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On the road to Willamette Valley

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It was a pretty ride up to Oregon yesterday, bright sun and blue skies the whole way. Shasta looked like a Japanese painting,

Shasta

although when we got to the Siskiyous the fog descended. I think that this part of the land must be behind the rain shadow: the conifers suddenly disappear, so does the snow although you’re still at a good elevation, and instead everything is the barren beige dry blandness of high desert. These rain shadows have always fascinated me: Eastern Oregon is a good example, but so to some extent are the Vacas in Napa Valley, which have considerably less rainfall than the Mayacamas, which is why east Oakville is so different from west Oakville.

It was cold in northern California and southern Oregon, and considerable snow already had fallen. Poor Gus, who had never experienced snow before, didn’t know what to make of it. I think this picture of him is a WTF moment.

GusSnow

I stayed the night in Ashland, a cute little town, and across the street from my hotel was a wine bar, Liquid Assets. Quel coincidence: they had a Freemark Abbey 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon on the by-the-glass list.

FreemarkBar

Tomorrow—today, as you read this—I complete my journey to McMinnville. Jackson Family Wines has a vineyard up there, in the south-central part of the Willamette Valley, and we’re interested in seeing if we can get a sub-AVA going in the Monmouth area. It’s a terribly interesting project that involves going deep into the tall weeds of TTB policy, but it’s right up my alley. The first thing to do is determine a name, which TTB requires be anchored in historical documentation. So for the next several days, you’ll find me in local museums, historical societies and libraries, doing my research.

A big reason why I drove up to Oregon rather than flew was because I want to get a sense of the lay of the land. It’s one thing to study USGS maps and soil surveys, but important as those are, they provide only limited information about terroir, which after all involves all sorts of other elements. The human brain and especially our eyes are equally needed, to show the relationship of valley and bench to slope and hill, to see variations in soil color, to breathe the air and detect subtleties of wind, temperature, humidity and plants. I think the most important thing about the terroir of wine grapes is to learn to perceive everything from the point of view of the vine. Years ago I used to lie down in vineyards. Dissociating myself from my mind, I’d experience the wholeness of being a living thing at that place at that time. That’s what terroir means, isn’t it?


Putting wine into a greater context

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When educators talk about wine at the kinds of consumer events I’m doing this week at Karisma Resort, it seems to me that more than just the hedonistic and technical aspects of the wines should be discussed.

I mean, wine is more than just “cherries” or “limes” and bright acidity or steak-worthy tannins and an AVA. Yes, those kinds of things—its flavors and textures, it’s varietal mix, its appellation—are important, and consumers want and need to know about them. After all, the reason why folks pay to go to these sorts of events is because they’re hungry for more knowledge about wine (and bless them for that!).

But there’s so much more to wine. For example, it’s important for people who are tasting wines from the company I work for, Jackson Family Wines, to understand things like the Jacksons’ commitment to sustainability. It’s one thing to talk about (for instance) Stonestreet Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon, but that wine needs to be put into the context of the fact that Jess loved that mountain so much, he’s buried there, his wife, Barbara, lives there, and “Christopher” is the name of their only son. It helps consumers to know about (and I think it’s terribly interesting in itself) how Jess left corridors of pathways open throughout the vastness of the Alexander Mountain Estate, to let the critters who have lived there forever—cougars, bears, deer, wild boars and so on—prowl. These things may not have anything to do with the wine’s flavors, or how it ages, or the way it pairs with steak. But in a funny way, they do. It places the wine into a greater context, one you can call “intellectual” and “emotional” rather than (merely) hedonistic; and it’s in the brain—the seat of intellect and emotions—that wine’s greatest appeal lives.

This putting-wine-into-greater-contexts presents more of a challenge to educators. They have to do more research than to just read a tech sheet and regurgitate it to whatever audience they’re addressing—which is something I’ve seen far too much of (and something I admit to being occasionally guilty of myself). But, after all, in this day-and-age of “the story,” when we’re told that every wine needs something to distinguish itself from every other wine, it does behoove us educators to go beyond the routine and really find out what makes that wine that wine. Especially when the story connected to it is compelling.

Back tomorrow, reporting from this delightful part of the Maya Riviera.


From Mexico, a great wine and food pairing, and the perils of poorly-conceived advertising

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I’m down here in Mexico on the fabulous Maya Rivera, at the Karisma El Dorado resort, south of Cancun, where I’ll be doing a bunch of wine education classes and dinners, some of them with the chef/partner of San Francisco’s new Aaxte restaurant, Ryan Pollnow. This is a very exciting opportunity for me. The resort itself is huge, more like a good-sized village, so yesterday afternoon some of the staff toured me around in a little shuttle cart so I’ll know where the various venues are located. The wines I’ll be talking about are from Jackson Family, representing a good cross-section of the portfolio.

In fact, we had our first wine dinner last night, and I must say it was really great. Chef Julio, of Karisma, prepared our food, creating wonderful Mexican dishes, and I found it thrilling. It was in one of Karisma’s food theaters; I was sitting with Chef Ryan, watching Chef Julio under the spotlights and in front of the cameras, which showed him on two big screen TVs, and when I suggested to Chef Ryan that the event had a certain theatricality about it, he said “Gastro-tainment.” That was a new one on me. I love it.

