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

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

1. Talkin’ Sonoma County

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

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

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

So here are the quotes, with my amplifications.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. How to make cult wine and be graceful

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

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

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

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

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

dalailama


Thoughts on a quick trip to Florida

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Was in Miami Beach where I hadn’t been for a long time. South Beach is hot, pulsating and sexy. The Art Deco district is languid by day, throbbing at night with [mainly] young, good-looking people of every nationality

In the heavy, mid-afternoon heat and humidity, when sweat breaks out at the slightest exertion, it was pleasant to sit for an hour or two in a little cafe, nursing beers and cooling off and watching the passing parade. But nighttime is when South Beach wakes up.

We (my friends and I) hung at a place called SushiSamba, on Lincoln Avenue in the heart of the action. One of my friends had been the previous beverage manager of the restaurant cum club; the other was the incoming. The food — sushi meets Brazil via Peru — was as exotic and delicious as anything I’ve had lately. I’ve always been a Champagne pairer with raw fish, but sake also works. Fino sherry, too.

SushiSamba had a dance floor and they let the kids in from the street to bust moves, providing a sort of floor show. Their bodies are made of rubber. We drank a lot of wine until the wee hours. One night, back in our beachside hotel, all we had left was a bottle of Robert Mondavi Coastal Cabernet, but all agreed it was fine; to have complained because it wasn’t a “great label” would have been snobbish. But then there was the lady, who joined us at one point for drinks, who pointed out that the wine we were drinking (not the Mondavi) must have been good because it had “legs”; and my friends and I smiled at each other but said nothing.

“Legs.” There’d been an article in the United Airlines magazine I’d read on the flight down on how to be a wine snob. It included a glossary that had, not only “legs” in it but “ullage,” and I had to wonder if these articles don’t do more harm than good. Yes, we want to break down the barriers to wine enjoyment so that everyone can feel comfortable with it, but do people really need to memorize the word “ullage” and then actually use it in a sentence? I can just see it.

Average guy: This looks like a good bottle to get for the steak.
His wife: Yes, but what about the ullage?
A.G. WTF?
His wife: I read it in the United magazine.

Anyway, my friends drank a lot more than I did, and a lot of different kinds of stuff. Wine, beer, cocktails, things I’d never heard of. They started a lot earlier in the day, too. I’m not big on alcohol before dusk. But then, they’re in the restaurant business, where the traveling, schmoozing and, yes, drinking is a lot more demanding and expected than in my relatively sedate world of wine writing. I had an uncle who was in charge of regional distribution for Seagram’s, and he drank a lot, too.

I’ve always liked people on that side of the industry. They have a rowdy, randy good-natured spirit, and they laugh a lot and make people around them laugh. God loves people who make people laugh.

Then there was this quote from yesterday’s New York Times I read on the flight back to Oakland: Classic and common are concepts up for grabs; my notion of quality may leave you cold. Many of our masterpieces owe their origins to the distinctly immoral ambitions of power politics, their survival to prosaic strokes of luck, their present pre-eminence to institutional marketing, critical attention and popular sentiment. Even so, survival can be chancy. Fine wines are tossed out and crummy wines are kept all the time.

Granted, the essay was really about who determines what is “art” as opposed to any old scribble. I changed a few words in the above quote to make it about wine, but the concept is the same. How does one wine get universally accepted as great while hundreds of others, which may be its equals or near-equals, are left by the wayside? More on this later.

P.S. To those of you who commented while I was gone and didn’t get them approved until last night, I apologize. For some reason I don’t understand, my laptop lost Internet connectivity.


With more women winemakers, will wine styles change?

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I had lunch with someone from the industry today and the topic of gender arose. We both noted that most winery P.R. is done by women, while most winemakers seem to be men. That started me thinking, as most things do.

I remembered that a few years ago U.C. Davis announced that their Viticulture & Enology Department had finally achieved gender equity, in terms of the number of students majoring. That was after more than a century, and I bet you don’t have to go back very far before coming to a time when there were no female V&E students at all.

When you think about the history of wine, that’s not surprising. I collect wine books of all kinds. If you read about ancient Greek and Roman wines, there are no women (aside from the occasional ode to a goddess). The people who wrote about wine were men: Virgil, Pliny, Horace and so on. (There’s been the suggestion that in the ancient world, women were more involved with winemaking than we think, but that is largely conjecture.)

All of the books about wine written from the era following Gutenberg through the Renaissance were by men, for men. In the 18th and 19th century, when French and British writers wrote about wine, they were all males. The founders of Port, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne were men — often monks — except for the Widow Clicquot, who came into possession of her company only because her husband died young. For most of the 20th century, fine wine writing and winemaking again were dominated by men. It really wasn’t until the last 20 years, and even less, that we’ve witnessed, not only increasing numbers of female winemakers, but female writers and lecturers like Jancis Robinson, Leslie Sbrocco, Linda Murphy and so on. (But even now, so far as I can tell, most of the wine blogs seem to be written by men.)

P.R. has been just the opposite, at least in the wine industry. Somehow, it was “relegated” to women, seemingly not as “important” as marketing, finance and sales (not to mention production). There seemed something vaguely clerical about P.R., so it was women who did it — and got paid less than men got paid in their jobs. But that’s changing, too. There are many men now who have started their own P.R. firms.

