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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.


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.


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