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How wine can be as cool as beer and cocktails

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It’s certainly true, as Robert Parker pointed out in his recent interview in The Drinks Business, that high wine prices are “a problem and a concern” and that they are creating “a caste system” in which “the younger generation” cannot afford top wines from regions such as “Burgundy, or Bordeaux, or from California.”

But there’s nothing really new about this situation. It’s been so forever. In fact prices for Bordeaux today, adjusted for inflation, are no higher than they were 100 years ago. What is interesting, to me, is the complex psychological contortions by which consumers (and some critics as well) arrive at the conclusion that price is a determinant of quality.

Long ago, vintners understood that the public suffers from this misapprehension. According to Edmund Penning-Rowell, who wrote what is still, to my mind, the most authoritative book on Bordeaux (“The Wines of Bordeaux,” 1969), Baron Phillippe’s [de Rothschild] intense conviction [was] that Mouton-Rothschild was as good as any first growth, and for his money better than most. The only way that this [i.e. rise in its perception by the market] could be achieved was by asking a price as high as any first growth and if possible higher than all.” As Penning-Rowsell later makes clear, the Baron “was able to do this successfully.”

Baron Rothschild, of course, also was the partner of Robert Mondavi in establishing Opus One, which, at the time of its launch (the first vintage was 1979), was the most expensive Californian wine.”

This strongly suggest that Mondavi learned his lesson in pricing from his friend. And we know, from personal experience, how many wineries, faced with tough sales, raised their prices, only to find demand radically increased.

Nowadays, the price of Opus One (about $240 for the 2011) pales in comparison to that of Screaming Eagle ($2,400 for the 2012 in the aftermarket). If your mind works the way most peoples’ minds work (including mine), it can be hard not to be impressed by that kind of price. A rational part of you thinks, “If it costs that much, and knowledgeable people are willing to buy it, then it must be one of the most fabulous wines in the world.” And, of course, these very famous and rare wines always are fabulous. But their prices bear no relationship to their quality, with respect to similar wines from similar appellations. This is why seasoned wine critics taste blind.

Back to Parker. He knows as well as anyone that the Bordeaux, Burgundies and Californians he helped push to astronomical heights can be very difficult to suss out in blind tastings. Why some people continue to buy them is, in fact, a matter for behavioral and cognitive scientists, not wine critics. As for the “younger generation,” I’m not so worried about them. They couldn’t afford Bordeaux First Growths in 1929, when Latour et. al cost nearly three times the price of Gruaud-Larose and Langoa, and they can’t afford it now.

Is price, as Bob speculates, “one reason why such people are turning to drinks other than wine.” ? It could well be, although good craft beer cannot be described as cheap. As I, and many other, observers have noted lately, beer and spirits seem to have the wind at their sails in a way wine at the moment does not, at least in our urban centers. Another question: Has this trend been created and fostered by the media, or did the media simply pick up on something that was already occurring on the street? As usual, it’s a little of both. What craft beer and cocktails have done—which wine has not—is to rise to the level of being cool. All those tattooed young mixologists, those hip brewmeisters, the trendy bars that have popped up from the Mission to Soho—they are the modern face of beer and spirits. What is wine’s modern face? As far as I can tell, it’s a young woman who opts for Pinot Gris on a date, your grandfather, or a somm.

I don’t overly fret about wine’s future because these trends come and go. Wine has been the most successful alcoholic beverage of all time for a very good reason; and what has worked for humans for thousands of years is likely to work for them for thousands more. Nor is wine in any particular financial trouble in the U.S. But it has lost a certain frisson of coolness, or at least the perception, the optics of frisson. In reality, wine is as cool as anything: winemakers themselves are as cool as any dashing mixologist, if not as visible.

But beer, in particular, is on a roll. In Britain, the brew industry is sponsoring a “There’s a beer for that” advertising campaign, crafted by the wildly successful filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes), that was launched on Downton Abbey, and also is huge on Twitter and other social media.

If the industry is to lure the under-35 crowd away from beer and spirits to wine, it has to find ways to speak to them in their own language, on their own turf. This involves an accurate and fearless study of how beer and spirits are actually succeeding. One could do worse, as an academic enterprise, to hang out in a Valencia Street bar and study who’s drinking what. I volunteer for this vital work in the field, as the Margaret Mead of the cocktail lounge.


