The move caught the restaurant world by storm. Eater said it “would forever change how diners dine.” Slate blogger Jordan Weissman cracked that it “could be a tipping point.” Tim Zagat, of the Guide, quoted in the Daily News, said, “It means a lot…Danny Meyer knows what he’s doing [and] you better take him seriously.”
Well, of course, if someone in New York does something, it must be groundbreaking, right? New York is after all The Big Apple and as the Big Apple goes, so goes the nation.
Except…California did it first. Chez Panisse and The French Laundry have long included the tip in the price of the meal, but you could argue that those are exceptions because they’re not normal “restaurants,” they’re dining Disneylands. But earlier this year a flurry of other Bay Area restaurants followed suit: Trou Normand (love their charcuterie), Toast and Camino (both here in Oakland), the celebrated Atelier Crenn, Homestead and Bar Agricole, in the red-hot Mission District, and others.
But guess what? As I write these words, Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, broke the news that Thad Vogler, owner of both Bar Agricole and Trou Normand, “is ending his experiment and returning to the conventional model” of tipping.
Vogler’s reasons? “Staff retention.” He had assumed that other restaurants in San Francisco would follow his lead, but they didn’t. That meant his servers could make more money working elsewhere, so they quit. “[O]ur staff wasn’t happy,” Vogler said, adding, “[I]t felt like we were forcing an ideological decision” down their throats.
(I asked a friend of mine who works at Bar Agricole along with her husband, neither of whom is currently wait staff, how they felt about it, and she said they’re both in favor of ending the no-tipping policy.)
How do I feel about it? Well, last February, when the no-tipping trend really started getting reported about in the Bay Area, I blogged that “I’m in favor.” I had been getting most of my 9-1-1 on the topic from Bauer’s writings, and Bauer had eagerly embraced no tipping: “Increasingly, it’s becoming apparent that it’s time for tips to make a graceful exit,” he wrote. But in retrospect, I didn’t really think things through carefully enough. And neither, apparently, did Bauer: in his post today, Bauer seems to be moving slightly away from his earlier embrace, remarking that “Not everybody is ready” to go to a no-tipping policy: restaurateurs, employees or consumers.
I can see that the move away from tipping is an attempt at modernizing a very old, and perhaps anachronistic, tradition that dates to at least the early 18th century. But I do wonder why the no-tipping policy should work for Danny Meyer in New York when it didn’t for Thad Vogler in San Francisco. Good servers, of the sort who work at Bar Agricole or Meyer’s Union Square Café, are at least as hard to find, and retain, in New York as they are in San Francisco. I wonder if, a year from now or less, we’ll hear Danny Meyer confess that, like Thad Vogler, he’s ending his noble experiment, and for the same reason.
You all know that I work for Jackson Family Wines. I have so say that upfront, because of what I’m about to write, which is how good and fine a place Sonoma County is for growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varieties in general.
If I were still the California wine critic for Wine Enthusiast magazine and I made that statement, I think people would take it at face value. They might or might not agree, but at least they’d believe that it was my own opinion, unbiased and uninfluenced by personal or venal considerations.
When you work for a winery, though, and you make a statement in praise of their wines and vineyards, people tend to be skeptical. And that’s entirely understandable. Having been on the receiving end of press releases and hype from P.R. types for decades, I would be skeptical, too, if I were you, to hear me say how great Sonoma Cab can be. I accept that risk and that criticism. But I’m going to say it anyway.
What brought this thought process to my mind was this article, from the drinks business, that describes how Verité, a Jackson Family Wines winery in Sonoma County, was the favorite wine in a recent tasting of “50 of London’s leading sommeliers.” The tasting included the esteemed Napa properties, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and Scarecrow. My friend Julia Jackson, the daughter of Barbara Banke and the late Jess Jackson, told the drinks business, accurately, “that it’s not necessarily the right decision to go to Napa for cult Cabernet,” and that Sonoma is in “its infancy” when it comes to Cabernet and Bordeaux blends.
Julia alluded to another point, that Napa Valley has achieved its greater fame for Cabernet, even though the history of winemaking in Sonoma is older, because Sonoma doesn’t “have the same marketing resources as Napa.” That is undeniably true. The campaign waged by Napa Valley wineries over the last 40 years, to promote in particular Cabernet Sauvignon, has been relentless, well-financed and highly successful.
This obviously is not to say that Sonoma makes better Cabernet and Bordeaux blends than Napa Valley, or the other way around. It might actually be more accurate to say that northern California has a superb Cabernet zone that sweeps from the west-facing ridges of the Vaca Mountains, across Napa Valley, up and onto the east-facing slopes of the Mayacamas, then extends to the west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas and its associated foothills, which are largely situated in the A.V.A. of Alexander Valley. The political lines of counties were not designed by nature, and are irrelevant from the point of view of terroir.
Napa’s aptitude for marketing was the topic of an opinion piece in yesterday’s Napa Valley Register newspaper that had to do with what the writer calls “extravagant marketing.”
He defines that as “circus acts, jazz concerts, drive-in movies and very expensive wine/food pairing meals on winery grounds…designed to attract tourist dollars.” His point is that this “extravagant marketing” is responsible, to a large degree, for the tourism and associated congestion that many Napa residents (and those in other wine regions) have been complaining about.
Without getting into that thicket, it is reasonable to assert that the investment Napa vintners have made in these “extravagant events” has been responsible, to a large degree, for the worldwide fame Napa has achieved. I’m not putting Napa down for that, or suggesting that it’s in any way improper. Vintners have promoted their wines, and tied them to glamor, since time immemorial; it’s not like the Napans invented marketing!
But we do seem to be living at a time when old stereotypes are being discarded, and one of them, it seems to me—an important one—is that Napa Valley is the go-to place for high-end Bordeaux-style red wines in California. Not true. Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Chalk Hill, sometimes Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley—they all have their share of wonderful Cabs, usually at a fraction of the price of Napa. I hope that the Millennial bloggers and critics, who say they are entirely willing to topple old clichés, will recognize this truth, and write about it.
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!