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The Empire Strikes Back: Laube Takes on IPOB

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Brother Laube comes out swinging against In Pursuit of Balance, in the Sept. 30 issue of Wine Spectator. (Sorry, no link. The Spectator has one of the best firewalls in the business. No subscribe, no read.) I’d been wondering how long it would take him. After all, Jim is famous for giving high scores to ripe, plush wines that can be high in alcohol—which is exactly what IPOB is against. You might even say that IPOB is the anti-Laube (and anti-Parker) establishment. So Jim had to declare himself sooner or later. He’s a nice, modest man who doesn’t pick fights, but even shy folks fight back, if attacked enough.

 

LAUBE

This isn’t to say that Jim is merely defending his own reputation. For there is something fundamentally irrational about IPOB. Jim implies this when he says that IPOB “admittedly [is] unable to collectively arrive at a definition of balance,” which is true enough: Ask around, and you’ll find that the majority of wine critics, sommeliers and merchants believe that the rationale of IPOB is for wines to be under 14% alcohol by volume. But I’ve heard co-founder Raj Parr say, at an IPOB event, that that’s not at all what IPOB is about. So what is it? IPOB’s Manifesto defines “balance” in rather boilerplate language. It doesn’t say anything about alcohol levels, only that alcohol should “coexist” alongside fruit, acidity and structure “in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.” But there’s something tautological about that statement, not to mention deeply subjective. Which leads back to the question, What is IPOB really about?

Well, publicity, for sure. There’s some real marketing genius at work with IPOB, which in the few short years of its existence has become something of an insurrectionist force rather like, well, another 4-letter acronym group: ISIS. I Googled “In Pursuit of Balance” and came up with 155,000 hits, but that doesn’t even begin to measure the impact IPOB has had in sommelier circles from San Francisco to New York and beyond. IPOB has, in effect, gone viral.

Jim also referenced the “contentious relationship [that] has developed between somms and producers,” and I’m glad he did, for his voice carries weight. His message—to somms—is that if they don’t put certain wines on their lists just because of “a number” (alcohol percent), they do a disservice to their customers, who may prefer those kinds of wines. Somms, of course, are famous for not liking wine magazines and wine reviewers, who are threats to their existence: If all you need is a famous critic’s score, then somms would be out of a job. So joining forces with IPOB is, for a somm, a way of fighting back against a media elite they never much cared for anyway.

Be that as it may, this is not a quarrel among equals. For Wine Spectator’s senior columnist—one of the most powerful wine critics in America, if not the world—to throw down the gantlet to IPOB is a significant gesture. Jim has presented his case cogently and respectfully, and mostly without snark. (Well, “dim somms” wasn’t his invention, it was Helen Turley’s.) I think In Pursuit of Balance must reply to the rather serious charge that it fundamentally doesn’t know what it’s talking about.

READERS: You can comment here, or join the conversation at my Facebook page.


Emotion, the Bee Gees and Bill Harlan: The power of persuasion

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“It’s just emotion that’s taking me over,” the Bee Gees crooned—emotionally—on their 1978 hit, “Emotion,” a song of unrequited love and the pain it can cause.

We all know how powerful emotions can be. If strong enough, they can, and do, overrule reason and common sense, and “take over,” driving their human to perform irrational and sometimes even self-destructive acts. But emotion also can inspire people to supreme creative heights: Beethoven’s deep depressions turn up in his Third Symphony, the Eroica, which is steeped in grief. But his Ninth, the Choral, is an explosion of the most ecstatic joy. (The suggestion that Beethoven was bipolar seems retrospectively to make sense.)

Emotion plays a role in our experience of wine, too. A recent Australian study suggests that people are influenced by emotions spanning the gamut from warm-heartedness and nostalgia to anger, even when they’re tasting wines blind. It’s not clear to me that this particular study is of any use to winemakers, beyond being a fairly interesting academic exercise. Far more insightful is this blog post from Clinton Stark on his responses to receiving an offer to buy Promontory, a new project from Bill Harlan. (I myself haven’t tasted it, but two years ago Bill Harlan explained the project to me, and I subsequently wrote about it in Wine Enthusiast.)

