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French attitudes toward Napa Valley, plus comparisons of winegrapes to meat?

5 comments

 

It’s too funny, really. When I first started out in this biz, you couldn’t give Napa Valley wine away to the French. “Mais non!” was their attitude. It was vin de table, merde, Algerian plonk.

Some of us knew otherwise, and suspected that the French—so chauvinistic in the belief that no other culture could rise to their level, especially American culture—were simply whistling past the graveyard. After all, their run of dominance—lasting for centuries—had no assurance of lasting forever, and they were continually hearing California’s footsteps coming up behind them.

But now, listen to what the respected CEO of Moët Hennessey, Jean-Guillaume Prats, has to say about Napa Valley. He previously managed Cos d’Estournal, the Super-Second Bordeaux, which he took to new heights, according to Wine Spectator, so this isn’t merely some oddball voice out of France; his father, Bruno, owned Cos. So Jean-Guillaume is, in other words, the very establishment that once scorned Napa Valley.

Here’s what Jean-Guillaume said: “I do believe some of the great wine from Napa Valley will be the equivalent of the First Growths in years to come, not only in terms of price—it is already achieved—but in terms of perceptions, of quality, and in terms of being looked after and thought after by wine collectors around the world. So Napa, for me, is soon to become the equivalent of the great Medocs.”

Wow. They ought to put those words on a billboard right next to the “And the wine is bottled poetry” one on Highway 29. You wouldn’t need the whole quote: Just “Napa…the equivalent of the First Growths” would do it.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Bordelais are finally coming around to appreciating Napa Valley. After all, Christian Moueix and Baron Rothschild did it decades ago, visionaries that they were. What’s ironic is that nowadays it’s some Americans who continue to diss Napa Cabernet. Why they’re so stubborn in this attitude, when even representatives of the top French chateaux gaze with envy upon Napa’s near-perfect climate and soils, is beyond me.

* * *

And now, from the Department of Ideas That Are Going Nowhere, let’s zip around to the other side of the world, Australia namely, where an article in the North Queensland Register is calling for wine grape prices to be more objectively determined, like meat prices.

Mr. Rob Hunt argues that, of all agricultural commodities, only the price of wine grapes “is determined using subjective criteria.” He contrasts this with “an objective system” of pricing, such as that employed by his country’s Meat Standards Australia system, in which, I gather, a short loin is a short loin no matter where it’s from, and priced accordingly. That is, indeed, an objective system. It is also very different from one in which (for example) a Cabernet Sauvignon bunch grown in Beckstoffer Tokalon costs much, much more than a similar bunch grown in Paso Robles.

But nobody ever said wine grape prices are objective. They’re not, because wine wholesale prices aren’t subjective. We pay for certain names and reputations, and I for one assume that more rigorous vineyard practices go into a highly-reputed wine than into an everyday one. So it’s not likely that we’ll be grading wine grapes the same way we grade meat anytime soon.

On the other hand, Mr. Hunt is entirely correct when he observes, I suspect there’s nothing more frustrating for growers than to see their carefully tended grapes dropped into the same receival bin as others of lesser quality.” That is a very sad situation for growers who work hard to grow quality fruit. We saw something similar happen in the early histories of counties like Santa Barbara and Monterey, where those grapes—fine quality for the most part—were shipped north or east, to be lost into vast blending vats destined for jug wines. The solution, as it turned out, was not to regulate prices, but to elevate the reputation of those counties, through small-production wineries making wines of critical esteem. You have to have the reputation first; then you can raise prices, not the other way around.

Cheers!


What does the Galloni purchase of Tanzer mean to wine criticism?

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It is, I suppose, the fault of the historian and logician in me that I’m always looking for the meaning of things. I’ve always thought that all things are connected in some mysterious way, and that certain events have implications, not only for how the future will unfold, but for trying to understand where we are now. Such an event is the purchase of Steven Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar by Antonio Galloni, which hit the airwaves yesterday via dueling press releases.

The context here is several-fold. One, both Tanzer and Galloni are enormously influential in this little world of wine criticism in which I and, I assume, most of my readers dwell. Antonio got his fame after being employed by Robert Parker to write for The Wine Advocate, which is how I met him (for the first and only time), at a tasting at the Culinary Institute of America, where Antonio was kind enough to give me a very long interview, which I turned into a three-part blog post. (Here’s the link to part one.)

I was very grateful to Antonio for that (he probably knew enough about me to know that my blog could be, ahem, a little controversial). I went away from that experience thinking what a gallant, intelligent and well-bred mensch Antonio is.

