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The 2013 Crush Report and Cabernet Sauvignon

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I guess the big news about the 2013 California Crush Report, just out, is that we set another record for tonnage.

It was headline news in 2012 when California’s crush was the biggest ever, but for some reason, news of 2013’s even bigger one has been largely muted. The total was 4,685,075 tons, up 7 percent over 2012. Yet the devil is in the details. The state Dept. of Food and Agriculture counts table grapes and raisins in the total, and 2013’s raisin crop also was large. Separating table grapes and raisins out, we still had the biggest red wine crush ever. Red wines were up 5 percent; white wines were up 6 percent. But the average price for all varieties was down, by 4 percent, from 2012: $706 per ton, on average, for reds, $620 for whites.

Cabernet Sauvignon was among those red varieties whose price dropped from 2012 to 2013. Not by much: only 3.6%, but still. Why did Cabernet drop? I suspect that number was skewed downward by the cost of Central Valley grapes. For instance, the average price per ton of Cabernet in Districts 11, 12, 13 and 14 (San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, and down into Kings and Kern counties) was down everywhere except in District 14, where it crawled up a tiny $19 a ton, whoopee. But if you look at District 4, Napa Valley, the average cost per ton of Cabernet grapes soared, from $5,058 in 2012 to a whopping $5,494, an increase of 8.6%. (The highest deal reported to the state last year was $35,000 per ton, in Napa Valley. The Crush Report doesn’t identify where those grapes were from. If you know, send me the answer on the back of a million-dollar bill, and thanks to Click and Clack for that.)

Surely we can draw conclusions. Everyday Cabernet is under intense price competition in the marketplace. Producers simply can’t raise their prices too high, or else someone will undercut them. And if you’re a supermarket wine, you can’t afford to let somebody undercut you; that is death by a thousand cuts.

But Napa Cabernet appears to have rebounded after the hit it took in the Great Recession. I certainly see this anecdotally; in my own experience, I’m getting more expensive Napa Cabs for review than ever, many of them from first-time producers. I never thought that some of these businessmen-turned-vintners who buy lifestyles in Napa Valley (and elsewhere) are the smartest marketers in the world; but they must know something, to think that consumers are ready for yet another $80 or $100 Cabernet.

So there’s increased competition for what is, after all, a limited supply of Napa Valley Cabernet fruit. This must be good news for those esteemed vineyards–Stagecoach, Beckstoffer Tokalon, Dr. Crane, Georges III and others–that sell to the highest bidders, as well as for estate-bottled Cabs, whose owners feel they can notch prices upward as demand ticks back up again.

Cabernet is a funny wine. It’s been at the top for so long that people wonder when its run finally will end–kind of the way Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra hung on forever (or Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger, for that matter). Surely a new face has to take its place. But Cabernet is a grape and wine, not subject to the mortal coils. It keeps on keeping on, and I think smart producers understand this. Far from abandoning it, they’re seeking new ways to brand it–new price points, new points of reference, new strategies for messaging. And Cabernet is elastic enough to cooperate with them all. It’s really a miracle variety: having achieved superstardom, it’s undoubtedly the best-known red wine in America. The name means class and refinement, even to the least-knowledgeable novice, while the miracle is that upscale consumers haven’t lost their faith in it merely because the hoi polloi also likes it. It might have gone that way–like the kids who are abandoning Facebook because old people have taken it over. Facebook is proving not to be sharable across multiple demographics. But Cabernet continues to appeal to everyone, and for that, you have to give credit for some underlying  nobility that Cabernet possesses. What more could a varietal ask for?


Refining the Russian River Valley AVA: another start

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Maybe something will come of it this time–“it” being the latest push to establish sub-appellations within the greater Russian River Valley.

People have been talking about it forever. More than ten years ago, when I was doing the research for my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, the controversy already was old. As I wrote, “Exactly where these divisions are and what they should be called are years away from being determined.” Some new appellations suggested at that time by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association (RRVWA, but nowadays they’ve dropped the word “association” so it’s just RRVW) were the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridges and the Santa Rosa Plain (although the latter two had major overlappings), but separately, Rod Berglund, at Joseph Swan, added Sebastopol Hills and Windsor Hills, Dan Goldfield (Dutton-Goldfield) suggested splitting Green Valley into “Upper” and “Lower” (based on elevation), and Bob Cabral (who just announced he’s leaving Williams Selyem) favored a West River AVA (to pick up where the Middle Reach trails off, beyond Wohler Narrows and Gary Farrell (and if you’ve driven out there, you know it looks and feels very different from Westside Road closer to Healdsburg).

