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Review: A Life Uncorked

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I am just getting around to reading Hugh Johnson’s 2006 memoir, A Life Uncorked, which was published by my publisher, The University of California Press. It’s a good read and I recommend it especially to younger bloggers who are considering careers in wine writing and criticism.

Johnson is of course one of the most famous living wine writers and has been for a long time. One of the topics that fascinates me personally concerns longevity, or, more precisely, how is it that somebody can make a good living, over many years and even decades, from writing about wine. It’s something I’m sure a good many wine bloggers wonder about. It must seem daunting at the outset: so many would-be wine writers, so few spots available for actually getting paid for it.

When Johnson started writing, the field was considerably more open. He experienced what he calls his “Damascus moment” in college (Cambridge University), where he was able to drink (because colleges back then had their own cellars for undergraduates) such wines as Lynch Bages ‘53 and Lafite ‘49 (which Penning-Rowsell described as “delicate, distinguished but perhaps over-light”). That persuaded him to join the University Wine & Food Society. His first job, after graduating with what he calls “a gentleman’s degree” [i.e., more or less useless, like a B.A. in humanities] was as a staff writer for Condé Nast, at Vogue. One of his earliest assignments was to write an article about turkey, and what wines to pair it with.

“I knew, of course, very little about turkey or what wine to drink with it,” Johnson writes, adding, “but ignorance is the safest starting point for a journalist. I identified authorities. I rang them up. I wrote down their answers, and my name appeared at the bottom of the article.”

From there, Johnson was off to the races, so to speak. “Once a writer has been identified,” he writes, “…you can imagine what happens. ‘This Hugh Johnson, who is he? Never mind, he writes about wine in Vogue.’ Could I have lunch? Would I like to visit Champagne? It didn’t take long.”

There are several elements of Johnson’s story that are relevant today for wine writers. Even though the times are very different, the fundamentals still apply. For one, Johnson as a young ambitious writer recognized authority. He understood that his knowledge of wine was necessarily limited by his youth and inexperience — not a bad thing, as his remark about “ignorance” suggests, because that realization allowed him to open the empty vessel of his mind to every source of information that could possibly fill it, beginning with established experts. (Johnson testifies to learning from the “handful of regular wine writers” then working in Britain, including André Simon, Cyril Ray and Elizabeth David.)

Johnson not only turned to established writers to inspire and teach him, he began forming relationships which were to last a lifetime, and would later help him in his own career. Part of the secret of longevity at any job, but especially one so evanescent and creative as wine writing, is for people to like you and want to help you. But that’s only part of it, and maybe not even the greater part. What’s central to longevity is excellence in your writing, and that in itself is the product of several components. One is a thorough knowledge of your field. Johnson specialized in the wines of France (although, as a talented writer, he could make sorties through other countries and not be embarrassed). I specialize in the wines of California. Once the wine writer becomes well-versed in his or her field, she must develop a lucid, friendly writing style that people find accessible and enjoyable. It can be tricky to take as complex a subject as wine (which involves organic chemistry, farming, technology, history, geology, politics, psychology, economics, business and fashion) and then translate it into written words that are simple to comprehend. It’s not exactly turning a sow’s ear into silk, but something along those lines. Here, too, Johnson benefited from being heir to a long line of British writers who took the written word as seriously as they took their Monarchy. From Elizabeth David, for instance, Johnson writes: “[S]he taught me how to stickle; there was never a more pinpoint stickler for accuracy and honesty. It slowed her writing down to a crawl, all the checking and delving.” For the writer, to stickle (from Middle English, to rule, order, dispose; to raise objections, haggle, or make difficulties, esp. in a stubborn, narrow manner and usually about trifles) is as necessary as oxygen is for breathing. The writer stickles, not others, but himself.

Good wine writing, like good writing of any kind, is hard. Getting and keeping a job in this industry can be challenging. Keeping it for many years, as Hugh Johnson has done, requires a kind of miraculous ability to juggle many plates at the same time. Among the hundreds and hundreds of wine bloggers working today, a very limited number actually will graduate into the front ranks and still be getting paid to write about wine twenty years from now. I have my own ideas who they will be; probably you do, too. I’m going to be talking about this later this month at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood. It should be interesting.