Tanzer I never met; not that I recall. But he’s always loomed in my mind because of the huge reputation he’d garnered among the people I respect: winemakers, sommeliers and folks like that. Tanzer’s name was one of those that mattered in high-class wine reviewing. So what I’m trying to say is that both Galloni and Tanzer earned my respect.

For years we’ve been tracking the evolution of wine criticism, the dualism of print journalism versus online, the gradual fading away of my Baby Boomer generation, and we’ve all tried to figure out what’s coming next. Who will matter? How will wine criticism and recommending work in the next decade and beyond? For me, a major question has been: Will there continue to be super-important critics (and their associated publications), or will wine critiquing become so crowd-sourced (due to the sheer magnitude of blogs) that no one voice will have national or international authority?

My answer to the latter question has consistently been: We will continue to have “important critics” because some fundamental part of human nature demands it. Humans want “authorities” to tell them what to buy, and to justify their tastes, especially in an area like wine that’s so confusing, subjective, emotional and, let us admit it, irrational. A few years ago, at the height of the blogosphere’s insistence that “critics don’t matter,” I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. It seemed to me to be wishful thinking on the part of the many (who wanted a piece of the action), against the power and influence of the few (of which, until last Spring, I was part). But I always thought that someone would take the place of the Parkers, Laubes, etc. of wine criticism.

Now, with this acquisition of Tanzer, it appears that Antonio’s Vinous is moving forcibly into a position of great influence and its associated power. I welcome this. Both men seemed marked by fairness and objectivity, and an indifference to external influence. Both men, too (as well as their teams) are profoundly talented. So we could be looking at the next great force in wine writing.

The one question that remains for me is whether or not this new Vinous will address itself chiefly to super-ultrapremium wine, or will examine wines from all price points. This is a decision, obviously, that Antonio and his business partners will have to address, and I hope they will review everything, from under $10 wines to the rarest and most expensive bottles. If my two cents is worth anything, that’s the way to go.

So it seems to me that the meaning of this marriage is that wine criticism is consolidating among a younger generation, who will continue to publish both online and in hard copy. The torch is being passed, folks, and IMHO it couldn’t be placed into better hands.


Preserving trust in an era of distrust

1 comment

 

Wine critics are insulated from the buying public. They live in a sort of bubble in which popular tastes are shut out, and only their own impressions impinge upon their consciousness. Yes, there’s something solipsistic about being a critic—maybe even narcissistic. But that’s the way it should be, because the critic must remain immune to all influences except that of his own taste and discernment.

Sales people, on the other hand, must constantly be in touch with the public. It’s always been something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum whether the success of a particular wine, or type of wine, is due to the top-down approach of marketing and P.R., or whether it’s from a bottom-up movement from the street. Probably it’s a little of both, and individual cases will vary. However, this we do know: customer satisfaction is more important now than ever.

By that I mean that the customer has more ways of being satisfied (or dissatisfied) than ever—more ways of expressing it, more capacity to share with others, more ways of having leverage at the winery. This is due, obviously, to the Internet and social media, and ease with which we can get online and publish our thinking with mobile devices. But you already know that.

So it wasn’t particularly surprising when I saw this study yesterday on “Three things consumers want [from a company]: responsiveness, involvement and conviction.” What was surprising was the huge gap between what people say they want more of, and how they think companies are actually performing. Measured by this metric, most companies suck.

For example, in the area of greater responsiveness (to complaints, questions, concerns, and so on), 78% of people want an almost “on demand” responsiveness from the company. And yet, only 17% of the respondents felt that companies actually respond in a timely manner. That’s a gap of 61%. If I was doing business with a company that answered my queries only 17% of the time, I’d find another company to do business with.

Corporate America certainly understands this and is responding. In my own life, I use Comcast, PG&E and various web service companies a great deal, and, like you, I sometimes have the need to contact them. In each case, their response time has gotten much faster, and the process of contacting them has gotten easier (not that it’s pleasant…). So kudos to them for that.

Wineries don’t have as good a track record. It seems to me they could be doing a much better job reaching out and staying in touch with customers or potential customers. You might think that bigger wine companies have an easier time of it, because they have bigger budgets and can afford to hire communications experts, including digital ones. But bigger wineries also have more demands from their customers, so it all kind of evens out in the end.