Diageo moving towards “content information” on wine labels

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No one much noticed last Friday’s report in the Wall Street Journal that Diageo is going to start listing calorie counts “and other content information” on its spirits, including Johnnie Walker Scotch and Smirnoff vodka, “in what it said was a first for the industry.”

That nugget was buried on page B5 of the newspaper, on the same page as the weather. But it’s big news, with implications for the entire industry.

The article didn’t say anything about Diageo’s wine brands, which include Chalone, Sterling, Blossom Hill and Rosenblum. So I went to the company’s website and clicked on the “News & Media” link, which led to a March 19 press release from the company that strongly suggests that the disclosure will include wine. There is this phrase: Diageo believes that consumer information for alcohol is best provided per typical serve, so that consumers can understand the alcohol and nutrition content of serves of different drinks, which vary in size across beer, wine and spirits.” Moreover, at the bottom of the press release, in a “Notes to Editors,” as an “example,” the company showed a label of a Blossom Hill wine. The press release also hints that Diageo will go much further in their disclosures than simply listing the calorie content; they vowed also to reveal “nutrition information…,” although they didn’t say what specific nutrition information they will publish.

It’s unclear to me whether “nutrition information” is the same as “ingredient information,” although it wouldn’t seem so. The latter has been a contentious issue nipping at the edges of the wine industry for the last few years. Ridge Vineyards has already begun ingredient labeling, listing such things as calcium carbonate, SO2 and indigenous yeasts on the back label. Besides, as Harvey Steiman points out in Wine Spectator, ingredient labeling for wine is tricky. It’s complicated, a lot harder than ingredient labeling for, say, a can of soup. And there also are financial considerations for smaller wineries. Sometimes I think that this consumer demand to know about every micro-molecule that enters their bodies in every sort of food and drink borders on the obsessive.

Still, that’s politics. Diageo’s move is significant because, as one of the nation’s largest wine companies, they clearly believe they’re reading the handwriting on the wall, and want to get out in front of what may become a mandated trend. So be it; what will be, will be. Personally, I’m against ingredient labeling or content labeling on the actual wine bottle. That sort of thing could easily be done on a website. Everybody’s got a computer or smart device these days, so it would not be an imposition on consumers to click on a link or two. Wine labels are lovely works of art: producers go to great lengths to make them graphically appealing. To clutter them up with ingredients and nutritional data would be ugly.


Why online wine reviews don’t get more respect

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You’ve probably heard that Ashley Judd, a celebrity I don’t know much about but I like her anyway, is suing people who have been sending her horrendous tweets.

The brouhaha all started when Ashley, apparently, tweeted something derogatory about a basketball team, Arkansas, that was playing against her beloved Kentucky.

Imagine that! A sports fan talking smack about a rival sports team!

Well, that opened the floodgates. Ashley was inundated with some pretty awful stuff, most of which is unprintable on a family blog like steveheimoff.com : )

This raises the whole question of the abuse of social media. People do say the most terrible things—often, I think, while in a state of C.U.I. (commenting under the influence). It can be demoralizing to be on the receiving end of crap: I know, because I’ve been there.

Let’s talk about wine reviewing. A wine critic needs to have the trust of the people who read him or her. Without that trust, he has no credibility—and without credibility, who cares what he has to say? If you look over the history of where and how wine critics have published their opinions, you’ll find that they’ve been in extremely credible publications. Today’s top wine magazines are trustworthy; whether you agree with their reviews or not, whether you like the 100-point system or loathe it, the fact remains that such pubs as Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate, Wine & Spirits, Food & Wine, etc., are widely perceived to be, like Caesar’s wife, “above suspicion.”

The way for any publication to be above suspicion is to conduct itself respectfully. Professional pubs have internal codes of ethics that prohibit their writers from writing inappropriate things. And not just their writers: they also do not allow foul letters to the editor or slanderous, insulting comments on their websites. Professional publications, in other words, police themselves, in order to keep the conversation civil.

Social media, on the other hand, is pretty much the opposite. Anything goes; all is permitted; eliminating even vile comments is seen as onerous censorship. It was the very freedom of social media that attracted so many of us to it in the first place.

In the last couple of years, we have begun to see the dark side of this openness. When anyone can say anything they want to—no matter how odious or untrue—it is bound to detract from the credibility of the platform as a whole. In fact, that platform can even be viewed as having encouraged odious comments, for the simple reasons that (a) it enabled them, (b) it didn’t explicitly prohibit them, and (c) it didn’t remove them at once. This is the background to the Ashley Judd situation.

