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Healdsburg’s growing pains

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One of the tradeoffs that comes with being a popular wine destination region is development. It’s as unstoppable as the seasons, but unlike the coming of Spring, not everyone likes it.

Healdsburg, as everyone knows who’s been there or just read about it, has become the quintessentially quaint wine town in California. It’s smaller and more intimate than Napa, bigger and more interesting than Los Olivos, and as for Sonoma town, well, with all due respect, Sonoma lost the battle to Healdsburg years ago for sheer glam.

I’ve been going to Healdsburg for well more than 25 years and even back then, there were folks around who complained it was getting too big. They’d recall the good old days when the hardware store had sawdust on the floor. Nowadays, of course, Healdsburg is rich and boutique-y, with fabulous restaurants, great hotels and wine country tchotchke shops where you can drop $1,000 on a vase (but don’t drop the vase!).

It’s all too much, apparently, for some locals, who have formed a group trying to slow down development, if not outright stop it. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat on Monday reported that the group, Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, recently sent out a voter survey they claimed supported their anti-growth stance.

This is a tough position for elected officials to be in. On the one hand, they want to be responsive to local residents’ conerns—and they themselves may feel that Healdsburg is getting a little too crowded. On the other hand, the tax dollars that development brings in do magical things for school districts, road repairs and other government functions. So what’s a City Councilmember to do?

I myself enjoy visiting Healdsburg. I like to stroll the main streets around the Square, browsing the shops and galleries, although I must admit I don’t buy too much. I like to grab a sandwich and cappuccino at the Oakville Grocery, and duck into the wine shops and see all the labels. I can see where some people might be bothered by the proliferation of hotels and the inevitable tourists they bring, with increased traffic and all the other nuisances that popular destinations attract. That doesn’t bother me—but then, I don’t live there. So I’m not weighing in on this particular matter; the last thing Healdsburg needs is for outsiders to be telling them what to do!

We’ve seen these sorts of fights for years in other wine regions. A few years ago there was the brouhaha down in the Santa Ynez Valley over Larner Winery’s plans to host special events on their property, a plan that was fiercely and successfully opposed by locals in a NIMBY-esque display of power. We’ve seen similar fights in Knights Valley, and the controversy over the Napa Valley Wine Train certainly comes to mind. I’m sure there are other squabbles I’m just not remembering right now or was never aware of to begin with.

The challenge in all these things is to find balance. We see this search for equilibrium going on now in San Francisco. That city rightfully is proud of itself for being the urban hub of high tech, which brings in so much money and is redefining entire neighborhoods. But San Franciscans also worry that all that tech money is pushing out its artists, musicians, secretaries, janitors, cab drivers and others who can’t afford the high cost of living. Politicians, whose jobs entail making laws about these things, live on the razor’s edge of this conundrum. I wish the Healdsburg City Council wisdom in making its decisions.


Some thoughts from a recovering wine critic

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Now that I am a recovering wine critic, and one moreover who used to employ the 100-point system, I am perhaps in a unique position to talk about it, with all its pluses and minuses.

I have written time and again that the awarding of a point score is nothing more nor less than my impression of a particular wine at a particular moment of time. Tom Wark, at his Fermentation wine blog, puts this more clearly: a wine score is simply a way of “communicating the momentary impact of a wine on a critic’s mind.” It has always seemed to me that the public understands this (which is the important thing), while a stubborn cadre of writers/critics/bloggers does not. Tom’s analogy with “a ranking of the top 10 Second Basemen” in the history of baseball is perfectly apt, as would be a comparison of wine scores with, say, the Top Ten Movies of All Time–clearly not a scientific measure of precision, but someone’s personal take on film. And to accuse such a listing of being non-scientific is neither to detract from its usefulness nor to make perusing it any less pleasurable.

The 100-point system was not difficult for me to embrace because long before I got my job as California critic for Wine Enthusiast, I had subscribed to Wine Spectator (and worked there for a few years), and so had gotten used to a numerical rating system of 100 points (which, as I always remind people, is not really 100 points, because the different periodicals have different bases below which they don’t go. For example, at Wine Enthusiast it’s 80 points, so theirs is really a 20-point system. I don’t know how low Wine Spectator goes. I’ve heard of scores in the 60s, so theirs would be a 35-point system or thereabouts. Even the blogger Joe Roberts, who goes by 1WineDude, some time ago went to a A-B-C-D-F rating system that includes minuses and pluses, so it’s really a 13-point system (if I’m counting correctly). It’s clear that consumers want (or, at least, critics think they want) some immediate way of appraising the wine, aside and apart from the verbiage; and these various numerical schemes give them just that.

