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2016 wine trends

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One differs with Tom Wark and Julie Ann Kodmur with no small amount of trepidation. These two veterans are among the ablest and most effective of California winery publicists. I worked with them both for a great many years, and know for a fact that they have their fingers on the beating pulse of the business. But sometimes, you have to disagree with even the smartest people.

They have a new joint blog out (actually, “joint” blog makes it sound suspiciously herbal. The actual new “joint” publication would be Andy Blue and Meredith May’s “the clever root.” But I digress.) Julie Ann and Tom ran a post yesterday, “Ten 2016 Trends the Wine World Needs to Watch.” Most of their prognostications, I agree with; some, in part; others, not so much. Here’s the story.

“Natural Wine” Is Solidified As A Bonafide “Category” in the Wine World. Tom and Julie Ann may believe it. I don’t. To me, “natural wine,” whatever the heck that means (and it doesn’t mean anything, technically) is the new “biodynamique,” a buzzword for publicists to use to convince greenies to buy their clients’ wine. It sounds trendy and environmental—who wants unnatural wine?–but its meaninglessness limits its shelf life. (“Sustainable” is different. It’s certified by third-party organizations.) Even the people who peddle “natural wine” will soon tire and move onto something else, whatever that is.

Continuing Backlash Against the Wine Industry in Well Developed Wine Regions. Is there a backlash going on that I don’t know about? Well, yes: Julie Ann and Tom refer to demands by locals in wine country “to address problems this minority believes are caused by the wine industry,” e.g. traffic, crime, noise, environmental impacts, etc. This is indeed happening but there’s nothing really new about it. It’s a form of NIMBYism that does need to be addressed, but I have a feeling that where money talks, nobody walks: the wineries will pretty much get what they want, because they are the tax base in most of these regions.

Distributor Consolidation. This too has been going on for years. Yes, the problem is getting worse, from the point of view of smaller wineries that are locked out of the chain. There undoubtedly will be greater consolidation, but the good news is that the Internet and social media, with their DTC promise, are becoming effective counter-weights to the three-tiered system.

Emergence of Younger Wine Writers. It is true that “the older, experienced crew begins to think about retirement.” How could it be otherwise? It also is true that “young writers [have] been toiling at second tier wine publications and websites.” Will there be a simple one-two switch where Blogger Joe is the next Jim Laube? Well, somebody has to be the next Jim Laube so it might as well be Blogger Joe. However, what is missing from this analysis is the sad fact (from the point of view of young writers) that the number of influential writing positions will remain pitifully small. There are simply too many young writers and too few spots for them to work for decent money.

Increase in Use of Media (not Social) Relations in the Wine Industry. Being publicists, Julie Ann and Tom might be expected to predict how important their sphere will become. I’ve been around for a long time, and watching the interplay between wineries and P.R. firms has been fascinating. The theory is that increased competition will drive wineries to P.R. firms for “help reaching the media with their brand message.” Yes…and no. Some wineries will; some won’t, because they (a) can’t afford it, or (b) aren’t convinced external P.R. is worth it, or (c) are turning to their own in-house social media efforts, which they believe can replace traditional P.R. Can it? We’ll see. Traditional P.R. may (accent on “may”) be an endangered species—the streetlamp lighters of the 21st century. Too soon to tell.

Opportunity in Diversity. Will wineries, in an attempt to gain a niche, produce “different types of wines…new beers, ciders and spirits…” and so on? There are two schools of thought. One is that what has worked in the past (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and so on) will continue to work in the future. The other is that the constant craze for new, trendy and different will enable some wineries to exploit consumer fickleness. Unfortunately, crazes have the lifespan of a gnat—remember Moscato? Personally, I can’t see wineries getting into “distilling or cider-making,” much less beer brewing; it’s not part of their core competency. So I’m not sure how much “opportunity” there really is in this new “diversity.”

