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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.


Random chance as an influence in brand building

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Why did The Beatles become the biggest band in the world? How come Mona Lisa is seen as the most famous painting of all time? A new study out of Princeton suggests that “artworks gain popularity based on social influence, and chance,” and not necessarily due to inherent artistic merit. In fact, there’s an element of pure randomness. The Princeton scientists created nine parallel “digital worlds”, each populated by real teenagers who were given 48 rock and roll songs they were asked to rank according to personal preference.

“Different songs became hits in different worlds,” said one of the scientists. “For example, in one world, Lock Down by the band 52 Metro, came in first and in another world, it came in 40th.” Put another way, in one world Mona Lisa becomes an iconic work of art; in another, it’s just another minor painting. The conclusion: “Popularity begets popularity.” One person likes something, and turns someone else onto it; two become four, and so on. And “social influence” is key in driving popularity. Gatekeepers and tastemakers mandate what’s worthwhile and what’s not; a groundswell becomes a “fad,” and “as fads form, they make stars into mega stars.” Thus a Madonna, Springsteen or Michael Jackson. Thus, too, a Screaming Eagle.

The randomness of what propels one wine to superstardom while another, equally good one never makes it is illustrated by something Heidi Peterson Barrett once told me, when I interviewed her for my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. I asked her how Screaming Eagle had become so famous, so fast, when she was its winemaker. “There’s what I think of as the magic factor,” she explained. “You can’t quantify it exactly, but it happened with Screaming Eagle. It was something that none of us could have predicted. I loved that wine out of the shoot, I thought, ‘Gosh, this is just delicious stuff,’ but I had no idea what was going to happen to it. It wasn’t so much a wine writer’s wine, even though it did get 100 points [in 1992, from Parker]. It had already gone out, sort of word of mouth, this wildfire undercurrent, person-to-person, friends to friends: ‘Have you tried this?’ They were all excited. It just spread like wildfire. And by the time that review came out, it had already spread.”

Many winery proprietors have since tried to replicate Screaming Eagle’s success, but no one has done it. (Harlan Estate is equally esteemed, but it predates Screaming Eagle.) These wannabe wineries develop splendid vineyards or buy grapes from top sources, hire the best consulting winemakers around, and build palaces where the wine is produced–only to find that they have just another expensive Cabernet in a world over-populated by them. They discover that you can’t catch that “wildfire undercurrent” in a jar. It either happens–or it doesn’t.

Does this mean it’s useless or pointless to try to capture “the magic factor”? Not at all. It’s what keeps marketers and P.R. people busy. It is, in fact, the fuel that propels the wine industry forward. A world where so much happens so randomly is one in which anyone can make it. From out of the blue, lightning can strike. It may never happen–but it’s the light in the eye, the flutter in the heart, the dream in the mind of every winemaker.

My own career has benefited from this randomness. I was in the right place, at the right time, in the late 1980s, when no one particularly wanted to be a wine writer. Everyone wanted to be an MBA and make a ton of money on Wall Street! But I wanted to be a wine writer, and the fact that I became one was due as much to chance as to my efforts and abilities. So I’ve always been fascinated by questions of marketing and P.R. in wine: Why some wineries and wines become huge hits while others don’t? Can a brand that’s been lagging be reinvented? Can a new one be instantly interesting? I think the answer is yes. It’s what I’m going to base this next phase of my career to understanding.

P.S. To the hundreds of people who have contacted me through Facebook, email, phone, Twitter, my blog and in person, offering support and love, thank you thank you. You have no idea what it means to me.


Short and simple: I have a new job

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At 6:30 a.m. Pacific time today, this announcement went out from Jackson Family Wines:

JACKSON FAMILY WINES HIRES STEVE HEIMOFF AS COMMUNICATIONS & CONTENT EXPERT

 Veteran wine writer, blogger and critic will specialize in communications and education for family’s expanding portfolio

 Sonoma County, CA (MARCH 10, 2014) – Jackson Family Wines is pleased to announce the hiring of Steve Heimoff as Director, Wine Communications & Education.

 Heimoff’s responsibilities will include working with the company’s communications, PR, digital/social media and brand marketing teams in all aspects of content generation, consumer engagement and trade support.

