From Beijing to Cupertino the world mourns the passing of Steve Jobs. I became an Apple user when, shortly after the famous 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl commercial that aired only once, my then boss bought a bunch of Macs for the office. He was frustrated with our existing computers (mainly TRS-80s, the infamous “Trash 80s” from Radio Shack) that were so hard to use, you had to read a 1,000 page manual just to do the simplest things, like cut-and-paste. And mail merge was like understanding the Theory of Relativity!
So Don (my boss) got the computers, but, lo and behold, nobody had the time or inclination to learn how to use them and to teach the rest of the staff. So Don asked me. I happily took the little Mac home and showed Eugene, my roommate, how clever it was. You could draw with it, in color, and it could actually talk! And it was light enough to tote around in a cute little canvas sack. I feel in love with Macs then and there and to this day have remained an Apple user.
I’m not going to say that, without Steve Jobs and Apple, wine writing as we know it would not exist. But Jobs, more than anyone in my opinion, is responsible for the way millions of people have taken the Internet into our lives. He not only invented the first personal computer, the Apple II (which I learned in grad school), thereby making it possible for anyone to compute. He realized, in the 1990s, that the rise of the Internet opened huge opportunities, and he invented the Macintosh to take advantage of them. It was the first computer that was easy to use, was Internet adaptable, and fun. And it looked good, too, a feature of every gadget Steve Jobs ever helped to design.
I remember in the 1990s the big question concerning the Internet was, what is the killer app? Everybody wanted to know how people would actually use it. Email was an obvious answer, but Jobs knew that the Internet was so much bigger than that. He didn’t invent social media, but he seems to have sensed in his bones that people were yearning for more involved, personal ways of communicating with the rest of the world through the Internet. Blogs, like this one, were one result of Jobs’ vision.
I felt bad, real bad, when I learned of his death yesterday. Although everybody knew it was coming, no one thought it would be this soon. His demise feels right up there with the passing of other icons. John Lennon has been mentioned in the media. Perhaps the two of them are up in heaven right now, talking about how Apple Corp. finally allowed iTunes to sell the Beatles catalog. Surely they’re listening to a Beatles tune. I wonder which one?
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Robert Finigan was not the most famous wine writer to come out of the 1970s, but he was one of the most highly regarded among his peers. He published one of the first personal wine newsletters, Robert Finigan’s Private Guide to Wines, which was a precursor to Parker, Charlie Olken’s Connoisseurs’ Guide, and all the rest. He lived in San Francisco, and I always wondered how, as a wine writer, he could afford his tony place in lower Pacific Heights.
Bob died Oct. 1, at the relatively young age of 68.
I met Bob frequently during the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was getting into the San Francisco wine scene. For a while, he ran the C.I.V.C. (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne), which was marketing the sparkling wines from California that had been established by Champagne houses, like Roederer, Mumm and Taittinger. He gave fancy tastings at the big downtown hotels that I loved going to. He also seemed to have been hired as a sort of functionary to the Getty family–I never understood that relationship, but it was kind of a personal wine advisor. Gordon was getting into wine in a big way, and his son, Billy, was best friends with Gavin Newsom, whom I knew slightly. When Gordon and Gavin decided to launch the first PlumpJack wine shop, in Cow Hollow, Gavin asked me to be part of a small group that would meet weekly, to sample wines and decide which ones would be sold at PlumpJack when it opened. Gavin (who now is California’s Lieutenant-Governor) wanted to assure his customers that every single bottle in the store had been personally hand selected by the team.
We met every Friday evening (I think it was) for six months, and would go through 15 or 20 wines, everybody standing in a circle. Gavin always led; Gordon was usually there; but the voice that carried the most authority was Bob Finigan’s. I would give my views, and Gavin (who was the ultimate decider) duly noted them, but I think Bob’s opinion was what tipped the balance, one way or the other.
Bob was an exquisite gentleman. He dressed nattily, in a urbane fashion, like a college professor. He was very kind and soft-spoken; we got along quite well. I think he must have been ill for some time, because the last time I saw him, about five years ago, he was walking alone across Market Street, toward the Palace Hotel where, perhaps, he was going to some fancy wine lunch. I was across the street, headed in the opposite direction, and didn’t really have the time to greet him. He seemed very frail; he was shuffling along slowly, like an old man, even though he couldn’t have been more than 62 or 63. I was shocked, to tell the truth. Now, I wish I’d taken the time to chat.
I will miss Bob Finigan. The world of wine has lost a gifted and loving voice.
Every time I drive past the Napa Valley sign–the one near the southern end of the Valley that welcomes you to “this world famous grape growing region–I think it needs to be torn down and replaced with something nicer.
