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A little more information about my new job

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I haven’t written much about my new job because it’s been important for me to keep steveheimoff.com a place independent of whatever job I have, whether it was the guy who wrote wine reviews for Wine Enthusiast or my new position at Jackson Family Wines.

The reason it’s important for me to preserve and protect this space as a sort of safe house is because I have (or think I have) a compact with my readers. That compact is terribly important to me. It’s almost a marriage—I mean, that’s how seriously I take it.

The thing to understand is how hard I’ve had to fight to maintain this blog’s independence. My former employer strongly encouraged me to end it—why, I never could understand. Obviously, I refused. After that experience, I am tremendously grateful to Jackson Family Wines for being supportive of the blog’s continuation.

My official title is director of wine communications and education. As such—and things are still evolving—my work is mainly confined to three areas: writing (they call it “content” creation), giving advice on various matters of my expertise to colleagues within the company, and working with outside gatekeepers in the ongoing work of tasting Jackson Family Wines.

This latter task is driven largely by the fact that there is a body of opinion among some people that Kendall-Jackson is a single wine company and that all of the company’s other brands must somehow be associated with K-J. That perception—real or imagined—is, of course, nonsense. Mentioning only some of the California wineries, it is clear, or should be to anyone who pays attention to these things, that Champ de Réves, Edmeades, Stonestreet, Verité, Hartford Court, Cambria, Atalon, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, Mt. Brave, Lokoya, Byron and Matanzas Creek, etc. (I could go on) are wineries of the highest caliber; in my years as California editor of Wine Enthusiast I gave many high scores to their wines, including several 100 point scores (and I had the reputation of being stingy with perfect scores). I personally long ago formed the opinion, which was based on fact, that Jackson Family Wines was a large company, with brands at virtually every price point, and moreover, those brands met or exceeded in quality their competitors—and often at a lower price. This gave me great respect for the company.

So when I began to hear, from various others in this company, of an outside attitude that K-J somehow impugns the other brands in the portfolio, it was rather shocking. I wonder how anyone working in this business could fail to make the distinction between price tiers. After all, one doesn’t hear of a gatekeeper’s revolt against Mouton Rothschild because its parent company also produces Mouton Cadet, which is said to sell around 1 million cases annually, making it very much a commodity wine. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Besides, I have never heard anyone offer any reasonable argument to dispute the concept that a large wine company can walk and chew gum at the same time: that is, produce fairly-priced wine in large quantities for the everyday wine drinker, and simultaneously make ultrapremium wine, based on estate-grown grapes from the finest coastal appellations, and vinified by some of the top winemakers in California.

If I have any gripe at all with the upper tier of the industry—not the wines themselves, but the critics and somms who concern themselves with those wines—it’s that they so often give the impression that the everyday consumer doesn’t matter—that everyday-priced wines, the kind you find in a supermarket, are somehow illegitimate when compared to the little garagiste labels. This, too, is nonsense, and patently unfair. At Wine Enthusiast, I developed an affection for the everyday segment of the market (and the magazine reflected that affection). It always made me happy to give a Best Buy to an under-$15 wine, because I appreciated, having come from that part of the population that can’t afford expensive wine, that some wine companies take seriously the notion of making inexpensive quality wine, and I also knew how technically difficult that can be on a consistent basis, across vintages. That is one reason why Kendall-Jackson so often got my nod.

So what is it about some gatekeepers that makes them unable to appreciate the qualities of an ultrapremium wine made by the same company that produces an everyday wine? I have to confess that this is an aspect of my job I take most seriously, as I have great respect for “the truth,” and truth, after all, ought to live at the heart of every conversation about wine. Does the wine taste good? Is it clean and well-made? Does it drink well with food? Does it have the interest and complexity to satisfy over the course of a meal? These are the criteria by which sommeliers and gatekeepers should judge wines—not some hocus-pocus about scarcity or romance or garages.

I mean not to impugn any gatekeepers. I was one myself, so I know how hard these people work, and how honest they feel in their own hearts regarding the wines they recommend. I simply look forward to sitting down with them, as best I can, and asking them to put aside whatever stereotypes they may harbor, and perceive reality as it actually is: the wine inside the glass.

  1. Bill Haydon says:

    But all things being equal, Steve, why should the “gatekeeper” (I’m going to assume that you’re not slinging this term around in a pejorative Warkian manner) buy the supermarket brand to pour in his wine bar or Michelin star restaurant when he can get (if one leaves California) just as good a bottle of Chardonnay from a small artisanal source?

    Why pay $120/case for Avant when he can pay the same amount for a small production Chardonnay from Monferrato or Macon and get the best of both worlds the garagiste heritage and the same or better quality. And this isn’t a slam solely at California or KJ. It’s the same dynamic as to why you don’t find Mouton-Cadet, Cavit Pinot Grigio or Duboef Beaujolais in those wine bars.

