Had lunch yesterday here in Oakland at Ozumo (fantastic Japanese food) with Nancy Light and Gladys Horiuchi, two friends from Wine Institute. I’ve known both for many years; Gladys, communications manager, has always been so helpful to us working reporters, and Nancy, communications director, handles what much be a stressful job with poise and lightness. I asked them what’s up these days at W.I. and they said the #1 and #2 priorities for the institute and Robert Koch, the president and CEO, are defeating HR 5034 and, here in California, defeating Proposition 25 and passing Prop 26.
They asked me if I was writing about HR 5034 and I said no. There are bloggers who know far more about it than I do — Tom Wark obviously is one — and why should I weigh in on a topic about which I am less informed than others? It’s distributors that are behind the HR 5034 threat. The entire wine, spirits and beer industries are united against it, Gladys and Nancy explained. It’s a non-partisan issue, with Democrats and Republicans both for and against it. It’s clear that the anachronistic distribution system is breaking down and will dissolve one of these days, but the wholesalers, who are a very powerful special interest, will fight tooth and nail to preserve it. Bobby Koch apparently is spending a lot of political capital and money to defeat 5034. More power to him.
As for the California propositions, 25 essentially would allow the state to raise taxes and fees with a simple majority vote, instead of the 2/3 supermajority now required. True, the initiative’s sponsors claim that the 2/3 threshold would be maintained in order to raise taxes, with the simple majority needed only for passage of a state budget. But this seems like a complicated and potentially slippery slope these days, when municipalities are scrambling to find every dollar they can. If the state can pass a budget with a simple majority, it seems obvious that taxes or fees or whatever you call them could be increased on alcoholic beverages, including wine, with a simple majority. And with the wine industry in such a fragile state, that’s the last thing we need. So I’m voting no on 25, even though that puts me in the company of conservatives. Most liberal groups are in favor of Prop 25.
Prop 26 would lock in the 2/3 supermajority and make it pertain not only to taxes but to the kinds of fees imposed by local governments, e.g. hazardous materials fees or fees on alcohol retailers. This is a complicated issue, since it has to do with the difference between a “tax” and a “fee,” and it also calls into question the power of the California Legislature to interpose itself into strictly local budgetary affairs. To the best of my understanding, if Prop 26 passes, the state would have to approve, by a 2/3 supermajority in the Legislature, any California taxpayer paying a higher tax on anything, with most “fees” being re-defined as taxes. That means, for example, that if San Francisco decided to pass a nickel-a-drink law, the California Legislature would have to sign off on it by a 2/3 supermajority.
Once again the pro-26 crowd is largely the business and anti-tax community, while those against it argue that it will help Big Oil and Big Tobacco. I wish it was easier for average voters like me to penetrate through the fog of political ads, arguments and counter-arguments and to know how these propositions really do or don’t address the issues. It always seems like a guess. I’m not entirely comfortable voting no on 25 and yes on 26, but I will.
Benjamin Franklin liked reporters, whom he called “printers.” He was one himself, and set down the premises for good journalism in a famous column, “Apology for Printers,” which he wrote, in his The Pennsylvania Gazette, on May 27, 1731. Addressing the inevitability that, no matter what the printer wrote, somebody would be pissed off, he said, “…if all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.” He concluded on a note of defiance to his critics: “I shall not therefore leave off Printing. I shall continue my Business. I shall not burn my Press and melt my Letters.”
The importance of a free press is taken for granted in Western democracies. Somebody has to be watchdog over the powers that be, whether they’re political, economic or religious. Granted, a free press often takes things too far. But ask yourself if you’d rather have the cacophony of America’s journalistic howl, or a one-party press such as exists in North Korea and Iran.
Journalism unfortunately is in a hard spot now. We all know it; we’ve been watching the pressures on traditional journalism mount up for years. First, the Internet, which promised everything for free. Then, the Recession, which pulled the [adverising] rug out from under journalism’s feet. And now, the rise of a Millennial generation which, we are told, reads nothing in print.
