I caught a little flack last week for leaving Sonoma County out of a blog on California’s Golden Age of Wine.
One person, Judi, commented, “not even a mention of Sonoma?” Another–actually, Hank Wetzel, from Alexander Valley Vineyards–wrote, “I was thinking, wow he did not mention Sonoma County, and then I saw Judi’s comment. I am sure living in a golden age. From cattle land my family and staff have created vineyards and a winery that are bountiful. Sonoma County is so complex, with diverse growing areas, each influenced in a unique way by soil and proximity to the Pacific ocean. This has helped to create an abundance of successful grape growers and wine producers that thrive.”
So I should probably clear this up.
To begin with, assessing the “golden ageworthiness” of a region is obviously a deeply subjective thing to do. There are no objective criteria by which to measure it; it has to do with one’s perceptions. In the case of California regions, my selection of Paso Robles and Monterey and (to a lesser extent) Santa Barbara as being in a golden age is because those regions had very little prior celebrity as wine regions. Paso Robles was long bashed as too hot, while Monterey was criticized as too cold! So for both of them to be producing such good wines, with such a groundswell of young energy, is worthy of note.
You can’t say that Sonoma County is suddenly producing great wine. You can’t argue that it came out of nowhere. Sonoma County is one of the historic birthplaces of California wine. The Russians planted grapes out at Fort Ross in the early 1800s, quickly followed by Spanish Franciscan missionaries. We all know about Haraszthy and the generations of immigrants who widely planted the county, beginning in the 1850s. Sonoma Valley was one of the earliest American Viticultural Areas to be approved (1982), and the astonishing advent of Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley (approved in 1983) moved the county into the forefront of California wine. So it’s not as if Sonoma has been some kind of concealed secret.
Another part of the problem (not that it’s a problem, really–it’s something to celebrate) is that Sonoma is such a huge place, as Hank Wetzel stated. It’s so big and diverse that making any statement about it is like making a generality about France. I once read there are more soil types in Sonoma than in all of France. So many moving parts to Sonoma: how can a single statement connect them all? One might conceivably say this is a golden age for the [far] Sonoma Coast, I suppose, but that area remains too small (from a vineyard acreage point of view) to thus characterize it. Is this a golden age for the Chalk Hill appellation? For Rockpile? I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean that all of Sonoma’s 15 AVAs aren’t producing good wine. They are–as good in some instances as anywhere else in California. It’s just that, in my view, you can’t say that Sonoma County is currently enjoying a golden age.
I suppose that golden ages can occur more than once in the lifespan of a wine region, provided that region is old enough. Bordeaux’s original golden age, of the 18th century, was replicated in the 1980s. In that 200-year interregnum, Bordeaux experienced declines that nearly obliterated it, and that resulted in some very poor wines. No California wine region, however, is yet old enough to have experienced a second golden age. Sonoma County already has had its, in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, it’s the turn of regions to the south.
I’ve never had Yellow Tail, I’ve never slammed it, but nonetheless I was intrigued by this article about how John Casella, whose Casella Wines produces Yellow Tail, “slammed critics who blame his winery’s Yellow Tail label for undermining premium wine sales abroad.”
Not identified in the article was just who those critics are, but perhaps this four-year old article from Slate is indicative of them. “[W]hat was good for Yellow Tail wasn’t so great for the Australian wines as a whole,” it argues, adding that “consumers came to equate Australia with wines that were flavorful but also cheap and frivolous.”
Mr. Casella takes this theory head-on and counters with a strong argument: “Is Barefoot…destroying the image of American wine?” he asks, logically, concerning the top-selling wine in the U.S. (Yellow Tail is number two.) The answer, obviously, is no, Barefoot is not harming anything. Mr. Casella hits the nail squarely on the head when he asserts that Yellow Tail is “supplying one end of the market that has one type of consumer.” That type of consumer clearly is the value-oriented person who wants a sound varietal wine, at a fair price, which is exactly what Yellow Tail offers.
I’ve never understood this argument that low-priced wine drags down the reputation of its region. That’s just dumb. We have something called market segmentation in wine, as in clothing, cars and just about every other consumer good and service; that’s the way economies work, particularly in complex societies. Nobody ever suggested that a Chevy Aveo was dragging down Cadillac’s reputation, simply because both cars are manufactured by General Motors. Similarly, nobody ever said that Two-Buck Chuck was harming the reputation of California wine. (And by the way, oceans of plonk certainly didn’t interfere with France’s reputation for fine wine.)
