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Wine, beer…and pot?

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As a longtime pot enthusiast, and the current holder of a California medical marijuana card, I’ve been glad to witness the acceptance of weed in America. If you’d asked me twenty years ago if I thought the legalization of marijuana (or gay marriage, for that matter) would occur in my lifetime, I would have said, No, especially not gay marriage. And yet, look how far we’ve come!

Yay America! Give yourself a pat on the back.

Still, I must admit my jaw dropped when I was reading the June/July issue of The Somm Journal and came across, on page 34, an article entitled “California Artisanal Hashish.” No, I thought, it can’t be what it looks like; this hash must have something to do with corned beef and potatoes for weekend brunch. (But why would that be in Somm Journal?)

It was only a few seconds later, reading the article, that I realized it was indeed about hashish, and specifically, how “Emerald Triangle farmers are fighting for the AOC classification as California reevaluates its medical cannabis industry.”

Hashish in Somm Journal? AOC classification? Photos of a dude tasting his “aged, artisanal hashish”? Yikes.

Well, Somm Journal is from the redoubtable Andy Blue and his business partner, Meredith May, two of the most successfully entrepreneurial publishers/editors in recent California history. Coming on the heels of The Tasting Panel magazine, maybe Andy has some new triumph in sight: The Smoking Panel magazine. And why not? If weed is going to be a legal, multi-billion-dollar industry in California (it’s already a multi-billion-dollar industry, but there’s still a huge fight between the feds and the state concerning its legality), then it’s going to need its own industry magazine. And who better than Andy to bring it to us?

What’s interesting, and something I hadn’t completely understood although I should have foreseen it, is that some of the same issues we see in beer and wine are now happening in marijuana production. Namely, the fight between large, industrial producers and small artisanal ones. We see that front and center in beer and wine, where artisans complain that the majors are producing soulless, chemically-treated and mass-produced products—a charge to which the majors are being forced to respond–and a new generation of consumers is siding with the artisans, and is moreover willing to pay a premium. Apparently, the same thing is happening with weed. “[S]econd- and third-generation farmers are coming out from the shadows to protect their heritage against the current trend of large corporations controlling cannabis production.”

Are they coming out of the shadows, or out of the smoke? Probably both. Regardless, the issues are timely. Heritage pot? Well, we have heritage clones in grapes, so why not in marijuana? Artisanal production? We celebrate craft beer, and in wine, all you hear about from somms these days is small artisanal producers. But an AOC system for weed? Yes. “California cannabis farmers are working with legislators to build appellation zones into upcoming regulations,” Somm Journal tells us, adding, “…wine-style AOC classification is what will save the farmers and allow California to become the only producer of artisanal hashish globally.”

That’s big thinking. Planetary, CGI thinking, even though Bill says he never inhaled. And no growing region is better suited to be the first appellation for hash and pot than the Emerald Triangle, that three-county (Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity) hub, north of San Francisco, that’s been famous for weed-growing for decades. Anyone who lives there or has traveled through the rugged mountains knows the stories of plantations hidden deep in clearings in the forest; of innocent hikers getting their heads blown off as they unwittingly intruded into someone’s pot farm; of the local constabulary raiding fields, or the DEA showering down herbicides from helicopters; of pot gazillionaires who expanded into other, more legal, industries, including—gasp!–wine. (What, you think that didn’t happen? I first wrote about this in my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.)

Well, good for the pot farmers! And I will happily endorse the Emerald Triangle as the first weed appellation in the nation. When that happens (and I have no doubt it will), it will be only a matter of time before the Emerald Triangle is sub-appellated into smaller terroir-driven pot districts. Or is that too far-fetched? It’s one thing, I suppose, for wine experts to sit down at a formal tasting and discern the distinctions between, say, Diamond Mountain, Mount Veeder and Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. But somehow, it seems trickier to get high while determining the precise characteristics of, and differences between, pot from Yorkville, Willits and the Sinkyone Wilderness. I mean, you can’t spit. And who would take notes, or even remember the next morning? I have no doubt, however, that intrepid analysts are already hard at work at it, even as we speak. To them, I lift my glass of wine, followed by my medicinal pipe, and say, L’Chaim!


