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The Hill grape fraud case does NOT taint Napa Valley!

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Last week’s very long (3,700 word) article in the New York Times about the Jeff Hill case has stirred up tension in Napa Valley, where some people think the author, Vindu Goel, went over the top in painting Napa as a place where wine quality is “built on quicksand.”

(Some of you might not be able to open the NYT link if you don’t have a Times subscription. Even if you can’t, you can probably find it on Google.)

Last Spring, Mr. Hill, a vineyard manager, was charged with grand theft for allegedly stealing tens of thousands of dollars worth of grapes from a client during the 2013 harvest.

Reporter Goel took the serious and significant charges of fraud in the Hill case and, some folks say, stretched them to tar Napa’s reputation in general. Prices of Napa wine, Goel wrote, are based more on consumers’ belief in the superiority of the region’s grapes than in the inherent quality of the liquid in the bottle.”

And “[M]any bottles on wine-store shelves aren’t what they seem because of loopholes in American wine labeling laws,” he added, based on an interview with the master sommelier, Emmanuel Kemiji. The inescapable implication is that a top-notch Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon may contain “a cheaper grape varietal like syrah or zinfandel” that could be from “anywhere else in the state, like Fresno.” Most damaging of all Goel’s assertions, perhaps, is this one, which suggests that spin and hype, rather than quality, are behind Napa Valley’s reputation as the supreme place to make wine in America: “Much of Napa’s price premium stems from savvy marketing, not any objective superiority of the wine.”

Reactions, mostly offended, have come from in and around Napa Valley. My friend Lewis Perdue (for whom I used to work, years ago), in Wine Industry Insight took particular umbrage over what he perceived as the Times’ unfair broadside.

“NY Times Uses Hill Wine Company Debacle To Take A Shot At Napa Valley,” he headlined, explaining that the article left an overall impression that varietal fraud and some level of adulteration were relatively common practices” in Napa.

Here’s my take. Most of what Goel wrote is objectively true, based on the facts. U.S. labeling laws do allow for up to one-quarter of a varietally-labeled wine to consist of varietal/s other than the named one. Those same laws also allow for a certain percentage of the grapes to come from areas other than the official appellation on the label. And, yes, part of the rationale for Napa Valley wine prices is due to Napa Valley’s reputation.

Did Goel go over the line? Yes. Dropping the word “Fresno” into that sentence was both unnecessary, and calculated to shock. It’s a little like the famously self-incriminating question, When did you stop beating your wife? Now that Goel has implanted the thought in people’s minds that Napa Valley wine may contain grapes from Fresno, there’s no way Napa vintners can convince them that it’s not true, no matter what they say.

Granted that Mr. Hill may (or may not) have been a crook, it’s hyperbole and unprofessional to use a single case to stain an entire region: it’s like saying that fraud is widespread in Burgundy based on the Rudy Kurniawan case, or that all of Bordeaux is suspect because a famous chateau once used illegal wood chips instead of real barrels.

It was also a little misleading for Goel to use Kemiji’s quotes to suggest that Napa Valley’s terroir is no different from any other place. Emmanuel (who I suspect didn’t know how his quote would be used) said, “You line up cabernets from Napa and good-quality cabernet from Sonoma and Lake County, and it’s really tough to say where they’re from.” This is true; as someone who’s tasted countless Cabs from those areas (and many others), I know it’s not easy pinpointing where a great Cabernet comes from. But still, it misses the point.

For the fact is that Napa Valley produces more great Cabernet Sauvignon than any other place in America, and has for a very long time, which surely gives it legitimate claim to prestige; and every prestigious region and wine in the history of the world has been considered more desirable—and thus more costly—than the competition.

As for Goel’s contention that “savvy marketing” is behind Napa’s success, this doesn’t stand up to the facts. Napa Valley achieved its success well before the modern era of marketing. The fame of the boutique wineries of the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t due to P.R., which most of those little wineries didn’t know anything about, but to the appreciation of educated wine lovers who recognized that what they were experiencing was something special. Besides, “savvy marketing” may give a winery or region fifteen minutes of fame—but if the stuff in the bottle doesn’t live up to the hype, the fame is fleeting. That is emphatically not the case with Napa Valley.

