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The score as shortcut

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Richard Hemming MW had a provocative posting last week on Jancis’s Purple Pages. The header says it all: Excoriating Scoring. It was in fact a commentary, fairly scathing at times albeit with some fine and amusing phrases, on “nonsensical rating systems masquerading as obdurate fact,” and compared the writers of such scoring systems to “a doomed army… marching blithely onward with…deluded confidence…”.

Ouch! That sounds like something 1WineDude might have written seven years ago. Wait a minute, he did.

Bashing point scores in 2008 was already jumping the shark, but it could at least be understood in the context of blogging being a young sport, and bloggers who couldn’t get paid were perhaps understandably eager to upset a few Big Critic apple carts and vie for the majors. I got it then; I get it now; it’s the way things go.

But at this point in the history of wine writing and reviewing, do we really have to bash this, that or the other rating system? I mean, we’re all in this together; why be partisan about it? We can all get along if we just try, because each system, each approach has its pluses and minuses.

Richard Hemming MW himself concedes that scores do possess a certain usefulness. Good thing, since apparently he uses a 20-point system. I can trust that I’ll like whatever I score above 17 more than anything I score below 16,” he says. I actually said almost the same thing last Wednesday, when I was holding a tasting for young sommeliers on the beautiful Maya Riviera. One of them asked if my personal taste comes into play when I score a wine. “No,” I said. But, I added, “it’s much more likely that I would want to drink a wine I give 95 to than one I give 84.”

Nobody ever said that point scores are the perfect solution for anything. Like democracy itself, they’re messy—but as Richard Hemming MW writes, “there is simply no better alternative” to the point system. I myself have long been uneasy with point scores, as I am about many things, but I have become reconciled to the fact that the world is not a neat place in which all the pieces of the puzzle fit tidily together. This is a frenzied globe we inhabit. We do our best with the muddle in which we find ourselves. That includes ways to taste, review, write and talk about wine. A part of me wishes I had been born in the mid-1800s, in England, into the cadre of British dons who gloried in the Golden Age of Bordeaux and wrote about it in prose that may strike some as purple, but that nonetheless outshines in literacy anything you’re likely to find today. Alas, my fate, for better or worse, was to be born a Baby Boomer, riding the crest of the wave that brought wine from an infinitesimal and rather obscure element in America to the behemoth it is today, with somms the new rock stars and companies from airlines to newspaper conglomerates peddling their wine clubs. Part of that crest was the 100-point system, a bit of flotsam Baby Boomers, reared on school exams, understood in their bones. Maybe you had to be there, thirty years ago and more, to appreciate how radical and revolutionary, how wonderful and beautiful those scores were to those of us who subscribed to Parker, or, as I did, to Wine Spectator when it was still a tabloid published in San Francisco. Maybe I am just wistful for the lost days of youth, gazing through the misty veil of nostalgia at a past that will never be again. Still, it was really something.

I suppose there is a legitimate school of thought that says all things must pass; what worked 30 years ago does not work today. But, really, is that true? You can argue for or against anything, but it does help to understand History before brandishing contempt for things whose roots go deep into time. Parker’s invention of the 100-point system was actually designed to help budding wine drinkers—a noble goal, and one that demonstrably succeeded. He did not wish to dominate wine drinkers, or to cater to “our collective human desperation to impose order on things” (Richard Hemming MW), as if there were something wrong with the human desire to make sense out of chaos.

At any rate, it’s my belief that people—consumers—want visual, not just written, guidance concerning the things they spend their money on. Here in San Francisco our movie reviewer uses The Little Man

the_little_man

who may or may not be jumping out of his seat. The Chron’s restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, uses stars (including half stars), as does, of course, Michelin. A score, even a 100-point score, is nothing more than a visual icon, plain and simple. Scores may be shortcuts, but we all like to take the quicker route sometimes, don’t we?


Putting wine into a greater context

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When educators talk about wine at the kinds of consumer events I’m doing this week at Karisma Resort, it seems to me that more than just the hedonistic and technical aspects of the wines should be discussed.

I mean, wine is more than just “cherries” or “limes” and bright acidity or steak-worthy tannins and an AVA. Yes, those kinds of things—its flavors and textures, it’s varietal mix, its appellation—are important, and consumers want and need to know about them. After all, the reason why folks pay to go to these sorts of events is because they’re hungry for more knowledge about wine (and bless them for that!).

