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French wine month names, the California drought, and growing weed in Napa Valley

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Here’s how a wine-crazed country thinks: On Sept. 22, 1792, the First French Republic was born, amidst the fiery pangs of the French Revolution.

It was a good day for the middle class of Paris, not so good for Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie-Antoinette, both of whom who already had been deposed and imprisoned (and would shortly be killed). The people were in such a radical mood that when deputies to the Convention gathered to draw up a new constitution for France, they even changed the names of the months. Instead of Roman-derived names usually dedicated to gods (i.e. January/Janus, the god of sunset and sunrise), the Convention created a calendar that began with the current revolutionary Year I and, starting with that dramatic Autumn month of “September,” redubbed the months this way:

Vendemiaire (Vintage)

Brumaire (Mist)

Frimaire (Frost)

Nivose (Snow)

Pluviose (Rain)

Ventose (Wind)

Germinal (Budding)

Floreal (Flowering)

Prairial (Meadows)

Messidor (Harvest)

Thermidor (Warmth)

Fructidor (Fruit)

The new month-naming scheme, as it turned out, didn’t last; Napoleon abolished it in 1805 (although it was briefly resurrected in 1871, when for two months a radical-socialist government took over Paris). But see how much the month-names of the Revolutionary Calendar reflected the annual cycle of the vineyard. How wonderful it was for France to consecrate their calendar to wine and other treasures of the harvest! Vintage-budding-flowering-fruit—these remain the annual stages of the grapevine around the world, but alas, no government any longer names months after them.

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The Press-Democrat reports that, thanks to El Nino, January was “the wettest since the drought began” in 2012, with more than 10 inches of rain falling in Santa Rosa. That has brought North Coast reservoirs up quite a bit, and the Sierra snowpack hit a five-year high last month, but “California is Still in Drought,” Scientific American says, adding, “It will take many more storms and almost assuredly more than a single winter—even one with a strong El Niño—to erase” the historic dry spell. Bring on the storms!

* * *

It looks like Napa city may be poised to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, including the possibility of “cultivation,” although both practices currently are outlawed. It’s likely that California will soon legalize even recreational use, not just medical use, giving a new state agency, the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, authority over growing it. No doubt the best pot farms will be located in precisely the kind of climate central and northern Napa Valley possesses: hot, sunny and dry in the summertime. Given the vast amounts of money that can be made in the pot business in California alone–$31 billion a year—why would a vineyard owner, given the legal ability to do so, waste his time on Cabernet Sauvignon when he could grow weed instead? Maybe not on those prime hillside and benchland vineyards, but in terroirs less suited to Cab, like the fertile flatlands along the Napa River? Hmm. Would you? I would. I’d find a consulting farmer who specialized in weed—kind of like the David Abreu of marijuana (and you know there are folks setting themselves up for it) and grow, baby, grow.


Fred Franzia largely got it right

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I’m largely in agreement with Fred Franzia when he defends the Central Valley and “California”-appellated wine, as he did the other day when he presented the keynote address at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium.

Fred’s affection for the Central Valley comes naturally: he runs Bronco Wine Co., whose scores of brands, including Two Buck Chuck, are based on Central Valley fruit. Fred’s point, if I understand it correctly, seems premised on two things, one explicit, the other implicit.

The explicit point is that wine production in the Central Valley could be greatly increased, offering consumers greater opportunities to buy inexpensive wine, as well as for restaurants to sell bottles for $10 each. This latter point is something Fred’s long called for.

As a diner myself, I wouldn’t mind $10 bottles of wine in restaurants, where a bottle can frequently exceed the cost of the food itself. Indeed, everyone I know who isn’t rich—and that’s most people I know—sees expensive wine as the single biggest hassle of eating out. So I’m all onboard the Fred Franzia train on this one.