That Constellation-Meiomi deal? Land is more valuable than brand

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I sometimes wonder if the general public knows how much land acquisition is a strategic consideration in many of the winery deals that have gone down in California. Sometimes, these acquisitions don’t make any sense, on the face of it; you wonder why in the hell winery X bought winery Y. But if real estate is part of the deal, it can make a great deal of sense.

Such seems to have been the case with Constellation’s purchase of Meiomi, announced yesterday. Not on Contellation’s part, but on the Wagner family’s.

Meiomi’s proprietor, Joe Wagner, of the family that famously owns Caymus, Belle Glos, Mer Soleil and other wineries, told Shanken News Daily that he was selling Meiomi for an unbelievable $315 million because the deal will give him the liquidity necessary to become a much larger landowner. Wagner says he hopes to amass 2,000-3,000 acres of California vineyards over the next five years.”

“A much larger landowner.” That’s the game the major players are playing these days. Everyone assumes several things: (a) the U.S. appetite for wine will only grow, (b) exports of U.S. wines overseas also will grow, especially as trade deals like the TTP go into effect, and (c) supplies of grapes are only going to tighten as the best appellations and regions get planted out. Under such circumstances, buying vineyards now—or selling a superhot brand like Meiomi for a fortune, in order to buy land later—is smart.

Did the Wagners start Meiomi, back in 2006, in order to sell it after it became hot? Who knows? But I doubt that they, or anyone, could have guessed how wildly successful Meiomi would become. I suspect they started it because, nine years ago, the country was still in the throes of its “Sideways” fascination, and the Wagners surmised, correctly, that you couldn’t have too much good Pinot Noir. Probably, they figured Meiomi would be a nice, profitable little brand, like Mer Soleil or Belle Glos: an affordable Pinot Noir, from coastal vineyards. Myself, I don’t particularly care for it—too sweet, like candy; in a tasting of other Pinots, the sweetness sticks out like a sore thumb. But Americans, at least the ones who buy Meiomi, are gobbling it up: Wagner told Shanken that Meiomi is on par to sell 700,000 cases this year. Perhaps the Wagners looked into their crystal ball and figured out that Meiomi has had its fifteen minutes and is on the way down. This would not be the first winery that Constellation bought that had already reached its zenith.

So we know what the Wagners get from the deal: a boatload of cash that will finance future vineyard and/or land purchases. And what of Constellation? They get a super-famous brand that flies off supermarket shelves, which is really the Constellation business model. I can’t see Meiomi getting better in the future—that would be asking too much of Constellation. But with all their access to grapes, they can grow Meiomi forever, keeping it affordable even as production approaches a million cases.

There’s another thing about buying vineyard land: it’s always there for other purposes besides vineyards. Zoning regulations mean you can’t just do anything you want, but investing in land has been the most secure place to put your money since the beginning of time. And in the case of coastal California, if you happen to have a few extra hundreds of millions of dollars, you can buy some pretty fabulous property that will only increase in value. Whether or not it’s in vineyards in ten or twenty years, you don’t really care; that land is going to be extraordinarily valuable no matter what happens (unless coastal California disappears into the sea in the Big One).


Gay-friendly: Progress in the wine industry, but a long way to go

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Years ago—it has to be at least ten—I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast about the emerging gay market for wine, and how important it was proving to be. I was seeing more wine advertisements aimed at gay people, and a handful of wineries was reaching out to them, albeit quietly.

At the time, I knew quite a number of gay people in the wine industry, among them winemakers and P.R. folks, but they were mainly in the closet. The wine industry is generally a pretty open place, but there are pockets of conservatism, and many gay people did not feel comfortable enough to come out.

