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Happy birthday Jess Jackson

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It took a posting by George Rose on Facebook to remind me that this past Tuesday, Feb. 18, would have been Jess Jackson’s 84th birthday.

George was, of course, the P.R. and communications guy at K-J, for years. He always was so helpful to a working reporter like me. People think my job is just drinking wine and eating at great restaurants, but the truth is, any wine writer depends on accurate and timely information–and for that, you have to have communications specialists at wineries who know how to get the skinny, fast. George was very good at that.

I don’t remember the first time I met Jess Jackson. We met perhaps ten times over the years, not a great deal of contact, but enough for me to get the measure of the man. I think the memory that remains firmest in my mind is when Wine Enthusiast gave him a Special Lifetime Achievement Award, back in 2006. (He’d previously been the magazine’s first Man [now Person] of the Year, in 2000.)  This was at our big black tie event (I don’t remember if it was at the 42nd St. Library or the Planetarium; we switched venues around that time). I was seated at Jess’s table. After he’d received the award and given his speech, toward the end of the night, he turned to me. With tears in his eyes, we embraced. He was a big man, physically. I am a small man. I felt like I was being wrapped into an energy field of love, warmth, power and emotion. It was really something.

As a reporter, I’ve always tried to maintain a professional distance from the people I cover. There used to be a political reporter for one of the big eastern newspapers who covered Washington. D.C. He was famous for never going to the cocktail parties the city is known for, explaining that he didn’t want to get too close to the politicians he might have to criticize. When you like someone, it’s harder to cut them up in print, or, in the case of a wine critic, to bash their wine. I thought that was good advice and tried to emulate it.

Nonetheless, I’m only human, and can’t help but liking some people more than others. Jess Jackson was one I liked, tremendously, and my affection for him was enhanced by my admiration for what he accomplished professionally. To start Kendall-Jackson is one thing, and would have ensured Jess’s place in the history of the wine industry. To launch Jackson Family Wines–and to make the radical move of using only coastal grapes for all his brands, which is far more expensive than depending on Central Valley fruit–was high risk to the extreme, considering the cut-throat nature of the business. I suspect some of his financial people warned him not to do it. But Jess knew what he wanted, which was the highest-possible quality wine, and he was determined to do what it took to get the job done. Not only that, but he kept his prices as moderate as he could. He always said he aimed to make wine at least as good as, if not better than, his competitors, but at a lower price. In this, he succeeded.

So happy birthday, Jess.


The Beatles, Napa Valley and wine

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This Sunday, Feb. 9, marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

ed-sullivan-theater

I watched it, live, with a bunch of my friends. If you’re not old enough to remember the impact of The Beatles, you can’t possibly imagine what it was like. I don’t think there was an entertainment phenomenon like it before, and certainly there hasn’t been one like it since.

The entire country, it seemed, was in thrall to the Moptops (as they were lovingly dubbed, for their bowl-shaped hairdos). I don’t think we understood, at the time, exactly why The Beatles were so exciting. All we knew was that something amazing had happened in our lives, in the life of the country and of the world, for that matter, and that we were privileged to be a part of it.

That pregnant moment in U.S. history saw the birth, not just of a new era of rock and roll music that was to become the soundtrack of millions of people’s lives, but of cultural shockwaves that still are unfolding today. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated less than two months previously; his vigor remained with us, but we were still in shock that such a thing as a Presidential murder could occur in America. The Beatles helped nurse us through to recovery. Of course, the Civil Rights movement also was rapidly changing the face of America, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who that same year, 1964, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In California, an echo of sorts was happening–one that was a West Coast, distinctly American version of the revolution that had arrived from England to New York City. Curiously, it was another English import, expat Peter Newton, who founded Sterling Vineyards that same year, 1964. The conventional historical wisdom is that the modern boutique winery era began with Robert Mondavi’s launch of his winery, in 1966. While that is a romantically appealing notion, it’s not strictly true. (Recall that Joe Heitz started his winery in 1961.)

