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How did you get into wine?

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I was up over the weekend in beautiful Seattle for my grand-nephew, Joey’s, bar mitzvah, a large and decidedly inter-ethnic affair: in my extended family we have, not only Jews, but Filipinos, Central Americans, African-Americans, Syrians and folks from just about every country in Europe—a veritable United Nations of humanity.

Not everyone knows everybody else; in fact, we were joking that the only person who knew everyone was our hostess, the mother of the bar mitzvah boy, who did the invites; but I think even for her, some of the names were familiar only from paper. So, as you might expect, there were lots and lots of introductions, and the usual ice-breaking topics like “Where are you from?” and “How are you related to Joey?”

There were doctors, and engineers, and builders, and gas station owners, and administrative types of all kinds, and so forth (one in-law I met breeds hunting dogs in Kansas). Usually, when you learn of most of these occupations, you might nod in acknowledgment and make a few politely perfunctory remarks (“Oh, a doctor? What kind?”) and then, having satisfied that most elementary form of getting-to-know-you, move onto the next topic. But wine writing (if that’s the proper description of what I do, and I’m not so sure it is) seems to elicit more curiosity than most other fields of endeavor. The common reaction is an arch of the eyebrows accompanied by a widening of the eyes, meant to convey an impression of surprise, curiosity and, perhaps, a bit of incredulity that anyone, especially in this rather ordinary family, could possibly make a living from something so exotic.

People understand, I suppose, that America has a rather large wine industry, and that somebody has got to work in it; but judging from the reaction I get, most of them have never actually met such an individual (which always makes me feel rather like an alien). There may follow questions like “Whom do you work for?” or “Exactly what is it that you do?” and of course I’m perfectly happy to go into as much or as little detail as seems warranted under the circumstances (I can usually tell if my stories start to bore people). But the biggest question of all—the one everybody asks, as invariably as the sun rises in the east—is: “How did you get into wine?”

I have my standard answer for that, too, which involves the tale of my cousin and me in the Safeway wine aisle, back in late 1978; but I won’t repeat that now. It’s actually odd for that particular question—“How did you get into wine?”—to arise so often. I mean, very few people ask, for example, “How did you get into insurance?” or whatever (although the trainer of hunting dogs told me he does get asked a lot about that, which I believe, because I also asked him). I think most people just don’t care all that much how most folks “got into” their jobs.

But wine seems obviously different. I have my theories as to why, but I confess they’re only that—conjectures—and I have no proof that I’m right. Wine conjures up in most people’s minds something romantic, mysterious, glamorous, and, as I said, exotic, but it’s also slightly risqué, perhaps even dissolute. It’s not just that it’s alcohol; it’s wine, not “just” beer or spirits. Although wine is in everybody’s life, even people who don’t drink (after all, we all pass the wine aisle in the supermarket, and the floor stacks, and we see Kathie Lee and Hoda getting pleasantly blitzed on morning T.V., and you can’t pick up a lifestyle magazine without something about wine), wine retains, for all its ubiquity, a tantalizingly “other” feeling that separates it from the “real” or workaday world. (Whether that’s good or not is another story.) Therefore, someone who works in the wine world shares that aura of otherworldliness.

I guess people think that folks like me spend our days drinking fabulous vintages in idyllic places, while barefoot servants come and go, speaking, not of Michaelangelo, but “More caviar? Lobster mousse? Champagne?,” as we engage in amusing chit-chat with glamorous, beautiful people. That’s sheer nonsense. (If you want to know the reality, send me, as Click and Clack say, a hundred dollar bill, and I’ll write the answer on the back.) But wine always has been as much about fantasy as about anything else; and if the fantasy ever disappears, so will much of the ambience surrounding wine.  I do not always disabuse people entirely of their misconceptions; neither do I entirely enlighten them.

Anyhow, it’s great to be home in Oakland. Back to work tomorrow: lots of interesting assignments. Gus is glad to be back in his own bed, and so am I.

SleepyGus


Are there any standards anymore for wine quality?

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We are at a very strange time in the wine industry, a time of relativity and disappearing standards. Haven’t you noticed? It’s as if all the rules you thought you knew about wine—concerning quality standards—have been thrown out the window, to be replaced by an “Anything Goes” ethos.

