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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!


Is the drive toward ever-newer wines a form of OCD among critics?

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The search for “the new” is the story of California. Whether it was the reinvention of the self, or the society, the Golden State always has lured those restless with the existing order, and anxious to replace it with something innovative and, they hope, better.

This reinvention reinvents itself constantly. Nowhere is it better reflected than in our cuisine, as Joyce Goldstein’s book, Inside the California Food Revolution, makes abundantly clear. But we have to look no further than the current contretemps over what makes wine “balanced” to see it in another, and possibly ideological, form.

Joyce wrote her book to chronicle the rise of California cuisine, with its emphases on freshness, locality and seasonality, but she turns her eye also toward the evolution of California wine. “As California chefs began cooking more innovative food,” she writes, citing names like Ridge, Chalone, Calera and Bonny Doon, “they began seeking more innovative wines.”

By “more innovative wines,” she meant wines that aspired to something greater than the jug ‘burgundies,” “sauternes” and “rhines” that dominated production up until that time (around the 1960s and 1970s). This surely was innovation which was needed; if California ever was to become a wine state (and it seems to have been destined to), it would have to turn more towards a European system of proper appellations and noble varieties.

It worked. But we also have to admit that there was much to be admired in those old wines, with their faux names. They were cheap, they were clean, they went well with food, and they were pretty good, if my memories of what I drank in the late 1970s (just as that era was trailing off) are correct, and I think they are. Those old jug wines were vin ordinaire that appealed to vast numbers of American consumers, and without them blazing the trail, the rise of the boutique winery would not have been possible. Far from condemning them, we ought to celebrate them.

Still, that period of innovation—the boutique winery era–was a good and necessary one. We come now to another period, which may prove to be more of a hiatus than a legitimate tipping point. It is characterized by a somewhat noisy cadre of wine writers, critics and restaurateurs critical of what they perceive as wines whose alcohol levels, fruit extraction and oak render them “unbalanced.” Rather, this cadre says, wines should revert back to their original purpose, of being less assertive and more amenable to accompanying food, rather than dominating it.

Which sounds rather like the role the jug wines played in this country post-Prohibition through the 1970s. They were wines to be enjoyed as part of the overall experience of dining and socializing, not wines that demanded to be the diva-like stars of the table. Now, it’s good that we have a movement that desires to see wine restored to its proper place in the hierarchy; but where the new critics have a bit of ‘splaining to do is this: there is nothing particularly affordable about the wines they celebrate. Unlike the jug wines of the past, which anyone could afford, these new darlings of the School of Balance can be as pricey as the big, oaky varietal wines they decry.

It would make more sense for a critic to scream from the rooftops the virtues of under-$10 wines that could slake the thirst of a nation that’s not as wealthy as it used to be. That would be one thing; I could jump onboard that train. Instead, the critics of the big California style are calling for a new elitism: of low-production wines, made by people they perceive to be personally interesting—wines with modest alcohol levels, and moreover made from grapes that in some cases aren’t even fully ripe. This is the result of the increasingly strident call for “more innovative wines,” which sometimes seem like it has more in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder than with providing us with wines of deliciousness. But then, every wine writer/critic also is a journalist, and journalism, in its essence, is the insatiable search for the new, the radical, the innovative, the undiscovered. That is the strength of good journalism: it prods a complacent culture onward. That also is the weakness of journalism that seeks simply to unearth whatever happens to be new that day, and disregards what is lasting. Innovation, for its own sake, is meaningless.


Are consultants “killing” wine?

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They’re easy to pick on, those flying winemakers, like Michel Rolland, who travel the world getting big bucks for advising wineries on how to get 95 points from Parker.

And they do get picked on! Mondovino, the 2004 movie, famously took on Rolland, showing a small vigneron who declared that “Wine is dead” due to people like Rolland, who it was said bring an “internationalization” of wine flavors; and the director even brought Michael Mondavi in to talk about “the globalization of wine.” It didn’t help to show Rolland, in the back of his car being driven somewhere, on a phone laughing about “These journalists, if you don’t hit them on the head, they can’t remember a thing.”

As a journalist, I resemble that remark (as Groucho said), even though I totally understand it. There are some “journalists” who will repeat anything they’re told, without the slightest effort at fact-checking.

It would take a telephone book to list all the Bordeaux chateaux associated with Rolland. In California, the list is smaller, but impressive, and includes or has included Harlan, Dalla Valle, Sloan, Staglin, Araujo, BOND, Bryant. These are wines I’m more familiar with. Are they all the same? Are they marked by an “international” character? Has Michel Rolland, and people like him, in fact “killed” wine?

