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Proposed new Paso Robles AVAs an object lesson for all of California

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I’m glad to see the Tax and Trade Bureau finally has published a notice of proposed rulemaking (bureaucratic phrase-making) to establish 11 new AVAs within the greater Paso Robles appellation.

This means that the public now has the opportunity to weigh in, pro or con, before the Washington pointyheaders make their decision. However, I think it’s fair to say that the cake is in the oven. The new AVAs will be approved.

What a long, strange trip it’s been. The Paso Robles people have been talking about sub-dividing their big AVA (the fifth biggest in California, with 666,000 acres) almost ever since I’ve been a wine writer. At one point, some of them wanted a simple division into east and west, with the 101 Freeway the dividing line. As things turned out, that proposal ended up going nowhere, for a variety of reasons: It really was too simplistic. Can you imagine dividing, say, Napa into east and west, with the Napa River down the median?

Readers of this blog know that while I’m generally a supporter of more refined AVAs, I recognize that sometimes, they make no sense. The most reliable AVA, I’ve always held, is the individual vineyard. Harlan Estate might be an AVA (theoretically, I mean; in reality it never will be) because it shows an absolute consistency of terroir from year to year. Ditto for, say, Duckhorn’s Three Palms Vineyard, always so tannic and brooding, or Rochioli’s West Block Vineyard. But those, too, will never enjoy elevation to AVA status.

In Paso’s case, the appellation is so huge that the subdivision is entirely warranted. For years Paso suffered from the reputation that it was all the same: a hot, broad swathe that extended practically to the Central Valley. That never was the case, but the critical media never took the time to investigate the truth; and when the A team wrote that Paso was too hot for wine, the B and C teams parroted it, as so often occurs in reporting of all kinds, not just wine; and so it became the accepted wisdom. Perception, as they say, is reality.

I plead guilty to that same crime, in part, although I think I was less susceptible to it than some others, mainly because I took the time to visit Paso with some regularity, to get to know the players, young and older, and to sample seriously the wines and listen to the points of view of many vintners and growers. Over the last several years I noticed something exciting happening in Paso Robles that alerted me to the fact that true journalism consists in abandoning one’s preconceived notions (no matter how difficult that may be) and perceiving the world with fresh eyes.

I haven’t at all studied the 11 new AVAs, so I can’t pretend to understand them, much less summarize them. It will take, at any rate, many years, even for the most diligent student, to grasp their intricacies. After all, we’re still working to understand Napa Valley’s sub-AVAs. But this event down in Paso Robles should be celebrated by all wine interests throughout California. When the final approvals go through, Paso Robles will have been the most thoroughly analyzed of all petitioning AVAs in the history of California, and I have no doubt that other big regions will be watching to see how things go. That includes Russian River Valley, another big AVA (the 21st largest in the state), which also is overdue for sub-dividing.


Social Media is now just a part of Big Media. Welcome to the club!

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Seems like just yesterday that social media was portraying itself as the revolutionary alternative to Big or Traditional media.

(Actually, social media, not being an animate being, cannot “portray” itself as anything. It can’t even drink wine! So I should have said certain social media adherents were portraying it that way.)

The world seemed divided into two camps: You were either a hopelessly old fuddy-duddy who read the New York Times and watched T.V., or you were a young, hip, cool trendster with a smart phone or tablet pasted onto your face.

No inbetween. “You’re either for us or against us,” went the refrain of the social media-ists. (Longtime readers of this blog know that I was perceived in some circles as an “againster.”) The social media-ists insisted that the new media were qualitatively different from the old media–that in some way it was purer, more honest, closer to God and less controlled by the greedy hand of self-interested corporate America. Social media would, they asserted, knock old media to its knees.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the future. Things didn’t quite turn out the way they were supposed to. We now know that social media has quite a lot in common with old media. For one thing, social media is corporate-owned now; the people that run these networks are filthy rich–richer than most old media tycoons, in fact–and the us.-versus-them mentality that fueled an infant Twitter or Facebook has now morphed into an Animal Farm ending. (Remember that in the book’s final chapter, the other animals could no longer tell the difference between men and pigs. Mark Zuckerberg hangs out with, and presumably advises, everyone from President Obama to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Not sayin’ anyone’s a “pig,” just makin’ the point.)

We know, too, that businesses–from mom and pop wineries to the world’s biggest corporations–no longer perceive social media as weird or alternative, but rather as integral parts of their marketing mix. A company’s advertising and marketing budget now includes every aspect of modern media: Social, print newspapers, magazines, radio and T.V., if they can afford it. In essence, then, the people who spend the money make no distinction in kind between Facebook and Vanity Fair magazine.

