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Friday Fishwrap

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The San Francisco Chronicle’s ace restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, yesterday published a blog piece asking if “restaurants…should be doing more to woo baby boomers.”

As Michael (who is a Boomer himself, I believe) observes, “restaurateurs are always looking for the younger customer with disposable income.” Then he asks the key question: “Is that the right approach?”

Restaurateurs aren’t the only ones doing everything they can to “woo” Millennials. If you check out most magazines and newspapers, they, too, are “reaching out” (hate that phrase) to consumers in their 20s and 30s. Look at the advertisements, articles and T.V. programs and commercials. It’s as if everyone were 28, except, possibly, in ads for hearing aids. Like Bauer, I wonder if this doesn’t represent a basic misconception. After all, Baby Boomers are the ones with disposable incomes in America. The Millennials are saddled with rents or mortgages, the cost of raising kids, paying off their credit cards and so on. Boomers have largely bought everything they’ll ever need, and so they have the money to spend on restaurants, wine and other “lifestyle” items. And yet it’s as if we don’t exist. Makes me wonder.

* * *

I’m starting to taste the 2012 Pinot Noirs as they come in. So far, I’ve done about 110 of them. As you may know, I’ve had high expectations for this vintage. So far, however, the Pinots are failing to excite me. There’s plenty of fruit. In fact, in some cases, I’d call the wines fruit bombs. And they’re not inexpensive. Most are in the $30-$50 range. Still, my hopes remain high. The best wineries won’t release their wines until this summer or even later, and the great vineyard designated bottles have yet to come (it seems like most of the 2012 Pinots that are out now have regional, not vineyard, designations, or are blends of several vineyards with proprietary names).

It goes without saying that just because a vintage is great, not all wines from it are great! This is where I always get perplexed when coming up with my vintage scores for Wine Enthusiast. If I give a high score to a vintage, variety and region (say, 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley), that doesn’t mean all ’07 Napa Cabs are great. My vintage assessments are based on what a majority of the best wines can achieve. That is obviously a slippery parameter. Two thousand and seven was the easiest vintage assessment I’ve had in years, because the best wines, from all varieties and regions, were all so good on release, and many of them were ageable too–well, the red wines, anyhow. But not every vintage is that easy to analyze. The 2012 vintage, on paper, was easy, but we all know that reality has a funny way of intruding on theory. I’m still anxiously awaiting the best 2012 Pinots, but perhaps I’m a little more jaundiced than I was two months ago.

And then there are the 2012 Cabernets. To call them so far a trickle is an overstatement. I’ve been sent fewer than sixty, with most of them priced from below $10 to $15 or so. In other words, it isn’t possible to make any kind of coherent assessment of the vintage based on this scanty evidence. But again, on paper the vintage looks excellent for Cabs and Bordeaux blends.

* * *

There’s a great column in our local free paper, SF Weekly, by the arts and culture columnist, Katy St. Clair, who’s always such fun to read. In it, she muses why she likes those Michael Bolton commercials for Honda so much. These commercials have become standing jokes everywhere because they’re so cheesy. Katy wonders if the cheesiness is exactly what makes them so addictively watchable. Are they intentionally cheesy–ironic self-aware allusions, like every Steve Carell or Will Ferrell character? Or were they created sincerely by the advertising agency, making them unintentionally cheesy? I don’t know the answer, but it did occur to me, reading Katy’s article, that part of the reason I have mixed feelings about winery use of social media is that the products (especially the videos) are so damned earnest. There’s no sense of humor, no trace of mocumentary or snicker. You comments are welcome, and have a great weekend!


Friday Fishwrap

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Dr. Loosen, the famous Mosel vintner, is right to be concerned “that someone will get a flawed bottle of our wine without already knowing how the wine should taste.”

If the customer doesn’t know what TCA is, or can’t tell that a wine is oxidized, it spells commercial disaster. That customer might conclude that the winery sucks, or that particular variety or region, and never buy it again. The solution in most cases to these threats is the screwtop, but I think we may have reached a tipping point in their use. That closure has gotten as far as it’s likely to for quite a number of years.

* * *

I’ve been tasting a lot of red wines, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and blends of the two, from the newish Coombsville appellation, in southeastern Napa Valley. This would be one of Napa’s coolest appellations anyway, due to its proximity to San Pablo Bay; but the fact that the current vintages are mostly 2010s and 2011–two chilly years–makes the wines even more cool-climate than usual. And they are noteworthy, wines for people who don’t like the bigger, fatter, more opulent style found from Oakville to Calistoga.

