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Crowd-based reviews? A consideration

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I’m not certain I agree that, in large, multi-judge competitions, “the best wines tend to rise to the top,” as Andy Perdue says in his column in Pacific NW Magazine says.

Andy’s contention is based on the fact that a big competition represents “a consensus of the judges who are tasting the wines” and, thus, this crowd-sourced opinion is more free of “biases” than would be the judgment of an individual taster.

This is a sort of “50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong” analysis. (That slogan comes from a Broadway play of 1929 that contrasted the socially-liberal attitudes of 1920s Paris with the censorship and alcohol Prohibition then in effect in the U.S. Its usual meaning is, “Hey, if so many people like it, there must be something to it.”)

There is indeed something to be said about consensus among large groups when it comes to decision-making. Our elections are based on consensus. Just as we would not want a single individual to pick our political leaders, but prefer to leave that up to the collective will of the voters, so too the consensual approach to wine judging suggests it somehow arrives at findings that are more true and real and thus of greater lasting value.

However, Andy himself acknowledges that you can unearth new and exciting wines in at least five ways,” namely, wine competitions, wine critics, wine merchants, wineries/wine festivals and friend recommendations. The question is not, “Which is best?,” because each way obviously has its own special appeals. The question is, “Which of these five ways is on the increase and which is losing steam?”

We’re certainly familiar with the contention that the Big Critics are losing sway, and I think that’s true, in the sense that the more famous of them are aging out. But what does this mean for the template? Not much. The New York Yankees, much less Major League Baseball, didn’t phase away with Derek Jeter’s retirement, because talented younger players—Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig, Mike Trout—are constantly coming up. In the same way, it’s becoming fashionable to predict the demise of the individual critic, but we’ve seen the stunning rise and success of Antonio Galloni’s Vinous, with its super-stable of critics, and other leading publications (including The Wine Advocate, which isn’t going anywhere), remain hugely influential. So it does not seem to me that wine critics are an especially endangered species.

The question, though, of individual judgment versus consensus-driven judgment remains interesting, albeit probably unresolvable. Having participated in huge tastings (although the last one was years ago), I came to the personal conclusion that there were too many people involved, too many egos, too much confusion and, at any rate, too much alcohol imbibed in too short a time, at least for my tastes. (Perhaps things have changed in the interim.) Then too, consensus usually means that outlier wines, at both the top and the bottom, are eliminated, resulting in a shift toward the median, or average. That’s not to say that a winner at a big competition is not a fine, even a great wine, but it does stand to reason that it will be a wine that offends the least number of people, while appealing to the greater esthetic. One could argue that such a wine would be more ordinary than special. But I’m acutely aware that every single one of my arguments could be turned on its head, and used to prove the opposite.

Another limitation of big competitions is that not all the top wineries even bother to enter them. In fact, many top wineries don’t, for the simple reason that they have more to lose than to gain, by getting a lower score than, say, a supermarket wine. This raises a fundamental limitation of any method of critical appraisal: no competition, no individual judge can possibly review all the wines out there. Even I, as a working critic who tasted thousands of wines each year, could barely keep up—and there were some wines I never tasted at all.

I will admit there’s a certain allure to a double gold winner from a big competition. I think to myself, “It certainly can’t be a bad wine, and it might even be a very special one.” It’s kind of the way I feel about Yelp: for all its well-publicized problems, Yelp does provide a kind of base-of-the-pyramid generalization of the conclusions of many people. If the majority of 40 reviews of a restaurant are positive, I’m more inclined to check it out. But—and this is just me—I still prefer the review of a single, trusted critic, like Michael Bauer, to that of the crowd.


“Social media” is an oxymoron that’s here to stay

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Three articles in yesterday’s S.F. Chronicle caught my attention for the suggestions they make about how social media is, and is not, changing our lives.

(I was finally able to read after days of not being able to, due to the intense flu I had. It was an effort just to focus my eyeballs.)

The first article was on the continuing war between digital cab companies, like Uber and Lyft, and conventional taxi companies. This is a topic San Franciscans have been hearing a lot about. The bottom line is that the conventional taxis were slow to the point of paralysis in understanding the implications of portable digital devices. This was summed up by a CEO who said, “The taxi industry needs to rapidly retool and face the realities of the smartphone.”