 “I’m truly honored that Jackson Family Wines has entrusted me with this unique position,” Heimoff said. “I was a huge admirer of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke, not only professionally for their tremendous accomplishments, but personally. Jackson Family Wines is, simply put, the most superb portfolio of high-end wineries in America and I’m thrilled to now work for the family business.”

Heimoff joins Jackson Family Wines after 22 years at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, most of them as California Editor. Previously, Heimoff wrote for Wine Spectator Magazine. Born in New York City, Heimoff moved to San Francisco in 1979 to attend graduate school and it was there that he discovered and nurtured his passion for wine.

 Heimoff has written two books for University of California Press: A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. In addition, his daily wine blog, steveheimoff.com, is one of the most widely read in the country.

* * *

After twenty-five years as a wine critic, I’m onto my next big adventure.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say in the coming days and weeks. Right now, the reality of my new tasks hasn’t really set in. One thing I do want to do is reassure my readers that I intend to keep this blog going five days a week, just as I have for nearly six years.

I fully understand the challenges inherent in this goal I set myself. And I expect my readers to say to me: Prove it. I’ll try and give it my level best. I love this blog–I love the interaction I have with so many of you who faithfully read it everyday, and occasionally take the time to comment–I have no intention of squandering the trust you invest in me. I will endeavor to keep steveheimoff.com an independent, interesting voice, just as I did all those years with Wine Enthusiast. I’m simply (and happily) changing employers; this blog abides.

Thank you.


Final thoughts on WOPN 2014

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World of Pinot Noir was a very great success despite 3 days of continuous rain (I hope all those poor people living in the foothills of the San Gabes are okay). The Bacara Resort turned out to be a lovely new venue; their staff was awesome. Personally, I want to thank the Uber people for taking such good care getting me back and forth. I stayed at Fess Parker’s Doubletree, a 25 minute drive from Bacara, and it would have been very difficult for me (and for Gus) without my wonderful driver, Ariane. Thank you, and thanks also to Andy.

WOPN has been such a great success that I wonder why more wineries from beyond California don’t participate. I think if Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand and other Pinot-producing countries knew more about this event (and the upscale crowd it attracts), they’d come. As for tasting, I spent most of my time concentrating on the New Zealand and Oregon wineries that did attend. Partly, that was because I don’t taste much non-California wine. I also felt sorry for the non-California wineries, many of whom were stuck in a side room that frankly didn’t attract much of a crowd. People were lining up at the likes of Kosta Brown, which seems rather lemming-like to me. I mean, hey, okay, if you’ve never tried KB, fine, but why not go outside your critical comfort zone and discover something else? Isn’t that what wine is all about: discovery, surprise, evolution? It’s boringly easy to taste something that critic X or Y gave a million points to and then go home and yada yada about it. Well, if that’s the outermost limit you can soar to, my sympathies.

It was great to see Bob Cabral pouring at Williams Selyem. As most of you probably know, Bob gave them his notice, and will be moving on to unknown adventures, although he’ll oversee their 2014 vintage. The two of us had a good long talk–we go back a ways and Bob’s always been one of my favorite people, both for his superb attitude as a human being, friendliness and warmth, and because Williams Selyem’s wines rock.

Just a brief word on the Burgundy seminar. I had some favorites: Domaine Collotte 2012 Marsannay Rose. What a great wine for $18 retail. I wrote “I wish there were more California rosés like this, especially Pinot Noirs, which tend to be too heavy.” I loved the Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret 2010 Savigny-Les-Beaune “Les Narbantons,” not a Premier Cru but a gorgeous wine, rich and spicy and ready to drink now, at only $30. But my top wine was  Domaine Jean et Gilles Lafouge 2010 Auxey-Duresses “La Chappelle” ($36). I just couldn’t get enough of it: dry, acidic and spicy, with firm tannins and oh, so complete and wholesome. To me, it beat out the Grand Cru on the table, Domaine D’Ardhuy 2005 Corton Clos du Roi, which I called “very hard, undrinkable, all about tannins and acidity, showing no generosity, austere.” I have no idea if it will age, and neither, apparently, did Don Kinnon, who once again moderated this outstanding panel. He seemed almost apologetic about it. Of course, if you know this is a Grand Cru, and from a celebrated vintage, you’re going to hedge your bets and give it a great score, probably with a line like “Nowhere near ready, best after 2030.” If you don’t know what it is, you’ll just go “Uggh” and turn to something else, like the Auxey-Duresses, at one-third the price. This just shows that tasting occurs, not merely in the mouth, but in the mind.