But there’s so much more to wine. For example, it’s important for people who are tasting wines from the company I work for, Jackson Family Wines, to understand things like the Jacksons’ commitment to sustainability. It’s one thing to talk about (for instance) Stonestreet Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon, but that wine needs to be put into the context of the fact that Jess loved that mountain so much, he’s buried there, his wife, Barbara, lives there, and “Christopher” is the name of their only son. It helps consumers to know about (and I think it’s terribly interesting in itself) how Jess left corridors of pathways open throughout the vastness of the Alexander Mountain Estate, to let the critters who have lived there forever—cougars, bears, deer, wild boars and so on—prowl. These things may not have anything to do with the wine’s flavors, or how it ages, or the way it pairs with steak. But in a funny way, they do. It places the wine into a greater context, one you can call “intellectual” and “emotional” rather than (merely) hedonistic; and it’s in the brain—the seat of intellect and emotions—that wine’s greatest appeal lives.

This putting-wine-into-greater-contexts presents more of a challenge to educators. They have to do more research than to just read a tech sheet and regurgitate it to whatever audience they’re addressing—which is something I’ve seen far too much of (and something I admit to being occasionally guilty of myself). But, after all, in this day-and-age of “the story,” when we’re told that every wine needs something to distinguish itself from every other wine, it does behoove us educators to go beyond the routine and really find out what makes that wine that wine. Especially when the story connected to it is compelling.

Back tomorrow, reporting from this delightful part of the Maya Riviera.


From Mexico, a great wine and food pairing, and the perils of poorly-conceived advertising

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I’m down here in Mexico on the fabulous Maya Rivera, at the Karisma El Dorado resort, south of Cancun, where I’ll be doing a bunch of wine education classes and dinners, some of them with the chef/partner of San Francisco’s new Aaxte restaurant, Ryan Pollnow. This is a very exciting opportunity for me. The resort itself is huge, more like a good-sized village, so yesterday afternoon some of the staff toured me around in a little shuttle cart so I’ll know where the various venues are located. The wines I’ll be talking about are from Jackson Family, representing a good cross-section of the portfolio.

In fact, we had our first wine dinner last night, and I must say it was really great. Chef Julio, of Karisma, prepared our food, creating wonderful Mexican dishes, and I found it thrilling. It was in one of Karisma’s food theaters; I was sitting with Chef Ryan, watching Chef Julio under the spotlights and in front of the cameras, which showed him on two big screen TVs, and when I suggested to Chef Ryan that the event had a certain theatricality about it, he said “Gastro-tainment.” That was a new one on me. I love it.

As soon as I got to Mexico I heard about a brouhaha concerning a Coca-Cola T.V. commercial that aired here that some people found culturally insulting, but that others thought was just fine. The commercial, which you can see here, keenly illustrates the potential mine fields companies must navigate in the images and messages their promotional materials convey.

The Coca-Cola commercial shows a group of young people (they look like American tourists to me)—good-looking hunky guys and long-haired young women in tight jeans and T-shirts—who seem to be on a Habitat-for-Humanity-style mission to build a giant Christmas tree in an indigenous Mexican town. To the saccharine strains of orchestral music, they paint and labor, high-fiving each other with white-toothed smiles, while the natives look on wondrously and gratefully. And, of course, there are coolers of Coca-Cola everywhere.

The style of the commercial is straight out of Coke’s 1971 “I’d like to teach the world to sing” post-hippie playbook: inspirational Kumbaya love. But some people didn’t get the good vibes. “Outrageous” and “racist,” they called it. Somebody tweeted, “When a company as big as Coca-Cola is saying #AbreTuCorazon [Open Your Heart] by giving Coca-Cola to indigenous ppl. what they are really doing is using them.” On the other hand, lots of the comments on the YouTube video either praised Coca-Cola for a sincere desire to help poor people, or wondered what the big deal was. “Couldn’t care less,” one person said; another pointed out a certain political correctness at work: “I love to laugh at freaking crybabies getting offended over nothing.”

At any rate, things got so hot that Coca-Cola issued a “rare apology” and pulled the ad, but versions it can still be found all over the Internet, as for example here, where it’s been retitled “The White Savior Ad.”

