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Is liking IPAs really as uncool as liking California Cabernet?

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I like beer, but didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy it when I was tasting and reviewing wine. Popping the corks on at least 15 different bottles a day, and then sitting there thinking and writing about them, took so much effort that I had little time or energy left over for any other kind of alcoholic beverage.

All that changed fairly dramatically a year ago, when I took my new job at Jackson Family Wines. Suddenly, I didn’t have to taste a gazillion wines anymore. (Not that I’d minded it—I loved, and still love, reviewing wine.) All the samples that had flooded my doorstep for so many years abruptly ceased.

Well, not 100%. Although Wine Enthusiast, and I personally, did our best to notify California wineries that I wasn’t working there anymore, wine still comes to me with some regularity. I always send it back, of course, but if you’re a California winery, and reading this, please take note: I DON’T WORK AT WINE ENTHUSIAST ANYMORE!

Anyhow, shortly after I started the new gig, I decided to get back into beer. Nowadays, you’ll always find a few bottles chilling in my fridge. Starting at 5 p.m.—Happy Hour, yay!–I like to have some in a frosty mug I keep in the freezer.

What kind of beer? It can be anything, but it’s often an India Pale Ale. I don’t claim to know much about beer, except that I like it (hey, if all there is on a hot summer afternoon is Bud Lite, count me in!). But I do know that I like that big, hoppy IPA style, which I also recognize as the California Cabernet Sauvignon-equivalent of beer: full-bodied, rich and heady.

This article, which appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online portal, gives a nice summary of where beer trends are at here in the Bay Area. The author is Jon Bonné, who recently announced that he’s stepping down from his fulltime gig as wine editor of the paper, although he’ll continue a monthly column of some sort. Now Jon, as we all know, made his bones by coming out against the prevailing style of California wine, which is ripe, sunshiney power. Jon favors the In Pursuit of Balance style of lower alcohol wines that many in the IPOB crowd consider more classic and elegant than your typical Napa Valley Cab or, for that matter, Pinots that are riper than—oh, I don’t know, let’s say 13.8%. So I didn’t find it surprising that, in his article, Jon came out against “the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers” as evidenced by “the style that defines most IPAs…”. In fact—just to make sure that we readers understand that hoppy IPAs and big Cabernets are crimes against their respective beverage groups—the craftsmen who produce them, according to Jon, are profiting from a “follow-the-money argument,” which means, presumably, that the producers Jon doesn’t care for are venal.

Well, I’ll let those producers make their own rebuttals. Here’s Jon’s: “The arms race of oak, extraction and jammy flavors, which proved successful for a previous generation of Cabernet makers, is a direct parallel to the hoppy amping-up of American craft beers.” Both drinks are “flavor bombs”; neither is part of the “avant-garde” which Jon so assiduously courts.

I should think Jon might have modified his views following his recent visit to Paris—his beloved France, source of “balanced” wines, and original home of the avant-grade—where he discovered, evidently to his dismay, that “the French craft brewing renaissance is currently populated by hopheads, and obsessed with IPAs…”. I guess forty million Frenchmen can be wrong.

But the real point is that Jon has not served the California wine industry well. He dismissed a large part of its best wines, in many cases refusing even to review them in the Chronicle despite being sent tasting samples, and thus distorting reality to his readers. This has disturbed many California winemakers, who were afraid to criticize Jon publicly for fear of retribution. My own position has been consistent: It’s unprofessional for a wine critic to throw so many wines produced in his own home region under the bus by refusing to even taste them. It’s a fundamental axiom in wine criticism that you don’t have to like a wine in order to review it fairly. You review it within the context of what it purports to be. For example, I might not like Sherry (in fact, I do), but even if I didn’t, I’d feel honor-bound to recognize what a good sherry is, and then to give good sherries good scores.

Jon never gave so many California wines the chance to just be what they are, simply because of a number—alcohol percentage by volume. Instead, he trashed these wines with epithets like “fruit bombs” and “male swagger.” Such snarkiness may have made him a hero to IPOB, but not to many of our state’s winemakers, who might be forgiven for being happy now that he’s gone. Personally, maybe I can finally get into the cool kids’ avant-garde club even though I like Napa Cab and IPAs!


We do not need an alternative to alcohol!

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Well if this isn’t the strangest thing I’ve read in a long time, I don’t know what is. “Why the government should fund research into finding a replacement for alcohol,” it’s called.

