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History and tasting go hand in hand when it comes to wine appreciation

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We tasted through a range of Jackson Family wines the other day with the staff of the Sonoma County Vintners, and my oh my, what an impressive group they (the SCV staff, I mean) were. I remember a time when the staffs (such as they were) of these regional wine associations weren’t as professional or informed as they should have been. Of course, the Napa Valley Vintners always was the best organized, but the others—as hard as they tried—just didn’t seem able to pull it all together.

The problems were twofold: money and politics. It takes dough, and plenty of it, to run a successful regional association, and most of them, aside from Napa, just didn’t have it. Wineries didn’t want to pony up the dues, and besides, many of them felt they didn’t need a regional association—they could do all the marketing and P.R. themselves.

Then there was raw politics. You’d think that all the wineries in a region would be eager to work together to promote that region. But that wasn’t always the way it rolled. The smaller wineries would resent the bigger ones (whose money bankrolled the associations) and felt that they were getting short-shrifted. The job of Executive Director of these associations was a perilous one; people came, got in trouble with the membership, often through no fault of their own, and left after a few years, meaning that the associations were always in a state of drift.

Well, that began to change some years ago. I suppose it just took a maturation of the industry. Competition became fiercer, and winery owners began to realize that (in Franklin’s words), “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

I’ve witnessed the most astounding improvements in the last seven years or so. My most direct experience (aside from Napa Valley) was with the associations of Monterey County and Paso Robles. In both cases, I was impressed by the intelligence and passion of their leaders. Whatever improvements you’ve seen in the wines of these two areas have certainly been due, in part, to the energy of their regional associations.

I had less experience with the Santa Barbara Vintners because I tended to arrange my own travels down there (with the help of some local professionals who were glad to help me). Which brings us back to the Sonoma County Vintners. For some reason, while I was at Wine Enthusiast our/my relations had minimized over the years. I’m not sure why. Mostly my relationships were with individual wineries and winemakers in Sonoma County, and given my long history with the county, it just didn’t seem necessary to work closely with SCV.

After last Tuesday’s tasting, I wish I had. I can’t tell you how diligent and curious that group, which numbered about a dozen, was. They wanted to learn everything they could, and I felt that I could draw on my rich and varied experiences, so that our tasting was just as much about history, personalities and anecdotes as it was about the hedonics of the wines. One of the advantages of (how shall I describe it?) getting gray hairs is that you can look back over your adventures and get some perspective on things. It’s often said that younger people have no interest in History. I don’t agree, at least, from the point of view of wine. A twenty-something year old employee of a regional wine association does indeed want to hear tales of bygone times, just as much as she wants to understand how that Pinot Noir tastes and why that taste is the product of the terroir.

Actually, the two concepts—hedonic experiences of wine and history—go hand in hand. In Old Europe this has always been taken for granted. In Europe’s case, it sometimes impeded wine progress, because their cultures got so mired in traditionalism that they couldn’t move forward, even when the way to do so was obvious. Here in California, our lack of tradition—which at first the Europeans derided—turned out in retrospect to have been a blessing in disguise. That might have led some pundits to conclude that history isn’t important in California. But it is. The lines of transmission from, say, Tchelistcheff to Joe Heitz to Richard Peterson to Heidi Barrett to the entire gamut of today’s cult Cabernets are living; no proper understanding of California wine can occur without at least some understanding of how we got to where we are today.

When I was speaking last week at the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley I alluded to this topic of history and one of the students asked me to recommend some books. I’m going to do that pretty soon, right here on the blog. Reading about wine is, to me anyhow, just about as much fun as drinking it!


Post-Haas School thoughts

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We did my annual tasting and seminar last week at the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Wine Club, “we” being myself and Randy Ullum, K-J’s head winemaker.

I’ve long been a fan of Randy. I included him in my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California,” which I organized by the decade when the winemaker began his or her career. Randy was part of the 1980s section that also included (for good measure), Bob Levy, Heidi Peterson Barrett, and the brains behind Shafer, Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez.

What a decade that was. I’ll write more about it soon, but for now, I just want to say how the boutique winery movement of the 1960s and 1970s might have fizzled out, were it not for the energy the Eighties gave it. Like a shot in the arm, you might say, with the brilliance of Napa Valley now being—if not joined, then at least other regions were permitted to co-star in the play.

What I admired then about Randy, and still do, was his ability to craft small-lot wines alongside something like Vintner’s Reserve. And not just any small lots, but really great wine. Randy’s also a humorous, affable guy, and it was obvious the future MBAs at Haas liked him. The laughed a lot more at his jokes than they did at mine!

