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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.

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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.

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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!


The history of wine reviewing

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Did my annual wine class last night for the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business’s Wine Club. It’s always so cool to go there, with the big banners celebrating their Nobel Prize winners, and those super-smart students who, one imagines, might be running the show someday.

One of the things they wanted to know about was the history of wine reviewing. Here’s what I told them.

Describing wine has a long and honorable history in humankind. People have always understood that wines differ greatly in quality and this seems to have been fascinating to even the earliest peoples we have record of. The Old Testament, Numbers 18:12 (1400 B.C.). refers to drinking “all the best of the wine.” From the New Testament, John 2:10: “every man serves the good wine first.” So these notions of “the best” wine and “the good” wine date to the earliest times.

The ancient Greeks divided wine into quality hierarchies. Socrates’ and Plato’s “symposia” were actually wine-drinking parties at which matters of intellectual interest were discussed. Aristotle praised the aroma of Limnio, a red wine still produced on the island of Lemnos. Later, in Rome, Pliny the Elder (first century A.D.) created one of the earliest rankings of wine, noting that the vineyard is the most important influence on the wine’s quality. In this he anticipates, by nearly 2,000 years, the French system of Grand Crus and Classified Growths, which also are based on vineyards. The greatest, or most famous, of the ancient Roman wines was Falernian, which was often mentioned by ancient writers: On the walls of Pompei, destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., is a price list [this must have been the equivalent of a Roman wine bar!]: For one denarius, you could buy an “as”–the house wine. For two, “the best.” For four, “Falernian.” Scholars think Falernian might have been a sweet white wine–rather like an ice wine. According to Pliny the Elder, in 60 B.C., Julius Caesar was served Falernian from the 121 B.C. vintage–the first vintage in recorded history that was celebrated for wine quality. However, as the physician Galen noted around 180 A.D., not all so-called “Falernian” wine could be genuine. There was simply too much being drunk and too little produced! Yes, even then, they had fake wines–a situation we’ve seen here in the states, with the recent Rudi Kurniawan scandal. Counterfeit wine also is notoriously frequent in China with Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Here in America, knowledge of wine all but disappeared due to 14 years of Prohibition. Following Repeal (1933), a plethora of wine books appeared to explain wine to Americans, and implicit in them all was this notion of a hierarchy of quality. It’s very easy for Americans to accept that some things are better than others: people understand that Cadillacs are better than Chevrolets. So they absorbed this notion of wine hierarchies, and it’s still hard to persuade them that a common, everyday wine can be better than a rare, expensive one, depending on the circumstances.

When the Baby Boomers—my generation–came of age with all their disposable income, the number of wineries was exploding exponentially. Consumers needed help deciding what to buy—and they wanted that help to be neutral and objective–so a new generation of “critics” arose in the 1970s. Newspapers in the major cities hired wine critics. Books and newsletters flourished. This was the genesis of where we find ourselves today. Two publications of note arose during the late 1970s: Wine Spectator magazine and Robert Parker’s newsletter, The Wine Advocate. My own former magazine, Wine Enthusiast, launched about ten years later.

With all of these came the advent and triumph of the American wine critic.


Networking in San Francisco’s wine and food scene

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I used to go to every P.R. event I was invited to—which was a lot—when I started out as a wine writer. With Wine Spectator cred, I was on all the A lists in San Francisco. When I moved over to Wine Enthusiast as chief California critic—a big step up in power—the invitations only increased.

It was really cool, I thought, to be welcomed at all those top restaurants and clubs, to be wined and dined on wine and food I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, to be treated with a certain respect and courtesy. But guess what? I soon tired of the scene, which, it seemed to me, was populated mostly by networkers looking to sell their products or services. I wasn’t networking; I already had the job I wanted.

For some years now, I’ve been pretty selective about what I go to. The invites still pour in, but I seldom feel the need to go: I’m happy snuggling up with Gus at night and reading a good book, watching something on the telly, or getting some work writing done on the computer. But last night was an exception. I’d gotten invited to a client meet-and-greet by Postcard Communications, an up-and-coming S.F. agency, whose offices are located in a cute little building on uber-cute Maiden Lane, two blocks east of Union Square. The firm represents restaurants, artisanal food producers and wineries.

