Lots of news to comment on in the last 24 hours. First, and saddest, is the news that the legendary David Hirsch, of Hirsch Vineyards, was badly injured last Saturday in a tractor accident that occurred in his vineyard, out on the far Sonoma Coast.
I first met David when I was doing research for my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in which he figures prominently. The structure of that book was to profile Sonoma’s wine country by taking a year-long “journey’ along the Russian River, from its source in the Mendocino highlands all the way out to the Pacific, where the river meets the ocean at Jenner-by-the-Sea. That necessitated an exploration of the Fort Ross-Seaview winegrowing region, and David was kind enough to give me his time (and his wine). He was a gentle and patient teacher. I wish him a speedy and full recovery.
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News also about an old friend, Sam Sebastiani, whom I haven’t seen in many years. I had thought him retired, living in Nebraska, but then came this announcement that he’s started up a new winery, La Chertosa, his third brand since Sebastiani Vineyards and Viansa.
Sam, like David Hirsch, was very kind to me, back when I was a cub reporter for Wine Spectator. The magazine sent me to cover the opening of Viansa, out on the Sonoma-Carneros flats, where Sam and his then wife, Vicki, had built a marvelous Tuscan-style villa for their winery and tasting center. The opening day was plagued by a horrible, driving rainstorm that turned the dirt paths into swampy slogs of mud; but all was saved by a certain poignant drama, as Sam’s mother, Sylvia, from whom he had been estranged in one of those famous intra-family feuds that seems to pop up every once in a while in the wine business, showed up to help him celebrate. It was very sweet to see that reunion, especially since I liked Sam (and Vicki) a great deal. Both were first-class humans, and it’s nice to see Sam back in the business.
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Another commentator weighs in on the topic of whether or not wine writers “need qualifications.” This time, it’s from a Brit, who writes for an amusing online pub, The Dabbler. Henry Jeffreys doesn’t specifically come down on any particular side of the question, so I will: wine writers need no formal qualifications, and as proof I will offer the facts that neither Bob Parker nor Jim Laube possesses any sort of certification, nor did I when I was a wine critic. And I don’t think the absence of a diploma hurt any of us.
However, we got started during an era when no one wanted to be a wine writer, so there wasn’t any competition. Today, of course, lots of people want to be wine writers—make that paid wine writers—and, as a result, there’s a huge amount of competition for very few available slots. Hence the proliferation of certifying organizations, almost too many for me to keep track of. Were I just starting out, I might well try my hand at some sort of diploma. It can’t hurt, and can only help, but this certification mania is one indicator of what a Big Business wine writing (and wine service in general) has become. In California alone, wine is a $52 billion [with a “b”] industry, in terms of its impact on the state’s economy.
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Finally, my friend Paul Gregutt has posted [on Facebook] that David Schildknecht has quit The Wine Advocate. Don’t know what that means, if anything—just worth noting.
One of the tradeoffs that comes with being a popular wine destination region is development. It’s as unstoppable as the seasons, but unlike the coming of Spring, not everyone likes it.
Healdsburg, as everyone knows who’s been there or just read about it, has become the quintessentially quaint wine town in California. It’s smaller and more intimate than Napa, bigger and more interesting than Los Olivos, and as for Sonoma town, well, with all due respect, Sonoma lost the battle to Healdsburg years ago for sheer glam.
I’ve been going to Healdsburg for well more than 25 years and even back then, there were folks around who complained it was getting too big. They’d recall the good old days when the hardware store had sawdust on the floor. Nowadays, of course, Healdsburg is rich and boutique-y, with fabulous restaurants, great hotels and wine country tchotchke shops where you can drop $1,000 on a vase (but don’t drop the vase!).
It’s all too much, apparently, for some locals, who have formed a group trying to slow down development, if not outright stop it. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat on Monday reported that the group, Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, recently sent out a voter survey they claimed supported their anti-growth stance.
This is a tough position for elected officials to be in. On the one hand, they want to be responsive to local residents’ conerns—and they themselves may feel that Healdsburg is getting a little too crowded. On the other hand, the tax dollars that development brings in do magical things for school districts, road repairs and other government functions. So what’s a City Councilmember to do?
I myself enjoy visiting Healdsburg. I like to stroll the main streets around the Square, browsing the shops and galleries, although I must admit I don’t buy too much. I like to grab a sandwich and cappuccino at the Oakville Grocery, and duck into the wine shops and see all the labels. I can see where some people might be bothered by the proliferation of hotels and the inevitable tourists they bring, with increased traffic and all the other nuisances that popular destinations attract. That doesn’t bother me—but then, I don’t live there. So I’m not weighing in on this particular matter; the last thing Healdsburg needs is for outsiders to be telling them what to do!
