[Readers: This is from yesterday's event at Concannon, in the Livermore Valley. The address is kind of long, but I think it contains some important statements that I hope you'll enjoy.]
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It is truly a pleasure to be here at the Petite Sirah Symposium. Jo and Jose Diaz have tried to get me here for years; there’s always been some some logistical hassle. This time, we made it happen, and I couldn’t be happier.
Now we are gathered here today, on this lovely Livermore Valley morning, to talk about Petite Sirah–and what more appropriate place could there be than Concannon?
For starters, I suppose there’s little I can tell about what a good wine Petite Sirah can be. You already know that, or you wouldn’t be here. You know, too, that Petite Sirah has had its ups and downs, in terms of the public’s perception of it, and the media’s description of it, and–unfortunately–even in the minds of some of its advocates. And it is this that I want to talk about.
Jo and Jose have labored for a long time, through PSILY, to convince people that Petite Sirah deserves its status alongside the world’s great red wines. So too have the member wineries that produce it. That message has been remarkably consistent over the years; but what has it actually been?
Let me repeat, what has that message actually been? Let’s take a close look at some of the actual things that have been said about Petite Sirah. In addition to these three, I could have cited dozens of similar ones.
1. Petite Sirah deserves some love (as a March 26 Washington Post article headlined).
2. And this: Much-denigrated Petite Sirah gets more respect (as an article in the San Francisco Chronicle headlined).
3. Or this: Petite Sirah is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine (as a nationally syndicated wine critic wrote).
Even the theme of this year’s Symposium is “Respect for Petite Sirah.”
Do you see a common theme running through all these cases? Each is based on a negative: About what Petite Sirah is not. That Petite Sirah is disrespected. What Petite Sirah doesn’t have. That Petite Sirah is not loved. That Petite Sirah is a loser. It’s like some dorky kid that nobody likes, but who you kind of feel sorry for.
What awful images to put into people’s minds. Why would anyone ever think positive thoughts about the Rodney Dangerfield of wine? Even some of Petite Sirah’s advocates have been complicit in disseminating this image. Listen to this, from a winery’s website: “Despite Petite Sirah not getting much respect or press, we still think it has great personality.” Wow. This is reminiscent of Churchill’s back-handed compliment of his political enemy, Clement Atlee: “‘He is a humble man, but then he has much to be humble about!”
People don’t like to hear negative messages. It makes them feel guilty, or inadequate, or uninformed, or, worse, stupid. They don’t want to feel that something deserves something they’re in no position to offer: it makes them feel stingy and mean. Life is hard enough; no one needs to be told they should be doing something they’re not. But that is the message that Petite Sirah’s adherents have been giving. True, it’s been an unconscious message: the people who have delivered it were only eager to share their passion. They have not meant to unsettle people, or make them uncomfortable. But that has been the end result: It’s almost like saying, “You should eat your vegetables even if you don’t like them, because they’re good for you.”
It was probably unavoidable that Petite Sirah would go through such a transitional stage. But I’m here to suggest that it’s now time for a new message. If Petite Sirah one-point-zero was the old days when nobody ever heard of it even though it was widely planted and formed the backbone of many great wines — if Petite Sirah two-point-zero was the “Petite Sirah don’t get no respect” era of the last ten years — then we owe it to the grape and wine to recognize that the era of Petite Sirah three-point-zero has been launched. Here and now, let us turn the message from a negative to a positive and tell people what Petite Sirah actually is, instead of what it is not. Let us stop apologizing for it. Let us leave behind us forever the years of disrespect — let us turn Rodney Dangerfield into Rodney Opportunity-field and tell the world, in simple, honest terms, that Petite Sirah is great wine. And let us repeat that message over and over and over, until it sinks in. That is how to convince the world of the truth of a message.
Look at Bordeaux. It is the model of great, dry, full-bodied red wine and has been for hundreds of years. Kings, Emperors, Presidents and billionaires have coveted it, and what the rich and powerful covet, of course, trickles down, to be coveted, eventually, by everybody. (If you would like the latest proof of this, look at the current obsession for Bordeaux among the emerging Chinese upper-middle classes.)