I’m not entirely sure why I went; something prompted me to. So I took BART into the city (four stops) and was there promptly at six. It was the usual thing: grazing through tables of delicious foods and wines. Met some nice people; traded business cards; had some superficial chats. There are two or three individuals I plan to follow up with.

I stayed for about an hour, then—feeling like the old uncle in a group whose average age seemed to be about 24—I left. On the way home on BART four young men were break dancing for contributions. It was fun to watch and I wished I’d brought something less than a couple twenty dollar bills so I could give them a few bucks. (It felt weird asking for change. Should I have?)

And I thought: I don’t really need these networking events anymore, but they’re fun to go to occasionally, and moreover, they really are the bloodstream of the younger part of our wine and food culture. Everyone I met had already had three or four “careers” in their search for one that suited them. One guy had been a teacher, a techie and had worked in publishing, before ending up in the food business. These folks, at their tender age, are still figuring out where they want to be and what they want to do insofar as work is concerned. They’re happy to be living in San Francisco or the East Bay (although prices are killing them). For a veteran like me, it was refreshing to see such burgeoning passion and talent incubating in the Bay Area, which is such a remarkable fount of creativity, from the programmers of Silicon Valley to the musicians and chefs of Oakland. I sometimes think of it as a kaleidoscope of personalities, dreams, ambitions and skills, always shifting and transforming into beautiful patterns of symmetry and color. From it will emerge the successes of tomorrow.


Fountaingrove joins the AVA party

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Last July, I wrote that the Fountaingrove District AVA was probably coming.

Now, it’s here.

TTB first published the Notice of rulemaking only last June, which means the whole process took less than a year. That’s pretty good! Evidently there was no disputation, which is rare for a new appellation. Fountaingrove now becomes Sonoma County’s 17th AVA. Welcome!

At 38,000 acres, it’s mid-sized, a little bigger than Fort Ross-Seaview, a little smaller than Yorkville Highlands. The word “Fountaingrove” is an old one for this part of eastern Sonoma County. It was the name of a utopian commune founded near Santa Rosa in 1875; the winery of the same name quickly followed. (I mention the following historical footnote only because, well, I want to: Fountaingrove’s founder, and his commune, were said by the wine historian Leon Adams to indulge in “bizarre occult and sexual practices.”) Be that as it may, Fountaingrove had a good history: by 1942, our old friend, Mary Frost Mabon, was able to write, in her ABC of America’s Wine, that Fountaingrove was “a fascinating property with a romantic history [and that] tourists…find a very hospitable tasting-room.” She liked, in particular, the Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon, and especially a 1935 Pinot Noir she called “one of the top wines of California, and a true California Burgundy…”.

Fountaingrove’s boundaries run from just northeast of Santa Rosa almost to the Napa County line; it’s a hilly region that touches these other appellations: Chalk Hill, Diamond Mountain, Sonoma Valley, Calistoga and Russian River Valley. According to the TTB’s establishment ruling, the average growing season temperature is warmer than areas to the west but cooler than those to the east—as you’d expect. It is classified as a Region II on the old U.C. Davis scale. The soils are primarily Franciscan bedrock overlaid with volcanic residue, as they are throughout the Mayacamas. Elevations range from 400 feet to 2,200 feet.

I suspect, based on my past experiences, that the chief grape of Fountaingrove District is likely to emerge as Cabernet Sauvignon, which could be similar to Cabs from the higher stretches of Alexander Valley. There will be plenty of Chardonnay, too. We’ll see how Fountaingrove’s reputation evolves on Pinot Noir.

Interestingly, Fountaingrove became an AVA on the same day the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance announced they have officially submitted a petition for AVA status. I was interviewed yesterday on these topics by a reporter for the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, who asked me a number of questions, including why petitioners want their own AVAs. Two reasons, I answered: economics and pride. The smaller the appellation (in general), the more you can ask for the bottle. But also: Petitioners are proud of their terroir. They want consumers to know, with some precision, where the grapes come from—not just from someplace in a county, but a specific region in that county.

