Last week’s very long (3,700 word) article in the New York Times about the Jeff Hill case has stirred up tension in Napa Valley, where some people think the author, Vindu Goel, went over the top in painting Napa as a place where wine quality is “built on quicksand.”
(Some of you might not be able to open the NYT link if you don’t have a Times subscription. Even if you can’t, you can probably find it on Google.)
Last Spring, Mr. Hill, a vineyard manager, was charged with grand theft for allegedly stealing tens of thousands of dollars worth of grapes from a client during the 2013 harvest.
Reporter Goel took the serious and significant charges of fraud in the Hill case and, some folks say, stretched them to tar Napa’s reputation in general. Prices of Napa wine, Goel wrote, are “based more on consumers’ belief in the superiority of the region’s grapes than in the inherent quality of the liquid in the bottle.”
And “[M]any bottles on wine-store shelves aren’t what they seem because of loopholes in American wine labeling laws,” he added, based on an interview with the master sommelier, Emmanuel Kemiji. The inescapable implication is that a top-notch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may contain “a cheaper grape varietal like syrah or zinfandel” that could be from “anywhere else in the state, like Fresno.” Most damaging of all Goel’s assertions, perhaps, is this one, which suggests that spin and hype, rather than quality, are behind Napa Valley’s reputation as the supreme place to make wine in America: “Much of Napa’s price premium stems from savvy marketing, not any objective superiority of the wine.”
Reactions, mostly offended, have come from in and around Napa Valley. My friend Lewis Perdue (for whom I used to work, years ago), in Wine Industry Insight took particular umbrage over what he perceived as the Times’ unfair broadside.
“NY Times Uses Hill Wine Company Debacle To Take A Shot At Napa Valley,” he headlined, explaining that the article “left an overall impression that varietal fraud and some level of adulteration were relatively common practices” in Napa.
Here’s my take. Most of what Goel wrote is objectively true, based on the facts. U.S. labeling laws do allow for up to one-quarter of a varietally-labeled wine to consist of varietal/s other than the named one. Those same laws also allow for a certain percentage of the grapes to come from areas other than the official appellation on the label. And, yes, part of the rationale for Napa Valley wine prices is due to Napa Valley’s reputation.
Did Goel go over the line? Yes. Dropping the word “Fresno” into that sentence was both unnecessary, and calculated to shock. It’s a little like the famously self-incriminating question, When did you stop beating your wife? Now that Goel has implanted the thought in people’s minds that Napa Valley wine may contain grapes from Fresno, there’s no way Napa vintners can convince them that it’s not true, no matter what they say.
Granted that Mr. Hill may (or may not) have been a crook, it’s hyperbole and unprofessional to use a single case to stain an entire region: it’s like saying that fraud is widespread in Burgundy based on the Rudy Kurniawan case, or that all of Bordeaux is suspect because a famous chateau once used illegal wood chips instead of real barrels.
It was also a little misleading for Goel to use Kemiji’s quotes to suggest that Napa Valley’s terroir is no different from any other place. Emmanuel (who I suspect didn’t know how his quote would be used) said, “You line up cabernets from Napa and good-quality cabernet from Sonoma and Lake County, and it’s really tough to say where they’re from.” This is true; as someone who’s tasted countless Cabs from those areas (and many others), I know it’s not easy pinpointing where a great Cabernet comes from. But still, it misses the point.
For the fact is that Napa Valley produces more great Cabernet Sauvignon than any other place in America, and has for a very long time, which surely gives it legitimate claim to prestige; and every prestigious region and wine in the history of the world has been considered more desirable—and thus more costly—than the competition.
As for Goel’s contention that “savvy marketing” is behind Napa’s success, this doesn’t stand up to the facts. Napa Valley achieved its success well before the modern era of marketing. The fame of the boutique wineries of the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t due to P.R., which most of those little wineries didn’t know anything about, but to the appreciation of educated wine lovers who recognized that what they were experiencing was something special. Besides, “savvy marketing” may give a winery or region fifteen minutes of fame—but if the stuff in the bottle doesn’t live up to the hype, the fame is fleeting. That is emphatically not the case with Napa Valley.
