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Terroir vs. personal preference: the critic’s dilemma?

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Should the critic base her score/review on personal preference, or on whether or not the winemaker has allowed “the terroir to speak”?

That question arose, yet again, at the recent Wine Bloggers Conference. It’s an old debate, one that’s as hard to frame as it is to answer. What does it mean to allow “the terroir to speak”? Who decides, ultimately, what a wine “should” be, as opposed to what it is? And how do we, the drinking public, know whom to believe, when critics set themselves up as arbiters of such matters?

I got to thinking about all this stuff, so I turned to a favorite old book, “The Winemaker’s Dance,” the 2004 effort by Swinchatt and Howell that’s a must on every winemaker’s bookshelf. The authors make no attempt to hide their true feelings. They’re anti-Parker, to the extent that the Man from Monckton “has placed increasing emphasis on power and intensity, personified by big fruit, rich mouth feel, and opulent character,” as opposed to a “balanced” wine that “let[s] the terroir speak.” The former approach, they warn, has “limitations.” The precise nature of the limitation, implied if not overly spelled out, is that a Parkerized wine, made in a “New World or International style,” is one in which all too often “the wine bares all in the shockingly delicious first burst of flavor” but then almost immediately begins to pall; “the regional and local character that so often distinguishes wine [is] lost” under the assault of all that richness.

It’s a compelling argument, resurrected in its most recent incarnation by In Pursuit of Balance, whose website says the group was formed in 2011 “to celebrate wineries striving to produce balanced pinot noir and chardonnay in California.” IPOB among other leading and influential voices in the [American] wine community has already had a powerful influence, especially in California—if not in how wine is actually vinified, then at least in the conversation about it. While the general public, and even most wine lovers, have never heard of IPOB, they nonetheless are curious about things like alcohol level, which, when you strip away all the clutter and pretense, is fundamentally what IPOB and others of the “School of Balance” is all about.

I personally have never understood this extreme position. The implication, as “The Winemaker’s Dance” makes clear, is that there is a single, unalterable moment in the vineyard when the grapes must be picked—when the fruit is right on “the fine line between maturity and excessive ripeness,” so that picking a single day early or later will “overpower the voice of the earth.”

This is a very illogical position to take. It is not only functionally difficult if not impossible for the vintner to pick grapes at a precise moment in time, it is conceptually difficult if not impossible for anyone to know with precision when that moment occurs. Winemakers will tell you all the time that their picking decisions are based on hunches, not precise knowledge; and any two vintners, picking the same vineyard, will opt for different times.

Besides, condemning a wine for alcohol level is silly. At one of the Wine Bloggers Conference dinners, I sat with Michael Larner, and drank his 2009 Syrah. Although it has a Santa Ynez Valley appellation on the label, the grapes are from Ballard Canyon (Michael spoke at a panel on that fine little area). The official alcohol reading on the label is 15.2% by volume and for all I know it’s higher than that. I can assure you, it is a wonderful wine. I drank three glasses in a row, and it never palled, never tired my palate, but only offered layers of delight and expressiveness.

Was my enjoyment of that Syrah a mere “personal preference,” or was it because the wine really did showcase its terroir? You can see that the question itself is meaningless; just because we can ask a question doesn’t mean it corresponds to reality. (“How many unicorns are there in the state of California?” is a perfectly good question, but it has no answer.) Moreover, from what I know of Ballard Canyon, that’s what Syrah down there does: the variety dominates Ballard’s varietal plantings because it gets insanely rich and ripe, the kind of wine our DNA is primed to love. So is there a competition between that Syrah’s “terroir” and a winemaker style that kills terroir? Has the wine’s alcohol level “overpowered the voice of the earth”? I don’t think so.


Rx for what ails ya: My prescription for wine magazines

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I’m a wine magazine guy—a product of that environment. I put 25 years of my life into writing about and reviewing wines for Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. I did pretty well, so I think I can say I “get” the culture. I was there in the 1980s, and I was there until earlier this year. What I’m about to point out, therefore, is based on experience, on a keen understanding of where wine magazines are at today, and on love.

