“There’s nothing new under the sun.”
That’s from Ecclesiastes 1:9, which also says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.” One might have expected the Author of Authors to have taken the long view: not the next business quarter, but Eternity. So it is, or sometimes seems, for certain of us aging wine writers, who have seen and done just about everything—multiple times.
Now we have all this clamor about winery consolidation: Here’s an example, from Wines and Vines. The San Francisco Chronicle has another one, even calling the present era “buyout season.” And here is yet another, this one more specifically about Jackson Family Wines’ acquisition of Copain; the author, Dr. Vino, not surprisingly strikes a snide pose…but let us not digress from the formal point, which is that, yes, there has been a lot of buying activity lately on the West Coast, and not just JFW; Far Niente’s switch was big news. But the “nothing new under the sun” trope comes to mind because, when I first began writing about wine for professional publications, in the 1980s, the same thing was happening: much hand-wringing that all the little boutique wineries were being gobbled up. Every time there was a recession (1990-1991, the dot-com recession of the early 2000s, and certainly the Great Recession), the sky-is-falling prognosticators sounded the alarm: No more little wineries! But, somehow, family wineries remain in business—thankfully.
Face it, wine is a commercial product and thus subject to the business cycles and push-and-pull of capitalism. The average small family winery seems to have a life cycle: from startup to sale is, maybe, thirty years. And that makes sense. A guy or gal begins the winery in his or her twenties or thirties: thirty years later, he’s looking forward to Social Security, Medicare, and sleeping late, and may not have the physical capacity or the emotional temperament to continue the hard work of making and selling wine (especially if he’s also managing a vineyard). The kids may not want to continue in the family business. So what’s an aging winemaker/proprietor to do? Sell. It has always been that way and always will be. So there is no need to fret about this current wave of activity. It’s actually quite normal, and besides, I bet you that for every winery acquisition you read about in the news, five new family wineries are starting somewhere else in California or Oregon.
How many California wineries will make it to 100 years? Well, one or two already have: Beaulieu and Buena Vista, but they’re no longer owned by their founders. Inglenook planted their first grapes in 1871, but they’ve had multiple owners including, now, Mr. Coppola. Anyone else? Gallo’s going strong after 83 years; it’s likely they’ll hit the century mark. But compared to, say, Antinori (since 1385), California and Oregon wineries are just wee ‘uns. “What has been done will be done again.” Ain’t it the truth.
I’m not saying that what BevMo is accused of doing was cool—but it’s not the worst thing in the world, either, and the take-home lesson for consumers is not to base their entire buying decision on in-store displays, including shelf talkers.
The accusation in the class action suit against BevMo is simple: the vintages on the store’s “price signage” and the vintages on the bottles on the shelf were sometimes different. For example, one BevMo shopper complained to a CBS-TV reporter who accompanied her to a Manhattan Beach branch of the store, “Look here, ‘Malbec Mendoza 2012’ and the bottle ‘2013.’” The consumer added, “The product should be what exactly it says it’s selling.”
Well, that is undoubtedly true, and I’m sure after all the negative publicity, BevMo is hugely embarrassed and will do their level best to make sure that doesn’t happen again! But, let’s face it, with so many different SKUs on their shelves, and more wines coming in and going out every day, and individual stores probably having to depend on corporate to provide the shelf talkers and other print materials, it’s awfully hard for the floor staff to keep everything current. I’ve seen the same vintage variation in other big box supermarkets, and also seen how not even some wineries can keep up with the current vintage on their own website!
So this isn’t to excuse BevMo, it’s just to provide a little context. Besides, do you think that there’s going to be a huge difference between a 2012 Malbec that gets a good score and a 2013? Probably not.
The shopper who complained about BevMo told the TV station she felt “swindled a little bit.” That’s an exaggeration. “Swindling” is the conscious act of defrauding somebody: My Webster’s dictionary calls it “to get [something] by false pretenses or fraud.” I don’t think that anybody at BevMo deliberately performed a fraudulent act upon the public. Surely it was, as I said, a simple mistake or oversight by a busy staff that just couldn’t keep up with everything.