How did Bordeaux achieve this spectacular outcome? Can one really say that it is the world’s greatest red wine (Burgundy notwithstanding)? Whether or not you would say that, one thing is certain: The Bordeaux people have been saying it for centuries. And they say it with the particular insistence, bordering on arrogance, that only the French can exhibit: There is no way to disagree with such an assertion, when it is made so vehemently, so completely, so passionately, so resolutely, and for so long.
Now, I’m not a marketing or PR person. I’m a wine critic, writer, journalist and historian. But, as a result of pursuing all these angles for many years, I’ve developed a pretty good antennae for what the public wants, and how the industry should be giving it to them. I’ve seen thousands of sales and marketing campaigns with all the paraphernalia they involve: the press releases and kits with their glossy materials, the email blasts, the advertisements, the stories in the popular media, the back label jargon, the videos and blogs, the conferences and junkets. I think I know what works and what doesn’t, and so I’d like to offer some specific suggestions on what to do–and what not to do–going forward.
1. Never, ever again say anything apologetic about Petite Sirah. Don’t quote others who do. From this point on, let’s avoid use of the word “respect.” If you tell someone they have to respect something, they tend to get defensive about it. Why should I? Who are you to tell me what I have to do? Instead, let Petite Sirah speak for itself and EARN its respect.
2. Accentuate the positive. Quote critics who say positive things.
3. Tell people what good Petite Sirah tastes like. It’s full-bodied. Mouth-filling. Rich and savory. Delicious. Complex and layered. Fruity, but dry. Fantastic with food. Ageable, if that’s your thing, but drinkable on release.
4. Tell the story of Petite Sirah in California–its history and lineage going back to the 19th century.
5. Get tastemakers to sing Petite Sirah’s praises. Sommeliers are good. Chefs are even better. The key to Petite Sirah is food pairing. Petite Sirah isn’t a wine to drink on its own. It needs food–and food means recipes. You can never give the public too many recipes.
6. Educate yourselves, and the public, on the various terroirs of Petite Sirah. I know that, as an organization, PSILY must treat all members equally. But not all Petite Sirahs are equal. Individual wineries should explain what their terroir is, and why it’s good for Petite Sirah.
7. Stress the relative value of Petite Sirah, especially compared to Cabernet Sauvignon. Can you get six bottles of a 90 point Petite for one bottle of a 90 point Napa Cabernet? Then say so–and tell consumers why they’d be foolish to pick the Cabernet.
8. Finally, continue to educate the consumer that Petite Sirah is NOT Syrah. This is not the easiest task in the world, as I’m sure you know. But consumers remain confused. Your job, as marketers and educators, is to craft that message, which is something I’m sure that PSILY can help with.
I want to move on to a description of my own evolving views of Petite Sirah, not because what I think is of particular importance or interest, but because the example of my personal turnaround proves that an attitudinal shift can be done. I never was a fan of Petite Sirah. Although I came across the occasional good bottle, I found too many of the wines clumsy: they were too tannic, or too sweet, and sometimes were dirty, with obvious winemaking flaws. Many were high in alcohol.
Still, I never gave up hope. Wineries like Stag’s Leap, Rosenblum, Concannon, Guenoc, Foppiano, the old Hidden Cellars, Ursa and Vina Robles proved that Petite Sirah could be made in a more balanced style. Moreover, the wide geographic range of these successful wines showed that Petite Sirah could be grown well in almost every part of California wine country, provided, of course, that the climate was warm enough to ripen it.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint the exact moment when I had my Aha! Experience. In fact, there was no single moment. What there was, was an accumulation of moments that, collectively and gradually, caused my opinion to swing around. My blog provides some useful information. The earliest mention of Petite Sirah was in August, 2009, when I returned home from a visit to Lake County and called Petite Sirah, quote, “Lake County’s best red winegrape.”
