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You scratch my back and…when wineries and charities both benefit

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Had a call from a friend, Larry Schaffer, proprietor of Tercero Wines, in Santa Barbara. He wanted to know if I could come to an event next month in San Francisco, a promotional thing between the Rhone Rangers (on whose board Larry sits) and The GAVI Alliance, an international nonprofit that combats pneumonia in children. GAVI’s supporters include U.N.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Larry explained that each Rhone Ranger member winery had decided to donate $10 for each case of Syrah sold during November to GAVI. He was looking for help promoting the event.

As it turned out, I couldn’t go. But I was curious as to how and why the partnership between the Rhone Rangers and GAVI had come about. Larry explained that, last June, Eric Asimov had written a piece on his New York Times blog, at The Pour, that was super critical of California Syrah. Eric had repeated the tired old joke (which I’ve now heard about 25 times), “What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.” He said some rather harsh things about California Syrah (“dreadfully generic”) that I don’t agree with–that’s not the point–but it was a kick in the groin for California Syrah producers, who are struggling.

Shortly after Eric’s piece, a doctor named Orin Levine wrote a piece on the Huffington Post in which he said that, after reading The Pour, he’d had an idea: In recognition of World Pneumonia Day 2010, “I am asking all winemakers and wine retailers to contribute $10 from every case of Syrah they sell in November to the GAVI Alliance, and asking American wine drinkers to make Syrah their wine of choice in November.” Levine seems to have clout. The Rhone Rangers heard about his challenge, one thing led to another, and ergo, the event in San Francisco next month. Even Stephen Tanzer jumped in, following a Rhone Rangers-GAVI tasting in New York, and urged consumers to support the effort, under his cleverly named blog posting, “Pneumonia’s Last Syrah.”

Larry Schaffer was frank in his talk with me in conceding that the Rhone Rangers’ reason for working with GAVI is as much to gain publicity for California Syrah as it is to help kids with pneumonia. Last week, I went to the big Mondavi family dinner, held in conjunction with Morton’s The Steakhouse, to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It was clear to me then that the various Mondavi brands involved were happy to be helping kids out, but were also happy to see their names connected, in a positive way, with concepts of helpfulness, compassion, love and sharing.

My cynical gene kicks in here. How much of a winery’s motivation is due to the desire for publicity, and how much is true concern for the charity? Is there in fact a difference? It’s impossible to know for sure, since I’m not a mind reader; but in the case of wineries and charities, the question actually is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the winery’s real motive is. What matters is how much money the winery is able to help these charities deliver. In the end, these are win-win situations, good for everybody involved. In the case of California Syrah and the Rhone Rangers, I’m happy to pass the message along: during the month of November, if you find yourself needing a red wine, consider buying a California Syrah, and especially one by a Rhone Rangers member. There are dozens of great ones, from up and down and across the state. And memo to Eric Asimov: you were being a little harsh on California Syrah. Lighten up. Don’t shop for the quote that trashes. Give equal treatment for defenders, of whom I am one.

  1. Steve,

    Thanks for posting on this – and for your honest opinions on this. A few corrections before I address your comments:

    * Each Rhone Ranger member, of which there are over 125 across the US, not just in California, can participate, but not all have signed up to do so. Consumers can visit the Rhone Ranger website on the link below to see the wineries that are currently participating.

    http://www.rhonerangers.org/calendar/pls_participants.php

    * The main reason that the Rhone Rangers became involved in this partnership was to assist the GAVI Alliance in raising funds to pay for immunizations against Pneumonia in Developing Countries . . . period. Pneumonia is the leading killer of children worldwide, and Orin Levine’s wonderful blog piece caught the eye of Adam Lee of Siduri/Novy Winery who then contacted me to create a ‘call to arms’ so to speak. We both felt that this would be a wonderful opportunity for the Rhone Rangers, a non-profit organization whose mission statement is ‘Advancing the Knowledge of Rhone Grapes Grown in America’, to continue in its benevolent efforts. Past efforts have included partnerships with Meals on Wheels and providing educational scholarships at various US universities.

    We continue to be excited about the prospects not only for the tasting in San Francisco, but for the increased media attention we are providing for World Pneumonia Day in November.

    Here is a link that provides more information about Pneumonia’s Last Syrah and how you can get involved:

    http://www.rhonerangers.org/calendar/pneumoniaslastsyrah.php

    Thanks again – and good luck with that December pick of Sauvignon Blanc (-:

    Cheers!

    Larry Schaffer
    Member, Board of Directors, Rhone Rangers
    Owner, tercero wines

  2. Eric Asimov says:

    Memo to Steve Heimoff:

    While you’re dishing out advice perhaps you should reflect on the differences between critics and journalists on the one hand and apologists and boosters on the other.

