SH: How do you keep learning? How do you know what’s going on?
GN: One way is to have my Lieutenant-Governor’s office in an incubator.
SH: I was going to ask you about that. Why not in the State Building?
GN: I want to experience it. I don’t want to spend time with lobbyists, with security out front, 18 stories up, looking out over Civic Center–
SH: Do you have friends here? You meet all the guys?
GN: Every six months there’s a new group of people that come in. There’s energy.
SH: These are basically young entrepreneurs?
GN: Yeah, time-of-life youth, but also state of mind: There’s also older folks—
SH: You’re 47?
SH: Do you feel the clock [ticking]? Is it important for you to reach out to people half your age, to stay current?
GN: Yeah. I mean, Bobby Kennedy said it: What the world needs are the qualities of youth, not a time of life but a state of mind. A quality of imagination. So if you can maintain that state of mind, predominance of courage over love of ease, that’s a mindset. I want to feel connected to the world around me, and I want to understand this, because, again, you can’t pave over the old cow path. Something big is happening. We’re not explaining it, no one really understands it, but it’s so much bigger than just focusing our attention on Wall Street and hyper-financialization. That’s part of it, but there’s also something big happening with technology and globalization.
SH: Are there any books you can recommend?
GN: One of the best I’ve read in the last year is The Second Machine Age, which talks about the nature of technology, basically says “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” we’re in the second half where every doubling will lead to exponential change. What’s happening now is it’s artificial intelligence, meaning big data, it’s synthetic biology and genomics, it’s 3-D printing. Our new bottle at Odette is a 3-D-printed bottle. So it’s not, for me, science fiction, it’s fact. The world is radically changing.
SH: Let’s move on to same-sex marriage.
SH: You know how grateful the LGBT community is to you, personally.
GN: I hope so. I appreciate that
SH: So this is not a question, it’s just an acknowledgment. You have captured so many grateful people’s hearts for what you did. It was so fucking great. [I’m referring to then-Mayor Newsom championing same-sex marriage in San Francisco, which in my opinion led directly to Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that upheld the legality of same-sex marriage in America.]
GN: Oh, God bless.
SH: And so courageous and heartfelt. I don’t think anyone ever felt, Oh, Gavin’s doing this to get ahead, because if anything, it was a huge risk.
GN: Big setback.
SH: How was it a setback?
GN: Because at the time, it was tough. Even in my family, my father was furious. Catholic, old school. He says, “Can’t you call it something else?” And I had the archbishop [then William Levada], who was a huge supporter of mine, they had a huge protest at City Hall. So it was tough. A lot of family, a lot of friends, and some in my party turned their back on me for years.
SH: Democrats? I didn’t know that.
GN: Oh, boy, they were the worst. The biggest hypocrites were my fellow Democrats, who preached but didn’t practice. And ran, didn’t walk away.
SH: And now they’ve all embraced it.
GN: They embraced it, but it took them, not 2005, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, it took a lot of time. 2010, finally [former Maryland Gov. Martin] O’Malley and [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo, who were against it…they are friends of mine, I know them well, so I can speak from an authoritative position to tell you they were opposed…
SH: So where does this go? The battle does not seem to be over–
GN: Religious exemptions—
SH: Religious exemptions, there’s nullification out there, which Dr. King talked about.
GN: Yeah. You know, look, the Voting Rights Act didn’t stop Ferguson. And a Supreme Court decision is not going to stop homophobia. You have to change hearts, and that takes time. And I think it’s remarkable how fast this process has advanced, but we have an enormous amount of work to do, and you see that listening to folks like Mike Huckabee, who, I mean, will make a statement—not just in support of Kim Davis, that’s one thing—but when he made a comment that I just thought exposed him for who he is, beyond homophobic, this statement when there was a new appointee to head the Army, I can’t remember the gentleman’s name, just two weeks ago by the President, and Huckabee’s first reaction was, The only reason he’s been nominated is because he happens to be gay. It was to suck up to—
SH: Well, we know that about Huckabee. We know that about Santorum.
GN: These guys, they’re troglodytes.
SH: I want to talk about social media, which is huge obviously, and in the wine industry it’s become a real topic of conversation.
GN: Has it?
SH? How much should wineries get involved, should they invest money. And you’ve been a real pioneer, for a politician, in social media.
GN: You’re got to. If you don’t invest in the future, you’re not going to do very well there. You can deny it, but at the end of the day you’ve got to meet people where they are. It’s a world that’s gone mobile, local, social, a cloud crowd, and unless you’re there, you’re nowhere. So it’s not for me an after-thought. If it’s not integrated through your entire operation, if it’s a separate division, if you’ve got an I.T. guy or girl, you’ve missed the entire point. It’s got to be integrated into the entire body of work.
SH: A lot of small family winery owners are older, and they say, “I don’t tweet, I don’t blog, I don’t know how to do that.” What do you tell them?
GN: Yeah. You know, you get mentored by a twenty-something—
SH: Your nephew!
GN: Yeah. You hire a coach, so to speak, by hiring your grandkid’s best friend.
SH: How many platforms are you on?
GN: Oh, lots. I disproportionally invest heavily in twitter and Facebook and Instagram. We’ve got over a million folks on twitter, and a lot on Facebook and others. That’s where we dive deep. But I will play on all those others.
