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The critics, not committees, have classified California wine

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In the Spring of 1969, Roy Andries de Groot, who turned to wine- and food-writing when he became blind, was sent to California by Esquire Magazine to write about the state’s wines, on the 200th anniversary of Junipero Serra’s planting of wine grapes in San Diego.

de Groot soon realized that what he really wanted to do was what he called his “immense project”: “a Classification of American Wines,” he called it, based on the sort of official hierarchy that had been developed by the French, in the famous 1855 Classification.

(de Groot also went on to classify the wines of the Pacific Northwest and New York State, hence his reference to “American Wines.”)

As he notes in his 1982 masterwork, “The Wines of California,” de Groot had pedigreed precedence for his audacious project. There not only had been the 1855 Classification, but, a century earlier, “in 1755, a first attempt had been made to rank the wines of Bordeaux,” he wrote, followed by another in 1833. So the project was neither as audacious nor as radical as it might have appeared.

Here in California, others have attempted, from time to time, to classify the state’s wines into quality tiers. Perhaps the most controversial has been Jim Laube’s 1989 book, “California’s Great Cabernets,” in which the Wine Spectator writer rather self-consciously established five “Growths” (just like the 1855 Classification), which he populated with dozens of wineries functioning at that time. It was a worthy effort—but one doomed to failure, as California, unlike staid Bordeaux, was in the process (and still is today) of sprouting new wineries like mushrooms after an Autumn rain. When Laube wrote his book, for instance, there was no Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Verite, David Arthur, Jarvis, Araujo. The book was destined for obsolescence even before it was published. (It does, however, remain an interesting read and is important as an historical document.)

de Groot established, not five, but four tiers in his classification, although he did not numerically denote them but instead used the adjectives “Great,” “Superb,” “Noble” and “Fine,” in descending order of quality. (The only wineries he put into the “Great” category were Heitz, Schramsberg and Stony Hill.) But, just as Laube’s book of seven years later was condemned to early obsolescence, so was de Groot’s, and for the same reason. As we look at his list today, we’re struck, not only by the non-inclusion of so many wineries that simply didn’t exist in 1982, but by others that were functioning at that time, but no longer are, or that continue to exist, but not at a very high level. The list, then, is sadly out of date, although like Laube’s book, “The Wines of California” makes for good reading.

I doubt that any wine writer will ever again attempt such a hopeless task as classifying the wines of California! But then, in this modern era of, say, the last 30 years, the public doesn’t need an official list. That task has been taken over, in practical effect, by critics. Can there be any question that California Cabernets and Bordeaux blends have been unofficially ranked already, through the reviews of Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and others? This ranking has the appearance of mathematical precision because it’s based on scores of the 100-point system. Thus, in order to determine the placement of any winery in the critical classification, all you have to do is look up its scores over the years, and that will determine its position in the hierarchy. Before you object that this is a pretty flimsy basis, remember that the 1855 Classification itself—which we all hold so dear—was based in part on the prices the wines had historically fetched. Since today, price and score are irretrievably intertwined, it’s not ludicrous to base a wine’s placement by its score: the highest-scoring wines will generally be the most expensive (although the opposite is not always the case!).

There’s one huge, qualitative difference, however, between an official classification, like that of 1855, and the unofficial one created by scores. The former can never change, or does so only agonizingly slowly (Mouton-Rothschild, originally a Second Growth, was not elevated to First Growth until 1973.) But the latter, unofficial classification is constantly morphing, as wineries come into and fall out of favor, reflected in their scores. The critical classification, then, has the advantage of a built-in resilience that makes it more adaptable to change and thus more descriptive of reality, as well as more useful. A critical classification can never become obsolete, by definition.

Where things get sticky, of course, is with the proliferation of critics. In 1855 the French had a single committee to make their classification. There was nobody to challenge it (although disgruntled proprietors always have complained about their placement). Twenty years ago we had only a tiny handful of critics to make their de facto classification, and few if any dared to challenge them. Today, everybody’s a critic. This is why we have the phenomenon of multi-source rating compilers, like CellarTracker, where consumers can track reviews from multiple sources side by side for the same wine.

