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Is the clock ticking down on cult wines?

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When I was California editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, I had the hardest time getting to sample the wines of Bryant Family Vineyard.

I managed to, two or three times. My last tasting, in 2012, was only because Tim Mondavi obtained a bottle for me to include in my tasting of the wines of Pritchard Hill, the region of Napa Valley that is not (yet) an official American Viticultural Area, but that is (as I wrote back then) “the best grape-growing region in Napa Valley you’ve probably never heard of.” (Tim has his own winery, Continuum, up there.)

Bryant’s Cabernets are routinely included among the “cult wines” of Napa Valley. Now, let me say that my nearly thirty-year career as a wine writer taught me a thing or two about cult wines. Today, six years after I retired, when I think of them, I think of exclusivity, of extreme difficulty gaining access (even for me), of super-high prices, and of a certain manipulation of the winery’s image as rare and difficult to obtain—precisely the kind of attributes that appeal to wine aficienados who have more money than common sense.

My most enduring memory of tasting these cult wines is of my visit to Colgin Cellars, a neighbor of Bryant Family’s on Pritchard Hill. After much difficulty obtaining an appointment, I was met, in the foyer of the winery (which reminded me of Le Petit Trianon, at Versailles), by the proprietress, Ann Colgin. It felt like a State Visit; never was I more uncomfortable tasting wine than under her hawk-like gaze, as I tried to shield my written notes from her wandering eye. It was not a welcoming vibe.

Other cult wineries were far more amenable to my visits. I remain indebted to Bill Harlan (who wrote the Forward to my second book) for always welcoming me, and for setting up the most extraordinary tastings. But even there, Bill continued to propagate an aura of mystique by insisting that we taste the Harlan wines in one structure of the estate, and the BOND wines in another, further up the hill.

Bryant has found itself with publicity lately that I’m sure is unwelcome by the owners. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Esther Mobley has been reporting on a lawsuit hagainst the winery by a former employee.

I’m not particularly interested in the details of the lawsuit, nor do I care about the winery’s monetary value (a subject of dispute). What I find interesting is Mobley’s question: “Is that business model [of cult wines] foundering in a changing wine market?”

Cult wines, whether they be in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany or Napa Valley, always have depended on the desire of wealthy people to own them. They’re not “better” than other wines; this is a notion I’m firmly convinced of, after having reviewed perhaps 150,000 wines over a thirty-year period. The word “better” is, of course, impossible to define; quality is subjective. I’ve done many blind tastings in which a $30 Cabernet beat out a $300 Cabernet. Anyone who thinks that a $300 wine must be ten times better than a $30 wine is fooling herself. So there must be reasons other than objective hedonism to explain why cult wines cost so much. (Mobley writes that the current vintage of Bryant Family, the 2016, is $550. The 2009, by contrast, was a measly $335.)

These other reasons, aside from the market force of supply and demand, are psychological; they include the prestige of being able to afford such wines, the ego-gratification associated with big spending, and a desire to show off to whomever the buyer wishes to impress. These are not completely inauthentic reasons to buy a wine, but they have less to do with the wines themselves than the buyer’s internal needs.

For many years the cult winery owners were riding high. Sure, there were always rumors of financial troubles behind the curtain, but since the owners never revealed their books to anyone, the rumors remained exactly that. Was Bill Harlan raking in a fortune? Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Dalla Valle? Nobody outside the inner circle knew.

Now, Mobley opens the question in a way only a big-circulation newspaper like the Chronicle can. She doesn’t answer it, because there isn’t an easy answer. The question behind the question of whether the cult wine business model remains viable is, Is a new generation of Millennials as covetous of these wines as were their parents and grandparents?

I would be loath to state that consumer tastes in luxury goods, including wine, change dramatically in a short period of time. They don’t. The Western world has had cult wines at least since Roman times (when the Caesars had their favorites). The crowned heads of medieval and Renaissance Europe, including the Popes, similarly desired certain “cult” wines. It was only natural that California—settled as it was mainly by white people of European descent—would adopt a model that resembled that of Old Europe.