The cool thing about hanging out with the Millennials /Gen Yers who comprise the Haas Wine Club is that they offer a window into tomorrow’s smart wine consumers. They’re also tomorrow’s well-to-do wine drinkers; an MBA from Haas School ain’t chopped liver! So it’s interesting to know what they’re thinking.

Most wine tastings and seminars are given for an older crowd: for example, the folks who pay big bucks to go to something like the World of Pinot Noir. They are more or less settled into their ways. They’ll go to a Burgundy seminar because they like and collect Burgundy. Their minds are made up, you could say; older drinkers are not as open as younger ones to new wines, or from places they may be unfamiliar with. This is why there’s no event in California called World of Pinotage or World of Trebbiano or World of Croatia.

But Millennials are wide open when it comes to preferences. That’s why they’re such a huge target for wine marketers, who believe that, if they can catch a fan at a young age, they’ve got a customer for life.

Randy tasted the group, which numbered about 60, through five various tiers of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, from Vintner’s Reserve up to small production, vineyard-designated bottlings. The students were eager to learn, asking lots of good questions. I know, from having done this class for the last 7 or 8 years, that among them, you’ll find varying degrees of wine knowledge. Some are absolute neophytes, while others have done a lot of tasting and reading. When you’re doing a seminar like that, you have to try and make everyone happy. In the case of the Haas School Wine Club, it’s never hard. They’re a very un-snobby bunch, but at the same time they’re there to learn. I would rather speak to people like that, who have few if any preconceptions about what’s good or bad, important or unimportant, and just want to soak up every bit of knowledge they can.

I never rehearse for such classes. What’s the point? I like to keep things impromptu, on the theory that what’s real is better than a canned speech. And besides, those kids’ questions keep it real. I don’t have any problem thinking on my feet, which is probably partly because I’m from The Bronx (if you’re not on your feet in The Bronx, you’re on your back), but also because I have a lot of thoughts in my head all the time about wine—or about the particular wine topics I’m interested in—so it’s easy for me to expound on them. Just don’t let me go on too long!

I covered the first part of the two-hour class; these Haas students always are interested in things pertaining to being a wine critic. Then Randy took over, and he was smart enough to realize that the class would be interested in some of the business-related aspects of the K-J company. So he intertwined talk about that, even while he presented a thorough tasting and explanation of the various terroirs from which the Chardonnays came.

My favorite among the five Chards (with all due respect to the others) was the 2012 Camelot Highlands, from Santa Maria Valley. I’ve given that wine 90-plus scores over nine vintages, a pretty good track record for a Chardonnay. My readers know I’m a Chardonnay guy anyway, but that Camelot, which is from the so-called Tepusquet Bench of the valley, a hop and skip away from Bien Nacido (Cambria is inbetween), is one I could drink all the time.

As for my new gig, well, so many of you want to know how it’s going that I’ll report here from time to time. In short, it’s great. I’m settling into the new routine, which continues to evolve in the scope of my responsibilities. One of the best parts is that K-J encourages me to bring Gus along with me (for the most part—obviously there are limitations), whereas at my last job, Gus could sometimes be an issue. As I’ve said before, a challenge of my former profession was to get people to see me as me, not their image of me. I never liked that part of the job—being defined by my job. I respected people for seeing me that way, but I always tried to show them the real me. I think all well-known wine critics feel the same way. The job description comes with humility. Or at least, it had better.


How much time did you say Millennials spend on the media? Really? Wow.

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The most stunning finding from Ipsos Media’s new study on social media is that Millennials spend an average of 17.8 hours a day perusing (if that’s the right word) the media.

Assuming they must sleep at some point, that means that nearly all of Millennials’ waking hours are spent looking at or listening to a smartphone, tablet, computer, radio, movie or T.V. screen or even the printed page!

How do they find the time to do anything else?

The actual point of the study was about user-generated content (UGC), a buzzword that, according to Wikipedia, entered mainstream use in 2005. Wikipedia says “The advent of user-generated content marked a shift among media organizations from creating online content to providing facilities for amateurs to publish their own content.” So, for example, anything that lets you put information out there on the Internet (a blog, Twitter, Instagram) is an example of UGC.

It’s clearly cheaper for media organizations to have users create content, rather than for the corporations to have to pay for it. On the downside is the fact that UGC sites cannot charge nearly as much for advertising that sites (usually bricks-and-mortar) charge. This is why we see Facebook and Twitter constantly trying out new ways of sneaking ads into our feeds.

