I’ve been thinking about appellations lately, partly because I’m still reading—and immensely enjoying—Benjamin Lewin MW’s new book, Wines of France, which contains so much useful information about them in France—but also because the nature of my work at Jackson Family Wines includes research into this area.
In France the issue of appellations is more or less settled. The regions are so ancient, their proclivities so well understood, that the names and boundaries, however complex, are simply codifications of realities that have been determined for centuries. There are of course outstanding questions—and there always will be—such as expanding the borders of Champagne, or who should be a St. Emilion Grand Cru, or should Alsace have a premier cru level. But, by and large, France’s appellations are fixed, and they make sense.
Here in California, the situation is anything but. Our existing AVAs are fixed, I suppose, to the extent that the TTB, which is an arm of the Treasury Department, has recognized them, and so—as with any government program—they are unlikely to be changed. Yes, an AVA may be tweaked around the edges: witness the Russian River Valley’s southern expansion, or the proposals to extend Santa Rita Hills to the east. But, as anyone knows who has studied our AVA process, it is haphazard to the point of chaos. It is true that politics in France also rears its head in appellation discussions, but in California, politics seems to play an outsized role. And our TTB—which also regulates firearms and ammunition—has not exactly shown itself to be the most intellectually logical place in the U.S. government for such things as regulating wine regions. What TTB seems to want is to avoid getting caught in internecine battles. And who can blame them?
Still, the TTB is what we are stuck with. Knowing how arbitrary the approval process can be, how political it is, with personalities and money wrapped up into considerations of terroir, and how bureaucratic is this arm of the government, how and why, then, should the consumer even care about AVAs? Well, the average consumer doesn’t. Let’s face it: price, variety, brand, availability and even label design play a greater role in the selection of wine than appellation. Then, a step up from the “average consumer” is the “informed consumer.” He or she does care about appellations, to a certain extent: Napa Valley means something to him (general approval, an expectation of greatness, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon). But beyond that, his awareness of appellations dims.
Who, then, is the target of the ever-expanding list of American AVAs, which now numbers—well, Wikipedia says 230, although that seems low to me. I think it’s mainly wine writers. They care about appellations, even if no one else does. When Paso Robles subdivided into eleven AVAs, do you think Americans lifted their glasses and toasted the birth of El Pomar and San Juan Creek? I don’t. But wine writers duly took note (and the gatekeepers who read them did, too). The writers who wrote about it felt they had to “understand” this move—it must have meant something, right? Otherwise why would the U.S. government have blessed it?—and they therefore gave Paso Robles more publicity than it ever would have gotten. So in this sense, appellations are just as much about P.R. as they are about terroir.
Well, yes…and no. It’s obvious that there must be terroir distinctions for grape varieties. We feel that intuitively; we know that experientally, through the feelings of our own bodies as we transit across various California landscapes, even those limited to the coastal regions. We “get” that Cabernet, or Pinot Noir, or Syrah (to mention only the more terroir-sensitive varieties) perform differently in different places: taste differently, ripen differently, have different acid profiles. Therefore we—the more thoughtful wine appreciators—are implicitly biased in favor of terroir distinctions, or appellations. The question, and it’s a huge one, is: Are these appellations, as defined by TTB, meaningful reflections of reality, or are they just examples of “he who has the most money, and the best lawyers, wins”?
There is no clear answer. Not every question that sounds as if it has an answer actually does. Still, I would argue, the effort must continue: to delineate individual appellations, based on terroir. We must resist the conclusion that it’s all a bunch of B.S., just because so much of it has been in the past. We have to work with the TTB—unfortunate as that is—to more precisely define AVAs like Russian River Valley, or Santa Rita Hills, or Santa Lucia Highlands, or Anderson Valley, or Alexander Valley, in order to zero in on particular local distinctions. This is important work. It may never be properly appreciated by hundreds of millions of consumers, nor need it be. But we owe it to wine, to the earth, to honesty and to ourselves to continue to try to understand it.
I do not suppose there can any longer be even the pretense of justification for critics, or would-be critics, who have negative things to say about the quality of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
That quality is stupendous, and I’m hardly alone of thinking so. After I wrote this post, I got my new (Nov. 15) Wine Spectator in the mail, and saw, in the joint editorial piece by Shanken and Matthews, the headline, “Great Days for California Cabernet.”
Still, the naysayers are out there. As Eric Asimov recently (March, 2015) pointed out, many people “have no use for [Napa Cabernet]. They don’t drink it, which doesn’t stop them from saying they don’t like it.” Eric, on that occasion, begged to differ, which is why he headlined his N.Y. Times article A Return to Classic Napa Style.
Before we go any further, I should point out that, from my experience of tasting Napa Cabernet—many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands over the last 25 years, but who’s counting?—the style has not really changed over time. Napa always has been about ripeness, powerful fruitiness, oakiness and decadence—what Gavin Newsom the other day described, in these pages, as “smash-mouth.” If anything, Napa Cab has gotten “smashier.” But at it’s best, it’s balanced and harmonious.
