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Wednesday Wraparound

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Lots of news to comment on in the last 24 hours. First, and saddest, is the news that the legendary David Hirsch, of Hirsch Vineyards, was badly injured last Saturday in a tractor accident that occurred in his vineyard, out on the far Sonoma Coast.

I first met David when I was doing research for my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in which he figures prominently. The structure of that book was to profile Sonoma’s wine country by taking a year-long “journey’ along the Russian River, from its source in the Mendocino highlands all the way out to the Pacific, where the river meets the ocean at Jenner-by-the-Sea. That necessitated an exploration of the Fort Ross-Seaview winegrowing region, and David was kind enough to give me his time (and his wine). He was a gentle and patient teacher. I wish him a speedy and full recovery.

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News also about an old friend, Sam Sebastiani, whom I haven’t seen in many years. I had thought him retired, living in Nebraska, but then came this announcement that he’s started up a new winery, La Chertosa, his third brand since Sebastiani Vineyards and Viansa.

Sam, like David Hirsch, was very kind to me, back when I was a cub reporter for Wine Spectator. The magazine sent me to cover the opening of Viansa, out on the Sonoma-Carneros flats, where Sam and his then wife, Vicki, had built a marvelous Tuscan-style villa for their winery and tasting center. The opening day was plagued by a horrible, driving rainstorm that turned the dirt paths into swampy slogs of mud; but all was saved by a certain poignant drama, as Sam’s mother, Sylvia, from whom he had been estranged in one of those famous intra-family feuds that seems to pop up every once in a while in the wine business, showed up to help him celebrate. It was very sweet to see that reunion, especially since I liked Sam (and Vicki) a great deal. Both were first-class humans, and it’s nice to see Sam back in the business.

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Another commentator weighs in on the topic of whether or not wine writers “need qualifications.” This time, it’s from a Brit, who writes for an amusing online pub, The Dabbler. Henry Jeffreys doesn’t specifically come down on any particular side of the question, so I will: wine writers need no formal qualifications, and as proof I will offer the facts that neither Bob Parker nor Jim Laube possesses any sort of certification, nor did I when I was a wine critic. And I don’t think the absence of a diploma hurt any of us.

However, we got started during an era when no one wanted to be a wine writer, so there wasn’t any competition. Today, of course, lots of people want to be wine writers—make that paid wine writers—and, as a result, there’s a huge amount of competition for very few available slots. Hence the proliferation of certifying organizations, almost too many for me to keep track of. Were I just starting out, I might well try my hand at some sort of diploma. It can’t hurt, and can only help, but this certification mania is one indicator of what a Big Business wine writing (and wine service in general) has become. In California alone, wine is a $52 billion [with a “b”] industry, in terms of its impact on the state’s economy.

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Finally, my friend Paul Gregutt has posted [on Facebook] that David Schildknecht has quit The Wine Advocate. Don’t know what that means, if anything—just worth noting.


Wednesday Wraparound: charity wine tastings and climate change

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Every day I get dozens of invitations to wine tastings in my email in-box, most of them for charities. (This is mainly because I have a Google alert for the word “wine.”) It’s quite amazing how the wine tasting format lends itself to fundraising. Is it because people who love wine are naturally more charitable? Or because, once they get a little boozy, they become more generous? Anyhow, the wine industry doesn’t get enough recognition in this regard.

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I’ve been looking into the intricacies of sustainable wine growing and winemaking lately, and am frankly developing an appreciation I didn’t have before. For years, I suffered from MEGO syndrome whenever discussions arose of sustainability, organic, biodynamic, etc. It’s not that I thought those practice and beliefs were bad, because I didn’t. It’s just that I didn’t see what they had to do with wine quality. I still feel that quality is not particularly connected to your vineyard and/or winery practices, but as the challenges of climate change and energy provision become more acute, it makes more and more sense for wineries to do whatever they can to be good citizens of the world.

