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Wine rating systems: time for a change

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I spent the better part of 30 years living and working in 100-point land: the wine-rating system used by my two former employers, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, as well as by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.

The 100-point system surely is the most popular in the world. It has survived decades of often fierce criticism. Critics said it was arbitrary and capricious, that it presented itself as scientific when it was anything but, that it had a deleterious effect on wine style because the most powerfully extracted, oakiest wines got the highest scores. All these things were true, but the 100-point system proved remarkably robust. When I retired from formal wine tasting eight years ago, it dominated the market, and, as far as I can tell, it still does.

The 100-point system looks like it’s here to stay, at least in America. There’s nothing looming on the horizon to replace it. Oh, sure, a new generation of wine drinkers has increasingly turned to peer-reviewing on social media; they no longer care what some (usually white) wine critic says, and that’s fine. But in that sense, the market may be ahead of the industry. Winery P.R. communications continue to tout high scores (anything over 90 points) in their campaigns. As long as that’s the case, wine samples will continue to be mailed to wine critics, who will continue to publish reviews using the 100-point system, which will continue to be touted by winery P.R. people, and on and on…It’s a cycle, and like most cycles, it’s hard to stop.

But a new development in China throws all this into an interesting perspective. Mike Veseth, the respected wine economist, just published an issue of “The Wine Economist” that reports on “China’s 10-Point Scale.” That gigantic country apparently is launching an official, national rating system of 10 points that will “score…each wine on the market taking into consideration…Chinese tastes, cuisine, and culture.” The new system is being rolled out in stages. It was introduced late last year, but The Drinks Business publication reports it “is not yet compulsory for all wines sold inside China [and] may serve as a base for formulating a national [wine] recommendation system.” That article quoted a Chinese expert as predicting that, eventually, “[the] majority of wines sold in China will adopt this system.”

Now that I’m not living and working in 100-point land, I have the benefit of hindsight about the 100-point system that provided such a nice job for me for so long. And the more I think about it, the sillier it seems to be. I used to be quite sincere when people asked how I could determine the difference between, say, 87 points and 88 points.. I would say, “Easy. To me, it’s obvious.” And I could go into great detail, if they wanted. At the same time, I always admitted that, if I tasted the same wine (from different bottles) on separate occasions, chances were good that I’d give it different scores. But, I argued, in general the scores would be close together. In the end, I always said, a wine review ought to be looked at as the taster’s impression of that wine, at a particular moment in time, and consumers were free to accept, reject or ignore the review.

Nowadays, I often cringe when I see how wine scores are used. There are so many critics across this land (and elsewhere) that a P.R. person has her pick of dozens of reviews to use in an advertisement. We, the consumer, often don’t know the qualifications of the reviewer, or the circumstances under which he reviewed the wine (blind? Open?), nor do we always know with precision what the relationship is between reviewer and winery. Has the reviewer been paid? These are important considerations. (Of course, the new Chinese system suffers, I would think, from the same drawbacks.) I turn to critics and scores to inform my own buying decisions, but I always feel a little guilty about it. I wish that all numerical rating systems would go away, and be replaced by something more esthetically satisfying: a short essay, for example, that showed real writerly qualities.

I think there’s a place for more intelligent, nuanced wine reviewing. As we emerge from the pandemic, it’s going to be a different world. After all these months of sheltering in place, people may well be more reflective, and less reflexive. I know that social media tends to work in the opposite direction, making people think less; but here and there I pick up on clues that younger people are getting tired of social media. They’re reading more books and spending less time scrolling through meaningless Twitter feeds. I’m hoping to see new publications emerge that treat wine consumers as intelligent, thinking adults, instead of like cows lining up for silage.


Here’s the marketing message that’s saving wine

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My generation, the Baby Boomers, gets blamed for a lot of stuff, but one thing we got right was wine. We “made” the U.S. wine industry back in the 1970s and 1980s, when we were developing our esthetic and culinary tastes, and wine fit the bill quite nicely.

