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Who’s the best wine critic, a local or a visitor to the region?

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Old friend Nick Goldschmidt braved the terrors of I-80 through Berkeley and Emeryville to visit me in Oakland yesterday. We grabbed some sushi to go and walked over to the park, where we sat on a bench by the lake, with all the seagulls and geese, and talked. (Yes, Gus came, too.)

What did we talk about? Wine, of course. I got caught up on his adventures (Nick seems always to be somewhere in the world making wine) and he got caught up with mine. We spoke about wine critics, and Nick made an interesting statement.

He said, in effect, that he thought wine writers/reviewers should actually live in the places they write about, in order to understand the culture. For instance, he said, when Nick travels to Chile, he lives with winemakers, not in a hotel, eats their food, plays with their kids, and in general absorbs the culture. Chileans eat a lot of sushi, which accounts for many of their wines. Argentinians, by contrast, eat a lot of beef.

So what about traveling writers, like Jancis, Parker, Galloni? I asked. They don’t live in the wine regions they write about but they seem to do a pretty good job. And, I pointed out, I don’t live in wine country either.

“Yes, but you live in the Bay Area and easily travel up to Napa and Sonoma,” Nick said, which is true; and it’s also easy for me to get to the Central Coast. On the other hand, lots of wine writers only visit overseas regions once or twice a year—and then they tend to go to the same old wineries over and over, and this, too, bothered Nick.

I suppose it’s true that living in or near the wine country you write about makes the writing somewhat more authoritative. I’m not sure I agree that an understanding of the “culture” is all that relevant, though. It can’t hurt, but I like to feel that I could take the skills I’ve learned—having a decent palate and all that—and apply them to the wines of France or Croatia or South Africa, if I was reviewing them.

Winemakers always want to feel that the people critiquing their wines have as thorough an understanding as possible of those wines—where they’re from, what the underlying philosophy is, how they were made and so forth. This is perfectly understandable. The relationship between a critic and the wines he reviews is a very intimate one. This is why many wineries—not most, but a lot—won’t allow critics to taste their wines, except with the winemaker on the premises. I personally don’t subscribe to that approach, as I think it’s short-sighted; but then, I come at this from the critic’s point of view.

I think Nick’s questions raise deeper issues, and reflect an ongoing uneasiness about wine critics on the part of many winemakers. They (winemakers) work their butts off to make wine, and then their success or lack thereof is in the hands of writers who are, let’s face it, largely uncredentialed. We also talked about where wine criticism is heading, as the Boomers fade from the scene and print publications continue to try to figure out how to stay relevant. Nick asked me what I thought, and I had to admit I don’t know. After all these years of kicking the subject around on steveheimoff.com, the jury’s still out on how Millennials (the future of wine) will be basing their buying decisions in 5, 10 years.

Speaking of Nick, whose wines I’ve adored for a long time (he’s so talented), I will miss tasting the fantastic range of great wines that used to come my way, not to mention the interaction with so many talented California winemakers, some of whom have been nice enough to contact me and wish me well. I was lucky in my job: I got to taste the best that California has to offer. Not that I’m complaining: I still get to taste some fabulous wines from Jackson Family. Long before now, I should have congratulated Virginie Boone for inheriting the Napa-Sonoma portfolio of my former job at Wine Enthusiast. Good for her: she deserves it.


History and tasting go hand in hand when it comes to wine appreciation

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We tasted through a range of Jackson Family wines the other day with the staff of the Sonoma County Vintners, and my oh my, what an impressive group they (the SCV staff, I mean) were. I remember a time when the staffs (such as they were) of these regional wine associations weren’t as professional or informed as they should have been. Of course, the Napa Valley Vintners always was the best organized, but the others—as hard as they tried—just didn’t seem able to pull it all together.

The problems were twofold: money and politics. It takes dough, and plenty of it, to run a successful regional association, and most of them, aside from Napa, just didn’t have it. Wineries didn’t want to pony up the dues, and besides, many of them felt they didn’t need a regional association—they could do all the marketing and P.R. themselves.