World of Pinot Noir 2014: Random notes

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At the morning seminar on the Pinots of Willamette Valley, my friend Gillian Handelman, of Jackson Family Wines, remarked that Oregon winemakers seem to talk a lot more about soil and rocks than do California winemakers, who lean more toward climate in explaining their Pinots. That immediately rang true to me, and I wondered why it might be so. A few things occur to me:

The historical reference point for Pinot Noir in California is Sonoma County, where the soils are so impossibly jumbled, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault system, that you can walk two yards and find different structures. That may be one reason why: Winemakers were stymied trying to understand their soils, so they very naturally turned to climate. Then too, as someone observed, up in Oregon-Washington, every kid is raised with the story of the great Missoula Floods, which formed so much of those states’ terrain. “It was our creation myth,” said Oregon journalist Katherine Cole, who moderated the Willamette seminar. So it may be that Oregonians have rocks more deeply imbedded in their imaginations than do Californians. Finally, it may be because in Willamette, Pinot Noir is pretty much exclusively the red grape, whereas in California, it’s everything from Pinot to Cabernet and Zinfandel. Pinot seems to draw more from the dirt than most other red varieties, so maybe Oregon winemakers look more toward Burgundian explanations of terroir than Californians. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think Gillian hit the nail on the head.

The seminar on the wines of Louis Jadot’s Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules was stunning. I’ve gone to few vertical tastings in my life in which a continuity of style was clearer, or where the necessity of aging more apparent. We tasted eight wines, from 2010 going back to 1985, and it was easy to find the same elements in them all. But really, only the 1985 was drinkable (to me)–and that, just barely; I’d love to try it in another 20 years. Jadot’s winemaker, Frédéric Barnier, conceded as much. When asked by an audience member if he didn’t feel the need to change the style in response to consumer demand for earlier-drinking wines, Barnier said, in effect: No way. Good for him.

Later, at the walkaround tasting, I found myself gravitating toward the 2011s, from both Oregon and California. Some of them were stunning. The one I particularly recall was the Baxter 2011 Valenti Vineyard, from Mendocino Ridge. (I no longer review Mendocino wines for Wine Enthusiast; Virginie Boone does. She scored it 92 points. I might have gone a little higher, and added a Cellar Selection designation. But Virginie and I are in the same ballpark.)

I’m still formulating my views on the 2011 Pinots. Katherine, the Willamette moderator, told a story about a Burgundian producer she interviewed. When she asked him about a certain vintage would develop, he crustily replied (I paraphrase Katherine’s quote), “How am I supposed to know? You can’t understand a vintage for at least fifty years.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think it takes time, and any serious reviewer who doesn’t revise his estimations of a vintage is lazy or dead. Early on, I had serious problems with 2011 Pinots from California. Lots of mold. But there always were some great wines from producers who either sorted out the moldy berries or who sourced their grapes from vineyards (often mountains or hillsides) where mold was not a problem, even in the cold 2011 vintage. So at the walkaround tasting I was really blown away by some of the 2011s. The Baxter is the only one I’ll mention here, but the great ones all were low in alcohol, incredibly streamlined and elegant, brisk in acidity and not overwhelming in fruit. You can call them Burgundian, I suppose. This raises the question of how to evaluate a vintage, overall, when it contains extremes of both sides: extraordinary wines as well as moldy ones. My feeling is to lower the overall score, in terms of numbers, but try to express, in the text, that consumers who choose well will find unbelievably gorgeous wines. This is not always an easy message to get across, but then, of course, the individual scores and reviews of the wines also express how I feel about them.

Finally: Frédéric Barnier on numerous occasions made a distinction between wines that are “good” and those that are “interesting.” I raised my hand five or six times, during the Q&A, to ask him to elaborate; but alas, Katherine never called on me, so all I can do is surmise. I wanted to ask him: Can a wine that’s not good be interesting? Can a wine that’s good be uninteresting? This is fascinating stuff, and I hope to muse on these concepts in the future.

 


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