My oh my, how that has changed. As American attitudes towards gay people (and we’ve now expanded that to the acronym GLBTQ) have softened, the presence of gays in wine, always there but largely invisible, has become clearer. It is due to a generalized spirit of welcoming that inspired the wine community, but it’s also recognition that the gay community has a lot of disposable income—and gay people like to drink wine (according to The Daily Beast, Gay people drink 16 percent more than straight people”).

I’ve never been one to lump Americans, though, into separate-but-equal identity groups. It seems to me that, since we’re all in this together, we ought to find ways of association that transcend things like gender, race, religion, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation—even political persuasion, which sometimes can be the most difficult difference to bridge. But that’s idealistic, I’m sure; the truth is that we do tend to feel binding ties with people who are like us, and I suppose that’s good, as long as it doesn’t make us so chauvinistic that we forget that we’re actually tied to everyone.

I don’t think, even when I was younger (when such an event would have been unthinkable), that I would have gone to Out in the Vineyard’s recent Gay Wine Weekend, held in Sonoma County. And now, when I’m old enough to be most of the attendees’ father, I’m not sure I would have been comfortable had I gone. But I sure am glad Out in the Vineyard exists, and I’m super-glad that Jackson Family Wines, exemplified by La Crema, supports it. This company is strongly pro-GLBTQ, a progressive stance I wish more California wineries shared.

Some wineries feel that being too closely identified with GLBTQ issues—which remains contentious among some unkind people in America—will hurt their bottom line. The wine industry, like most industries, constantly keeps tabs on how it’s perceived. Wineries don’t want to be thrust into the position of being on the backlash end of a homophobic boycott, as Wells Fargo recently was when the celebrity-preacher, Franklin Graham, exhibited narrow-minded and hateful behavior in criticizing Wells for having the temerity to put on a gay-friendly T.V. commercial. Graham, who seems not to understand the direction of history, or perhaps just doesn’t care, no doubt instilled fear among some winery proprietors who, personally, have no problem with the GLBTQ movement, and might even privately support it; but who fear the wrath of a popular religious leader whose admonitions are obeyed by millions.

One can hardly blame wineries for being afraid of such pressure; I cast not the first stone. But it does make me even prouder of gay-friendly wineries, not only Jackson Family but also J, Windsor Oaks, Sebastiani, DeLoach, Francis Ford Coppola, Ravenswood, Gary Farrell, Iron Horse, Lynmar, Korbel, E&J Gallo and many, many others. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that wineries (like most U.S. corporations) still tread exceedingly carefully using obviously gay people in their marketing and, especially, their advertising. Rev. Graham, and people like him, unfortunately have succeeded in getting their threatening message across: The stifling of free speech.


Twitter’s shifting winds. Dead Social Media Walking?

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I never was much of a Twitter fan. Years ago, people whom I respected for their business savvy told me I had to start using it.

“But I don’t want to,” I responded. “It seems so pointless. ‘I had scrambled eggs this morning.’ Who cares?”

“You don’t understand,” my career-advising friends told me. “You have to, if for no other reason than to build your brand.”

Well, I hadn’t known I had a brand, but apparently I did. But why did I have to build it? And why through Twitter?

Yet I dutifully did as I was told. I signed up for Twitter and started tweeting, although I never liked it. Before long, I had thousands of followers.

That was success of a sort, I guess. But I never did figure out what to say on Twitter. Facebook was totally different. It felt freer, more open, more wide-horizoned. Twitter by contrast felt as confined as a procrustean bed.

And then of course there was this blog, which afforded me all the opportunity I really wanted to communicate instantly and intelligently with others through social media.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t love Twitter. There’s been a spate of media reporting in the last few days about the company’s problems. On June 11, CEO Dick Costolo, under fire recently for Twitter’s failing to hit revenue and profitability targets, resigned (or was pushed out; who knows?).

On June 12, Twitter’s stock price was at $35.90, its lowest in more than a year despite a surging stock market. On June 14—yesterday (and coincidentally my birthday)–one of Twitter’s biggest shareholders, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, told the Financial Times than Twitter’s next CEO, whoever he or she is, “has to have tech savviness, an investor-oriented process and a marketing mentality.”