Ironically, 1964 also was the year that one of a handful of truly historic boutique wineries, Ingelnook, was sold, to Heublein, which ran the winery into the ground, causing it to lose the luster it had acquired since its glory days under Gustave Niebaum and, later, John Daniel, Jr. One way to look at this yin-yang inversion (Sterling being born, Inglenook dying) is to see California at that moment in wine history as in a state of ferment (no pun intended). As in all revolutions, things came into being, and other things began their inevitable process of disintegration. In retrospect, we can appreciate that The Beatles helped demolish Doo Wop music, and also contributed to the demise of Elvis Presley (with all due regard to his legions of fans), or, if not the actual Elvis, at least his old-fashioned style of music. The Beatles bore much in common, in fact, with boutique wines: They were artisanal, honest, natural, fresh, innovative and above all interesting. Their music showed a complexity (there’s no other word) that Doo Wop, for all its teenaged pleasures, never did. Sterling’s first Merlots (the first to be varietally labeled in the U.S.) lifted the average Napa Valley red wine to unprecedented heights, in much the same way The Beatles elevated the quality of pop music.

One more comparison seems apt. The Beatles left us with a legacy of some of the most wonderful, unforgettable rock and roll songs in history. In much the same way, even as their careers unfolded throughout the 1960s, so too did winery after winery come into being in Napa Valley during that period and into the 1970s: great names like Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, Cuvaison, Clos du Val and Mondavi. Those names, to me, carry all the artistic lyricism of great Beatles songs: I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Saw Her Standing There, All My Loving. It is the winery as art, as dynamic human creativity. Robert Lewis Stevenson said, on those signs that frame the northern and southern ends of Napa Valley, that wine is bottled poetry. Perhaps it can also be said that wine is bottled music.

Have a lovely weekend!


Being Wilfred Wong’s Twelfth Man

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Why are some people so (anonymously) nasty on the Internet? It’s really the saddest aspect of a digital community that, aside from that, is a pretty nice place to hang out.

My old friend Wilfred Wong posted on Facebook an unsigned email he got, (you’ll have to scroll down on Wilfred’s feed to the post that begins “Today was a day of mixed blessings”) from a person who obviously has (a) anger management issues and (b) too much time on his or hands or (c) both. Now, Wilfred, for those who don’t know who he is (and I would assume most of my readers do), is the Cellar Master at BevMo, the big liquor chain with a gazillion outlets in the Far West. His primary job, as he writes, “is researching wines (and now beer and spirits) for their quality.” I’ve known Wilfred longer than anyone else I know in the wine industry. We met around 1982. I was a novice: he already was knee-deep in wine, literally. So Wilfred’s had a lot of experience.

Which gets to the point. Why do so many people in the wine social media world think that experience is bad? It doesn’t make sense. Throughout all of human history, societies have respected their more experienced members, whether they be shamans, healers or hunters. These are the members who hold the society together–who constitute its collective memory–who form a living link between Now and The Past. Yes, every now and then there are revolutions–none more noteworthy than our own American–but even when we won, we respected older traditions of honesty, integrity, fairness. Those were not American values; they were human values.

But now, especially in the wine blogosphere and on Twitter, we have arrived at a period of incivility. People feel free to insult others with far more accomplishments than their own–and they do it all too often anonymously. Perhaps even more appalling is when they reveal their identities: then their attacks are done with impunity.

Here’s my message to the coward who emailed Wilfred: You try doing what he’s done. Try lasting 30-plus years at the top of your profession, earning not just good money but the love and respect of your peers throughout the industry. (If you want proof of that love and respect, read through the comments on Wilfred’s post.)