Finally, we now know far more about who actually uses social media than we ever did before, and you know what? It’s everybody! It’s not just hip cool tattooed kids, it’s grandma. A study published yesterday on social media usage demographics stunningly paints a picture of an increasingly fragmented, even fractured public. You can read a summary of the study here; a few illustrative highlights are that Facebook is increasingly trending old, Instagram and Pinterest are trending female, LinkedIn swings male (no surprise there) as does Google+. Twitter retains its juvenile appeal, again no surprise given that even the least literate being on Earth can peck out 140 characters.

 An earlier study, from last May, analyzes social media use from a slightly different perspective. Its findings once again suggest that a kind of rainbow effect has influenced social media. Users are dividing up along racial, ethnic, age, educational and household income lines, making sweeping statements about social media, per se, unreliable to the point of untenable.

The point I would like to make is that whatever allure social media had four years ago, as a kind of Jesus in the temple, cleansing it of the old money lenders, has now evaporated, if in fact it ever existed. We no longer have “social media” and “old media” in America. We have Media, pure and simple, and while each medium differs in distinctive ways, collectively they’re all the same. And you know what it’s all about? Profits.


After big rain, wine country dodges a bullet

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This week’s forecast of warm temperatures, dry, sunny weather and above all gusty breezes is made to order for Northern California winegrowers who got a scary soaking on Saturday morning.

Precipitation records fell all over the place. Oakland Airport got nearly an inch of rain, smashing the old record. Mount St. Helena, at the head of Napa Valley, got an inch. As usual, the first rainfall of the season caught drivers unaware: there were accidents everywhere. This was the region’s first real storm since last January, and it came earlier than heavy rain usually comes.

What impact did the rain have on the grapes? As usual, I asked my Facebook friends. Here’s what they said.

While the drops were still falling, the mood was gloomy. “As a farmer/winemaker, [I am] not happy,” said a Spring Mountain vintner. “Scared to death for Petite Sirah,” replied a Sonoman, concerned about the potential for rot in that varietal’s tightly-clustered bunches. A Sonoma Coast winemaker wrote, “Glad I don’t grow Petite. Most Sonoma Coast Pinot is in the barn. All the Bordeaux always have to ride a storm before they get picked, them’s the rules, right?” Right. From down south in Paso (by which the storm had largely petered out), came this reply: “It’s not good for grapes when this happens.”

As morning rain gave way to parting clouds and even warm sun by Saturday afternoon, vintners got more perspective, and were able to put the drenching into context. “Rinse the dust over the canopy to give the vines a boost!” wrote a Sonoma vintner. A Rutherford winemaker predicted, “What we will do is leaf the cluster zone to favor air flow and dry it as fast as possible,” referring to the classic method of allowing mold-producing moisture to evaporate. A Pinot grower with vineyards in Sebastopol and the Anderson Valley must have seen the long-range forecast when he wrote, “It’s been quite windy this afternoon, and is supposed to continue to be very windy for the next couple days…that should help the situation a lot.”

What is that long-range forecast? Here’s from yesterday’s Napa Valley Register.  Nice to see all those yellow suns lined up. Warm, sunny weather for at least the next nine days.

So the rain was unusual, and caused some pulse-thumping moments, but should end up being largely meaningless. The only one of my Facebook friends I’ll quote by name here is Mitch Cosentino, at PureCru Wines, whose long reply aptly sums up the situation. “This is my 34th harvest. I was more concerned about my tomatoes in my garden. We had 0.8 in Napa city area. After the rain, it was pretty windy before sundown (which was good). There should be no effect at all on Cab Sauv or Cab Franc. In fact it could help show down and spread out the harvest a bit because everything was getting a bit jammed up. Pinots should be fine. People in Burgundy would laugh at anyone with any concern with one day of rain. If there is any really ripe Sauv Blanc still out there that could have some issues. Ripe Zinfandels could have problems but not likely with it being only one day and breezy mid 70s predicted for the next few days. We have had a beautiful growing season one day is just a day off. Everyone relax, it is going to be a great vintage.”


Do “Zombie Wineries” Exist?

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I Googled the term (using both spellings, “zomby” and “zombie”) and came up empty-handed, but I’m hearing it bandied about more and more.

It refers to wineries that are in dead every respect, except that they still walk the Earth as though they possessed life. The Zombie Winery phenomenon is said to be most acute in Napa Valley, among high-end brands that got their butts kicked in the Great Recession, when demand for $50-and up Cabernets fell off the cliff.