There is no evidence whatsoever—not a sniff or a shred—to suggest that the majority, or even a significant minority, of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are not what they say they are: grown and produced in the valley, and made from Bordeaux varietals. (And besides, if adding 2% Syrah makes the wine better, who cares?) I also suspect that, when Kemiji told Goel that “there is an incentive to fudge [on blending] because the price of Napa cabernet is so high,” he didn’t know in what context his words would be used. I’m a longtime reporter myself; I know the game. Some questions are a form of entrapment. The reporter who goes into the interview knowing what points he wants to prove, and then asks set-up questions, is not being objective or fair.
Honestly, Goel’s story is a combination of personal anecdotes, irrelevant throw-ins and editorializing, in addition to the facts. Rather than illuminating an interesting story, it feeds into America’s current obsession with conspiracy theories, in this case that “wine quality” is an elitist myth, and that everything is equal because it’s not permitted for anything to be better. Breitbart.com, an online news service, covered the Hill case, and here’s a telling comment one of their readers sent in:
“I always got a kick out of these wine snobs. I knew you could give them a swig of Night Train™ and tell them it’s gourmet and they would believe it. sort of like the ‘art community’… a crappy painting of campbell’s soup cans garners millions ?????” The commenter is entitled to his opinion, of course, but it’s pathetic that the truth is lost in the shuffle: Night Train is not as good as Napa Valley Cabernet, period, end of story. And no “gourmet” in the world would ever confuse it for such.
I’m not saying the Hill case isn’t worthy of reporting, or that the Times shouldn’t have allowed Goel to run with it. What I am saying is that American journalism has sunk to its lowest level in my lifetime, in terms of scandal-mongering. What Woodward and Bernstein set in motion, nearly 40 years ago, has run amok. Not every instance of law-breaking is a major scandal. Sometimes an illegal act is just that: The isolated act of a single individual, not an indication that an entire region is unscrupulous.
If there’s a new no-makeup, or low makeup, look for women—and the Wall Street Journal says there is–then I’m a fan. I never did like that Tammy Faye Bakker over-the-top clown face, although I did like Tammy Faye herself, who seemed to be a big-hearted, fair-minded, loving woman who never hesitated to part company with her co-religionists when she felt they were wrong on an issue.
The WSJ article suggests that the tendency for stars such as Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon to “brave the big screen with little-to-no visible makeup” is a welcome alternative to the “fully made-up look of [the] Kardashian sisters,” a look that “social media [has] helped spread…”. Cosmetic companies, the article reports, “are responding with lighter foundations, sheerer lip glosses and new products” that allow women’s faces to look like what they really are, rather than somebody’s fantasy of what they should be.
This is great news: what America has always needed are people comfortable in their own skins.
And the wine connection? Pretty obvious, really. You can draw a straight line between the no-makeup look and the emerging taste among American wine drinkers for wines that are less oaky and less extracted.
We can all agree that there is such a trend. You hear it from sommeliers and from consumers themselves. Wineries are listening and reacting accordingly. I do not believe that things are as dire as some winemakers and some wine writers allege; we don’t hear overwhelming consumer demand for no oak, or for wines that must be below 14% alcohol by volume. What consumers want are wines that taste of the grapes, and not of toasted barrels and prunes. Well, we all want that.
Actually, speaking of poor Tammy Faye (she died in 2007), the winemaker Jean-Noel Formeaux du Sartel, who co-founded (with his wife, Marketta) Chateau Potelle (whose Mount Veeder estate was purchased by the Jackson family in 2007), twenty-plus years ago told me, as we sipped his fabulous VGS Zinfandel on the winery’s deck, that in his view too many California wines were “like Tammy Faye Bakker,” in that they were too big, extracted, ripe and oaky. His vision was to craft wines more in “the French style”: balanced and elegant. So this current importuning for “balance” is nothing new.