Nobody is going to dial up a taxicab number and face all the possible uncertainties and hassles. (Just finding an open taxicab in San Francisco is a feat.) So much easier to establish an Uber or Lyft account, even if it means paying a little more. Uber and Lyft made the news yesterday because they apparently are planning on price-gouging on New Year’s Eve, but that’s beside the point. The point is that they foresaw the conveniences of smartphones and the taxi companies didn’t.

The second article was an examination of one of the East Bay’s new congressman, Eric Swalwell, the youngest member (at 32) of the large California delegation. Swalwell’s a social media guy; he made a point of stressing that in his interview. He tweets so much that there’s a new Twitter hashtag, #swalwelling, which seems to consist of photographing one’s feet as they enter an airplane. (We have “selfies.” Could this be “footsies”?)

These two articles represent green lights for social media. They underscore that we have become a society on the go, go, go, with our feet carrying us while our hands clutch our smartphones and we share our experiences with others. We interact with the world through these devices, and that includes all our interactions: shopping, politics, entertainment, simple personal communications. For wineries, the meaning is clear: Go big, or go home. The winery that does not learn how to take advantage – no, that’s not the right phrase, because it implies a certain cynical, transparently venal misappropriation of social media. Let me start again. The winery that does not learn how to communicate through mobile devices puts itself at disadvantage in this hyper-competitive world. Just as taxi companies learned, to their chagrin, at the hands of Uber and Lyft, the future belongs to the digitally savvy. (Although I will admit that Uber and Lyft have not been particularly adroit in handling the politics of their situations. But that’s another story…).

The third article stands in stark contrast to the others. There’s a new establishment here in Oakland, Plank, down at Jack London Square. It’s in a gigantic space that’s been vacant for years. The new owners decided to open, not just a restaurant, not just a bar, but a bowling alley, pool hall, bocce ball court and video game arcade. They call it an “activity bar.” The concept is, as another activity bar owner put it, “It’s fun, and you don’t have the pressure of sitting across the table talking for three hours.”

Well, I don’t know about the “pressure” of talking with friends and family over a restaurant meal. I mean, if it were really that onerous, people wouldn’t be doing it so much. Still, I get the idea. As the Chronicle reporter who wrote the story mused, “One wonders …whether these bars satisfy a longing for childhood pleasures…in the age of texting, with face-to-face communication.”

That’s more to the point. Yes, we inhabit a digital reality; we’re all nexuses on the World Wide Web. We do more and more things with our smartphones. But my discomfort from the very beginnings of this digital revolution has been connected with the fact that it somehow seems injurious to the social and civil underpinnings that made us human in the first place, and societal beings moreover. To that extent, the phrase “social media” is an oxymoron. “Social” is face-to-face; distant communication, however facile or amusing it may be, is not particularly social.

However, here we are, on a cusp as it were between two opposing forces. As usual with cusps (such as the transition between millennia), predictions, fears and hopes are exaggerated; things continue more or less as usual. Life goes on; we grow accustomed to whatever is new, and somehow manage to keep hold of our humanness.

The lesson, again, for wineries, which I alluded to above, is clear: adapt to the digital, portable realm or be doomed. But do it in a way that’s Zen-like in detachment: with a pure mind, as Buddhists put it. Do not allow yourself to be perceived as having an ulterior motive; in fact, do not have an ulterior motive, except that of humanness. If you’re puzzled by how to achieve this, here’s a clue: If you are yourself, not someone else, you will not be perceived as having an ulterior motive. If you are not yourself, you invariably will be. It’s a strange paradox: by being real, you will succeed. If you don’t know what being yourself and being real mean, then you have your work cut out for you.

Anyhow, have a fine, fun and safe New Year’s Eve! No drunk driving, please.


Renewed U.S.-Cuba ties good news for CA wine

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The first thing I thought, when I heard that the U.S. is about to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, was, “Oh, man, that’s really good news for California wine.”

