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Wednesday wraparound: Boredom, urban wineries, and medals, medals, medals

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Once upon a time, people bought the wines they liked and had trusted over many years, because they knew they would not be disappointed.

It may have been a Gallo Hearty Burgundy, or a Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, a Chianti or Mateus or Wente Grey Riesling. The wines could always be found on the local supermarket shelf, and the price didn’t break the bank.

That was then; nowadays, we have “the paradox of choice. Overstimulated by so many options,” writes Joyce Goldstein, in Inside the California Food Revolution, “we have become accustomed to constant change and instant boredom.”

Granted, Joyce is talking about how and where we eat—the amazing proliferation of types of cuisine we have at our disposal. But the same could be said about wine. And this is making life very difficult for the small family winemaker.

I was hanging out yesterday with a guy who owns his own wine brand, but he’s not likely to in the future. Business is not good, and he, himself, doesn’t know what to do about it. He can’t afford a staff, which means he has to do it all: vineyard contracting, winemaking, sales, marketing (such as it is) and all the rest. This is obviously too much for one person, so the end of the road is near.

It’s a sad story, especially since I’ve known this guy and know what a terrific winemaker he is. But his plight is the direct result of Joyce’s observation about our food proclivities: We’re accustomed to constant change, and we grow quickly bored. Under those circumstances, someone might have bought my friend’s wine and enjoyed it. But that person will be reluctant to become a loyal customer because of this constant search for the new and different.

I don’t know what the answer is. There may not be one. Not every problem has a solution. And it’s not enough to warn a young person not to get into the wine business, because when you’re young, you’re starry-eyed and ambitious, and you can’t believe that all your dreams might not come true. They might not—but usually, people don’t realize that until they’re in the forties.

* * *

Our little, homegrown East Bay Vintners Alliance is preparing for their annual fiesta. This year it’s August 2, down at Jack London Square. This is the Oakland version of “the urban wine experience,” a keen piece of marketing wines made in our nation’s increasingly popular, hip cities. For whatever reason, the phenomenon (if that’s what it is) is getting widespread press. For instance, there’s an article in the latest issue of “Via,” the AAA magazine, called “Wineries go to town,” that includes several of the East Bay’s locals: Donkey & Goat and Rosenblum, as well as wineries in San Francisco (Bluxome Street) and Portland (Enso).

I’ll be at the August 2 event and hope to see you there!

* * *

Not to knock my friends who organize and judge at the California State Fair’s wine contest, but a headline like “Thousands of medals awarded in State Fair wine completion” doesn’t exactly gain my respect. According to the local ABC affiliate, “There were 2,829 wine entries in this year’s competition. A panel of judges awarded 2,068 medals to competitors.” That’s a lot of medals: nearly half of all the wines won one. Bragging rights are, of course, the payoff for winning a medal—but something about this kind of inflated result makes me think of Garrison Keilor’s witticism about the kids of Lake Wobegon: “and all the children are above average.”

Have a good day!


Oakland hosts an important wine tasting–and in my neighborhood!

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They started calling my neighborhood in Oakland “Uptown” a few years ago. That was when the restaurants began moving in, and the new condos and bars and clubs, making it one of the Bay Area’s hottest ‘hoods. But one thing Uptown never had was a fancy wine tasting event for the public.

Well, Saturday night brought a breakthrough of sorts. It was called the Spring Wine Event, and it was held in a place called Impact Hub, a former auto showroom (I think it was Cadillac-Porsche) back when this stretch of Broadway was called Auto Row. The redeveloper has taken the industrial-sized place and turned it into a high-ceilinged, post-modern space perfect for events of this sort.

I’d been invited to the tasting by a guy, Michael DeFlorimonte, whom I’d never heard of, so I called him up to ask why he’d reached out to me. Seems a winemaker had recommended he ask me, especially since I live only a ten-minute walk away. So Mike did, and I’m so glad. He explained to me that the event was largely for the African-American community, which is fantastic, because that community has been overlooked and underserved by the broader wine industry, which seems like it focuses its efforts (at the premium end, at any rate) elsewhere—why, I’ve never known.

