As we wrap up another year, I find myself, like so many others, looking back over the old one, and wondering what it all meant.
I’m not going to do any sort of list, but instead want to let my mind wander free-range over the past 365 days. It’s been a year of gradual and welcome emergence from the despairs of the Great Recession. Here in California, as you may know, our economy is booming, particularly in the coastal areas, and most especially in Northern California. Fueled by the growth of Silicon Valley, NoCal is experiencing low unemployement, high salaries, and most notably a housing boom. Prices (and rents) are soaring, bringing to mind the housing bubble of the early and mid-2000s–but this time, the experts are telling us there’s no chance of a burst. I don’t know that I believe them, though.
Wineries seem to be doing all right. Like I always say, nobody can really know a winery’s bottom line unless you’re the banker or owner, so any conjectures about the industry’s health are only that: conjectures. But business seems to be back on track. I’m sure there are individual wineries that are struggling, but sales, bankruptcies and the like don’t seem to be any higher than they’ve been in the 25 years I’ve been watching the California industry.
The Holy Grail for wineries is, of course, direct-to-consumer sales. I can’t even remember when I first heard that phrase. I do recall the first time it was brought to my attention that a direct sale brings the proprietor 100 cents on the dollar, rather than the split he has to eat when dealing with the three-tiered distribution system. That was years ago, when I was touring the wineries of the Sierra Foothills, particularly those along Highway 49, in Gold Country, and also located conveniently between the population centers of the coast and the ski resorts around Tahoe. All the owners told me how much wine they were selling through their tasting rooms, up to 90% of their production. That was a good thing, for them–but a bad thing, as far as I was concerned, because too many of the wines were (in my opinion) flawed, and yet the owners had no motivation at all to clean up their acts.
Anyhow, tasting room sales obviously are a subset of direct-to-consumer. So, today, are wine clubs that are active through the Internet. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d love to be around in, say, 20 years, to see if wineries are still at the mercy of a (fairly heartless) distribution system, or if they’ve managed to figure out how to sell direct. At this point, I don’t have a clue.
Two other aspects of the past year intrigue me: the excellence of the 2012 and 2013 vintages. After a difficult 2011 and challenging 2010, California enjoyed two of the nicest years, weather-wise, in memory. The main wines have yet to appear from either, but theoretically, both 2012 and 2013 look to have the qualities of stellar vintages. One cloud that’s hanging over the coming 2014 vintage is California’s severe drought. As I write these words, 2013 is shaping up to be the driest year in California’s history–which goes back in record-keeping to the 1850s. It’s appalling how dry conditions are. On Jan. 1, 2014 (i.e., tomorrow), if the national (which is to say, East Coast) media don’t make a big deal about this, they discredit themselves, and show their right coast bias. How the drought will impact the grapes is complicated, a story that will play itself out next summer. Of course, the weather could change on a dime: January-March could be real drenchers. We’ll just have to wait and see.
A final observation: In all my years of wine reporting I’ve never appreciated so much as I have this year the importance of a younger generation coming up. I guess this is a natural result of the fading away of the original boutique winery proprietors, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. There are ambitious, talented young winemakers all over the place. I’ve written about this extensively in my articles about Paso Robles and Monterey, but it’s not just along the Central Coast, it’s statewide. What energy these winemakers are bringing, what innovation, what risk-taking. California is a very conservative state, wine-wise (the opposite of our political liberalism), and it’s a bold move for a young, unproven winemaker to try her hand at something new, rather than “just” another Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon (not that there’s anything wrong with either!). But I do see a cadre of vintners in their 20s and 30s tinkering with less familiar varieties–and often they’re crafting them at lower alcohols and with higher acidity than has been the case. I’m looking forward to experiencing more of these wines in 2014.
I’d like to thank my readers for sticking with steveheimoff.com for another year; I’m now going into my sixth on this blog. Thank you, too, for all of you who take the time to comment. Your feedback always is welcome and sometimes educational. I wish you all a happy, healthy New Year.
