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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.

  1. Steve, I hope you enjoy your trip down as usual and make your customary stop at that Starbucks in Paso.

    You hit it on the head. “Sure, you can sit home and wait for samples to come in…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 have always been perplexed by “wine writers” who review wines from all over the World from the comfort of their La-Z-Boy. That is a bit like reviewing amusement park rides by watching videos of them. The story of the wine has to be understood from the vineyard up in order to be grasped on a deeper level than swirl, smell, taste.

    Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe in the Sta. Rita Hills once told me, “you have to be here to understand this place,” and he was right.

    I can also say that I have had conversations with a few winemakers that you met with on your last few visits and they very much enjoyed your visit, with one remarking that he was impressed by how thoughtful you were. It really is a partnership of a pure form when done in this way.

    Anyhow, this sounds like a Steve praise session and I don’t mean it that way. I just think you set the standard for anyone that wants to know and write about wine. It IS about getting your boots on the ground and getting some mud and dust on them.

    Enjoy your time in Santa Barbara!

  2. Since you asked about this most insider of insider baseball questions, the methodology hasn’t changed all that much in the past decade, other than the options and considerations are greater. Whatever we call it, it’s all about targeting to support the brand plan, whatever it is. In 2001, I was at KJ, and we had lists organized as Top 15, Top 35, Top 60, Top 100, Everybody. It depends on the SKU, the budget, the need. Usually in waves; do well with the Top 15, and you might not need to go much further. Today, as you say, with more niche options, I’d suggest the mantra is “many request, few are chosen”.

  3. TomHill says:

    Hmmmmm…not quite sure why the SBC vintners feel they are being neglected by the media in favor of NorthCoast counterparts. Sure doesn’t seem that way from my perspective. When it comes to Pinot and Syrah, most wine geeks regard SBC right up there w/ the best. If there is an area that is pretty much being neglected by the media, it would be the EdnaVlly. IMHO.

  4. Wayne, I did stop at Starbucks in Paso! Iced coffee with heavy cream.

  5. Seeing the place makes ALL the difference. And Santa Barbara is beautiful. I’m glad “Sideways” put it on the map, but hopefully there wasn’t too much fallout causing folks to plant Pinot Noir everywhere.

    I hope wineries and PR folks aren’t just shooting samples out without a bit of research concerning the recipient bloggers. I disagree that “serious review” is what is required- wineries may just want to be putting wines in front of people who may expose them to others. However, I think the blogger should have a responsibility to give the wine a fair taste before washing the dishes with it. I’ve had the best success just being honest with folks offering samples. I usually say, “I’m probably not going to review your wine- not my M.O.- so you may get more ROI off that bottle sending it elsewhere if that’s what you’re after. However, I promise to give it a taste while under sound mind and palate.” Never had a negative response to that action.

    This only goes down when things are offered. Soliciting wineries and PR folks for samples… I just don’t get it. But I guess that goes on more than I realize.

    Enjoy SB! Let us know if those 16.5% PN’s have “balance”…

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