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Monday Meanderings


Hung out yesterday with the marketing guy from a winery who told me he wishes his budget was bigger, but most of the money goes to sales in these tough times.

I’ve always been fascinated by the marketing and sales sides of the wine biz. Marketing, to my way of thinking, is building brand awareness, affection and loyalty among consumers. Sales is not only getting them to fork over their hard-earned cash, but getting the bottles to them, which involves the bizarrely antiquated three-tier system. So they’re really very different functions, even though they’re two sides of the same coin. The marketing guy was telling me he wants to put more energy into things like social media. He loves building brands. I couldn’t imagine building a brand any more than I could build a spaceship in my kitchen. It’s really hard to break through the information barrage and capture the consumer’s attention, much less hold it. And it’s getting harder. We talked a little about the role of critics and how they have been instrumental in the past in building brands through reviews. And we both wondered where that whole thing is going. Anyway, we didn’t break any new ground, just went over the same uncertain terrain, but I left feeling once again that marketing wine is a very hard job, one that goes largely unnoticed by the public. Which, come to think of it, is just as marketing managers would prefer.

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Readers of this blog know that I’ve tried multiple times to acquire the Twitter habit. I’m now in my third iteration–or it it the fourth? One forgets. One thing I always wonder is whether to follow people who follow me. At first I did, thinking it merely polite; it’s like you see something coming down the street with their hand extended to you for a shake, so you extend yours. But then people who are far more knowledgeable about Twitter than I (and it doesn’t take much Twitter knowledge to qualify) told me that, no, you should only follow people you really, truly want to follow. So I stopped following my new followers, most of them anyway. I wonder if people who follow me expect me to follow them. The truth is that I spend very little time on my Twitter feed (actually none at all, since I use Tweetdeck), but I still wonder about the wisdom and propriety of following. Now come two articles with opposite viewpoints. This one argues that you should be a Twitter snob (nice term) because if you follow everyone who follows you, you’re basically an indiscriminate Twitter slut. It also makes you look a little desperate, like Tiffany in the comic strip Luann (one of my faves), who has a disturbing, probably pathological need to be liked by boys.

On the other hand, this article, “Bringing down the Twitter snobs,” says you should follow everyone who follows you because “There is an amazing person behind every single Twitter picture.” You never know, this person says, who you’ll meet. Why, it could be someone who could change your life.

I can see it both ways, but I’m still fairly virginile (virginic?) about Twitter and have yet to have enough experience with it to decide conclusively either way. One thing I do think, though, is that you could meet some life-changing person anywhere, not just Twitter, and there doesn’t seem to be more likelihood of meeting a life-changer on Twitter than in, say, Starbucks. The other thing I think is, Do you really “know” people from Twitter? Is it possible to learn about “the amazing person” behind a tweet of 140 words or less, in a feed that changes by the minute if not by the second? However, two dear friends, Joe Roberts and Jo Diaz, attest to Twitter’s charms, so I’m keeping an open mind.

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Speaking of social media,
Eminem Surpasses Lady Gaga As Most “Liked” Person on Facebook. When Lady Gaga makes a movie as good as 8 Mile, maybe she’ll regain the title.

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And reverting back to the theme of brands is this musing on re-branding. Even if you build a successful brand, like McDonald’s, you have to morph it every now and then so it doesn’t get stodgy. This has serious consequences for Ronald McDonald (“McDonald’s continues its march into a more mature market, one not all that in love with clowns.”) One of the most interesting aspects of the entire wine industry for me is to watch the boutique wineries of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s (mainly Napa Cabernet houses) and see how they rebrand themselves. Some do, which ensures a healthy future and succession to a new generation. Some, sadly and patently, do not. I could name names, but to what point? The hardest thing in Hollywood is to build a second career, but some people–Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler is a great example–manage to do it. But for every Mickey Rourke there are 50 Burt Reynoldses (no disrespect; Boogie Nights was awesome, but that was 1997). It’s interesting, speaking of The Wrestler, that Boogie Nights starred Mark Wahlberg, who began his career as a Calvin Klein underwear model and rapper and just produced and co-starred in The Fighter, which won a bunch of Oscars. Now, there’s a career, and the dude is only 39. When we talk about brand building, look at Marky Mark, who did it, not by simulating a pseudo-career by amassing 1 million Twitter friends, but by actually developing his talent and accumulating a body of work.