I make these prefacing remarks in my reviews of three new Napa Cabs because we are dealing, not only with a continuity of Napa style that should be clear to the most myopic critic, but with a recent vintage, 2012, that has given us a trove of beautiful Cabernets—and the 2013s are even better. There is not the slightest doubt that Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the greatest wines in the world. It may be overpriced, yes; that’s for the market to decide. The valley may be (read: is) infested with egotism. And I suppose it is true that one complaint that can be leveled against Napa Cab is that, beyond a generalized “Napa-ness,” it does not exude any particular individual terroir. (Can we truly say that a Diamond Mountain and a Spring Mountain are utterly different wines? A Rutherford and a Calistoga?) But these minimal gripes pale alongside the fact of the sheer, spectacular beauty of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Revival 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): $125. Flavor is easy to achieve in Napa Valley Cabernet. Just let the grapes hang long enough, and you’ve got an explosion of black currants, cassis, blackberry jam, dark chocolate, black licorice. The trick is to achieve balance. This wine has, expertly. It’s 100% Cab, grown south of Stags Leap, on the Silverado Trail, a cool (by Napa standards) region. The wine shows beautifully balanced acidity, and the sturdy, firm tannins of Cabernet, but those tannins are melted and ripe and sweet and utterly delicious. The wine was aged in 100% new French oak, which would swamp many Cabernets, but not this one. It’s big enough to stand up to that wood, which brings added layers of richness: vanilla bean, buttered cinnamon toast, sweet wood smoke. With alcohol of 14.8%, it’s certainly made in a riper style, yet there’s a touch of green olive that brings a salty, umami savoriness. The finish is very long, rich in exotic spices and a reprise of blackberries, but dry and elegant. What a great wine. Glorious and sophisticated. I can’t think of any reason not to drink it now, it’s so good, but it should have a grand future over the next six years. Score: 97.
Signorello 2012 Padrone Proprietary Red Wine (Napa Valley); $175. I’ve always liked Padrone, which sometimes is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon but more often includes Cabernet Franc, as does this ’12, which has 9 percent in the blend. My highest score over the years was the 2005, which I gave 97 points, and while this ’12 isn’t quite in the same league, it’s pretty dramatic. The mild, even vintage was kind to the grapes. Cabernet achieved near-perfect ripeness, characterized by intense black currant and cassis flavors, while the Cab Franc brings a note of cherries and a pleasantly complexing herbaceousness: think sweet green peas. The winemaker put 100% new French oak on the wine, but it’s not too much, adding the loveliest touch of smoke and sweet vanilla, and you can also taste the wood tannins that have married the grape skin tannins in perfect harmony. The wine is unfiltered; to the extent that matters, it seems to preserve a wild, yeasty complexity. I’d recommend drinking this wine now and for the next two or three years. Its ageability may be compromised by high alcohol. It’s a little tannic, as Cabernet should be, but a great steak will cut through the astringency. Score: 94.
Field Guide 2012 (Napa Valley): $42. Years ago the Garveys, who own Flora Springs, came up with the idea for Trilogy, a blend of three Bordeaux varieties. Now, a new generation of the family has the Field Guide brand, and this red wine is a blend of one-third each of the two Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, and Petit Verdot. It’s quite impressive. Your first impression is of absolute smoothness, a product of soft tannins and a cognac-like mellowness. Flavorwise, it’s huge, an explosion of red cherries, licorice, cassis and cocoa. Very complex, very upscale, it straddles a delicate balance between density and accessibility. My advice: pop the cork now or over the next two years. Score: 93.
We are at a very strange time in the wine industry, a time of relativity and disappearing standards. Haven’t you noticed? It’s as if all the rules you thought you knew about wine—concerning quality standards—have been thrown out the window, to be replaced by an “Anything Goes” ethos.
What else are we to conclude from a headline called “There is no right or wrong” in one of the standard bearers of wine journalism and critique, the esteemed magazine Wine & Spirits? It used to be that we turned to wine writers and wine critics to tell us what was right and wrong. We trusted Mr. Parker, or Ms. Robinson or Mr. Laube or Mr. Olken, to inform us concerning which wines were better than others, which ones were worse, which we ought to covet and which we ought to ignore. We assumed, as had our parents and their parents before them, going back for generations, that there was an inherent quality hierarchy in wine. It began at the top with, say, Grand Cru Burgundy and filtered down to little village Burgundies, or with First Growth Bordeaux trickling down to Médocs. In the New World, in places like California, we were assured that the First Growth equivalents were the tiny boutique wineries whose owners had carved out pieces of terroir perfection, as opposed to the mass-produced supermarket wines of the giant producers in the Central Valley. We were able to rest secure in the knowledge that wine, vast and complicated as it is, can at least be explained to the rest of us by experts who took the time to study it, and thence to pass their wisdom down to us, who were so sorely in need of it.
But now? “There is no right or wrong.”
I need a wine magazine to tell me that???
Admittedly, the Wine & Spirits article doesn’t stop with the headline. It goes on to tell us that—while there may be no right or wrong—there are standards that the W&S tasters look for: “balance and harmony,” “profound expression,” “sustainable beauty,” “sensitivity.” Well, if those are the parameters that experts as experienced as the W&S tasting panel seeks, then I would think those same parameters would be standards of “rightness” and “wrongness.” A wine that, by common consensus, is adjudged to be “balanced, harmonious, profoundly expressive and sustainably beautiful” should then, by definition, be the most “right” wine—the most correct, the best, the top, the Grand Cru—while a wine that lagged behind in all those parameters would be considered common, rustic plonk.
But this is not what the W&S tasters are telling us. Instead, they’re advancing an argument, all too common these days, that claims that nobody’s personal sense of like and dislike is better than anyone else’s. It’s a form of egalitarianism that has spread like a virus throughout the wine writing world, and I think it’s because of the rise of social media. As soon as a million bloggers began contributing their opinions to the wine blogosphere, insisting that they had the same right to self-expression as the most professional critics, the old standards began to get whittled away. Few were the professional critics who chose to defend themselves, lest they sound elitist; witness what Parker went through when he had the nerve to remind bloggers that just because you have the ability to write something and publish it on the Internet does not make you a wine critic.
