On the Sales road today in the midst of a busy week, but first I want to comment on the headline this morning that Constellation has purchased The Prisoner for $285 million.
I “get it” that some of these big wine companies are going after these mass brands, like Meiomi, which was scooped up by Constellation. [ED note: In a previous edition of this post I mistakenly said Meiomi was bought by Gallo. Mea culpa!] But here’s my question about this Prisoner thing: As the San Francisco Chronicle points out in their coverage of the deal, The Prisoner owns no vineyards; the way the Chron put it is that the sale “suggest[s] a significant departure from the model that has long dominated the wine industry, in which land carries the greatest capital. Now, it would seem, brand trumps land.”
I disagree. That’s an easy and fatuous conclusion for a reporter who doesn’t understand the wine industry to make. But guess what? Grapes don’t come from the sky. You don’t drive your pickup over to Grapes R Us and load up on Zinfandel fruit. You have to have vineyards, and, in the case of The Prisoner, if they don’t have the vineyard holdings to ensure quality fruit year after year, then the quality of The Prisoner has got to suffer, with the inevitable consequence that consumers sooner or later will figure out that the wine isn’t what it used to be.
I don’t mean to slam Constellation, but let’s face it, that company doesn’t have the greatest reputation for wine quality. All too often they seem content to let quality drift to a midpoint level, which they hope they can get away with for a long time. And perhaps they can. When it comes to these mass brands, consumers might not notice an ever-so-slight racheting down of quality. It’s the frog (or is it lobster?) in a saucepan of water on the stovetop: Gradually increase the heat and the poor thing doesn’t even known it’s being boiled until it’s too late.
Look: brands come and go. Mostly they go, because they lose their rationale and consumers then lose their reason for buying it. So, I wish Constellation good luck with this, but really, the conclusion that “land doesn’t matter anymore, brands do,” is dumb.
Anyhow, time to hit the road! Going down to Silicon Valley today for a wine lunch and talk about Jackson Family Wines Pinot Noir. Ciao until tomorrow.
It comes as no surprise to me that Napa County is the seventh least affordable housing market in the country.
We know that places like San Francisco, Marin and Manhattan are unaffordable to all except the wealthiest of our citizens, but Napa? True, it’s never exactly been Motel 6 country, but in Napa City you didn’t used to need millions of dollars to afford a fixer-upper.
Now you do. The media price of a home in Napa just it $545,000, about one-half that of a house in San Francisco, but 2-1/2 times more than the average price of a U.S. home.
The reasons why are not hard to discern: Napa Valley, like all of California’s valleys, is visually beautiful. The weather is outstanding. San Francisco is only an hour away (depending on traffic). Ski country to the east, the Pacific to the west, lakes, mountains and wilderness all around, what more could you ask for? Throw in the glamor of wine, and the cost of entry suddenly shoots sky-high.
It wasn’t that long ago that Napa City was a dumpy place. The upper classes didn’t live there, or even visit; they went to St. Helena, or Calistoga, or the south valley to dine, or drove into the Bay Area. But in the 1990s and early 2000s the city began all that work along the riverfront. Hotels and posh resorts went in, along with expensive restaurants, and voila, Napa City became chic. And now, the French are invading Napa Valley: S.F. Eater reports that, “From Mount Veeder to Calistoga, Napa estates are selling fast to Bordelais vintners.” In other words, when it comes to real estate prices, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The situation “on the other side of the hill” in Sonoma County is pretty much the same, at least in Healdsburg, which by the year 2005 had become so tony, it started topping the list of wine destinations to visit and spend a lot of money. Today, Healdsburg’s average home price is higher even than Napa’s: $699,600, although Sebastopol’s is even more, at $725,000. (I think that Healdsburg and Sebastpol are not populous enough to be considered “housing markets.”)
Funky $ebastopol! Where is the pot and patchouli crowd going to live? Maybe Guerneville, where the median home price is a comparative bargain, at $366,100.
Now consider Cloverdale. If you know it, it’s as the one-stoplight town, at the crossroads of Highway 101 and Route 128, in the center of the Alexander Valley. Entrepreneurs have tried for years to gussy up Cloverdale, but the farm town firmly resisted their efforts, remaining stubbornly rural and slightly shabby.
