When did all this talk about unicorns get so crazy? Suddenly, it’s unicorn this, unicorn that. Fifty-five million results on a Google search, of which this one, published earlier this year in Fortune, is most explanatory: “a unicorn is a private company, valued at $1 billion or more, and they’re seemingly everywhere, backed by a bull market and a new generation of disruptive technology.”
New, over-priced tech companies. Hmm. We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Back in 2000 we called it the “dot-com bubble,” the catastrophic melt-down of a short era in which seemingly any company that ended with a dot-com enjoyed meteoric growth on the stock market. A good example was a startup called onsale.com. It was popular for a while after amazon.com got too expensive for most people to afford. I should know; I bought a bunch of onsale, and got slaughtered when it collapsed, along with all the other phantom dot-coms.
Now, the word “unicorn” is being applied to wineries. Wine Spectator picked up the term from Twitter back in 2013, quoting Raj Parr’s tweeted definition: “A [unicorn] wine that is ‘rare,’ ‘not seen much’ ‘special bottlings.’ Not always the most expensive but just hard to find.” By 2015, unicorn wines were all the rage in somm circles: the Wall Street Journal said “they confer[red] status not by cost but by the skill—or luck—it takes to acquire one.” Eater jumped into the fray, describing unicorn wines as “a new category of wine taking hold in Manhattan—the once in a lifetime bottles that every sommelier dreams of drinking, and bragging about, before they die.” Eater’s list was exclusive to Old Europe, mainly France. You would never find a California wine on a unicorn list, especially not in Manhattan.
Most recently, here’s Wine Spectator again, with Dr. Vinny asking the question, “What is a unicorn wine?” and pointing out that the opposite of unicorn wines are “first-growth Bordeauxs, or ‘cult’ California Cabernets.” Interesting. Not that long ago “cult California Cabernets” were the hottest wines in the world, coveted by everybody. Can it have been only eight years ago that the San Francisco Chronicle called Aubert, Ovid and Sloan “six cult wines to covet”? Today, you won’t find them on anyone’s unicorn list. They’re more like your great-grandfather’s wine than something the cool kids drink.
By the way, the hashtag #unicornwine still gets a lot of play on Twitter, although the category finally seems to be opening up to include California wine—as long, that is, as it fulfills the requirements of being rare and impossible to get. Someone tweeted a link to an Instagram post from “Mcvino82,” who posted this pic of an Inglenook 1978 Petite Sirah with the hashtags #unicornwine and (funnily) #whereisfreddame.
So a nearly 40-year old California Petite Sirah just might qualify as a unicorn. Story time: Years ago, I was on one of my first assignments for Wine Spectator, to interview a wealthy rock-and-roll lawyer who lived in the Hollywood Hills and was a bigtime wine collector. As I pulled into his driveway, a UPS truck was unloading case after case of Dominus, Dunn Howell Mountain, Opus One, Petrus, Tignanello—you get the idea. As we shook hands I tried to make small talk and said, “Man, I see you like the good stuff.”
He pointed with his chin to the stacks of cases on his driveway and said, “That? Nah, I hate it.”
Wow. “Then why do you buy it?” I asked, mentally doing a financial calculation of the cost.
“Look,” he explained, “those are what I call ‘pissing wines.’ You know how, when you’re kids, you have contests to see who can piss the furthest? Well, ___ and ___ [and here, he mentioned some real Hollywood heavyweights] invite me to their homes, and they serve Petrus ’66, so I have to invite them here and give them Petrus ’64.”
I took that in. Then I asked, “So, if you don’t like these wines, what do you like?”
“Ahh!” he grunted, grabbing me by the elbow. “Let me show you.” He led me to his backyard, where he’d dug a storage cellar into the hillside. Rummaging through the racks, he pulled out a bottle. It was a Petite Sirah from San Benito County whose producer, even on that day 25 years ago, was long defunct. “This is what I like!” he exulted.
“What do you like about it?” I asked.
“I like it,” he replied, “because no one else can get it!”
That was the rock-and-roll lawyer’s unicorn wine. So, you see, there’s nothing new about the concept, only the word. And while we’re on the topic of fantasy, it looks like Napa may be getting ready to allow marijuana dispensaries within the city limits. It’s far from a done deal, but I can see a time when upscale tasting rooms selling sips of unicorn wines will also offer unicorn weed to inhale, leading to the very real possibility that tourists emerging from these establishments, staggering down the street, may visualize actual unicorns.
Photo credit: goodmenproject.com
Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s former wine critic and, now, occasional columnist, has much to say about the demise of In Pursuit of Balance that is on point: that the organization was controversial, that it stimulated a valuable conversation over Pinot Noir style, that “it received a disproportionate amount of attention and media coverage,” that the ending, after five years, was “a shock” to the group’s members and fans, and—ultimately—that IPOB “served its purpose.”