What else are we to conclude from a headline called “There is no right or wrong” in one of the standard bearers of wine journalism and critique, the esteemed magazine Wine & Spirits? It used to be that we turned to wine writers and wine critics to tell us what was right and wrong. We trusted Mr. Parker, or Ms. Robinson or Mr. Laube or Mr. Olken, to inform us concerning which wines were better than others, which ones were worse, which we ought to covet and which we ought to ignore. We assumed, as had our parents and their parents before them, going back for generations, that there was an inherent quality hierarchy in wine. It began at the top with, say, Grand Cru Burgundy and filtered down to little village Burgundies, or with First Growth Bordeaux trickling down to Médocs. In the New World, in places like California, we were assured that the First Growth equivalents were the tiny boutique wineries whose owners had carved out pieces of terroir perfection, as opposed to the mass-produced supermarket wines of the giant producers in the Central Valley. We were able to rest secure in the knowledge that wine, vast and complicated as it is, can at least be explained to the rest of us by experts who took the time to study it, and thence to pass their wisdom down to us, who were so sorely in need of it.

But now? “There is no right or wrong.”

I need a wine magazine to tell me that???

Admittedly, the Wine & Spirits article doesn’t stop with the headline. It goes on to tell us that—while there may be no right or wrong—there are standards that the W&S tasters look for: “balance and harmony,” “profound expression,” “sustainable beauty,” “sensitivity.” Well, if those are the parameters that experts as experienced as the W&S tasting panel seeks, then I would think those same parameters would be standards of “rightness” and “wrongness.” A wine that, by common consensus, is adjudged to be “balanced, harmonious, profoundly expressive and sustainably beautiful” should then, by definition, be the most “right” wine—the most correct, the best, the top, the Grand Cru—while a wine that lagged behind in all those parameters would be considered common, rustic plonk.

But this is not what the W&S tasters are telling us. Instead, they’re advancing an argument, all too common these days, that claims that nobody’s personal sense of like and dislike is better than anyone else’s. It’s a form of egalitarianism that has spread like a virus throughout the wine writing world, and I think it’s because of the rise of social media. As soon as a million bloggers began contributing their opinions to the wine blogosphere, insisting that they had the same right to self-expression as the most professional critics, the old standards began to get whittled away. Few were the professional critics who chose to defend themselves, lest they sound elitist; witness what Parker went through when he had the nerve to remind bloggers that just because you have the ability to write something and publish it on the Internet does not make you a wine critic.

But the bloggers did succeed in something: they undermined the concept of credible wine criticism. Because their collective voices were so loud and insistent, and because they were speaking to a younger audience that didn’t really care about older wine critics, they launched a meme that was egalitarian and democratic—that appealed to the anti-elitist sentiments of their cohort group–exactly the same sentiments that were sweeping the Middle East leading up to the Arab Spring.

What happened in both cases—the Arab Spring and the rise of the bloggers—resulted in the same thing: chaos. For when you sweep away the old order, it creates a vacuum, and when nothing is in place to fill that vacuum, you have a more or less complete discombobulation of the old order. This may or may not be good—history will determine that. But it does leave us, in the wine business, in the place I began my first sentence with: relativity and disappearing standards.


Baseball and the wine vintage: promises of hope

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The end of baseball season has always meant for me the end of summer. It’s a time of the year—at least, on the East Coast, where both baseball and I were born (although not in the same year!)—when the seasons really do pivot. The days grow shorter; usually, sometime in early or mid-October, you can feel the first bite of chill wind when it comes sweeping down from the northwest, from Canada. The leaves turn, from summery green to gold, orange, amber, and fall down in drifts, like butterflies in the cool, clean air. In the far-olden days, this is when farmers would think of their root cellars, their put-up cans of peaches and tomatoes that would get them through the long, cold, dark winter months. For us school kids, the end of summer meant the end of thoughtless summer days. It was back to school. Buy your pencils, notebooks and rulers: put away the bathing suit!

When I moved to California, where seasonal change is far more subtle, the end of summer became about something else: the grape harvest. Fall was that time of year when the pickers harvested the grapes, when their trucks clogged the highways and byways of wine country. Fall in California even had its own version of foliage: the leaves on the vines blazed with crimson. And the scent of fermenting wine hung heavy in the air, a vinous-perfume that lingered even as the days turned hotter—for, in contradistinction to the East Coast, September and October turned out to be Northern California’s hottest months.