Before the brouhahas of the early 1960s, Cuba was a favorite tropical destination for American vacationers, especially those along the East Coast. Today, people go to Costa Rica, Belize, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; back then, it was Havana, just 90 miles across open water from Florida. Fashionable resorts, like the Hotel Nacional, lined the Malecón, attracting tourists with cash to spend. And spend it they did, in restaurants and bars, until the break with the U.S. and subsequent embargo sent the Cuban economy into a tailspin.

But with this resumption in relations, there’s every reason to believe that U.S. tourism will once again explode; certainly, expectations are high. Forbes last week, in an article called “Five Industries Set to Benefit from the U.S.-Cuba Thaw,” listed “Tourism” in the top slot, writing that Cuba will be an attractive stop for architecture buffs, food lovers, music lovers, and those interested in literature and the arts.” And where food lovers go, there is wine.

And what wine is more natural to pour in Cuba than California wine? Yes, there’ll be plenty of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and probably lots of German Riesling in that warm climate, but really, California wine is likely to dominate restaurant wine lists, as it dominates wine lists here in the States. At least, that’s what Napans believe. An article last week in the Napa Valley Register described how Napa Valley winemakers are weighing the Caribbean nation’s potential to become its newest market,” although the article also warned that direct sales to Cubans themselves, rather than to wealthy tourists, are likely to be minimal for quite some time, because Cuba remains a poor country. Last summer, of course, a group of Cuban sommeliers famously visited Napa and Sonoma. At that time, they said they “aren’t sure how long it will be before California wines will be in their Cuban restaurants.” So the timing is iffy, but not the interest: the somms want our wine, and they’re going to get it. Pacific Northwest vintners, too, are eying the possibilities.

Because news of the improved U.S.-Cuba ties came so unexpectedly and rapidly, it’s not likely that very many California wineries were prepared for it. I would imagine that late last week, and continuing on into this Christmas week and the New Year, winery sales and marketing teams will be meeting on a contingency basis to figure out how to take advantage of the new developments. They should. Every market counts—and the Cuban tourist market (which will be international in scope, not just comprised of Americans) is likely to eventually be very profitable.

U.S. tourism in Cuba isn’t a done deal—it will take some action by Congress to fully open it up. But, as Bloomberg Business Week reports, even the prospect of travel has provided an exciting jolt of new possibilities. Namely, hordes of U.S. tourists shelling out to visit the formerly forbidden country.” When it happens, those tourists are going to be shelling out a lot of money for California wine.


Zinfandel poised for growth

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Some wine varieties in California are permanently popular with the population. Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, for example. In now, in last year, and they’ll be in next year.

Then there are varieties that seem to come and go in cycles, and of them none more so than Zinfandel. It’s had more ins and outs than—well, I won’t go there. But Zin does go through cycles. It was hugely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, when consumers (mainly Baby Boomers) who were seeking “authenticity” in California wine found it in the Zins of producers such as Lytton Springs, Ravenswood, Nalle, Ridge and Rabbit Ridge. Then in the 1990s, Zin trailed off a little; why, I’m not sure (who can ever account for shifting fashion?), except that the 1990s were when we saw the rapid, dramatic rise in importance of “cult” Cabernets. Perhaps they captured the public’s fancy so much that people didn’t have room in their heads (or cellars) for Zin. The 1990s also saw the rise of Pinot Noir, which further crowded the field. Red Rhône-style varieties were also quite popular at that time, with the emergence of the Rhône Rangers. So the Nineties was (were?) not a good decade for Zinfandel.

In this new Millennium, Zin has had a couple periods of popularity, usually when one of the important wine magazines declares that “Zin is back.” But here’s my point: I think that Zinfandel is poised for its biggest, most popular time ever, and here’s why.