Fred’s implicit point, or so it seems to me knowing the man a little and reading between the lines, is that there long has existed a certain disrespect and dismissiveness towards California-appellated wine on the part of the establishment: sommeliers, high-end restaurateurs, certain wine critics and, through trickle-down, some consumers. According to this crowd—and I think Fred is sensitive to their attitudes—if the grapes come from the Central Valley then they wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.

Actually, the way I see the Central Valley is as California’s Midi. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Midi is the vast, sprawling region of southern France that produces oceans of vin de pays wine that is inexpensive and quaffable. These are the kinds of wines I personally drank and immensely enjoyed in the 1980s, when I was a broke grad student living in San Francisco. And such wines can be, as Hugh Johnson reminds us, “charming trinkets.”

I’ve long given Fred and Bronco immense credit for allowing Americans the opportunity to drink affordable wines on an everyday basis. I, personally, never turned up my critic’s nose at his brands, to which I gave dozens of “Best Buys” over my years at Wine Enthusiast. So I think Fred has the right to feel a bit of righteous indignation at what he perceives are the snubs and slams he sometimes endures.

I do differ, though, with his statement, reported in the Modesto Bee, that “’California’ should be the one and only appellation for our home-grown, best-quality wines.” That’s stretching things a bit. The best table wines in California come from the coast, where weather conditions are more compatible with the nobler varieties of vitis vinifera. Winemakers back to the Greeks and Romans understood the importance of proper terroir, and so too did the Holy Roman Emperors and the monks who planted the great vineyards of Europe. When Charlemagne noticed the snow melting early on a certain slope in Corton and ordered grapes to be planted there, he acknowledged how vital mini-terroir conditions were for wine quality. When the Duke of Burgundy banished the “very evil and very disloyal” Gamay grape from growing in his kingdom of Burgundy, he too testified to aspirations for a higher union of grape variety and local terroir. And when Andre Tchelistcheff turned to the Carneros, not Napa Valley, to grow Pinot Noir, it was because The Maestro understood that Pinot Noir had to be planted in what he called “my North Pole,” Carneros, “because it’s cooler” (a realization Louis Martini also experienced).

I just think that not all wines are created equal, and that the Central Valley does not produce wines of the quality of the coast. But I recognize that reasonable people can disagree. Still, the fact is that Fred Franzia has a knack for saying things that drive the elitists crazy, and I like him for that. The Modesto Bee article reported that, at the conclusion of his keynote, The speech drew a standing ovation…”. I suspect that was because, no matter what you say or think about Fred Franzia, the industry understands he’s been good for it. Very good.


As consumers turn against Big Box stores, supermarkets feel the heat

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The death of the Big Box store (think Wal-Mart) has been widely predicted, as for instance here, here and here.

Just about every major trend we’re following right now bodes poorly for power center retail,” says the Business Insider article. Those trends include the facts that “Americans are driving less than they have in decades. Populations are flocking to smaller, urban communities over sprawling suburbs. And consumers in their 20s and 30s increasingly prefer small, local shops to big-box retail.”

It took a little longer for this rejection of the Big Box concept to spread to the big supermarket, but now, it has. The U.K. last year saw its first decline in supermarket sales in two decades, and America isn’t immune: “U.S. supermarkets are stuck in time-warp,” USA.com announced, adding, “The bland midmarket, hi-lo, be-all-things-to-all-men strategy is not working.”

Speaking of Mid-Market and supermarkets, today’s San Francisco Chronicle has a front page article, “Trying to mimic Ferry Building on Mid-Market” [link not yet available], that tells the story of how a big supermarket, Market on Market, faltered, precisely because it tried to “be-all-things-to-all-men.” A little background: The Mid-Market stretch of S.F.’s Market Street has for years been a sorry spectacle of homelessness, drug dealing, prostitution and low-end stores. That all began to change when San Francisco persuaded Twitter to headquarter there (in exchange for controversial tax benefits). Now, Mid-Market is becoming a yuppie haven: rents there are going up as fast as anywhere in the city. Mid-Market had never had a nice supermarket. So the owners of Market on Market thought the time was ripe to open one.

