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Wine, beer and spirits for Millennials: which is cooler? (Hint: It’s not wine)

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I’m interested to the point of obsession with industry issues, such as who’s buying wine, how it’s doing with Millennials, price points and so on. One thing I’ve been keeping my eye on is restaurants. Everybody loves to eat out, but what are they drinking with their food?

The conventional wisdom of the past few years is that wine is losing ground to craft beer and cocktails. I’ve tended to agree: Beer and mixed drinks are getting a lot of love from the media, with all those tattooed mixologists and craft brewers grabbing the headlines (and spotlights; layout editors know exactly who looks good on the page or screen). Wine by contrast seems stodgy. It’s not, of course, and never has been, and remains my favorite; but for some reason, wine seems less hip lately than beer and mixed drinks.

Forbes has written an interesting article along these lines, citing Paul Franson, of Wines & Vines, that Millennials [have] gravitated toward cocktails and craft beer,” and moreover, that when Millennials do drink wine in restaurants, the wines tend to be those that are “hot,” which I take to mean things like Muscat or orange wine, which have no lasting value at all.

This squares with my observations of my Millennial friends in Oakland, a very hip town, on the cutting edge of most cultural things, and thus an interesting case study. What happens in Oakland, from hip hop to fashion in clothing not to mention politics, often leapfrogs across the country.

And the truth is, my friends in their 20s and 30s like to drink; in fact they drink a lot, bless their little souls, but what they’re not drinking is wine. They are, as Forbes and Franson point out, downing cocktails and beer.

Why? The answer is important, but not simple. On one level they see wine as the alcoholic beverage of their parents if not their grandparents. Why is that? Because beer and cocktails don’t make a big deal about their intellectual components, the way wine does with notions of terroir, etc. Another is that beer and cocktails don’t pretend to be about anything else but getting buzzed. Wine tries to hide the impact of its alcohol. It always has, especially at the top levels, where it portrays itself as offering an experience that is intellectual, sensual, hedonistic, imaginative, fabulous—anything and everything but a liquid that makes you high. Wine seems almost embarrassed by its alcoholic content, which is why this entire argument against alcohol levels has arisen. Is vodka embarrassed by alcohol? Is tequila? Are IPAs? Of course not. But wine likes to pretend it has no alcohol.

I don’t know how we got into this situation. Possibly it’s because the intellectual conversation about wine got started a lot earlier than our conversations about beer and spirits. Between the Bible, the medieval references to wine, Thomas Jefferson and so on, wine has assumed an august place in the culture. Nobody was praising beer and spirits two and three hundred years ago. Maybe, back then, they were ashamed of wine’s alcoholic effects on the brain and body, so they avoided writing about them. We have inherited that tradition today.

I’m not suggesting we should brag about how high wine gets you. But the fact that beer and spirits tend to be grabbing Millennial attention strongly suggests a new approach to how we portray wine. We need to make wine cooler, sexier, and more relevant to a generation that instinctively recoils against canned messages and cheap advertising slogans. There is, in its essence, no reason why wine is less attractive than beer and spirits. But the way we’ve been communicating about wine hasn’t been enough to convince Millennials that it’s something they should feel cool about ordering in a restaurant. Can we change that?


Fake wine? Consumers don’t care, and with good reason

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Not sure I agree that “fake wines take a toll on everyday consumers,” as this opinion piece from the Boulder Weekly claims. (The article is by Terroirist.com’s David White.)

It’s hard, on the surface, to see how or why 99.9% of wine drinkers are harmed by the shenanigans of a Rudi Kurniawan. They don’t play the auction game, which so often is fueled by greed and ego. They don’t even look for those kinds of wines. Nor is there any evidence of fakery among wines that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Most people just want to have a nice wine at a fair price, and they couldn’t care less that some criminal ripped off a Koch over a bottle of ’34 Romanée-Conti.

David himself concedes that the problem of counterfeit wine means little or nothing to consumers who can’t afford cases of grand cru Burgundy or first growth Bordeaux.” If it hurts anyone, it’s extremely wealthy collectors who probably don’t even properly appreciate these wines, but just buy them to show off: people who might deserve the comeuppance they get for spending so much money, for such venal reasons, on something as trivial as rarity wine, when so many people are trapped in poverty and despair.

(Did I just call wine “trivial” ? Yes, in this context: that there are far more things Koch money could do to elevate mankind than spending it on bragging-rights wine.)

