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Talking about tasting room staff

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I spoke to a group of people last night—marvelous people, actually, employees of Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Education & Garden Center (I call it the chateau), in Fulton, just outside Santa Rosa. They had invited me up for a periodic dinner they have together.

They asked me about tasting, and here’s part of what I told them: How to taste wine depends on your background and experience. By that I meant that your actual physical and mental impression of the wine is based, not merely on the wine’s objective qualities, but on your mindset. Dr. Timothy Leary used to say that a person’s experience of an acid trip depends on “set and setting.” “Set” is the person’s mental state, a composite of everything he’s ever done, learned, felt and thought. “Setting” is the physical environment around the person doing the trip. Two tripping people might share an identical setting, but obviously they have two different sets: hence, they will have different trips, sometimes drastically different.

So it is with wine. I told them they my entire orientation for 25 years had been toward the consumer. The first obligation of a wine, I said, is to be delicious. Therefore things like “typicity” or alcohol level don’t concern me; they’re irrelevant. Now, someone else—a sommelier, perhaps—might be more concerned with typicity and therefore find fault with a big, fat, juicy, fruity California Pinot Noir for not being “Burgundian” enough, or not being like the Pinot Noirs from Burgundy that he likes, But the sommelier has a far different job than I had, as a critic. The somm has, in other words, a different “set.” We might taste the identical wine (“setting”) and arrive at two entirely different conclusions about it. And that’s okay. We have different jobs; we look for different things in wine; and we experience wine in different ways.

Neither way is better than the other; neither is right or wrong. They just are. Afterwards, a few people came up to say they agreed with what I said about a wine’s obligation to be delicious. I can see why. They work in the tasting room, a very hard job. All day long they encounter people’s reactions to the wines they pour. They’re the first ones to know that most people don’t buy a wine because they think they should, or because somebody gave it a high score, or because its name or region is famous, or because rich people were drinking it 150 years ago, or any of those reasons we can call “set.” No, people buy wines they find delicious. And what better reason could there be to buy wine?

Speaking of the tasting room, the K-J folks invited me up to spend a weekend afternoon working there. I’ve never done that. I have a great deal of respect for tasting room staff. Not only do they have to answer the same questions 400 times a day, all year long (“What’s the blend on that wine?”), they have do so pleasantly, personably, and with a smile. It’s a job that requires patience, a healthy attitude and above all, human social skills: a tasting room staff person has to genuinely like people. They also have to put up with the occasional a-hole who gets drunk or rude, and they have to do so graciously. And yet the tasting room pourer is often the public face of the winery. So I’m looking forward to the day when I work the K-J tasting room, and I will faithfully report on it here.

Have a great weekend!


Is “terroir” a social construct, or an objective fact?

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If the definition of insanity (as Albert Einstein is reputed to have said) is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, then I must be insane for delving yet again into a discussion about the meaning of terroir—even when I know that such exercises will result in utter futility, as they always do.

Even so! The topic is irresistible to me; like momma’s milk to a thirsty baby, I’m unable to turn my head away when someone makes claims as absolute and contrary to accepted wisdom as those of Valéry Michaux, a French professor whose work was summarized (all too briefly) in the online edition of yesterday’s the drinks business.

Her position, as I understand it, is that there is no such thing as terroir, if by terroir we mean the chemistry of the soil, the climate or [even] local knowledge.” (By inserting the word “even”, I mean to associate Michaux’s position with that of another professor, the esteemed Emile Peynaud, who holds that the combination of natural terroir—soil and climate—together with the creativity of man elevates the entire wine-forming formula into what he calls “cru.”)

Whether or not you include the grower and winemaker along with climate and soil in your definition of terroir, for Michaux, is irrelevant. For she believes that the end quality of a wine, as well as its critical reception in the marketplace, is due to neither (or not much, anyway), but instead is the result of “the cluster effect,” a term borrowed from economics and sociology that refers to the type of activity that happens when “interconnected businesses working together in a region” collaborate, in a “very focused and strategic approach…to bring partnerships for funding, research and revenue opportunities.” This latter definition, from Forbes, uses Silicon Valley as the prima facie example of how the cluster effect works: small startup companies, rather than taking a “go it alone” approach, instead use a “strength in numbers” strategy to “accelerate…commercialization activities, raise additional capital, and attract new companies.”