I speak of “esthetic” tastes, although I could have referred to “cultural” or “lifestyle” tastes. As a demographic—the largest in U.S. history–we Boomers understood by the late 1970s that we had changed the way America does things, and that anything we embraced en masse was likely to be a trend. Baby Boomers had been trendsetters since we were born, and embracing wine was simply another wave in the demographic tide we launched upon the country.

Wine suited our slightly outlaw sensibilities. It was alcohol, after all—a mind-altering drug, and Boomers knew a thing or two about mind-altering drugs. Alcohol, during the heyday of the Sixties, had a negative aura around it: Bowery bums, cheap bottles of Ripple, throwing up, that sort of impedimenta. No pot smoker or acid head with any self-respect would have been a drinker! But a new generation of vintner-entrepreneurs in California—not Baby Boomers, but older—was completely shifting wine’s rather tarnished image. Wine was no longer booze, but an upscale foodstuff, something you could talk about, study, appreciate intellectually as well as hedonistically, and it fitted in perfectly with our newfound appreciation of food. There was something authentic about wine—and Boomers prided ourselves especially for our authenticity.

It was always a question of whether we could bequeath that appreciation of wine on to the generations who came after us. The industry-wide conversation of the last twenty years, in fact, can in retrospect be viewed as trying to answer that question.

A new report by Silicon Valley Bank on the wine industry contains a mixed message. There’s good news: Yes, Baby Boomers continue to display “spending resilience,” which is a good thing for the industry, and “retiring baby boomers seem to have a long tail and fortunately aren’t quick to run to pasture,” which is also a good thing, especially if you’re a Boomer: it means we’re not all dying off!

But there’s also some bad news. Boomers’ “buying seems to be moderating, both on price and volume, as they age.” This makes sense to me: once we retire, most of us find ourselves on fixed incomes, meaning that we don’t drop $25 on a bottle as easily as we used to. (There’s also the reality that, for many of us, our doctors are telling us to moderate our alcohol consumption, if not eliminate it entirely.)

That means that the industry has “no choice except to market to them [i.e. a younger generation].” Unfortunately, “Millennials aren’t engaging with wine as hoped.” In fact, “millennials have made no move in taking share from boomers in several years.” This is really disappointing for producers. With crops continuing at record levels (meaning there’s plenty of wine in the supply chain), the industry is “at a position of oversupply…that extends through retail [outlets] and every growing region in California at every price point. For California,” the Bank’s forecasters warn, “this is the worst combination of market conditions for growers since at least 2001, and perhaps of all time.”

Scary words! But one of the benefits of advanced age is, perhaps, a more seasoned perspective on things, including disaster predictions. We’ve been here before! In the late 1980s and early 1990s, everyone was predicting the imminent demise of the California wine industry due to phylloxera. Didn’t happen. Similar dire prognostications were heard when lead wine capsules were implicated in human disease, when the dot-com collapse led to a recession, and certainly, when the Great Recession struck in 2008-2009. Then, too, the corporatization of wine signaled, to many analysts, the demise of the family winery. And even as recently as the 1990s, neo-prohibitionism still haunted the industry, as anti-alcohol forces, mainly in the Republican Party, threatened to bring back a [somewhat milder] form of Prohibition.

Happily, the wine industry survived all those threats. And here we are once again, facing another one: Baby Boomers eventually will die, Millennials will not take their place as wine drinkers in sufficient numbers to save the industry, and—the coup de grace?—these same Millennials are turning to craft beer and spirits, not wine, to satisfy their alcohol dreams.

What’s a vintner to do?

The Silicon Valley Bank forecast answers this question in an interesting way, by pointing out the truism that Baby Boomers consumed food “if it wasn’t bad for you,” while “the current generation wants to consume things that ‘are good for you.’” As a Boomer, I can confirm the accuracy of that statement concerning people born between 1946 and 1964. As for “the current generation,” I don’t know how much “what’s good for you” drives their food-and-beverage consumption. But when I see the droves of people in their 20s and 30s in the many wine bars in my neighborhood (many of which tout themselves as “natural”), I am struck by the fact that they’re leaner and apparently healthier than many of their generational counterparts, who so often are sadly obese. This suggests to me that younger wine drinkers are concerned about their physical health. They perceive wine, perhaps a bit inchoately, as somehow “healthier” than beer or spirits (or teetotalism). I’ve been critical of the hyperbole that attaches to the promotion of “natural” wine (which there’s no actual definition of), but I will give the naturalistas credit for this: they came up with a damned good marketing message that may, in fact, get wine through this current uncomfortable phase!


