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Loathe as I am the wander into the blood alcohol limit debate, I’m making an exception this time, to come out against the proposal to lower the drunken driving threshold to .05, down from its current .08.
The idea is being floated by the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency of the U.S. government established in 1967 within the Department of Transportation. The NTSB plays an important part in keeping this country’s transportation infrastructure safe; for instance, it investigates airline and rail accidents. So I hope the government keeps them well-funded. It’s just that, this time, they’re wrong.
The .08 limit was signed into law in by President Bill Clinton, who at the time called it “the biggest step to toughen drunk driving laws and reduce alcohol-related crashes since the national minimum drinking age was established a generation ago.” The law’s passing exemplified the growing power of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the power halls of Washington, D.C., throughout the late 1990s.
I have always had mixed feelings about any laws that curtail people’s freedom of behavior. Of course, we need a criminal code to keep people’s worst instincts from running amok, and there are many curtailments on human activities that are needed in order to protect the greater good and safety of our communities. The problem always is in defining precisely where the line should be drawn between freedom and government restriction. The recreational use of pot is a good example.
I suppose the .08 limit made sense. It seems to have worked: traffic fatalities in this country caused by drunk drivers are down since then. In 1999, they numbered 15,786; by 2011, that number had fallen to 9,878, a significant reduction. (Although it’s also possible that other factors, such as safer cars and increased driver awareness, contributed to the decline.) So why not go this next step and lower the limit to .05?
Couple reasons. For one, different people react differently to alcohol in the blood. There’s no question that alcohol, taken to excess, impairs driving ability, but it also seems obvious that millions of people have a drink or two and drive everyday, with no harmful results. A perfectly good, safe driver could find himself in jail simply for drinking a beer or two with lunch.
Another reason I’m against the proposal is because I don’t like laws that nobody obeys, with no consequences of punishment. I don’t like HOV lanes because single drivers abuse them all the time, with little fear of getting stopped by the Highway Patrol. This disregard of laws makes laws less esteemed among the public, and when a nation disregards and disrespects its own laws, it’s on some kind of slippery slope. So why criminalize a behavior (moderate drinking and driving) that tens of millions of Americans are going to completely ignore anyway? It just makes a mockery of the concept of “law.”
Moreover, the tests that measure blood alcohol are notoriously inaccurate. What if the machine says I’m .051 when I’m actually .049? How do I defend myself? Finally, why stop at .05? Why not come up with a law that prohibits any trace of alcohol in the blood, regardless of how low it is? If any drinking at all constitutes risk, then we should outlaw drinking and driving, period.
I should add that I, personally, never drink and drive. I haven’t since 2001. Not even a half-glass of wine or beer. I simply can’t afford the price that a DUI or collision would cost me, financially, legally and reputationally. Whenever I’m out drinking, I’m with someone else who’s doing the driving, or I walk or take the subway. (It does get to be an inconvenience!)
I understand the impulse to try and prevent all the death and injury we can. But I do think we need to draw the line someplace in our efforts to prevent every risk to life and limb imaginable through government intervention. There’s no way to make life risk free. The answer to drunk driving is to educate people (including to the need for designated drivers), to make them think smarter, and to be as respectful of our obligations to others as we are protective of our own personal freedoms. But that’s a whole other conversation.
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Trading down from Gucci to J. Crew may not seem like the toughest sacrifice in the world, but even the top 2 percent of upper-income Americans is “thinking twice” about spending their money on über-expensive goods, says Bloomberg News.
“These ‘2-percenters,’ unnerved by the most recent recession, are trading down to less-expensive” apparel and other items, the article says. It quotes the president of a luxury research firm: “The rich have lost their exuberance.”
Of course, “a small cadre of ultra-high net-worth individuals…is insulated and not cutting back,” but unless you’re in the yacht business, you’re not really concerned about these 1 percent of the 1 percent.
The article names names: On “the way down” in clothing and accessories are Prada, Armani, Gucci, Hermes and Gianni Versace. On “the way up” are Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters. In other words, brands that offer cachet and style, without the high price.
