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Wine bloggers: Blogging, or slogging?

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Are you a blogger? Have you been at it for a while? Are you running out of steam, not as passionate as you use to be? No, I’m not looking for contestants for the Jerry Springer show, and this is not a Viagra ad. It’s an issue that’s at the heart of soul of wine blogging today, because most of the most popular blogs have been around for years now, and it would be strange if they weren’t getting a bit tired.

That, at least, is the thesis of this story, When Blogging Becomes a Slog, that appeared last September in the New York Times. It wasn’t specifically about wine blogs. They profiled a couple, John and Sherry, who admitted that their popular home-renovation blog had been “feeling off for a while” after eight active years. The problem, according to someone the Times reporter interviewed, was a downward spiral well-known to longtime bloggers: A passion turns into a hobby, which becomes a full-time career. And in some predictable period of time, it consumes your life and sucks the joy out if it.”

This is particularly true of bloggers who post every day, or almost every day. Readers want fresh stuff all the time, and the bloggers understand that, in order to keep their readership up, they have to supply the meat. That, in turn, can cause intense pressure to produce, to the point where it becomes a heavy weight. And, feeling that kind of pressure, a blogger is not in the best emotional or intellectual condition to write strongly, colorfully and informatively.

I know from personal experience—and not just my own–how challenging it can be to produce every day. Some of the most popular bloggers have told me, off the record, of the tedium and difficulty of coming up with fresh topics Monday through Friday. One blogger told me his spouse was furious at him for always staying up well past midnight, just to have that new morning post. It can interfere with your sleep as well as your relationships.

There are different ways bloggers deal with this. Some just resort to reviewing wines, which actually is the easy way out, because you don’t have to do anything original or creative, just pop the corks (sent to you for free) and write up your impressions. My own feeling is that such blogs are no longer among the best, although they may keep going for quite some time, because winery marketing departments will keep sending them wine just to get that hoped-for high score.

Another way of dealing with the Blog Blahs is to rehash the same topic over and over. I will admit to being guilty of this on occasion, although I do try to give a different interpretation and style even when I re-address an older topic, like the 100-point system or California’s AVAs. Some bloggers put up a lot of photographs, which is pretty, but also is a fairly easy way to create a post.

Since I love my blog and wish to continue it, and because I know that lots of people like to read it on a daily basis, I work very hard to come up with these posts. I would never want to do stuff on the cheap or compromise the quality of my blog. Sometimes it’s hard. Ideally, I’ll post a topic the day before, for publication at ten seconds after midnight the next day. That happens 90% of the time, but there are times when it’s just not possible. That leads to what I think of as my Morning Nightmare: It’s 6 a.m., I don’t have a post up yet, what to do? I usually come up with something. It’s not always the most gorgeous, beautifully-written or eye-opening topic, but it’s me, and the best I can do. I think I’ve failed to post maybe ten times since May, 2008. Most of those have been due to illness. One or two were because of hangovers. But usually, no matter how I’m feeling, I post dailyt, for me—and for you.

The reason this matters is because blogs really do represent an important evolution in wine writing. And wine writing, of course, is my soul’s blood. I believe in wine writing; we need good wine writers. The question is, can a blog succeed for the long haul, especially if—as is the case close to 100% of the time—it’s not making money, and is getting tired and predictable? I no longer hear bloggers talking about replacing print publications—that fantasy died long ago, alas. Yet wine blogging continues. I’m hoping that the best ones can keep the creativity going for as long as it takes, no matter what it takes.


That new Bordeaux ad campaign wants it both ways

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There is something fundamentally oxymoronic about the Bordeaux Wine Council’s new advertising and branding campaign, reported on the PRNewswire.

On the one hand, it emphasizes “innovation” through the use of taglines such as “There is so much to discover.” This implies something New Worldy about Bordeaux: it is not old and tired, but youthful and exciting, a place of endless reinvention and creativity. (Actually, I thought that was California’s claim to fame!)

On the other hand the campaign also stresses “maintaining Bordeaux traditions.” This obviously is meant to appeal to the broad stratum of international perception, possibly subliminal, that Bordeaux is all about ancient history and venerability; what Professor Saintsbury called (as Claret) “the queen of natural wines.”

