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Chalone Doldrums



It has been terribly sad, for a veteran wine guy like me, to witness the trials and tribulations of Chalone Vineyard over the years. When I first got into this racket, in the late 1970s, Chalone was respected as one of the pioneering Pinot Noir houses in California. Bob Thompson, in 1980, gave it four stars—his highest ranking—and said the “splendidly isolated winery…under direction of Richard Graff” was producing “one of California’s closest challengers to red Burgundy.” That same year, Olken, Singer and Roby, in The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of California Wine, praised this “much revered winery” whose “best [wine] continues to be superb.” Even fifteen years later (1995), Jim Laube, in California Wine, was praising Chalone’s Pinot Noirs as “great wines, capable of long aging,” but a hint of critical negativity was beginning to creep in: the wines, Jim added, “are also austere and often tannic to a fault.” The cracks in Chalone’s reputation were showing.

That accorded with my own experiences of the wines; the highest score I was ever able to give a Chalone Pinot Noir was 90 points, for the 2004, although I always found the Chardonnays richer and better. It’s fair to say, I think, that by the new Millennium, Chalone had firmly fallen out of favor among critics as a producer of great California Pinot Noir, eclipsed as it was by dozens of top houses extending from Santa Barbara County on up through the Anderson Valley (and, beyond California, to the Willamette Valley).

What was the problem? My own suspicion always was that Chalone, located politically in the Monterey County town of Soledad (think: Salinas Valley chill) but physically situated 1,800-2,000 feet up in the eastern Gavilan (or Gabilan) Mountains, was too hot a place for Pinot Noir. It might have been thought of as a “coastal” growing region, but it really wasn’t; Chalone’s own website describes the vineyard as “Region IV” in warmer years, a temperature span that U.C. Davis defines as measuring up to 4,000 degree days per year, which is suitable, says the website CalWineries, not for Pinot Noir, or even Zinfandel for that matter, but for “Malvasia [and] Thompson Seedless.”

On the plus side, the Chalone AVA soils are pockmocked with limestone (as they are at Calera, not too far away), and the nights are quite cool, with a diurnal swing of as much as 50 degrees. But those summer daytime high temperatures can be brutal. To my way of thinking, the hot climate and exaggerated U.V. sunlight at that altitude make the grapes develop thick skins—hence Laube’s “tannic to a fault.” The wines lacked delicacy and charm. And over the past twenty years or so, rugged tannins—once the darling of critics, whether in Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir—have fallen out of favor.

Poor Chalone suffered, too, in its ownership. Long held by Diageo, after the original founders passed from the scene, Chalone seemed to descend into a netherworld of three-tier doldrums. It maintained a visible presence in the marketplace, not, unfortunately, by dint of quality, but through the force of Diageo’s marketing and advertising budget: most of the major wine and food magazines ran frequent “advertorials” on Chalone (and Diageo’s other California properties, including Beaulieu and Sterling); I should know, because I wrote some of them. When a wine writer is paid to write an advertorial (which never reveals the writer’s byline), he must think of pleasant things to say about the wines: not so easy, in Chalone’s case.

Therefore it was not surprising to read, yesterday, that when Diageo sold a portion of its wine portfolio to Treasury, Treasury “turned down the offer to buy Chalone.”

Why? It’s true that Treasury didn’t want or need tons more Chardonnay, which Chalone produces plenty of, to add to its portfolio. Still, the snub added insult to injury. Now, Diageo, which pretty much wants out of the wine business, is seeking to sell Chalone to someone else.

Exactly who that someone else might be cannot be known until a buyer steps forward. Chalone is a large winery (166,000 cases last year), making it difficult to absorb if not indigestible; and, as Shanken News Daily also reported, given that it has “lost steam over the last few years,” why anyone would want it is a good question. Chalone does still have a strong brand presence, particularly in off-premise markets such as supermarkets. Throw in some recipe cards and manager’s specials, and the cash flow would seem to be there, provided the retail price is right. So I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Chalone by any means.