But the bloggers did succeed in something: they undermined the concept of credible wine criticism. Because their collective voices were so loud and insistent, and because they were speaking to a younger audience that didn’t really care about older wine critics, they launched a meme that was egalitarian and democratic—that appealed to the anti-elitist sentiments of their cohort group–exactly the same sentiments that were sweeping the Middle East leading up to the Arab Spring.
What happened in both cases—the Arab Spring and the rise of the bloggers—resulted in the same thing: chaos. For when you sweep away the old order, it creates a vacuum, and when nothing is in place to fill that vacuum, you have a more or less complete discombobulation of the old order. This may or may not be good—history will determine that. But it does leave us, in the wine business, in the place I began my first sentence with: relativity and disappearing standards.
I should think the hardest thing for a winery business manager is to figure out what’s going to be selling years down the road.
I mean, you can look at almost any wine variety or type in America and quickly find a time when it wasn’t popular. Or when it was popular, and then wasn’t. Nobody cared about Pinot Noir twenty years ago because nobody ever thought it would be enjoyed by so many millions of consumers. Consequently, when Pinot started becoming huge, after Sideways, vintners couldn’t plant it fast enough. That was an example of sin by omission: wineries didn’t do something they should have.
Then there are sins of commission, such as planting stuff you think will be popular down the road, then finding out it’s not. That’s what happened with Moscato. We had the hip-hop-fueled Moscato craze, so a lot of people, from a lot of famous wineries, put it in as fast as they could. Today? Consumers are dropping Moscato faster than Kim Davis sheds husbands, so if you were stuck with hundreds of acres of it, you’re up the river.
What’s a winemaker to do?
One wine that’s really fallen out of style is Port. I mean authentic, Portuguese Port, not the domestic stuff. It’s too bad, really, because a good Port is a fabulous wine. I have some in my cellar, and am always looking for an opportunity to pop the corks. I love a good LBV, which doesn’t cost very much and is so delicious. But to tell you the truth, I haven’t had much Port for a long time. Nothing personal, but it just doesn’t fit in with the way I eat, drink and live.
And apparently I’m not the only one who’s drinking less Port. This article from The Guardian, in Merrie Olde England, describes how some Port companies are so upset about how seldom Millennials drink Port that they’re trying to figure out ways to convince them to do it: pop-up bars, winemaker dinners; Fladgate has even invented a “rosé Port” that’s all about “about attracting new consumers and also bringing down the price.” And then, of course, there’s the inevitable “Port cocktail,” something that would have blown great-grandpa’s mind.
I wish them well, but what is this idea that anything “pop-up” is automatically going to be of interest to Millennials? Or that all you have to do to convince a twenty-something to drink something is to put it into a cocktail? Or that calling something “pink” will make Mary Millennial love it? Aren’t all three of those concepts a little condescending to Millennials, who—we would hope—are about much more than pink pop-up cocktails?
I doubt that there’s any way to resuscitate Port’s reputation. It’s not that it has a bad one—it doesn’t. It’s just that Port hasn’t figured out a way to become relevant, and indeed, there may not be a way. Port was a product of post-Elizabethan England. Oxford dons drank it, and Lords with vast cellars underneath their castles who had forever to age it. Our own Founding Fathers liked it, along with other wines whose time has gone, such as Madeira. Not much of that sold in America these days.
And yet, what was possibly Thomas Jefferson’s favorite wine remains one of the top sellers in the world today: Claret or, as we know it, Bordeaux, and by extension, Cabernet Sauvignon. If Port and Maderia had been stocks on the market, you would have gotten slaughtered investing in them. If you’d put your money into a modest little Haut Médoc chateau 250 years ago, you’d have made a really good investment.
Which brings us back to those poor, beleaguered winery managers. What should they put their money on? Are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay still safe bets? Will today’s 26-year old Millennial be drinking them when she’s 70? Probably. Those varieties have stood the test of time.
SH: How do you keep learning? How do you know what’s going on?
GN: One way is to have my Lieutenant-Governor’s office in an incubator.
SH: I was going to ask you about that. Why not in the State Building?
GN: I want to experience it. I don’t want to spend time with lobbyists, with security out front, 18 stories up, looking out over Civic Center–
SH: Do you have friends here? You meet all the guys?
GN: Every six months there’s a new group of people that come in. There’s energy.
SH: These are basically young entrepreneurs?
GN: Yeah, time-of-life youth, but also state of mind: There’s also older folks—
SH: You’re 47?
SH: Do you feel the clock [ticking]? Is it important for you to reach out to people half your age, to stay current?
GN: Yeah. I mean, Bobby Kennedy said it: What the world needs are the qualities of youth, not a time of life but a state of mind. A quality of imagination. So if you can maintain that state of mind, predominance of courage over love of ease, that’s a mindset. I want to feel connected to the world around me, and I want to understand this, because, again, you can’t pave over the old cow path. Something big is happening. We’re not explaining it, no one really understands it, but it’s so much bigger than just focusing our attention on Wall Street and hyper-financialization. That’s part of it, but there’s also something big happening with technology and globalization.
SH: Are there any books you can recommend?
GN: One of the best I’ve read in the last year is The Second Machine Age, which talks about the nature of technology, basically says “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” we’re in the second half where every doubling will lead to exponential change. What’s happening now is it’s artificial intelligence, meaning big data, it’s synthetic biology and genomics, it’s 3-D printing. Our new bottle at Odette is a 3-D-printed bottle. So it’s not, for me, science fiction, it’s fact. The world is radically changing.