* * *

More and more evidence continues to mount that that Morgan Stanley report of a “global wine shortage”  was bogus. Here’s the latest: We’ll never know what really prompted Morgan Stanley to put out that panicky prediction. But speaking personally, I no longer believe anything that any investment bank says. I think they have only their own pecuniary interests in mind, and don’t care about their impact on the greater society. It’s funny, this is one area where the Tea Party and Liberals can agree. By the way, two days ago we learned that U.S. wine sales have hit an all-time high. But keep in mind that California, which provides about 90% of all the wines consumed in the U.S., is coming off two gigantic harvests (2012-2013). I think our state’s wineries will be able to keep the public’s appetite satisfied.

* * *

Speaking of Coombsville, I reviewed an amazing Cabernet yesterday, Marita’s Vineyard 2007 Select Private Reserve. I’d previously given exceptionally high scores to their wines, so there’s something going on there. I didn’t know anything about the winery, so I looked them up: What a great story. It’s a project of the Montes family, run by two brothers, Bulmaro and Manuel, Jr., along with winemaker Kurt Niznik. This is a winery to watch.

Have a great weekend!


Friday Fishwrap

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I was pleased to see the California State Legislature approve yesterday a resolution to honor California’s Mexican American Vintners. The Legislature, which is based in the State capital of Sacramento, will hold a reception on Sept. 4 “to honor, advance and recognize the contributions and history of California’s Mexican-American winemakers.”

The event was announced by State Senator Noreen Evans, a Democrat who represents much of the North Coast’s wine regions. Sen. Evans also chairs the Senate Select Committee on California’s Wine Industry. Most if not all of the 14 family winemakers who will be honored are members of, or helped form, the Napa Sonoma Mexican-American Vintners Association.

It’s all too rare that California officially gets to give a shoutout to our Mexican-American vintners. Although there aren’t many of them at this time–in the sense of owning their own wineries–anyone with the remotest familiarity with the California wine industry understands that it would completely collapse without the efforts of thousands of Mexican and Latino employees, from assistant winemakers to field workers. So, in a sense, these workers also are being honored, which is only right.

And it seems Hispanic Americans are learning to love wine! Yahoo Finance reported this morning that “annual wine consumption among Hispanics would increase by nearly 50 million cases over the next 20 years. That would put annual wine consumption by U.S. Hispanics at nearly 95 million cases…”.

* * *

Is it any surprise that “drinking two to seven glasses of wine a week lowers the risk of becoming depressed by 32% on average…”? “Their hearts shall be glad as with wine” says the prophet Zechariah. Isaiah advises men to “drink [wine] in the courts of my sanctuary” while praising the Lord. Haven’t we always known that wine chases away the blues?

* * *

The 2013 vintage so far looks like a great one. For all the talk about how hot it’s been, it really hasn’t been that toasty. The harvest looks to be early, but that’s because of the warm, dry winter. Spring and summer by contrast have been mild, but not hot. We don’t even seem to be gearing up for the usual Labor Day heat wave: The forecast is more of the same: dry, cool nights, warm days after the fog lifts. If this weather continues for the next 45 days it will be an incredible vintage. But anything can happen.

* * *

I’ve been following the Gary Vaynerchuk vs. New York State Liquor Authority brouhaha the last week or so. The SLA apparently has banned Gary’s wine store, Wine Library–the biggest wine retailer in New Jersey–from sending wine to New York customers. This is regrettable, as it’s state interference in the free exchange of goods between willing adults, which is wrong. By the way, whatever happened to Gary? Once he gave up his Wine Library T.V. show, he seems to have disappeared.

Have a great weekend!


Friday Fishwrap

8 comments

I tasted yesterday through a bunch of single clone and clonal blends of Pinot Noir from a Russian River Valley winery. There were six in all. I don’t want to single the winery out, which is a practice of mine in this blog. But I do want to use this occasion to express my views on clonal bottlings, which are almost invariably disappointing.

There can be only one legitimate reason for special designating Pinot Noir by clone (or by vineyard block, for that matter): specialness. All the rest of the reasons can be attributed to marketing. It’s sad to think that a marketing person could trump the taste of a winemaker, but that’s preferable to thinking that a winemaker doesn’t have the taste to begin with to recognize the limitations of a single-clone Pinot Noir.

