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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.


My final wine review: epitaph to a professional critic’s career

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It is altogether fitting and proper (as Abraham Lincoln said in another context, in the Gettysburg Address) that the last wine review I shall ever write for Wine Enthusiast should have been for a Williams Selyem wine.

It was the 2012 Papera Zinfandel, which I reviewed on Monday. I did not deliberately hold it for the very last. But I did have a thought somewhere in the back of my mind that the culmination of more than twenty years of reviewing should be a special wine.

Had I had an unreviewed sparkling wine of quality, I certainly might have considered it; but I didn’t. Nor was there a proper Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. That left the Wiliams Selyem Zin, and what a wine it was. Bob Cabral has had a particularly successful series of vintages with that Russian River Valley bottling; the 2012 was one of his best.

But it wasn’t merely the quality of that Zin that made it a fitting toast to a celebrated departure. It was my admiration for Williams Selyem itself, and for Bob. I don’t have the longest experience of him among wine writers: others knew him, and enjoyed tasting the wines of Williams Selyem, long before I. We met around 2001, if I recall correctly, when I was writing A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in which he looms large. I remember with particular fondness sitting with him, in his cluttered little office at the old winery, on Westside Road, as he assembled the first-ever vintage of Neighbors, the blend of vineyards the winery sources from the Middle Reach of the Russian River. I felt privileged then to be asked for my opinion. I doubt that Bob seriously took anything I said into account for the actual blend, but it was terribly kind, and flattering for him to go through the motions.

A few of us tried the other day to estimate how many wines I’ve reviewed over the years. I honestly don’t know. Probably in excess of 60,000, possibly far greater than that. I don’t think Wine Enthusiast’s database, in its current incarnation, goes back that far. Of course, if you throw in all the wines I’ve tasted unofficially, the number has got to be around 100,000. And yet here I am, still standing, in good health, not alcoholic. Perhaps all that reseveratrol will yet come in handy.

People ask me how I feel, leaving the magazine for my new gig. The thoughts and emotions, as you might expect, are complex, but two stand out: one, that after 25 years as a wine writer (and always a freelancer; I was never a real employee), it was time for a change. And two, that my new job, at Jackson Family Wines, is a big one that requires a lot from me, and I take it all with a sober sense of responsibility. Aren’t you excited? people want to know. I tell them that excitement isn’t the word I’d use. I’m excited when I get to go to a Giants game, with great seats and Lincecum pitching. I’m excited when, after some time on the road, I come home to see Gus again. (And Gus is always excited to see me!) But “excited” doesn’t seem to have the proper gravitas for this occasion.

What will I remember most about being a wine critic? For sure, the kindness, respect and friendliness people in all walks of the industry have shown me over the years. I always felt the need to keep a kind of reserve; while I’m by nature affectionate, I thought that my position mandated a certain distance. I did not want to get too close to people whose wines I might have to give bad scores to. This business of how close to get to winemakers whose wines you’re reviewing must be on the mind of every critic. But it is no longer something I need worry about.

I think also of the wonderful opportunities I’ve had to explore every nook and cranny of our beautiful state of California and its wine regions. I’ve written before that I never saw a wine region I didn’t fall in love with, from the austere Santa Maria Valley to the bucolic glories of West Dry Creek Road, from the sheer drama of Highway 29, with its parade of famous wineries, to the curvaceous hills of Happy Canyon and the insanely wild mountains of Fort Ross-Seaview. To have experienced all this, often under the tutelage of local winemakers who taught me about the terroir (occasionally from a helicoper), has been undiluted joy.

And then there were the wines themselves. Not too many 100 pointers. Wine Enthusiast took a position, with which I largely agreed, not to be too profligate in handing out the ultimate accolade. Certainly, we can debate whether or not a 98 point wine might “really” have been worth 100 points (or vice versa), but that would be a waste of time, the point being that I’ve had more great wines than anyone can reasonably expect to have in a lifetime. Yet, somehow, that never spoiled me. Before I was a wine critic I drank Bob Red and White, or Gallo Sauvignon Blanc in 1.5s, or inexpensive Chianti, Médoc, Côtes du Rhône or anything else I could afford: and I was a happy man. The splendor of wine, it seems to me, lies in the beverage itself, its profoundly tongue-loosening and restorative qualities and affinities for food, and not in the web of fantasy we weave around it, in our imaginations.

Anyhow, I called this posting an “epitaph.” It is that, for my wine reviewing career, but it’s also a birth, for my new one. L’chaim!


Praising California Chardonnay, and a remark about my new job

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Wines & Vines last Friday reported that Oregon winemakers, like their counterparts in California, are trying to understand how best to grow and vinify the variety, “but defining Oregon Chardonnay remains an ongoing work.”

There were a couple things in the article that struck me. One is the opening statement that “Chardonnay is enjoying a revival of sorts.” I hadn’t been aware that Chardonnay was in need of a revival. It certainly isn’t here in California, where plantings are at an all-time high, of 101,900 acres, far more than any other grape variety.

So maybe there’s a Chardonnay revival in Oregon. Everywhere else, as far I’m aware, Chardonnay is the definitive white wine in America. For all the ABC sentiment that may or may not exist among some aficionados, when the typical consumer asks for a glass of white wine, more often than not it’s Chardonnay.

What is it about Chardonnay that keeps generations of winemakers seeking to understand it? In some respects, Chardonnay isn’t any different than Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon: there will probably be panels on them forever. When winemakers and wine lovers stop inquiring about “defining” the major varietals, we’ll have a definite clue that the world is coming to an end.

The Oregonians apparently are determined to establish a style of Chardonnay that’s different from either Burgundy or California, the two regions that are most famous for Chard. Veronique Drouhin, the winemaker at Domaine Drouhin Oregon, was quoted as saying that following the California model of buttery, oak-warmed Chardonnay would be “a disaster.” I myself don’t care for buttery, popcorny, butterscotchy-sweet Chardonnay–I’ve reviewed enough of it to last a lifetime–but I sometimes fear we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with all this hating on oak, malolactic and fruit. I don’t mind a good unoaked Chardonnay, but to me, that defeats the whole purpose of Chardonnay, which is to be rich and opulent, in an oaky, buttery, creamy but balanced way. Unoaked Chard is like going on vacation to Maui and staying in your hotel room the whole time, never enjoying the sun, the balmy air, the rustle of the wind in palm trees, the scent of passionflower and night jasmine, the romantic chords of Hawaiian music. Surely, the Oregonians would not want to avoid a “California style” Chardonnay, if that style were defined by, say, the likes of Flowers, Williams Selyem, Stonestreet, Failla, Joseph Phelps, Hartford Court, Talley–all fabulous, world-class Chardonnays that are, or ought to be, the envy of Chardonnay producers wherever they are.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. I just praised Hartford Court and Stonestreet. They are part of the Jackson Family Wines portfolio, where I just started work as director of communications and wine education. Before some of you start freaking out, let me just say this: I’ve been giving those two wineries, as well as others in the JFW portfolio, high scores for many, many years. I am not about to stop praising them, just because somebody thinks I’m trying to please my employer. That’s not how I roll, and I should hope everyone knows that.


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