By the way, trashing a big box store like BevMo is the height of arrogance. It’s like the people who only drink expensive wine and think average-priced wine is for “the little people who pay taxes” (as Leona Helmsley once described us). For one thing, BevMo has some very fine wines, but that’s beside the point: What’s important is that BevMo gives value in wine to millions of Americans. What’s wrong with that? And Wilfred, through his service, makes their shopping experience a lot easier and more delightful than it would otherwise be.

So please, you harpies out there taking aim at Baby Boomer writers and critics, chill. You won’t get anywhere just hurling spears. If you want to achieve a career in the wine industry, I suggest you do exactly what Wilfred has done: hunker down, work hard, make friends and be respectful. That’s always been the way success comes.


On blogging, [in]correct claims and the Constitution

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Bloggers have long identified themselves as having the same right to express their opinions through reportage as do traditional journalists writing for newspapers, AKA “the mainstream media,” even though they may have had no formal journalistic training, and no editors or fact-checkers are around to make sure they get their facts straight.

Now, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based here in San Francisco, apparently agrees. In a ruling that hasn’t attracted the attention it should, they threw out most of a lawsuit against a blogger, Crystal Cox, who had been sued for defamation by a investment consulting company, Obsidian Finance Group, after Cox accused them of “fraud, corruption and other misconduct” on her blog, crystalcox.com.

A self-described “investigative blogger,” Cox, who defended herself in the lawsuit, argued [as she wrote on her blog] that “Bloggers have Equality [sic] with reporters such as the New York Times” and that, in essence, if a newspaper like the Times can make allegations against public officials or corporations, so can she, as an “Anti-Corruption Blogger[s], Whistleblower[s], and Citizen Journalist[s].”

That stance is what the Court of Appeals agreed with. The Court determined that “The protections of the 1st Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities.”

No one disagreed that Cox’s blog postings were, in the Los Angeles Times’ words, “rants [to the] extreme.” Rather, the Court ruled that, since Cox did not act with “actual malice,” she had the right to express herself.

I have no idea if Cox is correct or not; that’s not the point. But journalists and First Amendment defenders no doubt will celebrate this ruling. I do; I would not want to see a blogger self-censor herself, out of fear of being sued by a big, wealthy, bullying corporation. But this case does raise troubling questions.

Granted that a blogger has the right to publish her rants, does that give him or her credibility?

Ought the public to believe “investigative blogging” in which no editor or fact-checker is present as a balancing restraint, as is the case with newspapers?

How can the public determine the accuracy of blogs, a medium notoriously devoid of traditional ethical and publishing standards (e.g., the reporter has to have multiple sources for each assertion, and there has to be a bright line between editorial, on the one hand, and opinion, on the other)?

Can the public know for sure that a blogger does not have ulterior motives? Newspaper reporters are much less likely to have hidden agendas precisely because their work is scrutinized by editors, and they ultimately are answerable to (and fireable by) a publisher.

Better yet, how can we educate the public to be discerning when they digest the content of blogs?

These questions become even more poignant when we consider that traditional journalism is being challenged by blogs and other forms of self-publishing on the Internet and “alternative media,” in this post-Citizens United atmosphere. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates that “Congress” [i.e. the Government] “shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”). “The press” later was defined, by the U.S. Supreme Court, as “every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.” It was this sweeping definition, which obviously includes blogs, that the Court of Appeals apparently subscribed to in their decision.

But we are entering into dangerous waters when we have an increasingly powerful “Press” that is devoid of traditional restraints against unproven and unresearched allegations. I hardly need point out a growing section of the American population that believes nothing the Mainstream Media says–and turns instead to “journalistic sources” (including blogs) that are patently nothing more than mouthpieces for (often unidentified) corporate, political and personal interests, regardless of whatever claims they make of serving the public interest.

The balancing act American journalism must tread is one between First Amendment rights, including the right to self-publish a blog, and the preservation of some standard of truth by which to judge published claims. We should celebrate diversity of opinion, of course, but we also should insist on a strict adherence to facts and their correct interpretation.