Michaux also turns to the Silicon Valley model of the cluster effect in her thinking about wine. She attributes the success of certain wine regions, including Champagne and Rioja, to the same forces of “a strong entrepreneurial culture, direct competition, continuous experimentation, innovation and mutual help and solidarity” that characterize Silicon Valley firms, who engage in mutual-aid activities based on the “rising tide lifts all boats” theory.

Tantazlizing stuff. Since the drinks business abstract was so short (only 249 words), I turned to the Google machine for more information on Michaux, and found this longer coverage at The Australian, which says her theory may “horrify oenologists everywhere,” by throwing into academic doubt the entire collage of “climate [and] chemisty of the soil” as being responsible for the world’s greatest wines. Their greatness has nothing to do with the “myth” of terroir; it is a function solely of “strong governance creating a single territorial brand” [e.g. Champagne, Rioja] welded to “an alchemy between different virtuous circles” [professionals from various occupations] resulting in “the dominance of the best-known wines.”

Let’s break it down by taking Napa Valley as an example of a successful area. Michaux surely is onto something when she suggests that “an alchemy of circles” is at least partly responsible for Napa’s success. These circles surely include the historical figures that settled and elevated Napa, the George Younts, Captain Niebaums and de Pins who helped make Napa Valley a household name.

Another circle would certainly be the wealthy friends of the wealthy Napa owners: they helped spread the word (and the wines) to their own circles in San Francisco, New York, London, thereby giving Napa international cred. Yet another circle consisted of the writers and critics who wrote about Napa Valley, making it famous; and the more they wrote, the more other writers visited Napa Valley, were wined and dined, and further embellished Napa’s halo. (I think of Harry Waugh as a perfect example of the overlapping of several of these circles.) A final circle is the international coterie of winemakers and consultants (Michel Rolland comes to mind) who work in Napa, and whose influence is worldwide and powerful. And then of course there were the critics, Parker especially, who early championed Napa Valley Cabernet in the circles among which they had influence.

Circles within circles within circles. Certainly Napa Valley would not have risen to its present-day esteem without the active cooperation of all these groupings. Where I take issue with Michaux, though, is in her abrupt dismissal of the notion of terroir as the physical properties of the region.She seems to have written her recent paper in response to a 2012 Call for Papers from the Reims Management School, in Reims, France, the topic to address a “provocative” statement contained in a 2011 book, by Roger Dion, that “’Terroir’ is a ‘social fact’, the human construction of a territory both historically and strategically, so as to make better use of its resources than other territories and to respond to the specific expectations of a particular clientele.”

Once again, there’s a lot of meat there: certainly, no wine “territory” can possibly be of any use for the commercialization of wine without “human construction”; for vinifera grapes do not grow by themselves and automatically turn themselves into fine wine. “Strategies” are indeed called for; and strategies require collaboration on the part of all stakeholders, and cost money. And just as certainly, the “particular clientele” that is willing to pay premium money for the wines of Champagne, Rioja or Napa Valley does so with the expectation of buying in, intellectually speaking, to the notion of “quality products” grown in “Grand Crus,” as has been the case since, at least, “the royal families and merchants” did so during the Middle Ages.

Still, this argument, convincing as it is in some respects, fails to account for the fact that most of the world’s wine regions never have achieved the acclaim for terroir as have Champagne, Rioja, Napa Valley and some others (Burgundy, Bordeaux and Germany’s better districts come to mind). What has held back the others? Was it the absence of “interconnected businesses working together” (armed, presumably, with fiendishly manipulative genius)? Or was it that these non-successful regions simply lacked the terroir to produce great wine?

I leave the answers to the conversation. Maybe, instead of futile insanity, we can actually advance the issue a little.


How will the Internet of Things impact the wine business?