The reporter also asked me if I think Sonoma has too many AVAs. No, I said. France has, what? A gazillion. Rather than being confusing, I think AVAs are clarifying—but ONLY to the extent they’re well thought out. Sonoma didn’t used to be so good at thinking out their AVAs. But they’ve learned their lesson. They’re much more thorough in their research nowadays, much more sensible in defining boundaries, and also more collaborative, to avoid those unseemly internal battles that marked AVAs in the past, not only in Sonoma but just about everywhere. Finally, the reporter asked me if Sonoma is running out of new AVAs. Nope. They’ll sub-appellate Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast further, as they should.


Some non-wine books that influenced me

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Forbes’ Cathy Huyghe, who is turning into one of the most interesting wine writers I know of, wrote late last week about the best non-wine books for wine communicators to read. This is a novel approach; we established wine writers often advise younger ones to read classic wine writers like Harry Waugh, Hugh Johnson and Michael Broadbent, but Cathy is exactly right when she says you can be “a better wine writer [by] read[ing] widely and especially outside the category of wine.”

Cathy didn’t list her own reccos (I wish she had) but instead asked others whom she ran into at the Wine Writers Symposium for theirs. (You can read her article here.)

I’m going to offer my own list of non-wine books. I can’t say that they’ll be helpful to all wannabe wine writers, because these things are terribly personal. But I can say that these are books and writers who have been helpful to me, in terms of informing my style and approach.

There’s a sort of truism in Eastern religious philosophy that anyone you meet can be the Buddha, so you’d better pay attention to them all, in case they have something to teach you. I don’t know about the Buddha part, but it’s certainly true of writers. You never know when you’re going to read something that will stay with you for life! Sometimes it’s by someone super-famous; sometimes, it’s someone you’ve never heard of. It’s a mysterious process of osmosis, by which the writer’s style just sort of eases its way into your head. It’s not about copying or plagiarizing or trying to write like someone else; it’s just that something about the writer impacts you in such a profound way that you find yourself “borrowing” some aspect of that writer’s manner or tone. So here are some writers whose works have informed my own writing in important ways.

Winston Churchill. I’ve read pretty much everything he ever wrote, in many cases several times. Churchill had impeccable grammar and sentence and paragraph structure. His sentences were incredibly complex: long and winding, yet as intricately organized as a symphony score. He knew how to tell a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, in a stately way. He wrote about massively important historical things, yet told them from a personal point of view that makes you feel you were right there beside him. He also was a strong personality who didn’t try to keep his feelings out of his writing, despite a thorough grounding in journalism. Churchill was, in fact, an emotional man, a fact that most people don’t realize. In his epic “The Second World War,” you can feel his emotions—joy, sadness, excitement, anger, disappointment, humor, even a needling sarcasm. He is a joy to read.

Gore Vidal. I put him on my list because, in addition to being a very good, proper writer, he was wickedly funny. I don’t think the word “snarky” existed in his time, but he was witty and stylish, and was able to make history come alive by inhabiting the inner lives of his characters. And he never wrote anything of inconsequence; whatever he wrote brimmed with importance and his own penetrating intelligence.

Celebrity memoirs. I know, I know; it’s undignified to admit I read ‘em and like ‘em. But I do! Some of my favorites have been Nancy Reagan’s “My Turn,” Lauren Bacall’s “By Myself and Then Some,” Jacques Pepin’s “The Apprentice,” J. Paul Getty’s “As I See It,” the Duke of Windsor’s “A King’s Story,” Keith Richards’ “Life,” and Katharine Graham’s “Personal History.” These were all wealthy, powerful people, and I like reading candid books where they reveal personal things about themselves (some of which are not flattering) that show the real human being behind the façade.

I always have a “latest book I loved” whose style definitely impacts my short-term writing and may go on to influence it long-term. I recently finished “The Savage City,” by T.J. English, a book I didn’t think I’d like but did, very much. It’s a documentary of life, crime and racial politics in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, a period I’m very familiar with. In fact, much of the action takes place in my boyhood neighborhood of the South Bronx. English obviously did a ton of research, paces himself beautifully, and knows how to tell a solid story with dramatic flair. He also writes with masculine power—not afraid to drop an F-bomb here and there, especially when he’s paraphrasing how people really talk. I like that muscular approach.

There is so much more to making a career as a wine writer than just reviewing all the free samples wineries will drop on you.


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