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Short and simple: I have a new job

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At 6:30 a.m. Pacific time today, this announcement went out from Jackson Family Wines:

JACKSON FAMILY WINES HIRES STEVE HEIMOFF AS COMMUNICATIONS & CONTENT EXPERT

 Veteran wine writer, blogger and critic will specialize in communications and education for family’s expanding portfolio

 Sonoma County, CA (MARCH 10, 2014) – Jackson Family Wines is pleased to announce the hiring of Steve Heimoff as Director, Wine Communications & Education.

 Heimoff’s responsibilities will include working with the company’s communications, PR, digital/social media and brand marketing teams in all aspects of content generation, consumer engagement and trade support.

 “I’m truly honored that Jackson Family Wines has entrusted me with this unique position,” Heimoff said. “I was a huge admirer of Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke, not only professionally for their tremendous accomplishments, but personally. Jackson Family Wines is, simply put, the most superb portfolio of high-end wineries in America and I’m thrilled to now work for the family business.”

Heimoff joins Jackson Family Wines after 22 years at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, most of them as California Editor. Previously, Heimoff wrote for Wine Spectator Magazine. Born in New York City, Heimoff moved to San Francisco in 1979 to attend graduate school and it was there that he discovered and nurtured his passion for wine.

 Heimoff has written two books for University of California Press: A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. In addition, his daily wine blog, steveheimoff.com, is one of the most widely read in the country.

* * *

After twenty-five years as a wine critic, I’m onto my next big adventure.

I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say in the coming days and weeks. Right now, the reality of my new tasks hasn’t really set in. One thing I do want to do is reassure my readers that I intend to keep this blog going five days a week, just as I have for nearly six years.

I fully understand the challenges inherent in this goal I set myself. And I expect my readers to say to me: Prove it. I’ll try and give it my level best. I love this blog–I love the interaction I have with so many of you who faithfully read it everyday, and occasionally take the time to comment–I have no intention of squandering the trust you invest in me. I will endeavor to keep steveheimoff.com an independent, interesting voice, just as I did all those years with Wine Enthusiast. I’m simply (and happily) changing employers; this blog abides.

Thank you.


Top 10 wines of the week

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It’s been a while since I posted a TTWOTW, so here goes.You can see my scores and full reviews in upcoming issues of Wine Enthusiast.

This was a good week for value wines. You’ll note that four of my Top Ten retail for less than $30, while the Dichotomy is just a few bucks more than that. Anytime you can get a 90 point or above wine for $30 and under, you should grab it.

Some old, familiar names made the list. Geyser Peak, Rutherford Hill and Alexander Valley Vineyards have been around forever. There’s a reason why they abide: they do a good job. Krupp Brothers has two of the top ten. I have fond memories from years ago when Dr. Jan Krupp, who with his brother Bart bought and developed the land that eventually became Stagecoach Vineyard, took me on a tour of the land. Stagecoach has obviously turned into an important vineyard and in my opinion is single-handedly responsible for turning around the reputation of the Atlas Peak AVA. The vineyard actually spans Atlas Peak and Pritchard Hill, which is not yet an appellation; wines from Stagecoach qualify “only” for the Napa Valley appellation. The Doctor red blend, by the way, is an imaginative and thoughtful combo of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc. I really believe more wineries would create these non-traditional blends were it not for the 75% varietal-bottling rule and the fact that most Americans seem to need the reassurance of a varietal name and not a proprietary one. We writers and educators are going to have to work on that.

Anyhow, here’s the list. Have a great weekend! Back on Monday morning with some interesting news.

Krupp Brothers 2010 M5 Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $150.

Krupp Brothers 2011 The Doctor Red Blend (Napa Valley); $90.

Alexander Valley Vineyards 2010 Cyrus (Alexander Valley); $65.

Rutherford Hill 2012 Limited Release Chardonnay (Carneros); $28.

Dichotomy 2012 Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley): $32.

Geyser Peak 2011 Tectonic Red Blend (Alexander Valley); $28.

MacLaren 2011 Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah (Napa Valley); $45.

Bruliam 2012 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $55.

Amici 2012 Olema Pinot Noir (Sonoma County): $20.

Geyser Peak 2011 Walking Tree Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley); $28.


Winery P.R. and social media: Make the product cool, and make stars of the everyday people who drink it

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The great advertising genius David Ogilvy, who founded one of Madison Avenue’s most successful firms and served as the inspiration for generations of Mad Men, in his 1963 memoir “Confessions of an Advertising Man” quoted his own father. “[He] used to say of a product that it was ‘very well spoken of in the advertisements.’”

