I want to congratulate Alder Yarrow and his Vinography blog on the occasion of its ninth birthday. That’s quite an achievement—to keep a blog going for that long. (By contrast, my blog is only 4-1/2 years old.)
When Alder started blogging, the concept of “the wine blog” must have been practically non-existent. I certainly never heard of blogs until around 2005-2006, when I was asked by Wine Enthusiast to write an article about them. I looked into the matter and found a bunch of silly, amateurish drivel—with an oasis here and there, among which Vinography was one. (Another was Tom Wark’s Fermentation and Jo Diaz’s Juicy Tales.
These early blogs changed the face of wine writing, of the way readers communicate with writers, and and of how wineries reach out to critics. In the old days, everything was top down: wealthy publishers owned print publications, hired writers to (more or less) hew to their philosophies, and the only way readers had of becoming part of the process was to write a letter to the editor that might or might not get published in 4 months. Not exactly the stuff of dialogue.
Now, through platforms like WordPress, bloggers can self-publish, without interference or influence from anyone except their own conscience. Readers have the opportunity for instant feedback (in my own case, once I’ve approved your first comment, all subsequent comments are published as soon as you send them in. No censorship on my part). This fundamentally changes the way wine writers operate.
For instance, it puts our activities under a magnifying glass—or maybe an electron microscope is the better analogy. I’ve been forced by my readers to explain every aspect of everything I do related to my job—to my pleasure, I might add. In this respect, blogging has demystified wine to a greater extent than ever before. By its very nature, blogging echoes wine’s essence: sharing, communication, involvement, collectivity.
The one thing neither Alder Yarrow, nor any other blogger, has yet figured out how to do is to make their blog profitable. This isn’t their fault: it’s an inherent limitation of the entire social media sphere, which simply doesn’t seem to lend itself to pecuniary purposes. This could change someday, but it’s hard to imagine. If smart people–and Alder, who lives in San Francisco and whom I know, is smart—can’t figure out how to take all their visibility and renown and translate it into dollars, then it may not be possible.
Which leads to the question, why continue to blog? Alder himself answered it: “Frankly there are probably better things to do with my time, but I enjoy it so much, and a large part of that enjoyment is knowing that other folks find it useful, entertaining, or simply just a reasonable way to pass the time.”
This may be hard for some people to believe, because they, themselves, have little inclination in their own lives to do anything for altruistic purposes. For some people, it’s all about the scramble for money, power, prestige. They miss out on the simple pleasure of doing something nice for others, without demanding to be compensated. Very sad.
I think that’s the best thing about the wine blogosphere as it is today. It’s really a very pure space. Not everybody’s blog is worth reading, and not every post on each blog that is worth reading is particularly insightful. But wine blogs have become the global village McLuhan envisioned decades ago, a place where everyone is more or less equal, where decisions are taken collectively, and where understanding is shared by the group in truly democratic fashion.
So thank you, Alder, for starting Vinography, and for helping usher in a great era!
Should wineries be allowed to host special events, such as weddings or fundraisers for charities, on their property?
The obvious answer is “Yes.” But a lot of people think otherwise. We’ve seen legal and political battles for years between both sides of this issue, up and down the state of California; but nowhere has it raged so fiercely as in Santa Barbara County.
The poster child for the brouhaha has been the Larner Vineyard & Winery, which has been trying to get a permit for a tasting room and winery at their vineyard property, in the Santa Ynez Valley. (I should point out that one of the family, Monica Larner, is Wine Enthusiast’s Rome-based Italian editor.)
The Larner family has been stymied from the outset by some of their neighbors along Ballard Canyon Road, who fear “the traffic and noise associated with tasting rooms and winery events such as weddings and fundraisers,” according to this recent article in the Santa Ynez Valley News. The county has been holding a series of public meetings, the last of which is supposed to be on Feb. 21, but whose outcome probably won’t be determined until 2014.
Proponents of special events at wineries say they’re good for the local economy, as they bring tourists with spending money into areas that, like the Santa Ynez Valley, are rapidly becoming wine-and-food destinations. Opponents “argue that such events can be and often are noisy and disruptive, and have at least the potential to release a lot of intoxicated drivers onto local roads,” the Lompoc Record wrote yesterday; Lompoc, too, at the far western end of the Santa Ynez Valley, has been experiencing similar struggles.