One can spot the internal contradiction immediately: A thing cannot simultaneously be modern as well as traditional. At least, it can’t in reality—that is squaring the circle–but it can be in the magical thinking of a marketing campaign that contains a little bit of something for everyone. Thus the contradictions exist, side by side.

For the last several decades, Bordeaux has struggled with this identity crisis. It knows that a younger generation doesn’t give a hoot about its history and tradition, so it needs to appeal to them by making Bordeaux seem modern. This is the thinking behind the Council’s “Today’s Bordeaux” meme, wherein wines costing $55 or less are recommended as having been tasted by “our Wine Buffs.” Wine Buffs? Professor Saintsbury is turning in his grave at this crime of Franglish—an Americanism that would otherwise be condemned by the French as vulgar. “Wine Buffs” indeed! Good heavens, imagine telling Baron Rothschild he was a Wine Buff!

I certainly don’t blame the Bordeaux Wine Council. They have to market, same as everyone else; they’re just trying to find a formula that works. Why now? This is the ideal time for a re-invented brand identity,” the Council’s president said. It’s ideal because the world is emerging from the Great Economic Slowdown (at least, we hope it is) and people seem a little more willing to spend money on wine. And then too, the Millennials are getting older and they want their wine. But just as important as “Why now?” is the question of “Where?” The seven markets the campaign will focus on are the U.S., France, U.K., Germany, China, Belgium, and Japan—in other words, Bordeaux’s traditional markets, plus China and Japan, which is where the money is in East Asia.

Bordeaux always has been about aspiration, and the Council is betting it still is. For all the talk about Millennials being qualitatively different from Baby Boomers, it turns out that they’re just as conventional as their parents and grandparents. Millennials are ambitious, strive for career success, and they seek a satisfying personal life beyond work. They’re into “personal authenticity” (who isn’t?) and “want to spend time with their families and fulfill career aspirations.” They are, in other words, yet another “wants it all” generation. And part of “having it all” is, of course, the Good Life, which involves good food, good wine and what we here in California think of as a Sunset Magazine lifestyle. That fits in well with the Bordeaux Wine Council’s strategy. It may be a little oxymoronic to mosh traditional and modern together into one big, unwieldy package, as I said; but then, the lives of Millennials, as of us all, are oxymorons. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Walt Whitman, who I bet liked to drink, would be 195 years old, if he was still alive.

Walt


NIMBYism? Or just plain common sense?

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COPIA crashed and burned pretty spectacularly. Some said it was because the location—on the “wrong” side of the Napa River—was ill-chosen. Others said the concept itself never made sense: What was COPIA anyway, a restaurant? Wine tasting place? Museum (and a pretty boring one, at that)? Turns out, COPIA did have an identity problem, and the location was a little out-of-the-way, so it was probably a combination of all factors.

Now, a Napa developer has applied to Napa City to build “a large event center and winery” at the well-traveled corner of Trancas Street and the Silverado Trail that would offer “wine tasting, a deli, gift shop, restaurant, offfices, meeting rooms and a wedding site,” not to mention “extensive outdoor areas for public gathering.”

Sounds like the only different between the proposed Altamura Wine Center and COPIA is that the former won’t have a museum. And it’s in a different, more crowded place.

The proposal has caused lifted eyebrows throughout the valley, as you might expect. Of the 23 comments published in the Napa Register as of yesterday, 15 were against, six were for, and two fell into the hard-to-tell category. Most of those opposed cited several reasons: increased traffic, earthquake and flood dangers, and overall resistance to further development in Napa Valley, which has been anti-development for decades.

NIMBYism isn’t new to Napa Valley, or to wine country in general. Remember the furor over Larner Winery’s now-failed plan to build a center for guest events? The neighbors rose up in arms and killed that one. My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that these things are best left to the locals, but those locals should take as broad a view of things as possible and make sure they’re not against something just for the heck of it. A little development is good for us all. Napa Valley survived the Wine Train, which lots of people predicted would be a horrible thing; and if the Altamura Wine Center eventually is built, Napa will survive that, too. Although I will say that it’s true that that particular corner of Trancas and Silverado Trail can get pretty crowded.

