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Postmortem: Putting IPOB into Perspective

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I’ve been hard on the Republican Party for being such ideological purists that they can’t compromise with Democrats (or anyone else) on anything. So in my guise as the F.F.W.C. (former famous wine critic), along the same lines I have a few observances about In Pursuit of Balance.

IPOB, as many of you know, was the non-profit organization formed in California for the purpose of promoting the production of Pinot Noirs that are lower in alcohol and higher in acidity than some, or many, other Pinot Noirs, especially those produced around the time of IPOB”s founding, in 2010.

In that year, the Pinots emerging onto the market were of the 2008 vintage, or possibly 2007—two warm vintages that produced ripe, lush, soft, full-bodied wines. IPOB’s precise goal, however, was never entirely clear. Their website says it was to promote dialogue around the meaning of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay,” but certainly, the public and the wine media perceived it as more than the mere promotion of dialogue. Most people saw it prescriptively. In the popular mind (and IPOB did nothing to dissuade people from thinking this), IPOB was saying that Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) should be below 14% in alcohol.

It’s true that Raj Parr, IPOB’s most visible representative, never came right out and said so, at least in my presence. In fact I heard him once welcome us to an IPOB tasting (at RN74) by stating that he was emphatically not referring to specific alcohol levels. But if there was no specific recommendation along those lines, people were scratching their heads and wondering just what else “balance” could mean that was not merely an arbitrary quality in the eyes of the beholder.

I sure wondered. In the four years after IPOB’s founding, and before I quit Wine Enthusiast, I strove mightily to understand. (Perhaps that’s what IPOB meant when they said they wanted “to promote dialogue.”) I decided that the question was meaningless, because no two people, no matter how competent they are, are ever going to agree all the time about so elusive and subjective a concept as “balance.” That was fine with me: wine writers, critics, producers, consumers and restaurateurs love to gab about wine, and IPOB provided plenty of gabbing opportunities.

Still, IPOB had an overall negative impact. It divided Pinot Noir people into two opposite, warring camps. IPOB’s tastings never made any sense. They were fun to go to, in that they let us taste many famous, small-production Pinots we would otherwise miss. But I always wondered why IPOB’s gatekeepers, who included Jasmine Hirsch, allowed some wines in, while shutting other wines out. For example, Calera was there—no one ever accused Calera of making low alcohol wines—while some fine low alcohol Pinot Noirs from the company I started working for in 2014, Jackson Family Wines, were not. I think that’s why people who were not fans of IPOB started calling it “the cool kids’ club.” It reminded me of the cafeteria in college, where the jocks and cute chicks gathered at their tables, while the geeks, freaks and nerds (of which I was one) had to scramble to figure out where to sit.

This was not a happy development. IPOB caused divisiveness within the ranks of Pinot Noir producers and critics; and while I’m sure it was a fabulous marketing tool for Hirsch Vineyards, Sandhi, Domaine de la Côte and other IPOB favorites, I do not in retrospect think it contributed much that was positive.

My biggest problem with IPOB was the way the mainstream wine media treated it so worshipfully, without questioning the process or the assumptions behind it. This wasn’t journalism; it was lazy reporting by press release. Unimaginative wine writers considered themselves lucky to be invited to IPOB, and to be feted by such famous personages, so they failed to write with due diligence. I had the same problem with the mainstream media during the recent election process. It was awful the way they accepted pretty much all of the Donald Trump scandals with a shrug of the shoulders, while relentlessly pursuing Hillary Clinton’s emails as if they were the biggest security scandal since Benedict Arnold,  with Hillary actively working for ISIS. The email thing, of course, turned out to be absolutely nothing: a non-issue in every respect. But every media outlet in the country, print and broadcast, jumped on it like junkyard dogs and refused to let go, even while practically ignoring Trump University, his late-night infomercials on how to get-rich-quick through real estate flipping, not paying his bills, rape charges, lies, smears, prejudices, unproven allegations, insults, his current wife’s questionable background, his ties to Russia and foreign plutocrats, his taxes, and above all his utter ignorance of the issues. This glaring irresponsibility will be a sorry chapter in American journalism.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley, in her summation of IPOB’s final event on Nov. 14, at least did yeoman’s work in backing up far enough to write objectively about it. She praises it, not for dramatically changing the style of Pinot Noir in California (it didn’t; style is defined by climate, soils and viticultural practices, not by ideologies), but by making us all think a little harder about Pinot Noir than we might have otherwise. That’s a good thing, but I wouldn’t want future wine historians to overrate IPOB’s importance. It was not up there with the French Paradox or the Paris Tasting or Sideways. IPOB was a curiosity, a sort of hippie movement that flourished at a particular time and place, but whose import now has passed.