Here’s what I think. Winery development is good for regions. It brings in business via tourism. More tourists means more inns, coffee shops and restaurants. Which means more work for wait staff, dishwashers, cooks, cashiers, janitors. Also more orders for suppliers, which benefits not just the immediate area but the wider one.
Yes, with tourism comes more traffic, and the possibility of drunk drivers. But the Sheriff’s departments in Napa and Sonoma counties seem to have a handle on that situation. I’ve been intimately connected with both regions for many years and have always been pleasantly surprised that the issue of drunk driving seems to be relatively minor. How many weddings would the Larner winery host in a year, anyway? Does anyone really think that the valley would be endangered by having a few drivers on the road who’ve had a glass or two of Chardonnay?
Besides, the county doesn’t seem to have an issue with all the tasting rooms in Los Olivos. That’s where the crowds are really concentrated, that’s where people drink and then get in their cars and drive. If county officials let Los Olivos get as developed as they did, they should let a couple wineries have a few weddings or fundraisers a few times a year.
I don’t feel particularly sorry for people who have been living in idyllic, isolated splendor in these pristine patches of wine country and who tremble with rage every time they hear a car drive past. I think Napa Valley, the Russian River Valley and other older examples of wine country have demonstrated that development can be encouraged and controlled at the same time. There are any number of ways to build in zoning or occupancy regulations that will prohibit an unbridled explosion of growth, yet permit it to occur in an orderly way. I hope the politicians of Santa Barbara County have the cojones to stand up to opponents of winery development who are loud of voice, but small in number.
I’ve stayed clear of the Natalie MacLean brouhaha over the last three weeks for a number of reasons, even though I’m kind of involved. First, I wasn’t sure how I actually felt. Secondly, I thought there was some piling onto Natalie by elements of the blogosphere and wine media, and I didn’t want to be part of that. Finally, I watched Natalie struggle under the onslaught of criticism, and I thought it was only fair to give her some time to figure out how she wanted to handle it.
Background: Although I personally had never heard of Natalie before all this came down, evidently she’s quite well-known in Canada, and not only there: she was “named the World’s Best Drink Journalist in 2003 at the World Food Media Awards” (whatever that is), according to this article in the Toronto Star.
[Segue: I guess the World Food Awards is a pretty big deal in its native United Kingdom. Here’s their website: looks like a fun party.]
Anyway, this whole situation broke [for me] last month when I started getting a bunch of emails from other wine writers (mainly in Canada and the U.K.). They were complaining that Natalie was doing some pretty bad things: quoting wine reviews from third-party critics (like me) on her website, without identifying us, and “offering wine reviews in return for website subscriptions,” in Decanter’s words.
Among the critics named in various sources as those from whom Natalie “borrowed” reviews, besides myself, are Harvey Steiman, Jancis Robinson, Allen Meadows AKA Burghound, Bruce Sanderson, Rosemary George, James Suckling, Robert Parker, Antonio Galloni, Jamie Goode, my colleague Roger Voss, James Halliday, Steven Tanzer and many others. In other words, Natalie helped herself to a great heaping platter of savories.
This whole episode has alarmed a large segment of the wine critic community, particularly in Canada and England. Palate Press jumped onto the story early, on Dec. 15 publishing this story, whose bullet point is “[Natalie’s] reviews sometimes include the writer’s name, but never the publication or a link.” This became the central complaint against Natalie: that she was expropriating third party reviews without permission or citation. I did check this out at MacLean’s website and verified for myself that she was using some of my reviews without identifying me. Jancis Robinson was one of the first to ask that Natalie remove all of her [Jancis’s] reviews from the site. Natalie felt the heat: on Dec. 22, she emailed Jancis (I was cc’d): “Hi Jancis, I have removed almost all of your reviews on my site and should be finished well before your deadline. At the same time, I’ve have been revising the way I quote the reviews that remain to full names and publications…”. As far as I can tell, my reviews still remain on Natalie’s site, but they now contain my full name as well as the name of Wine Enthusiast (although it would be nice if Natalie included a link along with the publication’s name).
