If you live in California, you know what happened this winter and spring.
In December, it rained, and rained, and rained or, if you were in the mountains, snowed and snowed. In parts of the Sierra Nevada, December, 2012 was the second snowiest ever measured.
It was reassuring news to a state that gets most of its water from snowmelt–especially after the parched December of 2011, when the snowpack was only 14% of average.
But a funny thing happened as soon as 2012 turned into 2013. The rain stopped. Seriously stopped. January and February were the driest months ever recorded in California. March brought a little rain, but not enough to help. Last week, the government released its “drought monitor”, which declared that most of Central and Southern California is suffering from “severe” drought, while the north is experiencing moderate drought.
Moreover, the National Weather Service is predicting “Persistent” drought throughout all of California (and most of the West).
Just this past week, the California Department of Water Resources published, on their website, a drought statement that begins with this alarming statement: “It’s official. The 2013 January-May period is the driest on record (since 1920) for all regions of the Sierra.”
The arid conditions already are beginning to threaten vines. San Luis Obispo County (including Paso Robles) “face[s] spending hundreds of millions of dollars for new water sources…leaving the area even more short of water at a time when vineyards are planting as many as 8,000 new acres of wine grapes.”
In the North Coast, Sonoma County has been under an official federal “disaster declaration for drought” since January, 2012,
Grapes being the thirsty plants they are, California growers are having to look at their options, including more efficient use of existing water sources. Those who dry farm–a minority–are on safer ground than those who depend on irrigation. California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, just two days ago, noting “how bone dry the state is so early in the summer season,” called for “[e]xpanding and improving California’s water storage capacity”; if that is not done, she predicted, “California is at risk of becoming a desert state.”
Water shortages are nothing new for California, but they seem to be happening more frequently; and with vineyard acreage expanding, water–or, more precisely, the lack of it–could emerge to be the biggest problem the wine industry faces.
When I started writing about wine, I met a lot of wealthy collectors. They had cellars in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of bottles, almost always the usual suspects: Bordeaux First Growths, Burgundy Grand Crus, Yquem, and California Cabs that were popular then, like Dunn Howell Mountain and Opus One.
I would talk with these gentlemen, who seemed perfectly normal in every respect, except for the obsessive-compulsive disorder they seemed to suffer from in their mad accumulation of wine. But the fact was that they were crazy-passionate about wine, which was good. If they went a little overboard, well, that was their business, not mine.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I came to learn about collecting wine, not for the pleasure of aging and drinking it, but for investment. At first I was surprised, although maybe I shouldn’t have been. Then I came to see it as pernicious. Reselling wine to make a profit drives up the cost of wine, which is bad, but it also is responsible, at least in part, for the way so many people still perceive wine: as a snobby, elite thing. Every time people read about a bottle that costs $50,000 or $100,000, it reinforces that notion that maybe they better stick to beer.
During the Great Recession, investing in wine for resale seemed to drop off a bit. But now, it’s roaring back, in troubling ways. For instance, here’s Fox News reporting two days ago that an Italian firm is asking for a minimum investment of $50,000 to invest in a wine portfolio that’s pretty much exactly the same as a stock portfolio.
And here’s Forbes, that bastion of capitalism, writing on the same phenomenon, also from Wednesday, with the punchy headline, “Will More Collectors Turn Wine Into Cash?” Seems that rich collectors already are offering their wine cellars as collateral for loans, the same way they put their expensive art works and jewelry on the line.
Normally I couldn’t care less what the über-wealthy do with their Barolo, but it somehow seems wrong, in spirit if not in the law, to commoditize wine that way. It bothers producers, too. Last year, Nick Gislason told me how troubled Screaming Eagle’s ownership was by the aftermarket. Here Nick does his level best to produce a great wine, and some percentage of the people on the mailing list just flip it onto eBay or wherever, sending the price soaring ever higher, distorting markets, and placing, not only Screaming Eagle but, by some inevitable domino process, other wines (Harlan, for example) impossibly beyond the reach of ordinary people. And don’t think the domino effect stops with the cults. It trickles down.
Here’s another negative effect of investment-mania: It can result in grotesqueries like this one, in which a pair of “wine collectors from New York” are suing celebrity chef Charlie Trotter for selling them an allegedly counterfeit bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti.