We all know that Robert Parker is justly famous for “inventing” the 100-point system, but in fact he was hardly the first to use point scores. Harry Waugh, whom I’ve been referring to frequently over the last week because I’m re-reading his delightful books, used a 20-point (although sometimes it was only a 10-point) system, but he may have been the first to use the word “plus,” which is a sort of half-point; for example, in a tasting of 1971 Médocs, he scored Haut-Batailley at “17 plus/20.” Why he didn’t score it simply 17 or 18 is beyond me, but in this case we have to infer that his wasn’t actually a 20-point system, but rather a 30-point system (since, if Haut-Batailley could fall inbetween whole numbers, then so in theory could any other wine). I never heard anyone criticize Harry Waugh for assigning meaningless numbers to an essentially subjective, aesthetic experience, but then, Harry had the good fortune to live and write in an era of civility, which is not always the case today.

I won’t miss working with the 100-point system, not at all, although I suspect there always will be a part of me that mentally assigns a number to every wine I taste, even though I’ll mostly keep that to myself. I’ve nothing against just enjoying a glass of wine, providing, of course, it’s a good wine; but I do like putting the wine into the context of all the other wines I’ve had the opportunity to taste in my lifetime. How much more enjoyable it is to be able to single out a wine for special praise than merely liking it, as one has liked thousands of other wines. That’s part of the love of wine, too: having your mind blown. A wine that blows my mind is one that scores in the high 90s, maybe even a perfect 100 points.

I suppose that as time passes I may have some other thoughts about wine scoring but for now, my thinking hasn’t changed from before-Jackson Family to afterward. I still think that wine critics are needed in order to help the general public wade through the tsunami of wine that washes over us every day. I still think that not all critics are equal: Some are more credible than others, and just because someone has the right and technical ability to get their views out there on the Web doesn’t make those views worthwhile. I still think the 100-point system is a pretty good one, at least as good as any other number- or letter-based system, and possibly better since it’s more nuanced. I still think the job or career of wine writing is a noble one whose antecedents stretch proudly back into time. I still think wine is God’s gift to humankind, although a properly-timed vodka martini is not to be dismissed! And I remain grateful that this country has gone from one of woeful ignorance about fine wine when I started out, to a wine savvy nation where quality is the highest it’s ever been.


Bringing common sense to wine drinking laws

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Some years ago, I was working out at my gym when I saw a newcomer. He was doing bench presses. What struck me were his pe’ot, or sidecurls of hair, and the fringes of talllit–the Jewish prayer shawl–sticking out from under his sweatshirt. Surprised by the incongruity of seeing an ultra-Orthodox Jew (and a very young one, at that) in my downtown Oakland YMCA, I introduced myself, thus beginning a friendship.

Matt wanted to be a winemaker, he told me. The only problem was, he was deep into his rabbinical training, and didn’t know whether or not he’d be permitted to taste (much less drink) non-kosher wine. When he learned what I did for a living, he asked if it was important for a student of wine to taste widely.

“Yes, absolutely,” I replied. “How can you understand what great wine is all about, if you can’t taste it?”

He agreed–but the matter was out of his hands. His local rabbis, undecided as to the answer of such a Talmudic question, had referred the matter to a bigtime rabbi in Israel for the ultimate ruling. Alas, as things turned out, the big rabbi declared it would not be possible. Matt simply was not allowed to let non-kosher wine touch his lips, and with that, my new friend abandoned his winemaking aspirations.

I was reminded of Matt yesterday when I read this article in the Napa Valley Register that described how, under current law, California winemaking students under the age of 21 are not allowed to drink or taste wine! Our federal minimum-age drinking law thus puts the U.S. among only six other countries in the world (Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, Palau and Sri Lanka) that have a 21-year age requirement for the consumption of alcohol. As you can see from this listing, most other countries have no minimum, or allow drinking between 16-18 years of age.

This high-minimum age reflects, of course, our nation’s long and convoluted history with alcoholic beverages, the product of a residue of Puritanism that still courses through our cultural bloodstream. This ambiguity peaked with the disaster of Prohibition; Repeal came officially in 1933, but not everyone accepted it. My mother’s home state of Oklahoma, for example, stayed “dry” until 1959. And even now, Oklahoma (and several other states, mostly southern and border states) continue to maintain “dry” counties.”

It’s odd and ironic that in California, where wine is a $51.8 billion industry, a young student studying enology at a school like Napa Valley College or U.C. Davis is not allowed to taste wine. That would be like prohibiting a culinary student from eating! Makes no sense, which is why I welcome the bill from Democratic State Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, who represents California’s North Coast, that “would allow students who are at least 18 years old and enrolled in a winemaking or brewery science program to taste an alcoholic beverage and be exempt from criminal prosecution.” You’d expect California’s Legislature to pass it, since it’s so logical on the face of it; and I’m sure that, if the Legislature did pass it, Gov. Jerry Brown would happily sign it.