What are we to make of the association of the grape harvest and Fall, though, when the grapes have largely all been picked by the end of August? 2015’s earliest-ever harvest seems to be, not an anomaly, but the new normal. Nearly every winemaker I know professes to have a new, and not unwelcome, experience on their hands: What to do in October? Previously in their careers, they were still picking, crushing and fermenting. Now, the labor’s done. Their schedules have been up-ended, just like the schedules of the grapes themselves. Everything’s turned on its head.

I thought of these things yesterday as the baseball season ended, for me, with the last Giants game I’ll go to this year. They lost, barely, to the Dodgers. The Giants didn’t seem to play with heart; you could almost feel them thinking that, Hey, let’s just get this over with so I can get to Playa del Carmen or Italy or wherever rich baseball players vacation when the season’s over. The Dodgers, by contrast, were playing for home-field advantage. They were fierce; the Giants, well, weren’t. There was a flurry of activity in the 8th inning that got us all to our feet. But, alas, it went nowhere, and as Jose and I filed out along with the crowd, there was a sullen feeling in the air, a mood of resignation that the hopes that had ushered in 2015 had been finally dashed upon the rocks of reality. Even our three World Series victories in five years did little to lift the hearts of Giants fans.

But if baseball is about anything, it’s about Hope. Before you know it, Spring Training will be here, the Giants will again take the field before a rapturous crowd at AT&T Park, and maybe, just maybe, all these awful injuries that plagued the team this year will have gone away, and our Boys of Summer will once again be contenders. Even as I thought these things, when we left the park and I got on BART to go back to Oakland, I saw, as we emerged from the tube, huge cumulonimbus clouds piling up over the East Bay Hills. These are not the clouds of summer; they are the clouds of winter, of rain (in fact, I heard later that, east of the Hills, there was heavy, brief rainfall). It’s not unknown for big rain clouds to pile up against the hills, but it is somewhat rare, and these were HUGE piles of clouds, twenty, thirty thousand feel high. They were a promise of rain to come. A promise of hope for a state drought-plagued and parched for water. A promise, like that of baseball, that somewhere, just over the rainbow, lay better and happier times.


The classics win out over the obscure. Always have, always will

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You want wisdom in wine words? Consider these: “In many centers of wine hipness these days, what matters is not how a wine tastes and how the associated sensory memories make you feel, but instead the social source of pleasure derived from tasting—and professing to like—a much ballyhooed wine that is made in a style that is currently in vogue.”

That’s from Andy Peay, in his Peay Vineards Fall newsletter. Now, Andy was being diplomatic in his choice of words. Let me put the case more bluntly: There is an insidious tendency today for some sommeliers and insecure critics to praise obscure varieties and temporary styles that, when all is said and done, don’t actually taste very good. That a winemaker, like Andy Peay, has to come out and fulminate against “wine fads” is almost unprecedented—but then, so is the emergence of a maven class that seems hellbent on revolution for its own sake.

How else to explain the cult-like hosannas for low-alcohol Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in California? Andy Peay found a similar phenomenon for the offbeat in Copenhagen, where “all I could drink was wine esoterica” because the “tastemakers” are addicted to the strange and unfamiliar: Trusseau, Jura whites, Biodynamic wines “and other wine styles/regions currently in vogue” most of which Andy found “flawed and, mostly, downright unpalatable.” (Orange wine, anyone?) This is why Andy entitled his opinion piece “Yes, but be delicious”: It’s fine to be esoteric, but please, at least taste good! The first duty of wine, after all, is and always has been—not to satisfy the eclectic taste of bored gatekeepers—but to taste good and give pleasure.

Nor is this drumbeat for the “new” showing any signs of slowing down. Yestrrday’s San Francisco Chronicle, in the wine section, headlined the lead article “The next new wine thing,” a header that editors who have nothing else to say routinely trot out, offering timely proof of Andy Peay’s argument that “Wine writers need something new to write about.” Actually, they—we—do not; there is plenty to say about tradition. But wine writers’ editors and publishers, driven by more commercial motives than merely good writing, tell them to find something new—and so they dutifully do.

