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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.


Notes on wine writing etc.

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I got a greater understanding of Uber while I used their car service for three days during the World of Pinot Noir. They have a great business model and are looking to get involved in ancillary areas, such as wine tourism, which is a great idea.

I was reminded of Uber again reading yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where in the Personal Journal section, they have an article called “Race is On: Ride-Sharing Car Services Versus a Taxi.”

The article was largely analytical, comparing Uber with Lyft and Sidecar, its chief competitors, and with taxicabs. The reporter didn’t say if one was better than the others–but you could discern his own personal preference for the private cars, when he used terms like “a safe and courteous ride, with a side of serenity” to describe the experience. That certainly coincides with my own experience. I got to know my Uber driver quite well over three days; we even promised to stay in touch. How often does that happen with a cab driver?

It strikes me that a parallel can be made between the new private car services industry versus the traditional taxicab, on the one hand, and the proliferation of social media sources of information about wine versus the traditional wine critics who for decades have dominated the national conversation about what to drink, on the other hand. Until very recently, I was, of course, one of those traditional wine critics, so I think I have some understanding of them and their milieu. But I also am a consumer of services (such as Uber and taxicabs) as well as a voracious reader of wine blogs. So I’m wondering if Uber is going to put taxicabs out of business, and if the online wine writers will put traditional wine critics out of business.

We’ve had this conversation on steveherimoff.com for years now, with every shade of opinion being expressed in the comments. In general, I’ve been a staunch defender of the established wine writers. My belief was that they may become obsolete, but it’s not going to be for a while, at least until the current batch of famous wine critics retires or dies. Most are in their sixties, and should have many more years of active work.

So it’s not a question of “if” a small cadre of wine writers will be eclipsed, but “when.” It’s also a question of the relationship that readers will have with whomever replaces the famous wine writers. As we’ve seen with Uber, people like having personal relationships with those who provide them with services. I don’t want to sit in the back seat of a cab with a driver who grunts at me and with whom I seem to have nothing in common–not that I can tell, because there’s no conversation between us. With my Uber driver, I sat in the passenger seat. She told me of her life and dreams, and I shared mine. That’s a personal relationship, one that tears down boundaries between “driver” and “passenger” (i.e. between “authority” and “nobody”).

In my own prior career as a wine critic, I tried as hard as I could to tear down those walls. Although I recognized that others perceived me as an “authority,” it was important for me to let them know that I didn’t perceive myself that way. Oh, sure, I understood that I tasted a lot more wine than most people, and that I had studied wine a great deal more intensely, and so that necessarily gave me some greater knowledge of the subject. But I never was comfortable with the gaping boundary between me and others, as if that’s all I was, and I tried to narrow it all the time, by letting people know that–just like them–I’m just a normal guy, with my own insecurities and dreams.

I think that the success of steveheimoff.com was precisely because people thought it’s pretty cool for a bigtime wine critic to get down with them. I never held anything back on this blog, even when my former employer told me to. I stood up for its independence–which was a way of standing up for myself, and also for the integrity of my readers. My past employer learned to live with steveheimoff.com, and I think they eventually got to respect it and understand that the mysteries of symbiosis actually made their own brand stronger.

I guess without even knowing it consciously, I created steveheimoff.com to be the Uber of wine blogs. It’s not a blog where you sit in the back seat, silent and looking out the window, as an anonymous driver impersonally whisks you to your destination (at which point you have to tip him!). I wanted a blog where the reader sat right beside me in the passenger seat, where we could have a conversation and get to know each other.

Surely this sense of two-way communication, transparency and honesty is the essence of social media. It’s also the essence, it seems to me, of the kinds of relationships that wine companies need to have with their customers. It’s the kind of conversation I hope to continue to have here on steveheimoff.com, and with the people I’ll be meeting through my new job at Jackson Family Wines, where I hope to provide “a safe and courteous ride” through the byroads of wine, as seen by me. I know that some, perhaps many, of you will give me a skeptical look. Fine. Please do. Hold my feet to the fire.