Broadbent should not have sued

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This report, in Asimov’s Times column, that Michael Broadbent has settled his lawsuit against Random House over The Billionaire’s Vinegar book, concerns me very much. As a journalist, blogger and author myself (A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California), I’m deeply troubled that Random House, the publisher, “apologized for the allegations” and “also paid an undisclosed amount of damages to Mr. Broadbent and agreed not to distribute the book in the United Kingdom.”

The background of all this is too complicated to describe in detail. The author of The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Benjamin Wallace, described a series of events in the 1980s relating to the purchase of a bottle of 1787 Lafite at auction by the late American business magnate, Malcolm Forbes. It was a very famous and controversial transaction, because the bottle bore the engraved initials Th.J., which supposedly indicated it had belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Forbes paid $156,000 for it, making it the then most expensive bottle of wine ever sold.

Broadbent was the auctioneer who gaveled the wine and had been intimately involved in liberating it from the dusty, hidden cellar in which it (and other bottles) was found. In his lawsuit, which was against Random House, not Wallace (for some reason), Broadbent alleged that the book made false depictions of him that cast aspersions on his character. Random House evidently felt that the British court in which the suit was filed would agree with Broadbent. Why else would they have settled?

It needs also to be said that Eric Asimov did a fine piece of reportage in the article, getting interviews with both Wallace and Broadbent’s son, Bartholomew. Wallace expressed outrage that Random House settled, and maintained that he, Wallace, “never felt that Mr. Broadbent acted in bad faith, and contrary to his claims, I maintain that ‘The Billionaire’s Vinegar’ does not suggest that he did.’’

I’ve read The Billionaire’s Vinegar and in my judgment, nothing Wallace wrote was ad hominem, inflammatory, derogatory, baseless or impugned Broadbent’s character. Broadbent, in fact, comes across as painstakingly thorough in researching the bottle. Others might find him a little credulous; I didn’t. It doesn’t matter if the bottle was a fake; what matters is that Broadbent believed it was real. Wallace, a professional writer and editor, did first-rate journalism, quoting people he’d interviewed and relating the facts as they occurred. The Billionaire’s Vinegar is an outstanding work of journalism. I wish I’d written it.

What shocks and bothers me is the effect this kind of lawsuit could have on journalists who might hedge their bets, and perhaps not even write certain articles, if they’re afraid of getting sued. Heck, I’m even reluctant to write this blog. Maybe I said something wrong and Broadbent will sue me? Ditto for publishing houses. Will Random House and others now refuse to publish certain books because their lawyers advise them not to?

I’ve got to say that Michael Broadbent is an amazing person, a very important one in the history of wine in the late 20th century, and a writer whose The Great Vintage Wine Book was hugely instrumental in my own wine education. So was his Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting, whose 1979 edition I still have and treasure. It’s one of the best how-to-taste books ever. But I wish he hadn’t resorted to suing Random House. Lots of people believed, and still believe, that the Jefferson bottle was fake, but I don’t believe anybody ever thought that Broadbent was involved. With this lawsuit, unfortunately, Michael Broadbent has tarnished his reputation.

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Three — count ‘em, 3 — for the price of one!

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Hey, who says you don’t get your money’s worth for this blog? Here’s a Threefer.

1. Talkin’ Sonoma County

Somebody from the Sonoma County Wine Library called the other day to do a little phone interview with me. She wanted to know, basically, how I thought the Sonoma County Wineries Association could do a better job of marketing and promoting Sonoma County wines. My answer was: it can’t.

This stuff is going to appear in print someplace. The interviewer sent me a draft of her article, and while I completely approve it, and am sure I really said all the things she quotes me as saying, I want to put my remarks in context. This was, after all, a long conversation we had, and the quotes were preceded and followed by other statements that gave more complete meaning to them.

(I should add that, as a news guy myself who’s conducted literally thousands of interviews over the years, not just with wine industry people but with cops, politicians, business tycoons, lawyers, doctors, crime victims, artists, judges, kids, dying people, you name it, I understand the challenges of getting quotes right, and of presenting them in a way that doesn’t distort their intended meaning. It can be difficult.)

So here are the quotes, with my amplifications.