Affirmative on that, according to a Saumur winemaker, Thierry Germain, whom the drinks business wrote about yesterday. They quoted him as saying, “Wine consultants are like plastic surgeons trying to make ugly wines beautiful. There’s a trend at the moment for trying to create beautiful wines over authentic wines. The result is that they end up tasting fake and artificial.”

Wow, tough words. This is, of course, the territory of “authenticity” that critics like Matt Kramer and Jon Bonné have been exploring for years. I never fully subscribed to their black-and-white notion that some wines are authentic while others are fake, for the simple reason that too many consultant-driven wines–Harlan, Staglin, Araujo etc.– are so stupendously delicious that you wonder how much better red table wine ever can be.

Still, I have to say there’s a certain sameness to these Napa Valley cult wines that reminds me of the contestants in a beauty pageant.

 

MissUniverse

While you have to admit these women are stellar examples of what we (or some people) think of as traditional female beauty, there is a certain, uhh, sameness to them, as well as an implication that women who do not conform to that particular template of “beauty” are, by definition, unbeautiful. I know a lot of women—men, too—who are utterly turned off by this exclusionary attitude. Men, too (including me), suffer from these stereotypes: if you’re not tall, buffed and handsome, you have far less of a chance of getting a top job, or even of being respected. (I’ve done research on this and I know what I’m talking about.)

Well, the gender wars are tricky, so I’m getting out now, but the fact remains that it’s not surprising that wines “advised” or “consulted on” by the same consultant should bear a certain similarity to each other. It’s like a guy who impregnates multiple women who then have his children. While all the kids will possess certain inherited traits from their moms, they’ll also all have things they got from dad, and in that sense, they’ll be alike. Whether this is good, bad, or angels-dancing-on-pinheads navel-gazing (to mix metaphors) is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder.

I, myself, have always wondered why a winery would hire a famous consultant. Don’t they trust their everyday winemaker? Don’t they trust their growers? How would you feel if you got a great job as a winemaker and the next thing you know, your employer tells you he’s bringing in Michel Rolland as a consultant? What does a consulting winemaker bring to the table, anyway, except bragging rights for ownership? It’s never been clear to me. I guess if a winery is just starting out, and their winemaker doesn’t have much experience, then sure, bring in an expert, to be the training wheels for a vintage or two. But the top winemakers I’ve known for the last 30 years—and I’ve known most of them in California–neither want nor need outside help. They just ask to be given good grapes, and then enough of a budget to make good wine, and some time to figure out how to express the vineyard’s potential. If you can tell me why these consultants are necessary (rather than just bling), please do.


California cuisine and California wine: partners through life

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It had been years since I dined at the Stanford Court Hotel, on top of Nob Hill, so I was looking forward to meeting some folks there last night—not for dinner, just for a few drinks. Still, I wanted to check out the restaurant menu. Reading—no, make that devouringJoyce Goldstein’s new book, Inside the California Food Revolution, I was curious to see how the menu had evolved from 20 years ago, when Fournou’s Ovens, the hotel’s grand restaurant, served what I recall as rather rich food, French-influenced, and heavy on the meat.

Alas, the menu has evolved, but not as I’d anticipated; as it turns out, there is no restaurant at the Stanford Court, just a rather plain bar menu (sandwiches, steak and such). I asked the concierge about that, and he replied, “New ownership—changing times.” Indeed.

Which brings me back to Inside the California Food Revolution. The mark of a great book is that it gets you thinking. I loved the juxtaposition Joyce, and many of the chefs she interviewed, set up between the Los Angeles and San Francisco culinary scenes of twenty years ago. L.A. was “food as fashion,” in Joyce’s words, as well as “overdone, very over-manipulated…places to see and be seen,” according to another restaurateur. By contrast, S.F. chefs were obsessed with purity, quality ingredients, seasonality and eclecticism.

The problem with appealing to fashion is that, quoting the former owner of a famous L.A. restaurant, Citrus, “the life of a restaurant is very short [in L.A.]..very trendy. You’re good, you’re busy, and then, when a new restaurant opens, say good-bye to your business.”

Well, you can say that about any restaurant, to some extent (Daniel Patterson’s Plum just closed in Oakland, after a run of several years), but San Francisco and the Bay Area seem more willing to bless a great place, like Boulevard, with longevity than L.A. is. There is, of course, a wine tie-in to all this: I have often wondered about the lifespan of some of these super-expensive California lifestyle wineries, which pop into existence (often in Napa Valley) with the alacrity of mushrooms after an autumn rain, only to disappear just as quickly. With a hired “name” winemaker, the brand enters the “you’re busy” phase, which is quickly succeeded by the “good-bye” phase, unless the owner is so wealthy that he can afford to ride an ocean of red ink.

