NOTE: This is a revised version of the original post, based on additional information.
I am so pleased that Bob Cabral has landed a job that according to his lights will be all that he is looking for.
I’ve known Bob for a long time, since my days as California editor of Wine Enthusiast. It was under that guise that Bob always arranged for me to get tasting samples of the latest Williams Selyem releases. Now, given Williams Selyem’s stature—one of the leading in-demand, high-end producers in California—I’m sure owner John Dyson didn’t have to send me samples. But he did, which always led me to ask myself the following hypothetical question: If I owned a high-end winery, would I send samples out? If so, to whom? Some producers (Kistler or Marcassin, for example) never sent me anything. Williams Selyem, on the other hand, did, and what was so pleasurable about that, beyond merely getting to review these wines twice a year according to the winery’s release schedule, was getting to know Bob Cabral.
I was very honored when, one day, during the course of writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Bob invited me to sit with him in his then-tiny office, at the old Williams Selyem facility on Westside Road, and participate in a blending session of a new wine Bob was working on. Called “Neighbors,” it was to be a composite of several of the vineyards along Westside Road that Bob bottled into vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs: Allen, Rochioli River Block and the like. Bob told me this had been Dyson’s idea, in order to create a tier between the vineyard designates and the lower-priced regional blends (Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and so on).
I remember tasting and giving Bob my impressions. I suppose I didn’t think, even then, that my contributions would be significant. What was important to me was that Bob asked. It also gave me a glimpse into the passion with which Bob, so driven and such a perfectionist, approached all aspects of his job. This “Neighbors” blend would have to approach, in quality, the vineyard designates; it was important for Bob to get it exactly right. (He did.)
Last year the world learned that Bob would be leaving Williams Selyem, after 16 years, for the next phase of his career. This past year has been replete with rumors as to what he would do next; today, the media are reporting that Bob will be the new winemaker at Three Sticks Wines.
There, Bob will craft, not only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Don Van Staaveren, Three Sticks’ winemaker emeritus, will make the Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the Pinot Blanc and Casteñeda wines.
I’m not certain I agree that, in large, multi-judge competitions, “the best wines tend to rise to the top,” as Andy Perdue says in his column in Pacific NW Magazine says.
Andy’s contention is based on the fact that a big competition represents “a consensus of the judges who are tasting the wines” and, thus, this crowd-sourced opinion is more free of “biases” than would be the judgment of an individual taster.
This is a sort of “50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong” analysis. (That slogan comes from a Broadway play of 1929 that contrasted the socially-liberal attitudes of 1920s Paris with the censorship and alcohol Prohibition then in effect in the U.S. Its usual meaning is, “Hey, if so many people like it, there must be something to it.”)
There is indeed something to be said about consensus among large groups when it comes to decision-making. Our elections are based on consensus. Just as we would not want a single individual to pick our political leaders, but prefer to leave that up to the collective will of the voters, so too the consensual approach to wine judging suggests it somehow arrives at findings that are more true and real and thus of greater lasting value.
However, Andy himself acknowledges that “you can unearth new and exciting wines in at least five ways,” namely, wine competitions, wine critics, wine merchants, wineries/wine festivals and friend recommendations. The question is not, “Which is best?,” because each way obviously has its own special appeals. The question is, “Which of these five ways is on the increase and which is losing steam?”
We’re certainly familiar with the contention that the Big Critics are losing sway, and I think that’s true, in the sense that the more famous of them are aging out. But what does this mean for the template? Not much. The New York Yankees, much less Major League Baseball, didn’t phase away with Derek Jeter’s retirement, because talented younger players—Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig, Mike Trout—are constantly coming up. In the same way, it’s becoming fashionable to predict the demise of the individual critic, but we’ve seen the stunning rise and success of Antonio Galloni’s Vinous, with its super-stable of critics, and other leading publications (including The Wine Advocate, which isn’t going anywhere), remain hugely influential. So it does not seem to me that wine critics are an especially endangered species.
The question, though, of individual judgment versus consensus-driven judgment remains interesting, albeit probably unresolvable. Having participated in huge tastings (although the last one was years ago), I came to the personal conclusion that there were too many people involved, too many egos, too much confusion and, at any rate, too much alcohol imbibed in too short a time, at least for my tastes. (Perhaps things have changed in the interim.) Then too, consensus usually means that outlier wines, at both the top and the bottom, are eliminated, resulting in a shift toward the median, or average. That’s not to say that a winner at a big competition is not a fine, even a great wine, but it does stand to reason that it will be a wine that offends the least number of people, while appealing to the greater esthetic. One could argue that such a wine would be more ordinary than special. But I’m acutely aware that every single one of my arguments could be turned on its head, and used to prove the opposite.
