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Lessons learned from recent fake wine scandals

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It’s clear that fake (often expensive) wine in China has become a monumental problem. As much as 50% of the foreign wine for sale in that enormous country appears to be phony, and that nation has been “reluctant to address the issue of counterfeiting,” Maureen Downey, a rare wine appraiser based in San Francisco, told the South China Morning Post.

The problem is especially acute in Hong Kong, due to the oceans of money there, and also in part to “the Asian fear of losing face,” Downey says. The rich dislike admitting that they’ve been victims of scams. Of course, the recent conviction of Rudi Kurniawan, an Indonesian, only adds to this fear on the part of wealthy collectors that all is not well. “Even if you’re rich, you’re still being hoodwinked. You’re still being taken for a ride,” Michael Egan, a witness for the prosecution in the Kurniawan case, said. This must make it difficult for collectors to look over all those marvelous bottles in their cellars and wonder what’s real and what isn’t.

It’s not just in China that bogus wine is a problem. Twenty percent of all the wine sold in the world may be fake, with online sites like eBay particularly notorious for peddling bad bottles. (I mentioned bogus Screaming Eagle on my blog nearly two years ago.)

That this wave of fakery is happening today should come as no surprise. In an era where phishing and identity theft are big business, brewing up a phony batch of Romanée-Conti is right in tune with the international criminal ethos that seeks to liberate people from their money through fraudulent means. The crooks who sold $12,000 bottles of  fake DRC, mainly in China, were, in fact, merely the latest in a long historic line of wine counterfeiters who have practiced their black craft for centuries. In their 1992 book, The Chemical Revolution, the authors cite an 18th century London scholar who described how “a fraternity of chemical operators,” working “in underground holes, caverns and dark retirements,” could “squeeze Bordeaux out of sloe [prunes], and draw Champagne from the apple.”

What is it about humans that makes us so credulous a species? You can’t fool most animals, who can sniff out the false, dishonest, dangerous and insincere things of the world. But people seem willing to be fooled and fleeced. Added to the problem is that many people who buy these bottles either don’t even bother to open them (they just flip them online), or, if they do pop the cork, they don’t have the experience to know what the wine should taste like.

To understand why people are so easily duped, you have to ask, as Marcus Aurelius did, “This thing, what is it in itself? What is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?” What “this thing”–wine fraud or more specifically the willingness of people to be its victims–is, is the desire to have something rare, which most other people cannot have, and thus to raise, in one’s own eyes, one’s own self-esteem, and also one’s esteem in the eyes of others. This implies, naturally, that humans suffer from low self-esteem, a problem I will leave to psychologists to explain. I suppose it has to do with ego. Animals don’t have egos; only we humans are blessed, or cursed, with them.

Victims of scams, fortunately, can learn from their experiences. Once burned, twice shy, goes the old saying. I’m sure the Chinese have their own version of our slogan: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. So perhaps, in a few years, we’ll look back at the explosion of fake wines in China as a temporary glitch in that country’s upwardly spiraling learning curve.

These episodes of wine counterfeits also point up the importance of third-party certifying agents who can guarantee the wine’s provenance. Would you ever spend thousands of dollars on a bottle if you didn’t know exactly where it had been all its life? I wouldn’t. I’m basically a trusting person, but–having been ripped off myself–I’ve learned you can’t be too careful these days, what with scam artists and sleazeballs waiting for the slightest opportunity to steal our money. As for Aurelius’s question, “How long will it subsist?,” P.T. Barnum had the answer for that a long time ago: There’s a sucker born every minute.


In San Francisco, gentrification and a boozy culture go hand in hand

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In San Francisco the hot topic of the day is gentrification. The city, it is said by some critics, is turning into (or has deliberately been turned into) a haven for wealthy techies from the likes of Salesforce.com, Twitter, Zynga and scores of others, forcing out the artists, musicians, Boehemians and others who can’t afford the median apartment rental of nearly $3,400 a month.

The political ramifications are visible on a daily basis. Recently a group of anti-development protesters surrounded a Google bus, in the symbolic heart of the Mission District. Such private buses have become commonplace in the city, with tech companies transporting their commuting workers, thus sparing them from the ordeal of having to use the Municipal Transportation Agency’s (MUNI) beleaguered buses and streetcars (and in the process preventing their dollars from fattening the MUNI’s perennially cash-strapped bottom line).

