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Notes on wine writing etc.

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I got a greater understanding of Uber while I used their car service for three days during the World of Pinot Noir. They have a great business model and are looking to get involved in ancillary areas, such as wine tourism, which is a great idea.

I was reminded of Uber again reading yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where in the Personal Journal section, they have an article called “Race is On: Ride-Sharing Car Services Versus a Taxi.”

The article was largely analytical, comparing Uber with Lyft and Sidecar, its chief competitors, and with taxicabs. The reporter didn’t say if one was better than the others–but you could discern his own personal preference for the private cars, when he used terms like “a safe and courteous ride, with a side of serenity” to describe the experience. That certainly coincides with my own experience. I got to know my Uber driver quite well over three days; we even promised to stay in touch. How often does that happen with a cab driver?

It strikes me that a parallel can be made between the new private car services industry versus the traditional taxicab, on the one hand, and the proliferation of social media sources of information about wine versus the traditional wine critics who for decades have dominated the national conversation about what to drink, on the other hand. Until very recently, I was, of course, one of those traditional wine critics, so I think I have some understanding of them and their milieu. But I also am a consumer of services (such as Uber and taxicabs) as well as a voracious reader of wine blogs. So I’m wondering if Uber is going to put taxicabs out of business, and if the online wine writers will put traditional wine critics out of business.

We’ve had this conversation on steveherimoff.com for years now, with every shade of opinion being expressed in the comments. In general, I’ve been a staunch defender of the established wine writers. My belief was that they may become obsolete, but it’s not going to be for a while, at least until the current batch of famous wine critics retires or dies. Most are in their sixties, and should have many more years of active work.

So it’s not a question of “if” a small cadre of wine writers will be eclipsed, but “when.” It’s also a question of the relationship that readers will have with whomever replaces the famous wine writers. As we’ve seen with Uber, people like having personal relationships with those who provide them with services. I don’t want to sit in the back seat of a cab with a driver who grunts at me and with whom I seem to have nothing in common–not that I can tell, because there’s no conversation between us. With my Uber driver, I sat in the passenger seat. She told me of her life and dreams, and I shared mine. That’s a personal relationship, one that tears down boundaries between “driver” and “passenger” (i.e. between “authority” and “nobody”).

In my own prior career as a wine critic, I tried as hard as I could to tear down those walls. Although I recognized that others perceived me as an “authority,” it was important for me to let them know that I didn’t perceive myself that way. Oh, sure, I understood that I tasted a lot more wine than most people, and that I had studied wine a great deal more intensely, and so that necessarily gave me some greater knowledge of the subject. But I never was comfortable with the gaping boundary between me and others, as if that’s all I was, and I tried to narrow it all the time, by letting people know that–just like them–I’m just a normal guy, with my own insecurities and dreams.

I think that the success of steveheimoff.com was precisely because people thought it’s pretty cool for a bigtime wine critic to get down with them. I never held anything back on this blog, even when my former employer told me to. I stood up for its independence–which was a way of standing up for myself, and also for the integrity of my readers. My past employer learned to live with steveheimoff.com, and I think they eventually got to respect it and understand that the mysteries of symbiosis actually made their own brand stronger.

I guess without even knowing it consciously, I created steveheimoff.com to be the Uber of wine blogs. It’s not a blog where you sit in the back seat, silent and looking out the window, as an anonymous driver impersonally whisks you to your destination (at which point you have to tip him!). I wanted a blog where the reader sat right beside me in the passenger seat, where we could have a conversation and get to know each other.

Surely this sense of two-way communication, transparency and honesty is the essence of social media. It’s also the essence, it seems to me, of the kinds of relationships that wine companies need to have with their customers. It’s the kind of conversation I hope to continue to have here on steveheimoff.com, and with the people I’ll be meeting through my new job at Jackson Family Wines, where I hope to provide “a safe and courteous ride” through the byroads of wine, as seen by me. I know that some, perhaps many, of you will give me a skeptical look. Fine. Please do. Hold my feet to the fire.


Annals of wine descriptors: “Profound”

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What is a “profound” wine?

