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On blogging, [in]correct claims and the Constitution

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Bloggers have long identified themselves as having the same right to express their opinions through reportage as do traditional journalists writing for newspapers, AKA “the mainstream media,” even though they may have had no formal journalistic training, and no editors or fact-checkers are around to make sure they get their facts straight.

Now, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based here in San Francisco, apparently agrees. In a ruling that hasn’t attracted the attention it should, they threw out most of a lawsuit against a blogger, Crystal Cox, who had been sued for defamation by a investment consulting company, Obsidian Finance Group, after Cox accused them of “fraud, corruption and other misconduct” on her blog, crystalcox.com.

A self-described “investigative blogger,” Cox, who defended herself in the lawsuit, argued [as she wrote on her blog] that “Bloggers have Equality [sic] with reporters such as the New York Times” and that, in essence, if a newspaper like the Times can make allegations against public officials or corporations, so can she, as an “Anti-Corruption Blogger[s], Whistleblower[s], and Citizen Journalist[s].”

That stance is what the Court of Appeals agreed with. The Court determined that “The protections of the 1st Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities.”

No one disagreed that Cox’s blog postings were, in the Los Angeles Times’ words, “rants [to the] extreme.” Rather, the Court ruled that, since Cox did not act with “actual malice,” she had the right to express herself.

I have no idea if Cox is correct or not; that’s not the point. But journalists and First Amendment defenders no doubt will celebrate this ruling. I do; I would not want to see a blogger self-censor herself, out of fear of being sued by a big, wealthy, bullying corporation. But this case does raise troubling questions.

Granted that a blogger has the right to publish her rants, does that give him or her credibility?

Ought the public to believe “investigative blogging” in which no editor or fact-checker is present as a balancing restraint, as is the case with newspapers?

How can the public determine the accuracy of blogs, a medium notoriously devoid of traditional ethical and publishing standards (e.g., the reporter has to have multiple sources for each assertion, and there has to be a bright line between editorial, on the one hand, and opinion, on the other)?

Can the public know for sure that a blogger does not have ulterior motives? Newspaper reporters are much less likely to have hidden agendas precisely because their work is scrutinized by editors, and they ultimately are answerable to (and fireable by) a publisher.

Better yet, how can we educate the public to be discerning when they digest the content of blogs?

These questions become even more poignant when we consider that traditional journalism is being challenged by blogs and other forms of self-publishing on the Internet and “alternative media,” in this post-Citizens United atmosphere. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates that “Congress” [i.e. the Government] “shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”). “The press” later was defined, by the U.S. Supreme Court, as “every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.” It was this sweeping definition, which obviously includes blogs, that the Court of Appeals apparently subscribed to in their decision.

But we are entering into dangerous waters when we have an increasingly powerful “Press” that is devoid of traditional restraints against unproven and unresearched allegations. I hardly need point out a growing section of the American population that believes nothing the Mainstream Media says–and turns instead to “journalistic sources” (including blogs) that are patently nothing more than mouthpieces for (often unidentified) corporate, political and personal interests, regardless of whatever claims they make of serving the public interest.

The balancing act American journalism must tread is one between First Amendment rights, including the right to self-publish a blog, and the preservation of some standard of truth by which to judge published claims. We should celebrate diversity of opinion, of course, but we also should insist on a strict adherence to facts and their correct interpretation.

No easy task.


Putting myself in the consumer’s shoes

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I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film, the other day, and I frankly couldn’t tell if I liked it or not. Afterwards, when Marilyn asked what I thought, all I could say was, “I don’t know.” I wanted to Google it and see what the reviewers and other moviegoers thought.

Which is exactly what I did when I got home. It turned out that lots of folks were as puzzled as I was, but the point of this post is that, by myself, I just didn’t know what to think, and needed to know how others felt before making up my own mind.

Which is pretty odd, because usually I know if I like a movie or not. So I had to wonder why it was that I felt the need to know how others reacted, before coming to my own conclusion–and then it hit me. That’s pretty much the situation lots of consumers have when it comes to wine. They don’t know what to think (i.e., what to buy), and so they turn to the opinions of others for guidance.

It’s only natural, I suppose. Sometimes we know precisely how we feel about things, for or against. Other times, though, we’re kind of in the middle, and need a nudge, one way or the other, to arrive at a conclusion. I’m not sure why some things are clear to us while others aren’t. In matters of taste (gustation), things are usually pretty simple. You like sea urchin; I don’t, and that’s that.

But wine can be trickier than food. For one thing, wine is more complex than most food. While it can be a simple pleasure (and for most of the world, that’s all it is), at the higher levels wine requires the consumer to bring something to the table. It’s like art in that respect. It’s hard for the average person to appreciate, say, Keith Haring, without an understanding of his context: New York City of the 1980s, street art/graffiti, AIDS, the Studio 54 scene, break dancing, cocaine, a certain anti-”high art” attitude.. If you have some knowledge of those phenomena, then a Haring piece becomes much more than the cartoon it can appear to be to the uninitiated.

Haring

There are, I suppose, two kinds of people: those who aren’t interested in expanding their perspectives, and those who are. The latter are curious about things, especially things that seem to be important to others. In the Jewish tradition, there is the story, told during the Passover seder, of the Four Sons: the simple son (too lazy to wonder about anything), the wicked son (who believes in little except himself), the son who doesn’t know enough to ask (his ignorance is his limiting factor) and the wise son (who inquires into the nature of things). The implication of this tale, of course, is that we should be like the wise son: inquisitive, open to expanding our knowledge, curious to increase our understanding of the world.

