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Tales from the AVA front

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“Democracy,” Winston Churchill told the House of Commons in 1947, “is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Churchill might still have been sour toward democratic forms of government, given the fact that, two years previously, he had been unceremoniously thrown out of office, in a free election, by a British public that—while grateful to “the old man” for winning World War Two—nonetheless found him insufficiently liberal and vigorous to lead them in peace.

I begin today’s post with the famous Churchill quote because it can be adapted to the topic of American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. “An AVA is the worst way of categorizing winegrowing regions, except for all other forms.” Anyone who follows the AVA process, especially in California, knows how sloppy, irrational and unhelpful it can be. And yet (to paraphrase another politician, Donald Rumsfeld), we have to deal with the AVA system we have, not the one we might want or wish to have at a later time.

The talented blogger Hawk Wakawaka points out some of these incoherences in a Sept. 8 post in which she deftly brings readers up to date on the long simmering brouhaha down in the Santa Rita Hills, which some people are trying to have expanded eastward, a proposal that infuriates others. It’s not my goal today to do what Hawk has already done, and done better than I could. Rather, I’m fascinated by her contention, based on TTB’s published guidelines, that [as Hawk puts it] any sub-AVA “must be generally congruent with” the conditions of the existing AVA.

This can sound a little confusing. What does “congruent” mean? It’s easier to understand in the context of Ballard Canyon, which was granted AVA status by TTB last year. Here, the key is Hawk’s statement that “Ballard Canyon [is] considered to be distinctive enough to merit [its] own sub-AVA status, while still generally congruent with the conditions of Santa Ynez Valley as a whole.”

Well, anyone can see this is where we run into trouble. The main problem concerns how you define the terms “distinctive” and “congruent.” The two seem to be opposites. If a region is so distinctive that it merits its own appellation, fine: we can all understand that. But how can it be distinctive and still be similar [congruent] to other appellations nearby?

Clearly, these are angels-dancing-on-pinheads concepts. There are clear and distinct boundaries between, say, the ocean and the beach. One is wet and watery, the other dry and sandy. Although the waves occasionally wash over the sand, we still insist that the two places are distinct, and we are correct in asserting that.

But appellations are fuzzy. We know this, not only intuitively, but through witnessing the contention that underlies almost every single appellation petition. When Gallo wanted to move the boundaries of the Russian River Valley southward, people erupted in anger. (It got done anyway.) And now, in the case of Santa Rita Hills, we have the same thing going on. (I suspect that TTB will approve the expansion, but you never know.)

It’s confusing, because who’s to say exactly where a climate influence or a soil composition begins and ends? Obviously the west winds and fogs that sweep over the Santa Rita Hills don’t abruptly halt at the 101 Freeway. And you don’t have to be a geologist to suspect that neither does the chemical composition of the dirt, or its structure, radically change at the Freeway. Therefore the petitioners who want the eastward expansion seem to have some justification for their case.

But there’s a slippery slope. If you give the Santa Rita Hills another ½ mile or so to the east, why not give it ¾ of a mile? Or a full mile? At some point, we would all agree that pushing Santa Rita Hills—a cool-climate appellation—too far to the east would be ridiculous. But how are we to know exactly where the line is?

There’s another problem. Consider the Pisoni Vineyard. Many different wineries buy grapes from it; their contracts generally allow them to determine picking times. If one winery picks two weeks later than another, which factor influences the resulting wines more: the vineyard’s terroir, or the winemaker’s picking date? The one thing the two wines have in common is their vineyard source; the fact that both hail from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is basically irrelevant. We can see that, while defining AVAs is overall a good thing, from multiple points of view, at the same time it’s a bit of a distraction.

This reverts back to Churchill. Determining these AVA boundaries is messy and frustrating, which is to say the process is political. Boundaries end where they do when the fighting process ceases (often because TTB makes its final decision). In the wine educating I’ve done in my career, I’ve always tried to point out that appellations are useful, as far as they go, but that the ultimate appellation is the brand and winery.