    My article was critical of much of California syrah, but you ought to characterize the article accurately, and not write it off as a “kick in the groin.” It accurately described the difficulty of selling California syrah now in the marketplace and went out of its way to single out numerous producers that in my opinion are making very good syrah:

    “It’s fair to say that much of the syrah produced in California is dreadfully generic red wine of little character. But perhaps more important to recognize is that quite a few producers like Failla are making superb California syrah, a fact that should not be lost in any analysis of the moribund market.”

    My job is to write what I see and think, not to weigh how it will affect the industry, which I cover but am not part of.

  3. Eric,

    Thanks for piping in. Though I did not agree with all of your sentiments in your original blog, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and posted it, and got lynched for doing so, on a couple of different wine bulletin boards.

    To me, ANY national article on syrah is a good thing, as in my honest opinion, it is not discussed often enough. Where I differ with you most is the concept that only cooler climate syrahs offer consumers the best that syrah has to offer. There are plenty of warmer climate vineyards throughout the state that, to me and many others, perform well above average on any scale and, most importantly, produce balanced wines that can be enjoyed either on their own or with a variety of foods.

    Is syrah a more difficult sell than other varieties? Yes . . . and no. There are a handful of producers who are ‘critic faves’ that easily sell out their entire productions instantaneously. There are many others that continue to sell thousands of cases each year, including Qupe, Fess Parker and Zaca Mesa from the Santa Barbara County area, Bonny Doon from the Santa Cruz area, Chateau St. Michelle and Columbia Wineries from WA state, and many others.

    The fact is that there are many more producers of the variety now than ever before, and the huge surge in plantings has created a surplus of syrah wines . . . . and therefore the market got flooded with them.

    I also think that what is being missed in the discussion about syrahs is the true diversity of styles that can now be found, as winemakers have learned to walk their own paths and not follow the direct lead of Australian Shirazes or wines from anywhere else. To me and many others, the variety still offers consumers the best bang for their buck.

    Cheers!

  4. Eric Asimov says:

    For the record, Larry and Steve, what you are discussing is not my blog, but my column from The New York Times, which can be found here. http://nyti.ms/8Zn6H2

    A related post on my blog was headlined “10 Ideal Syrahs From California,” hardly a groin shot. http://nyti.ms/cll5K8

    Larry, I appreciate your constructive contribution. There is plenty of room for vigorous debate on this issue.

  5. Steve, I’m glad you linked to the Asimov piece. This gave me the chance to refresh my memory of it and, as I had recalled, it wasn’t really as you characterized it. Yes, Asimov said there was “dreadfully generic” Syrah in California, but pulling those two words out of the paragraph in which they appeared doesn’t at all, in my judgment, reflect Asimov’s assessment of the state of the varietal in California. In fact, the paragraph was making the point that California Syrah has much going for it. The full paragraph: “It’s fair to say that much of the syrah produced in California is dreadfully generic red wine of little character. But perhaps more important to recognize is that quite a few producers like Failla are making superb California syrah, a fact that should not be lost in any analysis of the moribund market.”

  6. Pete, you can say about any variety or wine type, from practically anywhere as big as California, that a lot of it is “dreadfully generic.” It’s true of Bordeaux and the Rhone also. But people routinely bash California Syrah and I get tired of hearing it. It’s become the go-to grape for everything that’s supposedly wrong with California. Well, Chardonnay is right up there too! I sometimes think whenever a blogger or columnist is having a slow news day, all they have to do is bash California wine.

  7. Perhaps it is my California perspective that is the cause, but I agree with Steve that too many journalists go out of their ways to praise California with the back of their hands. I can accept that some of these folks do not like the bigger side of CA wines. I don’t like pinched European wines that some folks think of as minerally, when to me, all they are is lacking in heart. Those kinds of judgments go with the territory.

    But if I had a nickel for every article that damned CA wines broadly and then tried to take it back with a few words of praise for a few wineries out of hundreds, I would be a rich man. And, I would challenge Eric to point out how many times he ascribed the term “dreadfully generic” to European wines. Are the mass of cheap wines from the Languedoc dreadfully generic? How about the larger percentage of Cotes du Rhone or even “Villages”. Maybe I missed that? If so, please correct me.

    But somehow, references to CA too often come with a big swipe and a small bit of praise. I don’t expect any winewriter to be an apologist or a cheerleader. That is not our jobs. It is not Eric’s or Steve’s or mine. But, for the life of me, I am right up there with Steve on being fed up with the constant sniping at CA. It just does not make sense because it sounds like everything else that comes afterward is backpedaling. If Eric says that he is not doing that, I believe him. I just wish the first words out of his mouth had not been “dreadfully generic red wine of little character”. It is no more true for Syrah than it is for Zin or Merlot or Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc (yes, please, the latter two are white).

