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Napa’s traffic crisis: Alternate touring days?

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You know that old saying about how you can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube? That was my feeling when I read this article, from Monday’s Napa Register, on a debate taking place in Napa Valley. And, no, it’s not about wine.

The topic is nothing new: Growth versus preservation. In its latest incarnation, it shape-shifts into whether Napa should be (in the words of a county official) “a resort area [or] an agricultural area.” California, with our natural beauty, always is a hotbed of such debates, and Napa Valley, for many reasons, is no exception. This conversation has been going on for as long as I’ve been aware of the valley.

In particular this brouhaha over the number of tasting rooms and wineries hosting “events” like weddings has also been around for a long time. It’s only natural that some valley residents would be upset over the traffic (truly, truly awful on Highway 29) and the feeling that their pastoral little slice of heaven is turning into a tourist-drawing WineryLand theme park.

So is it time to take drastic action, like limiting the number of tasting rooms, or wineries, or vineyards, or resorts and hotels? This is the problem of the toothpaste. Napa can’t go backwards to the bucolic 1960s or 1970s. And there are limits to how much it can do to prevent the invasion of the tourists, which now seems to occur year-round, not just in the summer, as the climate dries and warms.

It’s interesting to read the comments to the Register article. Typical of the slow-growthers is this one from a reader who’s had it up to here: “Anyone catch the traffic on 29 today? Basically heading south it was backed up from the light in yountville all the way to the CIA. It was almost just as bad heading North. It was still backed up at 6:45 at night, about 35 minutes to get from st Helena to yountville. That should be a 7 minute drive.” And this from someone else: “Experiencing the growth in the last fifteen years, one could argue that the tipping point has already been reached. Does one honestly wish to make the traffic even more intolerable?”

It’s not clear what the solution is, but we should be looking at this from a wider perspective, namely: Napa Valley isn’t the only place in California where traffic is an enormous, and growing, problem. It’s a problem throughout the state, from our local city and suburban streets to the freeways and bridges that form California’s nervous system, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the byways of the Sierra Nevada and all chokepoints inbetween. Californians have always complained about traffic in our state’s notorious car culture, but things are worse than they’ve ever been, and if you’re wasting hours of your life everyday sitting idle, you’re understandably frustrated. And what I can’t for the life of me understand is why our government isn’t taking the problem more seriously. This isn’t something that local government can tackle. It’s a gigantic elbow to the throat of California’s economy (not to mention drivers’ peace of mind) and only government has the means to address it.

Maybe, in Napa’s case, the answer is to limit the number of tourists (especially on weekends) in some way that’s legal and fair. Of course, the state would have to be involved, too, and possibly the Feds. Back in the 1970s, when we had the nation’s first gas shortage, you could only fill your tank on certain days, depending on the number on your license plate. I don’t recall there being any riots; people understood that there was a crisis and we all had to be a part of the solution.

Could something like that work in Napa’s case? There are really just two main ways in, from the south and north, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Maybe they could build checkpoints with automated cameras, like the ones they use for FasTrak. Get the word out, through media and signage, that Saturdays are for “x” drivers and Sunday’s are for “y” drivers, and then levy a hefty fine on anyone who’s caught cheating (just the way FasTrak works). Of course, you’d have to figure out some way to screen out locals so they didn’t get caught in the net. This would inconvenience many tourists, granted; but once they got the hang of it, they’d get used to it, and they’d probably eventually welcome the more open roads.

I know it’s a crazy idea, but maybe it could work. And if things get bad enough (and they’re heading in that direction) it may be the only way.


Wine needs a message for the iGeneration

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The wine industry is always worried about something, especially here in California. (Maybe it’s because we live in earthquake country!)

The theme is almost always some version of “The sky is falling.” Back in the 1990s it was phylloxera: it was going to wipe out everything. Didn’t happen; the wine industry not only survived the bug, it emerged better than ever. Growers tore out sick vines and replanted, using better rootstocks and clones, often reconfiguring their vineyard orientations, and more precisely matching variety with terroir. It was another happy instance of “Every cloud has a silver lining.”