Here’s what I wonder: When there are finally as many, or more, women winemakers than men in California, will the style of wine change? It’s tempting to prophesy that wine will become more balanced, more nuanced, and not as powerful as some of the fruit bombs we’ve been seeing. But then, think of winemakers such as Helen Turley, Heidi Barrett, Martha McClellan and Mia Klein. Their wines are not exactly shrinking violets. Then again, those women belong to an older generation than the young women currently attending V&E classes. Will a newer generation of women winemakers eschew big, ripe wines? Answer: Not if the market continues to demand them. Money trumps gender.

P.S. I’m going to be away in the North Coast, probably out of reach of a computer, for a few days. So if anyone writes a comment, I may not be able to approve it right away. Back Wed. morning.


Road ruminations

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Just back from my semi-annual trip to Santa Barbara County, where I tasted through a boatload of new Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs, various Santa Maria Valley wines, and Santa Barbara County Syrahs, in 3 different flights stretched across 3 days.

For a writer, hitting the road is a mixed blessing. It’s a pleasure to get away from the craziness of the city to the quiet, rural pleasures of wine country. Wine regions are always gorgeous, with their hills and dales, rivers and rolling vineyards, and in the case of Santa Barbara County, the pleasure is double because the tourist infrastructure of the North Coast is largely missing. Or hasn’t yet metastisized. During this trip, some of the locals, particularly the Santa Marians, solicited my advice as to how they could draw more attention to their valley, which is a fantastic source of wine, but is largely unknown to the public. You may be hearing more about this. There’s talk of establishing a symposium to celebrate Chardonnay, which is a great idea: It’s the country’s top white wine, but has no big public venue, unlike various “celebrations” of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.

But hitting the road isn’t pure pleasure. It’s hard work. I suppose another wine writer could eat and loaf his way through, spending a few hours at a winery, then relaxing in the hotel jacuzzi for the rest of the day before hitting the bar at happy hour. Not me. My Calvinist work ethic makes me feel guilty for wasting a minute, so I was tasting from early in the morning until nighttime. Tasting can be hard work, particularly in a 48-degree cellar freezing your butt off and wishing you’d remembered the gloves. I actually “hit the wall” after about 200 wines. At my final stop, they’d opened another 40 bottles for me to taste with the winemaker, but I suddenly realized I had nothing left. The tasting machine was out of gas. The palate needed some down time. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. It happens, and you don’t want to fake it, because your brain is in no shape to properly evaluate the wines. I explained my dilemma; the winemaker thoroughly understood. Winemakers taste a lot, too. There’s a lot of empathy between winemakers and writers.

My trip was put together by my friend, the P.R. person, Sao Anash, of Muse Management. She used to run the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association before going out on her own. She does a terrific job for visiting writers and doesn’t ask for a thing, except friendship and for us to do a good job. At one of our dinners, I toasted Sao. I told our group that P.R. people frequently don’t get the respect they deserve. The writers and winemakers receive all the fame and glory; the P.R. folks are lube that keep the gears of the machine running smoothly. Here’s to the P.R. pros.

Got back to Oakland just as the city was mourning the deaths of the 4 cops murdered by a paroled thug. Put me in a philosophic frame of mind. How can America be home both to the Santa Ynez Valley with its restaurants and thoroughbreds and contented cows and peaceful villages with cottages and gardens, as well as to a city wracked with pain and poverty and people determined to wreck themselves and others and a government helpless in the face of such anarchy? I don’t know. Tonight, while I’m drinking some Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, maybe an answer will come.


Monday meanderings

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IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED, RAISE THE PRICE

It happened again yesterday. I was sent a wine, a Bordeaux blend, I’d previously reviewed nearly a year ago for Wine Enthusiast. It was from a Santa Barbara County winery, and it had one of those ridiculously pompous French proprietary names that should be outlawed. When I first reviewed it, the suggested retail price was $54. I gave it a pretty bad score, because it was sweet and syrupy and basically a drag. Now here it was again, rising from the dead like Dracula. The new suggested retail price? $78! I tasted it out of curiosity (at the magazine, we don’t re-rate previously reviewed wines), and it was even worse than before, completely insipid and boring.

Why did the winery re-submit? You never really know. It could be a clerical error, but with expensive wines, I figure they couldn’t sell it the first time around, so they cross their fingers and try again. Okay, but a $24 price hike for this swill? This is what my people call chutzpah.

I remember, back in the 90s, when a winery owner explained to me that he couldn’t sell his wine at $14, but when he raised the price to $25, it flew out the door. If it was inexpensive, people perceived it as non-prestigious. If it was expensive, just the opposite: They figured if it cost that much, it had to be good! Well, that stunt doesn’t work anymore, for two reasons: (1) it’s the economy, stupid, and (2) People these days are a lot smarter.

DEPT. OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

I feel icky doing this — I really do — but I’m doing it anyway because, as mom taught me, if you don’t blow your own horn, who will? So here’s the URL for Tom Wark’s American Wine Blog Awards. If you like my blog, you might consider nominating it in one of these categories, or all three:

- Best writing wine blog
- Best industry/business-oriented wine blog
- Best overall wine blog

Thengya ver-mush.

elvis

HEADLINES WE LOVE TO READ

“Wine may protect men against impotence”

Not that this applies to me, but “There is a correlation between moderate alcohol consumption and lower rates of long term erectile dysfunction (ED).” Thus saith Decanter, the authority on hard news, citing a report from an Australian university. Men of the world, listen to me: Throw away the Viagra and drink wine instead. It’s healthier and more romantic, and you don’t need a prescription.

NOTHING LIKE A BACON BRA TO SHOO AWAY THE DEPRESSION BLUES

baconbra

But if you eat, cook first.


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