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The state of the wine blog

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I go to the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference next month, for which we (the organizers and myself) already are deep in the planning stages. I’ll participate in three panels, and each requires a great deal of forethought in order to maximize the chances that the audiences will be happy they came, which is what we all want.

Aside and apart from, and perhaps above, those immediate considerations, I’ll be looking for any evidence concerning the State of the Blogosphere. Having been deeply involved in wine blogging since 2008 (late, by some standards, but six years after all is a pretty good tenure), I’m in some position to weigh in on blogging’s evolution. And it seems to me that things are a bit static.

We saw initially a great deal of excitement with wine blogs. In the period 2007-2009, not only was the wine blog a new, shiny toy, but traditional print journalism was going through its most arduous and tumultuous times in recent history, what with the recession and the subsequent loss of advertising experienced by so many magazines and newspapers. Thus, it sounded almost reasonable when wine bloggers pronounced that “Print is dead, long live wine blogging!”

I, myself, never bought into that theory. I was aware that (a) recessions, no matter how severe, never last forever and (b) as soon as the current recession was over, advertising would return, and print publications would be back on track. At the same time, it would have been unduly credulous for me, or anyone, to suppose that print periodicals would return to the robust health they had enjoyed for so long in the twentieth century. Change certainly was upon print—but of what kind, and how and when it would arrive, no one could say.

Here we are now, the recession having ended, print having bounced back, and the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference upon us. My sense is that blogging has lost some steam. That heady rush of excitement of four and five years ago isn’t there anymore. We’ve seen some well-known blogs go by the wayside and some new ones pop up, while the mainstays (including this one) keep on keeping on. We ought at least to give credit to blogs like Vinography, Dr. Vino, Fermentation and 1WineDude for longevity, or perhaps “stick-to-it-tiveness” is a more apt description.

Yet with the recovery of print publications has come the corresponding diminution of the wine blog. It was inevitable; it is a zero-sum game, this business of writing about wine, for there are only so many eyeballs out there who care to read about wine, and they have only so many hours in the day in which to do so. Besides, one senses (dare I say it?) a certain fatigue in the wine blogosphere. So much of what was so captivating five years ago has now become, well, the online equivalent of vin ordinaire. Of course the newer blogs still have the sense of awesome discovery that budding wine aficienados have displayed always, but their readers, such as they are, may be forgiven for being less than thrilled by yet another recitation of Argentine values or the best wine to drink with pizza. (I might say the same thing about wine magazines. They endlessly run the same cycle of articles over and over and over. Next November it will be “what wine to drink for Thanksgiving.”) At the same time, winery proprietors must take the blogs into consideration, regardless of what they personally feel or think about them (and believe me, in many cases, it’s not much), because you never know whose blog will help you move product. So that is where we are: a strange place, no doubt, and one that is evolving.

It was against this conceptual backdrop that I read that “Making an emotional connection with consumers, and creating personalized, shareable and useful content, is vital to selling wine.” This was the conclusion of “experts from major wine retailers” who gathered at the recent London Wine Fair, as reported in Harper’s.

Blogging would seem perfectly positioned to express “personalized, shareable and useful content.” Blogging is, by its very nature, personalized, in the sense that there is real connectivity, almost intimacy, between blogger and reader, the way there isn’t in print. This is especially true when readers can instantly comment on a blog, which certainly isn’t the case with a magazine or newspaper. I write Letters to the Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle with some frequency, but 95% of them never are published, which distances me from the paper and makes me wonder if my opinions are truly valued. Not so at many blogs; you can comment on steveheimoff.com, and your comment will instantly go up, with no prior approval from me, as long as I’ve previously approved a first comment from your computer. That is truly personalized service, and shareable, too. (I leave it to my readers to decide if my content is “useful.”)