It’s clear that fake (often expensive) wine in China has become a monumental problem. As much as 50% of the foreign wine for sale in that enormous country appears to be phony, and that nation has been “reluctant to address the issue of counterfeiting,” Maureen Downey, a rare wine appraiser based in San Francisco, told the South China Morning Post.
The problem is especially acute in Hong Kong, due to the oceans of money there, and also in part to “the Asian fear of losing face,” Downey says. The rich dislike admitting that they’ve been victims of scams. Of course, the recent conviction of Rudi Kurniawan, an Indonesian, only adds to this fear on the part of wealthy collectors that all is not well. “Even if you’re rich, you’re still being hoodwinked. You’re still being taken for a ride,” Michael Egan, a witness for the prosecution in the Kurniawan case, said. This must make it difficult for collectors to look over all those marvelous bottles in their cellars and wonder what’s real and what isn’t.
It’s not just in China that bogus wine is a problem. Twenty percent of all the wine sold in the world may be fake, with online sites like eBay particularly notorious for peddling bad bottles. (I mentioned bogus Screaming Eagle on my blog nearly two years ago.)
That this wave of fakery is happening today should come as no surprise. In an era where phishing and identity theft are big business, brewing up a phony batch of Romanée-Conti is right in tune with the international criminal ethos that seeks to liberate people from their money through fraudulent means. The crooks who sold $12,000 bottles of fake DRC, mainly in China, were, in fact, merely the latest in a long historic line of wine counterfeiters who have practiced their black craft for centuries. In their 1992 book, The Chemical Revolution, the authors cite an 18th century London scholar who described how “a fraternity of chemical operators,” working “in underground holes, caverns and dark retirements,” could “squeeze Bordeaux out of sloe [prunes], and draw Champagne from the apple.”
What is it about humans that makes us so credulous a species? You can’t fool most animals, who can sniff out the false, dishonest, dangerous and insincere things of the world. But people seem willing to be fooled and fleeced. Added to the problem is that many people who buy these bottles either don’t even bother to open them (they just flip them online), or, if they do pop the cork, they don’t have the experience to know what the wine should taste like.
To understand why people are so easily duped, you have to ask, as Marcus Aurelius did, “This thing, what is it in itself? What is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?” What “this thing”–wine fraud or more specifically the willingness of people to be its victims–is, is the desire to have something rare, which most other people cannot have, and thus to raise, in one’s own eyes, one’s own self-esteem, and also one’s esteem in the eyes of others. This implies, naturally, that humans suffer from low self-esteem, a problem I will leave to psychologists to explain. I suppose it has to do with ego. Animals don’t have egos; only we humans are blessed, or cursed, with them.
Victims of scams, fortunately, can learn from their experiences. Once burned, twice shy, goes the old saying. I’m sure the Chinese have their own version of our slogan: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. So perhaps, in a few years, we’ll look back at the explosion of fake wines in China as a temporary glitch in that country’s upwardly spiraling learning curve.
These episodes of wine counterfeits also point up the importance of third-party certifying agents who can guarantee the wine’s provenance. Would you ever spend thousands of dollars on a bottle if you didn’t know exactly where it had been all its life? I wouldn’t. I’m basically a trusting person, but–having been ripped off myself–I’ve learned you can’t be too careful these days, what with scam artists and sleazeballs waiting for the slightest opportunity to steal our money. As for Aurelius’s question, “How long will it subsist?,” P.T. Barnum had the answer for that a long time ago: There’s a sucker born every minute.
In San Francisco the hot topic of the day is gentrification. The city, it is said by some critics, is turning into (or has deliberately been turned into) a haven for wealthy techies from the likes of Salesforce.com, Twitter, Zynga and scores of others, forcing out the artists, musicians, Boehemians and others who can’t afford the median apartment rental of nearly $3,400 a month.
