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“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.


Twitter’s shifting winds. Dead Social Media Walking?

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I never was much of a Twitter fan. Years ago, people whom I respected for their business savvy told me I had to start using it.

“But I don’t want to,” I responded. “It seems so pointless. ‘I had scrambled eggs this morning.’ Who cares?”

“You don’t understand,” my career-advising friends told me. “You have to, if for no other reason than to build your brand.”

Well, I hadn’t known I had a brand, but apparently I did. But why did I have to build it? And why through Twitter?

Yet I dutifully did as I was told. I signed up for Twitter and started tweeting, although I never liked it. Before long, I had thousands of followers.

That was success of a sort, I guess. But I never did figure out what to say on Twitter. Facebook was totally different. It felt freer, more open, more wide-horizoned. Twitter by contrast felt as confined as a procrustean bed.

And then of course there was this blog, which afforded me all the opportunity I really wanted to communicate instantly and intelligently with others through social media.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t love Twitter. There’s been a spate of media reporting in the last few days about the company’s problems. On June 11, CEO Dick Costolo, under fire recently for Twitter’s failing to hit revenue and profitability targets, resigned (or was pushed out; who knows?).

On June 12, Twitter’s stock price was at $35.90, its lowest in more than a year despite a surging stock market. On June 14—yesterday (and coincidentally my birthday)–one of Twitter’s biggest shareholders, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, told the Financial Times than Twitter’s next CEO, whoever he or she is, “has to have tech savviness, an investor-oriented process and a marketing mentality.”

Things have gotten so bad that a Harvard professor recently called Twitter “the BlackBerry of social media.” (Ouch!) BlackBerry’s stock has basically flat-lined for the last three years.

What’s the problem? It was described well on the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog: It’s virtually impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. And on twitter there is a lot of chaff…up to 90% of a typical twitter feed is basically a waste of everyone’s time.”

I’ve been a big advocate of social media for wineries for years, although I never drank the Kool-Aid that some people apparently did, who thought that social media (and especially Twitter) was the greatest marketing tool ever. My attitude was, social media can’t hurt. If you have a few minutes during the day, you might as well do something on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest. Who knows? You might actually drum up some sales. But I never thought social media should be anyone’s fulltime job, unless the winery is so well-heeled that they don’t care.

I think these latest travails of Twitter represent a tipping point of sorts. Social media flared up in the mid- and late 2000s like a wildfire sweeping across a drought-stricken plain. It seemed for a while that everyone in the world was going to abandon traditional forms of communication and go digital.

But perhaps the wildfire has now consumed much of the fuel that gave it breath. We in California understand the behavior of wildfires. They rage only for as long as the dry offshore winds drive them. But the wind always shifts; once an onshore pattern kicks in, the wind sends the fire back over land it has already consumed; and the fire, deprived of fuel, dies.

What wind is blowing social media now, and in which direction? We may have only to look at Twitter to discern the answer. And the lesson for wineries (there always is one)? Be smart in your choices of which social media to use, and how often, and at what cost. There is, and always has been, lots of chatter out there to convince you of its value. While this chatter has been enthusiastic, it has not always been accurate.


Climate, Santa Maria-style, and the vagaries of bizarre vintages

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It’s one thing to write or talk about how consistent the Santa Maria climate is. We all know about how the fog blows in in the evening and then melts away the following morning, giving way to turquoise skies.

All this is true, but to be here, as I am now and have visited frequently for the last 25 years, is to appreciate it anew. For an eastern-born boy, where the weather changes every 15 minutes, such invariability of the annual pattern is mind-blowing. Each year has two seasons, wet and dry; each day has two times, foggy and sunny. So it was when the mastodons roamed these parts, and so it is today.

Yesterday, Thursday morning, I awoke at 6 a.m. to an impenetrable ground fog. When I walked Gus I needed my hoodie. Even when the surface fog blew off at 8 a.m., the high clouds remained throughout the morning.

