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Bay Vieux Briefs: On AVAs, Australia and inconsistent reviewers


Paso expansion goes through

Last Nov. I blogged on a petition to expand the Paso Robles AVA by 2,635 acres — about 4% of the current total — in a cooler region that’s a little closer to the Pacific Ocean. This was during a period of confusion at the Tax and Trade Bureau, the arm of the Treasury Department that approves AVAs. Well, effective Feb. 20, the TTB approved the expansion, according to their press release, based on the usual parameters of climate, geology and soils. I don’t really care one way or another. Its just one more AVA expansion; there have been many before, there will be many to come. The key sentence in the TTB’s statement is “After careful review of the petition and comments [7] received, TTB finds that the evidence submitted supports the expansion…”.

Now, anyone who’s ever worked in a government office (and I used to) knows how they work. This is from the same Federal govenment that “reviewed” Bernie Madoff’s outfit and found nothing out of order! I can imagine how the discussion went in the TTB’s AVA branch:

Boss: Jim, I want you to carefully review this Paso petition.
Jim: But boss, I’m swamped! I’ve got Leona, Calistoga, Snipes Mountain and Tulocay on my plate — and you just fired my assistant.
Boss: Well, times are tough. Have your decision to me by the end of January.
[Later that night]
Jim [to wife]: Honey, he wants me to do another expansion. This *&%$# is killing me. How am I supposed to get my work done when I don’t have any help?
Wife: Did any of the commenters object?
Jim: Out of 7 comments, only one.
Wife: Was it an important person?
Jim: No, just somebody little.
Wife: Well, screw it then. Approve it, and say you were really careful to examine all the evidence.
Jim: Gee, I guess you’re right. Hey, what’s for supper?

Australia worries

At Wine Enthusiast’s recent Wine Star Awards, which I reported on yesterday, one item making the conversational rounds was the dismal state of affairs in Australia’s wine industry. “Too many grapes” seemed to be the conventional wisdom. It’s the old story of supply and demand. Poor Australia.

Wine judges “inconsistent”? Say it isn’t so!

The recent issue of Wines & Vines reports on a new survey suggesting that wine judges are inconsistent when it comes to judging big competitions like the California State Fair. For example, the judges on one panel were given the same wine three times, without knowing it. They rejected it the first two times, then loved it the third time. It went on to receive a double-gold medal. How embarrassing!

Yet how true. It’s not only judging panels that can be inconsistent. So, too, can individual judges, a truth I’ve pointed out here many times. There’s no loss of face if you rate a wine different ways at different times. Anybody who tells you a judge should give the same rating to a wine over multiple exposures is lying, or seriously misled. That’s why wine judging should be taken for what it is: A considered opinion at a particular time and place. It’s just like a movie review, in which the reviewer can change his mind at a second showing. Does that mean wine reviews are irrelevant? No. They’re have some value — and an individual wine review is better than a panel, which is why I’ve never participated in any of these big fairs, and never will.

Bay Vieux Briefs


Wine Writers R.I.P.?

Alder Yarrow had an interesting — and upsetting — post yesterday over at Vinography. It’s called “Tough Time to be a Wine Writer,” and to tell you the truth, Alder sounded a little down in the dumps. He wrote about how wine magazines and newspaper wine sections are folding as advertising dollars evaporate and the jobs dry up. As a wine writer myself, it’s worrisome to see the words “wine writing” and “panhandling” in the same article!


Unemployed wine writer

Alder may well be right. If the Ship of State is going down, then so will all the deck chairs sink with it, including wine writers. On the other hand, we have the inspiration of President Obama. But there may be nothing he can do in the short run, and the short run looks pretty bleak.

On the Cecchetti-Racke Merger

Yesterday I blogged on Greg La Follette selling his Tandem brand, and I quoted him as saying there could be “a bloodbath for small wineries” because they don’t have the time or money to travel the country to sell their wine.

This seems to be the rationale behind the Cecchetti-Racke joint venture announced yesterday. The key sentence is “Cecchetti Racke will be reviewing their current distribution network in all markets across the United States with an eye to maximizing the company’s portfolio of wines.” Roy Cecchetti is an industry veteran who’s built up many a brand in the past. With his brother-in-law, Don Sebastiani, he launched Pepperword Grove, and later he created two  inexpensive brands, 39 Degrees and RedTree, whose price points are in the comfort zone of today’s value-oriented wine consumers. The man knows how to sell in a down market.

