Sunday on the coast: partly sunny thoughts
I’ll have more to say about World of Pinot Noir this week, but now it’s off on this cool, partly cloudy morning to the south, and a few days in Santa Barbara County.
(I will also have more to say soon about the movie I’m in, Blood Into Wine, and the way they portrayed — or didn’t portray — my blind tasting. Stay tuned.)
I was reading the L.A. Times this morning over breakfast (oatmeal for health, bacon in hommage to Homer Simpson, and also because there’s been a lot of talk about bacon at this Pinot Noir event) when I came across yet another article on that big fight in New York State over whether to permit grocery stores to sell wine.
Like you, I’ve been kinda sorta keeping up with that story. I understood the issues. I just wasn’t sure which side I agreed with. One the one hand are small, mom and pop liquor stores, who fear that if grocery stores are allowed to sell wine, it will hurt them and maybe drive them out of business. On the other hand are groceries, who argue, Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell wine? It would be a great benefit to our customers, particularly those in rural areas, who won’t have to drive 5, 10 or more miles just to buy a bottle of wine.
Both sides have a point, as is often the case with tricky social, cultural and legal issues, which is why they’re hard to decide. For example, Napa’s winery ordinance is tricky because it pits wineries, who want an extra income stream, against some of their neighbors, who don’t want more traffic, etc. But in a democracy, somebody has to win. In the New York case, I’m siding with the grocers. They should be allowed to sell wine, for several reasons.
For one thing, it’s difficult for a state — in this case, New York — to present a coherent reason for intruding into private, commercial enterprise. Granted, alcohol is a regulated product, but it’s not clear that a State, or county or city, has the right to decide who should and shouldn’t be allowed to sell wine. Yes, States have the power to grant liquor licenses, but all things being equal, they shouldn’t be in the position of picking winners and losers. (The one exception I’ll make is that cities should be allowed to limit the number of liquor stores in ghetto neighborhoods.)
For another thing, this notion of letting only liquor stores sell wine is so antiquated, it’s pathetic. A holdover not only of Prohibition but of 19th century attitudes toward Demon Rum, it fails to recognize that wine is now a mainstream, respectable food. Most people who drink wine do so with meals, and in the company of friends and family. Wine is not some narcotic drug whose dissemination must be limited only to certain restricted areas, like prescription medicines sold in a pharmacy. (And even supermarkets, which are just giant grocery stores, contain pharmacies.)
Finally, we have only to look at our state of California to see that letting grocery stores sell wine seems to be doing little harm, if any, to wine stores. At small grocery stores, like 7-Eleven, all they stock are the big distributor brands that most mom and pop wine stores wouldn’t think of selling anyway. At larger supermarkets like Safeway, the selection is bigger, and there may be some overlap between what they sell and what a little wine shop sells, but if there is, it isn’t much. No, what small wine stores sell tends to be either rarer, more expensive wines or inexpensive imports that most grocery stores would never feature. I think of a wine shop like Paul Marcus, in my neighborhood, where you can get wonderful Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian wines for under $20. You’d never see them in a grocery store.
So I don’t think the New York liquor stores, who are organized under a group called “Last Store on Main Street” (an apocalyptic name meant to frighten) really have a case. I suspect New York State will eventually agree to let grocery stores sell wine, if for no other reason than that it will generate a quarter-billion bucks in new license revenues. If there are some liquor stores who feel threatened by open competition, let them upgrade to quality stuff. Consumers will shop wherever they think they can (a) get the best wine (b) at the best price (c) with the best customer service (d) and with the most convenience. They really don’t care if it’s a grocery store or a liquor store, and neither should New York’s (dysfunctional) government.
Old farts? Or rock stars?
At World of Pinot Noir, I introduced a friend of mine, a good-looking ultramarathoner without an ounce of bodyfat on his lean frame, to Richard Sanford, who is the Dean of Southern California winemakers. Hell, Richard is one of the Deans of all California winemakers. When Richard and I get together the conversation occasionally turns to Olden Times, and so it did there under the tent by the sea, where Richard was pouring Alma Rosa for the WOPN crowd. He was telling my friend about the old Sanford label and the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard when my friend — whom I like a great deal and admire for his creativity, not to mention the fact that he can run for 100 miles — said something about “you old farts.”
He meant it, I’m entirely sure, affectionately and without malice. We all say things that pop into our heads without thinking. I do every day, and I know it was that way with my friend. Still, it hurt, a little. Maybe it tapped into so much of the crap about dinosaur print writers who don’t get it versus cool young Twitterers who are the wave of the future, yadda yadda. At some point in one’s life and career, you have to start wondering if you’re still relevant — and maybe you find yourself trying a bit harder to prove you are.
So here I am now, in a coffee shop in “downtown” Santa Ynez, nursing a non-fat latte, when I pick up a copy of last Nov. 26’s Rolling Stone. Therein is an article on “the historic concerts for the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The musicians included such old farts as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springstein, Aretha Franklin, Bono, Patti Smith, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkle, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Ray Davies, Jackson Browne, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sting — and on and on.
You know, I’ve read and heard younger rockers, like Fergie, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Trey Anastasio, Will.I.Am, Shakira, Pink, Sheryl Crow, Foo Fighters, Taylor Swift, even Adam Lambert credit their musical forebears with blazing paths, breaking down barriers, opening entirely new genres and whole new universes of possibilities that enable pop music to forever stay vital, and to be one of America’s enduring contributions to world culture. And if you ask Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and their generation, they always and happily pay their propers to the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Elvis, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Fats Domino — that list also goes on and on.
For the life of me I don’t know wine writers seem more hung up with generational divisions than rock stars. Professor Saintsbury inspired Harry Waugh and Michael Broadbent, who inspired Hugh Johnson, who inspired Oz Clark and Jancis Robinson, who has inspired God knows how many women to believe they can be great wine writers. The writers of the 60s and 70s even inspired Robert Parker, even if it was in the negative sense that he decided to be unlike them, as Elvis decided to be unlike Pat Boone and the Sex Pistols decided to be unlike Journey. Parker, Johnson, Waugh, Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken and, yes, Jim Laube inspired me. I have some reason to think, or at least to hope, that I have inspired younger writers, and I know that Richard Sanford has inspired a generation of younger winemakers. Even now, there are brilliant young vintners working up and down California who keep one eye on the venerable past, with all its lessons and wisdom, as they stride into futures filled with hope and promise.
Old farts, or rock stars? Richard Sanford still has a few tricks up his sleeve. So do I.