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Learning how to learn about new wines

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I’ve been a California wine guy for a long time, but in the 1980s, I was happily catholic, in the old sense of the word, derived from the Latin meaning “universal.” I studied and drank every classic wine and region I could get my hands on, from Old Europe to New World California, and everything inbetween.

But by the 1990s my job was to write about and review California wine. Once I got a reputation as a go-to guy for California, the transom opened (do you know what a transom is? A free lifetime subscription to steveheimoff.com if you do), and I was swamped with wines from the Golden State—to my pleasure, I might add. But the corresponding sadness was that the wines from the rest of the world necessarily had to take a back seat.

I’ve long maintained that there are two legitimate ways to be a professional wine critic: You can specialize in a region (as I have done), or you can generalize. Some people think nothing of covering Australia, Austria and Anderson Valley. They bring their innate sense of tasting to whatever region they’re in, and if they’re lucky enough to have a budget to fly all over the place, they can actually bring a sense of the ambiente of the region to their writing.

That was, alas, not to be my fate. But California is a big place, one that you can spend a lifetime traveling through and trying to understand. That ended up being my forte.

Lately, I’ve been tackling Italy. Now, Italy is probably the greatest challenge for the person seeking to understand an entire country. It’s so vast, with so many regions and varieties. I suspect my friend and former colleague, Monica Larner, who now reviews wines for The Wine Advocate, considers herself still a student of Italy, despite her vast knowledge of that country. I am by contrast an absolute dilettante.

How does one go about understanding a brand new region? Carefully and humbly. I’ve always known at least the fundamentals of Italian wine, but to delve into it and be immersed in its fantastic intricacies is something else. It’s not only the technical details of the denomination system, it’s tackling the flavors and textures, which are so different from our wines here in California.

For example, last night I drank a Dolcetto d’Alba from the Tenuta I’Illuminata winery. It’s a Piedmont wine and I don’t think there’s anything remotely resembling it in California. So dry and tart, so bitter on its own, nothing you’d want to drink as a cocktail sipper, the way a fresh young Cabernet or Pinot might suffice. I went through my Wine Enthusiast reviews, and the highest score I ever gave a California Dolcetto was 88 points. That was for the Acorn 2010 Alegria Vineyard, in the Russian River Valley. To read the text of my September, 2013 review—“you might think it was Pinot Noir”—I can almost recall its succulent fruitiness, but this L’Illuminata Dolcetto is anything but sucuulently fruity. How, then, does a “California palate” make sense of such a wine?

Well, by expanding your mind. We all get used to certain kinds of things in our lives. We settle into our routines, hang out with the same people, go to the same places, eat the same foods. It’s understandable, but at the same time, when you’re plunged into a world profoundly different from the one you’re used to, you have two alternatives: to reject it as weird, or to set aside your predilections and try to understand it.

As a wine critic, there’s really only one legitimate approach, the latter: to try and understand something that, at first, doesn’t make sense. And for this, you need two things: study, and imagination. The “study” part mean that you need to read up on what smart people have had to say about that region and wine. The “imagination” part means that you have to understand how people actually drink the wine, in the region where they live. This is the “ambiente” I’m talking about.

With this Dolcetto d’Alba, I can imagine drinking it with very rich foods. Take some fatty meat (beef, sausages), put some tomato sauce on it, add some mozzarella cheese into the equation, figure out how to work in wild mushrooms, don’t be shy about the garlic and black pepper. Decant the wine for an hour or two. You know how some people complain that the opulent red wines of California pale after a while? This Dolcetto is the opposite: it gets more interesting.

Does it matter that it’s an 88 point wine and not a 98? Not to me. Am I embarrassed to admit I don’t know much about Italian wine? Not at all. I’ve learned, through blogging, the importance of telling the truth—transparency, they call it. “The truth will make you free.” And—even more importantly—I’m happy that I retain the ability to learn, to be surprised, even after all this time. How cool is that?