There is no evidence whatsoever—not a sniff or a shred—to suggest that the majority, or even a significant minority, of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are not what they say they are: grown and produced in the valley, and made from Bordeaux varietals. (And besides, if adding 2% Syrah makes the wine better, who cares?) I also suspect that, when Kemiji told Goel that “there is an incentive to fudge [on blending] because the price of Napa cabernet is so high,” he didn’t know in what context his words would be used. I’m a longtime reporter myself; I know the game. Some questions are a form of entrapment. The reporter who goes into the interview knowing what points he wants to prove, and then asks set-up questions, is not being objective or fair.

Honestly, Goel’s story is a combination of personal anecdotes, irrelevant throw-ins and editorializing, in addition to the facts. Rather than illuminating an interesting story, it feeds into America’s current obsession with conspiracy theories, in this case that “wine quality” is an elitist myth, and that everything is equal because it’s not permitted for anything to be better. Breitbart.com, an online news service, covered the Hill case, and here’s a telling comment one of their readers sent in:

“I always got a kick out of these wine snobs. I knew you could give them a swig of Night Train™ and tell them it’s gourmet and they would believe it. sort of like the ‘art community’… a crappy painting of campbell’s soup cans garners millions ?????” The commenter is entitled to his opinion, of course, but it’s pathetic that the truth is lost in the shuffle: Night Train is not as good as Napa Valley Cabernet, period, end of story. And no “gourmet” in the world would ever confuse it for such.

I’m not saying the Hill case isn’t worthy of reporting, or that the Times shouldn’t have allowed Goel to run with it. What I am saying is that American journalism has sunk to its lowest level in my lifetime, in terms of scandal-mongering. What Woodward and Bernstein set in motion, nearly 40 years ago, has run amok. Not every instance of law-breaking is a major scandal. Sometimes an illegal act is just that: The isolated act of a single individual, not an indication that an entire region is unscrupulous.


Talking to an audience with different levels of wine knowledge

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That was part of my challenge last week at a wine dinner I hosted, for Jackson Family Wines, at Ling & Louie’s, a fine Asian-fusion bistro in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Seasoned speakers know it’s helpful to have advance knowledge of who your audience is. (Actually, it’s “whom” your audience is, but that sounds so precious.) The more you know about them—their backgrounds, careers, level of wine knowledge—the better you can tailor your remarks to their interests and desires.

But this advance knowledge isn’t always possible, which is why some speakers will start things off by asking the audience questions. Where are you guys from? Do you work in the wine industry? Are you casual wine drinkers or collectors? Starting on this interrogatory note not only informs the speaker, it’s an ice-breaker that establishes an interactive back-and-forth, drawing the audience in and softening the initial atmosphere, which may be stiff, into one of cordiality and ease.

Sometimes, as I imply in the headline, your guests’ wine knowledge is all over the place. On Friday I had serious collectors as well as folks who couldn’t tell a Zinfandel from a xylophone. In this case, you have to tread a careful middle way. You don’t want to talk down to the true wine geeks, or to go over the heads of the novices. It’s a balancing act, but careful listening and sensitivity will help you hold everyone’s interest.

One thing that commonly happens is that a novice will ask a simple question whose answer the experts already know. You want to help the novice understand, but you don’t want to bore the experts. I’ve found that there are ways to answer the simple questions that will engage even the most knowledgeable people in the room.

For example, on Friday a woman asked me why Burgundy and California Pinot Noir taste so different (she preferred California), since they’re made from the same grape variety. You could see the Burgundy guys roll their eyes. I answered by asking the woman to imagine a globe of the planet. “See the lines of latitude in the northern hemisphere? Find Burgundy, then trace the latitude westward, across the Atlantic and the North American continent to the Pacific coast. Now, where are you?”

Before she could answer, someone (a guy) shouted out “Oregon. Washington.”