The anti-development protesters also killed a planned luxury condominium project on the Embarcadero, known as 8 Washington, that had been backed by all the city’s elite, including Mayor Ed Lee and California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom. It was a stunning defeat, and a warning shot fired across the city’s bow: The people are fed up with multi-million dollar apartments that 99% of the population can’t afford.

I’ve been watching all this with mixed feelings. I’ve lived in San Francisco and Oakland for 35 years, and while there’s nothing particularly new about gentrification and people who both support and oppose it, what’s happening now is stronger than it’s been in the past. There’s a genuine feeling that San Francisco must remain true to its roots, as a haven for the oppressed and eccentric, the creative poor and the wacky, the whole rainbow spectrum that has made the City by the Bay what it is since the days of the Barbary Coast.

My sympathies, then, are with the protestors. At the same time, there is much about the new techie population to admire. They’ve brought an energy to the city it hasn’t seen in years. Even through the Great Recession, San Francisco saw an explosion of clubs, tasting bars, restaurants, popups, food trucks and saloons, in nearly every neighborhood. The Mission has been transformed from a grimy, dangerous ‘hood to one of the premier destinations in the city, home to exquisitely expensive restaurants (Saison) and bars (Locanda) that burst with excitement and buzz.

The liquid that fuels all this: alcohol. Never has the city had more or better wine shops. Never have restaurants had greater and more interesting wine lists. As soon as workers leave their Financial District offices at 5 p.m., they head to hundreds of bars, celebrating the end of the workday with fancy cocktails, shooters, beers and wines from all over the world. It’s a Golden Age for drinking in San Francisco, and it feels good.

So, like I said, mixed feelings. The money that the techies make lets them live the good life of food and booze. At the same time, rising rents are indeed exiling some of the city’s most creative types. (I see this all the time here in Oakland, where they come seeking more affordable rents. San Francisco’s loss is our gain.) I don’t know what the answer is.


Here’s to our American somms!

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If you have 10 minutes, read this story on “The Rise of the American ‘Somm,’” by the engaing London writer, Francis Percival. In it, he tracks the evolution of “sommeliers”– a “previous generation of quiet professionals” who wore tastevins and tuxedos, and confined themselves almost exclusively to the wines of France–to today’s “somms”–with “tattoos on display,” dressed in “barely more than a t-shirt and jeans,” and possessed of a “relentlessly informal, swaggering” presence.

Obviously, Francis has mixed feelings about our beloved American somms! On the one hand, he recognizes that “the wines embraced by this new somm are diverse,” which surely is a good thing. But he seems a little put off by their new somm culture: it’s “fratty,” its language is “equal parts grifter slang and wine-service Urban Dictionary,” it’s addicted to “lots of photos on Instagram.” American somms have an annoying habit of “touching guests,” which is “unknown in most of Europe,” and “the public face of the American somm has become one of intense, but friendly competition with their bros.”

Good writing, and Francis concedes that, as an Englishman, his viewpoint may be biased. “It’s been staggering to me,” he writes, how “professional wine service has been refashioned into something close to the apotheosis of modern America,” which sounds like something between crowd surfing at a rock concert and smoking a blunt. So allow me, as an American (and a Californian at that, the apotheosis of casual, engaging America) to defend our tattooed somms.

I think we can all agree that it’s better for a wine service professional on the floor of a restaurant to be less stuffy than more stuffy, no? And today’s American somms certainly are. I also like it when a somm is younger rather than older. This may be a personal preference having little to do with the somm’s experience or knowledge–but I have a feeling that a younger somm is probably more in tune with today’s vast array of wine choices. Younger somms also are probably more likely to be studying for one of the gazillion levels of somm certification, which would increase their knowledge base.

I can remember those “quiet professionals” who used to populate the sommelier world. They were snobs. If it wasn’t French it didn’t exist. Well, maybe they would allow a Mosel or Chianti onto the list, but reluctantly. As for California, mais non! Do I have any New York friends who can tell me when California wines began appearing on the lists of chic Manhattan restaurants? I don’t know, but I bet it wasn’t until comparatively recently. So those “quiet professionals” of yesteryear certainly didn’t do their customers any good by expanding their palates. And they certainly didn’t help to expand the range of foods available in this country beyond French.