The study’s authors report that 53% of Millennials say UGC influences their buying decisions, compared to 44% who trust traditional media more. Of that 53%, nearly three-quarters (74%) say their most “trustworthy” form of UGC is “conversations with friends/family” (although, to me, a “conversation” with actual people isn’t really an example of user-generated content. Am I missing something?) Anyhow, that compares with only 44% who find “print magazines or newspapers” to be trustworthy.

That will come as welcome news to my friends who are steeped deeply into social media. It means, for instance, that a Millennial who’s looking to buy a bottle of wine will give more credence to a “conversation with family/friends” than a recommendation in a wine magazine.

Well, duh. I’m sure that’s true for most people who buy a bottle of wine. Wine magazines and wine columns in newspapers aren’t for everyone, they’re for people whose interest in wine has risen above a certain base level. These folks may not realize it, but if they’re listening to a wine recco from a magazine or newspaper, they have officially dipped one toe into the Sea of Geekdom. Hey, dive right in, the water’s warm and comforting!

It’s interesting to note from the study that, while we tend to associate Millennials with online social media and not so much with television, they actually watch quite a bit of the boob tube. While 71% of them report daily use of social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.), nearly as many—60%–watch live TV everyday. And may I be so bold as to suggest that a momentary glimpse of their Facebook feed pales in comparison to watching a 30-minute TV program. That suggests that wine companies might consider advertising on the TV shows that Millennials watch, but (cf. my reference above to advertising), most wineries could never even begin to advertise on Colbert or the Daily Show.

I suppose the challenge for wineries today is the same as it was six years ago when I began blogging: How do you get Millennials (or anyone else) to recommend your wines to their friends and followers? That’s the million-dollar question. No one’s yet figured out the answer. While they’re trying to, I suggest wineries continue to send samples to the top print critics and other tastemakers. The two approaches are not mutually exclusive.


Wednesday wraparound: the perils of prejudice, and the limits of social media

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1961 was, as all Bordeaux lovers know, one of those “vintages of the century” when nearly all the chateaux produced rich, ageworthy wines. However, one chateau, La Lagune, a Third Growth of the Médoc that has had a stellar reputation, apparently didn’t fare so well among critics. Eddie Penning-Rowsell, in The Wines of Bordeaux, wrote that the winery “probably over-sugared the [1961] wine, as it has struck me as excessively sweet.” Michael Broadbent, in The Great Vintage Wine Book, chose not to review it in depth at all, and merely listed it, along with several dozen others, as not tasted recently. Oz Clarke, in his New Encyclopedia of French Wines, wrote that “the experts say that 1961 wasn’t a success at La Lagune,” although he himself, tasting it decades later, liked it enough to buy 8-1/2 cases.

Then there was Harry Waugh who, in his 1970 diary, Pick of the Bunch, referred to his visit to Chateau Bouscaut, in the Graves, where the proprietor opened a 1962 La Lagune. “With my recollection of the, shall I say, ‘curious’ 1961 vintage of that Chateau, I was reluctant to try it,” Harry wrote, delicately; he must have reviewed it in one of his diaries I do not own, but it cannot have been a good review. Most likely, if we are to believe Penning-Rowsell, if the wine indeed had been over-chaptalised, Harry, who liked his Bordeaux classically dry, would not have cared for it.

Harry did, however, drink that ’62 La Lagune and found it “both charming and delicious…”. He concluded: I “had to eat my words…The prejudices one can form are really frightening!”

It is those “prejudices” I wish to write about today. Harry had formed a prejudice against La Lagune that rose up in his mind as soon as he saw the bottle of 1962. Fortunately, Harry was a fair enough taster that he was able to overcome that prejudice and appreciate the beauty of the ’62. But can we say that of all professional tasters? Indeed, “frightening” is not too strong a word to describe the attitudes of some of them, whose condemnation of certain wines, based on their presuppositions, is all the more pernicious due to their influence.

* * *

Good friend Adam Japko, from Digital Sherpa, sent me this link to an article on CEOs using social media “to drive business results.” Adam is, of course, very high on social media and a passionate explicator of it. The article profiles 5 CEOs who use social media a lot; it goes on to explain in each case how that use “helps drive business results.”

I suspect Adam sent me the link because he (like some others who know me) thinks I’m a bit of a skeptic when it comes to social media and ROI. Notice I said “ROI” rather than “driving business results,” because I think the two are vastly different. We all understand what ROI means because it’s about money and can be measured. Unfortunately the article doesn’t define the meaning of “driving business results,” so we really have no way of knowing if, say, Doug Conant’s 24,000 Twitter followers are having any impact on Avon’s bottom line: are his tweets selling more cosmetics, jewelry, watches? Maybe yes, maybe no; it’s hard for me, at any rate, to make that leap. The article suggests, logically, that Conant’s commitment to social media “is passed on to executives and all [Avon] employees” by dint of his leadership position, but again, just how that translates into increased sales isn’t entirely clear. If we actually knew what “driving business results” meant, we might, however, be able to come to a definitive conclusion!