A Monday meander

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On Christmas Day, Maxine made eggs Benedict for brunch, and then for dinner Marilyn served honey baked ham with all the trimmings (including scalloped potatoes) and so I had about a year’s worth of fat and calories and cholesterol all in one day. But what the hey, it was Christmas, a time to cast care to the winds and not worry about anything. Maxine and Keith drank coffee laced with Kahlua for brunch. I refrained from the Kahlua, because I had to drive to Marilyn’s afterward, over the beautiful but treacherous Santa Cruz Mountains that separate San Mateo from the sea, and there was a good-sized rainstorm coming down. Two good reasons to keep my blood alcohol level to absolute zero while driving. When you crest the mountains via Sharp Park Road, all of a sudden the Pacific sweeps into view, with Pedro Point to the south and whitecaps smashing up against the coastal rocks, and it can be hard to keep your eyes on the twisting road. After all these years of living in California, I still think, “There’s the edge of the western world.” In other words, to paraphrase Dorothy,  I don’t think we’re in The Bronx anymore.

Anyway, I made up for my abstinence once I got to Marilyn’s, where I would be spending the night. Started off with a couple flutes of champagne. On her dinner table there was more champagne, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, and I think there was a Cabernet in there too; I wasn’t really keeping track. Nor did I care what I drank with what, which puts me fully in agreement with Matt Kramer, who made some waves a few weeks ago with this column, in which he basically and properly argues against getting too mental with the wine and food pairing thing.

The day before, my L.A. friend, Howie, had called to ask for my suggestion of what wine to serve some friends he and Athena had invited for dinner. Howie knows as much about wine as I know about his profession, producing hip hop music, which is, essentially, zero. I patiently told him to please not stress, to just open whatever seemed likely to work with whatever, and to refrain from calling me in the future with lame questions. (We go back a long way; I can speak frankly.) Wine writers do get asked these kinds of things all the time:

Which is better with the lamb chops, Cabernet or Pinot Noir?
I’m having friends over who know about wine. What should I serve to impress them?
I’m dating this girl who’s into wine. What will she like?

I mean, in most cases these questions have no answers, and even if they did, they can’t be answered in the abstract anyway. There are three reasons why people ask us writers questions like these:

1. Their insecurity.
2. Their perception of us as gurus.
3. The Frankensteinian myth manufactured by the industry that there are certain rules about wine that only barbarians ignore.

As with most things in life, there’s some truth to all three, but there’s also a lot of hype. People are insecure about wine. Why wouldn’t they be?  Even professionals are insecure about wine. Sommeliers try their best to get the food pairing thing right and they still strike out often as not. So it’s understandable why people would turn to writer/critics for advice, especially if they happen to be old friends. We have been portrayed–or we portray ourselves–as more knowledgeable than most people, which happens to be true, as far as truth goes. As for rule #3, we’ve all grown up with the “red wine with steak, white wine with sole” thing, and there’s some truth to that, too.

But I think the reason why writer/critics sometimes get a little impatient with the questions is that we get asked them all the time, and we sense, behind the questions, in the minds of the questioners, a level of anxiety that’s antithetical to the spirit of eating and drinking and having a good time with friends. If you’re paying $200 for a meal at Masa’s (for one; double for two) the wine pairing damned well better be perfect, assuming you can tell the difference between perfect and merely good. But that circumstance is the exception to the rule for most of us; you can’t bring the level of scrutiny and heightened expectation to a home-cooked meal, or to a meal at an ordinary restaurant, as you do to Masa’s. Instead, you relax your standards, lower your expectations and enjoy. I think that’s the biggest difference between the European and American approaches to wine. We make such a big deal about it; they don’t. If there’s some Bordeaux left over from the roast beef and you’re onto the fish course, you don’t freak out and demand Sancerre or Muscadet. It’s not the end of the world. The wine-and-food-pairing Gestapo isn’t going to bang down the door and haul you off to the foodies’ concentration camp.

Late at night at Marilyn’s, as we watched a truly bizarre movie called Exit through the Gift Shop, I drank some of the Sauvignon Blanc, which was from Napa Valley, with vanilla ice cream and a scoop of leftover stewed fruit Marilyn had prepared as a side dish for the ham. I don’t think any sommelier would pair Sauvignon Blanc with ice cream and stewed fruit, but you know what? It was delicious, I didn’t care, there was nobody to impress, and it was so good that despite the calories and fat and cholesterol that had proceeded it I marched right into the kitchen for a second bowl. And another glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

Monday Meanderings: Rubicon and Rajat


What’s up at Rubicon? First, longtime winemaker Scott McLeod quit about a month and a half ago. Now, on Friday came word that Larry Stone, M.S., the winery’s general manager and close collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola for many years (since the Rubicon restaurant days in San Francisco), also has jumped ship. Larry now is President of Evening Land Vineyards.