What a better country America is for having the most diverse food choices in the world. Here in Oakland, I feel infinitely lucky to have the cuisines of 100 nations at my disposal. If I was just starting out, I might choose to be a somm. What an exciting job, centered on wine, food, socializing and night life. Yes, there’s something “fratty” about somm “bros” and their culture, but what’s wrong with that? In the old days, one had the feeling those “quiet professionals” went home to quiet lives in quiet little apartments and quietly read books. Today’s American somm reeks with excitement and buzz (although perhaps not as much as mixologists). And it’s wonderful that women are now as welcome to the somm’s ranks as men, which never could have been the case even 20 years ago.

Today’s somm is a democrat with a small “d”. They’re not going to look down their noses at anyone. I certainly wouldn’t want my somm (or my server) to be in a tuxedo: I like the street aspect of t-shirts and jeans, which doesn’t seem shabby to me at all, but comfortable, easy to relate to and, yes, sexy.

These modern somms are open to any wine in the world. If I have any objection (and it’s a minor one), it’s that they can be a little too addicted to the obscure. But after all, that’s their passion; it’s what turns them on, and part of the reason for going to a cool little restaurant, with great food and a great somm, is to discover new foods and drinks.

So here’s to our American somms! Rock on, bros (and sisters!).


Here I come, rest of the week

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I travel to U.C. Davis this week once again for my old friend, Rusty Eddy, with his winery P.R class. He’s done this for years, and it’s always great fun.

This year, for the first time, the class spans over two days, Thursday and Friday. Friday, when I won’t be there, is devoted to what Rusty calls implementation. This is where the rubber hits the road. Instead of just telling these students what to do, Friday’s session will instruct them in the nuts and bolts of how to do it. I don’t know about you, but I myself need hands-on guidance when it comes to learning how to do stuff. For example, I’m getting better at recording on my new Yamaha P155 digital piano, but I find the manual useless. I need someone who knows his way around that piano to stand right next to me and tell me exactly what to do.

I won’t be there for the Friday class, but I’m sure that Paul Mabray wishes I was. : >  Last year, we were both there on the same day, and some people were billing it as some kind of mixed martial arts smackdown: Ladeez and Gents: Step right up this way to see the most sensational, knock-down, drag-out battle in the history of social media-dumb. In this corner, the old dinosaur, who’s been around for a long time but still has a few tricks up his sleeve. In this corner the new pheenom, who came out of nowhere and is anxious to kick butt. Place your bets, ladeez and gents!

Well, of course that’s not how it was last year. Although there were some tense moments, overall it was a respectful exchange of ideas. Paul was frustrated that I tend to question some of his basic premises having to do with the efficacy of social media for wineries. And so the energy level in the room rose to a certain level, but it was nothing that grownups can’t handle.

But this year, no Paul and Steve in the same room! Instead, my co-panelists are Virginie Boone, my wonderful “other half” here in California for Wine Enthusiast, whom Rusty is also billing for her roles at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and the new Sonoma Magazine (what a great portfolio); and someone I don’t know, Steve Boone, of O’Donnell Lane, which calls itself a lifestyle company specializing in strategic planning, marketing and communications for the wine industry. As someone who has some skepticism about consultants like that (their job, after all, is to persuade potential customers that they, the consultants, have something the potential customer desperately needs, which may or may not be true), I’m all ears to hear Steve’s presentation.

My own presentation will be to describe the world of winery P.R. into which these Davis students are entering as realistically as possible. As someone on the receiving end of countless pitches, I feel I have some insight into what works and what doesn’t. Of course, that’s just me. A pitch that bores me might turn someone else on. On the other hand, it does seem to me that it would be pretty valuable for someone to successfully pitch me for a spot in the magazine, since that is very expensive real estate. An article, even a small one, in Wine Enthusiast will bring a winery vaster coverage than a hundred blogs ever could.

I do plan on taking a few minutes at the end of my presentation to tell the students my views on social media: the good, the bad and the ugly. As some of you may know, I routinely come under some pretty fierce attack on twitter and in blogs for failing to be a 100% card-carrying social mediaist. Sometimes these attacks are pretty ad hominem–you know, when you can’t debate someone’s points, then attack their personality. Alder Yarrow the other day–a fellow I’ve always tried to be nice to–called me a Chihuahua. Now, I am not offended. My family is not offended. But Gus, who is part Chihuahua, has taken this hard.

