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The latest on the S.F. Chronicle’s Food & Wine Section

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If you’ve been wondering just exactly what changes are afoot at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Food & Wine section, you won’t be any the wiser for reading this scoop Q&A with the paper’s managing editor, Audrey Cooper, which appeared late last week in San Francisco magazine’s online edition.

The news that the paper’s “Stand-Alone Food Section Faces Demise” hit the Bay Area like a lightning bolt last week when it was reported in the New York Times. The local Eater website picked up on it and headlined their article, “San Francisco Chronicle to Shut Down Its Food Section.”

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Kudos to Audrey for giving the interview to San Francisco Magazine, even if her responses raised more questions than they answered. After all, we can’t really hold it against her if she, herself, doesn’t know what’s going to happen. I suspect that the Hearst Corporation, which owns the Chron, will have the final say in the eventual outcome.

What this story speaks to are two things: One, the ongoing evolution of print publications, with all their travails as they lose younger readers and advertisers; and the Bay Area’s absolute, unflinching need for a print publication of record that will deal intelligently and analytically with our food and wine culture.

Dealing with the latter point first: If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, its suburbs and nearby wine country, you know that the pleasures of eating and drinking are near and dear to our hearts. We tend to over-glamorize the expensive restaurants, like Meadowood, La Folie and Commis, but if they were all that the Bay Area had to lean on, our food culture would collapse. No, the truth is that it rests on a solid foundation of affordable, ethnic-based cuisine, ranging from Korean and Ethiopian to Vietnamese and Afghan, and probably a hundred others. Where do you think the city’s top chefs eat when all is said and done? They head over to some noodle joint.

So whatever happens at the Chron, Audrey (and her employers) understand full well that the paper’s readers expect continued coverage of the restaurant scene. That means the chief restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Paolo Lucchesi, who writes the gossipy The Scoop (and whom I’ve invited to be on this blog numerous times, but he always turns me down. Come on, Paolo!).

And what of Jon Bonné and his wine reporting? Northern Californians recognize Jon as one of the most important and compelling voices in wine journalism and reviewing. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but I read him avidly. In the Q&A with Audrey, the reporter didn’t ask anything about the wine section (I wish she had), but I can’t see anything bad happening to it or to Jon. There would be an uproar in San Francisco if the Chron diminished its wine coverage.

So this gets us back to the former point I made: that the story speaks to the ongoing evolution of print journalism. While Audrey’s answers were notable for non-specificity, she did mention advertisers twice, but in ways that are potentially troubling. For instance, she said that whatever changes are made, they will hopefully be “better for readers and for advertisers.” Of course, the meaning of the word “better” is different for those two groups, whose interests don’t necessarily coincide, and may sometimes collide (although the most important goal both advertisers and readers share is the Chron’s continued existence.) Along these lines, Audrey also said that before management makes any final decisions, there will be “a lot of…reader feedback [and] advertiser feedback.”

Here’s my advice to Audrey and senior management at the Chronicle. Let Jon be Jon, let Paolo be Paolo, let Michael be Michael. Shield them with all the power you can from feeling the pressures of advertising. This isn’t always easy for an editor, who, after all, reports to a publisher responsible for a bottom line; but it’s necessary in order for a paper to maintain its editorial integrity, and thus the trust of its readership. As for the Chronicle generating more revenue, I don’t know how to make that happen, but messing with the Food & Wine Section can’t possibly help. What corporations in America always should keep in mind is that cutbacks are double-edged swords: Yes, by eliminating staff and certain expenses you can save a little money. But you have to ask yourself what else you’re losing in the process. You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.


The World Atlas didn’t get Paso Robles right

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In their splendid new book, The World Atlas of Wine (which I am devouring), Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson devote all of two paragraphs to Paso Robles (which Wine Enthusiast just declared our Wine Region of the Year). That is not near enough–for such an emerging region –and those two paragraphs could have been written ten years ago, for all the reader knows, because the information is so out of date.

The only Paso wine companies the authors name are Constellation, Treasury and J. Lohr, east of Highway 101. As for west of the Freeway, the only winery mentioned is Tablas Creek. This is what I mean by my “ten years ago” remark. Is it surprising that the only winery on the West Side the two Brits would think to mention was started by the Perrin family, of Chateauneuf-du-Pape?