We’ve seen these sorts of fights for years in other wine regions. A few years ago there was the brouhaha down in the Santa Ynez Valley over Larner Winery’s plans to host special events on their property, a plan that was fiercely and successfully opposed by locals in a NIMBY-esque display of power. We’ve seen similar fights in Knights Valley, and the controversy over the Napa Valley Wine Train certainly comes to mind. I’m sure there are other squabbles I’m just not remembering right now or was never aware of to begin with.
The challenge in all these things is to find balance. We see this search for equilibrium going on now in San Francisco. That city rightfully is proud of itself for being the urban hub of high tech, which brings in so much money and is redefining entire neighborhoods. But San Franciscans also worry that all that tech money is pushing out its artists, musicians, secretaries, janitors, cab drivers and others who can’t afford the high cost of living. Politicians, whose jobs entail making laws about these things, live on the razor’s edge of this conundrum. I wish the Healdsburg City Council wisdom in making its decisions.
I’m setting up my annual tasting for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business, which this year will be on April 9. This is one of my favorite tastings because the students—future MBAs who are members of the school’s wine club—are totally into wine. They’re a smart, curious bunch, eager to learn, and they ask the best questions.
When you’re the speaker or moderator at a wine seminar, it’s always nice to have an audience that works with you, instead of just sitting there expecting you to do all the heavy lifting. A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar in San Francisco, on high-altitude wines. One of the moderators was a winemaker. It was a very interesting topic, and I had lots of questions, so I raised my hand often to ask—probably more so than any of the other 50 or 60 people in the audience. I’m not shy about such things! Afterwards, I went up to the winemaker to pay my respects, and the first thing he did was to thank me for asking so many questions! I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve been on panels where the audience was like Forest Lawn Cemetary. Not fun! So if I’m in any position to offer advice, it would be: Next time you’re in the audience at a winetasting and they permit questions, raise that hand! Participate! We’re all in this together.
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I’m sure we’re still officially in a drought, but we had a lot of rain in March and even some good storms in February, after the driest December-January in recorded history, which got the media buzzing about the D-word. Downtown San Francisco got nearly an inch of rain during this most recent storm (yesterday), which puts it at 51% of normal. Other cities are doing better. Calistoga is up to 83% of normal as of yesterday, if this chart from the San Francisco Chronicle can be believed. Santa Rosa got .53 of an inch yesterday, bringing the annual average up to about half. This storm hasn’t yet hit the Central Coast, where the water situation is really dire, but the National Weather Service is predicting it will, although the amount of precipitation doesn’t appear to be very great. So the area from Paso Robles down through Santa Barbara really does need rain, badly. We can only hope they get it before the rainy season is over.
At any rate, this morning’s Chronicle says that despite yesterday’s hefty soaking, recent dowmpours “fall far short of ending [the] crisis.” The Sierra Madre Mountains, it says—which is where most of California’s summertime water comes from, via snowmelt—are still at only 29 percent of historical normal, meaning Monday’s thunder, lightning and heavy rain were “too little and too late to have much impact on this year’s severe drought.”
However, others are seeing a bit more light at the end of the tunnel. “The trend is improving,” the Santa Rosa Press Democrat quoted a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency. That’s because the recent storms have been so soaking that “you’re looking at a lot of run-off…into the reservoirs.” For instance, Lake Sonoma, which sits at the top of Dry Creek Valley, now is at 74 percent capacity.
The rain is over, for now, and, as is typical of big winter storms moving through California, the temperature is expected to plummet as the cold front passes. It’s quite cold this morning (as I write), meaning that vintners have a new fear in mind, beyond the drought: “when these storms come through and then stop, there’s cold storms from the north and you’ve got to watch your frost protection,” the Press Democrat quoted an Alexander Valley vineyard manager as saying. Since so many wineries depend on overhead sprinklers for frost protection, if we do end up with a spurt of below-freezing mornings, vintners may be in for a real challenge.
SPECIAL NOTE TO MY READERS: I have been forced to install a Captcha! Code in order for you to comment here. Believe me, I didn’t want to. For many years you’ve been able to get your comments posted instantly (after one initial approval), and I like it that way. But the Comments section has been overwhelmed with spam, resulting in a denial of service shutdown yesterday. So I apologize for this extra hassle, but that’s the way it is in this age of spam.