 Lettie Teague indirectly raised this question in her recent Wall Street Journal profile of Joe Salamone, the wine buyer at Crush Wine & Spirits, which is in midtown Manhattan. Teague’s column was, in part, about the language people use to describe wine; Salamone, referring to a particular Savoie red, liked it “for its freshness and structure, although,” he added, “it’s not a profound wine by any means.”

Whatever does that mean?

The word “profound” pops up time and again in formal descriptions of certain (usually well-known) wines. Someone on Wine Beserkers, writes that “you can sum up [Romanée-St.-Vivant] in just a few words (fruit, five-spice, and satin–there, done)–but it is still a profound wine because its form is beautiful even though it’s not complicated.” K&L Wine, down the freeway from me in Redwood City, uses the p-word in its newsletter with almost profligate frequency: a 2003 Ausone is “profoundly concentrated,” a Branaire-Ducru of the same vintage “profound,” while, on the other hand, quoting Parker, the ’83 Suduiraut is “not as profound as the other 1983s…”. Our friend Matt Kramer has described the Pinot Noirs of the [far] Sonoma Coast as being among “the most profound Pinot Noirs grown in America…” while even a modest Sherry, an Amontillado from Tio Diego, is anointed with profundity in the British financial magazine, Money Week, where it’s described as “iconic and profound.”

These different writers seem to be describing the same thing, but from the consumer’s point of view, it’s hard to know what it is they’re talking about. How can a wine be “not complicated” and yet “profound”? Can a Sherry be “profound” in the same way as Ausone? Are there degrees of profundity? And what is the monetary value of “profundity” in a wine compared to one that’s merely very good without being profound?

No wonder wine shoppers get a little crazy.

I myself am no stranger to the p-word. I called the aroma of a B Cellars 2008 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet “profound in black currants and cassis,” and also described as “profound” the tannins on a 2008 Cabernet, the PerryMore (also from Beckstoffer ToKalon). Clearly we writers are trying to communicate something important when we use this word to describe a wine or some aspect of it. I italicize this phrase deliberately, for it raises another question: Can individual parts of a wine be profound, while others aren’t? If, in fact, a single part (structure, aromatics, tannins) is profound, does that then raise the entire wine (which is the sum of all its parts) to profundity?

You can say that these are just angels-dancing-on-pinheads debates, fit pastime for indolent Jesuits, and in part, that’s right. But it matters, at least to those of us who take the art of wine writing seriously.

We know certain things: to call a wine “profound” is probably the highest accolade you can give it. Writers do not and should not use the word promiscuously. We know, too (or at least we hope), that when a writer calls a wine “profound”, it’s because that writer has experienced a great many great wines over a long period of time, and therefore knows what he’s talking about. If Joe Blow, who’s been writing about wine for a year or two, says a wine is profound, one is entitled to doubts. Perhaps he read an established writer use that word, was impressed, and is trying it out for himself. (By the way, it’s no criticism of young wine writers to say they’re still trying to find a style.) If on the other hand a seasoned professional who’s experienced great wine for decades calls a wine profound, our ears prick up. Mine do, if it’s a writer I respect.

I associate profundity in California wines chiefly with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. I don’t particularly want to rehash the debate over what constitutes a “noble” wine, because then we’d have two words–noble and profound–to define, rather than only one, thus muddying the waters even more. But a great Pinot Noir or Cabernet is where I typically (if rarely) find profundity. I have had white wines that were profound, but they weren’t from California. As much a fan as I am of great California Chardonnay, I wouldn’t call it profound. (I hope someone doesn’t plow through Wine Enthusiast’s database in search of one or two times I might have. If you do that, you have way too much time on your hands!) California Chardonnay can be sexy, opulent, dazzling, amazingly rich–but profound, it ain’t.

Last question, re: Salamone’s quote about that Savoie. If you like a wine, a lot, and it goes really good with the food you like, and it satisfies you in every way, but it’s “not a profound wine by any means,” should that bother you? Of course not. I’m reaching for an analogy, but the experience of a profound wine is like going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing all those Rembrandts and El Grecos. That’s not an everyday experience. That’s an experience to heighten your senses and delight you with great art. But you can’t live in a museum, nor would you want to, I should think.