    I’ve always been taken aback by KJ’s headstrong insistence that their almost divine due is the best of both worlds, that they be able to sell millions of cases of commodity wine from the floors of Sam’s Club and the coolers of gas stations while at the same time demanding that they also get a spot in the best restaurants and wine bars. Sorry, but in a market of wines from every producing country in the world, you can’t be the former and expect the gatekeepers to pay attention to you when there are so many other, more interesting options to source.

    And don’t get me started on the lingering reputation of K-J from Jess Jackson’s notoriously predatory business practices and proclivity to throw lawsuits around at the drop of a hat. Let me ask you something, Steve. When the big distributors attempt to use their political clout to lessen competition in their markets and drive the smaller distributors out of business (see SWS and Charmer’s “At rest” legislation in NYC, SWS and Wirtz’s constant attempt to get the use of third party warehousing delivery services outlawed in Illinois or Glazer’s attempt to do away with state mandated pricing in Ohio) do you not think that K-J, Gallo, Beringer and the rest are not fully on board with these efforts even though (or I should say, precisely because) it will mean the loss of market access for scores of small California wineries? The whole wineries vs. distributors fault lines are not the easy black-and-white, heroes and villains saga in which Tom Wark likes to paint it.

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    The more that I reconsidered your post while out and about today, the more angry I became. You bemoan the unfairness of it all that some people, in a bountiful market of wines from thousands of small growers from all over the world, simply have neither the time nor the inclination to consider Jackson Family Wines for their lists. Duboeuf admittedly makes several interesting Cru Beaujolais, but so do hundreds of small growers in the region. Why on earth should a serious wine program not choose to support one of these true artisans rather than the side project of the billion dollar behemoth?

    And speaking of gatekeepers limiting access, you demonize those tiny players limiting access to your employer, and so I eagerly await your future columns at the limits to access for the small guys in much of the market. Their near total exclusion at the hands of the behemoths with their immense market leverage, commodity pricing, discounts, free goods, trips and in many cases outright payoffs (a national steakhouse chain used to be notorious for their entire corporate staff driving around in leased cars paid for by suppliers, several of whom were wineries buying their glass pour placements). The large wineries working hand-in-hand with the large mega-wholesalers to shut out small guys (both domestic and imported) from as many accounts as they can, in any way that they can. The wine world is not all invitation-only tastings on the veranda, and you had better steel yourself to the gritty reality of how much of the wine in America gets sold. How the sausage is made is often not pretty, and Jess Jackson had a big part in designing the grinder.

    At the end of the day, I seriously don’t begrudge KJ’s place on the floor at Sam’s Club. I don’t begrudge them their glass pours at the Olive Garden and Cheesecake Factory. I don’t begrudge them their slot in the cooler at the AM/PM. I begrudge their arrogance in thinking that they can have it both ways: make billions of dollars selling commodity plonk and, at the same time, show up at The Slanted Door in SF, Rootstock Wine Bar in Chicago or Cafe Boulud in NYC and demand their space on the list with one of their side projects.

  3. Steve, I look forward to tasting through the K-J portfolio.

  4. Best wishes on your new job. I look forward to continue reading your blog.

  5. Sao Anash says:

    Neat to read about your new job. Best wishes to you there!

  6. KC in Texas says:

    does everyone relish Bill’s comments as much as I do?

    I am not a KJ hater, because I’ve had some really good wine from Stonestreet and Verite and Hartford, but Bill’s overall comments about our domestic wine business is spot on. it sucks that so many small producers struggle to get on the radar due to the restrictive distribution laws.

  7. KC: Perhaps, but the three-tiered system with all its faults is hardly KJ’s fault.

  8. As a former JFW employee, it was always very clear that in the tasting rooms (I did not work in the tasting rooms, but did work with the staff often) not to make the connection to JFW/K-J to the public. Regarding the grinder that was created, KJ definitely flexed their muscle often especially when Jess was alive. I am sure its still going in some way with others in tow.

  9. Hi Steve; wishing you the best in your new job.

  10. Bill Haydon’s diatribe is way over the top, bordering on libel. Steve is absolutely right. JFW/KJ have nothing to do with the consolidation of the distribors, except, rightly, to work with it and utilize it to optimize their sales objectives. Jess knew to at least set up a distributor, Regal, in CA to outfox the bastards in his home state (not sure how he got around the tied house laws). And remember, too, he help found Family Winemakers to counter the dominance of Gallo, Bronco, The Wine Group, etc. in the Wine Institute.

  11. Dear Sao, thanks. Hope to see you one of these days!

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