By 1 p.m., when I met Jonathan Nagy, Byron’s winemaker, for lunch in Los Alamos, the sky was cerulean blue, clear, infinite. The sun was strong and hot on the skin. Yet the day remained cool, never getting out of the 70s. Stand in the sun, out of the wind, and it’s hot. Move a corner into the shade and the breeze, and it’s cold. This is indeed the “refrigerated sunshine” that Hawk Wakawaka, I think it was, so aptly described. The vines, like us, to it are sensitive.

Like the rest of coastal California, the Santa Maria Valley had a dry, record warm winter. Then May came. I think, in the annals of California vintages, May of 2015 will have some renown, recounted by aging geezers around bars. It set records for chill and damp, just at a time when the plants thought it was all right to blossom. Budbreak had occurred early; May’s moisture posed the risk of widespread botrytis. Growers turned a hopeful eye towards June. This month, so far, has extended the pattern for weirdness. The rainfall of last Tuesday and Wednesday was epic, by mid-June standards. Thursday, when I wrote this, finally was warm (not hot), dry and breezy, ideal weather for blowing away water in the vines. But it’s still to early to assess whatever damage this bizarre June storm caused. Although I’m here in the Central Coast and not in close touch with the media, my understanding is that Wednesday’s rain in the North Coast set all kinds of records. In Oakland, it rained for the better part of a day, not heavily, but consistently. I can’t recall anything like that in June in the 36 years I’ve lived in the Bay Area.

Viticulturalists—the folks who keep the vineyards healthy—are watching the skies. This has been an unsettling period for them. They know well that this is farming, and that farming never has absolutes when it comes to the weather. But even absent absolutes, they’ve come to expect at least some sort of pattern. But the pattern, alas, seems to be shattering before their very eyes. It may well have been warmer in January than in May. It may well have been wetter in June than in February. Unless you understand our climate, you cannot appreciate how insane these realities are.

As I reread what I wrote, I realize I’ve made it sound like all vintages are the same down here in the Santa Maria Valley. I do think that vintage variation here tends to be less than in more northern regions, like Carneros or Anderson Valley. Still, it exists, especially with wines like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, low-tannin varieties than transmit the terroir into the wines with high-tension precision. The problem in Santa Maria Valley is a cold year, like 2011. I’m hearing increasing comparisons between 2011 and 2015 from winemakers and growers, but I think it’s way too early to go there yet. July and August could continue this cool pattern; equally, they could be hot. Nobody has the slightest idea. Our most expert meteorologists are puzzled. Even with these increased predictions of a strong El Nino in 2015-2016, no one is willing to say what it means. More rain? Average rain? Will Southern California get more rain than Northern California? Will the drought continue, or won’t it? You’d be hard-pressed to find a weatherman who will say anything remotely specific about any of this. The only good news is that this recent rainfall has reduced the early danger of catastrophic wildfires. A blessing.

Have a wonderful weekend.


Embracing the alcohol of Paso red blends, and a word about that Benziger deal

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For the past half-year, I’ve been hosting a series of wine tastings up at Jackson Family Wines headquarters, just outside Santa Rosa. So far, they’ve included both JFW and non-JFW wines, but the next one is strictly non-JFW. It’s a tasting of high-end Paso Robles Rhône-style blends (JFW currently owns no Paso Robles wineries), and I’m getting excited even before I pop a single cork.

Here’s the lineup so far:

  • Saxum 2012 Heart Stone
  • L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote
  • Tablas Creek 2012 Esprit de Tablas
  • Law 2011Sagacious
  • Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones
  • Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen
  • ONX 2012 Crux

I’m also trying to get a bottle of PharoahMoans 2012, and maybe one or two others.

These are all expensive wines, among the priciest in California outside Napa Valley. The most expensive is the Saxum. I’ve written before about Justin Smith’s amazing story: how he started this little winery that zoomed straight to the top. (If there are more expensive wines in Paso Robles, I don’t know what they are.) I’m not sure how Justin got there; probably he isn’t either, and has been pleasantly surprised by his success. I think my reviews helped, as did the chapter I gave him in my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California.”