This latest initiative, announced by Chris Donatiello, currently head of the RRVW, is interesting in that it refers to any potentially new AVAs as “neighborhoods” and to the push itself as “the neighborhood initiative.” I would like to have been a fly on the wall in the discussions that resulted in the choice of such a richly connotative word. Perhaps, given the history of flashpoint divisiveness that has accompanied every AVA battle I’ve ever witnessed (from Santa Rita Hills to Fort Ross-Seaview), the RRVW decided that calling the regions “neighborhoods” would humanize the discussion. Maybe the idea of a “neighborhood” is more expansive than that of a region whose boundaries are hard-wired on climate and soils. Terroir can be awfully exclusive: I mean, let’s say the presence of Goldridge soil is pertinent to your definition. Exactly where does Goldridge start and stop?  It can be a matter of feet–and if I’m right outside the Goldridge zone, but I want into the new appellation, I’m going to be pissed off if you don’t let me in. I might even hire a lawyer and fight. So maybe calling them “neighborhoods” is so that the boundaries can be more elastic.

At any rate, it’s a good thing the discussion has resumed, and I hope that it results in some new AVAs. As readers of this blog know, I sometimes poke fun at California AVAs (because it’s so easy to), but at heart I’m a big admirer of them. They’re the slipperiest things in the world to get your arms around–but we’re better off with them than without them, because they do help, however limitedly, to understand why some wines are the way they are. At the elite end of wine, at the kind of wineries that are so common throughout the Russian River Valley, vintners try their utmost to produce wines with minimal intervention so that their terroir can shine through. So it’s only proper that that terroir should have a name.

You can’t be a fan of wine without having some interest in geology, climate science, geography, political history and associated fields. As a geek, I love studying topo maps (showing physical features) and political maps (showing streets, towns, river names and so on), trying to piece together how everything ties in. Right now I’m looking at the giant map the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission put out in 2007 of the Russian River Valley (including Green Valley and Chalk Hill). Because of its topo features, you can clearly see how the flats we call the Petaluma Gap allow maritime air to funnel into the valley, traversing past Cotati and Rohnert Park like a bowling ball taking aim at the southeastern valley (the Laguna Ridges). At the same time, another break in the coastal hills, this one coming up from Bodega Bay, brings that cool, moist air into the southwestern valley, into the heart of Green Valley. (Berglund’s Sebastopol Hills seems to lie at the junction of the Petaluma Gap and Bodega Bay intrusions.) Of course, as you move north in the valley, you lose that coastal influence with every mile or so (local conditions depending), so that it’s largely spent by the time you reach, say, Oded Shakked’s Dakine Vineyard, on Westside Road, where you’re almost in Dry Valley (and Dakine is, of course, where Oded grows excellent Syrah for his Longboard brand).

The Russian River Valley obviously needs clarification. At 96,000 acres, it’s the 21st biggest AVA in California, according to the Wine Institute–bigger than Santa Rita Hills, Arroyo Seco and Atlas Peak combined. It’s true that Napa Valley, at 225,280 acres, dwarfs Russian River Valley, but Napa already is divided into at least 16 sub-appellations, and quite successfully; in my opinion, Napa’s appellations were drawn up more or less sensibly, although they could stand further refinement (I’d divide Oakville, for instance, into East and West, and might even reconsider Benches for Oakville and Rutherford).

The task the RRVW has given itself will not be an easy one. Even if there’s widespread agreement among all parties as to names and boundaries–a big “if”–the biggest challenge is suggested by this sentence in Donatiello’s press release: “The diverse personalities within the Russian River Valley are shown as much in the people that inhabit this area as much as the wines grown here.” This statement tacitly concedes that the total impact on a wine includes not just climate and soil, but “personalities,” or what Emile Peynaud, in The Taste of Wine, refers to as cru. It is not simply terroir, as such; it includes “the primary role of…man’s efforts,” taking into account his “observation, ingenuity and hard work.” How you roll these things into establishing the boundaries of an appellation is beyond me, but somehow, it has got to be done.