More Groups and More Categories to Choose From. The idea here is that “group marketing” is easier/cheaper than individual marketing—a Darwinian herd strategy where the “pack” can better fend off the wolves than the lone individual. Julie Ann and Tom cite IPOB and ZAP as examples. There is truth here, but in a larger sense, wineries always have been torn between joining groups (which spread the benefits thinly but broadly over everyone) and going it alone, where they stand to gain a greater share of the glory and money. This is an inherently existential question each winery must ask itself. I, myself, can’t see any more groups, such as IPOB, successfully emerging. IPOB has been a pheenom, and will be hard to replicate. What I do see is more and more tourism opportunities for wineries: sponsored tastings at resorts and cruise ships, Uber rides from the hotel to the winery, that sort of thing. But this isn’t quite what Julie Ann and Tom are talking about.

More Virtual Wineries as Cost of Entry Continues to Increase. Obviously.

The Call For Expertise. I’m glad that Julie Ann and Tom agree with what I’ve been saying for years: “Many consumers [will] more actively seek out vetted experience in their pursuit of wine advice…in contrast to the Everyman Wine Critic and the Crowd as the source of knowledge…”. Amen, brother Tom and sister Julie Ann! I said it in 2008 and I’ll say it again: just because somebody runs a wine blog doesn’t mean that they have experience or credibility. At last, the consumer is beginning to realize that vetting counts. Despite predictions, widespread in the blogosphere, of the imminent demise of the major wine pubs, their “continued success…is evidence that consumers are looking for real expertise.”

Purposeful Authenticity Will Be More Important Than Ever. The message is that “wine companies that can provide…real, heart to heart, meaningful, authentic content will capture hearts, minds and possibly wallets.” Agree. The question is, how do you know if the “heart to heart” is real, or just a clever simulation of authenticity (like those oil companies that tout their commitment to the environment while actually wrecking it)? This is very hard; it requires consumers to put on their B.S. detectors. Ultimately, this issue of “authenticity” is the stickiest wicket of all, because nobody knows what it really means, and “the crowd” will always be divided as to who’s really authentic and who isn’t. One thing for sure: you can smell inauthenticity a mile away.

* * *

I’m driving to Oregon today for more research into my Jackson Family Wines project. To think that just 72 hours ago I was on a warm, sunny beach on the Riviera Maya and now I’m headed up to the cold, rainy north country. I’m bringing my flannel shirts.


Bill Gates’ “Content is King,” 20 years later

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We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of Bill Gates’ now-famous manifesto, “Content is King,” in which he made a number of predictions concerning the future of the Internet. Keep in mind that, in January of 1996, the Internet, or World Wide Web, was still an object of curiosity to most people, including even those who designed and operated it. Everybody knew how revolutionary the Internet was, but nobody was quite sure how to use it. Yes, the military already was utilizing it for communications, simulations and so on, but the average American was very much puzzled concerning what it meant for her.

I was one of them. I remember getting my first assignment to write about it. It was from Lewis Perdue, at the old Wine Business Monthly magazine, who told me to check the Internet out, and particularly to find out what I could about wine “chat rooms.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t know how to get on the Internet (or if “getting on” was even the proper terminology). It turned out I had to go to the Berkeley library, rent time and use a hideously slow dial-up modem. It took forever to get online, and once I finally did, I hardly knew what to look for. But eventually, I found a few wine chat rooms and dutifully wrote up my article.

Back then, there was little talk of email, and none at all of social media. Winery websites were rare as unicorns (if in fact any even existed), and shopping via the Internet was a mere gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye. Therefore, when Bill Gates wrote his little article, it caught people like a storm. He already was the most famous person in the world of computers and software (along with Steve Jobs), had been on the cover of TIME magazine in 1984 (when he looked like the nerd, Richard Hendricks, on TV’s “Silicon Valley”), and was understood to be a great prognosticator.

The title of Gates’ paper suggested his point. “Content,” he explained, would be the “long-term winner” in the race to make “real money…on the Internet.” And being a businessman, of course, Gates’ goal was for Microsoft to make real money.

Here are the predictions he made, which I have gleaned from the article. Following each prediction, I offer commentary as to how accurate the prediction was in terms of what has subsequently ensued, and to what degree the prediction has come true.

“Supplying information and entertainment” will be the “exciting things” that will fuel people to turn to the Internet.

