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The New York Times discovers IPOB

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Nice, balanced treatment of the In Pursuit of Balance movement and those who think it’s silly by Bruce Schoenfeld in the New York Times magazine. The very fact that this phenomenon has hit the pages of the Gray Lady is indicative of how important IPOB has become in the weltanschauung of our wine conversation.

Let me get this out of the way immediately: I’ve thought since IPOB’s inception that they’re too ideological in declaring that some wines are “balanced” and some aren’t and that the dividing line is some ill-defined notion of alcoholic strength.

I don’t believe I’m one of the “invective-filled…partisans” who opposes IPOB, in Schoenfeld’s words; he catches the family quarrel well, but does tend to exaggerate the animosities a little bit—bringing in Robert Parker and his stinging critiques of IPOB (“jihadists,” “anti-pleasure,” “useless”) makes things sound worse than they are. For my part, I certainly wouldn’t use inflammatory language like that. But then, IPOB’s supporters haven’t gone after me the way they’ve gone after Parker. (I’m not important enough.)

If you believe IPOB you’d think that their members all make Pinot Noirs below 14%, but at the recent San Francisco tasting, there was Calera, whose wines can exceed 14.5%. For example, the 2007 Ryan I reviewed was 14.7%, and it was a very good wine I gave 93 points. But how do you explain Calera’s presence in IPOB? This is not a diss of Calera, whose wines I quite like, or of Josh Jensen, whom I respect, but it is a question posed to Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch. Why is Calera there? Are you saying that most other Pinot Noirs of that alcohol range are “unbalanced” but by some divine intervention, Calera isn’t? Enquiring minds want to know.

I give IPOB credit for sparking this conversation. Whether it’s a conversation that actually leads to any responsible conclusions, however, remains to be seen. Some years ago, the conversation in California was all about “food wines”—what they are, what they aren’t. Then, it was the application of oak that was at the heart of the chatter. This IPOB thing is a modern rendition of that discussion, which actually did have the positive result that it led to a renewed consideration of the proper application of oak to wine. There seems to be something self-regulating in the American wine industry—helped by social media and the chatty opinionizing that characterizes the wine industry—that perceives excesses almost as soon as they occur and tries to curtail them. This is a good thing.

But I suspect that IPOB will run its course in due time; other organizations will arise and fall, people’s attention will be diverted elsewhere, California’s climate will certainly play a role, and Raj, Jasmine and IPOB will go on to other, less contentious things. In the meantime, they’ve already succeeded in making wineries (which means winery owners) make, at the very least, contingency plans for what to do if, in fact, there is a serious consumer swing towards low-alcohol wines. I don’t think there is, yet, although if you read the wine press voraciously you might be forgiven for thinking it’s already happened. But this is how the media works nowadays: somebody stirs the pot, everybody starts talking about it, and the next thing you know, self-fulfilling prophecies pop up all over the place.

Have a great weekend!


Whither wine writing? Hosemaster’s post makes me think

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The Hosemaster has a pretty good spoof up on his blog. It’s a little harsh, even for him, but that’s Hosemaster for you, unsparing and direct, whose unblinking eye sees all and tells it like it is (and never with malice. Well, maybe a little…). But he does hit on some truths about the state of wine writing that require further comment.

Like Hosemaster, I peruse many of the wine blogs out there and in general stay abreast of the latest wine books. And like Hosemaster, I’m bemused by the quality of what I read. It’s not that these wine writers are stupid or unambitious or untalented, it’s that wine writing itself has undergone a sea change that makes traditional approaches to it anachronistic, and so these wine writers and bloggers are trying to do something that, fundamentally, has already been done, and better than any of them will ever be able to do it.

The problem is that wine writing implies wine readers, and we have a problem, Houston, when it comes to the latter. There are basically two kinds of wine readers in America: older ones and younger ones. (Let’s set an artificial boundary at 40 years of age.) The older readers, most of them Baby Boomers, already have read widely and deeply on the topic of wine. If they’re serious winos, chances are their bookshelves contain numerous books and handbooks and guides. So they neither need wine blogs to tell them what to think, nor do they have any other reason to read, much less trust, blogs, unless they’re on the marketing and P.R. side of the business, a thankless place where you have to read everything, even the dullest blather, and make nice to the dullest people, on the off-chance that someone, somewhere, will say something nice about your wine which you can then use in your promotional efforts.

