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Bringing common sense to wine drinking laws

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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.


What do the attacks on Google mean? An analysis of the anti-tech phenomenon

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Over the past few months, it was attacks on Google buses in San Francisco and Oakland that made headlines and showed how anti-techie resentment is spreading throughout the Bay Area.

Now comes the latest chapter: a “tech consultant” showing off her Google Glass in a bar in the Haight district was attacked for reasons known only to her attackers, who have not been apprehended. But I think we can surmise what their motives were, and they’re connected with the unease many of us feel about social media in general and the increasing absorption people have with [or in] their mobile devices. (P.S. I am NOT condoning violence! Just trying to fathom the depth of the anger toward tech that’s such big news out here.)

The issue can perhaps be summed up by this observation from a bar owner (not the one where the woman was attacked) quoted in the article: “If you’re old enough to be in a bar, you should be old enough to have conversation with other adults. When you’re in a bar with Google Glass, it’s like saying, ‘I’m only halfway here. I’ll be checking my phone.’”

“Only halfway here…”. Who hasn’t had the experience of being with someone, having a conversation you thought you both were enjoying, when suddenly the other person checks his cell phone? I don’t know about you, but when that happens to me, I feel as though I’ve been dismissed–from the conversation, from the person’s mind, from his consideration. It is–to use an old word–rude, and I was raised (mainly thanks to my southern-born mother) not to be a rude person.

Is it rude to wear Google Glass in a bar? I can infer myself into the heads of people who would be upset about it. For one thing, you don’t know if the glass-wearer is photographing or videotaping you. Surely, people have the right to object to being recorded by a stranger in a public place. But a Google Glass wearer seems to be saying, “I really don’t care if you object to being photographed, I’m going to do it anyway if I want to, and I don’t have to ask for your permission.” Nor is it pleasant to think that the glass wearer might post your image all around the Internet (which is to say, all around the world), with possibly offensive or taunting comments.

The reason why we have to get a handle on this, now, is because the technology is only going to become smarter, and more intrusive. How long will it be before Google Glass can see under clothing or through a thin partition? We know about the problem of spy cams. Google Glass could be far more nefarious.

What’s the connection between Google Glass and attacking Google buses (other than the brand name)? The emotions are similar. People smashing Google buses are worried about getting squeezed out of their neighborhoods, and sometimes their city, by high-paid techies who seem interested only in their jobs and their friends, not the traditional cultural mores of the neighborhood. That rap is, admittedly, not entirely fair; but it is understandable, given the increasing numbers of people who no longer can afford to live in San Francisco, a city they love and presumably don’t want to leave. I know this for a fact: many of these folks are moving to my neighborhood (San Francisco’s loss is Oakland’s gain).

Thus the bus attacks are symbols of the increasing unease with the way technology is altering, and intruding upon and disrupting, our lives. The attackers obviously know that the buses are not the cause of high rents and evictions. They know that throwing a brick through a bus window won’t solve a thing. But they vent their anger on the buses, the same way the Boston Tea Party patriots vented their anger on innocent crates of tea, by dumping them into the harbor.

And what’s the connection to the unease about social media? The absorption some people have in it. Is it really better and more satisfying to stare into a tiny screen and tap out text messages on a bus or subway, instead of talking to the person sitting next to you, or just quietly contemplating existence? I’m not saying that the use of social media isn’t a wonderful thing, useful, entertaining and important to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family. Heck, I’m using social media right now, on this blog. But at some point, its overuse is cause for concern. When I have to be extra vigilant walking down the sidewalk because someone is coming towards me with his nose glued to a device, something’s wrong. People used to nod their heads and smile when passing strangers on the street. Now, they don’t even see them.

I think the burgeoning reaction against tech has to do with the end of human engagement as we’ve known it, an alarming possibility suggested by the bar owner’s “only halfway here” remark. Humans have spent millennia learning how to get along with each other in crowded spaces. It’s not always easy. Some things make it harder. Google Glass may be one of them.

Look: I’m no Luddite. No one can stop the march of technology, nor should anyone want to. But we have to find a balance. That’s why I, and millions of others, are dead set against allowing cell phone conversations on airline flights. That would be going over the edge, a serious disruption to our ability to dwell together in peace. When it comes to Google Glass, people are going to have to learn to be civil and appropriate with its use. Going into a crowded bar wearing one may not be the best idea, if it upsets so many people, which apparently it does. There’s already a term being bandied about out here about people who wear Google Glass in public: they’re Glassholes.

Anyway–having got that off my chest–I’m in beautiful but stormy Santa Barbara, at World of Pinot Noir, which begins this morning. I’ll update as frequently as I can over the next two days.


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.


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