  1. A younger generation is curious about red wines other than Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Of course, they’re looking all over the world, but Zinfandel is right in their back yard, an American classic.
  2. Sommeliers always have a soft spot for varieties that make good wine, but aren’t necessarily appreciated by people. Zinfandel is such a wine. It has just the right balance of geeky and accessible.
  3. Zin is a marvelous matchup for grilled meats, but also for the wide range of spicy ethnic fare that’s so popular today. Mexican, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Indian, Ethiopian, Cuban—if it’s beef or chicken, grilled and spicy, Zin will love it.
  4. Zinfandel prices have remained fair. The variety hasn’t exploded in cost, like Pinot Noir and Cabernet.
  5. Zinfandel is deliciously fruity, which people like, and it’s full-bodied. But the tannins are smooth and supple, not hard, like Cabernet’s.
  6. There’s a Zin for every palate. There are high-alcohol Zins that are blood-warming and heady, if that’s what you want. There are Zins below 14% for the lower-alcohol crowd. And everything inbetween.
  7. Winemakers have gotten very good at making more balanced Zins than in the past. A big part of that is more sophisticated sorting of berries. Zinfandel is cleaner than ever.
  8. Zin just sort of has something special going for it. Everybody’s heard about it and knows the name; it’s got good vibes. People don’t have negative associations with it; they’re willing to try it, especially on a personal recommendation.

A couple weeks ago I was invited to moderate a Zinfandel tasting at wine.com’s San Francisco headquarters, together with their Chief Storyteller, Wilfred Wong. I remember thinking that if wine.com, the country’s biggest online wine retailer, believes in Zinfandel, it must have a good future. Growers, who always have a finger to the wind, apparently think so too: Zinfandel acreage rose 4.3% between 2012 and 2013, the biggest increase of any major variety, red or white, in California.

Have a great weekend!


Tuesday Twaddle: “Offloading” brands, and the old spinning cone

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When is it time for a winery to “offload” underperforming brands?

It happens. You’ve had a line, or SKU, in the market for years, but for some reason, it’s never gained traction. So the hard decision must be faced: Is it time to pull the plug on Grandma?

This is the situation Treasury Wine Estates is facing. The Australian company, which lost more than $100 million in 2013-2014, has brands “that [are] not a priority and may be retired [or] offloaded,” according the industry publication, The Drinks Business.

This can never be an easy decision for a big company like TWE. Companies love all their brands, the same way parents love all their children. You can’t throw an underperforming child under the bus, of course, but companies aren’t families, they’re business; and sometimes, “retiring non-priority brands”, or repurposing them in some way, is the only way to stay healthy.

 

* * *

Does this shock you? It shocks me. “One in four bottles of Californian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have been through the industrial alcohol removal process supplied by ConeTech in the past year.” That’s another report by The Drinks Business, which adds that the spinning-cone process of lowering the alcohol content of wine is more popular than ever because “winemakers would rather take out alcohol from a ripe wine than risk creating lighter, possibly greener wines from harvesting earlier for naturally lower abvs.”

Well, as Dana Carvey’s character, The Church Lady, used to say on Saturday Night Live, Isn’t that special?

I’ve written before that I don’t mind some technological intervention to produce sound, clean, drinkable wines. These are what Americans want. Critics denounce them as Franken-wines, but to me, that just seems derogatory and mean. Besides, the truth is, since this de-alcoholization is done secretly, no one can ever know just which wines have passed through the spinning cone, so before you give such a wine 96 points and then have to appear foolish when someone outs you, restrain thy criticism.

However, I will venture to say that winemakers are resorting to this somewhat risky procedure because the public drumbeat against higher-alcohol wines has reached such a fever pitch that they feel they have no choice. Many of them, themselves, probably hate themselves for doing it—for giving in. Some of them may be under orders to do it, by the people who sign their paychecks. It’s hard for me to believe that any winemaker willingly and happily sends her wine to the spinning cone.

Speaking of those “greener wines” that are the potential result of picking early—which is the natural way to produce lower-alcohol wines—I’ve tasted some of them at big Pinot Noir tastings, and they’re dreadful. Well, I suppose if you like dried oregano, mint and green tomatoes, they’re all right, but if you prefer cherries and raspberries (which I do), you’ll be disappointed.

Thus we find ourselves staring directly at the schizophrenia running through our modern California wine business. The bullet quote in The Drinks Business article is this: “The consumer preference is for riper style wines, with juicy fruit, but consumers want this with more moderate alcohol levels.” Someone should politely tell consumers you can’t get ripe fruit without high brix, which in turn translates into healthy alcohol.