I’ve long been a proponent of cheap wine. It allows people of modest means to drink wine (which I believe is in and of itself a good thing, since wine has a civilizing effect on humankind). Throughout all of history, people have had a need for inexpensive wine, and producers like Yellow Tail, Barefoot and Two-Buck Chuck fulfill that market niche with professionalism and aplomb.
Now, it may well be that some Americans viewed Australia through the lens of Yellow Tail (or other low-priced brands that flooded the U.S.). But that’s not Yellow Tail’s fault: it’s the fault of wine educators, including writers, somms and merchants. It’s a big, complicated world out there; I think consumers are interested in learning more about imported wines, if only someone would give them the chance.
Incidentally, although I’ve never reviewed Yellow Tail, my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Joe Czerwinski, routinely does, and he’s given it lots of “Best Buys.” I have a feeling I would, too, if I covered the wines of Australia. So I give credit to Yellow Tail.
I am increasingly excited by prospects of a great vintage in California for 2013.
Longtime readers of mine know that my view of vintages is that, in general, you can’t really tell the overall quality until a number of years have passed and you’ve tasted enough wines in bottle to see how they’re actually doing, as opposed to how you thought they should be doing. It’s true that most wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, ask us writers to predict the quality of a vintage almost as soon as it’s over, but I’ve always striven to let readers know that such appraisals are at best preliminary educated guesses.
The last time I felt in my bones that a vintage was great, and that predictions of its quality didn’t need to be hedged, was 2007. Even at the time, I was calling it “the vintage of the century,” and quoting winemakers who were similarly excited. Jason Drew, at Drew Family Cellars, had told me “It’s hard for me to contain myself,” he was so pleased. True, some rain came by early October, as it almost always does; but, as I noted at the time, “Luckily, once it stopped raining, warm sunshine came back and late ripeners, like Cabernet, dried out.” And indeed, 2007 has turned out to be one of those perfect California vintages where the wines were opulent right out of the bottle, but also ageworthy.
This year has been even better. Steady-as-she-goes might be the byword. There was no killer frost in the spring, no wildfires to give smoke taint to the grapes, very little in the way of heat waves, no huge production as there was last vintage, and as for that pesky rainstorm a few weeks ago, despite some concerns at the time, all it ended up doing was washing the dust off the grapes.
I always say that grapes like the same kind of weather we humans do; and we humans have been liking this summer, especially the last two months, which are the crucial ones from the harvest’s point of view. I emailed my friend, our local Channel 2’s morning meteorologist, Steve Paulson, to ask him, “I know that Sept-Oct are always described as our best weather months [in California]. But, after 35 years in the Bay Area, I can’t remember more gorgeous weather than this year. Except for that weird storm a few weeks ago (which actually was good for the grapes), the weather has been spectacular. Do you agree?” Steve replied, “I would agree! Sept/Oct. 2013 has been beautiful. Best I can remember too. Cool nights, sunny and mild to warm days. No extremes either way. The ‘weird’ rain was great in my mind. Loved it. After nearly 9 months of no rain, it was what I hope is a good sign for more ran this Winter.” So even the weatherman knows which way the wind is blowing.
For those of you who don’t know, Steve’s reference to “nearly 9 months of no rain” underscores the severity of the drought that is gripping California the last two years. The Central Coast has been hard-hit; reports of not enough water for the grapes have been coming in for months. And just the other day, Western Farm Press reported on widespread “trepidation” among growers of all crops (not just grapes) due to “not know[ing] if they will have water…next season.”
At any rate, whatever late ripeners are left on the vine should be gathered in the next few weeks under fine, sunny skies. The next eight days or so will see continued warm [but not hot] days, with clear skies and breezy conditions. As for the winter of 2013-2014, Steve Paulson’s hope for more rain seems to be in the offing: AccuWeather is predicting that “From December through January, California will enter a period of heavy precipitation resulting in much-needed relief from the extreme drought.”
Nicholas Miller, of the family that owns the Bien Nacido and other vineyards in Santa Barbara County, says of 2013, “From a quality perspective, this is what people dream of!” I’ll just add that, even before tasting a single barrel sample from 2013, I predict that this vintage will be one for the history books.
In the 1950 movie, Sunset Boulevard, a slightly gaga Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond, an aging Hollywood movie star past her sell-by date, sits in the gloom of her mansion’s movie room watching old silent films of herself with her employee, played by William Holden, who tries to pretend he’s not freaked out by his boss’s increasing dottiness. At one point, Norma’s dipsy stroll down memory lane bursts into an insane marathon.