1. “Sonoma County should not market itself as a region. The only region that means anything to anyone,” Heimoff says, “is Napa.”

What I meant: What I was saying was that I don’t think the words “Sonoma County” have much meaning to the average wine consumer. They do to people in the know, like you and me, but we’re not average consumers. To me, “Sonoma County” is a virtual guarantee of quality, of good viticulture and enology, of smart, hard-working people. But to most Americans, it’s like, “What part of Napa is Sonoma in?” They just don’t get it, and I don’t know if they ever will. So I’m not saying Sonoma “should not” in the moral, prescriptive sense of “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s more like I’m saying, “I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of marketing money promoting Sonoma County, because it’s not likely to be effective.”

2. He believes Sonoma was, “very promiscuous in the 80s in developing its AVAs.” Napa “was deliberate and said it did not want to rush. Sonoma is now paying the price,” he believes, with too many AVAs which mean nothing to the consumer, though an AVA like Russian River, he declares, has been very adroit in its marketing.

What I meant: Sonoma rushed out in the 1980s making all these AVAs before the terroir was properly understood. That caused bafflement, even among wine writers, but it also robbed the “Sonoma County” brand as a whole of the potential for respect and recognition, and fed (or attempted to feed) that energy into the sub-AVAs. Trying to promote “Sonoma County” now is a little like trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

3. Much more important, he says, for Sonoma’s future is that, “people buy brands. In fact, brands are the only thing that people look for. I think in tough economic times people tend to stay with what they know, so to me, that would bode well for some of the more reputable brands in the country.”

What I meant: With hundreds of wineries in Sonoma County, they’re not all going to succeed, even if the public suddenly starts thinking that Sonoma County is the greatest thing since sliced bread, which they won’t. No, the most visible, respected brands will sell because people know and trust them. At the high level, a Williams Selyem doesn’t have to rely on a relationship with Sonoma County; people line up to buy it because it’s a brand. The same goes for Chateau St. Jean or Sebastiani or Geyser Peak; people buy the name, not the grape source. In Napa Valley, it’s a little different; people are so mesmerized by those two words, they believe anything from Napa Valley has to be great, which of course is nonsense.

4. “Newer vintners need to be aware they will have to build their brands by getting high scores for their wines from good critic. There is nothing,” he says, “that moves bottles off the shelf better than a high score from a reputable critic.”

What I meant: This would be self-serving if it weren’t true. The single best way for a winery (especially an unknown or little-known one) to sell wine is to get a high score. We can argue about who’s a “good critic” and who’s not, but not today. Put it this way: Which will sell more wine, an Enthusiast 100 or a Sonoma County AVA? Duh.

5. His tough-love wisdom at the moment: “Focus. It’s hard right now. And it’s every brand for itself. It’s definitely dog eat dog out there.”

What I meant: Exactly what it says. Woof woof.

2. Wine Fraud hits Canada, no longer limited to Europe

I’m continuing to read and enjoy Benjamin Lewis’s “What Price Bordeaux?” book, which is a romp through everything you ever wanted to know about the great wines of the Left and Right Banks. Each chapter is immensely interesting in its own right. I’m up to “Plus Ça Change” — “the more things change,” as in “the more they stay the same — which is about fakery, fraud, aduleration, mislabeling, and the entire Rogue’s Gallery of crooked practices which seems to have infected the world of fine wine forever.

When I was reading the chapter on Sunday morning I wondered if fakery exists in California. Just a little while later I sat down at the computer, went to Meininger’s Wine Business International to check on the day’s news, and saw this headline, from The Vancouver Sun: Canadians react angrily to faux wines.

Seems that some pretty big wine companies “buy bulk wine from cheap sources outside Canada, bottle it here and sell it in the B.C. [British Columbia] Wines section of government liquor stores.” This “could even be a violation of the criminal provisions of the federal Competition Act [and] at the very least it’s unethical.” Some of the wine apparently is labeled “Cellared in Canada” which, apparently, does not mean that the grapes are from Canada, although the average consumer might be forgiven for thinking so.

