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Wednesday wraparound: Boredom, urban wineries, and medals, medals, medals



Once upon a time, people bought the wines they liked and had trusted over many years, because they knew they would not be disappointed.

It may have been a Gallo Hearty Burgundy, or a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, a Chianti or Mateus or Wente Grey Riesling. The wines could always be found on the local supermarket shelf, and the price didn’t break the bank.

That was then; nowadays, we have “the paradox of choice. Overstimulated by so many options,” writes Joyce Goldstein, in Inside the California Food Revolution, “we have become accustomed to constant change and instant boredom.”

Granted, Joyce is talking about how and where we eat—the amazing proliferation of types of cuisine we have at our disposal. But the same could be said about wine. And this is making life very difficult for the small family winemaker.

I was hanging out yesterday with a guy who owns his own wine brand, but he’s not likely to in the future. Business is not good, and he, himself, doesn’t know what to do about it. He can’t afford a staff, which means he has to do it all: vineyard contracting, winemaking, sales, marketing (such as it is) and all the rest. This is obviously too much for one person, so the end of the road is near.

It’s a sad story, especially since I’ve known this guy and know what a terrific winemaker he is. But his plight is the direct result of Joyce’s observation about our food proclivities: We’re accustomed to constant change, and we grow quickly bored. Under those circumstances, someone might have bought my friend’s wine and enjoyed it. But that person will be reluctant to become a loyal customer because of this constant search for the new and different.

I don’t know what the answer is. There may not be one. Not every problem has a solution. And it’s not enough to warn a young person not to get into the wine business, because when you’re young, you’re starry-eyed and ambitious, and you can’t believe that all your dreams might not come true. They might not—but usually, people don’t realize that until they’re in the forties.

* * *

Our little, homegrown East Bay Vintners Alliance is preparing for their annual fiesta. This year it’s August 2, down at Jack London Square. This is the Oakland version of “the urban wine experience,” a keen piece of marketing wines made in our nation’s increasingly popular, hip cities. For whatever reason, the phenomenon (if that’s what it is) is getting widespread press. For instance, there’s an article in the latest issue of “Via,” the AAA magazine, called “Wineries go to town,” that includes several of the East Bay’s locals: Donkey & Goat and Rosenblum, as well as wineries in San Francisco (Bluxome Street) and Portland (Enso).

I’ll be at the August 2 event and hope to see you there!

* * *

Not to knock my friends who organize and judge at the California State Fair’s wine contest, but a headline like “Thousands of medals awarded in State Fair wine completion” doesn’t exactly gain my respect. According to the local ABC affiliate, “There were 2,829 wine entries in this year’s competition. A panel of judges awarded 2,068 medals to competitors.” That’s a lot of medals: nearly half of all the wines won one. Bragging rights are, of course, the payoff for winning a medal—but something about this kind of inflated result makes me think of Garrison Keilor’s witticism about the kids of Lake Wobegon: “and all the children are above average.”

Have a good day!

  1. One potential solution is to sell yourself, not your products… the same way a restaurant sells itself, not its braised lamb. It’s about the experience and for a small wine producer, the wine is simply part of that experience. Imagine a restaurant that served the same menu year after year after year and called it a day. They don’t. Restaurants build exhibition kitchens to pull people into the creation process. They introduce diners to new ingredients. They effectively act as a filter with a unique POV to the world of food. As a small winery, can you act as filter with your own POV to the world of wine? Stop thinking about what you like to do (make wine) and start thinking about what your customers want.

    Naked Wines is a step in this direction. Image what the next step or three are and do that.

  2. TomHill says:

    “And it’s not enough to warn a young person not to get into the wine business, because when you’re young, you’re starry-eyed and ambitious, and you can’t believe that all your dreams might not come true.”

    Sorry to hear about your winemaker friend. Let me guess….he makes Cabernet and Chard. Maybe Zin and PinotNoir??? Therein probably lies his problem. He’s having to compete w/ better-funded folks who have a staff that can promote those wines in a crowded marketplace.