But blogging has not yet achieved the gravitas of newspapers or magazines. Perhaps it’s that very personalized, easy-breezy quality that makes a blog feel like, well, just a blog—a fancy email–while a newspaper or magazine has the weight of authority and tradition and all the labor and costs that go into the production process. That may never change; the low bar to entry works against taking individual blogs too seriously, or investing your energy into them (not to mention your money). Still, I have to say that wine blogs have been the most innovative development in wine writing of the 21st century.

At any rate, that’s the view from where I sit!


More thoughts on terroir

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Isn’t it time to retire these tired old clichés about the “mystery” of terroir and how “undefinable” it is, as this article from the Sacramento Bee once again illustrates?

I mean, that kind of thinking is 40 years old. It was a staple of the wine media for decades to describe terroir as an “ineffable concept” that’s almost impossible to translate into English.

Well, it’s not impossible to translate; and since we’re not likely to stop using the word “terroir” anytime soon, we might as well agree to stop agonizing about its impenetrability and simply to accept it for what it is:

Terroir is the three-legged combination of weather/climate, the physical aspect of the vineyard, and human intervention that results in the creation of wine. Period. End of story.

What’s so impenetrable about that?

People still seem to be surprised that wines made in different vineyards are different, even when those vineyards are physically close. This article describes a study that found “significant differences” in such wines. But what else would you expect? Identical twins, separated at birth and raised in different circumstances, will turn out differently. Besides, from the point of view of a winemaker who is seeking to express the uniqueness of her vineyard site, there’s little to be gained from such studies. You’re not telling her anything she doesn’t already know. It is true that with every new generation of wine drinkers it’s important to stress the importance of site. But there’s really nothing mystical or ineffable about it. Mass-produced wines don’t care about terroir and neither do the people who buy them. Small production wines are the ones that exhibit terroir, thank goodness, but I should think we can appreciate them without analyzing them to death. These studies go on forever—they’re the university enologist’s full employment act. But for you, me, most consumers and most winemakers, we already know all we need to know about the characteristics of a vineyard, and I don’t see how further analysis at the molecular level is going to improve the wine’s quality. If anything, if you bury a winemaker with too much technical detail, you run the risk of undermining the artistic elements of her creations.

It’s fine to talk about terroir, but we should resist the impulse to put it on a pedestal and worship it as some ineffable aspect of the Universe that cannot possibly be understood. Let winemakers who care about such things do their work. Scientific studies may assist them, but can in the end prove no more valuable than walking the vineyard year after year, season after season, vintage after vintage, knowing the vines in the fullest details, and resorting to instinct to allow the terroir to express itself. For that third leg of the terroir stool—human intervention—with all its subjectivity and hunches, is what ultimately elevates terroir from mere physical factors to the level of art.


The perils of being a restaurant reviewer: Almost as bad as being a wine blogger

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Michael Bauer’s recent glowing review of Saison ignited a firestorm of reaction from people who felt that the restaurant reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle was pandering to the one percent and blithely ignoring anyone who can’t afford $398 for a one-person “discovery menu” at the city’s most expensive eaterie.

Typical of those who wrote in to complain was saywha, who asked, “At what point does Michael Bauer spend time reviewing places that everyone can afford? I feel like his column has become just a review of the most expensive restaurants or the ones with the most famous chefs. Perhaps he can just start calling his column ‘The 1%. Sad.” Commented UltraGuy: “I wonder what Bauer would review if he had to pay?”

Even for politicized San Francisco, the debate turned pretty heated—and this is about restaurants, not Google buses or the high price of housing!

Michael was forced to reply to the critics. In a piece on the Chronicle’s online site, he dug himself in even deeper with his remark that “Maybe I’m a Republican when it comes to dining, because I believe in the Trickle Down theory.” His point was that top restaurants, like Saison, Meadowood and French Laundry, come up with “ideas” that “filter down to the mass market,” such as foraged foods, lettuce mixes, humanely raised animals and organic products.

It’s never a good idea in San Francisco to associate yourself with Republicans, even if it’s just a metaphor! Sflover2 wrote, “Stopped reading after this stupid sentence: ‘Maybe I’m a Republican’…”. FroggyBoyee commented, “As if a no-name place cannot innovate. However, as always, the high end places where 1%ers dine get more PR.” Meanwhile, Grenadine suggested “Bauer’s columns should be moved to the comics page.”