The younger readers, on the other hand, are famous for not reading anything at all! They acquire their information (such as it is) from other sources. And to be frank, I do not have the impression that even the most ardent younger wine drinker these days has been possessed of the “demon” that drove their parents and grandparents to plunge deeply into the intellectual and literary side of wine. Younger drinkers, bless their hearts, seem content to see wine, not as something to be studied and understood, but as something to drink at the end of a day’s work. And clearly, there’s nothing wrong with that! I mean, isn’t that what we’ve all been urging since, like, forever?

So where does that leave wine writers? Nowhere, alas—between the devil and the deep blue sea, so to speak, or perhaps “a rock and a hard place” is more apropos. They have no audience to whom to speak, or for whom to write penetratingly or passionately. No one follows them. They know, or sense, that almost no one is likely to read what they write, and so why should they take the time and effort to write deeply when they can write conveniently and get away with it and maybe even win an award?

These are harsh realities and they underscore what Hosemaster was saying. He sums it up with “Wine writing is running out of energy,” an apt metaphor in that you can compare wine writing with the consumption of fossil fuels. American industry was built on the use of oil, coal and gas, but we all know that fossil fuel’s day has come, and gone, even though it might be 100 years before we’re fully weaned off it. Wine writing is in the same boat. Like the use of fossil fuel, there’s something hopelessly retro about it—reading a blog post about the Finger Lakes or somebody’s latest 400 reviews is like seeing a ’55 Cadillac chugging along with giant tail fins, filthy exhaust coming out the rear end, and getting 8 miles per gallon. The driver’s having fun, that’s for sure, but it’s not something that benefits anyone else, and certainly isn’t a template for the future of driving.

Should we mourn this crossroads in the history of wine writing? Well, whom and what you mourn depends on where you sit. For myself, I don’t, because I recognize that change is in the nature of the Universe, and you can’t hold onto the past no matter how pleasant you thought it was. We’ve come through a Golden Age of Wine Writing in the past century, but all Golden Ages—Greece’s, Britain’s, television’s, rock and roll’s—have their natural lifespans. They just run out of steam. Besides, there’s no reason why a healthy wine industry even requires wine writing in the first place. People love their cats and dogs, and yet America has no overwhelming pet writing industry; what few pet magazines are out there don’t have any influence on what breeds we buy, nor are there American Pet Writing Awards, nor is there a history and tradition of great pet writing, nor are pet writers showered with perks, or invited to stay at kennel guest houses with all expenses paid, or sent free samples of kibble, or in general as fussed over and pampered by pet stores as wine writers are by wineries. It’s easy to imagine America being a fabulous wine-drinking country without any wine writing at all.

Nonetheless, and despite the natural shrinking of consumer interest in wine writing, it’s likely to continue for a while, for two reasons: One, blogging is free and simple, so people will continue to do it regardless of how few others read them. And two, wine advertising will continue to underwrite wine writers, especially print ones, because that’s what advertisers do: they’re given money by wine company owners and then are expected to spend it somewhere, even if they can’t prove any return on the investment. The logical (although far from the only) place for wine advertisers to place their money is in wine magazines and, to a far lesser extent, on wine blogs. In this sense, there’s a direct linkage between wine advertising and wine writing—although one would hope that every wine publication has a firewall between the advertising and editorial departments. But that’s an entirely different story for me to tell one of these days.


From the Old Guard to the New Guard: Lighten up

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I suppose I may be part of The old guard who’ve long influenced our drinking habits (and resisted change in the industry),” but I’ll tell you what: I’ll give you a dollar for every bottle of Gruner Veltliner and Spanish Txakolina sold in this country this year, you give me a dollar for every bottle of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and we’ll see who ends up in the poor house and who can buy a beachfront manse in Malibu.

Well, we know who the loser will be: The Txakolina-istas. Because despite the prognostications of “outspoken personalities” and “social sommeliers” who supposedly are revolutionizing what we drink, America’s top-selling wines today are going to be the best sellers tomorrow and five years from now. And that’s all there is to it.

Why is it so important for some people to invest so strongly in a belief system that says the world of wine is turning upside down and nobody can stop it? Why are these same people so angry at “old guards”? What makes them so sure that “Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and even Lebanon” are going to be the next superstar wine countries?

Look, it’s easy to dig up some young somms in L.A., anoint them as “the new guard,” and imply that they’re the vanguard of some vast, radical movement that’s sweeping the country. Only problem is, it ain’t necessarily so. The majority of somms are still opening bottles of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon for the majority of American wine consumers. Why is that so infuriating for some people?