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I began hearing about the Internet of Things (IoT) last year. It was hard to wrap my mind around it—what is it, exactly?—and still is. The best I can do is to quote Wikipedia and then see if I can make sense of that. (Hang in there for a moment, because this is eventually going to be about wine.)

The Internet of Things” [says Wikipedia]…”refers to the interconnection of uniquely identifiable embedded computing- like devices within the existing Internet infrastructure. Typically, IoT is expected to offer advanced connectivity of devices, systems, and services that goes beyond machine-to-machine communications and covers a variety of protocols, domains, and applications.The interconnection of these embedded devices (including smart objects) is expected to usher in automation in nearly all fields…”.

As far as geek-speak goes, that’s fairly comprehensible: All things in our world are getting smarter, and increasingly are able to talk to each other. The data gathered by their sensors, meters and other devices can then be analyzed and used in beneficial ways.

For example, Fast Company reports on “Soofas,” smart benches in Boston public parks, whose solar panels can “charge your phone” and, potentially, give people localized information “about…farmers’ markets and…inclement weather.”

Libelium, an IT company, suggests dozens of other uses, including monitoring parking places in crowded cities, detecting “preemptive” fire conditions to alert people in danger zones, remote control of swimming pool conditions and remote monitoring of radiation levels in nuclear power plants. And now we move into wine: Also on Libelium’s list of IoT uses: Wine Quality Enhancing,” for example, “Monitoring soil moisture and trunk diameter in vineyards to control the amount of sugar in grapes and grapevine health.” (I know that viticulturalists have been using sensors for years to give them readings, but this IoT application sounds considerably more sophisticated.)

Nor is it only vineyards that can be IoT-monitored and controlled: Schneider Electric, an IT management firm, which has worked with Cisco on IoT issues, says it’s exploring “new areas and new customers” for business, including “extend[ing] this environment of sensors into the actual wine production plant where grape yields are calculated and the wine fermentation and production processes are automated and controlled.”

People are even designing “smart wine racks” based on IoT technology. The BBC recently reported on “a LED-equipped wine rack [where] every bottle has an RFID [radio-frequency identification] tag…connected to the Internet to let the owner know when a bottle has been removed.” The smart wine rack also can do tricks: “If you want a specific wine for a party, the LEDs in the rack will light up the bottles you asked for.”

I’m sure the owners of vast wine cellars, who long have complained of the complexities of locating a particular bottle, will appreciate that!

Obviously we’re just at the beginning of this technology invading/taking over/assisting our lives; I use multiple verbs because it’s hard to predict just what its impact will be. As a science-fiction buff, I’m both excited by this development, and a little concerned: It’s not out of the question to imagine that life, and living processes, themselves will someday get involved, for we too are “things” in a certain sense of the word. As WhatIs.com, an online encyclopedia, notes, The Internet of Things…is a scenario in which objects, animals or people are provided with unique identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.” I suppose we might eventually have wine reviewing and critiquing done “without requiring human-to-human” interaction. Wouldn’t that be something!

(For more conversation on this post, see my Facebook page!)


Goodbye to the era of the Big Critic

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We entered it as stealthily as we seem to be exiting it: the era of the Big Critic, which began, roughly speaking, around 1980 with the rise of Wine Spectator and its cadre of writers, and then really burst into prominence with the emergence of The Wine Advocate and its owner, Robert M. Parker.

That was 34 years ago—three and a half decades in which America gradually got used to the idea of a handful of (mostly white male) wine critics who were the Promethean equivalent of the faces on Mount Rushmore:

Rushmore

Stupendous, larger-than-life names, known to everybody who cared about wine, legends in their own time, whose opinions could elevate a winery to heavenly heights, or crush it mercilessly.

For thirty-four years this lopsided culture presided. It changed the face of the wine industry, especially in California but even in France, and its influence shaped the evolution of everything from winemaking style to marketing and even the kinds of foods we eat. That this handful of Big Critics was anointed to almost holy status was not their own fault, or their plan, and perhaps not even their desire: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, which is why the description you heard most often of the personality of the Big Critics was “humble,” as if people were surprised they weren’t the height of arrogance. The Big Critics were aware of the incongruity of themselves being accorded all this power, and seemed almost embarrassed by it.