The Beatles, Napa Valley and wine

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This Sunday, Feb. 9, marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

ed-sullivan-theater

I watched it, live, with a bunch of my friends. If you’re not old enough to remember the impact of The Beatles, you can’t possibly imagine what it was like. I don’t think there was an entertainment phenomenon like it before, and certainly there hasn’t been one like it since.

The entire country, it seemed, was in thrall to the Moptops (as they were lovingly dubbed, for their bowl-shaped hairdos). I don’t think we understood, at the time, exactly why The Beatles were so exciting. All we knew was that something amazing had happened in our lives, in the life of the country and of the world, for that matter, and that we were privileged to be a part of it.

That pregnant moment in U.S. history saw the birth, not just of a new era of rock and roll music that was to become the soundtrack of millions of people’s lives, but of cultural shockwaves that still are unfolding today. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated less than two months previously; his vigor remained with us, but we were still in shock that such a thing as a Presidential murder could occur in America. The Beatles helped nurse us through to recovery. Of course, the Civil Rights movement also was rapidly changing the face of America, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who that same year, 1964, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In California, an echo of sorts was happening–one that was a West Coast, distinctly American version of the revolution that had arrived from England to New York City. Curiously, it was another English import, expat Peter Newton, who founded Sterling Vineyards that same year, 1964. The conventional historical wisdom is that the modern boutique winery era began with Robert Mondavi’s launch of his winery, in 1966. While that is a romantically appealing notion, it’s not strictly true. (Recall that Joe Heitz started his winery in 1961.)

Ironically, 1964 also was the year that one of a handful of truly historic boutique wineries, Ingelnook, was sold, to Heublein, which ran the winery into the ground, causing it to lose the luster it had acquired since its glory days under Gustave Niebaum and, later, John Daniel, Jr. One way to look at this yin-yang inversion (Sterling being born, Inglenook dying) is to see California at that moment in wine history as in a state of ferment (no pun intended). As in all revolutions, things came into being, and other things began their inevitable process of disintegration. In retrospect, we can appreciate that The Beatles helped demolish Doo Wop music, and also contributed to the demise of Elvis Presley (with all due regard to his legions of fans), or, if not the actual Elvis, at least his old-fashioned style of music. The Beatles bore much in common, in fact, with boutique wines: They were artisanal, honest, natural, fresh, innovative and above all interesting. Their music showed a complexity (there’s no other word) that Doo Wop, for all its teenaged pleasures, never did. Sterling’s first Merlots (the first to be varietally labeled in the U.S.) lifted the average Napa Valley red wine to unprecedented heights, in much the same way The Beatles elevated the quality of pop music.

One more comparison seems apt. The Beatles left us with a legacy of some of the most wonderful, unforgettable rock and roll songs in history. In much the same way, even as their careers unfolded throughout the 1960s, so too did winery after winery come into being in Napa Valley during that period and into the 1970s: great names like Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, Cuvaison, Clos du Val and Mondavi. Those names, to me, carry all the artistic lyricism of great Beatles songs: I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Saw Her Standing There, All My Loving. It is the winery as art, as dynamic human creativity. Robert Lewis Stevenson said, on those signs that frame the northern and southern ends of Napa Valley, that wine is bottled poetry. Perhaps it can also be said that wine is bottled music.

Have a lovely weekend!


Tuesday twaddle: winery consolidation and “red” China

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Are California wineries consolidating at an historic pace? Nobody can predict the future, but we can remember the past. And what I remember from the early Nineties were dire predictions that wineries were consolidating fast, with big wine companies snatching up little ones, until some people were worrying there’d be only a handful of wineries left in a few years.

The cause, it was said, was phylloxera, and the billions of dollars it would cost to replant thousands of acres of vines. The little wineries, it was further said, would go broke, and have to sell off.

I was just a cubby wine writer at the time, but even so, I didn’t believe it. I just couldn’t envision a scenario where hundreds of wineries would go out of business overnight. And, as it turned out, they didn’t. California sailed through the phylloxera crisis pretty smoothly–in fact, the conventional wisdom is that it was good for the industry. Vintners were able to replant the right varieties onto the right rootstocks, in the right terroirs, and many even reconfigured their vineyards, in accordance with the latest scientific thinking. The outcome, of course, was that California wine emerged from the 1990s healthier than ever.

We again began to hear the consolidation theory (or its twin sister, the bankruptcy theory) as the Great Recession took hold, in 2009-2010. Those prognostications I took more seriously. Not only was it the worst financial crisis in the country’s history since the 1930s, but imports, from dozens of countries, as well as competition from the other States, were putting more pressure than ever on little family wineries in California.