The “conviction” issue is interesting. It means that consumers want their brands to have “a clear mission and purpose,” even to the extent of “driving change in the world.” We’re told that Millennials in particular feel a sense of obligation to the world’s problems and, in that sense, they’re more likely to support a company that, for instance, helps the environment. But this is a tricky business: oil companies (Chevron, for instance) tout their environmental concerns, but lots of consumers don’t believe it; they think Chevron is “greenmailing”—telling lies to further their actual cause, which is making profits.

How can a winery tout its “convictions” in such a way as to seem authentic, not phony? It’s vital for companies to figure this out, because a phony conviction can have a backlash. I think there are two ways of doing it: one is to avoid getting stuck with a negative image in the first place (the way the oil companies did), because then you don’t have to tear down those walls of suspicion. The second way is to get your message out, clearly and directly. This, too, is problematic: if you tout your do-goodness too much, people will say you’re just trying to win their friendship (and their money). If you don’t say anything at all, nobody will know about your good deeds. The challenge is to talk about yourself in such a way as to inform people but not lose their trust.


When losers become winners: How a bad appellation can make you a cult wine

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When I was a working wine critic, people said I possessed a certain amount of power. Maybe so, but I never was in a position to dictate to a winery what appellation they were entitled to use on the label!

If I had been an official taster with the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité, the French quasi-governmental agency that regulates the appellation contrôlée system, I would have had that right and that power. Which scares even me: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown! But that is the case in France, where the 2012 vintage of Pontet-Canet’s second wine, Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet, [was] refused AOC classification by an independent tasting panel. As a result, the wine will have to be bottled as a Vin de Table rather than a Pauillac,” according to the drinks business newsletter.

It seems ridiculous to put that much power in the hands of a group of bureaucrats, but that’s the French way. Besides, I wonder if the official tasters tasted the wine blind. (If any of you know, please tell me in the comments.) The drinks business article tried to discern why the tasters rejected the wine; the best they could surmise was that Pontet-Canet’s combination of biodynamic winegrowing and use of amphorae (a sort of “egg”) resulted in the wine’s lacking “Pauillac typicité,” whatever that means. Now, I don’t know the total number of wines that bore a Pauillac AOC in 2012, but it has got to be in the dozens if not hundreds, right? So how “different” could the Les Hauts have been (after all, it is from a respected Classified Growth), for the tasters to have rejected it? Was it the sole outlier in the entire commune? Perhaps the tasters knew what it was, and their personal attitudes toward biodynamics and amphorae shaped their perceptions.

It’s not that I’m feeling sorry for Pontet-Canet and its owners, the Tesseron family. In fact, the brouhaha may work in their favor. Melanie Tesseron told the drinks business that the wine “is becoming fast a collector’s item.” I don’t doubt it. Anomalies often do. The famous “upside down plane” stamp is a collector’s item.

upside down plane

In wine, pretty much the same thing happened when Piero Antinori launched Tignanello, in 1971; because he blended the Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the Italian government wouldn’t let him label it Chianti Classico. He had to use the lowly “Toscana” appellation. But it didn’t exactly hurt Tignanello, which became a collector’s item.

Not that we’re in any danger of it, but I’d hate to see California turn into the kind of dictated winegrowing region that so much of Europe is, where you can only grow the grape varieties the government approves of, or else you have to lower the appellation. Can you imagine how that would work in Napa Valley, which, presumably, if we had strict typicity rules, would be limited to Bordeaux varieties? A vintner who blended in a little Syrah with the Cabernet (as B Cellars did in 2004, in their Blend 25) would be entitled only to North Coast, or possibly a California AVA. Under those circumstances, B Cellars might not even have bothered making the wine, which would have robbed the world of a beautiful 94-pointer.

I’m off to the beautiful Santa Maria Valley for the rest of the week, but will try to post tomorrow. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to get some pretty good rain on Friday in Northern California, which is a very good thing!


I’m the new “go with” wine guy

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I went on a “go with” yesterday. That is (as I just learned) the jargon for a salesperson who calls on an account and brings “someone else” (like me) with him. In this case, I’m the “famous former wine critic” whom most of the accounts have heard of, and whose ratings might even appear on their shelf talkers; apparently, some of them at least like meeting me—a name they previously knew only in print, only now it’s in the flesh.

What I, and other critics like me, used to do is so mystical and mythical to these guys. Many of their questions are basic: How do you assign a numerical rating? What’s the difference between 89 (death) and 90 (glory)? How exactly do you taste? It’s a reflection of the secrecy of so many famous critics that even hard-core industry veterans don’t understand. I don’t think I, personally, am guilty of obfuscation, since in this blog I’ve explained every detail of how I did everything, over and over, for more than six years. But in all objectivity, I don’t think most other critics have been similarly straightforward, and that’s a shame.