This brouhaha brings to mind the famous WineGate Scandal, which Lewis recounts in Plus Ça Change. In the mid-1970s, a negociant house bought cheap Vin de Table red wine. He also bought some real AOC Bordeaux white wine. He then changed the color of the wine on the paperwork for his AOC Bordeaux from white to red, which allowed him to sell it for much more money than a table wine would fetch. Of course, he had to correspondingly lower the price on his white wine, since it was “demoted” from AOC Bordeaux to Vin de Table. But he still made “several million francs of profits in a period of four months” before the fraud was discovered by shocked, shocked authorities. (Only the previous year, the President of the INAO, the AOC’s governing body, had insisted that “Our system of control has been perfected so that [fraud] is impossible.”)

So it can happen in Canada. But here in California? Well, we all remember that in 1994, Fred Franzia “pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud with Bronco by falsely labelling grapes,” according to the story about him in last May’s edition of The New Yorker. But that was 15 years ago, and to the best of my knowledge, California wine has seen no fraud since. Every once in a while the question arises of whether or not wineries send critics like me “special” bottles for review — bottles that aren’t the real wine — and while it wouldn’t surprise me if that were true, there’s no way to know. (All you investigative bloggers out there, here’s the route to stardom: Find such a case and bring the winery down.) There are, of course, rampant tales of fraud in the wine auction and old bottle communities, but I can’t get too upset about that, since it doesn’t impact 99.9% of consumers.

I think the Franzia case was a shot across the bow to California (and American) vintners, a warning from federal law enforcement officials that they won’t tolerate such outrageously deceptive practices. Perhaps far more interesting than outright fraud is adulteration — the “improvement” of wine by adding chemicals for flavor, texture and the like. Although the practice is frequently deplored by winemakers, it’s widespread, and there are currently no regulations, state or federal, to disclose them to the public. Should there be? I don’t know. How many more words can you squeeze onto a label? They’re already getting pretty crowded. Maybe wineries could make the information available online.

3. How to make cult wine and be graceful

And speaking of Plus Ça Change, I read with great interest yesterday’s front page article on Dick Grace in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which Mr. Grace skillfully administers the coup de main to the dozens of Napa Valley cult wines that regularly exceed the $225 price tag on his Grace Family Cabernet. The Chron’s wine editor, Jon Bonné, wrote that Grace “is credited with creating California’s first cult Cabernet,” a citation that may be undermined by the craze that attached to Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon when that wine first appeared in the 1960s. But it’s true enough, and the point is that Mr. Grace views the metastasis of cult Cabs with some proper skepticism. He told Jon, “We have to get over what I call the trophy mentality,” and Jon quoted his wife, Ann, as saying that some of the newer cult wines say more about “an address” than anything else.

Well, I can’t argue with that. I don’t taste all the Napa cults but I do taste a lot of them and I can unhesitatingly say that your quality-price ratio is poor in many cases. (The Napa Valley Vintners kindly invited me to a private tasting of cult wines I don’t routinely get to taste. The tasting is Nov. 5. I’ll be reviewing the wines, blind and formally, for Wine Enthusiast, but I should be able to write about the tasting here.)

You can agree or disagree with Mr. and Mrs. Grace — I tend to agree — but what struck me, when I thought about it, were the parallels between their attitude toward the newby cult Cabs, and the way that some of the older, Baby Boomer wine critics view the younger bloggers. Not to paint everyone with the same broad brush (something I’ve been accused of), but you can say generally that some of the older writers saw the younger bloggers as upstarts, not fully qualified, yet out there making statements anyway. That’s kind of like the Graces saying that some (not all) of the newer cult wines are wannabes rather than proven commodities.

Are the newer cult owners resentful that the Godfather of Cult Cabs, Dick Grace himself, faulted them? Maybe there’s been some grumbling. The Chronicle is Northern California’s largest newspaper, and this article was on the front page of the Sunday edition, meaning that a lot of people read it. But if they have hurt feelings, I doubt if they’ll express them in public. Besides, I have to think that many of the newby cults know, in their heart of hearts, that what Mr. and Mrs. Grace said is true. These overblown wines, crafted with the help of hired celebrity winemakers and grapegrowers, are “marketing tool[s], as opposed to wines with a distinctive character,” as Mr. Grace asserted. The pendulum indeed “has swung too far.” And in at least one other aspect, the Graces are attempting to make up karmically for the wealth and luxury that their lives have accorded them. A Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama, Mr. Grace contributes large sums of money to humanitarian causes. He calls this act of charity a “self-correction” after realizing that there is a higher purpose than wealth or fame. It’s enormously gratifying to hear him concede that the prices his wine commanded were “an extension of my overblown ego” and to see him making up for it.