    However, there seem to be plenty of young people (looking in my rear-view mirror..they all look so young) who are jumping in, not particularly starry-eyed, but ambitious and full of dreams, and seem to be doing just fine, thank you. But it’s not by making yet another NapaVlly Cab, or another RRV Pinot, or another Carneros Chard. They’re making LaCrima or Aglianico or Ribolla or Nebbiolo. They’re trying Semillon or SauvBlanc..but made w/ skin-contact. They’re seeking out old Syrah or Carignane vnyds in MendoCnty. They’re planting GreenHungarian in the SuisunVlly. They’re buying old/own-rooted Chard vnyds in CalaverasCnty. They’re hauling in Mourv from the SantaBarbaraHighlands. They’re scouring out old Grenache down in the CinegaVlly. They’re guys scouting out Teroldego or CabFranc grown on the WestSlope of the Rockies. They have fresh ideas and are exploring the boundaries. And they’re doing it on a shoestring and definitely not trust-fund babies. Thank gawd for these kids, I say.

  3. The story of your winemaker friend breaks my heart.

    The best wines come from small guys like this, and usually these wines are fantastic quality for the money. (Unless they have famous-region ego and price match their neighbors)

    The massive amount of mass produced plonk with trendy labels is the real problem for winemakers like this. It also makes it hard for consumers. People approach the wine section and have a high chance of not getting a wine worth the money.

    The solution? Try to spread the word that the best wine is from the small passionate guys/women and make it easy to seek those wines out.

  4. Alfonso says:

    Hi Steve,

    I guess we could take back the 500 or so medals we gave to the Kendall-Jackson wines if you think that would help ;^)

  5. Steve, help me with the math. Is not 2100 medals to 2800 wines, rounded off to help me visualize, 75% medals, not 50%.

    Talk about grade inflation.

  6. It’s also worth noting that the East Bay Vintners Alliance, to their great credit, seems to be the only trade association that has read the wine statute properly which allows 501(c)4 organizations to sell members wine at their events. The sales revenue goes to grow their promotions.

  7. Bob Henry says:


    Regarding the anonymous vintner who “can’t afford a staff … [and] has to do it all,” he should contact his nearest university to learn if they have a business school that sets up internships.

    An undergrad or MBA candidate could exchange his/her talents for a stipend and academic credit:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (March 10, 2009, Page B1ff):

    “When Students Get to Teach;
    Business schools often provide free or low-cost consulting services”


    By Cyndia Zwahlen
    “Small Business Makeover” Column

    That vintner should also inquire if the university has a law school that runs business clinics:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (September 1, 2008, Page C1ff):

    “Making It Legal;
    A USC clinic offers aid with getting incorporated, drawing up documents and other services – for free”


    By Cyndia Zhawlen
    Special to The Times

    Another resource is a small business development center:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (March 22, 2010, Page A14):

    “A Source of Assistance Needs Help to Stay Afloat;
    Centers that guide entrepreneurs are threatened by state budget cuts”


    By Cyndia Zwahlen
    “Small Business” Column

    Likewise volunteer adviser groups:

    From The Wall Street Journal “Marketplace” Section
    (October 20, 2009, Page B6):

    “Valuable Tips, for Free;
    Volunteer Adviser Groups Offer Advice in Tough Times”


    By Sarah E. Needleman
    Staff Reporter

    And finally, Google assists small businesses in getting online:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (March 2, 2012, Page B5):

    “Google Offers Free Aid to Get Firms Online”


    By Deborah Netburn
    Times Staff Writer

    On the larger question is whether someone is cut out to be an entrepreneur in the first place. Aspirants should take these assessment tests:

    From The Wall Street Journal “Small Business” Special Report
    (February 23, 2009, Page R1ff):

    “So, You Want To Be an Entrepreneur;
    First, answer these [10] questions to see if you have what it takes”


    By Kelly K. Spors
    Staff Reporter

    — AND —

    From BusinessWeek “Second Careers” Special Report
    (January 21, 2008, Page SC08):

    “Red Lights:
    The Perils of Following Your Bliss”


    Edited by Liz Ryan
    “Changing Lanes” Column

    ~~ Bob

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Let me see if I got this right: 2,100 out of 2,800 submitted wines got some kind of medal at the California State Fair competition.