I liken this to my own reality. I live in a very dense, crowded urban neighborhood in Oakland. There’s talk of building a new Oakland A’s stadium nearby. I realize it will increase traffic, noise and a bunch of other hassles, but at the same time it would be good for the local economy. So I’m in favor.

* * *

 

By the way – was this guy deceived, or was he just woefully ignorant? I’m thinking the servor who said “thirty seven fifty” was at fault. What do you think?


Lots of wine books, not very many good ones

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As the author of two tomes on California wine, I know full well how short the lifespan is of a book. They come and go with the regularity of coastal fog, drifting in and out of existence. Some, because of the peculiarities of the media ritual of book reviewing, are more persistent than others. For example, anything Eric Asimov reviews and raves about can be counted to have a longer shelf life—say, a couple of months—than others. But 98 percent of wine books are destined, in my humble but experienced opinion, to evaporate quickly, finding their way into the remainders bin at the local bookstore within one month—if, that is, the local bookstore hasn’t yet gone out of business.

Why most wine books have such a short shelf life is not hard to discern: it’s because they’re ephemeral. They’re reflective of moments in time, or perhaps moments in the zeitgeist is more appropriate. But in grasping the immediate here-and-now they fail to grapple with larger, long-term issues, the ones that really matter to both history and to the people who must live through the unfolding process of history, which happens to be us all.

Actually, I’m luckier than many wine book writers, in that my two—A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, continue to sell well, despite being ten and six years old, respectively. I’m nowhere in Jancis Robinson’s league, though, much less Karen MacNeil’s, whose “The Wine Bible” will survive the next nuclear holocaust and asteroid-Earth collision, combined. But my books sell tolerably well, which satisfies me.

It’s hard to write a book because it takes a ton of organization and research. But it can be done by anyone with enough time and skills of literacy. (Actually, a great many wine books, especially those little pocket guidebooks, aren’t written by the famous authors on the cover. They hire anonymous writers and pay them, say, 20 cents a word, or $2 a review, although the reader would have no way of knowing that.)

It is, though, even harder to write a good wine book, not only because it’s always harder to do something well than mediocrely, but because in order to write something penetrating and long-lasting you really must have your eye and mind firmly set on the long span of history, which means you must understand history and, most importantly, be objective enough to let history do its own thing, rather than seek to impose your own will and conditions upon it. Some books claim to have identified historical trends, but as the immortal baseball manager and existentialist philosopher, Casey Stengel, warned, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” The psychologist and Nobel economics laureate Daniel Kahneman expanded on this: “Most successful pundits are selected for being opinionated, because it’s interesting, and the penalties for incorrect predictions are negligible. You can make predictions, and a year later people won’t remember them.

We see this latter insight keenly illustrated when it comes to vintage prognostications. More wine writers have gotten them wrong, over the years, than they’ve gotten anything else wrong, or right for that matter; but no one has ever called a wine writer to account for a bogus vintage declaration, and probably no one ever will, for the simple reason that people have better and more useful things to do with their lives than busting an incorrect vintage assessment, twenty years after it was issued.

Here are some of the wine books that I’ve read over the past few years that I love and that are classics. Get them if you can:

  • What Price Bordeaux? Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
  • In Search of Pinor Noir: Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
  • Postmodern Winemaking: Clark Smith
  • Claret & Cabs: Benjamin Lewin, M.W.
  • Secrets of the Sommeliers: Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay

I wish I’d written them all, but I couldn’t have, any more than Benjamin or Jordan or Raj could have written “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” A good wine book reflects the writer’s personality, judgment and insight. Remove any of those factors, and the book is not so good. By the way, I don’t know Benjamin Lewin, M.W., and I profit in no way by recommending his books so strongly. He’s just a damn great writer.


A day on the road: My drive to Santa Maria

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Set out on my Santa Barbara trip yesterday around 9:45 a.m. It was still mild in Oakland, but those clouds were moving in in advance of a big storm. Which we need!