But we have seen the last of its glory days, which are rapidly disappearing in the rear view mirror. Could someone come along and resurrect Chalone to greatness? I really don’t think so, and it’s not just the terroir. Like Beaulieu, like Sterling, like so many other once-boutique wineries that got caught up in the corporate shuffle, Chalone made the decision to go for quantity over quality. That decision, once made, tends to be irreversible.

Appellations in Wonderland



The more I get into the details of appellation formation here in California, the weirder things get. I feel like Alice through the looking glass: “Curiouser and curiouser!”

Wine appellations in Europe are easy to understand. The grape variety or varieties are, in general, matched to the region, after hundreds if not thousands of years of vintners having determined that the variety is perfect for the terroir and vice versa. Thus Chenin Blanc in Touraine, for example, or Pinot Noir in the Cote d’Or.

The strength of this system is that there can be no doubt that grape and appellation are a perfect fit. The French (who created this system) are sticklers for legalité; they like things neat and orderly, and the AOC system is both of those (although it does get messy at times!).

The neatness comes, of course, at a cost: Vintners must plant only permissible grapes (and in permissible ways), or else they cannot use the appellation on the label. It could be that Chardonnay grows great in Pessac; we’ll never really know, because why would a winery in Pessac make Chardonnay when their Cabernet Sauvignon will fetch such a hefty bottle price?

Still, Europe’s appellations make as much sense as one can reasonably expect. Here in California, if I understand the process correctly (and I think I do), the connection between variety and appellation is non-existent; the TTB doesn’t care what the grower plants there. If somebody petitioned them for a Mohave Desert AVA, and could fulfill all of the other requirements, they’d get their AVA, despite the fact that no grape variety I know of—certainly not vitis vinifera—could grow in the desert. To use another example, if somebody wants to grow Pinot Noir in Calistoga—where it demonstrably does not do well—they’d be perfectly entited to put “Calistoga” on the label.

The requirements TTB does want are, first, some sort of similarity of, and evidence for, terroir (soils and climate) within the proposed AVA boundaries, and evidence that the proposed name has historical antecedents. The terroir consistency is obvious and warranted, the name requirement less so. In France, appellation names are millennially ancient. Bordeaux has been Bordeaux, Burgundy Burgundy, Champagne Champagne for far, far longer than the entire history of the United States. In California, history (at least, the white man’s) didn’t even really begin until the 19th century; you can’t look to history to justify a name like Fort Ross-Seaview, Pine Mountain or Mt. Harlan, because by and large those place-names didn’t exist until relatively recently. So the TTB can’t be very fussy about historical references. Still, they want something, even if the historical connection is weed-slender: If I proposed “Mount Heimoff” it would be an utter non-starter.

Another thing TTB wants—or, to be more accurate, doesn’t want—is controversy. The last thing those bureaucrats need is for locals in a proposed new AVA, or an expanded one, to be at war with one another, waiting for TTB to be the judge and jury. They’ve been there, done that, and learned their lesson: it’s not gonna happen again. The process of appellation-ing has become so politicized that TTB has said, in essence: Don’t come to us with a petition unless you have all your neighbors on board.

I’d like, someday, for our AVA system to contain some sort of reference to specific varieties. I doubt that it will ever happen; in fact I’ll bet my last dime it won’t. But it would add greater authenticity to a system that, frankly, has become so random, so chaotic and political, that it really lacks much informative value to the consumer—which, after all, is the whole point, isn’t it?

Another dark side of social media, especially blogs



Hardly a day goes by when I, as the author/owner of this blog, don’t get at least one pitch from someone selling a product or service. The pitch usually begins with the writer telling me how much they enjoy reading, and then they identify themselves, tell me about the product or service they’re selling, and add that they’re convinced that my audience—my readers—will be interested in said product or service. This is followed by an invitation to me to be sent a free sample of the product (it can be a bottle opener or an aerator or whatever), or, if it’s a service, the writer will sometimes offer to pay me a fee of some kind.