Look, sometimes I think these class action lawyers have gone amok. As for the TV station, we’ve all seen local television news in our own cities and home towns. We know how desperate some of these “investigative” reporters are to find some scandal, some egregious violation of the public trust, to report on the 5 o’clock evening news. But I think we also know how they can make a mountain out of a molehill. Go to the article in the link I provided and read the snippets of transcripts of the conversation between the CBS producer and the BevMo clerks s/he confronted about the misleading vintage signs. It reads like a Saturday Night Live parody. Yes, BevMo store clerks—like clerks in all big boxes, and quite a few in small stores too—would benefit from additional training, not just in wine but in everything. But do you really expect a cash register clerk to be a wine expert—to understand the legalities of vintage dating? That seems unreasonable to me. I shop at BevMo and have ever since they opened. It’s a fine chain; there’s a nice one here in Oakland and I’ve bought wine and beer there for many years. When you shop at a big box liquor store, you sort of implicitly understand you’re not going to get the same level of professional knowledge as you would in a small fine wine shop. On the other hand, you usually won’t pay as much money, either. And there is a connection! So lay off BevMo, please. It can happen to anyone.
Ever since around the time I began blogging (May 2008), a dominating part of the conversation has been whether or not online content providers can make enough money to make their endeavor worthwhile.
Early in that time period, there were hopeful prognosticators—mainly younger bloggers themselves, and a handful of would-be consultants who hoped to make money advising them about the ins and outs of social media—who believed, earnestly, that sources of income would open up to online content providers, even if it wasn’t entirely clear how that would happen.
This was a kind of magical thinking, of course, but it could be forgiven in light of the immense difficulties print journalism was then undergoing. Newspapers and magazines were facing the severest financial crunch of their lifetimes, as revenue from advertising—always a print publication’s biggest source of income—fell off the cliff. The promoters of online content argued that this was because print publishing had reached the end of its useful lifetime: peering into a cloudy future, they claimed that print would go the way of gaslight lamps, horse-drawn buggies and slide rulers. And because print was about to go extinct, they said, all that advertising money, added to by additional revenues brought in by subscriptions, would flow to online content providers.
I replied, in this blog and elsewhere, that this was unlikely to be the case. Print journalism was indeed suffering, but it wasn’t because of the rise of blogging, it was because of the Great Recession. Advertisers pulled back, not because they were casting an adoring gaze upon online publishers, but because they were struggling to stay alive: they had first to cover the basics, like salaries and rent, before they could lavish money on page ads.
Well, print is coming back, isn’t it? But what remains a conundrum for online content providers is how to make money. Consumers have proven over and over that they do not want to pay to see things online. They feel that they’re already paying enough to get online in the first place, and besides, there’s such an infinitude of websites that, if one of them gets greedy and starts charging a per-view fee, there are always a billion others that remain free.
In the world of wine, there admittedly are a few sites that get away with charging money, Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Vinous among them. But these are outliers—peculiarities of the wine industry, which has enough ardent consumers and trade members who are willing to pay $100 a year for access. As for the rest of the bloggers, theirs remains a labor of love, not one of potential profit.
Some bloggers as a result have turned to accepting ads on their sites. Ads don’t bring in a lot of money, but they bring in some, and if the blogger can increase his numbers, the amount of money might go up. But the same consumers who refuse to pay money for access to online content also don’t like advertisements on the sites they go to. This is the reason behind Tivo, which “eats commercials” (in their own words), and it is also the rationale behind services such as Adblock, which allows users to “surf the web without annoying ads.” This is great news for web surfers, but it’s a disaster for content creators: they finally figured out how to make a little money, and along comes this company that prevents their ads from being seen. It’s also a disaster for the companies that advertise; a honcho from the Interactive Advertising Bureau called ad-blocking sites “an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven,” extreme but, under the circumstances, understandable language.
Ad-busting companies such as Adblock certainly don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That would not be helpful to their own bottom lines. What to do? In a really interesting development, Adblock just announced they will integrate Flattr, a Swedish company that calls itself “a social microdonations service” by which content consumers can make voluntary “donations” to websites they like. This eliminates the need of the provider to accept advertising (which most providers don’t like to do anyway), and also increases the depth and complexity of the relationship between provider and consumer. Users would set up a “PayPal-like account,” put money into it, and from those funds providers would be paid, using a special Flattr algorithm based on things like the duration of the user’s stay on the site.
Will the Adblock-Flattr model work? Flattr co-founder Peter Sunde said, on Fast Company, that the new model promises “to help artists, creators, journalists, everyone, to earn a fair living from their work. Not to be abused.” That sounds pretty good to me.
Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s influential restaurant critic, is out with his Top 100 Restaurants list for 2016. A close reading of it provides some glimpses into dining and other trends affecting the Bay Area.
For one, we’re definitely out of the doldrums of the Great Recession. In the dismal years 2009-2012, there was a steady drumbeat of restaurant closures in San Francisco. My town, Oakland, was the beneficiary, because lots of chefs moved their restaurants here, thus helping to fuel Oakland’s growth, especially Uptown; but it was sad to see so many places close in S.F., and so many staff lose their jobs.