SH: Do you write your own stuff?
GN: Mostly. Or I’ll sign off on it. I’ll get “Here are three options, which one do you like?” Or I’ll just watch CNN and go—and those are the ones that are risky—someone on my staff will go, “What did you just say?!?” [laughs]
SH: Well, as long as you’re not CUI.
SH: Commenting under the influence.
GN: CUI? That’s funny! Yeah, I got into a twitter war with Huckabee a few weeks ago [laughs].
SH: Seriously? Mano a mano?
GN: Yeah. Then I did a big thing against Trump, you should check it out, we had a lot of fun.
SH: Who’s going to be the Republican nominee?
GN: As a Democrat, my biggest fear would be a Kasich-Rubio ticket.
SH: They are at least competent. They’re not—
GN: Yeah. And it’s geographically advantageous, with Ohio and Florida. There’s some freshness to that ticket.
SH: And a Latino.
GN: That’s exactly right. That’s the one I worry about, although I don’t necessarily see it taking shape. Kasich’s still struggling, although he may do well in New Hampshire. And Rubio’s the beneficiary of all this Trump back and forth with Bush and some of the others.
SH: Who’s the Democratic candidate?
GN: I still think it’s Hillary. I mean, unless there’s something deep that we don’t know about in the emails. Otherwise, I think at a certain point the drip-drip-drip exhausts itself. We’ve got another tranche of emails, maybe another two, three months of this, the Benghazi hearings are going to be critical, how she performs under that pressure… Even if Biden jumps in, and in some respects I think if Biden jumps in it really will help Hillary. It will sharpen her edges; she’s best when her back’s against the wall. She’ll, I think, take more risks. She’ll be more authentic. Her voice will be more resonant.
SH: And which party wins in 2016?
GN: I still think it’s—I look demographically, I look on the issues. If you look where the American people are, Democrats have seven of the top ten things the American people care about. And demographically, it’s very difficult for Republicans. And they’re doing such damage to their brand.
SH: They always damage themselves.
GN: But it’s extraordinary. They did that remarkable report, which they completely neglected, about what happened in the last Presidential election.
SH: I know! The “autopsy.”
GN: Dismissed it completely. Trump, Carly Fiorina, Rubio, who’s a hypocrite on every issue, he’s either flip-flopped or he’s in the stone age, climate change, women’s issues, choice, Cuba, I mean, it’s just as bad as it gets. With all due respect to Rubio, he’s an interesting guy, because he brands himself as fresh, but his policies are older than, I don’t know, I should try to be nicer.
SH: How is the Governor’s race going?
GN: It’s good. It’s nice running by yourself!
SH: No opposition?
GN: Not yet. But it’s so early, it’s tongue-in-cheek. There will be a lot of people in this race this time next year. But it’s 2-1/2 years for the primary, and this time next year there will be three or four people already announced that are quality people.
SH: Like who?
GN: The former Mayor of L.A. [Antonio Villaraigosa], the current Mayor [Eric Garcetti], one or two statewide electeds, couple billionaires, Tom Steyer.
SH: Are you not the prohibitive favorite?
GN: I like our starting position. But I’m taking nothing for granted, and that’s why I started early. So…
SH: Did you always have a plan for high elected office?
SH: I don’t mean when you were three.
GN: I’ve always like politics.
SH: But twenty years ago?
SH: Really? Because some of us who knew you then always felt like, this guy is working so damned hard, what is he working for?
GN: Yeah. But if I look back at my life, I kid you not, the happiest days of my life were running that wine store [the first PlumpJack, on Fillmore Street]. Sitting there stocking the wine late at night, in my jeans, listening to loud music, as some of the most blissful, relaxing, wonderful moments of my life. The energy of opening that, the passion, the camaraderie, friendship, family.
SH: Do you remember telling me, shortly after you opened, about a guy who came in and said he wanted a mixed case of whites and reds, he didn’t care what it was, you could pick them, as long as they were all Parker 90s or higher?
SH: And you told me, “I wanted to throw that guy out on the sidewalk but I thought that wouldn’t be a good way to start my business.”
GN: Yeah. Now we love Parker because he gives us 100 points on our Odette! The 2012 Reserve. I’ll tell you, I’ll take the 2013s over the ‘12s. Unbelievable. But I mean, what we did—you might recall–we had some fun. There were a few Parker scores and a few Spectator scores that were ten points apart, and those were the only scores we put up. Eighty points versus ninety! Eighty-five versus ninety-five! To make a point, the subjectivity here. There are some basic tenets of good wine, but beyond that, the rest is so subjective. That said, the power of those scores is extraordinary.
SH: It is, and let me ask you—since this comes up a lot—the conventional wisdom is that Millennials don’t care about scores, they care about peer-to-peer.
GN: It’s part of social media. Yeah. That’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought about that. Yeah, I think there’s real truth to that.
SH: Because we know the big important critics of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s are either retiring, or getting older. I don’t see anyone really rising up to take their place.
GN: There’s no hot-shot. So that makes it, in many ways, easier for non-incumbents, and much more challenging for others. It will be interesting how that plays out. I think our approach, one thing we don’t do is we don’t sell those scores to distributors, to our key customers. We’re working our tails off 24/7 to try to maintain a mom-and-pop approach and really build those relationships. Gordon and I will go out a couple times a year, hit 15, 20 places.