It was written by Ryan Cooper, a national correspondent at TheWeek.com, which is by no means a wacko rightwing pub. Ryan’s basic premise is that alcohol—the “ur-drug: the oldest, most common, and most widely abused drug in the world,” can cause “brain damage; severe memory loss; cardiovascular disease and strokes; cirrhosis of the liver; cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver…” Well, Ryan’s list goes on and on, but you get the idea. His solution, as the headline implies: Have the gummint look into funding studies into “alcohol replacement,” to come up with something that’s “better than booze.”

Is this the latest installment from the neoprohibitionist crowd? They never go away, do they? Look, anything and everything is potentially dangerous: automobiles, bicycling, eating certain foods, taking certain medications, flying in an airplane, joining the military, playing, making love, breathing. All we can do, as individuals and as a society, is to try and understand the risks involved, and adjust accordingly. In the case of alcohol, the solution is not to do away with it entirely, it’s to teach people the benefits (and pleasures) of moderate consumption—and to not drink and drive!!! (I can’t emphasize that enough.)

I actually don’t think Ryan is some kind of wild-eye prohibitionist, like the Marin Institute, which earned itself such a bad name that it had to reinvent itself as Alcohol Justice.

Still, in writing these inflammatory articles, Ryan links himself to the fire-eaters. He’s also not particularly consistent in his claims: A couple years ago, he wrote a piece for Washington Monthly in which he condemned hyperbolic diatribes against drugs, including alcohol: “[W]e should avoid alarmist, simplistic slogans” such as calling them “poisons,” he warned, because calling various drugs ‘poisons’ as if this counts for something is foolish. By this standard basically everything, including water, is a poison…”.

And yet, in The Week article, Ryan states: the most popular recreational drugs, particularly alcohol, are atrocious.” It is “very often terrible.” In fact, he adds, even heroin is “not as bad” as alcohol.

Those sound like alarmist simplistic slogans to me!

I’m glad that Ryan emphasized that he is “certainly not in favor of reinstating full-scale prohibition.” But notice that hedge: “full-scale.” Whatever does that mean? If he was really against restating prohibition, he wouldn’t use weasel words like that, he’d just come out and say “Let’s not even think of reinstating prohibition in any way, shape or form. We tried it once, and it was an abject failure and a national embarrassment.”

We already have some pretty stringent laws against alcohol consumption: age limits, shipping restrictions and so on. Alcohol is one of the most heavily-regulated consumer products in the U.S., which means that we continue to have a residue of prohibition, even though historic Prohibition was formally repealed in 1933.

I understand the concern Ryan has about all the problems associated with the inappropriate use of alcoholic beverages. But the answers are a lot more complicated than naively calling for the government to fund alternatives to it. Is that really something we want our precious tax dollars to go for? Instead, let’s be smart about this. Wine, beer and spirits are miraculous gifts to us from benign Nature. We don’t need to do away with them; we need to be smarter about using them, and we need to teach our children to be wise, not foolish, about alcohol and everything else.


Crowdfunding your Napa Valley Cab: is it tacky, or smart?

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Nothing illustrates the entrepreneurial challenge of a cult Napa Cab staying relevant than Yao Ming’s turning to crowdfunding for his winery’s financial needs.

When his wines hit the market, I was as excited as anyone. I gave the 2009 Family Reserve 97 points—the highest of any critic I’ve yet seen (although only by a hair). It was a big, big score for stingy old me—and the next year, I was even more generous, with 98 points for the 2010. The wines were glorious examples of modern Napa Valley Cabernet, but the prices were absurd: $625 the bottle for both vintages. I figured Yao Ming figured he had a lock on the wealthy Chinese market, at a time when it was seemingly willing to spend anything on great wine, so why not go for the gold? After all, he was one of the biggest Chinese-American superstars of the decade, maybe ever.

Now here we are five years later, when the Wall Street Journal is reporting that “As China’s luxury wine market cools,” Mr. Yao is being forced to change his business model. With Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign sapping demand for expensive wines,” the paper says, “Yao Family Wines is shifting its focus from Chinese banquet tables to US steak houses.”

Wow. That’s quite a radical change in business model. Do you think that $625 retail bottle price can survive the transition to steak houses? I don’t. Who’s going to pay $1,000 for a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to drink with the rib eye and baked potato? Perhaps the wine Yao Ming is aiming at American steakhouses is their second-label Napa Crest brand that retails for $48. It’s a solid wine: I gave the 2010 91 points, and my successor in Napa Valley reviewing, Virginie Boone, gave the 2011 90 points. But I think they’re talking about the Yao Family Cab. Whatever the case, the crowdfunding suggests that Mr. Yao is having some difficulties earning enough money to keep his business going through sales alone and is turning to this new, promising but largely unexplored area of crowdfunding to raise money from the masses.

