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Embracing the alcohol of Paso red blends, and a word about that Benziger deal

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For the past half-year, I’ve been hosting a series of wine tastings up at Jackson Family Wines headquarters, just outside Santa Rosa. So far, they’ve included both JFW and non-JFW wines, but the next one is strictly non-JFW. It’s a tasting of high-end Paso Robles Rhône-style blends (JFW currently owns no Paso Robles wineries), and I’m getting excited even before I pop a single cork.

Here’s the lineup so far:

  • Saxum 2012 Heart Stone
  • L’Aventure 2013 Cote de Cote
  • Tablas Creek 2012 Esprit de Tablas
  • Law 2011Sagacious
  • Linne Calodo 2013 Sticks & Stones
  • Jada 2012 Hell’s Kitchen
  • ONX 2012 Crux

I’m also trying to get a bottle of PharoahMoans 2012, and maybe one or two others.

These are all expensive wines, among the priciest in California outside Napa Valley. The most expensive is the Saxum. I’ve written before about Justin Smith’s amazing story: how he started this little winery that zoomed straight to the top. (If there are more expensive wines in Paso Robles, I don’t know what they are.) I’m not sure how Justin got there; probably he isn’t either, and has been pleasantly surprised by his success. I think my reviews helped, as did the chapter I gave him in my 2008 book, “New Classic Winemakers of California.”

I liked Justin’s wines from the moment I first tasted them (I gave them lots of 95s and 94s), but I realize these are not wines for the In Pursuit of Balance crowd. The alcohol on them can be very high. But then, the same can be said of many of these Paso Robles blends. The grapes get ripe, sometimes super-mature under that hot Paso sunshine, even in the Templeton Gap where things are supposedly cooler. Well, I drove right through the Templeton Gap yesterday during the hottest part of the afternoon, and yes, the temperature did fall from 92 just north of Paso Robles to 87-88 at Templeton, evidence that there really is a cooling influence that makes it in from the coast. Still, the Templeton Gap area is still pretty warm.

It would be a shame to dismiss these big, hearty Paso Robles red wines simply because of the alcohol level. They’re really world class. I’m excited about this tasting and will report on it here.

* * *

I asked my Facebook friends yesterday what I should blog about today and a lot of them said “Benziger.” I don’t have a super-strong view of the sale to The Wine Group, except for a couple thoughts. Number one, I like the Benziger clan and especially Mike, who was very kind to me when I was coming up as a wine writer. The family worked hard to establish both the Benziger brand and Imagery, and the wines from both were very good. The family did what they felt was in their best interests, at a time competition is fierce and Benziger was doing battle with brands from all over the world. I don’t know what The Wine Group will do with the brands—whether they’ll maintain them, elevate them or crush them into the ground. (By way of contrast, had Jackson Family Wines bought them, I’m confident the Jackson family would have elevated them.) Hopefully, The Wine Group will elevate them, although I do have some concerns that The Wine Group is not necessarily associated with the top quality tier. (Here’s a list of their brands.) Perhaps with this acquisition, The Wine Group is trying to go upscale and improve that image. If so, kudos to them.

* * *

Miss Sherry asked on Facebook for me to blog about Gus because she likes him a lot. So, Miss Sherry, here he is, relaxing on my queen bed at the lovely Santa Maria Radisson. We’re here for a couple days to hang out at Cambria and Byron.

GusRadisson


Gems vs. rhinestones

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I was chatting the other day with the great Richard Arrowood when he said something that really caught my mind. “I want to focus on gems, not rhinestones.”

What is a “gem” of a wine? It’s an unofficial term, of course, and therefore subject to interpretation; but I think Richard meant wines that are made in small quantities and come from a single vineyard (historically, Richard is one of the important pioneers of vineyard-designated bottlings in California). And moreover, the vineyards must have proven themselves over time to possess unique characteristics that make the wines particularly interesting. So much the better if and when the winemaker has long familiarity with those vineyards, and knows how to apply his art gently enough to allow the terroir to shine through, and yet indelibly enough to stamp the wines with his own style and personality.

