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Notes on wine writing etc.

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I got a greater understanding of Uber while I used their car service for three days during the World of Pinot Noir. They have a great business model and are looking to get involved in ancillary areas, such as wine tourism, which is a great idea.

I was reminded of Uber again reading yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where in the Personal Journal section, they have an article called “Race is On: Ride-Sharing Car Services Versus a Taxi.”

The article was largely analytical, comparing Uber with Lyft and Sidecar, its chief competitors, and with taxicabs. The reporter didn’t say if one was better than the others–but you could discern his own personal preference for the private cars, when he used terms like “a safe and courteous ride, with a side of serenity” to describe the experience. That certainly coincides with my own experience. I got to know my Uber driver quite well over three days; we even promised to stay in touch. How often does that happen with a cab driver?

It strikes me that a parallel can be made between the new private car services industry versus the traditional taxicab, on the one hand, and the proliferation of social media sources of information about wine versus the traditional wine critics who for decades have dominated the national conversation about what to drink, on the other hand. Until very recently, I was, of course, one of those traditional wine critics, so I think I have some understanding of them and their milieu. But I also am a consumer of services (such as Uber and taxicabs) as well as a voracious reader of wine blogs. So I’m wondering if Uber is going to put taxicabs out of business, and if the online wine writers will put traditional wine critics out of business.

We’ve had this conversation on steveherimoff.com for years now, with every shade of opinion being expressed in the comments. In general, I’ve been a staunch defender of the established wine writers. My belief was that they may become obsolete, but it’s not going to be for a while, at least until the current batch of famous wine critics retires or dies. Most are in their sixties, and should have many more years of active work.

So it’s not a question of “if” a small cadre of wine writers will be eclipsed, but “when.” It’s also a question of the relationship that readers will have with whomever replaces the famous wine writers. As we’ve seen with Uber, people like having personal relationships with those who provide them with services. I don’t want to sit in the back seat of a cab with a driver who grunts at me and with whom I seem to have nothing in common–not that I can tell, because there’s no conversation between us. With my Uber driver, I sat in the passenger seat. She told me of her life and dreams, and I shared mine. That’s a personal relationship, one that tears down boundaries between “driver” and “passenger” (i.e. between “authority” and “nobody”).

In my own prior career as a wine critic, I tried as hard as I could to tear down those walls. Although I recognized that others perceived me as an “authority,” it was important for me to let them know that I didn’t perceive myself that way. Oh, sure, I understood that I tasted a lot more wine than most people, and that I had studied wine a great deal more intensely, and so that necessarily gave me some greater knowledge of the subject. But I never was comfortable with the gaping boundary between me and others, as if that’s all I was, and I tried to narrow it all the time, by letting people know that–just like them–I’m just a normal guy, with my own insecurities and dreams.

I think that the success of steveheimoff.com was precisely because people thought it’s pretty cool for a bigtime wine critic to get down with them. I never held anything back on this blog, even when my former employer told me to. I stood up for its independence–which was a way of standing up for myself, and also for the integrity of my readers. My past employer learned to live with steveheimoff.com, and I think they eventually got to respect it and understand that the mysteries of symbiosis actually made their own brand stronger.

I guess without even knowing it consciously, I created steveheimoff.com to be the Uber of wine blogs. It’s not a blog where you sit in the back seat, silent and looking out the window, as an anonymous driver impersonally whisks you to your destination (at which point you have to tip him!). I wanted a blog where the reader sat right beside me in the passenger seat, where we could have a conversation and get to know each other.

Surely this sense of two-way communication, transparency and honesty is the essence of social media. It’s also the essence, it seems to me, of the kinds of relationships that wine companies need to have with their customers. It’s the kind of conversation I hope to continue to have here on steveheimoff.com, and with the people I’ll be meeting through my new job at Jackson Family Wines, where I hope to provide “a safe and courteous ride” through the byroads of wine, as seen by me. I know that some, perhaps many, of you will give me a skeptical look. Fine. Please do. Hold my feet to the fire.