Are today’s wine consumers under the age of, say, 40 different in kind? Probably not. They too are likely to want their share of rarity and exclusivity (if they achieve the financial means of acquiring it). But does this automatically mean that Bryant, Colgin, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, et al. will be as desired by Millennials as they have been up to now?

Millennials, many of whom are laden with debt, don’t seem to have as much disposable income as their forebears. And they’re craftier shoppers: if they’re going to spend bigtime on something, they want some flesh on those bones—not just something to show off, but something of inherent worthwhileness. And I have to say in all honesty that cult wines overall are lacking in this inherent quality. Yes, they can be glorious. But so too can their non-cult wine neighbors, at a fraction of the cost. I think Millennials, in this era of Trump, are exquisitely sensitive to false claims and misleading image-making (as well they should be). They don’t want to feel like suckers, and this is why I suspect that cult wines—at least most of those in Napa Valley—may indeed have reached a tipping point. In fact, it may be that their uber-wealthy owners are keeping them alive, not through profits on sales, but by dipping into their personal fortunes.

I don’t foresee a wave of closures. But we have seen cult wineries sold (Araujo, Colgin, Screaming Eagle), and we’ve also seen wineries break into cult status that never used to be there: Chateau Potelle, for instance. (Good for my old friend Jean-Noel!) What I think will eventually prove to be the case is that a handful of today’s cult wines will still be treasured decades from now, while others will have enjoyed their fifteen years of fame and retreated into the background. And there’s this: it was easy for a wine to be defined as “cult” when the critical world was dominated by a few reviewers. It’s far more difficult nowadays. If the wine critics of the future are honest—if they taste blind, that is, and don’t have preconceived notions that cult wines are automatically the best—then Napa’s cult Cabs may already be past the tipping point.


The Golden Age of Wine Writing

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Feeling nostalgic, I have been re-reading the Wine Diaries of the late Harry Waugh that I have in my library. Harry, a Londoner and a very great wine man, greatly influenced my own writing style, and I was fortunate enough to accompany him on a tour of Washington State (around 1996) when he was already in his 90s, so I consider him sort of a mentor.

I was lucky to become a wine writer and critic at a time in the history of this country when it was possible for a young person, starting out with no experience or even connections, to succeed at such a career. The field was dominated by a relatively small number of individuals, but perseverance and (I hope, in my case, some talent) allowed me to penetrate their little club.

Today, there are so many people weighing in on wine that nobody needs a few ivory-tower critics anymore to tell them what’s good. With the rise of the Internet and social media, people have endless opinions available to them, to help them make buying decisions. There also are endless opportunities to learn about wines, grapes, regions and techniques: at the click of a Google search, you have entire libraries available to you.

But when I started, in the 1980s, there was obviously no Internet. There were only a very few people with national reputations who could influence great numbers of consumers, through the publication of articles and reviews in a tiny clutch of wine magazines, newsletters and newspaper columns. Americans needed such critics, to help guide them through the growing welter of wines in the wine aisle of the market; otherwise their senses would have been overwhelmed. It was also a time when the Baby Boomers—my generation—were finally getting wealthy enough to be able to afford the discretionary purchase of premium table wines on a regular basis. They wanted help; where demand is on the rise, supply responds appropriately, and the result was the creation of an industry and class: the professional wine writer and critic. I became a member of this restricted aristocracy.

I have made a distinction between wine “writers” and wine “critics” for a reason, for they are two different beasts. I used to know a lovely man, Rod Smith (who sadly died recently). He was a local guy, from the Russian River Valley, and a fine writer, who wrote for prestigious magazines and also penned some books. We were once at a tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons made from grapes grown in the various Beckstoffer vineyards of Napa Valley. At one point, I asked Rod how he was rating the wines (I certainly was), and he snapped, “I’m not a wine critic, I’m a wine writer!” His point was that the written word was important to him, not some snappy review, accompanied by a number.