SH: Let’s move on to same-sex marriage.
SH: You know how grateful the LGBT community is to you, personally.
GN: I hope so. I appreciate that
SH: So this is not a question, it’s just an acknowledgment. You have captured so many grateful people’s hearts for what you did. It was so fucking great. [I’m referring to then-Mayor Newsom championing same-sex marriage in San Francisco, which in my opinion led directly to Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court case that upheld the legality of same-sex marriage in America.]
GN: Oh, God bless.
SH: And so courageous and heartfelt. I don’t think anyone ever felt, Oh, Gavin’s doing this to get ahead, because if anything, it was a huge risk.
GN: Big setback.
SH: How was it a setback?
GN: Because at the time, it was tough. Even in my family, my father was furious. Catholic, old school. He says, “Can’t you call it something else?” And I had the archbishop [then William Levada], who was a huge supporter of mine, they had a huge protest at City Hall. So it was tough. A lot of family, a lot of friends, and some in my party turned their back on me for years.
SH: Democrats? I didn’t know that.
GN: Oh, boy, they were the worst. The biggest hypocrites were my fellow Democrats, who preached but didn’t practice. And ran, didn’t walk away.
SH: And now they’ve all embraced it.
GN: They embraced it, but it took them, not 2005, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09, it took a lot of time. 2010, finally [former Maryland Gov. Martin] O’Malley and [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo, who were against it…they are friends of mine, I know them well, so I can speak from an authoritative position to tell you they were opposed…
SH: So where does this go? The battle does not seem to be over–
GN: Religious exemptions—
SH: Religious exemptions, there’s nullification out there, which Dr. King talked about.
GN: Yeah. You know, look, the Voting Rights Act didn’t stop Ferguson. And a Supreme Court decision is not going to stop homophobia. You have to change hearts, and that takes time. And I think it’s remarkable how fast this process has advanced, but we have an enormous amount of work to do, and you see that listening to folks like Mike Huckabee, who, I mean, will make a statement—not just in support of Kim Davis, that’s one thing—but when he made a comment that I just thought exposed him for who he is, beyond homophobic, this statement when there was a new appointee to head the Army, I can’t remember the gentleman’s name, just two weeks ago by the President, and Huckabee’s first reaction was, The only reason he’s been nominated is because he happens to be gay. It was to suck up to—
SH: Well, we know that about Huckabee. We know that about Santorum.
GN: These guys, they’re troglodytes.
SH: I want to talk about social media, which is huge obviously, and in the wine industry it’s become a real topic of conversation.
GN: Has it?
SH? How much should wineries get involved, should they invest money. And you’ve been a real pioneer, for a politician, in social media.
GN: You’re got to. If you don’t invest in the future, you’re not going to do very well there. You can deny it, but at the end of the day you’ve got to meet people where they are. It’s a world that’s gone mobile, local, social, a cloud crowd, and unless you’re there, you’re nowhere. So it’s not for me an after-thought. If it’s not integrated through your entire operation, if it’s a separate division, if you’ve got an I.T. guy or girl, you’ve missed the entire point. It’s got to be integrated into the entire body of work.
SH: A lot of small family winery owners are older, and they say, “I don’t tweet, I don’t blog, I don’t know how to do that.” What do you tell them?
GN: Yeah. You know, you get mentored by a twenty-something—
SH: Your nephew!
GN: Yeah. You hire a coach, so to speak, by hiring your grandkid’s best friend.
SH: How many platforms are you on?
GN: Oh, lots. I disproportionally invest heavily in twitter and Facebook and Instagram. We’ve got over a million folks on twitter, and a lot on Facebook and others. That’s where we dive deep. But I will play on all those others.
SH: Do you write your own stuff?
GN: Mostly. Or I’ll sign off on it. I’ll get “Here are three options, which one do you like?” Or I’ll just watch CNN and go—and those are the ones that are risky—someone on my staff will go, “What did you just say?!?” [laughs]
SH: Well, as long as you’re not CUI.
SH: Commenting under the influence.
GN: CUI? That’s funny! Yeah, I got into a twitter war with Huckabee a few weeks ago [laughs].
SH: Seriously? Mano a mano?
GN: Yeah. Then I did a big thing against Trump, you should check it out, we had a lot of fun.
SH: Who’s going to be the Republican nominee?
GN: As a Democrat, my biggest fear would be a Kasich-Rubio ticket.
SH: They are at least competent. They’re not—
GN: Yeah. And it’s geographically advantageous, with Ohio and Florida. There’s some freshness to that ticket.
SH: And a Latino.
GN: That’s exactly right. That’s the one I worry about, although I don’t necessarily see it taking shape. Kasich’s still struggling, although he may do well in New Hampshire. And Rubio’s the beneficiary of all this Trump back and forth with Bush and some of the others.
SH: Who’s the Democratic candidate?
GN: I still think it’s Hillary. I mean, unless there’s something deep that we don’t know about in the emails. Otherwise, I think at a certain point the drip-drip-drip exhausts itself. We’ve got another tranche of emails, maybe another two, three months of this, the Benghazi hearings are going to be critical, how she performs under that pressure… Even if Biden jumps in, and in some respects I think if Biden jumps in it really will help Hillary. It will sharpen her edges; she’s best when her back’s against the wall. She’ll, I think, take more risks. She’ll be more authentic. Her voice will be more resonant.
SH: And which party wins in 2016?
