Looking at the medal winners from the International Chardonnay Symposium, I’m struck by the geographic diversity of origins of the top-ranked California Chards. They range from Napa Valley down to the Santa Maria Valley, with Paso Robles, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Livermore Valley, Arroyo Seco, Sonoma Valley and the Russian River Valley inbetween. (I personally think you’d have to add Anderson Valley to the mix, although no Chardonnays from there were listed among the winners. Maybe there were no entrants.)
So from Mendocino to Santa Barbara for California’s best Chardonnays. That’s a big spread, about 375 miles. In France, we tend to think of the best Chardonnays as coming from a relatively narrow spread: Chablis down to Macon.* That’s a north-south distance of about 136 miles, but you’d obviously have to deduct most of the Cotes de Nuit from that, because it’s mainly Pinot Noir. So we have a Chardonnay terroir in coastal California that’s far bigger than the Chardonnay terroir of Burgundy.
Why is that? Examining California first, there is a true coastal terroir running along the Pacific Coast that’s obvious to anyone who regularly travels that route. Everybody knows the typical pattern: bone dry summers and autumns, warmish, sunny days and cool nights, as the maritime intrusion sweeps in dependably and bathes the land in fog. Yes, the soils differ. And yes, it is true that the further south you go the more of a change there is, especially in the quality of light. Cezanne would have loved painting the Santa Barbara mountains and coast. One senses it, also, in the softening of the air you feel as, driving from San Francisco, you hit Pismo Beach on any given summer day, then make your way southward down to Buellton. It feels different to us humans, so it must feel different to grapes, too.
But still, the terroir, in a macro way, is of one piece, and given the similarly of viticultural and enological practices nowadays, I doubt if anyone could tell the difference, on a consistent basis, between a Chardonnay from the Santa Maria Valley and one from, say, Carneros. Stones and minerals, green apples, tropical fruits, bright acidity, the usual impact of oak and lees and malo—this is why the coast makes such fine Chardonnay.
Perhaps the Chardonnay-growing area of France would be larger if it weren’t for the French system of appellation controllée, which is so much more rigid than ours. But it is what it is; the French system tends to favor a multiplicity of varieties. Ours—not molded by centuries of precedent, nor by Napoleonic law—is market-based; and the market being what it is, has resulted in only a handful of varieties, including Chardonnay, dominating vast regions.
It is a common notion nowadays that this system is changing. Led by sommeliers, responsive to a taste among younger consumers for the new and different, a new reality supposedly is emerging, of new varieties, tinkered with by a new generation of winemakers born in the waning decades of the 20th century, willing to venture where their fathers would or could not. This new paradigm—if that is not too strong a word—has much to recommend it, but it also faces stiff opposition. There is, for example, a Chardonnay Symposium in California, but not a Tannat or an Assyrtiko Symposium. One has to be careful predicting the future of anything, much less consumer preferences in foodstuffs; but we can allow History to be our guide. History tells us two things: First, what was popular, wine-wise, 100 years ago is popular today, and secondly, once a wine region becomes dominated by certain varieties, it tends to remain planted to those varieties. The two things are, of course, related.
But, you will object, younger people are turning away from the Chardonnays, Cabernets and Pinot Noirs, towards other varieties, said to be fresher, lower in alcohol, crisper and more interesting. Is this true? The media makes much of this meme. But is it more than just a story? Is it really a trend? The media loves trends, and has been known—shockingly!—to manufacture new ones for its own purposes. So, while I’m sure there will be new wines and new varietals that come and go, I’m equally sure that one grape variety—Chardonnay—will always be around. And I’m proud of my state of California for doing such a magnificent job with it.
* I suppose you could argue for extending the Chardonnay region south of Macon through the Beaujolais, but I wouldn’t go that far, either geographically or qualitatively.
One differs with Tom Wark and Julie Ann Kodmur with no small amount of trepidation. These two veterans are among the ablest and most effective of California winery publicists. I worked with them both for a great many years, and know for a fact that they have their fingers on the beating pulse of the business. But sometimes, you have to disagree with even the smartest people.