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”

The universal ease of “anyone with a PC and a modem” being able to “publish whatever content they can create.”

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”

The ease with which this content can be “distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher.”

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”

“Intense competition,” some of it successful and some of it a dismal failure, “in all categories of popular content.”

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”

“Printed magazines” can be “served by electronic online editions.”

PREDICTION ACCURACY: Medium-high.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Qualified “yes.” It’s still unclear how online advertising can raise the revenues that print advertising did.

“To be successful online, a magazine…must…have audio, and possibly video,” and not just “take what it has in print and move it” online.

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Qualified “yes.” Too many magazines do exactly that: move what it has in print online. Magazines need to do a much better job of giving consumers a reason “to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen.” And Gates obviously underestimated the importance of video. “Possibly”? No, definitely.

Concerning the “breadth of information on the Internet,” it will be “enormous…”.

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes,” but Bill Gates conspicuously missed the importance of “SEARCH” in order to find things in this avalanche of information. Perhaps if he had, Microsoft would have invented Google.

Concerning pay for content providers, “The long-term prospects are good, but I expect a lot of disappointment in the short-term as content companies struggle to make money.”

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.” Gates got it exactly right: Content companies (bloggers included) still struggle to monetize their efforts. Did Gates envision a solution to this problem? He did:

“In the long run, advertising is promising.” He also foresaw subscriptions as revenue-raisers.

PREDICTION ACCURACY: Moderate.

HAS IT COME TRUE? No. Gates wrote (1996) “today the amount of subscription revenue or advertising revenue realized on the Internet is near zero.” Now (2015), it still is pitiful, and most content providers can’t hope to make a living through either subscriptions or advertising. So, while Gates understood that “paying for content doesn’t work very well,” he was overly optimistic that the problem would be solved. His statement that “This technology will liberate publishers to charge small amounts of money” has failed to materialize. Unless you’re Parker or Jancis or somebody like that, almost no wine blogs make money.

Finally–gotta say it–Bill Gates missed social media. If he’d stumbled onto that, Microsoft could have invented Facebook.

Still, this little 1996 paper has turned out to be one of the most important and visionary analyses ever written concerning the Internet.


Are red wines more “serious” than white wines?

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“To be recognized by journalists, to be famous, you have to produce red.” That’s from Aurélie Bertin Taillaud, the proprietor of a winery in Provence, Chateau St. Roseline, who was quoted in Benjamin Lewin’s new book, Wines of France, which I am enjoying as much as I did his previous books.

The quote arose during Lewin’s consideration of the wines of Provence, which is so famous for rosé. Apparently, producers there wish to be taken more seriously—Oz Clark once wrote that Provence “is better known for its nudist beaches and arts festivals than for its wines,” and if I were a winemaker and people were saying that sort of thing about my region, I’d be offended too. As a result, says Lewin, “Some [Provencal] producers are trying to move towards production of reds to make more impact.”

Impact. To be famous. To be recognized by journalists. Are we talking about wine, or about celebrity? A young starry-eyed actor arrives in Hollywood, broke but ambitious, and dreams of being famous, to have impact, to be recognized by journalists. That is the goal of Fame. Is wine any different?

Well, not really. For almost all of recorded Western history, some wines have been very famous, and the rich and powerful—themselves famous—coveted them. Julius Caesar desired his Falernian wine, which Wine Spectator once called “the cult wine” of its time. And yes, Falernian wine was red.

Two issues present themselves, more or less in this order: Why do so many think a wine needs to be red in order “to be famous,” and what is the role of “journalists” in creating this impact? With regard to the former question, I really don’t know the answer. We humans do tend to classify some things as “more serious” than others. For instance, we regard paintings, of the kind that hang in museums, as more serious than, say, comic book drawings (although I know people who would disagree with that statement). To play the old word association game, I bet if you said to the next ten people you run into, “Picture a glass of wine in your head,” and then asked them what color the wine was, it would be red. Strange, isn’t it? And yet, there it is: “To be recognized by journalists, to be famous, you have to produce red.”