This sort of thing is no longer about wine, or pleasure, it’s about money, profit and fear. Nothing cool about it, and not what this industry needs, or deserves.
Everybody’s going to be jumping on poor Robert Parker because of this deal he struck over the “Robert Parker Selection” Bordeaux.
Actually, it doesn’t seem to have been Parker who struck the deal but his new bosses in Singapore, who appear set on maximizing the money they can make off the Parker brand.
Robert himself no longer seems like the towering figure he was just two years ago. He’s become a mere player within his organization, a kind of chess piece being moved around by his masters (“Go back to California.” “Let the French use your name,” etc.), and I wonder how he feels about all this, being (as I believe him to be) a man of integrity. It’s easy to paint him as a mercenary who sold out, and many will. It’s also easy to suggest that, as the Parker/Wine Advocate brand loses steam in the West, it’s turning to the inscrutable East for a new breath of air and cash.
Well, what’s wrong with that? Wineries are turning East, too, because that’s where the customers are. I figure Robert knows that his time is almost up (simply as a function of his age and health, not his intellectual capacity), and wishes to make as much as he can before the well runs dry. Would anyone in his position do differently?
* * *
A note on Zinfandel. I was thinking how nice it is that we have cool-climate Zins, like the ones from south of River Road in the Russian River Valley (exemplified by the likes of Joseph Swan) and warm climate ones from places like Paso Robles and Napa Valley.
Wine experts usually point to Pinot Noir, Riesling and Tempranillo as being acutely sensitive to the slightest changes in terroir, but so is Zinfandel. In fact, I think Zin shows its origins more clearly than does Cabernet (which may be a function of everyone making their Cabernet identically these days). In the interests of critical objectivity, I have to say that both cool- and warm-climate Zinfandels can be good, because they can, and each consumer will have his or her preference. For myself, I’d happily drink a southern Russian River Valley Zin any day. They’re wines of powerful dryness, and will age well. I’ve had Joe Swan Zins well over twenty years old and they were great: delicate, sweet, feminine, airy, charming. Those are words you’d never apply to a young Zin!
To Maui today for the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. I’m co-chairing the Pritchard Hill event, so on the flight I’ll be brushing up on my notes. I have 10,600 words in interviews and fact-gathering I took for my Wine Enthusiast article last Fall, which I’ll be reading as we fly westward over the Pacific. And I’m sure I’ll have plenty to report on from Hawaii.
The 2013 Auction Napa Valley Barrel Auction now is history, and what a grand event it was.
I drove up early, because it was at Raymond Vineyards, where I hadn’t been despite having been invited umpteen times by Jean-Charles Boisset, so I really wanted to see it: the crystal room and the red room and everything else. Almost as soon as the shuttle bus let me off, I saw Jean-Charles on the lawn, being interviewed by a camera crew. He saw me, and the next thing I knew he was personally touring me. When I saw his Frenchie Winery–with spacious pet kennels–I realized I could have brought Gus. If you’re a dog-loving family touring Napa Valley, Frenchie/Raymond is a great place to visit.
The first part of my experience was eating. OMG I can’t tell you how good the food was. I tried everything (burp) because I want to write about my 5 or 6 favorites in Wine Enthusiast (with recipes). There was a single disappointment, and from the most unlikely of restaurants: Meadowood, a little paper cup stuffed with green peas and other tiny pieces of garden veggies, dressed (I think) in a Champagne vinaigrette, with a sad little chunk of feta adrift in a vegetable sea. When restaurants have finger foods at an event like the Napa Valley auction, those munchies should be dazzlingly Wow!, but this wasn’t. I can understand keeping things simple, but not to the point of bland.
Much was made of the temperature. It was a toasty 98 degrees on my car thermometer by mid-afternoon, but much cooler in the cellar where the actual tasting occurred. I myself didn’t drink anything [except lots of water]. Ran into Bob Cabral, from Williams Selyem, who told me this was his first time ever “crossing the hill” for the Napa auction and he was looking forward to tasting Cabernet. Since he lives in Healdsburg, I asked if he wasn’t concerned about drinking and driving, and he assured me he wouldn’t have come unless his winery had supplied a car and driver. Bob knows perfectly well you cannot drink at an event like this and then drive home. The roads were crawling with CHP and Sheriff’s Dept. personnel (as well they should have been) and I for one was glad they were there. Which reminds me: Jean-Charles said he’s starting a new brand called Sheriff. Must find out what that’s all about.