This balance of natural terroir and winemaker style fascinates me. It’s not easy sorting the two out. Like tangled hair, they interweave with and cross over and under one another; separating out which strand is which is an impossible task. After all, why do we separate human activity from natural activity? Are we humans not part of the natural world? (Plato may be to blame for this conundrum.) And yet, he who would understand wine must attempt to analyze what nature, for her part, and man, for his, contributes to wine.

It used to be easier to distinguish between the two for the simple reason that, in times past, all winemakers in a given region tended to use more or less the same techniques. Because they all imposed a similar signature upon the wines, any differences between the wines had to be due to terroir, right? And so we got the Bordeaux communes, each of which had its own personality.

How much more complicated things now are! Winemakers have a plethora of clones and rootstocks for any varieties they want. Their canopy regimens and pruning practices are more sophisticated than 18th century viticulturalists could have imagined. Winemakers also can choose barrels from just about anyplace, toasting them in any way they want. They can select from among a vast array of yeasts, or depend on indigenous yeasts. Their choices of destemming, crushing and fermentation vessels are limited only by their budgets. They can take out alcohol and tinker with their wines in the most amazing ways. In America, unlike most of Europe, they have an entirely free hand, without an overweaning government telling them when to pick or how to blend. And with every touch of the hand, they replace, or add to, what the natural terroir gives the wine with what they themselves want it to have.

But the final definition of a gem, as I think Richard meant, has to come from the winemaker’s mind. With all our emphasis on terroir and winemaking technique, we sometimes forget that the formative character of a wine—call it its Platonic nature—begins in the winemaker’s imagination. He or she first creates the wine mentally, as an idea or image, and then transmigrates it, godlike, into physical manifestation. Some winemakers do this formulaically. Others adopt the artist’s attitude. It’s risky to be an artisanal winemaker, because sometimes your idea of art is contradictory to what the market—as interpreted by your sales force—wants. If you march too stridently to the beat of a different drum, people won’t buy your wine. But if you follow the dictates of the mob, your vision suffers. This is the stuff, the challenge and irony, of what truly artistic winemakers confront every day.

* * *

I’m off on another trip to Santa Barbara County and the lovely, windswept and austere Santa Maria Valley, “a house of sand and fog,” home to Cambria and Byron wineries. Will be down there for the rest of the week, but I’ll try to get daily posts up. Salud!


What wineries need for the market

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A recent article in Wines & Vines about the Master of Wine Bob Paulinski, who now works for BevMo, was on the topic of “Making Your Wine Brand Stand Out.”

It caught my eye because, like most articles on the same topic, it asks a pertinent question—one that all wineries are asking—without providing any definitive answers. Not that that’s Paulinski’s fault, since answers are few and far between.

Yes, a wine brand “needs to be compelling.” But how? Everybody wants to be compelling these days—to have a great story that turns people on, hopefully enough to buy the wine. Paulinski suggests there are at least three ways to accomplish this.

  1. “The wine must…have some legacy.” By “legacy” he means, I think, that it’s well known to the population, and that people have some sort of understanding, no matter how rudimentary, of the winery’s place in history. Paulinski mentions Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay in this regard. He is right to say that it is a legacy wine; that is a huge factor in creating loyal customers. The same might be said of, say, Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, or any of the wines that routinely make Wine & Spirits’ top wines in its annual restaurant poll.

These all are “legacy wines” that are known, liked and trusted by consumers, which is why all those F&B managers put them on the wine list. But obviously, it’s awfully hard to become a “legacy winery,” so there have got to be alternative ways of becoming “compelling.”

