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Vive La France!

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One hardly knows where to begin to grieve for France. The birthplace of fine wine – still the inspiration – our hearts go out to the people of France and particularly of Nice. For myself, I plan to show my support by drinking wine all weekend.

 

France


Paso Robles, Sonoma, Napa: What’s the right amount of growth?

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The thing about America is that the easy issues have been solved. What’s left are the hard ones, and among those—hardly the most pressing, but troubling if you live in wine country—is how much development to allow.

Basically, the two sides are these: on the one hand are tourists who bring in the dollars that pay for police, firemen, road repair, teachers and the like. They want to visit wine country and have a lot of fun stuff to do, and wineries are eager to provide them with the opportunity.

On the other hand are people who actually live in wine country and find the increasingly crowded roads a real hassle. Whether you’re a fourth generation Napan, Sonoman or Paso Roblan, or someone who moved there six months ago for a quieter, simpler way of life, the influx of thousands of extra tourists has got to be annoying.

This is not a new issue in wine country, but it is increasing to epic proportions. As Angela Hart, at the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, and Esther Mobley, at the San Francisco Chronicle, point out, things are reaching the boiling point.

Both Hart’s article, in Saturday’s Press-Democrat, and Mobley’s, in yesterday’s Chronicle, are balanced and objective looks at the two sides. Mobley provides continuing coverage of the brouhaha over Justin Winery’s removal of oak trees, which really freaked out lots of locals. Hart looks at Sonoma County’s approval of 300 new wineries in the last sixteen years, which opponents say sparks “unruly crowds, loud noise and traffic on narrow, winding roads [that] is detracting from the peace and quiet of their neighborhoods.” Neither of these journalists takes a side; neither do I. These are political decisions and a reporter should not engage in politics.

I’ve followed these debates for a long time. There’s never an easy answer. You can’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg, which in this case is the dollars the flow into formerly rural communities that badly need the money. But you can’t take a farming community and turn it, willy nilly, into Fisherman’s Wharf. What is needed is a reasonable amount of growth. You can’t have no growth; that train has left the station long ago. Nor can you have unlimited growth: nobody wants to see Motel 6’s and Taco Bells sprawling along the Silverado Trail.

The Justin case is not quite the same as the Sonoma case. Justin did something that even they admit was a horrible mistake, and they’re trying their hardest to apologize and make amends. Still, Mobley got it right in her analysis that this tempest has brought Paso Robles, formerly a sleepy little wine community, its “first real dose of Wine Country growing pains.” Wine country is nothing if not charming, but as we all have experienced, there’s nothing charming about a traffic jam that extends from Yountville to Calistoga—20 miles—that takes 45 minutes to negotiate.

The answer? Like I said, the easy issues have already been solved. What we’re left with in America—problems of policing, of homelessness, of the environment and climate change and healthcare—are seemingly intractable. They can only be addressed when both sides are reasonable and open to compromise—and “compromise” has turned into a dirty word, in all too many cases. Wine country should be an exception. It should be a place where reasonable people can get together and reach reasonable accommodations that may not satisfy everyone, but that give enough to all parties to keep the peace, allowing for managed, but not unlimited, growth.


Has Vintank tanked? Not clear. My thoughts

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Some years ago, around 2011 or 2012, Jo Diaz, the winery publicist, set up an event at U.C. Davis that featured a showdown, of sorts, between me and Paul Mabray, who had created VinTank in 2009. VinTank has been described in this article as “the wine industry’s most powerful social media monitoring and data distribution platform…designed to help revolutionize the wine industry through monitoring and analyzing blogs, social media, and tasting note platforms and distributing that information to those in the wine and restaurant industries.” The idea behind Vintank, I gathered, was Paul’s strongly-held belief that social media was becoming, or already had become, a very important tool for wineries to sell wine, something VinTank could help them achieve, and that wineries had better hop onboard—at the risk of missing the boat.

By that time, I had acquired the reputation, mainly through this blog, of being something of a social media skeptic, although those who portrayed me as such tended to exaggerate the degree of my skepticism. I myself always took the position that social media’s ability to sell wine was limited. As I looked around, I saw an entrepreneurial explosion of social media consulting firms, all making inordinate claims about social media’s power, backing those claims up with Powerpoint-illustrated statistics, and, of course—so far as I could tell—hoping to be hired for the expertise they said they could bring to their clients, who all too often were hopelessly befuddled as to what they should do with this new-fangled gimmickry.

