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The internationalization of style is no friend of blind tasting

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The embarrassment of mistaking a California Pinot Noir for Merlot, or a Merlot for a Zinfandel or Petite Sirah, or a Malbec for Cabernet Sauvignon, can be acute, for someone known as a wine critic. Surely a person of that stature should be able to tell the difference between major varieties!

Well, not necessarily. When I was reviewing 15 wines a day, blind, I would sometimes include different varietals in the lineup and try to figure them out. My success rate was good but not great, although I will say that I had a far easier time discerning the wine’s inherent quality, regardless of what grapes constituted it.

Why do we think we ought to be able to identify varieties blind? Who put that idea into our heads? In my case it came from reading the books of the great, primarily British wine writers of the last 100 years. They made such a fuss of the differences between, say, Saint-Estephe and Margaux, or Musigny and Nuits-Saint-Georges, not to mention the Rhône Valley which was a bit of a mystery to them, that one such as I, who had aspirations of my own, felt compelled to develop that unerring palate of detailed perspicacity.

It helped to fuel this ambition to taste with vintners who crafted different wines from neighboring vineyards, or even from blocks within the same vineyard. They would tell me of the huge differences between the wines—differences which I found, often as not, to be less than huge. Counter-balancing this was the occasional blind tasting in which vintners could not identify even their own wines! But overall, by the late 1980s I had the thought firmly lodged in my mind that a writer ought to be able to distinguish between different varieties, and, at a higher order of magnitude, between different terroirs of the same variety.

At the same time, for going on thirty years now writers of greater stature than I were expressing the opinion that, in California at least, everything was starting to taste like everything else. This was especially true of red wines. Gerald Asher was one such. In the Preface to his 1986 “On Wine,” a compilation of articles he’d written for Gourmet magazine, Gerald noted that the “universal sophistication” of winemaking technique—“stainless steel, cultured yeasts, temperature-controlled fermentation and clarification by centrifuge” [he might have included picking the grapes riper]—had “imposed the dominant grapy fragrance that brings out similarities in modern wines rather than the bold differences we knew.” He sounds here wistful for a gauzy past (in his case, it would have been the late 1940s and 1950s) when distinctions between appellations were clear and distinct, a situation that apparently had passed by the mid-1980s, when “We find red Graves…that taste like tannic Beaujolais.” !!! As anecdotal proof of this phenomenon of sameness, Gerald cites a Spanish winemaker who told him that “Liebfraumilch was his criterion in making and judging his white Valdepeñas,” an eyebrow-raiser Gerald said was “the inevitable result of marketing wine instead of selling it.”

(Gerald himself wrote self-mockingly about mistaking a Petrus ’64 for a Rutherford Cab, admitting that he should have—but didn’t—wonder who could possibly have been making Napa Cabernet in that style at that time! But then, logic is seldom able to penetrate the fortress-walls of preconception.)

Whether it’s due to marketing, or something else, there can be no doubt that wines from anywhere and everywhere resemble each other more than they used to. Thus the writer/critic may be excused for failing to correctly nail all the contestants in a blind tasting! He can always attribute this to the internationalization of style.

I therefore years ago stopped playing the guessing game in blind tasting, arguing with myself that it was a parlor trick. Far more important than identifying varietal tastes and flavors, for me at any rate, is assessing a wine’s balance. This is why I never criticized a wine for being varietally “incorrect.” Who cares if a Merlot is not particularly Merlot-like as long as it’s luscious? I’ve drank and enjoyed Pinot Noirs that were dark and fruity as Grenache. I’ve sipped Sauvignon Blancs that were oaky and creamy and fruity in the finish that might have been Chardonnay. I’ve had Cabernets as peppery as Syrah, and Petite Sirahs that were as smooth as Cabernet. If the wines were balanced, they were good, and I said so in my reviews, always wondering why this atypicity bothered some critics so much.