The day before, Dec. 21, Natalie posted “A Letter to my Readers about My Wine Reviews,” in which she expressed some dismay over “the recent debate on quoting third-party wine reviews.” “I didn’t realize that there was an issue,” Natalie explained, since she’d been quoting third-party critics “for years” without attribution, and no one ever complained. Moreover, “my own reviews have been quoted on other wine sites and no one has ever contacted me to ask permission.” The Letter ended with a mild mea culpa. “I feel awful that some writers think that I would try to make their reviews look like my own.” It also generated a ton of reader comments.
So where are we now? Some people still are calling for Natalie’s head. I got an email on Jan. 2 from a guy named Rod Phillips, also sent to all the other involved critics, asking us to “sign a letter to Natalie MacLean, instructing her to remove your reviews from her site and forbidding her use of your reviews in future.” I don’t know Rod; he describes himself as a “wine historian and wine writer” from Ottawa.
I will not sign Rod’s letter, although I don’t have a problem with anyone who did. I think this whole episode should go away now. Natalie has been publicly humiliated, has lost a great deal of credibility (whether deservedly or not, is another argument) and has repented and asked for forgiveness. That she hasn’t groveled is beside the point. She is now listing the full names and publications of the critics she quotes—which, by the way, is called “buzz” in some circles. She should have done that from the beginning, but who among us hasn’t erred in some way? Let everyone now stop casting stones.
Monday: Some of my favorite Pinot Noirs of 2012
There is not and cannot be an answer to the question, “Which is better, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend?”, because the question is meaningless. One might say that the nearer a wine approaches 100% Cabernet the more tannic it is, and the more its flavors approach those of classic blackberries and cassis; it also may be more ageable. This is true in theory and often in reality, but depending on where the Cabernet is grown its other qualities will assume equally important roles. For instance, Cabernets grown in rich, fertile soils will be less tannic but also less concentrated than those in the mountains, while a Cabernet from a cooler area will show an herbaceousness seldom found in Napa.
One might say also that a Bordeaux blend is rounder, mellower and drinkable earlier because varieties such as the Merlot and the Cabernet Franc make it so. Certainly, a winemaker with access to good fruit from all classic Bordeaux varieties has a wider range on his palate with which to fill in divots. As this Scottish website notes about Bordeaux, “the skills of assemblage – the synergistic blending of grape varieties… are vital in a region where climate does not always allow all varieties to ripen to the required level.” So true in a place like Bordeaux, where vintage variation is more extreme than here in California. Our dependable heat means, however, that a properly grown and ripened Cabernet has no divots. Anyway, as we’ll shortly see, the federal 75% rule pertaining to varietal labeling is arbitrary to the point of silliness.
Having said that, the interesting point about Bordeaux blends and Meritages (more about this word in a moment) is that the category is not dominated by the 800-pound gorilla of Napa Valley. In terms of sheer numbers, if I count up my 90-plus wines, there are more of them from Napa than from anywhere else; but the list also contains an impressive number of wines from beyond Napa. The Jackson Family’s Verité wines, from their Mayacamas Mountain vineyards high above the Alexander Valley, easily produced the greatest blends last year, with a range of 2007s and 2008s; the former vintage gets the nod by a hair, but then, they had an additional year in the bottle.
Also impressive were Jonata’s 2007 El Alma de Jonata, based on Cabernet Franc, and their 2007 El Desafio de Jonata, based on Cabernet Sauvignon, both from the Santa Ynez Valley. The Capture 2009 Harmonie, with a Sonoma County appellation, is very good, as is Thomas Fogarty 2007 Lexington Meritage, proving that the Santa Cruz Mountains still count, especially in an opulent vintage. I quite enjoyed Geyser Peak’s 2007 Reserve Alexandre, Wellington’s 2007 Victory Reserve Meritage, Korbin Kameron 2008 Cuvée Kristin, Chateau St. Jean 2008 Cinq Cepages and Ferrari-Carano’s 2009 Trésor, all from various parts of Sonoma County.
But we have to give Napa its due. Ovid 2009, Terra Valentine 2009 Marriage from Spring Mountain, Chimney Rock 2009 Elevage from Stags Leap, Terlato 2009 Episode, Sequoia Grove 2008 Cambrium, Viader 2009, Merryvale 2009 Profile, Carte Blanche 2009, Les Belles Collines 2009 Les Sommets, Jarvis 2009 Will Jarvis’ Science Project, Kenefick Ranch 2008 Pickett Road Red—all sensational wines, restaurant wines, flashy, opulent food wines.
