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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.

This is your brain on wine


It was gratifying to read in Decanter that “Wine may protect against dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease,” but I don’t know how to square that with the news, widely reported over the last two weeks, that scientists say wine, even in moderate amounts, can lead to brain shrinkage. (Click here for one report.)

How can wine cause the brain to shrink and then turn around and protect it against dementia?

Then there’s this study that “people with higher education levels exhibit more severe brain shrinkage with age than people with fewer years of education.” Which is bad news for me, since I have a ton of education.

But wait, there’s more! According to this study, exercise may help to prevent brain shrinkage, which is good news for me, since I’m a gym rat.

Then I came across this study claiming that “Scientists have found that consuming [a] vegetarian, meat-free diet leads to brain shrinkage.” Since I’m a protein freak, that doesn’t bother me.

Honestly, sometimes I don’t know what to think, what with all this information pouring in. Gee whiz, I wish someone would explain it to me in real America English, you betcha! But I guess even if I don’t know what to think, it’s a good thing to think anyway, because according to this study, “Mental activity slows brain shrink.” Seems that “people who have been more mentally active over their lives have a larger hippocampus,” and a big hippocampus is better than a little one.

So I think I’ll spend a few hours in the gym, thinking a lot, and then I’ll come home and eat a pound or two of meat and drink a bunch of wine and think some more. It’s nice to know that the things that make me happy are good for me, too.

Bay Vieux Briefs


Was “Sideways” alone responsible for Pinot’s triumph?

That’s been the conventional wisdom for years. Now, Decanter is reporting on a research paper out of Sonoma State University that crunched the numbers and determined that, yes, “The longstanding belief that the film Sideways sent Pinot Noir sales through the roof was confirmed today.”

Far be it from me to disagree with a team of academicians. But I’ve always been of the opinion that Pinot Noir was going to happen in America anyway, and all that Sideways did was to push the date up. Look at it in perspective. In the 1990s, California Pinot Noir already was looked upon by experts (writers, critics, some sommeliers, restaurateurs and collectors) with interest, even if the results were more often than not disappointing. By the early 2000s, Pinot had fully erupted in the consciousness of millions of wine lovers, as regions like Santa Ynez Valley (now Santa Rita Hills), Santa Lucia Highlands, Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley joined the ranks of proven Pinot areas like Carneros and Russian River Valley. I wrote my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, prior to Sideways, but in it I had an entire chapter on Pinot Noir and its glories. Pinot was on a sharp growth curve well before Sideways, and it was inevitable it would emerge as a serious rival to Cabernet Sauvignon as California’s top red wine.

Les French Sont Crazee

Earlier this week I wrote about those wacky French neoprohibitionists over at my Wine Enthusiast blog. I thought then that they couldn’t have come up with anything crazier than no more free wine tasting in France, but this morning comes news that they’ve outdone themselves. Decanter is reporting that “A court ruled that print stories on wine must contain health warnings—not wine ads, but journalism about wine.” Yes, you heard it right: print stories about wine must contain health warnings.


This just in:

FOR SALE: 1,000 cases of Palin Syrah, some smoke damage and water stains on labels. Motivated seller. Name your price. Shipping included.

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