The future of wine writing, redux

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They call it “the gig economy,” a “growing tribe of independent contractors and freelancers who are hoping to transform hardship into opportunity on the sidelines of the nation’s traditional 9-to-5 economy,” in the words of a recent New York Times story.

The article reported on people in their 20s and 30s who, unable to land “real” jobs in this post-Recession economy, opt for the freelance life. Not only writers, but lawyers, website developers and many others, they exist from gig to gig, working out of their homes, or from wi-fi enabled coffeeshops, enjoying the freedom their unemployed lives give them–but worried also about paying the bills, much less saving anything for their retirement.

From the perspective of journalism, including wine writing, the gig economy should worry consumers who want solid, honest reporting. You can argue that a reporter who doesn’t actually work for anyone is all the more independent, because she doesn’t have to be concerned with how her publisher, editors, company CEO or advertisers feel. Instead, she can fearlessly investigate and report the news, and offer opinions (e.g. wine reviews) that are fiercely objective.

True. But there’s a risk in going the independent path. Several risks, actually. They include:

1.   Not having the solid bench of staff a reporter needs to do the job properly. An old-fashioned newspaper had copy editors, fact checkers, librarians, ombudsmen and others who, working alongside the reporter, can ensure the greatest depth and credibility to her stories.

2.   Working a consistent beat. Print reporters generally specialized: you had the police guy, the City Council guy, the science writer, the sports guy, the style writer, and so on. Specializing meant that the writer could get really knowledgeable about his field, getting to know the major personalities and thus offering a value-added perspective. In the new gig economy, it’s hard to get a job that’s consistent, and so the writer is forced to write about whatever he can get paid for at that moment (or whatever wine is coming in, willy nilly). It’s a scattershot way of reporting.

I don’t mean to suggest that wine writers in the gig economy can’t be good. They can. But it’s going to be increasingly hard for them to make a living, because wages in the gig economy just aren’t very high. That’s the whole point of a gig economy: it provides cheap labor to employers, who not only don’t have to pay well, but also don’t have to shell out benefits. And as low as the pay is, it can be even lower when the number of job applicants exceeds the number of job opportunities–as it the case with wine writing today.

What is all means for the future of wine writing is obscure. But it is very hard to escape the suspicion, or dread, that wine writing’s glory days are coming to an end. Not tomorrow. Not in five years. But in twenty? Unless there’s some kind of major shift in the paradigm–and I don’t know anyone who thinks well-paid wine writers are coming back.


Some good ways for a winery to communicate with the public–and one way not to

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As a wine writer, I’m often the recipient of information from wineries, or from the P.R. professionals they hire to represent them. So I’ve come to have some knowledge and understanding of the various ways that wineries reach out to people like me (and to the general public, as well).

Some of these ways work better than others, it seems to me. The primary method of reaching out is the press release. This traditionally has been in hard copy, sent through the mail, but it can also be in digital form. I find most press releases pretty boring, but I do read them, so in that sense, the press release is an effective vehicle for getting noticed.

What do I look for in a press release? Well, it has to be a lot more than manufactured excitement. I (and all journalists, I would think), want news–real news–something to capture my attention. Just an ordinary “after __ made his millions, he relocated to Napa Valley” doesn’t push my buttons.

Another way that wineries reach out to the public is through events. These can be hosted by the winery, or the winery can participate in a larger event put on by some other organization. These can be effective vehicles, too. They’re certainly more interesting than reading a press release. You get to taste wine, and sometimes you get to eat some food. The downside, of course, is that you have to travel to wherever the event is, which isn’t always feasible. I get a lot of invitations to go to tastings in places like Napa Valley and Sonoma County, but that involves hours of driving through the Bay Area’s notorious traffic. Nor am I typically going to accept a dinner invitation in wine country. No drinking and driving for this critic. I’m more likely to go to an event in San Francisco because I can take BART (the local subway system).

A third way that wineries reach out to the public is through their websites. I think every winery should have a good-looking, comprehensive, easy-to-use website. Many do, but my chief criticism is that they’re not kept up-to-date. Very often, the winery will send me a bottle of a new release, without any accompanying information regarding where the grapes are from, how the wine was made, and so on. If I want to learn more about the wine, I’ll go online, starting with the website–but, more often than not, there’s nothing there at all! Which is frustrating. It’s to the winery’s advantage to give us writers all the information we need, because that might help to “fatten” up the review, in terms of its length. (Of course, the score itself is unaffected.)  I could always call someone at the winery and ask my questions, but that’s a lot more complicated. You can’t always get the person you need; you end up playing phone tag, so there’s a limit to the amount of time I can spend in order to find out, say, the precise blend on that Cabernet Sauvignon, or where in St. Helena the vineyard is.