Well, here we are, supposedly emerging from the Great Recession, and, aside from a couple acquisitions over the last few years (by Charles Banks, Jean-Charles Boisset, Gallo and the Jackson family, among a few others), most of the wineries that existed in 2007 are still here, joined by a bunch that weren’t. The economy seems poised to continue a slow recovery, which would seem to be good news for wineries. Our best glimpse into the future might be the recent Silicon Valley Bank report, summarized here, that takes a glass-half-full approach: it hedges its bets, suggesting that things will get better, but there are snags in the road ahead.

What are those snags? As the Silicon Valley Bank report states, Baby Boomers, who fueled the modern wine boom to begin with, are likely to be drinking less, as they retire, live on more modest incomes and [shudder] die. And our successors, Millennials, “can’t pick up the slack immediately, due to lower income, and access and the proclivity to purchase more foreign wine.”

But there’s another snag I foresee that doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in the SVB report: the proprietors of many of California’s older wineries also are retiring, dying or otherwise cutting back, raising succession issues. I can name a hundred wineries in Napa-Sonoma alone that were founded in the 1960s and 1970s, meaning their owners are getting old. What is the future of those wineries?

The kids don’t necessarily want to stay in the business. They may have seen their parents struggle through the hard times, and feel like they’d rather have a safer, more predictable life as a doctor or lawyer or something (or just live off their trust funds). Not everyone is cut out for the agricultural life and being at the mercy of Mother Nature–especially when she throws a drought of historic proportions at them.

What happens when these older wineries no longer are viable? In part, this is what some acquirers base their business model on. From the consumer’s point of view, it matters not who owns a winery, so much as what happens to quality when it changes hands. There are some big acquirers out there whom I trust: the ones I mentioned above (Banks, Boisset, Gallo and the Jacksons) have proven that when they buy a property (whether or not it was previously distressed), they not only maintain quality but actively improve it. There are other major buyers out there about whom I cannot say the same thing and whom I will not name.

What does all this bode for the future–say, 15 years from now? I suspect the California winery landscape will look pretty much as it does now. The big wine companies will be bigger (unless they do something really stupid, which is unlikely), but California has been fortunate to have an incursion of young, new winemakers into places like Paso Robles, Monterey County, Lodi and the Sierra Foothills, meaning that the plant is constantly being watered from the roots and will continue to grow.

* * *

Just so you know…

Got a press release this morning from VINEXPO stating that “China becomes world’s leading red wine consumer…Having downed more than 155 million 9-litre cases or 1.865 billion bottles of red wine in 2013, up 136% compared to 2008, China, including Hong Kong, is now the largest red wine market worldwide, followed by France, now in second place with nearly 150 million cases and Italy with 141 million.” Wow, did not know that.


On blogging, [in]correct claims and the Constitution

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Bloggers have long identified themselves as having the same right to express their opinions through reportage as do traditional journalists writing for newspapers, AKA “the mainstream media,” even though they may have had no formal journalistic training, and no editors or fact-checkers are around to make sure they get their facts straight.

Now, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based here in San Francisco, apparently agrees. In a ruling that hasn’t attracted the attention it should, they threw out most of a lawsuit against a blogger, Crystal Cox, who had been sued for defamation by a investment consulting company, Obsidian Finance Group, after Cox accused them of “fraud, corruption and other misconduct” on her blog, crystalcox.com.

A self-described “investigative blogger,” Cox, who defended herself in the lawsuit, argued [as she wrote on her blog] that “Bloggers have Equality [sic] with reporters such as the New York Times” and that, in essence, if a newspaper like the Times can make allegations against public officials or corporations, so can she, as an “Anti-Corruption Blogger[s], Whistleblower[s], and Citizen Journalist[s].”

That stance is what the Court of Appeals agreed with. The Court determined that “The protections of the 1st Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities.”

No one disagreed that Cox’s blog postings were, in the Los Angeles Times’ words, “rants [to the] extreme.” Rather, the Court ruled that, since Cox did not act with “actual malice,” she had the right to express herself.

I have no idea if Cox is correct or not; that’s not the point. But journalists and First Amendment defenders no doubt will celebrate this ruling. I do; I would not want to see a blogger self-censor herself, out of fear of being sued by a big, wealthy, bullying corporation. But this case does raise troubling questions.