The political ramifications are visible on a daily basis. Recently a group of anti-development protesters surrounded a Google bus, in the symbolic heart of the Mission District. Such private buses have become commonplace in the city, with tech companies transporting their commuting workers, thus sparing them from the ordeal of having to use the Municipal Transportation Agency’s (MUNI) beleaguered buses and streetcars (and in the process preventing their dollars from fattening the MUNI’s perennially cash-strapped bottom line).
The anti-development protesters also killed a planned luxury condominium project on the Embarcadero, known as 8 Washington, that had been backed by all the city’s elite, including Mayor Ed Lee and California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom. It was a stunning defeat, and a warning shot fired across the city’s bow: The people are fed up with multi-million dollar apartments that 99% of the population can’t afford.
I’ve been watching all this with mixed feelings. I’ve lived in San Francisco and Oakland for 35 years, and while there’s nothing particularly new about gentrification and people who both support and oppose it, what’s happening now is stronger than it’s been in the past. There’s a genuine feeling that San Francisco must remain true to its roots, as a haven for the oppressed and eccentric, the creative poor and the wacky, the whole rainbow spectrum that has made the City by the Bay what it is since the days of the Barbary Coast.
My sympathies, then, are with the protestors. At the same time, there is much about the new techie population to admire. They’ve brought an energy to the city it hasn’t seen in years. Even through the Great Recession, San Francisco saw an explosion of clubs, tasting bars, restaurants, popups, food trucks and saloons, in nearly every neighborhood. The Mission has been transformed from a grimy, dangerous ‘hood to one of the premier destinations in the city, home to exquisitely expensive restaurants (Saison) and bars (Locanda) that burst with excitement and buzz.
The liquid that fuels all this: alcohol. Never has the city had more or better wine shops. Never have restaurants had greater and more interesting wine lists. As soon as workers leave their Financial District offices at 5 p.m., they head to hundreds of bars, celebrating the end of the workday with fancy cocktails, shooters, beers and wines from all over the world. It’s a Golden Age for drinking in San Francisco, and it feels good.
So, like I said, mixed feelings. The money that the techies make lets them live the good life of food and booze. At the same time, rising rents are indeed exiling some of the city’s most creative types. (I see this all the time here in Oakland, where they come seeking more affordable rents. San Francisco’s loss is our gain.) I don’t know what the answer is.
“I know never to take a wine for granted. Drawing a cork is like attendance at a concert or at a play that one knows well, when there is all the uncertainty of no two performances ever being quite the same. That is why the French say, There are no good wines, only good bottles.”
This quote, from Gerald Asher, is pretty alarming, if you think about it: it means that you can take a bottle of whatever you think is the greatest wine in the world–I don’t care what it is, Romanée-Conti or Petrus or whatever–and be completely underwhelmed by it. How could this be?
The explanation is that wine is among the most psychologically complicated of all the world’s consumer products. By which I mean, subjectivity enters into your perception of it more than with anything else, with the possible exception of modern art. (The most subjective perception of things is, of course, a parent’s view of her child, but then, children are not consumer products.)
I’ve always been fascinated by the psychology of the enjoyment of high-end wine. I’ve tasted enough of the world’s most famous ones to assure you that there’s not that much of a difference between a fabulous, high-scoring wine and one that’s “merely” very good. The producers of fabulously expensive wines–in Napa Valley, Bordeaux or wherever–don’t want you to know this. They go to great lengths to prevent you from knowing it, and they go to equally great lengths to persuade the wealthy people who buy their wines that there really are quantum qualitative differences that justify their prices. And in this dual quest, they are aided and abetted by certain critics, in what we might call the producer-critic complex, in which both sides stand to gain by the perpetuation of the existing system. (I adapted this term from Pres. Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” remark in his Farewell Address.)