Maybe Mr. Grace could hold Buddhism classes for his fellow cult wine producers in Napa Valley and elsewhere. They have a lot to learn from him.

dalailama


Book Review: Been Doon So Long: A Randall Grahm Vinthology

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Many more people will praise this highly anticipated book than will actually read it. In that, it’s something like “Finnigan’s Wake” or the “The Divine Comedy” and other tomes Grahm has enjoyed parodying in his Bonny Doon newsletter, works that few can get through but nonetheless thought they should respect. In fact, the book consists largely of old material from the newsletters, and if you couldn’t finish one before, it’s even more unlikely you’ll be able to get through all 318 pages of them.

Randall Grahm is, of course, the California vintner who started Bonny Doon in the 1980s and was made famous by — well, by himself, by being eccentric and interesting to the media and innovative (the word “visionary” is frequently used), and by having one of the most unusual newsletters in the industry. His wines never rose to the level of First Growth, but they were good enough to get by. He deserves proper respect for having been an early proponent of Rhône varieties.

Now, in this new publication, from University of California Press, Grahm adds another credit to his resumé: book author.

The Introduction and the chapter following it, “The Etiquette (and History) of the Bonny Doon ETIQUETTE,” both of which were written for the book, are its most interesting and readable sections. Grahm, always known for a tongue-in-cheek candor, informs us how throughout his career he has been an opportunistic winemaker, making wines of convenience and sometimes even interest, but seldom of terroir, although terroir was what he spoke of incessantly and criticized other wines for not having. Along the way he slams those villains that long have piqued his ire: “the adult theme park, Napa Valley,” the international style of winemaking, winemaker “tricks,” Italian-American wine salesmen wearing “two kilos…of gold chain,” Robert Parker (“Parcade”), the Wine Spectator, Chardonnay, the 100-point system. He comes out of the closet, as it were, as perhaps a greater marketer than winemaker , while promising us that his best days lie ahead.

The reprinted newsletter parodies take up the brunt of the book. They occasionally tickle the funny bone, eliciting laughs (an ostensible wine periodical is “The Avocado del Vino,” “a bimensual publication” which “resembled nothing so much as pulp fiction…lurid and juicy.”) The repeated references (I stopped counting after a while), both direct and indirect in the form of satire, to Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave me pause. Grahm puts them down so thoroughly and savagely, you have to wonder why he’s so obsessed with them. He’s like a crime victim who can’t stop thinking about his tormentor. Or perhaps the Stockholm Syndrome explains this curious fetish.

Despite the occasional chuckle, more often these wordy take-offs are just boring. Grahm tells us how much fun he had writing them, but it’s doubful any reader will even be able to finish the overlong, overly wrought and dense sendup of Dante’s Inferno. In truth, Grahm’s commentaries on his parodies, also written afresh for the book, are far more interesting than the parodies themselves.

The “Poesy” section again allows Grahm to display his verbal pyrotechnics in full glory. The man obviously knows how to write (and comes dangerously close, here and there, to admitting to being a better writer than winemaker), but, once again, I suspect this section will be impatiently skimmed, not studied. Ditto for “DoonTune,” the section consisting of too-clever-by-half takeoffs on rock songs (“Born to Rhône”).

“Enough Rope” contains yet more “extracts from the nooseletter,” with additional wordplay, in-jokes and puns. If you like this sort of stuff, it’s a romp. For me, it’s a slog. Grahm is fiendishly smart, but the polysyllabic swamp and self-conscious (and self-referential) stylistic flourishes eventually got to me. Too bad. There are a lot of good ideas in the book, but they’re so elaborately oaked, so intervened with in bells and whistles, that it’s hard to appreciate them; their terroir is masked by 100 percent charred new prose. Sometimes, in writing as in wine, less is more.

