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Why the West Coast sets the tone in style



It’s not an exact match, but if you superimposed a map of red and blue states on top of another map showing state per capita wine consumption in the U.S., there would be a lot of overlap.

Blue and Red States

united states wine consumption map
Per capita consumption by state

So do Dems drink more wine than GOPers? The jury’s out on that one; lots of studies, but no definite conclusions. However, one interesting study does seem to suggest that liberals like wine more than their conservative counterparts. This scatter chart


has Democrat-skewing people drinking more alcohol than Republicans, and drinking different kinds, too: For example, Ravenswood and Charles Shaw veer Democratic, while Kendall-Jackson and Sterling lean Republican. Republicans, if they drink (and many don’t), also seem to like spirits more than Democrats (although you’d never know that after a night on the town here in Oakland!). I have no idea why that is, but I do know this: Wine and food trends start on the West Coast and then spread over the country.

This came to mind over the weekend, when the Wall Street Journal’s “Personal Journal” section published this piece, called “But How Will It Play in Portland?” The article was on how Portland, Oregon “is known…for setting food and restaurant trends that catch on around the U.S.” Despite the headline, there was nothing I saw in the article that particularly supported this argument—after reading it, I have no idea what trends Portland started.

So I interpreted “Portland” to mean the entire West Coast, especially Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, both of which really have bequeathed food and drinking traditions to America, everything from coffee and sourdough bread to California cuisine, the farm-to-table movement, locovorism, freshness, Asian influences, craft beer and, of course, artisanal wine. The philosopher and mystical gadfly, Alan Watts, once referred to coastal California, including Big Sur and Marin County, as power centers for spirituality—magical places where magically creative people want to live, free of the shackles of conventional norms. Surely Seattle, Portland and San Francisco are such places. And surely, such an iconoclasm is necessary for true innovation in the creative arts.

We have, then, the Bay Area to thank for the gift of wine culture to America. (Proof? Just read Harry Waugh’s diaries to appreciate how a small cadre of wine-loving friends made it all happen in the 1960s.) Perhaps it would have happened if, say, the West Coast ended at Sacramento, perish the thought. Perhaps. But I don’t think so. For all the knocking of San Francisco, and the coastal Pacific Northwest, by certain elements in society, we have influenced this nation in a tremendous way, and will continue to do so, because in order for culture to spread to new places and populations—to go viral, as it were—it has to appeal to the best and brightest: the young, the inquisitive, the intellectual, the creative–the artists and musicians and writers and thinkers, the poets and philosophers and chefs and winemakers, who make America what it is.

Petite Sirah “garbage”? C’mon, Andy Blue!



To say that I was shocked when I read Andy Blue’s editorial in the latest edition of The Tasting Panel would be an understatement.

It’s a sharp, almost brutal attack on California Petite Sirah—so malicious in tone that I truly don’t understand where Andy is coming from—at least, the Andy I’ve known, liked and admired for decades. He’s a polite, gentlemanly type, thoughtful, wry and scholarly–not given to diatribes or the kind of invective displayed in this hit piece.

He calls Petite Sirah a “garbage grape” and a “Frankenstein monster.” He is “offended” by it, as though Petite Sirah had personally insulted him. In what is possibly the most hyperbolic exaggeration I’ve ever read in a wine article, he speculates that Petite Sirah is “European pay back for America exporting phylloxera to them,” thereby equating the grape and wine with a pest that kills vines and almost destroyed the French wine industry. He supposes that Petite Sirah is possibly better than “toxic bathtub gin,” but—one feels—not by much. He concludes that no one “in their right mind” would choose to drink it, even over Barbera, one of the most disagreeable wines in California.

I mean, what’s going on?

I’m not saying Petite Sirah is the greatest wine in the world. I drink very little; I would not normally buy it for myself. But there are hundreds of varieties and wines I would not normally buy for myself, but which I can be objective about as a critic; I don’t loathe them the way Andy seems to hate Petite Sirah. Even the title of Andy’s piece, P.S., I Don’t Get It, seems designed to mock P.S. I Love You, the Petite Sirah trade and marketing group.

