subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Friday Fishwrap: the S.F. Chronicle, and the Petaluma Gap

8 comments

 

It’s really sad how the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine coverage has dropped off the cliff since the paper and Jon Bonné parted ways.

I didn’t always agree with Jon. I hated his attitude towards alcohol and thought he was unfair in his treatment of California wineries. But at least Jon was a true wine writer: passionate, opinionated and with the means to taste broadly and deeply.

Now that he’s gone, the Chron—which is not only Northern California’s largest-circulation newspaper but is based in the gateway to wine country, San Francisco—is barely covering wine at all. I’ve read the Chron for more than thirty years, and this is the worst its wine reporting has ever been. It is, to the best of my memory, the first time in decades that the paper hasn’t had a fulltime wine writer/critic.

The need for having one is obvious. Wine is huge in Northern California. Nearly everybody drinks it. Food and restaurants also are huge in Northern California; people love to eat out, or tinker in their kitchens. The Chron does a very good job of covering food and restaurants. And what beverage is more intimately connected with food than wine?

I suspect, although I can’t prove it, that the Chron canned its wine coverage because wineries don’t advertise. I understand that ads, not subscriptions, are what keep print publications afloat. I suppose it made sense, in a green eyeshades way, for the Chron’s management to ditch wine. But it doesn’t make sense from the standpoint of being a great newspaper.

* * *

I’ve been thinking of that winegrowing area east of Petaluma in Sonoma County where the Sonoma Coast, Carneros and Sonoma Valley AVAs all sort of come together. It’s a weird little place whose most significant terroir impact comes from the Petaluma Gap. Up until fairly recently, we hadn’t seen many vineyards or grapes grown there, but that’s fast changing, especially with the growing popularity of Pinot Noir. Later today, I’ll be driving up to Hartford Court Winery, where we’re doing another of our weekly tastings, this time of Sonoma Coast Pinots. Among them is DuMol’s 2012 Eoin, made from grapes grown in the Sonoma Stage Vineyard, which is right in that funny area. It’s a cool-climate region, not as cool as, say, the Santa Maria Valley, but almost. There aren’t many new Pinot-growing areas in California that are interesting these days, but this one is. Stay tuned.

Petaluma_Gap_Map_JUL15

And have a great weekend!


What about those reports that “weaker wines are better than stronger ones”?

37 comments

 

You’ve probably read about it: According to Fox News, a new study out of Spain has been widely reported to “prove” that “People think weaker wine tastes better.”

But, in fact, the study doesn’t show that at all; and much of the second-hand reporting on the study actually shows how lazy journalists can be.

For example, the Fox account of the study claims that people think wine with a lower alcohol content tastes [better] because it allows them to focus on the diverse flavor profiles of the beverage.”

That’s a pretty sweeping statement. If you’ve been deep into the alcohol-level tall weeds, as I’ve been, you might think, “Wow, that gives credence to the In Pursuit of Balance argument.” But, in fact, if you read through the entire Fox report, you won’t find a single wine variety mentioned. You will find the implication that wine with 12 percent alcohol “induce[s] a greater…exploration of sensory attributes” than wines in the 14-15 percent range, or higher.

Well, let’s think about that for a minute. Do you really want to drink a 12 percent Zinfandel? A 12 percent Petite Sirah? A 12 percent Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier? In fact, let’s be even more generous and raise the alcohol level on those six varieties to 13 percent. What do you think they’d taste like in California?

Not very good. They wouldn’t be ripe—nowhere near ripe. They’d be all sour in acidity, with chlorophyll flavors and tart green fruit. This is why California vintners allow those varieties to get ripe enough to yield wines above 14 percent and usually above 14.5 percent. In the case of Zinfandel and Viognier, sometimes the alcohol level is 15 percent or higher.

When we’re talking about Pinot Noir (and sometimes Chardonnay), the story is, of course, different. California can indeed produce splendid Pinots below 14 percent in a good vintage, as the recent I.P.O.B. tasting showed. But to use the Spanish study to “prove” that consumers don’t like any wine over 14 percent is completely misleading.