I’ve been talking about various ways that wineries reach out, but there also are wineries that don’t reach out, which I think is a mistake. Just late yesterday, I got a call from a pleasant young person (I won’t say who), who was the P.R. representative of a well-known Napa Valley Cabernet house that you could call “cult.” (I won’t identify it either.) The P.R. rep–I’ll give him/her the name “Pat”–wanted to know how the winery could get a major writeup in such publications as the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Well, it was a little off-putting to be asked that, but “Pat” sounded like a nice person, and I wanted to help. I told “Pat” she/he should call up Lettie Teague or Eric Asimov and ask them directly, because both are friendly, accessible people. But I also told “Pat” something else.

“Your winery never sends out samples. They don’t invite anyone up there. They’ve never reached out to me. The owner has to realize that a major news organization isn’t going to give him free publicity just because he wants it. This industry is about relationships.” “Pat” admitted that he/she understood this, but that ownership felt very strongly that they don’t want to play the game of communicating with the media. Instead, the owner wants to preserve the appearance of being above it all, in an ivory tower–exclusive, you might say.

I explained that there’s nothing exclusive about hiding behind your winery walls. A hundred other Napa “cult” wineries play the same game. They think that, by making themselves impossible to get, it enhances their desirability. Well, that may have been true once upon a time–but those days are ending. These days, the public wants transparency, openness, two-way communication, not a regal winery owner shut up in his castle. “Pat” understood, but said that was ownership’s policy. I replied, “It’s not working too well, is it?” “Pat” conceded that sales weren’t quite as brisk as the owner wants, which is why the winery wants more media coverage. “That’s what I mean,” I said. “The current policy of splendid isolation isn’t working.”

I wished “Pat” good luck getting that New York Times and/or Wall Street Journal article, and maybe it will all work out. But I don’t think so. This matter of reaching out and communicating–to critics like me, to the general media, to the public–is a sine qua non for success in this new era, and any “cult” winery that thinks it doesn’t have to play nice in the sandbox is fooling itself.


Putting myself in the consumer’s shoes

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I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film, the other day, and I frankly couldn’t tell if I liked it or not. Afterwards, when Marilyn asked what I thought, all I could say was, “I don’t know.” I wanted to Google it and see what the reviewers and other moviegoers thought.

Which is exactly what I did when I got home. It turned out that lots of folks were as puzzled as I was, but the point of this post is that, by myself, I just didn’t know what to think, and needed to know how others felt before making up my own mind.

Which is pretty odd, because usually I know if I like a movie or not. So I had to wonder why it was that I felt the need to know how others reacted, before coming to my own conclusion–and then it hit me. That’s pretty much the situation lots of consumers have when it comes to wine. They don’t know what to think (i.e., what to buy), and so they turn to the opinions of others for guidance.

It’s only natural, I suppose. Sometimes we know precisely how we feel about things, for or against. Other times, though, we’re kind of in the middle, and need a nudge, one way or the other, to arrive at a conclusion. I’m not sure why some things are clear to us while others aren’t. In matters of taste (gustation), things are usually pretty simple. You like sea urchin; I don’t, and that’s that.

But wine can be trickier than food. For one thing, wine is more complex than most food. While it can be a simple pleasure (and for most of the world, that’s all it is), at the higher levels wine requires the consumer to bring something to the table. It’s like art in that respect. It’s hard for the average person to appreciate, say, Keith Haring, without an understanding of his context: New York City of the 1980s, street art/graffiti, AIDS, the Studio 54 scene, break dancing, cocaine, a certain anti-”high art” attitude.. If you have some knowledge of those phenomena, then a Haring piece becomes much more than the cartoon it can appear to be to the uninitiated.