This all started with the various block bottlings from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Although they’re all part of the same vineyard, the various blocks were so different from each other, they deserved separate bottlings. Hence La Tache, Echezeaux and all the rest. I’m not here to argue that Romanée-Conti shouldn’t be block designated. I’m suggesting that, in all too many cases, California wineries that do clonal bottlings are making a mistake. Each clone by itself has a theoretical divot that other clones or selections can fill in to make a better wine. If you see a clonal bottling as part of the winery’s Pinot lineup, be skeptical.

* * *

Here’s a prime example of a winery that used social media to boost its business.

Pacific Rim, which makes Riesling from Columbia Valley grapes, seems to have struck gold, via the artful use of Twitter, Facebook, their own website, and a series of giveaway campaigns designed to lure customers in and, once they’re there, give them reasons to stay (not the least of which is quality: my colleague, Paul Gregutt, has given them consistently good reviews over the years).

This is one of the few instances I’ve seen where social media apparently has had a positive impact on the winery. I wish the New York Times, which reported the story, had done a little more research proving that it was social media, and not other factors, that was responsible for Pacific Rim’s success. It’s conceivable that the winery would be selling 200,000 cases a year without social media. Still, it’s pretty impressive. The company’s leaders seem to have a coherent vision how to use a coordinated social media approach, instead of just throwing a bunch of spaghetti against the wall and hoping a few strands will stick.

* * *

Tom Wark called me yesterday to ask if I think that a wine sent out for review when it’s very young is not as good as one that’s been held back by the winery for a few years.

My answer was, of course not.

Apparently, some other writers make the assumption that if “x” winery sends out its $80 2010 Cabernet now, it’s because the wine isn’t very good, whereas if “y” winery sends its 2009 out, the wine must be good because it’s older.

If that isn’t the silliest thing I ever heard, I don’t know what is. I don’t make any assumption about the quality of a wine based on how long the winery did or didn’t sit on it. (If you’re tasting blind, you wouldn’t necessarily know the vintage or release date anyway.) The one assumption I do make, when I see an expensive Cabernet that seems like it was rushed to market, is that the winery may be having liquidity problems. But that has nothing to do with the quality of the wine. When producers ask me when to send their wine, I always tell them: When the winemaker says it’s ready to be tasted. This is not a decision that should be left to marketing, sales or P.R. Unfortunately, all too often, it is.

* * *

Wine of the Week

Summers 2009 Checkmate Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain

Summers has produced solid, if relatively uninspiring, Cabernets for years. With the release of this small production (200 cases), expensive ($100) wine, they’ve outdone themselves. It was my highest scoring wine of the week.


Friday Fishwrap

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Do you care which wines Obama served British Prime Minister Cameron at the White House? I don’t. But some muckraking journalists do. They’re making a big fuss over the secrecy because the President’s staff is all mum’s the word. Even BloombergBusinessWeek has waded into the pseudo-controversy, as if this were another “Gate” scandal akin to Watergate. People, get a grip. We have more important things to worry about than which wine was poured and how much it cost.

* * *

In a related absurdity, the inevitable has finally occurred in China, as concerns over fake Bordeaux mount following the bubble-like price explosion of Lafite, etc. Why nobody saw this coming is beyond me. China bootlegs everything else of value; why not fine wine? When I was at Screaming Eagle on Wednesday we had a long talk about counterfeit wine. The management of Screaming Eagle, understandably concerned (the wine sells for $750 a bottle on the mailing list), described to me in some detail the steps they go through to avoid it. I’ll skip some of the details, but let’s just say that every bottle is “tagged” in the same way my dog, Gus, has a microchip in him that’s exclusive to him.

* * *

I’m seeing a lot of mold on the 2010 Pinot Noirs, which are now rushing in for me to review. In my Vintage Diary that year, I quoted, on Oct. 28, an article from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that said “Last weekend’s rain added to an already miserable season. It spawned mold…Damaged fruit was left hanging on the vine.” I’ve encountered it particularly in Sonoma Coast and Carneros Pinots.

* * *

Yes, the price on California wine is going up. We all know that. It’s due to several factors: light crops due to the weather, a lack of new plantings due, in part, to the recession, and increased demand. This article describes how it’s playing out in the Central Coast, but the same is true of the North Coast. That doesn’t mean consumers won’t be able to find inexpensive California wine. They will, but it will increasingly come from Central Valley grapes. Central Valley grapegrowers are aware of this, and are reacting accordingly. They’re planting new vineyards, improving quality and are no longer content with being known as a source of inferior jug wine. As a result, “the wine grape industry in the Central Valley has strengthened,” according to the Porterville Recorder.