Here’s my take. First of all, anyone in public life in San Francisco—whether it’s a politico, a restaurant reviewer like Michael, a movie reviewer like Mick LaSalle, a wine critic like Jon Bonné or a rich entrepreneur—is going to be on the receiving end of a lot of carping from people who disagree with him or her. It goes with the territory. This isn’t the first time Michael’s stirred the pot, it won’t be the last time, and he handles it pretty well, with dignity and respectfulness for the bomb-throwers.

Michael ultimately justifies his praise of Saison by saying, “These high-end places may seem out of reach for most people, but they create ideas, techniques and combinations that seed other chefs’ imaginations and improve the dining scene.” It seems to me that we have to separate out our emotional reactions to the one percent enjoying “a barigoule of artichoke fortified with wild thistle milk [that] becomes a broth that surrounds a chunk of artichoke and scallop” from the reality that, just outside, homeless people huddle against the cold, and “ordinary” people struggle to find a way to pay the rent and feed the kids at the same time.

Those are social policy issues, and they can, and rightfully do, stir up passions on all sides of the political spectrum. We ought to be having discussions about these things, and we are. That’s good.

But politics aside, at some point you have to appreciate the contributions that haute cuisine, as practiced as Saison, makes to the general culture. While it may be true, as one angry person commented, that “I really don’t see too much of the flame-licked wood pigeon, sea urchin caviar, or any of the molecular gastronomy stuff trickling down to neighborhood restaurants,” it’s also true that the mere existence of a place like Saison raises the bar for other chefs, in terms of the adventurousness, creativity, philosophical approach and just plain deliciousness of their food. Nobody can deny that the Bay Area’s restaurant scene is more glorious than it has ever been—and while a lot of that is due to our wonderful mix of ethnicities, credit also has to be given to the high standards that the best restaurants lay down for everyone else.

I’ve eaten at Saison (courtesy of the restaurant) and came away suitably impressed—not dazzled, but it was a pretty cool experience. Would I pay to eat there again? No. I’ve said many times that I’m just as happy at Boot and Shoe Service or Hawker Fare or Tacolicious as I’ve been at Meadowood, French Laundry, Saison, the old Cyrus or any other grand palace of cuisine. So I’m not a snob, but neither am I a reverse snob—against someplace just because it’s expensive. So I say, give Bauer a break. He’s the senior restaurant reviewer in California, he frequently reviews restaurants for “the 99%”, he’s incorruptible, and if he can’t say something nice about Saison without getting kicked in the head, something’s wrong.


I support Beckstoffer’s idea to bring more tasting rooms to Napa city

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The most interesting thing about the Beckstoffer family’s purchase of the old [1905] historic building in downtown Napa was Andy Beckstoffer’s statement (paraphrased in the Napa Valley Registry’s article) “that Upvalley wine interests should invest in Napa city and build their hospitality facilities there.”

“Upvalley” traditionally refers to the northern parts of Napa Valley—St. Helena and Calistoga, although I imagine you could roll Rutherford into there, and by some stretches of the imagination (and I think this was Andy’s intention) you could even include Oakville and Yountville. For, reading between the lines, Andy is encouraging all wineries to “use Napa city facilities as a major part of their hospitality function.”

This makes sense from multiple points of view. The first, expressly cited by Andy, is that having wineries locate or relocate their tasting rooms, etc. in Napa city will “protect the integrity of the Ag Preserve,” referring to the 1967 act to protect Napa Valley’s agricultural heritage from the threats of population and development. Andy has long been active in supporting the Preserve, for instance in maintaining the lands bordering his Napa Valley vineyards.

