I am increasingly excited by prospects of a great vintage in California for 2013.
Longtime readers of mine know that my view of vintages is that, in general, you can’t really tell the overall quality until a number of years have passed and you’ve tasted enough wines in bottle to see how they’re actually doing, as opposed to how you thought they should be doing. It’s true that most wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, ask us writers to predict the quality of a vintage almost as soon as it’s over, but I’ve always striven to let readers know that such appraisals are at best preliminary educated guesses.
The last time I felt in my bones that a vintage was great, and that predictions of its quality didn’t need to be hedged, was 2007. Even at the time, I was calling it “the vintage of the century,” and quoting winemakers who were similarly excited. Jason Drew, at Drew Family Cellars, had told me “It’s hard for me to contain myself,” he was so pleased. True, some rain came by early October, as it almost always does; but, as I noted at the time, “Luckily, once it stopped raining, warm sunshine came back and late ripeners, like Cabernet, dried out.” And indeed, 2007 has turned out to be one of those perfect California vintages where the wines were opulent right out of the bottle, but also ageworthy.
This year has been even better. Steady-as-she-goes might be the byword. There was no killer frost in the spring, no wildfires to give smoke taint to the grapes, very little in the way of heat waves, no huge production as there was last vintage, and as for that pesky rainstorm a few weeks ago, despite some concerns at the time, all it ended up doing was washing the dust off the grapes.
I always say that grapes like the same kind of weather we humans do; and we humans have been liking this summer, especially the last two months, which are the crucial ones from the harvest’s point of view. I emailed my friend, our local Channel 2’s morning meteorologist, Steve Paulson, to ask him, “I know that Sept-Oct are always described as our best weather months [in California]. But, after 35 years in the Bay Area, I can’t remember more gorgeous weather than this year. Except for that weird storm a few weeks ago (which actually was good for the grapes), the weather has been spectacular. Do you agree?” Steve replied, “I would agree! Sept/Oct. 2013 has been beautiful. Best I can remember too. Cool nights, sunny and mild to warm days. No extremes either way. The ‘weird’ rain was great in my mind. Loved it. After nearly 9 months of no rain, it was what I hope is a good sign for more ran this Winter.” So even the weatherman knows which way the wind is blowing.
For those of you who don’t know, Steve’s reference to “nearly 9 months of no rain” underscores the severity of the drought that is gripping California the last two years. The Central Coast has been hard-hit; reports of not enough water for the grapes have been coming in for months. And just the other day, Western Farm Press reported on widespread “trepidation” among growers of all crops (not just grapes) due to “not know[ing] if they will have water…next season.”
At any rate, whatever late ripeners are left on the vine should be gathered in the next few weeks under fine, sunny skies. The next eight days or so will see continued warm [but not hot] days, with clear skies and breezy conditions. As for the winter of 2013-2014, Steve Paulson’s hope for more rain seems to be in the offing: AccuWeather is predicting that “From December through January, California will enter a period of heavy precipitation resulting in much-needed relief from the extreme drought.”
Nicholas Miller, of the family that owns the Bien Nacido and other vineyards in Santa Barbara County, says of 2013, “From a quality perspective, this is what people dream of!” I’ll just add that, even before tasting a single barrel sample from 2013, I predict that this vintage will be one for the history books.
In the 1950 movie, Sunset Boulevard, a slightly gaga Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond, an aging Hollywood movie star past her sell-by date, sits in the gloom of her mansion’s movie room watching old silent films of herself with her employee, played by William Holden, who tries to pretend he’s not freaked out by his boss’s increasing dottiness. At one point, Norma’s dipsy stroll down memory lane bursts into an insane marathon.
“We didn’t need dialog, we had faces,” she muses, as Holden’s character squirms. “There just aren’t any faces like that anymore.” Then, she begins to shriek. “Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” [Here’s a clip of that great scene.]
“Where are the faces”? was the theme of a speech given last week by California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom. Speaking at the California Wine Summit, Gavin didn’t use that precise phrasing, but the absence of faces in promoting California wine was clearly what he meant by the lack of “high-profile personalities” to “project our image. I argue that there is now a vacuum of leadership and we as an industry need to reconcile that quickly.”