The take-home lesson for companies is that they really have to have culturally tuned-in people on their marketing and P.R. staffs. You can’t just let creative call the shots: you have to ask yourself how your images and messages will be perceived, not just by the people you think you’re talking to, but by everybody. Nobody thinks the Coca-Cola ad was intentionally racist or derogatory; no doubt the people who created it, and the managers who approved it, felt they were doing something lovely, in the spirit of Christmas. And perhaps, after all is said and done, that is exactly what the commercial is: a salute to cross-cultural brotherhood, good will and mutual respect.

Alas, in our world, even the most well-intended message can be wrongly interpreted.


Live, from Mexico

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Getting my bearings. Back tomorrow. This is the 74th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Remember those who lost their lives defending us.


A Syrah super-tasting

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I’d call it a super-tasting, our event on Wednesday in which we sampled 13 of the top Syrahs from California.

The background was Jackson Family Wines’ purchase, about a year ago, of Siduri Wines, which also included the Lee family’s lesser-known brand, Novy. Now, I’d always given very high scores to Novy’s Syrahs and other Rhone-style wines, going back to the 2000 Page-Nord Syrah (94 points). It was clear to me that Novy was a top Rhone producer in California, but I wanted to more clearly understand the wines, especially in light of the competition. So I thought, let’s taste some Novy reds against the most critically-esteemed Syrahs and red Rhone blends in California, and see how things stack up.

I asked Adam Lee for his suggestions as to which Novy wines to include in the lineup, and he suggested 2013 Simpson Vineyard Syrah-Grenache (Dry Creek Valley), 2011 Syrah (Santa Lucia Highlands) and 2013 Susan’s Hill Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands, from a part of the Pisoni Ranch). Beyond those, I selected the rest: Saxum 2011 Bone Rock; Tensley 2013 Thompson Vineyard Syrah (with a Santa Barbara County appellation but actually from the Los Alamos Valley); Zaca Mesa 2012 Black Bear Block Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley); Copain 2012 Halcon Syrah (Yorkville Highlands): Alban 2011 Seymour’s Syrah (Edna Valley): Colgin 2012 IX Estate Syrah (Napa Valley): Qupe 2011 Bien Nacido X Block “The Good Nacido” Syrah (Santa Maria Valley); Arnot-Roberts 2013 Clary Ranch Syrah (Sonoma Coast, from way down to the south, near the Marin County line); Kongsgaard 2013 Syrah (Napa Valley, from the Hudson Vineyard in Carneros) and Donelan 2012 Obsidian Vineyard Syrah (Knights Valley).

Let me tell you, California flights don’t get any better than this!

We tasted the wines, as usual, blind. There were eleven of us, and we took our time, discussing each wine separately, but going back and forth. There was quite a bit of unanimity, but for this posting I’m using only my own impressions.

Despite the conventional wisdom that you can’t sell Syrah, these wines should be enough to convince even the most confirmed doubter that, when well-grown and well-made, Syrah is one of California’s best red wines. It’s common to say that there are two styles of Syrah in California: a riper style from warmer regions such as Paso Robles and a more structured style from cooler regions like Edna Valley. In general, this is true, although there are notable exceptions; for instance, Alban’s wines, from Edna Valley, are high in alcohol (the Seymour’s was 15.6%). Still, in general there are two styles: (1) higher alcohol, more extracted, darker in color, softer, richer and fuller in body, and (2) lower alcohol, paler in color, more delicate, less ripe, earthier, more nuanced and crisp. In our tasting, the quintessential #1 style was the Saxum (15.3%, Paso Robles); the quintessential #2 style was the Arnot-Roberts (11.8%, Sonoma Coast/Petaluma Wind Gap), which was so pale it could have been Pinot Noir. (But I liked it a great deal despite the lack of typicity.)

Either style can succeed critically, but it’s fair to say that, among the top critics (including myself, when I was a critic), the former style, #1, gets the better scores. On this occasion, I have to say that the Alban and Saxum wines were not among my favorites. I could and did appreciate the soft charm of the Saxum, but the Alban, at 15.6% alcohol, was just too porty.

My top wines—the style I really love—cannot be described as Northern Rhone or Southern Rhone, but rather is balanced, in a rich, sexy, California way. Tied at 98 points each were the Novy 2013 Susan’s Hill and the Donelan 2012 Obsidian. Both almost exploded the top of my head off. Unbelievable richness and concentration, massively saturated wines, so complex and flavorful you could hardly believe it, yet both of them with superb structure and integrity. Close on their heels was the Colgin, which RJP gave 98 points; all I could muster up was a measly 95! The alcohol on that wine was 15.3%, quite high, but the wine had no heat, or perhaps it’s accurate to say it had a pleasantly warming feel. As good as it was, I wrote, “Needs time.”