Incidentally, the TTB currently is considering ten AVA petitions, of which I find two noteworthy. One is Lamorinda. For those of you who don’t live in the East Bay, this is an area on “the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel” in Contra Costa County that consists of the towns of Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda. It’s very suburban and upscale and, for that reason, lots of people with money have planted vineyards in their yards, and are making wine. They want their own appellation and I suppose they’re going to get it. Another proposed AVA is Los Olivos District. That’s a little puzzling to me. Los Olivos is, of course, within the Santa Ynez Valley, but then, so are the villages of Santa Ynez, Solvang, Ballard and Buellton. It’s not clear to me why the Los Olivos people want their own appellation. If anyone out there can explain the difference between the terroirs of Los Olivos and Santa Ynez town, please let me know. On the other hand, if eventually all those townships get AVAs, it will be the wine writer’s full employment act; we’ll spend decades talking about their differences, the same way we do now, fairly inconclusively, with Oak Knoll, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford and Calistoga.

My bottom line: There is congruency within AVAs and neighboring areas, but it’s a squishy type. Nonetheless, we should try to understand it, especially in California, where certain critics say all wines are starting to taste like each other.


A winery digicom manager on his job

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Mark Gordon is senior digital communications manager for La Crema Winery. He oversees all digital media outreach for the company’s various brands, including social media, blogs, and web development and design. He’s also my colleague. I interviewed the 46-year old recently in Healdsburg and began with a tough question.

SH: Aren’t you too old to really “get” social media?

MG: I’ve been involved in the web since its infancy. What you tend to find after a while is what goes around comes around. Something that’s being touted as new and innovative is something most likely that’s been done before. A case in point would be Facebook. It’s AOL done right–an evolution of that. And I bring a varied background. I cut my teeth in journalism, back when cutting-and-pasting was actually cutting and pasting things! So having a good foundation in writing, wordsmithing and knowing the basics of journalism helps on digital, because it all comes out in storytelling.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is social media to a winery?

I’d say that social media is probably an eight. But marketing yourself digitally is a ten. By that, I mean social media is a tactic, but there are other tactics out there as well. The key is in finding the right blend that resonates with whom you’re trying to attract as a consumer.

What social media channels do you work with?

All the usual social media suspects: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest. That’s where we play the most, as far as social’s concerned. All those channels are designed to drive people towards our own properties, particularly those that have blogs, where we can tell more long-form storytelling and deliver more meaningful messages. Pulling that circle out a little wider, I’d say then you talk about sites where link-sharing is important: StumbleUpon, or reddit, or some of the “food porn” sharing sites, like foodgawker. And then another circle is getting relationships going on with other influential publishers, so your message can be carried outside your sphere of influence.

One year, MySpace is big; the next, no one uses it. How do you stay on top of social media’s fast evolution?

Agility. As a digital strategist, the important thing is to look in your crystal ball and see where you think things are trending. I mean, Facebook is the textbook example of a channel where the strategies have changed due to the fact that Facebook now is essentially a pay-to-play entity. Knowing that, and being able to see ahead of that last year, we decided to pivot towards more authentic storytelling.

What is the role of wine bloggers?

Wine bloggers are in the mix. They can be influencers, people who can help carry a message on behalf of a brand. For us, one of the most important things for wine bloggers is obviously that earned hit.

What does that mean?

“Earned media” means a blogger writes about one of our brands in a manner in which they’re not paid for their work. So we get them samples, or it happens completely organically that they review one of our wines, and that’s a super-valuable thing for us as a company to have those impressions out there on the web.

What about paid wine bloggers?

We call it “influencer outreach.” It’s identifying folks who resonate with our core consumer, and finding ways to work with them. In some cases, it may be something where we pay them as essentially a journalist for hire, to not only write stories on our behalf on their blog, but through other channels. If they have a big following on Pinterest, maybe we do something with them. If they’re influential on Facebook, maybe we ask them to post on our behalf.

Is that all transparent?

It is transparent. The Federal Trade Commission now requires any sort of paid content marketing to be disclosed. So all the folks we work with disclose that.

La Crema just launched, with your help, Virtual Vintner last Monday. What is that?

Virtual Vintner is a crowd-sourcing platform where we’re tasking members of our community and people who are enthusiastic about wine and winemaking techniques to help us craft, from grape to glass, the next La Crema wine. We start off with the decision that will set the course for this adventure, which is whether you want to make a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay. And from there, it becomes a choose-your-adventure style program. At each step of the journey, we’re not only asking folks to make decisions, we’re giving them the tools they need to make a decision that resonates best with what their personal tastes are, and educating them on the process of winemaking.