But in order to prove his case that fake wines really can “take a toll on everyday consumers,” David cites the case of a guy, John, whose late father had loved ’61 Lafite. John then had the opportunity to buy a bottle of it, for $1,300, but—familiar with the Kurniawan case—John shied away. He explained, “I decided I could not risk paying $1,300 for something that wasn’t real.”

I can understand. “Once burned, twice shy,” goes the saying; although John hadn’t been one of Kurniawan’s victims, he apparently now sees every expensive bottle as suspect, and would rather save his hard-earned cash for bottles whose authenticity is near certain.

The case of John is an anecdote, one that “tugs at the heartstrings,” in David’s words, but I don’t think it represents the feelings of the vast majority of wine people, even those who aren’t rich but who might want to occasionally spend a lot of money on a special bottle. With all due respect to John, I just can’t believe that the Kurniawan case scares very many people off. I think they might want to have a conversation, or a series of conversations, first, to make sure that spending four figures on a bottle is really something they want to do. They should talk to the seller (restaurant, auction house, whatever), and to whatever experts they can find, asking tough questions about provenance, before making up their minds. And that’s a good thing.

The interesting issue this brings up is, Would somebody who drank a fake expensive wine, but didn’t know it, even notice it? It’s like one of those Zen koans: “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?” You can rephrase it as, “If somebody put a lovely, full-bodied red wine into a Lafite bottle, would people who didn’t know about the ruse admire it anyway?” My belief, based on long experience, is, Yes, they’d like it anyway, because they were drinking the label, not the wine. And this applies, not just to everyday consumers like John, but even wine experts. Perhaps that ’61 Lafite was really a Second or Third Growth, snuck into the Lafite bottle; or maybe a 50-yer old Zinfandel. How would you ever know?

The point is that we drink wine with our minds as much as with our palates. It is in the mind that the mystery and romance of wine dwell. It’s good that wine possesses mystery and romance; may it always be so. But it’s horrible that certain wines have become a commodity, a Gobelin tapesty in a bottle for the uber-rich to compensate for their shortcomings in other areas. I’m not saying that law enforcement agencies shouldn’t go after these counterfeiters with maximum diligence. They should. Like white-collar criminals everywhere, the fakers should be held to account. It’s just that, for the average consumer, this Kurniawan business, and associated scandals, really has no impact. If somebody out there wants to drop $1,300 for a once-in-a-lifetime wine, they should do so without paranoia. Go to a reputable supplier, the vast majority of whom are ultra-dependable, and be assured. And consider that, even if the wine you buy is fake, you probably won’t know the difference anyway. So enjoy!


2016? Here’s what I think

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This is not a Top 10 predictions list. It’s just stuff I’ll be talking about in 2016.

Here in California, it’s all about the money: profits vs. losses. It comes down to the nesting circles of financial health:

  • how is the overall economy doing?
  • How does California fare within that?
  • How is my tier doing?
  • And how am I doing within my tier?

We do see the overall American economy recovering, but 2015 ended on a weak note, with many economists predicting a slide back into recession this year. Obviously, this is not an economics blog, and I claim no expertise in that area. But the economy feels shaky, and, since perception is reality, it’s likely that American consumers will continue to withhold spending, or limit it, while the insecurities persist.

This is good news for value wines; bad news for expensive wines. Within the overall economy, California will continue as a beacon of success, based on the gold mines of Silicon Valley and Hollywood. But California wine producers can’t depend solely on California consumers. They need the rest of the country, as well as foreign counties; and, abroad, China’s a mess and Europe’s barely breathing. So tough times for exports.

But individual wineries have to consider the tier/s in which they operate. As I said, the value tier seems likely to remain strong, but it also will become increasingly competitive. My feeling is that established value brands will go from strength to strength; the consumer is in no mood to experiment, when she has access to a few dozen wineries with proven track records. Just above the value tier is the ultrapremium tier—let’s say, $20-$35 a bottle. That always has been a challenging place to do business, and it remains so today. Laurels go to the cleverest; existing brands will have to double down on their efforts to stay relevant, but they do have the edge.

Finally we get into the super-ultrapremium luxury tier, and this is where I think things are the grimmest, especially if we do slide into a recession. Of course, the proprietors of many of these brands have almost infinite resources to hold on; but, despite the proliferation of Parker 100s in California, I see no way that enough people want these $80-and-up wines, especially when you consider that the few people that might want them tend to be older. Why would a Millennial want Harlan, Marcassin, Sine Qua Non? These are the very wines that represent the elitism of the old order—an order they renounce.

Finally, though, the performance of each winery is individual. You can succeed even when your tier is having trouble. It takes, beyond sheer luck, a remarkable amalgam of ingenuity, blood, sweat and tears, and a ground game. And this brings me to the marketing side of things we’ll be talking about this year.

