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Tuesday twaddle: geographic indicators, and the changing seasons

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Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican from Kansas, delivered a scathing attack the other day during hearings by the Senate Finance Committee on the proposed regulations by the European Community that would ban the use of certain geographic names on U.S. goods, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Black Forest ham, feta cheese and even bologna, unless they were made in those European regions.

Such names are known in the parlance as geographic indications, or GIs. The issue of GIs is part of a broader package of issues weighing down Senate consideration of a Trade Promotion Authority bill that the Obama administration supports. The administration was represented in the hearings by the U.S. Trade Representative, Michael Froman, who told the Senate committee that he largely agrees with Roberts, making for rare bipartisanship between the Republicans and Democrats.

The issue of geographic indication names has a long and contentious history, especially in the wine industry. The U.S. has already banned certain names, such as Burgundy and Chablis, unless they were grandfathered in before the laws went into effect. But the new regulations proposed by the E.U. apparently would go even further, possibly making it illegal even for older brands to use certain place names. For example, Korbel, which currently is allowed to use the word “champagne” as long a it’s preceded by “California,” might no longer be able to do so.

Other countries that have negotiated agreements with the E.U. have already banned certain GIs that are still allowed here. Singapore recently passed a tough GI law. South Korea no longer allows any liquor to be called “scotch” unless it’s from Scotland, nor any cheese to be labeled “feta” unless it’s from Greece. Here in the U.S., the rules are considerably looser. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has ruled that, “once a geographic designation is generic in the United States, any producer is free to use the designation for its goods/services.”

It is this lax approach that concerns the E.U.

Are the Europeans being too restrictive about their GIs? I don’t think so. In this era of intense global competition, American consumers have a right to know precisely where their food, including wine, comes from—and the people in ancient regions, like Chianti and Champagne, deserve the right to insist that only their locally-produced products can bear those names.

But the food lobby in this country is powerful, and the Congress doesn’t seem to be in the mood to pass new restrictions on products that have been sold here for a long time. Fortunately, the wine industry is only tangentially affected by this issue, since they’ve largely done the right thing and gotten rid of most of those purloined European place names.

But not all of them, as witness Korbel. And I still see American-made products like cooking sherry and sauterne on the supermarket shelf. I don’t blame the people of Spain and France for being bothered.

* * *

I love this time of year. Winter has been cold, if dry. But now you can sense the changing of the seasons. One day reminds you that the Gulf of Alaska is just up there, with its winds off the ice. A day later and Mexico beckons, tropical-warm and shirt-sleevy, as the temperature hits the 80s. Schizy weather, but most days are inbetween: get in the sun, out of the wind, and it’s summer. Get in a windy place in the shade, and you need a hoodie. That’s why they say the key to clothing in the Bay Area is layers. I should think wine grapes like the same weather as humans. Not too hot, not too cold, just right. Goldilocks weather. East coasters always say that coastal California has only two seasons, wet and dry, but they’re wrong. We have four seasons; the only thing is, they’re subtle, and you have to live here for a while to get it. Well, summer’s almost here, and so far, it looks like another great vintage, on the heels of 2012 and 2013, two masterpieces.


Tuesday twaddle: winery consolidation and “red” China

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Are California wineries consolidating at an historic pace? Nobody can predict the future, but we can remember the past. And what I remember from the early Nineties were dire predictions that wineries were consolidating fast, with big wine companies snatching up little ones, until some people were worrying there’d be only a handful of wineries left in a few years.

The cause, it was said, was phylloxera, and the billions of dollars it would cost to replant thousands of acres of vines. The little wineries, it was further said, would go broke, and have to sell off.

I was just a cubby wine writer at the time, but even so, I didn’t believe it. I just couldn’t envision a scenario where hundreds of wineries would go out of business overnight. And, as it turned out, they didn’t. California sailed through the phylloxera crisis pretty smoothly–in fact, the conventional wisdom is that it was good for the industry. Vintners were able to replant the right varieties onto the right rootstocks, in the right terroirs, and many even reconfigured their vineyards, in accordance with the latest scientific thinking. The outcome, of course, was that California wine emerged from the 1990s healthier than ever.

We again began to hear the consolidation theory (or its twin sister, the bankruptcy theory) as the Great Recession took hold, in 2009-2010. Those prognostications I took more seriously. Not only was it the worst financial crisis in the country’s history since the 1930s, but imports, from dozens of countries, as well as competition from the other States, were putting more pressure than ever on little family wineries in California.

Well, here we are, supposedly emerging from the Great Recession, and, aside from a couple acquisitions over the last few years (by Charles Banks, Jean-Charles Boisset, Gallo and the Jackson family, among a few others), most of the wineries that existed in 2007 are still here, joined by a bunch that weren’t. The economy seems poised to continue a slow recovery, which would seem to be good news for wineries. Our best glimpse into the future might be the recent Silicon Valley Bank report, summarized here, that takes a glass-half-full approach: it hedges its bets, suggesting that things will get better, but there are snags in the road ahead.

