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Hey elites: Ordinary people love California wine!

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With the bashing that California wine sometimes gets from the old boy’s club (AKA the cool kid’s club), it comes as a refreshing reminder to learn that “beyond the beltway” of snobbery and exclusivity, ordinary people love our wines.

Up in Canada, the Ottawa Citizen yesterday reported on the upcoming “California Wine Fair” to be held this Friday. Ottawa is, of course, still gripped in winter: as I write these words, the temperature there is 32 degrees. That’s why the article’s headline is “Dreaming of California Wines,” and the lead sentence refers to our state’s balmy weather: “Just when we need it most,” it says, “A taste of sunshine and warm breezes—California wine is coming to Ottawa.”

This is the thing we mustn’t ever forget about California wine: People love it. They love it the same way they love California itself. For most people all over the world, California is a magical place, of sunny beaches and swaying palm trees, of jasmine-scented evenings and year-round backyard barbecues, of beautiful people and gracious living. Granted, those of us who actually live here know that it’s not always that way. But it is enough of the time. California really is “the golden dream at the edge of the world.”

Our wines reflect that notion. They’re rich, sumptuous and bold, reflecting a place and a people that are distinctly Californian. I know this, and it’s why I grow impatient with the accusations (which actually seem to be diminishing) that California wine is not delicate enough for some people. That may be so; but ordinary people everywhere love our wines. This may be part and parcel of the eternal struggle between the masses and the elite, a struggle you find reflected in every aspect of life and culture. But even if you consider yourself among the elite, you should remind yourself of certain verities.

Among them: As the Ottawa Citizen says, “California wines…strike a chord with many people. [They] consistently demonstrate a pleasant and appealing flavour profile…California vintners have learned from the traditions and history of others and have innovated and put their own spin on techniques and practices.”

That’s how the non-elite see things: not in terms of alcohol level, but in terms of how much pleasure they get from sipping our wines. To be truthful, if California wine can only appeal to one group—the elite, or the masses of everyday consumers—I’d much rather it be the latter. That’s the California way: open, free, egalitarian, meritocratic. We’re the State that developed the ballot initiative by which the people get to vote directly on important issues, instead of leaving them to the “experts” who, occasionally, may find their judgment clouded. I’m proud to be a Californian (by way of New York City and the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts), and I’m proud of California wine!


Wine critics vs. sommeliers, Round 428. Ding!

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With all due respect to Robert Sinskey, whose wines I always admired, I think he struck the wrong tone in his recent opinion piece, which was published in Eater.

His basic premise—that the era of the mega-critic is over, along with the 100-point rating system—is widely held, and certainly worth a conversation. And we have been talking about it, for many years, without any particular resolution or consensus, I might add. So there’s nothing wrong with Robert having an opinion on that matter. About a year ago, I wrote a post I called “Goodbye to the era of the Big Critic,”  after having been one myself. I said, I for one will not regret the passing of the torch,” although I added this caveat: If the Big Critic is gone (or going) then of course we are now entering the era of the Small Critic. When anyone can be a critic then everyone can be a critic: the ultimate democratization of wine criticism results in claims like this:

New app can turn even the most clueless of wine drinkers into an instant connoisseur.

And, of course, if you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you know that I have some concerns about everybody going From clueless to connoisseur in an instant.”

Be that as it may, Robert is, as I wrote, perfectly entitled to his views. But here’s where his article turned me off: It’s too angry.

For one thing, Robert starts with the premise that wine critics are “arrogant”—his word. Why would he think that? The wine critics I’ve known are no more arrogant than the average person. Yes, a few have been real jerks—but they were widely perceived as such by winemakers and other writers, and were never welcomed into the wine community. But by far the majority of wine critics, including those who use the 100-point system, are fine, decent people. Robert’s assault on Robert Parker, in particular, sounds personal: he calls him “an ex-attorney” who had the nerve to “anoint himself the palate of America.” Well, Parker never anointed himself to any such thing. He was a creative, wine-loving entrepreneur who created a service that people valued, and he thrived accordingly. It wasn’t his fault he achieved so much power. So why the venom?

There’s more. When Robert writes of sommeliers that most “take their craft seriously,” that seems to imply that critics don’t. I can personally attest that they do! Then Robert unfavorably contrasts the critics who talk in “a singular voice” to sommeliers who “talk amongst each other…”. Well, as a wine consumer who can always use a little advice, I see no reason why I would trust, or gravitate towards, the recommendations of somms who “talk amongst themselves” over those of a wine critic, who presumably just mumbles to himself. I mean, what difference does it make who talks to whom? In the end, everybody’s recommendation—whether it’s a wine critic’s or a working sommelier’s—is just that person’s personal opinion.