Still, Grahm at his best is, well, Grahmifying. He’s a boon-afied jokester; you can’t help but to relate to almost everything he says. When he drops the literary pretense and just lets himself be silly, he’s a riot. “The Heartbreak of Wine Geekdom” is classic. (The snob brings “his own Impitoyable tasting glasses to the restaurant.” Sweet.) The essays that conclude the book — reprints of speeches — contain important thoughts, but in a tendentious style. It is as if Grahm wanted to show a more serious, academic side, to counter-balance the wit. But they make for very difficult reading, like transcripts.

I suspect “Doon” will sell well. It’s a handsome book (as are all U.C. Press books, including mine), and Grahmanatics will happily display it on their coffee tables. It’s not a bad book, and in many respects an admirable one. I just wish it were, doon it, better.


Book review: “What Price Bordeaux” by Benjamin Lewin MW

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There’s something retro about this book, in the best sense. It reads more like something from Hugh Johnson or André Simon than a slapdash quickie from today. Authoritative, classic in structure, elegant and complex, like a Classified Growth itself.

The book contains much that has been written elsewhere on Bordeaux: its ancient history, explanations of its multitude of appellations, how the AOC “pyramid” works and the history of its evolution, a detailed analysis of terroir, the differences between the Left and Right banks, observations on scores and pricing, and — most relevant and interesting to me — a critical examination of the famous 1855 Classification, which not only set in stone the hierarchy by which the famous chateaux are ranked, but established a template that every other famous wine region in the world tries, consciously or not, officially or not, to mimic.

Lewin asks questions that are as fundamental as any that may be posed concerning wine, and it’s amazingly odd how little consensus there is concerning their answers, even going on the Classification’s 154th anniversary.

- Given that even First and Second Growths were often still blended with Rhône and Spanish wines (to strengthen and colorize them) as late as 1865, “Were there in fact any consumers who knew the taste of the unadulterated wines of the Médoc when the chateaux were classified in 1855?”

- Given the frequent changes in vineyard location (due to swaps/trading, purchases and new plantings), does it make sense to classify chateaux in a way that suggests permanance of terroir rather than continual change?

- “Do some chateaux have better terroir, or is their position in the classification self-reinforcing, giving them greater resources because they can claim higher prices?”

- “When chateaux decline due to neglect, can they be resurrected by new investment? And how can chateaux originally lower down in the hierarchy fight their way up?”

- Given the fact that much of the Médoc’s vineyard area sits in areas that used to be marshes but were drained for agriculture, does it make sense to refer to “natural terroir”? “Whether the terroir is natural or made by man, the basic question is: how far are the great wines of Bordeaux driven by terroir? Do they provide unique representations of conditions that can be found only in their specific vineyards? Or are they brands, representing commercial marques where the underlying quality depends on changing methods and sources of production?”

Lewin sums up with a final question: “Should the hierarchy established then retain validity in the very different conditions of today?”

These are brave questions to ask, and they ought to be asked. There are so many fertile areas to explore and discuss, one hardly knows where to begin; I could blog on these quotes alone for the next year. But here’s some food for thought:

Never again should we speak of terroir as something pristine and unadulterated, existing in and of itself, like Aquinas’ prime mover. There is no such thing. Wine is the product of terroir and man/woman, or what the great enologist, Emile Peynaud, calls “cru.”

Never should California attempt anything as silly and insubstantial as a hierarchy of wineries or vineyards.

Never should we conclude that one area is permanently better than another. Five hundred years ago Bordeaux was a mass of swamps, and the wines often were so thin and austere, they had to be mixed with riper, darker wines from warmer climates. Today, one can complain that some regions in California are too hot to ever produce fine wine. But who’s to say that some unknown mitigations will not upset those calculations in ten years or twenty?

The implications for the unstated, unofficial hierarchy we have today (Napa Valley at the top) are obvious. No one can rest on pre-established laurels. It took the old order centuries to rationalize itself because historical conditions meant that things could change only very slowly, if at all. We are now in the new order, when change occurs in 140 characters at the touch of a “send” button. I’ll leave it to others to answer Lewin’s question, “Should the hierarchy established then retain validity in the very different conditions of today?” But I will say that every hierarchy that exists today is in danger of being turned over.

“What Price Bordeaux” was published by Vendange Press, a Dover imprint. I highly recommend it.


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