SH: They must flock to the door when you and Gordon Getty show up.
GN: The point is, we’re reaching out. And I think any good operation in the wine business does that.
SH: Will you be able to do that if you’re Governor?
GN: Not as much. But a little bit of that. If I’m going to show up somewhere, there’s no reason I can’t show up at one of my places for dinner, a winemaker dinner.
SH: Okay, last two fun questions. Tell me one thing we don’t know about your hair.
GN: [laughs] God. This is like Donald Trump. I took a little risk, did a little social media campaign, I kind of made fun of Trump’s hair, and then I realized that that’s not a very safe place for me to criticize! I’m open for a counter-punch. So I’m the butt of my own hair jokes. It’s fair game for criticism. There was a whole cartoon thing they did when I was Mayor, when I tried to stop wearing so much hair gel, and everyone said, “Oh, he’s going through a midlife crisis.” And then I put it back on. I can’t win with the hair.
SH: Would you ever just change the style?
GN: I did when I was Mayor! It lasted one week. There were, like, 25 articles about it. It was so preposterous, the reaction from a few well-known political pundits! [laughs]
SH: Question number two: Tips for staying in shape.
GN: Yeah. You gotta keep moving. You gotta move everyday. And if you’re not moving with intention every day, you gotta make sure that three, four days every week, you are. So, for me, minimum three, four days where I try to work out.
SH: Do you still run?
GN: A little bit.
SH: You used to run Marina Green.
GN: Yeah. I’m less running. If I run, I do sprints, not long runs. I’ll do the stationary bike, spinning bike, which I much prefer, get a good sweat quicker. And a little bit of weights.
SH: That’s it! Thank you Governor Newsom!
SH: Let’s move on to wine. Thoughts in general on the California wine industry.
GN: I mean, it’s not like Donald Trump, “Let’s make America great again,” because it’s already great. We keep raising the bar. The drought’s been the big question mark, what is the drought going to mean, in the medium and long term, for the wine industry and California. Of course, even though America is so Napa-centric, we’re conscious, more broadly, in the wine industry, that clearly that doesn’t paint a picture of the California wine industry that’s been impacted in other parts of the state significantly…
SH: What is your involvement in your wineries?
GN: You know, I don’t get involved day-to-day in the micro-management. It’s more broad strokes, strategic and big decisions. By definition, I’ll sign off as the general partner.
SH: A big conversation among the wine pundits is alcohol level.
GN: [laughs] It’s getting too high, or it’s always been high.
SH: Any thoughts?
GN: Well, it’s funny, it comes up a lot, doesn’t it? Yeah, you skate to where the puck’s going, I guess. People like that unctuous, fat and sweet—
SH: Do you?
GN: I love California wines, so it’s interesting, it’s sort of like the frog, the water’s getting warm. My time in the industry has been the last 15, 20 years, where we’ve seen the dial go up, and it’s weird to go back and find an old Louis Martini from the Seventies, and you look at it, it’s 10.5%, 10.8%. It’s weird. So I think there’s a lot of fudging with those numbers, as well. They’ve been higher
SH: So you’re not especially concerned with higher alcohol?
GN: I mean, PlumpJack are big wines. These are big, in-your-face, smash-mouth wines, in terms of that ripeness, and there’s a drinkability to that in the short run which I think people like. The vast majority of these wines are consumed young.
SH: Now that you mention it, you and Gordon [Getty] and your team made that big step years ago of putting 50 percent of PlumpJack production under screwtops. Are you still doing it?
GN: Yes. Interesting; let me interject. We had partnered with U.C. Davis on a ten-year study that they just published a month ago.
SH: On the ageability?
GN: Yeah. So they used our wines, and some other wines, and they just came out with a report.
SH: Can you summarize it?
GN: I am getting a copy myself. But I got a summary from my winemaker, and from our GM, and it was conclusively inconclusive, meaning it’s a classic study, like the fracking study that came out recently, where the oil industry said “Great study” and the environmentalists also said “Great study.” You found what you were looking for.
SH: Have you tasted older vintages [of PlumpJack Cabernet]?
GN: Yeah, so many of these double-blind wine tastings, and all these experts all around us, and they’re absolutely convinced this one’s a screwcap and this one’s a cork. Without exception, the one consistent thing was the inconsistency. The outcome is challenged by the variability in the bottles that confounds you when you say “Screwtop’s not going to allow you any oxygen, or less oxygen, than the cork, so this is not going to age well,” and then you find out, when you taste it, the exact opposite.
SH: Are you surprised that more Napa Cabernet houses have not gone to screwcap?
GN: I’m surprised by how many have.
SH: On the high-end Cabernets?
GN: It’s not on the high end, but more broadly, we’ve seen it more and more acceptable. We know, because we’re seeing it, there’s a very famous First Growth Bordeaux [Ed: Margaux] that’s done screwcaps for their own internal investigation. So that suggests there’s a growing consciousness.
SH: What do you think of prices? Jon Bonne, in the Chronicle, recently suggested that Napa is getting out of control.