However it has picked up steam, and social media has certainly played a role in that. I’m onboard, if this movement really is about balance and not an ideological quest for a sort of ethnic cleansing in wine. I do think our era is defined, in part, by a desire for a new kind of simplicity and purity. Post-Sept. 11, post-Great Recession, and still in the midst of political and cultural schism, we collectively yearn for a stripping-away of what’s irrelevant, so that we can focus on the real, the true, the sincere, the credible. This applies to women’s faces; it applies to wines; it applies to the foods we put into our bodies. It’s a good revolution to have, and to be part of.
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Correction: An earlier edition of this story misstated the date of Tammy Faye Bakker’s death.
Ever since I’ve been a wine writer—the 1980s—direct-to-consumer sales has been the Holy Grail of wineries. Why pay a middleman a cut of the profits when you can make 100% of every dollar by selling direct?
In the 1990s and early 2000s, though, DTC was as elusive as unicorns. Some wineries did a lot of it; I remember touring the wineries of Gold County, where proprietor after proprietor told me they were selling 90% or more of their production “out the screen door” to tourists cruising up and down Highway 49, or on their way to Tahoe and ski country. But if you weren’t on a major tourist route, you weren’t so lucky.
Some wineries tried to lure tourists in through indirect means. Wineries along Highway 29 in Napa Valley, for instance (where competition is fierce) offered educational, artistic and musical venues, becoming, in effect, entertainment palaces that just also happened to sell wine in the tasting room. This was, and is, quite effective. But still, not everyone was in a position to do it.
Now, Business Wire is reporting that “American wineries increased the dollar value of their direct-to-consumer wine shipments by an unprecedented 15.5% in 2014.”
Granted that this percentage increase comes on a relatively smaller base compared to traditional on- and off-premise accounts, it’s still a pretty impressive achievement.
Another breakthrough in DTC sales has come due to efforts to get around the nation’s silly patchwork of laws that limit or prohibit reciprocal shipping of alcoholic beverages between states. In Massachusetts, a new law just went into effect that “allows wineries from throughout the United States to sell and deliver up to 12 cases of wine per year to Bay State consumers — a transaction previously prohibited.”
I doubt that the three-tiered system of distribution is going away anytime soon. It’s just too entrenched, and does serve the useful purpose of providing a solid infrastructure to deliver wine to every nook and cranny of the U.S., something that individual wineries, especially smaller ones, are in no position to do. But DTC should continue to grow, fueled in part by the desire of increasing numbers of consumers, particularly younger ones, to buy locally. The Internet and social media, too, are making it easier for consumers to dial in to local wineries and buy direct from “sales’ links, provided that doing so is legal where they live.
So it’s just one game-changer after another when it comes to selling wine in America. Interest in DTC on the part of wineries and other parties is evident by the proliferation of professional seminars on the topic; the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium just completed their 2015 event yesterday in Concord (Contra Costa County), attracting the attention of such important national media as Forbes, which reported (via Cathy Huyghe), “It was so crowded you’d have thought they were giving away money for free.”
Have a great weekend!
NOTE: This is a revised version of the original post, based on additional information.
I am so pleased that Bob Cabral has landed a job that according to his lights will be all that he is looking for.
I’ve known Bob for a long time, since my days as California editor of Wine Enthusiast. It was under that guise that Bob always arranged for me to get tasting samples of the latest Williams Selyem releases. Now, given Williams Selyem’s stature—one of the leading in-demand, high-end producers in California—I’m sure owner John Dyson didn’t have to send me samples. But he did, which always led me to ask myself the following hypothetical question: If I owned a high-end winery, would I send samples out? If so, to whom? Some producers (Kistler or Marcassin, for example) never sent me anything. Williams Selyem, on the other hand, did, and what was so pleasurable about that, beyond merely getting to review these wines twice a year according to the winery’s release schedule, was getting to know Bob Cabral.
