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.
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!
It was nice to see my blog listed the other day as one of seven “Must-Read Wine Blogs” on Forbes.com. Also on the list were Tyler Colman (Dr. Vino), Alice Feiring, Alder Yarrow (Vinography), Tom Wark (Fermentation), Wineanorak, and Eric Asimov’s The Pour.
Not bad company for a little blog!
Everybody’s doing the Millennial Stomp
Meininger’s Wine Business International headlines “How the Millennials think” and writes an analysis of how the wine industry can capture the their interest. I was reading it (“To communicate better to young people, we also use the Internet”) when an email came in from the Wine Institute. In conjunction with the California Association of Winegrape Growers, they’re having a “dialogue session” where we will “hear young California vintners and growers” talk about such things as “Hip and Trendy Marketing” and “The Next Generation: Passing the Torch.” An interesting move for these two old organizations — both fairly stodgy and not known for being “hip and trendy.”
So did the rains hurt, or not?
We won’t actually know for a while if the October rains harmed the grapes still on the vine (mainly Cabernet and Syrah) in the North Coast. Common sense suggests they did, along with the humid days that followed. I’ve gotten emails in the last 24 hours saying, in essence, no harm done. For example, the Russian River Valley Winegrowers put this out yesterday: “Contrary to popular belief, recent rains haven’t been the worst case scenario for most of the growers in the Russian River Valley.” And today’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat quotes Bob Anderson, executive director of the United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, as saying, “I think it has been a mad scramble ever since that big rain, but it looks in pretty good order now.”
True, the weather for the last week has been pretty spectacular: warm, dry days, gentle breezes, just about perfect. My concern, though, is whether the damage was already done, with botrytis in those bunches, especially in the cooler areas. Anderson’s money quote cuts to the heart of the matter: “Growers and wineries are still looking at some of the ‘cab’ and the debate is whether there are going to be some warming up days ahead of them this week…The problem is that the sugar levels have not changed much over the last couple weeks, so time is running out.” Yes, time is running out, and more rain is coming in. Unripe Cabernet is not good, especially if it’s infected with botrytis, although the “noble mold” may make for some spectacular dessert wines.
* * *
I am off this morning to an Appellation St. Helena tasting at the Rudd Center. This is always a fun, instructive event at which I try, and usually fail, to find something truly “St. Helena-esque” in the Cabernets and Bordeaux blends. I think I “get” Oakville (blackcurrants) and Rutherford (sour cherrry), but St. Helena confounds me. Is it possible to isolate a flavor or textural particularity, or is that paradigm a dated, 19th century one appropriated from the Médoc? I’m more inclined toward the latter explanation, although I’m sure some of the speakers will describe for us some St. Helena attributes that, once we hear them, we will instantly find in the wines.
Next, the entire Planet Earth!
“The USA will soon have the world’s largest wine appellation,” Decanter is reporting, with its tongue just ever so slightly in its staid British cheek. The happy new AVA baby is dubbed Upper Mississippi River Valley, and it is, Decanter tells us with a touch of malice, “more than double the size of Wales…and fifty times greater than Bordeaux.” (Just to prove I, too, can look stuff up on Google, at 30,000 square miles the appellation is larger than ten American states.)
Of course, an appellation this gigantic is silly to the point of meaningless. The only unifying terroir the TTB apparently could find was “evidence of a glacial retreat 15,000 years ago.” Under the circumstances, they might as well approve a Planet Earth AVA, because after all, we’re all products of the Big Bang. (I guess they couldn’t call it an AVA if it was the whole world, could they.)
So here’s what I don’t understand. Why is it easier for TTB to approve something so big, when they couldn’t even do Westside Paso Robles? I’m not saying they should have — I came out against Westside for the same reason TTB did: It didn’t make any sense. But neither does Upper Mississippi Valley. As my homes say, Wassup wid dat?
I’d love to, but I can’t remember where I left the corkscrew
The big news of yesterday was the headline, trumpeted around the world, that “Glass of wine a day can stave off Alzheimers”
The good, no, make that the great news is that “Moderate consumption of wine could reduce the risk of contracting Alzheimer’s disease among those over 75, according to a study revealed at a conference in Vienna.” The downside, unfortunately, is that “For those already suffering minor memory problems who drank more than two glasses a day, the risk [of Alzheimer’s] was twice that of non-drinkers with similar impairment.” I suppose that includes many readers of this blog, but since active intellectual exercise also helps to prevent Alzheimer’s, I recommend you continue stretching your gray matter by reading me.