Alder’s rather sad remark shows how the conversation about the value of social media can really deteriorate into childish name calling, when its proponents lose their moorings and hit that “send” button before they’ve had a chance to sober up and be reflective. Alder claims to be “infuriated” by the questions I ask about social media. I wonder why. That’s such an extreme, irrational emotion. Infuriated? I mean, really…the Taliban gets infuriated. Adult Americans don’t. And Alder’s not the only one. Maybe someday someone will explain to me why these social mediaists have so much personal pathology bound up in it, and why they can’t tolerate even well-meaning, constructive criticism from a simple, likeable guy like me.


Style and eccentricity in wine

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Two articles struck me this week, in publications that, you might say, are diametrically opposed to each other: The New York Times and Playboy. While the topics are different, I hope to be able to draw a connection between them, as concerns our current wine culture.

The Times article was about a fashion designer, Isabella Blow, whose glory years were the 1970s-1990s, and who now is the subject of a retrospective in London. Isabella was certainly a couture eccentric: the author, Andrew O’Hagan, describes her wearing “giant mink antlers” and “a sneering mouth so red with lipstick that it was like an open wound.” (Blow is Lady Gaga‘s spiritual grandmother.) She had a “phantasmagoric sense of fashion [and] beauty” that O’Hagan says is missing today, when too many people are mere “imitators” of fashion, “publicity scavengers…who think it’s merely about fame or attention.”

IsabellaBlow2
Isabella Blow

Other style setters whom O’Hagan admires are the famously infamous writer Quentin Crisp, Anna Piaggi, who wrote for Vogue, and the recluse Edith Bouvier Beale, Jackie Kennedy’s cousin, who lived and died alone in a falling down mansion filled with garbage, even as she dressed as outrageously as anyone in the Hamptons.

O’Hagan’s point isn’t necessarily a new one: celebrate style. Be yourself, and unafraid to show the world who are are.  He quotes another of his muses, Elsie de Wolfe: “Only those are unwise who have never dared to be fools.” When I read that, I immediately thought of those California vintners who are daring to march to a different beat from today’s consumer favorites. Not for them another oaky Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay.  No, they want to split off from the crowd and explore niches that interest them. I think of someone like Marimar Torres. True, she makes great Pinot and Chardonnay, and could easily get by with only them, but instead she pops out of the envelope with such interesting blends as her Chardonnay-Albariño and Syrah-Tempranillo. There’s Cambiata, whose Tannat is at the top of the list in California, even though most consumers wouldn’t know Tannat if it walked up to them and punched them in the nose. Or ONX’s Reckoning, which daringly combines Syrah, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Tempranillo and Grenache in a wholesome way. These are wines of a certain eccentricity, perhaps not for everyone: but they are wines of beauty and artistry.

The Playboy article, Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation, is funny and trenchant. The writer skewers every generation born during the 20th century (including mine, the Baby Boomers) right through Generation Z (born after 2000). You have to smile as you read his descriptions. Here’s a snippet from “Generation Y, AKA The Millennials”: “They’ve earned the nickname the Me Me Me Generation for a reason: They’re three times more likely than Boomers to have narcissistic personality disorder. Materialism and a lofty sense of entitlement–minus the means to realize their caviar dreams–have contributed to breathtaking delusions of grandeur. Generation Y is arguably the most medicated on record, their hazy state and sedentary social-media lifestyle contributing to a rise of obesity and its BFF, diabetes.” As for their obsession with social media: “Millennials who tried to quit social media showed the same symptoms as drug addicts in withdrawal.” Ouch.

I’ve tried to live my life in a way where I didn’t much care what anybody thought of me. And I like people who feel the same way. People of style are generally people of honesty and integrity. You can’t have integrity if you follow the herd, because having integrity takes guts. You have to be willing to take risks, to split off from the mainstream and explore new, and sometimes unpopular, dimensions. When I was in grad school, I’d take BART (the San Francisco subway) to S.F. State, outbound from downtown, and look at the mobs of people on the platform across from me, heading to the office towers of downtown. They all looked the same, dressed in severe business attire (men and women; we called it Financial District drag), with their little leather attaché cases and bored faces. I didn’t scorn them so much as feel sorry for them. They were just doing what they thought they were supposed to do–what everyone else was doing–what they hoped would bring them money and happiness.