Gay-friendly: Progress in the wine industry, but a long way to go

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Years ago—it has to be at least ten—I wrote an article for Wine Enthusiast about the emerging gay market for wine, and how important it was proving to be. I was seeing more wine advertisements aimed at gay people, and a handful of wineries was reaching out to them, albeit quietly.

At the time, I knew quite a number of gay people in the wine industry, among them winemakers and P.R. folks, but they were mainly in the closet. The wine industry is generally a pretty open place, but there are pockets of conservatism, and many gay people did not feel comfortable enough to come out.

My oh my, how that has changed. As American attitudes towards gay people (and we’ve now expanded that to the acronym GLBTQ) have softened, the presence of gays in wine, always there but largely invisible, has become clearer. It is due to a generalized spirit of welcoming that inspired the wine community, but it’s also recognition that the gay community has a lot of disposable income—and gay people like to drink wine (according to The Daily Beast, Gay people drink 16 percent more than straight people”).

I’ve never been one to lump Americans, though, into separate-but-equal identity groups. It seems to me that, since we’re all in this together, we ought to find ways of association that transcend things like gender, race, religion, age, ethnicity and sexual orientation—even political persuasion, which sometimes can be the most difficult difference to bridge. But that’s idealistic, I’m sure; the truth is that we do tend to feel binding ties with people who are like us, and I suppose that’s good, as long as it doesn’t make us so chauvinistic that we forget that we’re actually tied to everyone.

I don’t think, even when I was younger (when such an event would have been unthinkable), that I would have gone to Out in the Vineyard’s recent Gay Wine Weekend, held in Sonoma County. And now, when I’m old enough to be most of the attendees’ father, I’m not sure I would have been comfortable had I gone. But I sure am glad Out in the Vineyard exists, and I’m super-glad that Jackson Family Wines, exemplified by La Crema, supports it. This company is strongly pro-GLBTQ, a progressive stance I wish more California wineries shared.

Some wineries feel that being too closely identified with GLBTQ issues—which remains contentious among some unkind people in America—will hurt their bottom line. The wine industry, like most industries, constantly keeps tabs on how it’s perceived. Wineries don’t want to be thrust into the position of being on the backlash end of a homophobic boycott, as Wells Fargo recently was when the celebrity-preacher, Franklin Graham, exhibited narrow-minded and hateful behavior in criticizing Wells for having the temerity to put on a gay-friendly T.V. commercial. Graham, who seems not to understand the direction of history, or perhaps just doesn’t care, no doubt instilled fear among some winery proprietors who, personally, have no problem with the GLBTQ movement, and might even privately support it; but who fear the wrath of a popular religious leader whose admonitions are obeyed by millions.

One can hardly blame wineries for being afraid of such pressure; I cast not the first stone. But it does make me even prouder of gay-friendly wineries, not only Jackson Family but also J, Windsor Oaks, Sebastiani, DeLoach, Francis Ford Coppola, Ravenswood, Gary Farrell, Iron Horse, Lynmar, Korbel, E&J Gallo and many, many others. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that wineries (like most U.S. corporations) still tread exceedingly carefully using obviously gay people in their marketing and, especially, their advertising. Rev. Graham, and people like him, unfortunately have succeeded in getting their threatening message across: The stifling of free speech.


When Mohammed won’t come down from the mountain

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So I called up this winery the other day. It’s not too far away from Oakland. I’m putting together another tasting and asked if I could buy a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon and have it shipped to me. The guy—the owner-proprietor, I think—said no. He said it’s not worth his while to “drive down the mountain” to send a single bottle. If I wanted to buy a case, he explained, that would be a different story.

I thanked him and told him I wasn’t looking for an entire case, so goodbye. No $ale. But the incident bothered me and so I put it up on Facebook and asked my friends, “What kind of a business model is that?”

Lots of comments, as usual. I suppose I think more about these marketing and sales issues since I’ve worked at Jackson Family Wines than I would have when I was at Wine Enthusiast. I thought the winemaker’s attitude was pretty dumb (not that he was rude about it; he wasn’t. In fact, he couldn’t have been nicer. He simply explained that he was way up in the middle of nowhere). The bottle price, by the way, was $27.