A word on Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (and more to come later)
I’m glad Joe Roberts, over at 1WineDude blog, wrote about Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which has been much on my mind lately. Two years ago I wouldn’t have said Napa was home to some of the best SBs in California, but I’ll say it now. Peter Franus, Cockerell, Illumination, Robert Mondavi Tokalon Reserve (Fumé Blanc), Honker Blanc (from Duckhorn, a steal at $12), Toquade, Cade, Crauford, Alpha Omega, Broman, Girard, St. Clement, the list of great Napa Sauvignon Blancs goes on and on. I don’t know what they’re smoking up in the valley, but the collective Napa consciousness apparently has decided to reinvigorate their efforts at this oftentimes cranky variety. I do have to part company with Joe, however, on his praise of the St. Supery SBs. Too feline for my sensibilities.
What did I do now?
In fact, they’re talking about “a new wine world order,” which should get the conspiratorialists roiling. This is the headline over at South African wine.co.az:
Industry leaders gather at LIWF to debate a new wine world order
It announces a gathering next month of “major figures of the global wine industry” in London to consider everything from emerging markets and obtaining credit to the future of corks. The conference is being sponsored by Wine Intelligence, a London-based market research company.
Some of the breakout sessions sound really cool. “What do consumers really think of wine producing regions” is based on the premise that “where a wine comes from heavily influences a consumers’ perception of that wine.” The session on Emerging Markets will look at the question of whether the paradigm that Russia, India, China and Brazil are the wine wave of the future is really true, given the worldwide economic meltdown. I’d like to be there for that one. A session on “Positive retail strategies for today’s economic climate” will examine “How and why do consumers behave as they do?” Do they act merely on price? On packaging? On other information? Market researchers have spent millions trying to figure that out. And then, of course, there’s the inevitable session on “New ways of engaging the next generation wine drinkers.” You can bet the following terms will be widely uttered: Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube. I just hope they have someone under 20 as their expert.
Two of these issues — emerging markets and the next generation — were indirectly dealt with in this morning’s Times (New York, of course; there is no other) in a fascinating article headlined “In Developing Countries, Web Grows Without Profit.” It seems that social media companies that were once so enamored of Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe are losing interest. Why? “[T]hese people are so hungry for this content. They sit and they watch and watch and watch. The problem is they are eating up bandwidth, and it’s very difficult to derive revenue from it.” That’s from Dmitry Shapiro, CEO of Veoh.
Oy vey. YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Joost and Veoh all are running into the same problem our bloggers have confronted: Everybody wants to read and watch the Internet but nobody wants to pay for it! Thats what the Times’ headline meant: “Web Grows Without Profit.” Now here we are in the most serious recession since the Great Depression, and wineries are expecting their angels to be in China, India, Russia and Brazil, where Google (YouTube) and News Corp. (MySpace) are struggling to make money from that infamous “next generation” that was supposed to supply the cash to keep the world running.
Hmm. And now we have swine flu. Interesting, challenging times for wine, and us all.
Yesterday I wrote about gender. Today, it’s generations. (Why am I thinking in such weighty terms lately?) It happened when I read this Q&A in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, by one of their writers, Peg Melnik. It started out with her profiling a real, 23-year old Millennial and asking the question, “How can wine country court them [Millennials]?”
Good enough question to draw me in. Usually, if the first sentence of an article or blog don’t grab me, I move on.
A couple things struck me about the Millennial, whose name is Matt. First, he doesn’t want to be condescended to by writers, critics, merchants, tasting room personnel, or anybody else. Here’s a great quote from him: “If a winery wants to target Millennials, it should be accepting of how we demand quality, image, and history, but we like to think for ourselves.” All Matt asks is for industry folks to be respectful of where he’s coming from, not treat him like an idiot because he may not know as much as a Boomer. And “The winery should know that we network and market through each other and a warm smile and a memorable experience in a tasting room can go a very long way.”
That’s great stuff. Then Melnik concludes the Q&A by asking Matt “about the generational sniping from the Baby Boomers who think some of the Millennials drink wine with too much gusto. What’s the best way to bridge this generation gap?” That’s when my jaw dropped.
snipe [verb] to shoot from a hidden position, as at individuals of an enemy force; to direct an attack [at someone] in a sly or underhanded way
Have I missed something? I haven’t heard anything about sniping Boomers throwing underhanded stink bombs at Millennials. If anything (speaking on behalf of Boomers), we think it’s fantastic that people Matt’s age are getting interested in wine. When Melnik asks her readers, “Is there any more generational sniping going on?” I hope they tell her, loud and clear, “No! There isn’t. And stop trying to stir up trouble.”