The problem of journalism’s future is like the weather: everybody talks about it but no one does anything about it. Well, not quite. Last month, the Federal Trade Commission — established in 1914 under an activist Wilson administration to protect American consumers and eliminate anti-competitive business practices — released the “discussion draft” of a 47 page “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism.”
Yes, you read it right. Recognizing the “significant transition” that journalism is undergoing, the document’s crafters are troubled by the “significant losses of news coverage” occurring as newspapers and magazines shut down. The draft proposal suggests measures the government can take to make sure there will be enough competent reporters in the future.
Among the most interesting of these is “additional intellectual property rights to support claims against news aggregators.” As every wine blogger knows, our blogs are reprinted in all sorts of online places whose owners receive direct financial benefit from them. I, personally, never have been particularly upset by this, but I know bloggers who are. The draft document suggests that some sort of tax on “parasitic aggregators…would better enable news organizations to obtain revenue from aggregators and search engines.” It would prohibit “free ride” sites that “without permission, post enough material to render the original news stories redundant.” Since blog posts that are aggregated are frequently found by search engines, the draft considers “legislation clarifying that the routine copying of original content done by a search engine in order to conduct a search (caching) is copyright infringement not protected by fair use.” (“Fair use” is a key concept in “third party” use of original material. Third parties are allowed to reproduce material for “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching…scholarship, or research,” but in general are not allowed to economically benefit.)
The draft also explores the possibility of providing “government-fostered pilot programs to investigate new business models” for journalism, basing their thinking on certain European models. There are various versions of this, including tacking on a service fee to Internet service providers, which in turn would be passed on to audited publishers (of course, that fee would invariably be passed on to Internet end-users.) There is even a suggestion of taxing electronic devices, like iPads.
The FTC’s draft document predictably was greeted by howls of derision by entrenched interests. The rightwing is calling the tax on aggregators a “Drudge tax.” Steven Brill, whose now defunct “Brill’s Content” was a pontifical attempt to finger-wag journalism by a school-marm moralizer, told the New York Times, “You’re going to create a fund so a bunch of kids from Ivy League colleges can get jobs going to zoning board meetings with pens and pads? It’s like you’re living on another planet if you think this is going to happen.” An opinion piece in the New York Post (owned by Rupert Murdoch) complained that publishers “don’t need government help. They need to be left alone with the assurance they won’t be interfered with by the FTC.” So intense was the blowback that, last Friday, reports surfaced that “The FTC is running for cover in the wake of reports it plans to tax websites and electronic devices in order to rescue dead tree dinosaur corporate media.”
I think bloggers ought to be thinking about these things incessantly. They may not, on the surface, care about all this; it doesn’t affect them directly, not yet. But they’re the ones who are going to have to figure out whether unfettered, unafraid journalism survives in America. They may agree that “dead tree dinosaur corporate media” needs to wither away; but I hope they understand the importance of a free press — and I don’t just mean a thousand blogs speaking with a Tower of Babel incoherence. I mean a press powerful enough to speak truth to power. I hope and expect that bloggers, like Ben Franklin, will declare, “I shall continue my Business. I shall not burn my Press and melt my Letters.”
Do you think that starting a successful winery is a conservative or a liberal thing to do? I don’t think it’s either. Only a rightwinger could interpret it in an anti-Obama way as a teabaggy example of all-American patriotism. Yet that’s exactly what some guy whose nom de blog is “weeklybito” did at a far-right website called RedState, which he titled “Pinot Noir and Capitalism.”
Seems weeklybito came across a Kosta Browne Pinot Noir, which he loved. He met with Michael Browne, who told him the story of how he, Michael, and partner Dan Kosta started their winery from very humble beginnings. Kosta Browne today has a high reputation in California Pinot Noir circles.