It’s great that there is a sign there on Highway 29. I don’t know whose idea it originally was, but it was a good one. However, I just think it’s tacky design and construction. The wooden parts look like cheap plywood, that hideous grape bunch looks like plastic (and what an awful color, more like cherry Kool-Aid than wine grapes), the big white Napa Valley letters look like they’re made from styrofoam, and the “Welcome” line is amateurish and garishly yellow. Why is “WELCOME” all in caps? It doesn’t make any sense.
It’s old fashioned and drab, like something some kids made in arts and crafts class. We can do better, and should.
My idea is to do what cities do when they have an important building to put up, like the new World Trade Center in New York or the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco: put out a call for artists to submit designs, then have a committee to make the final decision. In Napa’s case, the committee could consist of elder statespersons (Margrit Mondavi comes to mind), who have no motive except to do what’s best for the valley. There could be a public comment period in which ordinary citizens weigh in, but the whole thing should avoid getting politicized.
Think of all the publicity such a contest would generate! Worldwide, I guarantee it. The media would jump on it like a hungry dog on a bone. The Napa Valley Vintners could be the official organizer, and their communications department could work with outside firms to create massive buzz. You know how the Mouton Rothschild artist label gets attention every year? This would be ten times, a hundred times bigger.
And Napa could use a little extra P.R. in these days of recession and gloom. I personally believe that, just beneath the glitzy exterior, the Valley is hurting. Not that I feel particularly sorry for well-heeled owners, but those super-ultrapremium wines aren’t selling like they used to. A huge, worldwide media blitz would inject some energy into Napa.
What should the new sign look like? It should capture tradition, of course. Nothing too modern or startling. Wine regions are all about their past histories, so the new sign should conjure images of the pioneers, of the old days, of continuity.
But Napa also is about the present and, more importantly, the future. The existing sign has nothing whatsoever to do with the future. Heck, it barely has anything to do with the past, unless “the past” is about jug wines. So there should be something about the new sign that’s forward looking. Not edgy: today’s edginess is tomorrow’s joke. Bell bottoms were edgy in the Sixties. Not anymore. So the judges, whoever they are, are going to have to be very careful about their selection, because it’s going to stand for a long time. Maybe there should be an art expert on the committee, someone versed in graphic design and landscape architecture, to help the other members out.
I‘d love to know what my readers think, especially those who live in Napa Valley. Is it sacrilege to call for replacing the “world famous” Napa Valley sign? I don’t think so. It’s been a useful accouterment to the valley’s infrastructure, but its day is done, just as Napa city’s stale old downtown was done and replaced by something better. You have to admit that that old sign is sorely lacking in the main things Napa stands for: class, artistic integrity and good taste.
I’ll be back tomorrow.
Bill Smart, a nice guy who works for Dry Creek Vineyard, a great California winery, and who is a regular commenter on my blog, wrote in yesterday about my recent post, “Can a winery get buzz from Twitter? Probably not.”
Now, I got my butt kicked all over Twitter for saying that Twitter can’t really help wineries in the only way they want and need to be helped–selling more wine. Some people tweeted the usual BS that I’m a dinosaur who doesn’t get it (interesting that these people who say I don’t understand social media don’t get a fraction of the readership on their blogs as I do! Not to mention my Facebook traffic which also is big). Others agreed with me. That’s to be expected. Everybody’s entitled to his or her opinion in these United States (except evolution deniers).
Bill played it down the middle, arguing that while “Twitter doesn’t sell wine,” it can have a fantastic effect in individual cases. As proof, he sent me the link to this amazing story told at Peter Shankman’s blog. It’s a good blog; Peter describes himself this way: “An author, entrepreneur, speaker, and worldwide connector, Peter is recognized worldwide for radically new ways of thinking about Social Media, PR, marketing, advertising, and customer service.”
Please open the link and read it. I’ll summarize: Peter loves Morton’s the Steakhouse. He was on a airplane flight and expected to return home hungry and tired. As a lark, he writes, “I jokingly tweeted the following: Hey @Mortons – can you meet me at newark airport with a porterhouse when I land in two hours K, thanks.” Well, you know how this ends. Peter arrives at Newark, “started walking to the door” when, “Um, Mr. Shankman,” a guy said to him.
“I turned around.”
“There’s a surprise for you here.” It’s a bag with “a 24 oz. Porterhouse steak, an order of Colossal Shrimp, a side of potatoes, one of Morton’s famous round things of bread, two napkins, and silverware.”
Writes Peter: “I. Was.Floored.” He continues, “I was joking in my Tweet. I never, ever expected anything to come of it other than a few giggles.”
Back to Bill Smart, who commented, “This is one of the most powerful examples I have seen recently about what kind of impact Twitter can make.” Even if the whole thing was a PR stunt, Bill writes, “The bottom line is that it worked and as a result has created THOUSANDS of POSITIVE tweets and impressions for Morton’s.”