As I’ve said before, I too encourage all professionals to use social media, as often as feels comfortable. It can’t hurt; it can only help. I myself use it all the time. And my new employer, Jackson Family Wines, is a firm believer in social media; in fact, part of my job is to write for their blogs. I suppose they feel that, given the success I’ve made of steveheimoff.com, I know a thing or two! (And so do they. Remember “A Really Goode Job“? That made social media history.)

If, as Fortune Magazine reports, “70% of Fortune 500 CEOs aren’t using social media,” that’s pretty shocking to me: they should be. But you have to ask yourself why they’re not; after all, these are not stupid men and women. It may be that these CEOs have determined that all the commotion about social media is overblown. On the other hand, they may actually be missing the bus—so overwhelmed by their own sense of genius that they think social media is a ridiculous hobby for only the “little people” who have too much time on their hands. Or—a third possibility—maybe they feel they can just hire employees to do the social media thing, and they don’t have to do it themselves.

It would be nice to have a time machine and see how all this shakes out by, say, 2025. In all my life, I’ve never seen a societal trend whose future, with all its consequences, is as hard to predict, as that of social media. Sometimes when I fantasize about it, all I can think of is humans getting hard-wired with computer chips in our brains, connected all the time to the Matrix.

MatrixMan


Superstar winemakers, blind tasting and bias

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When I began writing about wine in the 1980s the “celebrity winemaker” had not yet been invented. I use this verb “invented” deliberately, in the sense that it was the media that came up with the concept that the guiding hand behind a great wine or, more accurately, a series of great wines must be a “genius” winemaker, the way Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs was a genius in his field.

It’s odd, because for hundreds of years the world had enjoyed great wine (Bordeaux, Burgundy) whose winemakers were unknown. Credit had used to be given to the winery and/or the terroir. Suddenly, by the 1990s, writers were proclaiming this or that winemaker as “stars” and, the ultimate accolade, “superstars,” almost as though the vineyard and its terroir were irrelevant.

Tom Wark recently opined intelligently on this topic, and included a list of superstar winemakers, from olden times to today, whose names make them as famous (in our little world of wine) as rock stars or movie stars. His theory is that this celebration of the winemaker continues today because “[W]e live in an age of self promotion and elevated promotional opportunities,” which surely is the truth; and, given this current zeitgeist, the media loves nothing more than to elevate someone to the pantheon of “star.” And, after all, a magazine can give a big award to a living winemaker and bask therefore in her glory!

I’ll just add to Tom’s trenchant analysis that I think today people want more of a personal connection with the winery and winemaker. They didn’t used to: Lafite and Latour became famous despite no one knowing anything about who made them. Even here in the U.S. a wine like Beaulieu Private Reserve was famous before many people had heard of André Tchelistcheff. But the advent of the modern media and the Internet in particular has given people the ability to know more about their wines and other things, and they want to know everything about these celebrated vintners behind the brands. Call it the People-magazinization of the industry.

I would think this phenomenon creates some difficulties for shier winemakers who don’t really enjoy all the fuss of public appearances and endless schmoozing with adoring fans. They may find that their reticence has economic consequences. Nowadays it’s so important for vintners to hit the road for winemaker dinners and tastings with important clients, such as sommeliers, merchants, writers and even distributors. These people are called “gatekeepers” or “tastemakers,” for it is they who decide what is sold (on wine lists and store shelves) and what isn’t. This gets us into the intricacies and difficulties of the distribution system, which is so infamously replete with problems; gets us, also, treacherously near to that Holy Grail of the modern wine industry, direct-to-consumer purchasing, through wine clubs and the like. DTC may indeed be the solution for the small winery that finds it difficult to get picked up by the large distributors, but DTC is not the end-all and be-all of sales: winemakers still have to get their faces out there, whether via You Tube, the winery’s blog or what have you.