As for Robert’s contention that sommeliers “challenge preconceived notions [and] kill sacred cows,” well, I never met a somm whose favorite red wine wasn’t Burgundy, and who didn’t rave about German Riesling. Talk about sacred cows!

Now, Robert is right on when he points out the positive aspects of the sommelier’s job, such as “ask[ing] questions to figure out what the customer likes and to suggest wines based on the food served.” That is indeed a very important role. But it is not the role of the wine critic. Apples and oranges. So it’s not fair to blame wine critics for not doing a job they’re not supposed to do anyway.

Anyway, having said all that, I love Robert’s use of the word “lumbersexual” to describe today’s “rock star” somms–although I do think mixologists are more lumbery lumbersexuals than somms.


Wine writing: imprecise, and art

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Yes, wine writing is “an imprecise art,” as the headline on Philip White’s opinion piece in the Adelaide (Australia) InDaily News says.

As someone who’s had lots of experience in wine writing (magazines, books, blogs), I’m the first to authenticate Philip’s viewpoint that writing about smells and flavours and the feelings they impart is as imprecise a sport as writing about music or fine art.

I like Philip’s take. He is, himself, a wine “communicator” (his word) who “pl[ies] the waters of simile and metaphor, hoping the beloved readers at least get a feeling.” To instill a feeling in readers: that is the highest goal to which a wine writer can aspire.

It’s not always easy. Critics of wine writing (and they are legion) point to the hyperbolic, obscure, over-blown rhetoric that does, indeed, characterize much of wine writing. Philip (quoting another writer writing about wine writing) assembled a list that could stand as the poster child for stretch: “nail polish remover, petrol, burning rubber, eucalyptus, wet wool, banana, shit and lead pencil.” Not that those aromas (including “shit”) aren’t present in some wines, but the average reader can be forgiven for scratching her head and wondering if she can just, please, go about the pleasure of drinking the stuff.

But there are many different forms of wine writing. When you’re reviewing dozens of wines on a daily basis, you’re forced into certain economies of scale. Woe be the writer who agonizes—Thesaurus by his side—about this or that descriptor. When deadlines are looming, sometimes you just go with “cherry-berry” and have done with it.

Still, I take Philip’s point that “the single most important thing about wine is the way it makes me feel.” I, myself, sometimes wrote about my feelings in wine reviews, but only for the best wines: they merited more words in the review than small peasant wines, and seemed to allow for some celebratory expressions of joy—at least, the extra word count afforded me that luxury. The small peasant wines, when they weren’t very good, also made me “feel” certain things—disappointment, disgust, impatience to get it over with, sometimes anger if the price was insane—but I was the sort of wine critic who hated to say terrible things about a wine I’d already given a low score. There are certain critics (I could name names, and so could you) who seem to take pleasure in kicking a wine when it’s down and bleeding in the gutter. Not me.

But surely Philip is onto something when he suggests that communicating “feeling” is important. I tried to do that in my books; long-form writing is a lot easier to convey emotions. I try to do it in this blog. But I’ve seen writers of the “feeling” school take things too far. Some of them reach for bizarre metaphors whose meanings, if you’re not familiar with them, will zoom right over your head. Some of them bring too much of themselves into their review. I read a review, after all, to learn about the wine, not about the writer’s personality. A little personality, fine, but—like salt in food—not too much. But then, good writing achieves precisely the correct balance of all its parts: objective information, subjective revelation of the writer’s soul, literary references and so on.

I love Philip’s quote from Leonard Cohen: “Each wine has a specific high, which is never mentioned [i.e. in most reviews].” If I correctly understand the great singer-songwriter (who in this instance was writing about Chateau Latour), he meant that the experience of drinking Latour resulted in a particular mindset that was somehow qualitatively different from drinking, say, Margaux. I reckon that could be true only if one knew one were drinking Latour, and if one had a specific love-attachment to Latour. Anytime you do anything with love it does result in “a specific high.” But lucky is the paid, professional wine writer who can truthfully say that he finds love in all his labors. Sometimes, writing is just writing, and to make it work for readers—to make them feel—is the result of effort and talent. It is artifice: not “artificial,” but something that looks and feels like feeling, even when it is not.