And what of journalists? Winemakers always have aspired to fame because the more famous their wine is, the more money they can charge for it. It was no different in Falernian’s time than it is today. The Bordelais excelled at this sort of P.R. 400 years ago. There were no journalists back then, but there were gatekeepers whose recommendations could make or break a wine’s reputation; and what is a modern wine journalist, if not a gatekeeper?

Nor is there anything particularly gauche about a winemaker who desires “to be recognized by journalists.” It sounds tacky, but it really isn’t, although in practice the pursuit of publicity can be tasteless if done with too much naked ambition.

It’s odd, though, that red wine should define “serious” wine since we know that there are lots of extremely serious white wines, including stickies. So, as I often do when I’m puzzled about something, I turned to my Facebook friends and asked them, “Is red wine more serious than white wine?” And as is always the case, they provided the most amazing insights. Here are a couple of them.

Just horribly engrained bullshit.

A great German Riesling or aged (non premoxed) white Burg can be just as serious as any red wine.

While I love both, I think it takes a whole lot more skill to make a complex, compelling & complete white wine than it does to make a red. [Note: This was from a winemaker.]

[And yet this, from another winemaker]: At the risk of not being politically correct, hell yes. It takes more work in the vineyard to make sure the skins have the right flavors, leafing, shoot thinning, etc. You can’t crop reds the same as whites. You ferment with the skins, punch down or pump over, worry about the seeds and extraction. And end up with a wine that generally will age longer, possibly require long term cellaring, and require more effort in general to care for and serve appropriately.

Their structure is more complex, beginning with the tannins, off to the pigmentation and dyes, how they’re fermented, aged in oak (not much white is, not as much as the reds), stay in barrel aging longer.

The aging factor accounts for most of it, I think. Some red wines are rather ponderous so some probably stems from that. Bit of snobbery, too, I think.

Tannins and oak add complexity and secondary characteristics. Higher fruit concentration and alc add to the equation, but the components necessary that allow a wine to age and evolve are what make them ‘serious’.

Had a guy at one of my tastings say, “Enough with this wimpy white wine stuff” to which I responded, “I don’t know sir, pretty sure my Muscadet can kick your Merlot’s ass.”

And from the great Jeff Stai: “…where wines will not be judged by their contact with the skin, but by the complexity of their character…”


Pinot Gris gains at Chardonnay’s expense

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We all know that Chardonnay is the leading wine grape in California, in terms of both acreage and sales, right? So tell me, did planted acreage go up or down last year?

Answer: Down. After hitting an all-time high of 94,854 acres in 2013, acreage dropped to 94,279 in 2014, a reduction of 575 acres. That’s not very much, but it’s a reduction nonetheless, and calls for further analysis. So let’s turn to individual coastal counties—Chardonnay’s premium home—for a closer look.

The two counties with the highest concentrations of Chardonnay grapes, Monterey and Sonomoa, together accounted for about half of the total loss: 226 acres between the two of them. Throw in Mendocino, Napa and Santa Barbara—all down—and it adds up to almost the entire statewide loss. So why are these prime coastal counties retreating from Chardonnay?

Well, grape growers are in the unique position of having to understand where the market is going five, ten years down the road. Growers don’t like surprises: they were caught with their pants down when Moscato unaccountably exploded, and they had to rush to catch up. (In 2007, there were only 101 acres planted statewide of the leading forms of Moscato: Moscato Gaillo, Muscat Blanc, Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Orange. By 2014, there were 8,414 acres, an increase of more than 8,000 percent.) Many must be the conversations around growers’ tables concerning what consumers will be drinking in the year 2020; we have to conclude, given the reduction of coastal Chardonnay, however slight, that the conclusion is that people will be drinking less Chardonnay.

And more of…what? Well, presuming that they will still want white wine, what could it be? Statewide planted acreage of Sauvignon Blanc also was down this year from last year, suggesting growers don’t particularly believe in its future. Pinot Gris, on the other hand, was up—way up in acreage, 9.1% last year, and a whopping 80% more than in 2006. If Pinot Gris was on the futures market, someone would have made a bundle had they bet on it nine years ago.