Ogilvy’s father lived in an era when being “well spoken of in the advertisements” was convincing enough for a gentleman to buy the product. Ogilvy understood, partly through his readings in mass psychology, that it was important that the person speaking in the advertisements be credible. He was a stickler for the authoritative figure: in “Confessions” he cites Escoffier as “the definitive authority” in cooking; he recalls his own stint as an assistant chef under Monsieur Pitard, “the arch symbol of authority”; one of Ogilvy’s first clients, when he set up his advertising firm, was “an eminent authority on rare books”; in advising how to sell proprietary medicines, he notes that “A good patent-medicine advertisement conveys a feeling of authority”; and, finally summing up what it takes to be a successful ad man, suggests practitioners “become the acknowledged authority” on subjects ranging from ad budgets and media planning to getting scholarly articles published in the Harvard Business Review. An ad man who can do that “will be able to write your own ticket.”

David Ogilvy died in 1999, at the age of 88. His career spanned a period when authoritative advertising really could push products because consumers trusted the information in the ads. Ogilvy specialized in inventing “personalities.” Oldtimers will remember Colonel Whitehead, the cool white-bearded guy who told us of the benefits of Schwepps tonic water, and “the man in the Hathaway shirt,” with his eye patch (who was the spiritual father of “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” the Dos Equis guy). Believe it or not, there really was a time when advertising seemed to express the honest, objective truth, and people were credulous enough to believe it.

Today’s P.R. and advertising specialists constantly refer to “the story” as the backbone of capturing the consumer’s attention. Although the term “the story” wasn’t really part of Ogilvy’s lexicon, it’s clear that his character-driven narratives anticipated it. He refers to another advertising man’s use of the term “story appeal” in photographs: “the more of it you inject into your photographs, the more people will look at your advertisements.” (One of my favorite Ogilvy images, and one of his most famous, is this ad for Rolls Royce.

ogilvy-rolls-royce-ad

 

It’s almost impossible for the eye and the mind not to dwell on it. Who is that woman driver? Are those her kids? Where are they coming from–private school? What are they carrying? This is “story appeal” to the max, amplified by the photo’s caption, which captures the imagination.)

Hence, the modern goal of P.R. to “tell the story” is hardly new. Mucha did it in 1897 with this poster advertising Nestle’s:

Mucha

a self-confident, classically beautiful maman mixing up the cocoa for her healthy, happy baby. When P.R. professionals take their first meeting with a new client, they prod for the story–and if they’re good at their jobs, they never stop refining and, if necessary, re-defining it.

But today we have the game changer called the Internet, and specifically social media, a paradigm shift if ever there was one. Businesses no longer need P.R. people to take them public; they can go public all by themselves, with more exposure than even David Ogilvy ever dreamed of on his most creative, three-martini day. However, as we know all too well, some companies, and particularly small wineries not well versed in social media, don’t know how to take advantage of the opportunities, thus leaving room for P.R. consultants for ply their trade, especially if they’re adept at social media. One successful example of a neat fusion of telling a story through the use of social media concerns Vans, the popular shoeware company (I own several pairs and love them). Vans has a new, online documentary series in which four filmmakers were asked to find interesting young people who embody the spirit of the brand and tell their story. For instance, here’s a short YouTube of an East L.A. guy named Anthony. He’s pretty cool: it’s interesting to get into his life, and he just happens to be wearing Vans, which gets a transfusion of Anthony’s cool via the miracle of emotional transference. We know for a fact that video is the future of social media. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an interesting video is worth its weight in gold.

The American public today is less susceptible to believing something just because it’s “very well spoken of in the advertisements.” I mean, we passed that milestone long ago. Nowadays people are more likely to skip through the commercials on T.V, and slip past the ads in newspapers and magazines. They do, however, respond to interesting and clever videos. The Vans YouTubes are wonderful to watch, and even though they don’t say a word about Vans, the shoes are part of the show. I’m not saying that traditional P.R. is dead or has no place, but the skill set for successful P.R. has changed. It now involves–not just the ability to make a good video–but proper insight, even more important, into the content of the video. Consumers will not respond if they’re hit over the head with product ads–at least, they won’t with wine. (I never fail to be amazed by the brutality and noise level of car commercials. I hate them, but maybe they work, or else the industry would have abandoned them long ago. But you can’t sell wine that way.)

So how is “Anthony,” the East L.A. guy, an “authority”? The fact of the matter is, for a younger generation the definition of “authority” has changed. It’s no longer some stentorian font of wisdom who knows more than you do, telling you what’s up. It’s someone just like you. Anthony is an authority on being a cool young kid who’s having fun who just happens to be into Vans. That’s way different from some talking head on a T.V. commercial blathering away about the quality of Vans soles or the durability of their laces. People don’t need that anymore, at least in everyday footware. Nor do they need it in wine. They want to see and hear from people they can relate to. That’s the lesson for wineries, for P.R. pros and for marketing execs in general to take home.