I opened by saying that it’s useless to speculate which is better, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend, but the market apparently has made up its mind: Cabernet Sauvignon. That I review, year after year, 15 to 20 times more Cabs than blends is proof that vintners, for whatever reason, choose to adhere to the 75% minimum for varietal labeling. I’m sure their sales people and distributors tell them that it’s far more difficult trying to sell a wine with a proprietary name, no matter how good it is, because most consumers just don’t get the concept. And unless they’ve been living under a rock, who hasn’t heard of Cabernet Sauvignon?
Ought we as a nation to revisit our concept of varietal labeling requirements? Probably it would be too much of a hassle, and in the end only the consultants would profit. Besides, the public, already hopelessly confused, would be needlessly driven insane if they were asked to absorb yet another rule imposed by a distant bureaucracy. But the 75% varietal minimum gave rise to the Frankenstein of “Meritage” as well as these pompous proprietary names, many of which seem like they were plucked at random from a Thesaurus, if not invented outright, by an inebriated marketing manager. Poor Joe Phelps can hardly have known what he was starting when he dubbed his 1974 Bordeaux blend “Insignia.”
Happy New Year! May you have a glorious 2013.
There’s been something weirdly mysterious about Soo Hoo Khoon Peng, the Shangain businessman who bought Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, for a reputed $15 million.
While Mr. Soo’s company (or ex-company, depending on which account you read], Hermitage Wines, is usually described as a “fine wine retailer,” it’s virtually impossible, especially for a western reporter, to find out much about it. We do know that Hermitage is, or was, the distributor of Francis Ford Coppola’s wines in Singapore. Other than that, the company has an extraordinairly thin presence on the Internet. The online site, exporters.sg, which profiles international exporters, reports no reviews, bank information or anything else on Hermitage. Another site, which lists companies registered in the U.K. [as is Hermitage Wines], was able to find no information, beyond standard incorporation and other dates. Mr. Soo at one time apparently had a Facebook page, but it no longer exists.
Beyond its business functions, there is a fair amount of information on tasting events Hermitage and Mr. Soo have conducted. A report from 2007 on a “Champagne tasting session” by Mr. Soo at his wine shop quotes an admission price of “$35 or $45” per person, and it may be that part of Mr. Soo’s business plan from the start was to become an early sponsor of wine events in China, which can be quite profitable. In July, 2009, the Australian blog Brokenwood reported on a “degustation to end all degustations” Mr. Soo held at a Shanghai private club “boasting unsurpassed views of the city.” For that one, he hired the famous Australian wine writer, James Halliday, as commentator, suggesting that he (Mr. Soo) always has understood the value of bringing in well-known wine experts to attract an insecure Chinese audience in thrall to western writers. As far back as 2006, he was described as having “hosted numerous wine tasting and wine appreciation classes.”
In 2011, his Hermitage staff organized another elite tasting, this time of top Pinot Noirs, including ones from Romanée-Conti, at Singapore’s St. Regis Hotel that included such famous names as Halliday, Andrew Jeffords, Allen Meadows, Josh Jensen and Lisa Perrotti-Brown, who now will be the new editor-in-chief of Wine Advocate, under Mr. Soo’s ownership.
Whatever Hermitage is or does, Parker apparently still has links to it, albeit indirectly. Mr. Soo may (or may not) have left the company, but his wife “still has close ties” to it, according to Decanter. Actually, Robert Parker’s ties to Mr. Soo are nothing new. They go back to at least April, 2010, when China Daily reported that Hermitage Wines brought Parker to Singapore for his “maiden, three-day ‘Ultimate Parker in Asia’ event.” That may have been Parker’s first three-day event, but it wasn’t his first wine-oriented trip to China. That occurred in May, 2008, when he “led 50 people on a ‘trade tasting’ of eight wines in Beijing,” according to the Grape Wall of China wine blog.
Even then, 4-1/2 years ago, Parker was laying the groundwork for his grand entry into the People’s Republic. Asked by the Grape Wall of China how he planned to engage China’s wine market, “He said his Web site has an ‘enormous database’ that can be translated. He pointed to cell phones as a way to disperse the information. He also cited the importance of visiting China, doing tastings and seminars, ‘and letting people see who you are – a wine lover.’” He concluded, “I want to play a part. I want to show my passion for wine.”