Now, San Francisco’s restaurant scene is livelier and more diverse than ever. Bauer pays homage to this diversity, featuring not only old standbys like Acquerello, Commonwealth, Piperade and Boulevard, but newer ones, including Al’s Place—an inexpensive, veggie-centric (but not vegetarian) spot in the Valencia Corridor, Belga, which as the name suggests stars Belgian food, and Comal, a Mexican eaterie that’s actually is in Berkeley (and is owned by Phish’s ex-manager). In fact, I can’t remember so many Mexican restaurants on previous lists as there are now on Bauer’s.
Bauer’s range of cuisines and restaurant styles is eclectic. As he writes in his introduction, among the “predominant trends we see today” are “shorter, more focused menus…increasing use of the prix fixe format…” and—importantly—“the elevation of casual-quick service to fine-dining standards.”
Each of these trends is noteworthy. Shorter menus (and wine lists) are a welcome development; people don’t want to wade through reams of data and then feel overwhelmed in making their choices. In complicated times like ours, we want simple pleasures when we dine out. It’s true, also, that a shorter menu means the kitchen can focus more on what they do best (instead of spreading their time and talents too broadly), and the chefs also can adhere more closely to farm-to-table and locovore standards. The prix fixe format is connected to this trend towards brevity: no fussing and mussing over who pays what (we’re all sharing everything today anyway, aren’t we?), no fussy deliberation over what entrée goes with what side dish, a more relaxed experience for the diner, just what-you-see-is-what-you-get. I like that Prix fixe also means the chef is doing food she loves and wants to concentrate on.
But it’s “the elevation of casual-quick” that I really like. We’ve seen this coming for years, with the increasing quality and interest value of bar food to the to-go cuisine of markets like Whole Foods and Wegman’s. When I moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s, there were “good” restaurants you had to dress up for, and “family style” restaurants you didn’t. I first noticed the change at the old Lulu, South of Market, where the food was incredible but it felt more like a block party than did Ernie’s stuffy atmosphere, and you could wear jeans, sneakers, whatever, and still dine like a king or (more appropriate to San Francisco, a queen). Lulu’s wine list also was revolutionary: it moved away from the standards to feature interesting, inexpensive wines by the glass from places around the world. In the last few years we’ve seen this repeated time and again; here in Oakland, Boot & Shoe Service and Pizzaiolo (also on the Top 100 list) were just such spots, catering to a tattooed hipster crowd, but with food that’s absolutely divine. Perhaps the poster child for this casual-but-upscale is Hawker Fare, also on Bauer’s list, and just a few blocks from my house.
The same trends we see in restaurants can be discerned in the wine scene. “Casual-quick” is what diners, especially Millennials, are looking for in wine, too: easy-drinking, interesting stuff that won’t cost an arm and a leg–generally lower in alcohol and oak, more streamlined, but no less “fancy”—wines that can elevate a meal, but that in turn can be elevated by the food.
One unfortunate trend that’s hit San Francisco and Bay Area restaurants, though, is rising prices, due not to the greed of owners but to mandated fees imposed on them by cities: a rise in the minimum wage is the latest example. Then again, of course, the local economy in the Bay Area (and wine country) is on fire: I’ve never seen people spending money so fast. It’s a carpe diem mentality out there, people are partying like it’s 2099, and the restaurant scene is explosive. Is this another bubble? Perish the thought.
If you’ve been reading me for years, you know that I was arguing in 2009, 2010, 2011 that (a) print newspapers and magazines are NOT dead (as so many bloggers were predicting and hoping) and (b) social media was NOT the be-all and end all for wineries. Well, I was right on both scores! USA Today has an article out, “Why People and Companies Are Lining Up to Buy Newspapers” that explains how newspapers are hot-hot-hot, which is why the paper’s owner, Gannett, has offered to buy Tribune Publishing.
I’ve always subscribed to newspapers. I’m going on 30 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I’ll frequently pick up an Oakland paper and the New York Times as well. Yes, I’m a Boomer, and old habits die hard; everyone my age says they like to wake up in the morning and have their coffee and breakfast while reading the paper. But all those years when the bloggers were guaranteeing that “print journalism is dead, it’s all online now,” I was saying, Not so fast.
As for social media, I always had my doubts, especially about Twitter, which never appealed to me (although Lord knows I tried). I’m a huge Facebook fan, but Twitter’s abbreviated limits just didn’t allow me enough space to express what I want to say. Well, now we see the trouble Twitter’s in—and how fantastically well Facebook is doing. The same issue of USA Today has another article headlined “Facebook defies tech earnings gloom.”