Chill with Obama’s chile

There’s been a lot of talk about what kind of wine Barack and Michelle will serve in the W.H. but here’s a recipe for the President’s own homemade chile. Personally, I’d drink beer with it, not wine, but that’s me.


The link also contains a video of Obama’s 2001 appearance on the Chicagoland version of Check, Please!, a PBS-aired television show hosted here in the Bay Area by Leslie Sbrocco. Maybe all of us unemployed wine writers can get new jobs as restaurant critics. No, wait, there won’t be any restaurants if this thing gets worse. Oh, well…

Be thankful I don’t take it all

Wine Institute Chairman Bobby Koch sent out an emergency email late yesterday to all W.I. members, as well as the media, urging “immediate action” in writing Gov. Schwarzenegger to oppose his proposed excise tax increase on wine. “lost jobs at our wineries” will be the result, Koch says. There’s a real note of desperation in his tone. It’s not just that a tax increase will hurt wineries, it’s that to do so during this perilous economic downturn might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I’d hate to see a tax increase on wine, but with California’s $40 billion budget deficit, it’s going to be hard for the Legislature not to scramble for every dime they can find.

A foggy day in Oakland Town


It’s early morning on New Year’s Eve, and a thick ground fog covers the Bay Area. Visibility on my street is about one block, and it’s eerily quiet out there. Not even the starlings and gulls are around and about. They’re hunkered down in their resting places, just as most of us humans are.

This gloomy day seems symbolically fitted to end 2008, a year that will be remembered for many things, but particularly, I suspect, for the dramatic collapse of our country’s economy following the September bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. The San Francisco Chronicle reports this morning that home prices in the city dropped 31 percent this year, the sharpest on record, and a reminder that not even The City by the Bay, with its fabulous wealth and glamor, is immune from the economic meltdown. A radio report this morning, from the local NPR affiliate, said the restaurant business in San Francisco is in a state of collapse, with restaurateurs bracing for the worst in 2009. People just aren’t eating out any more, and if they are, they’re scaling down from entrées to appetizers, from 2 glasses of wine to one, or from wine to water. That has the waiters grumbling, but what can they do.

The fog is an apt metaphor, also, for the internal mood many Americans feel these days. One tries to peer into the future to glimpse what lies ahead, but that future is blanketed in an impenetrable darkness that masks everything. Best not to think too far ahead in times like these, people tell me. Focus on one day at a time, which means one moment at a time — the Now. It’s easier said than done.

But it’s important to remember that everything passes. The fog will go away, and by this afternoon the Bay Area will once again bask under blue skies and bright sunlight. The birds will be out in a little while, filling my street with sweet birdsong. Perhaps the little hummingbirds will visit the begonias outside my window, which are in full crimson bloom.

I know this, too: 2009 will be a better year. So tonight, when my family and I cheer in the New Year with a glass of champagne, I’ll say a special toast for President-elect Obama and for our country. We’ll see our way out of this. The fog will lift.

Bay Vieux Briefs


Wednesday Trifecta


Our neoprohibitionist friends at The Marin Institute are at it again. I mentioned these anti-alcohol crusaders last week, after they freaked out about funny whiskey ads on buses. Now, they’re carrying the battle to social media (and the young people who hang out there). The latest is what they call “the country’s first anti-beer ad contest.” Marin Institute is calling for “youth from 13 to 20” to create “original anti-beer ads of 30 to 60 seconds…”. The campaign is dubbed Free the Bowl, as in Super Bowl. Seems the beer ads on America’s favorite televised sporting event of the year are offensive to the Institute’s Board of Directors, and they’re out there recruiting impressionable young people to their cause. First prize for the lucky young videographer: “a brand new 13” Apple Macbook with Final Cut Express 4.0 software.”

Heck, if I was 18 years old and into making videos, I’d enter the damn contest myself, and if I won, I’d celebrate by drinking a bottle of Champagne.