How long does the contest last?

We don’t consider it a “contest.” There are contest elements within it, but it truly is an interactive journey. Within that map of different elements—the varietal, the region, the vineyard, the barrels and so forth–we’ll ask people to make a series of choices.

Will there be winners?

Over the various stages, every time you vote, you’re entered in a sweepstakes, and the winner of that particular sweepstakes will come out to Sonoma County for a one-on-one at La Crema, to meet with winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, maybe get to do some barrel sampling.

So they get a nice vacation!

They get a nice vacation, yeah. And there will be other “contests” as well. Once we get the wine into barrel, Virtual Vintner will have a flavor-describing contest, where participants will have this ability to assume what the tasting profile on that wine might be. They’ll write up a series of tasting notes, and whoever comes closest to what our expert panel determines the flavors to be, will win another prize.

How can people learn more about Virtual Vintner?

You can go to LaCrema.com, or directly you can go to vv.lacrema.com.


Wednesday wraparound: Fred Franzia, more post-WBC14 opinionating, and “the tipping point”

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Not sayin’ that Fred Franzia is on the same enlightened level as the Dalai Lama, but it seems to me that HuffPo’s Chris Knox came down on him a little strong—even for a medium (the blog) that’s known for snark.

“Trash-mouthed, unapologetic [and] downright crude”? Well, I don’t think Fred ever graduated from charm school, but he’s not as bad as all that. I’ve known him—not well, but some—over the years, and I’ve managed to find affection for him, even though he’s done one or two crummy things to me. But I’ve done crummy things to people, too, so as usual, the Golden Rule applies. Fred, like it or not, is a product of his time and place—besides, someone once said that people who swear a lot are more honest, and there’s a lot of truth to that.

More important is Chris Knox’s j’accuse! against Two Buck Chuck. Now, I can’t say I have any idea if the wines contain (as Chris alleges), “animal blood and parts” (I should think the FDA, or whoever the relevant government agency is, would be up on that). But I can say that I respect Fred, and Bronco, his company, for making wine that anybody can afford to drink—and varietal wines, at that. I think we all agree that the most important thing for the wine industry is to get more people drinking. Two Buck Chuck does that; Petrus doesn’t. So kudos to Fred, from my point of view.

* * *

Kudos, too, to Joe Roberts AKA 1WineDude, for telling it like it is yesterday on his blog. I was kind of at Ground Zero of all the post-WBC14 grousing and blather, and I really wasn’t in the mood to put my [strong] thoughts into words, so I refrained, except in a few private exchanges. But Joe, bless his heart, who perhaps has garnered some credibility in the world of Millennial bloggers, let ‘er rip. The comments on his blog—104 and counting, as I write this—make for fascinating reading on their own. My fave: did the panelists (those accomplished online/print writers that happened to be middle-aged white dudes) miss an opportunity, or, did we bloggers miss the opportunity?” Joe deserves credit for his courageous, truthful expression of the facts.

* * *

Some of us were talking the other day about how a new winery/brand reaches “the tipping point,” in terms of popularity and success. One suggestion was that, to a certain extent, this can be stage-managed, through smart, creative marketing, promotional and sales efforts—although admittedly, that can be expensive. Another point of view is that tipping points occur serendipitously. You can’t make them happen, no matter how much money you spend (as any number of billionaires who have run for California governor over the years, and embarrassingly lost, well know). All that the expenditure of money (on media events, etc.) can do is increase the winery’s chances of being noticed by “the right people.” That is indeed important—but beyond that, there’s still the element of magic. Moreover, a winery can “hit it” for a brief period of time—Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame—but staying relevant is a lot harder. If there was a formula, or template, for reaching “the tipping point,” everyone would know it. But there isn’t.

* * *

Finally, a link to another blog, today’s edition of “Juicy Tales by Jo Diaz,” in which she expresses points of view I pretty much agree with. And with that, I’ll wish you all a good day!