Which raises, of course, the question, What then is the difference between a 95 point wine and an 88 point one? Writers have tried for centuries to describe what lifts one wine above another to which it might bear a close resemblance. In fact the Writer’s Full Employment Act is predicated on this very challenge. It has to do with a quality of mouthfeel; the only way to explain it is through analogy. It’s the difference in the fabric of a fine Italian suit and one you buy at Sears. The difference between a weed and a bonsai. It’s the difference between Beethoven played by the San Francisco Symphony as against a high school student orchestra. It’s an experiential quality, intellectual in its most basic form, and it requires experience on the part of the taster to learn to recognize it. (This sounds snobby but isn’t really.)

Is it difficult to reconcile the twin facts of an internationalization of style with degrees of quality? I don’t think so. Styles come and go, but fundamental quality always remains, whether it was the wines of ancient Greece and Rome, the Bordeaux of the 19th century or the wines of modern California. As Jamie Goode writes in his current blog, “Balance is important in wine, and it’s a style call,” which makes it, in his words, “quite personal.” Of course, it was easier in past decades and centuries, when all the important tastemakers agreed on what was “balanced” and what wasn’t; there were just a handful of them (mostly in the English wine trade), and no one would have thought to challenge them. Today, of course, we have a proliferation of wine writers, so ambitious, which makes things more confusing than ever. If someone says something, someone else ridicules it, and the debate goes viral. This is hardly the way to arrive at reasonable conclusions. The anchor of authority regrettably is getting lost, in favor of the flotsam of the masses. Whether this is a good or bad development has yet to be determined.


Wednesday wraparound: the perils of prejudice, and the limits of social media

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1961 was, as all Bordeaux lovers know, one of those “vintages of the century” when nearly all the chateaux produced rich, ageworthy wines. However, one chateau, La Lagune, a Third Growth of the Médoc that has had a stellar reputation, apparently didn’t fare so well among critics. Eddie Penning-Rowsell, in The Wines of Bordeaux, wrote that the winery “probably over-sugared the [1961] wine, as it has struck me as excessively sweet.” Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, chose not to review it in depth at all, and merely listed it, along with several dozen others, as not tasted recently. Oz Clarke, in his New Encyclopedia of French Wines, wrote that “the experts say that 1961 wasn’t a success at La Lagune,” although he himself, tasting it decades later, liked it enough to buy 8-1/2 cases.

Then there was Harry Waugh who, in his 1970 diary, Pick of the Bunch, referred to his visit to Chateau Bouscaut, in the Graves, where the proprietor opened a 1962 La Lagune. “With my recollection of the, shall I say, ‘curious’ 1961 vintage of that Chateau, I was reluctant to try it,” Harry wrote, delicately; he must have reviewed it in one of his diaries I do not own, but it cannot have been a good review. Most likely, if we are to believe Penning-Rowsell, if the wine indeed had been over-chaptalised, Harry, who liked his Bordeaux classically dry, would not have cared for it.

Harry did, however, drink that ’62 La Lagune and found it “both charming and delicious…”. He concluded: I “had to eat my words…The prejudices one can form are really frightening!”

It is those “prejudices” I wish to write about today. Harry had formed a prejudice against La Lagune that rose up in his mind as soon as he saw the bottle of 1962. Fortunately, Harry was a fair enough taster that he was able to overcome that prejudice and appreciate the beauty of the ’62. But can we say that of all professional tasters? Indeed, “frightening” is not too strong a word to describe the attitudes of some of them, whose condemnation of certain wines, based on their presuppositions, is all the more pernicious due to their influence.

* * *

Good friend Adam Japko, from Digital Sherpa, sent me this link to an article on CEOs using social media “to drive business results.” Adam is, of course, very high on social media and a passionate explicator of it. The article profiles 5 CEOs who use social media a lot; it goes on to explain in each case how that use “helps drive business results.”