Don’t forget, the Feds require only 75% of a varietal wine to be made from the named variety. That means 24.9% can come from someplace else. Next time you drink a nice coastal California wine, remember that factoid.


Friday Fishwrap: tourism fights, Napa warming and Madonna!

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Finding the right balance between tourism in wine country, while protecting the privacy of residents, is never easy, especially in California, where these things always tend to get politicized and people get passionate on both sides.

I remember the brouhaha over the Napa Valley Wine Train, the tasting room ordinances, the protesters in Knights Valley upset with the late Jess Jackson’s plans there, even the worries of the remote Anderson Valleyites that their rural back country is being developed too fast.

Now, down in the gorgeous Santa Ynez Valley, there’s another ruckus, this time concerning the plans of the Larner family to “develop a winery, convert a structure into a tasting room, and host a series of special events,” according to this article in the local paper. [Note: Monica Larner, a member of that family, is the Italian editor for Wine Enthusiast, and a good friend.]

I don’t see these issues as either/or propositions. Surely it’s possible to allow wineries to do a little expansion, while taking the fears of neighbors into consideration. Each side has to give a little to get a little. It’s the American way.

* * *

I’ve been arguing for years that Napa Valley is not getting warmer, nor is coastal California as a whole [“coastal” defined as about 40-50 miles from the shoreline and inland]. Actually, it’s getting colder. We just went through another bizarrely chilly, wet Spring and Summer in 2011, the seventh year in a row that threw vintners a curveball. So it’s puzzling to me to see yet another story on how Napa must learn to adapt to global warming, this one from NPR’s website on Nov. 3.

It quotes Andy Walker, probably the most respected viticultural scientist in California; he’s at U.C Davis. Prof. Walker doesn’t actually make the statement that Napa is warming up. That’s implied by the writer. He does mention varieties like Barbera and Nero d’Avola that could do well in a warmer climate, but I would suggest that Napa Valley is not the place to plant them, even if they were marketable, which they’re not. Napa Valley rolled the dice on Cabernet and Bordeaux reds, and it’s worked quite well, wouldn’t you agree? Don’t mess with success, as the old saying goes. Where I would look to plant these warmer climate varieties, as well as other southern Mediterranean varieties including the Port grapes, is in hot areas like Temecula, which have tried to compete, unsuccessfully, in the continental climate sweepstakes of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. They might as well try something different. Napa Valley will continue to produce some of the greatest Cabernets in the world for the rest of the 21st century (barring some unpredictable catastrophe). If I were growing grapes in Napa, I wouldn’t lose any sleep worrying about whether I should rebud the Tokalon Vineyard to Barbera.

* * *

Smirnoff’s Nightlife Exchange Project is a fascinating instance of how to run a wildly successful social media campaign to promote an alcoholic beverage. So successful, in fact, that you could use it as the poster child for what 99.9% of wineries will never be able to do, and hence of little informational use to them.

Yes, if you can hire Madonna as a collaborator, it’s easy to generate 1.8 billion online impressions across six continents. (Memo to Madonna: Will you help to promote steveheimoff.com? If not, I’ll ask Lady Gaga. Beyonce already turned me down.) But I can’t agree with Michelle Klein, Smirnoff’s digital expert, that there’s a take home lesson in Smirnoff’s campaign for anyone besides big corporate companies like Smirnoff. She talks about “linking digital and physical engagement” as the “sweet spot for marketers.” Well, of course ordinary people are going to vie for the chance to dance with Madonna on her next tour! That’s their reward for being one of those “impressions.” But how is an ordinary winery supposed to link the digital experience with a physical engagement, in quite the same way? Says Klein of the campaign: “It’s about people…It’s the spirit of a team that loves to take risks that makes it happen…the magic comes from the content that the consumer generates.” What does that mean for the average winery, which barely has the time much less the budget to lure consumers to their websites, Facebook page or Twitter feed? If I’m running a family winery and want to jump more deeply into social media, I read Klein’s statement and go, “Duh! What the heck does that mean to me?” Take risks? Spirit? Magic? Forget the gobbletygook, just tell me what to do!


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