Not for nothing is the 880 Freeway known as the Nasty Nimitz. They don’t allow big rigs on the 580 freeway, so the 880 gets them all, rumbling along. The freeway, besides being a parking lot most of the time, is also an ugly freeway, 40 miles from Oakland to San Jose of strip malls and degraded infrastructure. In Milpitas, traffic came to a complete halt, but fortunately I had good radio to listen to. Michael Krasny was interviewing Jacques Pepin on KQED’s Forum. What a fascinating man Chef is. I recalled a time when the two of us, Pepin and I, had been at a gala gourmet thing down in Carmel Valley. I was going back to Oakland, so he hitched a ride to SFO with me, to catch a plane back east. We piled into my little Honda, but I proceeded to get lost—I missed the turnoff back to the 101, so we had to go over Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Poor Jacques was frantic that he’d miss his plane, but we got to the airport in plenty of time. But he was so nervous that I parked at the airport and accompanied him into the terminal, where we had coffee. So that’s my Jacques Pepin story.

Just before the 237 exit I saw why traffic was so backed up: a horrible accident. The fire department was loading someone onto a stretcher. You really take your life into your hands on these freeways, especially the Nasty Nimitz.

Well, as bad as 880 is, it’s always a relief to hit the 101 South at San Jose. You’re pretty much assured of smooth sailing for the rest of the way to Santa Barbara. Whenever I drive through the Coyote Valley, I always look to the mountains, to the west. Ridge is somewhere up there, although I’m not sure which peak. It’s funny, how the same thoughts hit me at the same places.

For the next hour or so, we (Gus and I) will be traveling through this part of southern Santa Clara and San Benito counties, until we come to the city of Salinas. This used to be one of the great vineyard regions of California. Today, it’s Silicon Valley; most of the vineyards are long gone, although I do notice a billboard advertising the Santa Clara Valley Wine Region, about which I know precisely nothing.

Of course, you also go through Gilroy along this stretch of 101. In high summer, the air is perfumed with that heady scent, slightly sweet and acrid, of garlic, and even now, with November just two days away, it’s there—such a good smell.

When I come to the big red Disneyana barn, we’re about one-quarter of the way. That barn is one of my landmarks for progress along the road. From here, the turnoff to Monterey is just down the road, if I were going that way. Then it’s Salinas City, and, just beyond, the opening up of the Salinas Valley, America’s salad bowl, and the tremendous wall of the Santa Lucias, a spine of the Coast Ranges that peters out west of Paso Robles, more than 100 miles to the south. Along the flank of the mountains are the Santa Lucia Highlands; I think of old friends, like Rich Smith, the Pisonis and Dan Morgan Lee, as well as new friends, like Kris Kato, at Carmel Road. This is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country.

One by one the Salinas Valley’s little farm towns file past: Chualar, Gonzales, Soledad, King City, Greenfield. At Gonzales, I always remember my car getting stuck in the mud outside one of the Pisoni boys’ house, hard by the freeway. That was embarrassing. That was the same trip when Gary Pisoni kindly offered to share his game with me: an entire haunch of venison. I was grateful, but had to decline. I mean, what am I going to do with half a deer?

On this hazy but sunny day, the broad expanse of the valley lies like a sleeping infant cradled in the embrace of the Gabilans and the Santa Lucias. At Soledad, the temperature is 73 degrees. I used to get a lot of speeding tickets on this stretch of the 101 until I wised up and slowed down. How much earlier will I get to Santa Barbara if I go 80 instead of 70? Not enough to risk getting busted.

As we approach Soledad I see the big sign that always makes me grin: “It’s Happening in Soledad.” I’m not sure what’s “happening” there, but for me, it’s about a quick pit stop at Starbucks for a caffeine jolt and maybe a cookie. Now, we’re about halfway to my destination.

At Lagomarsino Avenue, approaching King City, comes another of my landmarks: a few miles of enormous eucalyptus trees, planted on the west side of the freeway, presumably as a windbreak. In the famous hundred year freeze of December, 1990, these trees froze to death in the 17-degree temperature. Or so it seemed: they remained blackened, with no foliage, that summer. But the next year, the leaves came back, and today they’re as sturdy as ever. Somewhere deep down inside their tree-souls, a spark of life remained.