GN: I still think it’s—I look demographically, I look on the issues. If you look where the American people are, Democrats have seven of the top ten things the American people care about. And demographically, it’s very difficult for Republicans. And they’re doing such damage to their brand.
SH: They always damage themselves.
GN: But it’s extraordinary. They did that remarkable report, which they completely neglected, about what happened in the last Presidential election.
SH: I know! The “autopsy.”
GN: Dismissed it completely. Trump, Carly Fiorina, Rubio, who’s a hypocrite on every issue, he’s either flip-flopped or he’s in the stone age, climate change, women’s issues, choice, Cuba, I mean, it’s just as bad as it gets. With all due respect to Rubio, he’s an interesting guy, because he brands himself as fresh, but his policies are older than, I don’t know, I should try to be nicer.
SH: How is the Governor’s race going?
GN: It’s good. It’s nice running by yourself!
SH: No opposition?
GN: Not yet. But it’s so early, it’s tongue-in-cheek. There will be a lot of people in this race this time next year. But it’s 2-1/2 years for the primary, and this time next year there will be three or four people already announced that are quality people.
SH: Like who?
GN: The former Mayor of L.A. [Antonio Villaraigosa], the current Mayor [Eric Garcetti], one or two statewide electeds, couple billionaires, Tom Steyer.
SH: Are you not the prohibitive favorite?
GN: I like our starting position. But I’m taking nothing for granted, and that’s why I started early. So…
SH: Did you always have a plan for high elected office?
SH: I don’t mean when you were three.
GN: I’ve always like politics.
SH: But twenty years ago?
SH: Really? Because some of us who knew you then always felt like, this guy is working so damned hard, what is he working for?
GN: Yeah. But if I look back at my life, I kid you not, the happiest days of my life were running that wine store [the first PlumpJack, on Fillmore Street]. Sitting there stocking the wine late at night, in my jeans, listening to loud music, as some of the most blissful, relaxing, wonderful moments of my life. The energy of opening that, the passion, the camaraderie, friendship, family.
SH: Do you remember telling me, shortly after you opened, about a guy who came in and said he wanted a mixed case of whites and reds, he didn’t care what it was, you could pick them, as long as they were all Parker 90s or higher?
SH: And you told me, “I wanted to throw that guy out on the sidewalk but I thought that wouldn’t be a good way to start my business.”
GN: Yeah. Now we love Parker because he gives us 100 points on our Odette! The 2012 Reserve. I’ll tell you, I’ll take the 2013s over the ‘12s. Unbelievable. But I mean, what we did—you might recall–we had some fun. There were a few Parker scores and a few Spectator scores that were ten points apart, and those were the only scores we put up. Eighty points versus ninety! Eighty-five versus ninety-five! To make a point, the subjectivity here. There are some basic tenets of good wine, but beyond that, the rest is so subjective. That said, the power of those scores is extraordinary.
SH: It is, and let me ask you—since this comes up a lot—the conventional wisdom is that Millennials don’t care about scores, they care about peer-to-peer.
GN: It’s part of social media. Yeah. That’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought about that. Yeah, I think there’s real truth to that.
SH: Because we know the big important critics of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s are either retiring, or getting older. I don’t see anyone really rising up to take their place.
GN: There’s no hot-shot. So that makes it, in many ways, easier for non-incumbents, and much more challenging for others. It will be interesting how that plays out. I think our approach, one thing we don’t do is we don’t sell those scores to distributors, to our key customers. We’re working our tails off 24/7 to try to maintain a mom-and-pop approach and really build those relationships. Gordon and I will go out a couple times a year, hit 15, 20 places.
SH: They must flock to the door when you and Gordon Getty show up.
GN: The point is, we’re reaching out. And I think any good operation in the wine business does that.
SH: Will you be able to do that if you’re Governor?
GN: Not as much. But a little bit of that. If I’m going to show up somewhere, there’s no reason I can’t show up at one of my places for dinner, a winemaker dinner.
SH: Okay, last two fun questions. Tell me one thing we don’t know about your hair.
GN: [laughs] God. This is like Donald Trump. I took a little risk, did a little social media campaign, I kind of made fun of Trump’s hair, and then I realized that that’s not a very safe place for me to criticize! I’m open for a counter-punch. So I’m the butt of my own hair jokes. It’s fair game for criticism. There was a whole cartoon thing they did when I was Mayor, when I tried to stop wearing so much hair gel, and everyone said, “Oh, he’s going through a midlife crisis.” And then I put it back on. I can’t win with the hair.
SH: Would you ever just change the style?
GN: I did when I was Mayor! It lasted one week. There were, like, 25 articles about it. It was so preposterous, the reaction from a few well-known political pundits! [laughs]
SH: Question number two: Tips for staying in shape.
GN: Yeah. You gotta keep moving. You gotta move everyday. And if you’re not moving with intention every day, you gotta make sure that three, four days every week, you are. So, for me, minimum three, four days where I try to work out.
SH: Do you still run?
GN: A little bit.
SH: You used to run Marina Green.
GN: Yeah. I’m less running. If I run, I do sprints, not long runs. I’ll do the stationary bike, spinning bike, which I much prefer, get a good sweat quicker. And a little bit of weights.
SH: That’s it! Thank you Governor Newsom!
SH: Let’s move on to wine. Thoughts in general on the California wine industry.