Then there was raw politics. You’d think that all the wineries in a region would be eager to work together to promote that region. But that wasn’t always the way it rolled. The smaller wineries would resent the bigger ones (whose money bankrolled the associations) and felt that they were getting short-shrifted. The job of Executive Director of these associations was a perilous one; people came, got in trouble with the membership, often through no fault of their own, and left after a few years, meaning that the associations were always in a state of drift.

Well, that began to change some years ago. I suppose it just took a maturation of the industry. Competition became fiercer, and winery owners began to realize that (in Franklin’s words), “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

I’ve witnessed the most astounding improvements in the last seven years or so. My most direct experience (aside from Napa Valley) was with the associations of Monterey County and Paso Robles. In both cases, I was impressed by the intelligence and passion of their leaders. Whatever improvements you’ve seen in the wines of these two areas have certainly been due, in part, to the energy of their regional associations.

I had less experience with the Santa Barbara Vintners because I tended to arrange my own travels down there (with the help of some local professionals who were glad to help me). Which brings us back to the Sonoma County Vintners. For some reason, while I was at Wine Enthusiast our/my relations had minimized over the years. I’m not sure why. Mostly my relationships were with individual wineries and winemakers in Sonoma County, and given my long history with the county, it just didn’t seem necessary to work closely with SCV.

After last Tuesday’s tasting, I wish I had. I can’t tell you how diligent and curious that group, which numbered about a dozen, was. They wanted to learn everything they could, and I felt that I could draw on my rich and varied experiences, so that our tasting was just as much about history, personalities and anecdotes as it was about the hedonics of the wines. One of the advantages of (how shall I describe it?) getting gray hairs is that you can look back over your adventures and get some perspective on things. It’s often said that younger people have no interest in History. I don’t agree, at least, from the point of view of wine. A twenty-something year old employee of a regional wine association does indeed want to hear tales of bygone times, just as much as she wants to understand how that Pinot Noir tastes and why that taste is the product of the terroir.

Actually, the two concepts—hedonic experiences of wine and history—go hand in hand. In Old Europe this has always been taken for granted. In Europe’s case, it sometimes impeded wine progress, because their cultures got so mired in traditionalism that they couldn’t move forward, even when the way to do so was obvious. Here in California, our lack of tradition—which at first the Europeans derided—turned out in retrospect to have been a blessing in disguise. That might have led some pundits to conclude that history isn’t important in California. But it is. The lines of transmission from, say, Tchelistcheff to Joe Heitz to Richard Peterson to Heidi Barrett to the entire gamut of today’s cult Cabernets are living; no proper understanding of California wine can occur without at least some understanding of how we got to where we are today.

When I was speaking last week at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley I alluded to this topic of history and one of the students asked me to recommend some books. I’m going to do that pretty soon, right here on the blog. Reading about wine is, to me anyhow, just about as much fun as drinking it!


Post-Haas School thoughts

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We did my annual tasting and seminar last week at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Wine Club, “we” being myself and Randy Ullum, K-J’s head winemaker.

I’ve long been a fan of Randy. I included him in my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California,” which I organized by the decade when the winemaker began his or her career. Randy was part of the 1980s section that also included (for good measure), Bob Levy, Heidi Peterson Barrett, and the brains behind Shafer, Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez.

What a decade that was. I’ll write more about it soon, but for now, I just want to say how the boutique winery movement of the 1960s and 1970s might have fizzled out, were it not for the energy the Eighties gave it. Like a shot in the arm, you might say, with the brilliance of Napa Valley now being—if not joined, then at least other regions were permitted to co-star in the play.

What I admired then about Randy, and still do, was his ability to craft small-lot wines alongside something like Vintner’s Reserve. And not just any small lots, but really great wine. Randy’s also a humorous, affable guy, and it was obvious the future MBAs at Haas liked him. The laughed a lot more at his jokes than they did at mine!

The cool thing about hanging out with the Millennials /Gen Yers who comprise the Haas Wine Club is that they offer a window into tomorrow’s smart wine consumers. They’re also tomorrow’s well-to-do wine drinkers; an MBA from Haas School ain’t chopped liver! So it’s interesting to know what they’re thinking.