Clinton’s appraisal is that the appeal of Promontory, a $400 Bordeaux blend, is pretty much exactly the same as that of “rarified, non-discretionary luxury goods,” like “a purse, a painting, a sculpture,” or, more specifically, “a Porsche.” All trigger “feelings” of “inexplicable and illogical lust,” the result of “marketing” pitches (in his case, Promontory’s offer letter) that cause “woefully uncontrollable…desire” in Clinton’s all-too-human heart.

Clinton has had, in other words, an emotional response to the offer letter. Even though he knows that Promontory is just another red wine, albeit (one imagines) a very good one (after all, Petrus and Romanée-Conti are also “just” red wines), some part of himself—which he knows is irrational—wants it. He has a good attitude about the whole thing, though: recognizes his emotional response, views it with the correct admixture of detachment and wry amusement, and decides ultimately not to buy the wine, but to add the offer letter “to my collection.”

Are we to conclude, then, that the producers of expensive wine merely resort to marketing ploys that prey on our emotional triggers? Were things only that simple! Humans are too complicated to divide desire into two categories: desire based on real need, and desire not based on real need, with the latter category somehow illegitimate or silly. We do have emotions; our emotions help to define our humanness. (And I’m not saying that animals don’t have emotions. As Gus’s dad, I see the full rainbow spectrum of his.) Part of desire is aspirational: the person who loses, or voluntarily denounces, his aspirations may be a Mother Theresa type, but as Plato knew, self-interest lurks everywhere, in our saints as well as in our sinners; who is without aspiration of some kind is dead. The desire for something fine and rare—a wine, a Philip Milic tattoo, a Lamborghini, a Ty Cobb baseball card, an Oscar, a Superman Action Comic No. 1, a trip to outer space on Virgin Galactic, a Papal blessing—may be irrational, in the sense that it is not strictly to sustain life. But neither are love and much of what makes life so rich and interesting.

And then, even as I wrote this blog post, the phone rang and who should it be but Bill Harlan. Serendipity, you dazzle me! This was of course before he could have known about my next day’s post. He called about something else. We talked about Promontory, and I told him it  would be in the next day’s post. I said also how much I’ve always respected him personally as well as his wine businesses. None of what I have written above is meant in the slightest degree to disparage him, or whoever wrote his offer letter. I don’t think that was Clinton Stark’s point and it certainly isn’t mine! A large part of Bill’s genius is in dreammaking. Let he who is without the sin of self-aggrandizement cast the first stone. I’m just saying that at some point, wine doesn’t get any better no matter how high the price soars. What the buyer is looking for can’t be measured or expressed or even justified: it’s “just emotion,” and sometimes it can feel so good to let it take over.

Have a safe and happy Labor Day weekend! Back on Tuesday. (And aren’t you glad the Seventies are over!)

Bee_Gees_154.jpg


What makes a winery great?

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I took a rare day off from the blog yesterday, and I know you notice when I do, because I hear from you! Which I’m grateful for. I sometimes refer to my “Thursday Throwaway” and “Friday Fishwrap” posts, because I well know we writers must be appreciative of every individual who reads us—we shouldn’t assume anyone actually does–especially those readers who come every day expecting something new. I try to deliver—and usually do—but not always, as yesterday shows.

The reason I didn’t post yesterday was because I was up in Santa Rosa, working. And the nights were long. I won’t bore you with the details, but I was amazed to wake up in the morning (today, as I write this, yesterday as you read it) without a hangover. Yes, friends, it’s true: If you work in the wine industry, chances are you like to drink wine—and beer—and liquor. Sometimes all three together. So thanks to the Hangover Gods for sparing me.

The wine industry is a big place. I sometimes think consumers don’t know how big, or how complicated. Winemakers and owners tend to get 99% of the media ink (well, it’s not really ink these days, is it?). Growers occasionally are given a little credit. Left unsung are the teams that really make winemaking into a business: marketing, sales, distributors, the digital people (increasingly vital), the tasting room staff, and not to forget the payroll, human resources and other way-behind-the-scenes departments that keep teams running, healthy and paid on time. And the vineyard and winery workers! To all of them, we who love wine should give our profound thanks.