GN: I mean, it’s not like Donald Trump, “Let’s make America great again,” because it’s already great. We keep raising the bar. The drought’s been the big question mark, what is the drought going to mean, in the medium and long term, for the wine industry and California. Of course, even though America is so Napa-centric, we’re conscious, more broadly, in the wine industry, that clearly that doesn’t paint a picture of the California wine industry that’s been impacted in other parts of the state significantly…
SH: What is your involvement in your wineries?
GN: You know, I don’t get involved day-to-day in the micro-management. It’s more broad strokes, strategic and big decisions. By definition, I’ll sign off as the general partner.
SH: A big conversation among the wine pundits is alcohol level.
GN: [laughs] It’s getting too high, or it’s always been high.
SH: Any thoughts?
GN: Well, it’s funny, it comes up a lot, doesn’t it? Yeah, you skate to where the puck’s going, I guess. People like that unctuous, fat and sweet—
SH: Do you?
GN: I love California wines, so it’s interesting, it’s sort of like the frog, the water’s getting warm. My time in the industry has been the last 15, 20 years, where we’ve seen the dial go up, and it’s weird to go back and find an old Louis Martini from the Seventies, and you look at it, it’s 10.5%, 10.8%. It’s weird. So I think there’s a lot of fudging with those numbers, as well. They’ve been higher
SH: So you’re not especially concerned with higher alcohol?
GN: I mean, PlumpJack are big wines. These are big, in-your-face, smash-mouth wines, in terms of that ripeness, and there’s a drinkability to that in the short run which I think people like. The vast majority of these wines are consumed young.
SH: Now that you mention it, you and Gordon [Getty] and your team made that big step years ago of putting 50 percent of PlumpJack production under screwtops. Are you still doing it?
GN: Yes. Interesting; let me interject. We had partnered with U.C. Davis on a ten-year study that they just published a month ago.
SH: On the ageability?
GN: Yeah. So they used our wines, and some other wines, and they just came out with a report.
SH: Can you summarize it?
GN: I am getting a copy myself. But I got a summary from my winemaker, and from our GM, and it was conclusively inconclusive, meaning it’s a classic study, like the fracking study that came out recently, where the oil industry said “Great study” and the environmentalists also said “Great study.” You found what you were looking for.
SH: Have you tasted older vintages [of PlumpJack Cabernet]?
GN: Yeah, so many of these double-blind wine tastings, and all these experts all around us, and they’re absolutely convinced this one’s a screwcap and this one’s a cork. Without exception, the one consistent thing was the inconsistency. The outcome is challenged by the variability in the bottles that confounds you when you say “Screwtop’s not going to allow you any oxygen, or less oxygen, than the cork, so this is not going to age well,” and then you find out, when you taste it, the exact opposite.
SH: Are you surprised that more Napa Cabernet houses have not gone to screwcap?
GN: I’m surprised by how many have.
SH: On the high-end Cabernets?
GN: It’s not on the high end, but more broadly, we’ve seen it more and more acceptable. We know, because we’re seeing it, there’s a very famous First Growth Bordeaux [Ed: Margaux] that’s done screwcaps for their own internal investigation. So that suggests there’s a growing consciousness.
SH: What do you think of prices? Jon Bonne, in the Chronicle, recently suggested that Napa is getting out of control.
GN: I’m with you. When we started PlumpJack, we were pricing our Reserves substantially less than, say, Groth Reserve, or certainly Opus One, Silver Oak, or some of our neighbors: Screaming Eagle’s across the street. But we were way below, and people literally said, “What’s wrong with the wine?” So we had to adjust the price, just to be competitive. It was an interesting problem: we underpriced it, so people underappreciated it as a consequence, so we raised the price. I was dubious and nervous about that, but it was interesting; I got blowback from folks. But even now, I’ll tell you, there’s two minds on this. You look at Napa, and at our price points compared to other price points [e.g. Bordeaux], we’re pretty reasonable. So in some ways you can say they’re incredibly modest…
SH: Do you think—
GN: I think some things are wildly overpriced!
SH: I always wonder how all these triple-digit Napa Cabernets stay in business. There’s hundreds of them.
GN: I know.
SH: You know these people. How do they stay in business?
GN: Because it’s a globalized market. I went out and saw first-hand, in China, in Shanghai, in Beijing, in Hong Kong, I was there for PlumpJack and CADE and, soon, Odette, and the fact is, our market reach has expanded significantly. We’ll selling all around the world. The reality is, we’re selling out of everything, every year.
SH: Mazel tov.
GN: It is wonderful. And frankly, for us, it’s a question of how you allocate, particularly retail versus restaurants, and how you allocate your overseas. I’m thinking of those 2011s, a tougher vintage, but people loved it anyway. So it was a counter to your earlier point: it was a little more French.
SH: Lower alcohol. There were some beautiful ‘11s. There were some gorgeous mountain Cabs. I think there were more problems as you went out towards the Coast. Some Pinots and Chards were moldy or veggie. Well, let’s move on to the conversation about San Francisco, and real estate and housing. I know people in Oakland who have been pushed out. What do you think about the current situation?
GN: I think about it all the time. I remember being a supervisor at the time, in the late 1990s, and we were struggling, not dissimilarly, with success. And a lot of arts organizations were victims of success. A lot of residents were victims of success, with evictions. So this is in many ways a replay, a golden oldie. But for those impacted by it directly, it’s devastating. And it’s now impacting not just on the residential side, but commercial establishments that are doing extraordinarily well, but cannot afford the renewals on their leases. They’ve weathered earthquakes, recessions, but cannot weather this climate of success.
SH: Care Not Cash [Mayor Newsom’s homeless policy] in retrospect didn’t really work—
GN: It was a phenomenal success!