Pinot Gris now is the third most widely-planted major white wine variety in California, behind only Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (not counting the inferior French Columbard, a staple of jug wines), and is only 1,701 acres behind Sauv Blanc; at the current rate, Pinot Gris will actually surpass Sauvignon Blanc in a few years. Of its statewide total of 15,009 acres, 1,930 acres, or about 7.8%, are non-bearing—that is, they’ve been planted but are too young to bear fruit. That represents a hopeful belief on growers’ part.

But wait, there’s more. Where are these growers planting all that Pinot Gris? On the coast, where it makes the best wine? Nope. In the interior valleys, Sacramento and San Joaquin, which account for 1,866 acres of those 1,930 acres of non-bearing grapes. I believe that we’re going to be seeing an increasing amount of inexpensive California-appellation Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio on store shelves and in family-style restaurants in the coming years.

And why not? Since the Great Recession Americans have been more budget-minded than in many years. Even here in booming San Francisco, where the streets sometimes seem like they’re paved in gold, the San Francisco Chronicle reported yesterday on a “post-recession chill on holiday sales”; retailers “hope they can grow sales…in the low single-digits,” if, in fact, they can grow sales at all. The article quoted a retail expert: “There will be no surprise boost in spending [this holiday season]. Retailers are just grabbing market share at the expense of someone else.”

Simply put, consumers just don’t have as much money as they used to, a situation that may turn out to be the new normal for years to come. So, with Chardonnay averaging $860.00 per ton of grapes in California, and Pinot Gris averaging $580.30, it’s obvious wineries can sell a bottle of Pinot Gris a lot more cheaply than a bottle of Chardonnay. And that, in the new economy, makes all the difference.


Why is the red blend category so popular?

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As Wines & Vines just reported (“Surging sales for red blend wines”), “[R]ed blends are growing more and more popular with consumers,” with the category, as measured by IRI, up 14% year-over-year. Red blends also accounted for the third-largest share of all DTC shipments over the past 12 months, behind only Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.

That’s pretty stunning. Red blends have become the new Moscato, although just what fueled this phenomenon isn’t as explainable as it was in the case of Moscato, which benefited from a hip-hop halo.

What, then, is behind the popularity? Well, the brands driving the explosion, according to the Wines & Vines article—Apothic, Ménage a Trois, Cupcake and 14 Hands (and I might add Murphy-Goode’s Homefront Red)—all are inexpensive, averaging $10-$12, or even less, at retail. So that’s one reason: That’s right there in the sweet spot for an impulse purchase at the market, or for a restaurant for its by-the-glass program.

But there are plenty of other wines in that price point on the supermarket shelves, so why red blends? I have a couple theories. One is just the novelty factor, as it was for Moscato. Another is that, being proprietary wines instead of varietals, producers can come up with these user-friendly names that are quirky and easy to remember, and that have a certain feel-good quality that appeals to people who might otherwise be intimidated by wine. Graphic designers can have fun with the labels. Fun name + cute label + the right price = customer appeal and loyalty.

And the wines aren’t bad. I’ve tasted most of them, and they’re perfectly adequate for everyday occasions. But there is one thing about the IRI data, as reported in Wines & Vines, that’s problematic: the “red blend” category includes “Meritage wines”…”Rhone-style wines”…and “Italian-style blends…”. As Wines & Vines reports, IRI’s red blends/Meritage category is a broad one that includes both dry and sweet red table wines as well as more traditional Bordeaux-style red blends often called Meritage.”

As we all know, “Meritage” wines are Bordeaux blends in which no one variety exceeds the TTB’s 75% threshold for varietal labeling. I don’t know why or how “Meritage” wines have much in common with a typical red blend (Apothic, for example, is Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon). Nor is it clear just how many Meritage wines were part of IRI’s data: at an average bottle price of $8.64, it wouldn’t seem that Meritage was a big part, but we just don’t know. Adding to the confusion, as Wines & Vines notes, is that the red blend category “includes both dry and sweet red table wines,” but we also don’t know precisely what those terms refer to. The article says the “hot brands…typically contain 1% or more residual sugar,” which is perceptibly sweet.