I have my favorite landmarks, but Gus has one of his own: The Camp Roberts Rest Stop in Bradley, with its dog walk!

 

Rest Stop

“I give this rest stop 100 points.” — Gus

I always try to imagine what goes through Gus’s mind when he does all his sniffing. One analogy is a big wine tasting. All those different scents. Probably Gus is looking for the best ones, the most interesting and savory. Some don’t interest him at all: those are the smells ordinaires. Gus, a connoisseur of smells, is looking for the Grands Crus of scent!

Beyond the rest stop we come to the oil wells on the east side of the freeway. I always wonder why some are pumping and some aren’t. Guess I’ll never know, but those rigs do signal that Paso Robles is just down the road.

The temperature gradient between the northern Salinas Valley and Paso Robles is well known. It heats up rapidly in summer. Even though winter is just around the corner, this season has been so mild that there’s still a temperature effect. At Paso it’s 82 degrees as I drive by. After that, the landmarks pile up: The slow, gradual climb to the top of the Cuesta Grade, and then the 1,500-foot, roller-coastery plunge through the Los Padres National Forest (so fire plagued), with its dramatic canyons and soaring vistas. Then past SLO town (I could live there). Then the 101 veers closer and closer to the coast, so on a typical summer day you lose all the heat of Paso as you approach the Five Cities, whose names I always try to remember, usually unsuccessfully: Shell Beach, Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande, Oceana and Grover Beach. (Calling them “cities” is s stretch, but that’s what the locals like.) At Shell Beach is one of those dramatic views when the freeway rounds a curve and suddenly the Pacific Ocean is revealed in all its blue glory. (Another one is on Highway One, just south of San Francisco, as you drive into Pacifica.) Today, it’s not blue, because the fog is rolling in as the big storm front approaches. By the time we hit Pismo, Santa Maria is so close, you can smell it: just 26 miles away. At some point, south of the Five Cities, coastal vineyards pop into view. The best known is Laetitia’s, in the Arroyo Grande Valley, a fine if underappreciated terroir for Pinot and Chardonnay. A few miles south of that, and the vista to the east levels out and opens up to show the San Rafael Mountains, the northern boundary of the Santa Maria Valley. Just inside the Santa Maria city limits, the mountains take an abrupt curve to the southeast, and on a clear day you can see Bien Nacido, a little carpet of greenery on the brown slopes of the Santa Maria Bench. Just next to it, but not visible, is Cambria.

And that is my destination for Friday, when I’ll be tasting and chatting with my remarkable panel of winemakers for our big Dec. 2 event in L.A., of which I will be writing much more.

Have a great weekend!


When losers become winners: How a bad appellation can make you a cult wine

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When I was a working wine critic, people said I possessed a certain amount of power. Maybe so, but I never was in a position to dictate to a winery what appellation they were entitled to use on the label!

If I had been an official taster with the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité, the French quasi-governmental agency that regulates the appellation contrôlée system, I would have had that right and that power. Which scares even me: uneasy lies the head that wears a crown! But that is the case in France, where the 2012 vintage of Pontet-Canet’s second wine, Les Hauts de Pontet-Canet, [was] refused AOC classification by an independent tasting panel. As a result, the wine will have to be bottled as a Vin de Table rather than a Pauillac,” according to the drinks business newsletter.

It seems ridiculous to put that much power in the hands of a group of bureaucrats, but that’s the French way. Besides, I wonder if the official tasters tasted the wine blind. (If any of you know, please tell me in the comments.) The drinks business article tried to discern why the tasters rejected the wine; the best they could surmise was that Pontet-Canet’s combination of biodynamic winegrowing and use of amphorae (a sort of “egg”) resulted in the wine’s lacking “Pauillac typicité,” whatever that means. Now, I don’t know the total number of wines that bore a Pauillac AOC in 2012, but it has got to be in the dozens if not hundreds, right? So how “different” could the Les Hauts have been (after all, it is from a respected Classified Growth), for the tasters to have rejected it? Was it the sole outlier in the entire commune? Perhaps the tasters knew what it was, and their personal attitudes toward biodynamics and amphorae shaped their perceptions.