Without further information, it’s impossible to know if these are isolated events, or if together they portend a problem at Rubicon. I tasted the most recent Rubicon (the wine) last month and there was no problem, but then again, it was the 2007, which was made three years ago, so maybe things have turned south since then. I gave it 93 points, not as high as 2005 or 2006, but respectable enough. Larry himself, in explanation of why he left Rubicon, told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonné only that “They’re going in a slightly different direction right now,” a non-explanation explanation that means Larry has no intention of answering the question at this point. That’s all right. There are many things we don’t know, such as why James Suckling left Wine Spectator or what Rand Paul really did with that bong.

We can, however, speculate! Coppola late last month launched his much anticipated new Sonoma County restaurant, RUSTIC, part of his expanding Francis Ford Coppola Winery presence in Sonoma, which he told Inside Scoop SF is “a very ambitious project.” Could it be that, in this severe downturn, with cult wines like Rubicon having a hard time moving, that FFC has decided something more consumer friendly might also be more profitable? Maybe Coppola’s energy is moving out of Napa “over the hill” into Sonoma, and McLeod and Stone, knowing that, felt the time was right to get out. Then again, maybe FFC’s famously ill temperament finally got to both of them.

and on the sommelier front…

Was sent the galley of a new book, “Secrets of the Sommeliers,” by Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay, and can definitely recommend it. I learned much more about sommeliers than I ever thought there was to know. It’s from Ten Speed Press, and definitely worth a read. The best quote is from sommelier Parr. It concerns his thinking process when sampling distributor wines: “As I [blind] taste them, I come up with a price I think each wine is worth. Then I look at the price list. If my number is close to the wholesale cost of the wine, it’s a buyable wine for me.”

Lots of meat on that bone to chew on! For starters, how “blind” is “blind”? If the distributor shows Parr a range of (let’s say) Domaine Leroy Burgundies in paper bags, is it really blind if Parr knows the winery? Maybe instead of knowing the wines are from a single domaine, all Parr knows is that they’re Premier Crus from a specific vintage. That would still help him “calibrate” his palate. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’d just like to know the details.

What’s really interesting is that, in comparing his imaginary price against the real price, Parr has, in effect, a rating system, as all tasters do and must. His system is, basically, 95-100 points = perfect parity between his imagined price and the actual price, 90-94 points for a slight (e.g. $10) discrepancy between imagined price and actual price, etc. etc. down the line. I like that! And I like that Parr shares with us his actual pragmatic thinking, instead of resorting to some airy-fairy M.W. “Hmm, I don’t have to know anything about this wine in order to tell you precisely how good it is or what it’s worth.” In order to come to a judgment about a wine, you need some parameter…you can’t be a tabula rasa, a blank slate “without built-in mental concept,” as Wikipedia puts it.

Finally, the wine life in South Korea

Loved this comment from a reader in South Korea concerning prices there. “Entry level NZ Sav Blanc is $30 USD a bottle and good everyday drinking Sangiovese mid range is $45 USD a bottle. The really good wines, (and I like Burgundy and Barolo), are $120-150 USD a bottle. These are retail prices! It’s madness.” So next time you feel like complaining about prices here, think about those miserable ex-pats in Seoul.

Is wine quality objective or subjective in nature?


Is quality in wine inherent, or is it something we impute to wine? I’ve wondered about this for years. Before I took an active interest in wine and educating myself about it, I would happily slurp down anything you offered me, from Champagne to Ripple, and if you’d asked me which was better, I would have had to reply, in all honesty, I don’t know. Now, of course, I fancy I can tell the difference between quality and plonk, but is that really true, or is it just something I tell my ego in order to make it feel better?

I’ve been planning on giving a wine tasting to a group of young (mostly 20-something) people. It hasn’t happened yet, because of logistical problems — oh, scratch that, because of laziness on my part — but I’ve been thinking about how I might structure it. When you do tastings, there’s no template that works for everyone. A group at the Bacchus Society obviously has to be treated differently from my young tattoo and skateboard friends. For them, I came up with a couple different ideas to keep the tasting loosey-goosey so that we could all have fun, while still learning something.

One part of the tasting will be “Which is the more expensive wine?” I figure we’ll taste two wines: One costing around  $200, the other $15. It’ll be interesting to see which wine the people prefer. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were split right down the middle, which would lead to an interesting conversation about why two consumer products that are roughly identical are so disparate in value. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if a majority favors the more expensive wine, since, in general, you get what you pay for. On the third hand, I’d be stunned if the majority preferred the cheaper wine — stunned, but not entirely surprised, since on many occasions, in blind tastings I’ve given higher scores to the inexpensive bottle.