They have a new joint blog out (actually, “joint” blog makes it sound suspiciously herbal. The actual new “joint” publication would be Andy Blue and Meredith May’s “the clever root.” But I digress.) Julie Ann and Tom ran a post yesterday, “Ten 2016 Trends the Wine World Needs to Watch.” Most of their prognostications, I agree with; some, in part; others, not so much. Here’s the story.
“Natural Wine” Is Solidified As A Bonafide “Category” in the Wine World. Tom and Julie Ann may believe it. I don’t. To me, “natural wine,” whatever the heck that means (and it doesn’t mean anything, technically) is the new “biodynamique,” a buzzword for publicists to use to convince greenies to buy their clients’ wine. It sounds trendy and environmental—who wants unnatural wine?–but its meaninglessness limits its shelf life. (“Sustainable” is different. It’s certified by third-party organizations.) Even the people who peddle “natural wine” will soon tire and move onto something else, whatever that is.
Continuing Backlash Against the Wine Industry in Well Developed Wine Regions. Is there a backlash going on that I don’t know about? Well, yes: Julie Ann and Tom refer to demands by locals in wine country “to address problems this minority believes are caused by the wine industry,” e.g. traffic, crime, noise, environmental impacts, etc. This is indeed happening but there’s nothing really new about it. It’s a form of NIMBYism that does need to be addressed, but I have a feeling that where money talks, nobody walks: the wineries will pretty much get what they want, because they are the tax base in most of these regions.
Distributor Consolidation. This too has been going on for years. Yes, the problem is getting worse, from the point of view of smaller wineries that are locked out of the chain. There undoubtedly will be greater consolidation, but the good news is that the Internet and social media, with their DTC promise, are becoming effective counter-weights to the three-tiered system.
Emergence of Younger Wine Writers. It is true that “the older, experienced crew begins to think about retirement.” How could it be otherwise? It also is true that “young writers [have] been toiling at second tier wine publications and websites.” Will there be a simple one-two switch where Blogger Joe is the next Jim Laube? Well, somebody has to be the next Jim Laube so it might as well be Blogger Joe. However, what is missing from this analysis is the sad fact (from the point of view of young writers) that the number of influential writing positions will remain pitifully small. There are simply too many young writers and too few spots for them to work for decent money.
Increase in Use of Media (not Social) Relations in the Wine Industry. Being publicists, Julie Ann and Tom might be expected to predict how important their sphere will become. I’ve been around for a long time, and watching the interplay between wineries and P.R. firms has been fascinating. The theory is that increased competition will drive wineries to P.R. firms for “help reaching the media with their brand message.” Yes…and no. Some wineries will; some won’t, because they (a) can’t afford it, or (b) aren’t convinced external P.R. is worth it, or (c) are turning to their own in-house social media efforts, which they believe can replace traditional P.R. Can it? We’ll see. Traditional P.R. may (accent on “may”) be an endangered species—the streetlamp lighters of the 21st century. Too soon to tell.
Opportunity in Diversity. Will wineries, in an attempt to gain a niche, produce “different types of wines…new beers, ciders and spirits…” and so on? There are two schools of thought. One is that what has worked in the past (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and so on) will continue to work in the future. The other is that the constant craze for new, trendy and different will enable some wineries to exploit consumer fickleness. Unfortunately, crazes have the lifespan of a gnat—remember Moscato? Personally, I can’t see wineries getting into “distilling or cider-making,” much less beer brewing; it’s not part of their core competency. So I’m not sure how much “opportunity” there really is in this new “diversity.”
More Groups and More Categories to Choose From. The idea here is that “group marketing” is easier/cheaper than individual marketing—a Darwinian herd strategy where the “pack” can better fend off the wolves than the lone individual. Julie Ann and Tom cite IPOB and ZAP as examples. There is truth here, but in a larger sense, wineries always have been torn between joining groups (which spread the benefits thinly but broadly over everyone) and going it alone, where they stand to gain a greater share of the glory and money. This is an inherently existential question each winery must ask itself. I, myself, can’t see any more groups, such as IPOB, successfully emerging. IPOB has been a pheenom, and will be hard to replicate. What I do see is more and more tourism opportunities for wineries: sponsored tastings at resorts and cruise ships, Uber rides from the hotel to the winery, that sort of thing. But this isn’t quite what Julie Ann and Tom are talking about.