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Regular readers of this blog know that I have expressed some puzzlement over the years at the proliferation of expensive, high-end wines–mainly Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux blends from Napa Valley–that are “lifestyle” wines, that is, the creations of wealthy people who made their fortunes elsewhere and now want to join the most exclusive vintner’s club of all: those who can say that they own a Napa Valley winery.
My curiosity has been how these brand-new brands can possibly succeed when they cost triple digits and yet have no provenance at all–provenance being a known history of proven performance AKA a track record. I once counted all the Cabs I’d reviewed in a year’s period costing over $100 retail and by the time I reached 400 my eyes had glazed over. That’s a lot of expensive wine and automatically leads to the question: Who’s buying it?
The conventional wisdom is that it doesn’t matter who’s buying it: these proprietors are rich enough to go for years losing money. After all, what price lifestyle? There is, however, now a bit of a hint that the audience for these wannabe cult Cabs may be coming from an unexpected place.
The evidence lies in the newly-rich techies for which San Francisco lately has become famous. There’s a lot of money being made, fast, in Northern California. Last year, 2013, was “a banner year” for initial public offerings, the biggest since 2000 (immediately preceding the dot-com collapse); more than $54 billion was raised, more than twice as much as in 2008 when the Great Recession started, and believe me, a lot of that money is washing around San Francisco, which is enjoying (if that’s the right word) its greatest glory days since, well, maybe since the Gold Rush.
San Francisco know it well, and is trying to adjust to the news. Now, even New York City has taken note, a little jealously, it seems, since the Big Apple is not used to having its supremecy challenged as the nation’s leading financial and cultural center. This article, from New York magazine, even compares San Francisco to “West Egg circa 1922” (i.e. the Great Gatsby, the Roaring Twenties); Fitzgerald’s North Shore mansions and balls have become San Francisco’s downtown condos with split-level swimming pools and personal masseurs. What particularly has grabbed New York’s attention are the “Upscale restaurants [that] pop up at regular intervals, each with a more elite clientele” chowing down on “kombucha pairings with sustainable-seafood dinners.”
I don’t think one can say precisely when this Age of Surfeit started, but for me it was 2011 when the launch of Saison signaled that something was up. A few months later, Josh Sens, the restaurant writer at San Francisco magazine, wrote this glowing review of the $498-per person chef’s 22-course, 18-wine menu. (Confession: at that time the restaurant invited me for a full dinner. It was very, very, very good!) Josh wrote about the “hyperdevoted food pilgrims, IPO millionaires, and other assorted members of the city’s discerning gourmand club” who were flocking to Saison, proof enough that the Recession–which hit San Francisco hard in 2008-2010, forcing the closure of many restaurants–had ended in the City by the Bay, even as it was tightening its grip on other parts of the country.
It wasn’t just the price of a meal that caught my eye: it was Saison’s locale, in a disreputable Mission District neighborhood far from the glamour of the Financial District and even from the shabby-chic of South of Market. Saison seemed to glory in its downscale digs; the come-as-you-are dress code blared that, no, you’re not at Fleur de Lys anymore.
It is not difficult at all to conjecture that these newly-rich folks who can afford a splurge at Saison also are on the receiving end of these rare, limited quantity Napa Cabs that most people will never experience in a lifetime. Somebody knows somebody who knows the owner, and gets a bottle. Friends go out to dinner and drink it–perhaps at Saison. What began as a little story ends as buzz. Everybody wants a bottle–for now. But at this level, the consumer is incredibly fickle. Today, winery “X” is a star. Tomorrow, somebody meets somebody who’s friends with a different owner, and procures a different bottle; the cycle begins a new. Only a few of these rare and expensive wines will make it in the long run: this is Darwinian natural selection among wines, as it is among living things.
It’s increasingly apparent that well-paid Millennials, at least in San Francisco, are looking for upscale new drinking experiences and willing to pay for them. Check out this article, from the March 24 Bon Appetit, which argues that Milllenials “love wine…even more than their parents love wine.” They love it “because drinking it is classy and it makes them feel sophisticated.” Of course, a Millennial making $60,000 isn’t going to buy expensive Napa Cabernet. But lots of San Francisco Millennials are making a lot more than that: median family income in The City is $91,037, and keep in mind that a lot of those “families” consist of unmarried persons without kids, so they have a ton of disposable income. And their salaries are only heading higher: the San Francisco Business Journal reports mobile app developer starting salaries at $135,500-$195,120.
Thiis New Money has got to be a good thing for a local wine industry that, only a few years ago, looked teeter-tottery. If I were doing outreach on behalf of wineries, I would make San Francisco the Mecca of my evangelism, and I’d go after the Millennials where they live, play and hang out, starting with online.