It was this curiosity to understand Inside Llewyn Davis that drove me to Google it. I can’t claim to have a proper understanding of it even now, but my little expedition online made me think. And the more I think about Inside Llewyn Davis and what the Coen Brothers and the actors were trying to do, the more interesting I find the movie in retrospect. Because it challenged me, it forced the limits of my mind to expand a little bit. And opening my mind to new concepts has always been a great pleasure to me.

So we return to wine. There are two kinds of people with regard to wine, too: those who like it and like to drink it, but have little or no curiosity about learning anything about it. And then there are those who are willing to take steps to understand wine. These begin with small, simple steps: Why are some wines white, some red, and some rosé? Why are some wines sweet while others aren’t? Why do wines of the same variety differ so widely in price? These are perfectly good, logical questions for the beginner to ask–and from there, you can branch out wherever you want, even into things like what the chalk of Chablis contributes to Chardonnay.

It’s in that area–the branching out, the effort to understand what doesn’t come easily to the mind, to penetrate more deeply into the heart of a topic–that people need guidance. I needed guidance to help me understand Inside Llewyn Davis. And the curious wine consumer–the “wise son” (and daughter)–needs guidance to help her understand wine.

There are many reasons why wine so often is so challenging for so many people. Maybe I’ll try to analyze that in depth someday. But for now, I want to say the answer to wine’s complexity is not to become one of those people who says he or she is in the business of “demystifying wine” or “making wine simple” or “taking the snobbery out of wine.” All such boasts should be seen for what they are: transparent attempts to take advantage of people’s insecurity in order to make money.


Happy New Year! Reflections on 2013

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As we wrap up another year, I find myself, like so many others, looking back over the old one, and wondering what it all meant.

I’m not going to do any sort of list, but instead want to let my mind wander free-range over the past 365 days. It’s been a year of gradual and welcome emergence from the despairs of the Great Recession. Here in California, as you may know, our economy is booming, particularly in the coastal areas, and most especially in Northern California. Fueled by the growth of Silicon Valley, NoCal is experiencing low unemployement, high salaries, and most notably a housing boom. Prices (and rents) are soaring, bringing to mind the housing bubble of the early and mid-2000s–but this time, the experts are telling us there’s no chance of a burst. I don’t know that I believe them, though.

Wineries seem to be doing all right. Like I always say, nobody can really know a winery’s bottom line unless you’re the banker or owner, so any conjectures about the industry’s health are only that: conjectures. But business seems to be back on track. I’m sure there are individual wineries that are struggling, but sales, bankruptcies and the like don’t seem to be any higher than they’ve been in the 25 years I’ve been watching the California industry.

The Holy Grail for wineries is, of course, direct-to-consumer sales. I can’t even remember when I first heard that phrase. I do recall the first time it was brought to my attention that a direct sale brings the proprietor 100 cents on the dollar, rather than the split he has to eat when dealing with the three-tiered distribution system. That was years ago, when I was touring the wineries of the Sierra Foothills, particularly those along Highway 49, in Gold Country, and also located conveniently between the population centers of the coast and the ski resorts around Tahoe. All the owners told me how much wine they were selling through their tasting rooms, up to 90% of their production. That was a good thing, for them–but a bad thing, as far as I was concerned, because too many of the wines were (in my opinion) flawed, and yet the owners had no motivation at all to clean up their acts.

Anyhow, tasting room sales obviously are a subset of direct-to-consumer. So, today, are wine clubs that are active through the Internet. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’d love to be around in, say, 20 years, to see if wineries are still at the mercy of a (fairly heartless) distribution system, or if they’ve managed to figure out how to sell direct. At this point, I don’t have a clue.

Two other aspects of the past year intrigue me: the excellence of the 2012 and 2013 vintages. After a difficult 2011 and challenging 2010, California enjoyed two of the nicest years, weather-wise, in memory. The main wines have yet to appear from either, but theoretically, both 2012 and 2013 look to have the qualities of stellar vintages. One cloud that’s hanging over the coming 2014 vintage is California’s severe drought. As I write these words, 2013 is shaping up to be the driest year in California’s history–which goes back in record-keeping to the 1850s. It’s appalling how dry conditions are. On Jan. 1, 2014 (i.e., tomorrow), if the national (which is to say, East Coast) media don’t make a big deal about this, they discredit themselves, and show their right coast bias. How the drought will impact the grapes is complicated, a story that will play itself out next summer. Of course, the weather could change on a dime: January-March could be real drenchers. We’ll just have to wait and see.

A final observation: In all my years of wine reporting I’ve never appreciated so much as I have this year the importance of a younger generation coming up. I guess this is a natural result of the fading away of the original boutique winery proprietors, who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. There are ambitious, talented young winemakers all over the place. I’ve written about this extensively in my articles about Paso Robles and Monterey, but it’s not just along the Central Coast, it’s statewide. What energy these winemakers are bringing, what innovation, what risk-taking. California is a very conservative state, wine-wise (the opposite of our political liberalism), and it’s a bold move for a young, unproven winemaker to try her hand at something new, rather than “just” another Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon (not that there’s anything wrong with either!). But I do see a cadre of vintners in their 20s and 30s tinkering with less familiar varieties–and often they’re crafting them at lower alcohols and with higher acidity than has been the case. I’m looking forward to experiencing more of these wines in 2014.

I’d like to thank my readers for sticking with steveheimoff.com for another year; I’m now going into my sixth on this blog. Thank you, too, for all of you who take the time to comment. Your feedback always is welcome and sometimes educational. I wish you all a happy, healthy New Year.


Lessons learned from recent fake wine scandals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here’s to our American somms!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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