So the HENRYs (“high earner not rich yet”) are scaling back. What does it mean for luxury wine brands, particularly California Cabernet Sauvignons that have hit triple digits?
Unless you’re the owner or the winery’s banker, you can’t really know what the bottom line is. Is Screaming Eagle hurting? Harlan? How about Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Schrader, Abreu, Sloan? If these are the Armanis and Guccis of wine, then we have to expect that things are not quite as solid as they were pre-2008. The HENRYs are “thinking twice” about spending their hard-earned cash on them, and there’s no indication they’re going to return to their free-spending ways anytime soon.
Nor are there enough “ultra-high net-worth individuals” to absorb all of these expensive wines. I have to believe, based on what I’ve seen and heard, that the cults are hurting–although some of their owners are so rich that they can afford to ride out what they hope is a relatively brief soft period following the Great Recession.
What are the alternatives to the cults–the winery equivalents of the Banana Republics and J. Crews of California that the 2 percenters are turning to? Here’s my list of Cabernet Sauvignon producers whose wines are pretty much near as good as anything from the cults, but whose prices are more aligned with reality: Stonestreet, Von Strasser, Vine Cliff, Goldschmidt, Krutz, Hall, Sequoia Grove, Duckhorn, Conn Creek, Kendall-Jackson Highlands Estates, Long Meadow Ranch, Piña, Macauley, Stephen & Walker, Kuleto, Yates Family, Renteria, Creo, Snowden, Laird, Moone-Tsai, Hunnicutt, St. Supery, La Jota, Frank Family, Prime, Rubicon Cask Cabernet, Signorello, Trinchero, Stag’s Leap Artemis, Monticello, Charnu, KaDieM, Venge, Terra Valentine and Hidden Ridge. I’ve given scores of 95 points or higher in Wine Enthusiast to bottlings from each of them over the past few years, and none costs more than $90 retail.
The shortage of California wine is rippling through the system, causing serious if not quite catastrophic consequences.
Winery principles tell me that when their sales forces fan out across the country, buyers are unhappy at the lack of supply and in some cases are personally blaming the winery!
I’m sure that distributors as well as retailers both on and off premise find themselves in an uncomfortable position when wines they’ve sold for years are suddenly unavailable. Of course, the rational part of them knows that no one at the winery is responsible for short crops: Mother Nature is.
But there’s a vein of paranoia that runs through the end users of the three-tiered distribution system like a low-grade infection, and sometimes these buyers can’t be sure if the winery really is low on supply, or is just cutting them out and pretending to be short.
It’s bad for the winery. If buyers feel the winery is shorting them, they might turn to someone else they can get product from, thus terminating what might have been a long relationship.
We’ve all been reading about a wine shortage, for instance here and here, which cites BofA Merrill Lynch that “Global supplies appear to be tightening simultaneously,” with government policies in Europe and Australia deliberately discouraging production, while bad weather in South America had the same effect.
The problem is exacerbated by increasing demand from China for U.S. and particularly California wineries, some of whom are selling a surprisingly high percentage of their top wines there.
Several highly placed producers have openly fretted to me about the shortage, wondering what their companies are going to do. But the truth is, they have few options. They can’t turn to Oregon because crops there run so short due to natural circumstances. Washington has huge, fertile spaces in the east, but that state’s frequent hard winter freezes intimidate California producers, who aren’t used to having entire vineyards wiped out in a single night.
The 2012 vintage, California’s biggest ever, threw the industry a lifejacket, throwing it into temporary balance, but it probably won’t be enough to overcome the result of prior years of below-average crops, coupled with increasing demand. As Gomberg Fredrickson’s Jon Fredrickson told the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium earlier this year, “California ran out of wine.”
The result? Higher prices. The trend is especially notable at restaurants, where by-the-pour prices are inching up. It’s curious that all this is happening just as the country (and world) seems to be emerging from the Great Recession, putting a little more money into the average consumer’s pocket. Are consumers willing to dig deeper for their daily Pinot Grigio and Merlot? I expect they are–and that’s good news for wineries that have gone through the hell of the past five years, and survived.