Anyway, this was a glamorous event. I was underdressed, as I usually am. Most of the wines being poured were from tiny new wineries I’d never heard of, many of them produced at a facility on Treasure Island, which is familiar to Bay Area motorists as the mid-way point on the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland. I’m going to have to go out there one of these days to check out this interesting, urban wine scene.

Here are some of the wines I really liked: L’Objet Wines 2009 Pinot Noir Reserve, a $32 blend of Russian River, Santa Maria Valley, Anderson Valley and Sonoma Coast; Longevity 2013 Pijot Grigio ($24), from Livermore Valley, actually a rosé and a very good one; Urban Legend 2012 Windem Ranch Sauvignon Blanc ($19), which confirms everything I’ve always liked about Lake County; and Greyscale 2011 Cuvée Blanc ($34), a Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon blend from Napa Valley made in the Graves style. There were a few wines that were pretty ordinary, and two in particular that were disasters: both from a high-end, expensive Napa Valley producer whose name I will not reveal, but whom you all would recognize. They were awful, horrible, crimes against wine, and my first thought on tasting them was, “Wow. They dumped these wines at a tasting where they thought people might not be that discerning.” I considered saying something to the pourer, but then reconsidered: not my problem. But it was very sad. Does this sort of thing go on very much? Did the winery think no one would notice because it was “only” downtown Oakland? Someone noticed: me.


Retrospective: World of Pinot Noir

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Last Saturday morning’s seminar on “Terroir: The Soul of La Côte d’Or” was an absolute delight. It’s no easy thing to rouse an audience of several hundred at 9 a.m. in the morning of the second day of a major wine and food event, after a night in which most of them partied hard and went to bed late. But Don Kinnan did it.

John Haeger, who wrote North American Pinot Noir, used to have this time slot for his “Pinot Noir 101” seminar, which we always enjoyed (“we” meaning myself and all the other attendees; I haven’t adapted use of the Papal “We,” yet). But Mr. Kinnan, who appears to be of a certain age, was new to most of us, and we didn’t know quite what to expect.

Turns out he’s an ex-Kobrand guy, where he was director of education, and also holds the Certified Wine Educator certificate from the Society of Wine Educators. Don not only “knows his stuff” when it comes to Burgundy, but also made one of the greatest presentations (complete with Power Point) I’ve ever seen. He had everybody captivated with his graceful, informed and easy approach.

We tasted 9 wines, from 9 villages, 8 producers and 4 vintages, in order to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of terroir. Don explained how Burgundy is comprised of 3,800 estates, not to mention 250 negociants, spread over 101 appellations, which makes it a terribly complicated place. “It takes faith to believe in [the reality of] terroir, which cannot be proven by the scientific method,” Don told us. Of course, I’ve grown up with conventional notions of Burgundian terroir: Volnay delicate, Vosne powerful, Beaune elegant, Chambolle feminine, but unless you really drink a lot of these wines, you don’t know these things first-hand. Don wanted to show us how the old notions of regional differences are true, and he largely succeeded.

First, he tackled an issue I’ve written much about on this blog: “terroir” is the soil and climate, but the human element has to be considered, in the form of vineyard management and the winemaking process. The combination of the two is what I have called “cru,” after Emile Peynaud, but of course, as Don said, in Burgundy the idea is for the human to stand back and let terroir star. (His most controversial statement may have been, “In the New World there’s more human influence than in the Old World,” which, if true, would minimize terroir.)

I won’t go through all nine of my tasting notes, except to say that Don had us taste blind, and, based on his superb and clear definitions of what to expect in the wines, I got all of them right. This surely is the highest performance a wine educator is capable of: To describe wines in such chiseled detail, in a way that makes so much sense, that you’re able to identify them blind. For me, the stars of the show were a Clos de Vougeot, Domaine Hudelot-Noellat 2004, and a spectacular Volnay, 2006 Taillepieds from Domaine de Montille, that was so good, it made my seatmate to the left, Dick Doré, from Foxen, smile ear to ear. I can only say that wine gave me a permanent Platonic idea of Volnay.

