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Tuesday Twaddle: Jon Bonné, Wine Scams, and Can Napa’s Neighbor Steal Their Business?

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For some time now, the San Francisco Chronicle—Northern California’s largest newspaper, and a force in its wine industry for decades—has been cutting back on wine reporting.

The paper used to have a standalone wine section. They did away with that some years ago, and merged it into a weekly wine and food section. Then they put that into a home, garden and food section, in which we were lucky to get much wine reporting at all.

The denouement of all this came yesterday, when we learned that Jon Bonné, the paper’s wine editor, has reduced his involvement at the Chronicle to that of a contributing editor. He now will write only a monthly column, with a “California focus,” in his words. (Here’s another press release announcing Jon’s new job.)

I’m glad Jon is keeping one foot into our California scene (even though he’s moving to New York). I don’t know if he’ll be reviewing wine or not; I hope so. If he does, I ask him this: let us know your guidelines for receiving samples—what you will and will not taste, so that wineries can know whether or not it’s worth it to send you their wine. I hope you’ll review everything you’re sent. I always did, at Wine Enthusiast—and I mean everything. It was only fair.

As for the Chronicle’s wine coverage: I understand business decisions. A paper has to make a profit; otherwise it goes bankrupt. The ownership and senior management of the Chronicle apparently have determined that the kind of broad wine coverage they used to have is no longer sustainable—despite the fact that the California wine industry is a multi-billion one, and San Francisco—where the Chronicle is the only newspaper of importance—stands at its gate.

When I was starting out as a novice wino in the 1980s, San Francisco had multiple publications that covered wine in depth: The Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, California Magazine. All, except the Chronicle, are gone.

One can only hope that the Chron will discover a new-found commitment to alcoholic beverages—wine, beer and spirits. And I hope that, if they do, their coverage will be local, which is to say, California-based.

* * *

The Drinks Business has this article, Wine Investment: How to Avoid the Pitfalls.

Well, you don’t have to read the article to avoid the pitfalls of losing money in bad wine investments. Here’s the answer: DON’T DO IT. Don’t buy wine for investment. The commoditization of wine has harmed it immeasurably. Buying it in the hope of reselling and making a lot of money is contradictory to wine’s spirit.

* * *

The Napa Valley Register reports that little Suisun Valley, just a hop, skip and jump across the road from Napa Valley’s southeastern edge, is looking to capitalize on Napa’s woes. If wineries can’t locate in crowded, trafficky Napa, then they’re welcome in Suisun.

A few years ago, with the help of my friend Jo Diaz, whose communications company was working with Suisun wineries, I toured the region and tasted through some of the wines.

I wasn’t particularly impressed, although I saw the promise. My gut reaction was: There’s no reason why this area couldn’t do very well. All it would take is the proper investment. The terroir is fine. It’s a little warmer than Napa Valley, being further inland, but San Pablo/Suisun Bay is right there, and as we all know, those winds off the water are chilly.

Suisun Valley is a pretty area of little farms and country lanes, but easily reachable via the I-80 freeway. No reason for Suisun not to be a player. I wish them luck.

  1. TomHill says:

    Couldn’t agree more about the unrealized potential of SolanoCnty/SuisunVlly. They (like the UkiahVlly) can grow grapes there that have the potential of making wine as good as any in Calif. We’ve seen a few here & there that indicate such is true. In a few yrs, we’ll even be seeing (once again) GreenHungarian, from the SuisunVlly. And I expect it’ll be a dandy one, far better than GusSebastiani or FredWeibel ever did.
    Tom

  2. Word around town is that the Wagners of Caymus have been buying up all the Suisun Valley property they can get their hands on and that they will build a massive, high production winery there. I am guessing that Green Hungarian will not be their first choice.

  3. Suisun valley, when we began, received a 90 score in Wine Spectator. One of the Napa Valley winemakers had bought some fruit from Suisun, and made a stellar wine. Wines are improving, some big dogs have moved into the neighborhood… From Napa, and life will never be the same for Suisun. It was great coming in on their groundfloor.

    As regards the Chronicle… As with all newspapers that I ‘ve watched in the past 20+years, I’ve been waiting for the shoe to drop for years. Shortly after I came into the wine industry, Dan Berger was downsized at the LA Times… That was 20 years ago…. One by one, Jerry Shriver at USA Today, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher at the Wall Street Journal, Fredric Koeppel in Tennessee… The list goes ever on, and I miss each of them. The Chronicle still has a wine staff, and the show will go on in some small way. Perhaps they’ll find someone who is dynamic and inclusive and create a whole new department… If this can’t happen, newspapers are truly on the way out.