The state of the wine blog

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I go to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference next month, for which we (the organizers and myself) already are deep in the planning stages. I’ll participate in three panels, and each requires a great deal of forethought in order to maximize the chances that the audiences will be happy they came, which is what we all want.

Aside and apart from, and perhaps above, those immediate considerations, I’ll be looking for any evidence concerning the State of the Blogosphere. Having been deeply involved in wine blogging since 2008 (late, by some standards, but six years after all is a pretty good tenure), I’m in some position to weigh in on blogging’s evolution. And it seems to me that things are a bit static.

We saw initially a great deal of excitement with wine blogs. In the period 2007-2009, not only was the wine blog a new, shiny toy, but traditional print journalism was going through its most arduous and tumultuous times in recent history, what with the recession and the subsequent loss of advertising experienced by so many magazines and newspapers. Thus, it sounded almost reasonable when wine bloggers pronounced that “Print is dead, long live wine blogging!”

I, myself, never bought into that theory. I was aware that (a) recessions, no matter how severe, never last forever and (b) as soon as the current recession was over, advertising would return, and print publications would be back on track. At the same time, it would have been unduly credulous for me, or anyone, to suppose that print periodicals would return to the robust health they had enjoyed for so long in the twentieth century. Change certainly was upon print—but of what kind, and how and when it would arrive, no one could say.

Here we are now, the recession having ended, print having bounced back, and the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference upon us. My sense is that blogging has lost some steam. That heady rush of excitement of four and five years ago isn’t there anymore. We’ve seen some well-known blogs go by the wayside and some new ones pop up, while the mainstays (including this one) keep on keeping on. We ought at least to give credit to blogs like Vinography, Dr. Vino, Fermentation and 1WineDude for longevity, or perhaps “stick-to-it-tiveness” is a more apt description.

Yet with the recovery of print publications has come the corresponding diminution of the wine blog. It was inevitable; it is a zero-sum game, this business of writing about wine, for there are only so many eyeballs out there who care to read about wine, and they have only so many hours in the day in which to do so. Besides, one senses (dare I say it?) a certain fatigue in the wine blogosphere. So much of what was so captivating five years ago has now become, well, the online equivalent of vin ordinaire. Of course the newer blogs still have the sense of awesome discovery that budding wine aficienados have displayed always, but their readers, such as they are, may be forgiven for being less than thrilled by yet another recitation of Argentine values or the best wine to drink with pizza. (I might say the same thing about wine magazines. They endlessly run the same cycle of articles over and over and over. Next November it will be “what wine to drink for Thanksgiving.”) At the same time, winery proprietors must take the blogs into consideration, regardless of what they personally feel or think about them (and believe me, in many cases, it’s not much), because you never know whose blog will help you move product. So that is where we are: a strange place, no doubt, and one that is evolving.

It was against this conceptual backdrop that I read that “Making an emotional connection with consumers, and creating personalized, shareable and useful content, is vital to selling wine.” This was the conclusion of “experts from major wine retailers” who gathered at the recent London Wine Fair, as reported in Harper’s.

Blogging would seem perfectly positioned to express “personalized, shareable and useful content.” Blogging is, by its very nature, personalized, in the sense that there is real connectivity, almost intimacy, between blogger and reader, the way there isn’t in print. This is especially true when readers can instantly comment on a blog, which certainly isn’t the case with a magazine or newspaper. I write Letters to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle with some frequency, but 95% of them never are published, which distances me from the paper and makes me wonder if my opinions are truly valued. Not so at many blogs; you can comment on steveheimoff.com, and your comment will instantly go up, with no prior approval from me, as long as I’ve previously approved a first comment from your computer. That is truly personalized service, and shareable, too. (I leave it to my readers to decide if my content is “useful.”)

But blogging has not yet achieved the gravitas of newspapers or magazines. Perhaps it’s that very personalized, easy-breezy quality that makes a blog feel like, well, just a blog—a fancy email–while a newspaper or magazine has the weight of authority and tradition and all the labor and costs that go into the production process. That may never change; the low bar to entry works against taking individual blogs too seriously, or investing your energy into them (not to mention your money). Still, I have to say that wine blogs have been the most innovative development in wine writing of the 21st century.

At any rate, that’s the view from where I sit!


