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Wednesday wraparound: Fred Franzia, more post-WBC14 opinionating, and “the tipping point”

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Not sayin’ that Fred Franzia is on the same enlightened level as the Dalai Lama, but it seems to me that HuffPo’s Chris Knox came down on him a little strong—even for a medium (the blog) that’s known for snark.

“Trash-mouthed, unapologetic [and] downright crude”? Well, I don’t think Fred ever graduated from charm school, but he’s not as bad as all that. I’ve known him—not well, but some—over the years, and I’ve managed to find affection for him, even though he’s done one or two crummy things to me. But I’ve done crummy things to people, too, so as usual, the Golden Rule applies. Fred, like it or not, is a product of his time and place—besides, someone once said that people who swear a lot are more honest, and there’s a lot of truth to that.

More important is Chris Knox’s j’accuse! against Two Buck Chuck. Now, I can’t say I have any idea if the wines contain (as Chris alleges), “animal blood and parts” (I should think the FDA, or whoever the relevant government agency is, would be up on that). But I can say that I respect Fred, and Bronco, his company, for making wine that anybody can afford to drink—and varietal wines, at that. I think we all agree that the most important thing for the wine industry is to get more people drinking. Two Buck Chuck does that; Petrus doesn’t. So kudos to Fred, from my point of view.

* * *

Kudos, too, to Joe Roberts AKA 1WineDude, for telling it like it is yesterday on his blog. I was kind of at Ground Zero of all the post-WBC14 grousing and blather, and I really wasn’t in the mood to put my [strong] thoughts into words, so I refrained, except in a few private exchanges. But Joe, bless his heart, who perhaps has garnered some credibility in the world of Millennial bloggers, let ‘er rip. The comments on his blog—104 and counting, as I write this—make for fascinating reading on their own. My fave: did the panelists (those accomplished online/print writers that happened to be middle-aged white dudes) miss an opportunity, or, did we bloggers miss the opportunity?” Joe deserves credit for his courageous, truthful expression of the facts.

* * *

Some of us were talking the other day about how a new winery/brand reaches “the tipping point,” in terms of popularity and success. One suggestion was that, to a certain extent, this can be stage-managed, through smart, creative marketing, promotional and sales efforts—although admittedly, that can be expensive. Another point of view is that tipping points occur serendipitously. You can’t make them happen, no matter how much money you spend (as any number of billionaires who have run for California governor over the years, and embarrassingly lost, well know). All that the expenditure of money (on media events, etc.) can do is increase the winery’s chances of being noticed by “the right people.” That is indeed important—but beyond that, there’s still the element of magic. Moreover, a winery can “hit it” for a brief period of time—Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame—but staying relevant is a lot harder. If there was a formula, or template, for reaching “the tipping point,” everyone would know it. But there isn’t.

* * *

Finally, a link to another blog, today’s edition of “Juicy Tales by Jo Diaz,” in which she expresses points of view I pretty much agree with. And with that, I’ll wish you all a good day!


Wine and the Feminine Esthetic

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I didn’t know Shirley Sarvis, even though she was a legendary resident of San Francisco, and despite the fact that I own some of her books, including “American Wines and Wine Cooking,” which she co-wrote (with the great Bob Thompson) in 1973. She died last week, at the age of 77.

Shirley was from the Old School of culinary writing, one that included M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child. In her day and age, women wrote about cooking for other women, usually in the pages of women’s magazines. Shirley’s roster included Better Homes and Gardens, Sunset Magazine and Woman’s Day.

These were periodicals that appealed to suburban housewives who by and large stayed home all day while the Man of the House dutifully commuted to his job, there to work hard to bring home the bacon, so that the wife could decorate the house in the manner prescribed by the magazines (white wicker patio chairs, lovely floral arrangements, bright colors in the California style, with a pretty garden). The Missus also mastered the arts of preparing beef bourguignon and fondue, but never barbecue: that was the Man’s task.

