GUS! Is probably the best known wine critic dog in California. Wherever I go, people ask me about him. So I figured it’s time to Spotlight Gus here on the blog, so his many fans can learn a little more about him.
Gus is about 4-1/2 years old. We met at the East Bay SPCA, here in Oakland. There was an immediate attraction on both sides, so we decided to live together. Although Gus is naturally shy, he agreed to this interview, which took place last Friday.
Steve: So Gus, do you like wine?
Gus: Yes, I do. I didn’t used to, but it’s pretty hard to live with you and not get into wine!
S: What are some of your favorite wines?
G: I like Chateauneuf-du-Pup, Chateau Pup-Clement and Puppynet Sauvignon.
S: What was your favorite wine-and-food pairing ever?
G: Remember that time when you gave me kibble mixed with chicken gizzards? I had an Italian Dogcetto that brought out all the smoky, meaty notes.
S: Do you read wine blogs?
G: I don’t know how to read, but if I did, I would read yours, of course. And I hear good things about 1WineDog.
S: Do you like visiting wineries?
G: That is my favorite thing! Usually there’s a nice doggie or two for me to play with. My favorite winery to visit is Frenchie, where they always make me feel special! But I had a very nice time visiting Martinelli and running around that Redwood forest.
S: What do you think of the 100-point system your Daddy uses?
G: I can’t count, but if Daddy likes it, then so do I!
S: Do you help your Daddy review wine?
G: Well, of course, that’s his job, not mine. However, I do like to sit in his lap while he’s tasting. Sometimes a drop of wine will spill on me and I like to lick it off.
S: Do you ever get drunk?
G: I don’t think so. What does that mean?
S: Like, you slobber and fall asleep on the floor. And sometimes you pee inappropriately.
G: Well, I do all those things anyway, so I guess I get drunk.
S: What do you think of social media?
G: It’s very nice, but you can’t eat it, so that limits its usefulness, as far as I’m concerned. And if the social media crowd doesn’t like my answer, they can rub my tummy!
S: What’s the best part of living with a wine critic?
G: Being with him 24/7!
S: And what’s the downside?
G: I don’t like it when he’s recycling those bottles. So noisy!
S: Besides your Daddy, who’s your favorite wine critic?
G: Jancis Doginson. Only I can’t afford her purple pages because my Daddy doesn’t give me any money.
S: What do you think of Parker?
G: Does he make bacon?
S: No, he’s from Monckton.
G: I never had any Monckton. I like bacon.
S: What’s the best wine to drink with bacon?
S: Gus, do you ever feel like you’re losing your mind?
G: Sometimes, but then I look at my Daddy and I feel pretty normal.
S: Do you help your Daddy come up with ideas for his blog?
G: I want him to change it from a BLOG to a DLOG. That’s much nicer, don’t you think?
S: Who’s the cook in the Heimoff household, you or your Daddy?
G: Well, Daddy prepares most of the food himself, but I help him keep the kitchen tidy by eating any little tidbits that fall to the floor.
S: Do you like the Riedel “O” or do you prefer a glass with a stem?
G: Actually, scientific research has proven that wine tastes best when it’s lapped up from a plastic bowl.
S: I did not know that.
G: Now you do.
S: How does it feel to be such a famous dog in wine circles?
G: I like it. I get lots of belly rubs. But don’t ask for my autograph, because I don’t know how to write!
S: Finally, Gus, if you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
G: That’s an easy one. Dogwood!
I don’t exactly remember the first time I ever met Jean-Charles Boisset, but I do have a memory of seeing him across the parking lot of his Boisset America offices, which then were in Sausalito. I had driven there to interview him. It was a windy day, and as I got out of my car, I saw a youngish man, slender and terribly good looking, with his hair and scarf flapping in the breeze.
The scion of one of Burgundy’s most important families, Jean-Charles then was in the process of launching his California operation, which now includes Lyeth, De Loach, Lockwood, Raymond, Buena Vista, Frenchie, JCB, California Rabbit and Amberhill. (Those are only the California properties.) The company now is known as Boisset Family Estates.
The three flagship wineries are, of course, De Loach, Raymond and Buena Vista, which was Jean-Charles’ most recent (2011) acquisition.