I never said social media was worthless. Far from it: I was a player myself, active not only on my blog but also on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. In fact I advised every proprietor I talked to that they should practice social media to the extent of their ability to do so. At the same time, I said that social media was not, and could not be, the be-all and end-all for wineries: that it was but one tool in the toolbox, and wineries had best not forget the other tools, namely, good sales and marketing done the traditional way (not to mention making high-quality wine!).

Well, you know the media loves a good story of heroes and villains, so I got portrayed as this social media hater, and that was the point of Jo’s event at Davis. Jo thoughtful person she is, knew I didn’t hate social media. She knows me as well as anyone in the industry. At the same time, she thought it would make for good P.R. to present Steve vs. Paul as a gunfight, and I agreed to go along.

Things did get testy that day. I remember thinking that Paul’s claims for social media’s effectiveness were hyperbole, or at least unproven, and his comments about me went beyond objectivity towards the personal. Perhaps he felt the same way about me. At any rate, we parted in a friendly way, and, more importantly, gave the U.C. Davis V&E students “a good show,” which is always what these things are all about.

I largely lost track of VinTank after that. I knew that last year it was acquired by something called the W2O Group, when Paul told Forbes that, with the acquisition, “We can truly catalyze the industry into meaningful and healthy change in how they understand and relate to their customers.” But, like I said, I didn’t follow VinTank or W2), until yesterday, when Wine Industry Insight reported on developments with the headline, “Vintank dead? Vin65 customers left in lurch. Signs point to quiet euthanasia by private equity.” (VinTanke and Vin65 had previously partnered in 2013.) The article went on to quote from the Vin65 website that VinTank, “recently rebranded as TMRW Engine, will cease operations as VinTank…” and…”will no longer be supporting clients in the wine industry effective July 31, 2016.”

The actual details of VinTank’s complicated deals of recent years are hard to follow, and it’s not clear to me, at this time, if VinTank will continue to operate in one form or another, or what Paul’s role will be. (I reached out to him via Twitter, but didn’t hear back.) However, I think we can agree that social media has not turned out to be the savior of wineries, particularly smaller ones, who might have looked towards it for its supposedly miraculous abilities. If it’s true, as Wine Business Insight, reported, that VinTank is tanking, I feel bad for Paul, but I haven’t changed my position in nearly nine years. Social media is fun, it can be helpful for wineries, they should do it if they can, but it’s simply not as vital as some people initially portrayed it.

ED. NOTE: This version has been slightly edited from an earlier version.

 


“There were giants in those days”

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The news that Paul Draper is retiring came, not as a complete shock, because after all, he’s 80 years old. Rather, it was a realization, the latest in a sorry series, that “the mighty men of old, men of renown” are passing from our scene like the last of a fine vintage gone to frost.

I did not know Mr. Draper well, although well enough for him to return my phone calls and to invite me to Ridge, where he was winemaker for more than 45 years. In fact, it was at one of those visits that he tasted me to about 30 vintages of Monte Bello, a tasting I will never forget. The quality was of course high, vintage variation was terribly interesting, and I found it fascinating that no Monte Bello had even been produced in excess of 14% alcohol. I also had the opportunity to interview Mr. Draper many times on the telephone.

That he was a “giant” is true in this sense: Certain industries, or perhaps “human practices” is a better term, seem capable of launching men and women to the status of “gianthood.” This is a near-mythic status in which we sense something more noble and inspirational than you might find in, say, insurance salesmen (with all due respect to insurance salesmen). The wine industry, and particularly its production side, seems always to have produced giants. I think of, for instance, of the winemaker, his name lost to history, who made the Falernian wine from the Opimian vintage of 121 BC, which Julius Caesar himself loved when the wine was more than sixty years of age. I think also of Arnaud III de Pontac, the proprietor of Haut-Brion, who hauled, with great difficulty and at great danger, his wine across France around 1660, so that the English King Charles II would fall in love with it, as Pontac knew he would.