Diageo moving towards “content information” on wine labels

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No one much noticed last Friday’s report in the Wall Street Journal that Diageo is going to start listing calorie counts “and other content information” on its spirits, including Johnnie Walker Scotch and Smirnoff vodka, “in what it said was a first for the industry.”

That nugget was buried on page B5 of the newspaper, on the same page as the weather. But it’s big news, with implications for the entire industry.

The article didn’t say anything about Diageo’s wine brands, which include Chalone, Sterling, Blossom Hill and Rosenblum. So I went to the company’s website and clicked on the “News & Media” link, which led to a March 19 press release from the company that strongly suggests that the disclosure will include wine. There is this phrase: Diageo believes that consumer information for alcohol is best provided per typical serve, so that consumers can understand the alcohol and nutrition content of serves of different drinks, which vary in size across beer, wine and spirits.” Moreover, at the bottom of the press release, in a “Notes to Editors,” as an “example,” the company showed a label of a Blossom Hill wine. The press release also hints that Diageo will go much further in their disclosures than simply listing the calorie content; they vowed also to reveal “nutrition information…,” although they didn’t say what specific nutrition information they will publish.

It’s unclear to me whether “nutrition information” is the same as “ingredient information,” although it wouldn’t seem so. The latter has been a contentious issue nipping at the edges of the wine industry for the last few years. Ridge Vineyards has already begun ingredient labeling, listing such things as calcium carbonate, SO2 and indigenous yeasts on the back label. Besides, as Harvey Steiman points out in Wine Spectator, ingredient labeling for wine is tricky. It’s complicated, a lot harder than ingredient labeling for, say, a can of soup. And there also are financial considerations for smaller wineries. Sometimes I think that this consumer demand to know about every micro-molecule that enters their bodies in every sort of food and drink borders on the obsessive.

Still, that’s politics. Diageo’s move is significant because, as one of the nation’s largest wine companies, they clearly believe they’re reading the handwriting on the wall, and want to get out in front of what may become a mandated trend. So be it; what will be, will be. Personally, I’m against ingredient labeling or content labeling on the actual wine bottle. That sort of thing could easily be done on a website. Everybody’s got a computer or smart device these days, so it would not be an imposition on consumers to click on a link or two. Wine labels are lovely works of art: producers go to great lengths to make them graphically appealing. To clutter them up with ingredients and nutritional data would be ugly.


We do not need an alternative to alcohol!

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Well if this isn’t the strangest thing I’ve read in a long time, I don’t know what is. “Why the government should fund research into finding a replacement for alcohol,” it’s called.

It was written by Ryan Cooper, a national correspondent at TheWeek.com, which is by no means a wacko rightwing pub. Ryan’s basic premise is that alcohol—the “ur-drug: the oldest, most common, and most widely abused drug in the world,” can cause “brain damage; severe memory loss; cardiovascular disease and strokes; cirrhosis of the liver; cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver…” Well, Ryan’s list goes on and on, but you get the idea. His solution, as the headline implies: Have the gummint look into funding studies into “alcohol replacement,” to come up with something that’s “better than booze.”

Is this the latest installment from the neoprohibitionist crowd? They never go away, do they? Look, anything and everything is potentially dangerous: automobiles, bicycling, eating certain foods, taking certain medications, flying in an airplane, joining the military, playing, making love, breathing. All we can do, as individuals and as a society, is to try and understand the risks involved, and adjust accordingly. In the case of alcohol, the solution is not to do away with it entirely, it’s to teach people the benefits (and pleasures) of moderate consumption—and to not drink and drive!!! (I can’t emphasize that enough.)

I actually don’t think Ryan is some kind of wild-eye prohibitionist, like the Marin Institute, which earned itself such a bad name that it had to reinvent itself as Alcohol Justice.

Still, in writing these inflammatory articles, Ryan links himself to the fire-eaters. He’s also not particularly consistent in his claims: A couple years ago, he wrote a piece for Washington Monthly in which he condemned hyperbolic diatribes against drugs, including alcohol: “[W]e should avoid alarmist, simplistic slogans” such as calling them “poisons,” he warned, because calling various drugs ‘poisons’ as if this counts for something is foolish. By this standard basically everything, including water, is a poison…”.

And yet, in The Week article, Ryan states: the most popular recreational drugs, particularly alcohol, are atrocious.” It is “very often terrible.” In fact, he adds, even heroin is “not as bad” as alcohol.

Those sound like alarmist simplistic slogans to me!