Wineries will continue to try and find a balance of concentrating their efforts (and money) on social media and guerrilla marketing techniques, as well as more traditional ones such as magazine advertising and sales forces. This never-ending experiment will result in many anecdotal claims of success on both sides, but few provable ones; and what works for one winery—say, YouTube videos—cannot necessarily be replicated by another. There simply exists no demonstrable method of marketing that is guaranteed to work, although we do know demonstrably terrible ones, such as poor websites, lousy customer relations (which usually means lousy management above) and proprietors who are out-of-touch with the real world and thus not in a position to understand what consumers really want.

There will be more talk, and news, about winery consolidation. But big wineries buy smaller ones all the time: nothing new about that. Every ten years, a new generation of “wine writer” feels he has to discover this huge news, but it isn’t news. The usual number of wineries will be put on the market; the usual number will be bought. The news is that prices for California wineries have hit San Francisco real estate levels, which is to say: only gazillionaires need apply. Is that a bubble? Probably not. The few wineries that are gobbled up don’t represent enough of a critical mass to burst any emergent bubble.

Varietal-wise, we’re stuck in neutral in America. There will be no “breakthrough variety” in 2016, although umpteen bloggers and columnists will try to convince you otherwise because, hey, if there’s no real news, then invent it! (Orange wine, anyone?) The same wines that are popular today will remain popular in 2016 (and 2017, and 2018).

I suppose the best news on the horizon is that we—the chattering wine classes—will continue to explore the nuances of terroir in California. This is a good time to do it. The Coast is pretty much developed out. We pretty much have all the AVAs we’re likely to have, between Mendocino and Santa Barbara, for the foreseeable future. The thing to do now is to explore the nooks and crannies within those terroirs. (Of course, I don’t discount the creation of sub-AVAs within larger ones such as Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills; and I also think that parts of the vast Willamette Valley need to be sub-appellated.) This is fun, important, creative work, and it will occupy us for generations, as it has kept Europeans busy for a thousand years. In this sense, it’s a good time to be a wine writer. Now, if only wine writers could figure out a way to make some money! But most of them cannot, and that, too, will be something we’ll talk about this year.


Happy New Year!

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I’d like to wish everyone a happy, healthy New Year. 2015 was kind of weird for me in some respects, with lots of twists and turns—but then, life always provides the unexpected, doesn’t it? The thing I’m learning, or trying to, is that I usually land on my feet, and that, no matter what happens, it’s all good.

Well, it’s not always all good, obviously. But in looking back over what is turning into my long life, I can see how almost every time something happened to me that I thought was a disaster, it actually turned out to be good. “Every cloud has a silver lining,” they say. The challenge is to see that silvery glow when the cloud is enveloping you in darkness. Not always easy—that’s where faith comes into play. I don’t mean blind, mindless faith, but a faith based on reason: something along the lines of, “Hey, this has always worked out for me in the past, so why shouldn’t I believe it’ll work out in the future?”

I’m looking forward to more great projects in 2016 working for my wonderful employer, Jackson Family Wines. It was nearly two years ago that I quit my job as the Famous Wine Critic and went to JFW. Lots of people were shocked that I would voluntarily give up such a hard-earned, coveted position. But I was ready for something else, and I also thought it’s only fair to move aside and let a newer generation have the fun of being a Famous Wine Critic. I’m glad I made that decision.

I’d also like to thank my readers for continuing to check me out every morning. The content of this blog changed when I made my job transition, but I still try to keep it interesting and timely. To some extent, my profile has gone down, which I anticipated and totally understand. But that’s good; things have quieted down in the Comments section, and on social media like Twitter, where for some reason some people got angry enough to write stupid things about me when they should have been living their lives. It’s nice to have those head-butting days behind me.

So have a great New Year’s Eve. Party hearty, if that’s your thing, but party safely, and please, don’t drink and drive! See you in 2016!


Rich Smith passes to that great vineyard in the sky

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I can hardly believe the news that Rich Smith has died.

I’ve known Rich for so long, I can’t even remember when we met. He was instrumental in educating me about the appellation he helped to pioneer, the Santa Lucia Highlands, and was a good person to ask about all things viticultural. As for hospitality, Rich always welcomed me to the winery. He was as helpful and friendly as anyone in the wine industry I’ve ever met.