But really, most of the heavy lifting in this persuading is done by the buyers themselves. When they put so much money on the line, they have a psychological investment in finding the wine incredible. And, most of the time, they do. Notice I didn’t say the wine is incredible; I said they find it incredible. Big difference. In fact, what the wine is, is impossible to discern or define. The “thing in itself,” as Kant observed, is unknowable, because, even if it has a real nature, that nature is obscured in a welter of human expectations, thoughts, emotions, motives and conflicts.
This is precisely why alleged crooks like Rudi Kurniawan are able–for a time, at least, until they get caught–to get away with their counterfeit bottles. Even though the stuff being passed off as Romanée-Conti and de Vogüé obviously wasn’t, the suckers who bought it thought it was, because after all, (a) the labels said so and (b) they paid so much money for the bottles that their pride could not admit they’d been bamboozled. The kind of men (high-end “collectors” usually are male) who buy these rarified wines tend to have out-sized egos; they don’t suffer fools gladly, but neither do they suffer many intrusions into their inflated view of their own discernment. So Rudi was able to prey on them with their willing cooperation.
Thus we return to Gerald Asher’s wise dictum to “never take a wine for granted.” Each bottle in and of itself is a complete, indivisible reality. But, like all fragments of reality that we experience, it is nearly impossible to separate out what we, the perceiver, bring to the phenomenon, as opposed to what it is “in and of itself.” When I explain to wine novices how best to appreciate wine, the first thing I do is dissuade them from the stereotypes they’ve heard all their lives concerning “great wines.” There are no great wines, only great bottles. So lesson no. 1: Never take a wine for granted. Not a $700 one and not even a $7 one.
Am I part of the producer-critic complex? I have been. In this job, you can’t help but be part of something larger than yourself, unless you go entirely off the grid–in which case, my friends at UPS and FedEx couldn’t find me to deliver those samples. So, yes, I’m culpable. But I recognize it–I see the perniciousness that can result when critics who have given ultra-high scores to certain wines year in and year out feel that their reputations are on the line unless they continue doing so. What makes me different, I think, is that I give high scores to wines that aren’t on the A-list of cultdom, and so-so scores to wines that are. And the reason I do so is because in every case, they deserve them. Like Gerald Asher said, never take a wine for granted.
If you’ve been wondering just exactly what changes are afoot at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Food & Wine section, you won’t be any the wiser for reading this scoop Q&A with the paper’s managing editor, Audrey Cooper, which appeared late last week in San Francisco magazine’s online edition.
The news that the paper’s “Stand-Alone Food Section Faces Demise” hit the Bay Area like a lightning bolt last week when it was reported in the New York Times. The local Eater website picked up on it and headlined their article, “San Francisco Chronicle to Shut Down Its Food Section.”
Kudos to Audrey for giving the interview to San Francisco Magazine, even if her responses raised more questions than they answered. After all, we can’t really hold it against her if she, herself, doesn’t know what’s going to happen. I suspect that the Hearst Corporation, which owns the Chron, will have the final say in the eventual outcome.
What this story speaks to are two things: One, the ongoing evolution of print publications, with all their travails as they lose younger readers and advertisers; and the Bay Area’s absolute, unflinching need for a print publication of record that will deal intelligently and analytically with our food and wine culture.
Dealing with the latter point first: If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, its suburbs and nearby wine country, you know that the pleasures of eating and drinking are near and dear to our hearts. We tend to over-glamorize the expensive restaurants, like Meadowood, La Folie and Commis, but if they were all that the Bay Area had to lean on, our food culture would collapse. No, the truth is that it rests on a solid foundation of affordable, ethnic-based cuisine, ranging from Korean and Ethiopian to Vietnamese and Afghan, and probably a hundred others. Where do you think the city’s top chefs eat when all is said and done? They head over to some noodle joint.
So whatever happens at the Chron, Audrey (and her employers) understand full well that the paper’s readers expect continued coverage of the restaurant scene. That means the chief restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Paolo Lucchesi, who writes the gossipy The Scoop (and whom I’ve invited to be on this blog numerous times, but he always turns me down. Come on, Paolo!).