After that peak experience, it was hard to go back to California Pinot Noir. But I made a valiant effort, and have to say our state has no reason to hang its head. To fall ever so short of a world class masterpiece like that Volnay is not embarrassing. I tasted a lot of wine that Saturday, under the white tents on the bluffs above the Pacific beach as the fog rolled relentlessly in, but I took no notes. I never take notes at crowded venues like World of Pinot Noir. They’re not conducive to thoughtful tasting, and even logistically, you can’t hold your glass, your spit cup and your pad and pen in two hands! Not to mention a lack of level surfaces upon which to write.

But I do enjoy visiting the various wineries, trying new things, connecting with old friends, making new ones, and deepening my understanding of things in general. I will add only that, late Saturday afternoon, the WOPN people arranged for a final pair of seminars, including a Talley one to which I went, Talley being an old favorite and Brian Talley an old acquaintance. Brian brought along his winemaker, Eric Johnson, and together they made a formidable presentation, and the wines, of course, were great. However, by 5 p.m., several of the attendees were obviously drunk, and while some of us tried to get them to shut up by polite requests and tapping silverware on our crystal glasses, alas, it was to no avail. The silent, respectful majority of us were irritated, and I think Brian was, too (although he’s too much the gentlemen to reveal such things). It is really awful how thoughtless and rude some people can be. The WOPN organizers may want to rethink these 5 p.m. Saturday seminars.

But that was a minor cloud on an otherwise fabulous World of Pinot Noir. Check it out next year.


A Ribera del Duero tasting

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Master Sommelier Yoon Ha, from San Francisco’s acclaimed Benu restaurant, did a great job presiding over yesterday’s Ribera del Duero tasting and seminar, held at the Ferry Building on a gloomy, gray day. We had six different wines, all current releases and all 100% Tempranillo, that illustrated what Yoon called “the diversity” that characterizes this 30-year old Denominacíon de Origen.

Yoon, who lived several years in Ribera, is high on the wines, as are many of his colleague somms in the City. I can see why. They’re wines of great elegance and finesse, ranging through the unoaked or only lightly oaked Jovens, to the Crianzas (aged two years, with a minimum of one year in barrel), Reservas (aged three years, with a minimum of one year in oak) and Gran Reservas (aged five years at minimum, with a minimum of two years in barrel). It was amusing to read, in the tech notes, that “During harvest each winery is assigned a surveyor by the Consejo Regulador of D.O. Ribera del Duero” to regulate the origin of the grapes, the varieties and percentages allowed, winemaking procedures, and so on. I had to smile at the thought of the California Department of Food and Agriculture sending “Reguladors” to each winery to police their practices. I asked Yoon if he thought that such bureaucratic intrusion was good for the wines, or if it inhibited innovation. He replied, in effect, that it was probably good, for it ensures a certain continuity of style and helps keep unqualified dabblers from harming Ribera’s reputation.

Here are my tasting notes:

1. D.O.5. Hispanobodegas S.L.U. Viña Gormaz 2010. All stainless steel. Bone dry with supple tannins and racy acidity. So fresh, elegant and clean, with sour red cherry candy fruit. So versatile with such a range of food, and only $10. An amazing value. I was with young Joey Franzia, of Bronco, and he loved this wine.

2. Bodegas Felix Callejo Crianza 2007. A touch of oak brings toast and eucalyptus. Reminded me of a Johnson Turnbull Cabernet from the 1990s. Great weight, body, very rich and deeply flavored. Black currants. Bone dry, complex, thick, supple tannins. Another super-versatile wine at the table. $14.

3. Protos B. Ribera Duero de Peñafiel Tinto Fino 2009. A little muted at first. Dry, elusive, complex. Herbs, dried cherries, earth. From 25-year old vines. Intense, austere, elegant, tannic, good acidity. $15 a bottle.

4. Alejandro Fernandez-Tinto Pesquera Crianza 2009. Very concentrated and intense. Dark color–great power and substance. Bone dry, clean, touch of raisins. Alcohol 14.0%. Spent 18 months in American oak. Concentrated, great weight. $28.

5. Explotaciones Valduero Reserva 2005. Picking up aged character, dried fruit, mushrooms. Bone dry, thick. Thirty months total in oak. Elegant, complex. Develops in the glass. Impressive. $32.