So, it was not their own fault. Whose, then? Maybe “fault” is the wrong word; there was nothing wrong with this crazy new system, it just happened. Like Athena springing full-blown from the head of Zeus,

 

Athena

the Big Critic was forged into being by the Zeitgeist of a Boomer nation suddenly all grown up and responsible for itself. America found herself in thrall to this handful of super-beings, half-man, half-deity–big fish in a small pond, perhaps, but no less awesome for that.

And yet there always seemed something “faulty” about it, didn’t there? One heard, from the recesses of the wine community, sounds of concern that “it’s come to this,” that such a handful of men could cause entire segments of the business to sway or topple. It was heard in whispers, over drinks at the bar: “I can’t believe the influence he has,” although nobody seemed truly to mind too much because, after all, almost everyone stood to gain from the phenomenon: producers, for whom a high score would be a bonanza; merchants, who needed no longer to form their own judgments but could simply shelf-talk someone else’s; other critics, who could gaze up at Rushmore and fantasize “There might be I, someday…”…

We will look back at these 34 years someday as a sort of fever-haze we went through, a national delirium. Someday, someone will ask her grandfather, “Is it really true your generation wouldn’t buy a wine unless a Big Critic told you to?” and Grandpa will smile ruefully and admit that, Yes, that’s the way it was, but you have to understand the times, the context…We were a young wine-drinking country, we needed help and guidance, we didn’t realize at the time how slavish the whole thing was, and besides, everybody else was doing it, we were all in it together, how could we have known it was only a fever-dream?

Why do I say the 34 years is over? Well, maybe it’s not. It could turn out to be 36 years, or 41 years, but by 2025 I can’t see the Big Critic thing remaining in any form, except memory, or perhaps in the mind of someone who fancies himself a Big Critic but isn’t really. The death knell came, of course, with the rise of the Internet and social media, which formed the basis for what is called “citizen journalism,” a lofty-sounding phrase that means, simply, that anybody can write anything and launch it into the universe, forever, with a keystroke. This is “publishing,” of a sort; it is words on a page (or screen), read by people who are interested in such things. And, occasionally, it does rise to the rigorous standards according to which modern journalism has been practiced for 100 years.

But the very universality of the Internet has proven to be the undoing of the era of the Big Critic. It’s not an either-or situation—I mean, we can have 1,000 citizen journalist wine bloggers co-existing with an aging cadre of Big Critics for a certain amount of time. But it’s an unwieldy tension; it can’t go on for much longer, because it’s inherently unbalanced: 5 or 6 Big Critics on one side of the seesaw, 1,000 and counting citizen journalists on the other side, there is no longer equilibrium, the center cannot hold. Somebody wins in such an unequal contest. The Big Critics lose, or fall off the seesaw; the citizen journalists are the victors.

And that changes everything. America changed when the populace that was not originally given the right to vote by the Founders—women, slaves, non-landowners, 18 year olds—eventually obtained that right. That tectonic shift in the weight of the voting population radically impacted the course of our country’s history: we became more “democratic” (with a small “d”), a nation in which—in theory—everyone’s voice was counted as equal. (Whether it really worked that way or not is another story…)

I for one will not regret the passing of the torch. The era of the Big Critic was fun, it was interesting, I personally benefited from it, but everything must pass. Life marches on and stops for nothing. “Eras” happen more frequently these days than they used to, and they last for a shorter time, too. The Paleozoic Era lasted for hundreds of millions of years; the Victorian Era for 64 years; we now measure eras in months (the current time has been referred to as the Era of the Selfie). It may be that future eras will be measured in microseconds.

If the Big Critic is gone (or going) then of course we are now entering the era of the Small Critic. When anyone can be a critic then everyone can be a critic: the ultimate democratization of wine criticism results in claims like this:

New app can turn even the most clueless of wine drinkers into an instant connoisseur.