It is demonstrably true that the California wine industry no longer has giants of the stature of Robert Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff, Jess Jackson and Ernest and Julio Gallo. These men were famous beyond their considerable achievements; indeed, they were “high-profile personalities,” as well known to millions of Americans as movie stars or sports heroes. They were Faces. It’s impossible to imagine California wine being what it is today if they hadn’t been here to promote it.
Do we have faces today? Some years ago, I speculated that Bill Harlan was emerging as a replacement in Napa Valley for Robert Mondavi (not that anyone ever could replace him). Bill was building up his winery empire and increasingly emerging from his relative seclusion to make himself available to the public via the media. But, for whatever reason, Bill changed tack. Perhaps sticking his toe in the water determined for him that this was not something he really wanted to do.
I know the California wine industry pretty thoroughly. When I ask myself, “Who are the modern faces,” some names arise. Peter Mondavi, Sr., Joseph E. Gallo and Mike Grgich remain actively at their posts. There also are many men and, thankfully now, women in their 50s and 60s who are carrying the torch forward; I wouldn’t begin to list them because I’d have to leave some names out. But I think it’s fair to say that no one alive today carries the sheer weight that our late, great giants did. So, in that sense, I have to agree with Gavin.
Could Gavin himself be the man? He’s pretty actively involved in all aspects of his wine business (the PlumpJack Hospitality Group). But he’s also a professional politician holding a fulltime job, and he may well have ambitions that would carry him considerably further than California’s Lieutenant Governorship. To be a Face in the wine industry pretty much requires a 24/7 commitment to your work, which is something that Gavin is not capable of at this time.
Why do we no longer have faces? Another speaker at the Summit, Wine Institute president and CEO Bobby Koch, observed, “It’s only natural that when you lose the pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Ernest Gallo or Joe Heitz you lose something important to our industry, and the next generation are not the founders so it is a bit different.” We tend to lionize founders and discoverers, the Christropher Columbuses who found new worlds. Those who follow in their footsteps may be equally accomplished, but may find themselves overshadowed by the giants.
Koch added, on a hopeful note, “We will see more of the second, third or fourth generation stepping up.” I have no doubt that that is happening now; from Santa Barbara to the Sierra Foothills, the kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids of pioneers are keeping the wine industry moving forward.
But I do wonder if California will ever again boast superstars, famous the world over, whose very names are household words that imply everything California wine has to offer. So if I conclude by asking, “Where are the faces?”, it’s not an accusation, it’s a lamentation.
I got miffed the other day at someone I love. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, and agreed to meet up in Oakland to catch up. No sooner had we kissed cheeks than she whipped out her iPhone and began fumbling with it.
I had thought that we’d chat for a while. “How are you? What’s new”–and do the real social thing, which is human interaction and communication. Instead, within 30 seconds of greeting each other, the lady was totally absorbed in trying to download a photo to her Facebook page.
Well, I took some umbrage at that. But what can you do? Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong. Yesterday, I was having lunch with two young friends, both in their twenties, a prime demographic for living the online life. I laid out my case: People spend too much time gazing into blue screens, and not enough time in the real world, perceiving the things around them, making eye contact, talking to actual people instead of digital ones.
I was surprised that my two young friends agreed with me.
A few weeks ago, a man on a bus in San Francisco shot another man in the back, in what police called a random shooting. The victim died. This would be just another shocking case of senseless violence, except for this telltale fact: Although the shooter had raised and lowered his gun “several…times,” pointing it down the aisle of a crowded bus, no one on the packed bus reacted, or even saw it. Instead, “Their eyes, focused on smartphones and tablets, don’t lift until the gunman fires a bullet…”.
Their eyes could block out the reality around them, but their ears couldn’t. The San Francisco Chronicle, in reporting this troubling incident, headlined the article “Absorbed device users oblivious to danger.”
With all this fresh in my head, when I sat down at the computer yesterday morning, I found an online article through LinkedIn Today. The title, “Why Small Business Isn’t Winning on Social,” grabbed my attention, as a good headline should. I clicked on the link.
