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BevMo is not the enemy


In San Francisco they’re having another turf war over whether to let a chain store open in one of the city’s neighborhoods. People out here in the Bay Area hate chain stores on the theory that they drive mom and pop indies out of business. I personally think you have to look at each case individually. You can’t just say “No to all chain stores” or “Yes to all chain stores.” Well, here’s a case where I think the “No on chain stores” side is seriously misguided.

It concerns Beverages, & More! (BevMo), a big box liquor outlet with scores of branches throughout California and Arizona. (Disclosure: A few years ago, BevMo was Wine Enthusiast’s Retailer of the Year, and BevMo’s cellarmaster, Wilfred Wong, is an old and good friend. But that’s not why I’m defending BevMo in this instance.)

There’s this blog, Booze Reviews, which over the weekend had a post called “Why you shouldn’t shop at Bevmo”. My problem with the post is that their reasons for opposing BevMo are illogical and/or just plain wrong. First of all is the argument that BevMo “sets out to crush” small liquor stores “in an effort to drive the small, locally-owned businesses out.” The author contends that “If there’s something you want that the corporate HQ [at BevMo] hasn’t approved,” you’re out of luck; BevMo handles just “popular booze makers [and] a ton of crap and some mass-produced good stuff.  But they’re not going to stock the small, boutique wineries and breweries that are really at the cutting edge.”

It may be true that you won’t find many smaller producers at BevMo. But — and please, memorize this, because there’s a quiz afterward — low production does not equal high quality!! Trust me on this one, folks. Besides, if people really were looking for these “boutique wineries,” they’d support the small indie shops that stock them. If the indies are going out of business, it’s because they’re not delivering what their local customers want.

One example the writer at Booze Reviews picked was Gary Farrell. As we all know, Gary sold the winery to Allied Domecq (it’s now owned by Ascentia) years ago. But the Booze Reviews writer didn’t know that, which is why he wrote: “I was also recently impressed when I found a bottle of Gary Farrell Russian River Pinot available at Bevmo online.  Until I found out that the Gary Farrell winery was recently bought out by some huge conglomerate.” The writer automatically made the assumption that Gary Farrell wines had suffered in quality merely because the brand was acquired by a big company. But I have news from him: I’ve reviewed Gary Farrell wines forever, and they’re better than they’ve ever been! The vineyard sources haven’t changed, and winemaker Susan Reed, who was mentored by the great Zelma Long, worked at Matanzas Creek, and was trained by Gary Farrell himself, would probably quit if her bosses forced her to compromise quality. So it’s a form of reverse snobbery to say a big company must ipso facto produce inferior wines.

As a final argument against BevMo, the writer says it’s better to spend your money “in a locally owned business” instead of a chain store. There may be some validity to this argument, but not much. For one thing, obviously, if BevMo opens in my neighborhood (and we do have one), it’s still a local store, even if it’s not owned by locals. It provides jobs and benefits to local people. I have no way of knowing if the register clerk at the little wine shop on the corner makes more or less money that the register clerk at BevMo, or has better or worse benefits. But if BevMo were truly a horrible place to work, people wouldn’t be lining up to get jobs there. And BevMo stocks some darned good wines at just about the best prices in town. So it’s not just about employees, it’s about all the local consumers who are looking for decent prices these days.

Let’s cut BevMo some slack!

And now, that quiz. Does low production equal high quality? Write down your answer on a $30 bill and send it to me care of Steve Heimoff, in Oakland.

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Pull the cork on corks


Most consumers don’t know it, but the Portuguese cork industry is one of the most ferociously defensive businesses around. For decades, they’ve had this massive P.R. army extolling the virtues of cork, warding off every conceivable attack. Even before there were viable alternatives to cork, their minions were assuring us that no effort was being spared in the cork forests to keep animals from peeing on the bark. As for cork’s TCA rate, well, it was miniscule, and getting lower all the time. That this did not accord with the experience of critics, including me, who were getting taint rates of about 5%, was irrelevant. The cork industry wanted everyone to know that they were on the side of the angels.

Then alternative closures started appearing, and the cork industry had to re-double its efforts to stay relevant. About that time, I started getting regular invitations to visit Portugal, courtesy of the cork manufacturers. Hell, every writer/critic did. (For the record, I’ve never accepted a junket.) I guess the idea was that a free vacation in Europe would warm our hearts and make us write nice things about cork.


Now, the industry has a new argument: It’s greener than any other closure! That’s according to this study that “clearly shows the environmental superiority of natural cork stoppers over alternative wine closures,” in its own words. Specifically, the study looked at the carbon footprint created over a 100-year life cycle of cork stoppers, compared to plastic stoppers and screwtops. It found that corks have 1/9th the CO2 emissions of plastic stoppers, and 1/24th the CO2 emissions of screwtops. The study was paid for by Corticeira Amorim, the world’s biggest wine cork company.

Look, when you’re reduced to hyping that over a 100-year cycle, corks emit less CO2 than other types of closures, you’ve basically admitted you’ve lost the argument. That’s cork’s claim to fame? I don’t think that dog will hunt. The cork people are going to have to come up with better rationales than that. I mean, we’re all green nowadays, but that doesn’t mean that everything we buy and use has to be calculated to the Nth degree to figure out its carbon footprint. That’s a kind of green fascism we ought to avoid.

There are lots of reasons to move beyond cork. Here are two: screwtops are less intimidating to millions of people who don’t want to struggle with a device just in order to open a bottle. And a screwtop will never taint a wine with TCA. Cork is an anachronism — a seventeenth century artifact like the spinning wheel. We don’t need it anymore.

But we do need bling, don’t we?

On the other hand, here’s the world famous coutourier, Karl Lagerfeld, telling the New York Times: “This whole [economic] crisis is like a big spring housecleaning — both moral and physical… Bling is over. Red carpetry covered with rhinestones is out. I call it ‘the new modesty.’ ”


No bling for Karl

Does vintage still matter?


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.

Tuesday Twaddle


Prices continue to tumble as consumers reject booze and embrace credit concerns

That’s the headline in today’s 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 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,” 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?

Lookout Ridge: Doing well by doing good


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.

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