But, as the Napa Register article points out, there are people out there who don’t like alcohol and are likely to oppose Chesbro. “Opponents of the bill argue that students will use the class as an excuse to drink or become drunk.” (Sacre bleu! An excuse to drink!!! As if they can’t obtain alcohol anyway.) The article doesn’t say who these “opponents” are, but their names hardly matter; we know these neo-Prohibitionist types are always lurking at the fringes of the culture, hoping to do again what their spiritual ancestors did in 1920: make alcohol illegal for anyone to drink, with only limited exceptions.

If you, like me, are in favor of Chesbro’s bill, which is AB 1989, and you live and vote in California, I invite you to contact your own state Assembly members and Senators and urge them to support this common-sense legislation.


Notes on wine writing etc.

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I got a greater understanding of Uber while I used their car service for three days during the World of Pinot Noir. They have a great business model and are looking to get involved in ancillary areas, such as wine tourism, which is a great idea.

I was reminded of Uber again reading yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where in the Personal Journal section, they have an article called “Race is On: Ride-Sharing Car Services Versus a Taxi.”

The article was largely analytical, comparing Uber with Lyft and Sidecar, its chief competitors, and with taxicabs. The reporter didn’t say if one was better than the others–but you could discern his own personal preference for the private cars, when he used terms like “a safe and courteous ride, with a side of serenity” to describe the experience. That certainly coincides with my own experience. I got to know my Uber driver quite well over three days; we even promised to stay in touch. How often does that happen with a cab driver?

It strikes me that a parallel can be made between the new private car services industry versus the traditional taxicab, on the one hand, and the proliferation of social media sources of information about wine versus the traditional wine critics who for decades have dominated the national conversation about what to drink, on the other hand. Until very recently, I was, of course, one of those traditional wine critics, so I think I have some understanding of them and their milieu. But I also am a consumer of services (such as Uber and taxicabs) as well as a voracious reader of wine blogs. So I’m wondering if Uber is going to put taxicabs out of business, and if the online wine writers will put traditional wine critics out of business.

We’ve had this conversation on steveherimoff.com for years now, with every shade of opinion being expressed in the comments. In general, I’ve been a staunch defender of the established wine writers. My belief was that they may become obsolete, but it’s not going to be for a while, at least until the current batch of famous wine critics retires or dies. Most are in their sixties, and should have many more years of active work.

So it’s not a question of “if” a small cadre of wine writers will be eclipsed, but “when.” It’s also a question of the relationship that readers will have with whomever replaces the famous wine writers. As we’ve seen with Uber, people like having personal relationships with those who provide them with services. I don’t want to sit in the back seat of a cab with a driver who grunts at me and with whom I seem to have nothing in common–not that I can tell, because there’s no conversation between us. With my Uber driver, I sat in the passenger seat. She told me of her life and dreams, and I shared mine. That’s a personal relationship, one that tears down boundaries between “driver” and “passenger” (i.e. between “authority” and “nobody”).

In my own prior career as a wine critic, I tried as hard as I could to tear down those walls. Although I recognized that others perceived me as an “authority,” it was important for me to let them know that I didn’t perceive myself that way. Oh, sure, I understood that I tasted a lot more wine than most people, and that I had studied wine a great deal more intensely, and so that necessarily gave me some greater knowledge of the subject. But I never was comfortable with the gaping boundary between me and others, as if that’s all I was, and I tried to narrow it all the time, by letting people know that–just like them–I’m just a normal guy, with my own insecurities and dreams.

I think that the success of steveheimoff.com was precisely because people thought it’s pretty cool for a bigtime wine critic to get down with them. I never held anything back on this blog, even when my former employer told me to. I stood up for its independence–which was a way of standing up for myself, and also for the integrity of my readers. My past employer learned to live with steveheimoff.com, and I think they eventually got to respect it and understand that the mysteries of symbiosis actually made their own brand stronger.

I guess without even knowing it consciously, I created steveheimoff.com to be the Uber of wine blogs. It’s not a blog where you sit in the back seat, silent and looking out the window, as an anonymous driver impersonally whisks you to your destination (at which point you have to tip him!). I wanted a blog where the reader sat right beside me in the passenger seat, where we could have a conversation and get to know each other.

Surely this sense of two-way communication, transparency and honesty is the essence of social media. It’s also the essence, it seems to me, of the kinds of relationships that wine companies need to have with their customers. It’s the kind of conversation I hope to continue to have here on steveheimoff.com, and with the people I’ll be meeting through my new job at Jackson Family Wines, where I hope to provide “a safe and courteous ride” through the byroads of wine, as seen by me. I know that some, perhaps many, of you will give me a skeptical look. Fine. Please do. Hold my feet to the fire.