Haring

There are, I suppose, two kinds of people: those who aren’t interested in expanding their perspectives, and those who are. The latter are curious about things, especially things that seem to be important to others. In the Jewish tradition, there is the story, told during the Passover seder, of the Four Sons: the simple son (too lazy to wonder about anything), the wicked son (who believes in little except himself), the son who doesn’t know enough to ask (his ignorance is his limiting factor) and the wise son (who inquires into the nature of things). The implication of this tale, of course, is that we should be like the wise son: inquisitive, open to expanding our knowledge, curious to increase our understanding of the world.

It was this curiosity to understand Inside Llewyn Davis that drove me to Google it. I can’t claim to have a proper understanding of it even now, but my little expedition online made me think. And the more I think about Inside Llewyn Davis and what the Coen Brothers and the actors were trying to do, the more interesting I find the movie in retrospect. Because it challenged me, it forced the limits of my mind to expand a little bit. And opening my mind to new concepts has always been a great pleasure to me.

So we return to wine. There are two kinds of people with regard to wine, too: those who like it and like to drink it, but have little or no curiosity about learning anything about it. And then there are those who are willing to take steps to understand wine. These begin with small, simple steps: Why are some wines white, some red, and some rosé? Why are some wines sweet while others aren’t? Why do wines of the same variety differ so widely in price? These are perfectly good, logical questions for the beginner to ask–and from there, you can branch out wherever you want, even into things like what the chalk of Chablis contributes to Chardonnay.

It’s in that area–the branching out, the effort to understand what doesn’t come easily to the mind, to penetrate more deeply into the heart of a topic–that people need guidance. I needed guidance to help me understand Inside Llewyn Davis. And the curious wine consumer–the “wise son” (and daughter)–needs guidance to help her understand wine.

There are many reasons why wine so often is so challenging for so many people. Maybe I’ll try to analyze that in depth someday. But for now, I want to say the answer to wine’s complexity is not to become one of those people who says he or she is in the business of “demystifying wine” or “making wine simple” or “taking the snobbery out of wine.” All such boasts should be seen for what they are: transparent attempts to take advantage of people’s insecurity in order to make money.


Musings on Hugh Johnson’s three categories of wine

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Hugh Johnson had a marvelous column in The World of Fine Wine. The man certainly knows how to turn a phrase, and the elegant way he displays his wide knowledge of wine is one more reason why he has been the King of Wine Commentators [a word he prefers] for so long. The bloggers who hope for lengthy shelf lives (not to mention money) at this gig would do well to study his books.

I want to riff on something Johnson wrote in his opening paragraph: “A sense of place. That’s what everyone says they’re looking for these days. Not balance. Not harmony. Not structure or strength or typicity or even mysterious beauty. We read phrases like ‘a wine that comes from somewhere.’ It should be music to people who write wine-atlases. But do we actually know what it means?”

Johnson mentions no specific names of critics who say they’re looking for “a sense of place.” Nor shall I, but if a certain one pops into your brain, so be it. When I read Johnson’s opening words, I thought he was going to demolish the concept of “a sense of place,” but no. He casts doubt on the ease with which some writers claim to find it–and then creates his own list of “vineyard sites that stamp their wines with recognizable character”: Scharzhofberg, Les Santenots, and even a minor white wine from the Languedoc that, Johnson writes, he preferred to Montrachet “at that minute”–nice hedge. Well, there are minutes I’d prefer a cup of coffee to Montrachet.

Johnson also devises a category aside and apart from wines of place: those from producers “who leave such a clean imprint on their wines that it’s the house you see first, then the vineyard.” Among these he includes the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. This surprised me, I must say, since the DRC’s wines always (in my reading, at least) have been accounted as among the world’s greatest expressions of terroir. So I’m not sure what that statement means, although I’m on clearer ground when he places Champagne in a kind of murky, third tier (“wine[s] of high pedigree that evoke plenty of abstract approval but not the sense that you are somewhere”…). This is, I suppose, because most Champagne is blended.