Things have gotten so bad that a Harvard professor recently called Twitter “the BlackBerry of social media.” (Ouch!) BlackBerry’s stock has basically flat-lined for the last three years.

What’s the problem? It was described well on the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog: It’s virtually impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. And on twitter there is a lot of chaff…up to 90% of a typical twitter feed is basically a waste of everyone’s time.”

I’ve been a big advocate of social media for wineries for years, although I never drank the Kool-Aid that some people apparently did, who thought that social media (and especially Twitter) was the greatest marketing tool ever. My attitude was, social media can’t hurt. If you have a few minutes during the day, you might as well do something on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest. Who knows? You might actually drum up some sales. But I never thought social media should be anyone’s fulltime job, unless the winery is so well-heeled that they don’t care.

I think these latest travails of Twitter represent a tipping point of sorts. Social media flared up in the mid- and late 2000s like a wildfire sweeping across a drought-stricken plain. It seemed for a while that everyone in the world was going to abandon traditional forms of communication and go digital.

But perhaps the wildfire has now consumed much of the fuel that gave it breath. We in California understand the behavior of wildfires. They rage only for as long as the dry offshore winds drive them. But the wind always shifts; once an onshore pattern kicks in, the wind sends the fire back over land it has already consumed; and the fire, deprived of fuel, dies.

What wind is blowing social media now, and in which direction? We may have only to look at Twitter to discern the answer. And the lesson for wineries (there always is one)? Be smart in your choices of which social media to use, and how often, and at what cost. There is, and always has been, lots of chatter out there to convince you of its value. While this chatter has been enthusiastic, it has not always been accurate.


How to get publicity for your winery. Or not.

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Old friend Alan Goldfarb asks some pertinent questions in this piece that was published the other day in an online trade publication.

The quandary he poses for wineries: “With wine writers dropping off the face of the earth…to whom does a winery publicist turn to get PR/accolades/reviews when the writer pool is evaporating?”

As evidence of that evaporation, Alan cites several longtime wine columnists whose publishers have taken their columns away or drastically reduced their word count. He might have added the San Francisco Chronicle, from which wine writer Jon Bonné recently departed (he’s supposed to retain some connection to the paper and/or its website, but I haven’t seen anything yet).

Alan makes another compelling point: With the passing of print writers, the number of “new media” writers, such as bloggers, online radio hosts and videographers, has swelled. But—and here’s the rub—of the hundreds and hundreds of online sources, there are [only] about 20 (20!) who are worth yours and your client’s time…”.

That’s really sad, and frightening, too. Wineries need writers to tell their stories, and remind the world that they exist. But with fewer and fewer reputable channels all the time, as Alan asks, “To whom does a winery publicist turn?”

Indeed. Even if you take Alan’s “20” online writers who are “worth yours and your client’s time,” I doubt if any of them has the reach and clout that, say, Bill St. John did—he’s the wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune who, according to Alan, had his column “cut” last week. The Chicago Tribune’s average weekday circulation is 453,500, making it one of the biggest newspapers in the Midwest, and central to one of the nation’s most important wine markets. Do you think any of Alan’s 20 bloggers has that kind of readership?

Near the end of his article, Alan does cite a couple bloggers and other online sources whom he recommends. But it’s a pretty short list; his conclusion, as far as sending samples out, is for wineries to “proceed at your own peril.”

That would be my advice, too. The Internet has shaken everything up, and none more so than to hasten the end of traditional print reporting and replace it with “citizen journalism.” I liked traditional print journalism: I still read newspapers, and I trust them, believe it or not (I mean the news part, not the editorial pages of propagandists like the Wall Street Journal). In my current job, and even beyond it, I’m routinely reminded of the scurry to get publicity for your brand—any publicity, anywhere, so long as it’s generally positive. Winery executives have given up on trying to determine, with any precision, the return-on-investment of publicity. They wish they could, of course, but in the meantime, they’re happy with anything they can get. And yet, they no longer know how to get exposure, or even whom to approach for it.