GN: I’m with you. When we started PlumpJack, we were pricing our Reserves substantially less than, say, Groth Reserve, or certainly Opus One, Silver Oak, or some of our neighbors: Screaming Eagle’s across the street. But we were way below, and people literally said, “What’s wrong with the wine?” So we had to adjust the price, just to be competitive. It was an interesting problem: we underpriced it, so people underappreciated it as a consequence, so we raised the price. I was dubious and nervous about that, but it was interesting; I got blowback from folks. But even now, I’ll tell you, there’s two minds on this. You look at Napa, and at our price points compared to other price points [e.g. Bordeaux], we’re pretty reasonable. So in some ways you can say they’re incredibly modest…
SH: Do you think—
GN: I think some things are wildly overpriced!
SH: I always wonder how all these triple-digit Napa Cabernets stay in business. There’s hundreds of them.
GN: I know.
SH: You know these people. How do they stay in business?
GN: Because it’s a globalized market. I went out and saw first-hand, in China, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Hong Kong, I was there for PlumpJack and CADE and, soon, Odette, and the fact is, our market reach has expanded significantly. We’ll selling all around the world. The reality is, we’re selling out of everything, every year.
SH: Mazel tov.
GN: It is wonderful. And frankly, for us, it’s a question of how you allocate, particularly retail versus restaurants, and how you allocate your overseas. I’m thinking of those 2011s, a tougher vintage, but people loved it anyway. So it was a counter to your earlier point: it was a little more French.
SH: Lower alcohol. There were some beautiful ‘11s. There were some gorgeous mountain Cabs. I think there were more problems as you went out towards the Coast. Some Pinots and Chards were moldy or veggie. Well, let’s move on to the conversation about San Francisco, and real estate and housing. I know people in Oakland who have been pushed out. What do you think about the current situation?
GN: I think about it all the time. I remember being a supervisor at the time, in the late 1990s, and we were struggling, not dissimilarly, with success. And a lot of arts organizations were victims of success. A lot of residents were victims of success, with evictions. So this is in many ways a replay, a golden oldie. But for those impacted by it directly, it’s devastating. And it’s now impacting not just on the residential side, but commercial establishments that are doing extraordinarily well, but cannot afford the renewals on their leases. They’ve weathered earthquakes, recessions, but cannot weather this climate of success.
SH: Care Not Cash [Mayor Newsom’s homeless policy] in retrospect didn’t really work—
GN: It was a phenomenal success!
SH: What happened?
GN: They rested on their laurels. Care Not Cash is only as good as its application and implementation. We saw a 30%, almost 33% decline almost overnight in the homeless population. But that was ten years ago! I haven’t been Mayor for six damned years. This is getting worse and worse, and it’s tipped in the opposite direction, and I have a lot of strong opinions on it. I don’t want to be critical, but the outrage is understandable right now in San Francisco.
SH: [San Francisco Mayor Ed] Lee is coming up against a big backlash. How’s he doing?
GN: I think it’s difficult. Look, when I was Mayor we had the highest minimum wage in the U.S., the only paid sick leave, the only universal healthcare, including for undocumented residents, universal pre-school and after-school…these are not assertions, these are things that were fully implemented and exist in the city. These are usually the quivers you pull out in this environment, in order to soften the blow of success…but it’s still inadequate.
SH: Ultimately, you can’t put a brake—
GN: On the macro.
SH: On the macro.
GN: It’s a supply and demand problem, which goes back to, What’s the right price to sell your wine? Well, that’s determined by the market.
SH: You’re not in this to be the good guy.
GN: It’s a business. If you focus on excellence, it usually is rewarded. And by the way, San Francisco’s long been focused on excellence, but the downside is there’s a spread issue, and the income gap here, the Great Gatsby curve, is so acute here, it’s devastating. So you continue to do what you can to address that—I’ll tell you, I think about this a lot, I talk to the Mayor’s office a lot, comparing notes, what the hell more can you do, without a command-and-control approach to suppressing the macro economic growth.
SH: Would you have been in favor of the building moratorium in the Mission?
GN: No. The idea that you stop construction and somehow that aids affordability, in a market environment, where less supply only increases costs when the demand is so high? I’m at a loss to understand that, except that that was brought up when Willie Brown was Mayor, it was brought up when I was Mayor, rejected both times. It doesn’t surprise me that it was brought up again.
SH: When I moved to the City, after the [Moscone and Milk] assassinations, in the Seventies, when Feinstein became Mayor, exactly the same conversation was going on, thirty-something years ago.
GN: Again, the price of success. But there’s something else going on here: we’re at a hinge point in history, as the old economy is giving way to the new economy, and the industrial economy’s run out of gas. It’s an atrophy, and you’re seeing the contours of the formation of something radically different, these participation platforms, these contribution platforms, this on-demand work that exists with the shared economy.
SH: So thoughts on the gig economy, you brought it up. Is it a good thing?
GN: Well, the tech genie’s out of the bottle. And you can’t put it back in. So everything is reorganizing itself. We can lament about it, or we can organize a strategy to allow people to prosper and succeed in this environment. And on-demand work requires on-demand education, and a different mindset in terms of education, of K-12 education but also lifelong learning. It requires us to think differently about our rules and regulations…Right now we’re paving over the old cow path by offering solutions that frankly are inadequate to the challenge. And I repeat: the solutions we’ve offered in San Francisco that I promoted as Mayor, that this Mayor is promoting, are inadequate: higher minimum wage is inadequate. Paid sick leave is inadequate. Universal this, universal that is inadequate. Necessary, but hardly sufficient to deal with something that is so acute and so radically different in terms of a new distribution of wealth that now is concentrated in this technologically enhanced economic environment.