Let’s look at the study itself, not just Fox’s reporting. Its key finding—the one seized upon by so much of the media—is, “significantly greater activation [of the brain’s flavor-processing regions] was found for low-alcohol than for high-alcohol content wines…”. It is this assertion that led to such headlines as:

Does weak wine taste BETTER?” (Daily Mail)

“Wine With Lower Alcohol is More Appealing” (Bustle)

and “Taste Perception Higher With Lower Alcohol Wines” (The Drinks Business)

But, again, the actual study did not identify specific grape varieties that were given to the subjects. (Does anyone really think that a low- alcohol Zinfandel from Amador County or an unripe Viognier from Russian River is “more appealing” than a ripe one?) All the study says is that the wines tasted were red Spanish [varieties] coming from Rioja, Navarra, and Cataluña),” of unidentified grape varieties (although we can presume they were old varieties like Garnacha, Tempranillo and Monastrell; there may have been some Cabernet and/or Merlot blended into them to make them richer). All of the 26 subject tasters were Spanish. From this, we can infer that the subjects all had palates geared towards Spanish (not California) wines. We also can infer that, in all probability, they are not familiar with our California wines that routinely clock in higher than 14.5 percent alcohol. And so, it seems to me, the study has very little application to an assessment of ripeness and alcohol levels in California wines.

Discover Magazine also reported on the Spanish study and also read into it things that are not supported by the facts. They wrote: people tend to pay more attention to the flavor when the alcohol content is low.” Well, I would wager that if you give a big, tasty California Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Viognier, etc. to anyone, even Europeans, they would not and could not indict it for lacking in flavor! Some of them might not care for that particular wine—but they’d pay attention. And that’s what makes the world go ‘round: Different strokes for different folks. That doesn’t bother me at all—but sloppy reporting does. The Spanish study simply doesn’t support the “low alcohol wines are better” headlines.


Wine as “the good life”? The Wall Street Journal says so!

3 comments

 

I’ve been watching the case of the New York Times for many years, to see what would be the fate of the Gray Lady. At the height of the Great Recession, the paper was said to be perilously close to going under, the result of (a) declining readership because younger people were not reading newspapers, and (b) the dramatic falloff in advertising that crippled nearly all print publications.

The Times tried to stave off its financial problems: they went to an online subscription model that didn’t work, and they laid off or bought out employees. A year or two ago, the paper seemed to enjoy a modest turnaround, but apparently it wasn’t enough: A new round of layoffs has occurred because the paper had not received enough voluntary buyouts to cover newsroom budget cuts.” Despite executive editor Dean Baquet saying “We are coming to the end of a painful period for the newsroom,” those of us who grew up with the Times and love it can only hope that, this time, the paper will survive, and I expect it will. I point this out only because the Times is the example par excellence of the difficult journey print pubs have had over the last decade or so. It’s not just that I prefer reading print over digital, although I do, it’s that the Times represents the culmination of an epoch that was centuries in the making in which the idea of independent journalism, free from the grasp of lucre, or the ignorance of ideology, was ascendant in America. When our Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. Constitution, with its First Amendment guarantee of Freedom of the Press, they did so with the understanding and assumption that the Press really was fearlessly free. I wonder if they would do the same thing now that personal opinion and for-profit hidden agenda has largely taken precedence over independent reporting.

Speaking of newspapers, many of my readers will know I’m no fan of the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. But the newspaper itself, when freed from the op-ed ideology of Mr. Murdoch, is top-rate, and I love, love, love this graphic they created for WSJ+,

 

WSJwine

 

which they tout as “a complimentary addition to your Wall Street Journal experience” for subscribers. How about that glass of wine? Don’t you just love it? The Journal is implying to readers—no, telling them, in compelling visual form and with all its magisterial New York City authority, that a glass of wine is as important to the complete, good life as anything else they could indulge in, from sports to fine art to “much more of the finer things of life.”

We can differ over our politics. But it’s wonderful that all of us, left, right, center, whatever, can agree that wine is central to the good life—the life that is examined, and self-examined, and enjoyed, with harm to no one–life that adds joy and laughter to the world. So bravo to the Wall Street Journal for putting wine right up there.


Next Entries »

Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Categories

Archives