You’d think that this “revoltin’ development” (T.V. fans from the 1950s, do you know who said that?) would mean the end of traditional P.R., which seems stymied at every turn. But P.R. is even more important than ever. Publicists are in demand, especially if they can demonstrate a grasp of new media. Like soothsayers of old, or necromancers who could divine messages from the gods through the intestines of a sheep, publicists today appeal to the utter confusion of winery proprietors, who have neither the time nor the personal inclination to master these arcane fields. In that sense, if you asked me how a winery should find and hire a reputable public relations expert to turn to for advice, my answer would be the same as Alan Goldfarb’s concerning bloggers: “Proceed at your own peril.”

BREAKING NEWS

Sunset Magazine moving to Oakland!

We welcome this great magazine! Thank you Sunset for believing in Oakland!


Musings on Diageo’s rumored sale of its wineries

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I hope Diageo is doing all right financially, but to judge from all these rumors that the London-based company is going to sell its iconic wine brands, maybe they really are experiencing some difficulty.

Their California brands from Napa Valley or County include Sterling, Beaulieu, Acacia and Provenance. The first two will be familiar to anyone who knows the history of Napa Valley. Beaulieu, founded in 1900, defines the classic old-line, pre-Prohibition winery; Sterling, which began in 1967, was one of the boutique wineries that made Napa famous in the modern era. Meanwhile, Acacia, dating to 1979, helped launch Carneros to the forefront of Pinot Noir. Provenance, whose inaugural vintage was 1999, is far younger, but has had a good run—I always did like their Cabernets.

So what’s up with Diageo? To begin with, the company’s stock price had a pretty good run-up to the Great Recession, but then plunged like everyone else. In 2009, it hit its nadir, then peaked again in 2013, only to experience a steady slide since then—leading the Motley Fool to recommend Diageo as a good buy.

That same article, suggesting Diageo is going through a “phase of lackluster performance,” attributed the drinks giant’s problems to “tough trading conditions in emerging markets, subdued consumer demand in some developed markets” and bad exchange rates.

Concerning that “subdued consumer demand in some developed markets,” I would suggest that the problems at Sterling, Beaulieu et al. stem from the consumer (and sommelier) perception that those are tired brands. Indeed, you could teach a college seminar on the ups and downs of an American winery by using the example of Beaulieu alone.

That Beaulieu was one of the great wineries of Napa Valley, and California, for many decades is indisputable. The winery helped to invent Napa Valley; it pioneered in Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford Bench, and in hiring Andre Tchelistcheff, in 1938, Beaulieu gave California is greatest and most influential winemaker ever. “The Maestro” was mentor to multiple generations of winemakers before passing into the Great Vineyard in the Sky, in 1994.

Even had Beaulieu maintained quality in the 1980s and 1990s it probably would have slipped in the public’s estimation, due solely to the natural lifespan of most wineries. But quality did vary, and the winery seemed to lose focus. I always admired, and gave high scores to, the Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and their Bordeaux blend, Tapestry, also was quite good. But the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays were inconsistent, and whenever Beaulieu tinkered with Rhone-style varieties, as they frequently did, they seemed in over their heads.

As for Sterling, which was such an exciting winery in the 1970s, the glitter wore thin, as the winery hit a patch of averageness. The Cabernet, particularly the Reserve, could still be quite good; but really, there was little to differentiate it from dozens of others, a dilemma given the fickleness of the American wine consumer, who’s always looking for the next new thing. Despite a considerable marketing budget from Diageo, both wineries also were debilitated by the release of large-production, inexpensive lines, in Sterling’s case the Vintner’s Collection, in Beaulieu’s the Coastal Estates, both of which tended to confuse gatekeepers and consumers as to what either winery actually was. In this, Beaulieu and Sterling erred in the same way as did Robert Mondavi Winery, which tried—and failed—to be all things to all people.

Beaulieu remains a good winery and Sterling can be restored to glory; it’s never too late. If Diageo does sell either or both, I hope it’s to a new owner who will love them for what they have been and for what they can once again be.


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