What do the attacks on Google mean? An analysis of the anti-tech phenomenon

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Over the past few months, it was attacks on Google buses in San Francisco and Oakland that made headlines and showed how anti-techie resentment is spreading throughout the Bay Area.

Now comes the latest chapter: a “tech consultant” showing off her Google Glass in a bar in the Haight district was attacked for reasons known only to her attackers, who have not been apprehended. But I think we can surmise what their motives were, and they’re connected with the unease many of us feel about social media in general and the increasing absorption people have with [or in] their mobile devices. (P.S. I am NOT condoning violence! Just trying to fathom the depth of the anger toward tech that’s such big news out here.)

The issue can perhaps be summed up by this observation from a bar owner (not the one where the woman was attacked) quoted in the article: “If you’re old enough to be in a bar, you should be old enough to have conversation with other adults. When you’re in a bar with Google Glass, it’s like saying, ‘I’m only halfway here. I’ll be checking my phone.’”

“Only halfway here…”. Who hasn’t had the experience of being with someone, having a conversation you thought you both were enjoying, when suddenly the other person checks his cell phone? I don’t know about you, but when that happens to me, I feel as though I’ve been dismissed–from the conversation, from the person’s mind, from his consideration. It is–to use an old word–rude, and I was raised (mainly thanks to my southern-born mother) not to be a rude person.

Is it rude to wear Google Glass in a bar? I can infer myself into the heads of people who would be upset about it. For one thing, you don’t know if the glass-wearer is photographing or videotaping you. Surely, people have the right to object to being recorded by a stranger in a public place. But a Google Glass wearer seems to be saying, “I really don’t care if you object to being photographed, I’m going to do it anyway if I want to, and I don’t have to ask for your permission.” Nor is it pleasant to think that the glass wearer might post your image all around the Internet (which is to say, all around the world), with possibly offensive or taunting comments.

The reason why we have to get a handle on this, now, is because the technology is only going to become smarter, and more intrusive. How long will it be before Google Glass can see under clothing or through a thin partition? We know about the problem of spy cams. Google Glass could be far more nefarious.

What’s the connection between Google Glass and attacking Google buses (other than the brand name)? The emotions are similar. People smashing Google buses are worried about getting squeezed out of their neighborhoods, and sometimes their city, by high-paid techies who seem interested only in their jobs and their friends, not the traditional cultural mores of the neighborhood. That rap is, admittedly, not entirely fair; but it is understandable, given the increasing numbers of people who no longer can afford to live in San Francisco, a city they love and presumably don’t want to leave. I know this for a fact: many of these folks are moving to my neighborhood (San Francisco’s loss is Oakland’s gain).

Thus the bus attacks are symbols of the increasing unease with the way technology is altering, and intruding upon and disrupting, our lives. The attackers obviously know that the buses are not the cause of high rents and evictions. They know that throwing a brick through a bus window won’t solve a thing. But they vent their anger on the buses, the same way the Boston Tea Party patriots vented their anger on innocent crates of tea, by dumping them into the harbor.

And what’s the connection to the unease about social media? The absorption some people have in it. Is it really better and more satisfying to stare into a tiny screen and tap out text messages on a bus or subway, instead of talking to the person sitting next to you, or just quietly contemplating existence? I’m not saying that the use of social media isn’t a wonderful thing, useful, entertaining and important to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family. Heck, I’m using social media right now, on this blog. But at some point, its overuse is cause for concern. When I have to be extra vigilant walking down the sidewalk because someone is coming towards me with his nose glued to a device, something’s wrong. People used to nod their heads and smile when passing strangers on the street. Now, they don’t even see them.

I think the burgeoning reaction against tech has to do with the end of human engagement as we’ve known it, an alarming possibility suggested by the bar owner’s “only halfway here” remark. Humans have spent millennia learning how to get along with each other in crowded spaces. It’s not always easy. Some things make it harder. Google Glass may be one of them.

Look: I’m no Luddite. No one can stop the march of technology, nor should anyone want to. But we have to find a balance. That’s why I, and millions of others, are dead set against allowing cell phone conversations on airline flights. That would be going over the edge, a serious disruption to our ability to dwell together in peace. When it comes to Google Glass, people are going to have to learn to be civil and appropriate with its use. Going into a crowded bar wearing one may not be the best idea, if it upsets so many people, which apparently it does. There’s already a term being bandied about out here about people who wear Google Glass in public: they’re Glassholes.

Anyway–having got that off my chest–I’m in beautiful but stormy Santa Barbara, at World of Pinot Noir, which begins this morning. I’ll update as frequently as I can over the next two days.


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.


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