The latest gloom and doom? The Wine Market Council’s fear that craft beer and spirits will turn younger consumers away from wine. But it, too, has a potential silver lining.

One can’t dispute the facts the WMC cites–facts underscored by anecdotes. My younger friends, those in the so-called iGeneration (born after 1995, and 61 million strong), really love their craft beers and whatever cocktail they’re into. But when it comes to wine, meh. It’s all pretty much the same to them. Try as they might, they can’t really understand why one wine costs ten times the price of another, when they seem to taste pretty much the same. Their social lives are centered around noisy bars, house parties and clubs, not the sedate dinner table. One of wine’s central messages—often promoted by its loyalists—is lost on them: that wine is the intellectual alcoholic beverage. Intellect, schmintellect: it’s not that they’re not thoughtful, but they want to laugh and dance—carpe diem!–and beer and spirits are way better at promoting a party than wine.

Among my younger friends also is a surprisingly high number of people who don’t drink. Whether it’s because they’ve had drinking problems in the past, or for health or religious reasons, I don’t know and don’t ask, because it’s none of my business. But even the WMC survey found that more than one-third–36 percent–of the population abstains from alcohol.

These are all formidable findings, but I remain optimistic about wine’s future in the U.S. For one thing, people’s drinking habits change over time. Wine has never been the preferred booze among young people: it’s always been beer and spirits. When the iGeneration gets older, there’s no reason not to believe they’ll discover wine, the same as their forebears did. Even some proportion of non-drinkers will realize that a glass or two of something won’t hurt and might even make them feel better.

The WMC survey also points the way towards opportunities for the wine industry to better market itself. There’s nothing wrong with the meme that wine is family, life and celebration, but these terms have to evolve, in order to appeal to younger consumers. Consider the contemporary meaning of “family”: The Norman Rockwell scenario of mom, dad and two kids sitting around the nightly dinner table no longer holds true for tens of millions of adult Americans. Families now are just as likely to be single parents, or same-sex parents, or interracial parents, or childless couples, or people living alone with a cat or dog. They’re just as likely to be Vietnamese, Mexican or Somali as they are to be of European descent (at least, here in multi-ethnic Oakland, which is the face of what America is going to look like).

So wine has to figure out a better way to present itself as the alcoholic beverage for everyone. Beer’s managed to do that for decades. So have brandy and cognac, and even sparkling wine to some extent, which is why its sales are surging. The spirits industry, led in my opinion by vodka, has done an amazing job over the last twenty years promoting itself as exciting and cool, especially with this current surge of celebrity mixologists.

But wine? It persists with the same tired message that you have to be old, white and rich to drink it. It’s time for wine to glam up. The good news is that a younger generation of wine marketers has arisen. Born with an easy comfort around computers and social media, literate in the changing demographics of America, and armed with an urban sensibility, they understand the challenge of appealing to the new consumer.


Wine writing when you can’t taste or smell?

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Lovely, inspiring article on the BBC’s website about about Andrew Hedley, a British-born New Zealand winemaker (Framingham Wines) who developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed, which had a devastating effect on his ability to smell and taste.

“Anything that goes into my nose or mouth now goes straight to my stomach,” he says, meaning, according to the article, that he “had to come up with a new way of smelling and tasting the wines he created.”

Andrew did indeed come up with a new way of smelling and tasting that works so well, he said, “We’ve actually won more awards since I had the cancer surgery.” This is indeed an inspiring story of the ingenuity and triumph of the human spirit.

As I read it I recalled the travails of my own wine-writing hero, Harry Waugh, who following a car accident in which he landed on his head lost his own sense of smell. Yet Harry, who was on the board of Chateau Latour in addition to his other considerable achievements which included writing some of the most influential books in the history of California wine, developed alternative ways of tasting that ensured his continuation as one of the great wine tasters and writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

What are we to make of great wine people who, suffering awful loss of a good part of their sensory equipment, nonetheless remain at the pinnacle of their careers?