Wine? It barely showed up at all. The Man might like an occasional martini, a la Mad Men, or a beer. The Missus didn’t drink, or, if she did, it was discretely. Although California was riddled with winemaking, from L.A. up through the North Coast and in the Central Valley, the suburbs hardly embraced it in the 1950s. Scan the pages of the women’s magazines and you’ll see scant mention of the grape or wine.

Shirley, however, made an important transition in 1973 with the publication of “American Wines and Wine Cooking.” She was the “cooking” part to Bob Thompson’s “wine” part, meaning she still remained true to her traditional gender role. But the fact that a woman’s name appeared as co-author of a book at least partly about American wine represented an important cultural shift. It meant that wine was no longer the exclusive province of the Man, as it always had been, but that women could bring their own esthetic to it.

What was that esthetic? It’s always been less fussy than the Man’s. The Man invented precise wine-and-food pairings, the classification systems as supposedly precise as entries in an accounting ledger, the rules of aging and cellaring, the puffery, the snobbery, the show-offiness and, yes, the 100-point system. Women just wanted something good to drink with food that was lovingly prepared and delicious.

Julia Child embodied this same esthetic. She could hold her own with wine snobs, especially with French wine, but she chose to emphasize a different approach, one that was more egalitarian, that could laugh at pretentiousness. It’s easy to poke fun at people with wine knowledge if you’re a total ignoramus who knows nothing about wine, its history, production and culture. What’s more interesting is when people who know a great deal about wine relax and refuse to take it that seriously. They know that there are more important things in life, that wine is there to help us slow down and get in touch with our souls. I think of this as the feminine esthetic toward wine, and we see it around us today, in the careers of women as varied as Leslie Sbrocco, Jancis Robinson and Jo Diaz.

 

Here’s to the women of wine!


Happy birthday to you, Vinography!

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I want to congratulate Alder Yarrow and his Vinography blog on the occasion of its ninth birthday. That’s quite an achievement—to keep a blog going for that long. (By contrast, my blog is only 4-1/2 years old.)

When Alder started blogging, the concept of “the wine blog” must have been practically non-existent. I certainly never heard of blogs until around 2005-2006, when I was asked by Wine Enthusiast to write an article about them. I looked into the matter and found a bunch of silly, amateurish drivel—with an oasis here and there, among which Vinography was one. (Another was Tom Wark’s Fermentation and Jo Diaz’s Juicy Tales.

These early blogs changed the face of wine writing, of the way readers communicate with writers, and and of how wineries reach out to critics. In the old days, everything was top down: wealthy publishers owned print publications, hired writers to (more or less) hew to their philosophies, and the only way readers had of becoming part of the process was to write a letter to the editor that might or might not get published in 4 months. Not exactly the stuff of dialogue.

Now, through platforms like WordPress, bloggers can self-publish, without interference or influence from anyone except their own conscience. Readers have the opportunity for instant feedback (in my own case, once I’ve approved your first comment, all subsequent comments are published as soon as you send them in. No censorship on my part). This fundamentally changes the way wine writers operate.

For instance, it puts our activities under a magnifying glass—or maybe an electron microscope is the better analogy. I’ve been forced by my readers to explain every aspect of everything I do related to my job—to my pleasure, I might add. In this respect, blogging has demystified wine to a greater extent than ever before. By its very nature, blogging echoes wine’s essence: sharing, communication, involvement, collectivity.

The one thing neither Alder Yarrow, nor any other blogger, has yet figured out how to do is to make their blog profitable. This isn’t their fault: it’s an inherent limitation of the entire social media sphere, which simply doesn’t seem to lend itself to pecuniary purposes. This could change someday, but it’s hard to imagine. If smart people–and Alder, who lives in San Francisco and whom I know, is smart—can’t figure out how to take all their visibility and renown and translate it into dollars, then it may not be possible.