Nearly a year later, I wrote a post on my blog headlined “Getting it right: The Petite Sirah story,” in which I said, quote, “slowly, like an aircraft carrier reversing direction, my mind began to turn around. I now consider Petite Sirah (when well-grown and made)…to be an authentic California star.”
So we can date my own turnaround to somewhere in that period of 2009-2010. What happened?
Well, to put it in the simplest terms, the wines got better!
Why? It happened for a couple reasons. First, bottle prices started to rise, thereby giving growers and winemakers a greater incentive to pay attention to farming and cellar practices.
For example, here are the weighted average dollars per ton received for Petite Sirah:
In 2007: $881
In 2012: $1059
i.e, up 20%
In Napa Valley, the figures were:
Dollars per ton:
i.e. up 11.3%
This is an illustration of the “A rising ride lifts all boats” phenomenon that we’ve seen in every variety that has attained fame, be it Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.
I do realize there’s a certain chicken-and-egg circularity to this reasoning: Did better prices lead to higher quality, or did higher quality lead to better prices? As usual, the answer is a mixture of both.
Another factor is balance: We can see, from the Crush Report, that growers starting picking Petite Sirah considerably less high in sugar in recent years. For example:
Average brix at time of purchase:
This is a 10.3% reduction in brix that resulted in more balanced, elegant wines that nonetheless were physiologically ripe at harvest. And this trend toward ripe wines at lower brix looks like it is continuing.
Good results tend to stimulate more good results: As Aaron Jackson pointed out to me, with higher quality, producers are more willing to put varietal Petite Sirah onto the market, instead of blending it in with other varieties, thereby obscuring its reputation. They are keeping crop yields modest in order to preserve intensity, and the grapes also are going into better growing areas. Petite Sirah, like all big red wines, loves hillsides, and we see the variety succeeding particularly well on the well-drained slopes of Sonoma and Napa Counties and Paso Robles. I’m sure Aaron will have much more to say about enology in his presentation later this morning.
Of course, there always will be a qualitative difference between commercially-grown Petite Sirah and Petites that are aimed more toward the luxury market. But that’s true of Cabernet Sauvignon as well, and as long as the commercial Petite Sirahs remain relatively modest in price, the market is big enough to embrace them both.
Another reason for Petite Sirah’s success–and here you again have to give credit to Jo and Jose and PSILY–is because the consumer finally became aware of the fact that Petite Sirah can be very good wine and, moreover, that there’s a distinct reason to buy it, as opposed to, say, Zinfandel, Syrah or Merlot. Thus, increased demand was rolled into the equation, which certainly played a central role in better bottle prices.
I said there was “a distinct reason to buy Petite Sirah,” and here I think is the most brilliant of the marketing messages. Petite Sirah’s supporters managed to get the message through to consumers that Petite Sirah is a unique wine in its own right. If you think about it, this is no easy task. The consumer already is overloaded with varietal names, proprietary names and imports from two dozen countries. You’d think there would hardly be room in their heads for another variety–especially one so easy to confuse with Syrah, which itself is easy to confuse with Shiraz.
Yet Petite Sirah really has carved out an identity for itself. It feels vaguely Californian–not as much as Zinfandel, but it still feels native, even though it’s not, so it appeals to that patriotic side of the consumer. It’s managed to do what Merlot never could: associate itself with a style of food, namely roasted, grilled, broiled and stewed meats. And it managed to avoid the identity crisis that Zinfandel made for itself by coming in everything from white Zin to rose, sparkling Zin to Port-style, heavy to soft, sweet to dry. In a way, Petite Sirah has done the best job of defining itself to the consumer of any variety since Pinot Noir. I think that from a marketing, advertising and public relations standpoint, this is the most opportunistic side of Petite Sirah to be addressed: To build on its still-emerging identity in the consumer’s mind, and focus and sharpen that image until it’s as pure as Pinot Noir’s or Cabernet Sauvignon’s.
