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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.


Where are the Faces?

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In the 1950 movie, Sunset Boulevard, a slightly gaga Gloria Swanson, playing Norma Desmond, an aging Hollywood movie star past her sell-by date, sits in the gloom of her mansion’s movie room watching old silent films of herself with her employee, played by William Holden, who tries to pretend he’s not freaked out by his boss’s increasing dottiness. At one point, Norma’s dipsy stroll down memory lane bursts into an insane marathon.

“We didn’t need dialog, we had faces,” she muses, as Holden’s character squirms. “There just aren’t any faces like that anymore.” Then, she begins to shriek. “Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” [Here’s a clip of that great scene.]

“Where are the faces”? was the theme of a speech given last week by California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom. Speaking at the California Wine Summit, Gavin didn’t use that precise phrasing, but the absence of faces in promoting California wine was clearly what he meant by the lack of “high-profile personalities” to “project our image. I argue that there is now a vacuum of leadership and we as an industry need to reconcile that quickly.” 

It is demonstrably true that the California wine industry no longer has giants of the stature of Robert Mondavi, Andre Tchelistcheff, Jess Jackson and Ernest and Julio Gallo. These men were famous beyond their considerable achievements; indeed, they were “high-profile personalities,” as well known to millions of Americans as movie stars or sports heroes. They were Faces. It’s impossible to imagine California wine being what it is today if they hadn’t been here to promote it.

Do we have faces today? Some years ago, I speculated that Bill Harlan was emerging as a replacement in Napa Valley for Robert Mondavi (not that anyone ever could replace him). Bill was building up his winery empire and increasingly emerging from his relative seclusion to make himself available to the public via the media. But, for whatever reason, Bill changed tack. Perhaps sticking his toe in the water determined for him that this was not something he really wanted to do.

I know the California wine industry pretty thoroughly. When I ask myself, “Who are the modern faces,” some names arise. Peter Mondavi, Sr., Joseph E. Gallo and Mike Grgich remain actively at their posts. There also are many men and, thankfully now, women in their 50s and 60s who are carrying the torch forward; I wouldn’t begin to list them because I’d have to leave some names out. But I think it’s fair to say that no one alive today carries the sheer weight that our late, great giants did. So, in that sense, I have to agree with Gavin.

Could Gavin himself be the man? He’s pretty actively involved in all aspects of his wine business (the PlumpJack Hospitality Group). But he’s also a professional politician holding a fulltime job, and he may well have ambitions that would carry him considerably further than California’s Lieutenant Governorship. To be a Face in the wine industry pretty much requires a 24/7 commitment to your work, which is something that Gavin is not capable of at this time.

Why do we no longer have faces? Another speaker at the Summit, Wine Institute president and CEO Bobby Koch, observed, “It’s only natural that when you lose the pioneers like Robert Mondavi, Ernest Gallo or Joe Heitz you lose something important to our industry, and the next generation are not the founders so it is a bit different.” We tend to lionize founders and discoverers, the Christropher Columbuses who found new worlds. Those who follow in their footsteps may be equally accomplished, but may find themselves overshadowed by the giants.

Koch added, on a hopeful note, “We will see more of the second, third or fourth generation stepping up.” I have no doubt that that is happening now; from Santa Barbara to the Sierra Foothills, the kids, grandkids and even great-grandkids of pioneers are keeping the wine industry moving forward.

But I do wonder if California will ever again boast superstars, famous the world over, whose very names are household words that imply everything California wine has to offer. So if I conclude by asking, “Where are the faces?”, it’s not an accusation, it’s a lamentation.


Another reason to drink

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We know Barack Obama likes to drink beer and wine because it’s been widely reported. Now we know that Bill Clinton likewise enjoys a glass of wine.

On the other hand, we also know that George W. Bush didn’t drink, nor does Mitt Romney. So what does this say about Democrats and Republicans?

A lot, I think. Oh, I know that some Dems don’t inbibe and some Repubs do, but in general, it seems to me that Democrats like to drink for the same reasons the rest of us do: it relaxes them, makes them more uninhibited and contributes to an atmosphere of fun and festivity with friends. Republicans always seem more uptight to me, but that’s not the entire reason why they don’t drink. I think it’s because a neoprohibitionist streak runs through their party, and also the Christian fundamentalism that is so rampant in the GOP frowns on the consumption of alcohol.

Why this is so has long been a mystery to me. The people who wrote the Bible—Old and New Testaments—drank a lot of wine. Noah grew a grapevine when he emerged from the Ark. Jesus drank wine; in fact, he manufactured it from water, making him a winemaker. Wine was at the center of Semitic life, as it was of Greek and Roman culture. So why followers of the Bible would eschew wine is, quite frankly, weird.