Which leads to the question, why continue to blog? Alder himself answered it: “Frankly there are probably better things to do with my time, but I enjoy it so much, and a large part of that enjoyment is knowing that other folks find it useful, entertaining, or simply just a reasonable way to pass the time.”

This may be hard for some people to believe, because they, themselves, have little inclination in their own lives to do anything for altruistic purposes. For some people, it’s all about the scramble for money, power, prestige. They miss out on the simple pleasure of doing something nice for others, without demanding to be compensated. Very sad.

I think that’s the best thing about the wine blogosphere as it is today. It’s really a very pure space. Not everybody’s blog is worth reading, and not every post on each blog that is worth reading is particularly insightful. But wine blogs have become the global village McLuhan envisioned decades ago, a place where everyone is more or less equal, where decisions are taken collectively, and where understanding is shared by the group in truly democratic fashion.

So thank you, Alder, for starting Vinography, and for helping usher in a great era!


Old critics never die, they just retire to Cloudy Lees

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Dec. 18, 2039 – It’s a pleasant day here at the Cloudy Lees Home for Retired Wine Writers, or, as one of my less reverent pals (Jim Gordon, actually) dubs it, The Last Bastion of the Over the Hill Gang.

As far as senior citizen communities go, it’s not bad. We have morning swirling sessions to keep our wrists limber, and every Thursday afternoon there’s a distance-spitting contest that Wilfred Wong always wins, damn him. Then, at night, we gather around the electric heater to reminisce. Dan Berger tends to tell the same story every time, about when he tasted 2,000 Merlots in a single afternoon at the Riverside International Wine Competition, but then, he’s the oldest, so we cut him some slack.

Karen MacNeil just waddled by and said to say “Hi” to you all. She’s still her well-tailored self, although the red hair is now snowy white. She cackles more than she used to, although nobody knows quite why. We celebrated her 80th birthday the other day with a cake the kitchen made in the image of The Wine Bible. It was, needless to say, very rich and heavy.

Of course, not everybody is in good shape. You can’t expect that at this age! Poor Jim Laube, we almost never see him, except when Helen Turley drops by. Then Jim emerges from his penthouse suite—the most expensive in the place—on his walker, accompanied by Jancis Robinson. She’s a little dotty, and under the impression people still read the Purple Pages. But she’s awfully perky in that candy striper’s outfit. I never did find out how Jim and Jancis hooked up. Memo to self: Ask Jo Diaz. She knows everything.

One of my favorite times is when the volunteers visit to amuse us. Joe Roberts comes on Sunday afternoons (that is, if he’s not on some junket) for his weekly Wine Quiz. Now that he’s become a mime, he’ll describe a wine non-verbally, like in charades, and we’re supposed to guess what it is. He’s hysterical with words like “bubbly” and “tart” but really outdid himself with a Naked Chardonnay.

Then there’s Eric Asimov. Sadly, since his stroke, he thinks he’s Mimi Sheraton. He writes a daily column in our newsletter on the dining room. For example, yesterday he said the scrambled eggs “lacked clarity,” although he did like the cream of wheat for its “balanced hedonism.” Don’t get him started on the chicken a la king.

Every retirement community has a curmudgeon, of course, and you just know that here, it’s Paul Gregutt. He’s always muttering under his breath, scowling and fuming like Clint Eastwood about to shoot someone, but underneath all that, Paul’s a teddy bear. He leads us on our Wednesday night singalongs, playing old rock standards on the guitar. And if you ever need a doobie, Paul’s room is #203. (I didn’t tell you that!)

Jordan Mackay moved in last week. I think he’s the youngest resident. It’s nice to have new blood in the hood. All the old ladies lust after Jordan. It’s a little unseemly, if you ask me, to see Meredith May asking him every 5 minutes if he’d like “a little something from the pantry,” which I take to be a metaphor. But I have to admit, Jordan’s a cutie, even with the lobotomy scar.