Petite Sirah has its place, definitely, in the world of robust, full-bodied and dry red wines. And there is something historically Californian about it. I’ve particularly enjoyed bottles from Madrigal, Titus, Envy, Ridge, Kent Rasmussen, Zina Hyde Cunningham, Sirius, Turley and Grgich Hills, among others (and you’ll notice that most of those came from Napa Valley). Don’t forget, some of the ancient vine field blends we so rightly celebrate in California are based, largely or in part, on Petite Sirah. You want to talk ageabiilty? A great Petite Sirah will last longer than any Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Look, properly grown, well-made Petite Sirah can be a dramatic, rich, enjoyable wine; most of them are no longer the monsters they used to be, as vintners treat the vines and wines with more respect, ending up with balanced, less alcoholic bottlings. And Petite Sirah is the ideal partner to the kinds of foods restaurateurs serve up at P.S. I Love You’s “Dark and Delicious” event, held annually at Kent Rosenblum’s Rock Wall Wine Co.: pork and beef stews, short ribs, sausages, burgers, and anything with chocolate. So, old pal Andy–a great entrepreneur and brilliant media idea man–I think you maybe woke up on the wrong side of bed when you wrote that piece.

What social media does really well



Last week, after The Donald unleashed his tirade against Mexicans, I posted a petition on my Facebook page urging Macy’s to “fire” Trump by cancelling their sponsorship of his clothing line.

Lo and behold, the very next day, Macy’s announced that they were doing exactly that: they dumped Trump.

Much as I would love to take personal credit for that, I can’t. Hundreds of thousands of people signed the petition, which Macy’s apparently took very seriously. And so Donald Trump is learning that words, even hastily uttered, have consequences.

That was an example of what social media does best: galvanizing popular outrage and channeling it in effective ways. Another example is this issue of the confederate flag in South Carolina. We know how that turned out: they decided to remove the flag from their statehouse. Certainly, South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, had a lot to do with the outcome, with her brave personal reaction; but in reality, it was “social media, not businesses or politicians, [that] drove [the] flag removal,” in the words of this perceptive San Francisco Chronicle piece.

Almost as soon as the dreadful Charleston church shootings were over and it was learned that the shooter fancied the confederate flag, activists began a concerted campaign to force major corporations, such as Walmart and Sears, to stop selling confederate flag-related products. Those companies responded quickly. Anti-confederate flag sentiment went viral on Twitter and other social media, and voters besieged South Carolina lawmakers, who also responded quickly, by voting to remove the flag.

I saw this power of social media to politically stimuate huge numbers of people as early as 2011, when tens of thousands of Egyptians, communicating via Twitter, mobilized in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest against then-President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime. The dictatorship responded in exactly the wrong way: by attempting to suppress Twitter and Facebook, “a grave mistake” that was “the beginning of the end” for the regime. The author Wael Ghonim has called this spectacular continuation of the Arab Spring “Revolution 2.0” in his book of the same name.

This is what social media was designed for: it encourages communication and sharing, empowers and amplifies the voiceless, and can bleed over into the mainstream media when things go viral—thus influencing the course of history. I could cite instance after instance of social media’s political muscle, from the people’s overthrow of Filipino President Joseph Estrada and the similar overthrow of Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar to the Catholic Church’s troubles with pedophile priests.

I celebrate social media for these reasons—and I keep in mind that social media also has a less spectacular but no less wonderful use: that of merely allowing us to stay in touch with friends (both real and digital), to learn from them and be amused and inspired and make our lives less disconnected from each other. That is a fantastic thing, McLuhan’s global village writ digitally. What is far less clear is whether social media can play a strong role in the prosaic business of selling things. That is, as Dorothy noted, a horse of a different color.


What Prosecco tells us about the future of wine



Prosecco, as you know, has been on a roll lately, but when you read headlines like this:

“PROSECCO OVERTAKING CHAMPAGNE AS SPARKLING WINE OF CHOICE”, you know that something far more important than the ephemeral popularity of a particular wine is happening. Why is Prosecco so hot?

Two things:

  1. Millennials coming of age
  2. The Great Recession

Concerning Millennials, they “aren’t earning as much money as their parents did when they were young,” a situation that’s even worse for Millennial women. Saddled with student debt, they’re unable to afford homes, and in general are feeling financial pressures in a way their parents (my generation) never did (at least, until the Great Recession struck). So when it comes to discretionary spending, Millennials are spending downward.

Speaking of that Great Recession, it impacted all of us. Trillions of dollars went down the drain. “The wealth of most Americans down 55% since recession,” CBS MoneyWatch headlined in 2013. We’ve made some of that back since then, but Americans of all ages still are feeling the pinch, which is why U.S. economic growth has been so sluggish.

Under the circumstance, you have to consider two things concerning sparkling wine: quality and price. Simply put, Champagne is expensive, Prosecco isn’t. The average price of a bottle of French Champagne on a restaurant wine list is $117. I couldn’t find anything online concerning the average price of Prosecco, but on Snooth, they list many Proseccos, mostly below $20 a bottle, so even if you double that for a restaurant wine list, it’s only about $40.