SH: The poster child for the gig economy is Uber [which recently announced it’s opening a huge office center in downtown Oakland]. Should their drivers be offered benefits and sick leave? The drivers themselves seem to be saying, Hey, we’re happy to be able to work when we want.
GN: Yeah, but I mean, drivers are—look, the bottom line is Uber is successful for one reason: excellence. They provide an exponentially better service than the old industrial taxicab industry, which I am not [just] familiar with, I am intimately familiar with, having chaired a task force twenty years ago, trying to manage it as Mayor, fighting to get more cabs, fighting to get them to pick up folks in low income communities, to get a centralized dispatch center, and the industry fought all those things. So invariably, a guy named Travis [Kalanik] comes along with an app to fill the void, and to create a competitive environment, and the taxicab industry was slow to adapt. Do I feel badly for these medallion holders? Of course. They’ve been on the wait list for decades. Do I feel badly for the poor guy who’s working his tail off in an old industry? I do. But the reality is, change and disruption are for real. And so, either adapt to this environment in real time, or you’re going to get run over literally and figuratively. And I get it—I’m not a techno-utopian, but the fact is, we have to wake up to this reality. Airbnb is the largest accommodation company in the world and it has no real estate. Uber is the largest taxicab company in the world and it has no taxicabs. You start thinking about these things, and something big is happening in real time that requires radically different thinking from a public policy perspective.
SH: Why is it that so many liberals get so upset at Uber?
GN: Because we are so used to a world that—[sighs] I think we’re just, we’re stuck on this romantic notion of security that served us well for 150 years, but it’s a world that no longer exists. And so we hold on to this past, which I understand: You work hard, play by the rules, and get ahead. That used to be the paradigm we were born into. But it’s not necessarily—
SH: It still is: You work hard, and get ahead.
GN: Not for everyone anymore, and that’s the challenge, from a public policy perspective. People are working their tails off, they’re not getting ahead, they’re stuck behind. So how do you deal with retirement in a 401(K) world where it’s now defined contributions, not defined benefits? How do you deal in an environment where competition is two billion people living overseas, not just two hundred folks who are living next door? So, again, something big is happening with the merger of IT ad globalization. It means we’ve got to step up our game and it requires a different way of thinking. I’d love the 9-to-5 days, the gold watch, strong retirement, I would love that, but…
Next: Newsom on gay rights, working in an incubator, social media, staying in shape, the upcoming Governor’s race in California, and the Republican and Democratic contests for President.
Gavin Newsom on wine, politics, his PlumpJack portfolio, San Francisco, Oakland, hair, and much more
Gavin Newsom is a two-term Mayor of San Francisco and is currently serving his second term as California’s Lieutenant-Governor. He is seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor in the 2018 election and is widely perceived as the prohibitive front-runner to succeed current Governor Jerry Brown. Beyond that, of course, there is a Presidential election in 2020, and Newsom has shown up on some short lists as a possible candidate. Even in 2024, he will only be 55 years old.
I met Gavin back in the early 1990s, when he and his partners, who included Gordon Getty, were forming what has now become their PlumpJack Group, a collection of wine stores, bars, clubs, resorts and hotels that has made 47-year old Newsom a wealthy man. (By the way, I don’t call him “Gavin,” as I used to, I call him “Governor,” which is the proper honorific for a Lieutenant-Governor.) We met in his office, in a sort of incubator, the Founders Den, near AT&T Park, where he chooses to work, rather than in the more traditional office of the Lieutenant-Governor, the California State Building in Civic Center.
I began by asking Gov. Newsom about his alcoholic beverage consumption, problems concerning which were widely reported in 2006-2007, when he was Mayor.
SH: When you were Mayor and had the problem with drinking, how’s that going? Do you imbibe alcohol these days?
GN: Yes, I absolutely do. I have for years. I stopped drinking because I wanted to stop drinking and I needed to stop drinking, and it was a good point of clarity. So I just stopped. Stopped. And a couple years later, I started trying a little wine again, and I have continued to this day. Which is a healthy thing, from my perspective.
SH: So are you in any sort of—
GN: I was never in anything.
SH: Never in rehab?
SH: You were in counseling with Mimi—
GN: Silber. Well, Mimi I’ve known since my birth, and she told me to stop drinking one day, and I stopped. And when she said it’s okay to drink, I went, Thank you, and waited a couple of months, and then thought, OK, I’ll start again. So it was important to me, in that moment, to reset, more than anything else.
SH: How are the PlumpJack companies doing?
GN: Everything’s great. We’ve got, I think—boy, I don’t know how many businesses we’ve got now. We just opened two new ones, Forgery, a bar down the road, and then a club right behind it called Verso.
SH: That’s the new Mid-Market [project]–?
GN: Yeah, Mid-Market, and then interestingly my sister is down, as we speak, at a new small property we just purchased, a hotel in Carmel. And we’ve got another bar we’re opening, in the Mission, by the end of the year. So the businesses have grown. I think there’s seventeen or so operating businesses.
