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Wineries can’t have it both ways

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It’s an old story: Wineries that get mediocre scores from famous critics say they don’t care because critics are irrelevant. Wineries that get high scores love critics and cite their great reviews in their marketing materials. But what I mean by “you can’t have it both ways” is that you can’t criticize critics and then boast about the high score one of them just gave you.

Well, you can…but it’s a little disingenuous.

I am thinking about this because yesterday, via social media, I heard from a winemaker, quite a famous one, who happens to be an acquaintance of long standing and someone I have enormous respect for. S/he posted that, while the point-scoring system “is something we are not completely down with,” s/he then couldn’t resist citing two super-high scores from Parker. “It feels good,” the winemaker wrote, “when your work is recognized.”

Well, yes, it does. We all crave recognition, that validation in our lives, especially when it’s about our job performance. It feels horrible to be told that you suck, but it’s fantastic to be told you’ve done a great job.

These are the horns of the dilemma on which many winemakers find themselves impaled. They have this weird love-hate relationship with the critics that they don’t quite know how to deal with. I used to experience it myself, back in my day. I’d give a high score to somebody, and the next thing you know, they’d send me a thank-you card—as if I’d done them a favor. Then I’d give a lousy score to somebody, and they’d call me on the phone, complaining. I’d think, sigh… You just have to roll with the punches and not let the praise go to your head, but you also can’t let the anger get under your skin.

The smartest, or at least the most emotionally mature, winemakers I’ve known understand this. They don’t always get what they want in the way of scores, and that must hurt. They and their teams put in this amazing effort to produce what they hope and feel is great wine, and then some critic schlongs them with an 84 or a 67 or whatever. Very painful, and understandably so.

But emotionally mature winemakers don’t call up the offending critic. I mean, not to complain…they might ask for an extended explanation of the problem, and that’s all right. Instead, mature winemakers take a deep breath, send in the next sample, and get on with their lives. Today’s 84 may be tomorrow’s 97—you never know. Never give up hope, and make sure you don’t burn your bridges behind you.

I guess the hardest thing for a winemaker who gets a low score to figure out is this: If he honestly feels that his wine—the one that got criticized—is as good as one that the critic gave a high score to, it must be crazy-making. We’ve all been in life situations where you feel utterly misunderstood and wronged. It’s one of the hardest emotional wringers to go through. You think, “How could he possibly think that?” And you dwell on it, and mull it over and over in your head, but can come up with no explanation. So you might attack the messenger, or the very institution of wine reviewing. You start thinking that maybe the critic had ulterior motives. You begin to doubt your own palate—how could you find your wine so good when the critic found it so ordinary? You start wondering about all sorts of scenarios and fantasies. Maybe you get a little paranoid and resentful.

I would imagine this situation is compounded when you see a critic lavishing high scores over and over again on a wine you have no respect for. You think it’s overripe, flawed, undrinkable; meanwhile, the critic gives it high-90s vintage after vintage. That would make me crazy too.

But it is what it is. We have the wine reviewing system we deserve. It’s the one we must work within, regardless of how much it taxes our patience. So be of good cheer, ye winemakers. Go placidly through the noise and haste. All will be well.


When did Cabernet Sauvignon arrive in Napa Valley?

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I’m doing some research for a project I’m involved with at Jackson Family Wines, and one of the things I’m interested in establishing is when the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in Napa Valley, by whom, and where.

You’d think such things would already be well-documented. After all, Napa Valley is one of the most famous winegrowing regions in the world, and Cabernet is its crowning glory. And Napa Valley is not so old that its vinous origins are lost in the mists of time, as they are in Burgundy and Bordeaux.

So why is it so hard?

I have about a zillion wine books, and I couldn’t find the answers. So I turned to my trusty online source, Facebook, where a number of my friends weighed in. They suggested everybody from H.W. Crabb in 1868 to Capt. Niebaum in 1883, but one, Tom Ward, said “George C. Yount, in 1836, at the site of the current Napanook Vineyard,” a claim Tom says was substantiated by the winemaker at Dominus, Tod Mostero.