SH: What happened?
GN: They rested on their laurels. Care Not Cash is only as good as its application and implementation. We saw a 30%, almost 33% decline almost overnight in the homeless population. But that was ten years ago! I haven’t been Mayor for six damned years. This is getting worse and worse, and it’s tipped in the opposite direction, and I have a lot of strong opinions on it. I don’t want to be critical, but the outrage is understandable right now in San Francisco.
SH: [San Francisco Mayor Ed] Lee is coming up against a big backlash. How’s he doing?
GN: I think it’s difficult. Look, when I was Mayor we had the highest minimum wage in the U.S., the only paid sick leave, the only universal healthcare, including for undocumented residents, universal pre-school and after-school…these are not assertions, these are things that were fully implemented and exist in the city. These are usually the quivers you pull out in this environment, in order to soften the blow of success…but it’s still inadequate.
SH: Ultimately, you can’t put a brake—
GN: On the macro.
SH: On the macro.
GN: It’s a supply and demand problem, which goes back to, What’s the right price to sell your wine? Well, that’s determined by the market.
SH: You’re not in this to be the good guy.
GN: It’s a business. If you focus on excellence, it usually is rewarded. And by the way, San Francisco’s long been focused on excellence, but the downside is there’s a spread issue, and the income gap here, the Great Gatsby curve, is so acute here, it’s devastating. So you continue to do what you can to address that—I’ll tell you, I think about this a lot, I talk to the Mayor’s office a lot, comparing notes, what the hell more can you do, without a command-and-control approach to suppressing the macro economic growth.
SH: Would you have been in favor of the building moratorium in the Mission?
GN: No. The idea that you stop construction and somehow that aids affordability, in a market environment, where less supply only increases costs when the demand is so high? I’m at a loss to understand that, except that that was brought up when Willie Brown was Mayor, it was brought up when I was Mayor, rejected both times. It doesn’t surprise me that it was brought up again.
SH: When I moved to the City, after the [Moscone and Milk] assassinations, in the Seventies, when Feinstein became Mayor, exactly the same conversation was going on, thirty-something years ago.
GN: Again, the price of success. But there’s something else going on here: we’re at a hinge point in history, as the old economy is giving way to the new economy, and the industrial economy’s run out of gas. It’s an atrophy, and you’re seeing the contours of the formation of something radically different, these participation platforms, these contribution platforms, this on-demand work that exists with the shared economy.
SH: So thoughts on the gig economy, you brought it up. Is it a good thing?
GN: Well, the tech genie’s out of the bottle. And you can’t put it back in. So everything is reorganizing itself. We can lament about it, or we can organize a strategy to allow people to prosper and succeed in this environment. And on-demand work requires on-demand education, and a different mindset in terms of education, of K-12 education but also lifelong learning. It requires us to think differently about our rules and regulations…Right now we’re paving over the old cow path by offering solutions that frankly are inadequate to the challenge. And I repeat: the solutions we’ve offered in San Francisco that I promoted as Mayor, that this Mayor is promoting, are inadequate: higher minimum wage is inadequate. Paid sick leave is inadequate. Universal this, universal that is inadequate. Necessary, but hardly sufficient to deal with something that is so acute and so radically different in terms of a new distribution of wealth that now is concentrated in this technologically enhanced economic environment.
SH: The poster child for the gig economy is Uber [which recently announced it’s opening a huge office center in downtown Oakland]. Should their drivers be offered benefits and sick leave? The drivers themselves seem to be saying, Hey, we’re happy to be able to work when we want.
GN: Yeah, but I mean, drivers are—look, the bottom line is Uber is successful for one reason: excellence. They provide an exponentially better service than the old industrial taxicab industry, which I am not [just] familiar with, I am intimately familiar with, having chaired a task force twenty years ago, trying to manage it as Mayor, fighting to get more cabs, fighting to get them to pick up folks in low income communities, to get a centralized dispatch center, and the industry fought all those things. So invariably, a guy named Travis [Kalanik] comes along with an app to fill the void, and to create a competitive environment, and the taxicab industry was slow to adapt. Do I feel badly for these medallion holders? Of course. They’ve been on the wait list for decades. Do I feel badly for the poor guy who’s working his tail off in an old industry? I do. But the reality is, change and disruption are for real. And so, either adapt to this environment in real time, or you’re going to get run over literally and figuratively. And I get it—I’m not a techno-utopian, but the fact is, we have to wake up to this reality. Airbnb is the largest accommodation company in the world and it has no real estate. Uber is the largest taxicab company in the world and it has no taxicabs. You start thinking about these things, and something big is happening in real time that requires radically different thinking from a public policy perspective.
SH: Why is it that so many liberals get so upset at Uber?
GN: Because we are so used to a world that—[sighs] I think we’re just, we’re stuck on this romantic notion of security that served us well for 150 years, but it’s a world that no longer exists. And so we hold on to this past, which I understand: You work hard, play by the rules, and get ahead. That used to be the paradigm we were born into. But it’s not necessarily—
SH: It still is: You work hard, and get ahead.
GN: Not for everyone anymore, and that’s the challenge, from a public policy perspective. People are working their tails off, they’re not getting ahead, they’re stuck behind. So how do you deal with retirement in a 401(K) world where it’s now defined contributions, not defined benefits? How do you deal in an environment where competition is two billion people living overseas, not just two hundred folks who are living next door? So, again, something big is happening with the merger of IT ad globalization. It means we’ve got to step up our game and it requires a different way of thinking. I’d love the 9-to-5 days, the gold watch, strong retirement, I would love that, but…
Next: Newsom on gay rights, working in an incubator, social media, staying in shape, the upcoming Governor’s race in California, and the Republican and Democratic contests for President.