There’s nothing wrong at all with a somm having a personal preference for whatever might turn her on, but we should realize—if we’re going to view the world realistically, which is usually a good thing instead of dwelling in fantasyland—that 99 percent of consumers don’t really care about wines from Lebanon, or biodynamic wines, or anfora-aged, skin-fermented whites, or any of the other “esoteric” wines that the author of this Los Angeles Magazine piece celebrates. There are, and always have been, plenty of esoteric choices when it comes to wine, and these alternatives can occasionally be amusing, delicious, even memorable. But I continue to shake my head at the ferocity of a small crowd of writers and critics who seem to have smoke coming out of their ears at the very mention of Chardonnay or Cabernet, or anything traditional. It’s as if they were bulls, and these wines that most of us like were red flags waving in front of their snorting noses. Hey, you iconoclastic lovers of the esoteric, lighten up!

As for “social sommeliers,” what’s up with that? This was the first time I’d heard that particular neologism, so I Googled it to see what else I could discover. Well, it doesn’t seem to mean anything, beyond some personal handles and a generalized marketing outlook. Is a “social sommelier” an advanced version of a regular sommelier, sort of a sommelier 2.0 that’s better than its predecessor? I always thought being a sommelier was social to begin with, so calling someone a “social sommelier” would seem to be gilding the lily. It’s like calling Stephen Curry an athletic NBA player. We can assume that, if he’s good enough to be in the NBA, he’s a pretty athletic guy.

Am I “resisting change”? If I am, it’s change for its own sake I’m against. Just because something is different doesn’t make it remotely interesting. There has to be a compelling reason for me to buy a wine, other than simply “I’m not like anything else you’re ever had, I’m different.” I’m not saying that a Finger Lakes Gewurztraminer or a Sicilian Grillo isn’t a nice wine. Not saying that at all. But it’s not likely that more than a handful of Americans has access to these wines, nor are they produced in the quantities needed to fill America’s belly. And there’s really no good reason for consumers to seek out esoteric wines when they’re perfectly happy with their Chards, their Pinots, their Cabs and Merlots and Sauv Blancs. Why are some people so angry at seeing American wine lovers happy?


To innovate or not? That is the question [for the bottom line]

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When it comes to developing new types of wines, wineries find themselves walking a narrow line. On the one hand, they want to stay on top of emerging trends in consumer taste, if not actually lead them. On the other hand, they don’t want to get too far out ahead of consumers, and risk making wines no one wants to buy.

Here in California, where you can grow just about any variety in the world, the question is of special poignance. The California wine industry was brilliant in its period of youthful creativity because vintners took risks that promised, and succeeded in delivering, great rewards.

But California wine isn’t youthful anymore. It’s a mature, multi-billion dollar industry, and like most successful industries, its leaders have to decide when, and how much, to innovate. This involves no small amount of risk. Even Apple—widely regarding as the most innovative company in America—may have stumbled a bit with the Apple Watch. It’s not clear yet whether it has the staying power of, say, the iPod and iPhone. (And why didn’t they name it the iWatch?)

Similarly, wineries have to decide in advance if something will have the staying power to make investing in it worthwhile. But the history of wine is replete with examples of ideas that didn’t work quite as planned. For example, some years ago, Sangiovese—the Tuscan grape variety responsible for such great wines as Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino—was predicted to become “the next great red wine in America.” As a result, California vintners planted it extensively. By 1996, there were 1,359 acres of Sangiovese in the state, about 1/8 the total of plantings of Pinot Noir.

Fast forward to 2013, when there were 1,868 acres of Sangiovese in California, an increase of only 1.3%–one of the smallest increases in acreage of any major variety in California over that same period. By contrast, plantings of Pinot Noir in 2013 had exploded to 41,301 acres. There is now 22 times more Pinot Noir planted in California than Sangiovese.

What happened? Despite the rosy scenarios, Americans turned their backs on Sangiovese, For whatever reasons, they didn’t like it. Many wineries found that they had to tear out the vines, or bud them over to another variety, at great expense to their bottom lines.