First, what wine magazines are doing right. Their publishers and editors might regret it, but I think we can all agree that the primary focus of a wine magazine—from the public’s point of view, anyway—is the wine review. When all is said and done, it’s the reviews that people turn to first. And today’s consumer wine magazines continue to do a great job at it. Critics are, for the most part, honorable and sincere, and they pride themselves on being fearlessly independent of the advertising side of their companies. This independence is a credit to them, and to their publishers, who must occasionally cringe when an advertiser gets a lousy review. So a big thumbs up to magazines and critics for a job well done.

Now, I have to get onto what wine magazines could do better. I’m talking about what the trade calls the editorial side: the articles. If the reviews are the nervous system of the magazine, the articles are the flesh. They fill the pages; they provide the content (to use the word currently popular). The articles are what publishers and editors hope the public will actually read, after they’ve finished scrutinizing the reviews. But here, IMHO, wine magazines are letting the public down. Things could simply be better.

Twenty five and thirty years ago, the nascent American wine magazine was the most exciting thing a budding wine lover could lay his hands on. (Well, almost ; >) Wine writers, like consumers, were busily and happily discovering wine. Their articles brimmed with the joy of discovery, excitement and passion. There was a sense of shared adventure: writers invited readers to come along with them on the voyage, and readers eagerly participated.

We writers were young then, and our brains were ablaze. I remember my first winery profile. My first winemaker Q&A. My first interview with a collector, my first regional piece, my first wine-and-food pairing story, my first vintage report. And my first published review! It was like having sex for the first time. I was super-jazzed to write it all, and was able to transmute my joy into the written word, thanks to a God-given talent I was born with. So were the other writers with whom I was contemporaneous. Together, we invented a new type of wine writing. It was distinctly American: not too high-brow, but serious, enthusiastic, without guile or malice (common then in Europe), sincere, sunny, chatty. The world had never seen wine writing like that.

Most of the magazines of that era are still around; the wine magazine has proven to be (to quote Woody Allen) a resilient little muscle. For that, we may be thankful.

And yet…

Do you ever get the feeling, when you read an article in a wine magazine, that you’ve read the same article 25 times before in the same magazine? Sure, the names and places may change, but the template is the same. You see the same “Vintage Report on California Zinfandel” (or whatever) repeated every few years, with the same predictable phrases (“a new, more balanced style”) as you read in the magazine’s 2009, 2005 or 1999 articles. The same routine lists of “winemakers to watch” who turn out to be, in many cases, winemakers who weren’t worth watching; but the wine writer is expected to turn these articles out every year or so. Ditto for regional pieces and the entire gamut of topics the wine writer is expected to cover.

When I read today’s wine magazines—and I read most of them regularly—I can’t help feeling a sense of ennui, of déja vu. I think I know the reason: today’s senior wine writers have been writing the same stuff for 20 years or more. They’re in their 50s and 60s now; it’s hard for them to conjure up the same sense of wonder they felt in 1994. They try their best, but they’re only human; the heart sinks when it realizes it has to write yet another “pairing wine with food at the Thanksgiving table”column for the zillionth time.

The American wine magazine is in a rut, but the way forward (or out) isn’t readily apparent. I think wine magazines have to come up with new ways of writing about wine that are inspired by social media: they have to be more transparent, more participatory, and more human. What do I mean by that? I mean that the writers can no longer be a distant, aloof “voice of God.” Readers don’t want that anymore, especially younger ones. They don’t want to be talked down to, they want to be invited to join a conversation.

This is difficult when we’re dealing with the printed page. One might suggest that’s why print is in trouble—because it cannot be immediate and participatory, due to the nature of the publication process. Yet I would argue that this isn’t a fundamental weakness of print magazines, but a fundamental challenge: wine magazines need to take their authority and use it to overcome the temptations of utter predictability and repetiveness.