I didn’t see as many winery proprietors or principles as I’d expected. This is probably because auction week is really a protracted, exhausting affair, and the owners and winemakers must attend to their nightly dinners and the live auction itself (as opposed to the barrel auction), so maybe not going to the latter provides them some respite. Certainly Premier Napa Valley is a more “glamorous” affair, in that you see more famous faces.
The buzziest conversational topic at the auction: How a turned-around economy is good for business. Everyone seemed happy that, after so many stagnant years, things are selling again. Domaine Chandon told me they can’t keep up with demand for bubbly, especially rosé. Let the good times roll!
-Garen Staglin, for chairing this year’s auction and his family’s charitable generosity over the years.
-Barbara Banke, Gina Gallo, Elias Fernandez, Janet Viader (drop-dead gorgeous in Argentine tango couture), Jay “Party Party Party” and Tim Mondavi. It’s always nice to see them.
-The one and only Jayson Woodbridge. He wasn’t at the auction, but we had dinner Wednesday night at his home. World-class raconteur, fascinating conversationalist, able to absorb the fullness of Heimoff (as I am of Woodbridge), a dervish of creative energy and riveting charm, Jayson truly is in a class by himself.
-The great, divine Genevieve Janssens. There she was as always, standing by her barrel, pouring for guests, inspiring and educating. A legendary Napa icon. Genevieve introduced me to Mondavi’s new red winemaker, a very young woman named Nova Cadamatre, whom I just had to congratulate. Imagine getting a job that important and having the opportunity to study with Genevieve Janssens!
A final shoutout to Jean-Charles Boisset. When he moved into Napa Valley with the purchase of Raymond, I thought there might have been some raised eyebrows. Napa’s a pretty insular place: who’s this wealthy outsider and what is he going to do? I think Jean-Charles wisely decided to show the valley that he’s a team player. And he did. He’s done a great job, and people respect him for that.
I tend to name drop (as Party Party Party reminded me), so I want to give a huge shoutout to all the hard-working people from marketing, sales, P.R. and other less visible positions. They are in many ways the heart, soul and vital infrastructure of the industry. Without them, nothing happens, including Auction Napa Valley. I know and like many of them, and they read this blog, which makes me happy, so thank you.. You guys may not be in the spotlight, you may not get the hurrahs, but you make it all happen. Salud!
Ridge famously became the first California winery to commit to truth-in-labeling last month, with CEO/winemaker Paul Draper arguing that his winery would henceforth “include an ingredient list on its labels” (although not of their quantities; there’s not enough room). Since Ridge wines contain few ingredients–grapes and yeasts, of course; malolactic bacteria, as needed; sometimes calcium carbonate (to reduce excessive acidity) or tartaric acids (to increase it), SO2 (for preservation), occasionally egg whites (for fining)–the information will take up hardly any space on the label. But what will wineries do who use up to the 60 “materials authorized for treatment of wine and juice” permitted by the Tax and Trade Bureau of the federal government?
These include everything from acacia gum Arabic (a stabilizer), thiamine hydrochloride (a yeast nutrient), silica gel (a clarifier) to the infamous “Mega-Purple” that’s been such a bee in the bonnet of bloggers (why they should be so upset at the thought of a $10 Lodi Merlot being purpled is beyond me).
Anyhow, Ridge anticipated what the Feds just announced: “Truthful, accurate, and specific voluntary statements about nutrient content, including calorie and carbohydrate content, in the labeling and advertising of wines, distilled spirits, and malt beverages.” Before the Libertarians freak out over yet another imposition from nanny government, relax: the new rule is voluntary. (But warning to wineries: Don’t lie. TTB, with Papal sternness, intones: “We will take appropriate action with regard to labeling or advertising representations that mislead the consumer about the nutritional value or health effects of alcohol beverages.” In other words, no “This Zinfandel will improve your sex life.”