Go back to Andy’s phrase, “a social source of pleasure.” That is a compound noun containing a vast trove of implications. ”Social pleasure” is the opposite of “sensual pleasure.” It means, in essence, that when one of these wine faddists tastes something he or she believes to be “currently in vogue” among his peers, he actually is tasting—not the wine itself—but the idea of the wine in his mind! This is a form of idealism that is disconnected from reality and that, under different circumstances, could be described as hallucinatory.

Now, we don’t want our wine gatekeepers to be hallucinating, do we, but there is truth when Andy Peay continues: “Instead of highlighting the classic wines of the world, many tastemakers—including sommeliers, writers, and wine organizations—are focusing on what is novel in wine…”. There’s nothing inherently wrong with such a focus. Indeed, one could argue that somms and writers owe it to themselves and to their professions to seek out “what is novel in wine.” But all things in balance. There’s a huge difference between seeking out what is novel, and ignoring or, even worse, trashing everything that is traditional. But this latter approach marks too many modern tastemakers, who seem to believe that, if their father or grandfather liked it, then it is not worth considering.

One wonders if some modern tastemakers, and here I include bloggers, have even tasted the classics. Do they understand them? Do they know that there is a reason why some wines have been classic, and why some never have been–say, orange wine or Jura wine? Do they understand that, long after their careers have ended, the classics will remain the classics—and the obscure will be just as obscure as ever?

You know, sixteen years ago I went to a workshop at U.C. Davis entitled “Emerging Varietals.” Lots of important people were there: from Robert Mondavi, Silver Oak, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo, and the ubiquitous Randall Grahm. The purpose of the event: To discover “the next big things” in varietals. We tasted everything from Graciano and dry Touriga Nacional to Trinkadeira, Greco di Tufo and Gaglioppo—in order to, as one of the organizers explained, “take [winemaking in California] to the next level.”

Well, none of those varieties worked out particularly well, and I doubt, rather sadly, if any of Randall’s plans to breed 10,000 new varieties on his San Juan Bautista ranch will work out, either. (Randall was the subject of the Chronicle’s Sunday article, the one I referred to.) With all due respect to Randall, who has been interested in “emerging varieties” for a long time, the public has not been clamoring for them; and the gatekeeper somms and writers who get so worked up over obscure varieties seem to be a fickle bunch. They get bored easily; they do want some shiny new thing every five minutes. That does not seem to be a good audience to cultivate, unless you’re making, say, Gaglioppo, and if you are, good luck! I mean, seriously, does anyone think that in fifty years people are going to look back and say, “Gee, California really screwed up with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc”? I don’t think so.


Travels with Gus

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Keith and I were returning back home from Malibu yesterday, up the 101 Freeway, chatting away, keeping the long ride interesting. When we came to Salinas, we saw a sign next to the freeway advertising the National Steinbeck Center.

Keith asked if I had ever been to the Steinbeck museum there, and I said no, nor was it a place I cared to visit. He said it was actually pretty good, and of course he mentioned The Grapes of Wrath. I’d read it a long time ago, but couldn’t remember much about it. But I did remember Steinbeck’s charming little memoir, Travels with Charley, his tale of an auto tour of the U.S. he made with his standard poodle, Charley. I’d liked that book a lot. Then I found myself joking, “You know, I ought to write a book called Travels with Gus.” Which brings us to today’s blog.

Many of you know that I travel with Gus when I hit the road in California, going to winery things and some consumer and trade events. I don’t always bring him to the event itself, but I always stay in pet-friendly hotels, so that Gus is waiting for me when I return to my room.

It’s my privilege and pleasure to be able to travel with Gus. Yeah, it’s a little unconventional for a working wine writer to travel with his dog. But Gus is small, and mellow, and absolutely quiet. Everybody likes him. When people see me, they don’t say, “It’s Steve,” they say, “It’s Gus.” Nobody has ever complained about him, or shown anything less than delight, except once, years ago, when I brought him to Rubicon (now Inglenook) for an interview with F.F. Coppola. Francis himself never saw Gus, but his people did, and one of them complained to Wine Enthusiast. I thought it was weird for a California winery–normally the most dog-friendly place on earth–to complain about dog, especially Gus. But then I realized that Rubicon wasn’t a winery, as I understood the word. It was more like the Napa Valley branch of Francis Ford Coppola Worldwide Enterprises, Inc., and his “people” were P.R. professionals who seemed like they would have been just as happy, maybe even happier, working for Windsor Castle.