That Parker has done that, with considerable planning and skill, and to his enormous profit, is obvious. It would be interesting to determine exactly what wines Hermitage has a relationship with, as importer, distributor, or retailer. Until the role Mr. Soo, his wife or any of their relatives and close associates enjoys with Hermitage is clarified, the Wine Advocate should take the precautionary step of refusing to review any wines connected to Hermitage, in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Mr. ___ is the owner of a winery in California. It’s not necessary to identify him any further because there are many proprietors like him; hence he’s merely a surrogate for an entire group. He’s very wealthy. In fact, after he made his money, he bought his way into the wine industry, as many have done both before him and since. He now fancies himself part of an elite group, and to tell you the truth, his wines, with one or two exceptions, are pretty damned good.
Mr. ___ hires the best viticultural and winemaking team available and presumably pays them top dollar. As a result, his vineyards are impeccable, a fact he takes pride in. The same cannot be said of some of his neighbors, though, who don’t have his money and can’t afford to keep their rows of vines as pristine looking as a painting. Mr. ___ looks down on them. “They don’t have a lot of money, and so they can’t cut it,” he says dismissively. “When you’re used to drinking the best wine in the world”–this, he told me, after relating his love affair for Romanée-Conti and similar wines of luxury—“you can’t screw around, you make the wine best you can. If you let the weeds go [in the vineyard] and the tonnage, you get a watered-down product that can be good, but not great.”
He went on and on in this vein to disparage his “hippie” neighbors who farm the “old” way, all the while dropping names like Robert Parker and Wine Spectator and other icons of the snobocracy. It was very distasteful to me, because I’ve seen this attitude a lot, especially in Northern California but occasionally in more liberal Santa Barbara, and it always rubs me the wrong way because it goes against the grain of the democratic [small “d”] spirit I think should pervade and unite the wine industry, especially in California.
I mentioned this to another, younger winemaker, who knows Mr. ___, although not well. Let’s call him Mr. Good. Mr. Good has a vineyard nearby Mr. ___’s. He (Mr. Good) didn’t come into the industry with a wad of cash in his pocket, he scrimped and saved and built his now successful business from scratch. He also knows, and is friends with, the “hippies” whose vineyard and winery practices Mr. ___ criticized. “Look,” he says, “those guys were doing it [i.e., farming grapes and making wine] when nobody else was. The reason we’re all here, including Mr. ___, is because of the hippies. And now you have the super-wealthy coming in, because of them. Are there weeds in the oldtimers vineyards? Sure. I have weeds in my vineyards. But you know who’s making the best wines up here? It’s…” and here he names a vineyard, farmed by one of the hippies, who sells to an out-of-area winery whose wine, believe me, is simply spectacular [as are those of Mr. Good].
This snobby elitism that runs through the industry like a vein of lard has always bothered me. You see it among the very wealthy who really do act like they’re the one percent who can’t be bothered to notice their less-fortunate neighbors, much less befriend them or find anything to like about their wines. But I can tell you, as a critic with wide experience, a wine’s quality cannot definitively be related to the amount of money it cost the proprietor to produce. As Mr. Good pointed out concerning the hippie vineyards, “Sometimes grapes from them can be more compelling” than grapes from the most meticulously farmed, David Abreu-style vineyard.
What makes a bottle of wine fabulous and memorable simply isn’t the amount of money that is lavished on it. Yes, money can elevate an under-performing wine to adequacy and even a degree of greatness, simply because money can supply cosmetic improvements, as in a style makeover program on T.V. But money can’t buy soul. A very great vineyard transfers its qualities to the wine in ways so mysterious that, centuries after writers started trying to define precisely how, the answer still eludes us. It might even be said that a very great vineyard can be “improved” in ways that rob the wine of an essential personality the land wishes to impose, in favor of the owner’s stamp. These are metaphysical, angels-dancing-on-pinheads concepts, of course; but what we should be able to agree on is to get rid of the class-based snobbism in wine that really makes it so much less of a pleasant space than it ought to be, that allows a wealthy owner to dismiss his neighbors so cavalierly without being able to appreciate what makes their wines different–not worse–than his own.