  1. Another way, according to Paulinski, is to have a “unique quality.” That is, the winery or wine should be somehow different from all other wineries or wines. Now, it’s hard to be “unique” if you’re making a varietal wine that 3,000 other California wineries are making. So what else makes a winery “unique”? The owners or winemaker can be unique in some fashion, but let’s face it, unless you’re Boz Scaggs or Drew Barrymore or someone like that, to most consumers you’re just another owner or winemaker. Are there other ways of being “unique”? Yes. Just yesterday, I was talking with a successful documentary filmmaker, and I asked him if he could make a good film about anyone at all. “No,” he said. “Some people are more interesting than others.” I’m not sure I agree; I think a good writer can make anybody’s story compelling. But first, the winery has to hire a good filmmaker or storyteller. Stories don’t tell themselves, they’re told.
  1. This ties into Paulinski’s third way to be “compelling,” which is to “be highly targeted.” What does that mean? It means that the winery has identified precisely the audience it wishes to sell to, and then crafts its message to that audience. As an example, Paulinski mentions “Reckless Love,” from a winery named Rebel Coast. Check out their website.

It’s pretty clear whom they’re targeting: with their “nubile models in bikinis” (Paulinski’s phrase), they’re after younger consumers, and a specific type of younger consumer, at that. (I don’t have to characterize the type. You can figure it out as well as I can. Burp.)

That’s fine and good, but the problem of being highly targeted like that is, (a) you’re eliminating millions of potential customers, if not actually turning them off (I wonder how women feel about those “nubile models”), and (b) the minute someone comes along with a more compelling and nouveau message, all those fickle consumers will shop elsewhere. So how do you manage to be unique and targeted while maintaining customer loyalty so that you, too, can become a legacy winery one of these years?

Well, these are precisely the issues so many wineries are grappling with these days. I think I have some insights that may be helpful to some wineries, but, as Paulinski correctly observes, “the wine market is not homogenous [sic]; what works for some won’t work for others.” True dat. Wineries need someone who understand their specific needs, not someone who will slap on a generic template that applies to all, and therefore none.


Who’s on the A List of the most important California vintners?

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I once had a sensei who was quite well known in karatedo circles for the historic role he had played in spreading this traditional Japanese martial art throughout North America in the 1950s and 1960s, thereby stoking its popularity and leading directly to Bruce Lee and Chow Yun-Fat and today’s mixed martial arts.

My sensei was indeed a sort of legend, possibly more in his own mind than in other people’s, but well-regarded nonetheless. When the history of karate in America in the 20th century is recorded, his name will be more than an asterisk, but less than a superstar. Somewhere inbetween.

Which got me thinking, how do we decide which are the most memorable and important figures in the history of California wine? I suppose there’s always an arbitrary element to it. We can argue about this person, or that one. But surely, no one would object to the inclusion of Count Agoston Haraszthy, André Tchelistcheff and Robert Mondavi on the short list. But where do we go from there?

I don’t mean individuals who were historically important on a regional basis. Each county and wine region possesses such people: Santa Barbara boasts Richard Sanford, Monterey had Dick Graf at Chalone, San Benito’s star was and is Josh Jensen, the Santa Cruz Mountains had pioneers like David Bruce, Livermore Valley had its Wentes, Anderson Valley had Dr. Edmeades. the Russian River Valley its Rochiolis and Joe Swans, and so on. No, I mean individuals without whom our modern, successful wine industry would not be what it is today.

What are the criteria by which we can even pretend to make such momentous decisions? Well, let’s turn to the three men we all agree on: Haraszthy, Tchelistcheff and Mondavi. What did they have in common? What did they do to get on the list?

What they had in common was that each of them contributed something so vital that we can’t imagine California wine today without them. Haraszthy of course brought all those cuttings over from Europe, started Buena Vista, wrote his influential report to the State legislature, and in fact provided the intellectual basis for California wine to emerge onto the world stage. Tchelistcheff can be credited with inventing Napa Valley, in its modern sense, transforming its 19th century mentality to one firmly anticipating the twentieth. Others were making fine Cabernet Sauvignon—at Inglenook, at Charles Krug, at Louis Martini—but it was Beaulieu, under Tchelistcheff’s leadership, that emerged as the prime example of a boutique winery. No Beaulieu, no 1960s explosion of boutiques, end of story. Add to that the fact that Tchelistcheff mentored several generations of superstar winemakers, and his place in history is assured.