Lots of successful wineries (and lots of not so successful ones) were started by folks who had no money to begin with. Of course, lots of wineries also were started by people who had plenty of money to begin with. It’s always nice when somebody poor works hard and builds up a great brand. I’ve known dozens such, and have written about and praised many of them in my various books. It’s a lot harder to start with nothing and make it happen than to buy the stairway to heaven.
But why make political hay out of it? Some people just have to inject their politics into everything, and that’s what this weeklybito has done. He can’t just talk about the wine, the founders, the terroir. No, he has to see it all from a rightwing point of view. Here’s some of his Limbaugh-esque rhetoric, followed immediately by my refutations:
“From these humble beginnings American capitalism took root.” American capitalism? You mean they don’t practice capitalism in Brazil, Germany, Hong Kong, Mexico, Zimbabwe? Under capitalism, goods and services are traded on an open market, hopefully for profit. There’s nothing “American” about capitalism. It’s a system, not a country. And it can be argued that our uniquely American form of capitalism is not exactly doing the vanishing Middle Classes any good.
“Dedication and endurance need to be returned to the American work ethic.” Tell that to the auto workers, 4,000 of them, who were just fired from the NUMMI plant, 20 miles south of where I live. They were dedicated, they endured hard work. Tell that to the 30,000 others who are likely to lose their jobs as the ripple effect of NUMMI’s closure sweeps across the South Bay. Why politicize Kosta Browne? If bootstrap “dedication and endurance” are so important to making great wine, then does that mean that Bill Harlan — whose wealth financed his Harlan Estate winery — was not dedicated, had not endurance?
Kosta Browne “documents why America is still a great country and gives us reason to celebrate American achievements in the face of adversity.” What does the success of a winery have to do with documenting why America is a great country? One of these days we’re going to hear about some sensational wines coming from a Caucasus country. Will weeklybito then rant about how great Ukraine or Georgia or Belarus is? Kosta Browne gives us a reason to celebrate achievement, not “American achievements.” Why chauvinize what Michael and Dan have done? Why do the rightwingers have to praise everything good as “American” and everything they don’t like as “anti-American”?
Okay, forgive me. I promised I’d try to refrain from politics on this blog and keep my political opinions to Facebook. But this post was about wine — well, a little bit. So I didn’t really break my promise. That would be, well, un-American!
Of America’s 50 states, 18 are control or monopoly (as of 2005), meaning that their citizens can buy alcoholic beverages, including wine, only in state-owned stores. This is a result of the Repeal of Prohibition, when Congress decided on a states-rights approach, as opposed to a national policy, for governing the sale of alcohol.
The system of state monopoly stores has never worked well, depriving consumers of choice and, in many instances, resulting in drab, poorly run venues. It’s odd, too, that so many monopoly states are solid Republican, given that party’s traditional defense of free markets and suspicion of Big Government. For many complicated reasons (not the least of which is that the public hasn’t clamored for an end to monopoly control), changing the system was never high on anyone’s agenda.
That has now changed, for a simple reason: The economy. Nearly every state in the union is bankrupt or close to it. Governors and state legislatures are desperately seeking new sources of revenue. Loathe to raise income taxes, they’re looking at “creative financing,” such as fee and license hikes. Some officials in control states also are thinking what once was the unthinkable: privatizing alcohol sales.
In Washington State, lawmakers have introduced a bill “that would have Washington get completely out of the liquor business, allowing an unlimited number of people to buy licenses to sell liquor, as is done in California.” The idea is that, by selling the state’s warehousing facilities, and by allowing the market to determine prices, Washington could nearly double the $320 million alcoholic beverages brings in annually.