The Boisset family is one of the few players able to buy California wineries these last few years, since the Great Recession. As a longtime observor of watching wineries pass hands (Buena Vista, for example, has gone through more owners than I can even remember), I’ve developed a single litmus test for whether these transations are good or bad–for the consumer, that is: Does the new owner trade on the good name of the winery by driving quality downward, or does he raise quality?
It’s an important question, because these wineries that are bought generally have names that are well-known to the general public, and even if quality gradually goes south, the wines continue to sell well for years, because the public doesn’t really understand that quality has been compromised. By the time it does–if it ever does–the owner then can resell the winery to someone else, and walk off with his profit.
I am not going to name names, obviously, but this kind of thing does happen in California. It’s always sad to see a winery that once had a great name run into the ground by new ownership anxious to squeeze out every cent of profit they possibly can. The opposite of that kind of sad transaction, of course, is when a new owner buys a winery that–while good–has been troubled, for one reason or another, and then, instead of running it into the ground, has the vision, taste and means to resurrect the winery. When you see these kinds of renaissances, it cheers your heart, and lets you believe that unbridled capitalism can have positive effects.
There are two gentlemen these last few years who have been buying wineries and, as best as I can tell, are intent on elevating them. One is Charles Banks, who recently acquired (wholly or in part) Qupe and Mayacamas. Those familiar with both wineries and with Charles Banks have to be thrilled, particularly with Mayacamas. How exciting it will be to experience future vintages, which I have no doubt will restore the great name of Mayacamas.
The other gentleman is, obviously, Jean-Charles Boisset. De Loach wasn’t exactly a slouch when Boisset bought it, but the wines have either maintained their quality in the years since, or actually improved, especially the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Zinfandels. Raymond’s progress has been spectacular (thanks, in part, to Philippe Melka’s role as consulting winemaker and the talented Stephanie Putnam). The style of its reds (Cabernets especially) is softly approachable and utterly delicious, wines of such immediate appeal that there’s no reason to cellar them–but they will mellow, too, with ten years in the bottle, if that’s how you roll. Concerning Buena Vista, it’s a little too early to tell. I’m not certain I’ve tasted any Buena Vistas produced since the Boisset takeover. I can say that, while I liked many of its wines in the 2000s, they were good rather than outstanding. Boisset did not acquire the winery’s sprawling Ramal Road vineyard, in the Carneros, which was the source of most of its top wines. I’m not entirely sure how Jean-Charles plans to replace those grapes, but I know that he will, and will do so with diligent intelligence. So, again, it’s very exciting to look forward to future releases from this legendary winery, California’s oldest (1857).
Beyond the quality of the wines, Jean-Charles certainly is one of the most colorful personalities in California. Few exceed him in the sheer, sunny force of his personality. It’s one thing to have an overwhelming personality; it’s quite another for that personality to be so affectionate, even lovable. Combine that with a passion to make great wine, and you have something that’s world class–that can, in fact, symbolize California’s own sunny, optimistic nature. Jean-Charles may have been born in Burgundy, but he has turned into the quintessential Californian.
With Jean-Charles at Raymond
Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen, also known collectively as The World Wine Guys, have enjoyed unprecedented success over the last few years as wine, food, travel and entertainment personalities and authorities. They’ve been on T.V. and radio and in newspapers and magazines, and their two books (The Fire Island Cookbook and Wines of the Southern Hemisphere) have done extraordinarily well. Mike and Jeff also are the Entertainment and Lifestyle editors of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, as well as good friends of mine. I thought it would be interesting to explore how their career went “from zero to sixty” (as Jeff puts it). Their advice to novice writers, as well as those who already have a little experience, is valuable. We chatted in New York, at Wine Enthusiast’s recent summer editorial conference.
How did you happen to become the World Wine Guys?
Jeff: We call ourselves that because we travel around the world drinking wine, experiencing the lifestyle around wine, food, cuisine, trends and travel opportunities.
Mike: We have been traveling the world the last 15 years. But I’d say for the last 5 years, we were looking for a way to differentiate ourselves from the other people who do the same thing, and there are two of us, so we came up with the name World Wine Guys. And it’s funny, when we travel, even people who don’t know much English know the words “World wine guys.”
What are the sources of revenue for the business?
Jeff: Our books, which just came out last year.