And this is why platforms like Twitter, Facebook and pretty much all the rest of them suffer from a credibility gap: If the worst people can use them to spout their stupidity and hatred, this necessarily impacts everybody who chooses to write something on that platform. It’s trickle-down sleaze, and like it or not, it tarnishes everyone.

Am I saying that online wine reviews aren’t accurate and informed? Not at all. I’m not talking about the content of online reviews; I’m talking about the platforms themselves. In the case of any individual online reviewer, you might have accuracy and integrity, but the fact that it appears on a platform that allows untrammeled inaccuracy and untruthfulness to flourish must necessarily make it suspect, or at least keep it from being as credible as it otherwise could be.

What’s the answer? I think we’re seeing something more professional begin to emerge online, with lawsuits like Ashley’s, and with social media platforms in general understanding that they have to do a better job policing themselves. But the problem of stupid, insulting tweeters cannot be solved from above; it has to come from the street. People need to understand that just because they can say something awful online doesn’t mean they should. When the more decent elements stand together to condemn our basest instincts from shouting, social media will advance. Until social media cleans up its act, though, it will continue to have about it the taint of unreliability and unprofessionalism, affecting even the best-intentioned of writers.


Sangiovese’s bold, noble road to nowhere

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Reading about Piero Antinori in the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator brought back memories of the early and mid-1990s, when the Marchese had hundreds of acres of Sangiovese growing in a beautiful section of Atlas Peak.

The sprawling vineyard was a fine sight to see. Sangiovese, the grape and wine, still was on the upswing in Cailfornia. Many winegrowers and critics thought it could be California’s answer to Tuscany—indeed, the term “Cal-Ital” was coined to express this desire.

To understand Sangiovese’s allure at that moment, you have to put it into context. Cabernet Sauvignon was the undoubted king of red wines. Pinot Noir was not then seriously considered to be a candidate for anything. Merlot was on the rise. Zinfandel, as always, was in one year, out the next. Petite Sirah? Hmmph. It was okay for blending, but nobody took it seriously as a standalone. So people were left to wonder: What is the “next big red wine?”

In California, with its edge-of-the-continent tradition of radical reinvention, there always has to be a “next” everything. The next big movie star. The next big politician. Even the next big earthquake. This concept of “nextness” is uncomfortable with tradition—tradition, after all, is what drove so many people to leave their homes and travel westward, where they would be free from stifling oppression. So it was with wine.

Sangiovese was crowned early on with this crown of nextness. But there was a problem—a big one. It never seemed to make very good wine. Grown on fertile flatlands and benches in Napa Valley, it made a light, pale, savory wine, almost a rosé, at places like Flora Springs. But its lightness disqualified it from being the next big red wine. So it was that growers and vintners headed to the hills.

Enter Piero Antinori. The Atlas Peak vineyard, as I’ve said, was gorgeous, and the fact that the master of Tuscany presided over it was inspirational. However, once again, Sangiovese failed to live up to expectations. The tannins in the wines were enormous, gigantic, impossible. I remember attempting to review them and fundamentally giving up. Would these wines age well in 15 or 20 years? Who knew? Who cared?

So it was that, as the Wine Spectator explains, Antinori eventually gave up on Sangiovese and replaced almost all the Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon, which he bottles under the Antica brand.

As for Sangiovese in California, it’s one of the really few disasters in the state’s wine varietal history. Acreage over the last ten or fifteen years has remained practically stagnant statewide. In Napa, less than 300 acres remain. I can barely remember the last one I reviewed for Wine Enthusiast.

Someday, somebody might resurrect Sangiovese in California and make something of it, but I doubt if we’ll ever see it return to glory. It’s awfully hard to attempt something important in California wine, only to fail, and then to return. Some politicians have done it—Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan conspicuously come to mind, men who ran losing campaigns that embarrassed them, but then came back and triumphed.

Wine, however, is not man. Whatever niche Sangiovese once promised to fill has been replaced by Pinot Noir. Sangiovese’s experimental period in California was a bold and noble venture, but it led nowhere.


Teaching the history of wine to Millennials

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Drove up to St. Helena yesterday on a preternaturally beautiful day to have lunch with Freemark Abbey’s longtime winemaker, Ted Edwards, at a little restaurant I’d never eaten at before, Goose & Gander. I must say I’d go back for the charcuterie and beef tartare, both of which were excellent.

