Maybe it’s the freezing cold spell we’ve been having lately, but I’ve been thinking about the weather, and how it affects grapes in these modern times, when there are so many weapons in the winemaker’s tool box to un-do any damage it might cause.
It’s so different from the old days. Prognosticators used to opine on a vintage almost before the grapes had been picked, and buyers would genuflect and base their buying decisions on the edicts of a few. I was reminded of this when I picked up my old copy of Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book, which is one of the best wine books ever. Michael colors entire Bordeaux vintages with a few flourishes of his pen:
1863: mediocre quality
1864: A truly grand année
1866 and 1867: unripe vines and feeble green wines
1870: the greatest, possibly, of all time
Blog disclosure: This is not my cellar!
Of course, Michael wasn’t alive then, but resorts to reports then current from vignerons and brokers, as well as his own extensive tasting of old wines. How easy it was then to paint Bordeaux vintages with a single brush. After all, it’s a smallish region — only about 40 miles separate St. Estephe and Bordeaux — and a relatively homogenous one, weather-wise. True, it might hail on one vineyard and spare another next door, but mostly the entire district has the same weather. Also, because Bordeaux is in a damp continental (as opposed to Mediterranean) climate, yearly weather patterns can differ dramatically.
California is so different. With our Mediterranean climate, the old saying that “Every year is a vintage year” is truer than not, although it was long the fashion among critics to claim otherwise. If you live in California, you know this to be true. Summers are dependably warm and dry. Autumn is typically gorgeous. Yes, it can rain in September, particularly in the north, but not heavily, and even if it does, the next week usually will be sunny and dry, allowing the water to evaporate off the grapes instead of spoiling them.
Winter can be nasty, with floods and freezes, but the vines are dormant and don’t much care. Spring is iffy, with late rains and frosts sometimes wreaking havoc in the vineyards (as they did in 2008). But for the most part, a bad Spring will result in a short crop, but not an inferior one. California’s weather is so dependable — even with climate change — you can set your watch by it.
And then there are all the tricks vintners use to counter the effects of weather, in both the vineyard and in the winery. The sciences of viticulture and enology have salvaged crops that would have been ruined once upon a time.
I write up Wine Enthusiast’s California vintage chart every year, and I’ll praise a year like 2005, which was so kind to Pinot Noir, or 2001, when North Coast Cabernet excelled. But the truth is, everybody tends to make more of vintages than they deserve in California. The downside of a harsh vintage rating — for example, the way some critics trashed 1998 — is that consumers, buying into the anachronistic Bordeaux model, tend to shun everything from that year, including some very good wines that didn’t suffer at all. The bottom line for consumers — and for budding bloggers — is that vintage variation should be taken with a grain of salt.
Prices continue to tumble as consumers reject booze and embrace credit concerns
That’s the headline in today’s Forbes.com. It goes on to say, “Prices for the best wines began falling over the summer, and as the latest data from wine exchange Liv-Ex reveals, there isn’t much of a recovery expected over Christmas.”
Liv-ex isn’t a laxative, it’s kind of a stock exchange listing for the world’s “top” wines. (DRC, Latour, Krug Champagne and Mouton head the latest list.) They even have an official Jancis Robinson endorsement (hey, who doesn’t? Well, I don’t, but I’m hoping to get one for Xmas. Jancis, email me). Liv-ex is everything I’ve always hated about wine “collecting” — the investment mentality, the commoditization, the label shopping, the snobbery — but, hey, lots of people get off on that. Or used to; the Forbes.com story says Liv-ex’s top 100 Index fell 5.5% from last year, and that was before Bernie Madoff (AKA the sack of shit) stole billions that would have gone into Christmas and Hanukah purchases of First Growths and Grand Crus. Even “Champagne is treading water,” Forbes.com quotes a Liv-ex researcher as saying. So, tough times for all.
I don’t hate wine bloggers!
I really don’t. And what would lead Rob Bralow to accuse me of hating wine bloggers, I couldn’t say. But he does, in this post on his blog. Now, technically, he doesn’t say I hate wine bloggers. He merely says I “do not particularly care for bloggers.” Well, let me make this clear. I like bloggers. And I think it’s not a coincidence that 2 things are happening simultaneously: (1) the financial meltdown that’s hitting print-based periodicals, due to loss of advertising, increased cost of paper, etc., and (2) the rise in blogging, which doesn’t cost bloggers anything. (Well, maybe a few bucks but essentially it’s free). Here’s my historical take. Before Gutenberg invented movable type, few Europeans were literate. The Gute created the means for the masses not only to widely read but to publish, which in turn led to pamphlets, broadsides (think Tom Paine) and newspapers. Now here we have the Internet and blogging. Kind of the same thing. Sort of. I wouldn’t be comparing blogging to Gutenberg if I hated bloggers, would I?
