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Why the West Coast sets the tone in style



It’s not an exact match, but if you superimposed a map of red and blue states on top of another map showing state per capita wine consumption in the U.S., there would be a lot of overlap.

Blue and Red States

united states wine consumption map
Per capita consumption by state

So do Dems drink more wine than GOPers? The jury’s out on that one; lots of studies, but no definite conclusions. However, one interesting study does seem to suggest that liberals like wine more than their conservative counterparts. This scatter chart


has Democrat-skewing people drinking more alcohol than Republicans, and drinking different kinds, too: For example, Ravenswood and Charles Shaw veer Democratic, while Kendall-Jackson and Sterling lean Republican. Republicans, if they drink (and many don’t), also seem to like spirits more than Democrats (although you’d never know that after a night on the town here in Oakland!). I have no idea why that is, but I do know this: Wine and food trends start on the West Coast and then spread over the country.

This came to mind over the weekend, when the Wall Street Journal’s “Personal Journal” section published this piece, called “But How Will It Play in Portland?” The article was on how Portland, Oregon “is known…for setting food and restaurant trends that catch on around the U.S.” Despite the headline, there was nothing I saw in the article that particularly supported this argument—after reading it, I have no idea what trends Portland started.

So I interpreted “Portland” to mean the entire West Coast, especially Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, both of which really have bequeathed food and drinking traditions to America, everything from coffee and sourdough bread to California cuisine, the farm-to-table movement, locovorism, freshness, Asian influences, craft beer and, of course, artisanal wine. The philosopher and mystical gadfly, Alan Watts, once referred to coastal California, including Big Sur and Marin County, as power centers for spirituality—magical places where magically creative people want to live, free of the shackles of conventional norms. Surely Seattle, Portland and San Francisco are such places. And surely, such an iconoclasm is necessary for true innovation in the creative arts.

We have, then, the Bay Area to thank for the gift of wine culture to America. (Proof? Just read Harry Waugh’s diaries to appreciate how a small cadre of wine-loving friends made it all happen in the 1960s.) Perhaps it would have happened if, say, the West Coast ended at Sacramento, perish the thought. Perhaps. But I don’t think so. For all the knocking of San Francisco, and the coastal Pacific Northwest, by certain elements in society, we have influenced this nation in a tremendous way, and will continue to do so, because in order for culture to spread to new places and populations—to go viral, as it were—it has to appeal to the best and brightest: the young, the inquisitive, the intellectual, the creative–the artists and musicians and writers and thinkers, the poets and philosophers and chefs and winemakers, who make America what it is.

Another early harvest. Climate change?



California has had so many “early harvests” lately that we’re going to have to redefine what the word “early” means. Maybe “early” is the new “normal.”

It seems like the last two years, 2013-2014, were mind-blowingly early. The 2013 vintage was “Early [with] exceptional quality vintage throughout the state,” said the Wine Institute.

Then, in 2014, Wine Spectator said that, in 2014, Everything was ready to go in early- to mid-August, even Cabernet Sauvignon, which usually ripens much later.”

And now, here comes 2015, “which is expected to arrive earlier than usual,” according to the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.

That’s what I also heard last week, while walking through Andy Beckstoffer’s Georges III vineyard in Rutherford, where veraison had already started. Of course, all this comes amidst persistent reports of above-average temperatures in California. Just yesterday, it was reported that June was “the warmest ever for California,” as it also was for Nevada, Oregon and Washington. That simply extended this year’s trend: The entire West Coast, plus Nevada, just went through its warmest-ever January-June.

MAPAnd that was for the second year in a row! Last year, 2014, also was the warmest ever recorded up to then in California, Arizona, southern Nevada and parts of southern and coastal Oregon, according to NOAA.

You’d think statistics like these would be enough to convince the most die-hard climate-change denier, but there’s just enough anomalistic weather to keep them hoping against hope that their delusions are real. May, 2015, for example, was unusually wet and cool in California (actually, it helpfully slowed down the ripening)—but, even at that, May “was the first cooler-than-average month in well over a year for the state.” So when a climate-change denier, like Sen. Ted Cruz, declares that, “I believe in following evidence and data. On the global warming alarmists, anyone who actually points to the evidence that disproves their apocalyptical claims, they don’t engage in reasoned debate,” he would seem to be on increasingly shaky intellectual footing, and not abiding by his own rules for reasoned debate.