Gavin Newsom on wine, politics, his PlumpJack portfolio, San Francisco, Oakland, hair, and much more
Gavin Newsom is a two-term Mayor of San Francisco and is currently serving his second term as California’s Lieutenant-Governor. He is seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor in the 2018 election and is widely perceived as the prohibitive front-runner to succeed current Governor Jerry Brown. Beyond that, of course, there is a Presidential election in 2020, and Newsom has shown up on some short lists as a possible candidate. Even in 2024, he will only be 55 years old.
I met Gavin back in the early 1990s, when he and his partners, who included Gordon Getty, were forming what has now become their PlumpJack Group, a collection of wine stores, bars, clubs, resorts and hotels that has made 47-year old Newsom a wealthy man. (By the way, I don’t call him “Gavin,” as I used to, I call him “Governor,” which is the proper honorific for a Lieutenant-Governor.) We met in his office, in a sort of incubator, the Founders Den, near AT&T Park, where he chooses to work, rather than in the more traditional office of the Lieutenant-Governor, the California State Building in Civic Center.
I began by asking Gov. Newsom about his alcoholic beverage consumption, problems concerning which were widely reported in 2006-2007, when he was Mayor.
SH: When you were Mayor and had the problem with drinking, how’s that going? Do you imbibe alcohol these days?
GN: Yes, I absolutely do. I have for years. I stopped drinking because I wanted to stop drinking and I needed to stop drinking, and it was a good point of clarity. So I just stopped. Stopped. And a couple years later, I started trying a little wine again, and I have continued to this day. Which is a healthy thing, from my perspective.
SH: So are you in any sort of—
GN: I was never in anything.
SH: Never in rehab?
SH: You were in counseling with Mimi—
GN: Silber. Well, Mimi I’ve known since my birth, and she told me to stop drinking one day, and I stopped. And when she said it’s okay to drink, I went, Thank you, and waited a couple of months, and then thought, OK, I’ll start again. So it was important to me, in that moment, to reset, more than anything else.
SH: How are the PlumpJack companies doing?
GN: Everything’s great. We’ve got, I think—boy, I don’t know how many businesses we’ve got now. We just opened two new ones, Forgery, a bar down the road, and then a club right behind it called Verso.
SH: That’s the new Mid-Market [project]–?
GN: Yeah, Mid-Market, and then interestingly my sister is down, as we speak, at a new small property we just purchased, a hotel in Carmel. And we’ve got another bar we’re opening, in the Mission, by the end of the year. So the businesses have grown. I think there’s seventeen or so operating businesses.
SH: I have to ask, Mid-Market forever had this reputation as a sleazy, dirty, dangerous—
GN: Yeah, of course.
SH: My town, Oakland, is very hot.
SH: Oakland is arguably—
GN: The new San Francisco! That’s what everyone is saying.
SH: So would PlumpJack do something—
GN: In Oakland? Of course. I love Oakland. I love the culture there, the neighborhood character, I like everything about Oakland. I appreciate the new Mayor over there [Libby Schaaf].
SH: She seems to be doing a good job.
GN: She’s a solid person, and so she’s getting that city—of course, Oakland, in the past, has been the beneficiary of San Francisco’s success in many ways, in the 1990s, late Nineties. We’re seeing that now in a more sustainable way. The question is, How does Oakland deal with the challenges San Francisco’s had to deal with, as it relates to gentrification and being the tip of the spear of this new economy, at this hinge moment in history, as we move from something old to something new.
SH: Well, would you encourage your companies to do something in Oakland?
GN: Yeah. I’d love to. We have such a San Francisco centricity, because we’re all here, we live here, the businesses are spread out and established here. But absolutely. We’re now in Carmel, we’re in Lake Tahoe, we’re obviously in Napa, and so, yeah, absolutely.
SH: Uber announced they’re moving to Oakland.
GN: I think that’s great. Oakland, for me, is a member of the family. As a fifth-generation San Franciscan and former Mayor, I’ll express my subjectivity and say I like to think we’re the spoke of the wheel, the center of it, but in so many ways [the Bay Area] is just one large community that needs to focus more regionally to address the respective needs of each community…When I think of the politics of San Francisco, the politics of Oakland, the politics within cities in the Bay Area, it’s clear to me and self-evident: none of these cities’ isolation can solve all of their problems. We have to think more regionally.
SH: Okay, well, Oakland people will be gratified that you are at least open to the possibility of—
GN: Open? I love it!
SH: But nothing now?
GN: No, but we’re always—you know, I was just in the East Bay. You know what was my favorite, great sandwich place?–
GN: No, it’s not that, I’ve heard about it, but what the heck? I’ve forgotten. Anyway, there was a business we were going to invest in partnership out there, so…my only point is, that’s evidence of sincerity. I’m not just saying it.
SH: Okay, I’ll give you a personal tour of Uptown and show you how exciting it is!
GN: By the way, my wife [Jennifer Siebel Newsom] is doing a new documentary, and her city is Oakland. It’s the backdrop, and she’s deep in the issue of social mobility and income inequality, and she’s been spending the last year filming three families in Oakland in a very granular, very nuanced and textured way, and it’s just reinforced my appreciation for the city and, more importantly, the entire region, the place we call home.
Tune in this week for more on Gov. Newsom on alcohol levels, screwtops and Napa prices, and the Republican race for President.