As a wine historian, I believe writers will look back at this opening ten or fifteen years of the 21st century and declare that this was when California Petite Sirah came of age. Petite’s possibilities are endless. It carries none of the baggage of Merlot, does not suffer from Zinfandel’s schizophrenic identity crisis, and it is not Syrah–in fact, it is a better wine than most California Syrah because it has better structure and greater complexity. It has a pretty name that’s easy to pronounce and sounds fashionably French. In other words, Petite Sirah has everything going for it. It is Christopher Columbus on the Open Sea, sailing into the New World, filled with shining possibilities and glittering promises. You who produce Petite Sirah should go home with renewed confidence in Petite Sirah and in yourselves. So give yourselves a pat on the back. You deserve it!
The 2013 Chardonnay Symposium is all over. My panel was on clones, and the challenge was to take something that could be really dry and academic and make it interesting–not just for the audience, but for me. Because, as I explained in my remarks, when you’re moderating a panel, you’re midway between the audience and the speakers. The latter are the experts, there to deliver high-level information. But the danger with winemakers is that they can get a little too technical and geeky, thereby losing the audience. For an ordinary, wine amateur audience–as this one was at the Chardonnay Symposium–a little geek goes a long way. Fifteen or twenty seconds of segue into clonal trials, framed in high techno-speak, is just about the limit of toleration. Beyond that, you start to see people’s eyes shifting. They look down at their cell phones. You can tell they’re drifting. My job is to hasten things along.
Having said all that, we did learn a lot, everything from the history of Chardonnay on Earth (from nurseryman Eckhard Kaesekamp) to that of the Wente clone (from none other than Karl Wente), to the trials and tribulations of the 1970s and much about the current situation in California. The most interesting question, for me–one that always fascinates me–is, What is the role or impact of the things that Mother Nature brings to wine, relative to that of the things the winemaker brings? Mother Nature is the terroir of climate and soils, as well as the DNA of the particular clone. If someone is making a big deal about the clone–“This clone is floral, or muscatty, or tropical fruity”–does that aspect invariably show with that clone, whether the grapes are grown in the warmer Alexander Valley or the cooler Edna Valley? To me, this is the stuff I love to investigate. The answer is, there can be no answer, which was summed up by Jeff Stewart’s (Hartford Court) assertion that “There are no blanket statements” about clones that are invariable. Comments from other winemakers, including Wente, Merry Edwards and James Ontiveros (Alta Maria and Native 9), made the same point: So much depends on the way that clone reacts to the soils, the weather, and also the rootstock, as well as to the way the winemaker does everything from barrel and malolactic fermentation to sur lie aging and battonage. Clarissa Nagy (Riverbench) described quite poetically this intersection between human and non-human; Matt Dees (Jonata) brought us into the winemaker’s head and how he thinks when approaching the topic of single-clone Chardonnays versus multiple clone blends. Chamisal’s Fintan du Fresne in particular stressed the importance of site over clone, a natural position for him given the intensity of fruit and acidity that Edna Valley wines always display. But in the end, it is really hard to come to any kind of bottom line conclusion concerning what any one clone brings to the table.
No conclusions. Think about it. Think about the millions of words we expend in our conversations about wine, whether they be verbally, in blogs or magazines or textbooks. Think of all the conversations trying to pinpoint just what something means, when the reality is, we never, or only rarely, can know. There are so many things about wine that are fundamentally indeterminate. This is why in olden times they saw wine as a spiritual miracle. Nowadays, despite our science, there remains something Heisenbergian about wine: it’s impossible to pin it down, to get it into clear focus and pick apart the exact function of winemaker technique and Mother Nature, with all their myriad subsets. It can never be done, but it’s wonderful to talk about. These things make for great panel discussions, and consumers obviously love it, which is why they’re willing to spend pretty good money to go to events like the Chardonnay Symposium, not only to sit there and listen and taste, but to raise their hands and ask questions. This intense interactivity goes to the heart of wine, which brings people together in thoughtful conversation.