I suspect Adam sent me the link because he (like some others who know me) thinks I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to social media and ROI. Notice I said “ROI” rather than “driving business results,” because I think the two are vastly different. We all understand what ROI means because it’s about money and can be measured. Unfortunately the article doesn’t define the meaning of “driving business results,” so we really have no way of knowing if, say, Doug Conant’s 24,000 Twitter followers are having any impact on Avon’s bottom line: are his tweets selling more cosmetics, jewelry, watches? Maybe yes, maybe no; it’s hard for me, at any rate, to make that leap. The article suggests, logically, that Conant’s commitment to social media “is passed on to executives and all [Avon] employees” by dint of his leadership position, but again, just how that translates into increased sales isn’t entirely clear. If we actually knew what “driving business results” meant, we might, however, be able to come to a definitive conclusion!

As I’ve said before, I too encourage all professionals to use social media, as often as feels comfortable. It can’t hurt; it can only help. I myself use it all the time. And my new employer, Jackson Family Wines, is a firm believer in social media; in fact, part of my job is to write for their blogs. I suppose they feel that, given the success I’ve made of steveheimoff.com, I know a thing or two! (And so do they. Remember “A Really Goode Job“? That made social media history.)

If, as Fortune Magazine reports, “70% of Fortune 500 CEOs aren’t using social media,” that’s pretty shocking to me: they should be. But you have to ask yourself why they’re not; after all, these are not stupid men and women. It may be that these CEOs have determined that all the commotion about social media is overblown. On the other hand, they may actually be missing the bus—so overwhelmed by their own sense of genius that they think social media is a ridiculous hobby for only the “little people” who have too much time on their hands. Or—a third possibility—maybe they feel they can just hire employees to do the social media thing, and they don’t have to do it themselves.

It would be nice to have a time machine and see how all this shakes out by, say, 2025. In all my life, I’ve never seen a societal trend whose future, with all its consequences, is as hard to predict, as that of social media. Sometimes when I fantasize about it, all I can think of is humans getting hard-wired with computer chips in our brains, connected all the time to the Matrix.

MatrixMan


What do the attacks on Google mean? An analysis of the anti-tech phenomenon

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Over the past few months, it was attacks on Google buses in San Francisco and Oakland that made headlines and showed how anti-techie resentment is spreading throughout the Bay Area.

Now comes the latest chapter: a “tech consultant” showing off her Google Glass in a bar in the Haight district was attacked for reasons known only to her attackers, who have not been apprehended. But I think we can surmise what their motives were, and they’re connected with the unease many of us feel about social media in general and the increasing absorption people have with [or in] their mobile devices. (P.S. I am NOT condoning violence! Just trying to fathom the depth of the anger toward tech that’s such big news out here.)

The issue can perhaps be summed up by this observation from a bar owner (not the one where the woman was attacked) quoted in the article: “If you’re old enough to be in a bar, you should be old enough to have conversation with other adults. When you’re in a bar with Google Glass, it’s like saying, ‘I’m only halfway here. I’ll be checking my phone.’”

“Only halfway here…”. Who hasn’t had the experience of being with someone, having a conversation you thought you both were enjoying, when suddenly the other person checks his cell phone? I don’t know about you, but when that happens to me, I feel as though I’ve been dismissed–from the conversation, from the person’s mind, from his consideration. It is–to use an old word–rude, and I was raised (mainly thanks to my southern-born mother) not to be a rude person.

Is it rude to wear Google Glass in a bar? I can infer myself into the heads of people who would be upset about it. For one thing, you don’t know if the glass-wearer is photographing or videotaping you. Surely, people have the right to object to being recorded by a stranger in a public place. But a Google Glass wearer seems to be saying, “I really don’t care if you object to being photographed, I’m going to do it anyway if I want to, and I don’t have to ask for your permission.” Nor is it pleasant to think that the glass wearer might post your image all around the Internet (which is to say, all around the world), with possibly offensive or taunting comments.