Most wine tastings and seminars are given for an older crowd: for example, the folks who pay big bucks to go to something like the World of Pinot Noir. They are more or less settled into their ways. They’ll go to a Burgundy seminar because they like and collect Burgundy. Their minds are made up, you could say; older drinkers are not as open as younger ones to new wines, or from places they may be unfamiliar with. This is why there’s no event in California called World of Pinotage or World of Trebbiano or World of Croatia.

But Millennials are wide open when it comes to preferences. That’s why they’re such a huge target for wine marketers, who believe that, if they can catch a fan at a young age, they’ve got a customer for life.

Randy tasted the group, which numbered about 60, through five various tiers of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, from Vintner’s Reserve up to small production, vineyard-designated bottlings. The students were eager to learn, asking lots of good questions. I know, from having done this class for the last 7 or 8 years, that among them, you’ll find varying degrees of wine knowledge. Some are absolute neophytes, while others have done a lot of tasting and reading. When you’re doing a seminar like that, you have to try and make everyone happy. In the case of the Haas School Wine Club, it’s never hard. They’re a very un-snobby bunch, but at the same time they’re there to learn. I would rather speak to people like that, who have few if any preconceptions about what’s good or bad, important or unimportant, and just want to soak up every bit of knowledge they can.

I never rehearse for such classes. What’s the point? I like to keep things impromptu, on the theory that what’s real is better than a canned speech. And besides, those kids’ questions keep it real. I don’t have any problem thinking on my feet, which is probably partly because I’m from The Bronx (if you’re not on your feet in The Bronx, you’re on your back), but also because I have a lot of thoughts in my head all the time about wine—or about the particular wine topics I’m interested in—so it’s easy for me to expound on them. Just don’t let me go on too long!

I covered the first part of the two-hour class; these Haas students always are interested in things pertaining to being a wine critic. Then Randy took over, and he was smart enough to realize that the class would be interested in some of the business-related aspects of the K-J company. So he intertwined talk about that, even while he presented a thorough tasting and explanation of the various terroirs from which the Chardonnays came.

My favorite among the five Chards (with all due respect to the others) was the 2012 Camelot Highlands, from Santa Maria Valley. I’ve given that wine 90-plus scores over nine vintages, a pretty good track record for a Chardonnay. My readers know I’m a Chardonnay guy anyway, but that Camelot, which is from the so-called Tepusquet Bench of the valley, a hop and skip away from Bien Nacido (Cambria is inbetween), is one I could drink all the time.

As for my new gig, well, so many of you want to know how it’s going that I’ll report here from time to time. In short, it’s great. I’m settling into the new routine, which continues to evolve in the scope of my responsibilities. One of the best parts is that K-J encourages me to bring Gus along with me (for the most part—obviously there are limitations), whereas at my last job, Gus could sometimes be an issue. As I’ve said before, a challenge of my former profession was to get people to see me as me, not their image of me. I never liked that part of the job—being defined by my job. I respected people for seeing me that way, but I always tried to show them the real me. I think all well-known wine critics feel the same way. The job description comes with humility. Or at least, it had better.


On distributors, and the IPOB-ization of wine

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When I first started writing about wine, professionally, it was for Wine Spectator, but they also wanted me to write for their trade magazine, Market Watch, which I was happy to do, because it was more work for an underpaid freelance writer. I quickly learned to like that back end of the business, the intricacies of sales, marketing, P.R. and all the rest. I found it intellectually stimulating, like a chess game—and I still do.

I soon began to be invited to the numerous tastings in and around San Francisco. Among these were events specially designed by and for distributors and their clients. These were trade-heavy events. While there could be some pretty good wines served, most of the distributors didn’t seem particularly interested in them. They just wanted to be told how to sell them (and perhaps they also wanted just to drink wine and eat some good food!).

Those early experiences colored my view of distributors. As far as I could tell, they could just as easily have been selling widgits as wine. They didn’t care about the product itself (although they were willing to work hard), they wanted to maximize their sales. It was a rather demoralizing experience for me to realize that wine was being represented, through this important face to buyers, by such indifferent people.