One topic that Ontiveros introduced into the discussion, which I think is interesting, concerns the role of marketing. A lot of the conversation about clones is, How do they make the wine better, or more distinctive — what kinds of aromas and flavors and acidity does the clone bring? The fact is, just as often, or maybe even more often, as a clone is chosen for its qualitative aspects, so too is it chosen for its quantative aspects. There are certain clones that are good producers, and if a good Chardonnay can be made from a high-production clone, then the producer is going to use that clone. Vintners and growers are always looking to maximize their output; all their talk of quality is fine as far as it goes, but tends to obscure the hard facts of business.
The commercial implication made me remember something I wrote in one of my books: that for every descriptive word you can squeeze onto the front label, you can charge an additional $5 retail. For instance, if the label says “Dijon Clones”, ka-ching: Add ten bucks to the price. The consumer will think it’s a better wine than one that doesn’t have that designation, and will be willing to spend more for it.
Anyhow, we had eight awesomely good Chardonnays at our panel, underscoring once again why this varietal is California’s greatest white wine.
What’s the killer social media app for a winery?
I can remember back in the early 1990s when the Internet, or the World Wide Web as most of us called it, was so new that nobody knew precisely what it could be used for. The search was on for “the killer app,” the thing that everybody would want to do, which would therefore earn its users a great deal of money.
As it turned out, some young guys, like Sergei Brim and Larry Page, realized that a search function–the ability to find anything amidst the vast (and growing vaster) hoard of information–was the classic example of a killer app: they created Google and got rich. A little while later, Mark Zuckerberg realized that social networking was the most natural thing in the world for a World Wide Web to do. He created Facebook and also got rich.
(A lot of porn site entrepreneurs also got rich. Enough said about that.)
So those were at least three things the Internet could do (aside from obvious B2B functions that are boring but crucial to companies, not to mention email). The question of the last 5 or 6 years has been, what is the killer app on the Internet for small businesses, and particularly for small wineries–the thing that will help them make money?
I’m not prepared to say, because I don’t know; but yesterday I asked my Facebook friends how they use social media at their wineries, and the overwhelming response was typified by this: “As a tool, FB, Twitter, Pintrest, WEM , are all wonderful ways to connect to your clientele” and this: “I rarely use FB/Twitter for promo and sales. Mostly just to reinforce the simple ‘voice’ of [the winery] and stay in front of my ‘likers’.”
In other words, communication. Several people warned that, as soon as the winery is perceived as trying to sell stuff, it turns friends and followers off. This remains the irony and contradiction within social media.
Central Coast Wrap-up
The Central Coast wine industry seems to be booming, according to this report from the Pacific Coast Business Times. Indeed, you can feel this buzz everywhere you go in wine country. Such a contrast to a few years ago, when a gloomy atmosphere pervaded. I’ll be heading down to Santa Barbara next week for the Chardonnay Symposium, and am stoked by the thought of seeing all the winemakers and tasting their wines.
Blind tasting the cults
Interesting article by my old editor and colleague, Jim Gordon, in Wines & Vines, where he writes of an event at the Culinary Institute of America in which winemakers tasted each other’s wines blind, something they “rarely” get to do.
Winemakers really should do it more often. In fact, they should do it all the time. I know certain cult winemakers who’ve never tasted their own wines blind, much less tasted them against competitors. They might be surprised to find less expensive wines out-performing their own–according to their own palates! But then, that potential danger in blind tasting is probably why more winemakers don’t do it. And anyhow, when it comes to sales, it’s about image as much as it’s about quality. Along these lines, yesterday my sister emailed to ask why some bottles of wine are so heavy. She wanted to know if they cost more than lighter bottles, and, if so, how do the wineries make up for the difference? I explained to her, of course, that some wineries package their wines in heavy bottles in order to make the consumer think the wines are more important. This works very well, and the consumer is willing to pay more for a heavy bottle than for a light one. My sister was surprised, but she needn’t have been. P.T. Barnum spelled this out more than a century ago in his famous dictum about suckers.