Down in Mississippi, which is suffering from its worst budget crisis since the Great Depression, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has called for legislation “to privatize the wine-sale functions” of the state’s Alcohol Control Division. In Vermont, a state Senator has introduced a bill “to disband the department of liquor control.” In Virginia, “Bob McDonnell, Virginia’s new Republican governor, made privatization of his state’s liquor stores a key plank of his campaign last year,” according to the Wall Street Journal, which also reports that McDonnell’s idea “is opposed by the Virginia Assembly of Independent Baptists.” And in neighboring North Carolina, the state’s Republican candidate for Governor, Pat McCrory, similarly “said it’s time for North Carolina to get out of the liquor business.”
Sounds like a road to Damascus moment for Repubs. One of the reasons opponents are against this entirely rational, self-interested plan to privatize alcohol sales is that minors would supposedly have easier access to liquor. If you think about it, that’s a bogus argument. It presupposes that a state store employee is less likely to sell liquor to a minor, and that a private store employee is more likely to. It seems to me the chances are about equal in both cases, and incapable of resolving further.
It’s time for America to do away with state-run liquor stores. I mean, where are we, the U.S. or Syria? It would harm no one, and will help financially embattled states raise a little extra cash. I am calling on all politicians in control states to put their money where their mouths are. Are you in favor of market-based capitalism, or of the heavy, controlling hand of government?
As everyone knows, I try my best to steer clear of controversy on this blog. But these are times that try the soul. Here’s something that just makes me want to scream!
Rough play? References to wine, sex prompt BYU to cancel U of U production of Greek play
That’s the headline in one media outlet reporting how Brigham Young University, the Salt Lake City school owned by the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), canceled a performance of Euripides’ Greek tragedy, The Bakkhai, just hours before it was scheduled to be shown.
Let’s break it down. The Bakkhai (sometimes Bacchae) premiered in Athens in 405 B.C. It is a morality tale, relating a fierce confrontation between Dionysus, the Greek God of wine, and the temporal King of Thebes, Pentheus. Dionysus calls upon the people to celebrate his annual Festival in the usual way, with wine-drinking, dancing and sex. Pentheus, a rather conservative sort who was the ancient Greek equivalent of the Family Research Council (or perhaps Mike Huckabee is a better example), doesn’t believe it’s right for the people to so indulge, and orders Dionysus’s arrest. However, the table is turned on Pentheus, proving that it’s a terrible idea to challenge a God, particularly one so popular with the people. Pentheus is torn apart by his own mother, who exhibits his head as a trophy. The Bakkhai has been called “the most horrific, powerful and theatrical of all Greek tragedies.”
The production, staged by the University of Utah’s Department of Theatre and Media Arts, had been scheduled as part of its 39th annual Classical Greek Theatre Festival, and was to have been shown at BYU. You can imagine the dismay of the 350 BYU students who purchased tickets when they were abruptly refunded their money and told the play wasn’t happening.
What prompted BYU to muzzle it? University officials knuckled down on the Univ. of Utah, and who knows what local political and religious pressures they brought to bear. The play’s producer, James Svendsen, offered this lame excuse: the production “does not really fit the BYU proscenium arch theater nor their audience.” If you believe that, I have a Tabernacle Choir to sell you. Is it really credible that the producer would have discovered his play didn’t fit onto BYU’s stage hours before it was to open? And in what way did the play not “fit” BYU”s audience? Isn’t that a judgment that the 350 people who bought tickets should have made, rather than had imposed upon them?
What really freaked BYU out was the “gender-bending in the casting” and “abundance of phallic symbols and cleavage” in the play (this, according to Svendsen). In the straight, white, male-dominated Mormon culture, any artistic expression, no matter how rooted in history, that doesn’t accord with their idea of correctness must be quashed, censored, driven underground. (And don’t forget, the Mormons were behind last year’s Proposition 8 campaign in California.)
The Mormons were also clearly obsessed with the focus on wine, notwithstanding its place in the Bible of both the Hebrews and Jesus. Wine is evil, because it lets people relax and be themselves instead of following some imposed mania, and so it must be resisted!!