    Two trends. Either:

    1) winemaking has taken a significant UPTURN in quality across the board, or
    2) grade inflation.

    Cast your memory back to Parker’s early writing days. [See W. Blake Gray’s wine blog entry:

    Back in the mid-to-late 1980s, a score of 85 points was considered pretty damn good, given that Parker rarely awarded scores above 92 points.

    (In American schools, a score of 85 out of 100 is considered a “B+.” 90 points is “A-.”)

    Indeed, in a 1989 interview with Wine Times (was that publication the precursor of Wine Enthusiast?), Parker said:

    “I buy wines, and I buy wines that are 85 or 86, not below that. But to me 90 is a special score and should be considered ‘outstanding’ for its type.”

    But then there is this: the number of California wineries has exploded in the last 20 years.

    But not the number of academically-trained enologists: graduates from UC Davis and Fresno State.

    Hard not to conclude that there is a whole lot of unschooled amateur winemaking going on out there.

    Is it possible that all these autodidacts are winemaking “savants”?

    Hmmm . . . welcome to “Lake Wobegon.”

  9. Bob Henry says:

    A call to the offices of the California State Fair elicited a return e-mail with this link to the medal results:

  10. Bob Henry says:

    From a Sacramento-based ABC affiliate TV station’s website:

    “There were 2,829 wine entries in this year’s competition. A panel of judges awarded 2,068 medals to competitors.”


    From Wine-Searcher:

    “The California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition . . . held yearly in the capital, Sacramento . . . recognizes Californian wines by region and style . . .

    “The best wines in each variety and style are awarded gold, silver or bronze medals, with double-gold medals reserved for wines with unanimous judges’ decisions. The top red and white wines from each of 11 Californian regions are named Best of Class and from these, the Best of Show title is awarded to the highest-scoring red, white and dessert wines. A further award, Winery of the Year, is made to the winery with the most successful showing in the competition.”


    So the way I read the above, there are medals awarded to wines WITHIN each of the 11 “regions.” (Read: appellations?) That alone would lead to an explosion of medal awards.

    Wines judged not across California appellations, but within their appellation.

    So the “best” Cabernet Sauvignon submitted from Temecula is not competing against the “best” Cabernet Sauvignon submitted from Napa.

    I invite readers of Steve’s blog to disabuse me of my ignorance if I can drawing false inferences about the Fair’s methodology.

  11. Bob Henry says:


    I invite readers of Steve’s blog to disabuse me of my ignorance if I
    AM drawing false inferences about the Fair’s methodology.

  12. Bob Foster says:

    Bob, as one of the California State Fair Wine Competition judges, I think you have it wrong. Wines are judged first by varietal and then by region. A single wine could thus win 3 medals. Look at the 2010 Sterling Platinum. Gold for cabernet, best Napa wine and then Best Red of the state. Three medals for one wine.

    What I would like to see is how many different bottles got one or more medals.

  13. Bob Henry says:


    Just to be clear, from your knowledge and experience as a judge, were Napa Cabernets mixed in with (say) Temecula Cabernets — or any other “region” (appellation) — in the same “flight”?

    And if “yes,” were the wines served a second time to judges based on discrete “regions” (appellations)?

    ~~ Bob

  14. Bob Henry says:


    “F.Y. I.”

    The notice of Bob Foster’s 2:53 PM “time coded” comment above didn’t hit my Google Gmail in-box until 10:35 PM today.

    And the notice of Matt’s 8:47 PM “time coded” comment (“Why do women drink more wine than men?”) hit my Gmail in-box moments later at 10:36 PM today.

    ~~ Bob

  15. Bob Foster says:

    Bob-I don’t know the answer to that. I am not privy to the flighting plan of the competition. We were not told.

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