I don’t usually single out individual wineries for praise in this blog. There are many that are involved in charitable activities, which is only fair, as there are a good many rich people in this industry, and many worthy causes to support. But today, I do want to talk about Lookout Ridge. This is a Kenwood-based winery owned by a guy by the name of Gordon Holmes, whom I’ve never met. I’ve followed their wines for a few years and found them to be quite good.
What’s so cool about Lookout Ridge is that all profits go to providing free wheelchairs for disabled people around the world, through their Wine for Wheels program. What’s also cool is that Holmes has recruited top winemaking stars to donate their talents, and each of these winemakers deserves credit. For example, Cathy Corison makes a Kronos Vineyard Cab, Greg La Follette makes a Van der Kamp Pinot Noir, Andy Erickson (Screaming Eagle) makes a Cab, Marco DiGiulio crafts a Syrah and a Cab, and Gerhard Reisacher (Delectus) also makes a Napa Cab. The wines are pricey — $100 for each of the new releases. That buys a lot of wheelchairs.
The news hasn’t been particularly cheerful lately, but every once in a while, there’s something bright and hopeful to report. Lookout Ridge is one such.
All I want for Christmas is…
…my very own Fort Knox wine rack.
Luxist says “the Fort Knox displays and protects a single prized bottle inside a cage of shining gold.” It’s the perfect gift during a Depression for a loved one, or even yourself, you betcha! The price is “available upon request,” which means if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. If you readers want to take up a collection for me, you can send the check to my offshore account in the Caymans. I’ll let you know what special bottle I proudly display in my Fort Knox bling.
There seems to be a movement around the world to ban alcohol advertising. From Australia to France, from England to right here in the U.S.A., even the most inoffensive ads are under attack. In this country, at least 11 transit systems — including Los Angeles MTA and Golden Gate Transit — have banned alcohol ads. In France, cradle of gastonomy, the courts have affirmed the illegality of Internet wine advertising. In Australia, the NSW Health Minister again has demanded a total advertising ban on all alcoholic beverages.
Leading the charge against alcohol in this country is the Marin Institute, a San Rafael-based non-profit largely funded by the Buck Trust. The Institute’s attitude toward all things alcoholic is the opposite of a smiley face — a frowny face that never met a drink it didn’t hate. On their blog is a post that criticizes a bus booze ad from Marker’s Mark whiskey that reads “blue or red, Democrat or Republican, we’re all united in one party: The Cocktail Party.” I think it’s funny, but the Marin Institute says the ad “trivializes the election,” as if a little humor about politics is unpatriotic and bad. Paging Tina Fey!
Times are tough all over the world, and it seems like politicians — clueless when it comes to actually solving problems — are letting themselves off the hook for their ineffectualness by blaming alcohol, among other things, for the situation. This is a first step toward the Nanny State, a big government that “protects” its citizens by intervening in their personal lives and institutionalizes its own narrow interpretation of moral behavior. This is not only dangerous, it’s downright silly, because no form of prohibitionism ever has worked. A study of the relationship between restricting alcohol ads and alcohol consumption came to the following, unsurprising conclusion:
“The relationships between consumption and alcoholism rates for the U.S. and advertising regulations were very weak and not statistically significant. Subsequent to a restriction on beer advertising in Manitoba, beer consumption in that province rose at a similar rate as in a control province of Alberta. It is considered unlikely that restrictions on advertising will reduce consumption.”
America has far more serious problems than banning Marker’s Mark ads from buses on the Golden Gate Bridge.
As part of this blog’s continuing battle against neoprohibitionism — which I define as the use of fearmongering tactics to discourage even the moderate consumption of alcohol — I bring to your attention this misleading commentary from something called the Athlete Resource Center, written by a guy named Dominic. You can read it yourself, but basically, it warns athletes to completely shun any alcohol at all, if they want to avoid the following problems:
- inability to synthesize proteins
- loss of memory
- mood swings
- sleeping disorders
“Your coach wouldn’t be too happy if you can’t remember plays, or even participate due to poor grades, because of your alcohol use,” the column warns jocks.
What’s so objectionable about this “advice” is that it utterly fails to distinguish between the moderate use of alcohol, and an excessive consumption that can, in fact, lead to the above problems. Nor does the article refer, even obliquely, to the well-established health benefits of moderate wine consumption. This is not a message that’s credible to athletes or anyone else. Reasonable people will realize that a little wine or beer at dinner is not going to cause anyone to forget a play the next day, or “hinder you from absorbing and utilizing nutrients you need,” or cause “dire consequences on your individual performance, as well as on other team members.” This hyperbole is reminiscent of the old Harry Anslinger scare tactics about marijuana, when he was the nation’s drug czar back in the 1930s. Here is a gory description he wrote about a young “marijuana addict”:
“With an axe he had killed his father, mother, two brothers, and a sister. He seemed to be in a daze…he was pitifully crazed. The boy said that he had been in the habit of smoking something which youthful friends called ‘muggles,’ a childish name for marijuana.”