There are some kinds of blogs we just don’t need

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Parker published a column on his website the other day that has raised some people’s hackles.

(“Hackles” are the hairs on the back of a dog’s neck. They rise up when the dog is angry. Since Gus has never been angry, I’ve never seen any on him. Well, he got angry once when a poodle mounted him, but it all happened so fast I didn’t have time for a hackle check.)

I don’t subscribe to eRobertParker.com, and I tried to find the article for free on the Internet, but no deal. (Good firewall, Bob!) So all I know about it is what this opinion piece, from Wine-Searcher, said, and also this opinion piece, from the San Francisco-based blog, Vinography.

I’m here to defend RMP for this reason: Some bloggers have made a living (so to speak) promoting themselves by insulting well-known wine critics. By thus associating their names with famous people like Parker, they get mentally connected with them in people’s minds, and that’s the whole point. It’s free, cheap publicity. It’s also the mark of a small person who can’t figure out a way to achieve something on his own. Instead, he goes after the Big Dogs, hoping to attract attention and controversy that way.

We see this sort of thing a lot in politics, but it’s pitiful to see it in the wine world.

Parker happens to be right about “natural” wines. There’s always going to be a sub-section of the wine community looking for the next cool thing: biodynamique, low alcohol, LEED-certified buildings, natural yeast, minimal intervention, and so on. Nothing wrong with any of that, but to focus on any of them exclusively–to obsess with them–is a mistake. All that Parker is saying (from my read) is that wine doesn’t have to be this, that or the other, in order to be good. So the ideologues (I think the low alcohol crowd has become the Taliban of wine) are not only missing the boat, but misleading consumers.

And is Parker wrong when he says that many wine websites “offer little in the way of content or substance”? No! It’s absolutely true. I’ve been saying it for a long time. I visit a lot of winery websites and believe me, some of them look like they haven’t been dusted for years. As for “Euro-elitists,” can you doubt that there’s an anti-California crowd out there? You know it, I know it, everybody knows it. These are people who bash California every chance they get. And then they bash Parker for giving high scores to California wines. Look, if you don’t like California wine, man up and admit that they’re not to your liking, and don’t bash Parker just because he does like California wine, and he’s more famous than you’ll ever be.

When did wine writing get so personal, so ad hominem? It’s so counter to the gentlemanly (and gentle-womanly) way it’s always been. It came with the rise of the bloggers. Parker calls them “blobbers” and why shouldn’t he? They’re biting his ankles all the time. He’s an easy target and whenever a little blobber attacks Parker, their blog’s readership numbers rise, as they get republished, aggregated, retweeted and all the rest. Is Parker supposed to turn the other cheek all the time? He’s only human. After a while, the constant niggling must get to him. It would get to anyone.

The plain and simple fact of the matter is that success comes from real achievement. You might get 15 minutes of fame by being an angry mudslinger and going after famous writers in a snarky, nasty way. But in 16 minutes, you’re a nobody again. Not a good longterm strategy for making it as a wine writer. My advice to winemakers, winery P.R. folks and others interested in promoting wineries and wines is to stick with writers and bloggers who are professional, fair and polite, and to avoid those whose real agenda is self-promotion.


I learn so much from my readers

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Some interesting comments from yesterday’s post, in which I suggested that some of these top-scoring Cabs don’t pair all that versatilely with many foods.

If that’s so, a few readers wondered, then why give them high scores?

Fair enough. By way of explanation, I need to put the whole concept of wine reviewing into some historical context. The world always has had wine critics, whether they were poets and physicians in the ancient world who advised Caesars what to drink, Thomas Jefferson who was such a gadfly when it came to French wines, or that amazing crop of American wine writers who came of age after the Repeal of Prohibition to educate a thirsty but ignorant country about the intricacies of wine.

Even with today’s modern sophistication of big publishing, social media and the like, we wine critics haven’t changed all that much. We’re just simple folk with an outsized affection for vino, doing our best to write about it, and lucky enough to have access to a lot more of it than the average Joe or Jane.