Well, for me, the big takehome is that you don’t have to be the awesomest palate ever in order to be a big success. Both Andrew and Harry, and indeed anyone of us, had their limitations: they did what they could do with what they had. And yet something in their skill set enabled them to rise above their limitations.

I don’t know Andrew but I knew Harry. What made him great was his absolute devotion to the grape and wine as well as his ability to put complex thoughts into writing that was easy to comprehend. I have no idea how he managed to tell the difference between a vin ordinaire and a grand vin or vin de garde after his automobile accident, but he did. People still cared about what he said.

We make too much of “expertise” in wine and I realize I need to explain that. With all this attention to Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, we tend to think that you need some letters after your last name to be taken seriously if you opine about wine. While I bow to no one in my regard and respect for MWs and MSs, I have to say that when it comes to wine writing of the kind Harry—and a generation of wine writers of the last 30 years, including me—represented, there’s a case to be made that you don’t want so much expertise that it removes the reviewer from the common realm of the 99% who actually buy and drink wine.

There’s another important lesson to be learned from Andrew’s experience. The BBC reporter interviewed a head and neck surgeon who told him, To be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines must be very difficult and to be honest, it almost never happens in cases where surgery has been performed.” Well, even if you haven’t had your larynx removed, “to be able to differentiate between subtle aromas and tastes of wines” is very difficult anyway! It’s not objective science; even professionals will disagree about what they’re smelling and tasting, which is why my recent blending sessions at Matanzas Creek have been so educational. Taster “A” may find quince and guava, taster “B” may find nectarine and white peach, who’s to say who’s right or wrong? No one, that’s who. But what we can all agree on—at least, I would hope—is that beyond specific flavor descriptors we can all recognize essential quality, which when all is said and done is a function of intellectual interest. For what is great wine, if not a wine that stimulates your mind? And it would seem that, even when your sense of smell or taste is impaired, your ability to be intellectually interested and flattered remains. How cool is that?


Throwaway Thursday: Notes from the road

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Spent part of yesterday blending again with Marcia Monahan, the winemaker at Matanzas Creek. This time, it was putting together the winery’s flagship “Journey” Sauvignon Blanc. This would be a tedious exercise, if one didn’t enjoy it so much, which I certainly do. It makes it all the more pleasant in that Marcia and I agree more than often. It truly is amazing when one particular sample pops! after a string of several that don’t, due merely to the barrel. I can honestly say I never really understood the importance of barrel and toast levels until I began blending with Marcia.

* * *

My sympathies are with the good people of Boston, where I see by today’s forecast it will be bone chilling for at least a week. Meanwhile by contrast (and this isn’t to rub it in, honest), here in Northern California wine country it will be close to 80 this week. This is, as I understand it, because the West is under the influence of a huge high pressure system that’s sending the jet stream “up and over,” as our meterologists call it, into Canada, whence it dips back down into the American Midwest and east coast. I don’t think that’s particularly climate-changy in itself; it’s a question of how persistent the pattern gets. Our drought here in California is temporarily on reprieve, no thanks to record-dry January but to superwet December and a pair of back-to-back February storms. However, if you dig deeper, you find that those storms were warm ones—they call it the Pineapple Express because it comes from Hawaii, not the Gulf of Alaska. This means that, while the Coast got drenched, snow levels in the mountains were quite high—and the Sierra Nevada is where you want that nice, thick snow pack next Spring and Summer, when the runoff will fill the California aqueduct. So far, no luck on that front.

* * *

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat is reporting that the 2014 “Grape Crop Sets Record,” based mainly on “strong demand for top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon.” The value of the North Coast grape crop hit $1.45 billion last year, a new record, and while the paper reminds us that was despite the 2014 crop begin lower than in 2012 and 2013, it still was the third-biggest crop ever.