Mike: And writing for magazines, including Wine Enthusiast. And we do public speaking and host wine tastings and dinners for corporate groups and private clubs.
Jeff: That’s our main source of income.
A lot of people who read this will want to know how to make a living at something in the wine, food and lifestyle field. What advice can you give them?
Jeff: We’re lucky that we went from zero to 60 in a very short period of time. I was a sommelier, back when we called ourselves wine waiters. Mike comes from a journalism and marketing background, so we put those two things together and created this brand. For people who are just starting, I want to tell you it’s not an easy world, but it’s completely do-able. You have to be honest and truthful about what you want, set your goals and then set action steps to achieve those goals. We’ve taken Tony Robbins classes, personal self-help classes, and we truly believe whatever you set your mind on, you can achieve.
Mike: And go to as many events as you can, where you can network. Just get out there and do it. I remember we were invited to an event in Easthampton and I did not want to go. I said, “Why don’t we stay in the city this weekend?” And Jeff said, “What do we always say about going out and meeting people?” So we went, and met the person who is now our literary agent at a party! If I had decided to stay home and not take the 120 mile drive out there, we never would have met that person. So we firmly believe you have to put yourself out there, not aggressively, but organically find out how you can work together.
What is the role of social media?
Mike: We’ve found it works more on a personal level than a professional level. We look to Twitter to find out what’s going on, things that are trending, but we’ve also found out that a winemaker took a job at a different winery on Twitter, so we get a lot of wine news from reading it. And we’ve found that Facebook is a great way to connect with people. But we connect much more on a personal level.
So it sounds like social media isn’t the most important factor in your success.
Mike: We’re blessed because we live in New York, the media capital of the world, and so have the opportunity to meet a lot of people. And we find that actually being social is a lot more valuable than social media! I think if we lived outside a major city, we might be looking to connect with people in different ways.
Jeff: In the absence of having the opportunity to meet people socially in the world of wine, social media is a good thing. But what I want to impress on people is that being social is better than just relying on social media. If it truly is your only outlet, then do it and enjoy it and respect it for what it is. But nothing really takes the place of sitting down with a winemaker or chef face to face, and talking about the wine and food.
What is the role of personality? You guys are famous for your energy and charm.
Jeff: Personality is important, but let me talk to budding wine writers with their foot on the first or second rung of the ladder. Keep moving up. And the way to do that is to put yourself out there, going to events, and hopefully meeting people you can network with. You have to realize your first stories won’t land in magazines like Wine Enthusiast. But you should write for local newspapers.
Finally, do you blog?
Jeff: No. I respect bloggers, and I think it’s great, but we find ourselves kind of busy, and we wouldn’t want to do a blog if we couldn’t keep up with it everyday. For people like yourself, who do it everyday, it’s a great commitment.
Jeff and Mike, the World Wine Guys
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Paul Gregutt is my friend, the wine columnist for the Seattle Times, author of Washington Wines & Wineries, the Pacific Northwest Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, owner of the excellent blog, Paul Gregutt: Unfined & Unfiltered, and, as of this month–a wine producer!
It’s unusual for a wine writer to go over to–what can we call it–the Dark Side? No, that’s what it’s called when a wine writer does P.R. The only California wine writer I ever knew who made that transition to production was Jeff Morgan, whose brands include Covenant.
Anyhow, Paul and I had a little chat yesterday and we covered a lot of bases. Here’s a Q&A.
So how did Waitsburg Cellars come about?
The project began as a breakfast meeting conversation with Andrew Browne [CEO of Precept]. I’d done some educational work for their sales people and distributors. Andrew popped the question, Would you like to make wine? My first reaction was, Absolutely not!
I know too much! It’s very difficult to do it well. It’s highly competitive, and I know there’s a lot of real talent out there. There were two things I didn’t want to do under any circumstances: Buy a bunch of juice and throw a label on it, or get mired down in some expensive project that would eat me alive. But what Andrew proposed was, I come up with a concept and take advantage of their facilities and resources to realize that vision.
Do you have your own money in it?
I haven’t invested any funds. Precept is the financial backer.
So what is the concept?