“Exactly,” I said. Then I went on, “Now, find Central California on our globe and follow the latitude line eastward, across North America and the Atlantic to Europe. Where are you?”

“Italy,” someone said.

“That’s right,” I said, “and not just Italy, but southern Italy, even Sicily. Now, imagine the difference in climate, and in summer daylight hours, between, say, Portland/Seattle and Sicily. Heat and sun ripen all fruit, including grapes. And that, my dear” (I told the woman, who was a sweet older lady) “is why Burgundy tastes different from California Pinot Noir. California is riper.”

The lady gave me a big smile. “That’s the first time I’ve ever gotten an answer to that question I could understand,” she said. She was happy, and I think I kept the interest of even the hard-core collectors.

Of course, the collectors would have been pleased to get into a detailed rap about Kimmeridgian soil, slopes, winemaking techniques and all that, but that would have been a MEGO moment for everybody else. So we had struck a balance. It’s also fair to point out that people in the audience at events like this have their own responsibility for its success. There’s always a “most knowledgeable guy in the room” who, devoid of manners, will want to drop his expertise just to show off, or perhaps to challenge the speaker. Fortunately, most experts have the awareness and self-control to behave themselves, in order to foster the greater good, which is the audience’s happiness. The experts at my event certainly behaved responsibly, and I made it a point, as best I could, to hang out with them afterward.

I never forget that my guests don’t have to be there. They choose to be there, thereby doing me an honor. The least a host can do is return the honor by respectfully listening and sensitively leading everyone in the same direction.

* * *

Tomorrow is my session at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, in the lovely capital of California, Sacramento. Our topic: Content is King: How to Craft and Feature Stories that Stand Out. I’m moderator; fortunately,I have some truly great panelists. It’s amazing how this meme of “the story” has grabbed hold of the wine industry’s marketing and communications people, isn’t it. Anyhow, if you’re there, come on up and say hi.


A return to natural simplicity, in all things

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If there’s a new no-makeup, or low makeup, look for women—and the Wall Street Journal says there is–then I’m a fan. I never did like that Tammy Faye Bakker over-the-top clown face, although I did like Tammy Faye herself, who seemed to be a big-hearted, fair-minded, loving woman who never hesitated to part company with her co-religionists when she felt they were wrong on an issue.

 

tammy_faye_bakker

The WSJ article suggests that the tendency for stars such as Jennifer Anniston and Reese Witherspoon to “brave the big screen with little-to-no visible makeup” is a welcome alternative to the “fully made-up look of [the] Kardashian sisters,” a look that “social media [has] helped spread…”. Cosmetic companies, the article reports, “are responding with lighter foundations, sheerer lip glosses and new products” that allow women’s faces to look like what they really are, rather than somebody’s fantasy of what they should be.

This is great news: what America has always needed are people comfortable in their own skins.

And the wine connection? Pretty obvious, really. You can draw a straight line between the no-makeup look and the emerging taste among American wine drinkers for wines that are less oaky and less extracted.

We can all agree that there is such a trend. You hear it from sommeliers and from consumers themselves. Wineries are listening and reacting accordingly. I do not believe that things are as dire as some winemakers and some wine writers allege; we don’t hear overwhelming consumer demand for no oak, or for wines that must be below 14% alcohol by volume. What consumers want are wines that taste of the grapes, and not of toasted barrels and prunes. Well, we all want that.

Actually, speaking of poor Tammy Faye (she died in 2007), the winemaker Jean-Noel Formeaux du Sartel, who co-founded (with his wife, Marketta) Chateau Potelle (whose Mount Veeder estate was purchased by the Jackson family in 2007), twenty-plus years ago told me, as we sipped his fabulous VGS Zinfandel on the winery’s deck, that in his view too many California wines were “like Tammy Faye Bakker,” in that they were too big, extracted, ripe and oaky. His vision was to craft wines more in “the French style”: balanced and elegant. So this current importuning for “balance” is nothing new.