Our Dean, if you will, is Pierce Carson. He’s been here since longer than anyone can remember. They say at first he was his usual funny self, cracking wry jokes and pinching the nurses’ tushes. But lately, he’s been kind of quiet. Every morning, the attendants wheel him over by the fern in the rec room, where he stays pretty much alone except for Gary Vaynerchuk, who replays episodes of “Wine Library T.V.” all day, which nobody else wants to watch.

The classiest retired critic in Cloudy Lees is Roger Voss. With his tweed sport jacket and elbow patches, not to mention that British accent, he’s our own royalty. Roger likes to preside over the Port service, where he insists the decanter be passed counter-clockwise, and gets quite cross if it’s not. He almost came to blows once with Matt Kramer. Matt, who unfortunately has bladder problems, said the counter-clockwise thing was “a myth” and tried to pass the Port clockwise. It was tense for a while, but Ron Washam told a few jokes and the next thing you know, everyone fell asleep, so all ended well.


Today’s post is about you

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Somehow the overlords at Comcast last night managed to lose telephone, Internet and telephone service for me, as well as for a large part of the city of Oakland. I went into a near panic, not because I was for all intents and purposes cut off from the outside world, for who knew how long, but because I hadn’t yet posted to my blog, and feared I’d be unable to, before the world woke up on Tuesday morning to find–gasp!–a repeat of Monday’s Meander.

I don’t know if readers understand quite the commitment some of us have to getting the old blog published every day. I mean, people like me, Joe Roberts, DrVino, Vinography, Fermentation, Jo Diaz and others. It’s a commitment that borders on obsession. Hell, maybe it is obsession: “such a persistant idea,” my dictionary says, “that cannot be gotten rid of by reasoning.” In other words, it’s not enough for me to say to myself, “Self, there’s nothing wrong with missing a day.” You know, on some deeply rational basis, that in fact there is nothing wrong with missing a day. You know it, but you can’t quite persuade yourself to believe it.

It’s kind of like the obsessive way I make sure I actually have my house keys with me when I step out the door. I locked myself out, twice over the last 20 years, the last time just two months ago. Not pleasant; not something you want to happen again. So I have this little ritual. Even thought I know I put the keys in my pocket, once I’m out the door, I not only tap my pocket to feel the familiar tangle of metal inside, I have to actually fish the keys out and look at them. I know it’s a stupid compulsion, but better I should have a harmless compulsion than lock myself out a third time.

But needing to publish this blog everyday is different in at least one other respect: when I obsess on having my house keys, there’s only one person involved: me. When I obsess on publishing everyday, it’s not only me I’m thinking about, it’s you. The readers. There are lots of you out there, across the world. You’re like members of a club. Even though you mostly don’t know each other, you come here every day to see what’s up. I feel that acutely. I have a powerful sense of responsibility to you, the readers, to publish something so that when you come here Monday through Friday, you get a post that’s new and, hopefully, interesting, thought provocative and occasionally funny.

Newspaper and magazine publishers have always possessed a keen sense of getting the paper out. The presses traditionally stopped for nothing; a publisher’s, and indeed a good editor’s and reporter’s, worst nightmare was that the paper be stopped from being published, due to some catastrophe or other. That sense of obligation was one of publishing’s most noble aspects, and has long roots in history and tradition. It has spilled over, for some of us, to blogging. We feel the same urgency. But in blogging, I think, we feel it even more keenly because of the interactive nature of the digital conversation.

When I woke up today, early, the first thing I did was turn on the TV to see if it was working. It was. I picked up the telephone, my land line, and heard to familiar, reassuring dial tone. I touched my computer mouse and the screen lit up, showing my email in box, with dozens of new incoming messages. Thank you Comcast, I whispered, even though they’re still the Evil Empire in my book. And then I sat down and wrote this post, which isn’t about wine. It’s about you.


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