However, I’m not here to indulge in pretentious political-scientific jiggery-pokery (thank you, Justice Scalia!), merely to chat about our freaky weather. And now, here comes El Nino! We’ve heard rumors of its approach for years now—rumors that turned out not to be true. But for the last two weeks or so, the media increasingly has been rife with reports, such as this one, of “strong El Nino rainfall” this coming winter. Just yesterday, AccuWeather reported that it “could be one of the strongest in 50 years,” with all that that implies, especially powerful rains.


In big El Nino years, California is drenched, wih L.A. sometimes having even more rain than NoCal. I vividly recall the January, 1995 storms, which brought “disastrous rainstorms throughout California,” said the USGS; poor Guerneville in particular, in the Russian River Valley, was hit hard, with people having to be airlifted off their roofs. We want El Nino’s rain, but we certainly don’t want the natural catastrophes. The problem is, usually the two can’t be separated. Fortunately, a lot of the river dwellers in Guerneville, bless them, put their houses up on stilts after 1995.

What social media does really well



Last week, after The Donald unleashed his tirade against Mexicans, I posted a petition on my Facebook page urging Macy’s to “fire” Trump by cancelling their sponsorship of his clothing line.

Lo and behold, the very next day, Macy’s announced that they were doing exactly that: they dumped Trump.

Much as I would love to take personal credit for that, I can’t. Hundreds of thousands of people signed the petition, which Macy’s apparently took very seriously. And so Donald Trump is learning that words, even hastily uttered, have consequences.

That was an example of what social media does best: galvanizing popular outrage and channeling it in effective ways. Another example is this issue of the confederate flag in South Carolina. We know how that turned out: they decided to remove the flag from their statehouse. Certainly, South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, had a lot to do with the outcome, with her brave personal reaction; but in reality, it was “social media, not businesses or politicians, [that] drove [the] flag removal,” in the words of this perceptive San Francisco Chronicle piece.

Almost as soon as the dreadful Charleston church shootings were over and it was learned that the shooter fancied the confederate flag, activists began a concerted campaign to force major corporations, such as Walmart and Sears, to stop selling confederate flag-related products. Those companies responded quickly. Anti-confederate flag sentiment went viral on Twitter and other social media, and voters besieged South Carolina lawmakers, who also responded quickly, by voting to remove the flag.

I saw this power of social media to politically stimuate huge numbers of people as early as 2011, when tens of thousands of Egyptians, communicating via Twitter, mobilized in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest against then-President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime. The dictatorship responded in exactly the wrong way: by attempting to suppress Twitter and Facebook, “a grave mistake” that was “the beginning of the end” for the regime. The author Wael Ghonim has called this spectacular continuation of the Arab Spring “Revolution 2.0” in his book of the same name.

This is what social media was designed for: it encourages communication and sharing, empowers and amplifies the voiceless, and can bleed over into the mainstream media when things go viral—thus influencing the course of history. I could cite instance after instance of social media’s political muscle, from the people’s overthrow of Filipino President Joseph Estrada and the similar overthrow of Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar to the Catholic Church’s troubles with pedophile priests.

I celebrate social media for these reasons—and I keep in mind that social media also has a less spectacular but no less wonderful use: that of merely allowing us to stay in touch with friends (both real and digital), to learn from them and be amused and inspired and make our lives less disconnected from each other. That is a fantastic thing, McLuhan’s global village writ digitally. What is far less clear is whether social media can play a strong role in the prosaic business of selling things. That is, as Dorothy noted, a horse of a different color.


What Prosecco tells us about the future of wine



Prosecco, as you know, has been on a roll lately, but when you read headlines like this:

“PROSECCO OVERTAKING CHAMPAGNE AS SPARKLING WINE OF CHOICE”, you know that something far more important than the ephemeral popularity of a particular wine is happening. Why is Prosecco so hot?

Two things:

  1. Millennials coming of age
  2. The Great Recession

Concerning Millennials, they “aren’t earning as much money as their parents did when they were young,” a situation that’s even worse for Millennial women. Saddled with student debt, they’re unable to afford homes, and in general are feeling financial pressures in a way their parents (my generation) never did (at least, until the Great Recession struck). So when it comes to discretionary spending, Millennials are spending downward.

Speaking of that Great Recession, it impacted all of us. Trillions of dollars went down the drain. “The wealth of most Americans down 55% since recession,” CBS MoneyWatch headlined in 2013. We’ve made some of that back since then, but Americans of all ages still are feeling the pinch, which is why U.S. economic growth has been so sluggish.