Well, I don’t even bother responding to these pitches; into the Trash bin they go. I’m a fairly polite person when it comes to replying to personal communications (and Lord knows I hate it when somebody doesn’t respond to mine), but these pitches don’t feel like they were written expressly to me. They feel like templates that just happen to arrive in my in-box, but really the identical email could have arrived (and probably did arrive) in 1 Wine Dude’s in-box, or Jo Diaz’s, or any of hundreds of other bloggers who are perceived to have some impact in the wine industry.

I suppose there’s nothing legally or morally wrong with such an approach. But it does raise, to me anyway, questions about transparency. If I were to blog about some sensational new aerator, would it be incumbent upon me to let you know that the owner of the aerator company sent me a few of the gizmos? If I told you that, would it color your perception of my review? Or let’s take it a step further. This morning I got this article in my in-box detailing “marketing strategies that don’t involve social media.” One of them suggested that bloggers might be asked to host a giveaway on his or her site by collecting email entries you can add to your newsletter.” The way that would work, I guess, is that I, the blogger, would announce a contest on my site in which you, the contestant, would send me your entry via email, which I would then “share” with the manufacturer of the thing to be given away. Now, that would pretty much make me a marketing agent of the manufacturer, not an independent blogger, wouldn’t it? And what would I get out of it? A quickie post, for sure, but also the author of the “marketing strategies” article adds this: “Understand that you may have to give them [the blogger] a freebie of your product and/or a fee to be featured or reviewed.”

Wow. I have a lot of problems with wine blogs, but this non-transparent collision of editorial independence and paid shilling takes the cake.

It is very, very important for readers to thoroughly know if a blogger is benefiting in any way, shape or form from the content of a post. Ideally, the blogger will volunteer that information upfront (and the Federal government has taken and is taking steps to ensure such candor). Still, there are ways for bloggers to hide indirect forms of compensation. I would never do that; neither would most bloggers I know, but some would; and the problem extends beyond blogs to other forms of social media, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where a positive word or image about a product or service can be advertising. If somebody sends me that aerator, and I praise it on Facebook, do I have an obligation to inform my “friends” that I got a freebie? Just asking.

How did you get into wine?



I was up over the weekend in beautiful Seattle for my grand-nephew, Joey’s, bar mitzvah, a large and decidedly inter-ethnic affair: in my extended family we have, not only Jews, but Filipinos, Central Americans, African-Americans, Syrians and folks from just about every country in Europe—a veritable United Nations of humanity.

Not everyone knows everybody else; in fact, we were joking that the only person who knew everyone was our hostess, the mother of the bar mitzvah boy, who did the invites; but I think even for her, some of the names were familiar only from paper. So, as you might expect, there were lots and lots of introductions, and the usual ice-breaking topics like “Where are you from?” and “How are you related to Joey?”

There were doctors, and engineers, and builders, and gas station owners, and administrative types of all kinds, and so forth (one in-law I met breeds hunting dogs in Kansas). Usually, when you learn of most of these occupations, you might nod in acknowledgment and make a few politely perfunctory remarks (“Oh, a doctor? What kind?”) and then, having satisfied that most elementary form of getting-to-know-you, move onto the next topic. But wine writing (if that’s the proper description of what I do, and I’m not so sure it is) seems to elicit more curiosity than most other fields of endeavor. The common reaction is an arch of the eyebrows accompanied by a widening of the eyes, meant to convey an impression of surprise, curiosity and, perhaps, a bit of incredulity that anyone, especially in this rather ordinary family, could possibly make a living from something so exotic.

People understand, I suppose, that America has a rather large wine industry, and that somebody has got to work in it; but judging from the reaction I get, most of them have never actually met such an individual (which always makes me feel rather like an alien). There may follow questions like “Whom do you work for?” or “Exactly what is it that you do?” and of course I’m perfectly happy to go into as much or as little detail as seems warranted under the circumstances (I can usually tell if my stories start to bore people). But the biggest question of all—the one everybody asks, as invariably as the sun rises in the east—is: “How did you get into wine?”

