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Tuesday Twaddle: Jon Bonné, Wine Scams, and Can Napa’s Neighbor Steal Their Business?



For some time now, the San Francisco Chronicle—Northern California’s largest newspaper, and a force in its wine industry for decades—has been cutting back on wine reporting.

The paper used to have a standalone wine section. They did away with that some years ago, and merged it into a weekly wine and food section. Then they put that into a home, garden and food section, in which we were lucky to get much wine reporting at all.

The denouement of all this came yesterday, when we learned that Jon Bonné, the paper’s wine editor, has reduced his involvement at the Chronicle to that of a contributing editor. He now will write only a monthly column, with a “California focus,” in his words. (Here’s another press release announcing Jon’s new job.)

I’m glad Jon is keeping one foot into our California scene (even though he’s moving to New York). I don’t know if he’ll be reviewing wine or not; I hope so. If he does, I ask him this: let us know your guidelines for receiving samples—what you will and will not taste, so that wineries can know whether or not it’s worth it to send you their wine. I hope you’ll review everything you’re sent. I always did, at Wine Enthusiast—and I mean everything. It was only fair.

As for the Chronicle’s wine coverage: I understand business decisions. A paper has to make a profit; otherwise it goes bankrupt. The ownership and senior management of the Chronicle apparently have determined that the kind of broad wine coverage they used to have is no longer sustainable—despite the fact that the California wine industry is a multi-billion one, and San Francisco—where the Chronicle is the only newspaper of importance—stands at its gate.

When I was starting out as a novice wino in the 1980s, San Francisco had multiple publications that covered wine in depth: The Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, California Magazine. All, except the Chronicle, are gone.

One can only hope that the Chron will discover a new-found commitment to alcoholic beverages—wine, beer and spirits. And I hope that, if they do, their coverage will be local, which is to say, California-based.

* * *

The Drinks Business has this article, Wine Investment: How to Avoid the Pitfalls.

Well, you don’t have to read the article to avoid the pitfalls of losing money in bad wine investments. Here’s the answer: DON’T DO IT. Don’t buy wine for investment. The commoditization of wine has harmed it immeasurably. Buying it in the hope of reselling and making a lot of money is contradictory to wine’s spirit.

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The Napa Valley Register reports that little Suisun Valley, just a hop, skip and jump across the road from Napa Valley’s southeastern edge, is looking to capitalize on Napa’s woes. If wineries can’t locate in crowded, trafficky Napa, then they’re welcome in Suisun.

A few years ago, with the help of my friend Jo Diaz, whose communications company was working with Suisun wineries, I toured the region and tasted through some of the wines.

I wasn’t particularly impressed, although I saw the promise. My gut reaction was: There’s no reason why this area couldn’t do very well. All it would take is the proper investment. The terroir is fine. It’s a little warmer than Napa Valley, being further inland, but San Pablo/Suisun Bay is right there, and as we all know, those winds off the water are chilly.

Suisun Valley is a pretty area of little farms and country lanes, but easily reachable via the I-80 freeway. No reason for Suisun not to be a player. I wish them luck.

Drunk driving, Sonoma vineyards and rain, rain, rain!

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The holiday season is an apt time to remember, and remind people, that drinking and driving is a really bad mix.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that one-third of the 32,719 people who died in traffic accidents in the U.S. in 2013 were involved in drunk driving crashes, although the number has gone down by 36% over the last 23 years. Still, 10,076 deaths due to drunk driving is unacceptable. This is why I highly recommend that people formulate a plan for a designated driver, not just on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, but every time you drink. And I commend Total Wine & More for supporting such programs.

I have not drunk and driven for fourteen years. It began on a dark and stormy night in the year 2000. Beaulieu was celebrating their 100th birthday with a massive nighttime tasting at the winery, in Rutherford. We went through every vintage ever made of André Tchelistcheff’s masterpiece, the Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon—some 62 wines in all, plus a bunch of older Pinot Noirs and other wines. I’d booked a room at the Embassy Suites, in Napa, for the night, but that’s about an 18-mile drive on Highway 29, which had no street lights for most of the distance. Our tasting let out shortly after midnight. I remember walking out to the parking lot when, all of a sudden, the sky rumbled in a crash of thunder, and rain began falling. Within moments it had turned into a torrent, a full-blown gale out of the Gulf of Alaska. It was raining so hard that I couldn’t see a thing, even with the windshield wipers turned on high.

Scary stuff. I couldn’t see where the median strip was, couldn’t see the road shoulders, couldn’t see anything. And I was technically well over the limit, I’m sure. I made a deal with myself: If I can just make it back to Embassy Suites safe, sound and unarrested, I will never drink and drive again.

Well, I did make it back to the hotel, and have stayed true to my vow ever since. It’s made my professional life a little more complicated, but what is that compared to the nightmare of being involved in a drunk driving incident?

So please, my friends, watch yourselves this holiday season.

* * *

Great opinion piece in this weekend’s Press-Democrat by the executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, Tim Tesconi, who argues that Sonoma’s vineyards—far from being the plague that some anti-vineyard types claim they are—actually “saved Sonoma County agriculture.” And in the process, prevented Sonoma County from being “the next San Jose.”

He meant no disrespect to our friends in San Jose, of course, only to imply that the wine industry has kept Sonoma County from being developed into housing tracts, shopping malls and industrial parks.

A grand toast to the vineyards preserving Sonoma County’s farming heritage,” Tesconi writes. I will happily lift my glass to that!

* * *

If you live in Northern California, you know that this December has been wet. Very wet. Santa Rosa, in the Russian River Valley, has seen nearly 13 inches this month alone. Compare that to 0.48 inches in December last year. Angwin, up above Napa Valley in the Vaca Mountains, has had almost 20 inches this month, about equal to San Francisco’s total annual rainfall. These are astonishing numbers. But “California still needs 11 trillion gallons of water to end its drought. Even with two weeks that saw inches of rain break local and daily records,” reports the website, “more than 77 percent of the state is in ‘extreme drought.’”

Back tomorrow…

Tuesday twaddle: geographic indicators, and the changing seasons



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



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


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.

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