I don’t typically drink before driving—and I had the usual long schlep back to Oakland—but since Ted was pouring his Viognier, I made an exception. What a nice wine. Ted told me his story, and the tale of the winery’s Bosché Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which goes back decades. I asked him if the Bosché is the oldest still-extant bottling of a vineyard-designated wine in Napa Valley.

We both thought for a moment, then almost simultaneously we blurted out “Martha’s Vineyard,” the quintessential Heitz Cabernet that dates back to (I think) 1966. After that, we couldn’t come up with other candidates. Can you? That led us to a conversation about history, new consumers and messaging. How do you educate a younger consumer about an older brand, without sounding like you’re a crusty old curmudgeon reliving his glory days to a youngster who doesn’t really care?

This is the dilemma faced by dozens of Napa Valley producers whose roots date back to the 1960s and 1970s. You have to stay relevant. You can’t coast on your laurels (although some try), because the demographic that’s familiar with your laurels is close to 70. But convincing a Millennial that history is important also is tough. We all know, anecdotally, that younger people are remarkably ill-informed about history. This must be because they don’t think it matters. It’s also why large tracts of the media have been reduced to writing about “the new [fill-in-the-blank],” the hippest this-or-that, the top ten trendiest blah-blah, up-and-coming whatevers, and so on. Publishers understand (or think they do) that younger consumers only care about the here-and-now, so that’s what they push. History tends to get thrown out, like that disposable baby with the bathwater. It’s sad, to many of us who believe that history is an essential component of the wine-enjoying experience. But what you are gonna do?

Why did I write that “history is an essential component of the wine-enjoying experience”? Because wine is so much more than merely what you’re experiencing in the mouth. As Matt Kramer points out in his latest column, there are “wines of pleasure” and “wines of experience,” the latter “deliver[ing] that sort of dimensionality, which, after all, is the distinguishing feature of all truly great wines…”. I would suggest that one of those “dimensions” is the intellectual one of understanding the vineyard’s and winery’s history. We tend to create a difference between “intellectual” and “sensory” pleasures that’s not really true. Any baseball fan knows that a huge part of the interest in watching a great ball game transcends what’s happening on the field to encompass statistics, strategy, the great plays and players of the past, the rivalry between the two games, and the sweet nostalgia of youthful memories of sand lots and bleacher seats. The appreciation of baseball is multi-dimensional.

As educators, we owe it to the next generation of wine lovers to pass on the history, traditions and tales of this wine business we love so well. This is the essence of the fabled “story-telling” that wineries are so engaged with lately. Winemakers understand that the appreciation of wine is so much more than just the organoleptic or analytical part. And thank goodness for that. In the 1980s budding wine aficionados thought they had to master an entire set of tasting skills in order to appreciate wine—as if they were preparing for an Enology class in sensory analysis at U.C. Davis. I always thought that was nonsense, as if you had to be able to deconstruct and then reconstruct a car in order to love driving it.

Fortunately, we’ve matured as a wine-drinking nation to the point where we understand that wine appreciation is, as Matt suggests, multi-dimensional. Still, I do wonder, and worry, about that non-appreciation of history among so many younger people. We just have to make the learning of history more tantalizing, by telling our stories better, don’t we?


In Pursuit of Balance tasting, San Francisco

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A lovely tasting today at In Pursuit of Balance, really the best they’ve ever had. The venue was new: City View, in the Metreon Center, instead of RN74 like it was the last time I went. And what a crowd! This was clearly the buzziest place to be today if you were anywhere near San Francisco.

It’s impossible to taste everything, but I did get to quite a few Pinot Noirs, mostly 2012s. In general, you can say that this is a generous vintage, yielding balanced, supple and frankly delicious wines of great structure, although in a few cases, the acids were too fierce. The best of them need age. Here are a few standouts:

Domaine de la Cote. I have not been a fan of the 2011s which were green, but 2012 was a great success. The Bloom’s Field (12.5%) is sleek and streamlined, with a core of raspberries. It needs time.

Sandhi. Their ’12 Sanford & Benedict (13.5%) is a real beauty, charming and supple.

Knez. This was a new winery for me, out of Anderson Valley. The ’12 Demuth (13.3%) and ’12 Cerise (about 13.3%) both are gorgeous, the former tight, the latter more generous. Both need time.

Hirsch. First, it was good to hear that David is back at work! The ’12 East Ridge (13%) is powerful but delicate, with awesome structure. The ’12 Reserve (13.1%) is a wine I’d describe as Burgundian, with mushroom and tea notes to the raspberry core. Both wines need time.