Perhaps as a child of the Sixties I tend to romanticize the outlaw view, that people who “celebrate diversity” (to use that phrase) contribute more to humanity’s spectrum and upward spiral than those who remain confined within narrow limits. (I think of Steve Jobs in that respect, a hippie if ever there was one.) My sense of style tends to conform to O’Hagan’s; as he writes, “the true eccentric gives us more mystery, more wonder about being human, a new side to beauty…”. Wine is like that, too. There aren’t very many eccentrically mysterious wines being produced today in California, because most proprietors are too concerned with the bottom line to take risks. But I sense that may be changing. As for those Millennial social media addicts, I suppose the ultimate risk would be a Digital Sabbath: put the smart phone down and connect with the real world.

I’m off to Seattle today to celebrate Thanksgiving with my “northern” family. I’ll try to post something every day this week. Meanwhile, here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and safe Thanksgiving!


The latest on the S.F. Chronicle’s Food & Wine Section

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If you’ve been wondering just exactly what changes are afoot at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Food & Wine section, you won’t be any the wiser for reading this scoop Q&A with the paper’s managing editor, Audrey Cooper, which appeared late last week in San Francisco magazine’s online edition.

The news that the paper’s “Stand-Alone Food Section Faces Demise” hit the Bay Area like a lightning bolt last week when it was reported in the New York Times. The local Eater website picked up on it and headlined their article, “San Francisco Chronicle to Shut Down Its Food Section.”

san-francisco-chronicle-food-dunzo

 

Kudos to Audrey for giving the interview to San Francisco Magazine, even if her responses raised more questions than they answered. After all, we can’t really hold it against her if she, herself, doesn’t know what’s going to happen. I suspect that the Hearst Corporation, which owns the Chron, will have the final say in the eventual outcome.

What this story speaks to are two things: One, the ongoing evolution of print publications, with all their travails as they lose younger readers and advertisers; and the Bay Area’s absolute, unflinching need for a print publication of record that will deal intelligently and analytically with our food and wine culture.

Dealing with the latter point first: If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, its suburbs and nearby wine country, you know that the pleasures of eating and drinking are near and dear to our hearts. We tend to over-glamorize the expensive restaurants, like Meadowood, La Folie and Commis, but if they were all that the Bay Area had to lean on, our food culture would collapse. No, the truth is that it rests on a solid foundation of affordable, ethnic-based cuisine, ranging from Korean and Ethiopian to Vietnamese and Afghan, and probably a hundred others. Where do you think the city’s top chefs eat when all is said and done? They head over to some noodle joint.

So whatever happens at the Chron, Audrey (and her employers) understand full well that the paper’s readers expect continued coverage of the restaurant scene. That means the chief restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Paolo Lucchesi, who writes the gossipy The Scoop (and whom I’ve invited to be on this blog numerous times, but he always turns me down. Come on, Paolo!).

And what of Jon Bonné and his wine reporting? Northern Californians recognize Jon as one of the most important and compelling voices in wine journalism and reviewing. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but I read him avidly. In the Q&A with Audrey, the reporter didn’t ask anything about the wine section (I wish she had), but I can’t see anything bad happening to it or to Jon. There would be an uproar in San Francisco if the Chron diminished its wine coverage.

So this gets us back to the former point I made: that the story speaks to the ongoing evolution of print journalism. While Audrey’s answers were notable for non-specificity, she did mention advertisers twice, but in ways that are potentially troubling. For instance, she said that whatever changes are made, they will hopefully be “better for readers and for advertisers.” Of course, the meaning of the word “better” is different for those two groups, whose interests don’t necessarily coincide, and may sometimes collide (although the most important goal both advertisers and readers share is the Chron’s continued existence.) Along these lines, Audrey also said that before management makes any final decisions, there will be “a lot of…reader feedback [and] advertiser feedback.”

Here’s my advice to Audrey and senior management at the Chronicle. Let Jon be Jon, let Paolo be Paolo, let Michael be Michael. Shield them with all the power you can from feeling the pressures of advertising. This isn’t always easy for an editor, who, after all, reports to a publisher responsible for a bottom line; but it’s necessary in order for a paper to maintain its editorial integrity, and thus the trust of its readership. As for the Chronicle generating more revenue, I don’t know how to make that happen, but messing with the Food & Wine Section can’t possibly help. What corporations in America always should keep in mind is that cutbacks are double-edged swords: Yes, by eliminating staff and certain expenses you can save a little money. But you have to ask yourself what else you’re losing in the process. You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.


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