Turns out their assumptions were wrong. Those young tech workers don’t want a big supermarket. They want what Whole Foods offers: ready-to-eat food, often impulse-driven, and small, specialty cubicles run by independent purveyors: a pizzeria, ramen shop, créperie, sushi bar, fish monger, tea shop, microbrewery and so on. They want, in other words, to feel as though they’re in the marketplace of some old European village. So that’s what Market on Market will now offer them: similar to what famous Ferry Plaza has been offering shoppers for many years.

San Francisco being the trend-setter it is, this movement likely will spread around the country, first to other urban areas and then to hipper suburbs. It’s reflective of the same yearning for authenticity and quality we see in the wine industry and the consumer’s preference for wines of terroir, connected to the land and owned by a family—wines with stories that make people feel more human. I know that, speaking for myself, it’s almost unbearable to shop at Safeway anymore. The place just seems like, well, it’s stuck in a time-warp from 1965. Whole Foods is much more in my comfort zone (although it’s more uncomfortable from a dollar point of view); and Rockridge Market Hall is even more of a trip for me: I can’t exactly explain the exaltation I feel when shopping there, but where Safeway feels pedestrian, Market Hall feels like a trip to the Marché International de Rungis without leaving Oakland.

It always surprises me to see so many young people thronging my local Whole Foods: I wonder where they get the money. But they do, and whatever their financial situation maybe, it’s clear that they’re voting with the wallets for higher quality food, the feeling of being philosophically and organically connected to what they put into their bodies, and a more welcoming shopping experience. The wine industry could learn from this example.


The fatal flaw at the heart of social media: Compromised information

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Investment banks, hedge funds and other for-profit speculators of the world’s money supply are “scooping up computer scientists, not economists and investment bankers with MBAs,” because “artificial intelligence” is now the Holy Grail of investment strategy, not old-fashioned gurus like Warren Buffett, who are increasingly viewed as “redundant” because their minds are not “super-fast.”

As reported by the Financial Times, the so-called “quantitative investment world” of Goldman Sachs and Bridgewater, et al. is “play[ing] down the prospect of machines supplanting human[s]”—at least for now. But since “the human mind has not become any better than it was 100 years ago,” while the complexity of investments has grown immeasurably more complicated and unpredictable due to phenomena like algorithmic trading and a worldwide marketplace that includes China, “Eventually the time will come that no human investment manager will be able to beat the computer.”

Enter artificial intelligence. “A machine-learning algorithm will autonomously evolve and search for new patterns,” in the same way a human mind does, but thousands, if not millions, of times faster, making the human mind irrelevant. Buffett-style “intuitive trading strategies” will look clumsy in comparison—like 1950s NBA players competing against the likes of Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry.

Well, perhaps, But consider that the notion of pure, real-time, disinterested, objectively neutral analytic devices, crunching only numbers and disinterested in any external agenda, and powered by artificial intelligence, is a fiction. That’s what we thought about computers: That they would bring about a million fold increase in the speed of calculations, a thousand fold decrease in cost, all this while scientists were ‘just beginning to explore these possibilities,’” as an idealistic 1962 prediction of the computer’s future had it. But other, more worried voices, were slowly emerging: this vast accumulation of data, an IBM analyst warned in the 1960s, “could be pooled, drawn on and used in ways for which they were not intended.”

Which brings us to viruses, bots, malware and the entire netherworld of awful stuff that crawls through and infects the world’s networks at the speed of light, seeking any and every unprotected nook and cranny. Last Thursday, a paper, published by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the branch of the U.S. military that has worked on everything from satellite technology to the Internet to driverless cars), published “The DARPA Twitter Bot Challenge.” Impressed and alarmed by rapidly spreading “influence bots— realistic, automated identities that illicitly shape discussion on sites like Twitter and Facebook”–the Challenge seeks to up the scientific community’s game at detecting and combating such bots. The relationship between “influence bots” and artificial intelligence was anticipated by British physicist Alan Turing (“The Imitation Game” movie), whose “Turing test” postulated a “machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.”