How many Pinot Noirs can one winemaker successfully make?

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I got a bunch of single vineyard Pinot Noirs for review yesterday from Sojourn Cellars, a fine producer whose Pinots, Cabernets and other wines I’ve liked over the years. I haven’t reviewed the new batch yet, so this post isn’t about them. It’s about the phenomenon of wineries producing multiple vineyard-designated Pinots (in Sojourn’s case, six).

Lots of wineries practice this business model. Among those who come to mind are Siduri, Testorossa, Williams Selyem, Loring, Failla, Merry Edwards, MacPhail. Some of these also produce estate wines from their own vineyards; others own no vineyards, but buy their grapes, usually under longterm contracts, from vineyards up and down the coast.

(Some Pinot houses–Marimar Torres, Flowers, Rochioli, Lynmar, Calera, Joseph Swan, among others–of course bottle multiple Pinots in every vintage, but they own their vineyards exclusively.)

It’s an odd model, bottling multiple Pinot Noirs from vineyards often scattered hundreds of miles apart, from Santa Rita Hills to Anderson Valley. I don’t think you’d find that in Pinot Noir’s natural home, Burgundy. There, producers make such a big deal about their terroir (mainly soils) that it would be scandalous for them to secure grapes from someone else’s vineyard. That would go against the whole grain of what it has historically meant to produce grand vin in France.

But California isn’t France. We’ve always been an entrepreneurial state, from the Gold Rush days to Silicon Valley, and there is indeed something entrepreneurial about a producer crafting multiple Pinot Noirs, from as many great vineyards as he can get his hands on. And certainly, we have no shortage of great Pinot vineyards: just as someone like Adam Lee’s business model is crafting a dozen or so Pinots, so too there are vineyard owners whose model is to grow and sell grapes, rather than make their own wine. That too is an unlikely scenario in Burgundy. Then there are vineyards that bottle their own wine and also sell some: Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Hirsch and Pisoni come to mind.

Here’s what I wonder about. It’s kind of an intellectual question, but I think it bears on wine quality. Is it possible for a vintner to produce great Pinot Noir from multiple, scattered vineyards? Logic tells you that the vintner’s attention must surely be divided: he’s having to maintain relationships with multiple growers, from up and down the state. He has to arrange delivery of the grapes to his crush place, which may be hundreds of miles away from the vineyards. Above all, he has to try and capture the essential personality of the vineyard (or, expressed another way, he has to do nothing that would impede the grapes from expressing that personality). And he has to do all of this during the busiest time of the year, crush, with a million other things competing for his attention, not the least of which often includes making wines other than Pinot Noir.

There’s another potential danger: The wines may lose something of their terroir when made as a part of multiple batches by a vintner who cannot be intimately familiar with the vineyards, and whose winemaking technique may be the exact same with all the wines.

A final challenge is that every vineyard, no matter how famous, has bad grapes–bad in the sense they may be too young, or a moldy lot that somehow escaped scrutiny, or was overcropped or otherwise compromised. So just because a wine bears an esteemed vineyard designation doesn’t mean anything.

I guess the lesson is, buyer beware. Not every famous Pinot Noir vineyard will compromise its reputation by selling crappy fruit, but some will. And not every winery will compromise its integrity by buying crappy fruit, but some will. The consumer has to learn to tell the difference.

That’s a tall order. You might think it can’t be done–but it can. I routinely give high scores to many of these multiple Pinot houses, vintage after vintage. In fact, combing through my reviews over the years, I can detect no preference on my part to wineries that own vineyards versus wineries that buy grapes. So this California model seems to be working, at least, in the case of Pinot Noir. It reflects technical progress, in transportation, fruit preservation and communications, of a type that didn’t exist not that long ago; it’s impossible to think that a vintner like Adam Lee could have made this work in the 1980s.


Just thinking on a wet Tuesday morning

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All the rain we’ve had lately is making me introspective. I may have a slight case of S.A.D.–seasonal affective disorder. When the sky turns a dull gray, it rains for a week and the sun seems like it’ll never return, all I want to do is curl up with a good book and wait until Spring.