What are those snags? As the Silicon Valley Bank report states, Baby Boomers, who fueled the modern wine boom to begin with, are likely to be drinking less, as they retire, live on more modest incomes and [shudder] die. And our successors, Millennials, “can’t pick up the slack immediately, due to lower income, and access and the proclivity to purchase more foreign wine.”

But there’s another snag I foresee that doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in the SVB report: the proprietors of many of California’s older wineries also are retiring, dying or otherwise cutting back, raising succession issues. I can name a hundred wineries in Napa-Sonoma alone that were founded in the 1960s and 1970s, meaning their owners are getting old. What is the future of those wineries?

The kids don’t necessarily want to stay in the business. They may have seen their parents struggle through the hard times, and feel like they’d rather have a safer, more predictable life as a doctor or lawyer or something (or just live off their trust funds). Not everyone is cut out for the agricultural life and being at the mercy of Mother Nature–especially when she throws a drought of historic proportions at them.

What happens when these older wineries no longer are viable? In part, this is what some acquirers base their business model on. From the consumer’s point of view, it matters not who owns a winery, so much as what happens to quality when it changes hands. There are some big acquirers out there whom I trust: the ones I mentioned above (Banks, Boisset, Gallo and the Jacksons) have proven that when they buy a property (whether or not it was previously distressed), they not only maintain quality but actively improve it. There are other major buyers out there about whom I cannot say the same thing and whom I will not name.

What does all this bode for the future–say, 15 years from now? I suspect the California winery landscape will look pretty much as it does now. The big wine companies will be bigger (unless they do something really stupid, which is unlikely), but California has been fortunate to have an incursion of young, new winemakers into places like Paso Robles, Monterey County, Lodi and the Sierra Foothills, meaning that the plant is constantly being watered from the roots and will continue to grow.

* * *

Just so you know…

Got a press release this morning from VINEXPO stating that “China becomes world’s leading red wine consumer…Having downed more than 155 million 9-litre cases or 1.865 billion bottles of red wine in 2013, up 136% compared to 2008, China, including Hong Kong, is now the largest red wine market worldwide, followed by France, now in second place with nearly 150 million cases and Italy with 141 million.” Wow, did not know that.


Tuesday Twaddle

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This ridiculous weather has everyone scratching their heads. As I write on Tuesday morning, a major storm is moving into the North Bay, with up to 1-1/2 inches of rainfall expected. They’re even predicting thunderstorms in Napa tonight. Precipitation will be less the further south you go, with a 20 percent chance of showers along the Central Coast. Today will be the fourth day in June that California has had rainfall. Beyond that, temperatures will be up to 20 degrees below average. But a big warmup later this week, as a ridge builds in and temps in wine country get back to the 90s.

The weather hasn’t been that bad the last two weeks, which is why most of us were hoping that our hideous Spring-that-wasn’t was over. Apparently not. I personally think it’s due to climate change, but the deniers out there will still be denying when the midwest boils away and the oceans flood New York and Miami.

* * *

No writer can write for everyone. We’re a tribal nation now. Each group gravitates toward its favorites, be it the older, white, rich collectors who favor Parker, or the younger independents who look for their voice in the blogosphere.

It’s hard for any individual critic to span all worlds. The elitists are not going to waste their time (in their view) on anything that doesn’t have a famous name and cost an arm and a leg. I recently ran into a rich Napa winery owner who said, basically, that anything under $30 sucks. That was his cut-off point, and his vast cellar–which he proudly showed off to me–was crammed with priceless treasures, more than anyone could ever drink in a lifetime. I explained to him that the U.S. wine industry is a pyramid. At the tiniest tippy top, he exists; without a broad base beneath the top, the wine industry would come crashing down. I don’t think he heard my message, but that’s all right.

* * *
Nice summary of Napa’s various climate zones in this snippet from the Napa Valley Register. It explains how the county’s weather changes fairly dramatically from Zone 17, the coolest area around Carneros, to Zone 14, the Coast Warm area, which is the floor of the valley. I’ve been studying Napa’s climate for 30 years and I still discover new stuff everytime I turn my attention to it.