SH: I have to ask, Mid-Market forever had this reputation as a sleazy, dirty, dangerous—
GN: Yeah, of course.
SH: My town, Oakland, is very hot.
SH: Oakland is arguably—
GN: The new San Francisco! That’s what everyone is saying.
SH: So would PlumpJack do something—
GN: In Oakland? Of course. I love Oakland. I love the culture there, the neighborhood character, I like everything about Oakland. I appreciate the new Mayor over there [Libby Schaaf].
SH: She seems to be doing a good job.
GN: She’s a solid person, and so she’s getting that city—of course, Oakland, in the past, has been the beneficiary of San Francisco’s success in many ways, in the 1990s, late Nineties. We’re seeing that now in a more sustainable way. The question is, How does Oakland deal with the challenges San Francisco’s had to deal with, as it relates to gentrification and being the tip of the spear of this new economy, at this hinge moment in history, as we move from something old to something new.
SH: Well, would you encourage your companies to do something in Oakland?
GN: Yeah. I’d love to. We have such a San Francisco centricity, because we’re all here, we live here, the businesses are spread out and established here. But absolutely. We’re now in Carmel, we’re in Lake Tahoe, we’re obviously in Napa, and so, yeah, absolutely.
SH: Uber announced they’re moving to Oakland.
GN: I think that’s great. Oakland, for me, is a member of the family. As a fifth-generation San Franciscan and former Mayor, I’ll express my subjectivity and say I like to think we’re the spoke of the wheel, the center of it, but in so many ways [the Bay Area] is just one large community that needs to focus more regionally to address the respective needs of each community…When I think of the politics of San Francisco, the politics of Oakland, the politics within cities in the Bay Area, it’s clear to me and self-evident: none of these cities’ isolation can solve all of their problems. We have to think more regionally.
SH: Okay, well, Oakland people will be gratified that you are at least open to the possibility of—
GN: Open? I love it!
SH: But nothing now?
GN: No, but we’re always—you know, I was just in the East Bay. You know what was my favorite, great sandwich place?–
GN: No, it’s not that, I’ve heard about it, but what the heck? I’ve forgotten. Anyway, there was a business we were going to invest in partnership out there, so…my only point is, that’s evidence of sincerity. I’m not just saying it.
SH: Okay, I’ll give you a personal tour of Uptown and show you how exciting it is!
GN: By the way, my wife [Jennifer Siebel Newsom] is doing a new documentary, and her city is Oakland. It’s the backdrop, and she’s deep in the issue of social mobility and income inequality, and she’s been spending the last year filming three families in Oakland in a very granular, very nuanced and textured way, and it’s just reinforced my appreciation for the city and, more importantly, the entire region, the place we call home.
Tune in this week for more on Gov. Newsom on alcohol levels, screwtops and Napa prices, and the Republican race for President.
I met Ben around 2012, when he was the star of The Bachelor, and a principal in Envolve Winery, along with his old friends, Mikey Benziger and Danny Fay. Ben left the winery in 2014, although he’s still a silent partner. We met at Blue Bottle Coffee, a coder-heavy hangout on Mint Plaza in San Francisco, where Ben, 33, told me about his post-Bachelor, post-Envolve life.
BF: I have a few projects. I stayed in beverage. Started a local Fernet project, Fernet Francisco. Fernet is a part of the digestif family: before and after cordials, a distilled spirit. Fernet Branca is our main competitor. There’s about 12-15 Fernets on the planet. Branca claims the exclusive right to the word Fernet, but there’s other Fernet companies that produce. So we’re in a bit of a tiff with Branca. We’re working that out. We happen to be the third domestically-produced Fernet, and the only one out of California. My partners and I cut our teeth on Branca. Everybody did!
SH: Digestifs are big now. Huge. The category is growing like crazy.
Why? I think the resurgence of botanicals is on the rise. Seems to me, at least the crew I run with, is no one drinks vodka anymore. When they’re drinking something, they want flavors; they want to taste the Earth, as opposed to something very clean.
What is your Fernet made with? We have two base ethanols. One is made from grapes, a brandy, and we use an organic, non-GMO grain-based ethanol. So we’ll take the brandies and macerate “X” amount of herbs in them.
Is the herb mixture a secret? Well, I can disclose some of them, but not all. The main ones are rhubarb, bay leaf, chamomile, spearmint, peppermint and orange peel.
Where do you get your products? We source the herbs from Monterey. We try to source everything as local as possible. The goal is to create a product using botanicals that are native, that thrive in the state of California. And our ethanols are local too.
Where is the distillery? Out of Falcon Spirits, a small distillery in Richmond [California]. Our Master Distiller is Farid Dorishan, a brilliant man. Max Rudsten, my partner, and I interviewed a half-dozen master distillers before starting this project. I flew to some of the world’s most renowned distilleries and figured out process design and what it took to make Fernet. So coupled with Farid’s brilliance, we sat down and did blending sessions, the same way I blended when I made wine.
Was there financing? We actually raised $100,000 in really small rounds from friends, just buddies. We have 22 investors. They were like, “Let’s see if you guys can pull it off.”