Crushpad is a very cool place in San Francisco where, for money, you can produce your own wine, under your own label, made from grapes grown in some very good California vineyards. Now, they have a cool thing they’re calling The Wine Bailout, AKA Dude, where’s  my 401K?

Before I sound off on it, I need to get this off my chest: I HATE to give free publicity to businesses that are shamelessly angling for it. Which Crushpad is: I got a personal email from them. The gist is, you pay $39 as futures on a 2007 Napa Cabernet that will be bottled next August. Then, “If the Dow goes down, you get an economic stimulus check of $2 per bottle for every 100 point drop. If it goes up, then your 401K is looking good and the maximum of $39 is a steal for similar wines we produce that command $75+ at retail.” It’s hard to know, under these circumstances, whether to root for the Dow to go up, or down. If it falls 2,000 points, you get your wine for free (actually, Crushpad would have to pay you a dollar). If it goes up, you’re still guaranteed the 39 bucks.

It’s a cute scheme and maybe worth looking into. We’re all a little meschuggina with the markets tanking; maybe The Wine Bailout is a way to laugh through the tears.


Another interesting post from WineDiverGirl, who continues to explore the ways wineries and bloggers can work together. As readers of this space know, I was critical last month with some suggestions WDG had made, although I allowed as to how she was asking some interesting questions. Read her new post. The money line isn’t from her, but from the blogger 1WineDude [Joe Roberts], whom she quotes: Heaven knows I’ve got no problem whatsoever being courted by winemakers, PR contacts, or the wine media in general (in fact, my view is that it’s about time this has happened). The trick is maintaining the willpower to keep a unique, individual, and (hopefully) credibly opinionated voice as a blogger while the “courting” ramps up. As one who’s long used to being “courted,” I couldn’t agree more.

Bay Vieux Briefs

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Appellation America’s Ailment

I was surprised by the news that Appellation America’s founders resigned, but it was no surprise to learn that their reasons concerned “differences with the lender” and “the constriction of working capital.” These are obvious references to the nation’s credit crunch, and, after all, you can’t run a business without capital. AA’s new head, Tom Welch, said he will focus on developing “advertising and content sales,” among other revenue-generating tactics.

Appellation America has some of the smartest wine writers around, including my old friends Dan Berger and Alan Goldfarb, and I wish the online publication well. It just shows to go how the economic crisis is touching the local California wine industry, which until lately has seemed largely immune. AA’s problems also highlight the traditional challenge to an Internet-based business: how to make money. It’s the same issue that bloggers are confronting. Monetizing the web isn’t as easy as it seems.

Social Media Redux

It happened again. I got slammed for my post last week, “Bloggers and wineries: strange bedfellows,” with some comments saying that I just don’t get the value and impact social media will have on the wine industry. Now, we have a new and thoughtful analysis of the situation from a blog called Wine Life Today, in which the writer introduced me to the concept of BPIs — Buying Pattern Influencers, or people who can influence large numbers of other people in their buying choices. The writer argues that social media are the BPIs of the future. The “two-way communication” that social media (unlike magazines) offers creates “a bond” between writer and reader, and this in turn creates “a fantastic new frontier” for the wine industry. Well, this is all true in theory, and there’s no denying that younger people spend all their time online, text-messaging and Twittering and what not. What I haven’t seen yet is how individual wineries factor into the equation, and how they’re supposed to take advantage of social media to boost sales. But there’s no question that they’re curious. One of the comments to the Wine Life Today post was from Mia Malm, a heavyweight wine P.R. professional whose New York company, Cornerstone Communications, represents top wineries around the world. If Mia’s paying attention to something, it’s important.

Picnicking in in San Leandro? Skip the wine

San Leandro is a city just south of Oakland, where I live. It’s a pleasant bedroom community that’s put a lot of money and effort into sprucing up its parklands along San Francisco Bay, just south of Oakland International Airport. In warm weather, the area lures picnickers by the dozens, who watch the marsh hawks and black-shouldered kites fly through blue skies, with San Francisco’s towers soaring in the distance.

The picnickers will still come, but they won’t be able to enjoy wine, thanks to San Leandro’s City Council, which yesterday approved a proposed law that would ban bringing or consuming liquor, wine or beer in city parks or open-space areas. First violation will cost you $100. Third could set you back $1,000. Expensive picnic.

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