Under the circumstance, you have to consider two things concerning sparkling wine: quality and price. Simply put, Champagne is expensive, Prosecco isn’t. The average price of a bottle of French Champagne on a restaurant wine list is $117. I couldn’t find anything online concerning the average price of Prosecco, but on Snooth, they list many Proseccos, mostly below $20 a bottle, so even if you double that for a restaurant wine list, it’s only about $40.

And qualitatively, as we all know, a good Prosecco is as satisfying as Champagne. So why would anyone choose to buy Champagne, except for image and perceptions?

For me, the issue here isn’t about Prosecco per se, it’s about the average American looking for less expensive wines than perhaps her parents used to. I was up in Napa Valley yesterday, and we were chatting about expensive wine, and how and if these pricy bottles of Napa Cab will continue to exist into the future. Someone asked me my opinion, and I replied that I’ve been wrong in my prognostications so many times in the past that I’ve basically given up on the prediction game. But still, a part of me just can’t see folks who are, say, in their twenties today spending $50 or $60 per bottle retail as they hit middle age, or spending $100-plus for a bottle in a restaurant. I just think some things in America have fundamentally changed: the Great Recession, as I said, but something else: We’ve become a more frugal country, less apt to consume conspicuously. The outrages of the super-rich have changed our sense of right and wrong; our moral compass has swung back to what it was at this country’s beginnings: living simply.

At the height of the Great Recession, there was much talk of “The New Frugality,” as for instance here and here; everyone agreed it was a reality, and the only question was whether it would continue once the Great Recession lifted. Well, the Great Recession now has lifted (the country actually hasn’t been in recession for years), but, as Forbes noted just last year, an enduring ‘New Frugality’…has Americans of prime working age, mainly 25 to 55, spending less, working less, and buying cheaper.” That, it seems to me, is likely to mark this nation for many years to come. It’s why people are preferring Prosecco to Champagne, and why we’re likely to see a similar switch in other wine types, if it hasn’t already happened.

Wine, beer…and pot?



As a longtime pot enthusiast, and the current holder of a California medical marijuana card, I’ve been glad to witness the acceptance of weed in America. If you’d asked me twenty years ago if I thought the legalization of marijuana (or gay marriage, for that matter) would occur in my lifetime, I would have said, No, especially not gay marriage. And yet, look how far we’ve come!

Yay America! Give yourself a pat on the back.

Still, I must admit my jaw dropped when I was reading the June/July issue of The Somm Journal and came across, on page 34, an article entitled “California Artisanal Hashish.” No, I thought, it can’t be what it looks like; this hash must have something to do with corned beef and potatoes for weekend brunch. (But why would that be in Somm Journal?)

It was only a few seconds later, reading the article, that I realized it was indeed about hashish, and specifically, how “Emerald Triangle farmers are fighting for the AOC classification as California reevaluates its medical cannabis industry.”

Hashish in Somm Journal? AOC classification? Photos of a dude tasting his “aged, artisanal hashish”? Yikes.

Well, Somm Journal is from the redoubtable Andy Blue and his business partner, Meredith May, two of the most successfully entrepreneurial publishers/editors in recent California history. Coming on the heels of The Tasting Panel magazine, maybe Andy has some new triumph in sight: The Smoking Panel magazine. And why not? If weed is going to be a legal, multi-billion-dollar industry in California (it’s already a multi-billion-dollar industry, but there’s still a huge fight between the feds and the state concerning its legality), then it’s going to need its own industry magazine. And who better than Andy to bring it to us?

What’s interesting, and something I hadn’t completely understood although I should have foreseen it, is that some of the same issues we see in beer and wine are now happening in marijuana production. Namely, the fight between large, industrial producers and small artisanal ones. We see that front and center in beer and wine, where artisans complain that the majors are producing soulless, chemically-treated and mass-produced products—a charge to which the majors are being forced to respond–and a new generation of consumers is siding with the artisans, and is moreover willing to pay a premium. Apparently, the same thing is happening with weed. “[S]econd- and third-generation farmers are coming out from the shadows to protect their heritage against the current trend of large corporations controlling cannabis production.”

Are they coming out of the shadows, or out of the smoke? Probably both. Regardless, the issues are timely. Heritage pot? Well, we have heritage clones in grapes, so why not in marijuana? Artisanal production? We celebrate craft beer, and in wine, all you hear about from somms these days is small artisanal producers. But an AOC system for weed? Yes. “California cannabis farmers are working with legislators to build appellation zones into upcoming regulations,” Somm Journal tells us, adding, “…wine-style AOC classification is what will save the farmers and allow California to become the only producer of artisanal hashish globally.”