Well, good for Cabernet Sauvignon! I still love a good one but have reached the point where, most of the time, I’d rather have a Pinot Noir. Meanwhile, the poor Central Valley continues to struggle with maintaining prices and production. Whenever someone says consumers are “drinking less but better,” the viticulturalists from Fresno and Madera must wince.

* * *

It was announced yesterday that Jackson Family Wines has purchased Captûre Wines, the project from Denis and May-Britt Malbec. I had followed their wines quite closely, giving a pair of 95s to two 2009s, the Harmonie Bordeaux blend and the Revelation Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which had mountain intensity and ageability. Following on our acquisition of Siduri, this further fuels the company’s practice of partnering with small, prestigious wineries. Welcome, May-Britt and Denis!

* * *

Glad to see California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom announce for Governor in 2016. No surprise there: Once Kamala threw her hat in the ring for Senator, The Gavinator was a cinch. He’s likely to win the election, too—I mean, who else is there? He’s young, personable, visionary and made his reputation on gay marriage, which his opponent, I have no doubt, will try to hurt him with, but it won’t work in California. Gavin will be a great friend of wine: his PlumpJack wine empire owns several wineries. Gav is an old—well, I don’t be so presumptuous as to call him a “friend,” but he is an old acquaintance; we go back to the early 1990s when he was this tall, skinny, good-looking kid who wanted to get into the wine biz. So congratulations, Governor-to-be Newsom!


Could Sauvignon Blanc be entering a golden era?

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I’m not surprised that Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are “on the rise” in U.S. sales, as reported in Lewis Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight.

We all know Pinot Noir is hot, hot, hot. People also talk about the popularity of red wine blends but I have my doubts about their staying power. There have always been good red blends from California; the field blends of old, from gnarled century vines, caught my attention years ago, and I would welcome a good one onto my table anytime, especially with lamb or something with sausages. I’ve written about the quality of certain Paso Robles red blends, which can be very good indeed. But I just don’t see the red blend, per se, lasting as a category on its own. It’s too hard for consumers to wrap their heads around something so amorphous. Wineries usually give red blends a proprietary name, which makes it nearly impossible for people to form a unifying concept about them in their minds, the way they do with, say, Pinot Noir. So an individual, branded red blend might enjoy popularity, but I don’t think the category itself is a keeper. Am I wrong?

Back to Pinot Noir. Of course it’s hot, because it’s great wine. Being so light and delicate, and generally lowish in alcohol, it fits in perfectly with today’s health, legal and food-related concerns. But it’s the emerging popularity of Sauvignon Blanc that interests me.

To judge from acreage, you wouldn’t know that Sauvignon Blanc was hot. There’s not a whole lot planted and the amount isn’t really going up. Statewide, there were 16,700 acres planted in 2011, and only 16,900 in 2013. (Perhaps when the 2014 Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see an increase.) There’s still more Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel planted than Sauvignon Blanc.

If a consumable is popular but isn’t increasing in production, then what happens? The price goes up. In theory, anyway. I looked at the 2013 Crush Report: The average weighted amount per ton of Sauvignon Blanc in California was a miserable $863.11. But—and it’s a big but—the equivalent price of Chardonnay was even less: $848.88. What this tells me is that most Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay produced in California is from the Central Valley and goes into cheaper wines.

So we look at the coast. What are the best Sauvignon Blanc districts? IMHO, Sonoma County, Napa County and Santa Barbara County. So how’s Sauvignon Blanc doing there?

Well, in District 4—Napa—the weighted average base price per ton for Sauvignon Blanc in 2013 was$1,899.95. In 2011, it was $1,829.80. So not a big increase, only 0.3 percent.

In District 3—Sonoma County and Marin, but you can dismiss Marin—the weighted average base price per ton for Sauvignon Blanc in 2013 was $1,469.52. The equivalent number in 2011 was $1,368.26. That’s a fairly sizable increase: 7.4 percent.

How about Santa Barbara? Well, they lump it in with San Luis Obispo and Ventura to make District 8, but I think most of the Sauvignon Blanc is in Santa Barbara. In 2013, the weighted average base price per ton was $1,141.13. In 2011, it was $987.32. That’s a huge jump, nearly 15.6 percent.