Still, there was one thing both the Southern and Northern California founders of the California cuisine revolution shared in common: a passionate ingenuity bordering on the naïve. As one of them told Joyce, “Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of chefs weren’t [classically] trained. That was freeing. You weren’t tied down to a set of rules and told, ‘You have to go this way.’ No, I don’t, because I don’t even know what the rules are.”

It was that disregard for “the rules” that enabled chefs, including Joyce Goldstein, to do their own thing. They figured that, if they liked something, others would, too. There’s a connection, I suspect, between that approach and the loss of Fournou’s Ovens: the grand hotel restaurant, with its banquettes, snooty somms, heavily-sauced food and pontifical atmosphere, is no longer suited to today’s dining needs, which are more casual. Joyce anticipated that at Square One, her own restaurant, when she opened it (after leaving Chez Panisse) in the mid-1980s. Today, I look at a place like Boulevard, which I think and hope will never close. It’s as California-cuisine-y as you can get: the California Lamb Prime T-bone, “wood oven roasted, served off the bone, with zuckerman banana fingerling potatoes with fresh turmeric, aleppo & coriander sauteed bloomsdale spinach, thumbelina carrots, our cardamom orange blossom yogurt, huckleberry molasses, sicilian pistachio aillade, and roasted lamb jus” is a triumph of World ingredients, a happy concoction of elements no one would have conceived of before the California food revolution tore down the walls. Yet Boulevard is noisy, happy, relaxed and fun—all the elements I associate with California (and Northern California, especially). And when you think of it, that’s what we want in wine, too, isn’t it?


A little more information about my new job

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I haven’t written much about my new job because it’s been important for me to keep steveheimoff.com a place independent of whatever job I have, whether it was the guy who wrote wine reviews for Wine Enthusiast or my new position at Jackson Family Wines.

The reason it’s important for me to preserve and protect this space as a sort of safe house is because I have (or think I have) a compact with my readers. That compact is terribly important to me. It’s almost a marriage—I mean, that’s how seriously I take it.

The thing to understand is how hard I’ve had to fight to maintain this blog’s independence. My former employer strongly encouraged me to end it—why, I never could understand. Obviously, I refused. After that experience, I am tremendously grateful to Jackson Family Wines for being supportive of the blog’s continuation.

My official title is director of wine communications and education. As such—and things are still evolving—my work is mainly confined to three areas: writing (they call it “content” creation), giving advice on various matters of my expertise to colleagues within the company, and working with outside gatekeepers in the ongoing work of tasting Jackson Family Wines.

This latter task is driven largely by the fact that there is a body of opinion among some people that Kendall-Jackson is a single wine company and that all of the company’s other brands must somehow be associated with K-J. That perception—real or imagined—is, of course, nonsense. Mentioning only some of the California wineries, it is clear, or should be to anyone who pays attention to these things, that Champ de Réves, Edmeades, Stonestreet, Verité, Hartford Court, Cambria, Atalon, Cardinale, Freemark Abbey, Mt. Brave, Lokoya, Byron and Matanzas Creek, etc. (I could go on) are wineries of the highest caliber; in my years as California editor of Wine Enthusiast I gave many high scores to their wines, including several 100 point scores (and I had the reputation of being stingy with perfect scores). I personally long ago formed the opinion, which was based on fact, that Jackson Family Wines was a large company, with brands at virtually every price point, and moreover, those brands met or exceeded in quality their competitors—and often at a lower price. This gave me great respect for the company.

So when I began to hear, from various others in this company, of an outside attitude that K-J somehow impugns the other brands in the portfolio, it was rather shocking. I wonder how anyone working in this business could fail to make the distinction between price tiers. After all, one doesn’t hear of a gatekeeper’s revolt against Mouton Rothschild because its parent company also produces Mouton Cadet, which is said to sell around 1 million cases annually, making it very much a commodity wine. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Besides, I have never heard anyone offer any reasonable argument to dispute the concept that a large wine company can walk and chew gum at the same time: that is, produce fairly-priced wine in large quantities for the everyday wine drinker, and simultaneously make ultrapremium wine, based on estate-grown grapes from the finest coastal appellations, and vinified by some of the top winemakers in California.