Bonné can be a good reporter when he sticks to the facts and leaves aside his personal piques, but here, his dislike, verging on hatred, of larger wineries lends his analysis an off-putting hysteria. This is further fueled by his ongoing antagonism towards Big Critics, especially Wine Spectator, some of whose writers consistently raised legitimate questions about IPOB. Raising questions is the lifeblood and purpose of journalism—no reporter would be worth anything without raising questions–but Bonné calls it “savaging” IPOB, an odd but telling choice of verbiage. He goes on to accuse these Wine Spectator commentators (and, by extension, all of us who raised similar questions) of being “fearful of change.” That there is no evidence of such “fear” on the part of anyone who asked IPOB’s creators to more precisely define the “balance” that was their hallmark should be clear to all impartial observers. I myself asked, frequently, because IPOB never could iron out their internal contradiction, which was that they seemed to be suggesting that “balanced” Pinot Noir had to be below 14% in alcoholic strength, but even Raj Parr himself repeatedly had to backtrack from that assertion, for obvious reasons: It is on its face silly, and besides, there were members of IPOB whose wines were well in excess of 14%. Thus IPOB was forever hoisted on a petard of its own making, its “message” smudged into incoherence: If, indeed, they could not define “balance,” then what were they “in pursuit” of? IPOB’s inclusion of only certain wineries to their road show—the hottest ticket in London, L.A., Prowein, San Francisco or wherever else they poured–could only be seen as an arbitrary illustration of what has come to be known, in California circles, as the Cool Kids’ Club: We’ll invite our friends to the party. Don’t bother coming if you’re ugly.
I went to just about every IPOB tasting in San Francisco since the group’s founding in 2011, and yes, they were wonderful tastings. But they were wonderful not because they represented some sort of curated selection of the best and most balanced Pinot Noirs, but because they showcased many small producers whose wines most people—even I, as Wine Enthusiast’s senior California reviewer—didn’t have access to. I would have gone no matter who sponsored the event or what it was called; but the weight under which it was placed by that word “balance” cast a more lurid and ominous glow over the proceedings. One felt one was entering, not a mere arena for tasting, such as World of Pinot Noir, but a political convention, complete with party platform and ideological frisson, that just happened to feature wine. Since we knew that a cadre of insiders—including Jon Bonne—was responsible for the decision of what to include, out of all the bottles submitted for consideration, the implication was that all other Pinot Noirs were somehow unbalanced, an unsettling thought to a wine critic who might have given years of high scores to wines that, presumably, had been rejected by IPOB’s overseers. I should think James Laube and Matt Kramer felt quite the same: and why not? Thus to publicly air their concerns was not to “savage” In Pursuit of Balance. It was not to “savage” Raj Parr or Jasmine Hirsch or even Jon Bonne. It was to wonder, just as you might in a similar situation, why there was such a discrepancy between something you liked and something that IPOB appeared to find “unbalanced,” which, when you get right down to it, has to be seen as defamatory.
Not all of the kinds of wines IPOB loved, however, were good, and some were disasters. The 2011 Pinot Noir from Raj Parr’s Domaine de la Cote, which I tasted not at IPOB but at a World of Pinot Noir tasting, was among the worst Pinots I’ve ever had. In that cold vintage, Raj picked too early, motivated, I supposed, by ideology; the wines tasted like Listerine. (In fairness, his 2012s, which I tasted the next year at IPOB, were utterly magnificent.) This served to underscore what always was IPOB’s Achilles heel: its apparently slave-like devotion to a concept—low alcohol—at the expense of a far more important concept: deliciousness. Let the vintage tell you when to pick, not your frontal lobe. Incidentally, the limits, indeed the dangers, of sticking to this low-alcohol ideology were graphically illustrated at a World of Pinot Noir tasting some years ago when Siduri’s Adam Lee pulled a switcheroo on Raj Parr, at a public panel, an event Bonne alludes to in his opinion piece but whose implication he does not explore: that when you blind taste Pinot Noir without the ability to form a pre-conception due to knowledge of the alcohol level, you just might find yourself loving something you thought you were supposed to hate. Sic temper alcoholis.
But Jon is correct that IPOB “served its purpose,” if its purpose was to stimulate just the sort of discussion we’re having and have been having for some years. What had been esoterica has now become a standard part of the conversation about Pinot Noir, and for that we have to thank Raj and Jasmine. You have done the industry a service, monsieur et mademoiselle, and it is now time for you, and us, to move on.
“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.