* * *

Yesterday I reviewed the new PharoahMoans, a Rhône-style red blend from the westside of Paso Robles. It was the fourth vintage I have reviewed it since 2005, and I swear the wine is getting richer and more decadent every year. It is becoming a serious rival to the wines of Saxum, which I love, and which are (I thnk) the most expensive in Paso Robles. I first met Saxum’s proprietor/winemaker, young Justin Smith, when I profiled him for my book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, which was recently republished in a new edition, with a new Intro by moi. Justin’s attitude toward high alcohol then, and now, was: If people don’t like it, they don’t have to drink my wines. Good for him. PharoahMoans’ winemaker, Guillaume Fabre (who studied with Michel Rolland), seems to have a similar philosophy. Yes, the 2009 is high in alcohol (15.9%), but it is really a deliriously heady, flamboyant wine.


Tuesday Twaddle: weird weather, a speaking engagement

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The 2011 growing conditions are starting out eerily like notorious 2010, when “summer never came.” Winter was long, wet and cold. We had a couple of warm days in April, but nothing out of the ordinary. Since then, it’s been nothing but cool, abnormally so. And now, rain.

Significant quantities of rain and hail and even snow at higher elevations (3,000 feet) fell overnight, particularly in the North Country, with rain expected to move south today. This is really crazy for the middle of May–and it’s not over. Rain will pick up in the Central Valley today, and move into L.A. on Wednesday, as a deep trough more typical of January cuts through the West. The National Weather Service yesterday said “winter-like weather will return to Northern California later this afternoon and tonight. Periods of heavy snow will likely redevelop across the northern Sierra Nevada this evening.”

By Thursday, fortunately, it should all be over. But what will the damage be to tender young grapeshoots?

And the extent of the April 8-10 freeze, when temperatures plunged as low as 24 degrees in the Central Coast, is becoming clearer. I was in Paso Robles last Friday, and it was the main topic of conversation. Paso Robles, southern Monterey and the Santa Ynez Valley were especially hard hit. The Western Farm Press reported that “Damage is unquestionably extensive”; several people told me that the Paso Robles crop has been wiped out by 50%. A local radio station reported that, of 25,000 planted acres in Paso Robles, “about 15 to 20,000 acres of those were affected at some level by the frost.” I can scarcely believe the quantity of blasted fruit is that high; maybe it is. There are reports that some wineries in Paso’s western hills will produce no crop this year. I asked a grower about secondary crop. He replied, in effect, don’t count on it.

I know nobody wants to hear about 2011 being as weird as last year, but why shouldn’t it be? Every vintage since 2005 has been cooler than the one before it. We thought 2008 was cool (despite the wildfires) and then came 2009. Then came 2010, the coldest year in memory. People are still freaked out by it. So far, 2011 is showing no sign of being any different.

* * *

I speak today at the International Special Events Society, which is meeting in Sonoma County. They asked me to talk about trends in the wine world. I plan on mentioning the different values and outlooks between Boomers, on the one hand, and Millennials and Gen Xers, on the other; the search for value; a movement toward lower alcohol levels in wine; new negociant models; a spate of M&As in California; social media, and a boom in the acreage of “alternative varieties.” Maybe one or two other things will occur to me. I don’t like to be too prepared when I speak to groups. I like things loosey-goosey. It’s more interesting when nobody, including me, knows what’s going to happen. I like to encourage questions and comments. Good feedback, even disagreement, from listeners inspires me; it makes me say things that surprise myself, things I didn’t even know I knew. Unfortunately, the drive up to Sonoma is likely to be a drag, with all the rain and fender benders. More tomorrow.


Tuesday Twaddle – news you can use

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Americans have finally figured out that red wine is good for them, but they don’t know that drinking too much of it is bad, according to a new American Heart Association survey.

“[W]e need to do a better job of educating people about the heart-health risks of overconsumption of wine,” said an AHA spokesperson.

I don’t think the problem is a lack of education. Doctors have been saying for decades that drinking too much is dangerous. Everybody knows that. The reason people drink too much isn’t because they’re ignorant but because they’re unhappy and want to self-medicate. That’s the real problem, and I don’t know if it has a solution.

* * *

Here’s the V-Man in the news again, reminding businesses to be “heartfelt” and “human”, to give their customers “a hug or a handshake” and “overcare” and “listen” to them, instead of “pushing.”

Can’t disagree with that. What I wonder about is why, in person, Gary strikes me as rather arrogant–just what he tells businesses they shouldn’t be.

* * *

Nice to see the Salt Lake [City] Tribune reassuring Christians that wine is “a blessing, not a curse.” I always thought that anti-alcohol Christians were being a little hypocritical. How can they condemn drinking wine when wine is practically at the center of everything people did in The Bible, both Old and New Testaments? Jesus himself made wine, and made it part of the sacrament. These anti-alcohol Christians are the same kind of people who talk about “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” I don’t trust them.

* * *

The State of Pennsylvania, some time ago, made history when it began selling wine through kiosks in public spaces. Now, “the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is toying with making hard liquor available in the kiosks.”