The reason why we have to get a handle on this, now, is because the technology is only going to become smarter, and more intrusive. How long will it be before Google Glass can see under clothing or through a thin partition? We know about the problem of spy cams. Google Glass could be far more nefarious.

What’s the connection between Google Glass and attacking Google buses (other than the brand name)? The emotions are similar. People smashing Google buses are worried about getting squeezed out of their neighborhoods, and sometimes their city, by high-paid techies who seem interested only in their jobs and their friends, not the traditional cultural mores of the neighborhood. That rap is, admittedly, not entirely fair; but it is understandable, given the increasing numbers of people who no longer can afford to live in San Francisco, a city they love and presumably don’t want to leave. I know this for a fact: many of these folks are moving to my neighborhood (San Francisco’s loss is Oakland’s gain).

Thus the bus attacks are symbols of the increasing unease with the way technology is altering, and intruding upon and disrupting, our lives. The attackers obviously know that the buses are not the cause of high rents and evictions. They know that throwing a brick through a bus window won’t solve a thing. But they vent their anger on the buses, the same way the Boston Tea Party patriots vented their anger on innocent crates of tea, by dumping them into the harbor.

And what’s the connection to the unease about social media? The absorption some people have in it. Is it really better and more satisfying to stare into a tiny screen and tap out text messages on a bus or subway, instead of talking to the person sitting next to you, or just quietly contemplating existence? I’m not saying that the use of social media isn’t a wonderful thing, useful, entertaining and important to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family. Heck, I’m using social media right now, on this blog. But at some point, its overuse is cause for concern. When I have to be extra vigilant walking down the sidewalk because someone is coming towards me with his nose glued to a device, something’s wrong. People used to nod their heads and smile when passing strangers on the street. Now, they don’t even see them.

I think the burgeoning reaction against tech has to do with the end of human engagement as we’ve known it, an alarming possibility suggested by the bar owner’s “only halfway here” remark. Humans have spent millennia learning how to get along with each other in crowded spaces. It’s not always easy. Some things make it harder. Google Glass may be one of them.

Look: I’m no Luddite. No one can stop the march of technology, nor should anyone want to. But we have to find a balance. That’s why I, and millions of others, are dead set against allowing cell phone conversations on airline flights. That would be going over the edge, a serious disruption to our ability to dwell together in peace. When it comes to Google Glass, people are going to have to learn to be civil and appropriate with its use. Going into a crowded bar wearing one may not be the best idea, if it upsets so many people, which apparently it does. There’s already a term being bandied about out here about people who wear Google Glass in public: they’re Glassholes.

Anyway–having got that off my chest–I’m in beautiful but stormy Santa Barbara, at World of Pinot Noir, which begins this morning. I’ll update as frequently as I can over the next two days.


The future of wine writing, redux

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They call it “the gig economy,” a “growing tribe of independent contractors and freelancers who are hoping to transform hardship into opportunity on the sidelines of the nation’s traditional 9-to-5 economy,” in the words of a recent New York Times story.

The article reported on people in their 20s and 30s who, unable to land “real” jobs in this post-Recession economy, opt for the freelance life. Not only writers, but lawyers, website developers and many others, they exist from gig to gig, working out of their homes, or from wi-fi enabled coffeeshops, enjoying the freedom their unemployed lives give them–but worried also about paying the bills, much less saving anything for their retirement.

From the perspective of journalism, including wine writing, the gig economy should worry consumers who want solid, honest reporting. You can argue that a reporter who doesn’t actually work for anyone is all the more independent, because she doesn’t have to be concerned with how her publisher, editors, company CEO or advertisers feel. Instead, she can fearlessly investigate and report the news, and offer opinions (e.g. wine reviews) that are fiercely objective.

True. But there’s a risk in going the independent path. Several risks, actually. They include:

1.   Not having the solid bench of staff a reporter needs to do the job properly. An old-fashioned newspaper had copy editors, fact checkers, librarians, ombudsmen and others who, working alongside the reporter, can ensure the greatest depth and credibility to her stories.