What I find fascinating about the new order, with its proliferation of voices and the coming of age of a younger generation, is how impervious to change the old perceived hierarchy remains. In Bordeaux the First Growths still rule. In California, the Harlans and Screaming Eagles remain at the top, although they may have had to allow some room for a few other aspirants. Something about wine—or, rather, the way we perceive it—is remarkably conservative. I wish I had a time machine and could see what the top wines are fifty years from now. For some reason, I doubt if I’d be surprised.


Who’s the best wine critic, a local or a visitor to the region?

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Old friend Nick Goldschmidt braved the terrors of I-80 through Berkeley and Emeryville to visit me in Oakland yesterday. We grabbed some sushi to go and walked over to the park, where we sat on a bench by the lake, with all the seagulls and geese, and talked. (Yes, Gus came, too.)

What did we talk about? Wine, of course. I got caught up on his adventures (Nick seems always to be somewhere in the world making wine) and he got caught up with mine. We spoke about wine critics, and Nick made an interesting statement.

He said, in effect, that he thought wine writers/reviewers should actually live in the places they write about, in order to understand the culture. For instance, he said, when Nick travels to Chile, he lives with winemakers, not in a hotel, eats their food, plays with their kids, and in general absorbs the culture. Chileans eat a lot of sushi, which accounts for many of their wines. Argentinians, by contrast, eat a lot of beef.

So what about traveling writers, like Jancis, Parker, Galloni? I asked. They don’t live in the wine regions they write about but they seem to do a pretty good job. And, I pointed out, I don’t live in wine country either.

“Yes, but you live in the Bay Area and easily travel up to Napa and Sonoma,” Nick said, which is true; and it’s also easy for me to get to the Central Coast. On the other hand, lots of wine writers only visit overseas regions once or twice a year—and then they tend to go to the same old wineries over and over, and this, too, bothered Nick.

I suppose it’s true that living in or near the wine country you write about makes the writing somewhat more authoritative. I’m not sure I agree that an understanding of the “culture” is all that relevant, though. It can’t hurt, but I like to feel that I could take the skills I’ve learned—having a decent palate and all that—and apply them to the wines of France or Croatia or South Africa, if I was reviewing them.

Winemakers always want to feel that the people critiquing their wines have as thorough an understanding as possible of those wines—where they’re from, what the underlying philosophy is, how they were made and so forth. This is perfectly understandable. The relationship between a critic and the wines he reviews is a very intimate one. This is why many wineries—not most, but a lot—won’t allow critics to taste their wines, except with the winemaker on the premises. I personally don’t subscribe to that approach, as I think it’s short-sighted; but then, I come at this from the critic’s point of view.

I think Nick’s questions raise deeper issues, and reflect an ongoing uneasiness about wine critics on the part of many winemakers. They (winemakers) work their butts off to make wine, and then their success or lack thereof is in the hands of writers who are, let’s face it, largely uncredentialed. We also talked about where wine criticism is heading, as the Boomers fade from the scene and print publications continue to try to figure out how to stay relevant. Nick asked me what I thought, and I had to admit I don’t know. After all these years of kicking the subject around on steveheimoff.com, the jury’s still out on how Millennials (the future of wine) will be basing their buying decisions in 5, 10 years.

Speaking of Nick, whose wines I’ve adored for a long time (he’s so talented), I will miss tasting the fantastic range of great wines that used to come my way, not to mention the interaction with so many talented California winemakers, some of whom have been nice enough to contact me and wish me well. I was lucky in my job: I got to taste the best that California has to offer. Not that I’m complaining: I still get to taste some fabulous wines from Jackson Family. Long before now, I should have congratulated Virginie Boone for inheriting the Napa-Sonoma portfolio of my former job at Wine Enthusiast. Good for her: she deserves it.


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


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