I’ll have to do some more fact-checking on that myself, but the point it raises is how easily we in California lose our history, in this fast-paced, twitterized world, where Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes have shrunk to 15 seconds.

I went to some of my California wine books to see what I could find on George Yount, after whom Yountville is of course named. He was the first white settler in what we now call Napa Valley, having come there from Sonoma. Leon Adams, in The Wines of America (1973) says Yount planted “Mission vines,” which he vinified in 1841: no mention, though, of Cabernet Sauvignon. Thomas Pinney’s “A History of Wine in America” (2005) does not even list Yount in the index, nor does his “The Makers of American Wine: A Record of Two Hundred Years” (2012). Then again, Yount doesn’t even appear in Frank Schoonmaker’s and Tom Marvel’s epochal 1941 book, “American Wines,”

Yount does make an appearance in Robert Mondavi’s charming memoir, “Harvests of Joy” (1998), in which Robert calls him “a tough, adventurous trapper”; but Robert does not say Young grew Cabernet (although he does refer to Crabb who in 1868 “obtained certified cuttings of ‘noble varietals’ from Bordeaux…” in the vineyard that eventually became Tokalon (or To Kalon).

Yount also makes a brief appearance in The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America (2000), with information drawn from other sources. Ditto for Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine (1999), with the added tidbit that Yount had started as a seal trapper. I could mention a dozen or more other books in my library that refer to Young, but with no additional information.

It seems important that we should establish these facts, of the origins of Cabernet Savignon in Napa Valley. It didn’t happen so long ago that it should be impossible. And yet, maybe it is. Today, everything is recorded. We tend to forget that, not that long ago, not everything was. Nor did men even have the notion that everything should be recorded. Marriages were, and births, and deaths; but the planting of agricultural crops? I mean, what man planted the first plums in Napa? The first nut trees? Then too, we must remember that our obsession (for that is what it is) with specific varieties is of comparatively recent origin. It hardly existed in Old Europe, where they made “Bordeaux” and “Burgundy” and “Hermitage,” not “Cabernet Sauvignon” or “Pinot Noir” or “Syrah.” It was, in fact, due in large measure to Mr. Schoonmaker that our present way of thinking about (and labeling) varietals came about. So maybe it’s not so strange, after all: Young made wines from his estate: what the particular grape variety or varieties was, nobody cared.

Do you know anything about the origin of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley? Can you document it? I’d love to hear from you.


Napa Valley Pinot Noir: gone, but not forgotten

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We were up at Freemark Abbey yesterday and some of the people who work there showed me some old bottles someone had found and brought to the winery. Among them was this bottle of Pinot Noir.

 

FreemarkPinot

Despite the “Selected Vintage” designation, it didn’t have a vintage date. But the thinking was that it could have been from the 1940s. Note that it has a California appellation.

Who knows what it really was? My first thought was that it probably wasn’t real Pinot Noir as we know it. Maybe Gamay Beaujolais, but actually, it could have been anything. Back then, there were no laws regulating the use of varieties on labels, so wineries could do whatever they wanted. Many wineries called any red wine that was lighter and more delicate than Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon “Pinot Noir.” They could have called it “Burgundy”; many did.

Once upon a time, kids, Napa Valley produced quite a bit of Pinot Noir, or something called Pinot Noir, until the critics declared that Napa Valley Pinot Noir sucks, so they scared off anybody who had it or planned to try. I remembered a Pinot from the old Louis K. Mihaly Winery, a winery that has been almost completely eliminated from history. Frank Prial referred to it, in a 1988 New York Times column, as “also known as Silverado Cellars”; so did a 1989 LA Times article. Silverado Cellars, of course, is on the Silverado Trail, but in my memory, the Mihaly winery was on Highway 29, around St. Helena, in the early 1980s, when I liked their Napa Valley Pinot Noir so much, I bought half a case—a big purchase for a broke college student. But maybe my memory is playing tricks on me.