The article made some good, if hardly newsworthy, points: that lots of mom-and-pop businesses aren’t trying social media because they believe they can’t afford the time or the money. The author made the additional point that “many” social media consultants “can be dishonest about the realities of what they can do for their client,” which is something I’ve been saying about the social media consulting complex for years. (“Give me your money. I promise ROI!”) I thought it was pretty cool for the writer, who was obviously a proponent of social media, to admit that the field is riddled with fraud.
But my jaw dropped when, at the end of the article, the author came out and said the main problem with small businesses is that they don’t spend enough time at social media. He estimated it takes “a solid 9-10 hours a day of work”!!! I had to reread that. Didn’t he mean 9-10 hours a week? No, a day.
Can you imagine spending 9-10 hours a day doing social media? It’s impossible for me to wrap my head around that. How would it even be possible, with everything else that people do, such as working, commuting, eating, raising kids, walking the dog, reading a book, keeping up with the news, maintaining actual relationships with friends, working out at the gym, and, oh yes, sleeping?
The author has an answer for that: “You can always sleep a few hours less every week.” This, in a nation where “insufficient sleep is [already] a public health epidemic,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
When I got to the end of the article, still gob-smacked and incredulous, I realized who had written it, and why. “You can find out more,” the author concluded, “at garyvaynerchuk.com.”
Did you know that the U.S. wine market is “plagued by old guard attitude and pretension”?
So says Leora Kalikow, who describes herself on her Huffington Post blog as a “a wine geek and sommelier, dining and drinking her way through New York City” as well as “Director of Communications” for a company “dedicated to changing the way Millennials drink.”
Now, I don’t know Leora. She’s probably a very nice person, and I wish her well in her business endeavors, as well as in her wine-and-food peregrinations around the city where I was born and grew up. But I’m afraid she’s been drinking the Kool-Aid that says that Millennials are the be-all and end-all of everything meaningful in the culture today, while we old guard Boomers are–well, “plagued by attitude and pretension.”
Let’s get our ducks in a row.
I’ve met plenty of Boomers with “attitude” and I’ve met plenty of Millennials with “attitude.” “Attitude” isn’t a phenomenon restricted to any one age group. “Attitude” occurs in people who don’t know how to treat others lovingly and respectfully. If you have “attitude,” you behave one way with people you like and approve of, while you treat everybody else like merde. So let’s dispense with this Boomer “attitude” thing.
What about “pretension”? I suppose some of the Boomers Leora runs into (presumably, as she’s dining and drinking her way through New York City) appear pretentious to her. What does this mean? Only Leora really knows, but we can infer that every once in a while a Boomer will say something about wine that strikes Leora as snobby. Again, we’ve all met pretentious people, but are Boomers any more pretentious than anyone else? I don’t think so.
In fact, to accuse the American wine market of being “plagued by old guard attitude and pretention” is a bit hyperbolic, isn’t it? “Plagued” is an awfully strong word; AIDS is a plague, not people Leora finds annoying. If Leora really feels that way, I would suggest that the “attitude” might be on her part, not on the Boomers’.
There’s more. “Millennials have learned to embrace, accept and expect the good life…no generation has exhibited such a pronounced desire for the finer things since [sic] this one,” Leora writes. Leaving aside that problematic word “since,” I have a one-word reaction: Really? One might have thought that upper-class Europeans and Americans during The Gilded Age [c. 1870-1900] were more attracted to gilt and glitter than the Milliennials; or perhaps the get-rich-at-any-cost ambitions of Reagan-era Americans (a generation than spawned more MBAs than any before or since), or even my own Baby Boomers, who certainly never met any aspect of “the good life”, whether it be gustatory, sexual or pharmacological, they didn’t embrace.
The problem with such axiomatic pronouncements is that they fail to correspond with reality. What one can say about Millennials is that they have access to more of the world’s cultural influences [including wine and food] than any generation before. But Millennials are not in kind different from any other generation. This is a meme you often hear here at steveheimoff.com. Human nature doesn’t change in fundamental ways, despite whatever technological advances may be occurring.
This has been my core problem with some Millennialistas and their inflated view of themselves: this predilection to believe that they, with their social media and smartphones, are somehow qualitatively different from, and inherently superior to, the “pretentious old guard,” who apparently wrecked everything, leaving them to pick up the pieces. I have never understood the animus Millennials hold toward Boomers, which may be more a function of their own familial psychodramas vis-a-vis their parents than of anything objective. I wish we could finally end this us vs. them mentality of Millennials and Boomers, whose origins I lay at the doorstep of the former.