But I chose to be both a critic and a writer. I exercised the critical part through my job at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, where my ratings, based on the 100-point system, were welcomed by consumers and trade alike (not to mention the winery owners who sent me their wines for review!). But I exercised the esthetic, writerly part of my passion through long articles in that magazine, and others, as well as books for the University of California Press and, after 2008, my wine blog. I took both parts of my job equally seriously, and like to think that I was successful at both.

How many members were there of the exclusive fraternity I was a part of? When I began, there were at most a dozen men and women in the entire country who had a national platform. (In my state of California, there were others who were important regionally, but who lacked that national exposure.) With such a small number, each of us was quite visible. We had clout, influence, reach: each word I wrote, each score would, I knew, be read with interest by large numbers of people. It was a heady feeling, but also underscored the grave responsibility that rested on my shoulders: to do a good job and be honest and scrupulous about it.

By the time I left the Wine Enthusiast, in 2012, there were literally thousands upon thousands of people reviewing wine and publishing articles in this country, not to mention the rest of the world. Some worked for a burgeoning number of wine, or wine-and-food, periodicals. Many more published online. There was even a Wine Bloggers Conference that attracted hundreds of ambitious, eager young (and not-so-young) people every summer. This meant that, although the number of wine consumers also was on the rise, each individual writer/critic’s influence was diluted, due to their sheer numbers. I used to say that, had I started my career in 2008 rather than 1988, I doubt that I would have achieved even one-tenth as much as I did: by 2008, the competition was just too intense. I was extremely lucky to have begun at a time when few young people gave any thought to being a wine writer and critic. In those Reagan years, most young people seemed to want to be MBAs!

So, today, a young person probably can’t “make it” anymore as wine writer or critic, that is, if they start from scratch. We do have a small number of individuals, such as Antonio Galloni and James Suckling, who apparently have achieved great success in the last ten years or so, but neither started from scratch: Galloni was launched to fame through Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, while Suckling arrived at his reputation through his years at Wine Spectator. I thus came of age during a Golden Age of wine writing, a time that no longer exists, and probably never will again, at least in America. Perhaps there are young men and women in places like China, Brazil or South Korea, where there is still an opportunity to forge a good career.

As for the 100-point system, I stoutly defended it all the years I used it. Now, I think it’s kind of passé. It will probably stick around for a while longer because it’s so entrenched. But, to be honest, in the last years of my career, it made less and less sense to me, and I would have abandoned it, had my paycheck not depended on it.


A rant on B.S. wine “reporting”

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I Googled “wine news” and here among the hits were these scintillating headlines:

Expert reveals 3 things you need to know about drinking wine on planes

Never spill your wine again with the __ wine glass and its metal stake

Eva Longoria’s wine goals for T-shirt designs

Delta pays a sommelier to pick wine for its flights—here’s her wine tasting advice

Extreme heat can taint the wine

Does the color of your wine influence your hangover?

Pour It Up! 9 Times a Glass of Wine Was Rihanna’s Favorite Accessory!

Well, I admit to being terribly behind the curve on cultural issues. Yesterday, a Facebook friend referred to something called “Ween,” and it wasn’t until I asked what a “Ween” was that I became educated in the fact that Ween is a major rock and roll band I had never heard of!

So perhaps there are burning wine-related issues of which I’m equally unconscious. But I don’t think so, which makes me regret all the more the vulgarity that has invaded what has now become “wine writing.”

Throughout the history of the English-speaking people writing about wine was reserved to the smartest, most literate among us. Wine—the beverage of our ancient Greek texts, and of the Bible, Old and New Testaments—was regarded as something too special to make light of. Generations of wine writers going back hundreds of years, of which I consider myself a recent incarnation, reserved their finest journalistic skills to writing about wine. Today, the Internet has made writing about wine not only common but promiscuous, with the result that people can headline their writing with the kinds of B.S. I listed above, and actually get others to read it.