I also quite liked the Zaca Mesa, the Copain, the Qupe and the other two Novys—I scored them all above 90 points. While the others didn’t rise to the magic 90 level, they were still delightful; and it might be that, in another tasting with another lineup, they might have shown better. It always strikes me in these blind tastings that the wine’s place in the flight, and the other wines that accompany it, are very important. For example, the Copain (which I gave 90 points) came immediately after the magnificent Donelan; the first thing I wrote was, quote, “Not fair after the last wine,” and some of the other tasters led off their remarks by saying something similar. Which is why it’s so important for the critic to try and set aside everything that’s going on in his head and his palate and try to be fair and objective about every wine. Who knows? Had the Copain come before the Donelan I might have given it 91 or even 92 points. That is the subjectivity factor in tasting, which every honest critic will admit exists. The public needs to constantly be reminded of the shortcomings of every type of wine tasting.

Anyhow, this tasting has provided me with a fresh perspective on Syrah, and I intend to give that sometimes maligned variety more of a drumbeat than I have in the past. At this level, it’s a better wine than Merlot, making it a lovely choice for that steak, pork chop or game—in fact it occupies a distinguished place between heavier Cabernet Sauvignon and lighter Pinot Noir as the ideal medium-bodied, complex, dry red table wine.

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I’ll be in Mexico next week, doing some wine tastings for Jackson Family Wines. Will try to blog everyday. Have a great, peaceful weekend.


Bill Gates’ “Content is King,” 20 years later

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We’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of Bill Gates’ now-famous manifesto, “Content is King,” in which he made a number of predictions concerning the future of the Internet. Keep in mind that, in January of 1996, the Internet, or World Wide Web, was still an object of curiosity to most people, including even those who designed and operated it. Everybody knew how revolutionary the Internet was, but nobody was quite sure how to use it. Yes, the military already was utilizing it for communications, simulations and so on, but the average American was very much puzzled concerning what it meant for her.

I was one of them. I remember getting my first assignment to write about it. It was from Lewis Perdue, at the old Wine Business Monthly magazine, who told me to check the Internet out, and particularly to find out what I could about wine “chat rooms.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t know how to get on the Internet (or if “getting on” was even the proper terminology). It turned out I had to go to the Berkeley library, rent time and use a hideously slow dial-up modem. It took forever to get online, and once I finally did, I hardly knew what to look for. But eventually, I found a few wine chat rooms and dutifully wrote up my article.

Back then, there was little talk of email, and none at all of social media. Winery websites were rare as unicorns (if in fact any even existed), and shopping via the Internet was a mere gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye. Therefore, when Bill Gates wrote his little article, it caught people like a storm. He already was the most famous person in the world of computers and software (along with Steve Jobs), had been on the cover of TIME magazine in 1984 (when he looked like the nerd, Richard Hendricks, on TV’s “Silicon Valley”), and was understood to be a great prognosticator.

The title of Gates’ paper suggested his point. “Content,” he explained, would be the “long-term winner” in the race to make “real money…on the Internet.” And being a businessman, of course, Gates’ goal was for Microsoft to make real money.

Here are the predictions he made, which I have gleaned from the article. Following each prediction, I offer commentary as to how accurate the prediction was in terms of what has subsequently ensued, and to what degree the prediction has come true.

“Supplying information and entertainment” will be the “exciting things” that will fuel people to turn to the Internet.

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”

The universal ease of “anyone with a PC and a modem” being able to “publish whatever content they can create.”

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”

The ease with which this content can be “distributed worldwide at basically zero marginal cost to the publisher.”

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”

“Intense competition,” some of it successful and some of it a dismal failure, “in all categories of popular content.”

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.”

“Printed magazines” can be “served by electronic online editions.”

PREDICTION ACCURACY: Medium-high.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Qualified “yes.” It’s still unclear how online advertising can raise the revenues that print advertising did.

“To be successful online, a magazine…must…have audio, and possibly video,” and not just “take what it has in print and move it” online.