6. Viñedos Y Bodegas Garcia Figuero Tinto Figuero Reserva 2004. Sweeter than the others–from oak? 70% American wood, 30% French. Big wine, dry, powerful, from 50-year old vines. Dried fruits, balsam, grilled meat. Very serious wine. Great weight, power. Bone dry on the finish. Tannins rich, smooth, supple. Easily the standout of the flight. I asked Yoon what food from Benu he would pair this with and he said the rabbit cassoulet with black truffle bun, from the restaurant’s tasting menu. Then he added, “And it’s great with Mexican food, especially with mole.”  This wine retails for $38.

I loved these Ribera wines. Compared to California (say, Sangiovese or Tempanillo or even Merlot), they’re drier, sleeker, earthier, more austere and elegant. I wrote of all six wines “subtle power” but was struck also by their food-friendly versatility and pricing. The low prices can be explained by two factors, I think: most of the vineyard land has been in the family for generations, so there’s no bank debt on it; and Spain’s horrible economy prohibits producers from charging too much, since much of the production is consumed in country. There is evidently a great desire on the part of Ribera producers to export to the U.S.

California has little or nothing to compare with these wines, from the Temps I’ve had. The best California Tempranillo I ever tasted was the Jarvis 2008 (Napa Valley, $53, 94 points), a delicious wine indeed, but with its strong oak, softness and powerfully sweet fruit, it was all California. Somewhere between a Crianza and a Reserva, I should think, was the Maisonry 2008 Tempranillo, from the Stagecoach Vineyard (Napa Valley, $42, 88 points). I liked its dry, medium-bodied weight, but then, it contained some Cabernet Franc; California Tempranillo on its own can be one-dimensional. Other Temp producers that have caught my eye–and you have to give them credit for marching against the market–are Twisted Oak, Longoria, Six Sigma, Curran and Bella Luna.


Getting by on a wing, a prayer–and another breakout session

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It’s hardly surprising that “Profitability is the top concern this year for wine industry professionals,” as was reported yesterday.

Dr. Robert Smiley, at U.C. Davis, did a survey of managers and found that “profit margins ranked the most significant wine business trend, garnering virtually a 4 on a five-point scale.”

Any wine company always wants to make a profit at the end of the day, but in these perilous economic times, making a profit–however marginal–can spell the difference between survival and going belly up. I talk to a lot of winemakers, winery owners and winery business managers, and I can tell you that, when they’re being frank (which they aren’t always), and they know we’re off the record, they confess in the most startling terms how tough things are out there.

Just the other day, somebody (an unusually well informed winemaker consultant) told me that one third of the wineries in Sonoma County are up for sale. This is an astounding number. Even if its somewhat exaggerated, it’s probably close to the truth. Imagine being at the helm of a small or medium sized family winery. You’ve always managed to make enough money to keep a few of your relatives employed and live the lifestyle. But these days, the pressure on prices is so strongly in a negative direction that you lie awake at night, worrying how you’re going to get through the next quarter.

That’s why “profit margins” are more important these days than ever. This also explains the next most significant concerns by owners, as reported by Smiley: cost of materials, “pricing pandemonium,” distribution and “new consumer values and how to work with them.”

About “cost of materials,” one of the most significant is fuel, and there’s not much a proprietor can do about that. “Pricing pandemonium” refers to the inexorable demand, on the part of buyers, to pay less and less for wine. Producers would love to raise prices to gain a little breathing space, but they just can’t. I’ve heard stories of buyers getting competing sellers together in the same room and saying, in effect, “Okay, guys, who can undercut whom the worst?” It’s like feeding slaves to the lions at the Roman Coliseum. And that’s assuming that the salesmen can get their product into the distribution system, which is far from the case.

This explains “new consumer values and how to work with them.” It’s not clear from the reporting just what these “new consumer values” are, but we can assume that proprietors are thinking of two things: “values” in the monetary sense of the word (i.e. consumers are looking for value wines) and “values” in the sense of a new generation of younger consumers, who are alleged to think and behave differently from their parents and grandparents.