I don’t know, was last summer’s Rockaway dustup an example of “sniping”? To the extent any criticism was expressed from my direction, it was concerning questions about journalism, P.R. ethics and full disclosure. I don’t think it was a generation gap thing. And it sure had nothing to do with anyone enjoying wine too much.
I did think that, when the magazine WineX came out about 10 years ago (could have been longer), I was discountful of it, as were most other people I knew, because I thought it condescended to young people, as if they had to throw in sexual or cultural terms of reference instead of just being smart. But that wasn’t a snipe at young people, it was my disgust with a magazine that pandered to some bizarre perception of them.
One of the best things that’s happened to America is that we’ve become a wine-drinking country. My generation led the way, simply because we were born earlier than Gen Y and Millennials. Now, people over 21 are turning to wine in droves (and we have a wine-loving couple in the White House, Yay!). I’ll lift a glass to that, and welcome Matt and his Millennial friends to the club.
FREEZING MY ASSETS OFF
If you live in California and along the West Coast and you think it’s been cold lately, you’re right. Here in Northern California we had a gorgeous Autumn all the way until Dec. 11, when the high temperature in Oakland was 61. The next morning, a Friday, my local T.V. station, KGO, forecast “dramatic changes arrive this weekend as we instantly jump from fall to winter.” Man, did they get that right. Since then, we’ve struggled to get out of the high 40s and low 50s, and of the last 24 days, 19 have been below normal in average temperature. I brought this to the attention of my friend Steve Paulson, the meteorologist on KTVU-TV, channel 2 here in Oakland. He sent me some temperature readings for last night: 19 in Pope Valley, 21 in the Oak Knoll District, 22 at Napa Airport, 24 in Santa Rosa. That’s cold! But, as Steve reminded me, “the next 10 to 15 days, especially by the weekend, look way above normal on temps. Possible record highs along the coast and around the Bay. That’s how we get Average.” Anyway, the vines are dormant this time of year, so they don’t care about the cold — but if it gets too warm for too long, they could wake up prematurely. I don’t want that to happen — but I’m tired of the cold!
ARE EXPERTS MORE EASILY FOOLED?
Han van Meegeren was a mediocre painter and forger who once sold a fake Vermeer, through an intermediary, to Hermann Göring, for today’s equivalent of $7 million. The story was told in last summer’s book, The Forger’s Spell, whose author, Edward Dolnick, was quoted on the South African Wine page as saying, “Experts make the best victims of fraud because they jump to unwarranted conclusions … We prefer wine with a pedigree even if it’s a phoney one … Expectations are everything.”
the fake Vermeer
van Meegeren apparently wasn’t a very good artist, but it didn’t really matter. The dupes who paid big bucks (reichsmarks?) wanted to believe his paintings were real.
Reading that made me think of last summer’s Wine Spectator fake restaurant award. It also brought back memories of allegedly fraudulent bottles of major-league wines (19th century Bordeaux) that were being sold, about 20 years ago, to an international community of rich wine collectors who were, shall we say, less than diligent. Then my mind recalled the suggestion, which has been floating around the blogosphere for a couple months, that somebody should try and “pull a Spectator” on some unsuspecting wine critic (no doubt an older, more famous, paper-based one) by sending her/him a fake bottle of wine. It might be Two Buck Chuck disguised as Harlan, or Harlan disguised as Two Buck Chuck. Either way, if the critic took the bait, what a sensation that could be for the prankster! Days, maybe even weeks worth of publicity! The national press would gobble it up, same way they did with the Spectator hoax. Certain bloggers’ visit stats would soar, while the poor critic’s face would be dripping with egg. And you know what? It could happen, easily — to me, to Parker, to anyone. If you think you’re immune, I hope you’re the one who gets the faux bottle.
BUT WE NEED EXPERTS, DON’T WE?
Yes, if Cassie Mogilner is right. The Dec. 20 issue of The Economist explains the Stanford professor’s theory that “consumers like unfamiliar products to be categorised — even if the categories are meaningless.” (The story was on how consumers’ brains make shopping choices.) Mogilner looked specifically at how we buy coffee, but her findings could just as easily be applied to wine. Shelf-talkers may be nothing more than the idle scribbling of marketing agents; rating systems may break down under close scrutiny; but they work, which is why stores continue to depend on them to sell wine.
And happy new year to you!