The oddest and saddest thing about TTB’s ruling is that it had the opportunity to make wineries be clearer and more truthful about alcohol-by-volume numbers on the label, but sidestepped that opportunity and instead allowed the current giant loopholes (talk about misleading!) to continue. They did do something useful in prohibiting wineries from listing alcohol content in fluid ounces instead of by volume (properly recognizing that consumers “might be confused by a statement of alcohol in fluid ounces without some context in which to evaluate this information.”). But wineries can choose to list alcohol by fluid ounces in addition to listing it by volume, although why they would want to is another mystery.
Wineries argue that being held to strict ABV labeling would be just too hard, but it’s not clear to me why, or why it would be too expensive for them. Consumers are (properly) concerned with knowing the alcohol level of the wines they drink (especially with this talk about lowering the national blood alcohol level yet again), and while I’ve never been one to criticize a wine simply because it’s high in alcohol (which really has no bearing on its quality), I do think people have a right to know how much alcohol they’re ingesting.
One of these days the TTB is going to make wineries print the exact alcohol level on the label, so why not just do it now and get it over with?
Please consider voting for steveheimoff.com for Best Overall Wine Blog. You can click here, then push the red “VOTE” button and scroll down. Voting is only open through this Friday. Thanks.
* * *
Loathe as I am the wander into the blood alcohol limit debate, I’m making an exception this time, to come out against the proposal to lower the drunken driving threshold to .05, down from its current .08.
The idea is being floated by the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency of the U.S. government established in 1967 within the Department of Transportation. The NTSB plays an important part in keeping this country’s transportation infrastructure safe; for instance, it investigates airline and rail accidents. So I hope the government keeps them well-funded. It’s just that, this time, they’re wrong.
The .08 limit was signed into law in by President Bill Clinton, who at the time called it “the biggest step to toughen drunk driving laws and reduce alcohol-related crashes since the national minimum drinking age was established a generation ago.” The law’s passing exemplified the growing power of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the power halls of Washington, D.C., throughout the late 1990s.
I have always had mixed feelings about any laws that curtail people’s freedom of behavior. Of course, we need a criminal code to keep people’s worst instincts from running amok, and there are many curtailments on human activities that are needed in order to protect the greater good and safety of our communities. The problem always is in defining precisely where the line should be drawn between freedom and government restriction. The recreational use of pot is a good example.
I suppose the .08 limit made sense. It seems to have worked: traffic fatalities in this country caused by drunk drivers are down since then. In 1999, they numbered 15,786; by 2011, that number had fallen to 9,878, a significant reduction. (Although it’s also possible that other factors, such as safer cars and increased driver awareness, contributed to the decline.) So why not go this next step and lower the limit to .05?
Couple reasons. For one, different people react differently to alcohol in the blood. There’s no question that alcohol, taken to excess, impairs driving ability, but it also seems obvious that millions of people have a drink or two and drive everyday, with no harmful results. A perfectly good, safe driver could find himself in jail simply for drinking a beer or two with lunch.
Another reason I’m against the proposal is because I don’t like laws that nobody obeys, with no consequences of punishment. I don’t like HOV lanes because single drivers abuse them all the time, with little fear of getting stopped by the Highway Patrol. This disregard of laws makes laws less esteemed among the public, and when a nation disregards and disrespects its own laws, it’s on some kind of slippery slope. So why criminalize a behavior (moderate drinking and driving) that tens of millions of Americans are going to completely ignore anyway? It just makes a mockery of the concept of “law.”
Moreover, the tests that measure blood alcohol are notoriously inaccurate. What if the machine says I’m .051 when I’m actually .049? How do I defend myself? Finally, why stop at .05? Why not come up with a law that prohibits any trace of alcohol in the blood, regardless of how low it is? If any drinking at all constitutes risk, then we should outlaw drinking and driving, period.
I should add that I, personally, never drink and drive. I haven’t since 2001. Not even a half-glass of wine or beer. I simply can’t afford the price that a DUI or collision would cost me, financially, legally and reputationally. Whenever I’m out drinking, I’m with someone else who’s doing the driving, or I walk or take the subway. (It does get to be an inconvenience!)
I understand the impulse to try and prevent all the death and injury we can. But I do think we need to draw the line someplace in our efforts to prevent every risk to life and limb imaginable through government intervention. There’s no way to make life risk free. The answer to drunk driving is to educate people (including to the need for designated drivers), to make them think smarter, and to be as respectful of our obligations to others as we are protective of our own personal freedoms. But that’s a whole other conversation.