Over the years, though, my attitude has softened. Every once in a while I complained (especially in this blog) about the inequities built into the distribution system, and I generally supported my friend, Tom Wark, in his American Wine Consumer Coalition efforts to bypass or improve the three-tiered system, which I felt unfairly discriminated against smaller wineries. However, every time I did so, someone I respected—usually a winemaker—would write in and tell me that I was failing to understand all the good that distributors do. So I began to double-check my premises, since some of these winemakers who were taking the time to write were highly respected by me.

So I’ve been open to re-evaluating my views on distributors for some time now, although I have to say my emotional sympathies still lie with Tom. Last Friday, I was invited down to participate in a meeting of Jackson Family Wines’ Southern California distributors. I couldn’t help but be struck by how much more educated—and interested—in wine today’s distributors are compared to their remote ancestors of twenty and more years ago. These people, gathered down in Orange County for a semi-quarterly meeting, struck me as young, really smart, eager and perhaps most of all, passionate about wine. Although I made a few comments, mostly the event was presided over by sommeliers and other wine experts, who led the rather largish group through some fairly serious tastings that everyone seemed to enjoy—and they were blind tastings, at that! The contrast between those widget distributors of the 1990s and these guys could not have been starker, or more welcome to behold.

There seems to be a tendency nowadays for the leaders of these guided tastings to provoke the audience to stretch their tasting vocabulary. For instance, when these leaders ask what flavors people are getting and someone says, “Mushrooms,” the leader asks, “What kind of mushroom?” I understand this approach, which gets the audience more intimately involved and stimulates their analytical powers. This isn’t particularly my way, since I tend to be more generalized about flavors, and I feel that structure is anyway more important that individual flavors, “structure” including the way the wine feels in the mouth, which is all-important. But if people want to talk about the differences between shiitake and hen-of-the-woods, that’s fine by me.

How much smarter and more educated everyone in the food chain has become: not just distributors, but bartenders, restaurant staff and, mostly importantly of all, the consumer.

* * *

Finally—last words!—remember some years back when everybody was talking about the “Parkerization” of wine, that term referring to a supposed overripeness, over-oakiness and high alcohol content of wine? Well, whether or not it ever was true, nowadays I perceive another style-driving trend: Let’s call it the IPOB-ization of wine (after the In Pursuit of Balance organization). I will begin with a question: Are we seeing some vintners, particularly those producing Pinot Noir, now deliberately picking their grapes underripe, in order to appeal to that small, but influential, cadre of writers, critics and sommeliers who insist that Pinot Noir must be low in alcohol in order to be balanced? I invite your answers. For myself, I think the answer is “yes.” And, as a certain Mr. Parker recently implied, underripe fruit merely results in underripe wine.

Now, I haven’t really been clear on what “In Pursuit of Balance” means since I went to their last tasting, in San Francisco, and Rajat Parr said (I paraphrase), “Some people think IPOB means we only like wines below 14% but that’s not true.” Well, I suppose, then, that “balance” can be applied to any wine, of any alcoholic strength, so what else is new? I’ve never heard of anyone being in favor of unbalanced wines. Then I was reading, in the new April issue of The Tasting Panel (and what an interesting ‘zine that’s turning out to be) a little article by Randy Caparosa in which he made some salient points, most notably that, at the last World of Pinot Noir (which I attended; I was underwhelmed by Raj’s Domaine de la Côte Pinot Noir), “There is still talk of the ‘high-alcohol problem’ in American Pinot Noirs, but in the vast majority of 200-plus wines tasted [at WOPN], an overweening sense of alcohol or ripeness just wasn’t’ there.”

Indeed. One could, I guess, argue that IPOB has had its intended effect, of driving down alcohol levels. On the other hand I could point out that high alcohol per se hasn’t been a problem in good Pinot Noir for years. Still isn’t.


Tasting with Cal MBAs, and news on the California drought

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I’m setting up my annual tasting for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business, which this year will be on April 9. This is one of my favorite tastings because the students—future MBAs who are members of the school’s wine club—are totally into wine. They’re a smart, curious bunch, eager to learn, and they ask the best questions.