Lunch yesterday (at Ozumo) with Clarissa Nagy, from Riverbench and Nagy, her own label. Clarissa is on my panel for the Chardonnay Symposium, where the topic is clones, so naturally we talked about that a lot.
I’ve thought about clones for many years. I recognize that they’re vital to the winemaker – but that consumers don’t care much about them one way or the other, as long as the wine tastes good — and that the wine writer is stuck in the middle. We don’t need to know anything near as much about clones as do winemakers, but we do need to understand them enough to be able to let the consumer know what we think they need to know. I don’t think that’s necessarily a great deal, because at a certain point, things get bogged down in technical detail to the point of MEGO.
I asked Clarissa what she thinks about clone. She more or less said she thinks clones are more important for Pinot Noir than for Chardonnay. I agree; Pinot is such a transparent wine that it displays the slightest perturbations to its nervous system, whereas Chardonnay is a rather neutral wine much of whose character is imparted to it by winemaker interventions, such as sur lie aging, malolactic fermentation and barrel fermentation and aging. So clones aren’t that important. (I expect to learn more about this through the symposium.) Clarissa said that, in general, older Pinot Noir clones–more properly, selections–such as Pommard and Swan have more “floral” characteristics that the newer clones. I replied that the newer clones seem fruitier than the old selections, which is the criticism some people (including, occasionally, me) have had about these new wave Pinots: that they’re jammy. Clarissa replied she thinks the newer clones aren’t that fruity.
Herein lies the dilemma. These topics become impenetrably complex, with even experts disagreeing over the fundamentals. As a panel moderator, I don’t want my audience to be completely confused. On the other hand, I don’t want to dumb things down and feed them simple aphoristic clichés that break down under scrutiny. A greater and greater part of my journalistic philosophy (which includes wine reviewing) is to break down the conventional wisdom that arises about so many things–alcohol level, crop yields, vine age, clones, terroir–through lazy writing. By lazy writing, I mean that someone writes something that is verifiably arguable on its face. Then another writer repeats it as “fact,” and another, and another, until finally it’s all over the Internet. Along comes the latest lazy writer, who does a Google search, comes across repeated citations that such-and-such is a fact, and then states it herself, thus perpetuating the half-truth. This is bad wine writing. Wine writers, like all journalists, should be the most skeptical people in the world. Their attitude should be, “Just because everyone says it’s so doesn’t make it so. You have to prove it to me.”
What a different world we would live in if wine writers all went by that rule. Instead, afraid of making fools of themselves, anxious to prove themselves as experts, too many of them are content to repeat the same old stereotypes. If there was one thing I’d make every wine writer do if I were King of the World, it would be to take a class in Journalism 101. As the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism states, the principles of journalism are
Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
Its first loyalty is to citizens
Its essence is a discipline of verification
Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
It must serve as an independent monitor of power
It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant
It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional
Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience
The first 3 are the most important. My advice to people reading wine journalism, whether through a print magazine, a blog or whatever, is to ask does the writer seem to honor these principles. If not–read someone who does.
This year has been, and will continue to be, a busy one for me in the realm of symposia, panels and speaking engagements. Among other events so far, I introduced the great Merry Edwards at her induction ceremony into the Vintners Hall of Fame – was the official blogger for World of Pinot Noir – taught a wine tasting class at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business, and co-taught another one, in winery social media, at the University of California, Davis – moderated the panel at the Paso Robles CAB Collective – led a panel on the Cabernets of Pritchard Hill at the recent Kapalua Wine & Food Festival on beautiful Maui – moderated no less than four panels for sommeliers at the Alexander Valley Cabernet Academy – and, next month, will lead the panel at the Chardonnay Symposium (where Merry Edwards again will be) and give the keynote address at the Petite Sirah Symposium.