Look, we’re not talking about some weird performance artist covering herself in chocolate and licking it off, or about the head of Jesus Christ in a jar of urine. I can understand why people would find those objectionable. No, we’re talking about an ancient Greek play by one of their greatest tragedians. The Bakkhai deals with a perfectly reasonable and important topic: the relationship between God and man. The Bible, Shakespeare, even modern playwrites like Kafka have asked precisely the same questions: Who is man to give his devotions to? What are the consequences of the clash between spiritual and civil authority? Jesus wisely recommended rendering unto Caesar, etc., and our own U.S. Constitution took the same route, famously prohibiting, in the First Amendment, the establishment of a State-sponsored religion.
But obviously, some reactionary religious groups never have been comfortable with the separation of Church and State. They would prefer to see governance and theology tightly intertwined, even in the halls of academia, where freedom of inquiry and expression ought to be celebrated, not despised. Why is that? And why is it that such people so often hate wine and the spirit of freedom it inspires?
Well, at least the Salt Lake Tribune gave The Bakkhai a glowing review, advising playgoers to “get there early to catch dramaturg Jim Svendsen’s informative introduction.” Too bad BYU crushed it.
Dionysus won’t be playing in Salt Lake. Maybe San Fran?
We say “Chateau,” Europe says “Shut up!”
The spat between the European Union and American wineries flared up again last week, as a group of members of Congress teamed together to urge the U.S. Trade Representative, the nation’s top trade negotiator and principal advisor to the President, to clear the “traditional expressions” logjam with the European Union.
So-called “traditional expressions” are words on labels. They include chateau, clos, classic, noble, vintage, sur lie, champagne and ruby, among others. The E.U. long has objected to their use on American wines, claiming they poach on traditional European territory and mislead consumers. Back in 2006, the U.S. agreed to stop using the terms, but under a “peace-making clause,” wineries using them at that time were grandfathered in, and allowed to continue their use for 3 years.
That 3 year exemption ended in March. The expectation was that the E.U. would issue 2-year renewals, in order to further the peace-making period, while the hard issues were hammered out. “But they didn’t renew it,” says a source with close ties to the industry. It is this impasse that the U.S. Trade Representative is now being pressured to resolve by the politicians.
(For a good background story on this issue, see this Wines & Vines article.)
I asked the industry source what is likely to happen next. “It remains unresolved what the people with trademarks are supposed to do, like Chateau Montelena or Korbel [Champagne Cellars]. So we probably have a case for the World Trade Organization,” the international body that resolves trade disputes between nations.
My guess is that every winery currently using traditional expressions will be allowed to keep them. After all, nobody expects Clos du Val to change their name! I also suspect the list of words the E.U. objects to will be narrowed. I mean, sur lie? Come on.
Beckstoffer’s big Mendocino gamble
“Are we really too early?” That’s the question top grower Andy Beckstoffer asked rhetorically when he was quoted, in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, concerning his planting of 300 acres of organic Chardonnay vineyards by the banks of the Russian River in Hopland, which is in central Mendocino County.
Andy B. is one of the smartest guys in the industry, a veteran who came up through the ranks and bears the scars to prove it. (I have a chapter on him in my book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff.)
Andy’s question concerns, of course, when the Recession will end. Since nobody knows, it’s something of a gamble to be developing a big new vineyard at this time. Beckstoffer’s optimism runs in his genes, but it’s based also on his assumptions that (a) downturns always end, and (b) inland Mendocino County has been underrated as a source of premium wine.
I remember when I first tasted a Chardonnay from the old Jepson winery, which was made from the same area as Beckstoffer’s new vineyard. I thought it was one of the best I’d ever had. Chardonnay remains America’s favorite white wine, and there’s no reason to expect that will ever change. So, if Beckstoffer can keep his prices moderate — and if the wineries that buy his grapes don’t charge too much — his gamble is likely to pay off. I’d expect the Chardonnays to retail in the $10-$15 range.