Years later, when I was writing A Wine Journey along the Russian River, Joe Rochioli, Jr., told me how he had gotten the cuttings for his first plantings of Pinot Noir, in 1968, for his Russian River Valley vineyard, from “this old grower in Napa Valley.” He couldn’t recall who it was; I’ve always wondered if it wasn’t Mihaly. But, seeing that Freemark Abbey bottle, maybe it was from Freemark, or whatever remained of the vineyards Freemark sourced .

Old bottles like that Freemark Pinot stir my imagination. So much history has been lost; so much is unrecoverable. It’s very sad. Most people don’t care about what happened before they were born. For some of us, a quirk in the brain, a peculiar wiring of our DNA, makes history irresistible. I love doing research, fitting the pieces of the puzzle together. Of course, not all the pieces can be found; but sometimes, enough of them can be gathered to being to paint a coherent picture.

Have a great weekend, and if you’re in California, stay dry! We’re in the throes of El Nino.


Save the date: Petite Sirah in Paso Robles, Feb. 6

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Old pals Jose and Jo Diaz, who own Diaz Communications in Windsor, have long worked with wineries in the North Coast for their Petite Sirah advocacy efforts, but now they’ve extended their reach into Paso Robles, with the launch of their first-ever Petite Sirah event down in the Central Coast.

Called PS I Love You…in Paso, it’s at Vina Robles on Feb. 6, and will feature ten Petite Sirah producers. Each winemaker will do a feature tasting/presentation of his wines, and as always with the Diaz’s Petite Sirah events, the food will be fantastic.

It’s nothing short of amazing how Petite Sirah has become a major variety and wine. It didn’t exactly happen overnight; there have been plantings of “Pet” (as the oldtimers called it) since the 1800s in California, but consumers never really caught on to it as an independent variety, until the Diazes created their trade organization, PS I love You, in 2002. Many wineries have joined over the years; the organization traditionally has held its tastings in the Bay Area, so this shift to Paso Robles is significant.

California acreage of Pet is way up, clocking in at a record 8,825 acres in 2014, nearly double what it was ten years previously. Granted, that’s not much compared to Cabernet Sauvignon (nearly 80,000 acres) or even Syrah (18,000 acres), but it’s more than either Cabernet Franc or Grenache—and almost more than the two of them combined.

And it’s being planted fast. In 2014, non-bearing acreage—those vines that haven’t yet yielded a crop—accounted to 1,149 acres, fully 13% of statewide acreage. That means a lot of growers care enough about Pet to put it into the ground. And which counties are those new vines going into? Well, here’s where things get a little complicated. The new plantings are mostly in the Central Valley—the counties of San Joaquin, Sacramento and Tuolumne (which extends from the Central Valley into the Sierra Foothills). That deserves an explanation. We tend to view wines from the Central Valley as jug wines, at best, but viticulture has really picked up there, and the wines, especially reds, and especially hearty, full-bodied reds like Petite Sirah and the blends it goes into and often dominates, can be rich, rewarding and affordable.

Along the Coast, San Luis Obispo County, which is where Paso Robles is, also is seeing rapid plantings of Pet: 130 non-bearing acres in 2014, giving that county a total of 1,647 acres of Pet altogether, or about 16% of the statewide total. So SLO growers and vintners are doubling down on Petite Sirah.

Beyond acreage, the number of Petite Sirah producers in California continues to soar, from fewer than 100 in 2001 to more than 900 last year.

Having this event in Paso Robles makes perfect sense. For years I’ve admired Paso for the uniqueness and quality of their red wines and off-beat blends, of which Petite Sirah often is a part. This ability to craft such wines was the main reason why I successfully argued for Paso to be Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star Region of the Year, in 2013.

Try to get to Paso for the Feb. 6 event, which is in Vina Robles’ splendid new amphitheater. It’s a chance to get up close and personal with the wines and the winemakers, and to learn more about up-and-coming Petite Sirah, as well as the charming wine region of Paso Robles. I might even be there myself.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2016? Here’s what I think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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