  8. Charlie takes the words out of my mouth as he often does. There are too many “international” critics who taste widely but not deeply, and it is so easy for them to roll out some tired old template that California is too ripe, soft, sweet, oaky, etc. But when they taste our state’s top wines they go gaga. The trouble is, there are many wines that are as good as our state’s most famous wines, only these flying critics never get the chance to taste them because they come here once or twice a year and only taste through the “usual suspects” they’re inclined to like. That is not objective wine criticism. It is playing to their base with non-risky, predictable outcomes. Thanks Charlie for telling it like it is.

  9. Although there is no precise definition for “cool climate”, most authors agree that the average temperature of the warmest months should not exceed 68ºF/20ºC (Gladstones, J.; 1992 & Smart, R., and Dry, P.; 1980).
    For this reason, the Northern-Rhône (NR) climate cannot be defined as “cool”. It is a transition from oceanic to a mild continental climate, with warm to hot summers (e.g. January Average Temperatures: Valence (Cornas) – 72.5ºF; Saint Pierre de Bouef (Condrieu) – 70.7ºF; Montelimar – 72.5ºF).
    In addition, Syrah – being a short to medium growing cycle variety which highly benefits from “convexity” (i.e., fast changing temperatures in spring and autumn), and higher latitude (44º-47º) increased solar irradiation angle – thrives in this climate, especially in lighter soils; and this is one the reasons why Washington State has been producing really good Syrah in the NR style.
    This fact also explains why Syrah is used as a blending variety in the Southern Rhône and the Languedoc-Roussillon, where Grenache and Mourvèdre are the dominant grapes; for it is not apt to produce balanced, complex, varietal wines in Mediterranean climates with a long, preponderantly warm, growing season.
    Hence, IMHO, California will never be a consistent/above-average NR style Syrah producer. It does not mean though, one cannot produce superb NR Syrah in California, marginally (If one has the ability, or market power, to sell above marginal cost, one can deliver good quality wine anywhere).
    But then, California can always be a top/competitive producer of Barossa/South Australia style, Syrah.

  10. “Critics who taste widely but not deeply” can’t the same be said about critics that are not International? I’ve had this conversation with Sir Charles before but we were talking about Sparkling Wines at the time. He mentioned that Schramsburg’s J Schram could probably hold its own in a tasting of some of the Champagnes I write about and as much as I love and respect Mr. Olken…not a chance in hell. It might be able to stand up a tasting with the likes of Moet, Clicquot and Taittinger, (you know, the ones almost every wine publication includes in their holiday issue) and maybe even up against those giant’s tete de cuvee but against things like Camille Saves, Pierre Peters, Godme, Billiot and any number of other small grower Champagnes, not a chance in hell. I bring this up because by Sir Charles’ own admission…he hasn’t had or spent much time with the grower Champagnes I wax rhapsodic about. You simply cannot proclaim something “as good” unless you have tasted widely…and recently. Oh and don’t even get me started on Burgundy….

    Look, we all have a lean when it comes to what we like and I too have been guilty of making broad statements for which Charlie has spanked me time and time again and I think he is right but I often wonder why it is only when statements are made against California that people get their crunders in a bunch. I’ve gone after New Zealand, Australia and even Southern Rhone for their high alcohol, pushed ripeness and excessive oak…where is my spanking for those? Just wonderin’

  11. Samantha, I’d like to do a blind tasting of some of the grower champs, alongside the big producers and the best of Cali (Schramsberg, Iron Horse, Roederer Estate). That would be interesting!

  12. Steve,
    If you are ever down my way lets do it!

  13. Spanking, Sam? Did you say “spanking”? I’m on the way.

    It is not the criticism of CA wines that gets me. I criticize them all time. I review hundreds of them and the wineries are constantly angry because I do not recommend wines the way they want me to. But, Sam, the issue is not criticism, but the so-called “even-handedness” that some folks employ in damning the category and then saying “oh, but” as if to give some kind of backhanded compliment.

    Eric Asimov is as smart a guy as anyone writing about wine today. But, he branded the entire category of CA Syrahs as dreadfully generic and then mentioned but a few that are therefore not dreadfully generic. What that says is that if Eric did not mention producers like Red Car or Eric Kent or Adelaida or the Krupp Brothers or JC Cellars or Dehlinger or DuMol or Neyers (made by Failla’s Ehren Jordan for goodness sake–and how long do I need to make this list to prove the point), then by definition and exclusion, those fine producers are tarred with the broad brush of derision.

    It is the overall impression, the derisory impression, that the mass of CA Syrah or CA Chard or CA Merlot or CA Cab Sauv for that matter (take your pick) is simply dull and generic–and only the ones the writer calls out are not. That is the problem.