So three Johnson categories:

1.   Wines of a place

2.   Wines of a house

3.   Wines “of abstract approval” that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of “high pedigree”

I thought it would be useful, and perhaps even interesting, for me to play with the Johnsonian categories and see if there are California wines that neatly fit into each. So I researched my reviews in Wine Enthusiast’s database. I soon realized, however, that things are not as cut and dry here in California, for me, as they are in Europe, for Hugh Johnson. For example, when I considered the wines of a place, the vineyard of David Hirsch immediately leapt into mind. It is a vineyard I can at least claim to know with some fuzzy precision, having been there a few times, and certainly having been in the Fort Ross-Seaview, several-ridges-in neighborhood of Bohan Dillon Road many times over the years. Just as with that minor white from the Languedoc Johnson delighted in (not least because, as he drank it, he could visualize “the vines sloping down to the sea” which led him to describe it as “a sort of seaside Sylvaner”), I can and do picture the Fort Ross-Seaview ridgetops everytime I drink a Hirsch (or Failla, or Flowers, or Wild Hog wine: the high-above-the fogline clarity, the piney forests, the wild herbs, the brilliant sunshine and chilly nights, the red soils that give way to sandy Gold Ridge in the best spots, the sheer, isolated remoteness and–the human element?–the attractive, somewhat eccentric vitality of the winemakers). Surely the wines from these vineyards, including Hirsch, reek of a sense of place?

Well, yes…and no. Not to this critic, anyhow. Nor would I describe them as “wines of a house” whose producer style immediately marks them as distinct. So are they from Johnson’s third category–wines “of abstract approval that don’t have a sense of place, yet are of high pedigree”? You certainly can’t describe them as such. They do have a sense of place…but it’s not as pronounced as the utterly inimitable distinctiveness Johnson finds (or claims to find) in Scharzhofberg and the others.

This is why I’ve never written that such-and-such a wine “could only come from” such-and-such a vineyard. It might have contributed further to my branding as a wine critic were I to do so. After all, nothing halos a critic with more glory than to make such sweeping pronouncements, which inform the public of the critic’s discernment and expertise.

But the fact is that I’ve always valued fact and truth more than anything else, including hyperbole, in my wine writing, and have resisted the temptation (whether from me, or from others) to make sweeping pronouncements I can’t really justify. This is especially true in the context of blind tasting, when it’s impossible to summon the visual memory of “vines sweeping down to the sea” based merely on what’s in the glass.

If I take the bottle out of the paper bag, so that I know what I’m tasting, then it’s a lot easier to find “that sense of place.” Here, then, are some wines that do seem to exhibit a “somewhereness” every time I taste them. Each is from a particular vineyard. I make no claim, nor ever will, however, that a vineyard-designated wine must be superior to a blended one: Johnson concedes as much in the case of Champagne, while I need mention only one wine–Cardinale–to make the same point.

David Arthur Elevation 1147 Estate

Anything from Hirsch Vineyard

Chardonnays from the Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard

Goldschmidt’s Game Ranch Cabernets, from Oakville

Certain Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernets. Janzen and World’s End, both 2009s, are good examples.

Shafer Hillside Select

Marimar Torres’s Pinot Noirs from the Don Miguel Vineyard

Zaca Mesa’s Black Bear Block Syrah

Rochioli Pinot Noirs from south (or east) of Westside Road, especially West Block and River Block

Williams Selyem Pinots from Allen Vineyard

Each of these wines conveys something of its origins, but I would not want to bet my mortgage on identifying them in a blind tasting. Each of them also conveys a “house style”, but it’s important to realize that most of them have been produced over many years, by the same winemaker, so who’s to say what part of the wine is pure terroir, and what part is the winemaker’s considered opinion when it comes to such interventions as fermentation particulars, type of oak barrel, length of barrel aging and so on? As usual, we arrive at that conundrum: a great wine sits at the median point of natural terroir and its interpretation by the winemaker.

The point, I think, is that we get so mesmerized by place-centric musings that we run the risk of delegitimizing certain wines that don’t fit into our preconceived notions of what makes wine great. That is why I was happy to see Johnson talk about that Languedoc wine (which he did not identify by producer). He might simply have dropped the names of Great Growths and Grand Crus like so many critics airily do, but part of what has made Hugh Johnson so compelling for so long is that he refuses to play that game of “I drink better than you can or do.” It no longer matters to him (if it ever did) to say he prefers a Languedoc white to Montrachet; he loses no prestige nor reclamé as a wine critic by doing so.


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