What did my Facebook friends say? You can read all the comments here. Most of them roundly criticized the guy. Jeff Stai, from Twisted Oak, wrote I’m way up in the mountains and I’ll sell you a bottle. wink emoticon.” He added Today’s one bottle sale is next month’s five case sale.” Bill Smart said the guy’s business model is “One that is not going to last for very long?” (Bill did put it in the form of a question.) Chris Sawyer said the business model is a “case study [in] how to inflict bad mojo on your brand.” Sean Piper said “If you ever buy a bottle of my wine I’ll personally hand deliver it to you.”

And yet, the guy had his defenders. Neil Monnens wrote, “More power to him…Imagine you are his friend or family and he leaves you to go down the mountain to sell one bottle of wine to someone…it’s not worth it. Good for him.” Victoria Amato Kennedy wondered “What was the profit margin on the one bottle after factoring in gas/shipping costs/time?” I understand that, but I would have paid whatever shipping cost the guy charged me. The fact of the matter is, he was too lazy to drive down the mountain. As Patrick Connelly wrote, “Bad customer service = increasing selling difficulty.”

If I had a little family winery (which this was) I’d drive down the mountain! How hard can it be? It’s summertime, no rain, easy-breezy. Besides, even if it’s a 30-minute drive to the UPS Store, aren’t there other things the guy can do while he’s in town—buy groceries or supplies, call on an account, have a nice meal, see a friend? I’m sure that people who live up in the mountains always have lists of stuff to do when they’re in town.

As I’m constantly reminding people nowadays, you do what it takes to sell your wine. Establishing customer relationships is one of those things. Although I didn’t identify myself to the guy, how did he know I wasn’t buying the wine for a Parker tasting? I could have been some rich Silicon Valley venture capitalist looking for a house Cabernet. You never know. Sending somebody a bottle of wine can sometimes change your life in unexpected, great ways. But first, you have to be willing to come down from the mountain.


Friday Fishwrap

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No new post today. We’re gearing up for the Warriors parade this morning in Oakland and are so excited we can’t even think! But I want to give a big “thank you!” to the lovely people who came to my talk last night at the Napa Valley Wine Technical Group.

Have a great weekend.


What are the traits of westside GSMs from Paso Robles?

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This was our objective at yesterday’s tasting. The answer:

  1. high alcohol
  2. tremendous fruity extract
  3. thick tannins
  4. soft acidity
  5. full-bodiedness
  6. a sense of sweetness

Think about each of those. Each element is at the utmost of the limits of a table wine to remain balanced. In this high-wire act, if you make the slightest error, you’re screwed.

The high alcohol means that, while it’s there (and we’re talking 15%-16% or more), if the wine is in the slightest degree hot, it loses points.

The tremendous fruity extract means that, if you get it wrong, you end up with a fruit bomb.

The thick tannins mean that you don’t want to end up with something that’s harsh in the mouth.

The soft acidity presents the danger of an insipid, boring wine, flashy, perhaps, with the first sip, but one that quickly palls.

So we’re talking about that elusive but vital element, balance. It’s funny that people always talk about a more delicate wine, like Burgundian Pinot Noir, as being so transparent that balance, or any hint of imbalance, is apparent. But that’s also true of these gigantic Paso Robles GSMs. Mere size isn’t enough to hide flaws. Nothing can hide a flaw to the discerning taste. And yet, a good winemaker can turn size to his advantage.

These winemakers—Matt Trevaison, Justin Smith, Stephen Asseso and the like–chose to make these sorts of wines, and by the standard of the market, they’ve been wildly successful. These westside GSMs have become Paso Robles’ most expensive wines. Produced in tiny amounts, they sell for far more on the aftermarket than their initial release prices. So, when my friends at Jackson Family Wines asked me to put together a Paso Robles tasting (and the family currently owns nothing in Paso Robles), I happily acceded.

I could have done a tasting of Paso Bordeaux blends. I’ve been a big fan; that was part of the reason why I successfully argued for Paso Robles to be Wine Enthusiast’s “Wine Region of the Year” a couple of years ago.