The spiritual ancestors of our current anti-alcohol crowd were the Pilgrims, a tight-assed group of white guys if ever there was one. They didn’t permit dancing either, and I suspect if they were still around they wouldn’t go to the movies. They believed pleasure in this life was wicked and had to be rejected, so that they could experience pleasure in the next, Heavenly life. What current group of people on Earth believes the same? Fundamentalist Muslims, of course, who also don’t drink alcohol, and who make their women stay veiled.

Life for me has always been about pleasure. I’m no Sybarite; I don’t indulge in luxury for its own sake, and I dare say I have spiritual beliefs that are quite religious, in their own way. But I do believe the Creator gave us the capacity to delight in our senses, and that to deliberately shun that delight is, in a way, to turn against the Creator.

People who can’t relax with a glass of beer, wine or liquor among friends and laugh and get loose have a serious problem, and they shouldn’t be telling the rest of us what’s right and wrong. (I exempt, naturally, those who have addiction problems, of whom I have several I love in my own family.) It’s always been the anti-life crowd that’s tried to preach to the mass of humankind that’s fundamentally kind, generous and decent and just wants to chill after a long day of work. This anti-life crowd often ends up in positions of power—priest, legislator, judge—because something in them drives them to want to tell everybody else how to live. Sometimes, and in some eras, they take over entire countries, always leading them to disaster. One of the things I love about America and our culture is that people enjoy drinking. I love going into a bar with a TV showing sports and hearing folks laugh and cheer as their team scores. (As I did last Saturday in Santa Monica.) The booze is flowing freely, and everybody’s happy to be there no matter how lousy their day was, including me. If I was younger (and better-looking) I might even be a mixologist; they seem to be happy people with great jobs. If I were President of the United States, I’d make as one of my pet causes they promotion of wine drinking in America, on the basis that “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap.” Thomas Jefferson said that.


How the right turned brie and chablis into an epithet

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I like brie, that famously runny, aromatic cheese that comes from the Brie department of central France. Brie and Chablis wine, which hails from the Yonne department just to Brie’s south, have been a historic pairing for centuries (although Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, “we wouldn’t say we’re crazy about the combination of Brie and Chablis”).

Yet “brie and Chablis” (or “wine and cheese”) has long been a derisory term for liberals, and no liberals in America arouse the wrath of the right more than San Franciscans. When did wine and cheese become the odious signifiers of those unpatriotic, deviant, nattering nabobs of negativity, the liberals?

I trace it back to the split between wine and beer cultures that Europe saw in the Middle Ages. Where winegrapes could be cultivated in the warmer Mediterranean south, people were Latinized: less warlike, fond of siestas, food, dancing, conversation, good living and lovemaking. In the north, where it was too cold for vitis vinifera to grow, people turned to beer; they were Continental tribes, descendants of Huns, Vikings and Slavs, a warrior society not keen on art or philosophy. They preferred drinking beer from the skulls of their enemies.

We see this split echoed today in America, where Dr. Vino last week wondered “…how did light beer come to be the choice of NFL viewers?” Simple. The NFL reflects the Prussianized, warlike, hyper-masculinized psyche many American males believe themselves to embody (or wish they did). Wine is more the beverage of effete people who go to the Opera.

Wine and cheese receptions have been a mainstay of politics on both sides for a century. When the Harvard Crimson wrote about a Stuart Udall fundraiser in 1976 (Udall, a Democratic Arizona Congressman, was running in the primaries against Jimmy Carter), the writer described an event he went to as “a typical wine-and-cheese gathering.” Nothing Republican or Democratic about it, just bipartisanly political. But by 1980, the phrase somehow had become anti-Democrat, although when “cheese” was replaced by “brie” and “wine” by “chablis,” I will leave to future historians to figure out. When John Anderson, a Republican congressman from Illinois who was a sort of Ross Perot-style maverick, was running for President, he was portrayed by the right as not conservative enough. A columnist for the Washington Post, Mark Shields [himself a moderate Democrat], wrote: “For John Anderson to be a true challenger for the presidency, he cannot be either a ‘spoiler’ or simply the favorite of the brie-and-chablis set.” Did Shields pluck that phrase out from the ether? Undoubtedly it had antecedents. Some think that Leonard Bernstein’s famous party for the Black Panthers, in 1966, was the prototype; that fête was endlessly parodied by Republicans as bleeding heart “limousine liberal” pretension, and, after all, Lenny (the ultimate liberal Democrat), was a Jew, plus he was bisexual, and his beautiful foreign-born wife, Felicia, the quintessential Upper West Side hostess, served wine and “Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts,” according to Tom Wolfe, who wrote about it.