Do we need tips on how to drink wine on planes? I don’t think so. You have to take the wine the airline is selling, and drink it from the glasses they give you. What other choices do you have? When there are no choices, there’s no need for advice, which doesn’t stop some people from offering it anyway. Next!

“Never spill your wine again.” I wasn’t aware that spilling wine was a major issue in America. I almost never spill my own wine, and as I am not a particularly well-coordinated person, I doubt that there are many people who spill their wine more than I do. So I have absolutely no need for any device or technique to prevent me from doing so. Next!

Eva Longoria and T-shirt designs. I barely know who Eva Longoria is, nor do I care. Since I don’t care about her, I certainly don’t care about whatever chotchkies she’s selling. Next!

Delta’s sommelier. Well, isn’t that special. It makes me feel so much more hopeful about my next Delta sardine can. Next!

I did not know that extreme heat can taint a wine. I thought you could heat wine up to, oh, I don’t know, a gazillion degrees, and it would be as fresh as a can of tuna fish. Thank you for that advice. Next!

Does the color of your wine influence your hangover? Now we’re getting down to matters of substance! I’ve been trying to figure this particular question out for decades, and after extensive personal experimentation, still haven’t arrived at a conclusion. My advice: Don’t be a schmuck to begin with and drink so much that you risk getting a hangover the next morning.

As for Rihanna’s favorite accessory, I’m already choking, as are you, on this celebrity-forced-fed diet we’re being fed by the media. Next! (Or not.)

Have a great weekend!


Wednesday Wraparound: Wine as intellectual delight, and a new Freemark Abbey

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Wine writer Gus Clemens must be a man after my own heart. In this lovely column he wrote for the San Angelo [Texas) Standard Times, he writes of wine’s “intellectually challenging” dimension—a dimension I love.

All too often, in our industry, we reduce wine to its objective components. Master somms analyze it to a degree unmatched in rigor, winemakers themselves analyze it for technical flaws and blending opportunities, and wine critics (ahem…) analyze it for its hedonistic attractions. We give scores and numbers and puffs and stars to wine, we talk about raspberries or currants or lemongrass or vanilla, about attacks and finishes and ageworthiness—in short, about every physical dimension of the wine we can possibly say anything about. But we too seldom talk or write about its intellectual component, which is to say: we ignore wine’s appeal to that part of ourselves that is distinctly human, distinctly thoughtful, distinctly divine.

Gus Clemens touches on this component, but it’s really worth volumes. I stand second to no one in falling in love with a gorgeous wine, a “100-pointer,” if you will. I’ve had my share; when you experience a perfect wine, the top of your head blows off, your taste-memory explodes, you want to shout about it from the rooftops. But imagine how much richer your experience would be—not only of a perfect wine, but of all wines—if it included the context of history, geography, politics, economics, philosophy, invention, human boldness, notions of the godhead, the presence of the spirit–the entire panoply of conscious adventure we call the human journey. When I think about wine from this perspective, wine turns Biblical: the ancients believed it was a gift from God, or the gods. Perhaps it really is. I will not apologize for “reducing” wine to a point score, but I will hope that it never becomes only that.

* * *

I want to bring to my readers’ attention the fact that the newly refurbished Freemark Abbey Winery is now open for business. As this article from the St. Helena Star explains, the Jackson Family has invested heavily in the 100-year-old-plus winery, restoring the old stone buildings, building a new restaurant, and launching a museum-style exhibition space, whose content I was honored to help devise. Ironically, Freemark Abbey was the first winery in Napa Valley I ever visited, in 1979, so it has a special place in my mind and heart. I was just getting into “important” wine and wanted an “important” Cabernet Sauvignon to cellar, and so I asked for one in the tasting room. The lady suggested I buy their Cabernet Bosché. In my ignorance, I said I didn’t want “Cabernet Bosché” but Cabernet Sauvignon. The lady told me that Cabernet Bosché was Cabernet Sauvignon. I didn’t trust her; alas, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I had just enough knowledge to think that I knew what I was doing. Clearly, I didn’t. I have often recollected that incident to remind myself of an important lesson: when it comes to wine knowledge, everybody starts from the beginning. There are no stupid questions. No one of us should ever be impatient with anyone for not knowing what we know. (That is the basis of snobbery.) Besides, what we think we know today may be what future generations call ridiculous. So take things in context; don’t be ideological; be generous, and realize you’re not the measure of all things in wine! And I hope you’ll drop by Freemark Abbey to check out the new digs.