This shows that good forecasting is a necessary part of running a successful winery. But forecasting is not an exact science. Winery owners are, at heart, conservative. I don’t mean that in a political sense, but in a business sense. They don’t like to lose money, which is why, when they find a formula that works, they tend to stick with it. They understand, most of them, that, if they hope to remain in business for the long haul, they have to have some sense of where the market is going. They understand, too, that things never stand still; the California wine market will change over the years. The question is, How? In reality, that translates to the question: Should we venture beyond (fill in the blank: Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah) and try something out of the ordinary, that might possibly make great wine? But too often, in this conservative mindset, winery owners are opting to take the safe and tried route.

Yes, there are wineries tinkering at the edge, with Gruner Veltliner or Tannat or things like that. But really, we remain a chocolate and vanilla wine-drinking country. If I were a winery owner, would I roll the dice and gamble on something few people have ever heard of? Probably not. But I like to think that, if I succeeded in making and selling Cabernet or Pinot or Chardonnay, I’d devote a few acres to rarer varieties. After all, not that long ago Pinot Noir was a big nothing in California. But people, like Richard Sanford, Joe Rochioli, Jr. and Joe Swan, believed in it—and look where we are today.


Who’s to decide what wine phrases are illegal?

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I blogged the other day about a lawsuit brought by an L.A. guy against MillerCoors. He’s suing them because he found it “unsettling” to discover that they were really the producers of a beer he thought was a craft beer, Blue Moon.

Evidently, this topic—of when or whether a beer is an authentic craft beer as opposed to something else—has caused something of a brouhaha in the industry. This article, in Wine Industry Advisor, explains some of the complexities. Entitled “Craft: A term in controversy,” it points out the murkiness that a lack of definition of the word “craft” can cause.

I told a friend of mine, co-proprietor of a wine shop that also has a small but excellent selection of craft beers by the bottle, about the lawsuit, which she hadn’t heard of. I asked what she thought, and it was the same as I think: The L.A. guy is probably looking for some easy cash. Then she said, “If he wins, then half the wineries in the world will get sued.”

What did she mean? That wineries routinely use words and phrases that have no legal definition, but that have certain meanings or connotations in the consumer’s mind. “Reserve” is one such word. I wrote about numerous others several years ago in this blog post. At that time (2011), I suggested that the government should “clear up” these terms. But I’ve now changed my mind. As I’ve gotten older and, hopefully, wiser, I’ve become more concerned about the government getting its fingers into every aspect of our lives, so that now, I don’t think we need legal, binding decisions from On High on what things like “barrel select,” “Old Vines” or “Bottle Aged” mean. These are evocative terms that imply certain practices and conjure up pleasant visual images. That’s what marketers do, whether it’s with autos, high tech gizmos, perfumes, fashion or vacation spots, and if we forced every advertisement, commercial, brochure and packaging text to adhere to some strict, formal meaning of each and every word and phrase, we’d be even deeper into continuous litigation in America than we are today.

Besides, think how hard it would be to define these terms. Take “bottle aged.” Every bottle of wine sold anywhere has been aged in the bottle for some period of time, even if it’s just a few months. People may imagine dusty wine cellars where splendid old bottles lay sleeping until they’re nectar, but there’s nothing wrong with them having that mis-impression, especially if it adds to their pleasure when they actually drink the stuff. Do we really want or need to know that “bottle aged” means ten months, or fourteen months, or nineteen months? I mean, come on. Besides, if there was an overly-specific definition for “bottle aged,” wineries would just start using terms like “”aged in the bottle,” and then we’d have more regulations, more lawsuits and so on, ad infinitum. Ditto for “barrel select.” This, too, implies something very special about the wine, but in truth, most wine—whether sold in bottle, box or keg—has come out of a barrel. Can a stainless steel white wine be called “barrel select”? I wouldn’t go there, and I doubt if any winery would actually label a stainless steel wine “barrel select,” but if they did, I wouldn’t lose any sleep. (Besides, some investigative blogger would probably bust them for it.) And then there’s “old vines.” I, personally, think an “old vine” should be at least thirty years of age, but that’s just me. Besides, if a winery is really using ancient vines and is proud of them, they can always put that information on the back label. I’m a big fan of information on back labels—not ingredients, which I think can go on the winery’s website, but authentic, interesting information, like how old the vines are, what the varietal blend is, the vineyard’s elevation, amount of new oak, and so on.