I have always considered myself an athlete. I was a longtime competitive runner, earned my black belt in traditional Japanese karate (Wadokai), and continue to enjoy weightlifting and heavy aerobics. Being in peak physical and mental shape has always been a centerpiece of my life, and so has been the enjoyment of wine. Far from wine interfering with my athletic pursuits, it has balanced them. I completely reject the notion that the moderate use of alcohol is in any way a conflict with the athletic life.
The writer, Dominic, seems to be a smart, caring and thoughtful guy. If you go to his Reading List, you’ll find some great books there. I did email Dominic to ask why he doesn’t allow even the moderate use of alcohol, and his answer was, in part: You are correct, I do not make any distinction between moderate and excessive alcohol use. However, moderate use has been shown to negatively impact athletic performance. Then he resorts to the slippery slope argument: Also realize that for many athletes, and non-athletes, there is no such thing as moderate use. One drink becomes two, two becomes three, three becomes ten. To me, this is like the Mormons saying that same-sex marriage will inevitably lead to marriage between men and dogs. I mean, come on. Here’s a partial list of famous ex-athletes who own vineyards and/or make wine: Tom Seaver, Joe Montana, Mario Andretti, Peggy Fleming, Greg Norman, Mike Ditka and Larry Bird. I don’t know if they drank during their performance days, but I don’t believe any of them would be selling dope to active members of their former teams.
More Obama fallout: Happy days are NOT here again
[From the Danbury, CT New Times] The New Milford Republican Town Committee has announced that their wine and beer tasting, scheduled for today (Friday), is POSTPONED until January. Any ticket holder may request a refund by calling Katy Francis at (860) 354-7137.
Dept. of Oops!
Hacks? Flacks? Floozies? The negative descriptors were flying in comments made by readers after my Oct. 27 post, So what did I learn at the Wine Bloggers Conference?, on my Wine Enthusiast blog. I didn’t even mention public relations, but midway through the extensive comments (26 and counting) the drift turned toward PR, and some controversial attitudes were revealed.
It started with Lenndeavors’ remark that the WBC was “a bit too PR heavy.” I, too, had noticed the presence of a large number of PR people at the conference, both self-employed and those working for big wine corporations, but my reaction wasn’t a negative one. Instead, it didn’t surprise me at all. Any PR professional who could have gone to the WBC, but didn’t, isn’t performing her job very well.
“Joel” rose to PR’s defense by pointing out the same thing: PR people need to understand what the blogosphere is, and so they come to events like the WBC to see it up close and personal. Jo Diaz, who runs her own PR firm in Sonoma County (and who also blogs), agreed. Jo self-deprecatingly used the term “hack.” [From the German; related to our word “hook.” Colloquially, a person hired to do routine, dull writing, which you'll never find here!] After that, things headed south. Mia Malm (who, last I knew, did PR for Robert Mondavi) felt it necessary to defend her profession. So did Tia Butts, who I believe also works for Mondavi. (Mia and Tia, forgive me if I’m wrong.)
I did get the impression, both at the WBC and in its aftermath, that there was unease among some bloggers at how many PR people came to the event. If this was true, it must have been largely restricted to younger bloggers, who may not understand the role that PR professionals play. In fact, PR people are a vital part of the gigantic machine that rolls the wine industry forward every day. Don’t get me wrong: as I said in my Credibility seminar (and have said many times elsewhere), PR people will use us writers if they can, and if we let them. But then, we writers use wineries and winemakers for our needs, don’t we? I’ve never blamed PR people for what they do, and I rather admire them. It’s their job to get publicity for their clients, and if they’re good, they’ll devise ways of doing it that are aboveboard and intellectually defensible.
Yes, there are times I’ve been frustrated with the way some of them just spin and spin, like the Republican attack machine against Obama. And yet, PR people can be a writer/critic’s best friend. They’ve been enormously helpful to me in all sorts of ways, without ever expecting any favoritism when it comes to scores or reviews for their clients. (In fact, one of the most important things PR people do is explain to their clients how the industry works, which in turn makes writers’ jobs easier.) I couldn’t imagine the wine industry without PR people, and I’m happy to let them do what they’re paid to do: Pitch stories to me. So let’s be kind to PR people. Far from being flacks, hacks or floozies, they’re true professionals with a big job, often working under trying circumstances.
Here’s a list of some top winery PR companies. I’ve worked with most of them.