As soon as I got to Mexico I heard about a brouhaha concerning a Coca-Cola T.V. commercial that aired here that some people found culturally insulting, but that others thought was just fine. The commercial, which you can see here, keenly illustrates the potential mine fields companies must navigate in the images and messages their promotional materials convey.

The Coca-Cola commercial shows a group of young people (they look like American tourists to me)—good-looking hunky guys and long-haired young women in tight jeans and T-shirts—who seem to be on a Habitat-for-Humanity-style mission to build a giant Christmas tree in an indigenous Mexican town. To the saccharine strains of orchestral music, they paint and labor, high-fiving each other with white-toothed smiles, while the natives look on wondrously and gratefully. And, of course, there are coolers of Coca-Cola everywhere.

The style of the commercial is straight out of Coke’s 1971 “I’d like to teach the world to sing” post-hippie playbook: inspirational Kumbaya love. But some people didn’t get the good vibes. “Outrageous” and “racist,” they called it. Somebody tweeted, “When a company as big as Coca-Cola is saying #AbreTuCorazon [Open Your Heart] by giving Coca-Cola to indigenous ppl. what they are really doing is using them.” On the other hand, lots of the comments on the YouTube video either praised Coca-Cola for a sincere desire to help poor people, or wondered what the big deal was. “Couldn’t care less,” one person said; another pointed out a certain political correctness at work: “I love to laugh at freaking crybabies getting offended over nothing.”

At any rate, things got so hot that Coca-Cola issued a “rare apology” and pulled the ad, but versions it can still be found all over the Internet, as for example here, where it’s been retitled “The White Savior Ad.”

The take-home lesson for companies is that they really have to have culturally tuned-in people on their marketing and P.R. staffs. You can’t just let creative call the shots: you have to ask yourself how your images and messages will be perceived, not just by the people you think you’re talking to, but by everybody. Nobody thinks the Coca-Cola ad was intentionally racist or derogatory; no doubt the people who created it, and the managers who approved it, felt they were doing something lovely, in the spirit of Christmas. And perhaps, after all is said and done, that is exactly what the commercial is: a salute to cross-cultural brotherhood, good will and mutual respect.

Alas, in our world, even the most well-intended message can be wrongly interpreted.


Live, from Mexico

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Getting my bearings. Back tomorrow. This is the 74th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Remember those who lost their lives defending us.


When in McMinnville, drink beer

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No, that’s not a slam against Oregon wine. I love these earthy, rich Pinot Noirs of Willamette Valley. But I also love a good beer and Lord knows there’s good beer in charming, small towny McMinnville. So I stopped by the Golden Valley Brewery, right downtown on the main drag, bought a few bottles, and voila, here I am, in the comfortable Comfort Inn, creating this blog post especially for you.

McMinnville
McMinnville

But first, my sad, sad beer story. So I want to drink the “Carlton Kolsch,” a fruity, medium-bodied, mildly hoppy beer (alcohol 5%). But you can’t carry a bottle opener on planes since 9-11, and when I got to the good old Comfort Inn the kid at the front desk said he no longer keeps bottle openers for guests because said guests keep stealing them, so he and I went on a treasure hunt through the kitchen looking for something, anything that could open a bottle of beer but there was nothing, and when I insisted there had to be something in the kitchen that could open a beer bottle he replied, indignantly, “If there was anything in here that could open a beer bottle I’d know about it,” and that settled that. Still, this bottle needed opening, so what to do? Turned out there’s a little bar-restaurant down the block, so I hightailed it over and the nice lady who greeted me said she did in fact have a bottle opener but that I wasn’t allowed to open the bottle in the restaurant, I’d have to take it outside, which made her worry a little bit, because I think she thought if she gave me her bottle opener and I took it outside I might never return; I suppose I look like the type who would steal a bottle opener. So she came outside with me, right there in the parking lot, and I opened the bottle, and she took the bottle opener back. Two happy people.

GoldenValley
Golden Valley beer

(Yes I know the above rant is a bit cretinous but I mention it only to suggest the many tiny little things that can go wrong when you’re on the road, and compared to some of the more hellacious ones, my beer bottle brouhaha was minor indeed.)

Anyhow they had the USA Today in the Comfort Inn lobby so I took one and basically flipped out reading a comment from a reader who called the No Tipping policy at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group (which I blogged about earlier this month) “socialism.” I mean, when did the word “socialist” or “socialism” become a dirty word that rightwingers use to pile hate on everything they don’t like? But this is a wine blog, so no politics here. I was really getting into my Carlton Kolsch, so I kept reading and on the very next page was one of those dueling opinion pieces where USA Today’s writer basically accused “Big Beer” of trying to “flatten sales by craft breweries” and a counter-view arguing that nonsense, Big Beer isn’t trying to flatten anything, the beer industry is “thriving,” exploding,” “competitive,” and there are plenty of “opportunities for all brewers, large and small.” That opinion piece was written by Anheuser-Busch’s vice present of business and wholesaler development.