I’m not bashing Jancis and Hugh so much as pointing out the difficulties of writing a coffee table book that purports to report the latest information on the wines and regions of the world, when the authors really have not kept abreast of what’s actually happening on the ground. This is always a challenge for the wine writer who’s a generalist, as opposed to a specialist (like me), who focuses on a single region. No one approach is perfect–but the Atlas’s sadly out-of-date reporting on Paso Robles (a region I happen to know quite well) makes me wonder about the accuracy and timeliness of the book’s reporting on other regions.

Jancis and Hugh did write a sentence that hints at what’s happening in Paso: “Paso Robles has earned a reputation for its array of blended reds and blends of Rhôn-ish whites…”. That is accurate–but I wish they’d gone into a little more detail. As I’ve written frequently the past few years, Paso Robles is creating the most innovative and stylish blends in California, and I wish they had singled out for mention (if not praise) some of the smaller, exciting wineries in Paso Robles. I finally wish they had moved beyond the stereotyped “east of Highway 101 is decidedly hot” producing wines that are “fruity, though hardly demanding” meme. If all you’ve ever tasted are the mass-produced wines of the east (and there are plenty of them) without checking out smaller wineries, like Vina Robles, then you’re not current on developments. While it’s true that the “Templeton Gap” influence, which brings cooler maritime air to western Paso Robles, grows weaker as it approaches the 101 Freeway, the cool air doesn’t just stop there. And in cool vintages, the east can actually excel over the west. And how about some mention of Gary Eberle in the Atlas? He’s east of the Freeway and producing fine wines.

Look, Paso Robles is soon likely to be sub-divided into 11 distinct AVAs. We have got to get over this simplistic east-vs.-west mentality. Things are a lot more complicated than that, and Paso Robles is a lot more exciting than the Atlas makes it sound.


Presenting the 2013 Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award winners

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I couldn’t be more pleased by the California winners of Wine Enthusiast’s 2013 Wine Star Awards.

Barbara Banke is a natural for Wine Person of the Year. After Jess Jackson’s 2011 passing, Barbara stepped up to the plate to shepherd Kendall-Jackson to unprecedented new heights, not to mention the smaller wineries in the Jackson Family Wines stable. In my short article accompanying the announcement, I only begin to describe what Barbara has accomplished over the last two years. A classy lady leading a great company.

Rodney Strong Vineyards easily merits their selection as American Winery of the Year. They do such a great job, and the wines just keep getting better and better. They’re a fairly big winery, but the wines almost always taste artisanally hand-crafted. Rodney Strong’s commitment to Sonoma County’ fruit is admirable.

I’m particularly glad that Paso Robles is our Wine Region of the Year. Paso faced pretty tough competition (Douro, Rías Baixas, Stellenbosch, Walla Walla), and those were the finalists: in our actual meeting last summer to develop that list, even more famous wine regions were put forth by various editors. Paso emerged triumphant over all of them. Congratulations to everyone down there in this Central Coast appellation!

Last but not least there is Peter Mondavi, Sr., recipient of the magazine’s American Wine Legend Award. Who better to get that recognition than the 99-year old scion of the legendary Napa family of Mondavis, who to this day remains happily active at Charles Krug. It will be wonderful to see and hear him at the awards ceremony, in January. I can already see the audience of hundreds of dignitaries rising to their feet in thunderous applause when his name is called.

You know, in California there is such constant reinvention–new winemakers, new wineries, new wines–especially in Napa Valley that it can be easy to lose a sense of historical continuity, especially in the 140-character amnesia of Twitter. One day, a palatial new winery goes up. The next day sees the latest $300 Cabernet. The day after that comes a listing of Hottest New Winemakers Under 30. That’s all very well, but somebody has to make sure the train stays on the track. Peter Mondavi, Sr. is nonesuch: he remains a guiding inspiration in Napa Valley and has been for more decades than most of us have been alive. We ought to reflect more on the history of our great wine regions and personalities and understand how they got to where they are today, instead of being mesmerized by the latest this or that.

So my heartiest congratulations to all the winners, not just California but across the globe. I’ll see you in New York!

 


Why high end wines are entitled to hype themselves

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This fellow Rob Asghar wrote a very clever and accurate piece about wine marketing in Forbes, and I am not going to disagree with a single thing he said.  It’s all absolutely true, and shows a keen perception into the minds of high-end wine marketers, who have to have a little P.T. Barnum-style hucksterism in their hearts.

But rather than jump on the bandwagon of criticizing the high-end for “suckering,” “cajoling” and “hustling” consumers, I’m going to try to understand them.