Once upon a time (I’ll revert back to old Harry Waugh), the gatekeepers traveled to the wineries. These days there are simply too many wineries for gatekeepers to go to, even such well-traveled ones as Jancis Robinson; they can visit only the smallest proportion of properties in any given appellation. So, in an version of the old saw, “If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed then Mohammed must go to the mountain” (attributed to the 17th century statesman and essayist, Francis Bacon), today’s winemakers must go to the tastemakers and show them what they’ve got. This assumes that the tastemakers themselves are fair and honest. The worst thing a tastemaker can do is to be biased, either for a winery they’re impressed by, or against one they assume cannot be top tier. You’d think it was hardly possible for someone in the powerful and sensitive position of being a tastemaker to be biased, but guess what? There is bias out there, ranging from overt to subtle–and sometimes the tastemakers themselves don’t even see the beam in their own eye (Matthew 7:1). If I were writing a Consumer’s Bill of Rights with respect to tastemakers, especially critics, I’d insist that all tasting resulting in a review be conducted under formal blind tasting protocols–or, absent that, that disclaimers be published alongside the reviews!


Some thoughts from a recovering wine critic

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Now that I am a recovering wine critic, and one moreover who used to employ the 100-point system, I am perhaps in a unique position to talk about it, with all its pluses and minuses.

I have written time and again that the awarding of a point score is nothing more nor less than my impression of a particular wine at a particular moment of time. Tom Wark, at his Fermentation wine blog, puts this more clearly: a wine score is simply a way of “communicating the momentary impact of a wine on a critic’s mind.” It has always seemed to me that the public understands this (which is the important thing), while a stubborn cadre of writers/critics/bloggers does not. Tom’s analogy with “a ranking of the top 10 Second Basemen” in the history of baseball is perfectly apt, as would be a comparison of wine scores with, say, the Top Ten Movies of All Time–clearly not a scientific measure of precision, but someone’s personal take on film. And to accuse such a listing of being non-scientific is neither to detract from its usefulness nor to make perusing it any less pleasurable.

The 100-point system was not difficult for me to embrace because long before I got my job as California critic for Wine Enthusiast, I had subscribed to Wine Spectator (and worked there for a few years), and so had gotten used to a numerical rating system of 100 points (which, as I always remind people, is not really 100 points, because the different periodicals have different bases below which they don’t go. For example, at Wine Enthusiast it’s 80 points, so theirs is really a 20-point system. I don’t know how low Wine Spectator goes. I’ve heard of scores in the 60s, so theirs would be a 35-point system or thereabouts. Even the blogger Joe Roberts, who goes by 1WineDude, some time ago went to a A-B-C-D-F rating system that includes minuses and pluses, so it’s really a 13-point system (if I’m counting correctly). It’s clear that consumers want (or, at least, critics think they want) some immediate way of appraising the wine, aside and apart from the verbiage; and these various numerical schemes give them just that.

We all know that Robert Parker is justly famous for “inventing” the 100-point system, but in fact he was hardly the first to use point scores. Harry Waugh, whom I’ve been referring to frequently over the last week because I’m re-reading his delightful books, used a 20-point (although sometimes it was only a 10-point) system, but he may have been the first to use the word “plus,” which is a sort of half-point; for example, in a tasting of 1971 Médocs, he scored Haut-Batailley at “17 plus/20.” Why he didn’t score it simply 17 or 18 is beyond me, but in this case we have to infer that his wasn’t actually a 20-point system, but rather a 30-point system (since, if Haut-Batailley could fall inbetween whole numbers, then so in theory could any other wine). I never heard anyone criticize Harry Waugh for assigning meaningless numbers to an essentially subjective, aesthetic experience, but then, Harry had the good fortune to live and write in an era of civility, which is not always the case today.

I won’t miss working with the 100-point system, not at all, although I suspect there always will be a part of me that mentally assigns a number to every wine I taste, even though I’ll mostly keep that to myself. I’ve nothing against just enjoying a glass of wine, providing, of course, it’s a good wine; but I do like putting the wine into the context of all the other wines I’ve had the opportunity to taste in my lifetime. How much more enjoyable it is to be able to single out a wine for special praise than merely liking it, as one has liked thousands of other wines. That’s part of the love of wine, too: having your mind blown. A wine that blows my mind is one that scores in the high 90s, maybe even a perfect 100 points.

I suppose that as time passes I may have some other thoughts about wine scoring but for now, my thinking hasn’t changed from before-Jackson Family to afterward. I still think that wine critics are needed in order to help the general public wade through the tsunami of wine that washes over us every day. I still think that not all critics are equal: Some are more credible than others, and just because someone has the right and technical ability to get their views out there on the Web doesn’t make those views worthwhile. I still think the 100-point system is a pretty good one, at least as good as any other number- or letter-based system, and possibly better since it’s more nuanced. I still think the job or career of wine writing is a noble one whose antecedents stretch proudly back into time. I still think wine is God’s gift to humankind, although a properly-timed vodka martini is not to be dismissed! And I remain grateful that this country has gone from one of woeful ignorance about fine wine when I started out, to a wine savvy nation where quality is the highest it’s ever been.


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