I’m fascinated by the different cultures each specialty has developed over time. These are broad-brush descriptions, but I think by and large they’re true. Sales guys—men and women—like to party hard at night. They’re on the road a lot, away from home and hearth, living the vagabond life, and it’s a bloodbath out there, as everyone in the business knows. You’re constantly trying to get people to buy your wine—people who are just as constantly trying to get you to lower your price. It’s trench warfare. No wonder, at night, when they’re back in the hotel, they hit the bar. I like hanging out with sales people at night because they’re funny and irreverent, with great senses of humor. They’re usually extroverted, which you have to be to be in sales, and since I’m rather introverted, they get me to come out of myself, which is fun. Distribution people tend to run along the same lines, although maybe they’re slightly less the party animals.

I like marketing and communications people too. I’ve written before here that many of my best friends in the wine industry are from P.R. They’re not the manipulative monsters they’re sometimes painted out to be—at least, not the better of them. They don’t want to lie and spin to people any more than they want to get lied to and spun. But we need to clear up something about marketing that’s always bugged me, and that’s the perception that it’s nothing but hype. Look, everybody markets something. You’re on a first date, you’re putting your best foot forward. You’re Screaming Eagle, you’re sending your winemaker out to meet-and-greets. You’re at a party, you smile and put on the charm. Nothing phony about it, you’re trying to get people to relax and like you, and you’re trying to like them. That’s all a good marketing or P.R. type is doing: smiling for the company that employs them, making friends, talking and listening.

I said before that winemakers tend to get all the media attention, but you know what? Winemakers love the teams that help them behind the scenes. They know they couldn’t do it alone, without the help and support of the staff. It may be a tiny little staff—at a mom and pop winery where Big Sister’s doing the financial stuff and Little Junior is tweeting and Instagramming. Or it may be a big company with hundreds or even thousands of employees. It’s all the same: a team. And it’s a curious fact, or maybe it’s not so curious, that the best wine seems to come from wineries with the happiest teams. I can’t prove it—but I’ve known an awful lot of winery employees over the years; some wineries have a “bad vibe” about them, with crazy, unempathetic bosses, and those are the wineries whose wines tend to be “Who cares?” But a happy winery—ahh, there’s a winery that makes good wine, because happy people don’t get behind B.S. wines based on B.S. hype and B.S. practices. They may work at such a winery, but they won’t be happy campers, because the essence of that winery is negative, and you can’t be happy working at a company ruled by negativity that comes from the top down.

A great winery is so because it was started by a great founder. Wineries don’t begin indifferently, with an ill-formed vision, and accidentally stumble into greatness. Great wineries are the manifestation of the visions of dreamers who know how to make their dreams come true. Andre Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi, Bill Harlan—we know who they are. Dreamers can be difficult—witness Steve Jobs. But for all the people who complained he could be a total bastard, they all agreed that he pushed them beyond their limitations and forced them to do things they didn’t think they were capable of. Or, to put it another way, Steve Jobs didn’t force them; they forced themselves to be more than they were, because they were inspired by Steve and wanted to live up to his expectations and gain his approval. I don’t know of a single great winery in the world that doesn’t operate according to that principle, where the expectation is utter greatness. It feels dreadful not to live up to that expectation; to succeed at it is divine. May it be ever thus.


More on the earthquake

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You’ll have to forgive me for feeling a little philosophical today about our wine industry, but a disaster will do that to you. We still don’t know the full extent of the damage from the big Napa earthquake, and we may never, but the fact is, if you escaped unscathed—as most wineries and wine businesses did—you’re counting your lucky stars. But if you were one of those impacted, I just hope your earthquake insurance was paid up.

Here’s a roundup from the Napa Valley Register, as of late yesterday afternoon. As you can read, some wineries are going to be digging themselves out of the damage for a long time. My heart goes out to Trefethen, Sciandri and others in that terrible situation, and to the local businesses in downtown Napa for whom life may never be the same.

How things can change in an instant! We go about our lives complacently, planning on the next dinner, the next meeting, the weekend—and then, Boom! Literally out of the blue something happens and the proverbial apple cart is not only upset, in some cases it’s turned into splinters. It’s happened to me, it’s probably happened to you although I hope not for it’s truly terrible when it does. What the answer is, I don’t know (I told you I’m feeling philosophical), except to expect the unexpected. Or “hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” as the old saying goes.