I could have done a tasting of what I call Paso’s “wacko blends,” those innovative blends of everything from Tempranillo and Zinfandel to Merlot, Sangiovese and Petite Sirah. I wrote extensively about them for Wine Enthusiast. These young winemakers, who invaded Paso Robles over the last 5-10 years, had nothing to lose by being creative. They knew they couldn’t compete against Napa Valley with Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir was out of the question. Why not create a blend that had never existed before in the history of the world, if it made a delicious wine? It was a niche to be explored and exploited.

But GSMs are the signature wines of Paso Robles, especially at the high-priced end. So here were the seven wines we tasted yesterday, in a blind tasting. (Sadly, although I ordered the L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote directly from the winery, and paid $120.68, including shipping, for it, it never arrived.)

The wines, with SRP and alcohol:

Saxum 2012 Heart Stone, $149, 15.1%

Tablas Creek 2013 Cote de Cote, $55, 14.5%

Law Estate 2011 Sagacious, $67, 16%

Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones, $79, 15.8%

Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen, $54, 15.5%

ONX 2012 Crux, $45, 15.2%

Booker 2013 Full Draw, $75, 15.3%

My favorite, and the group’s, too, was the ONX. It was closely followed by the Jada, Tablas Creek, Saxum, Linne Calodo, and Booker. The trick with wines of this sort, which are very popular with critics, is to keep them balanced. All the individual parts—tannins, fruity extract, alcohol—are so strong, in and of themselves, that if any one of them sticks out, it perturbs the entire wine. (One of my co-tasters called several of the wines “distracting,” for that very reason). In this modern In Pursuit of Balance world, we make much of the structure and finesse of lightly-structured wines, which are so transparent that inherent imbalances quickly reveal themselves. As we focus—properly—on these wines, we tend to forget that these big, rich wines have similar balancing challenges; like Bob Dylan’s “mattress balanced on a bottle of wine,” the equilibrium must be just-so, the poise exquisitely tense, or otherwise the wine just collapses under its own weight into a heap.

Still, these west side Paso Robles wines (which now come under a guise of AVAs since Paso Robles split up into 11 appellations) are attention-getting, although I’m not sure I’d want to split an entire bottle with someone over dinner.


“The 100-point system is irrelevant”? Umm, sorry, no it’s not

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Haha, people have been saying the 100-point system is irrelevant for at least 100 years. Well, maybe the last 10 years. And now comes this blog from the Napa Valley Wine Academy that makes it official.

Well, who or what is the Napa Valley Wine Academy? They call themselves (on their website) “America’s premier wine school” and say they are an “approved program provider” for the WSET. So they must know what they’re talking about, right?

Here are their reasons why the 100-point system is “irrelevant”, according to the author, Jonathan Cristaldi:

  • “Parker’s influence continues to wain” [sic; he meant “wane,” but what’s a little spelling error now and then?)
  • no other critic’s influence is as important as Parker’s [true, dat]
  • people “don’t just buy when a wine garners big points” [well, nobody ever said points were the only criterion by which people make buying decisions]
  • and besides, WSET seekers “will have the power to raise a collective voice that is louder than any one critic.”

I need to break this last point down. Do you suppose that there ever will be a “collective voice” of sommeliers? I don’t. Put ten somms in a room and you’ll have more smackdowns than a mixed martial arts bout. These people seldom agree on anything, unless it’s that Burgundy is the best red wine and Riesling is the best white wine. So how, exactly, will this “collective voice” operate?

  • “the future of wine ratings is a future of recommendations, not points or scores…”

Proof? There is none. “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” the old nursery rhyme tells us. Merely wishing that individual critics will fade away, in favor of crowd-sourced opinions spread via social media, is the biggest wish-fantasy around. When Cristaldi tells us that “Friends and confidants will replace the lone wine critic,” he has absolutely no proof; no evidence supports it, except anecdotally; and even if the Baby Boomer critics, like Parker, are retiring or dying off, there is no reason to think that their places will not be taken by Millennials who just might be the future Parkers and Tanzers and Gallonis and Laubes and Wongs and, yes, Heimoffs. (Certainly, you know as well as I do that there are ambitious bloggers who ardently wish that were the case!)