What critics of expensive wine fail to understand is that the wine drinking experience is infinitely more complex than mere tasting. It involves every aspect of what it means to be human. Yes, perhaps it’s true that “a supposed 1982 Margaux” that’s actually “a $90 knockoff” might fool all but the most discerning taster, but that’s not the point. It doesn’t mean that the experience of drinking ’82 Margaux isn’t worth the price (about $1,000 retail). Here’s why.

Every day, I look at my Facebook timeline and see photos of faraway places my “friends” are visiting. It might be a view from a hotel window in Greece, or a tropical beach in Fiji. It might be rolling vineyards in Croatia, or a plate of steamed clams in Italy. Whatever the image, the message can be boiled down to this: “I am experiencing something unique and vastly pleasurable.” Of course, this experience comes with a price: it costs money to travel, to stay in a nice hotel and eat good food. But that doesn’t matter. The message continues: “It’s my money, I can spend it however I like, and if it buys me something this special, it’s worth it.”

When people spend money on something discretionary, they want to feel that there’s something extra special about it. Value-added, you might say–it brings them to a heightened level of pleasure and perception. And the more money it costs them, the more they want, and expect, to reach that heightened level. I suppose one might object to this and ask, What’s wrong with ordinary life? Why do people always have to be seeking higher experiences? Well, if you’re some kind of renunciate, sitting in a cave, then the tedium of ordinary life might be your thing. But most of us haven’t renounced pleasure: indeed, we seek it out. And on occasion, we seek it out with relentless enthusiasm. One sublime experience might be enough to get you through a string of ho-hum days.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s only human. Translated to the world of fine wine, it means that the guy who paid $1,000 for the ’82 Margaux doesn’t really care if the wine is the real thing. I mean, he does, on some level; but he’s not going to send it to Enologix and have it tested. Instead, he’s willing to buy into the romance, the fantasy of drinking ’82 Margaux, with all the implies.

What does it imply? Vintage of the century. Parker 100 [or whatever his score was]. First Growth of Bordeaux. Thirty one years old. And so on and so forth. The pleasure, then, is just as much in the mind as in the mouth. It is glorious fun to turn over these pleasurable thoughts as one is experiencing the wine. They augment the experience, the way a soundtrack augments a movie, making it more than the simple fact of images and voices on celluloid. (Do movies still use celluloid?) Can you imagine “The Godfather Part 1” without that music? For that matter, part of the thrill of “The Godfather Part 2” was knowing that it was the next installment of “Part 1.” The greatest movie of all time! Coppola! Oscars! Brando! Pacino! In other words, one viewed “Part 2” with heightened anticipation, based on the previous understanding of “Part 1.” The pleasure was in the mind, and when the film reached those lofty expectations, the pleasure was all the greater.

Critics of this subjective interpretation of wine enjoyment often point to studies proving that consumers prefer a wine with a higher price point than a lower one, even when the two wines are the same. Well, sure: you can always design a lab study to show that humans are basically idiots who can be programmed to believe anything, even if it defies their senses. We know that. “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts…”. In this sense, we’re all ventriloquist’s dummies, marionettes whose strings are jerked around by some playwright we cannot even perceive.

But this fails to do justice to what makes us particularly human: our aspirations, and the dignity with which we pursue them. That is what is involved in a heightened wine experience: it is as much philosophical and physical.

Now, if you want me to relate all this to the 100-point system, I’d be happy to. Another time, perhaps.


Why I didn’t include Sonoma County as part of California’s Golden Age

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I caught a little flack last week for leaving Sonoma County out of a blog on California’s Golden Age of Wine.

One person, Judi, commented, “not even a mention of Sonoma?” Another–actually, Hank Wetzel, from Alexander Valley Vineyards–wrote, “I was thinking, wow he did not mention Sonoma County, and then I saw Judi’s comment. I am sure living in a golden age. From cattle land my family and staff have created vineyards and a winery that are bountiful. Sonoma County is so complex, with diverse growing areas, each influenced in a unique way by soil and proximity to the Pacific ocean. This has helped to create an abundance of successful grape growers and wine producers that thrive.”

So I should probably clear this up.

To begin with, assessing the “golden ageworthiness” of a region is obviously a deeply subjective thing to do. There are no objective criteria by which to measure it; it has to do with one’s perceptions. In the case of California regions, my selection of Paso Robles and Monterey and (to a lesser extent) Santa Barbara as being in a golden age is because those regions had very little prior celebrity as wine regions. Paso Robles was long bashed as too hot, while Monterey was criticized as too cold! So for both of them to be producing such good wines, with such a groundswell of young energy, is worthy of note.