Yes, we need the water. Everybody says so, and so I tell myself that I’m being selfish for being so bored stiff by the rain. Every night it drizzles; every morning I wake up to drizzle; is this California, or Seattle? You’d think that the talk about drought that dominated December and January would start to fade away, but no, the news is that no matter how much it’s rained lately, the drought still is upon us. Typical is this headline from last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle:

More rain this week but it’ll fall short

“[San Francisco] has recorded just 8.01 inches of rain this season, far below its usual tally of 18.21 inches by the start of March,” says the article. Last week’s big storm–the one that hit when I was in Santa Barbara at World of Pinot Noir–apparently was more powerful in Southern California than up north, which must have helped with the water situation down in the Central Coast, where the drought has been particularly severe. Maybe some of my readers will let us know how things are doing from Paso Robles south. I do know that, driving home on Sunday, the hills and fields were bright green in native grasses, something I hadn’t seen in a long time. (California is called the Golden State not for the Gold Rush, but because gold is the color of our hills and mountains during the dry season.) But I suppose that when the rain falls so hard, so fast, that most of it runs off into streams and rivers that eventually empty into the Pacific.

Sometimes I like the rain. I spent a night once in a little cabin in the middle of a Redwood forest in the Russian River Valley, just outside Forestville. It was a wild night, stormy and windy and cold: a gale had swept down out of the Gulf of Alaska. The rain track for Northern and Central California can come down from the north, or it can come in from the west, via Hawaii, which is why it’s called the Pineapple Express. From the point of view of the water supply, it’s better to have Gulf of Alaska storms, because they’re colder; hence the snow level in the Sierra is much lower, and that’s where much of our water comes from. Unfortunately, all these storms have been Pineapple Expresses: warm storms, high snow levels.

I remember lying in bed, that stormy night in Forestville, and listening to the sounds of nature: the rain pounding on the roof and windows, but also the limbs of the trees rubbing against each other in the wind, making low, moaning sounds, like sad cellos. I thought of all the critters that live in the woods: the skunks and raccoons and rabbits and badgers. Do they have dry holes where they burrow and stay warm? Our distant ancestors, recently become human, must have relished a nice cave, and whoever could make a fire must have been seen as special, godlike. At some point in pre-history those ancestors discovered fermentation, and made wine. That too must have seemed miraculous. Fire and wine: two divine gifts that make life bearable, even joyous. We worship them both today.

See, I told you I’m feeling introspective.


Final thoughts on WOPN 2014

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World of Pinot Noir was a very great success despite 3 days of continuous rain (I hope all those poor people living in the foothills of the San Gabes are okay). The Bacara Resort turned out to be a lovely new venue; their staff was awesome. Personally, I want to thank the Uber people for taking such good care getting me back and forth. I stayed at Fess Parker’s Doubletree, a 25 minute drive from Bacara, and it would have been very difficult for me (and for Gus) without my wonderful driver, Ariane. Thank you, and thanks also to Andy.

WOPN has been such a great success that I wonder why more wineries from beyond California don’t participate. I think if Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand and other Pinot-producing countries knew more about this event (and the upscale crowd it attracts), they’d come. As for tasting, I spent most of my time concentrating on the New Zealand and Oregon wineries that did attend. Partly, that was because I don’t taste much non-California wine. I also felt sorry for the non-California wineries, many of whom were stuck in a side room that frankly didn’t attract much of a crowd. People were lining up at the likes of Kosta Brown, which seems rather lemming-like to me. I mean, hey, okay, if you’ve never tried KB, fine, but why not go outside your critical comfort zone and discover something else? Isn’t that what wine is all about: discovery, surprise, evolution? It’s boringly easy to taste something that critic X or Y gave a million points to and then go home and yada yada about it. Well, if that’s the outermost limit you can soar to, my sympathies.

It was great to see Bob Cabral pouring at Williams Selyem. As most of you probably know, Bob gave them his notice, and will be moving on to unknown adventures, although he’ll oversee their 2014 vintage. The two of us had a good long talk–we go back a ways and Bob’s always been one of my favorite people, both for his superb attitude as a human being, friendliness and warmth, and because Williams Selyem’s wines rock.

Just a brief word on the Burgundy seminar. I had some favorites: Domaine Collotte 2012 Marsannay Rose. What a great wine for $18 retail. I wrote “I wish there were more California rosés like this, especially Pinot Noirs, which tend to be too heavy.” I loved the Domaine Mongeard-Mugneret 2010 Savigny-Les-Beaune “Les Narbantons,” not a Premier Cru but a gorgeous wine, rich and spicy and ready to drink now, at only $30. But my top wine was  Domaine Jean et Gilles Lafouge 2010 Auxey-Duresses “La Chappelle” ($36). I just couldn’t get enough of it: dry, acidic and spicy, with firm tannins and oh, so complete and wholesome. To me, it beat out the Grand Cru on the table, Domaine D’Ardhuy 2005 Corton Clos du Roi, which I called “very hard, undrinkable, all about tannins and acidity, showing no generosity, austere.” I have no idea if it will age, and neither, apparently, did Don Kinnon, who once again moderated this outstanding panel. He seemed almost apologetic about it. Of course, if you know this is a Grand Cru, and from a celebrated vintage, you’re going to hedge your bets and give it a great score, probably with a line like “Nowhere near ready, best after 2030.” If you don’t know what it is, you’ll just go “Uggh” and turn to something else, like the Auxey-Duresses, at one-third the price. This just shows that tasting occurs, not merely in the mouth, but in the mind.