Wineaccess, the online wine retailer, referred to “Napa’s crisis years (2008 to mid-2011)” in their most recent email blast, a suitably Götterdämmerung-esque description that communicates the angst that struck the valley at the Recession’s peak.

I well recall the rumors. Who’s in trouble? Who isn’t? Anecdotally, expensive wines–not just Cabernet Sauvignon–were suffering. Nobody really knew, in each specific instance, which wineries were hurting; only the proprietors and their bankers knew. But there were whispers. I asked owners every chance I could how business was doing: the answers ranged from “Great” (which I assumed to be an outright lie) to “Well, you know, these are tough times,” which at least was honest. The owner of one of the most famous cult wineries told me frankly, in that 2009-2010 period, that for the first time in the winery’s history, requests for inclusion on the mailing list had dropped, a kind of canary-in-the-coal mine symbol of the psychological toll the Recession took even on the well-to-do.

“Zombie” the word comes from Haitian Creole, which imported it from an African word; it referred to “an animated corpse” (Wikipedia). The word gained widespread currency with George Romero’s famous (and famously kitschy) “Night of the Living Dead” movie (1968), which depicted living dead horrors wandering the world, looking to shred, tear and devour (although the film itself never used the word “zombie”). A previous movie, “White Zombie” (1932), starring Bela Lugosi, however, imprinted the horrific image on the public’s mind of yet another form of monster (in addition to Frankenstein and Dracula, then popular among horror genre fans), one again based on a mutated human, stripped of living purpose except that it did not know that it was dead. (The self-knowledge of these mutants varies. Frankenstein had none, or very little, although he could feel tenderness. Dracula, of course, possessed full self-knowledge, which is what makes vampires so dreadful; what he lacked was moral compass, although it can be argued that, from the point of view of his kind, i.e., a vampire, his actions were fully in concert with morality as he understood it. Zombies, by contrast, are even duller and more primitive than Frankenstein, on a level of insectoid: If any movie in history ever depicted a zombie feeling tenderness or love, I am unaware of it.)

So are there Zombie Wineries in Napa Valley? Undoubtedly. Was Clos Pegase one of them? I wondered about last week’s sale to Vintage Wine Estates and Leslie Rudd. It’s hard for me to think Jan Shrem “needed the money.” I always thought Clos Pegase was quite profitable, a thought reinforced every time I heard the announcer on my public radio station thank the Shrems for their “generous support.” And the wines, made by Richard Sowalsky, always are good and sometimes great. My hunch–and that’s all it is–is simply that Jan is ready for the next chapter in his adventurous life.

BREAKING: Moments after I posted this, the news came in that Viansa has been bought by Vintage Wine Estates. While Viansa is in Sonoma County, not Napa, it appears to have been a Zombie Winery:


Cheers to the American Wine Consumer Coaltion

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It may be somewhat brash for Tom Wark to call his new group the American Wine Consumer Coalition (AWCC) and make the claim that it “is the only national advocacy group that works to advance the interests of America’s wine consumers.”

I doubt that masses of consumers voluntarily gathered into a coalition and then asked Tom to run it. But you know what, folks? That’s how you get things done these days. You don’t wait for the public to organize themselves. Instead, you create a group that purports to represent the public, and then wait for them to join up.

There’s a big difference, though, between an Astroturf group and one with a valid claim to legitimacy, such as AWCC has. An Astroturf group is phony, like the ones funded by the Koch brothers that sound legitimate but are just false fronts designed to promote the [hidden] interests of [unidentified] sponsors. That’s bad (except that, in this post-Citizens United era, our SCOTUS has made it inevitable).

On the other hand, AWCC really does represent the interests of American consumers, even if it’s presently leading a parade with a very small following. I hope that changes.

Why do I say AWCC represents the interests of American consumers? It’s obvious: with all the stupid laws against direct shipping, particularly on the state level, consumers are ill-served by the present system, which is an anachronistic vestige of Prohibition and the Repeal laws that dissembled it, yet still left in place a very difficult situation for wineries to negotiate. It’s clear that behind the barriers to direct shipping lie two formidable forces: (1) an inherent anti-alcohol bias, and (2) the tremendous clout of Big Alcohol, especially Big Beer and Big Liquor, who really do not desire a truly free distribution system.

It’s fine for Big Alcohol to fight free and fair trade: they have their rights. The problem is that consumers, who should also have rights, have nobody to argue for them. In State capitals and in the nation’s capital, no paid lobbyists exist to argue for the rights of ordinary adult Americans to buy wine from anywhere they choose, and have it sent to them in the mail. That this is anti-consumer is clear, and it flies patently in the face of arguments, by Republicans and Democrats alike, who claim they’re in favor of the free market, competitive capitalism America loves to trumpet. I don’t see how any politician can claim to be in favor of free market capitalism and then say to little family wineries, in effect, “You’re free to market and sell your wine if you want to. But, oh, by the way, we’ll design the system in such a way as to make it impossible.”