No easy task.


Putting myself in the consumer’s shoes

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I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film, the other day, and I frankly couldn’t tell if I liked it or not. Afterwards, when Marilyn asked what I thought, all I could say was, “I don’t know.” I wanted to Google it and see what the reviewers and other moviegoers thought.

Which is exactly what I did when I got home. It turned out that lots of folks were as puzzled as I was, but the point of this post is that, by myself, I just didn’t know what to think, and needed to know how others felt before making up my own mind.

Which is pretty odd, because usually I know if I like a movie or not. So I had to wonder why it was that I felt the need to know how others reacted, before coming to my own conclusion–and then it hit me. That’s pretty much the situation lots of consumers have when it comes to wine. They don’t know what to think (i.e., what to buy), and so they turn to the opinions of others for guidance.

It’s only natural, I suppose. Sometimes we know precisely how we feel about things, for or against. Other times, though, we’re kind of in the middle, and need a nudge, one way or the other, to arrive at a conclusion. I’m not sure why some things are clear to us while others aren’t. In matters of taste (gustation), things are usually pretty simple. You like sea urchin; I don’t, and that’s that.

But wine can be trickier than food. For one thing, wine is more complex than most food. While it can be a simple pleasure (and for most of the world, that’s all it is), at the higher levels wine requires the consumer to bring something to the table. It’s like art in that respect. It’s hard for the average person to appreciate, say, Keith Haring, without an understanding of his context: New York City of the 1980s, street art/graffiti, AIDS, the Studio 54 scene, break dancing, cocaine, a certain anti-”high art” attitude.. If you have some knowledge of those phenomena, then a Haring piece becomes much more than the cartoon it can appear to be to the uninitiated.

Haring

There are, I suppose, two kinds of people: those who aren’t interested in expanding their perspectives, and those who are. The latter are curious about things, especially things that seem to be important to others. In the Jewish tradition, there is the story, told during the Passover seder, of the Four Sons: the simple son (too lazy to wonder about anything), the wicked son (who believes in little except himself), the son who doesn’t know enough to ask (his ignorance is his limiting factor) and the wise son (who inquires into the nature of things). The implication of this tale, of course, is that we should be like the wise son: inquisitive, open to expanding our knowledge, curious to increase our understanding of the world.

It was this curiosity to understand Inside Llewyn Davis that drove me to Google it. I can’t claim to have a proper understanding of it even now, but my little expedition online made me think. And the more I think about Inside Llewyn Davis and what the Coen Brothers and the actors were trying to do, the more interesting I find the movie in retrospect. Because it challenged me, it forced the limits of my mind to expand a little bit. And opening my mind to new concepts has always been a great pleasure to me.

So we return to wine. There are two kinds of people with regard to wine, too: those who like it and like to drink it, but have little or no curiosity about learning anything about it. And then there are those who are willing to take steps to understand wine. These begin with small, simple steps: Why are some wines white, some red, and some rosé? Why are some wines sweet while others aren’t? Why do wines of the same variety differ so widely in price? These are perfectly good, logical questions for the beginner to ask–and from there, you can branch out wherever you want, even into things like what the chalk of Chablis contributes to Chardonnay.

It’s in that area–the branching out, the effort to understand what doesn’t come easily to the mind, to penetrate more deeply into the heart of a topic–that people need guidance. I needed guidance to help me understand Inside Llewyn Davis. And the curious wine consumer–the “wise son” (and daughter)–needs guidance to help her understand wine.

There are many reasons why wine so often is so challenging for so many people. Maybe I’ll try to analyze that in depth someday. But for now, I want to say the answer to wine’s complexity is not to become one of those people who says he or she is in the business of “demystifying wine” or “making wine simple” or “taking the snobbery out of wine.” All such boasts should be seen for what they are: transparent attempts to take advantage of people’s insecurity in order to make money.


Happy New Year! Reflections on 2013

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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.


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