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A short history of why Cabernet is King in America, and why that could be changing

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Whenever people of similarity spend most of their time together they tend to develop the same esthetic tastes. This is known as class identification and has been developed through evolution to keep tribes cohesive.

When it comes to wine one singular and rather insulated tribe defined for centuries what was good and bad. This tribe was Caucasian, Western European, male and wealthy, and thus deeply conservative in its social and political outlook. It consisted mainly of the British upper classes, an amalgam of landed gentry, aristocracy, academics and clergy. What they favored was Bordeaux. Without this group of what, today, we call tastemakers or gatekeepers, Bordeaux likely would not have reached the pinnacle of wine fame it  still enjoys today.

The tastemakers eventually branched out, a little bit, to appreciate a few others wines: Burgundy, Port and Champagne, but Bordeaux remained their obsession and exclusive province. When our own country, America, was formed, it was mainly by the descendents of those Britishers, which is why we saw the founding fathers similarly obsessed with Bordeaux . (Madeira too appealed to them, but there were other economic reasons for that.)

As long as America remained a fairly tight little country, with poor internal communications, the tastes of these original British (and some German) founders dominated the country’s esthetic. (We might credit the Germans with establishing the beer culture that has always gone hand-in-hand with the wine culture, and more than occasionally dominated it.)

Even as late as the 1960s, the country’s internal communication was fairly dismal. The large newspaper chains tended to speak with one voice; wine writing and criticism remained in its infancy, with a “preaching to the choir” mentality in which, yet again, Bordeaux was extolled, now joined by its California cousin, Cabernet Sauvignon. Some insiders understood that it would take a revolution to shatter this template, but what would the revolution be?

We know now: The internet. More specifically, the proliferation of social media. All the old institutions in this country are being fractured and disrupted. We see this in politics first and foremost, with the rise of movements as disparate as greens/environmentalists, on the one hand, and the Tea Party on the other. We see it in the wild fractionalization of popular music. No longer do we simply have rock and roll, jazz and classical music; nowadays the most particularist genres appeal to their tribes. Ditto with the multitude of televised broadcast sources we have to choose from: hundreds on my cable system alone. We see it in the very diversity of the American people: California is no longer a white-majority state, but is the first truly rainbow state in the nation.

How long will it be before this stranglehold of a handful of wine varieties is loosened? Just today, a local wine writer and restaurateur writes in the San Francisco Examiner of the world “beyond the 93 percent prime grape varieties” that are “opening the eyes” of sommeliers, leading one to remark that “The potential [for new varieties and wine types] is something we haven’t even scratched the surface on.”

I’m seeing this up close and personal. If you go into a wine bar, nobody is ordering Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Visit Uva Enoteca, in the Haight, and you’ll find lagrein, schiava, refosco, gattinara, nero d’avola among reds by the glass. Head over to Hotel Biron, in hot-hot-hot Hayes Valley, and you have your choice of Mendoza Torrontes (a variety that’s quickly grabbing my attention), South Portuguese whites, South African Pinotage, plenty of German Rieslings, and a nice range of a California wine that deserves to be consumed in restaurants more than it is: Zinfandel.

This is encouraging news. It means that a new generation of wine drinkers is willing and able to expand their experience well beyond where their parents and grandparents went. It doesn’t mean that Cabernet, Chardonnay and the rest of the 93% “prime grape varieties” are going away anytime soon. But it does bring a welcome diversity to our wine (and restaurant) scene, and it seems particularly strong here in the Bay Area, where so many cultural trends begin.


How much time did you say Millennials spend on the media? Really? Wow.

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The most stunning finding from Ipsos Media’s new study on social media is that Millennials spend an average of 17.8 hours a day perusing (if that’s the right word) the media.

Assuming they must sleep at some point, that means that nearly all of Millennials’ waking hours are spent looking at or listening to a smartphone, tablet, computer, radio, movie or T.V. screen or even the printed page!

How do they find the time to do anything else?

The actual point of the study was about user-generated content (UGC), a buzzword that, according to Wikipedia, entered mainstream use in 2005. Wikipedia says “The advent of user-generated content marked a shift among media organizations from creating online content to providing facilities for amateurs to publish their own content.” So, for example, anything that lets you put information out there on the Internet (a blog, Twitter, Instagram) is an example of UGC.

It’s clearly cheaper for media organizations to have users create content, rather than for the corporations to have to pay for it. On the downside is the fact that UGC sites cannot charge nearly as much for advertising that sites (usually bricks-and-mortar) charge. This is why we see Facebook and Twitter constantly trying out new ways of sneaking ads into our feeds.

The study’s authors report that 53% of Millennials say UGC influences their buying decisions, compared to 44% who trust traditional media more. Of that 53%, nearly three-quarters (74%) say their most “trustworthy” form of UGC is “conversations with friends/family” (although, to me, a “conversation” with actual people isn’t really an example of user-generated content. Am I missing something?) Anyhow, that compares with only 44% who find “print magazines or newspapers” to be trustworthy.

That will come as welcome news to my friends who are steeped deeply into social media. It means, for instance, that a Millennial who’s looking to buy a bottle of wine will give more credence to a “conversation with family/friends” than a recommendation in a wine magazine.

Well, duh. I’m sure that’s true for most people who buy a bottle of wine. Wine magazines and wine columns in newspapers aren’t for everyone, they’re for people whose interest in wine has risen above a certain base level. These folks may not realize it, but if they’re listening to a wine recco from a magazine or newspaper, they have officially dipped one toe into the Sea of Geekdom. Hey, dive right in, the water’s warm and comforting!

It’s interesting to note from the study that, while we tend to associate Millennials with online social media and not so much with television, they actually watch quite a bit of the boob tube. While 71% of them report daily use of social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), nearly as many—60%–watch live TV everyday. And may I be so bold as to suggest that a momentary glimpse of their Facebook feed pales in comparison to watching a 30-minute TV program. That suggests that wine companies might consider advertising on the TV shows that Millennials watch, but (cf. my reference above to advertising), most wineries could never even begin to advertise on Colbert or the Daily Show.

I suppose the challenge for wineries today is the same as it was six years ago when I began blogging: How do you get Millennials (or anyone else) to recommend your wines to their friends and followers? That’s the million-dollar question. No one’s yet figured out the answer. While they’re trying to, I suggest wineries continue to send samples to the top print critics and other tastemakers. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive.


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.


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