More Virtual Wineries as Cost of Entry Continues to Increase. Obviously.
The Call For Expertise. I’m glad that Julie Ann and Tom agree with what I’ve been saying for years: “Many consumers [will] more actively seek out vetted experience in their pursuit of wine advice…in contrast to the Everyman Wine Critic and the Crowd as the source of knowledge…”. Amen, brother Tom and sister Julie Ann! I said it in 2008 and I’ll say it again: just because somebody runs a wine blog doesn’t mean that they have experience or credibility. At last, the consumer is beginning to realize that vetting counts. Despite predictions, widespread in the blogosphere, of the imminent demise of the major wine pubs, their “continued success…is evidence that consumers are looking for real expertise.”
Purposeful Authenticity Will Be More Important Than Ever. The message is that “wine companies that can provide…real, heart to heart, meaningful, authentic content will capture hearts, minds and possibly wallets.” Agree. The question is, how do you know if the “heart to heart” is real, or just a clever simulation of authenticity (like those oil companies that tout their commitment to the environment while actually wrecking it)? This is very hard; it requires consumers to put on their B.S. detectors. Ultimately, this issue of “authenticity” is the stickiest wicket of all, because nobody knows what it really means, and “the crowd” will always be divided as to who’s really authentic and who isn’t. One thing for sure: you can smell inauthenticity a mile away.
* * *
I’m driving to Oregon today for more research into my Jackson Family Wines project. To think that just 72 hours ago I was on a warm, sunny beach on the Riviera Maya and now I’m headed up to the cold, rainy north country. I’m bringing my flannel shirts.
We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of Bill Gates’ now-famous manifesto, “Content is King,” in which he made a number of predictions concerning the future of the Internet. Keep in mind that, in January of 1996, the Internet, or World Wide Web, was still an object of curiosity to most people, including even those who designed and operated it. Everybody knew how revolutionary the Internet was, but nobody was quite sure how to use it. Yes, the military already was utilizing it for communications, simulations and so on, but the average American was very much puzzled concerning what it meant for her.
I was one of them. I remember getting my first assignment to write about it. It was from Lewis Perdue, at the old Wine Business Monthly magazine, who told me to check the Internet out, and particularly to find out what I could about wine “chat rooms.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t know how to get on the Internet (or if “getting on” was even the proper terminology). It turned out I had to go to the Berkeley library, rent time and use a hideously slow dial-up modem. It took forever to get online, and once I finally did, I hardly knew what to look for. But eventually, I found a few wine chat rooms and dutifully wrote up my article.
Back then, there was little talk of email, and none at all of social media. Winery websites were rare as unicorns (if in fact any even existed), and shopping via the Internet was a mere gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye. Therefore, when Bill Gates wrote his little article, it caught people like a storm. He already was the most famous person in the world of computers and software (along with Steve Jobs), had been on the cover of TIME magazine in 1984 (when he looked like the nerd, Richard Hendricks, on TV’s “Silicon Valley”), and was understood to be a great prognosticator.
The title of Gates’ paper suggested his point. “Content,” he explained, would be the “long-term winner” in the race to make “real money…on the Internet.” And being a businessman, of course, Gates’ goal was for Microsoft to make real money.
Here are the predictions he made, which I have gleaned from the article. Following each prediction, I offer commentary as to how accurate the prediction was in terms of what has subsequently ensued, and to what degree the prediction has come true.
“Supplying information and entertainment” will be the “exciting things” that will fuel people to turn to the Internet.
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”
The universal ease of “anyone with a PC and a modem” being able to “publish whatever content they can create.”
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”
The ease with which this content can be “distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher.”
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”
“Intense competition,” some of it successful and some of it a dismal failure, “in all categories of popular content.”