It can be hard to find the time to do all these things, since most of my days (and, often enough, nights) are spent tasting and writing. I like getting out on the road, and of course the journalist in me is ever keen on finding new people and things to write about, which is difficult when you’re chained to a computer. But there is this eternal tension between productivity (much greater at home) and research in the field (which is low on productivity but scores very high in other respects).
As a result, I haven’t put much energy into my speaking or panel-moderating career over the years. I know wine people whose income largely consists of speaking engagements. They’re forever on a plane to or from somewhere. I’m not sure I would relish such a life. There are aspects of travel I detest (don’t we all?), and then there’s the problem of what to do with Gus; the longer my absence from home, the more acute that problem gets.
Being on the road has the paradoxical quality of being exhilarating and tiresome. It’s exhilarating to be out and about, in new places, meeting new people, and never quite knowing what’s going to happen next (which lends a sense of frisson). I confess also to enjoying being in front of an audience. I did a lot of acting in school (the high point was playing Ralph Rackstraw in “Pinafore”, and I could hit the high notes on “Oh Joy, Oh Rapture Unforeseen” before my voice cracked). I also did standup comedy in San Francisco during the 1980s (when I learned to endure audience heckling, a talent that inures me to somewhat frequent Twitter and blogosphere abuse). Those experiences, aided perhaps by something in my genes (my father’s cousin is Joan Rivers, so we have show-biz in the family) give me an onstage comfort.
The tiresome part of travel is having one’s regular schedule turned on its head. You drink and eat too much, sleep too little, have no opportunity to work out (always a paramount consideration for me), and there’s a lot of schmoozing that may or may not be comfortable. The antidote to uncomfortable chit-chat is, naturally, alcohol [see last sentence], the intake of which can be considerable among us “professionals” on the road. There’s something of the conventioneer’s syndrome: late night imbibing at the hotel bar, war stories traded back and forth, staggering back to one’s room well past midnight (if you can find it). I need to add that there seems to be a direct relationship between the quantity of late night partying and the level of greatness of a panel. The more of the former, the more of the latter. Early bird panelists are boring panelists.
Despite the inconveniences, I like wine-related travel, and I’d like to do more speaking, paneliing, tasting and educating. If your group is interested, I invite you to get in touch.
I’ve moderated a lot of panels, but none was ever so satisfying from my point of view, and so successful I think for the audience, as last Sunday’s “Pritchard Hill Gang Rides at Kapalua,” the last in the series of wine seminars at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival.
I’d been invited to come by Michael Jordan, M.S., who runs the festival (with Chuck Furuya, also an M.S., and the tenth, I believe, in the U.S.). It was hard to say no, since he offered to put me up for 4 nights and 5 days at the Ritz Carlton, with pretty much all expenses paid. So I said yes. (Full disclosure: I did not receive any compensation for participating.)
I feel pretty confident on panels, especially when I’m leading them. I’ve learned when to let my panelists have the freedom to do their thing (after all, they and their wines are why the audience has paid to come), but also learned to be sensitive to when they’re running out of steam, and then having to step in and do an intervention. The best kind of intervention is when you know your panelists: their jobs both past and present, their wines, their backgrounds, something about their personal lives. If a panelist runs out of things to talk out before his time is up, I can tell when they start to go “uhhh” and fall silent, or look to me with desperation. Then I can usually get them back by asking something of personal interest.
It might be objectively factual. “So tell us your wine’s case production, retail price and alcohol level.” I like to know those things, and I think the audience does too, but it’s surprising how many moderators fail to ask them. Or I might ask a winemaker something that’s a little broader in scope, like “What do you think is the impact of the hillside vineyard on your wines?” Of course, you have to know these facts in advance, which is why preparation is required.