But the Turing test apparently did not anticipate a regime of outright deception and fraud on the computer side—a computer pretending to be a human that was controlled by a human pretending to be a computer. As this article, from the BBC, makes clear, bots, including influence bots, are already engaged in “automated deceit” that “can even trick the web-savvy.” The DARPA Twitter Bot Challenge was created because influence bots “pose a clear danger to freedom of expression”: If we don’t know whether the results our computers spit out are pure and objective and thus “real,” as opposed to malicious, agenda-driven and thus “unreal,” then we’re clearly capable of being led down a disastrous garden path.

(The DARPA paper cites examples of malicious influence bots by, for example, Russians engaging in a campaign of disinformation about its seizure of Ukraine, and ISIS spreading radicalism.)

The bankers and investment managers who are relying on artificial intelligence to replace “merely human” analysts mean well, but there is no guarantee that their findings may not be contaminated by bots and other forms of malware that purposefully distort conditions. Can they know that, for example, Chinese intelligence is not interfering in the analysis of oil prices over the next six months? Or that Russian mafia intelligence is not creating the impression that Chinese intelligence is the culprit? And on and on, through the looking glass. As the DARPA paper points out (and this is precisely the kind of stuff DARPA worries about), “Over the next few years, we can expect a proliferation of social media influence bots as advertisers, criminals, politicians, nation states, terrorists, and others try to influence populations.” The only protection against this menace, DARPA says, is “to significantly enhance the analytic tools that help analysts detect influence bots.” Unfortunately, the bad guys are in the race, too, busily developing software that thwarts bot-detection tools.

Which brings me to my headline. Re-read it. Influence bots mean that malicious coders may well influence the masses. Social media always has been over-hyped, but this news further undermines its early promise as the great leveler and democratizer of mankind. It turns out it may be anything but. How the world will deal with online information, including social media, that may be hopelessly compromised will keep “the good guys” busy for a long time, and could make an already anxious public more suspicious than ever of social media.


Hello Los Olivos! Welcome to the California family of AVAs

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I haven’t been the biggest fan of California’s AVA system, which contains far too many utterly meaningless appellations. (Sonoma Coast, anyone?)

But now, the TTB has made an eminently worthy decision, in the case of Los Olivos, which on Jan. 20 was approved to become California’s latest appellation. (The actual effective date will be Feb. 22.)

It joins its Santa Barbara County sisters, Ballard Canyon to the west and Happy Canyon to the east, as AVAs in this central part of the sprawling Santa Ynez Valley, itself also an AVA. To the north is Santa Maria Valley; further west is Santa Rita Hills. The missing link in the region is now Los Alamos Valley, which currently is a gigantic black hole stretching from Santa Maria all the way south along the 101 Freeway to Buellton. It’s not an AVA, yet, but I expect it, or some part of it, to become one eventually.

With this fait accompli of Los Olivos, I should think the appellation-izing of Santa Barbara County has reached completion (once Los Alamos comes online). At least, there are no further suggestions for additional sub-divisions I’m aware of. Readers? I’ve long thought Santa Rita Hills is overdue for a little fine-tuning: that could happen along east-west (warmer-cooler) lines, or north-south (elevation and orientation) lines, but I don’t perceive any strong impetus to get involved in the fractious and expensive fights that appellation-tinkering almost always stimulates. (Look at the nastiness of the effort to expand Santa Rita Hills a little bit to the east, which seems to have stalled, at least temporarily, as local vintners line up to take sides.)