You can’t say that Sonoma County is suddenly producing great wine. You can’t argue that it came out of nowhere. Sonoma County is one of the historic birthplaces of California wine. The Russians planted grapes out at Fort Ross in the early 1800s, quickly followed by Spanish Franciscan missionaries. We all know about Haraszthy and the generations of immigrants who widely planted the county, beginning in the 1850s. Sonoma Valley was one of the earliest American Viticultural Areas to be approved (1982), and the astonishing advent of Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley (approved in 1983) moved the county into the forefront of California wine. So it’s not as if Sonoma has been some kind of concealed secret.

Another part of the problem (not that it’s a problem, really–it’s something to celebrate) is that Sonoma is such a huge place, as Hank Wetzel stated. It’s so big and diverse that making any statement about it is like making a generality about France. I once read there are more soil types in Sonoma than in all of France. So many moving parts to Sonoma: how can a single statement connect them all? One might conceivably say this is a golden age for the [far] Sonoma Coast, I suppose, but that area remains too small (from a vineyard acreage point of view) to thus characterize it. Is this a golden age for the Chalk Hill appellation? For Rockpile? I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean that all of Sonoma’s 15 AVAs aren’t producing good wine. They are–as good in some instances as anywhere else in California. It’s just that, in my view, you can’t say that Sonoma County is currently enjoying a golden age.

I suppose that golden ages can occur more than once in the lifespan of a wine region, provided that region is old enough. Bordeaux’s original golden age, of the 18th century, was replicated in the 1980s. In that 200-year interregnum, Bordeaux experienced declines that nearly obliterated it, and that resulted in some very poor wines. No California wine region, however, is yet old enough to have experienced a second golden age. Sonoma County already has had its, in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, it’s the turn of regions to the south.


Has Yellow Tail hurt Australia’s reputation?

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I’ve never had Yellow Tail, I’ve never slammed it, but nonetheless I was intrigued by this article about how John Casella, whose Casella Wines produces Yellow Tail, “slammed critics who blame his winery’s Yellow Tail label for undermining premium wine sales abroad.”

Not identified in the article was just who those critics are, but perhaps this four-year old article from Slate is indicative of them. “[W]hat was good for Yellow Tail wasn’t so great for the Australian wines as a whole,” it argues, adding that “consumers came to equate Australia with wines that were flavorful but also cheap and frivolous.”

Mr. Casella takes this theory head-on and counters with a strong argument: “Is Barefoot…destroying the image of American wine?” he asks, logically, concerning the top-selling wine in the U.S. (Yellow Tail is number two.) The answer, obviously, is no, Barefoot is not harming anything. Mr. Casella hits the nail squarely on the head when he asserts that Yellow Tail is “supplying one end of the market that has one type of consumer.” That type of consumer clearly is the value-oriented person who wants a sound varietal wine, at a fair price, which is exactly what Yellow Tail offers.

I’ve never understood this argument that low-priced wine drags down the reputation of its region. That’s just dumb. We have something called market segmentation in wine, as in clothing, cars and just about every other consumer good and service; that’s the way economies work, particularly in complex societies. Nobody ever suggested that a Chevy Aveo was dragging down Cadillac’s reputation, simply because both cars are manufactured by General Motors. Similarly, nobody ever said that Two-Buck Chuck was harming the reputation of California wine. (And by the way, oceans of plonk certainly didn’t interfere with France’s reputation for fine wine.)

I’ve long been a proponent of cheap wine. It allows people of modest means to drink wine (which I believe is in and of itself a good thing, since wine has a civilizing effect on humankind). Throughout all of history, people have had a need for inexpensive wine, and producers like Yellow Tail, Barefoot and Two-Buck Chuck fulfill that market niche with professionalism and aplomb.

Now, it may well be that some Americans viewed Australia through the lens of Yellow Tail (or other low-priced brands that flooded the U.S.). But that’s not Yellow Tail’s fault: it’s the fault of wine educators, including writers, somms and merchants. It’s a big, complicated world out there; I think consumers are interested in learning more about imported wines, if only someone would give them the chance.

Incidentally, although I’ve never reviewed Yellow Tail, my colleague at Wine Enthusiast, Joe Czerwinski, routinely does, and he’s given it lots of “Best Buys.” I have a feeling I would, too, if I covered the wines of Australia. So I give credit to Yellow Tail.


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