Napa Valley Cabernet: an endangered species?

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For many years I’ve watched as the price of Napa Valley wine has gone up—and up—and up—until it reached the stratosphere. And then it continued to go up.

Even twenty years ago, I wondered who was buying all that expensive Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t remember when prices first hit triple digits—I think it was in the 1980s. But once they did, no respectable Napa winery wanted to be the last to retail for at least $100.

At the height of my working career as a critic, when I was paid to keep track of such things, I’d note every new, expensive brand that came on the market. I soon concluded that most were vanity projects: their owners were very rich, and they wanted “in” on the Napa Valley lifestyle that was so highly touted by aspirational magazines. You, too, could have the big mansion, set in a picturesque vineyard, surrounded by blooming gardens, with an azure-blue swimming pool, a grand deck complete with gigantic outdoor grilling station, and Napa’s beautiful mountains soaring in the distance. And all you needed was maybe $10 million to get started.

At one point (I think it was in the early 2000s) I did a count of all the $100-plus wines in Napa Valley, and the total was well into the hundreds. I began to wonder, “Who’s buying all that Cab?” It was easy to understand that the critically-acclaimed cult Cabs (Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Bryant, Colgin, Dalla Valle, and so on) were desired by many wealthy collectors, but what about the hundreds of lesser-known brands? Every week seemed to bring a new family winery with a fill-in-the-blank back story:

Pete, together with his lovely wife Maggie, made a fortune in (computers, engineering, construction, oil, stocks) but there was something missing in their comfortable life. In (date), they bought a small property in (Rutherford, Pritchard Hill, Oakville, Spring Mountain, Atlas Peak) and planted some Cabernet. Now, they produce some of Napa Valley’s most coveted wines, assisted by their consulting winemaker (Michel Rolland, Heidi Barrett, Andy Erickson, Mark Aubert, Phillippe Melka)…

The stories all ran together; so did the wines. They were functionally interchangeable, 95-pointers that all tasted the same. It was impossible to answer the question, “Who’s buying all that wine?” just as it was impossible to answer the question, “Is the winery actually making money?” I suspected, even by 2000, that many, if not most, of these vanity wineries were not profitable, but were kept alive by their owners’ personal fortunes.

The other day, a friend emailed asking my opinion about reports that sales of California wines are weak, with a troubling future. Was it tariffs? Younger consumers wanting something “natural” and eccentric? The greater popularity of craft beer and spirits? I replied, “All the above—plus the fact that California wine, driven by Napa prices, is just too damned expensive!”

And now comes this report, via Wine-Searcher, that “California’s top producers might be pricing themselves out of the market,” with the top culprit being Napa Valley wine.

The article was based on a new report whose startling conclusion was this: “The demand for Napa Valley wines is flat and heading toward a decline. Last year, this report speculated that price increases at Napa wineries may have finally priced out enough buyers to curtail growth. It now seems this is likely the case.”

Will 2020 be the year that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon experiences a price crash? It’s in the self-interest of the producers to prevent this, so I expect they’ll do everything in their power to hold on. But if this represents a permanent trend, how long can they keep on? Will their heirs be content to underwrite a losing proposition, just so they can sit around the pool watching the sun set over the Mayacamas?

One interesting development was the purchase earlier this week of Flora Springs by the Bordeaux winery, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte. Flora Springs was, back in the day, a highly respected winery. (One of the first articles I ever wrote for Wine Spectator was a profile of them.) They had exquisite vineyards on the Rutherford Bench, and produced various Cabernets and Bordeaux blends that were very good. But Flora Springs, like so many other wineries, gradually saw competition arising all around them: no longer a darling boutique winery, but one of hundreds to choose from. The ownership was quite wealthy (of course), but Flora Springs was precisely the kind of winery I wondered about. “How are they doing? How long can they hold on?”