I think of the Widow Cliquot, and the Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum, and Andre Tchelistcheff, and Max Schubert at Penfolds, and of course of Robert Mondavi, a giant if ever there was one. These were men and women whose visions were capacious, and upon whose shoulders not only their own fates rested, but the fates of entire generations of vintners and wine drinkers. And they knew it, these giants, knew how large were the tasks they assigned themselves, respected the challenges and difficulties, and gladly accepted them; for they knew, also, that to trod the well-worn path would lead them only to well-trod places. In their fertile imaginations, they perceived places no man had perceived before them, and, in going boldly to those places, enabled the rest of us to follow their paths.

Mr. Draper’s story is well-known and need not be repeated here. What is interesting is that he helped, with his partners, to create, not only a First Growth of California, but to do it in a place—the Santa Cruz Mountains—that was not named Napa Valley. It is true that those mountains had a very noble place in California’s vinous history: the La Questa Bordeaux-style red wine, planted in the 1880s supposedly from cuttings obtained at Margaux, was one of the first “cult” wines. But by the time of Ridge’s founding, in 1959, the gaze of the industry already had turned to Napa Valley, which makes the decision of Ridge’s founders to locate in Cupertino all the more curious, and Draper’s achievement all the more noteworthy.

That Mr. Draper’s style of Cabernet—leaner, more elegant and ageworthy—also marched to a different beat from that of Napa Valley also contributes to his legend. He never deviated from his style, as wine writer Laurie Daniel noted in the San Jose Mercury News. That style, which she accurately called “graceful,” does not seem to have inspired other California Cabernet makers, aside from perhaps a Cathy Corison or two; instead, others marched towards higher alcohol, greater extraction, more new oak. Mr. Draper realized that if he allowed the grapes to reach the high sugars necessary for superripeness at the cool Monte Bello ridge site, they would result in a bizarre, unbalanced wine, of limited ageability. So he “danced with the one that brung him,” to the joy of Monte Bello fans everywhere.

Still, it would be misleading to ascribe Mr. Draper’s achievements solely in technical terms. The things that result in men being thought of as “giants” have less to do with their specific behaviors or creations, and more with something mysterious and inchoate which they inspire in others. (Alexander the Great had this very impact.) Some of that has to do, of course, with personality, and the fact that Mr. Draper was a consummate gentleman should not be overlooked. Nor should it be forgotten that he was a tireless worker and representative of Ridge, if not as indefatigable as Robert Mondavi, then at least in the same mold. Men like these—giants—are aware that they have a responsibility to the aura of legend others have built up around them; and they rise to that responsibility with, yes, grace.

So, to Mr. Draper I say, enjoy your retirement! Well done, sir, well done.


Microflora as terroir influence?

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Former colleague Harvey Steiman at Wine Spectator has a nice piece on terroir in his latest blog. It actually breaks some new ground to the usual, predictably tedious conversations the wine media entertains itself with on this complicated topic. Yes, indeed, climate, elevation, the tilt of the slope or exposure to the sun”—the usual suspects—are an integral part of the mysteries of terroir, but Harvey, citing a new study out of U.C. Davis, suggests that “microflora” could be just as important.

What are “microflora”? “Bacteria and microscopic algae and fungi, especially those living in a particular site or habitat,” according to Google. The study Harvey referred to was published in the June, 2016 issue of the online medical journal, mBio, from the American Society for Microbiology.

Its main finding, which contributes importantly to the ongoing terroir discussion, albeit in “unclear” ways (a word the study itself uses), is that these microflora can account, at least in part, not only for terroir characteristics we find in “viticultural area designations” such as AVAS, but even in “individual vineyards” (and, one would expect, in individual blocks within vineyards).

The upshot? “Grape and wine microbiota exhibit regional patterns that correlate with wine chemical composition, suggesting that the grape microbiome may influence terroir.”

Scientists already had known that these microflora or microbiota exhibit identifiable…patterns across large distances,” but what surprised them seems to have been the vineyard-to-vineyard differences they found. The scientists were careful to point out that much work remains to be done before “causation” can be claimed, in the sense of why different wines of the same variety can be different when grown in close physical proximity, winemaking technique aside. But they do now believe that these neighboring microflora “demonstrate that the microbial composition of grapes accurately predicts the chemical composition of wines made from these grapes and are therefore biomarkers for predicting…terroir.”