Little Roquefort cheese morsels! It was perhaps understandable that the right confused roquefort for brie, which may have been easier for them to spell. How easy for pretzel and beer loving Republicans to satirize that citified appetizer (and with crushed nuts, to boot). By 1982, “the wine and cheese crowd” had entered the political lexicon as a metaphor for Democrats: here’s The Texas Monthly describing “the hatred that the Okies from Muskogee feel for the wine-and-cheese” crowd” to explain Texas’s transition from FDR stronghold to Reagan country.

They’re still doing it. Yesterday, as the world famously knows, the San Francisco Forty Niners played the New York Giants for the NFC championship. Just before the game, a New York Daily News columnist, Filip Bondy, wrote that Niner fans are “overrated,” likening them to “Strange, exotic plants”, “not fat enough” and “softer” than Giants fans–in other words, San Franciscans are insufficiently brutal. Bondy was making a funny, of course, but the tweak was enough to prompt the San Francisco Chroncle’s sportswriter, Scott Ostler, to pen in response, “49ers fans’ courage not measured by Brie and wine,” he headlined, although Bondy used neither of those terms. But then, you can’t blame San Franciscans for being a little defensive after decades of getting their butts kicked by the right. As recently as 2008, Pat Buchanan (who knows something about demonizing his political opponents) still was ranting about “the chablis-and-brie set of San Francisco,” even though by then, the characterization was shopworn. Incidentally, being “brie-and-chablis San Franciscans” didn’t seem to hurt the 2010 Giants or, for that matter, five Super Bowl-winning San Francisco 49er teams (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994).

Yes, San Francisco lost last night. They played like mensches, and I hope after the game they went wherever they went and enjoyed some well-deserved wine and cheese.


Budget cuts and Burgundy: Paul Ryan’s rank hypocrisy

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I can’t agree with Slate’s Mike Steinberger that Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s decision to consume a couple bottles of Burgundy at $350 each was a “so what…asinine controversy.”

Ryan has come under attack from the left for his luxury splurge at a Washington D.C. restaurant, even as he’s urging the Congress to pass severe new restrictions on Medicare, Medicaid and other services for the poor and middle class.

Steinberger would let the guy off with a gentle chide, but I think Ryan’s indulgence speaks to a much deeper and more disturbing trend on his part, and the part of his wing of the Republican Party: the “I’m doing just fine, thank you, and if you’re not, it’s not my problem” mentality. Never mind the overt hypocrisy, his crassly conspicuous consumption testifies to a temperament that, in my judgment, discredits anything he has to say about fiscal discipline.

Ryan, confronted with the fact that the media was onto him, apparently claimed “he’d had no idea what the vintage cost…”. This sounds like the typical reaction of a politician who, caught with his hand in the cookie jar, tries to weasel his way out with a lame excuse. No idea? Really? Where did he think he was, the International House of Pancakes? No, he was at Bistro Bis, an expensive French restaurant where the entrées are in the mid- to high $20s, and the wine Ryan enjoyed for $350, the Jayer-Gilles Grand Cru 2004  Echezeaux, is the most expensive bottle on the wine list. It defies logic that the Congressman didn’t know he was drinking wine whose value exceeded the weekly income of a two-worker family on minimum wage.

I have to agree with the woman who alerted the media to Ryan’s escapade, a business professor at Rutgers named Susan Feinberg, that “Calling these folks [Ryan and his friends] out for drinking $700 worth of wine while negotiating spending cuts that saddle others with all the burdens of ‘austerity’ is what really upsets the natural order of things.” We’re used by now to politicians who defend “traditional marriage” while having affairs with other women and hanging out in airport stalls trolling for other men. Now it would appear we’re going to have to get used to politicians demanding draconian budget cuts that will hurt the elderly, children, veterans, the disabled and the poor, even while their rich friends ply them with expensive swag (in return for what kind of favors, we’ll never learn). It’s a sad turn of events, and that’s why Steinberger is wrong to dismiss it so cavalierly. “[Ryan] was entitled to have a private dinner with some friends and not be harassed about the choice of wines,” he writes. Yes, he was, but the public is entitled to know how their preachers of fiscal austerity behave when they think nobody’s looking.


Defending Mike Thompson

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Somebody has to defend Rep. Mike Thompson, the Democrat representing California’s North Coast in the U.S. Congress, from the heavy-handed smear job in yesterday’s New York Times, and it might as well be me.