Can wine bloggers make money through reader financial donations? Maybe…

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Ever since around the time I began blogging (May 2008), a dominating part of the conversation has been whether or not online content providers can make enough money to make their endeavor worthwhile.

Early in that time period, there were hopeful prognosticators—mainly younger bloggers themselves, and a handful of would-be consultants who hoped to make money advising them about the ins and outs of social media—who believed, earnestly, that sources of income would open up to online content providers, even if it wasn’t entirely clear how that would happen.

This was a kind of magical thinking, of course, but it could be forgiven in light of the immense difficulties print journalism was then undergoing. Newspapers and magazines were facing the severest financial crunch of their lifetimes, as revenue from advertising—always a print publication’s biggest source of income—fell off the cliff. The promoters of online content argued that this was because print publishing had reached the end of its useful lifetime: peering into a cloudy future, they claimed that print would go the way of gaslight lamps, horse-drawn buggies and slide rulers. And because print was about to go extinct, they said, all that advertising money, added to by additional revenues brought in by subscriptions, would flow to online content providers.

I replied, in this blog and elsewhere, that this was unlikely to be the case. Print journalism was indeed suffering, but it wasn’t because of the rise of blogging, it was because of the Great Recession. Advertisers pulled back, not because they were casting an adoring gaze upon online publishers, but because they were struggling to stay alive: they had first to cover the basics, like salaries and rent, before they could lavish money on page ads.

Well, print is coming back, isn’t it? But what remains a conundrum for online content providers is how to make money. Consumers have proven over and over that they do not want to pay to see things online. They feel that they’re already paying enough to get online in the first place, and besides, there’s such an infinitude of websites that, if one of them gets greedy and starts charging a per-view fee, there are always a billion others that remain free.

In the world of wine, there admittedly are a few sites that get away with charging money, Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Vinous among them. But these are outliers—peculiarities of the wine industry, which has enough ardent consumers and trade members who are willing to pay $100 a year for access. As for the rest of the bloggers, theirs remains a labor of love, not one of potential profit.

Some bloggers as a result have turned to accepting ads on their sites. Ads don’t bring in a lot of money, but they bring in some, and if the blogger can increase his numbers, the amount of money might go up. But the same consumers who refuse to pay money for access to online content also don’t like advertisements on the sites they go to. This is the reason behind Tivo, which “eats commercials” (in their own words), and it is also the rationale behind services such as Adblock, which allows users to “surf the web without annoying ads.” This is great news for web surfers, but it’s a disaster for content creators: they finally figured out how to make a little money, and along comes this company that prevents their ads from being seen. It’s also a disaster for the companies that advertise; a honcho from the Interactive Advertising Bureau called ad-blocking sites an unethical, immoral, mendacious coven,” extreme but, under the circumstances, understandable language.

Ad-busting companies such as Adblock certainly don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. That would not be helpful to their own bottom lines. What to do? In a really interesting development, Adblock just announced they will integrate Flattr, a Swedish company that calls itself “a social microdonations service” by which content consumers can make voluntary “donations” to websites they like. This eliminates the need of the provider to accept advertising (which most providers don’t like to do anyway), and also increases the depth and complexity of the relationship between provider and consumer. Users would set up a “PayPal-like account,” put money into it, and from those funds providers would be paid, using a special Flattr algorithm based on things like the duration of the user’s stay on the site.

Will the Adblock-Flattr model work? Flattr co-founder Peter Sunde said, on Fast Company, that the new model promises to help artists, creators, journalists, everyone, to earn a fair living from their work. Not to be abused.” That sounds pretty good to me.


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