Anyhow, I’m on an extended trip back east on behalf of Jackson Family Wines, and loving it. Washington D.C. is really one of the most beautiful cities in America, and yesterday I got an up-close-and-personal experience of Baltimore, a city I’d never been to but have read much about, particularly their downtown revitalization, and what a great sports town it is. Fantastic architecture: some of those buildings are showstoppers. We’ve been going to some great restaurants, and yesterday went to the Maryland Club, the kind of place that barely exists anymore: a private club for locals, where you have to be vetted to be admitted. There were some gray-hairs (like me) but also some Millennials, so the blood is being refreshed at this 1857-founded social institution. They are very serious about their wine, and we had a great seminar and tasting. I also have been meeting some of the most interesting people, including the leaders of the soon-to-be-opened Trump International Hotel, here in D.C., and a young guy, Jason Larkin, who is the wine expert for Secretary of State John Kerry, over at the Department of State. I hope to arrange a Q&A with Jason here on the blog, and to learn more about his fascinating job.
I am fascinated by Washington culture. I know little about it, except through movies and House of Cards and political thrillers. Coming from a very distinct culture myself (San Francisco and the Bay Area), I understand how easy it is for outsiders to have stereotyped views. As we walk and drive the streets of the District I look at all those other people and wonder what branch of government they work in and what secrets they hold. Probably they’re just normal people like everybody else. Someday, on my bucket list is to spend a week here in the nation’s capital and do all the usual sightseeing. Maybe next Spring.
Lots of rain today in D.C. but it isn’t dampening anyone’s spirits, especially mine. We have another big day and night planned. More tomorrow.
For yesterday’s flight from SFO to Reagan Washington Airport I bought a New York Times, which always gives me a couple hours of good reading when I have the time—and what else is there to do on a long flight?
So in the Science Times section (sorry, no link—firewall!) they had an article called “Alcohol’s Parental Gateway.” Some inflammatory words in that header: must read! It dealt with the question of whether parents who give their young children even “a token sip of wine at Passover” somehow contribute to their children’s later drinking problems.
This sort of “gateway” issue has worried parents for decades. No mom or dad wants to suffer the guilt and pain of thinking they somehow contributed to their child’s mental or behavioral aberrations. Once upon a time, I don’t think parents even worried about this sort of thing, but in our post-Dr. Spock era (Benjamin, not Star Wars), they do. Books, academic studies reported in the media, talk radio and pseudo-scientific T.V. shows like Dr. Phil’s provide endless fodder to make parents wonder if they’ve done a good job or a horrible one raising little Johnny or Susie. The very difficulty of determining precisely what leads to a teen’s or adult’s drinking problem means that the answer is largely unknowable; hence, the never-ending proliferation of studies of the type the Times article cites, which—it seems to this childless adult—only pile on the confusion ever thicker. (It is the pH.D’s full-employment act.)
The Times’ writer, Perri Klass, herself an M.D., asks a lot of questions of the “what does it all mean?” genre, without venturing her own opinions. What does “early sipping” do? Is there a connection to “high rates of alcohol use in adolescents”? Is childhood sipping “a risk factor for a lot of other problem behaviors”? Some psychiatrists and other professionals quoted seem to imply answers in the affirmative.
Now, someone once said that journalism—even the kind of even-handed journalism practiced by good newspapers like the New York Times—cannot by its nature be objective. The writer’s biases, sometimes unconscious, sometimes barely concealed, shape the narrative: what questions get raised, who is quoted, what direction the article seems to point in.
And so it is here. A reader who knows nothing about this particular epidemiological issue would not be faulted for coming away with the impression that parentally-sanctioned childhood sipping is, if not overtly dangerous, at least ill-conceived. Dr. Klass even seems to debunk the European theory that by “providing sips of alcohol to children, we are actually protecting them against problem drinking,” which is the theory I’ve long heard and believed (and which Thomas Jefferson apparently subscribed to, especially when wine is not expensive).
My own feeling is that some academicians, perhaps in the thrall of publish-or-perish, make too much of this childhood-sipping non-issue. We’re not talking about unfit parents who put vodka into baby’s bottle; we’re talking about civilized, responsible parents who believe that, starting with the lick of a finger dipped into wine, and graduating upwards to a full glass by, say, the age of thirteen, a growing child will learn to respect wine—and all alcoholic beverages—and therefore to drink responsibly. I think that is true: do we really need more studies to prove it?
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By the way, on the drive from Reagan International to my Bethesda hotel, we passed the spotlit United States Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. Truly beautiful and awe-inspiring.