Another session, I figure, is “Which is the real red wine and which is the white wine with food coloring?” I went out and bought some food coloring and found that a precise mixture of red and black will turn a Sauvignon Blanc the color of Cabernet Sauvignon. I decided to do this after reading a study that showed that, if people couldn’t see the wine’s color, they couldn’t tell if it was red or white. Isn’t that strange? We like to think it would be obvious, but apparently it’s not. (First, I’m going to try the experiment on myself.)

A third session is going to be really sneaky: I’ll give them the same wine twice, and ask them which they prefer. That’s pretty under-handed, but I’ll do it, not to embarrass anyone, but to show them how slippery perception is. They’ll automatically assume that, if I’m giving them 2 glasses of wine to compare, the two must be different. They’ll then proceed to find differences in the wines — differences that are not really there, but which their minds impute to the wines, based on their assumptions.

All three of these sessions are designed to show my young friends just how much subjectivity there is in wine tasting, and in our perceptions of wine. I think that’s the main thing a professional taster learns after doing this for a long enough time. Beginners start out with great certitude: they believe in classification systems, in reputations, in a price-quality relationship. As they proceed through life, they discovered that there can be important exceptions to every rule; but they discover, also, that, in general, the rules as commonly understood are more correct than not. Then they realize that the rules may not be as objective, as engraved in the DNA of the universe, as previously thought. What we collectively identify as “quality” may be only a majority preference, based on habit, reinforced by peer groups, and enshrined by tastemakers.

We seem to be living in an era of post-truth politics, in which nothing is real, nothing can be proved or disproved, all claims are to be taken as equally valid, and you can believe in anything you want — not necessarily because it makes sense, but because it appeals to you emotionally and viscerally. In a way, there’s nothing new about this: humankind has always made aesthetic distinctions. For example, is Klimt’s “The Kiss”


better than Picasso’s “The Kiss”?


But that’s art, you argue; there’s a big difference between art, which is subjective, and “true” reality. But is there? We see today in America that not even issues formerly thought to be scientifically objective — such as climate change, the economic impact of a healthcare law, or even where a President was born — are capable of being resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The same thing seems to be happening in wine, where quality (or what we long perceived as quality) is on a slippery slope toward redefinition.

Sunday on the coast: partly sunny thoughts


I’ll have more to say about World of Pinot Noir this week, but now it’s off on this cool, partly cloudy morning to the south, and a few days in Santa Barbara County.

(I will also have more to say soon about the movie I’m in, Blood Into Wine, and the way they portrayed — or didn’t portray — my blind tasting. Stay tuned.)

I was reading the L.A. Times this morning over breakfast (oatmeal for health, bacon in hommage to Homer Simpson, and also because there’s been a lot of talk about bacon at this Pinot Noir event) when I came across yet another article on that big fight in New York State over whether to permit grocery stores to sell wine.

Like you, I’ve been kinda sorta keeping up with that story. I understood the issues. I just wasn’t sure which side I agreed with. One the one hand are small, mom and pop liquor stores, who fear that if grocery stores are allowed to sell wine, it will hurt them and maybe drive them out of business. On the other hand are groceries, who argue, Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell wine? It would be a great benefit to our customers, particularly those in rural areas, who won’t have to drive 5, 10 or more miles just to buy a bottle of wine.

Both sides have a point, as is often the case with tricky social, cultural and legal issues, which is why they’re hard to decide. For example, Napa’s winery ordinance is tricky because it pits wineries, who want an extra income stream, against some of their neighbors, who don’t want more traffic, etc. But in a democracy, somebody has to win. In the New York case, I’m siding with the grocers. They should be allowed to sell wine, for several reasons.

For one thing, it’s difficult for a state — in this case, New York — to present a coherent reason for intruding into private, commercial enterprise. Granted, alcohol is a regulated product, but it’s not clear that a State, or county or city, has the right to decide who should and shouldn’t be allowed to sell wine. Yes, States have the power to grant liquor licenses, but all things being equal, they shouldn’t be in the position of picking winners and losers. (The one exception I’ll make is that cities should be allowed to limit the number of liquor stores in ghetto neighborhoods.)