We’ve done a lot of talking over the years, in this blog and throughout the social media sphere, on the topic of careers. The main question–given the rapid influx of wine bloggers–has been how to monetize those blogs. We’ve heard from “experts” of every stripe about SEO and ROI and all that, but the issue never really was resolved. I mean, nobody yet knows how to “monetize” a blog, do they?
And yet it seems to me that, with the benefit of hindsight, we now can see that this question wasn’t the right one to be asking. The right, and bigger, one was, how are the careers of wine critics evolving in the second decade of the third millennium?
To answer it, we need to understand a little history. To have “a career as a wine critic” made no sense at all until sometime in the 1970s and 1980s, when America finally became enough of a wine-drinking country to warrant the emergence of a cognoscenti who had the time and intellectual curiosity to study wine and then present themselves as arbiters of taste to the multitude of consumers who suddenly found themselves overwhelmed by excessive choice.
(I’m talking about here in America. In Britain, you could always go to work for an auction house, the way Michael Broadbent and Harry Waugh did.)
There may have been a handful of critics who actually made a living writing about wine before the late 1970s, but it was primarily limited to reporters in big cities, like New York and Los Angeles. And even then, these reporters weren’t allowed to write exclusively about wine. When Frank Prial was given the “Wine Talk” column at the New York Times, in 1972, he was still expected to–and did–cover the news. There simply wasn’t enough demand for a full-time wine reporter back in those days.
The Golden Age, as it were, of wine writing as a career really began in the mid-1980s, when Wine Spectator was picking up steam and Parker had launched The Wine Advocate. Tens of thousands of newby wine lovers, overwhelmingly Baby Boomers, subscribed, making Parker and Mr. Shanken wealthy men. Other entrepreneurial types, including my former employer at Wine Enthusiast, took note, and launched their own publications; meanwhile, more and more big city newspapers started up wine columns. With all those pages to fill up with content, a hiring spree began, and more and more people, including me, found themselves paid (albeit not much) to write about wine.
This Golden Age probably reached its peak some time ago. Early-warning signs were the Los Angeles Times’ cessation of having a full-time wine writer, the recent decision of the San Francisco Chronicle to scale back its wine and food section, and the tendency at wine magazines to hire independent freelancers to write for them, instead of full-time writers (thus, without healthcare and pension benefits). Making a decent living writing about wine became harder and harder as the 21st century dawned.
We come now to two recent developments that may shed added light on the situation. First has been my own transition, which most of you are aware of. Then came yesterday’s stunning announcement that Wilfred Wong, the longtime Cellarmaster at Bevmo!, has left that company to be “Chief Storyteller” for wine.com.
I’m told that, when the press release announcing my own job switch went out, lots of jaws dropped. Mine didn’t, of course–but it certainly did when I read the news about Wilfred. It immediately started me thinking, what does this mean?
That meaning is inherent in cultural phenomena, no matter how obscure, has been observed by semioticians, including Umberto Eco. Marshall McLuhan and Roland Barthes. For example, we can see, in the movies about invasions by space aliens that thrilled American kids in the 1950s (think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still”), direct reflections of the paranoia and xenophobia Americans felt at that early stage of the frightening Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, both armed to the teeth with thermonuclear weapons. The interpretation of such films on a meta-level actually reached the point where some observers perceived analogies between “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the New Testament.
I similarly see meaning in what has happened with Wilfred and me in the last two weeks, although since we have not yet had the benefit of hindsight, it’s more difficult to parse out its precise parameters. But this much is clear: the wine industry, for the first time ever, seems to be expanding into newer areas in which wine writers are seen, by employers, to possess skills far in excess of “mere” wine writing and reviewing. Over the course of decades of work, a wine writer necessarily is plunged into the complexities of marketing, public relations, brand building, tier construction, image making, understanding consumer behavior, social media, labels, closures, and analyzing such things as why certain new brands soar to stardom while others don’t, why some star brands become eclipsed over time, how an eclipsed brand can re-establish itself (or not), and how a brand that’s doing well can remain relevant in the face of increasing competition, both domestically and from abroad.
These are broad and sophisticated skills. It’s not that a wine writer sets out to study them; it’s that he or she necessarily absorbs them during the course of performing one’s job.