And what of Jon Bonné and his wine reporting? Northern Californians recognize Jon as one of the most important and compelling voices in wine journalism and reviewing. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but I read him avidly. In the Q&A with Audrey, the reporter didn’t ask anything about the wine section (I wish she had), but I can’t see anything bad happening to it or to Jon. There would be an uproar in San Francisco if the Chron diminished its wine coverage.
So this gets us back to the former point I made: that the story speaks to the ongoing evolution of print journalism. While Audrey’s answers were notable for non-specificity, she did mention advertisers twice, but in ways that are potentially troubling. For instance, she said that whatever changes are made, they will hopefully be “better for readers and for advertisers.” Of course, the meaning of the word “better” is different for those two groups, whose interests don’t necessarily coincide, and may sometimes collide (although the most important goal both advertisers and readers share is the Chron’s continued existence.) Along these lines, Audrey also said that before management makes any final decisions, there will be “a lot of…reader feedback [and] advertiser feedback.”
Here’s my advice to Audrey and senior management at the Chronicle. Let Jon be Jon, let Paolo be Paolo, let Michael be Michael. Shield them with all the power you can from feeling the pressures of advertising. This isn’t always easy for an editor, who, after all, reports to a publisher responsible for a bottom line; but it’s necessary in order for a paper to maintain its editorial integrity, and thus the trust of its readership. As for the Chronicle generating more revenue, I don’t know how to make that happen, but messing with the Food & Wine Section can’t possibly help. What corporations in America always should keep in mind is that cutbacks are double-edged swords: Yes, by eliminating staff and certain expenses you can save a little money. But you have to ask yourself what else you’re losing in the process. You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.
I couldn’t be more pleased by the California winners of Wine Enthusiast’s 2013 Wine Star Awards.
Barbara Banke is a natural for Wine Person of the Year. After Jess Jackson’s 2011 passing, Barbara stepped up to the plate to shepherd Kendall-Jackson to unprecedented new heights, not to mention the smaller wineries in the Jackson Family Wines stable. In my short article accompanying the announcement, I only begin to describe what Barbara has accomplished over the last two years. A classy lady leading a great company.
Rodney Strong Vineyards easily merits their selection as American Winery of the Year. They do such a great job, and the wines just keep getting better and better. They’re a fairly big winery, but the wines almost always taste artisanally hand-crafted. Rodney Strong’s commitment to Sonoma County’ fruit is admirable.
I’m particularly glad that Paso Robles is our Wine Region of the Year. Paso faced pretty tough competition (Douro, Rías Baixas, Stellenbosch, Walla Walla), and those were the finalists: in our actual meeting last summer to develop that list, even more famous wine regions were put forth by various editors. Paso emerged triumphant over all of them. Congratulations to everyone down there in this Central Coast appellation!
Last but not least there is Peter Mondavi, Sr., recipient of the magazine’s American Wine Legend Award. Who better to get that recognition than the 99-year old scion of the legendary Napa family of Mondavis, who to this day remains happily active at Charles Krug. It will be wonderful to see and hear him at the awards ceremony, in January. I can already see the audience of hundreds of dignitaries rising to their feet in thunderous applause when his name is called.
You know, in California there is such constant reinvention–new winemakers, new wineries, new wines–especially in Napa Valley that it can be easy to lose a sense of historical continuity, especially in the 140-character amnesia of Twitter. One day, a palatial new winery goes up. The next day sees the latest $300 Cabernet. The day after that comes a listing of Hottest New Winemakers Under 30. That’s all very well, but somebody has to make sure the train stays on the track. Peter Mondavi, Sr. is nonesuch: he remains a guiding inspiration in Napa Valley and has been for more decades than most of us have been alive. We ought to reflect more on the history of our great wine regions and personalities and understand how they got to where they are today, instead of being mesmerized by the latest this or that.
So my heartiest congratulations to all the winners, not just California but across the globe. I’ll see you in New York!