Well, I was intrigued, and started giving it some thought. Okay, what can I do that I’ve never seen done that takes advantage of Washington’s strengths? Things that have been overlooked, or not done for whatever reason. So I started to develop the idea. I didn’t want to do just another red blend, so on paper I designed one I’d never heard of, but that made conceptual sense. Over many blending trials and barrel tastings, I made that blend. We call it “Three.” It’s 67% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 13% Mourvedre. [The 2011 retails for $21.]
That is a weird blend.
Thank you. I’m also making a line of aromatic whites to showcase Chenin Blanc in two different styles: a dry Savennieres style, called Cheniniere, and an off-dry Vouvray style we call Chevray.
So what’s it like for a writer to become a producer?
I didn’t want to do just a cameo, like a 30-second walkthrough on a movie, I wanted to be fully involved. I mean, I’m not picking the grapes and stomping them, but I am designing the wine, so it’s another extension of my love for all things wine. And it’s putting my ass on the line.
Because I’m the big wine critic, and now I have wines out there people will take shots at. Just this morning we got the list for who will be sent samples: All the major wine publications and a couple bloggers in Washington State.
So the worm has turned! The reviewer is about to get reviewed.
Yeah. But it’s okay. I’m very pleased with these wines. I know what I set out to do, and I know how close I came to achieving it. So the reviews should be entertaining!
Bien Nacido is an awfully nice place to be in December, a time of the year when most of the rest of the country is in the deep freeze. I’ve been here when there was frost on the bare vines, and the wind off the sea—just miles away—was bitter. But that’s rare.
Today—yesterday, as you read this–as the sun sets in the west, the temperature is close to seventy-five. If you’ve ever visited this part of the Santa Maria Valley, you know how the hills (I think they’re an extension of the San Gabriel Mountains) bunch up on the east side, but the valley itself is a broad, open plain, with nothing to keep the maritime influence from blowing in from the Pacific. That is, of course, what makes it such a cool place (in both senses of the word), ideal for varieties like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah.
It’s a fine vineyard, Bien Nacido, one of California’s best. I looked up all my reviews over the years from wines with a Bien Nacido Vineyard designate on the label, and found about 300. The scores are quite high. About half are above 90 points, an astonishing record.
Young Nicholas Miller, whose formal title is VP, sales and marketing, runs the place. His dad, Steve, and uncle Robert planted the first vines in 1973, making them pioneers on this property that traces its roots back to the old Rancho Tepusquet Land Grant .
Now, of course, Bien Nacido is one of the most coveted sources of fruit in California. More than 600 acres are planted to vines, but Nicholas explains that “the vast majority doesn’t go into Bien Nacido Vineyard- [designated] bottlings,” but is sold off for anonymous inclusion in blends. This is to ensure a strict quality level for anything that bears the vineyard’s name. About 45 wineries currently source fruit from the vineyard; over the years, there have been far more. “There’s always some attrition of buyers,” Nicholas says, “but we’re always looking for up-and-comers, like La Fenetre, Tyler and Chanin.” Count among those up-and-comers Miller’s own Bien Nacido brand, which he started a few years ago. They bottle outstanding Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and as you might expect, Nicholas has no problem gaining access to the best blocks!
Nicholas inherited that passion of giving younger winemakers a chance from his dad and uncle, who built a small winery for a young Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climate) and Bob Lindquist (Qupe) to make their wines. Both men are still there, tucked into a small valley on the property. Nicholas judges his family’s biggest impact on the Santa Barbara wine scene “has been to support small boutique winemakers.” This includes their two custom crush facilities “to host small artisanal producers to focus on this region.”
Bien Nacido Vineyard will celebrate the 4oth anniversary of its first plantings next year, an event that surely calls for some kind of party. Never content to rest of his laurels, Nicholas is now actively engaged in The Chardonnay Symposium, scheduled for July 19-21, 2013, at which I’ll moderate a panel. Nicholas is never content with the status quo; he would like to see Santa Maria Valley and Santa Barbara County recognized as the world-class producing regions they are.
How do you manage all the travel?
I’m in South American 3 times a year, I’m in New Zealand and Australia twice a year, and I’m in Spain once a year. And the rest of the time I’m in California or on the street. An important part of what I do is selling wine in the street, in the U.S., because, when people ask me to consult, I always ask, “Where are you trying to sell your wine?” If it’s not th U.S., then I’m not the right consultant, because I make wines for the U.S. palate and the U.S. market, and that’s why it’s important for me to get out and work the streets, to hear changing opinions and changing philosophies of what wine is all about. That’s why I have an interest in having lunch with you, Steve, because I’m interested to know what turns your clock today.