Actually, I’m sure lots of people will rise up to support the Congressman, but I just want to be among them. When I read the article, it really pissed me off–not least because it represents the kind of ignorant trial-by-media written by wannabe Woodsteins (or Bernwards) who understand nothing of the issues but just want to pull off an “investigative journalism” coup, supported by editors who should know better but allow this kind of stuff to get green lighted anyway.

Let’s get to the particulars. The Congressman owns a vineyard in Lake County. He sells grapes to wineries, including Bonterra. The Times reporter is Eric Lipton. Here are some of Lipton’s j’accuses!

Thompson helps his district “get money for pet projects like the Napa Valley Wine Train.” Whenever a reporter calls something a “pet project” you know he’s going for the jugular. One man’s “pet project” is another man’s peeve. We all know that lots and lots of folks in Napa Valley, including wealthy Democrats, did not want the Wine Train, so it’s misleading for Lipton to imply that Thompson helped his rich constituents in return for their donations.

“Mr. Thompson is in business with some of the same companies whose agendas he promotes.” Boo hoo. It is patently impossible for any member of Congress who has a job outside of politics to avoid doing business with others whose interests come before the Congress, since Congress regulates everything. If Lipton has specific, credible evidence that Thompson has conflicts of interest, let him present them.

“Mr. Thompson could also benefit from his own efforts on the industry’s behalf, including a push to increase the value of grapes grown near his vineyard by seeking a special designation from the Treasury Department.” Lipton is talking about a possible application for a new Big Valley AVA in Lake County that would include Thompson’s vineyard. “[T]he designation [would be] a marketing boon that helps increase the value of the grapes grown there” if approved, Lipton writes.

This charge has big holes in it. For one thing, I do not think that even if Big Valley becomes an appellation, the average price of Sauvignon Blanc grapes Thompson sells–$978 a ton–will go up. Do you? I mean, the price of Lake County Sauvignon Blanc has a built-in ceiling, and I can’t imagine it soaring just because another AVA nobody ever heard of suddenly pops up. There’s another fly in Lipton’s ointment. If every Congressman with a business venture recused himself from voting on anything and everything in the Congress that could remotely impact that venture one way or another, the Congress would have to shut down. (Maybe some people think that’s not a bad idea.) So it’s ludicrous to think that Thompson–who says his vineyard made only $18,000 in profit last year–would do something so stupidly unethical for so small an amount of money. His constituents, many of them in the wine industry, would be the first to see through it, not a New York Times reporter, and they would turn against Thompson.

Lipton quotes a Thompson political opponent: “Clearly, he [Thompson] has a personal interest in what he is advocating for.” Who’s the insinuation from? Craig Wolf, president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. Of course Wolf is against Thompson, who’s trying to end the three-tier monopoly WSWA supports. As if Wolf doesn’t have a personal interest? Duh. Lipton failed to make this clear.

Lipton writes: “Mr. Thompson, 60, is the biggest recipient in Congress of campaign contributions from the alcoholic beverage industry, totaling more than $1.2 million during his seven terms.” I’ll take his word for it. But so what? Why wouldn’t Thompson’s constituents contribute to his campaigns if they feel he’s doing a good job representing their interests? Barbara Boxer gets big bucks from the gay community, and Rick Perry hauls in buckets of cash from his fellow evangelicals. Nothing wrong with that. Is Lipton somehow implying that the wine industry’s interests are as nefarious as, for example, the interests of Big Oil, Big Coal and Wall Street?

Lipton implies that $40,000 in Brown-Forman campaign contributions to Thompson were because Brown-Forman long owned Bonterra, and Thompson “oppose[d] proposed increases in federal excise taxes on wine and liquor,” which Bonterra also opposed. Gee whiz, there’s a cabal of secret conspiracy. Imagine, a wine company and a politician from wine country being opposed to higher excise taxes on wine! Let’s get a House Judiciary Committee investigation started. No, wait! Not a good idea! Dan Lungren, the conservative Republican who’s on that committee, also is co-chair of the Congressional Wine Caucus, which Thompson started.

Lipton: “Mr. Thompson separately wrote to the federal Department of Agriculture last year on behalf of Lake County to try to get a federal grant to market the county’s wine grapes.” Another shocked, shocked moment! The DOA has grant money to help market wine grapes, and the Congressman from a grapegrowing district tries to get his county’s share of the funds. Quel scandale!

I could go on. As a reporter myself, I understand the temptation to write a blockbuster exposé that reveals the hypocrisy and greed of politicians. But don’t write an article based on such flimsy suppositions and innuendos. A proper investigative journalism article has to be based on solid, verifiable facts; it must pass the smell test. Lipton’s hatchet job doesn’t.


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