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Qualified “yes.” Too many magazines do exactly that: move what it has in print online. Magazines need to do a much better job of giving consumers a reason “to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen.” And Gates obviously underestimated the importance of video. “Possibly”? No, definitely.

Concerning the “breadth of information on the Internet,” it will be “enormous…”.

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes,” but Bill Gates conspicuously missed the importance of “SEARCH” in order to find things in this avalanche of information. Perhaps if he had, Microsoft would have invented Google.

Concerning pay for content providers, “The long-term prospects are good, but I expect a lot of disappointment in the short-term as content companies struggle to make money.”

PREDICTION ACCURACY: High.

HAS IT COME TRUE? Big “yes.” Gates got it exactly right: Content companies (bloggers included) still struggle to monetize their efforts. Did Gates envision a solution to this problem? He did:

“In the long run, advertising is promising.” He also foresaw subscriptions as revenue-raisers.

PREDICTION ACCURACY: Moderate.

HAS IT COME TRUE? No. Gates wrote (1996) “today the amount of subscription revenue or advertising revenue realized on the Internet is near zero.” Now (2015), it still is pitiful, and most content providers can’t hope to make a living through either subscriptions or advertising. So, while Gates understood that “paying for content doesn’t work very well,” he was overly optimistic that the problem would be solved. His statement that “This technology will liberate publishers to charge small amounts of money” has failed to materialize. Unless you’re Parker or Jancis or somebody like that, almost no wine blogs make money.

Finally–gotta say it–Bill Gates missed social media. If he’d stumbled onto that, Microsoft could have invented Facebook.

Still, this little 1996 paper has turned out to be one of the most important and visionary analyses ever written concerning the Internet.


Still relevant after all these years? I guess

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I suppose I should be happy to have made #31 on this list of the Top 100 Most Influential Wine Bloggers.

To tell you the truth, when I stopped working for Wine Enthusiast in March, 2014 and went over to Jackson Family Wines, I was perfectly aware of the fact that I had lost a great deal of whatever “clout” I formerly possessed. That clout was entirely due to the nature of my job as the coastal California critic for one of the nation’s top wine magazines. I never fooled myself that the “love” wineries gave me was because of my wonderful personality! It was entirely impersonal; I knew that it was for my position, which entailed a certain degree of power—the power to give high scores and to include wineries in my articles. And so, when I quit Wine Enthusiast to go to JFW, I knew that that power would quickly ebb.

And it did. Which was fine with me. I had had a great time as a “famous wine critic” for many years, and it eventually reached the point where I was ready for something else. I’m glad I made the move. I love working with the Jackson family, with CEO Rick Tigner and all the other amazing people that make up this great organization. I don’t miss being a wine critic one bit.

But when I took the new job, it did raise questions about this blog. Should I continue it? I floated the idea of ceasing it and asked people to weigh in, and man oh man, did they ever. Overwhelmingly my readers asked me to keep blogging. And since I feel an inordinate amount of respect towards my readers, their loyalty towards me inspired me to continue to blog.

But immediately the question presented itself: About what? I no longer had a gazillion wines to taste. I no longer traveled to every nook and cranny of the coast as a wine writer. I no longer trafficked in the 100-point system, or went to many industry events, or met “new faces” to promote. So I couldn’t write about those things and from that perspective. Instead, I found myself involved in a fascinating world far different from the one I had formerly known, namely JFW. That changed the subject matter about which I wrote, and I worried that my posts would become boring, or too focused on the industry, and that people would drift away from reading my blog.

But I persevered. And for some reason, people still seem to like their daily dose of steveheimoff.com. Yes, every once in a while somebody complains about something or other. But they have for the 7-1/2 years I’ve been at this, so I just let it go.

I try to post five days a week, successfully for the most part. Sometimes the topic comes easily: a gift from the gods. Sometimes, it doesn’t, and I have to think what to write about. Almost always, when I really focus, I can come up with something that means something to me and that, hopefully, means something to my readers. One never actually knows how receptive people are to one’s writing, but this award, coming out of England, is reassuring, in that it tells me that I’m still more or less relevant after all these years.

Yes, I know these “awards” are next to meaningless. But still! I’ll continue to plug away at it, as long as people seem to enjoy reading me. That’s all I need by way of compensation. Of course, if you feel like it, you can always send me a $1 million bill and I’ll guarantee you a lifetime subscription!


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