I was reading the other day that Ningxia, the Chinese autonomous region (roughly equivalent to a U.S. State) in north-central China, “will introduce the first winery-based classification system in China within the next few months.”
The article explains how there will be “6 classes in this classification.” The director of the governing body [of the] Ningxia Development Bureau for Grape and Flower Industry explained its rationale this way: “In order to ensure quality, we raise the bar for entering the classification.”
Ningxia, in case you don’t know, is China’s largest-producing wine area, with a continental climate. Summer highs run to 63-75 degrees, with moderate rainfall. The foreign wine community is interested. Earlier this year the Portuguese government invested millions in the Ningxia wine industry. French companies that have invested in Ningxia include LVMH and Pernod Ricard, according to Jancis Robinson.
Jancis titled her article “China’s most promising wine province?” (but note that hedging question mark). She recently went to her first Ningxia Wine Festival–only to find that “Riedel got there several days before me.”
And whither Riedel goeth, so goeth sales.
Ningxia’s largest domestic producers are Changyu and Dynasty, who together own 20,000 acres of vineyard land. Meanwhile, the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation as well as the household appliance company Midea have begun investing in Ningxia’s wine industry. That oughta tell you how big the Chinese think this thing is getting.
I haven’t tried any Ningxia wines, but two years ago the Decanter trophy for red wine from the Middle East, Far East and Asia went to a 2009 Bordeaux blend from Ningxia province called Jiabeilan, produced by Chateau Helan Qingxue, which also won a silver for its Classic Chardonnay and a bronze for a Riesling.
But back to the point: does China need a classification system? Here’s China Daily’s argument that it does:
“it is still difficult for many Chinese customers to determine the class of that they are buying. According to knowledge of persons in wine business, this is due to the fact that nation-level wine classification does not yet exist,though some wine practitioners do follow their systems they developed on their own. It is obvious not convenient for general wine consumers.”
Given the notorious insecurity Chinese consumers experience about buying wine (unless it’s a world famous cult brand, which not even most upper-middle class Chinese can afford), it’s no wonder that local authorities will try to convey a golden halo on their wines, in the form of such classifications. There is, though, an arriviste mentality here: China is so anxious to be accepted on equal terms with the West that they’re importing our customs and traditions even before they have had time to develop organically.
China might take pause and understand the limits and dangers of classifying wineries. In France, it’s led to a rigid, price-based sclerosis that hasn’t really served the consumer. The Chinese might also look at California’s aborted attempts at classification. There was Roy Andries de Groot’s wackily ambitious 1982 effort, “The Wines of California.” The most notorious was Jim Laube’s 1989 attempt, “California’s Greatest Cabernets,” in which he created five “Growths,” like in Bordeaux. Jim’s intentions were honorable, but he proved, albeit inadvertently, that it cannot and should not be done.
And can you imagine the squeals of protest when some Chinese wineries are left off the classification list altogether, or earn a rank they feel is dishonorable? The Chinese no longer are a people to sit by mutely while “the authorities” make decisions from the top down. They want to have a say in things. For all these reasons, and more, I’d advise the Ningxia Development Bureau for Grape and Flower Industry to stay away from this sticky wicket. Let the market create the classification, not the government.
If you think you’ve seen a shift in your food magazines toward more lifestyle and celebrity coverage, you’re right.
“A handful of food magazines have found [advertising] success by broadening their traditional focus on recipes to more of a lifestyle approach, capitalizing on popular interest in destination restaurants, celebrity chefs and travel,” says this article, in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.
The article singles out Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur and Eating Well, in particular, with all of them enjoying increased ad revenue and paid circulation, even as the “overall [magazine] industry” experienced “a marginal drop” in those metrics.
The article’s writer traces the origins of the phenonomen to the 2008 launch of Food Network Magazine, which, “at the height of the financial crisis…began testing…a format echoing the programming on the TV network, focusing on celebrity chefs, food entertainment and lifestyle.”
I remember when The Food Network TV show began the switch from cooking for the love of cooking to its current gee-whiz, celebrity focus. That’s when I stopped watching it. Instead of showing recipes I could really use at home, there started to be entire episodes on the U.S. candy business. I figured it was all about advertising. It was.