How do you drink Fernet Francisco? Is it mixable? Everybody takes it as a shot, right? We are the only Fernet on the planet classed as a bitters, not a liqueuer, due to our lack of sugar. So we mix really well in cocktail programs. But we’re also a neat sipper, like bourbon or scotch.
How’s it selling? We started in early April . At first, Max and I pounded the pavement; we had 100 accounts in the first month. Then we got a distributor. Production is currently at 800 cases, in the first six months. Retail is about $40-$44.
Where is it sold? We just cracked 300 accounts statewide. All the Whole Foods, all the BevMos NorCal. And on-premise, we’re all over the place. It’s funny, even with the Bachelor and the growth we had at Envolve, I’ve never seen trajectory like this before. Fernet’s on another planet. We just opened up New York, D.C., Texas, Illinois.
Why is it so successful? We have a long way to go, don’t get me wrong. But here’s why I think it’s been so successful so far: Because Max and I recognized a niche product, a niche market that wasn’t being fulfilled. Branca is the only option, but we got tired of drinking it. So we went out and created an artisanal, small-batch Fernet. And there are a lot of Fernet drinkers out there.
Do you miss winemaking? I do. I miss wine. I miss the people in wine. I miss driving up to Sonoma. [Ben lives in San Francisco.] It was a nice drive, the only time of day I was able to call my friends and catch up and collect my thoughts. It was a nice cycle. [He usually biked up.] What we quickly learned, though, is that there’s no money in wine. You have to be very well funded, and we weren’t. I got a pH.D. in the wine business through Envolve, and I’ve applied all that to Fernet Francisco.
What is your day-to-day role? It’s not a fulltime job yet. Max and I probably spend 10 hours a week.
Where do you see it in five years? I’d be stoked if markets outside California were doing 30 to 50 cases a month. I’d like to see us get to about 5 percent market share of Fernet Branca in the U.S.
Fernet isn’t the only new thing you’re doing. Right. We have a live wine webcam from Sonoma, livewinecam.com, and also livefromSonoma.com. On the first, we’re trying to highlight wineries, the window in the world of wine. Someone’s sitting in their basement in the middle of winter in Ohio, longing to be in wine country, they can go. On livefromsonoma, we’re live on the Sonoma square. We already have 25,000-35,000 unique views a month, with zero advertising. People are interested in what’s going on, so we’re trying to extend that [through livewinecam.com] into the wineries, the vineyards, the crushpads.
Are they for profit? Right now it’s for fun. Later on, we’ll monetize livewinecam.com through advertising. There’s a minimal fee that the winery or vineyard incurs. We’re also talking with Jackson Family and Jean-Charles Boisset for livewinecam.com. Fernet and livewinecam.com. are side gigs for me. Ultimately, it would be nice to have them be fulltime gigs, but my primary business right now is The Gentleman [thegentlemanapp.com]. We plan great dates for people, especially guys. We’re like the Uber on-demand date service.
Sort of a date concierge. Exactly. You go online, fill out a simple survey so we know who you are. So it’s like, Okay, you’re Steve Heimoff, these are the kinds of cuisines you’re into, you like Iron Butterfly…
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, baby! We plan awesome dates for you. We’re starting in Los Angeles and San Francisco. My co-founder and C.T.O., Alex Sharp, is down there. I’m the specialist in San Francisco, for now. So, hey Steve, this restaurant is the latest and greatest, we’ve been able to reserve a table for our gentleman members. And it only costs you twelve bucks [for the booking]. Or you can be a monthly subscriber for $39.
Is it up and running? The beta release is today, as we speak. It’s a website now, will be an app.
How did The Bachelor experience inform your future career plans? Good question. While I was going through it, I thought wine was going to be part of my life forever. And it’s just a tough business. I couldn’t keep doing it forever, scraping by, trying to make it work. Passion is one thing; paying the bills here in San Francisco is another. I was always involved in some kind of technology project, and so it’s nice to be back in both, in tech and in beverage. The Bachelor opened a lot of doors and awesome contacts and friendships that are readily available for when we launch The Gentleman and Fernet needs to go into a new market, or whatever it is.
Do you still drink wine? OMG, do I ever. I drink more wine than I ever did.
Like what? Beaujolais. I drink a boatload of Gamay Noir. Steph [his girlfriend] and I drink more European than before; we have acid-driven palates. A lot of Burgundy—the stuff we can afford! I still drink a lot of domestic Pinot: Kosta-Browne, Baxter up in Anderson Valley.
Any final thoughts? Everything’s good! Just plugging away. It’s been an interesting year-and-a-half after leaving the winery and showbiz and all that stuff and trying to find my feet again. I’ve landed on these three projects that I’m very proud of, and I think they all have legs.
Thank you Ben!
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Paul Gregutt is my friend, the wine columnist for the Seattle Times, author of Washington Wines & Wineries, the Pacific Northwest Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, owner of the excellent blog, Paul Gregutt: Unfined & Unfiltered, and, as of this month–a wine producer!
It’s unusual for a wine writer to go over to–what can we call it–the Dark Side? No, that’s what it’s called when a wine writer does P.R. The only California wine writer I ever knew who made that transition to production was Jeff Morgan, whose brands include Covenant.
Anyhow, Paul and I had a little chat yesterday and we covered a lot of bases. Here’s a Q&A.
So how did Waitsburg Cellars come about?