I have my standard answer for that, too, which involves the tale of my cousin and me in the Safeway wine aisle, back in late 1978; but I won’t repeat that now. It’s actually odd for that particular question—“How did you get into wine?”—to arise so often. I mean, very few people ask, for example, “How did you get into insurance?” or whatever (although the trainer of hunting dogs told me he does get asked a lot about that, which I believe, because I also asked him). I think most people just don’t care all that much how most folks “got into” their jobs.

But wine seems obviously different. I have my theories as to why, but I confess they’re only that—conjectures—and I have no proof that I’m right. Wine conjures up in most people’s minds something romantic, mysterious, glamorous, and, as I said, exotic, but it’s also slightly risqué, perhaps even dissolute. It’s not just that it’s alcohol; it’s wine, not “just” beer or spirits. Although wine is in everybody’s life, even people who don’t drink (after all, we all pass the wine aisle in the supermarket, and the floor stacks, and we see Kathie Lee and Hoda getting pleasantly blitzed on morning T.V., and you can’t pick up a lifestyle magazine without something about wine), wine retains, for all its ubiquity, a tantalizingly “other” feeling that separates it from the “real” or workaday world. (Whether that’s good or not is another story.) Therefore, someone who works in the wine world shares that aura of otherworldliness.

I guess people think that folks like me spend our days drinking fabulous vintages in idyllic places, while barefoot servants come and go, speaking, not of Michaelangelo, but “More caviar? Lobster mousse? Champagne?,” as we engage in amusing chit-chat with glamorous, beautiful people. That’s sheer nonsense. (If you want to know the reality, send me, as Click and Clack say, a hundred dollar bill, and I’ll write the answer on the back.) But wine always has been as much about fantasy as about anything else; and if the fantasy ever disappears, so will much of the ambience surrounding wine.  I do not always disabuse people entirely of their misconceptions; neither do I entirely enlighten them.

Anyhow, it’s great to be home in Oakland. Back to work tomorrow: lots of interesting assignments. Gus is glad to be back in his own bed, and so am I.


Why should no-tipping work in NYC when it didn’t in SF?



New York restaurateur Danny Meyer certainly made headlines yesterday when he announced that he’s eliminating tipping at all 13 of his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants.

The move caught the restaurant world by storm. Eater said it “would forever change how diners dine.” Slate blogger Jordan Weissman cracked that it “could be a tipping point.” Tim Zagat, of the Guide, quoted in the Daily News, said, “It means a lot…Danny Meyer knows what he’s doing [and] you better take him seriously.”

Well, of course, if someone in New York does something, it must be groundbreaking, right? New York is after all The Big Apple and as the Big Apple goes, so goes the nation.

Except…California did it first. Chez Panisse and The French Laundry have long included the tip in the price of the meal, but you could argue that those are exceptions because they’re not normal “restaurants,” they’re dining Disneylands. But earlier this year a flurry of other Bay Area restaurants followed suit: Trou Normand (love their charcuterie), Toast and Camino (both here in Oakland), the celebrated Atelier Crenn, Homestead and Bar Agricole, in the red-hot Mission District, and others.

But guess what? As I write these words, Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, broke the news that Thad Vogler, owner of both Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, “is ending his experiment and returning to the conventional model” of tipping.

Vogler’s reasons? “Staff retention.” He had assumed that other restaurants in San Francisco would follow his lead, but they didn’t. That meant his servers could make more money working elsewhere, so they quit. “[O]ur staff wasn’t happy,” Vogler said, adding, “[I]t felt like we were forcing an ideological decision” down their throats.

(I asked a friend of mine who works at Bar Agricole along with her husband, neither of whom is currently wait staff, how they felt about it, and she said they’re both in favor of ending the no-tipping policy.)

How do I feel about it? Well, last February, when the no-tipping trend really started getting reported about in the Bay Area, I blogged that “I’m in favor.” I had been getting most of my 9-1-1 on the topic from Bauer’s writings, and Bauer had eagerly embraced no tipping: Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit,” he wrote. But in retrospect, I didn’t really think things through carefully enough. And neither, apparently, did Bauer: in his post today, Bauer seems to be moving slightly away from his earlier embrace, remarking that “Not everybody is ready” to go to a no-tipping policy: restaurateurs, employees or consumers.