And qualitatively, as we all know, a good Prosecco is as satisfying as Champagne. So why would anyone choose to buy Champagne, except for image and perceptions?

For me, the issue here isn’t about Prosecco per se, it’s about the average American looking for less expensive wines than perhaps her parents used to. I was up in Napa Valley yesterday, and we were chatting about expensive wine, and how and if these pricy bottles of Napa Cab will continue to exist into the future. Someone asked me my opinion, and I replied that I’ve been wrong in my prognostications so many times in the past that I’ve basically given up on the prediction game. But still, a part of me just can’t see folks who are, say, in their twenties today spending $50 or $60 per bottle retail as they hit middle age, or spending $100-plus for a bottle in a restaurant. I just think some things in America have fundamentally changed: the Great Recession, as I said, but something else: We’ve become a more frugal country, less apt to consume conspicuously. The outrages of the super-rich have changed our sense of right and wrong; our moral compass has swung back to what it was at this country’s beginnings: living simply.

At the height of the Great Recession, there was much talk of “The New Frugality,” as for instance here and here; everyone agreed it was a reality, and the only question was whether it would continue once the Great Recession lifted. Well, the Great Recession now has lifted (the country actually hasn’t been in recession for years), but, as Forbes noted just last year, an enduring ‘New Frugality’…has Americans of prime working age, mainly 25 to 55, spending less, working less, and buying cheaper.” That, it seems to me, is likely to mark this nation for many years to come. It’s why people are preferring Prosecco to Champagne, and why we’re likely to see a similar switch in other wine types, if it hasn’t already happened.

Bloggers: stop the insults, now.



There used to be sexism in the wine business. I know, because I know some wonderful women winemakers who began their careers in the 1970s and told me their stories. Even though they had winemaking degrees, they couldn’t get hired anyplace but the laboratory, because the white men who owned the wineries thought they’d be incompetent as winemakers.

Well, we don’t have sexism anymore, thank goodness. But we have another form of prejudice that’s just as pernicious: ageism.

Read, for example, this piece, from Snooth, that refers to “old white guys.” The author of the Snooth piece, James Duren, is quoting Jeff Siegel, the proprietor of a wine blog called In the Snooth piece, Duren is writing about the demise of the point-scoring system (yes, again…yawn), and apparently came across something Siegel had written on his blog (I tried to find it but couldn’t, so I will trust that Duren is quoting Siegel accurately). Siegel was going on about how social media is changing wine is such fundamental ways that the entire sales and distribution chain is being upset, which, he claimed, is “something the old white guys can’t even begin to understand.”

Okay, let’s break this down.

First of all, Siegel isn’t exactly some cool young dude. Here’s a picture of him from his website

SiegelPhoto credit:

that makes it clear his younger self is fast disappearing in the rear view mirror. So words of wisdom, Mr. Siegel: Be careful whom you disparage. What goes around, comes around, in this world of karma.

But even worse than Siegel’s uncalled-for rudeness is its absolute incorrectness. I’ve worked with plenty of “old white guys” in the wine industry who are a lot smarter and more successful than Mr. Siegel will ever be. In fact, the winery owners and executives I know understand precisely how social media, online buying and all that is rocking their world. They’re trying to deal with it the best they can, the same as everyone else: the problem, as I’ve pointed out for years, is that there are no easy solutions.

Look: When you’re a little blogger, it’s easy to pontificate. That’s what some bloggers do: From the ivory tower of their desktops they type the most vapid absurdities into their computers, then hit the “Publish” button and think they come across like Einstein declaring the Theory of Relativity.

But not a single one of these bloggers actually runs a wine business! (If I’m wrong, let me know. But I don’t think I am.) They’ve never sold a damn bottle of wine, never had to hit gridlocked roads visiting with on-premise or off-premise accounts, never had to come up with a marketing campaign, never had to develop a winery website, never sent a wine sample off to a critic, never lived with the fallout of a bad review, never hosted a winemaker dinner, never had to meet a payroll for field workers and secretaries, never had to fix a tractor on a cold rainy morning, never stayed up for three days and nights doing a harvest. None of that, nada, zero, zilch. And yet they think that being a blogger puts them in a position to criticize older winery owners and tell them how to run their business.


What is this fear and loathing these not-so-young bloggers have for “old white guys” anyway? Their psychological hangup obviously is connected to their hatred of point scores, and of wine reviewing in general, which they claim is elitist. But then these same bloggers turn around and review wines (from free samples, of course), just like older critics do—and yet without the experience, without the chops, without the context.

