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Lookout Ridge: Doing well by doing good

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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.


Alcohol ads under attack — again

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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.


I’m a jock. You telling me I can’t have a glass of wine at dinner?

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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
- dehydration

“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!

Idiot tries breaking wine bottle with head and fails


The truth about winery PR people

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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.

P.S. I blogged the other day about The 800 Pound Gorilla in China’s Wine Industry. Now, check out this blog post from someone who defends Chinese wine against charges of adulteration and deception.


The U.S. needs something like Britain’s WSET and WSTA to help the wine industry

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Decanter reported today that Britain’s Wine & Spirit Education Trust and its sister organization, The Wine & Spirit Trade Association, have launched 2 new programs to plug a “skills gap in the industry.”

Here in California (and I suspect in the rest of the states, all 50 of which now have bonded wineries) there are plenty of “skills gaps” and we might benefit from studying how the Brits plug them.

There are 2 kinds of skills gaps in the wine industry: Winemakers (or winery owners) all too often are lousy businessmen, and people on the business side (wholesalers, distributors, sales) are sometimes quite deficient in their actual knowledge of wine.

I’ve seen these twin, related phenomena ever since I started writing about wine. I used to be amazed at how somebody would start up a winery with no business plan, no understanding of how to sell, and not even an appreciation of what kinds of wine the public wanted. You’d think that would be less so these days, but it’s not. I could name some tremendously wealthy individuals who lost fortunes because they just didn’t have a clue.

Then there are those folks on the business side. When I first started meeting distributor and sales types, I was stunned to realize they could just as easily have been peddling widgits as wine. Wine was just another commodity to them; they were concerned with SKUs and margins and such, which, of course, they had to be, but to someone like me — who had a passion for wine — many of them seemed almost crude.

The new British initiative is designed to address these very skills gaps. The business people will learn more about wine appreciation from the likes of Jancis Robinson, while the wine people will learn more about business from the likes of Constellation’s European chief, Troy Christensen.

Here’s the money quote, made last Friday by WSET’s chairman, Ian Harris: “Some people have a strong FMCG [Fast Moving Consumer Goods] background, but little understanding of the peculiarities of the wine business, and others have strong wine knowledge but relatively undeveloped business skills.”

America needs something along these lines or, if our huge country is too big for a single organization, then California needs something like it. The Wine Institute is more of an advocacy and public policy organization, lobbying at state and Federal levels. Although their work (which covers everything from sustainability, export issues and Pierce’s disease to direct shipping and advertising standards) is important, it doesn’t really address the issues that WSET/WSTA does.

R.I.P.

My old friend, Sid Goldstein, died last month, too young at the age of 61. I knew him during the many years he was Fetzer’s PR top gun. Sid was a great gourmet, and his book, The Wine Lover’s Cookbook, is one of the best food-and-wine pairing books ever. Sid will be missed.


Terroir + marketing: a Danse Macabre

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I went to a tasting today at Epic Roadhouse, the newish Kuleto restaurant with the stunning view of San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge. The tasting was of some current releases and barrel samples of various wines from a very well known Napa Valley Cabernet house, which I’m not going to identify no matter how much you hope I will.

I’ve given very high scores to this winery’s Cabs and have a great deal of respect for them. I’ve walked their vineyard in the hills above Napa Valley and witnessed how perfectly tended it is. The wines are extraordinarily fine and, by Napa standards, not very expensive. So it’s not like I have an axe to grind here. Just a point to make.

At one point the head of the winery explained how they used to vineyard-designate their top Cab made from their estate vineyard, but no more, because (and I paraphrase) “We want to make the best wine we can every year, and sometimes that requires blending out the estate vineyard with grapes from other vineyards.” Fine; I get that; I agree. Then we moved on to another wine, a barrel sample of a new proprietary blend. That wine, he said, will be exclusively from the estate vineyard, and will be the top wine it can produce, capturing the essence of the vineyard’s terroir. They all were very excited about it, he added.

Well, whenever I hear about a block or barrel selection from a vineyard that’s exciting and will capture essence, etc., my reporter’s skepticism is aroused. Sounds like language to justify a super-high price. So I asked, “How much will this new wine cost?” The guy hesitated, then said, “We haven’t set the price yet.” But if it doesn’t cost more than the regular Cab, I’ll buy you a bottle at full retail.

Think about the contradiction the guy made. First, he said they reserve the right to blend out the estate vineyard to make the best wine. Then, in the next breath, he said a wine that’s likely to be their most expensive is going to be exclusively from the estate vineyard, in order to capture its terroir.

Hello? Is it just me, or are these two statements mutually exclusive?

Well, actually, yes, if you’re talking about sheer quality. But no, if you’re coming from a marketing and sales point of view. Because the truth is that a gullible public is happily willing to pay more for a block or barrel selection, or something else that suggests exclusivity, than they are for a wine that was blended for balance, which may have a more general appellation. Which gets us back to the title of this post.

Danse Macabre

In medieval times a Danse macabre was a morality play to demonstrate the allegorical idea that we all must die, even the most virtuous among us. I use the term here to suggest that you might have the greatest vineyard, the best-tended grapes, the most talented winemaker, the best state-of-the-art winery; but Death, now in the figure of a marketing manager, is going to lead you to the same place as everyone else: the afterlife known as The Market, where everything — truth, contradictions, lies, terroir — is the same.


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