I can see that the move away from tipping is an attempt at modernizing a very old, and perhaps anachronistic, tradition that dates to at least the early 18th century. But I do wonder why the no-tipping policy should work for Danny Meyer in New York when it didn’t for Thad Vogler in San Francisco. Good servers, of the sort who work at Bar Agricole or Meyer’s Union Square Café, are at least as hard to find, and retain, in New York as they are in San Francisco. I wonder if, a year from now or less, we’ll hear Danny Meyer confess that, like Thad Vogler, he’s ending his noble experiment, and for the same reason.

Napa Cabernet better than Sonoma? A cliche



You all know that I work for Jackson Family Wines. I have so say that upfront, because of what I’m about to write, which is how good and fine a place Sonoma County is for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties in general.

If I were still the California wine critic for Wine Enthusiast magazine and I made that statement, I think people would take it at face value. They might or might not agree, but at least they’d believe that it was my own opinion, unbiased and uninfluenced by personal or venal considerations.

When you work for a winery, though, and you make a statement in praise of their wines and vineyards, people tend to be skeptical. And that’s entirely understandable. Having been on the receiving end of press releases and hype from P.R. types for decades, I would be skeptical, too, if I were you, to hear me say how great Sonoma Cab can be. I accept that risk and that criticism. But I’m going to say it anyway.

What brought this thought process to my mind was this article, from the drinks business, that describes how Verité, a Jackson Family Wines winery in Sonoma County, was the favorite wine in a recent tasting of “50 of London’s leading sommeliers.” The tasting included the esteemed Napa properties, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and Scarecrow. My friend Julia Jackson, the daughter of Barbara Banke and the late Jess Jackson, told the drinks business, accurately, that it’s not necessarily the right decision to go to Napa for cult Cabernet,” and that Sonoma is in “its infancy” when it comes to Cabernet and Bordeaux blends.

Julia alluded to another point, that Napa Valley has achieved its greater fame for Cabernet, even though the history of winemaking in Sonoma is older, because Sonoma doesn’t “have the same marketing resources as Napa.” That is undeniably true. The campaign waged by Napa Valley wineries over the last 40 years, to promote in particular Cabernet Sauvignon, has been relentless, well-financed and highly successful.

This obviously is not to say that Sonoma makes better Cabernet and Bordeaux blends than Napa Valley, or the other way around. It might actually be more accurate to say that northern California has a superb Cabernet zone that sweeps from the west-facing ridges of the Vaca Mountains, across Napa Valley, up and onto the east-facing slopes of the Mayacamas, then extends to the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas and its associated foothills, which are largely situated in the A.V.A. of Alexander Valley. The political lines of counties were not designed by nature, and are irrelevant from the point of view of terroir.

Napa’s aptitude for marketing was the topic of an opinion piece in yesterday’s Napa Valley Register newspaper that had to do with what the writer calls “extravagant marketing.”

He defines that as circus acts, jazz concerts, drive-in movies and very expensive wine/food pairing meals on winery grounds…designed to attract tourist dollars.” His point is that this “extravagant marketing” is responsible, to a large degree, for the tourism and associated congestion that many Napa residents (and those in other wine regions) have been complaining about.

Without getting into that thicket, it is reasonable to assert that the investment Napa vintners have made in these “extravagant events” has been responsible, to a large degree, for the worldwide fame Napa has achieved. I’m not putting Napa down for that, or suggesting that it’s in any way improper. Vintners have promoted their wines, and tied them to glamor, since time immemorial; it’s not like the Napans invented marketing!

But we do seem to be living at a time when old stereotypes are being discarded, and one of them, it seems to me—an important one—is that Napa Valley is the go-to place for high-end Bordeaux-style red wines in California. Not true. Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Chalk Hill, sometimes Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley—they all have their share of wonderful Cabs, usually at a fraction of the price of Napa. I hope that the Millennial bloggers and critics, who say they are entirely willing to topple old clichés, will recognize this truth, and write about it.