One thing that can to done to make wine magazines more relevant is for younger writers to come onboard, and this is, of course, happening even as we speak. But just because a writer is younger doesn’t protect her from falling into the same old templates that older writers have been practicing for decades. After all, younger wine writers shouldn’t strive to be mere iterations of older wine writers. They should develop their own styles, even if that means challenging assumptions at the magazines that hired them. The problem with that is that the younger wine writer is usually low man (or woman) on the totem pole, and also is answerable to publishers who are as old as, if not older than, their longtime writers. Thus, the younger writers may not feel emboldened enough to shake things up—and the wine magazine remains in the doldrums.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but as I began this post, let me repeat that I’m a child of the wine magazine. I love wine magazines, I believe they play an incredibly important role in educating the public, and I believe they’ll be around for a long time. I just think that some re-imagining and reinvention are in order if they’re to remain relevant.


Concerning those controversial .wine domains

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I’ve been watching developments for the last few months concerning these new .wine and .vin Internet domain names. Not closely, just sort of casually. I knew there was some controversy about them, but I wanted to keep an open mind, and besides, who has the time nowadays to research every complicated issue of social, economic or technological policy?

So it was that yesterday’s big article (by my old friend Chris Rauber) in the San Francisco Business Times really grabbed my attention.

“Noted wine regions, including Napa and Sonoma, protest new .wine Internet domain names,” the headline screamed. In addition to the Napa Valley Vintners and Sonoma County Vintners, those opposed to the proposed domain names include the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association and—in other states—the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, the Walla Walla Wine Alliance, and even the Long Island Wine Council.

Pretty impressive lineup. These are power players. I know the California regional associations quite well from my many years of rubbing elbows with them; with the power of their member wineries behind them, they possess clout. And they’ve been joined in their opposition by some powerful Congressional representatives: Mike Thompson (one of the senior Democrats in the House) and Anna Eshoo.

I can’t remember a time when so many regional associations joined forces publicly in opposition (or in support of, for that matter) a pending issue. So I figured I ought to look a little more deeply into what’s going on.

At first blush it makes sense to carve out .wine and/or .vin domain names. We all know the Internet is running out of domains and has been for years.

This is why ICANN, the corporation in charge of domain names, added additional ones to the more familiar .com, .org, .gov, .edu and .net—because “the internet—or .com at least—is running out of space. So many names on .com are taken that people and businesses have to struggle to find a suitable one.”

Enter .wine and .vin.

Two years ago, ICANN, in response to the problem, announced it would accept applications for additional domain names. It got nearly 2,000, many of them contested. ICANN decided to auction off the non-trademarked domain names to the highest bidders; the first auction was a year ago, and brought in over $9 million, through the sale of such domains as .club, .college and .luxury.

So what’s the problem with .wine and/or .vin? After all, even the U.S. government approves of the auction plan, which, after all, is an expression of classic free market principles. Last March, an agency of the Commerce Department declared that “ICANN is uniquely positioned…to develop the transition plan” toward a new set of domain names. Although the department urged ICANN “to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal” for the transition—an encouragement to compromise and conciliation—the wine associations aren’t buying it.

Rauber writes: They “contend that ICANN’s plan includes ‘non-existent to grossly insufficient safeguards from illegitimate companies’ hijacking their names, histories and legacies. They claim ‘unscrupulous’ bidders could grab web names such as napavalley.wine or wallawalla.wine and in effect hold them hostage.” A spokesman for the Napa Valley Vintners told Rauber, “[H]is organization fears the proposal would ‘provide a new playground for nefarious actors to poach the place names of famous wine regions around the world.’”

These are serious and legitimate concerns. Nobody wants to see a situation wherein some for-profit wine company buys the rights to, say, “napacabernet.wine”, thus misrepresenting itself and its association with venerable Napa Valley. Napa “has had our name ripped off” before, the Napa Vintners spokesman said (most of us remember when and by whom that was!) and isn’t about to let it happen again.