Actually, the epicenter of the event they’re now calling the South Napa Earthquake occurred, not in American Canyon as was at first widely reported (based on the USGS), but in Napa itself—specifically, beneath the Napa Valley Marina, on the Napa River. The break was in the West Napa Fault, believed to be an offshoot of the Calaveras Fault, which runs through the far East Bay,

 

faultmap

 

more or less parallel to the Hayward Fault, on which I live; all are, of course, part of the infamous San Andreas Fault System. The West Napa Fault has been active before: it was responsible for the sizable Yountville Hills Earthquake of 2000 (magnitude 5.2), so to have called it a relatively unknown fault isn’t quite accurate. What geologists have learned in California, though, is that they’re far from having a complete understanding of just where all the fault lines are, or how powerful an earthquake any of them can trigger. We saw that after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, which seemed to take everybody by surprise, and led to a rather alarmed discussion about so-called blind thrust faults, which are like blind wine tastings in that nobody knows quite what’s going on. Los Angeles supposedly is riddled with such blind thrust faults; the speculation that one (or more) of them could rupture is one of the more dire scenarios for a city not short on apocalyptic futures.

Anyhow, the cleanup in Napa, Vallejo, AmCan and the surrounding areas goes on. Have a great day.


A tasting at Verité

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Wonderful trip yesterday to Verité, the Jackson Family-owned property that quite frankly is killing it in Bordeaux blends. I’ve been on that opinion at least since I gave the 2006 La Muse a perfect 100 points, their first ever; but not their last, for Robert Parker recently gave no fewer than seven 100-point scores to Verité, an unprecedented fact that causes me to joke that he copied me. The winery was begun by Jess Jackson, who met winemaker Pierre Seillan, in 1996; Jackson wanted to know if Seillan, who was then working in Bordeaux, could “make a wine of equal quality to Chateau Petrus.”

Seillan has told this story over the years, always with an insructable grin on his face, but the fact is that, Petrus or no Petrus, he has succeeded at Verité in a huge way. So it was with eagerness (to say the least) that I drove up to Healdsburg in a heavy late August mist, the day after the big Napa earthquake.

The winery itself is fairly humble, on Chalk Hill Road, near where the appellations of Chalk Hill, Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley come together. The grapes come from various estate vineyards in Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Bennett Valley and Chalk Hill; the wines thus are blends. There are three in each year: La Muse (mainly Merlot), La Joie (based on Cabernet Sauvignon) and Le Desir (primarily Cabernet Franc); the precise cepage of course varies from vintage to vintage.

Here are six notes on the wines we tasted. All are easily twenty year wines, maybe thirty.

FIRST FLIGHT

2010 La Muse. Despite a difficult, cool vintage, the wine is flashy and explosive in cherries, blackberries, cassis, red licorice and toast. But it is very young and fairly tannic, a little soft, yet elegant. While bone dry, the finish is sweet in fruity essence and sweet spice. I would lay this down until 2018 and see how it develops through the 2020s.

2010 La Joie. The inky black color surely is from all the Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) in the blend. Huge cabernet nose, with intense black currant and cassis flavors, and a bracing minerality. Good overlay of smoky oak. Tight, dry, tannic, but extraordinarily powerful and impressive. Another wine that needs plenty of time. 2018-2030.

2010 Le Desir. The most expressive and feminine of the 2010s. Is that from the Cab Franc (50%)? Graceful, yet quite tannic. Sour cherry candy, red currant, cherry liqueur. Fabulous stuffing. A potential masterpiece, with time. Drink 2020 and beyond. This was indisputably the wine of the flight.

SECOND FLIGHT

2004 Le Desir. Smells a bit hot, with grilled currant and cherry, toast, and spice notes. Such heady perfume. Grace, power, elegance, finesse. A bit spirituous, porty, but not too much. An interesting wine, still fresh. Bone dry, sticky tannins, aging well. Could improve, but for me, the alcohol (14.7%) is beginning to show through.