Sonoma Magazine asks, “Could Cloverdale be the next Healdsburg?” They reference “New restaurants and boutiques. A coffeehouse that’s a community gathering place. A burgeoning arts scene. Fresh ownership of tired businesses. Summer concerts on the plaza that draw 2,000 adults and kids. City slickers, drawn by the rustic beauty and calm, are relocating to Cloverdale — some bringing high-end businesses with them.”
It’s not really likely that Cloverdale will be the next Healdsburg. There’s not enough housing stock, and I think that local zoning laws would prohibit development from occurring. Still, Cloverdale might turn into a kind of Los Olivos of the north, a precious, expensive tourist mecca of galleries, cafés and upscale inns. (Cloverdale actually is the most centrally-located town from which to explore Alexander Valley’s many charms.)
As a homeowner myself, I am benefitting from this stupendous rise in coastal California real estate values. My city, Oakland, is “poised to be the Bay Area’s hottest [housing] market in 2016,” says the San Francisco Chronicle.
Still, I worry about the people who can’t afford to live here, or anywhere else along the coast. From San Diego and La Jolla up through Big Sur, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and northward into wine country, California is becoming a Disneyland for the privileged classes. I don’t know the answer, any more than anyone else. This trend may be unstoppable, except for one force stronger even than the market force of supply and demand: the San Andreas Fault.
Cut to the chase: Donald Trump’s TRUMP Winery in Virginia makes decent sparkling wine (not a very difficult thing to do, as the grapes don’t have to get ripe), but his still wines are anywhere from okay to mediocre.
President Obama put Trump’s wines in the spotlight the other day when he ribbed the orange-haired man for “slap[ping] a label” on “some $5 wine” and then “they charge you $50 and say it’s the greatest wine ever.”
Well, Trump wouldn’t be the first winery owner to overprice his product, so Obama is a little harsh, although you can’t blame him for wanting to ding Trump, who, as the nation’s leading birther, still hasn’t admitted he lied about Obama’s birthplace.
But lest politics intrude into the enological purity of steveheimoff.com, let’s get onto the subject of Drumpf’s Trump’s wines. Disclosure: I never tasted them. But Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Advocate have. So what’s their verdict?
First, Obama gave Trump wines about a zillion dollars worth of free publicity, although I doubt if that was his intention. Publications across the U.S. have been looking at his wines. For example, the Yakima (Washington State) Herald reprinted a Washington Post article, headlined “Are TRUMP wines actually fantastic, magnificent vintages?” (By the way, the all-capitals TRUMP is because that’s the way The Donald prints it on the label, with the immodesty we have come to expect from this self-absorbed narcissist. And if you look closely, you’ll notice the font is the same as that used on U.S. money.) So are the wines “fantastic”?
No. Of the three publications I checked, Spectator’s been brutal. Of five scores, the highest is 84 points (for the ’07 Brut Reserve). The lowest is a horrendous 81 (’08 Blanc de Blanc), which retailed (at the time of the review) for $24. Would you pay $24 for an 81-point wine? If you would, I have a candidate for you to vote for—and, quel surprise, his name is Trump!
The birther-in-chief fares a little better over at Wine Advocate. They liked his ’09 Blanc de Noir (91 points), but the ’13 Meritage got a measly 85.
Then there’s Wine Enthusiast, who gave Trump’s son, Eric, who runs the winery, their 2013 Rising Star award (and before you ask, I had nothing to do with that!) A sweet 91 points to the ’07 Brut Reserve, and 89 to the ’09 Blanc de Blanc. But 82 points (ouch) to the ’11 Rosé. Inbetween those extremes was a bunch of mid-80s.
So if you buy a Trump wine, don’t expect anything special.
Did you know that I prefer organic wines to non-organic wines? I didn’t, either. But then I read this new paper from the American Association of Wine Economists, entitled “Does Organic Wine taste better? An Analysis of Experts’ Ratings,” and I found out that, yup, I do.
Well, kinda sorta. See, the paper’s authors decided to study “data from the three influential wine expert publications: Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine Spectator,” and as it turned out, “During our period of study [74,148 wines produced in California between 1998 and 2009], the main tasters for California wines for Wine Advocate, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator were Robert Parker, Steve Heimoff, and James Laube, respectively.”