How would you describe the U.S. palate?
The U.S. palate is becoming…it’s definietly changed. I hate to say it, but I think we’re becoming a little more British.
What does that mean?
The British see wine as a commodity, something they drink every day. The don’t see any relation between price and quality, whereas in the U.S. we do. So if somebody buys a bottle of wine for $50 in the U.S., it’s worth $50. In the U.K., it could be worth anything; it’s just a hit or miss thing. So in the U.K. people sell wine for 3 bottles at ten pounds. It’s like cheaper than water. Well, we’d go out of business in the U.S. if we did that, so at least, in the U.S. there is a relationship between price and quality, and I think the customer today sees that. But going forward, if we continue down the route of these large retailers who are trying to do direct, we will see more and more wines sold cheaper and cheaper, with no relation between quality and value. I think it’s important that we continue with the three-tier system, I think it’s important that we continue to make th best wines we possibly can, and not cheapen what we do, so it’s not a race to the bottom.
Doesn’t a company like Bronco play an important role?
Bronco is known for providing wines at a very good price and doing a good job at it. I totally agree with that, and it will be a sad day when Fred Franzia leaves this world, because I think he is one of the funniest, hippest, coolest, most challenging guys, and we need guys like that to continue to push guys like me, at the upper end, to realize that, you know what? At that price point, it is a commodity, but there is a value.
What’s your most expensive wine?
Under my own stuff, Goldchmidt Plus, which retails for $150.
What makes that wine worth $150?
Basically it’s about risk. There’s four things I do to this wine. It’s a thinner slice of a very high profile vineyard; that’s the easy piece. The second piece is, it goes into new wood twice, for two years each time, so it’s a four year, 100% barrel aged, 200% new wood. The third thing, and most important, is the way I drive the volatile acidity up. I used to work for Grange, and one of the secrets of Grange is, V.A. increases gradually over time in barrel, but if you can get the V.A. to increase quickly, in the first three months, you get a far more complex product in the same amount of time. [...] The fourth thing is the proprietary thing, which is the way I extract the juice out of the tank. It takes me two days. I mentioned it to a small independent wine writer once, and the next day I got two phone calls from two other guys that had learned the technique as well, who said, Welcome to the club! Please don’t mention it again. So I can only make maybe one barrel from ten tons. So that’s the expensive piece.
When we think of these famous consulting winemakers, like Michel Rolland and the others, are you in that league?Do you get paid as much as they do?
Because most of my consulting is outside the U.S.
Could you join that league if you wanted?
No. I–well, I know all those people, obviously. These are friends of mine. I worked with Michel at Simi for 13 years. Andy Erickson used to work with us. Heidi [Barrett] is a good friend. I would have to base myself in Napa. I’m not really too interested in doing that. I would have to continue to work with very expensive properties to guaranteee a high-end demandy sort of thing. I’m more interested in making single-vineyard wines that are true to their terroir, and when you talk about these sort of blocks, there aren’t that many special blocks in the world that can produce wines of that volume and quality. When I think about that, a big block to me is like 400, 500 cases. You can’t make XYX wne at $2,000 a bottle and make 6,000 cases. You just can’t.
A lot of people do. But when some of these cult wineries hire these famous consulting names, what do they really get for $30,000 a day? Do they actually useful information, or is it for bragging rights?
I thnk those famous names provide a lot of authenticity in the trade. That’s reputation. So they’re using that consultant’s repuation to sell their wine through the system. That’s fine.
What one thing would you change about your job, if you could?
Ha! If I could change time, and make 48 hours a day rather than 24, that would be a hell of a lot more fun for me! But I’m having so much fun right now, meeting great people. I work with some of the best winemakers outside of the U.S., and personality-wise, dedication to wine, to focus–since I left the corporate world I’m getting to know more and more sub-terroirs than I thought I knew in the New World. So there’s not a lot I would change.
What’s a really new exciting terroir we’ll be hearing more about?
Something I’m interested in is southern Chile and more altitude in Argentina. In fact, I’m investing in a vineyard that’ll be the southernmost vineyard in Chile. We closed the deal and we’ll be planting grapes next Spring.