Another limitation of big competitions is that not all the top wineries even bother to enter them. In fact, many top wineries don’t, for the simple reason that they have more to lose than to gain, by getting a lower score than, say, a supermarket wine. This raises a fundamental limitation of any method of critical appraisal: no competition, no individual judge can possibly review all the wines out there. Even I, as a working critic who tasted thousands of wines each year, could barely keep up—and there were some wines I never tasted at all.
I will admit there’s a certain allure to a double gold winner from a big competition. I think to myself, “It certainly can’t be a bad wine, and it might even be a very special one.” It’s kind of the way I feel about Yelp: for all its well-publicized problems, Yelp does provide a kind of base-of-the-pyramid generalization of the conclusions of many people. If the majority of 40 reviews of a restaurant are positive, I’m more inclined to check it out. But—and this is just me—I still prefer the review of a single, trusted critic, like Michael Bauer, to that of the crowd.
Mostly the advantages of having been around the wine industry for a long time outweigh the disadvantages. And this is almost always a reflection of the wonderful personal relationships I’ve formed with winemakers over the years.
Two cases in point. I’m putting together a little in-house tasting of Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs at Jackson Family Wines—nothing big, just eight wines for a few interested people. Now, there are many dozens of wineries in that appellation, so when it came time to decide whom to include, it was obvious: Old friends who make great wine. The first folks who came to mind were the inestimable Greg Brewer (Brewer-Clifton, Melville, others), who always was so kind to me whenever I visited the region. In fact, it was Greg, many years ago, who took me on my first tour. I also turned to the one and only Peter Cargasacchi, who I’m happy to say is a friend, both of the Facebook variety and in this, the real world we physically inhabit. I reached out, as well, to old friends like Adam Lee (Siduri) and Dick Doré (Foxen). Although neither lives nor works in Santa Rita Hills, they both make killer wines from there.
The second case is that of Richard Arrowood. For most of you, he needs no introduction. Richard is one of the most historic winemakers in California. From my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff: “[Richard] is the man who put Chateau St. Jean on the map in the 1970s with a series of brilliantly crafted single-vineyard Chardonnays…”. He’s also been mentor to a generation of California winemakers. Richard has decided to put together a retrospective of his fifty years making wine, at a small event to be held this March, and I am lucky enough to be invited. Richard will be pouring, among other things, the oldest St. Jean Cabs and Zins, plus some of his specialty late-harvest Rieslings and Gewurzes. Also his Arrowood wines from the 1980s on. What a treat, and I’ll get to see my friend, Virginie Boone, from Wine Enthusiast, whom I don’t see as often as I’d like.
These retrospectives are rare enough; you don’t come across them everyday. So when a great one beckons, you go! I still remember some of the best ones I’ve been to. Two stand out in my mind: Beaulieu’s vertical of every Georges de Latour Private Reserve ever, and a retrospective of Freemark Abbey Cabernets. I bet that this upcoming Arrowood will be equally memorable.
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Had lunch yesterday, for the first time in many years, at venerable old Tadich Grill, on California Street in the FiDi. This place dates back to Gold Rush times, and is said to be the third-oldest restaurant in America. With its dark wood paneling and narrow aisles, you can practically breathe the ghosts of San Francisco’s past. (I swear I saw Sam Spade ducking around a corner.) Seafood is the specialty. We split the big seafood platter, and I had a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder. I don’t know that people go to Tadich for the food, which is good and comfy but, let’s face it, a little retro (shrimp Louie, oysters Rockefeller, cioppino). But they certainly go for the atmosphere. Tadich is your classic power lunch spot. The Stars and Trader Vic’s come and go in San Francisco, earthquakes occasionally rattle everyone’s nerves, but through it all, Tadich abides. May it be always so.
Next week I moderate a panel on content creation at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. These are some of the things I’m thinking about in anticipation. This is connected to a post I wrote last month, on “Twelve tips for better content creation.”
The first two things I’m thinking about concern “the story” and “authenticity.” The wine industry now has become exquisitely sensitive to the importance of both in communicating with the public. It took a while, but, to judge from everything I see happening in the industry, especially in California, “telling the story” through online portals has become the watchword of the avant-garde winery. And yet “telling the story” may well be the most difficult thing a winery has to figure out how to do. What is the story? It may seem apparent—but too many people fail to see the forest for the trees.