2004 La Muse. At ten years of age, turning the corner, developing bottle bouquet. Primary fruits turning dry: dried cherry, tobacco, raspberry, sous bois (could this be the Merlot, which comprises 85% of the blend?), orange zest, lots of sweet spice and smoke. Huge extract, sweet in fruit, yet dry in the finish. So expressive now, pure, generous, fat. Very complex and spicy. Will last for many more years.

2004 La Joie. A huge wine. At ten years, changing, with the fresh fruit drying out and developing secondary bottle notes. Power and elegance combined. Extraordinary complexity. Dried fruits, minerals, dried herbs, sweet licorice, sweet spice, espresso, orange zest. For me, the top wine of the flight, balanced and pure; but then, the alcohol is the lowest (14.2%). Elegant, great finesse and structure. Very great now, and will take another ten years, at the very least.

We were fortunate also to taste through three vintages of Cenyth, a sort of “junior” Verite ($60 to the latter’s triple-digit release price). Like Verite it is a Sonoma County blend; in three vintages the blend has varied, from Cabernet Sauvignon-based in 2009 to Merlot-based in 2010 and Cabernet Franc-based in 2011. Pierre’s daughter, Hélene Seillan, is gradually inheriting the winemaking role.

2009 Cenyth. Rich, opulent, a “Californian” wine. Oodles of blackberries and cherries. Good grip, soft acidity, spicy finish. Lots of admirable qualities. Drink now-2017.

2010 Cenyth. Softly tannic, fleshy (that has got to be the Merlot). Some floral notes, blackberries, cherries, currants. Lots of sweetness, an opulent, generous wine. Drink now-2018.

2011 Cenyth. The most elegant of the flight, drier and better structured than the others. Good acidity highlighting chewy fruit. Very dry, great charm and finesse, not as apparently sweet as the ’09 and ’10, which for me was a plus. Hélene explained how challenging the chilly vintage was; I told her Nature had given her a lemon from which she made lemonade.


Earthquake rattles nerves, causes extensive damage in Napa area

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The shaking woke me up at exactly 3:19 a.m. early Sunday morning. It woke Gus up, too. I’ve been awakened many times in the middle of the night by earthquakes but Gus never was. The last several years have been remarkably quiet in the Bay Area, enough so that I’ve had several conversations lately about how “overdue” we seemed to be. The thinking is that small quakes act as a pressure valve to release seismic energies building up underground, so if there aren’t small quakes for a while, you end up with a big one.

Of course, yesterday’s 6.1 on the West Napa Fault wasn’t “the Big One.” Neither for that matter was 1989’s Loma Prieta, which was 6.9 magnitude. But it was still a big earthquake. It lasted for a long time, too. As I held onto Gus—who was freaking out—in the bed, I kept thinking it has to stop soon, because they always do. Loma Prieta, for example, was only 8-15 seconds long, depending on where you were. This one—which I don’t think the USGS has named yet—lasted for what seemed like at least 30 seconds in Oakland, which is an eternity when everything is rocking and rolling. A neighbor told me he’d heard it was 50 seconds long, although I can’t verify that. It was a very noisy event, too; everything in my place was jangling and rattling, although nothing fell down or over, and  strangely, no car alarms went off in my neighborhood.

As soon as the shaking stopped I took Gus and ran over to my computer. Went to the USGS “Latest Earthquakes” website, but it wasn’t even up yet. Then went to their “Did You Feel It?” site, where you can report your own experiences and also see the reports of others. This information is important for USGS to compile “shake maps.” I must have been one of the first to report it, because I didn’t see any other reports, but within minutes other reports popped up, from all over the Bay Area but especially in the East and North Bays. Then I went to Twitter—this was still within minutes of the event—and tweeted. I didn’t see any other tweets. Now, of course, as I write this (Sunday afternoon), #napaquake and #earthquake are the top two San Francisco trending topics. Number three is American Canyon.