Rich was the founder of Paraiso Vineyards [formerly Paraiso Springs]. As the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association eulogized, He was one of the fathers and visionary pioneers of the Monterey wine region and continually championed sustainability and research to foster the success we all share.” Rich was one of those people a wine reporter naturally bonds with. He had a wry, inquisitive sense of humor in addition to his vast knowledge of wines, vines and local history, a salt-of-the-earth guy who was fundamentally a farmer at heart. He shunned the limelight, even though he was frequently in it—a guy you were drawn to for the dignity and centeredness he projected.

He and his winemaking team made fantastic wine at Paraiso. Rich’s Wedding Hill Syrah was, to my mind, his best wine, but the Pinots, Rieslings and Chards were fine, and Rich was generous enough to share fruit with other wineries, such as La Rochelle, Morgan and Manzoni.

Rich was only 69 years old when he passed away on Dec. 27. He will be missed.

Smith


Those emotional components of wine? Not going anywhere

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There’s been much analytical writing lately about the mental, psychological, intellectual and emotional aspects of wine, such as this think piece in Decanter, in which Andrew Jefford ruminates on the concept of wine “as a dream.” He writes of the way wine “commands our emotions” and of its “cultural depth,” referring to historical effluvia well-known to most wine writers, such as Napoleon’s love of Chambertin. As an example of this “cultural depth,” he claims, justifiably, that one cannot drink Stag’s Leap Cabernet without thinking of the Judgment of Paris. Certainly, that is true for me.

(Interestingly, Jefford puts more emphasis on wine’s alcoholic content than I would. Surely, getting buzzed, in precisely the way that wine stimulates the brain and spirit, contributes to the human capacity to experience emotion. Yet non-alcoholic consumables, such as movies and athletic contests, also stir up our emotions, so the presence of alcohol doesn’t seem to be necessary to make us feel strongly.)

Anyhow, I agree with Jefford’s line of thinking and have written about it frequently, suggesting that wine’s emotive and associative force—and not its objective hedonistic content—is the reason why people are willing to spend so much money on certain bottles. But the fact that this topic, of wine’s subjective and cultural bases, has arisen so much in recent months and years begs the questions, Why? And why now?

It used to be that the superior price of Haut-Brion, for example, was explained as a function of its superior quality. The First Growths cost twice as much as the Seconds because they were twice as good. All the experts said so; everyone believed it, because we lived in an age of expertise that applied to everything from art and economics to religion, governance and wine. People did not question the expertise of the experts, or their right to proclaim their views with rigid certainty. You might not particularly care about those views; but you, as a non-expert, were not free to disagree with them. Or, to be precise, you could, but at the risk of sounding like an idiot.

In retrospect we can see that this Age of Expertise was a minor chord in a larger symphony of hierarchical ranking, in which what was was would be. God reigned supreme over the Universe. The Kings and Queens who ruled empires were second in order, their rule “divine” and thus unassailable. Below the Kings and Queens were the Princes of the Church, Generals of the Armies and Admirals of the Navies, and so on and on, down through the pecking orders, in which peons and slaves occupied the lowest rung. These latter had no views, or none at any rate worth considering. This mechanistic view of the world and its inhabitants was reflected supremely in Newton’s mechanics.

We know what happened next: with the advent of Einstein, relativity, the Internet and social media, the old order has more or less totally collapsed. Authority means little these days, in an age when the autonomy of the individual, coupled with that anonymity of autonomous individuals called crowd sourcing, is promoted above all else. In wine, this disintegration of authority leaves the inheritors and defenders of the new order a challenging task: to explain the hierarchies of the old order. How did some wines get to be so much more famous and expensive than others? Proponents of the new order, who generally do not have the ability to taste wine widely, tend to resort to a radical explanation: that the old order was wrong. They say that when their grandparents drank Haut-Brion or Chambertin, the wine’s “cultural depth” actually became “freighted” (Jefford’s word, and not a flattering one) with a dream-weight-anchor that utterly prevented Grandpa from experiencing Haut-Brion for what it was, as opposed to the “dream” his brain conjured it to be. In Jefford’s words, “the dream modifies our reaction to the taste of the wine.”

That’s pretty radical. We wouldn’t allow someone who was racially biased to sit on a jury. We rightfully recoil when a Supreme Court Justice seems to let religious beliefs interfere with a “justice is blind” interpretation of the law. We don’t like it when news “anchors” let their politics blatantly color their reporting. So why is it that we trust wine “authorities” who speak from a dream-world?

This, at any rate, is how proponents of the new order think; and it explains why these arguments of the subjectivity and emotive power of wine are so frequent nowadays. If this tendency towards relativism in wine—an undermining of authority, a calling-into-question of the very notion of quality—continues, the world of wine will find itself in a very peculiar place that has no precedent in recorded history, in which wine always has existed within a hierarchy more or less agreed upon by everyone.