Live from the front lines of Pinot Noir: In Pursuit of Balance

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Lots of buzz at Monday’s In Pursuit of Balance seminar and tasting in San Francisco, held at the Bluxome Street Winery, in the far South of Market and just west of AT&T Park. Moderator Jamie Goode choose the seminar topic: Defining ripeness in Pinot Noir. “Too much alcohol [in Pinot Noir] is a huge problem,” Jamie said in his opening remarks; “it masks aromatic expression,” he noted, adding that alcohol can also create a “distinct mouthfeel [of] sweetness,” which robs Pinot Noir of its essential Pinot Noir-ness.

Here are my brief remarks on the wines we tasted: The two Tylers [2011 Sanford & Benedict, 13.4% and 2011 Bien Nacido Old Vine, 13.6%] both were delicate and lovely, with the Bien Nacido more powerful, the Sanford & Benedict more elegant, yet both fresh and keen in red fruits.

The two Caleras, both barrel samples from 2013 [Mills Vineyard Lot A, 12.9% and Mills Lot B, 13.8%] were perhaps the most controversial of the tasting. Jamie asked for a vote of preference and 90% of the crowd liked Lot B, which in fact was a bigger, warmer, more generous wine. Jamie preferred Lot A. Both of the wines had been made with whole cluster fermentation, which made them darker, spicier and more tannic than the other wines. More on the Caleras in a minute.

The two LaRues [2012, 12.6% and 2010 Rice-Spivak Vineyard, 13.2%] more closely resembled the Tylers than the Caleras. They were translucent in color and bright in acidity, with sour cherry candy and cranberry tartness; the 2010 was just starting to unravel. Both showed their unmistakable coastal terroir [the vineyard is in the Sebastopol Hills].

The two Copains [2007 and 2010 Kiser En Bas, from Anderson Valley] both showed an exciting tension of tartness and ripeness. I like that nervous edge that a fine Pinot can tread, but the 2007 was starting to show its grey hairs, picking up a distinct mushroom aroma. To my sensibilities, it’s going downhill–but then, it’s nearing seven years of age.

Jamie returned to the subject matter, ripeness, asking the panelists how they decide when to pick. Several referred to their techniques: by sight, by taste, by laboratory analysis, but as LaRue’s owner-winemaker Katy Wilson remarked, picking decisions tend to be predicated on the schedules of the pickers, not on some arbitrary preference on the winemaker’s part. This led to the question, Can you pick too early? This is not an entirely superfluous inquiry. The rise of IPOB and its low-alcohol adherents may well have forced vintners to harvest sooner than they would normally like to, in order to satisfy the under-14% crowd. Jamie expressed this concern, that picking too early results in a Pinot than can be lean and green. Someone asked Josh Jensen about the low alcohol [12.9%] on his Mills Lot A, and with his disarming grin Josh replied that he had perhaps “jumped the gun” on that one, harvesting the grapes before he should have. He himself did not care for Lot A, he implied. Pressed, Josh explained, “But I’d rather jump the gun by picking too early than too late.”

Afterwards, I told Josh that I found his Caleras the outliers of the tasting. At first he was dismayed, thinking I’d disrespected them. But then I explained that, at the end of the tasting, I found that the only two glasses I’d completely drained were his two Caleras. Josh’s face softened as I added, “They were like food groups rather than particular flavors, wholesome and nourishing.” Josh enjoyed hearing that.

Balance is, of course, an impossible term to define, and different tasters will disagree concerning any particular wine. Raj Parr himself, IPOB’s co-founder, seemed to concede as much, during some very brief welcoming remarks he made, when he said (I paraphrase), “Some people think that In Pursuit of Balance seeks only wines below 14%, but that’s not true.” I’m glad Raj cleared that up, because I too was one of those who was mistaken about that. I’ve written for years that any wine can be balanced, even a Pinot Noir with alcohol well into the 14s; it all depends. So it’s no longer clear to me what In Pursuit of Balance’s mission is, except that under its auspices it brings together interesting wines and engaging winemakers with writers and sommeliers, for a fun time of chit chat and information exchange. Surely that in itself is enough of a rationale to celebrate IPOB, and anything else wine-related, for that matter.