Is there any shame about crowdfunding? I’m undecided. It may well be a wave of the future type thing. After all, we think nothing of a startup Silicon Valley firm taking venture capital from wealthy angels; in fact, it’s a source of pride that a smart, rich investor would think highly enough of a company’s prospects to put her money into it. I suppose that crowdfunding, of the sort Mr. Yao is engaging in (“as little as $US5,000 per person,” the Wall Street Journal says), is simply venture capital for the hoi polloi.

Still, it does make one wonder. What would we think if, say, Screaming Eagle, Araujo, Harlan, Bryant Family or Colgin announced they were crowdfunding? I think there would be a lot of raised eyebrows, and even, perhaps, some upset people on their mailing lists, who might feel that turning the reins over to “the crowd” was impinging on their notion of exclusivity.

Perhaps this is the way to expand an empire that’s already flourishing and can flourish even more. Yao Ming says he wants the money to (in the Wall Street Journal’s reporting) “build a visitor center in Napa Valley and a tasting room in Shanghai.” Given the current blowback from wine country residents against new tourist facilities, Mr. Yao may have some ‘splainin’ to do in Napa Valley. But I suspect that hundreds, if not thousands, of people will want to send him their money, to be connected with his brand, to get whatever perks or discounts they’re entitled to on the wines, and to just have the feeling that you don’t need to be a multi-gazillionaire to have a little bit of ownership in a Napa Valley winery.


Wednesday Wraparound: Los Olivos, ingredient labeling and the drought

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Poor Santa Ynez Valley. First they took its western half away when they made the Santa, err, Sta. Rita Hills appellation. Then they took the eastern side away with Happy Canyon. Then they tore out a hunk of its heart with Ballard Canyon. Now the cannibals are attacking other vital organs with this proposal to establish a Los Olivos AVA.

Santa Ynez Valley is disappearing before our eyes.

I jest, of course. It’s actually a good thing. I always liked the Santa Ynez Valley appellation. I recognized its importance a long time ago, and gave it props by reviewing wines that my competitor reviewers wouldn’t. Gave them high scores, too, for the most part.

In hindsight, I can see that Santa Ynez Valley needed to be sub-appellated, although I didn’t particularly think about it at the time. So welcome to the club, Los Olivos. Now let’s see if we can tell the difference between your Syrah and, let’s say, those of Ballard Canyon. That’s the point of an AVA, isn’t it?

* * *

What ever happened to that idea of requiring wine bottle labels to include all ingredients? Once Ridge started doing it, there were rumors it was going to be mandated—or that the public would demand it. But nothing happened. I, myself, am not in favor. I think wineries can put that stuff up on their websites, but not on the front or back label, please!

* * *

It was bound to happen. Now we have water tastings—for $50!

I guess it will be poured by hydrologists, the H20 equivalent of mixologists. Pretty soon we’ll be seeing fashionable water bars springing up in the neighborhood.

* * *

Gus and I hit the road today for a brief trip. We’re headed up to Jess Jackson’s beloved Alexander Mountain Estate. The weather will be fine: sunny, dry and mild—unfortunately, given the drought. People are still keeping their fingers crossed, hoping for a wet March and April, but right now, it doesn’t look good.

More tomorrow.


Tuesday Twaddle: Jon Bonné, Wine Scams, and Can Napa’s Neighbor Steal Their Business?

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For some time now, the San Francisco Chronicle—Northern California’s largest newspaper, and a force in its wine industry for decades—has been cutting back on wine reporting.

The paper used to have a standalone wine section. They did away with that some years ago, and merged it into a weekly wine and food section. Then they put that into a home, garden and food section, in which we were lucky to get much wine reporting at all.

The denouement of all this came yesterday, when we learned that Jon Bonné, the paper’s wine editor, has reduced his involvement at the Chronicle to that of a contributing editor. He now will write only a monthly column, with a “California focus,” in his words. (Here’s another press release announcing Jon’s new job.)