It’s likely, if you’re a 50- or 60-something proprietor or top level manager, that you look at the younger generation with bemusement. Everything you hear and intuitively feel tells you they’re different. They tweet and Facebook and text; they don’t listen to traditional influencers; they’re much more tuned into peer persuasion than your generation; they want to be engaged by wineries, not manipulated by them, or taken for granted. This makes older proprietors scratch their heads, and look to anyone who can possibly explain to them how to get through to this population. That’s why the upcoming (Sept. 19-20) Wine Industry Financial Symposium will address this topic. Attendees will flock to breakout sessions like Jayson Woodbridge’s “Forget Marketing-Change the Game” and John Gillespie’s “What’s Next for the Wine Market? Reading the Tea Leaves of Research,” where they will carefully inspect every utterance and dissect every statistic with the diligence of ancient soothsayers analyzing the entrails of a slain beast for clues and prophesies. They will take notes, ask questions, network, and then go home, there to resume the fight to make a profit, keep costs under control, get distributed and, if they’re lucky, make a little progress on direct-to-consumer. They’ll probably be just as frustrated about those pesky “new consumer values” as they were going in, but maybe they’ll leave with a few new ideas. And believe me, in these times, new ideas–hope–is what gets you through the night.


You scratch my back and…when wineries and charities both benefit

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Had a call from a friend, Larry Schaffer, proprietor of Tercero Wines, in Santa Barbara. He wanted to know if I could come to an event next month in San Francisco, a promotional thing between the Rhone Rangers (on whose board Larry sits) and The GAVI Alliance, an international nonprofit that combats pneumonia in children. GAVI’s supporters include U.N.  Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Larry explained that each Rhone Ranger member winery had decided to donate $10 for each case of Syrah sold during November to GAVI. He was looking for help promoting the event.

As it turned out, I couldn’t go. But I was curious as to how and why the partnership between the Rhone Rangers and GAVI had come about. Larry explained that, last June, Eric Asimov had written a piece on his New York Times blog, at The Pour, that was super critical of California Syrah. Eric had repeated the tired old joke (which I’ve now heard about 25 times), “What’s the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.” He said some rather harsh things about California Syrah (“dreadfully generic”) that I don’t agree with–that’s not the point–but it was a kick in the groin for California Syrah producers, who are struggling.

Shortly after Eric’s piece, a doctor named Orin Levine wrote a piece on the Huffington Post in which he said that, after reading The Pour, he’d had an idea: In recognition of World Pneumonia Day 2010, “I am asking all winemakers and wine retailers to contribute $10 from every case of Syrah they sell in November to the GAVI Alliance, and asking American wine drinkers to make Syrah their wine of choice in November.” Levine seems to have clout. The Rhone Rangers heard about his challenge, one thing led to another, and ergo, the event in San Francisco next month. Even Stephen Tanzer jumped in, following a Rhone Rangers-GAVI tasting in New York, and urged consumers to support the effort, under his cleverly named blog posting, “Pneumonia’s Last Syrah.”

Larry Schaffer was frank in his talk with me in conceding that the Rhone Rangers’ reason for working with GAVI is as much to gain publicity for California Syrah as it is to help kids with pneumonia. Last week, I went to the big Mondavi family dinner, held in conjunction with Morton’s The Steakhouse, to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It was clear to me then that the various Mondavi brands involved were happy to be helping kids out, but were also happy to see their names connected, in a positive way, with concepts of helpfulness, compassion, love and sharing.

My cynical gene kicks in here. How much of a winery’s motivation is due to the desire for publicity, and how much is true concern for the charity? Is there in fact a difference? It’s impossible to know for sure, since I’m not a mind reader; but in the case of wineries and charities, the question actually is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the winery’s real motive is. What matters is how much money the winery is able to help these charities deliver. In the end, these are win-win situations, good for everybody involved. In the case of California Syrah and the Rhone Rangers, I’m happy to pass the message along: during the month of November, if you find yourself needing a red wine, consider buying a California Syrah, and especially one by a Rhone Rangers member. There are dozens of great ones, from up and down and across the state. And memo to Eric Asimov: you were being a little harsh on California Syrah. Lighten up. Don’t shop for the quote that trashes. Give equal treatment for defenders, of whom I am one.


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