I think it’s fair to say, then, that the increasing popularity of Sauvignon Blancs at the higher end of the quality scale is coming from Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties, especially the latter. Like Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc is a lighter-style wine, which makes it a good match for a wide range of foods, especially our multi-country-inspired, spicy fare. It’s crisp, and getting drier, after years of too many of them being semi-sweet. It’s also the best-known of the non-Chardonnay white wines in America, where name recognition is very important in the market.

So, all in all, I’m bullish on coastal Sauvignon Blanc!

 

Dwight Clark at Pebble Beach: It’s incredible. I’ve been riding this one catch for 33 years!


Where do Master Sommeliers actually work?

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A few days ago, the one and only Hosemaster of Wine caused a dustup in the world of sommeliers with his blog post, “The six people you want to avoid in the wine business.”

One of his “six people to avoid” was “the Master Sommelier Working for a Corporation.” It was a good spoof in the best Hosemaster tradition, of course, and—having been the recipient of numerous Hosemaster barbs over the years–I appreciate his wit and am happy when he mentions me. Hosemaster, AKA Ron Washam, is a satirist, in the great twentieth-century tradition of Mort Sahl, Joseph Heller and even Stephen Colbert. But he is never mean-spirited.

Master Somms, like the rest of us, have to work somewhere. They may not choose to work in a restaurant; they might want different sorts of opportunities, and many go through a series of different jobs as their careers develop. So after you’ve invested all the expense and time of obtaining the coveted M.S., where are you gonna go?

Into the business world, as so many Master Sommeliers have done. As you can see if you browse through the membership page on the Court of Master Sommelier’s website,

http://www.mastersommeliers.org/pages.aspx/membership

some go to work for wineries, big and small. (And, yes, Master Somms work for my company, Jackson Family Wines, which by the way is not corporate, but family-owned.) Others work for distributors or in retail trade. Some consult; some are independent wine educators. The latest Master Somm to rock the business world is Ken Fredrickson, whose investment group just took over Brewer-Clifton.

In other words, Master Somms do all sorts of interesting things.

What’s wrong with a Master Somm working an honest day for honest pay? There are only 140 of them in all of North America, and 219 worldwide. With such limited numbers, these men and women are in high demand. They can essentially work anyplace they want. Actually, in going into the business world, they move beyond rarified sommelier circles into networks of on- and off-premise professionals and consumers—democratizing, as it were, the world of fine wine, which is as it should be.

I don’t think Hosemaster actually believes it’s “sad” for a Master Somm to work for a winery. After all, he’s a former sommelier himself and understands the terroir. But for anyone who does think along those lines, let me quote Hosemaster’s own words, on Charlie Olken’s blog, “[G]ood sommeliers…understand that their only job, their ONLY job, is to help assure that the customer has an enjoyable evening.” No matter where they work or what they do, good sommeliers do exactly that: they help customers enjoy their wine.


How nature and fashion influence alcohol levels and the three-tiered system

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In 1999 the futurist Stewart Brand, whose Whole Earth Catalog galavanized a generation of environmentalists and alternative lifestylists, published “The Clock of the Long Now,” in which he introduced the notion of “pace” into the analysis of history.

Brand came up with six “layers” of human existence;

 

StewartBrand

each layer proceeds at a different pace, in a sort of celestial-mechanical model whereby Mercury rounds the Sun far faster than Neptune. Only in Brand’s model, the speeds are reversed: The outermost layer, “Fashion,” moves at the quickest pace. This is why hemlines go up and down every season on the runway, and why wine writers are able to proclaim new “styles” with each passing vintage. Fashion changes constantly; the mullet is now hopelessly out of fashion. Not that long ago, everybody wanted to look like Andre Agassi.

andre-agassi

Brand’s inmost layer, Nature, moves at the slowest pace. Evolution and geology are its most visible indices. The Sierra Nevada has taken tens of millions of years to rise; the Grand Canyon did not spring into existence overnight due to the whimsy of some flood. Not for nothing do we refer to the timespan of Nature as “glacial.” (We can have a discussion of global warming some other time!)