Well, I’m just up here on a quickie visit, so back home tomorrow afternoon. I don’t want to say exactly what is the purpose of my trip, but it is on behalf of my employer, Jackson Family Wines, which has interests up here. “Up here.” That’s how we Californians refer to the Great Pacific Northwest. I suppose if an Oregonian were visiting California it would be “down there.” I had lunch with a local guy from the little town of Monmouth and he told me he’d just gone “down to” Colorado to visit his kids. A Californian wouldn’t say he’d gone “down to” Colorado. He might say “over to” Colorado or something like that. It’s weird, isn’t it, how we see directionality based on maps and globes, when in reality there isn’t any “up” or “down” or “over.” In this way we place our templates on the world, creating a sort of order where there really is none. I’m tempted to make a comparison with wine reviewing, which the older I get the more it seems rather arbitrary. But the night is young, the Carlton Kolsch is kicking in, and it’s time to find something to eat.


How did you get into wine?

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I was up over the weekend in beautiful Seattle for my grand-nephew, Joey’s, bar mitzvah, a large and decidedly inter-ethnic affair: in my extended family we have, not only Jews, but Filipinos, Central Americans, African-Americans, Syrians and folks from just about every country in Europe—a veritable United Nations of humanity.

Not everyone knows everybody else; in fact, we were joking that the only person who knew everyone was our hostess, the mother of the bar mitzvah boy, who did the invites; but I think even for her, some of the names were familiar only from paper. So, as you might expect, there were lots and lots of introductions, and the usual ice-breaking topics like “Where are you from?” and “How are you related to Joey?”

There were doctors, and engineers, and builders, and gas station owners, and administrative types of all kinds, and so forth (one in-law I met breeds hunting dogs in Kansas). Usually, when you learn of most of these occupations, you might nod in acknowledgment and make a few politely perfunctory remarks (“Oh, a doctor? What kind?”) and then, having satisfied that most elementary form of getting-to-know-you, move onto the next topic. But wine writing (if that’s the proper description of what I do, and I’m not so sure it is) seems to elicit more curiosity than most other fields of endeavor. The common reaction is an arch of the eyebrows accompanied by a widening of the eyes, meant to convey an impression of surprise, curiosity and, perhaps, a bit of incredulity that anyone, especially in this rather ordinary family, could possibly make a living from something so exotic.

People understand, I suppose, that America has a rather large wine industry, and that somebody has got to work in it; but judging from the reaction I get, most of them have never actually met such an individual (which always makes me feel rather like an alien). There may follow questions like “Whom do you work for?” or “Exactly what is it that you do?” and of course I’m perfectly happy to go into as much or as little detail as seems warranted under the circumstances (I can usually tell if my stories start to bore people). But the biggest question of all—the one everybody asks, as invariably as the sun rises in the east—is: “How did you get into wine?”

I have my standard answer for that, too, which involves the tale of my cousin and me in the Safeway wine aisle, back in late 1978; but I won’t repeat that now. It’s actually odd for that particular question—“How did you get into wine?”—to arise so often. I mean, very few people ask, for example, “How did you get into insurance?” or whatever (although the trainer of hunting dogs told me he does get asked a lot about that, which I believe, because I also asked him). I think most people just don’t care all that much how most folks “got into” their jobs.

But wine seems obviously different. I have my theories as to why, but I confess they’re only that—conjectures—and I have no proof that I’m right. Wine conjures up in most people’s minds something romantic, mysterious, glamorous, and, as I said, exotic, but it’s also slightly risqué, perhaps even dissolute. It’s not just that it’s alcohol; it’s wine, not “just” beer or spirits. Although wine is in everybody’s life, even people who don’t drink (after all, we all pass the wine aisle in the supermarket, and the floor stacks, and we see Kathie Lee and Hoda getting pleasantly blitzed on morning T.V., and you can’t pick up a lifestyle magazine without something about wine), wine retains, for all its ubiquity, a tantalizingly “other” feeling that separates it from the “real” or workaday world. (Whether that’s good or not is another story.) Therefore, someone who works in the wine world shares that aura of otherworldliness.

I guess people think that folks like me spend our days drinking fabulous vintages in idyllic places, while barefoot servants come and go, speaking, not of Michaelangelo, but “More caviar? Lobster mousse? Champagne?,” as we engage in amusing chit-chat with glamorous, beautiful people. That’s sheer nonsense. (If you want to know the reality, send me, as Click and Clack say, a hundred dollar bill, and I’ll write the answer on the back.) But wine always has been as much about fantasy as about anything else; and if the fantasy ever disappears, so will much of the ambience surrounding wine.  I do not always disabuse people entirely of their misconceptions; neither do I entirely enlighten them.

Anyhow, it’s great to be home in Oakland. Back to work tomorrow: lots of interesting assignments. Gus is glad to be back in his own bed, and so am I.

SleepyGus


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