2.   Working a consistent beat. Print reporters generally specialized: you had the police guy, the City Council guy, the science writer, the sports guy, the style writer, and so on. Specializing meant that the writer could get really knowledgeable about his field, getting to know the major personalities and thus offering a value-added perspective. In the new gig economy, it’s hard to get a job that’s consistent, and so the writer is forced to write about whatever he can get paid for at that moment (or whatever wine is coming in, willy nilly). It’s a scattershot way of reporting.

I don’t mean to suggest that wine writers in the gig economy can’t be good. They can. But it’s going to be increasingly hard for them to make a living, because wages in the gig economy just aren’t very high. That’s the whole point of a gig economy: it provides cheap labor to employers, who not only don’t have to pay well, but also don’t have to shell out benefits. And as low as the pay is, it can be even lower when the number of job applicants exceeds the number of job opportunities–as it the case with wine writing today.

What is all means for the future of wine writing is obscure. But it is very hard to escape the suspicion, or dread, that wine writing’s glory days are coming to an end. Not tomorrow. Not in five years. But in twenty? Unless there’s some kind of major shift in the paradigm–and I don’t know anyone who thinks well-paid wine writers are coming back.


Being Wilfred Wong’s Twelfth Man

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Why are some people so (anonymously) nasty on the Internet? It’s really the saddest aspect of a digital community that, aside from that, is a pretty nice place to hang out.

My old friend Wilfred Wong posted on Facebook an unsigned email he got, (you’ll have to scroll down on Wilfred’s feed to the post that begins “Today was a day of mixed blessings”) from a person who obviously has (a) anger management issues and (b) too much time on his or hands or (c) both. Now, Wilfred, for those who don’t know who he is (and I would assume most of my readers do), is the Cellar Master at BevMo, the big liquor chain with a gazillion outlets in the Far West. His primary job, as he writes, “is researching wines (and now beer and spirits) for their quality.” I’ve known Wilfred longer than anyone else I know in the wine industry. We met around 1982. I was a novice: he already was knee-deep in wine, literally. So Wilfred’s had a lot of experience.

Which gets to the point. Why do so many people in the wine social media world think that experience is bad? It doesn’t make sense. Throughout all of human history, societies have respected their more experienced members, whether they be shamans, healers or hunters. These are the members who hold the society together–who constitute its collective memory–who form a living link between Now and The Past. Yes, every now and then there are revolutions–none more noteworthy than our own American–but even when we won, we respected older traditions of honesty, integrity, fairness. Those were not American values; they were human values.

But now, especially in the wine blogosphere and on Twitter, we have arrived at a period of incivility. People feel free to insult others with far more accomplishments than their own–and they do it all too often anonymously. Perhaps even more appalling is when they reveal their identities: then their attacks are done with impunity.

Here’s my message to the coward who emailed Wilfred: You try doing what he’s done. Try lasting 30-plus years at the top of your profession, earning not just good money but the love and respect of your peers throughout the industry. (If you want proof of that love and respect, read through the comments on Wilfred’s post.)

By the way, trashing a big box store like BevMo is the height of arrogance. It’s like the people who only drink expensive wine and think average-priced wine is for “the little people who pay taxes” (as Leona Helmsley once described us). For one thing, BevMo has some very fine wines, but that’s beside the point: What’s important is that BevMo gives value in wine to millions of Americans. What’s wrong with that? And Wilfred, through his service, makes their shopping experience a lot easier and more delightful than it would otherwise be.

So please, you harpies out there taking aim at Baby Boomer writers and critics, chill. You won’t get anywhere just hurling spears. If you want to achieve a career in the wine industry, I suggest you do exactly what Wilfred has done: hunker down, work hard, make friends and be respectful. That’s always been the way success comes.