I was pleased to read yesterday that Wine Enthusiast is considered to be one of the two most influential wine magazines in America.
That’s the result of a survey taken by respected veteran market analyst, John Gillespie, who runs Wine Opinions, which describes itself as “the only Internet research organization devoted exclusively to wine.” (John also is President of the Wine Market Council. You may not have heard of it, but it’s a hugely important wine industry trade group whose Board of Directors includes Michael Mondavi, my friend Xavier Barlier of Maisons Marques & Domaines, Mel Dick of Southern Wine & Spirits, and the publisher of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Adam Strum.)
There are several nuggets of interest buried in the Wine Opinions survey. Besides the obvious good news about Wine Enthusiast (which I don’t think is particularly surprising, as it’s been generally known in the industry for years), the other point John makes is that even more influential than any wine magazine or newsletter is “a wine knowledgeable friend” [or] sommelier.”
As an anecdotal example of this, John is quoted in the article as saying, “If you work at Binny’s [Beverage Depot] in Chicago and you have worked years to get [wine] certifications, and two people walk into your store and one leans into the other’s ear and says, ‘Buy that one,’ you’re finished. You can’t do your job. That must be frustrating.”
Indeed it must be. That’s the power of peer review, or word of mouth, whatever you want to call it. We all know that a friend’s recco is the strongest thing there is, particularly if the recommendee believes that the recommender knows what he’s talking about.
I do have a question, though. What percentage of wine do people buy based on a personal recommendation (from a friend or somm), as opposed to a score or review originally published in a magazine? I bet you it’s an extremely low percentage. I mean, Sure, if you walk into Binny’s with the guy in your office who’s known for his wine connoisseurship, and he tells you to buy bottle “x,” of course you’ll buy it, even if you see a bunch of shelf talkers touting 96 point wines, because he’s your friend, he means well, and his knowledge is far greater than yours.
But is every wine shopper accompanied by a trusted friend? I don’t think so. That’s not really how people shop. The way people really shop is to walk up and down the infamous Wall of Wine alone, trying to figure out what the heck to buy for dinner that night. There is no “wine knowledgeable friend” around. There’s not even a wine knowledgeable staff person around. The shopper is on her own, adrift in a sea of labels. As for buying on the advice of a sommelier, I do that whenever I eat at a nice restaurant. But I don’t eat out very often, and I suspect most other people don’t, either. Probably 90% of the wines people drink are at home, wines they themselves bought in a store.
This is precisely when the professional review has impact. The shopper may be aware of it through a shelf talker or bottle-necker, or perhaps an ad in the local newspaper. Scores and reviews are remarkably fungible things. Once they are born in a magazine or newsletter, they are apt to make their way around the world, through a variety of media and means, especially in our digital age.
So my feeling (not based on scientific research, obviously, but it makes sense) is that, while people might rate “the recommendation of a trusted friend” or a sommelier higher on a survey than “a score or review in a wine magazine or newsletter,” the majority of their wine purchases actually are influenced by scores and reviews. Which is just another way of saying that wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, play a vital role in influencing wine buying patterns in the U.S.
Back in the 1990s I was supplementing my wine-writing income by doing a little healthcare reporting. As things turned out, I became known as something of an expert in the intersection of the U.S. healthcare industry–the nation’s biggest–and the emerging Internet. Everyone from pharmaceutical manufacturers to insurers, hospital administrators and individual doctors wanted to know what would happen when these two gigantic forces met, and how they could incorporate this new-fangled World Wide Web into their businesses. I didn’t have a clue, to tell you the truth, but I knew just enough more than most people (including my editors) to keep me gainfully employed and give my writing the semblance of expertise.