  4. Personally, very glad jon bone has been knocked off of his high horse. The only critic I can name that is truly a prick. I sent him wine for years and years. Never once reviewed them. Glad he is gone.

  5. Roger King says:

    I am the one re growing Green Hungarian in Suisun Valley. Mr. Olken is right, it is not for Wagner Family – way to far off the main stream. It is being grown for Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope Wines. The label name might describe the rational for bringing a very small amount of this back.

    It will not resemble Green Hungarian of the past or even be labeeld as such as the grapes are headed into a project to revist the old white wines of California’s past, yet done in a compeltely different fashion with Trousseau Gris (recall Grey Riesling), Chenin Blanc and Vermentino all blended to gether to a California heritage white. All variety have been grafted onto 20-25 year old exisiting Merlot vines on various root.

    Vinification will include some on skin fermentation. As mentioned this is not what we expect Wagner to engage in, but maybe something our old friend Mr. Bonne might find interesting, which he has. Cheers to those who fully push the envelope in very small lots. Growing in the unbridled freedom of Suisun Valley allows this exploration.

  6. Good riddance to Jon Bonne. He always kept one foot in New York and never stopped lecturing Californians, instead of showing genuine interest in what was going on here.

    Brooklyn types love him and he should go back there and bask in it.

  7. Roger,
    Thanks for chiming in here. You’re the last one I expected this post to shake outta the woodwork. Several yrs ago, I spent almost 6 hrs searching around on the InterNet for Matt, trying to track down any availablilty of GH. No luck..seems to be pretty much vanished out there. So I was pretty excited for Matt when he tracked some down and convinced you to plant it.
    Matt’s rendition of GH will not hold a candle to a mere Rombauer Chard (which is actually pretty good these days), but it’ll blow away those GH’s of yore made by Gus & Fred. It’ll be something I’ll drink w/ relish. Thanks for going (way) out on a limb w/ Matt.
    Tom
    LosAlamos

  8. wiremule says:

    Jon Bonné. Who?

  9. Roger King says:

    Tom

    The Green Hungarian was resurrected with cuttings from a very old vine in the St Helena Library vineyard, as was the Trousseau Gris, being find unmanaged along the Napa River in Calistoga and clonal wood grafted in here. Chenin is from STory in Amador and Vermentino is from Karly (now Turly) up there as well. We are talking maybe. I forgot to mention the grafting in of Chassees is the final heritage variety to complete the block.

    This is not intended to be mainstream or conventinoal in the least, but for what will amout to a 100 case program there is more than ample interest. For those who will find this nuts, well it is and that is the best part of doing it – and that growing in this valley provides no barriers to what is expected. There is no desire to mimic Napa Valley our steal wineries here. The door is open for those who are intested in new opportunities.

    FYI Wagner has planted to launch a starting 8,000 case Petit Sirah program appellated to Suisun Valley under their coming Cordelia Winery label. There was one simple opportunity. As Jo Diaz knows, Petite Sirah does well here and already proven it.

  10. I agree that I hope the Chronicle will continue to cover wine, beer and spirits. Think the issue is that the Chronicle (like many) has not kept up with the (warning – over used, trite phrase about to be used) “cutting edge” of the alcohol industry. For example, I have seen few articles (perhaps I’ve missed them?) on the huge craft beer industry going on in their (the Chron’s) own backyard. I’ve seen little coverage of what people want to read/see/hear – for example, the spirits industry – when the Chron has one of the best (if not the best) spirit makers in the world just north of them and another in the city. So, think it’s rather that the Chronicle is “chronicle” in it’s story lines about wine – the same old, same old, staid, stolid, snobbish and mostly boring writing that has made wine labeled as – oh, wait! staid, stolid, and snobbish. They could take a few lessons from certain wine bloggers and other writers who make things interesting!

  11. Totally agree with your request that he be fair and review everything sent. Good or bad, we winemakers learn from the assessment of critics. When we send off our valuable product – in some cases that product is something we have very little of and have risked our livelihood to produce – the respectful thing to do is to acknowledge that you have tasted it. You were very good in that regard.