I love that Tom writes, in the mission statement, his aim to “Gather under the AWCC roof a supportive and educated community of wine lovers who are willing to help advance a pro-consumer agenda where alcohol laws and regulations are concerned.” It will not be easy. One can look to past successful efforts to rally millions of Americans–the Civil Rights struggle was one, and so (regrettably) has been the advent of the Tea Party. Choice in purchasing alcohol, however, doesn’t rise to the level of such dramatic political upheavals; I doubt we’re going to see a mass movement of consumers to gather under AWCC’s roof, at least in numbers significant enough to make an impact on the addled attention of elected politicians. But I wonder why the libertarian wing of the Republican Party doesn’t support expanding these freedoms to Americans.

Still, I wish Tom and AWCC every good wish, and will do what I can to help. I hope Tom will reach out to those of us in the media and help us help him. This is potentially an important development, an opportunity for America to truly practice what it preaches when it comes to the freedom of choice in the marketplace. I think America is ready for it, and I congratulate Tom for spearheading the effort.


Is the future of journalism “advertiser-driven content”? The advertiser as publisher

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The traditional firewall between editorial and advertising–a staple ethical and practical tenet of publishing for at least a century–is being breached, and Ground Zero for this incursion is online.

This leakage never, or only extremely rarely, would have happened in traditional print media, where the guardians of the firewall, including editorial staff but also ombudsmen and even publishers with a sense of moral rectitude, would not have permitted it.

However, online, the traditional rules are being dissolved. Experiments are taking place: website owners and online publications are seeing how much they can get away with (in breaching the firewall) before critical blowback goes nuclear.

But the question is, will it? Do the people accessing the digital world and getting the majority of their information from their smart phones and tablets–mainly younger people–know, or care, who writes the content they read? As long as they’re getting [free] information they find useful and/or entertaining, are they fussy whom it comes from?

All indications are that the answer is no.

Will this integration of editoriai and advertising become the new reality? Have we reached that point on the slippery slope where the only way forward is down?

These questions need to be asked.

Experts in the field–usually consultants selling their services–suggest a win-win: content that helps readers and viewers, but that also fulfills advertisers’ needs. Sounds good, but can this win-win actually be achieved? If it can, then why did generations of publishers and journalists labor so long and hard to create the firewall to begin with? Was their concern simply an unjustified fear that “truth” (that elusive quality) would be compromised by the profit motive of advertisers? Did they simply suffer from a phobia, like fear of flying, that had no basis in reality? Or did they know something that we’re in danger of forgetting?

I can’t answer these questions. But what concerns me–and should concern all writers who wish to make a living through journalism–is that the very nature and substance of journalism, as the West has understood it for 400 years, is under dire threat. It may be that what is in the best interests of consumers and providers of digital content is actually a death sentence for writers, who may be the gas lamp lighters and ice delivery truck drivers of the 21st century–anachronized out of existence. In fact, we already see this occurring now, with “customized content” delivered to your inbox by software whose creators or users have proprietary, for-profit relationships with advertisers whose “articles” are thinly disguised pitches that don’t even bear the warning “advertorial” label. (If Facebook knows that you’re into fly fishing, you may find yourself getting articles that look interesting but whose purpose is not only to inform, but to lure you to sponsoring resorts or fishing equipment.)

This revolution is happening faster than any layperson can possibly suspect. I mention all this not to point fingers, or to put things into blunt black-and-white terms when, in reality, things are more complicated. But we are entering a world in which discerning consumers of information must ask themselves a few questions:

1.   Where is this information coming from?

2.   Who wrote it?

3.   Why is it being sent to me?

4.   What was the motive of the person or organization who is sending it to me?

5.   Has there been an attempt to influence my behavior?

6.   Has this attempt been camouflaged in such a way as to suggest that the sender is not being transparent?

Informed consumers will demand these answers. There’s some evidence that this demand for greater transparency already is occurring (e.g. the fears of government intrusion into our phone and online conversations; the resistence to Facebook ads popping up in our feeds). However there may be considerably more evidence that, in the end, consumers, and especially young ones, don’t give a damn.

What this means for the world of wine writing is clear and ominous. Readers need to understand whether they’re getting untrammeled information and opinion from reputable, reliable sources they know and trust. Or, they need to understand if those sources are picking and choosing the information they offer based on payment. It’s that simple.


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