I’m glad that Ryan emphasized that he is “certainly not in favor of reinstating full-scale prohibition.” But notice that hedge: “full-scale.” Whatever does that mean? If he was really against restating prohibition, he wouldn’t use weasel words like that, he’d just come out and say “Let’s not even think of reinstating prohibition in any way, shape or form. We tried it once, and it was an abject failure and a national embarrassment.”

We already have some pretty stringent laws against alcohol consumption: age limits, shipping restrictions and so on. Alcohol is one of the most heavily-regulated consumer products in the U.S., which means that we continue to have a residue of prohibition, even though historic Prohibition was formally repealed in 1933.

I understand the concern Ryan has about all the problems associated with the inappropriate use of alcoholic beverages. But the answers are a lot more complicated than naively calling for the government to fund alternatives to it. Is that really something we want our precious tax dollars to go for? Instead, let’s be smart about this. Wine, beer and spirits are miraculous gifts to us from benign Nature. We don’t need to do away with them; we need to be smarter about using them, and we need to teach our children to be wise, not foolish, about alcohol and everything else.


Napa’s traffic crisis: Alternate touring days?

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You know that old saying about how you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube? That was my feeling when I read this article, from Monday’s Napa Register, on a debate taking place in Napa Valley. And, no, it’s not about wine.

The topic is nothing new: Growth versus preservation. In its latest incarnation, it shape-shifts into whether Napa should be (in the words of a county official) “a resort area [or] an agricultural area.” California, with our natural beauty, always is a hotbed of such debates, and Napa Valley, for many reasons, is no exception. This conversation has been going on for as long as I’ve been aware of the valley.

In particular this brouhaha over the number of tasting rooms and wineries hosting “events” like weddings has also been around for a long time. It’s only natural that some valley residents would be upset over the traffic (truly, truly awful on Highway 29) and the feeling that their pastoral little slice of heaven is turning into a tourist-drawing WineryLand theme park.

So is it time to take drastic action, like limiting the number of tasting rooms, or wineries, or vineyards, or resorts and hotels? This is the problem of the toothpaste. Napa can’t go backwards to the bucolic 1960s or 1970s. And there are limits to how much it can do to prevent the invasion of the tourists, which now seems to occur year-round, not just in the summer, as the climate dries and warms.

It’s interesting to read the comments to the Register article. Typical of the slow-growthers is this one from a reader who’s had it up to here: “Anyone catch the traffic on 29 today? Basically heading south it was backed up from the light in yountville all the way to the CIA. It was almost just as bad heading North. It was still backed up at 6:45 at night, about 35 minutes to get from st Helena to yountville. That should be a 7 minute drive.” And this from someone else: “Experiencing the growth in the last fifteen years, one could argue that the tipping point has already been reached. Does one honestly wish to make the traffic even more intolerable?”

It’s not clear what the solution is, but we should be looking at this from a wider perspective, namely: Napa Valley isn’t the only place in California where traffic is an enormous, and growing, problem. It’s a problem throughout the state, from our local city and suburban streets to the freeways and bridges that form California’s nervous system, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the byways of the Sierra Nevada and all chokepoints inbetween. Californians have always complained about traffic in our state’s notorious car culture, but things are worse than they’ve ever been, and if you’re wasting hours of your life everyday sitting idle, you’re understandably frustrated. And what I can’t for the life of me understand is why our government isn’t taking the problem more seriously. This isn’t something that local government can tackle. It’s a gigantic elbow to the throat of California’s economy (not to mention drivers’ peace of mind) and only government has the means to address it.

Maybe, in Napa’s case, the answer is to limit the number of tourists (especially on weekends) in some way that’s legal and fair. Of course, the state would have to be involved, too, and possibly the Feds. Back in the 1970s, when we had the nation’s first gas shortage, you could only fill your tank on certain days, depending on the number on your license plate. I don’t recall there being any riots; people understood that there was a crisis and we all had to be a part of the solution.

Could something like that work in Napa’s case? There are really just two main ways in, from the south and north, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Maybe they could build checkpoints with automated cameras, like the ones they use for FasTrak. Get the word out, through media and signage, that Saturdays are for “x” drivers and Sunday’s are for “y” drivers, and then levy a hefty fine on anyone who’s caught cheating (just the way FasTrak works). Of course, you’d have to figure out some way to screen out locals so they didn’t get caught in the net. This would inconvenience many tourists, granted; but once they got the hang of it, they’d get used to it, and they’d probably eventually welcome the more open roads.

I know it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it could work. And if things get bad enough (and they’re heading in that direction) it may be the only way.


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