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”
“Printed magazines” can be “served by electronic online editions.”
PREDICTION ACCURACY: Medium-high.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Qualified “yes.” It’s still unclear how online advertising can raise the revenues that print advertising did.
“To be successful online, a magazine…must…have audio, and possibly video,” and not just “take what it has in print and move it” online.
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Qualified “yes.” Too many magazines do exactly that: move what it has in print online. Magazines need to do a much better job of giving consumers a reason “to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen.” And Gates obviously underestimated the importance of video. “Possibly”? No, definitely.
Concerning the “breadth of information on the Internet,” it will be “enormous…”.
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes,” but Bill Gates conspicuously missed the importance of “SEARCH” in order to find things in this avalanche of information. Perhaps if he had, Microsoft would have invented Google.
Concerning pay for content providers, “The long-term prospects are good, but I expect a lot of disappointment in the short-term as content companies struggle to make money.”
PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.
HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.” Gates got it exactly right: Content companies (bloggers included) still struggle to monetize their efforts. Did Gates envision a solution to this problem? He did:
“In the long run, advertising is promising.” He also foresaw subscriptions as revenue-raisers.
PREDICTION ACCURACY: Moderate.
HAS IT COME TRUE? No. Gates wrote (1996) “today the amount of subscription revenue or advertising revenue realized on the Internet is near zero.” Now (2015), it still is pitiful, and most content providers can’t hope to make a living through either subscriptions or advertising. So, while Gates understood that “paying for content doesn’t work very well,” he was overly optimistic that the problem would be solved. His statement that “This technology will liberate publishers to charge small amounts of money” has failed to materialize. Unless you’re Parker or Jancis or somebody like that, almost no wine blogs make money.
Finally–gotta say it–Bill Gates missed social media. If he’d stumbled onto that, Microsoft could have invented Facebook.
Still, this little 1996 paper has turned out to be one of the most important and visionary analyses ever written concerning the Internet.
For years the meme has been out there that California wine is getting bigger, badder and bolder—wine on steroids. Some critics decry this, which is their right; but consumers by and large do tend to favor this riper, fruitier style. But why is this happening? Is it really the Parkerization of wine, as many have alleged, or is something else going on?
An answer may be found by turning to another popular beverage: coffee. A recent article by Marcie Hanel in the October 2015 issue of Food & Wine, called “The Coffee Conundrum,” maintains that “today’s coffee [may be] too strong to drink” and quotes a well-known chef, Jonathon Sawyer, that “Coffee is so powerful now [that] you can’t have a triple espresso cortado followed by a pour-over [or else] your heart’s going to explode.” (Blue Bottle is the poster child for this phenomenon.) Marcie herself attests to the “skyrocketing” of coffee’s caffeine content; Chef Jonathon even compares coffee to “weed”, in the sense of its powerful extraction—so much more intense than it used to be.
“Powerful extraction…”. Hmm, that’s exactly the phrase critics of the California style use to disparage wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, not praise them. Let us grant that many of the things we eat, drink and use are more powerful than they used to be: not only wine and pot and coffee, but spirits: The current issue of Food & Wine has an article called “The Secret to a Richer Rum,” as if Rum isn’t rich enough!
Beyond booze, everything else in life seems to be getting plus-sized. Computer chips and all of the associated devices that use them are faster and more powerful than ever; Moore’s law applies to everything these days. Even in film we’ve seen an acceleration of “power” in the sense of more, and more graphic, violence and sexual activity. We see more or less the same thing in politics, where hyperbole and exaggeration have largely replaced reason, and in science, where technology is employed to peer further and deeper into the smallest and largest recesses of the Universe. And of course, with beer, we have the IPAs and the double IPAs, which a friend of mine once described as the beer equivalent of Napa Cabernet.
This penchant for “more” and “greater” obviously comes from the consumer; producers would not create and sell more powerful products if the masses weren’t buying them. When did Americans turn away from subtlety and embrace gigantism? Well, one synonym for “subtlety” could be blandness. Wine didn’t used to taste so good as it does today!