The big P-H-L! They took our scores, crunched them in that esoteric way only economists can, and lo and behold, “Our results indicate that the adoption of wine eco-certification has a statistically significant and positive effect on wine ratings.”
How much? Not a lot: “Being eco-certified,” the authors found, “increases the score of the wine by 0.46 point on average.”
Well, one hardly knows where to begin. Right off the bat, I have a problem when the lesson that people will take away is that P-H-L (and by extension major critics) prefer organic wines to non-organic ones. Less than half a point difference? I suppose if they fed 74,148 scores into a computer and found a 0.46 point difference, then who am I to argue with HAL? But a 0.46 point difference doesn’t seem like very much to me. It’s not even round-uppable to the higher score (87.46 rounds down to 87).
But wait, there’s more. The following factors also had an impact on the scores of organically-certified wines, according to the paper:
- ” a 1% increase in the number of cases will decrease score by 0.003
- ” An increase in the number of years of certification experience by one [winery] decreases score by 0.09 point.”
Confused? I am. So the more cases wine the winery produces, the lower the score is; but the longer the winery has been certified organic, the lower the score also is!
How about the winemaker’s hair color? Did they include that?
The authors also counted the number of words in each review and found this: “Next, we examine the impact that eco-certification has on the number of words used in wine notes. As shown in regression (1) of Table 6, wine notes of eco-certified wines are not significantly longer than those of conventional wines. However, as shown in regressions (2) and (3), eco-certification increases the average number of positive words by 0.4 but has no statistically significant impact on the number of negative words.”
My interpretation of this is that it’s gibberish. The authors compiled a list of words [Table 7] but I don’t understand how they infer whether their use is positive or negative. Is “jammy” positive or negative? Do Parker, Laube and I even use it in the same way? How about “offbeat”? Is that good or bad? And “peat”: if I tasted that in an Islay Scotch it would be good, but in a Chardonnay?
The authors also state something that I don’t think is objectively true, or, even if it is, is irrelevant. “Second, as a related point, wine experts have a better knowledge about wine eco-certification and are able to differentiate between different types of eco-labels, namely organic wine and wine made with organically grown grapes, which represent different wine production processes with different impacts on quality.”
I’m not going to sit here and tell you I know the difference between different types of eco-labels. There are so damn many (different certifying agencies, “natural,” biodynamic, etc.), I get confused—and, while I’ll let Parker and Laube speak for themselves, I bet they get confused, too. Besides, if “All the publications claim blind review,” as the paper’s authors write, then we critics don’t even see the labels when we’re tasting and reviewing (much less would we have a tech sheet in front of us).
But finally, this statistic seems to be to be the last nail in the coffin of the study: “On average, 1.1% of the wines in the sample are eco-certified.” By my calculations, that’s a little over 800 wines—out of 74,148. I fail to see how you can extrapolate any useful information from such a small sample, compared to the huge number of wines in the study. Apples and oranges.
I’m no economist, it goes without saying. If I were, I guess I’d spend my days crunching numbers and coming up with interesting factoids. But I have to say, I don’t see the point of this particular study—not if it’s going to be used to make a claim that I don’t regard as true. For the record, let me say that I do not think organic wine is better. And you know what? I don’t care what the numbers say.
Although I ceased formally to be a wine critic nearly two years ago, when I quit Wine Enthusiast to begin working at Jackson Family Wines, there are still some wineries that want me to review their stuff on my blog.
At first, I found this surprising. My blog has never been a wine-reviewing site. I had an unspoken agreement with Wine Enthusiast, while I was there, that I wouldn’t “compete” with them in that arena, and so I didn’t. And once I went over the Jackson Family Wines, I thought it would be a little weird to review the competition.
But JFW let me know that it was alright if I continued reviewing, and so, when the odd box does float in, I’m happy to review it. But it does make me wonder why a winery would care what a little old blog like mine cares about their product.