You’d think that ICANN and other legal entities could address the concerns of those opposed by building in rights and protections for stakeholders, and that’s exactly what ICANN has proposed to do. They’ve created a “Legal Rights Objections (LRO)” mechanism by which disputes can be resolved when someone objects to “a third party’s application for a new TLD [top-level domain].” Negotiation is more or less normal operating procedure in our era of contention and litigiousness, but the wine region associations remain unconvinced, and certainly they have a point when they fear they’ll be forced to spend a whole lot of money, either on lawyers or on buying back the rights to names they want.

This is a sticky one, and I have to admit I’m not sure which side I come down on. What do you think? Should .wine and .vin be up for sale to the highest bidder?


America is no longer a young wine drinking country–compared to China!

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Yahoo News says that four factors in China are driving “a soaring number of consumers” to drink wine.

  1. more affordable prices
  2. globalized palates
  3. younger demographics
  4. e-commerce

Assuming this is true (and it appears to be), I thought it would be interesting to see how these same four factors are playing out in America.

More affordable prices. We certainly see a plethora of affordable wines for sale here. The Yahoo article doesn’t define “more affordable,” but let’s say that in the U.S., that would be $15 or less per bottle. There’s a ton of wines in that price range available here, so we’re even with the Chinese on that.

Globalized palates. Again, no definition, but one has to assume this means that the Chinese like the same flavors of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and so on, as we do. Since these wine varieties are widely available on the international market, including here in the States, that makes us again even with the Chinese.

Younger demographics. The article refers to “urban, educated Chinese consumers in their 20s and 30s” who are driving the soaring sales. Well, we have people like that, too, but from what I hear, a lot of them are preferring liquor and beer to wine these days, so that may be keeping our own consumption down.

E-commerce. As I blogged the other day, e-commerce is indeed becoming “the distribution model of choice” in China, although it’s not entirely clear to me why this should be helping to fuel increased demand there. In my previous post, I interpreted e-commerce as meaning a business-to-business model. The Yahoo interpretation is much broader than that, and includes consumers buying wine directly from the Internet, rather than from brick-and-mortar places, both on-premise and off-premise. We certainly see direct-to-consumer sales via the Internet in this country, but it doesn’t seem to be contributing to greatly increased consumption. According to Wine Institute, our per capita has held pretty steady, with total wine consumption per resident per year being 2.4 gallons in 2006 and rising only to 2.73 gallons in 2012.

I think wine hit China with such drama and uniqueness in the last five years that it was bound to excite consumers, especially younger ones with a little extra money to spend. It reminds me of the atmosphere in America (or, at least, in the coastal cities) in the 1970s and 1980s, when wine really was the most exciting alcoholic beverage. It was the zeitgeist in America that fueled wine’s meteoric rise, but zeitgeists change. Right now, wine is in that same position in China, so it’s not surprising that these western-oriented, educated urban drinkers are buying and liking it. They want to feel, and be perceived as, smart, tasteful members of global society, and wine is one of the best portals to enter that rank.

The funny thing about China is that is changes the way we view ourselves in America. For my entire career, it’s been apropos to describe America as a young wine drinking country. But how can we continue to say that, now that an even younger wine drinking country is out there? On the other hand, we’re not an old wine drinking country, like France, Italy or Spain. I guess that makes the U.S. a young-to-middle aged wine drinking country. We now have several generations of wine lovers—starting with my own Baby Boom generation and extending through Gen X and Millennials—each of which has discovered wine and, in the process of interpreting it for themselves, ended up reinventing it. The same will happen in China, and faster than it occurred here, because everything happens faster these days.


The next big thing? Probably not

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We’ve seen it plenty of times before: “the next big wine variety” is just around the corner. But it usually turned out there wasn’t anything around the corner, except another corner.

Remember Sangiovese? In the late 1980s-early 1990s everybody swore it was the next big red wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, they said, was all well and good, but… And then there was poor Merlot, which had gone through its own “next big thing” earlier, but the pundits eventually decreed that it wasn’t good after all to achieve “next big status.” Thus, Sangiovese.