From clueless to connoisseur in an instant. Welcome to the Internet! Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know. But it does seem to be related to everything else in the world that’s falling apart.


A reader comment prompts me to again address the California bashers

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It is fairly common, in the anecdote-sphere (a universe parallel to the blogosphere), for knowledgeable people to say that superpremium California wine is nearly impossible to sell back East, or even east of the Rockies.

According to this take, nobody in America likes California wine anymore, except, possibly, Californians—and even they (or so it’s claimed) are having second thoughts. The culprit? According to the anecdote-spinners, it’s due to the “imbalance” of California wine, an accusation that usually includes alcohol levels, fruity extraction and oak.

The latest expression of this theory comes via a regular reader and valued commenter on my blog. I don’t know if he wants me to name him, so I won’t, but here’s part of what he wrote yesterday, on my “I weigh in on Jamie Goode” post. I will quote him in some detail, because his points are powerfully expressed, and, as I say, one often hears similar views expressed.

“Last Winter [he wrote], I counted the glass pours at three Michelin 1* restaurants while in Chicago, all of whom carry some California wines.  The breakdown for 54 total glass pours was 39 European, 9 Southern Hemisphere and 6 Domestic (of which some were Oregon, Washington and Midwestern).  That is marginalization [of California], and if the Lords and Ladies of Napashire dare not speak of it with wine writers or their neighbors and let the unsold cases quietly pile up in American Canyon awaiting the longed for Chinese buyer, you can damn well bet that it is coming up in conversations with their accountants.”

I’ll quote more of his comment in a minute. First, let me weigh in that my commenter is absolutely correct that Napa Valley winemakers and owners do not speak of their cases “piling up in American Canyon,” presumably at one of the wine storage warehouses along Highway 29. At least, they don’t speak of it to me. So my commenter is right about that. And although I have no certain knowledge that such is the case, the anecdote-sphere also contains numerous allegations that it is indeed the case: that is, cases and cases of unsold triple-digit Cabernet piling up someplace.

My commenter also wrote: there are a lot of good, well balanced and not excessive California wines that are probably being unfairly excluded from restaurants and wine bars.  Unfortunately, these exceptions that prove the rule are suffering for the sins of the last two decades of excesses in both winemaking style and hubris that came to define California and Napa Valley.”

The reason I’ve long been in such disagreement with the anti-California (and anti-Napa Valley) bashers is because, due to my recent job, I had the opportunity to taste so much great, interesting California wine. And while it’s true that there’s a lot of crapola out there, you can say the same thing about every wine country and wine region in the world. Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater! I simply have tasted too many wonderful California wines to not realize that our state makes incredible wines; and I often pitied the bashers for not being able to taste all the good stuff I was privileged to try.

So my commenter also is correct when he states that the “good, well balanced” California wines are “unfairly excluded” from the conversation. But whose fault is that? And when did we arrive at this weird, bizarre situation where so many influential and apparently knowledgeable people—Americans all!—are so down on California wine?

It’s quite unprecedented for a large chunk of a wine-producing country’s cognoscenti to hate their own country’s wine. I can’t think of anything similar, in the long history of winemaking in Europe. If anything, the French (and, to a lesser extent, the Germans and Italians and Spanish) have been positively chauvinistic about their wines, as well they should have been; they were proud of what their nations contributed. I, too, am immensely proud of California’s contributions to the world wine scene. So, from an historical persepctive, does the situation here in the U.S.—with so much self-loathing–say something about California wine? Or does it say more about the people bashing it? “The question,” as Jesse Jackson, playing himself on Saturday Night Live, once said, “is moot.”


I weigh in on Jamie Goode’s post on “natural wine”

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As reluctant as I am to enter the minefield of any discussion about “natural wine,” I’m going to do so, because I have views on the topic, and because Jamie Goode just won a Wine Bloggers Award and if he can opine on the subject, so can I!