For another thing, this notion of letting only liquor stores sell wine is so antiquated, it’s pathetic. A holdover not only of Prohibition but of 19th century attitudes toward Demon Rum, it fails to recognize that wine is now a mainstream, respectable food. Most people who drink wine do so with meals, and in the company of friends and family. Wine is not some narcotic drug whose dissemination must be limited only to certain restricted areas, like prescription medicines sold in a pharmacy. (And even supermarkets, which are just giant grocery stores, contain pharmacies.)

Finally, we have only to look at our state of California to see that letting grocery stores sell wine seems to be doing little harm, if any, to wine stores. At small grocery stores, like 7-Eleven, all they stock are the big distributor brands that most mom and pop wine stores wouldn’t think of selling anyway. At larger supermarkets like Safeway, the selection is bigger, and there may be some overlap between what they sell and what a little wine shop sells, but if there is, it isn’t much. No, what small wine stores sell tends to be either rarer, more expensive wines or inexpensive imports that most grocery stores would never feature. I think of a wine shop like Paul Marcus, in my neighborhood, where you can get wonderful Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian wines for under $20. You’d never see them in a grocery store.

So I don’t think the New York liquor stores, who are organized under a group called “Last Store on Main Street” (an apocalyptic name meant to frighten) really have a case. I suspect New York State will eventually agree to let grocery stores sell wine, if for no other reason than that it will generate a quarter-billion bucks in new license revenues. If there are some liquor stores who feel threatened by open competition, let them upgrade to quality stuff. Consumers will shop wherever they think they can (a) get the best wine (b) at the best price (c) with the best customer service (d) and with the most convenience. They really don’t care if it’s a grocery store or a liquor store, and neither should New York’s (dysfunctional) government.

Old farts? Or rock stars?

At World of Pinot Noir, I introduced a friend of mine, a good-looking ultramarathoner without an ounce of bodyfat on his lean frame, to Richard Sanford, who is the Dean of Southern California winemakers. Hell, Richard is one of the Deans of all California winemakers. When Richard and I get together the conversation occasionally turns to Olden Times, and so it did there under the tent by the sea, where Richard was pouring Alma Rosa for the WOPN crowd. He was telling my friend about the old Sanford label and the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard when my friend — whom I like a great deal and admire for his creativity, not to mention the fact that he can run for 100 miles — said something about “you old farts.”

He meant it, I’m entirely sure, affectionately and without malice. We all say things that pop into our heads without thinking. I do every day, and I know it was that way with my friend. Still, it hurt, a little. Maybe it tapped into so much of the crap about dinosaur print writers who don’t get it versus cool young Twitterers who are the wave of the future, yadda yadda. At some point in one’s life and career, you have to start wondering if you’re still relevant — and maybe you find yourself trying a bit harder to prove you are.

So here I am now, in a coffee shop in “downtown” Santa Ynez, nursing a non-fat latte, when I pick up a copy of last Nov. 26’s Rolling Stone. Therein is an article on “the historic concerts for the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The musicians included such old farts as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springstein, Aretha Franklin, Bono, Patti Smith, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkle, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Ray Davies, Jackson Browne, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sting — and on and on.

You know, I’ve read and heard younger rockers, like Fergie, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Trey Anastasio, Will.I.Am, Shakira, Pink, Sheryl Crow, Foo Fighters, Taylor Swift, even Adam Lambert credit their musical forebears with blazing paths, breaking down barriers, opening entirely new genres and whole new universes of possibilities that enable pop music to forever stay vital, and to be one of America’s enduring contributions to world culture. And if you ask Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and their generation, they always and happily pay their propers to the likes of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Elvis, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Sinatra, Fats Domino — that list also goes on and on.

For the life of me I don’t know wine writers seem more hung up with generational divisions than rock stars. Professor Saintsbury inspired Harry Waugh and Michael Broadbent, who inspired Hugh Johnson, who inspired Oz Clark and Jancis Robinson, who has inspired God knows how many women to believe they can be great wine writers. The writers of the 60s and 70s even inspired Robert Parker, even if it was in the negative sense that he decided to be unlike them, as Elvis decided to be unlike Pat Boone and the Sex Pistols decided to be unlike Journey. Parker, Johnson, Waugh, Bob Thompson, Charlie Olken and, yes, Jim Laube inspired me. I have some reason to think, or at least to hope, that I have inspired younger writers, and I know that Richard Sanford has inspired a generation of younger winemakers. Even now, there are brilliant young vintners working up and down California who keep one eye on the venerable past, with all its lessons and wisdom, as they stride into futures filled with hope and promise.

Old farts, or rock stars? Richard Sanford still has a few tricks up his sleeve. So do I.

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