Both Wilfred and I have been doing this for many, many years. In fact, during a conversation I had the other day with a friend, I found myself telling him (to my own surprise) that I feel like I’ve acquired the equivalent of a pH.D. or three, in all the areas I described above. It seems clear that my acquisition by Jackson Family Wines, and Wilfred’s by wine.com, both occurred, at least in part but to a great degree, because those companies appreciated that we have become generalists with a wide degree of knowledge of how this industry works–whereas an employee hired out of business school with an MBA or a degree in marketing or communications lives in a sort of bubble, where the horizon is limited by the contours of her own speciality.
What is the take-home lesson now that writers are being respected for having hard-to-define, but unmistakable, talents, beyond writing and good palates? To me, it’s that the wine industry has entered a new era of sophistication, more akin to industries like high tech and entertainment than to old-fashioned ones, like the wine industry used to be. The 1980s and 1990s may have been a Golden Age for wine writers, but it was (we can see on reflection) a time of some stagnation for the industry at large, which sat by as other industries understood the importance of global communications in the global village. The wine industry, by contrast, was content to depend on an older model that was dissolving right before its uncomprehending eyes.
I don’t know exactly what Wilfred’s duties will be–chances are his new job, like mine, will evolve. But what his title, Chief Storyteller, implies is that wine.com sees him as a generalist-expert, with a solid understanding of the industry in all its aspects, and the ability to connect with people through the written and spoken word. I don’t have a complete handle on what this means, but it surely means something.
Some years ago, I was working out at my gym when I saw a newcomer. He was doing bench presses. What struck me were his pe’ot, or sidecurls of hair, and the fringes of talllit–the Jewish prayer shawl–sticking out from under his sweatshirt. Surprised by the incongruity of seeing an ultra-Orthodox Jew (and a very young one, at that) in my downtown Oakland YMCA, I introduced myself, thus beginning a friendship.
Matt wanted to be a winemaker, he told me. The only problem was, he was deep into his rabbinical training, and didn’t know whether or not he’d be permitted to taste (much less drink) non-kosher wine. When he learned what I did for a living, he asked if it was important for a student of wine to taste widely.
“Yes, absolutely,” I replied. “How can you understand what great wine is all about, if you can’t taste it?”
He agreed–but the matter was out of his hands. His local rabbis, undecided as to the answer of such a Talmudic question, had referred the matter to a bigtime rabbi in Israel for the ultimate ruling. Alas, as things turned out, the big rabbi declared it would not be possible. Matt simply was not allowed to let non-kosher wine touch his lips, and with that, my new friend abandoned his winemaking aspirations.
I was reminded of Matt yesterday when I read this article in the Napa Valley Register that described how, under current law, California winemaking students under the age of 21 are not allowed to drink or taste wine! Our federal minimum-age drinking law thus puts the U.S. among only six other countries in the world (Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, Palau and Sri Lanka) that have a 21-year age requirement for the consumption of alcohol. As you can see from this listing, most other countries have no minimum, or allow drinking between 16-18 years of age.
This high-minimum age reflects, of course, our nation’s long and convoluted history with alcoholic beverages, the product of a residue of Puritanism that still courses through our cultural bloodstream. This ambiguity peaked with the disaster of Prohibition; Repeal came officially in 1933, but not everyone accepted it. My mother’s home state of Oklahoma, for example, stayed “dry” until 1959. And even now, Oklahoma (and several other states, mostly southern and border states) continue to maintain “dry” counties.”
It’s odd and ironic that in California, where wine is a $51.8 billion industry, a young student studying enology at a school like Napa Valley College or U.C. Davis is not allowed to taste wine. That would be like prohibiting a culinary student from eating! Makes no sense, which is why I welcome the bill from Democratic State Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, who represents California’s North Coast, that “would allow students who are at least 18 years old and enrolled in a winemaking or brewery science program to taste an alcoholic beverage and be exempt from criminal prosecution.” You’d expect California’s Legislature to pass it, since it’s so logical on the face of it; and I’m sure that, if the Legislature did pass it, Gov. Jerry Brown would happily sign it.
But, as the Napa Register article points out, there are people out there who don’t like alcohol and are likely to oppose Chesbro. “Opponents of the bill argue that students will use the class as an excuse to drink or become drunk.” (Sacre bleu! An excuse to drink!!! As if they can’t obtain alcohol anyway.) The article doesn’t say who these “opponents” are, but their names hardly matter; we know these neo-Prohibitionist types are always lurking at the fringes of the culture, hoping to do again what their spiritual ancestors did in 1920: make alcohol illegal for anyone to drink, with only limited exceptions.
If you, like me, are in favor of Chesbro’s bill, which is AB 1989, and you live and vote in California, I invite you to contact your own state Assembly members and Senators and urge them to support this common-sense legislation.