Winemakers love talking about their vineyards and wine making techniques, although I do have to admit that, in recent years, I (and many other moderators) now are advising winemakers to avoid being too geeky, because it tends to bore audience members. Certainly, Chuck and Michael have moved in that direction. They wouldn’t order their winemakers to avoid technical issues, and in fact go out of their way to let them know they can talk about anything they want; but they do let the winemakers know that consumers prefer stories and anecdotes and general details, and I think the more sensitive winemakers–those who do a lot of these festivals–understand that people want to know more about themselves and less about the toast level on the barrels or what clones they used or the pH of the soil. Certainly there’s always some geek in the audience that will ask that kind of stuff, but there’s not as many of them as there used to be.
It also helps to be a little funny when you’re a moderator. This puts people at ease, both the panelists (who can be nervous) and the audience. Being funny is a double-edged sword that can cut through tension or slice your throat. I did standup comedy in San Francisco for a couple of years in the late 1980s (under the name Harry Stevens), and I learned something about being onstage. I’m not saying that when your panel consists of major league stars like Carlo Mondavi (Continuum), Philippe Melka (BRAND and so many others), Austin Peterson (Ovid), Phillip Corallo-Titus (Chappellet) and David Long (David Arthur) you should overshadow their light by cracking jokes. That would not be a good idea. In fact it would be totally inappropriate. But it’s important to stay aware and be alive to the slightest nuances of the ebb and flow of the session and be prepared to swoop in with a well-chosen bon mot, to lighten things up if need be and move things along.
Of course, the fact that the subject of our panel was some of the greatest, rarest and most coveted wines in California, from the most high-rent district in Napa Valley that most people have never heard of, also contributed to the event’s allure. Nor did the location: on the grassy slopes above the Pacific in western Maui. It never hurts, when you’re running a panel, to have a sexy topic and location!
You can tell when a session is going well. It’s in the air. The audience isn’t fidgeting, they’ve got their eyes on the panel and are listening intently. They’re laughing at the right places, asking the right questions, paying attention. The panel members start to relax (you’d be surprised how nervous even famous winemakers can be right before a session starts). Prior to the start, part of my job is to see who’s anxious and give them a little extra TLC to get them to relax. I like to make physical contact, to hug, to put my hand on a shoulder and above all let them know that I won’t let them fail, I’ll be right there to protect them, so they shouldn’t worry about a thing. In the Pritchard Hill case, of course, Michael and Chuck were there to assist, just in case I fumbled, and those two are the best moderators in the business, playing tag team and getting off on each other. (I call it the Mike and Chuck show.) But as things turned out, there wasn’t much for them to do because everything went so well.
There are many drawbacks to getting older, but surely one of the benefits is getting better at your job. A big part of that is simply to know who you are and to be comfortable being that person in front of an audience. The hardest thing in the world–the thing that makes people uptight when they’re in a public forum–is trying to be someone they’re not. It drains energy, because you’re always having to remember who the pseudo-personality you’re trying to be is so you can stay in character. Whereas if you’re just yourself, you don’t have to remember anything. I pretty much know who I am. I’m not the brightest bulb, but I am honest and transparent, a little quirky in a way that I think humanizes me, and, frankly, I like to talk. I generally like my panelists and want my audience to like them too. I don’t mind occasionally revealing a glimpse into the more eccentric aspects of my personality (which my regular blog readers well understand!). It lets people know you’re not a robot (which is what one famous Napa winemaker called a very famous critic the other day. No, I’m not naming names).
The “performance” (if you can call it that) that went best among all the Kapalua panelists was Gary Pisoni’s. If you know Gary, you know that what you see is what you get. Gary is entirely unfiltered, and people eat it up because his love and heart and passion and happiness and eagerness to please always show through. Gary lets people be themselves because they figure if someone that famous and successful can be himself, then they can, too. I’ve learned from watching Gary over the years to be fearless and not too self-conscious, although a certain degree of self-consciousness is unavoidable. People want that direct contact from your soul to their’s. I’m certainly not saying I’m in Gary’s league. Nobody is. But if I were giving advice to panelists, it would be the same thing I tell bloggers: Find out who you are if you don’t already know and be that person, and become more of that person every day for the rest of your life.