Well, we’re deep into the tall weeds of consumer analysis now, but perhaps the takeaway is that the red blend phenomenon isn’t as phenomenal as would appear at first blush (no pun intended). My hunch is that these red blend buyers are beginning wine drinkers, or just those who enjoy a little red wine and don’t want to give it any more thought than they give to their daily bread or milk. These consumers always have preferred sweeter wines: We in the trade make much of dry, varietal wines, but we tend to forget that there are millions of consumers out there who just want something simple to understand and pleasant to drink, that’s soft, fruity and a little sweet. That being the case, I think that red blends are here to stay, unlike Moscato. They’re also a great way for wineries to dispose of excess grapes and/or wine. And despite their inexpensive price, they’re really profitable. Which brings up a final point: White blends. Bordeaux notwithstanding, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the idée originale of the red blend; there is a white Chateauneuf, but not much. In California, a few people have been making white blends for years, some of them, like Conundrum, successful brands, but something about white wine varieties seems to resist blending. Perhaps the innate character of the varieties is hopelessly obscured when mixed together. Anyhow, it’s a little weird that red blends are doing so well while nobody’s talking about white blends.


Is inexpensive wine better than expensive wine because more people buy it?

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I blogged the other day about price points in California Chardonnay, and how the best scores that inexpensive ones seem to be able to get is in the mid-80s, maybe the high 80s and, very occasionally, a 90 pointer. Then one of my readers sent in the following comment.

Just something to think about. If the biggest selling Chardonnay brands are rated in the 80’s and low volume $75 Chardonnay is rated in the 90’s maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like. Maybe the biggest sellers deserve a higher score, they are after all 90+ point wines in the minds of those huge number of buyers.

This is a clever argument; one might even call it sophistic. It’s basically a version of “the customer is always right” or—in another era—“Forty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” It suggests that the fact that so many consumers love inexpensive Chardonnay means that inexpensive Chard is actually better than expensive Chard, or at least deserves a higher score.

Well, the obvious thing for me—a former wine critic—to say is, Nonsense. The millions of Americans who enjoy these inexpensive Chardonnays don’t have the experience we critics do. They [the consumers] don’t understand fine wine; they drink inexpensive stuff; like somebody dressing in clothes from Target, they think it’s high-end. (No disrespect to Target!) But as soon as I write those words I realize how wrong they are. It’s not that consumers prefer inexpensive wines to expensive ones, it’s that they can’t afford expensive wines, at least on an everyday basis. So it’s a little cray-cray to say “the biggest sellers deserve a higher score.” In fact, based on my experience, when I offer a “regular” consumer a high-quality expensive Chardonnay (or Cab, or Pinot, whatever), they invariably appreciate its Wow! factor, and understand that it’s better than their $10 bottle.

But before I entirely dismiss the reader’s comment, he did make a point worth considering, and that was “maybe the critics are out of touch with what wine really should taste like.” Well, what should wine “really taste like”? Darned if I know! I suppose there are critics out there who “know” what St. Joseph or Barolo or Napa Valley Cabernet “should taste like,” but what does that mean when people are breaking the rules all over the place? And why should anyone care if a critic says something doesn’t taste the way it should (or the way he thinks it should) if in fact it’s delicious? What this all comes down to is, Do we judge wines by popularity, or by critical consensus? I would think the latter, especially as the price ascends. But if you’ve been reading what I’ve been writing here for the last seven years, you know that there’s no such thing as “critical consensus,” so we’re really in the dark. If I were to write a third wine book (and I won’t), it would be on this precise topic: varietal character, typicity and quality.

Why, exactly, is one wine 87 and another 97? You readers—consumers—deserve an explanation. Is it enough to trust the critic? In what other areas of your life do you turn over your decision-making to third parties? Your 401(k) advisor? ROTFLOL.

What does this all mean? I have a feeling wine criticism and reviewing is changing in profound ways, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. “Through a glass darkly” and all that. It’s related to demographic changes in America, mostly among Millennials and the generation coming up behind them, who seem to be increasingly fractionalized, tribalized, peer-group-ized, and impervious to authority. I wish I had a crystal ball.


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