  12. Bob Henry says:

    In my comment to Steve’s blog piece titled “The History of Wine Reviewing,” I wrote:

    “And today we find ourselves with an ever declining number of printed newspapers. And an ever declining number that publish weekly wine editorial.

    “(Here in my hometown, the Los Angeles Times has reduced its weekly editorial to a single wine bottle review. Gone are the days of long-form wine articles.)”

    Sorry to see another one bites the dust.

    The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine coverage in its stand-alone “Wine” section, and later condensed “Wine + Food” section, was peerless.

    Is it time to hold a wake vigil for long-form wine editorial in daily newspapers?

  13. Bill Haydon says:

    To all of you dancing on the grave of the recently departed Mr. Bonne fear not. The Chronicle will maintain a full-time wine columnist. I start April 1.

  14. Bill Haydon: looking forward to your column beginning April 1; as a famous musician that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting says–the crickets are always with us.

    Roger King: what you are doing with heritage white varieties sounds cool; the wave of the future may be rediscovering the past, matching varietal/climate interactions that are much more interesting than growing Chardonnay in the Central Valley.

  15. Bob Henry says:

    Bill (Haydon):

    And I’ll be joining you on October 31st.

    Bill (Dyer):

    Speaking of the Central Valley, see this front page article from the Los Angeles Times:

    “Central Valley Farmers Unlikely to Get Federal Water, Again”

    [Drought conditions persist in California; agriculture’s water allocations cut back or cut off.]

    Link: http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-la-water-allocation-20150228-story.html

    Excerpt:

    “In another blow to California’s parched heartland, federal officials said Friday that for the second year in a row most Central Valley farmers are unlikely to receive water from the region’s major irrigation project this summer.

    “The announcement, while expected, means growers will probably have to idle more land — and produce fewer crops — because there is simply not enough water for all of their fields.

    “Citing below-average reservoir storage and an abysmal snowpack as California enters a fourth year of drought, managers of the federal Central Valley Project said they probably will not deliver any supplies this year to farmers in the system who don’t have senior water rights.”

  16. Note to Bill Haydon:

    I am greatly relieved by your news.

    I was worried that I would not have anyone to kick around anymore.

  17. Thank you Charlie Olken! ’nuff said.

  18. Bob Henry says:

    On the subject of heritage clone white wine varieties, see Jon Bonné’s San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” section article from August 2011:

    “A New Age for California White Wines”

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/food/article/A-new-age-for-California-white-wines-2333317.php

    Excerpts:

    “The Compagni Portis vineyard . . . a vineyard that’s virtually the last of its kind. Originally part of Agoston Haraszthy’s old Buena Vista property, its white volcanic-ash-rich soils were most recently planted in 1954. Now farmed organically, it’s an interplanted mix of grapes considered mostly historical — Green Hungarian, Trousseau Gris — in addition to Gewurztraminer and Riesling, all yielding less than a ton per acre in some years. Benevolent chaos rules; each vine might be different from the next.

    . . .

    “The concept is old hat in the ‘mixed blacks’ of heritage red blends. But ‘mixed whites’ are far rarer. Indeed, this is the only North Coast site where vineyard hounds like Twain-Peterson have been able to locate such a diverse mix.

    “That said, there’s the nearby Casa Santinamaria vineyard, thought to be a 1905 planting of Semillon that went into an outstanding bottling from Saxon Brown. Except Twain-Peterson says he has yet to find true Semillon there; instead there’s Muscadelle, Chasselas, Palomino and more. And high up in Louis Martini’s famous Monte Rosso vineyard, an 1886 planting of Semillon includes scatterings of white Colombard and Chasselas. Apparently the white vineyards of the past were hardly uniform.

    “But don’t forget that varietals took hold in California only in the 1950s. White wine was more likely to be labeled as Hock or Rhine Wine, even Chablis. Those remain even today. While we discuss the fineries of Chardonnay or Riesling, millions of cases of Rhine wine and Chablis are still made in the San Joaquin Valley, built on a foundation of simple grapes like French Colombard or Burger, often harvested at up to 20 tons per acre. The long-established Almaden brand, now owned by the Wine Group, sold $2.35 million of Rhine wine from May through July, and $1.5 million more of Chablis.”

  19. Newspaper after newspaper dies a slow death.

    Blogger after blogger appears.

    “The King is Dead! Long Live the King!”

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