Well, now they’ve sold. The question isn’t whether the ownership was or wasn’t making money, it’s “Why does Smith Haut Lafitte think Flora Springs is a good investment?” (Their purchase doesn’t include the brand or “Napa Valley vineyard sources,” according to the article.) One thinks of the Bordelais as very astute businessmen—after all, they’ve managed to stay at the top of the heap for multiple centuries. So there must be something Smith Haut Lafitte sees in Napa Valley.

At the same time, I remember when the Woltner family, heirs of Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, started a winery back in the late 1980s. Chateau Woltner was in the Vacas, on the east side of the Silverado Trail, on lower Howell Mountain. They put out a Chardonnay that was then the most expensive ever in California. It was pretty impressive: Bordeaux Second Growth invests in Napa Valley! What could go wrong?

Well, everything. The brand didn’t last for very long. It was sold for $20 million in 2000.

I don’t know what eventually happened to the Chardonnay vineyards, nor do I care. The point is, just because a French Bordeaux family buys a Napa Valley winery doesn’t guarantee its success. The eventual outcome of Flora Springs will depend on the continuing popularity of Napa Valley Cabernet and Bordeaux blends; and if this category is pricing itself out of existence, there’s little anyone can do to save it. Of course, as we know from Eddie Penning-Rowsell’s classic The Wines of Bordeaux, prices of Bordeaux have been a roller-coaster ride for centuries: sometimes way up, sometimes way down. But Bordeaux persists. Maybe Napa’s future will be as tumultuous.


Is the clock ticking down on cult wines?

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When I was California editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, I had the hardest time getting to sample the wines of Bryant Family Vineyard.

I managed to, two or three times. My last tasting, in 2012, was only because Tim Mondavi obtained a bottle for me to include in my tasting of the wines of Pritchard Hill, the region of Napa Valley that is not (yet) an official American Viticultural Area, but that is (as I wrote back then) “the best grape-growing region in Napa Valley you’ve probably never heard of.” (Tim has his own winery, Continuum, up there.)

Bryant’s Cabernets are routinely included among the “cult wines” of Napa Valley. Now, let me say that my nearly thirty-year career as a wine writer taught me a thing or two about cult wines. Today, six years after I retired, when I think of them, I think of exclusivity, of extreme difficulty gaining access (even for me), of super-high prices, and of a certain manipulation of the winery’s image as rare and difficult to obtain—precisely the kind of attributes that appeal to wine aficienados who have more money than common sense.

My most enduring memory of tasting these cult wines is of my visit to Colgin Cellars, a neighbor of Bryant Family’s on Pritchard Hill. After much difficulty obtaining an appointment, I was met, in the foyer of the winery (which reminded me of Le Petit Trianon, at Versailles), by the proprietress, Ann Colgin. It felt like a State Visit; never was I more uncomfortable tasting wine than under her hawk-like gaze, as I tried to shield my written notes from her wandering eye. It was not a welcoming vibe.

Other cult wineries were far more amenable to my visits. I remain indebted to Bill Harlan (who wrote the Forward to my second book) for always welcoming me, and for setting up the most extraordinary tastings. But even there, Bill continued to propagate an aura of mystique by insisting that we taste the Harlan wines in one structure of the estate, and the BOND wines in another, further up the hill.

Bryant has found itself with publicity lately that I’m sure is unwelcome by the owners. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley has been reporting on a lawsuit hagainst the winery by a former employee.

I’m not particularly interested in the details of the lawsuit, nor do I care about the winery’s monetary value (a subject of dispute). What I find interesting is Mobley’s question: “Is that business model [of cult wines] foundering in a changing wine market?”