I liked Justin’s wines from the moment I first tasted them (I gave them lots of 95s and 94s), but I realize these are not wines for the In Pursuit of Balance crowd. The alcohol on them can be very high. But then, the same can be said of many of these Paso Robles blends. The grapes get ripe, sometimes super-mature under that hot Paso sunshine, even in the Templeton Gap where things are supposedly cooler. Well, I drove right through the Templeton Gap yesterday during the hottest part of the afternoon, and yes, the temperature did fall from 92 just north of Paso Robles to 87-88 at Templeton, evidence that there really is a cooling influence that makes it in from the coast. Still, the Templeton Gap area is still pretty warm.

It would be a shame to dismiss these big, hearty Paso Robles red wines simply because of the alcohol level. They’re really world class. I’m excited about this tasting and will report on it here.

* * *

I asked my Facebook friends yesterday what I should blog about today and a lot of them said “Benziger.” I don’t have a super-strong view of the sale to The Wine Group, except for a couple thoughts. Number one, I like the Benziger clan and especially Mike, who was very kind to me when I was coming up as a wine writer. The family worked hard to establish both the Benziger brand and Imagery, and the wines from both were very good. The family did what they felt was in their best interests, at a time competition is fierce and Benziger was doing battle with brands from all over the world. I don’t know what The Wine Group will do with the brands—whether they’ll maintain them, elevate them or crush them into the ground. (By way of contrast, had Jackson Family Wines bought them, I’m confident the Jackson family would have elevated them.) Hopefully, The Wine Group will elevate them, although I do have some concerns that The Wine Group is not necessarily associated with the top quality tier. (Here’s a list of their brands.) Perhaps with this acquisition, The Wine Group is trying to go upscale and improve that image. If so, kudos to them.

* * *

Miss Sherry asked on Facebook for me to blog about Gus because she likes him a lot. So, Miss Sherry, here he is, relaxing on my queen bed at the lovely Santa Maria Radisson. We’re here for a couple days to hang out at Cambria and Byron.

GusRadisson


Gems vs. rhinestones

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I was chatting the other day with the great Richard Arrowood when he said something that really caught my mind. “I want to focus on gems, not rhinestones.”

What is a “gem” of a wine? It’s an unofficial term, of course, and therefore subject to interpretation; but I think Richard meant wines that are made in small quantities and come from a single vineyard (historically, Richard is one of the important pioneers of vineyard-designated bottlings in California). And moreover, the vineyards must have proven themselves over time to possess unique characteristics that make the wines particularly interesting. So much the better if and when the winemaker has long familiarity with those vineyards, and knows how to apply his art gently enough to allow the terroir to shine through, and yet indelibly enough to stamp the wines with his own style and personality.

This balance of natural terroir and winemaker style fascinates me. It’s not easy sorting the two out. Like tangled hair, they interweave with and cross over and under one another; separating out which strand is which is an impossible task. After all, why do we separate human activity from natural activity? Are we humans not part of the natural world? (Plato may be to blame for this conundrum.) And yet, he who would understand wine must attempt to analyze what nature, for her part, and man, for his, contributes to wine.

It used to be easier to distinguish between the two for the simple reason that, in times past, all winemakers in a given region tended to use more or less the same techniques. Because they all imposed a similar signature upon the wines, any differences between the wines had to be due to terroir, right? And so we got the Bordeaux communes, each of which had its own personality.

How much more complicated things now are! Winemakers have a plethora of clones and rootstocks for any varieties they want. Their canopy regimens and pruning practices are more sophisticated than 18th century viticulturalists could have imagined. Winemakers also can choose barrels from just about anyplace, toasting them in any way they want. They can select from among a vast array of yeasts, or depend on indigenous yeasts. Their choices of destemming, crushing and fermentation vessels are limited only by their budgets. They can take out alcohol and tinker with their wines in the most amazing ways. In America, unlike most of Europe, they have an entirely free hand, without an overweaning government telling them when to pick or how to blend. And with every touch of the hand, they replace, or add to, what the natural terroir gives the wine with what they themselves want it to have.