  14. I am also tired of the California wine bashing. There’s no fact in a wholesale, exaggerated comment such as “much of the syrah produced in California is dreadfully generic red wine of little character”. Its hard to imagine Mr. Asimov has actually tasted “much of the syrah”, let alone all of it. So, I can only assume the opinion expressed is meant to inflict damage by way of his influence. If he would have qualified his comment by saying “much of the syrah *I’ve tasted* from California is dreadfully generic…”, I would have no issue. You are someone of influence and you have a column that expresses opinion. At least be responsible and construct your writing in a manner that acknowledges that, in fact, it is just your opinion.

    Unfortunately, my only recourse is to demonstrate my unhappiness at CA wine bashing is through my pocketbook. I have (and I am not alone) already stopped supporting restaurants in Napa and Sonoma whose wine lists are not at least 50% local. When was the last time you went to a restaurant in Bordeaux and saw a Napa cab on the list? Get it? My mere 50% requirement is already a slap in the face. I won’t step foot in a San Francisco restaurant whose somm refuses to add local wines to the list because “I’m sooo over Napa Cab” – which I find amusing and annoyingly precocious because most of them are about 25 years old. At that age, the only thing you can be over is (hopefully) your acne.

  15. Kathy, thanks. Good feedback.

  16. Charlie, totally agree with you! I could come up with a list of dozens of top Cali Syrahs. I suspect what Kathy said is true: How many California Syrahs has Eric actually tasted over the years, in order to justify his statements? Your analysis about damning a category and then saying “Oh, but” is right on.

  17. I am, and will always be, a devils advocate, so here goes . . . .

    Steve and Charlie,
    Either of you care to analyze your scores on CA syrah over the past year or two and note how many you gave ‘excellent’ scores to vs ‘below average’ scores? I would be curious to see how many syrahs either of you rated as ‘generic’ as a percentage of all tasted. And what percentage of syrahs from all those produced here did you taste?

    My guess is that no one reviewer or magazine tastes over 50% of all wines of a certain variety in any given year. Many wineries do not submit wines for review; many wineries produce minute quantities of wines and therefore do not even ‘play the game’ of submitting; most magazines have a limited amount of space and therefore all seem to have the same disclaimer about there being no guarantee they will review all wines submitted . . .

    It is my belief that the two of you most likely have tasted more CA syrah than Eric simply because you are both out here and are more often exposed to these as a part of what you do. Does this mean that Eric can’t make a ‘general statement’ based on his subset of wines tasted? Was he over-generalizing or simply extrapolating?

    Now I’m not going to go out on a limb and say that I agree with Eric – in fact, I stated clearly that I do not and feel the variety as it currently stands offers the best QPR in CA/WA/OR/ID/VA wines (and any other state that syrahs are produced). That said, I think we can all agree that there are a number of syrahs out there that do not stand out from the crowd and would therefore be considered ‘generic’ by at least one reviewer . . .

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this . . .

    Cheers!

  18. We have been over this ground before, but it is fair to note that the larger percentage of Syrah volume is not special. It is a truism, and people can try to hide behind that fact if they need a refuge. It is the broad brush derision and the “oh but” backhander that bugs me. It is the gratuitous slap that comes first in these kinds of articles that is the problem.

    The bulk of wine from most places in the world is not special. Not all Burgundy is Romanee-Conti or Le Montrachet. Not all Bordeaux comes from 1855 rated places. There is plenty of dreary juice from all over Bordeaux. How good is the ordinary Macon or Pouilly Fuisse or Auxey-Duresse?

    When was the last time that these purveyors of “oh but” journalism for CA wine started an article on Bordeaux or Burgundy, Rioja or Ribera del Duero with broad brush derision and “oh but”?

  19. Larry wrote: “…this would be a wonderful opportunity for the Rhone Rangers, a non-profit organization whose mission statement is ‘Advancing the Knowledge of Rhone Grapes Grown in America’, to continue in its benevolent efforts.” This strikes me as a non sequitur. What does promoting Rhone grapes have to do with benevolent causes, particularly when that cause is so remote?

  20. El Grumpo,

    I think I explained above the fact that the Rhone Rangers is a non-profit educational organization that has always tried to partner with worthy causes to help fund them in one way or another, including the Meals on Wheels Foundation in San Francisco and FareStart up in Seattle.

    The GAVI Alliance is a wonderful organization that is truly making an impact around the world – and the Rhone Rangers is very proud to be associated with them, even in a very small way.

    As far as what Syrah has to do with pneumonia – well, we’re simply using the variety as a platform to do good based on a long-standing joke . . .

    Hope that helps explain this further.

    Cheers.

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  1. San Francisco Syrah Tasting: 11/9/10! « 4488: A Ridge Blog - [...] Steve Heimoff, on SteveHeimoff.com, “You scratch my back and … when wineries and charities both benefit“ [...]

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