This line of reasoning that I outlined above also touches on the nature of small wineries that claim to be, or are thought of as, “artisanal” versus larger wineries. I always said, as a wine critic who tasted many thousands of wines every year, that I didn’t care about the winery’s size. I cared about the wine: Was it good, savory, interesting, worth sipping and considering, or was it plonk? I always thought it was snobby to dismiss big wineries (whatever “big” means), and that it was disingenuous to celebrate small wineries (whatever “small” means) just because they were small. I had lots of wines from tiny little wineries that were awful, and lots of wines from “big” wineries that excited me. I still feel that way. We should experience things as they actually are, and not sweat the small stuff, like the way they describe themselves, or how many cases they produce. As for those fans of organic and biodynamic wines, I can’t tell you how many off-the-record stories I heard about bags of chemicals on the back loading dock of wineries that claimed not to use any. My advice: Don’t believe any hype. None of it. Taste the stuff, and if you like it, buy it, and tell the critics where to go.


When is a beer a “craft” beer, and when is it not?

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I realize that there are at least two sides to every issue, especially in a courtroom, which is where the case of Parent v MillerCoors LLC has ended up.

At question: Should MillerCoors be allowed to call their Blue Moon beer “artfully crafted”?

The plaintiff in the case is Evan Parent, described on the California Superior Court brief as representing “himself, a class of persons similarly situated, and the general public.”

The defendant is, of course, MillerCoors, one of the world’s biggest beer companies.

Of Mr. Parent, we know little from the brief, except for a few facts: he lives in San Diego, where he “purchased Blue Moon beer”, which he “believed…was a microbrew or ‘craft’ beer.” Upon learning that Blue Moon was made by the same company that produces Coors Light and Miller High Life, Mr. Parent apparently was shocked enough to sue MillerCoors for misleading him.

A Google search reveals a little more about Plaintiff Parent. According to the New York Daily News, Parent says that, as “a craft brew fan,” he found it “upsetting” that MillerCoors would “deceiv[e] me into giving them my money for the wrong reasons.” The Daily News article added, “It’s unclear how much cash Parent is seeking with the legal action.”

Meanwhile, Men’s Journal reports on MillerCoors’ reaction to the lawsuit. The company issued a boilerplate statement affirming they are “tremendously proud of Blue Moon” and calling Parent’s lawsuit “without merit.”

Pretend we’re the jury; what are we to think? First, there is no legal definition of “craft beer.” Although a trade group, the Brewer’s Association, states that according to its vision a craft beer must be produced in quantities of less than six million barrels, which MillerCoors obviously exceeds, still Men’s Journal observes that the “federal government doesn’t technically have a definition for craft breweries…”. We therefore are in a murky, ill-defined legal space here, but it would not appear that MillerCoors has done anything technically in violation of any law.

Was there, then, an intent to deceive? Clearly yes. MillerCoors is taking advantage of the huge, positive image of “craft beer” in the U.S. by use of the term “artfully crafted.” But if MillerCoors is guilty of intent to deceive, then so are almost all of the products and services that advertise themselves on broadcast and in print media. That’s what advertising and its phrases and images are carefully designed to do: make consumers think, usually through association, of the product in the most appealing way possible. (Just to use a typical example, if you wear a Playtex brassiere, does this really help you achieve a more “active lifestyle”?)

The answer, I think, is not for consumers to file lawsuits alleging deception, nor is it for the courts to become involved in such frivolity. It comes down to the most fundamental consumer advice: caveat emptor. “Let the buyer beware.” This has been a linchpin of American jurisprudence since 1817, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Laidlaw v. Organ case, unanimously ruled that an individual possessing information that may cause another person to misapprehend something “[is] not bound to communicate it.” That opinion, by the way, was written by Chief Justice John Marshall, one of the architects of our legal system.

Look, there’s no substitute for being an intelligent consumer. If I’m buying a box of cereal in the supermarket and the cover is full of colorful slogans touting the product’s “natural” ingredients, I don’t believe it automatically: I check out the nutritional labeling. If I see the word “artisanal” or “handmade” on a wine label, it means utterly nothing to me, because there’s no legal definition for either term. Nor do I think the government should micro-manage every conceivable word and phrase that could possibly be used in marketing. We don’t want to go down that road because the only ones who would benefit are the lawyers. As for consumers who are “upset” to learn something about a product, I say Life sometimes contains upsetting things. As long as the product or service you’re buying isn’t actually harming you through some intentional sin of commission or omission—such as poisoning your body or giving you bad advice–it’s your obligation to understand what you’re buying, not theirs to make sure you do.


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