As for Mr. Mondavi, well, he was and is and will remain for all time the face of California wine, not just for his technical contributions to wine quality but, possibly more important, his tremendous drive, energy and communication skills. How we think about wine (and food) today is largely defined by how Mr. Mondavi taught us to think about them.

Measured by this fantastic yardstick, who else can possibly claim membership on the short list? To tell you the truth, no one, in my opinion. The A list remains the exclusive enclave of this trio of geniuses. There is, indeed, a very impressive B list, and I might draw that up one of these days. But not now.


Remembering a defunct winery, and a lesson in regional correctness

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I don’t know what made me remember the old Chateau Woltner wines. The memory just popped into my head—who knows how these things work, or why. The winery had been started by an heir to the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion dynasty. I don’t recall the details—here’s the Wikipedia entry that says after La Mission was sold, the owning family went their separate ways. Thus it was that Francis and Françoise DeWavrin took their share of the proceeds and moved onto something else. In this case, Napa Valley. They bought some land in 1980 on the lower slopes of Howell Mountain, above the Silverado Trail, and planted—not Cabernet, as you’d expect, but Chardonnay!

Even then, in the mid-1990s, this was a shocking thing to do. Napa Valley Chardonnay hadn’t yet acquired the reputation (unjust, in many cases) for being dull, but even so, Napa hadn’t been perceived as prime Chardonnay terroir for many years; and in any case, Howell Mountain was known to be superior Cabernet county. (Randy Dunn had seen to that!) So it was that, with pleasure and some curiosity, I accepted an invitation by the DeWavrins to visit their property.

The house and grounds had seen grander days. The DeWavrins themselves could not have been nicer. The Chardonnays? Well, to call them “minerally” would be an understatement. They were clean and elegant, yet hard in briny wet stone and metallic minerals. In other words, not the lush, fruity Chards California was known for.

Eventually the DeWavrins gave up their quest; I suppose the wines simply didn’t sell well. Today, I doubt there’s much Chardonnay remaining on Howell Mountain. The action has moved closer to the coast. Howell now is a hotbed of Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties.

The lesson I glean from this is how hard it is to march against the popular drumbeat and try to grow varieties in places where tastemakers think they don’t belong. Critics seemed to resent those Woltner Chardonnays even before they tried them. Too expensive! Why is he growing them on Howell Mountain instead of someplace else? I suppose Francis DeWavrin had a bit of the contrarian in him—he certainly had some well-pronounced marketing genes and believed that he could develop a niche product. And then there was the Frenchman in him. When it came to world Chardonnay, his eye turned, not to Carneros or the Russian River Valley, but to Chablis.

If he were still making that wine today, I bet there would be sommeliers celebrating it as “Chablisian” and far more terroir-influenced than most other California Chardonnays, which so many somms say are overripe and flabby. This is a perfectly legitimate attitude, but it does tend to reinforce the tendency of California growing regions to become monocultures. Napa Valley once had, not just a lot of Chardonnay but a lot of Pinot Noir too, and it wasn’t bad stuff. But the critics of the 1970s and 1980s didn’t like it and badmouthed it, which meant proprietors couldn’t sell it, so they budded their vines over to the Cabernets, Sauvignon and Franc, or Merlot, or Petit Verdot, and that was that. A similar fate awaited Napa Valley Sangiovese, Semillon and other varieties that made honest, straightforward wines that consumers wouldn’t buy, because, after all, if it says Napa Valley on the label, it should be Cabernet Sauvignon, right? In fact, by 1990, it had become politically incorrect (from a varietal point of view) to grow much else in Napa Valley besides Bordeaux grapes.

Have a great weekend!


Thursday throwaway: Eberle, Kermit Lynch, Jon Bonné, Starbucks and dissing Oakland

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I was stoked to read yesterday that Gary Eberle has regained control of his eponymous winery.

Gary lost that control some years ago. He was obviously, and understandably, upset about that. How would you feel to start a winery you named after yourself (and your ancestors), only to lose that ownership through circumstances you had no control over? I’d feel pretty lousy.