That’s a good idea, but the real problem isn’t that the kiosks, which require swiping photo IDs and credit cards and taking a breath test, are too complicated to use. It’s that PA remains a control state that doesn’t trust its adult citizens enough to let them buy booze in a grocery store. What’s all this talk about Big Government I hear coming from the right? I’d like to see the Tea Party get behind eliminating control states and coming out for the free shipping of alcoholic beverages throughout the U.S.

* * *

OMG, now it’s the Battle of the Mommy Wines!

Not exactly up there with other celebrated battles, such as Hastings, Waterloo or Gettyburg. But the war of words is heating up between Clos La Chance (an excellent winery), which produces “Mommyjuice” wine, and “Mommy’s  Time out,” an Italian wine whose New Jersey importer claims to own the copyright on the “M”-word.

I say let the two company CEOs fight it out in a UFC Octogon, armed with baby carriages and used Pampers.

And that’s your news roundup for today!


Tuesday Twaddle

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There you go again: California-bashing

1WineDude wrote in yesterday, “I spent the better part of this past weekend tasting / celebrating with friends, and the majority of that group openly despised the New World, CA Cab style.” Later, he added, “It was odd being the lone dissenter.” Welcome to the club, young dude. I experience this California-bashing all the time, sometimes even from my fellow Wine Enthusiast editors, but more often from Europhiles. It makes me think: If I, who love California wines, can also love European wines, then why can’t people who love European wines also love California wines? Could it be that I lack aEdit type of snobbism that Bordeauxphiles possess in the extreme?

Think about it. You will never, ever hear a California winemaker bash French or Italian wines. But you hear European winemakers bash California wines all the time. Too ripe! Too obvious! Too oaky! Too fruity! Too Tammy Faye Bakker! Yet every time they have a good vintage — look at the 2009 Bordeaux — they celebrate their wines’ ripeness and alcohol levels (as they did in 1947). Why is that?

I do think there’s a certain self-superior smugness among the A.B.C. (Anything But California) crowd. I can’t explain it for sure, but it’s something I feel. Look, California makes really great wine, and if you can’t acknowledge that, you should re-examine your own self.

Fritz Maytag sells Anchor Brewing

Editor’s note: In an earlier edition of this story, I incorrectly wrote that Fritz Maytag passed away. He did not, and I sincerely regret my error.

You may not have heard of Mr. Maytag (even if your mom had a Maytag washing machine in the basement), but Fritz was and is a Big Man in San Francisco. He owned (from 1965) and resurrected the Anchor Brewing Company, on Potrero Hill, producer of Anchor Steam Beer, which historians regard as America’s first microbrewery. He has now sold it, and it should continue in business for a long time.

More importantly, from a wine point of view, he owned the York Creek Vineyard, which I believe he bought and expanded in 1968, up on Spring Mountain.

Ridge used to bottle a York Creek Cabernet (so did Freemark Abbey). (Fritz Maytag had actually roomed with Paul Draper, at Stanford.) That Ridge bottling was an early example of a cult wine, not as important as, say, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, but still very much in demand. Although my friend Jim Laube rated it only a Fourth Growth in his 1989 book, California’s Great Cabernets, other critics liked it better, and some of the old Ridge York Creek Petite Sirahs were über-famous. I remember, in the mid-1980s, going to the Safeway store out in Pacifica, where they always had a barrel of discontinued wines. I plucked three bottles of 1978 Ridge York Creek Cab out, for $2 each, and felt I’d hit the jackpot.

Green, schmeen

Speaking of Spring Mountain, I’m speaking at a “green” panel this Thursday up at Spring Mountain Vineyard, where I think I’m to play the role of Chief Debunker (as usual), in the sense that I don’t believe that calling yourself “green” results in better sales for a wine (although it may send the winery owner straight to Heaven). I’m not alone in this dubiousness. Check out this article, from Reuters via Yahoo! News. It says, “Organic, biodynamic and sustainable are words being used to describe wines but the eco-sounding terms have little impact on wine lovers.” One winemaker, an Aussie, said, “It’s [i.e., green] definitely a niche market, but 99.9 percent (of wine drinkers) didn’t respond to having organic on the label.” Ouch. On the other hand, going green can’t hurt.

And finally, “Don’t count me out” — Parker

The Great One makes “a rare appearance in Asia” in May, for a three-day “Ultimate Parker in Asia” in Singapore. “Parker is god,” somebody by the name of Arnaud Compas told Reuters; Compas founded a London firm called Hermitage, which sells rare and expensive wines (and obviously has a vested interest in anointing Parker to Deity status, since every time Parker blesses an Angelus, Dom or Cote Rotie, the price skyrockets, and Arnaud’s bank account swells). Okay, okay, so I’m jealous. Parker does Ultimate Asia, I get a few days in Paso Robles. But I’m not complaining. After all, I like California wine!


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