This seems especially true here in California, where the drought is really the biggest story in quite a while. As the Desert Sun, down in Palm Springs, reported today, “Californians should brace for hotter temperatures, reduced water supplies, longer droughts and more wildfires in the future,” a prediction based on the the administration’s release of a major new report on climate change.

I personally watch the to-and-fro over this debate with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I can understand the skepticism held by some people who feel that elements in the scientific and political communities are exaggerating the threat of global warming, or at any rate over-stressing man’s contributions to it. This skepticism is heightened by the sort of freezing cold, snowy winter that much of the country east of the Rockies just endured.

On the other hand, the fact that the majority of climate scientists—up to 97 percent, according to some reports—not only believe in climate change, but “agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities,” resonates with me. I happen not to be particularly suspicious of expertise, so the fact that so many knowledgeable people, who have studied the field of climate change for years, are united in telling us something is meaningful to me. All you have to do is take a look at the snowpack in the High Sierra this year to realize that (a) it’s minimal and (b) the chickens are going to come home to roost one of these days in water-hungry California. I talk to a lot of winemakers and grapegrowers and can tell you that in many instances they are completely freaked out by the lack of water. Not everyone is in the same boat: some wineries have good reservoirs that will get them through another dry summer. But many don’t. Fortunately, we’ve gotten through this Spring (so far) without a major freeze, and with the passage of every day, it seems less likely that there will be one before summer comes in all its fullness. But then, of course, we’ll have heat waves—and wildfires—and all the other strange fruits of California summer. If there’s not enough water to deal with those things, there’ll be trouble.


Wednesday Wraparound

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The 2012 Wine Star Award winners have been announced by Wine Enthusiast, and it’s a fine list indeed.

I wrote the citation articles on Joe Gallo and David Biggar that will appear in a upcoming issue of the magazine. What accomplished professionals they are, as are all of the winners. I didn’t get all of my nominations; I argued strongly for Napa Valley to be the Wine Region of the Year, because of all the fabulous wines coming from there and because the excitement factor of Napa–America’s premier wine region–is always so high. But I certainly have no problem with Ribera del Duero getting the nod, especially after the tasting I went to a few weeks ago, when I was blown away by the quality-price ratio. So congratulations to all the winners, and I’ll see you in New York in January!

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Off to Fort Ross-Seaview this Friday for a comprehensive tasting of the new AVA’s wines. It’s been some time since I last visited these wild, remote coastal mountains. If you live in Annapolis or Cazadero or even Guerneville, I suppose the area isn’t that far away; but most of us don’t live in those little towns, and it is a schlep, although it’s certainly not as far as Anderson Valley. Distance from major metro areas is the limiting factor on how much a wine district can become a tourist mecca, but I suspect that for the folks in Anderson Valley and Fort Ross, that’s just fine. I do recall meeting a winemaker who worked way out in the middle of nowhere in Fort Ross, and he told me how, when he went shopping for supplies, he had to check his list three times to make sure he got everything. You don’t want to get home and discover you forgot the toilet paper–not with the nearest supermarket an hour away. Eventually that poor winemaker took a job with a winery in Forestville. He simply got tired of the loneliness and isolation, despite that fact that from his little cabin he could see down the coast all the way to the Golden Gate, on a clear day.

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To lunch this afternoon at one of my (and everybody’s) favorite San Francisco restaurants, Boulevard. From the moment Nancy Oaks opened this icon in 1993, it was a star, and remains–nearly 20 years later–a destination eaterie. It’s really a default restaurant if you want total gratification and the certain knowledge that all will be well, not to mention the central location, so easy to get to for me via BART as it’s only steps from the Embarcadero station, three stops from my home in Oakland. The occasion today is a Chablis tasting. I have always loved Chablis, from my humble beginnings in the 1980s when you could get a Premier Cru for a couple bucks. While I love the rich, full-blown white Burgundy and California style of, say, Au Bon Climat, an authentic Chablis–so minerally, racy and dry–never fails to excite me. I’ll write more about Chablis tomorrow.