“We didn’t need dialog, we had faces,” she muses, as Holden’s character squirms. “There just aren’t any faces like that anymore.” Then, she begins to shriek. “Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” [Here’s a clip of that great scene.]
“Where are the faces”? was the theme of a speech given last week by California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom. Speaking at the California Wine Summit, Gavin didn’t use that precise phrasing, but the absence of faces in promoting California wine was clearly what he meant by the lack of “high-profile personalities” to “project our image. I argue that there is now a vacuum of leadership and we as an industry need to reconcile that quickly.”
It is demonstrably true that the California wine industry no longer has giants of the stature of Robert Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff, Jess Jackson and Ernest and Julio Gallo. These men were famous beyond their considerable achievements; indeed, they were “high-profile personalities,” as well known to millions of Americans as movie stars or sports heroes. They were Faces. It’s impossible to imagine California wine being what it is today if they hadn’t been here to promote it.
Do we have faces today? Some years ago, I speculated that Bill Harlan was emerging as a replacement in Napa Valley for Robert Mondavi (not that anyone ever could replace him). Bill was building up his winery empire and increasingly emerging from his relative seclusion to make himself available to the public via the media. But, for whatever reason, Bill changed tack. Perhaps sticking his toe in the water determined for him that this was not something he really wanted to do.
I know the California wine industry pretty thoroughly. When I ask myself, “Who are the modern faces,” some names arise. Peter Mondavi, Sr., Joseph E. Gallo and Mike Grgich remain actively at their posts. There also are many men and, thankfully now, women in their 50s and 60s who are carrying the torch forward; I wouldn’t begin to list them because I’d have to leave some names out. But I think it’s fair to say that no one alive today carries the sheer weight that our late, great giants did. So, in that sense, I have to agree with Gavin.
Could Gavin himself be the man? He’s pretty actively involved in all aspects of his wine business (the PlumpJack Hospitality Group). But he’s also a professional politician holding a fulltime job, and he may well have ambitions that would carry him considerably further than California’s Lieutenant Governorship. To be a Face in the wine industry pretty much requires a 24/7 commitment to your work, which is something that Gavin is not capable of at this time.
Why do we no longer have faces? Another speaker at the Summit, Wine Institute president and CEO Bobby Koch, observed, “It’s only natural that when you lose the pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Ernest Gallo or Joe Heitz you lose something important to our industry, and the next generation are not the founders so it is a bit different.” We tend to lionize founders and discoverers, the Christropher Columbuses who found new worlds. Those who follow in their footsteps may be equally accomplished, but may find themselves overshadowed by the giants.
Koch added, on a hopeful note, “We will see more of the second, third or fourth generation stepping up.” I have no doubt that that is happening now; from Santa Barbara to the Sierra Foothills, the kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids of pioneers are keeping the wine industry moving forward.
But I do wonder if California will ever again boast superstars, famous the world over, whose very names are household words that imply everything California wine has to offer. So if I conclude by asking, “Where are the faces?”, it’s not an accusation, it’s a lamentation.
I got miffed the other day at someone I love. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, and agreed to meet up in Oakland to catch up. No sooner had we kissed cheeks than she whipped out her iPhone and began fumbling with it.
I had thought that we’d chat for a while. “How are you? What’s new”–and do the real social thing, which is human interaction and communication. Instead, within 30 seconds of greeting each other, the lady was totally absorbed in trying to download a photo to her Facebook page.
Well, I took some umbrage at that. But what can you do? Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong. Yesterday, I was having lunch with two young friends, both in their twenties, a prime demographic for living the online life. I laid out my case: People spend too much time gazing into blue screens, and not enough time in the real world, perceiving the things around them, making eye contact, talking to actual people instead of digital ones.
I was surprised that my two young friends agreed with me.
A few weeks ago, a man on a bus in San Francisco shot another man in the back, in what police called a random shooting. The victim died. This would be just another shocking case of senseless violence, except for this telltale fact: Although the shooter had raised and lowered his gun “several…times,” pointing it down the aisle of a crowded bus, no one on the packed bus reacted, or even saw it. Instead, “Their eyes, focused on smartphones and tablets, don’t lift until the gunman fires a bullet…”.
Their eyes could block out the reality around them, but their ears couldn’t. The San Francisco Chronicle, in reporting this troubling incident, headlined the article “Absorbed device users oblivious to danger.”
With all this fresh in my head, when I sat down at the computer yesterday morning, I found an online article through LinkedIn Today. The title, “Why Small Business Isn’t Winning on Social,” grabbed my attention, as a good headline should. I clicked on the link.