However it has picked up steam, and social media has certainly played a role in that. I’m onboard, if this movement really is about balance and not an ideological quest for a sort of ethnic cleansing in wine. I do think our era is defined, in part, by a desire for a new kind of simplicity and purity. Post-Sept. 11, post-Great Recession, and still in the midst of political and cultural schism, we collectively yearn for a stripping-away of what’s irrelevant, so that we can focus on the real, the true, the sincere, the credible. This applies to women’s faces; it applies to wines; it applies to the foods we put into our bodies. It’s a good revolution to have, and to be part of.

* * *

Correction: An earlier edition of this story misstated the date of Tammy Faye Bakker’s death.


Are single-vineyard wines better than blends?

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Of the five wines I gave perfect scores of 100 points to during my years as a wine critic, two were blends: Cardinale 2006 and Verite 2007 La Muse.

(Yes, both were Jackson Family Wines, which is one of the reasons I love working here.)

If I’d thought, by the time I reviewed them, that single-vineyard wines are better than blends, those experience disabused me of that notion. The Cardinale, as it turned out, was a blend of  six Napa Valley appellations: Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, Oakville, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain and St. Helena. The Verite consisted of grapes from Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill.

I think most people, including critics, believe that single-vineyard wines are the best. Why is this so? Because throughout the modern classic history of wine, from the 1600s onward, the wines from specific estates—which is to say, single vineyards—from France and Germany were considered the best in the world. And they probably were.

A mythos thus arose around these wines. Those great Bordeaux, Burgundies, Hocks and Mosels were so famous, so good, people figured there had to be a reason for it. And the reason was easy to discern: terroir. Wine experts, such as there were, sleuthed out these vineyards, and in every case discovered tangible physical distinctions that lifted the vineyards to grand cru status over their neighbors.

It’s odd that no one questioned this leap of faith. If there had been an internet and wine bloggers, someone might have wondered why the wine from a single vineyard was, ipso facto, better than one blended from multiple great sites. But then, blending from multiple great sites was not in the European tradition of chateaux, domaines and schlosses. It took the Californians, in the modern era, to do that—and to prove that a blend didn’t have to be a high-production common wine, but one that could play at the highest world level.

Indeed, why should it not be so? It is logically coherent to say that a blended wine can correct for the divots, or faults, of a wine from a single vineyard. The latter may, in any given vintage, be incomplete in some way: acidity, texture, fruit, complexity. Give the winemaker extra colors to play with on her palatte, and she can create a Renoir, not just an Ansel Adams.

“Just” an Ansel Adams? Well, frankly, yes. Compare a black-and-white photo of Half Dome with the cost of a Renoir at auction.

Now, before y’all start in on the hate mail, I also gave 100 points to Shafer 2004 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, a fabulous expression of a vineyard. So I’m not saying “Blends are the best.” But I do think it’s time to evaluate our attitude toward blends as somehow lesser creatures.

Does that include Pinot Noir? Yes. There’s no reason a blend of, say, Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills couldn’t kill. The fact that marketing, commercial and other perfectly understandable considerations make that unlikely should not discredit the point I’m trying to make.


Good times for DTC

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Ever since I’ve been a wine writer—the 1980s—direct-to-consumer sales has been the Holy Grail of wineries. Why pay a middleman a cut of the profits when you can make 100% of every dollar by selling direct?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, though, DTC was as elusive as unicorns. Some wineries did a lot of it; I remember touring the wineries of Gold County, where proprietor after proprietor told me they were selling 90% or more of their production “out the screen door” to tourists cruising up and down Highway 49, or on their way to Tahoe and ski country. But if you weren’t on a major tourist route, you weren’t so lucky.

Some wineries tried to lure tourists in through indirect means. Wineries along Highway 29 in Napa Valley, for instance (where competition is fierce) offered educational, artistic and musical venues, becoming, in effect, entertainment palaces that just also happened to sell wine in the tasting room. This was, and is, quite effective. But still, not everyone was in a position to do it.

Now, Business Wire is reporting that “American wineries increased the dollar value of their direct-to-consumer wine shipments by an unprecedented 15.5% in 2014.”