That’s big thinking. Planetary, CGI thinking, even though Bill says he never inhaled. And no growing region is better suited to be the first appellation for hash and pot than the Emerald Triangle, that three-county (Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity) hub, north of San Francisco, that’s been famous for weed-growing for decades. Anyone who lives there or has traveled through the rugged mountains knows the stories of plantations hidden deep in clearings in the forest; of innocent hikers getting their heads blown off as they unwittingly intruded into someone’s pot farm; of the local constabulary raiding fields, or the DEA showering down herbicides from helicopters; of pot gazillionaires who expanded into other, more legal, industries, including—gasp!–wine. (What, you think that didn’t happen? I first wrote about this in my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.)

Well, good for the pot farmers! And I will happily endorse the Emerald Triangle as the first weed appellation in the nation. When that happens (and I have no doubt it will), it will be only a matter of time before the Emerald Triangle is sub-appellated into smaller terroir-driven pot districts. Or is that too far-fetched? It’s one thing, I suppose, for wine experts to sit down at a formal tasting and discern the distinctions between, say, Diamond Mountain, Mount Veeder and Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. But somehow, it seems trickier to get high while determining the precise characteristics of, and differences between, pot from Yorkville, Willits and the Sinkyone Wilderness. I mean, you can’t spit. And who would take notes, or even remember the next morning? I have no doubt, however, that intrepid analysts are already hard at work at it, even as we speak. To them, I lift my glass of wine, followed by my medicinal pipe, and say, L’Chaim!

That Constellation-Meiomi deal? Land is more valuable than brand

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I sometimes wonder if the general public knows how much land acquisition is a strategic consideration in many of the winery deals that have gone down in California. Sometimes, these acquisitions don’t make any sense, on the face of it; you wonder why in the hell winery X bought winery Y. But if real estate is part of the deal, it can make a great deal of sense.

Such seems to have been the case with Constellation’s purchase of Meiomi, announced yesterday. Not on Contellation’s part, but on the Wagner family’s.

Meiomi’s proprietor, Joe Wagner, of the family that famously owns Caymus, Belle Glos, Mer Soleil and other wineries, told Shanken News Daily that he was selling Meiomi for an unbelievable $315 million because the deal will give him the liquidity necessary to become a much larger landowner. Wagner says he hopes to amass 2,000-3,000 acres of California vineyards over the next five years.”

“A much larger landowner.” That’s the game the major players are playing these days. Everyone assumes several things: (a) the U.S. appetite for wine will only grow, (b) exports of U.S. wines overseas also will grow, especially as trade deals like the TTP go into effect, and (c) supplies of grapes are only going to tighten as the best appellations and regions get planted out. Under such circumstances, buying vineyards now—or selling a superhot brand like Meiomi for a fortune, in order to buy land later—is smart.

Did the Wagners start Meiomi, back in 2006, in order to sell it after it became hot? Who knows? But I doubt that they, or anyone, could have guessed how wildly successful Meiomi would become. I suspect they started it because, nine years ago, the country was still in the throes of its “Sideways” fascination, and the Wagners surmised, correctly, that you couldn’t have too much good Pinot Noir. Probably, they figured Meiomi would be a nice, profitable little brand, like Mer Soleil or Belle Glos: an affordable Pinot Noir, from coastal vineyards. Myself, I don’t particularly care for it—too sweet, like candy; in a tasting of other Pinots, the sweetness sticks out like a sore thumb. But Americans, at least the ones who buy Meiomi, are gobbling it up: Wagner told Shanken that Meiomi is on par to sell 700,000 cases this year. Perhaps the Wagners looked into their crystal ball and figured out that Meiomi has had its fifteen minutes and is on the way down. This would not be the first winery that Constellation bought that had already reached its zenith.

So we know what the Wagners get from the deal: a boatload of cash that will finance future vineyard and/or land purchases. And what of Constellation? They get a super-famous brand that flies off supermarket shelves, which is really the Constellation business model. I can’t see Meiomi getting better in the future—that would be asking too much of Constellation. But with all their access to grapes, they can grow Meiomi forever, keeping it affordable even as production approaches a million cases.

There’s another thing about buying vineyard land: it’s always there for other purposes besides vineyards. Zoning regulations mean you can’t just do anything you want, but investing in land has been the most secure place to put your money since the beginning of time. And in the case of coastal California, if you happen to have a few extra hundreds of millions of dollars, you can buy some pretty fabulous property that will only increase in value. Whether or not it’s in vineyards in ten or twenty years, you don’t really care; that land is going to be extraordinarily valuable no matter what happens (unless coastal California disappears into the sea in the Big One).

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