World of Pinot Noir 2014: Random notes

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At the morning seminar on the Pinots of Willamette Valley, my friend Gillian Handelman, of Jackson Family Wines, remarked that Oregon winemakers seem to talk a lot more about soil and rocks than do California winemakers, who lean more toward climate in explaining their Pinots. That immediately rang true to me, and I wondered why it might be so. A few things occur to me:

The historical reference point for Pinot Noir in California is Sonoma County, where the soils are so impossibly jumbled, courtesy of the San Andreas Fault system, that you can walk two yards and find different structures. That may be one reason why: Winemakers were stymied trying to understand their soils, so they very naturally turned to climate. Then too, as someone observed, up in Oregon-Washington, every kid is raised with the story of the great Missoula Floods, which formed so much of those states’ terrain. “It was our creation myth,” said Oregon journalist Katherine Cole, who moderated the Willamette seminar. So it may be that Oregonians have rocks more deeply imbedded in their imaginations than do Californians. Finally, it may be because in Willamette, Pinot Noir is pretty much exclusively the red grape, whereas in California, it’s everything from Pinot to Cabernet and Zinfandel. Pinot seems to draw more from the dirt than most other red varieties, so maybe Oregon winemakers look more toward Burgundian explanations of terroir than Californians. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think Gillian hit the nail on the head.

The seminar on the wines of Louis Jadot’s Beaune Premier Cru Clos des Ursules was stunning. I’ve gone to few vertical tastings in my life in which a continuity of style was clearer, or where the necessity of aging more apparent. We tasted eight wines, from 2010 going back to 1985, and it was easy to find the same elements in them all. But really, only the 1985 was drinkable (to me)–and that, just barely; I’d love to try it in another 20 years. Jadot’s winemaker, Frédéric Barnier, conceded as much. When asked by an audience member if he didn’t feel the need to change the style in response to consumer demand for earlier-drinking wines, Barnier said, in effect: No way. Good for him.

Later, at the walkaround tasting, I found myself gravitating toward the 2011s, from both Oregon and California. Some of them were stunning. The one I particularly recall was the Baxter 2011 Valenti Vineyard, from Mendocino Ridge. (I no longer review Mendocino wines for Wine Enthusiast; Virginie Boone does. She scored it 92 points. I might have gone a little higher, and added a Cellar Selection designation. But Virginie and I are in the same ballpark.)

I’m still formulating my views on the 2011 Pinots. Katherine, the Willamette moderator, told a story about a Burgundian producer she interviewed. When she asked him about a certain vintage would develop, he crustily replied (I paraphrase Katherine’s quote), “How am I supposed to know? You can’t understand a vintage for at least fifty years.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think it takes time, and any serious reviewer who doesn’t revise his estimations of a vintage is lazy or dead. Early on, I had serious problems with 2011 Pinots from California. Lots of mold. But there always were some great wines from producers who either sorted out the moldy berries or who sourced their grapes from vineyards (often mountains or hillsides) where mold was not a problem, even in the cold 2011 vintage. So at the walkaround tasting I was really blown away by some of the 2011s. The Baxter is the only one I’ll mention here, but the great ones all were low in alcohol, incredibly streamlined and elegant, brisk in acidity and not overwhelming in fruit. You can call them Burgundian, I suppose. This raises the question of how to evaluate a vintage, overall, when it contains extremes of both sides: extraordinary wines as well as moldy ones. My feeling is to lower the overall score, in terms of numbers, but try to express, in the text, that consumers who choose well will find unbelievably gorgeous wines. This is not always an easy message to get across, but then, of course, the individual scores and reviews of the wines also express how I feel about them.

Finally: Frédéric Barnier on numerous occasions made a distinction between wines that are “good” and those that are “interesting.” I raised my hand five or six times, during the Q&A, to ask him to elaborate; but alas, Katherine never called on me, so all I can do is surmise. I wanted to ask him: Can a wine that’s not good be interesting? Can a wine that’s good be uninteresting? This is fascinating stuff, and I hope to muse on these concepts in the future.

 


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