It’s not that I’m feeling sorry for Pontet-Canet and its owners, the Tesseron family. In fact, the brouhaha may work in their favor. Melanie Tesseron told the drinks business that the wine “is becoming fast a collector’s item.” I don’t doubt it. Anomalies often do. The famous “upside down plane” stamp is a collector’s item.

upside down plane

In wine, pretty much the same thing happened when Piero Antinori launched Tignanello, in 1971; because he blended the Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, the Italian government wouldn’t let him label it Chianti Classico. He had to use the lowly “Toscana” appellation. But it didn’t exactly hurt Tignanello, which became a collector’s item.

Not that we’re in any danger of it, but I’d hate to see California turn into the kind of dictated winegrowing region that so much of Europe is, where you can only grow the grape varieties the government approves of, or else you have to lower the appellation. Can you imagine how that would work in Napa Valley, which, presumably, if we had strict typicity rules, would be limited to Bordeaux varieties? A vintner who blended in a little Syrah with the Cabernet (as B Cellars did in 2004, in their Blend 25) would be entitled only to North Coast, or possibly a California AVA. Under those circumstances, B Cellars might not even have bothered making the wine, which would have robbed the world of a beautiful 94-pointer.

I’m off to the beautiful Santa Maria Valley for the rest of the week, but will try to post tomorrow. Meanwhile, we’re supposed to get some pretty good rain on Friday in Northern California, which is a very good thing!


Myth busting: Big doesn’t equate to average; small doesn’t mean great

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Brother Laube has a good column in the Nov. 30 Wine Spectator on the humungous crop size of the 2012 vintage in California. Not only was it at the time the biggest ever, but, according to Jim, for Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 “hit the jackpot.” That certainly accords with my reviews of 2012 Cabs, although there are many I didn’t taste because I left my old job last March just as they were starting to come in.

What I take from Jim’s column is the irony of large production with high quality, which theoretically is difficult, if not impossible. But it isn’t unknown. Both 2005 and 2007 were excellent Cabernet vintages in California, and both were good-sized harvests: 2005, in particular, was the highest ever until 2012 came along. Nor can we conclude that a low-producing vintage is necessarily a good one. The notoriously chilly 2011 harvest, so reviled by so many critics, was only average-sized, by modern standards.

I’ve long been puzzled by the mutually-reinforcing stereotypes that (a) high production compromises quality and (b) low production tends to equate with high quality. I’ve never believed that. It sounds good, but falls apart in the face of the evidence. The great First Growth chateaux of Bordeaux routinely produce in very high quantities, let’s say the tens of thousands of cases annually, and I’ve never heard anyone complain about them because of that fact. Why does a 40,000-case First Growth get away with it, when a 40,000-case California winery is assumed by the critics to be a mass producer?

Let’s face it, here in California there’s a real prejudice against high-production wines. What does “high production” mean? Well, it’s relative, but some California wines produced in miniscule quantities are loved by the critics who seek out what Jim Laube calls “newer, smaller producers, garagiste operations making a few thousand cases a year…”. I sometimes think there’s a critic’s mindset whereby they assume that a small garagiste winery must be making super-duper wines because it’s, well, small, and the owner does it all by himself. Blind tasting would, of course, reduce such automatic assumptions to rubble, but blind tasting is, alas, rare in the critical world, where critical assumptions are often borne out by experience because the assumer allows no contradicting information in.

If you think about it, there’s no logical reason why a tiny production wine should have any advantages over a large production wine. Why should it? Just because someone has a two acre estate vineyard doesn’t tell you anything about terroir, vineyard practices, barrel regimes or anything else. In fact, a tiny garage operation might have poor, old equipment. On the other hand, a large vineyard, properly managed, with sufficient finances, can produce great wines, especially if the vineyard manager and winemaker focus on individual blocks within the vineyard. The famous Tokalon Vineyard, for instance, contains 550 acres, and is routinely cited as one of the world’s greatest sources of Bordeaux varieties.

So consider this the start of a new category on this blog: Myth Busting. Have any you’d care to share? Let me know!


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