As I look back over the arc of my life, I can’t help but compare the placidity of the 1950s to the chaotic explosions of the 21st century. I can’t pinpoint when this penchant for power started; the advent of psychedelic drugs clearly was an expression of it (if not the cause), because drugs like LSD did “heighten” awareness far above the mundane level. Maybe it was that experience that created a craving for “more is better” among Baby Boomers, a heightened-everything craving which has been passed onto their children, the Millennials. Even heavy metal and thrash rock are more “heightened” versions of the rock and roll of yesteryear.
I offer this line of reasoning, not to justify the current trend towards richer, riper wines, but to explain it. Look at it this way: California wine—the majority of it, anyway—is pretty much on a par with Blue Bottle coffee, Led Zeppelin, IPAs and medical marijuana. That’s not bad company!
If more proof were needed that wine has become as mainstream in America as fast food, it was just supplied with Taco Bell’s announcement that the chain will begin serving wine at its stores, beginning in Chicago and San Francisco.
The Irvine CA-based company put out a press release on Sept. 15 stating its intention “to create a new experience as the brand expands into urban markets,” and part of that “new experience” is the creation of a concept they’re calling Taco Bell Cantina (TBC). The press release explains the reason: “Today’s consumers are living in more urban settings and our new restaurants cater to their lifestyle in adapting our traditional restaurant concept to fit their modern needs.”
Well, that sounds like Millennials, doesn’t it? They’re moving to cities like San Francisco in droves, and they are different from their parents and from their more rural cousins. Their “modern needs” include a desire to “live, work and play” in urban settings, where they don’t have to drive a zillion miles to get to and from work. Taco Bell Cantina also will feature “the local architecture of the neighborhoods each restaurant serves,” although so far, there’s no mention of sourcing locally-provisioned ingredients. Maybe that’s the next step.
Here in San Francisco, the new restaurant will be close to AT&T Park, arguably the city’s hottest neighborhood, and will “cater to [that] quick pace, tech savvy and vibrant community.” It also will be as green as fast food gets: “LED lighting, use of reclaimed elements where possible and recycling.”
Will coders cotton to Taco Bell Cantina? I’m sure they will. I never get the impression that the hoards of young developers you see all over San Francisco these days are particularly informed when it comes to food. They like big flavors, some hint of authenticity and inexpensive prices, which is what they’ll find at TBC. I haven’t been able to find a menu for TBC, but the San Francisco Chronicle reports the new foods will be free “of all artificial colors and flavors…by year’s end…Artificial dye Yellow No. 6 will be removed from the nacho cheese and Blue No. 1 will no longer be used in the avocado dip.” The press release says the foods will be “tapas-style…shared appetizers.” That’s very Millennial, too.
Sounds good to me!
I don’t know what the wines will be at the San Francisco location, or the beers, for that matter. It’s not open yet. The Chicago restaurant apparently had a soft opening recently that USA Today reported on. They said the menu included “new appetizer items [such as] chicken tenders, rolled chicken tacos [and] mini quesadillas.” That also sounds good to me. I’m often running around looking for something healthful, tasty, fast and cheap. As for booze, USA Today reported that the Chicago location is selling something called Cantina Punch and Cantina Margarita, as well as Dos Equis and New Belgium beers and wines from two California brands I never heard of, Steelhead Vineyards and Stack Wines. Thanks to the miracle of the Google machine, I found out that Steelhead is a project “dedicated to creating a better world”
by supporting Trout Unlimited; the winemaker is an old pal, Hugh Chappelle, who was at Flowers and Lynmar and now works at Quivira. So I bet the wines are pretty good. As for Stack Wines, it seems to be easy-breezy, California-appellated wines-in-a-can made of glass-like plastic.
This is a nice step for Taco Bell to take. There’s a place for fast food in this country, and it’s cool that Taco Bell is lifting the experience up a little. I could see myself grabbing a quick bite next time I’m at a Giants game, which I will be for their final one of the year against the Dodgers, on Oct. 1.