Live from the front lines of Pinot Noir: In Pursuit of Balance

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Lots of buzz at Monday’s In Pursuit of Balance seminar and tasting in San Francisco, held at the Bluxome Street Winery, in the far South of Market and just west of AT&T Park. Moderator Jamie Goode choose the seminar topic: Defining ripeness in Pinot Noir. “Too much alcohol [in Pinot Noir] is a huge problem,” Jamie said in his opening remarks; “it masks aromatic expression,” he noted, adding that alcohol can also create a “distinct mouthfeel [of] sweetness,” which robs Pinot Noir of its essential Pinot Noir-ness.

Here are my brief remarks on the wines we tasted: The two Tylers [2011 Sanford & Benedict, 13.4% and 2011 Bien Nacido Old Vine, 13.6%] both were delicate and lovely, with the Bien Nacido more powerful, the Sanford & Benedict more elegant, yet both fresh and keen in red fruits.

The two Caleras, both barrel samples from 2013 [Mills Vineyard Lot A, 12.9% and Mills Lot B, 13.8%] were perhaps the most controversial of the tasting. Jamie asked for a vote of preference and 90% of the crowd liked Lot B, which in fact was a bigger, warmer, more generous wine. Jamie preferred Lot A. Both of the wines had been made with whole cluster fermentation, which made them darker, spicier and more tannic than the other wines. More on the Caleras in a minute.

The two LaRues [2012, 12.6% and 2010 Rice-Spivak Vineyard, 13.2%] more closely resembled the Tylers than the Caleras. They were translucent in color and bright in acidity, with sour cherry candy and cranberry tartness; the 2010 was just starting to unravel. Both showed their unmistakable coastal terroir [the vineyard is in the Sebastopol Hills].

The two Copains [2007 and 2010 Kiser En Bas, from Anderson Valley] both showed an exciting tension of tartness and ripeness. I like that nervous edge that a fine Pinot can tread, but the 2007 was starting to show its grey hairs, picking up a distinct mushroom aroma. To my sensibilities, it’s going downhill–but then, it’s nearing seven years of age.

Jamie returned to the subject matter, ripeness, asking the panelists how they decide when to pick. Several referred to their techniques: by sight, by taste, by laboratory analysis, but as LaRue’s owner-winemaker Katy Wilson remarked, picking decisions tend to be predicated on the schedules of the pickers, not on some arbitrary preference on the winemaker’s part. This led to the question, Can you pick too early? This is not an entirely superfluous inquiry. The rise of IPOB and its low-alcohol adherents may well have forced vintners to harvest sooner than they would normally like to, in order to satisfy the under-14% crowd. Jamie expressed this concern, that picking too early results in a Pinot than can be lean and green. Someone asked Josh Jensen about the low alcohol [12.9%] on his Mills Lot A, and with his disarming grin Josh replied that he had perhaps “jumped the gun” on that one, harvesting the grapes before he should have. He himself did not care for Lot A, he implied. Pressed, Josh explained, “But I’d rather jump the gun by picking too early than too late.”

Afterwards, I told Josh that I found his Caleras the outliers of the tasting. At first he was dismayed, thinking I’d disrespected them. But then I explained that, at the end of the tasting, I found that the only two glasses I’d completely drained were his two Caleras. Josh’s face softened as I added, “They were like food groups rather than particular flavors, wholesome and nourishing.” Josh enjoyed hearing that.

Balance is, of course, an impossible term to define, and different tasters will disagree concerning any particular wine. Raj Parr himself, IPOB’s co-founder, seemed to concede as much, during some very brief welcoming remarks he made, when he said (I paraphrase), “Some people think that In Pursuit of Balance seeks only wines below 14%, but that’s not true.” I’m glad Raj cleared that up, because I too was one of those who was mistaken about that. I’ve written for years that any wine can be balanced, even a Pinot Noir with alcohol well into the 14s; it all depends. So it’s no longer clear to me what In Pursuit of Balance’s mission is, except that under its auspices it brings together interesting wines and engaging winemakers with writers and sommeliers, for a fun time of chit chat and information exchange. Surely that in itself is enough of a rationale to celebrate IPOB, and anything else wine-related, for that matter.


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