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Live from New York: Cabernet, and the changing nature of wine journalism

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When you read this, I’ll be in New York, at Wine Enthusias headquarters, where we’re gathered to plan out the 2014 editorial calendar of the magazine and website.

No easy task, that. There are only so many pages in the print edition; story ideas (“pitches,” in the weird jargon of journalism) vie with each other for space, in a Darwinian struggle that sees some of them triumph as cover stories, while others die an inglorious death (often to be repitched and hopefully resurrected at a later date).

Next year will be my 25th as a published wine writer. I started in 1989 (very much against the odds) at Wine Spectator, when it was still published out of San Francisco, from their old offices on Van Ness Avenue, near the Opera House and Symphony (but before Hayes Valley was hot; back then it was ho’s and drug dealers). I was determined to make a living as a wine writer–which would be pretty audacious today, but wasn’t then; while there were far fewer venues for which to write (and no Internet!), there also were far fewer people who wanted to be wine writers, so there was practically no competition. Still, I doubt that I would have succeeded had I lived in, say, the Midwest, or even in the San Joaquin Valley. It was proximity to San Francisco (I’d moved to Oakland in 1987) that afforded me the opportunity to hang out the Spectator’s staff, and to hand-deliver (yes, in those pre-email days) my hard copy, which entailed a BART trip of six stops (to Civic Center, then a five-minute walk to Van Ness).

The method of transmitting articles these days certainly has changed, from taking the subway to clicking the “send” button on my email. So, too, has the format of articles changed. We used to write long articles (3,000-plus words) on individual wineries; among my first assignments were Eberle, down in Paso Robles, Calera, in the Pinnacles, and Flora Springs, in Rutherford. And even those were short, compared to the example of a 7,000-word article my friend, the late wine writer, Steve Pitcher, wrote for Wine News on California Sauvignon Blanc!

Nowadays, few wine magazines would devote that much space to a single winery or variety. Twelve-hundred words is about tops, broken down into breakout boxes for easier digestion. The Internet (some would say MTV, some would say People magazine) has caused readers’ attention span to shrink; the conventional wisdom among publishers is that no one will read a long article anymore. I’m not convinced that’s true, provided that the article is compellingly written. But there is for sure a fine line between a boring, hard-to-read long article and a scintillating one, the latter being rare; and perhaps publishers, not being quite sure of the talents of their hired writers, prefer not to risk boring readers. Yet too often the short form fails to inspire or educate. This loss of long-form wine journalism ought to worry lovers of wine.

Here are a few things I’m going to be watching carefully in 2014:

-       the 2011 vintage. I’m lowering my expectations of it. The initial hype was, “Great, a cool vintage will result in balanced wines.” But my experience so far is of a lot of unripe wines, and some botrytis problems too. Pinot Noir has suffered, particularly from the coolest places, like the northern Santa Lucia Highlands. Some Grenache and Chardonnay has been iffy. As for Cabernet, well, no important ’11 Cabs have come out yet, so I’ll be waiting for those.

-       The continuing evolution of California cult wines. Have they recovered from the Recession? Will they still be in demand as an older generation fades from the scene? Can the marketplace handle 200 Napa Valley Cabs (my estimate) that all cost more than $100? Will younger consumers who currently spurn these wines eventually covet them, as their salaries increase over time? Or will History look back at the period 1990-2010 as a bubble for cult wines? Stay tuned.

-       And, of course, I’ll always be on the lookout for younger, interesting winemakers who are trying to do new things. If you’re one of them, talk to me.

I will try to post regularly from New York, but with round the clock meetings, it’s hard. Bear with me.

  1. Great article Steve! I remember the days when back label copy told a story as well. So often I turn a $60, $100, $200 bottle of wine around to find nothing. The first wine I ever purchased was a Parducci Petite Sirah and enjoyed the story told on the back label. In fact, while merchandising for a beverage company in the summers I used to spend a lunch break reading back label copy. Early education in the wine business. There is so much complexity in the production of the wine from the land, to the vine, to the bottle, to the spirit behind each bottling that short stories are like essays, brushing the high notes and missing the romance of our industry. To your note on the 2011 vintage: Boy did we have to work very, very hard to come away with noteworthy wines. We are bottling our 2011 Bone Ash Vineyard and Silencieux Cabernet today and as I tastes through the tank samples I could not help but recognize that the wines are classically Cabernet with a good touch of ripeness – surprisingly so. Like the 2008 vintage, what started out as a heart stopper vintage, with time in barrel and ruthless cutting of subpar lots, the 2011 vintage will shine among those vintners not bound -too greatly – by the forces of the business side of the story. It’s a delicate balance, honestly, one that has changed my perspective greatly on the purity of the pursuit. And, when a deft, crafty, and steadfast approach to challenging vintages is applied, the result is, well, like reading a great story on a back label.

    Jason Williams
    General Manager
    Venge Vineyards & Winery

  2. Steve – good post – methinks you are spot on about the 2011 vintage. It will be amongst the greatest variability we’ve seen in CA wines in over a decade. Some vineyards/wineries have rocked it, others next door struggled to make anything palatable. The winemakers worked their butts off this vintage, compared to the ease of recent past years – some succeeded, some didn’t, and some conjured up magic potions to save their wine/market/jobs. It may a year where consumers learn to really value (reputable) wine critics and services such as yours. I think we’ll see a lot of plonk going to flash as well. Caveat emptor…

    Z

  3. Twenty Five years Steve, congrats. Who knew? Somehow I get the feeling you are just hitting your stride, especially in this format. Thanks for the compelling posts (and the sheer volume is pretty amazing too.) All the best.

  4. Too bad that longer articles are in disfavor. Love to read them, especially when discussing certain wines in great detail where I can taste them myself and learn about them.

  5. Regina Lutz says:

    For cryin’ out loud, Steve, has it really been 25 years??! I remember those “glory days” of wine journalism when all wine publications were shiny and new, esp. WS at its SF location. And, I remember meeting Adam Strum for the first time — I think at a very early Opus One event when the winery first opened in 1991 or 1992.

    Congratulations on the first 25…keep on keepin’ on!

  6. Thank you Regina! Yeah it’s been 25 years! 21 for me.

  7. Dear James, thank you. It’s readers like you who inspire me to write this blog.

  8. zoledar,I completely agree. Writers who rushed out of the gate to pronounce on 2011 before than year was even over should learn a lesson. One can’t properly evaluate a vintage until tasting a great many of the wines from the bottle.

  9. Will ’11 be like ’98 in that regard, Steve?

  10. Good lord Steve, if I’m not mistaken, I think I was living in Hayes Valley in 1989! Funny that …

    Regards,

    Christopher Watkins

  11. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Here’s an idea for your 25th. See if you can compile a list of high scoring, 95 and up, wines names from Napa & Sonoma that went out of business anyway.

  12. Donn: Interesting.

  13. For the 12th time, Steve, Congrats on the 25 yrs. That is an amazing feat.

    Re: 2011
    2010 yr of the big , cold , dark , wet. Great for Pinot Noir, Syrah
    lousy for Cab, Merlot
    2011 yr of the bigger, colder, darker , wetter. Ok for Pinot, lousy for Cab, Merlot

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