But the final definition of a gem, as I think Richard meant, has to come from the winemaker’s mind. With all our emphasis on terroir and winemaking technique, we sometimes forget that the formative character of a wine—call it its Platonic nature—begins in the winemaker’s imagination. He or she first creates the wine mentally, as an idea or image, and then transmigrates it, godlike, into physical manifestation. Some winemakers do this formulaically. Others adopt the artist’s attitude. It’s risky to be an artisanal winemaker, because sometimes your idea of art is contradictory to what the market—as interpreted by your sales force—wants. If you march too stridently to the beat of a different drum, people won’t buy your wine. But if you follow the dictates of the mob, your vision suffers. This is the stuff, the challenge and irony, of what truly artistic winemakers confront every day.

* * *

I’m off on another trip to Santa Barbara County and the lovely, windswept and austere Santa Maria Valley, “a house of sand and fog,” home to Cambria and Byron wineries. Will be down there for the rest of the week, but I’ll try to get daily posts up. Salud!


What wineries need for the market

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A recent article in Wines & Vines about the Master of Wine Bob Paulinski, who now works for BevMo, was on the topic of “Making Your Wine Brand Stand Out.”

It caught my eye because, like most articles on the same topic, it asks a pertinent question—one that all wineries are asking—without providing any definitive answers. Not that that’s Paulinski’s fault, since answers are few and far between.

Yes, a wine brand “needs to be compelling.” But how? Everybody wants to be compelling these days—to have a great story that turns people on, hopefully enough to buy the wine. Paulinski suggests there are at least three ways to accomplish this.

  1. “The wine must…have some legacy.” By “legacy” he means, I think, that it’s well known to the population, and that people have some sort of understanding, no matter how rudimentary, of the winery’s place in history. Paulinski mentions Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay in this regard. He is right to say that it is a legacy wine; that is a huge factor in creating loyal customers. The same might be said of, say, Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, or any of the wines that routinely make Wine & Spirits’ top wines in its annual restaurant poll.

These all are “legacy wines” that are known, liked and trusted by consumers, which is why all those F&B managers put them on the wine list. But obviously, it’s awfully hard to become a “legacy winery,” so there have got to be alternative ways of becoming “compelling.”

  1. Another way, according to Paulinski, is to have a “unique quality.” That is, the winery or wine should be somehow different from all other wineries or wines. Now, it’s hard to be “unique” if you’re making a varietal wine that 3,000 other California wineries are making. So what else makes a winery “unique”? The owners or winemaker can be unique in some fashion, but let’s face it, unless you’re Boz Scaggs or Drew Barrymore or someone like that, to most consumers you’re just another owner or winemaker. Are there other ways of being “unique”? Yes. Just yesterday, I was talking with a successful documentary filmmaker, and I asked him if he could make a good film about anyone at all. “No,” he said. “Some people are more interesting than others.” I’m not sure I agree; I think a good writer can make anybody’s story compelling. But first, the winery has to hire a good filmmaker or storyteller. Stories don’t tell themselves, they’re told.
  1. This ties into Paulinski’s third way to be “compelling,” which is to “be highly targeted.” What does that mean? It means that the winery has identified precisely the audience it wishes to sell to, and then crafts its message to that audience. As an example, Paulinski mentions “Reckless Love,” from a winery named Rebel Coast. Check out their website.

It’s pretty clear whom they’re targeting: with their “nubile models in bikinis” (Paulinski’s phrase), they’re after younger consumers, and a specific type of younger consumer, at that. (I don’t have to characterize the type. You can figure it out as well as I can. Burp.)

That’s fine and good, but the problem of being highly targeted like that is, (a) you’re eliminating millions of potential customers, if not actually turning them off (I wonder how women feel about those “nubile models”), and (b) the minute someone comes along with a more compelling and nouveau message, all those fickle consumers will shop elsewhere. So how do you manage to be unique and targeted while maintaining customer loyalty so that you, too, can become a legacy winery one of these years?

Well, these are precisely the issues so many wineries are grappling with these days. I think I have some insights that may be helpful to some wineries, but, as Paulinski correctly observes, “the wine market is not homogenous [sic]; what works for some won’t work for others.” True dat. Wineries need someone who understand their specific needs, not someone who will slap on a generic template that applies to all, and therefore none.


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