What I’ll tell the apartment managers about social media

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Today I’m headed up to Santa Rosa to speak at Adam Japko’s Multifamily Social Media Summit. Here’s a summary of what I’ll say. First, I’ll welcome the guests to Sonoma County, and try to describe a little bit about what makes it such a great home to wine. I’ve long thought of Sonoma as “California’s winiest county” (which is how I described it in A Wine Journey along the Russian River), and I think it’s fair to say that no other county has the breadth and depth of varieties and  types (including sparkling wine) that Sonoma does.

Adam also asked me to talk a little about how I got into wine, so I’ll describe the way I fell head over heels in love with vino in 1978, getting deeper and deeper into it until I moved to San Francisco, in 1980, and became a denizen of the city’s better wine shops (which back then you could count on the finger of both hands). I’ll describe my career thus far and how I landed the job of reviewing California wine for Wine Enthusiast.

Since this is a social media event, I’ll talk about my own experiences in this sphere–about how and why I started my blog in 2008. (I can hardly believe it’s been that long.) Adam’s main thing, of course, is to promote the use of social media as a tool for busy professionals (this particular event is for apartment complex managers who want to learn how to use social media to make their jobs easier and better). I’m not particularly in a position to advise them on that, but what I can do is describe how my blog has made my life easier and better, and also how it’s contributed to my “brand.”

Now, I don’t really think of myself as a “brand,” but I know that some people do, because they tell me so; and Adam himself sees me that way. (Of course, he also sees me as a human being and a friend, which is how I want to be seen!). However, I’m objective enough to understand that there is a sort of branding process going on with me, in terms of having a reputation, and Adam wants to know how my reputation (or the way I perceive it) has been impacted by my blog.

I suppose–and, again, this is based on what people tell me–that my reputation has been enhanced by it. I don’t mean “enhanced” in terms of people thinking better or more highly of me, but in the sense that more people have heard of me because of my blog. It’s quantitative enhancement, if you will, not qualitative enhancement. I think Adam is eager for the apartment complex managers to hear from someone who started out as a total ignoramus when it came to blogging, and ended up with quite a successful little blog–not financially, for this gig doesn’t make any money, but in terms of being popular.

Here are tips I’ll give the apartment managers for a blog (and many of these tips can be extended to other forms of social media as well:

1.   post frequently.

2.   post with passion.

3.   personalize your posts. Don’t write like you’re some anonymous automaton. Let people feel your humanity through your words.

4.   provide links, where appropriate, to off-site pages that bolster your arguments or otherwise amplify your message.

5.   provide photos and/or videos.

6.   don’t take criticism too seriously. I doubt if apartment complex managers will get the same kind of slamming I sometimes do, but if they do, they should laugh it off.

7.   don’t expect an immediate return on your investment. In fact, you might never see ROI, measured as dollars. The point of blogging, and social media in general, is brand building. Which leads to my final discussion

What is “brand building”? I would argue it’s none other than forming relationships. In the case of social media, they’re digital relationships, but that’s all right, they’re still relationships. You have conversations with others that are real-time, and this allows readers to feel that they’re part of your life. Or, more correctly, that both of you are part of a bigger social life. Partners, in a sense–co-participants in something grand and lovely. That’s how it seems to me: my biggest gripe with winery social media (including web pages) is that the content often seems grudging. It’s like they feel they have to put something up, but it’s not grand or lovely, not personal, not selfless. Selfless? Yes. You can’t be holding onto something and be successful at social media. The late sports writer Red Smith was said to have replied, in response to whether writing a daily column wasn’t hard, “Why, no. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” He didn’t mean that literally, obviously, and he didn’t mean that it was an incredibly difficult thing to do. What he meant by “bleed” is what we might call “letting it all hang out.” Putting all your cards on the table–being genuine. Social media types call it being “authentic” and “transparent,” and it’s hard to explain; you just have to learn how to be that way (and you can’t be that way online if you’re not that way offline, in real life).

Does that sound a bit esoteric? I suppose it does. But it’s what I’m going to tell the apartment complex managers.


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