Santa Barbara, here I come
Off to Santa Barbara County very early this morning for my semi-annual tastings and winery meetings. As usual I look forward in particular to visiting Santa Barbara County. One of California’s most beautiful wine regions, it tends to get overlooked in favor of the North Coast (Napa-Sonoma). I’ve been told by SBC vintners that they do feel overshadowed by certain media who prefer to report on the wine country north of San Francisco.
It’s important for wine writers to show their faces. Sure, you can sit home and wait for samples to come in, and they will, but there’s nothing like actually getting to these places, to walk the vineyards and smell the wildflowers and meet new people and discover new, interesting things. I suppose it’s possible to taste through a bunch of Santa Rita, err excuse me Sta. Rita Hills Pinots at home and arrive at various conclusions, but to know those lands intimately (or as intimately as a non-resident can), to have discussed things with the growers and winemakers, and to have done so over a period of years, adds immeasurably to the experience. That’s not just to my benefit, it’s (hopefully) to the benefit of readers, with whom I can share the things I have learned.
There’s something else, too. Winery owners or CFOs or whoever makes the decision to send samples want to know that the person they’re sending to is serious. I’ve heard lots of complaints from winery personnel that it’s hard for them these days to know who’s a proper, credible reviewer and who isn’t. Mainly that’s because of the bloggers. Ten years ago, a winery had to send samples to maybe 8 or 10 reviewers. (P.R. people: weigh in on this, please. How many writers were you sending to in 2001?) Nowadays there’s a blogger everywhere, all clamoring for samples, not to mention writers for tiny little magazines of unknown provenance. No wonder winery proprietors are paranoid– and sending samples isn’t cheap. In my case, it’s to reassure proprietors that I’m still here, Wine Enthusiast still cares about them and their areas, and we want to continue or develop our partnerships into the future.
Partnerships? What do I mean by that? I mean that we, the wine media, need the wineries to keep us writers in business, so we have something to write about. And they, the wineries, need the wine media to publicize them (if they care about publicity to begin with, and most do). This partnership doesn’t imply anything complicit or unsavory. It’s a professional relationship, like any other, a symbiotic one that’s healthy for both sides. Relationships only get dysfunctional when they’re parasitic.
Not everyone wants, cares about or needs a visit from a writer like me. They’re happy to go their own way, for whatever reason. Maybe they’re doing just fine, and feel that a review could “fix” something that ain’t broken. Maybe they’re just shy. There are lots of shy winemakers; I could name some in Santa Barbara that hate chit-chat and public displays of forced affection almost as much as I do. I’m good at overcoming this inclination on my part, because it’s my job to get out there and socialize and, besides, I’ve discovered that the hardest part of socializing is the anticipation. Once I jump in, everything’s fine, especially if there’s lots of good liquid flowing. Some winemakers feel they have something to prove. They’re overbearing, constantly on message; they turn me off. That shrill approach may work with newbies, but not for long. Fortunately, most winemakers are sensitive and intelligent; they desire an adult conversation as much as I do. I’m hoping and trusting that will characterize my Santa Barbara meetings this week.