Why do we need “a next big thing” anyhow? We don’t, in reality, but “reality” needs to take account of the people in the wine industry who profit from a “next big thing” mentality. Those would be the so-called tastemakers: sommeliers and MWs, of course, who play an increasingly big role in the culture; wine writers (some of them), who have the journalist’s addiction to breaking “news”; and merchants, to some extent, who hope to capitalize on a “next big thing” by stocking their shelves with it before their competitors can.

Every few months, somebody discovers a “next big thing” and now, it’s the turn of the drinks business, a very good online journal that makes for must-reading every day. Their writers now tell us that “A native Armenian red and a white variety from the Peloponnese could be ‘the next big things in wine…’.”

Why would the authors have chosen two obscure varieties for stardom? Well, the white grape—Rabigato—because it’s “a high-quality and high-acid, age-worthy grape,” and the red– Alfrocheiro Preto—“for its ability to retain acidity, even in hotter climates.”

Understand, I haven’t had either of those wines. They do sound good and savory and, given the authors’ use of the word “lighter” to describe them, it sounds like they’re fairly moderate in alcohol. But “global potential,” as one of the writers asserts?

Several problems, at least in the U.S. (keep in mind that the drinks business is a British publication). For one, there is no Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto planted here (if there is, there can’t be more than a few acres). That means if either wine hits the jackpot, it’s going to have to be through an import. And imports have a hard time cracking the glass ceiling in this country. A few have made it (I’m thinking of Terlato’s Santa Margharita Pinot Grigio), but those usually benefited from big companies with large distribution networks. As far as I know, no large wine company is going to gamble on Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto. Why not? Because wine companies exist to make money, not lose it. They prefer to leave the risk-taking to smaller companies, and then, if things look good, they rush in and join the party.

So will small wineries do Rabigato or Alfrocheiro Preto? I doubt it. They have enough on their hands without having the headache of convincing people to buy and drink something they’ve never heard of and can’t even pronounce.

The truth is, America is a conservative country when it comes to wine preferences. People stick with what they know; their capacity to change is limited. Gatekeepers are more adventurous by nature, but there’s a limit to how much influence they actually possess among the public. Wine gatekeepers are like inside-the-beltway Washington pols: they live in a bubble that most people don’t really care about.


From the front lines in China: The end of the three-tiered system?

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China never developed the complex infrastructure for the distribution of alcoholic beverages that the U.S. has in the three-tiered system, and it might never, because e-commerce is becoming the distribution method of choice.

That’s according to an article in the Taiwan-based China Times, which says that e-commerce is preventing the emergence of “leading brokers or end retailers,” as they’ve arisen in this country. This is also having an impact on the price of wine in China: “the popularity of e-commerce firms have [sic] shrunk the profits of wine companies,” with “most” of them seeing huge revenue falls.

No one should be surprised. “The golden age of wine e-commerce is coming” to China, according to a Chinese businessman who co-founded one of the country’s biggest such firms.

One big wine e-commerce firm, Wangliu—said to be “China’s priciest”—is venturing beyond mere sales; “The fledgling company is also looking to engage wine connoisseurs offline, opening experience stores and private clubs in major cities across China.” It’s as if Southern Wine & Spirits was opening winetasting “experience” venues in New York, San Francisco and L.A.

China does have a handful of private distributors “who are looking to source wines, beers and spirits from suppliers,” and that segment traditionally has sold wine to on-premise and off-premise accounts, as the three-tiered system does here. But “there are not many big wine distributors,” like Southern, in China, with online or e-commerce wine distribution websites instead filling the void. This would seem to make distributing wines from smaller wineries—the kind that have trouble getting picked up by big distributors in America—easier in China, although the challenge for small wineries is the same there as here: for Chinese consumers, “brand name remain[s] today the leading factor that influence[s] purchasing choices…due to the great complexity…that make[s] wine difficult to understand.” The winery that can work the e-commerce market successfully, and also help the e-commerce company to intelligently explain its wine, should reap the benefits of success in China.


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