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“Outstanding” and “ideal” are just a few of the superlatives vintners continue to use to describe the 2012 vintage. From Washington State down through the Central and South Coasts, it was as preternaturally perfect a year as I’ve ever experienced in 34 years of living in California. Read this account, from the Wine Institute, for a hint of its potential glory. Of course, every vintage has great wines and less successful wines, so the point of a fabulous vintage, as 2012 is shaping up to be, is that there are more great wines, at every price point, than usual. We’ll have to see if the hype outraces the reality; the proof is in the tasting. But I can’t think of a single reason why this shouldn’t be a memorable year. There were no problems at all, just steady as she goes. Even that rain the third week of October in retrospect did nothing except wash the dust off the Cabernet. Frosting on the cake is that yields were higher than anyone forecast. With all the doom and gloom global predictions of dire grape and wine shortages, this surely is good news for California.


Wednesday Wraparound

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Wines & Vines magazine has their annual Wine Industry Metrics report out, and as usual it contains some useful and interesting factoids.

Most of the details point to a healthier wine industry in 2012 than last year. Off-premise sales and direct-to-consumer (DTC) shipments are both up, the latter by a whopping 36%. Winery jobs posted an impressive 18% gain for the last 12 months. The hottest DTC varieties were Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, while Cab Franc and Merlot dropped a little and Syrah tumbled [again] by a lot. In stores, red blends and Meritage were way up, and so were Sauvignon Blanc/Fume Blanc.

That Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are becoming consumer favorites doesn’t surprise me in the least. Pinot is just about the food-friendliest red wine and Sauvignon Blanc one of the most versatile white wines you can buy. This suggests to me that people are drinking dry table wine to go with their meals, rather than to slosh by themselves. We’ve been waiting for a long time for America to be a wine-drinking country. Maybe it’s time to recognize that we’re there.

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The news from Europe about the vintage just keeps getting worse. Now, they’re saying it’s “the worst wine harvest for the region in up to half a century.” This is due to rain, cold and hail, especially in Champagne and Burgundy. What a contrast to California, where the #1 news topic is the fantastic harvest conditions.

It’s been a picture perfect growing season: no rain, no frost, no cold like 2010 and 2011, no wildfires, nothing to compromise grape quality. Yes, we had that brief, odd day or two of scattered showers and T-storms on Oct. 10-11, mainly in the Central Coast, and a couple of days of heat the week before that. But the heat was neither excessive nor long-lasting, and simply hurried up the picking. We’re now enjoying the most glorious weather ever. Maybe a little rain next week–too soon to tell. The hype on this vintage is going to be over the top.

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Speaking of the harvest, it will soon be over, and that Whooshing sound you hear will be thousands of winemakers and their helpers, rushing off to the airport to catch the quickest flight to Hawaii or Mexico, where they intend to flop down on beaches and soak up the sun, remaining as motionless as possible except for the lifting of an arm to take another sip of maragarita. They haven’t slept, or barely, for the last month, what with grapes pouring into the winery and tanks to be managed. It’s cold and damp at night, and s**t happens with relentless regularity. Come November, wine country will again be quiet, the tourists gone, the restaurants half-filled. Winter actually is a lovely time to visit, even when it’s raining. I have a lot of travel coming up: Monterey next month for the annual Party in the Hangar, the Fort Ross-Seaview area at the end of the month, and Santa Barbara County in December. I always cross my fingers and hope it won’t rain, but sometimes it does, and a California rain can be a cold rain. I prefer dryness and warmth, but, like all Californans, I remind myself that we live 12 months a year off the water that falls during 3 or 4 of those months, so might as well accept it for what it is, a gift.


Wednesday Wraparound

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Did she really say that?

Washington governor Chris Gregoire, at a public event: “Someone asked me what about California wine, and I said they make jug wine.  We make fine wine!”

Who writes her lines, Paul Gregutt?

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“Wine investments: how to avoid the £100m scammers” is the headline on this Yahoo Finance story out of the U.K.