Now, I will admit to being an inheritor of a system in which certain wines are routinely experienced as “better” or “superior” to all others. This in itself is anti-democratic (with a small “d”). In fact, it’s downright elitist. And while I personally abhor economic elitism, I do recognize that in other spheres, it has its place. We have elite athletes, whom we love to watch on T.V. We have elite universities, elite clothing and elite technology, elite vacation destinations, elite neighborhoods in our cities, elite rock stars and elites among the intellectual classes. So “elite” is a fact of human existence, no matter how you feel about it.

In this system I fell into, wines like Classified Growth Bordeaux, top-ranked Burgundy, grand Champagnes, Riojas, Barolos, cult Napa Cabernets and so on are automatically granted the top place. Is it fair? Maybe, maybe not. But you have to start someplace in creating a hierarchy if you’re going to judge anything–otherwise, everything is the same, which does no one any good. So it makes it a lot easier if a majority of the world’s critics agree as to the top ranks of the hierarchy (even if we may disagree about individual wines). At least, we’ve created a lingua franca in which we can have a coherent discussion.

Now, once upon a time the top wines of Old Europe might have been more drinkable with food than are today’s Napa Cabs, for instance. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that part of what made Thomas Jefferson like top Bordeaux so much is that it was cleaner and more technically correct than some of its neighbors (and so, by the way, was his food), which may have had actual faults. Today, the situation is completely changed. Few wines have technical faults, at least in California. So what the elite wines have had to do is not only be cleaner and more correct than everything else, they’ve has to become something that the other wines cannot be, whether for reasons of terroir or expense. And that is what we mean by the big, opulent, modern Napa style of cult Cabernet (as well as its high alcohol). When it’s done well, it truly is impressive–but it’s not always done well, and when the job is botched, the result is clumsy.

The problem, of course, is that the big, opulent style is so powerful in itself that it’s practically a food group. That’s what I wrote about yesterday, when I said if I was cooking something at home to go with a huge Cab, I’d probably stick to grilled steak. That doesn’t mean just the steak and nothing else. I might try and steal a beat from Gary Danko and fancy it up, filleting some tenderloin and serving it with potato gratin, Swiss chard, cassis-glazed shallots and Stilton butter. But so many things could go wrong with such a complex dish that I’d probably decide beforehand not to even try, and keep things simple: since I live in a condo and can’t barbecue, I’d sear the steak in a heavy skillet, toss it with some brown butter, salt and pepper, maybe glaze some onions or sauté a Portobello, and keep my fingers crossed that the marriage between the food and, say, the Shafer Hillside Select would be a happy one. On the other hand, if I poured a nice Zinfandel with the filet, I think everyone would be happy, with a lot less at risk. The K.I.S.S. formula is a good one.

The thing to understand is that these elite wines are meant to be understood on their own. I don’t want any producers to get mad at me when I say that, but it’s true: the amount of work and artistry that goes into them is such that they don’t need a whole lot of anything to help them along. In fact, the more you try to help them with food, the more you reduce them to ordinariness. And there’s nothing sadder than opening a bottle of expensive wine, only to find that it performs in a mediocre way at the table.

Some of my commenters fastened on these points and made interesting suggestions. (I don’t want to name names because I don’t have their permission, but you can read them yourself in yesterday’s post.) B.__ suggested I make a note in my reviews that certain wines are “cocktail wines,” rather than food wines. S.___ strongly agreed. G.___ raised the delicate issue of point scores: that wines meant to go with food get lower scores than do “stand-alone wines.”

These are a good points. One problem that comes to mind, though, is that we would have to agree on what is a “cocktail” wine versus a “table” wine. I can see me describing a wine as “cocktail” and raising the infuriated hackles of the winemaker who made it! I don’t think any winemaker in the world thinks of himself as a “cocktail-winemaker.” So we can throw out the “cocktail” word. It’s a non-starter.

No, I think the best way to communicate to people the idea that “with food pairing, the highest scoring wine isn’t always the best” is to say it over and over again, until it sinks into peoples’ heads. Also, to point out in the text of the review (I would hope people read the text, not just the point score!). It’s in the text, with all its word-space limitations, that I try to convey my thoughts about food. I like the word “versatile.” It means a wine (like that Hendry Zin) that will go with just about everything in a particular style (red, white, light and delicate, full-bodied, tannic, whatever, etc.). Happily, more and more restaurants are beginning to divide their wine lists up into helpful categories like that.


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