I figure that it’s getting harder and harder to get publicity for your wines these days. There are so many magazines, newspapers, newsletters and websites that review wine—for a fee, or for free, depending on what the owner thinks he can get (what the market will bear). There are endless blogs that review wine. Many stores review wines nowadays, putting up little shelf talkers. And of course there’s word of mouth, both the old-fashioned kind in which a human actually physically interacts with another human, or through “social media,” a term that seems increasingly bizarre, but unfortunately we have nothing with which to replace it.
So I put myself in the vintner’s shoes and try to imagine how I would go about getting publicity for my wines if I were a winery. And I suppose one answer is, “We might as well send it to Heimoff. He still has some credibility.”
* * *
I did not know—did you?—that today is National Drink Wine Day!
But of course. We’re civilized here. Does anyone know who started this thing? Can I just declare “Tomorrow is National Long Haired Chihuahua Day”? Would anyone care? Anyhow, happy National Drink Wine Day! Drink some wine. Drink some beer and booze while you’re at it, but don’t forget to stay hydrated. And if you’re feeling a bit bummy check out this video of Anderson, Kathie Lee and Hoda. It’s how the 1% drink.
In the late 1980s and 1990s we witnessed a movement in this country that came to be called “neo-prohibitionism,” a neologism that expressed a very dangerous trend.
The “prohibitionism” part was of course a reference to the disastrous “noble experiment” by which America outlawed alcoholic beverages between 1919 and 1933. That stupid, unconstitutional ban was overturned by Repeal, which itself was pushed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he became President, proving once again that, yes, it does matter who occupies the Oval Office, because they’re not all the same.
“Neo” comes from the Latin root-word for “new.” Thus, “neo-prohibitionism” constituted the “new prohibition” or, at least, an inclination on the part of some Americans to enforce their view that the consumption of alcoholic beverages—if it could not be entirely outlawed as their predecessors had accomplished in 1919—at least could be slowed down and perhaps, at some local county and township levels, eliminated completely.
How these “neo-pros” went about their business 25 years ago was nefarious and broad-ranging. They advocated massive tax increases on alcohol (when you heavily tax a thing its consumption always falls), they put on a scare campaign about the dangers of foil capsules, they put their weight behind Mothers Against Drunk Driving (which had begun as an anti-drunk-driving group but morphed into an extreme anti-alcohol one) and they became associated with anti-alcohol fronts such as the San Rafael-based Marin Institute (now renamed Alcohol Justice). These anti-alcohol forces eventually were defeated, because they failed to gain traction among normal people, and due also to the courageous efforts of Wine Institute and its then head, John DeLuca.
Down but not out, however, the neo-pros remained silently active in their burrows, and not just in this country, but across the English-speaking world. (And isn’t it interesting that Islamic fundamentalists share with the neo-pros a common fear and loathing of alcohol?) The latest country to witness a resurgence of neo-prohibitionism, to a shocking level, is Australia, where police in the country’s largest city, Sydney, recently raided a bistro on the charge that its wine list, written on a blackboard, was “promoting unsavoury antisocial behavior.” How’s that? Apparently, in the view of the local constabulary, the bistro was encouraging people to drink!
We’ve seen this kind of response right here in my home town of Oakland, where there’s long been a movement to limit the number of liquor stores in poor neighborhoods, on the grounds that they sell cheap booze to people who then go out and commit crimes. That is a legitimate concern on the part of city government. But the Sydney bistro, 10 William Street, is not a liquor store; it is a wine bar-restaurant whose menu includes gnocchi with duck, mushrooms and ricotta, and grilled bonito with iceberg lettuce and ink vinegar.
Not exactly a poor-neighborhood gin joint!
Reaction to the Sydney cops’ heavy-handed approach has been predictably scathing. One patron who was dining there during the raid called it “bizarre” and said she was “very annoyed.” Twitter lit up with the usual snark: “full nanny state mode,” “Shock: people want to consume wine with dinner,” and I love this one: “Police claiming 10 William Street is operating as a bar, not a restaurant, clearly haven’t tried the pappardelle.”
Well, that’s the best way to counter-attack these neo-pros: Make them the objects of ridicule. Look, they will never go away. Sometimes they’re visible, sometimes they retreat, but they’re always plotting to get rid of Demon Rum. Carrie Nation may be dead these past 115 years, but her repressing spirit haunts us still.