Granted that a blogger has the right to publish her rants, does that give him or her credibility?

Ought the public to believe “investigative blogging” in which no editor or fact-checker is present as a balancing restraint, as is the case with newspapers?

How can the public determine the accuracy of blogs, a medium notoriously devoid of traditional ethical and publishing standards (e.g., the reporter has to have multiple sources for each assertion, and there has to be a bright line between editorial, on the one hand, and opinion, on the other)?

Can the public know for sure that a blogger does not have ulterior motives? Newspaper reporters are much less likely to have hidden agendas precisely because their work is scrutinized by editors, and they ultimately are answerable to (and fireable by) a publisher.

Better yet, how can we educate the public to be discerning when they digest the content of blogs?

These questions become even more poignant when we consider that traditional journalism is being challenged by blogs and other forms of self-publishing on the Internet and “alternative media,” in this post-Citizens United atmosphere. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates that “Congress” [i.e. the Government] “shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”). “The press” later was defined, by the U.S. Supreme Court, as “every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.” It was this sweeping definition, which obviously includes blogs, that the Court of Appeals apparently subscribed to in their decision.

But we are entering into dangerous waters when we have an increasingly powerful “Press” that is devoid of traditional restraints against unproven and unresearched allegations. I hardly need point out a growing section of the American population that believes nothing the Mainstream Media says–and turns instead to “journalistic sources” (including blogs) that are patently nothing more than mouthpieces for (often unidentified) corporate, political and personal interests, regardless of whatever claims they make of serving the public interest.

The balancing act American journalism must tread is one between First Amendment rights, including the right to self-publish a blog, and the preservation of some standard of truth by which to judge published claims. We should celebrate diversity of opinion, of course, but we also should insist on a strict adherence to facts and their correct interpretation.

No easy task.


More on the drought

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I know I’ve been harping on this damned drought out here in California for months, ever since it appeared (by early December) that 2013 was going to be the driest year in California’s history, with records going back to the Gold Rush.

That’s exactly how it turned out. People were hoping the rains would return in January, but now, with the month half over, that hasn’t happened, and the extended forecasts–completely dry and warm–mean we’ll now have to pin our hopes on February and March, both of which can be extraordinarily wet. February historically has been the wettest month of the rainy season, with 4.61 inches falling, on average, in San Francisco. That’s about one-fifth the seasonal total. This is why Gov. Jerry Brown has not yet declared a Drought Emergency in California, although he’s been urged to do so by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others; the Governor feels it’s a little too early to panic, and he may be right.

On the other hand, vintners, as well as farmers of all crops, are starting to panic. Or maybe “panic” is too strong a word. They’re concerned. They’re forming contingency plans. What will they do if there’s no water to fight off Spring frosts? What will they do for irrigation when the heat spells return next summer? There are no easy answers. The San Francisco Chronicle reported a few days ago that “residents in many parts of California are being asked – and sometimes ordered – to scale back their water use.” It’s not only been a dry winter, it’s been a warm one. Yes, we had an unusually chilly early December, but since then, it’s been more like May. Oakland, where I live, has set numerous high temperature records lately, including yesterday, when it was 74 degrees. Other records were set in San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Maria, where it was an unbelievable 83 degrees. The flowering trees in Oakland (magnolias, plums) are in full bloom. We’re in Day Three of a high fire danger, Red Flag warning in the East Bay and North Bay hills. This morning, the situation has grown even worse; the state now is under an Extreme Fire Danger alert, and Southern Californians are on edge, as those dreaded Santa Ana winds kick up, howling through the canyons where wildfires erupt and roar through places like Malibu and Laguna Beach. The warnings extend all the way up and into the Sierra Foothills.

I see red-breasted robins, honeybees and tiger swallowtail butterflies flying around–things you shouldn’t see in the Bay Area in deep winter. It doesn’t make sense. My T.V. weatherman last night called the weather “eerie,” a good word. He’s a trained meterorologist and he doesn’t understand what’s happening. Nobody does.

As the website, Wunderground.com, reported today, “The prospects for any significant rain or mountain snow in California over the next seven to 10 days look dismal, according to the latest computer model forecast guidance. If this type of pattern were to persist through the final week of the month, many January precipitation records could fall by the wayside.” That should cause everyone–not just Californians–deep concern.


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