Random chance as an influence in brand building

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Why did The Beatles become the biggest band in the world? How come Mona Lisa is seen as the most famous painting of all time? A new study out of Princeton suggests that “artworks gain popularity based on social influence, and chance,” and not necessarily due to inherent artistic merit. In fact, there’s an element of pure randomness. The Princeton scientists created nine parallel “digital worlds”, each populated by real teenagers who were given 48 rock and roll songs they were asked to rank according to personal preference.

“Different songs became hits in different worlds,” said one of the scientists. “For example, in one world, Lock Down by the band 52 Metro, came in first and in another world, it came in 40th.” Put another way, in one world Mona Lisa becomes an iconic work of art; in another, it’s just another minor painting. The conclusion: “Popularity begets popularity.” One person likes something, and turns someone else onto it; two become four, and so on. And “social influence” is key in driving popularity. Gatekeepers and tastemakers mandate what’s worthwhile and what’s not; a groundswell becomes a “fad,” and “as fads form, they make stars into mega stars.” Thus a Madonna, Springsteen or Michael Jackson. Thus, too, a Screaming Eagle.

The randomness of what propels one wine to superstardom while another, equally good one never makes it is illustrated by something Heidi Peterson Barrett once told me, when I interviewed her for my second book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. I asked her how Screaming Eagle had become so famous, so fast, when she was its winemaker. “There’s what I think of as the magic factor,” she explained. “You can’t quantify it exactly, but it happened with Screaming Eagle. It was something that none of us could have predicted. I loved that wine out of the shoot, I thought, ‘Gosh, this is just delicious stuff,’ but I had no idea what was going to happen to it. It wasn’t so much a wine writer’s wine, even though it did get 100 points [in 1992, from Parker]. It had already gone out, sort of word of mouth, this wildfire undercurrent, person-to-person, friends to friends: ‘Have you tried this?’ They were all excited. It just spread like wildfire. And by the time that review came out, it had already spread.”

Many winery proprietors have since tried to replicate Screaming Eagle’s success, but no one has done it. (Harlan Estate is equally esteemed, but it predates Screaming Eagle.) These wannabe wineries develop splendid vineyards or buy grapes from top sources, hire the best consulting winemakers around, and build palaces where the wine is produced–only to find that they have just another expensive Cabernet in a world over-populated by them. They discover that you can’t catch that “wildfire undercurrent” in a jar. It either happens–or it doesn’t.

Does this mean it’s useless or pointless to try to capture “the magic factor”? Not at all. It’s what keeps marketers and P.R. people busy. It is, in fact, the fuel that propels the wine industry forward. A world where so much happens so randomly is one in which anyone can make it. From out of the blue, lightning can strike. It may never happen–but it’s the light in the eye, the flutter in the heart, the dream in the mind of every winemaker.

My own career has benefited from this randomness. I was in the right place, at the right time, in the late 1980s, when no one particularly wanted to be a wine writer. Everyone wanted to be an MBA and make a ton of money on Wall Street! But I wanted to be a wine writer, and the fact that I became one was due as much to chance as to my efforts and abilities. So I’ve always been fascinated by questions of marketing and P.R. in wine: Why some wineries and wines become huge hits while others don’t? Can a brand that’s been lagging be reinvented? Can a new one be instantly interesting? I think the answer is yes. It’s what I’m going to base this next phase of my career to understanding.

P.S. To the hundreds of people who have contacted me through Facebook, email, phone, Twitter, my blog and in person, offering support and love, thank you thank you. You have no idea what it means to me.


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.


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