Cult wines, whether they be in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany or Napa Valley, always have depended on the desire of wealthy people to own them. They’re not “better” than other wines; this is a notion I’m firmly convinced of, after having reviewed perhaps 150,000 wines over a thirty-year period. The word “better” is, of course, impossible to define; quality is subjective. I’ve done many blind tastings in which a $30 Cabernet beat out a $300 Cabernet. Anyone who thinks that a $300 wine must be ten times better than a $30 wine is fooling herself. So there must be reasons other than objective hedonism to explain why cult wines cost so much. (Mobley writes that the current vintage of Bryant Family, the 2016, is $550. The 2009, by contrast, was a measly $335.)

These other reasons, aside from the market force of supply and demand, are psychological; they include the prestige of being able to afford such wines, the ego-gratification associated with big spending, and a desire to show off to whomever the buyer wishes to impress. These are not completely inauthentic reasons to buy a wine, but they have less to do with the wines themselves than the buyer’s internal needs.

For many years the cult winery owners were riding high. Sure, there were always rumors of financial troubles behind the curtain, but since the owners never revealed their books to anyone, the rumors remained exactly that. Was Bill Harlan raking in a fortune? Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Dalla Valle? Nobody outside the inner circle knew.

Now, Mobley opens the question in a way only a big-circulation newspaper like the Chronicle can. She doesn’t answer it, because there isn’t an easy answer. The question behind the question of whether the cult wine business model remains viable is, Is a new generation of Millennials as covetous of these wines as were their parents and grandparents?

I would be loath to state that consumer tastes in luxury goods, including wine, change dramatically in a short period of time. They don’t. The Western world has had cult wines at least since Roman times (when the Caesars had their favorites). The crowned heads of medieval and Renaissance Europe, including the Popes, similarly desired certain “cult” wines. It was only natural that California—settled as it was mainly by white people of European descent—would adopt a model that resembled that of Old Europe.

Are today’s wine consumers under the age of, say, 40 different in kind? Probably not. They too are likely to want their share of rarity and exclusivity (if they achieve the financial means of acquiring it). But does this automatically mean that Bryant, Colgin, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, et al. will be as desired by Millennials as they have been up to now?

Millennials, many of whom are laden with debt, don’t seem to have as much disposable income as their forebears. And they’re craftier shoppers: if they’re going to spend bigtime on something, they want some flesh on those bones—not just something to show off, but something of inherent worthwhileness. And I have to say in all honesty that cult wines overall are lacking in this inherent quality. Yes, they can be glorious. But so too can their non-cult wine neighbors, at a fraction of the cost. I think Millennials, in this era of Trump, are exquisitely sensitive to false claims and misleading image-making (as well they should be). They don’t want to feel like suckers, and this is why I suspect that cult wines—at least most of those in Napa Valley—may indeed have reached a tipping point. In fact, it may be that their uber-wealthy owners are keeping them alive, not through profits on sales, but by dipping into their personal fortunes.

I don’t foresee a wave of closures. But we have seen cult wineries sold (Araujo, Colgin, Screaming Eagle), and we’ve also seen wineries break into cult status that never used to be there: Chateau Potelle, for instance. (Good for my old friend Jean-Noel!) What I think will eventually prove to be the case is that a handful of today’s cult wines will still be treasured decades from now, while others will have enjoyed their fifteen years of fame and retreated into the background. And there’s this: it was easy for a wine to be defined as “cult” when the critical world was dominated by a few reviewers. It’s far more difficult nowadays. If the wine critics of the future are honest—if they taste blind, that is, and don’t have preconceived notions that cult wines are automatically the best—then Napa’s cult Cabs may already be past the tipping point.


It’s fire season in California (does Trump even care?)

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Sunday was warm, dry and very windy in the Bay Area, the kind of day you had to hold onto your hat (if you wore one) lest it blow away. I was down in San Leandro, 6 BART stops away from my home, doing some shopping at the mall. Then I had some lunch at the food court. When I went outside—in fact, before I even got to the main doors—I smelled it. The all-too familiar, acrid smell of burning tinder.