AmCan is where lots of wineries store their wines, in the warehouses that line the west side of Highway 29. I suspect reports will slowly filter in over the next few days concerning the extent of the damage. I’ve also heard, at this time, of fairly significant damage at Trefethen, in the Oak Knoll Distrist, and at Sebastiani, which is way over in Sonoma Valley. I’m worried about Jackson Family’s own Carneros Hills Winery, right off the Carneros Highway, which itself suffered fairly significant damage in the way of huge cracks in the asphalt. The Napa Airport, as I write, reportedly is shut down because the control tower was badly damaged. And then there’s downtown Napa. What a mess. Poor little downtown, with its old brick and masonry buildings. They’re the first to topple, as they did in the 2003 Paso Robles earthquake, which killed several people. Fortunately, no one in this earthquake has been reported dead, although scores of people were injured, some seriously. Gov. Brown declared a state of emergency in the region. And CNN just reported that initial estimates of damage could run to $1 billion.

We live in earthquake country here in coastal California, that’s for sure. Just in case we ever forget it, something like yesterday happens to remind us. I myself live just about on top of the fault the USGS calls the most dangerous in California, the Hayward Fault. Hayward is the city just south of Oakland. It last ruptured in a big way in 1868; the periodicity is said to be every 120 years. Do the math. A 7.0 on the Northern Hayward would pretty much take out Berkeley, Oakland, Hayward and parts of Silicon Valley. This is a major fear on the part of elected officials; the most they can do is warn us to “get ready for it,” whatever that means. I suppose having an earthquake kit makes sense—some water, canned food (don’t forget the can opener), first aid kit—but what good will that do if your building falls down around you?

I wish all the people in the North Bay and Napa Valley good luck in your recovery efforts. Napa will bounce back, as Paso Robles did. Things could have been a lot worse yesterday, so let’s count our blessings and clean up. Here’s the link to the Napa Valley Vintners earthquake update page, which they promise to update on an as-needed basis. there’s also this Help Needed forum from wineindustryinsight.com.


When it’s time to kiill off a brand

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When is it time to retire a tired brand?

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that Procter & Gamble is thinking of dropping one of its flagship brands, Ivory Soap, as part of an effort “to clear out weaker performers to focus on…brands that account for almost all its revenue and profit.”

Ivory Soap’s ads were a part of every Baby Boomer’s life.

Ivory

Who could forget the T.V. announcer telling us “it’s 99 and 44/100ths percent pure”? The first Ivory T.V. commercial aired in 1939, on a Cincinatti Reds-Brooklyn Dodgers game, just 5 months after television was introduced in the U.S. By the 1950s, Ivory was a sponsor of soap operas, like The Guiding Light (I still remember my Grandma Rose faithfully watching it every afternoon). In the mid-1970s, Ivory made advertising history by sponsoring the “Nominate the Ivory Girl” contest; we see wineries today doing similar things.

So why would P&G kill the brand off? “Marginal or underperforming brands collectively are holding back the company, which needs to be more nimble in a competitive environment,” says the WSJ, noting that Ivory’s share of the U.S. bar soap market has dropped to 3.4%, down nearly 20% from ten years ago.

No doubt company execs feel a strong bond for Ivory, which “got P&G into the magic of branding.” But no management team can afford to keep a dying brand on life support forever. So how does a company know when it’s time to pull the plug?

That brands come and go is no secret. Ever hear of these wineries: Monte Vista, Old Madrid, Mancuso, Garrett & Co., Colton, Poway, Scatena Bros.? All were thriving 70 years ago; now, all gone, alas. Why? “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s maxim suggests that the demise of each winery or brand is due to its own peculiar causes; but we can generalize about them all and say they failed to keep up with the times.

You can tell when a winery’s failing to keep up with the times by looking at who it sells wine to, especially through its club. Are its customers all “of a certain age”? If they are, the winery has one foot in the grave, literally. This is why wineries are so interested in reaching out to Millennials. At least, they’ll be around for a while.

Actually, the analogy to “pulling the plug” is apt for this reason: How do you know when it’s actually time to do it? This can be an unbelievably difficult decision for a wine company trying to figure out what to do with an underperforming brand. Ownership may have a lot of time, experience and love invested in the brand; there’s always the chance that things can be turned around with the right marketing and sales plan. One doesn’t want to act precipitously: once you’ve killed a brand, it ain’t ever coming back.

I think I know some brands out there in California that won’t be around ten years from now. I could be wrong: there are brands I thought were moribund in 2000 that are still alive. Anyhow—have a great weekend!


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