I’ve always said I like the sales and marketing aspect of this business. The sales guys, in particular, fascinated me. These road warriors are out there every day, doing battle with on- or off-premise wine buyers who have heard it all, seen it all, done it all. So in other words, you have two battle-hardened guys, sellers and buyers, meeting on the playing field, and may the best man win.

One of the reasons why I took this job at Jackson Family Wines was, obviously, because it’s a great company, with the greatest portfolio of family-owned wines in California, maybe in all the world, IMHO. It was easy for me, in the comfort of my own home, to review their wines and form impressions of Stonestreet, Cambria, Edmeades, Hartford, Cardinale and all the rest, and know in my mind how good they were.

But the seller-buyer relationship is totally different, as I learned up close and personal yesterday. The sales guy I teamed with, Charlie, and I covered 150 miles of Bay Area freeways going from account to account at upscale wine stores. One thing I learned: you have to be very patient at dealing with traffic and driving long distances if you’re going to do sales! Another thing: each account is different. I mean, in terms of their personalities. One guy will be all business: no small talk here. Another might be just the opposite. One of our calls was a guy who majored in history at U.C. Berkeley. I asked him what his specialty was, and he said Post World War II Italy. Well, I’m a WWII freak, and the book I’m currently reading is a biography of Galleazo Ciano, Italy’s foreign minister during the war, and Mussolini’s son-in-law to boot: Ciano’s diaries (which I have), smuggled out of Italy during the war despite the Gestapo’s attempts to find them, did much to shed light—damaging and embarrassing light—on the Hitler-Mussolini relationship. Anyhow, that led to a long conversation between me and the sales guy that had nothing to do with wine—although we did return to that subject. The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve always valued relationships in this industry, and it’s fascinating to meet such a varied range of people with so many different interests and points of view.

I valued yesterday’s experience. It enriched my life, and helps me more deeply understand this complex thing we call the wine industry—such a multi-faceted thing, so driven by human personality. When I was a critic, I lived in a sort of bubble. I’m not complaining: it was a very pleasant bubble. But a bubble nonetheless. I had the time of my life, but I eventually came to believe that there was more to life, and to me and my career, than being a wine critic. I’m extraordinarily grateful for those years. At the same time, I’m also thoroughly ensconced in, and enjoying, this, my newest adventure.


What is a wine with “personality”?

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While we’re on the subject of storytelling (we are, in case you haven’t been reading steveheimoff.com lately), let’s consider the role of personality in a story. “A personality” is what people call a person who isn’t bland or forgettable, but instead someone who impresses himself on others through the sheer force of—well, personality.

Keep in mind the origins of our word “personality”: from the Latin persona, literally, “an actor’s face mask.” While each human being by definition has a “personality” (in the sense of a collection of personal characteristics), I’m more interested in what we mean when we say of someone, He’s a real personality,” as Jennifer Garner did of Matthew McConaughey, her co-star in Dallas Buyers Club. He’s a fantastic actor and he’s a real personality and he’s charismatic as hell,” she said in an interview.

“He’s a real personality” is also how a sports commentator referred to former Packers quarterback Brett Favre.

Clearly something more than just a collection of traits is going on here; people who impress us as “real personalities” have extra qualities that grab our attention and make us remember them—for better or for worse. That, I think, is the key to understanding the remark yesterday by a Tuscan winery owner concerning Chianti’s top-tier classification, Gran Selezione.

“The problem,” said Lorenzo Zonin, “was that Chianti Classico and Chianti Classico Riserva were almost a commodity, wines that didn’t have such a strong personality, so they said we have to find a way to give a value to such products that are outstanding.”

“Strong personality?” Is Mr. Zonin talking about the wine’s organoleptic qualities, or is he talking about the perception of the wine among the critical community and consumers? I confess I don’t know, but this meme of “personality” in wine ties in nicely to the storytelling aspect that has enveloped wine lately. It seems that every winery—and its marketing team—wants consumers to form a personal bond with the wine—as if they have a stake in it. This is the elusive “personality” of the wine that makes it distinct from every other wine.

Does having “a personality” add value to a wine? Why? Is it because the wine really does have objectively valuable extra qualities, or is it because the winery says it does? This is the eternal question.

winepersonality

 


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