Glacier

Inbetween Fashion’s furious rush and Nature’s leisurely progression, from inmost to outermost, are Culture, Governance, Infrastructure and Commerce. Culture requires a long time to change; witness the world battles currently underway that have been going on since the dawn of history. Governance is almost as hard to change as Culture, but when change does occur, it can come swiftly, as with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Infrastructure occupies a sort of midway point between Fashion’s speed and Nature’s lethargy; as we are reminded every time a bridge collapses in America, or our cars bounce over an urban pothole, changing the Infrastructure requires human will, such as that shown by President Eisenhower, a Republican, when he promoted the Interstate Highway System.

Between Infrastructure and Fashion sits Commerce. Brand sees Commerce as occupying a vital place the scheme of things: If it derives its impulses from the outermost layer (Fashion), it risks becoming “unfettered [and] unsupported by watchful governance and culture…it easily becomes crime.” And yet, we don’t want commerce to become too regulated, lest it lose its ability to flexibly react to changing conditions.

We can apply Brand’s “pace” model to the situation we find ourselves in with regard to wine. It is, in fact, a useful tool for analyzing every issue, from the continued popularity of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay to the contemporary debate over alcohol levels. It’s apparent that the latter—alcohol content—is purely a matter of Fashion. As Brand writes, “The job of fashion…is to be froth: quick, irrelevant, engaging, self-preoccupied, and cruel. Try this! No, no, try this!” What is in today may be out tomorrow, as Heidi Klum always warns contestants on Project Runway.

By contrast humankind’s liking of wine stems more from Culture, “the work of whole peoples” as Brand describes it, and of Nature itself, “inexorable and implacable,” which somehow has programmed us (and other forms of animal life) to delight in the slight intoxication of alcohol, and in wine in particular, that most natural of alcoholic beverages.

What of the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in America? We can see in this a balancing act between the slow-motion pace of Nature and Culture, which act to keep change from happening too quickly, and the “froth” of Fashion, which, if it dominated, would have had us by now become a nation of Fioletovy Ranny drinkers. There always will be wine critics, sommeliers and others who try to push the nation’s tastes towards the exotic and rare; also always will be pushback from people who know what they like and don’t want to change. This tension—between the more conservative elements and the more radical ones—is healthy. The system itself reinforces dialogue: “the pace layers…provide many-leveled corrective, stabilizing negative feedback [loops] throughout the system. It is precisely in the apparent contradictions of pace that civilization finds its surest health.”

We may even use Brand’s pace system to make predictions. Will the three-tiered system survive? In its favor are the slower-moving layers of Nature and Culture, both of which tend to abhor change and to support the status quo. Against the system’s continuance are Fashion and Commerce: both suggest greater flexibility, innovativeness and individual choice for the consumer.

Between Nature and Culture, on the one hand, and Fashion and Commerce, on the other, lie two key layers: Governance and Infrastructure. The former right now is largely immobile, from many points of view; the U.S. Congress is unlikely anytime soon to interfere with the three-tiered system, while the Courts likewise have not shown that they’re particularly eager to take up the issue (despite the 2005 Granholm v. Heald decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has resulted in hardly any change, and was in any case a 5-4 vote that could have gone either way).

That leaves Infrastructure as the sole remaining hope for upsetting if not ending the three-tiered system. A nation of consumers that has happily embraced the Internet, with its notions of untaxed online transactions, net neutrality and infinite choice, may decide on its own that it does not want its shopping decisions hampered in any way, by Governance, by Commerce or anything else. As the Infrastructure of online commerce develops in ways that are completely unpredictable, we can be sure of this: The arc bends towards freedom. That is not a good sign for a confusing, paperwork-swamped system that currently restricts what and how people can buy.


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