I’m glad Jon is keeping one foot into our California scene (even though he’s moving to New York). I don’t know if he’ll be reviewing wine or not; I hope so. If he does, I ask him this: let us know your guidelines for receiving samples—what you will and will not taste, so that wineries can know whether or not it’s worth it to send you their wine. I hope you’ll review everything you’re sent. I always did, at Wine Enthusiast—and I mean everything. It was only fair.

As for the Chronicle’s wine coverage: I understand business decisions. A paper has to make a profit; otherwise it goes bankrupt. The ownership and senior management of the Chronicle apparently have determined that the kind of broad wine coverage they used to have is no longer sustainable—despite the fact that the California wine industry is a multi-billion one, and San Francisco—where the Chronicle is the only newspaper of importance—stands at its gate.

When I was starting out as a novice wino in the 1980s, San Francisco had multiple publications that covered wine in depth: The Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, California Magazine. All, except the Chronicle, are gone.

One can only hope that the Chron will discover a new-found commitment to alcoholic beverages—wine, beer and spirits. And I hope that, if they do, their coverage will be local, which is to say, California-based.

* * *

The Drinks Business has this article, Wine Investment: How to Avoid the Pitfalls.

Well, you don’t have to read the article to avoid the pitfalls of losing money in bad wine investments. Here’s the answer: DON’T DO IT. Don’t buy wine for investment. The commoditization of wine has harmed it immeasurably. Buying it in the hope of reselling and making a lot of money is contradictory to wine’s spirit.

* * *

The Napa Valley Register reports that little Suisun Valley, just a hop, skip and jump across the road from Napa Valley’s southeastern edge, is looking to capitalize on Napa’s woes. If wineries can’t locate in crowded, trafficky Napa, then they’re welcome in Suisun.

A few years ago, with the help of my friend Jo Diaz, whose communications company was working with Suisun wineries, I toured the region and tasted through some of the wines.

I wasn’t particularly impressed, although I saw the promise. My gut reaction was: There’s no reason why this area couldn’t do very well. All it would take is the proper investment. The terroir is fine. It’s a little warmer than Napa Valley, being further inland, but San Pablo/Suisun Bay is right there, and as we all know, those winds off the water are chilly.

Suisun Valley is a pretty area of little farms and country lanes, but easily reachable via the I-80 freeway. No reason for Suisun not to be a player. I wish them luck.


Could Chardonnay’s long stranglehold as our top wine be ending?

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I was surprised to read that Sauvignon Blanc “is Britain’s favorite wine,” white or red, in the Daily Mail.

It has “pipped Chardonnay to number one,” the story says. (That “pipped” was a new one on me. I assumed it meant “surpassed,” so I looked it up on Google, with an additional search qualifier of “British slang.” One hit says it means “to be beaten at the last minute,” while another—close enough—is “to defeat an opponent.”)

So good for Sauvignon Blanc! You might recall that, just three weeks ago, I wrote a post called “Could Sauvignon Blanc be entering a golden era?” in which I cited a report that sales of it are “on the rise” in the U.S., and concluded that “I’m bullish on coastal Sauvignon Blanc!”

Well, apparently the Brits are too (“coastal” meaning cool climate)! So let us put on our magical thinking caps and figure out what’s going on with Sauvignon Blanc in Britain and America?

Clearly, in both countries, tastes in wine are shifting. The Daily Mail article doesn’t offer many reasons why, so I’m forced to come up with my own guesses. If consumers in both countries are moving towards Sauv Blanc, does that mean they’re moving away from Chardonnay? I don’t think there’s any plausible answer except, Yes.

Why would that be? On one level, Chardonnay is a better wine than Sauvignon Blanc, objectively speaking. Wine drinkers have preferred Chardonnay to Sauv Blanc for hundreds of years, which is why prices for good Chardonnay, from California, France and other leading wine countries are higher than for Sauvignon Blanc.

So price is one thing Sauvignon Blanc has going for it. What else? Well, for one thing, it’s different—and to the extent people are just looking to be rebels, they might be turning to Sauv Blanc (and other white varieties) simply because they think that Chardonnay is what “everyone else” is drinking.

But Sauvignon Blanc is also a completely different wine from Chardonnay. It’s usually drier, tarter and less oaky, with greener, more linear flavors than Chardonnay, which is one of the world’s richest dry white wines (if not the richest). Sauv Blanc, therefore, is more food-friendly—almost by definition. And both America and Britain are nations of immigrants in which our choices of ethnic fare are limited only by the number of countries on earth. I’m a huge fan of Chardonnay, but I must admit it would not be my white wine of choice if I were eating Afghan, Mexican, Thai, Indian, Japanese, and so on.