Perhaps they’re just acting out subconscious frustrations they feel towards their own parents. Whatever the cause, their anger, rudeness and vitriol is not only ugly, but will hurt them in the long run, because one thing that doesn’t change about the wine industry is that it’s a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and people value respectfulness and kindness. You want to succeed in this business for the long run? Do your homework, learn your stuff, play nice in the sandbox, and wait your turn. You don’t have to tear others down to boost yourself up.

And as for social media completely disrupting the traditional sales model and replacing it with a bunch of “friends recommending to friends,” if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. Ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. Social media has become a useful tool in the overall tool kit with which to market and sell wine, but it’s just that: a tool, and not even a very good one, if we’re going to be brutally honest. We’ve been having this conversation now for eight years and social media still hasn’t displaced traditional marketing and sales approaches. If it worked as well as people like Mr. Siegel claim, don’t you think proprietors would have dismantled their sales and marketing departments—thereby saving tons of money—and simply depended on social media? Of course they would have. But they know something that Mr. Siegel doesn’t: Social media doesn’t work as advertised by its adherents. Are these proprietors simply “old white guys who can’t even begin to understand” how the real world works? Or are they savvy businessmen who require proof, not simple, self-serving assertions, that something works? The latter, methinks. No, meknow.

The changing role of the somm


Predictions of the demise of almost anything are usually exaggerated, as Mark Twain had occasion to note. He was very much alive when it was reported that he had died. Along the same lines, neither are sommeliers about to go the way of the dodo bird, as suggested in this piece, called “Are sommeliers becoming obsolete?”, that appeared in the Chicago edition of Crain’s Business. (You may not be able to read the entire piece if you’re not a subscriber or a particularly adroit Googler.)

The author, Maggie Hennessy, suggests that today’s somms are becoming obsolete due to the phenomenon of “sommelier 2.0”– somms moving more and more into the business, management and financial sides of their restaurants. This not only takes them steadily away from wine, it forces them to concentrate on beer and spirits—beverages they may have only a passing knowledge of and interest in, but that are increasingly important to a restaurant’s bottom line.

I know a sommelier or two—or fifty—and I’ve seen definite changes in how they do their jobs. It used to be that the sommelier was driven more by the discovery of interesting wines and the personal passion she held for them. Of course, he or she had to contribute to the restaurant’s profits, but in the larger scheme of things, the somm was seen as adding a certain esthetic to the operation. It fell to the kitchen to be the profit center; one had the feeling that restaurant ownership felt the sommelier brought added value, in the form of a clear commitment on management’s part to a fine-wine program, which was something diners seemed to appreciate and expect.

Esthetics, unfortunately, don’t pay rent or employee salaries and benefits. The squeeze has been building on fine-dining establishments for years, and was vastly accentuated by the Great Recession, which forced many of them out of business, and compelled others to take a more draconian approach to the bottom line. This is when somms really began feeling the heat: Management said, in effect, “Show us how your monetary results in a return on the investment we’ve made in you, or else we’ll show you the door.”

This is understandable, but it also created a crisis for sommeliers, who suddenly found themselves in an existential dilemma. Were they first and foremost wine lovers whose primary task was to discover gems the public might not know about? Were they simply curators of bloated wine lists stuffed with First Growths and cult Cabs they, themselves, neither could afford nor particularly liked? Or were they mere tools of the CFO, part of a sales staff whose sole responsibility was making money by pretending to be independent arbiters?

Obviously, all somms participate to some extent in all three of these areas. It’s a matter of emphasis. But the point of the Chicago Crain’s article, with which I agree, seems to be that the emphasis has been shifting over the last seven or eight years. We see this, not only anecdotally, but in terms of the sheer numbers of sommelier accreditation programs out there, which is greatly increasing the applicant pool. There are more somms available for employment than there are jobs, frankly, and so management is able to select—not simply the most educated somm, but the one who is thought best able to make money. That requires sound business and management skills, not simply an extraordinary knowledge of wine.

So where does the somm go from here? Is he an endangered species—“becoming obsolete,” as suggested by in the Chicago-Crain’s headline? No. The fact that we’re talking about “sommeliers,” and in fact that so many people are talking about somms, means that we—in the industry, and those advanced consumers—have some weird kind of fascination with the cult of the somm. The sommelier has seized hold of the American wine-drinking imagination in a way few would have thought possible.

But the sommelier’s role is changing, radically, and we do need to recognize it. Less driven by passion than profits, today’s somm needs to be understood by diners in a different way: Not so much a pure messenger of extraordinary wines, or an objective educator, but a representative of the restaurant’s management. That, I should think, would shift our perception of the sommelier in dramatic and significant ways.

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