Which is why I don’t believe this worst-case scenario will happen. Human nature doesn’t change, despite fantastic advances in science. We are still the same people our distant ancestors were. Today’s wars and preoccupations mirror yesterday’s; only the particulars have changed; not much else. In wine, the hierarchies of authority (French classification systems, Famous Critic point scores) are under assault, but I don’t believe they’ll fail. These cultural re-assemblings occur from time to time; the rise, in fact, of Bordeaux to the summit of the hierarchy in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was precisely a reassembling of a prior order, more chaotic but for all its disorder, more real. The particulars today change; the underlying reality—that hierarchies always will emerge, official and unofficial, yet understood by all—remains the same. To resist them is to form the stuff of future hierarchies.


Christmas, and here’s El Nino!

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We had a quiet, low-key Christmas Eve dinner down in San Mateo. Maxine made a prime rib of beef, perfectly cooked, with her specialty creamed broccoli and good old-fashioned baked potatoes with butter. I paired it all with a Corison 2002 Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon. That particular wine is well-known for aging, but at 13 years, it was still filled with juicy black currants and dark chocolate, although it was showing its age a bit around the edges. I preferred it straight out of the bottle, young; after an hour in the glass it grew a little ponderous, which makes me wonder if perhaps another ten years might not be kind to it.

Before the meat course, however, we started out with some appetizers, particularly ahi tuna tartare I made from scratch. I like to almost mince the fish, then macerate it in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, capers, cilantro and lime juice. Some recipes call for adding things like avocado or roasted macadamia nuts, but I don’t; they make the tuna cumbersome and the dish doesn’t need all that frou-frou. Let the fish be the star, I say. Tuna tartare needs something to place it on or in. I’ve tried just about everything: toast, bruschetta, rice crackers, butter lettuce leaves and so on, but for the past few years I’ve stuck with potato chips, although in that case you have to spoon the fish onto the chip because if you try to use the chip to scoop out the fish, it (the chip) will break. But then, that gives you an excuse to use those weird little spoons that live in your utensil drawer. With the tuna, I opened a “J” 1997 Late Disgorged Brut, which I’ve been hanging onto for about ten years (it must have been released around 2005). Some critics say you shouldn’t age an LD after it’s been released, but I’m glad I did. The wine really was superb. It had lost about 70% of the bubbles, and was all nice and leesy-yeasty-toasty, and while the fruit had evolved into secondary characteristics (dried lime, grapefruit rind), it had a core of caramel sweetness. That was really a memorable wine.

We also had a wee sip of Highland Park 25 Year Old Single Malt. I gave that bottle to Keith a few years ago; I’ve always liked it, but never understood how valuable it is. We Googled it and found prices averaging between $500 and $600. How does Scotch get that expensive? Supply and demand, I guess. At any rate, a fabulous sipper, smooth, mellow, endlessly complex and satisfying especially on such a cold evening.

On Christmas Day we went to see The Big Short, which I highly recommend. It’s hard to say who should get the Oscar, Christian Bale or Steve Carell. Both were just terrific; the story itself—how bankers, through their greed and carelessness, almost brought down the world economy—is compelling, and director Adam McKay’s production was astounding. He used that “breaking the fourth wall” technique that The Office employed so well. Go see this movie.

Meanwhile, for those of you who have been enjoying a warm East Coast December, give us our weather back, you thieves! We’re freezing our butts off in California, where the daytime high has struggled to get out of the 40s and broad areas of the Bay Area have been dipping into the 20s at night. This morning—yesterday, as you read this—Oakland set a record low, at 30 degrees. Brrr. Gus didn’t mind it, but I did. Now I know that 30 degrees isn’t “cold” by Michigan or Vermont standards, but cut us a little slack here; we’re not used to it, and something about the Bay Area’s damp, fresh-off-the-Pacific wind makes 47 feel like 7.

But the big story isn’t the cold, it’s the rain. El Nino seems to be delivering as advertised, and since it’s not really supposed to kick in until January, we could be in for some extraordinarily soaking rains and blizzards in the High Sierra, which is where we get our water. In fact, the snowpack is twice what it was last year, and is at 111% percent of normal.

If El Nino is as “monstrous” as the scientists have been saying, we’re going to have to laud their predictive powers. When they get stuff wrong, everybody jumps on them. If they got this right—and it looks like they did—it will redound to the greater glory of climate science.


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