Thinking about appellations



I’ve been thinking about appellations lately, partly because I’m still reading—and immensely enjoying—Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, which contains so much useful information about them in France—but also because the nature of my work at Jackson Family Wines includes research into this area.

In France the issue of appellations is more or less settled. The regions are so ancient, their proclivities so well understood, that the names and boundaries, however complex, are simply codifications of realities that have been determined for centuries. There are of course outstanding questions—and there always will be—such as expanding the borders of Champagne, or who should be a St. Emilion Grand Cru, or should Alsace have a premier cru level. But, by and large, France’s appellations are fixed, and they make sense.

Here in California, the situation is anything but. Our existing AVAs are fixed, I suppose, to the extent that the TTB, which is an arm of the Treasury Department, has recognized them, and so—as with any government program—they are unlikely to be changed. Yes, an AVA may be tweaked around the edges: witness the Russian River Valley’s southern expansion, or the proposals to extend Santa Rita Hills to the east. But, as anyone knows who has studied our AVA process, it is haphazard to the point of chaos. It is true that politics in France also rears its head in appellation discussions, but in California, politics seems to play an outsized role. And our TTB—which also regulates firearms and ammunition—has not exactly shown itself to be the most intellectually logical place in the U.S. government for such things as regulating wine regions. What TTB seems to want is to avoid getting caught in internecine battles. And who can blame them?

Still, the TTB is what we are stuck with. Knowing how arbitrary the approval process can be, how political it is, with personalities and money wrapped up into considerations of terroir, and how bureaucratic is this arm of the government, how and why, then, should the consumer even care about AVAs? Well, the average consumer doesn’t. Let’s face it: price, variety, brand, availability and even label design play a greater role in the selection of wine than appellation. Then, a step up from the “average consumer” is the “informed consumer.” He or she does care about appellations, to a certain extent: Napa Valley means something to him (general approval, an expectation of greatness, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon). But beyond that, his awareness of appellations dims.

Who, then, is the target of the ever-expanding list of American AVAs, which now numbers—well, Wikipedia says 230, although that seems low to me. I think it’s mainly wine writers. They care about appellations, even if no one else does. When Paso Robles subdivided into eleven AVAs, do you think Americans lifted their glasses and toasted the birth of El Pomar and San Juan Creek? I don’t. But wine writers duly took note (and the gatekeepers who read them did, too). The writers who wrote about it felt they had to “understand” this move—it must have meant something, right? Otherwise why would the U.S. government have blessed it?—and they therefore gave Paso Robles more publicity than it ever would have gotten. So in this sense, appellations are just as much about P.R. as they are about terroir.

Well, yes…and no. It’s obvious that there must be terroir distinctions for grape varieties. We feel that intuitively; we know that experientally, through the feelings of our own bodies as we transit across various California landscapes, even those limited to the coastal regions. We “get” that Cabernet, or Pinot Noir, or Syrah (to mention only the more terroir-sensitive varieties) perform differently in different places: taste differently, ripen differently, have different acid profiles. Therefore we—the more thoughtful wine appreciators—are implicitly biased in favor of terroir distinctions, or appellations. The question, and it’s a huge one, is: Are these appellations, as defined by TTB, meaningful reflections of reality, or are they just examples of “he who has the most money, and the best lawyers, wins”?

There is no clear answer. Not every question that sounds as if it has an answer actually does. Still, I would argue, the effort must continue: to delineate individual appellations, based on terroir. We must resist the conclusion that it’s all a bunch of B.S., just because so much of it has been in the past. We have to work with the TTB—unfortunate as that is—to more precisely define AVAs like Russian River Valley, or Santa Rita Hills, or Santa Lucia Highlands, or Anderson Valley, or Alexander Valley, in order to zero in on particular local distinctions. This is important work. It may never be properly appreciated by hundreds of millions of consumers, nor need it be. But we owe it to wine, to the earth, to honesty and to ourselves to continue to try to understand it.

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