Au Bon Climat. The 2011 Knox Alexander (13.1%) is huge in flavor, explosive in raspberry essence, yet gorgeously structured and dry. It certainly needs 5-6 years in the bottle.

Wenzlau. Another new winery for me. The Estate Santa Rita Hills (13.0%) is very acidic, almost lemony, with with solid raspberry-cherry fruit. I would give it six years.

Kutch. A pair of 2013s, the Sonoma Coast (12.3%) and the Rohan Vineyard (12.3%), from the Bohan-Dillon area of Fort Ross-Seaview. Two great wines. The former is delicate, the latter more potent and dramatic. I would cellar the Rohan for six years.

Native9 2011 Rancho Ontiveros (13.4%). A great success for the vintage, pale in color, lots of acidity, plenty of finesse. Drinking beautifully now.

Here are a few pictures of some old friends.

SashiSashi Moorman pouring. Raj Parr in background.

ClendenenJim Clendenen, one of the immortals

StevieStevie Stacionis, of Bay Grape in Oakland

CarloCarlo Mondavi. Sorry you have to crane your neck!

 JamesJames Ontiveros, Native9 and Rancho Ontiveros

EhrenEhren Jordan, of Failla


Alcohol level in Pinot Noir: a question of shifting fashion

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Writer David Darlington makes the case, perhaps unwittingly, for how hard it is to explain why alcohol levels are higher in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir than they used to be, in his article, “Accounting for Taste,” in the April issue of Wine & Spirits. (Sorry, I can’t find a link online.)

After first positing that today’s wines are, in fact, higher in alcohol than, say, twenty years ago—an unarguable statement—David makes his position immediately known, calling “so many so monstrous.” At one point, he even calls them “dangerous.”

Now these are awfully harsh words: surprisingly so, coming from the guy who wrote what is possibly the best book on Zinfandel ever, “Angels’ Visits.” But let us grant that Pinot Noir is not Zinfandel.

After having slammed so many Pinots, David at least has the reportorial curiosity to ask why alcohol levels have risen. He phrases his question thusly: “Are the winemakers responsible, or is it attributable to something beyond their control?”

And then cannot answer the question. Which is, of course, beyond his own control, for the fact of the matter is, there is no one answer why alcohol levels have increased. David certainly did his homework, interviewing multiple winemakers in an effort to find out why. Here are ten causes they suggested to him:

  1. vertical shoot positioning, as opposed to the California sprawl of old
  2. the market
  3. ratings
  4. consumer preferences
  5. climate change/global warming
  6. Dijon clones
  7. longer hangtime
  8. super strains of yeast
  9. younger vines
  10. warmer fermentations

Well, that’s pretty much the whole nine yards! By article’s end, the reader’s impression can only be confusion. Why are alcohol levels higher now than they used to be? Who knows? Pick a reason—pick any reason—pick them all! But what does any of it have to do with Russian River Pinot Noir being “monstrous”? Well, with that remark, David at least is honest, if hyperbolic, about his bias.

The winery that David holds up for particular praise is Small Vines. I personally can attest to the quality of their Pinot Noirs: I gave them eight 90-points-or-higher scores over the years, and since I left, Virginie Boone has given them another four. With all this talk of low alcohol, I was curious to know what Small Vines’ levels have been. Google brought me to The Prince of Pinot; this article shows that alcohol levels in Small Vines Pinot Noirs varied between 13.2% and 14.5%, with seven of the 15 wines The Prince reviewed above 14%. This is not particularly low, and is in league with most of the Pinot Noirs I reviewed from coastal California, which were anywhere between 13.8% and 14.5%.

I’m glad David quoted the great Merry Edwards, who reduced the low-alcohol movement in Pinot Noir to incoherence. “The fashion norm is shifting now,” she told him; “people are listening to Raj Parr (the In Pursuit of Balance ringleader), and French marketing has convinced people that you should pay a lot of money for wines that are light and watery. I’m on the opposite side—we’re not in France, we’re in California”

Light and watery! You go grrl! When one has been in the arena as long as Merry (she’s been making wine since 1974), one sees “fashion” come and go with merry-go-round (excuse the pun) regularity—and one learns not to succumb to it.

It can be hard to resist fashion, if all you want to do is appeal to the latest trend. But winemakers who are dedicated to their art are not slaves to fashion. They stay the course; they know that style goes in and out, but that true quality in winemaking, as exemplified by Merry Edwards, remains undeterred by these perturbations in the critical aether.


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