Granted that this percentage increase comes on a relatively smaller base compared to traditional on- and off-premise accounts, it’s still a pretty impressive achievement.

Another breakthrough in DTC sales has come due to efforts to get around the nation’s silly patchwork of laws that limit or prohibit reciprocal shipping of alcoholic beverages between states. In Massachusetts, a new law just went into effect that allows wineries from throughout the United States to sell and deliver up to 12 cases of wine per year to Bay State consumers — a transaction previously prohibited.”

I doubt that the three-tiered system of distribution is going away anytime soon. It’s just too entrenched, and does serve the useful purpose of providing a solid infrastructure to deliver wine to every nook and cranny of the U.S., something that individual wineries, especially smaller ones, are in no position to do. But DTC should continue to grow, fueled in part by the desire of increasing numbers of consumers, particularly younger ones, to buy locally. The Internet and social media, too, are making it easier for consumers to dial in to local wineries and buy direct from “sales’ links, provided that doing so is legal where they live.

So it’s just one game-changer after another when it comes to selling wine in America. Interest in DTC on the part of wineries and other parties is evident by the proliferation of professional seminars on the topic; the Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium just completed their 2015 event yesterday in Concord (Contra Costa County), attracting the attention of such important national media as Forbes, which reported (via Cathy Huyghe), It was so crowded you’d have thought they were giving away money for free.”

Have a great weekend!


Secrets from the cellar

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As an old karate hound, I stay in touch with my senseis. One of them recently sent me an article about a very great aikido sensei who refuses to demonstrate any technique more than once, “because if I do a technique twice, it will be stolen!”

For a martial arts student, that’s pretty funny; the dojo is a place for study and learning, passed along from teacher to student. It is not a place for secrets. This instantly made me remember a quote from an older winemaker who was interviewed by Robert Benson in his 1977 book, “Great Winemakers of California.” Benson, as was his wont, was asking the winemaker some technical questions, when the winemaker answered, “We’re very jealous about certain things, quite frankly, and I hope you wouldn’t be insulted, I’d simply tell you I’d rather not answer that question…Look, my dad taught me this stuff and some of it I don’t tell anybody but my kids.”

Back in the day, secrecy was fairly standard in the wine industry. Yes, winemakers have always collaborated, to some extent, but an older generation, who had been taught by their fathers (who in turn might have been taught by their fathers) was less inclined to share trade secrets with the young whippersnapper next door who might be his arch-rival. This mindset affected many older California wineries. It was part of the California culture immediately after the Repeal of Prohibition—maybe because consumers were few and far between, and the wineries were under tremendous pressure to differentiate themselves from the competition.

When a younger generation in California—the so-called boutique winery founders—arose in the 1960s, there was less guardedness and more openness. It was partly a matter of generational attitudes. The Benson book shows a spirit of sharing among younger winemakers, like Warren Winiarski and Jerry Luper, and even André Tchelistcheff, who was 76 when “Great Winemakers” was published, showed not a hint of reticence when it came to divulging his techniques, which might have been due to his European upbringing.

Today, there are few, if any, secrets among winemakers in California. Nor would many winemakers refuse to answer a technical question from a journalist. Even if they wanted to (which is unlikely), the lure of publicity is too strong. The wine industry has many symposia and conferences, from WITS to the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium to smaller get-togethers, and most winemakers are part of local tasting groups with their peers, where they share techniques and freely borrow from each other. So the information is out there: you can’t keep it bottled up.

One complaint you sometimes hear about this Kumbaya closeness is that it has resulted in wines that taste more and more alike, and less and less of their native terroir. Even if that’s true to some extent (and I’m not sure it is), the genie is out of the bottle: we live in an open, transparent, communicative world. Two or three hundred years ago, wineries were far more isolated from each other than they are today. Nowdays, information is open, free and universal, which is how it should be. In fact, far from fearing that information-sharing is detrimental to the individuality of wines, I would suggest it gives winemakers a wider spectrum of approaches (in both the vineyard and in the winery) to choose from, in order to learn how to make the best, most expressive wines they can.


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