Your story isn’t simply your biography. Oh, sure, your bio may be part of the story. But the truth is, your bio—however compelling it may be to you—may not be of particular interest to the general public. So “the story” has to be something that will amuse and/or educate the viewer, and make her want to come back to your site again. How do you accomplish that? The best way is to consider sites that you, personally, like going to. What is it that brings you back? Do some analysis, and you might learn something.
For example, is it funny videos? Is it great wine-and-food pairings, with recipes, that help you up your cooking game? Is it technical information on the wines and vineyards? Beautiful photography? Any and all of these can be the “draw.” And whatever the “draw” is, there’s your story. The great thing about social media is that our understanding of it constantly evolves: since it’s interactive and participatory, the two parts (poster and reader) are always changing with respect to each other, sort of like the arrangement of particles in a kaleidoscope. And each shift can be more beautiful than the one before.
The second concept I can’t get off my mind is authenticity. Somebody said to me the other day that social media posts should seem authentic. No, I replied, they should be authentic. The difference between the two—between seeming and being—is subtle, but vital. Seeming to be authentic is what Big Oil comes across as when they talk about the environment. I’m not saying they do or don’t do great things for the environment—that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m saying that lots of people perceive such stances as inauthentic—pretending to be “green” when you’re really not, just to get people to like you.
Social media is very transparent in the sense that you can usually tell when someone’s being authentic. People enjoy authentic personalities in each other—it’s part of what attracts us to our friends and people we like to be around. Same with social media. Social media isn’t something other than you. It is you. If you’re a fundamentally interesting person, you’ll have no problem creating interesting content.
One of the biggest challenges surrounding social media, though, seems to be how to come up with enough content to keep your platform going. The Internet has a voracious appetite for content, and it can be difficult for someone to come up with enough, day in and day out. Unfortunately there’s no easy answer to this dilemma. Some people seem more in tune with social media than others. I personally have no problem coming up with content across all my platforms, but that’s because I’m a writer. I’ve suggested to recalcitrant posters over the years that it’s easier than you might think to create content. You don’t need some grandiose idea, you don’t need a creative bolt of lightning, all you have to do is sit down and start writing. Once the blocks fall away—and they do, with practice—you start noticing that some creative impulse in you—in all of us—actually loves expressing itself. And that is the foundation-stone of content creation.
If social media accomplishes nothing else in the long run, I hope it will at least have made us all aware of our inner artist! Too many of us are raised to disbelieve in our creativity, which is a great pity. Humans are enormously creative, or can be; it just takes the right inspiration. The Internet, and social media especially, have provided precisely that inspiration. The more I think of the pioneering creators of social media, the more I admire them. They took McLuhan’s global village and gave us all the tools to be artists. How cool is that.
It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”
Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.
This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”
which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)
Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.
However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.
Happy new year, each and everyone!
We’ve been through a lot over the years, you and I—from my rather clumsy but sincere and hopeful introductory post (dated May 15, 2008, and reproduced here) through the awful years of the Great Recession that impacted so many of us, right through to my transition in 2014 from wine critic to Jackson Family Wines. You’ve stayed with me every step of the way, through 1,679 posts, and for that, I salute you. I would never continue this if so many of you didn’t let me know, nearly every day, that you enjoy reading it. And I’m proud to say that, while I was tempted for a while, I’ve still never taken an advertisement nor tried to sell stuff.
In that first Welcome to my blog post, I wrote words I wouldn’t change today, including these: “I’d be thrilled if this forum became a place for people to air opinions and debate issues.” And indeed, that’s exactly what it has become. Some people prefer reading the comments to my posts, which delights me. My readers know that this is one of the few wine blogs that doesn’t require approval to post your comment. Here, once I’ve approved your first one, my computer automatically recognizes your computer (I don’t think I phrased that technically correctly, but you get the idea), so your comment goes up right away. I love the immediacy and transparency of that. I love real conversations. I love edge.
It was a little difficult finding my footing after I went to Jackson. The biggest challenge was that I don’t taste a zillion wines anymore. Instead, that has forced me to write more conceptually, and I must say, agreeably—about issues and such. But then, there’s a ton of wine blogs out there that review wines. I never did like running with the pack.
Among my first commenters that day were Jo Diaz, who continues to run Diaz Communications with her dear husband, Jose; Monica Larner, who went on to become The Wine Advocate’s Italian reviewer, and whom I still love dearly, and Tom Wark, the Godfather of wine blogs, an inspiration to me and many others. I’ve since made many friendships among my commenters, some of them “only” digitally, but friendships nonetheless.