I was very honored when, one day, during the course of writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Bob invited me to sit with him in his then-tiny office, at the old Williams Selyem facility on Westside Road, and participate in a blending session of a new wine Bob was working on. Called “Neighbors,” it was to be a composite of several of the vineyards along Westside Road that Bob bottled into vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs: Allen, Rochioli River Block and the like. Bob told me this had been Dyson’s idea, in order to create a tier between the vineyard designates and the lower-priced regional blends (Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and so on).
I remember tasting and giving Bob my impressions. I suppose I didn’t think, even then, that my contributions would be significant. What was important to me was that Bob asked. It also gave me a glimpse into the passion with which Bob, so driven and such a perfectionist, approached all aspects of his job. This “Neighbors” blend would have to approach, in quality, the vineyard designates; it was important for Bob to get it exactly right. (He did.)
Last year the world learned that Bob would be leaving Williams Selyem, after 16 years, for the next phase of his career. This past year has been replete with rumors as to what he would do next; today, the media are reporting that Bob will be the new winemaker at Three Sticks Wines.
There, Bob will craft, not only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Don Van Staaveren, Three Sticks’ winemaker emeritus, will make the Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the Pinot Blanc and Casteñeda wines.
It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”
Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.
This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”
which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)
Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.
However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.
To each restaurant there is a season. Alas, some of San Francisco’s old guard went the way of the dodo in 2014.
As Paolo Lucchesi reports in his article on the biggest closures of the year in the S.F. Chronicle, Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor shut their doors. They were perhaps the best-known names of now-shuttered restos. Another that’s gone is Daniel Patterson’s Plum, just down the street from me.
As archeologists can tell a lot from digging down into the ruins of an ancient settlement, so too can we glean some hints about the state of our food (and wine) culture by examining who went out of business. It’s not always possible to determine exactly why a restaurant closes, but we can assume that, in general, it’s because the times have passed them by. Whatever pulse they held on the weltanschauung has, for various reasons, gone away.
In the case of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor—both of which I was familiar with for many years—it was because our times no longer favor old-fashioned palaces of fine dining, with white tablecloths, snooty servors, and rather predictable food at stellar prices. In a sense, San Francisco simply outgrew that experience. People today want to eat out in relaxed comfort, in a place where the food is exciting and reassuring. True, in the place of Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor we now have destinations like Saison and Benu, with their prix fixe multi-course extravaganzas. But there’s something different about the latter two that makes them a better fit for today’s ethos. There’s nothing stodgy whatsoever about them. Both places are culinary adventures with a sense of adventure that looks forward, not backwards, as Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor did. Where Fleur de Lys and Fifth Floor were Paris vacations, Saison and Benu are more Iceland, Antarctica or Myanmar—exciting, off-the-beaten path destinations you’ll remember for a lifetime. Saison and Benu may not last for many years, as Fleur de Lys did (it gave up the ghost at the age of 28 years), but they fill an important niche now for a destination.
Plum, too, offered adventurous cooking from Patterson, a Michelin-starred (Coi) chef. But where Daniel miscalculated was to think that downtown Oakland would support a place of high concept. From the decorative, Warholesque paintings of plums on the walls to the rather austere menu it never caught on. Let’s face it, beet boudin noir with Thai black rice, a sort of faux blood sausage served with caramelized Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi sauerkraut, simply isn’t a combination most Oaklanders can wrap their heads around. It shows once more than a chef makes a fundamental mistake if he serves only food that intellectually stimulates himself. Winemakers, too, must accommodate themselves to the public’s tastes. It’s a balancing act.
Comfort isn’t necessarily the new black; we’ve been through countless comfort food phases over the years, from the taco era to today’s obsession with noodles. But people do want something that reminds them of simpler, happier times, even if the past never was as simple and happy as we like to remember it.