wine Into Cash?” Seems that rich collectors already are offering their wine cellars as collateral for loans, the same way they put their expensive art works and jewelry on the line.
Normally I couldn’t care less what the über-wealthy do with their Barolo, but it somehow seems wrong, in spirit if not in the law, to commoditize wine that way. It bothers producers, too. Last year, Nick Gislason told me how troubled Screaming Eagle’s ownership was by the aftermarket. Here Nick does his level best to produce a great wine, and some percentage of the people on the mailing list just flip it onto eBay or wherever, sending the price soaring ever higher, distorting markets, and placing, not only Screaming Eagle but, by some inevitable domino process, other wines (Harlan, for example) impossibly beyond the reach of ordinary people. And don’t think the domino effect stops with the cults. It trickles down.
Here’s another negative effect of investment-mania: It can result in grotesqueries like this one, in which a pair of “wine collectors from New York” are suing celebrity chef Charlie Trotter for selling them an allegedly counterfeit bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti.
This sort of thing is no longer about wine, or pleasure, it’s about money, profit and fear. Nothing cool about it, and not what this industry needs, or deserves.
There have always been gay and Lesbian people in the wine business, of course; some pretty famous winemakers have been, not to mention a contingent on the P.R. and marketing side.
But the wine biz is inherently a conservative one, not so much politically (I think most of the California industry tends to be liberal), as socially. There are certain modes of behavior that are expected (don’t get drunk unless you can hold your liquor, treat your colleagues with respect, don’t gossip too much, avoid cursing), and it is expected that things such as sexuality are not flaunted (whatever the orientation) but are treated with discretion.
This doesn’t mean that late night conversations, after copious amounts of alcohol have been consumed between trusting adults, don’t sometimes wander into…well, let’s just call it terra rauncho. It happens, even in mixed company. (I could relate a certain chat in the bar of the Ritz Carlton Kapalua last week that made even my limited amount of hair stand up.) Still, the topic of sexuality has been largely kept in the closet (pun intended).
This is changing. There are people who are “out” in a big way. Older gay men and women tend to be quieter about it, but a younger generation is bolder, and good for them, I say. There also are wineries that are overtly gay-friendly; this article mentions a few of them, but I think there are more. Certainly the wine industry is wise to welcome all of America’s demographics into its embrace. A gay dollar is as green as a straight one.
* * *
Much has been made of the “difficult” 2010 vintage in California. Jon Bonné, for example, calls it “complicated,” and certainly it did throw some curve balls to vintners. The cold was the main problem; I’ve detected a large number of Pinot Noirs, in particular, that smell moldy. Heavy rains in mid-October came right in the middle of the Cabernet harvest. Earlier, record heat in late September cooked some Bordeaux varieties. Despite the rosy scenarios issued by the Napa Valley Vintners, in their annual harvest report, winemakers off the record were less optimistic. Or perhaps the better word is “philosophical.” In November of 2010, after all the grapes were in, I had a conversation with Merryvale’s assistant winemaker, in which he conceded that the vintage would be “atypical” (in the sense of lacking the expected Napa lushness), but insisted that the Cabernets would still have “quality, regardless of what form it takes.” What did he mean? “Yes, maybe there’s a mintiness to this, and maybe there’s an herbalness to it, but these are still quality wines.”
I’ll leave it to others to decide how much mintiness and herbalness they like in their Cabernets. I haven’t had Merryvale’s 2010 Cabernet because they haven’t yet sent it to me. But I have reviewed some terrific 2010 Cabs that prove great wineries can produce great wines even in a tough vintage. Among the best have been Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve, all the Von Strassers, Terra Valentine K-Block, Stonestreet Rockfall and also Stonestreet Christopher’s and Jarvis Estate–all mountain or hillside vineyards, where presumably the September heat was not quite as intense, while the October rains drained off.
I’ve moderated a lot of panels, but none was ever so satisfying from my point of view, and so successful I think for the audience, as last Sunday’s “Pritchard Hill Gang Rides at Kapalua,” the last in the series of wine seminars at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival.
I’d been invited to come by Michael Jordan, M.S., who runs the festival (with Chuck Furuya, also an M.S., and the tenth, I believe, in the U.S.). It was hard to say no, since he offered to put me up for 4 nights and 5 days at the Ritz Carlton, with pretty much all expenses paid. So I said yes. (Full disclosure: I did not receive any compensation for participating.)
I feel pretty confident on panels, especially when I’m leading them. I’ve learned when to let my panelists have the freedom to do their thing (after all, they and their wines are why the audience has paid to come), but also learned to be sensitive to when they’re running out of steam, and then having to step in and do an intervention. The best kind of intervention is when you know your panelists: their jobs both past and present, their wines, their backgrounds, something about their personal lives. If a panelist runs out of things to talk out before his time is up, I can tell when they start to go “uhhh” and fall silent, or look to me with desperation. Then I can usually get them back by asking something of personal interest.
It might be objectively factual. “So tell us your wine’s case production, retail price and alcohol level.” I like to know those things, and I think the audience does too, but it’s surprising how many moderators fail to ask them. Or I might ask a winemaker something that’s a little broader in scope, like “What do you think is the impact of the hillside vineyard on your wines?” Of course, you have to know these facts in advance, which is why preparation is required.
Winemakers love talking about their vineyards and wine making techniques, although I do have to admit that, in recent years, I (and many other moderators) now are advising winemakers to avoid being too geeky, because it tends to bore audience members. Certainly, Chuck and Michael have moved in that direction. They wouldn’t order their winemakers to avoid technical issues, and in fact go out of their way to let them know they can talk about anything they want; but they do let the winemakers know that consumers prefer stories and anecdotes and general details, and I think the more sensitive winemakers–those who do a lot of these festivals–understand that people want to know more about themselves and less about the toast level on the barrels or what clones they used or the pH of the soil. Certainly there’s always some geek in the audience that will ask that kind of stuff, but there’s not as many of them as there used to be.