So do I think the 100-point system will still be around in the future? Yes. It will, because schools still grade test scores on the 100-point system and Americans “get it” and know in their bones the difference between 87 points and 90 points. Will there be other graphic systems around (puffs, stars, and the like)? Sure. Will there be long-form wine writing that relies on the informative impact of words, rather than graphic signifiers? Yes. All of the above will make for a robust wine-reviewing scene.

Honestly, I continue to fail to understand why some people get so worked up over the 100-point system. It’s like a mania, the wine-reviewing equivalent of Obama birtherism. People: calm down. There are so many more important things to get upset about.

Where I will end this post is to re-quote Cristaldi’s quote from Jon Bonné, the former wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Jon said (according to Cristaldi), “The 100-point system is flawed.” Well, breaking news! Thank you, Jon, for pointing that out.

Of course the 100-point system is not perfect. What system is? But the 100-point system has educated more people, sold more wine and benefited more wineries than anything else ever invented. That’s pretty cool, and like the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


Thoughts on those sommelier lunches

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Today I am speaker, or host, at a buyer’s lunch for Jackson Family Wines. The venue is Farmshop, a restaurant in the tony Marin County town of Larkspur. I’ve never eaten there, but if you’re a wine-and-food geek in the Bay Area, you’ve certainly heard of it. Farmshop earned a coveted spot on the 2015 Top 100 restaurant list compiled annually by the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Michael Bauer. Our lunch menu was specially created by Chef Jason Purcell to pair with seven JFW wines. Our guests—22 and counting—are important wine buyers in the Bay Area.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to expand the conversation to the topic of these buyer lunches and dinners. These are important ways for wineries to connect with people who might buy their wines, and not just any people: high-end on- and off-premise accounts that will showcase the winery’s wines the way they hope to be be portrayed.

Being present on the shelf of a good wine shop and, even more, on the wine list of a top restaurant is more vital than ever. The Holy Grail for wineries, of course, is direct-to-consumer, but that’s a long, hard road, and the thinking among the smart set is that being on a wine list represents a shortcut, or perhaps stimulant is a better word, to DTC. I’m not sure exactly if that’s true, the assumption, I suppose, being that if a customer buys your off the wine list and falls in love with you, he’ll seek you out in the future by joining your wine club or ordering your wine from your website. That is hopeful, but not proven. But if your production is small enough—and many of the wines I’ll be showing tomorrow are–you can afford to forgo DTC if enough retail accounts buy you.

Wineries have different personnel they can choose to represent them at such venues, which combine entertainment and serious eating with the educational analyses of the wines. Obviously, there’s the winery owner and/or winemaker, who often but not always is the same person. This is a winery’s best bet for putting forth a personality who can talk about the wines being presented, as well as using herself as a selling point; having a “face of the winery” is very important for branding, although not all winemakers and/or owners like being put in that position, and some refuse to do it. But it’s necessary these days, and not a bad place to be, since your audience arrives excited and expecting to like you. All you have to do is live up to their expectations. And who doesn’t like to be liked?

The winemaker or owner isn’t always available, of course. So who else does the winery send to represent them? Well, it’s often someone from sales, marketing or P.R. who is affiliated with the winery in some way, and can speak credibly about the wines. You need a credible presence, because buyers don’t want to feel jerked around by someone who doesn’t have credibility and is only trying to sell stuff–timeshares or Tupperware or whatever.

The hope on every winery’s part, at every trade or consumer event, is to have someone of unimpeachable credibility represent them. This isn’t exactly a new development—winetasting events at restaurants are as old as the hills. But it’s become more polished in recent years, especially with the advent of the “new sommeliers,” people with advanced knowledge of, not only wine, but culinary affairs. They don’t want to go to a lunch just anywhere, and indeed, if the restaurant doesn’t spark their interest, they’ll pass on by the event. Somms have become more pampered than they were in the past—not passing judgment on that, just saying—and so it takes more than it used to to coax them out and make them happy.


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