The project began as a breakfast meeting conversation with Andrew Browne [CEO of Precept]. I’d done some educational work for their sales people and distributors. Andrew popped the question, Would you like to make wine? My first reaction was, Absolutely not!
I know too much! It’s very difficult to do it well. It’s highly competitive, and I know there’s a lot of real talent out there. There were two things I didn’t want to do under any circumstances: Buy a bunch of juice and throw a label on it, or get mired down in some expensive project that would eat me alive. But what Andrew proposed was, I come up with a concept and take advantage of their facilities and resources to realize that vision.
Do you have your own money in it?
I haven’t invested any funds. Precept is the financial backer.
So what is the concept?
Well, I was intrigued, and started giving it some thought. Okay, what can I do that I’ve never seen done that takes advantage of Washington’s strengths? Things that have been overlooked, or not done for whatever reason. So I started to develop the idea. I didn’t want to do just another red blend, so on paper I designed one I’d never heard of, but that made conceptual sense. Over many blending trials and barrel tastings, I made that blend. We call it “Three.” It’s 67% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 13% Mourvedre. [The 2011 retails for $21.]
That is a weird blend.
Thank you. I’m also making a line of aromatic whites to showcase Chenin Blanc in two different styles: a dry Savennieres style, called Cheniniere, and an off-dry Vouvray style we call Chevray.
So what’s it like for a writer to become a producer?
I didn’t want to do just a cameo, like a 30-second walkthrough on a movie, I wanted to be fully involved. I mean, I’m not picking the grapes and stomping them, but I am designing the wine, so it’s another extension of my love for all things wine. And it’s putting my ass on the line.
Because I’m the big wine critic, and now I have wines out there people will take shots at. Just this morning we got the list for who will be sent samples: All the major wine publications and a couple bloggers in Washington State.
So the worm has turned! The reviewer is about to get reviewed.
Yeah. But it’s okay. I’m very pleased with these wines. I know what I set out to do, and I know how close I came to achieving it. So the reviews should be entertaining!
When I interview people, they (or their P.R. reps) often ask for my questions in advance. I always say no. If you feed them their questions before the interview, they’ll rehearse the answers, making for a phony interview that’s of no use to anyone.
I get interviewed myself from time to time. I never know what my interviewers are going to ask me and I don’t want to know. I like the thinking-on-your-feet aspect of an interview, especially when it’s a live broadcast, without a safety net to catch you if you fall. You have to be conscious on several different levels. You want to be cogent, sound reasonably intelligent, current on events, perhaps be funny, not say anything demonstrably false, and keep up with your interviewer. When I was recently interviewed (for the second time) by Laura Lawson on her “Wine Crush” radio show, all these parameters applied, especially the latter: keeping up with Laura Lawson is no easy task! She’s got a great talk radio personality, meaning it’s her show, she’s the boss, you go where Laura wants to go. She’s got strong opinions, and the leash she puts you on isn’t particularly long.
But I like that! I like my women like I like my wine: powerful. I thought it would be fun to share my interview with you here on the old blog. (Sorry for the commercials, especially the one on acne. I don’t come on until about halfway through, so if you want to advance the feed, feel free–and you can also fast-forward through the subsequent commercials.) I had no idea what Laura was going to ask me, because I hadn’t heard the introductory part of her spiel, where she explains her “shiny object” theory of wine: the “new stuff,” the “newest, the coolest” things that apply to almost every consumable: new and improved cereal, laundry detergent, TV sets and, yes, wine. This is the “shiny object”, and Laura wondered how much shininess is too much shininess in wine–things designed to grab our attention.
This isn’t something I’d given a moment’s thought to, so when Laura started off by asking me if some wineries are getting gimmicky (offering flip-flops, balloons, flowers, pens, perfume and so on with the purchase), I was a little unprepared. When she said, “This is our shiny object show,” I was like, uh oh–I have no idea what she’s talking about, so I was glad that she extended her opening question with a couple questions-within-questions, so I could think a little. But if you listen to my answer, you can hear me hedging a little. I always see everything from six different points of view (that’s the Gemini in me), so as soon as I say “black,” I see the white, and the purple, and the polka dot, and I have to frame my answer accordingly.
Anyway, the reason I like chatting with Laura is because our conversations are never stilted. I wrote yesterday about canned conversations, the kind neither party really wants to have but for some reason both have to have. Traditional interviews often go that way. I’d love to have an interview with a winemaker (or owner or publicist or whatever) where we both agreed to talk about anything but wine. Maybe start off with a little politics, or philosophy, or TV shows, or our earliest memory as children, or favorite restaurants, or all-time favorite books, and take it from there. Wine will enter the discussion at some point; it always does. In a fluid, living conversation, people end up talking about stuff they love (or hate).
Of course, the risk of a fluid, living conversation is that it can lead into cul-de-sacs that go nowhere. But what’s wrong with that? It happened in my conversation with Laura (can you detect where they are?), but people of good will can always agree to quickly change direction, back up and find the conversational path again.
Anyhow, this interview represents an aspect of me you might not see if you’re only familiar with my writing. I’d like to do more interviews. They’re fun, and as the interviewee, I always learn something to make me a better interviewer. Interviewing is like dancing: it takes a lot of practice to get good at it, and the more you do it, the better you get.