You might have noticed the same thing occurring in wine magazines. As an older writer who got his start in a far more different time, I have mixed feelings about this trend toward the sexy, the celebrity, the “hot new” this or that. It’s not exactly the penetrating journalism I grew up appreciating and practicing. Still, one has to recognize that publishing a magazine is not an act of charity. The publisher has got to make a profit, or else go out of business. This is so fundamental that it shouldn’t even have to be said. There’s something else, too: magazines must look out beyond the current arc of history to a time when new generations take over. The savvy publisher today aims his vision on 2025, not 2015: Who will be reading magazines then (whether on paper or digital, who knows?), and what will they be looking for?
I, myself, am no expert in these matters, but I know that experts exist, and they seem to be saying that people like this wider emphasis on lifestyle. The WSJ article quotes a VP of marketing at Banana Republic (which is owned by the Gap) as saying that his company has started advertising again in Bon Appetit and the other food magazines, after not doing so for years during the recession, because the “fresh [new] format and content…caters to an audience that’s broader than just recipe readers.”
So, too, wine magazines must cater to audiences that are broader than just wine review readers. This is Publishing 101. In the case of Wine Enthusiast, I believe we’re trying to find the right balance of lifestlye and serious wine writing, and we’re doing so with great mindfulness. Keeping periodicals like Wine Enthusiast Magazine alive and relevant is important. The public needs to continue to have trusted sources of professionally researched and written journalism, and if the price of doing so is a little walk on the celebrity side, it’s a small one.
The 2012 California Grape Acreage Report is hot off the presses and the most noteworthy fact is that white winegrape acreage is down from 2011 while red winegrape acreage is up, but just barely: a mere 274 acres, about a tenth of one percent over 2011.
This actually continues the trend of the last ten years: acreage of both red and white varieties has remained nearly constant since 2003. To put this into perspective, in the ten years prior to that (1994-2003), white winegrape acreage increased, albeit only by about 5 percent, while red winegrape acreage during the same period soared, nearly doubling, from 142,000 acres in 1994 to 263,000 acres in 2003
What I make of this, in broad sweeping terms, is:
1. White winegrape varieties have remained fairly constant in acreage for twenty years because growers know that consumers are buying pretty much as much white wine as they’re capable of.
2. Growers planted a boatload of red varieties from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s because all the evidence pointed to increased consumption of Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular. Between 1995 and 2003, Cabernet acreage increased by 174%, a greater percentage than any other major red variety. (I think we also can assume that lots of white winegrape vines were budded over to reds.)
So why have the last ten years seen a virtual moratorium on new plantings? It’s puzzling. Maybe a closer look at the data will give some answers.
Of the red varieties, all of the following are down in acreage, since either last year or since 2003: Zinfandel, Merlot, Grenache and Barbera. This suggests that growers believe these varieties don’t have a future (although individual wineries, of course, will continue to specialize in them).
These varieties are up since 2003: Cabernet Sauvignon (+12%), Petite Sirah (+103%), Pinot Noir (+89%) and Syrah (+27%). These are the varieties growers feel are likely to increase in consumption.
The only major white variety that significantly increased in acreage over the last ten years is–you guessed it–Pinot Gris. It’s up 380%, although the starting point was low. Pinot Gris now has 12,473 acres planted in the state, and is poised to overtake Sauvignon Blanc (14,911 acres, and dropping) as the #3 most widely-planted white variety, after Chardonnay and (sigh) lowly French Columbard.
The inescapable conclusion is that California growers are conservative. They plant what has been selling and what they believe will sell. Of course, the public doesn’t necessarily listen to growers; consumers, always a step ahead of the experts, drink what they want. Growers didn’t see Moscato coming, which is why plantings of the various Muscat varieties in California shot up from 2011 to 2012. Nor did growers see Pinot Noir coming before 2004’s Sideways. After that phenomenon, they planted it ferociously.
Still, there’s no escaping the fact that California continues to be basically a chocolate-vanilla-strawberry state when it comes to red and white wine. And that’s a situation unlikely to change anytime soon.