When you’re the speaker or moderator at a wine seminar, it’s always nice to have an audience that works with you, instead of just sitting there expecting you to do all the heavy lifting. A few weeks ago, I went to a seminar in San Francisco, on high-altitude wines. One of the moderators was a winemaker. It was a very interesting topic, and I had lots of questions, so I raised my hand often to ask—probably more so than any of the other 50 or 60 people in the audience. I’m not shy about such things! Afterwards, I went up to the winemaker to pay my respects, and the first thing he did was to thank me for asking so many questions! I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve been on panels where the audience was like Forest Lawn Cemetary. Not fun! So if I’m in any position to offer advice, it would be: Next time you’re in the audience at a winetasting and they permit questions, raise that hand! Participate! We’re all in this together.

* * *

I’m sure we’re still officially in a drought, but we had a lot of rain in March and even some good storms in February, after the driest December-January in recorded history, which got the media buzzing about the D-word. Downtown San Francisco got nearly an inch of rain during this most recent storm (yesterday), which puts it at 51% of normal. Other cities are doing better. Calistoga is up to 83% of normal as of yesterday, if this chart from the San Francisco Chronicle can be believed. Santa Rosa got .53 of an inch yesterday, bringing the annual average up to about half. This storm hasn’t yet hit the Central Coast, where the water situation is really dire, but the National Weather Service is predicting it will, although the amount of precipitation doesn’t appear to be very great. So the area from Paso Robles down through Santa Barbara really does need rain, badly. We can only hope they get it before the rainy season is over.

At any rate, this morning’s Chronicle says that despite yesterday’s hefty soaking, recent dowmpours “fall far short of ending [the] crisis.” The Sierra Madre Mountains, it says—which is where most of California’s summertime water comes from, via snowmelt—are still at only 29 percent of historical normal, meaning Monday’s thunder, lightning and heavy rain were “too little and too late to have much impact on this year’s severe drought.”

However, others are seeing a bit more light at the end of the tunnel. “The trend is improving,” the Santa Rosa Press Democrat quoted a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency. That’s because the recent storms have been so soaking that “you’re looking at a lot of run-off…into the reservoirs.” For instance, Lake Sonoma, which sits at the top of Dry Creek Valley, now is at 74 percent capacity.

The rain is over, for now, and, as is typical of big winter storms moving through California, the temperature is expected to plummet as the cold front passes. It’s quite cold this morning (as I write), meaning that vintners have a new fear in mind, beyond the drought: “when these storms come through and then stop, there’s cold storms from the north and you’ve got to watch your frost protection,” the Press Democrat quoted an Alexander Valley vineyard manager as saying. Since so many wineries depend on overhead sprinklers for frost protection, if we do end up with a spurt of below-freezing mornings, vintners may be in for a real challenge.


Wilfred and me

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We’ve done a lot of talking over the years, in this blog and throughout the social media sphere, on the topic of careers. The main question–given the rapid influx of wine bloggers–has been how to monetize those blogs. We’ve heard from “experts” of every stripe about SEO and ROI and all that, but the issue never really was resolved. I mean, nobody yet knows how to “monetize” a blog, do they?

And yet it seems to me that, with the benefit of hindsight, we now can see that this question wasn’t the right one to be asking. The right, and bigger, one was, how are the careers of wine critics evolving in the second decade of the third millennium?

To answer it, we need to understand a little history. To have “a career as a wine critic” made no sense at all until sometime in the 1970s and 1980s, when America finally became enough of a wine-drinking country to warrant the emergence of a cognoscenti who had the time and intellectual curiosity to study wine and then present themselves as arbiters of taste to the multitude of consumers who suddenly found themselves overwhelmed by excessive choice.

(I’m talking about here in America. In Britain, you could always go to work for an auction house, the way Michael Broadbent and Harry Waugh did.)

There may have been a handful of critics who actually made a living writing about wine before the late 1970s, but it was primarily limited to reporters in big cities, like New York and Los Angeles. And even then, these reporters weren’t allowed to write exclusively about wine. When Frank Prial was given the “Wine Talk” column at the New York Times, in 1972, he was still expected to–and did–cover the news. There simply wasn’t enough demand for a full-time wine reporter back in those days.

