Like many of you, I was puzzled by Obama’s curiously passive response to Electiongate at his Friday press conference. While most Democrats, and even many Republicans, view Russia’s actions as a form of cyberwarfare—some have called it a digital Sept. 11—Obama’s message seemed to be: This sort of thing happens all the time. No big deal. Chill out.
The President refused to blame it directly on Putin, as his CIA and FBI have done. He refused to say it influenced the results of the election, as Hillary Clinton has charged (and most of us agree with her). Nor did Obama point the finger at James Comey, whom most of us believe violated the Hatch Act for partisan reasons. And while Obama had called, a week ago, for an investigation into Electiongate, during his televised news conference he appeared peculiarly listless: no outrage, no sense of alarm or perturbation. This was “No Drama Obama” at his coolest, but it demands an explanation. Why the lack of passion? Why is he underplaying Electiongate’s severity?
As I watched the news conference—which was delayed a good 20 minutes due, I think, to the breaking news that the FBI had signed on to the CIA’s analysis—I kept wondering when Obama would let loose and scream bloody murder. To no avail: he was relentlessly unemotional, speaking in a monotone, frequently pausing to “uhh,” and refusing to take any bait offered by a press corps that seemed as weirded out as I was by the President’s lack of affect. It was all very frustrating and puzzling to those of us who thought that here, at last, was an opportunity for Obama to come out swinging, hard—against Russia, against Comey, against Trump, against the lies and corruption that brought Hillary down and have tried to destroy him as well. And yet he refused to do so. It was almost like watching a victim of Stockholm Syndrome.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed Obama’s mealy-mouthed response to Electiongate. Yesterday’s New York Times, on the front page, called him “wary” and “cautious,” polite terms, I think, for irresolute. Saturday’s Wall Street Journal had an editorial, “Obama Goes Off the Clinton Script,” that noted, astonished, how Obama claimed “the emails stolen from John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee were ‘not some elaborate complicated espionage scheme.’” Calling the hacking and subsequent leaking “pretty routine stuff,” the most severe Obama could get was to declare that he would “take action” against Russia and Putin. But when? How? FDR didn’t wait until some future date to retaliate against the Japanese for Pearl Harbor. Will Obama release the evidence of wrongdoing on Russia’s part, which many Americans are asking for? Why is he—who has twice won the presidency—not going off the rails at how this recent election was, in effect, controlled by the Russians with, probably, inside knowledge of the Trump campaign? I mean, how bad does it have to get before the President shows some righteous anger?
So I’m scratching my head. Here we have Democrats, and tens of millions of people who voted for Hillary Clinton, outraged at Republicans; we know now that Donald Trump “won” the presidency illegitimately, we know we warned the country for months this was happening, and we are demanding that something be done about it. And here we have a President who, on Friday, live on T.V., could have and should have given articulate voice to our outrage. Obama could have been FDR speaking to Congress the day after Pearl Harbor, or JFK talking about Cuba to the American people, or George W. Bush on top of that car at Ground Zero, talking into the bullhorn. Obama could have been a President who rallied the people to a justified cause, in this acute, massive scandal. Instead, Obama chose, for his own reasons, to make it sound like he was talking about soybean subsidies.
The only explanation I can come up with—and it’s not a very satisfactory one—is that Obama feels personally responsible for a smooth transition to a Trump presidency, and is concerned about how he would look if, in his remaining month in office, he were seen as creating even more partisan divisiveness. This may be so—that theory fits in with what we know of his character, which is generally averse to confrontation. But I must say that, this time, Obama has let me down. Fortunately, he still has time to seize the moral high ground and come out swinging against what he well knows are dark, evil forces. He should remind himself—or be reminded—that his responsibility is not to ensure a smooth transition to an incompetent, mendacious incoming President, but to speak truth to History.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.