If I have any gripe at all with the upper tier of the industry—not the wines themselves, but the critics and somms who concern themselves with those wines—it’s that they so often give the impression that the everyday consumer doesn’t matter—that everyday-priced wines, the kind you find in a supermarket, are somehow illegitimate when compared to the little garagiste labels. This, too, is nonsense, and patently unfair. At Wine Enthusiast, I developed an affection for the everyday segment of the market (and the magazine reflected that affection). It always made me happy to give a Best Buy to an under-$15 wine, because I appreciated, having come from that part of the population that can’t afford expensive wine, that some wine companies take seriously the notion of making inexpensive quality wine, and I also knew how technically difficult that can be on a consistent basis, across vintages. That is one reason why Kendall-Jackson so often got my nod.

So what is it about some gatekeepers that makes them unable to appreciate the qualities of an ultrapremium wine made by the same company that produces an everyday wine? I have to confess that this is an aspect of my job I take most seriously, as I have great respect for “the truth,” and truth, after all, ought to live at the heart of every conversation about wine. Does the wine taste good? Is it clean and well-made? Does it drink well with food? Does it have the interest and complexity to satisfy over the course of a meal? These are the criteria by which sommeliers and gatekeepers should judge wines—not some hocus-pocus about scarcity or romance or garages.

I mean not to impugn any gatekeepers. I was one myself, so I know how hard these people work, and how honest they feel in their own hearts regarding the wines they recommend. I simply look forward to sitting down with them, as best I can, and asking them to put aside whatever stereotypes they may harbor, and perceive reality as it actually is: the wine inside the glass.


I support Beckstoffer’s idea to bring more tasting rooms to Napa city

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The most interesting thing about the Beckstoffer family’s purchase of the old [1905] historic building in downtown Napa was Andy Beckstoffer’s statement (paraphrased in the Napa Valley Registry’s article) “that Upvalley wine interests should invest in Napa city and build their hospitality facilities there.”

“Upvalley” traditionally refers to the northern parts of Napa Valley—St. Helena and Calistoga, although I imagine you could roll Rutherford into there, and by some stretches of the imagination (and I think this was Andy’s intention) you could even include Oakville and Yountville. For, reading between the lines, Andy is encouraging all wineries to “use Napa city facilities as a major part of their hospitality function.”

This makes sense from multiple points of view. The first, expressly cited by Andy, is that having wineries locate or relocate their tasting rooms, etc. in Napa city will “protect the integrity of the Ag Preserve,” referring to the 1967 act to protect Napa Valley’s agricultural heritage from the threats of population and development. Andy has long been active in supporting the Preserve, for instance in maintaining the lands bordering his Napa Valley vineyards.

There’s another reason why it makes sense for wineries to establish their hospitality centers in downtown Napa. For all the redevelopment that Napa city has undergone the last ten years or so—and it’s been nothing short of amazing to those of us who have watched it—there’s still a weird disconnect between the city and the valley that bears its name. For a long time, there was no reason for visitors to Napa Valley to even bother going to Napa city. There was no there there, aside, perhaps, from COPIA (which proved not to be so good a draw after all.) After the explosion of fine restaurants, hotels and other amenities since 2000 or so, there suddenly was, especially along the waterfront. But Napa city, despite its allures, still feels a little sleepy and rural, with entire blocks of downtown that seem to have hardly changed since the 1950s, and offer little of interest to the casual visitor. Bringing tasting rooms and other tourist draws will help build a bridge between Napa, the city, and Napa, the valley, and make Napa city a more thriving and interesting place.

There’s one other advantage to bringing tasting rooms to Napa: it will mean fewer cars on Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, including fewer drivers who are drinking. If people can stay in Napa city and do most of their tasting there, Napa Valley will be a safer place for us all.

Not everyone, of course, is happy with Andy’s proposal. Some want to keep Napa city “local” meaning, I suppose, a town of furniture shops and dress stores. Others have pointed out the irony (they would say hypocrisy) of Andy Beckstoffer being for development in the city but against Napa Valley wineries hosting weddings—a distinction so fine I fail to perceive it. And this all occurs against the greater backdrop of where to draw the line between too much development in Napa and not enough; this fast-growth vs. slow-growth battle that’s actually been going on for decades. For instance, in 1960, a city master plan called on expanding Napa’s population to 1.1 million people. (The population currently stands at about 79,000.)

I don’t think uncontrolled development is a good thing, but nothing comes without a cost. Leaving Napa “local” risks losing precious tourist dollars; over-developing it could make it into a wine version of Disneyland. But I think that Napans are smart enough to figure out a balanced approach, which is why I support Andy Beckstoffer’s idea.


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