Okay, come, let us reason together. I accept Peter’s claim that it was not a PR stunt–he really was just joking. I also accept that the entire episode generated a gazillion tweets and retweets, and Morton’s the Steakhouse got some juice out of it, even though it cost them a few bucks. Here’s my problem. If I, or you, or anybody else had put that same joke tweet up, do you think we would have been met at the airport by a guy in a tuxedo carrying a full dinner? I don’t. Peter Shankman was, apparently, because–in his own words–“I’m a frequent diner, and Morton’s knows it. They have a spectacular Customer Relations Management system in place, as well as a spectacular social media team, and they know when I call from my mobile number who I am, and that I eat at their restaurants regularly.”
Peter is, in other words, a Morton’s VIP, and in this case he was given the VIP treatment. I think he was a little disingenuous when he conceded that there had been “a few tweets from the other side of the camp [i.e., critical of him], specifically calling out that I have over 100k Twitter followers, and if I didn’t, this never would have happened.” I mean, that’s my conclusion too, and it seems obvious, doesn’t it? But Peter then writes, “But you know what? I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think it’s about my follower numbers. I think it’s about Morton’s knowing I’m a good customer, who frequents their establishments regularly.” In other words, Morton’s the Steak House didn’t go to all that trouble to hand deliver Peter a warm meal at the airport just because of his Twitter followers. His numbers had nothing to do with that. It wasn’t because Morton’s “spectacular social media team” felt that they could get a million bucks in free Twitter publicity with a relatively small investment. No, it was because Peter loves Morton’s the Steak House, and Morton’s feels the love and just wants to love Peter back.
Ah, love, sweet love.
In conclusion, I would like to say how much I love BMW. By the way, I’ll be flying up to Seattle next week to visit my niece and it sure would be nice to have a new 750i Sedan (red, please) registered in my name to drive to the airport. Oh, I also love Bill Harlan and his wines. Bill, I’m having steak this weekend with my friend Marilyn. Please overnight me two bottles of ‘97 Harlan Estate. You can throw in some BOND too. And did I ever tell Thomas Keller how much I love French Laundry? I do, Thomas, I do, and I wouldn’t mind at all if you give me carte blanche to walk in the door any old time I want to and get seated–on the house, of course, including tip.
You see, with love, and a spectacular social media team, anything’s possible–well, if not anything, then at least steak and shrimp hand delivered at the airport for a Morton’s VIP!
Before I wade into the thicket implied by my header, let me bring to your attention this little spat from across the pond, in which the spokesman for Britain’s third largest supermarket chain accuses the editor of Decanter of being a “snob” after the editor, Guy Woodward, told the BBC there’s a “huge amount of difference” between bottles of wine that cost only 2 British pounds apart, with the more expensive being the better.
The tiff lit up British twitter boards with the ferocity of a royal wedding (well, almost), forcing Woodward to explain what he really meant. On The Telegraph’s website, he said that, at the average price of £4.60 paid in Britain for a bottle of wine (about $7.50 U.S.), “the chances of getting an interesting wine are slim.” Although he had praise for certain cheap wines, including a Rioja, Woodward remained unapologetic. “But these wines remain the exception rather than the rule…”. Continuing, Woodward calculates that “If the price of wine were to rise, producers would be paid a decent wage to reinvest in their vineyards, we’d have better wine [and] people would learn to appreciate it…”. It’s the price wars, with all their deep discounting, that rage in Britain, as here in the States, that keep the cost of wine low, and thus the quality–or so Woodward says.
Is he right?
Well, readers of this space, as well as those familiar with my reviews, know I have long argued that the correlation between price and quality isn’t as neat as you might wish it to be. Often as not, I’ll give a winery’s standard bottling a higher score than its pricier reserve. In big blind tastings, such as the ones that the Napa Vintners arrange for me, I’ll often rate relatively inexpensive wines ($25-$40) equal to, if not higher than, super-expensive cults. I love giving a Best Buy to a wine when it conforms to Wine Enthusiast’s price-rating guidelines. And even when it doesn’t, I’ll give a coveted Editor’s Choice to a wine that out-performs for the price.
But in general, I’d have to agree with Guy Woodward: it is awfully hard to get a great bottle of wine for $7.50. Or even $10. Not to say it’s impossible; it can be done, especially nowadays, when negociants like Cameron Hughes are able, somehow, to buy expensive, well-grown wines at big discounts from producers, who can’t sell it. This is why there are so many great Napa Cabernets lately in the $20-$30 range.
But $20 is not $7.50. At that price point, you have to do your homework very carefully–either that, or you just can’t be too fussy. The wine price wars are fought as fiercely here as in Great Britain, perhaps even more so, driving quality down to an acceptable bottom rung, below which not even the most aggressive producer dares to sink, lest the consumer reject his wines in droves. I have frequently defended the big, mass producers for giving Americans what they want and can afford–but let’s not pretend that these are quality wines. I will claim Guy Woodward’s words for my own: Under $10 or so, “the chances of getting an interesting wine are slim.”