It also helps to be a little funny when you’re a moderator. This puts people at ease, both the panelists (who can be nervous) and the audience. Being funny is a double-edged sword that can cut through tension or slice your throat. I did standup comedy in San Francisco for a couple of years in the late 1980s (under the name Harry Stevens), and I learned something about being onstage. I’m not saying that when your panel consists of major league stars like Carlo Mondavi (Continuum), Philippe Melka (BRAND and so many others), Austin Peterson (Ovid), Phillip Corallo-Titus (Chappellet) and David Long (David Arthur) you should overshadow their light by cracking jokes. That would not be a good idea. In fact it would be totally inappropriate. But it’s important to stay aware and be alive to the slightest nuances of the ebb and flow of the session and be prepared to swoop in with a well-chosen bon mot, to lighten things up if need be and move things along.
Of course, the fact that the subject of our panel was some of the greatest, rarest and most coveted wines in California, from the most high-rent district in Napa Valley that most people have never heard of, also contributed to the event’s allure. Nor did the location: on the grassy slopes above the Pacific in western Maui. It never hurts, when you’re running a panel, to have a sexy topic and location!
You can tell when a session is going well. It’s in the air. The audience isn’t fidgeting, they’ve got their eyes on the panel and are listening intently. They’re laughing at the right places, asking the right questions, paying attention. The panel members start to relax (you’d be surprised how nervous even famous winemakers can be right before a session starts). Prior to the start, part of my job is to see who’s anxious and give them a little extra TLC to get them to relax. I like to make physical contact, to hug, to put my hand on a shoulder and above all let them know that I won’t let them fail, I’ll be right there to protect them, so they shouldn’t worry about a thing. In the Pritchard Hill case, of course, Michael and Chuck were there to assist, just in case I fumbled, and those two are the best moderators in the business, playing tag team and getting off on each other. (I call it the Mike and Chuck show.) But as things turned out, there wasn’t much for them to do because everything went so well.
There are many drawbacks to getting older, but surely one of the benefits is getting better at your job. A big part of that is simply to know who you are and to be comfortable being that person in front of an audience. The hardest thing in the world–the thing that makes people uptight when they’re in a public forum–is trying to be someone they’re not. It drains energy, because you’re always having to remember who the pseudo-personality you’re trying to be is so you can stay in character. Whereas if you’re just yourself, you don’t have to remember anything. I pretty much know who I am. I’m not the brightest bulb, but I am honest and transparent, a little quirky in a way that I think humanizes me, and, frankly, I like to talk. I generally like my panelists and want my audience to like them too. I don’t mind occasionally revealing a glimpse into the more eccentric aspects of my personality (which my regular blog readers well understand!). It lets people know you’re not a robot (which is what one famous Napa winemaker called a very famous critic the other day. No, I’m not naming names).
The “performance” (if you can call it that) that went best among all the Kapalua panelists was Gary Pisoni’s. If you know Gary, you know that what you see is what you get. Gary is entirely unfiltered, and people eat it up because his love and heart and passion and happiness and eagerness to please always show through. Gary lets people be themselves because they figure if someone that famous and successful can be himself, then they can, too. I’ve learned from watching Gary over the years to be fearless and not too self-conscious, although a certain degree of self-consciousness is unavoidable. People want that direct contact from your soul to their’s. I’m certainly not saying I’m in Gary’s league. Nobody is. But if I were giving advice to panelists, it would be the same thing I tell bloggers: Find out who you are if you don’t already know and be that person, and become more of that person every day for the rest of your life.
It was in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton Kapalua that I learned, from a winemaker, that Steve Pessagno has just died.
Ed and I had just been talking about him at the hotel bar two nights earlier, in the most favorable way. Steve was the owner/winemaker of Pessagno Vineyard, a Monterey-based winery, where he made some fine wines. I’d known Steve since his days at the old Jekel Vineyards, where he used to be winemaker. I remember him hosting me at Jekel’s little facility, right off the 101 Freeway in the heart of the Salinas Valley. It was Steve who told me about the infamous winds that sweep down the valley. Some years later, after he’d finally been able to start his own winery (which made him so happy) I visited him at his tasting room, on River Road. Steve had a bad back, but he was a big, strong guy and refused to let it interfere with his work.
Steve, to me, was the quintessential winemaker. Nobody handed him anything on a silver platter. He wasn’t born to wealth. After working as an engineer, he decided he wanted to be a winemaker, and he came up the hard, old fashioned way. He never achieved great fame or wealth, but he crafted well-made wines of terroir, at affordable prices, and he put his heart and soul into his work. He also was a true pioneer of premium wines in Monterey.
Steve was the kind of guy who makes the world of wine go around. I doubt that he would have been comfortable in the spotlight, if things had gone differently and the media had discovered and promoted him. I can’t say I knew him well, but I knew him enough to understand his essential humility. He desired to be successful enough to support himself and his family and avoid debt, but he wasn’t the kind of guy to go out there and shmooze and entertain an audience at a fancy wine and food event. He was what winemakers have always been: an upright, honest guy, friendly and industrious.
Steve was only 55 years old, way too young. I’m sending my condolences to the family, and I hope Steve’s son, Anthony, will keep the winery charging ahead.
Even if you didn’t know Steve, please give him a moment of respectful silence. He was one of the good ones.