Not all regions of wine country are “microbiologically unique,” the authors warn, and climate, soil type, topography and agricultural practices—long known to be part of terroir—also in turn may influence microflora. What, then, is the use of this study, which just seems to further muddy already muddied waters? “These markers could provide actionable information to winemakers to improve wine characteristics or mitigate problem fermentation…and could be practical for predicting the suitability of potential vineyard sites…”.

The challenges all of this poses for wine writers, which is what I’m interested in, would seem to make their tasks even more insurmountable, when it comes to writing about terroir. We at Jackson Family Wines have been doing a ton of research at understanding the various terroirs of the sub-AVAs of the Willamette Valley. It’s hard work, with source information often contradictory; the same platitudes seem to be repeated endlessly, without substantiation or proof, which, of course, only serves to prompt less diligent writers to repeat them. Getting an adequate explanation of the differences between, say, a Penner-Ash Estate and a Zena Crown Pinot Noir seems trickier than ever, now that we have microflora thrown into the equation.

The wine writer is tempted to throw up his hands in despair, but this is not allowed in analytic journalism. One must persevere, weeding out untruths from part-truths and absolute truths (which, on close inspection, often turn out to be not-so-absolute), and realizing that for every assertion, the contrary can be found; the best one can hope for is a valid consensus of all sources, rather the way things work in Biblical analysis. People—the general public—want simple, black-and-white truisms where, alas, they seldom exist. Usually, there are only shifting shapes of gray.


A comment on marketing, after receiving the latest Bordeaux hype from a press release

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You know, I understanding marketing. When a winery or wine region touts itself as the “best ever,” or “greatest vintage,” or simply uses self-reverential language that makes it sound like it’s sitting at the right hand of God, it’s merely putting its best foot forward in a formal situation—as most of us do.

Say you’re at a job interview, or maybe meeting your new boyfriend’s family for the first time. Of course you’re going to be charming and try to impress these people with what a special fellow you are. You might even do a little discrete bragging…nothing too over-the-top, just enough to let them know you’re better than the average bear. After all, as Rabbi Hillel said two thousand years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

But really, there has to be a limit. Bordeaux (echoed by its various supportive critics) has proclaimed vintages of the century so often, we might have to reinvent the concept of “century” in order to accommodate all those special years. Its image, conjuring up marble palaces and royalty, is the nearest thing in winedom to the regality of the British royal house, itself a product of the greatest marketing the world has ever seen. And certainly, the proprietors of Bordeaux chateaux know a thing or two about pulling off the elite act! On the other hand, certain Napa proprietors who try to mimic the glamor, fashion and mansions of Bordeaux–and they’re out there–are plus royaliste que le roi, more royal than the King. Which makes them tres amusant, although they don’t intend to be.

* * *

A word about the commotion over Justin cutting down those oak trees. I have a long admiration for Justin, one of the icons of Westside Paso Robles. I always liked their wines, and when Justin Baldwin himself owned it, I thought he was a great guy who brought a lot of savvy to a region that needed it.

Now, Justin appears to be experiencing a rather serious backlash because of the tree cutting: restaurants are canceling their accounts and longtime customers say they won’t buy the brand anymore. As one of them noted, in the Paso Robles Daily News, Paso Robles itself is Spanish for “Pass of the Oaks.” Cutting down a bunch of old, beautiful oak trees must hit locals doubly-hard in that lovely part of Central California.

I couldn’t say if Justin’s ownership was right or wrong. There may be mitigating circumstances. Unlike many people, I’ve learned not to take fast positions on topics I haven’t studied. But I can say that the owners, The Wonderful Wine Company, showed surprisingly little foresight into how such a thing would be perceived. This is the age of the Internet, of social media; cutting down those trees provided perfect fodder to the nimbyism that often runs throughout wine country, where people understandably like the rural, scenic ambience and don’t want anybody or anything to mess with it. Surely, the Justin brouhaha testifies to the need to have a public relations consciousness within an enterprise—not necessarily a department, but somebody savvy who can anticipate public reaction and warn management of the potential risks. That does not seem to have been the case at Justin. There are lessons to be learned here for all wineries.


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