It’s a smell we’ve come to know well here. I can’t remember ever smelling it, in either San Francisco or Oakland, in the forty years I’ve lived here, until last year. That was when northerly winds pushed the smoke south from the Wine Country fires. It was even worse this year, especially with the Carr Fire, in Redding. Even though that’s more than 200 miles away, it could have been next door, so foul was the air. People were wearing face masks. Everything smelled like an ashtray, the sun was a dim orange smear through gray haze, and it went on for days at a time.

This summer, of course, we had the vast Mendocino Complex fire (which for some reason didn’t pollute our air very much), as well as others, such as the one that closed Yosemite. Then, in the middle of August, the weather suddenly cooled down, and continued cool for the next six weeks. No Labor Day heat wave! Moderate temperatures, from the coast to the Central Valley. I told a friend, two weeks ago, how great the weather was for ripening wine grapes. Growers love nothing more than constant, steady, dry weather, with none of those pesky heat spikes that so often strike Northern California this time of year. Yesterday, when I was reading the winebusiness.com online news publication, they featured this story about how the “ripening period has been void of extreme heat which will allow for some extended hang time and great phenolic maturity in the fruit,” leading to what some already are calling a vintage “for the record books.”

Now, just to put this into context, in my thirty-plus years as a wine reporter, I got used to growers and winemakers predicting the Best.Vintage.Ever every single year. It’s part and parcel of the hype that surrounds everything in the wine industry to assure consumers that the vintage was fabulous, perfect, heavenly. On the other hand, I—as a conscientious reporter—always tracked the weather, so I knew about the heat waves, the rain storms, the smoke taint, the mold, the crush rushes. Winemakers are not above spreading around a little “fake news” if they think it will help them sell their products.

But 2018 really does seem different. Ripening grapes hate weather extremes; so sensitive is the grape to the slightest perturbations in the weather that the resulting wine—an exquisitely complex liquid of thousands of compounds—will tell-tale every adverse condition it experienced. This year, however, as I said, things do appear to be just about perfect. (There are some issues with smoke taint in Lake County, though.)

But there was that troubling smell when I exited the mall. And it wasn’t slight, but lung-choking. I scanned the skies: Where was the fire? I saw no columns of smoke, although, to the south and east, the sky looked like a low fog had drifted in. I knew that wasn’t the case: there was no fog between Canada and Mexico along the coast, our weather being dominated by a big, fat ridge of high pressure sitting right on top of us, influenced by a massive low pressure system over the Four Corners that brought the wind whipping in, at gale force, from the north. Hence holding onto my cap.

I tried using my i-Phone to find out where the fire was. Nothing was yet trending on Twitter. I went to Cal Fire’s website and found it: 4,000 acres on fire in Suisun City, a suburban community halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento, in the Central Valley. I knew, then, that it was a brushfire, not a forest fire: good news. And good news, too, that there are no wine grapes out that way, or not very many anyway. Smoke taint would not be a problem.

As of yesterday (Monday) morning, the fire had been extinguished by our brave firefighters. We still have a few weeks of fire season left in Northern California (in Southern California, fire season now seems to last all year) before the rains come (although last week, wine country did have some pretty good downpours in their first storm of the season, a storm that did not extend south of the Golden Gate into the Bay Area). So we may get off relatively lightly this year.

But wildfires, whether of heavily-forested slopes or rolling grasslands, do appear to be the new normal in California (and Oregon). Sadly, the Trump regime doesn’t seem unduly bothered. They’re cutting funding for firefighting efforts in a way that’s never before been done. The International Fire Chiefs Association reports that “many fire service programs would be cut under the President’s proposed budget,” while the Center for Investigative Reporting, highly respected in California, issued a scathing indictment of Trump’s cuts to wildfire-fighting. It charged that “the Trump administration has offered no reason for targeting the Joint Fire Science Program,” and added that the cuts to fire agencies were merely among “dozens of areas [which] the White House has proposed slashing…Defunding those efforts will endanger lives,” the Center concluded.

 Is this because California and Oregon are Blue States? Would Trump really allow his political thirst for revenge to kill people and destroy property? I’m sure Sarah Huckabee Sanders would call that an outrageous charge, but the facts strongly suggest otherwise.


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