Wine in barbershops?

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That’s what the Washington Times is reporting. Seems my great state of California is considering allowing—not just barbershops—but beauty parlors too, a total of 42,000 shops in all, to serve wine and beer on their premises. The proposal is in the form of a bill, AB 1322, that would expand California’s current alcohol laws in order to additionally allow the serving of beer or wine without a license as part of a beauty salon or barber shop service if specified requirements are met, including that there be no extra charge or fee for the beer or wine, the license of the establishment providing the service is in good standing, and the servings are limited to specified amounts.”

Sounds good to me! In fact, it sounds more than good: it’s civilized. But, wouldn’t you know it, no good idea goes without someone bashing it, and in this case the basher is the so-called “California Alcohol Policy Alliance,” a group whose website purports to promote evidence-based public health policies and organize campaigns with diverse communities and youth against the alcohol industry’s harmful practices,” but which sounds suspiciously like the anti-alcohol groups in this country that have popped up forever, whose ideology seems like something out of Carrie Nation’s brain.

CARRIE

And not surprising! This California Alcohol Policy Alliance is just the latest incarnation of The Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems; they had to change their name because the Marin Institute got such a bad reputation. These people always claim that their motives are sincere, but there’s something fishily ideological about them, and their anger towards legal alcoholic beverages seems, well, outsized. They call themselves “The Industry Watchdog.” Well, “junkyard dog” would be closer to the point.

But I digress! The beautiful thing about the barbershop-beauty parlor idea is that it normalizes the drinking of beer and wine. There is probably no place more “normal” for Americans to go to than a barbershop or beauty parlor. That’s why serving beer and wine in such places makes so much sense. To be able to drink these alcoholic beverages in these normal, everyday hangouts would be a huge step towards making the consumption of wine—not a fancy thing for rare occasions—but an everyday practice, as it is throughout the wine-producing nations of Europe.

Incidentally, let me give credit to AB 1322’s Republican co-sponsor, Asemblyman Scott Wilk. It’s probably not a good idea for a Republican politician to ever be in favor of anything having to do with alcohol or drugs, and Wilk certainly represents a conservative district: Simi Valley and the San Fernando Valley. But he’s not a nutbag Republican, and he’s okay in my book for this humane and positive step forward. Our Governor, Jerry Brown, now has AB 1322 on his desk, and he may veto it or let it pass into law. The anti-alcohol forces, including the Alcohol Policy Alliance, are lobbying him heavily, on social media and directly, to veto it: they are fear-mongering the general public with alarmist warnings that, if passed, AB 1322 will allow beer and wine to “flow freely without licenses, permits, monitoring, Responsible Beverage Service training, or enforcement of current regulations.”

Well, that’s fine with me. I don’t expect a beauty parlor colorist to have training in “responsible beverage service.” When the neo-prohibitionists at Alcoholic Policy Alliance say that passing AB 1322 will put the “health and safety of all California residents” at risk, that’s just a big lie. I want a country where drinking wine is so natural that you can do it in barbershops, in supermarkets, in movies, in fact pretty much everywhere. Does that mean I’m in favor of public drunkenness? Of course not. But rightwing groups like the Alcohol Policy Alliance base their fundraising on spreading such fear, the same way certain politicians are trying to make us so afraid of ISIS that we close this country’s borders, making it no longer the oasis for “Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” Fear is never a good way to govern, and those who use fear to further their own purposes are to be pitied.


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.


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