But that’s not a message that consumers want to hear, and so producers—caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place—increasingly are turning to the spinning cone. And if California goes back to a series of warm vintages, like we used to have, we’ll see even more wines spun out.


Who’s growing fast, and who’s not, according to the latest survey

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Silicon Valley Bank’s annual industry survey has been summarized by Lewis Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight, and while I don’t have a link (it came late yesterday via email), I’d like to make it the focus of today’s post.

The most interesting part is SVB’s “predicted sales and case growth by region.” I did manage to drag the chart onto my desktop, and reproduce it here.

Regions

It’s kind of small: sorry about that.

As you can (or cannot) see, the chart takes nine California regions and predicts their case growth and sales growth for this year. The regions with the least growth are the Sierra Foothills, Lodi, the Central Valley and, surprisingly, Napa County (in that order, from least upward). The region with the highest growth by far is Anderson Valley/Mendocino County. Mid-Coastal (Santa Cruz/Monterey)) also is projected to have high growth, as are Sonoma County, Lake County and the Central Coast (San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara).

I don’t find any of this in the least surprising. It’s actually quite interesting, because it’s always interesting to see a bird’s eye view of these large regions and compare and contrast them with one another. I’m delighted that Anderson Valley is doing so well. It’s a small region, but so impressive, especially for Pinot Noir and the Alsatian varieties. Someone described Anderson Valley Pinot to me as a cross between Santa Cruz Mountains and Oregon, and I think that’s about right.

Mid-Coastal is a term I hadn’t heard before regarding Santa Cruz/Monterey; generally, I think of those as Central Coast. Santa Cruz isn’t a very big wine-producing county, although it is of high quality. Too bad all those vineyards in the Santa Clara Valley are now housing developments and Silicon Valley companies! But Monterey is a very high-production place, and as we’ve seen for some time now, it’s also coming up in quality. I’m not talking just about its best-known AVA, the Santa Lucia Highlands, but the county as a whole. Prices also have remained reasonable, which surely is one of the most important reasons why Monterey is doing so well. People are looking for a bargain, and they get it with Monterey wine.

I said Napa County was one of the places with the least predicted growth, but that’s a little misleading. It’s on the lower side compared to the higher-growth regions, but not by much. The point, I think, is that sales there are limited by the high prices. We can argue about whether they’re warranted another time; for now, suffice it to say that American consumers, post-Great Recession, seem to be looking for value, and Napa doesn’t really represent value, any more than, say, Classified Growth Bordeaux represents value, unless you’re willing to say that a 95-point Cabernet that costs $150 is a “value.” I mean no disrespect to Napa Cab, only to suggest that it is a little too pricy for most people, and that’s what seems to be holding back Napa’s sales growth.

Sonoma County on the other hand is doing well, and I think that’s because their prices just haven’t kept up with Napa’s. We all know that Sonoma County, with its many appellations, is far more diversified than Napa, or for that matter than just about any other major wine-producing region in the world, in terms of the varietal range. And quality, too, is really high. But the Sonomans have never been able to charge Napa-esque prices, which is to our (the consumer’s) benefit.

Then there’s Central Coast, defined as Santa Barbara (mostly) and San Luis Obispo. Santa Barbara has been one of my top wine regions for more years than I care to remember. I was championing it early, and the reason I can say that is because Santa Barbara vintners were telling me, a long time ago, that I “got” their region, while other critics didn’t, in their view. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Santa Barbara, with its various AVAs (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley) caught my fancy in the early 1990s, and whenever a Santa Barbara winemaker told me that other critics never visited there, I always was astonished.

Santa Barbara’s a funny place, price-wise. The best wines are expensive, but, again compared to Napa Valley, not really. And there are quite a number of fabulous wines, across varieties ranging from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Syrah and Grenache, that haven’t leapfrogged into the too-expensive category…yet. I think Santa Barbara prices are heavily connected to the economy, but they’re still reasonable, which explains why the region is experiencing growth.

I won’t say anything about the low-growth regions here. I wish them luck.

Anyhow, as you read this, we northern Californians are hunkering down for the Great Storm of ’14. Good luck to us, and to you.


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