Jamie supported natural wine rather obliquely the other day on his blog. He didn’t quite come out and praise natural wine in multi-faceted specifics so much as give a face smack to another writer, Bruce Palling, who it seems had the temerity to criticize natural wine. Palling called the product of natural winemaking techniques “undrinkable rubbish,” a characterization Jamie took issue with, and he (Palling) also said wine writers have “a tendency…to try and keep their head down for a quiet life and never actually articulate how much of it [i.e., natural wine] they believe to be undrinkable…”.

Jamie shot that statement down, too, although it’s funny that in his article he manages to avoid any definition of “natural wine”; in fact at one point he writes, “Forget the discussions about the term ‘natural’ because that’s a sideshow.” I don’t see how defining the term to which we’re referring is “a sideshow” because, after all, if we don’t know what we’re talking about, then we shouldn’t be talking about it, should we? But for Jamie, the importance of defining the term “natural wine” is insignificant, compared to the “truly great” nature of “some natural wines”; people who don’t “get” these wines don’t have “the energy or inclination” to try them because they’re “slightly smug,” which is what he accuses Palling of being.

Well, talk about “slightly smug”! I do agree with Palling on the “head down for a quiet life” thing: there are certain topics most wine writers approach with trepidation, because these topics are complicated, controversial and ill-defined; they thus are the source of major risks (to one’s reputation; to one’s mental state; who wants to be attacked on the twittersphere over such perilous issues?). “Natural wines” is such a topic; there are others for which the philosophy “Life’s too short” apply. What is natural wine? What is sustainably-made wine? What is biodynamic wine, organic wine, green wine? I now have some knowledge of what “sustainable” means due to my job, because Jackson Family Wines is committed to sustainability and so I have caused myself to study it more closely.

But “natural wine”? I have no more idea what it really is than does Jamie. I do admit to having a sense that the whole concept is slightly muddled; there can be a cultish aspect to it, as there can about anything arcane, in which a few people believe passionately and the rest of us worry that we may be missing out on something vital. But in this case I’m not really worried. My attitude toward natural wine is the same as my attitude toward religion: You’re free to believe anything you want, as long as you don’t try to make me believe it.

Besides, I part ways with Jamie when he implies that the only “vital, dynamic stream of fine wine that is really exciting” these days is coming from the natural wine camp. That is just not true. It reminds me of the old saying “to go native,” which came from British colonial officials, living in conquered places like India, who under the influence of local conditions take on the sympathetic airs of natives, gradually losing their British ways. Or perhaps “Stockholm syndrome” is more apt: hang out long enough with radicals and you might eventually find yourself rather liking them, enough so that their beliefs start to make sense.

Anyhow, I don’t trust the claims of “minimal chemical and technological intervention” made on behalf of natural wine. No winemaker I’ve ever met claims to be in favor of “maximum” chemical and technological intervention. They all talk about hands-off approaches. It’s the first thing a winemaker says when you ask about their winemaking philosophy. But if natural wine consists of, in part, the following: no commercial yeast, no adjustment for acidity, no added sulfites, no fining or filtration (which can lead to instability), can it be any wonder that, every now and then, one runs across natural wines that taste (in Palling’s words) “like putrid apple cider, stale sherry or just as bad – characterless, bland and acidic.” We’ve all had “natural” wines out there that are that bad; one hesitates to mention names (another reason to keep one’s head down in such politically-charged waters is to avoid personal antagonisms), but I could name multiple critics and somms who agree with what I just wrote (and will name names off the record), even if they’re not ready to say so publicly.

So I’m not advocating making natural wines illegal or anything like that. I am saying that sometimes in this modern world, ideology can capture even the most well-meaning wine critic in its grip; and ideology is never a good thing, is it, because it insists that one way, and one way only, is the approved way, and everything else is false. As Palling writes, referring to the D-Day invasion of Europe that spelled the doom of Hitler’s Nazis in World War II, “it personally pains me when anyone tries to force their opinions or taste onto me or anyone else. That, after all, is what thousands of people laid down their lives to prevent, on those beaches in Normandy, precisely 70 years ago.”

 


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