So here’s to a happy, healthy, wealthy and wise 2015 for all of us! Back Monday.
Three articles in yesterday’s S.F. Chronicle caught my attention for the suggestions they make about how social media is, and is not, changing our lives.
(I was finally able to read after days of not being able to, due to the intense flu I had. It was an effort just to focus my eyeballs.)
The first article was on the continuing war between digital cab companies, like Uber and Lyft, and conventional taxi companies. This is a topic San Franciscans have been hearing a lot about. The bottom line is that the conventional taxis were slow to the point of paralysis in understanding the implications of portable digital devices. This was summed up by a CEO who said, “The taxi industry needs to rapidly retool and face the realities of the smartphone.”
Nobody is going to dial up a taxicab number and face all the possible uncertainties and hassles. (Just finding an open taxicab in San Francisco is a feat.) So much easier to establish an Uber or Lyft account, even if it means paying a little more. Uber and Lyft made the news yesterday because they apparently are planning on price-gouging on New Year’s Eve, but that’s beside the point. The point is that they foresaw the conveniences of smartphones and the taxi companies didn’t.
The second article was an examination of one of the East Bay’s new congressman, Eric Swalwell, the youngest member (at 32) of the large California delegation. Swalwell’s a social media guy; he made a point of stressing that in his interview. He tweets so much that there’s a new Twitter hashtag, #swalwelling, which seems to consist of photographing one’s feet as they enter an airplane. (We have “selfies.” Could this be “footsies”?)
These two articles represent green lights for social media. They underscore that we have become a society on the go, go, go, with our feet carrying us while our hands clutch our smartphones and we share our experiences with others. We interact with the world through these devices, and that includes all our interactions: shopping, politics, entertainment, simple personal communications. For wineries, the meaning is clear: Go big, or go home. The winery that does not learn how to take advantage – no, that’s not the right phrase, because it implies a certain cynical, transparently venal misappropriation of social media. Let me start again. The winery that does not learn how to communicate through mobile devices puts itself at disadvantage in this hyper-competitive world. Just as taxi companies learned, to their chagrin, at the hands of Uber and Lyft, the future belongs to the digitally savvy. (Although I will admit that Uber and Lyft have not been particularly adroit in handling the politics of their situations. But that’s another story…).
The third article stands in stark contrast to the others. There’s a new establishment here in Oakland, Plank, down at Jack London Square. It’s in a gigantic space that’s been vacant for years. The new owners decided to open, not just a restaurant, not just a bar, but a bowling alley, pool hall, bocce ball court and video game arcade. They call it an “activity bar.” The concept is, as another activity bar owner put it, “It’s fun, and you don’t have the pressure of sitting across the table talking for three hours.”
Well, I don’t know about the “pressure” of talking with friends and family over a restaurant meal. I mean, if it were really that onerous, people wouldn’t be doing it so much. Still, I get the idea. As the Chronicle reporter who wrote the story mused, “One wonders …whether these bars satisfy a longing for childhood pleasures…in the age of texting, with face-to-face communication.”
That’s more to the point. Yes, we inhabit a digital reality; we’re all nexuses on the World Wide Web. We do more and more things with our smartphones. But my discomfort from the very beginnings of this digital revolution has been connected with the fact that it somehow seems injurious to the social and civil underpinnings that made us human in the first place, and societal beings moreover. To that extent, the phrase “social media” is an oxymoron. “Social” is face-to-face; distant communication, however facile or amusing it may be, is not particularly social.
However, here we are, on a cusp as it were between two opposing forces. As usual with cusps (such as the transition between millennia), predictions, fears and hopes are exaggerated; things continue more or less as usual. Life goes on; we grow accustomed to whatever is new, and somehow manage to keep hold of our humanness.
The lesson, again, for wineries, which I alluded to above, is clear: adapt to the digital, portable realm or be doomed. But do it in a way that’s Zen-like in detachment: with a pure mind, as Buddhists put it. Do not allow yourself to be perceived as having an ulterior motive; in fact, do not have an ulterior motive, except that of humanness. If you’re puzzled by how to achieve this, here’s a clue: If you are yourself, not someone else, you will not be perceived as having an ulterior motive. If you are not yourself, you invariably will be. It’s a strange paradox: by being real, you will succeed. If you don’t know what being yourself and being real mean, then you have your work cut out for you.
Anyhow, have a fine, fun and safe New Year’s Eve! No drunk driving, please.