The article made some good, if hardly newsworthy, points: that lots of mom-and-pop businesses aren’t trying social media because they believe they can’t afford the time or the money. The author made the additional point that “many” social media consultants “can be dishonest about the realities of what they can do for their client,” which is something I’ve been saying about the social media consulting complex for years. (“Give me your money. I promise ROI!”) I thought it was pretty cool for the writer, who was obviously a proponent of social media, to admit that the field is riddled with fraud.
But my jaw dropped when, at the end of the article, the author came out and said the main problem with small businesses is that they don’t spend enough time at social media. He estimated it takes “a solid 9-10 hours a day of work”!!! I had to reread that. Didn’t he mean 9-10 hours a week? No, a day.
Can you imagine spending 9-10 hours a day doing social media? It’s impossible for me to wrap my head around that. How would it even be possible, with everything else that people do, such as working, commuting, eating, raising kids, walking the dog, reading a book, keeping up with the news, maintaining actual relationships with friends, working out at the gym, and, oh yes, sleeping?
The author has an answer for that: “You can always sleep a few hours less every week.” This, in a nation where “insufficient sleep is [already] a public health epidemic,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
When I got to the end of the article, still gob-smacked and incredulous, I realized who had written it, and why. “You can find out more,” the author concluded, “at garyvaynerchuk.com.”
Did you know that the U.S. wine market is “plagued by old guard attitude and pretension”?
So says Leora Kalikow, who describes herself on her Huffington Post blog as a “a wine geek and sommelier, dining and drinking her way through New York City” as well as “Director of Communications” for a company “dedicated to changing the way Millennials drink.”
Now, I don’t know Leora. She’s probably a very nice person, and I wish her well in her business endeavors, as well as in her wine-and-food peregrinations around the city where I was born and grew up. But I’m afraid she’s been drinking the Kool-Aid that says that Millennials are the be-all and end-all of everything meaningful in the culture today, while we old guard Boomers are–well, “plagued by attitude and pretension.”
Let’s get our ducks in a row.
I’ve met plenty of Boomers with “attitude” and I’ve met plenty of Millennials with “attitude.” “Attitude” isn’t a phenomenon restricted to any one age group. “Attitude” occurs in people who don’t know how to treat others lovingly and respectfully. If you have “attitude,” you behave one way with people you like and approve of, while you treat everybody else like merde. So let’s dispense with this Boomer “attitude” thing.
What about “pretension”? I suppose some of the Boomers Leora runs into (presumably, as she’s dining and drinking her way through New York City) appear pretentious to her. What does this mean? Only Leora really knows, but we can infer that every once in a while a Boomer will say something about wine that strikes Leora as snobby. Again, we’ve all met pretentious people, but are Boomers any more pretentious than anyone else? I don’t think so.
In fact, to accuse the American wine market of being “plagued by old guard attitude and pretention” is a bit hyperbolic, isn’t it? “Plagued” is an awfully strong word; AIDS is a plague, not people Leora finds annoying. If Leora really feels that way, I would suggest that the “attitude” might be on her part, not on the Boomers’.
There’s more. “Millennials have learned to embrace, accept and expect the good life…no generation has exhibited such a pronounced desire for the finer things since [sic] this one,” Leora writes. Leaving aside that problematic word “since,” I have a one-word reaction: Really? One might have thought that upper-class Europeans and Americans during The Gilded Age [c. 1870-1900] were more attracted to gilt and glitter than the Milliennials; or perhaps the get-rich-at-any-cost ambitions of Reagan-era Americans (a generation than spawned more MBAs than any before or since), or even my own Baby Boomers, who certainly never met any aspect of “the good life”, whether it be gustatory, sexual or pharmacological, they didn’t embrace.
The problem with such axiomatic pronouncements is that they fail to correspond with reality. What one can say about Millennials is that they have access to more of the world’s cultural influences [including wine and food] than any generation before. But Millennials are not in kind different from any other generation. This is a meme you often hear here at steveheimoff.com. Human nature doesn’t change in fundamental ways, despite whatever technological advances may be occurring.
This has been my core problem with some Millennialistas and their inflated view of themselves: this predilection to believe that they, with their social media and smartphones, are somehow qualitatively different from, and inherently superior to, the “pretentious old guard,” who apparently wrecked everything, leaving them to pick up the pieces. I have never understood the animus Millennials hold toward Boomers, which may be more a function of their own familial psychodramas vis-a-vis their parents than of anything objective. I wish we could finally end this us vs. them mentality of Millennials and Boomers, whose origins I lay at the doorstep of the former.