There’s another reason why it makes sense for wineries to establish their hospitality centers in downtown Napa. For all the redevelopment that Napa city has undergone the last ten years or so—and it’s been nothing short of amazing to those of us who have watched it—there’s still a weird disconnect between the city and the valley that bears its name. For a long time, there was no reason for visitors to Napa Valley to even bother going to Napa city. There was no there there, aside, perhaps, from COPIA (which proved not to be so good a draw after all.) After the explosion of fine restaurants, hotels and other amenities since 2000 or so, there suddenly was, especially along the waterfront. But Napa city, despite its allures, still feels a little sleepy and rural, with entire blocks of downtown that seem to have hardly changed since the 1950s, and offer little of interest to the casual visitor. Bringing tasting rooms and other tourist draws will help build a bridge between Napa, the city, and Napa, the valley, and make Napa city a more thriving and interesting place.

There’s one other advantage to bringing tasting rooms to Napa: it will mean fewer cars on Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, including fewer drivers who are drinking. If people can stay in Napa city and do most of their tasting there, Napa Valley will be a safer place for us all.

Not everyone, of course, is happy with Andy’s proposal. Some want to keep Napa city “local” meaning, I suppose, a town of furniture shops and dress stores. Others have pointed out the irony (they would say hypocrisy) of Andy Beckstoffer being for development in the city but against Napa Valley wineries hosting weddings—a distinction so fine I fail to perceive it. And this all occurs against the greater backdrop of where to draw the line between too much development in Napa and not enough; this fast-growth vs. slow-growth battle that’s actually been going on for decades. For instance, in 1960, a city master plan called on expanding Napa’s population to 1.1 million people. (The population currently stands at about 79,000.)

I don’t think uncontrolled development is a good thing, but nothing comes without a cost. Leaving Napa “local” risks losing precious tourist dollars; over-developing it could make it into a wine version of Disneyland. But I think that Napans are smart enough to figure out a balanced approach, which is why I support Andy Beckstoffer’s idea.


On “progress” in San Francisco and wine country

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It had been a year or two since I was last in Hayes Valley. I’m not sure what I expected when I met Allison there for lunch yesterday (at The Grove), but gone were the second-hand shops I used to love to browse. In their place: shoe stores. Lots of shoe stores. Designer shoes, expensive shoes, three or for per block. And boutique clothing stores. Home décor shops. The obligatory wine stores. And tons of pricy new dining palaces, although a few oldies, like Hayes Street Grill, remain from the bad old days, when Hayes Valley was hidden in the dark, stinky shadows of the Central Freeway, and junkies and johns gave the streets a menacing frisson.

Then the Lesbians moved in, and suddenly all those old tenement windows sprouted pots of geraniums. It was the Lesbians who opened the second-hand stores, and the little tea parlors and cafés, too. I liked that era of Hayes Valley: it was still gritty enough to feel like traditional San Francisco, but it had that buzz of transition—not quite gentrified, but almost, an interesting neighborhood worth an exploration.

I can’t say I like the new Hayes Valley. There’s nothing especially unique about it anymore. It looks like every other neighborhood in San Francisco. If there’s an International Style to wine, then surely there’s an International Style of neighborhood. And Hayes Valley is the poster child.

So much new construction, a condo development on every block, sprouting like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. But are they edible mushrooms, or toxic Death Caps? I suppose if you’ve been forced out of your apartment by quadrupling rents, it’s pure toxic shock. If you have a good job and are making some bucks (I hesitate to say “techie” but that’s where the S.F. money is), then you welcome the new Hayes Valley—and the NoPa, TenderNob, Mission Bay, FulSoMa, South Park and all the other neighborhoods, old and new, that are making the same transition.

San Francisco still maintains the glory and wonder of the City I moved to in the late 1970s. It always will, no matter what changes occur. It has something that’s magically ineradicable—a soul that cannot be destroyed. But I know a lot of people who have been forced out of the City by unaffordable rents, and they’re pretty pissed. They feel like they have to be angry at someone: techies, Google buses, billionaires, landlords. I can’t blame them, although none of those entities is entirely to blame for the situation. People complained about crime and bad neighborhoods, and now that the bad neighborhoods are going away, they’re complaining about the new neighborhoods. I guess it’s just a part of human nature to gripe.