One memory stays with me of that period. Dot-com startups were as common in those days as the squirrels now gathering nuts in my neighborhood here in Oakland as Fall approaches. Here’s how it typically worked (and this is a fascinating and useful glimpse into the troubled, and troubling, nexus of marketing and reporting, as well). Someone starts a dot-com company; let’s say it purports to keep Internet-based communications between physicians secure. Somehow, that new business, which may not yet even exist (which would qualify it as “vaporware”), attracts the attention of one of the big investment banks. That bank would buy a piece of the company or otherwise associate itself with it. Then the bank would make its analysts available to journalists writing about that topic; the analysts would help the hapless reporters understand the finer points of whatever the topic was. If you’ve ever been a working reporter, you know how much we depend on the kindness of analysts whom we can quote with certain knowledge that the quotes are accurate, because after all, that analyst is an expert who works for an important investment bank.
Well, you see the obvious conflict of interest. The analyst talks up the new company, explaining how the product or service it provides is badly needed, and that this company (which he has analyzed in detail) is in a good position to succeed. The company is, according to the analyst, a sure thing. Meanwhile, the reporter–me–is typing all this down, to incorporate into the story. Next thing you know, a big, glossy healthcare magazine is running it, complete with the analyst’s spin (but now in my words) about how great this new startup company is. It’s a win-win-win for everybody: the startup’s owner, the investment bank, the analyst, me, and the publisher of the magazine who’s paying me.
Except for one little thing: in many cases, the analysts either lied or were entirely incorrect (for whatever reason) in their judgments. As we all know, the dot-com era crashed spectacularly in the early 2000s. A lot of “sure things” perished overnight; a lot of people lost everything. Many of the “sure thing” predictions turned out to be as premature as reports of Mark Twain’s demise. That horrible era taught me some important lessons I’ve carried through in my journalism ever since: Be skeptical of claims, even by so-called “experts” who seem so self-assured. I developed a B.S. radar that to this day serves me well. That radar always asks these questions of anyone giving information or advice: Does this person have a hidden agenda? What does he or she have to gain (or lose)? Is there solid evidence of this person’s claims?
When the dot-com collapse finally happened, I’d been out of healthcare writing for a few years. But I was shocked that my reporting had had something to do with instilling a sense of trust in these startup companies–trust that, as it turned out, they didn’t deserve. People all over the country had read my articles and made decisions based upon facts provided to me, and by me to readers, that had turned out not to be true. I vowed never to let that happen again.
We come now, after this somewhat labored intro, to the subject of today’s post. Over the last number of years, we’ve had many reports of the Death of the 100 Point System. These have mainly come from the wine blogosphere. We can now see that these reports have been characterized, not by critical judgment or factual data, but by wishful (and even magical) thinking. Typical of the genre is this blog post from last week that incorporates the standard memes:
- people, especially younger ones, don’t care about point scores
- they would rather get a recco from a friend than from some famous [old] critic
- wine criticism is subjective anyway, so giving it a number is crazy
- the only way to judge a wine is to experience it yourself
The writer then offers examples from his own experience to “prove” the truth of each assertion.
Well, of course, each of these bullet points is true in its own way. But they’re no truer now than they were pre-social media. Only a tiny percentage of wine consumers ever cared about point scores. But in fact, more people today are influenced by them than ever. More and more big retailers (Beverages & More, Costco) are using point scores (by people like me) to market their wines, so that more and more consumers are exposed to them. And believe me, these retailers wouldn’t use point scores if they didn’t know a high score moves SKUs.
And younger people, of course, always have been resistant to the advice of elders. That’s what it means to be young: There’s nothing inherently different about kids in their twenties today than at any other point in history. They’ve always been more inclined to respect the opinions of their friends than of their elders. Social media hasn’t changed that. The point is that young people will someday be middle-aged people (that’s the way it goes, kids), and when they have a little more money in their pockets, they’ll do what people with disposable incomes have always done: seek the advice of experts when it comes to buying things, like autos, high tech devices and, yes, wine.
There’s simply no evidence that the 100-point system is endangered or irrelevant. In fact it’s at the height of its impact. Virtually every major critic in the world uses it (or some variation of it). The writer of the blog post I referenced understands this full well: in his concluding paragraph (which is where you always want to make an important point to leave with the reader), he writes: “Ultimately, the 100-point scale is here to stay.” That disclaimer, you’d think, would nullify everything he’d said up to that point. After all, you can’t be “here to stay” if you’re irrelevant, can you?