That makes it sound like the life of a traveling wine writer is fabulous. It is–and it isn’t. Being on the road can be lonely. You go someplace, you do your thing (obviously as professionally as you can), and then you move on. People are nice enough, and the events themselves are fun. But then, it’s back to your hotel room, and you wake alone. The traveling salesman’s life. Still, and despite all the downside, I like it. It’s real. And, to be perfectly honest, I like ending the night at the hotel bar.

But having Gus with me is the icing on the cake. I love my dog, but I cherish the thought that 99.9% of the people I meet on the road like him too. He’s a happy dog, well-behaved, sweet. He almost never has “accidents.” He’ll sit in my lap forever without complaint, because all he wants is to be with Daddy. (Well, he wants food, and water, and places to sniff, but you know what I mean.) I’ve been a wine writer since 1989, have traveled from one end of California to the other, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute. But since I’ve had Gus (2010), my pleasure has been fruitful, and multiplied.

In “Travels with Charley” Steinbeck strove to understand America as it was in that transitional year, 1960. Having Gus with me helps me understand America today. In our guarded times, people warm up to dogs, especially cute ones, more than they do to each other. I’ve had umpteen conversations with folks because of Gus that I never would have had by myself. When people like a dog the way they do Gus, they open up—drop their defenses, smile, let the kinder, gentler side of themselves come out. How cool is that, to meet people who, at the sight of my dog, want to be friends.

GusWine

 


The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine coverage, and Vegas, here I come!

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I got my Sunday San Francisco Chronicle and, what do you know, there was an entire section on California Wine! Sixteen pages. That’s the most wine coverage I’ve seen in the paper in years. Maybe they got the message—not just from me, but from others, including the Napa Register’s Paul Franson–about how skimpy their wine writing has been. I don’t know, but Sunday’s section was a welcome surprise.

Still no appearance by their supposed new wine writer, Esther Mobley. Maybe she’s getting up to speed. [EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve since learned that Ms. Mobley had an article on Aug. 15.] There were several articles by local freelance writers; I particularly liked Luke Sykora’s on the drought. But it’s not clear whether this new, expanded coverage will be permanent. Maybe not; on the paper’s website, the wine section is tagged under “California Wine Month,” which is officially this September.

* * *

Meanwhile, as part of my Jackson Family wines job, I’m off to Las Vegas for Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group conference at the M Resort. (Darden owns everything from Olive Garden to The Capital Grille.) I’ll be doing a seminar on Napa Valley mountain Cabernet Sauvignon “versus” Napa Valley valley floor Cabernet.

I put “versus” into quotation marks, because I don’t see this as a contest. Valley floor used to have a negative connotation (inherited from Europe, I guess, where the best vines are on slopes), but with modern viticultural and enological techniques, valley floor Cab can be quite good. Witness Beckstoffer’s Georges III Vineyard, close by the Conn Creek, in the Rutherford flats.

The two wines I’ll be presenting are Mount Brave, way up (1,600-1,800 feet) on Mount Veeder, which obviously is the mountain wine, and Freemark Abbey Bosché, which is not strictly speaking a “valley floor” wine but is on the Rutherford bench. (I think that one of these days there ought to be “Bench” appellations for Oakville and Rutherford, and possibly Yountville too, but politically, it probably won’t happen.) The main difference between viticulture in the mountains and the floor is that, in the latter, the soils are richer, so growers will often force the vines to struggle by dry-farming them. Growers also can leave more clusters on valley floor vines because the canopies are more extensive and can support more fruit. Of course, up in the mountains, there’s less fog and more sunlight, but as we’ve seen, this is a mixed blessing. The vines up there can bake in a heat wave. Mountain Cabs also tend to be more tannic than floor or benchland wines, so winemakers have to deal with that—typically, by letting the fruit hang longer, and then doing “aerative pumpovers” to expose the juice to more oxygen.

If I can tear myself away from the casinos and the nightclubs, I’ll be reporting from Vegas. Or, maybe not. What happens in Vegas…


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