Thirteen wineries will be entitled to use Los Olivos on their labels, if they want to. Should they? I think so, but ultimately these are complicated marketing and sales decisions. Is there a Los Olivos terroir? Yes. The soils are not complicated, the way they are in, say, Sonoma County. Los Olivos is primarily a broad alluvial plain created by the Santa Ynez River. Hills are rare: the topography, in the words of the petition, is “relatively uniform, with nearly flat terrain” that, incidentally, makes harvesting easy.

Climate-wise, Los Olivos is warmish-cool, not as hot as Happy Canyon (think: Bordeaux), nor as chilly as Santa Maria Valley (Burgundy). The maritime influence has largely drained away by the time it arrives here, 30 miles inland; due to radiational cooling, that absence of fog makes nighttime temperatures quite chilly, cooler than in most of Santa Rita Hills.

Varietal-wise, Los Olivos has turned into Rhône country over the years, although the vintner behind the push for the appellation, Fred Brander, is a Sauvignon Blanc man, one of the few in California to specialize in that variety (and how well he does it!). Although a few wineries still produce Cabernet Sauvignon, the smart money has given up on it, because it never seemed to get ripe enough (which in turn was the rationale for Happy Canyon). I always had the feeling that vintners around Los Olivos produced Cabernet for the market and not because they thought it was the best grape for their terroir.

In short, the Los Olivos AVA makes perfect sense. It’s an upscale appellation: there are no common wines in Los Olivos. (Geeks: to what famous statement am I alluding? First to identify it gets a free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com.)


Woman winemakers in CA? Still not very many

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Reading about the upcoming Women of the Vine Global Symposium, a great event which takes place this April in Napa Valley, made me think of how difficult it was for women to gain a toehold in the wine business, even in “liberal” Napa Valley, as recently as the 1970s.

I was talking just yesterday with Cathy Corison, who related to me how, when she got a job in Freemark Abbey’s cellar, in 1978, Napa “never had a woman hauling hoses before that!” Indeed, it was rare for women to be found anywhere in wineries, except maybe in the lab; at Robert Mondavi, for example, that’s where Genevieve Janssens began, as did Zelma Long.

(It’s only fair to point out that Genevieve was hired by Zelma Long, who by then had become Mondavi’s winemaker—a rare exception at that time to the no-women rule.)

Another tale from that period concerns Merry Edwards, who related to me, in New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, how shocked a winery owner was when she showed up for her job interview. You see, Merry had sent in her resume with her first name, Meredith, which made the owner think she was a man. As she told me the story, this winery owner “practically lost his teeth when I walked in. I said, ‘You didn’t know I was a woman, did you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘You never would have interviewed me if you’d known?’ He goes, ‘No.’”

How far we’ve come since then. Some years ago, I heard that the Viticulture and Enology Department at the University of California, Davis, finally had achieved parity of the genders in terms of students majoring in V&E. After 125 years, not bad! Today, of course, it’s common to find woman winemakers (although this article asserts that, in 2014, the percentage of “female lead winemakers” in California still was only 14.8. One can only hope that this percentage will increase).

This is why certain wineries make such a big deal about the women who were instrumental in their histories. Freemark Abbey points out, with justifiable pride, how Josephine Tychson, who bought the winery in 1881, was the first recorded female winemaker in Napa Valley. The Guenoc and Langtry wineries of Lake County rightly note how Lillie Langtry established the original winery in 1888.

Related to this notion of gender equity in winemaking are the issues of race equity and sexual preference equity. Here in California we do have a number of talented Black winemakers and winery owners, but for some reason African-Americans still seem underrepresented at all levels of the wine industry. I’m somewhat at a loss to understand why. As for the GLBT community, there’s a ton of gay and Lesbian winemakers; not all of them are out of the closet, nor should they be if they don’t want to. I don’t think anyone wants to be known as “the gay winemaker,” any more than they want to be known as “the female winemaker” or “the Jewish winemaker” or any other such descriptor. Winemakers want to be known for their talent and work ethic. As do we all…


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