I can find a connection to wine in almost any cultural phenomenon. I’ve already mentioned the International Style as a concept linking both gentrified neighborhoods and the kind of wine that started with Cabernet Sauvignon and now sweeps across all varieties and continents. I find, too, this style sweeping across all wine regions in California. There seems to be an imperative that when the economy of a wine region improves, they have to start looking like St. Helena: the same fancy “wine country furnishing” stores that look like Martha Stewart’s brain on steroids—the same kind of chichi boutiques and palaces of cuisine you now see in Hayes Valley. There’s something ersatz, synthetic about it, and so boringly same. I can’t tell the difference anymore between Los Olivos, the Healdsburg Plaza or downtown Napa—or Hayes Valley, for that matter. But you might as well try to stop an oncoming train than to halt this “progress,” and I put that word in quotation marks because I’m not sure that it is.


Do we need another Sonoma appellation?

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I’m not quite sure how I feel about the proposed West Sonoma Coast appellation some people are proposing. On the plus side, it’s more compact than the existing Sonoma Coast AVA, which as everyone knows almost nobody likes because it’s so all-encompassing. On the minus side is that it’s still pretty sprawling.

It would have been nice had the proposed appellation’s boundaries been the original ones for the Sonoma Coast. They’re a lot more honest from a terroir point of view, since they hug the Pacific Coast more closely, which after all is what the Sonoma Coast, theoretically, is all about.

But we can’t undo the past; we’re stuck for all time with Sonoma Coast. So what does West Sonoma Coast do that Sonoma Coast doesn’t?

Well, it further delineates this vital stretch of the coast, which truly is an area unique unto itself. The problems, however, are manifold. For one, we know from studies that consumers already are puzzled by the word “Sonoma” on an appellation, which appears in Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County and of course Sonoma Coast (not to mention the rarely used Northern Sonoma appellation). Then too, there are lots of wineries with the word Sonoma in their name. So adding a West Sonoma Coast AVA to the list runs the risk, it seems to me, of further confusing the consumer.

Then too, it seems likely that at some point there will be smaller sub-AVAs even within this restricted version of the Sonoma Coast. We already have (and needed) Fort Ross-Seaview. Can Annapolis be far behind? Or Freestone and Occidental? If these appellations are on the to-do list, might it not make more sense to forego a West Sonoma Coast appellation, until we obtain clarity on the others.

Sonoma County’s problem is that in the 1980s it rushed forward to appellate more than any other California county. Napa by contrast took things slow and steady. They made sure their appellations were all nicely lined up, with few if any overlaps, and they were mostly named after the townships and the mountains. Sonoma by contrast ended up with a hodgepodge which almost everyone now regrets, but there you are: it can’t be undone. So the question is, where to go from here?

My own feeling is to let things lie for a while. Give consumers more time to absorb Sonoma’s AVAs, including Sonoma Coast, which seems to be gaining some traction. Why over-burden them with even more names to remember?

The reason why is because some vintners want these new AVAs, including West Sonoma Coast. They were never happy with Sonoma Coast (much less Sonoma County), and so they want a name they can hang their hats on—one moreover that connotes the quality and pedigree we associate with this “true Sonoma Coast” region of maritime influence, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay develop so magnificently.

Like I said, I haven’t made my mind up whether or not to support the West Sonoma Coast appellation. I’m torn between the “makes sense” and “doesn’t make sense” extremes. The West Sonoma Coast Vintners is a fabulous grouping of some of the greatest wineries in California; no matter what you call the region, it’s true name is brilliance. But, based on my long experience of writing for the readers of wine magazines, my orientation is toward consumers, not the egos or interests of local vintners. I always put myself in that shopper’s state of mind, so I ask myself: Will West Sonoma Coast clarify things, or hopelessly muddle them? Right now, I’m inclined toward the latter view.


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