The Golden Age, as it were, of wine writing as a career really began in the mid-1980s, when Wine Spectator was picking up steam and Parker had launched The Wine Advocate. Tens of thousands of newby wine lovers, overwhelmingly Baby Boomers, subscribed, making Parker and Mr. Shanken wealthy men. Other entrepreneurial types, including my former employer at Wine Enthusiast, took note, and launched their own publications; meanwhile, more and more big city newspapers started up wine columns. With all those pages to fill up with content, a hiring spree began, and more and more people, including me, found themselves paid (albeit not much) to write about wine.

This Golden Age probably reached its peak some time ago. Early-warning signs were the Los Angeles Times’ cessation of having a full-time wine writer, the recent decision of the San Francisco Chronicle to scale back its wine and food section, and the tendency at wine magazines to hire independent freelancers to write for them, instead of full-time writers (thus, without healthcare and pension benefits). Making a decent living writing about wine became harder and harder as the 21st century dawned.

We come now to two recent developments that may shed added light on the situation. First has been my own transition, which most of you are aware of. Then came yesterday’s stunning announcement that Wilfred Wong, the longtime Cellarmaster at Bevmo!, has left that company to be “Chief Storyteller” for wine.com.

I’m told that, when the press release announcing my own job switch went out, lots of jaws dropped. Mine didn’t, of course–but it certainly did when I read the news about Wilfred. It immediately started me thinking, what does this mean?

That meaning is inherent in cultural phenomena, no matter how obscure, has been observed by semioticians, including Umberto Eco. Marshall McLuhan and Roland Barthes. For example, we can see, in the movies about invasions by space aliens that thrilled American kids in the 1950s (think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still”), direct reflections of the paranoia and xenophobia Americans felt at that early stage of the frightening Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, both armed to the teeth with thermonuclear weapons. The interpretation of such films on a meta-level actually reached the point where some observers perceived analogies between “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and the New Testament.

I similarly see meaning in what has happened with Wilfred and me in the last two weeks, although since we have not yet had the benefit of hindsight, it’s more difficult to parse out its precise parameters. But this much is clear: the wine industry, for the first time ever, seems to be expanding into newer areas in which wine writers are seen, by employers, to possess skills far in excess of “mere” wine writing and reviewing. Over the course of decades of work, a wine writer necessarily is plunged into the complexities of marketing, public relations, brand building, tier construction, image making, understanding consumer behavior, social media, labels, closures, and analyzing such things as why certain new brands soar to stardom while others don’t, why some star brands become eclipsed over time, how an eclipsed brand can re-establish itself (or not), and how a brand that’s doing well can remain relevant in the face of increasing competition, both domestically and from abroad.

These are broad and sophisticated skills. It’s not that a wine writer sets out to study them; it’s that he or she necessarily absorbs them during the course of performing one’s job.

Both Wilfred and I have been doing this for many, many years. In fact, during a conversation I had the other day with a friend, I found myself telling him (to my own surprise) that I feel like I’ve acquired the equivalent of a pH.D. or three, in all the areas I described above. It seems clear that my acquisition by Jackson Family Wines, and Wilfred’s by wine.com, both occurred, at least in part but to a great degree, because those companies appreciated that we have become generalists with a wide degree of knowledge of how this industry works–whereas an employee hired out of business school with an MBA or a degree in marketing or communications lives in a sort of bubble, where the horizon is limited by the contours of her own speciality.

What is the take-home lesson now that writers are being respected for having hard-to-define, but unmistakable, talents, beyond writing and good palates? To me, it’s that the wine industry has entered a new era of sophistication, more akin to industries like high tech and entertainment than to old-fashioned ones, like the wine industry used to be. The 1980s and 1990s may have been a Golden Age for wine writers, but it was (we can see on reflection) a time of some stagnation for the industry at large, which sat by as other industries understood the importance of global communications in the global village. The wine industry, by contrast, was content to depend on an older model that was dissolving right before its uncomprehending eyes.

I don’t know exactly what Wilfred’s duties will be–chances are his new job, like mine, will evolve. But what his title, Chief Storyteller, implies is that wine.com sees him as a generalist-expert, with a solid understanding of the industry in all its aspects, and the ability to connect with people through the written and spoken word. I don’t have a complete handle on what this means, but it surely means something.


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