Actually, for a number of those cuisines, my choice would be beer; but I think it’s fair to say that Sauvignon Blanc is more “beer-like” than Chardonnay, so if a diner wanted a light alcoholic beverage with her meal and preferred it to be wine, not beer, she might well select Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Gris/Grigio is also popular, but when it comes to quality, Sauvignon Blanc beats it every time.

I asked my Facebook friends why Sauvignon Blanc is so popular and here are a few of their comments:

People who don’t like oaky Chard, tend to be the ones who are favoring sb, especially when made in the AUS/NZ style.

It is clean and refreshing…

QPR.

May be an image problem on the rise for Chardonnay that is benefiting Sauvignon Blanc?

Sauvignon Blanc: 1) is well promoted in wine shops (esp. during warmer months) and available in many restaurants, 2) offers relatively good quality-price ratio, 3) availability – number of solid selections coming from old and new world regions, 4) at some point, everything old is new again.

A trend towards lighter, fresher cooking with vibrant international flavors

Millennials love fun and lively wines like SB

And, finally (although I don’t agree), Cat pee is in.


San Francisco and Oakland: Not-so kissing cousins

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I’ve spent a good part of the last three days in San Francisco on winetasting missions, a lot even for me, although I live just 3 subway stops away from Embarcadero Station and Ferry Plaza.

I’ve been in Oakland now for 28 years: nearly ten years before that in San Francisco. So you’ll have to forgive me for making comparisons.

When I lived in S.F., in the Eighties, Oakland was a Herb Caen joke. It was Brooklyn to Manhattan—and this was before Brooklyn’s current hipster revival: old, blue collar, conservative Brooklyn, New York’s version of the boring ‘burbs.

The only thing Oakland had going for it was way better weather, which is why the Oakland Tribune used to publish its logo in orange: A reminder that, on any given summer day, while San Francisco was cold and foggy, Oakland was sunny and warm.

Other than that, San Franciscans felt icky about Oakland. Crime, violence, racial politics. That’s how they viewed the city on the eastern side of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

As for Oakland’s perception of San Francisco, it was a weird combination of “Who cares?” and envy. Oakland prided itself on being different: grittier, more real: the Raiders versus the effete Forty-Niners. But on Saturday night, everybody went to San Francisco because it was, well, San Francisco. There was a scene there that Oakland just didn’t have.

Now here we are today. Oakland is enjoying its greatest renaissance in decades, on every level: culinary, cultural, artistic, tech, home value, income, diversity. We Oaklanders are enormously proud of this: it’s a great leap forward following our low point, the post-1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, from which downtown never recovered.

But I still don’t think San Franciscans give a thought about Oakland. They may have heard about some “boom” thing happening here, but whatever it is, it pales alongside what they see and experience every day throughout San Francisco. The building development! The incomes! The stores! The excitement! The sense of being someplace Important at an Important Time. And the beauty of the people, so young, healthy and in-shape. Oh, all that disposable income! Call them what you will: yuppies, techies, hipsters—they know they live in frigging San Francisco, the most magical and romantic of American cities. They know they’re only young once: If San Francisco had an official slogan, it would be Carpe Diem. Many of them won’t know what that means, of course, so let me translate: How lucky we are!

But I celebrate these differences. It would be easy for the Bay Area to homogenize into one bland soup, but each part of it—of us—maintains its identity throughout our periodic crises: earthquakes, economic shakeups, demographic revolutions, wildfires, crime sprees. Neighborhoods change color, ethnicity and culture with alacrity, yet somehow maintain their fundamental identities. I guess you could call this our terroir: the terroir of Noe Valley or Adams Point, of the Sunset or Kensington, of Crockett or Cupertino.

As for alcoholic beverages, well, both sides of the Bay like their quotient of booze. The currant rage right now is, of course, the mixed drink. Beer is huge; wine, perhaps less so—at least it doesn’t feel like it has that frisson of excitement compared to its sister boozes. Oaklanders probably drink more beer per capita because we’re poorer and more working class, but that doesn’t mean we drink bad beer. The local micro-breweries do good business here. San Francisco is no doubt way ahead of us in wine, both per capita consumption and price. Oaklanders still hesitate to drop much on a bottle: They’re not into the snob thing. They want something good, with a good story; but they’re not slaves to somebody else’s score or review.

* * *

Have a good weekend!


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