Seems “A recent BBC investigation estimated that as much as £100 million may have been lost by investors over the past four years.” So, the writer asks, how best to protect yourself from getting ripped off? The solution is–ta da!– “…critic Robert Parker [who] is the Warren Buffett of the wine investment world. What he says goes.”

Gag me with a spoon.

Here’s my advice on how not to get ripped off: Stop looking at wine as an investment and start drinking it!

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Go spruik yourself

The headline of an online article from thewest.com, an Aussie pub:

Wine growers spruik new law

Not being of the Australian persuasion, I had to Google “spruik.”

To promote a thing or idea to another person, in order that they buy the thing, or accept the idea. e.g., Lennon spruiks laptop 28 years after his death — Headline, Sydney Morning Herald, December 30, 2008

Now, if I could only get Elvis to spruik my blog, it might actually make money!

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And finally, some advice to “Bachelor Ben” Flajnik: I love you, baby, and your pals Mikey and Danny, but dudes, that Bachelor thing is so over! I mean, Ben, you’re still milking it even after nobody remembers a thing about the actual show, except that those grrrrlz were really baring their claws all season while you just, well, looked cute. It doesn’t help to grant an interview and then play make-believe by saying (as you did to Peg Melnik, at the Press-Democrat) that you’d only talk to her on “wine-related” issues, when you knew fer sher she’s gonna go there because, Ben, Peg wouldn’t have asked to interview you in the first place if you hadn’t starred in The Bachelor!

You guys should stop all interviews now. Immediately. Concentrate on the business. Make great wine. Get your s**t together. Then wait for the reporters to come to you cuz you’re making killer wine. I will, if you do. Promise.


Wednesday Wraparound

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I don’t know Jennifer Porter, the new head of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, but I wish her well. She’s got big shoes to fill, taking over from Stacie Jacob, with whom I and Wine Enthusiast worked on several occasions over the years. Paso Robles is one of the big success stories in California. There was no guarantee this inland San Luis Obispo County appellation could become a hit, but it has. Good luck Jennifer!

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What’s that old saying, Dance with the one that brung ya? It’s meant to suggest loyalty to those who never let you down, and I guess that’s why Diageo renewed their contract with Southern Wines & Spirits.

These are two big companies that have discovered life is infinitely better together than apart. Readers of this blog know that I’ve expressed frustration with the three-tiered system and its domination by big distributors, like Southern. But I’ve been put in my place on more than one occasion by people I respect who explained to me that lots of wineries simply couldn’t do business without the distributors. So I’ve officially taken a neutral position on this topic.

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Speaking of happy marriages, one of Bordeaux’s oldest, most prestigious wine schools is fighting falling enrollment by extending its arms to–who else?–Chinese students. I guess you sell your stuff to whoever’s buying!

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Oh, those naughty wine economists! Now they’ve discovered that “monogamous societies are bigger drinkers than those in polygamous societies,” or, to put it another way, “monogamy was indeed positively correlated with drunkenness.”

I wonder how they did their research? As much as I respect economists (did I really say that?), it’s hard for me to believe that the more you drink, the more likely you are to commit yourself to a single partner. But what do I know?

* * *

I have newfound respect for the people of Oregon–at least, those who listen to Oregon Public Radio. Their top story of the week was about Oregon’s cool, rainy wine season, which was even worse this year than California’s, because they’re that much closer to Alaska. I can’t imagine the top story of the week on KQED radio being the vintage weather. Go, Oregon wine people, go.

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Finally, there’s this bizzaro story about a family who got lost in a corn maze and had to call 911 to rescue them. It was in Massachusetts, a state I lived in for 16 years after moving from NYC, and while I knew plenty of strange people there, I can’t imagine getting lost in a corn maze when actually they were only yards away from a nearby road. On the other hand, I did once get lost in a vineyard. It was Firestone’s, down in the Santa Ynez Valley, and the only reason I didn’t call 911 was because I would have been too embarrassed to tell them I  didn’t know where I was. Obviously, I survived.

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That’s it for today. What, you expected Shakespeare?


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