So congratulations are in order, Gary. He’s one of the pioneers of Paso Robles, which has turned into such a successful wine region. Gary also is a gentleman, a standup guy and a mentor to many winemakers.

* * *

I got the latest Kermit Lynch newsletter in the mail yesterday, and as usual, read through the whole thing. For all the griping I do about the state of wine writing, I always like Kermit’s newsletter. He (and his staff) have mastered the art of making short (100 words or so) wine descriptions interesting and compelling. When and if I start reviewing wines on this blog this summer (my mind isn’t yet made up but I’m inclined towards doing it), I will change my style from the way I wrote up my Wine Enthusiast reviews. They were what they were—and I obediently followed the magazine’s guidelines—but I always wished I could experiment with lengthier, more interesting text. Kermit’s newsletter is an inspiration.

* * *

My blog post from the other day, “Winemaker’s choice: When marketing and the perception of exclusivity collide,” has gotten a lot of comments, 40 and counting, which is pretty good for a wine blog. I guess it’s because the things I’m interested in– marketing, imaging, perceptions and communication–are also interesting for a lot of people.

* * *

There’s a certain tourist publication that you often find for free in wine country. I don’t want to identify it by name, because frankly I don’t want to get sued. But it’s glossy and fancy and claims to write about restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area. They have sections on San Francisco, Marin, Wine Country and Peninsula-Silicon Valley. Notice what’s missing? OAKLAND. Well, I sent a private email to the publisher. Look, Oakland is one of the hottest restaurant places in Northern California. It can only be prejudice that keeps a publisher, who purports to be an expert advisor, from acknowledging this. When I realized that, I threw the publication away.

* * *

It’s sad and amazing how much the San Francisco Chronicle has cut down on its wine coverage with the departure of Jon Bonné. I can’t understand, except that maybe wine advertising just doesn’t bring in the dollars, and advertising drives newspapers’ editorial policies these days.

* * *

I’ve been following Starbucks’ rollout of wine in some of its stores for some time now. Apparently they’re doubling down, region by region, depending on where they think serving wine will help them. The latest is in Sacramento. I think it’s a fabulous development. If we can get these Millennials who hover around Starbucks to enjoy a glass  or two of wine with their lunch or dinner, so much the better.


How to get publicity for your winery. Or not.

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Old friend Alan Goldfarb asks some pertinent questions in this piece that was published the other day in an online trade publication.

The quandary he poses for wineries: “With wine writers dropping off the face of the earth…to whom does a winery publicist turn to get PR/accolades/reviews when the writer pool is evaporating?”

As evidence of that evaporation, Alan cites several longtime wine columnists whose publishers have taken their columns away or drastically reduced their word count. He might have added the San Francisco Chronicle, from which wine writer Jon Bonné recently departed (he’s supposed to retain some connection to the paper and/or its website, but I haven’t seen anything yet).

Alan makes another compelling point: With the passing of print writers, the number of “new media” writers, such as bloggers, online radio hosts and videographers, has swelled. But—and here’s the rub—of the hundreds and hundreds of online sources, there are [only] about 20 (20!) who are worth yours and your client’s time…”.

That’s really sad, and frightening, too. Wineries need writers to tell their stories, and remind the world that they exist. But with fewer and fewer reputable channels all the time, as Alan asks, “To whom does a winery publicist turn?”

Indeed. Even if you take Alan’s “20” online writers who are “worth yours and your client’s time,” I doubt if any of them has the reach and clout that, say, Bill St. John did—he’s the wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune who, according to Alan, had his column “cut” last week. The Chicago Tribune’s average weekday circulation is 453,500, making it one of the biggest newspapers in the Midwest, and central to one of the nation’s most important wine markets. Do you think any of Alan’s 20 bloggers has that kind of readership?

Near the end of his article, Alan does cite a couple bloggers and other online sources whom he recommends. But it’s a pretty short list; his conclusion, as far as sending samples out, is for wineries to “proceed at your own peril.”

That would be my advice, too. The Internet has shaken everything up, and none more so than to hasten the end of traditional print reporting and replace it with “citizen journalism.” I liked traditional print journalism: I still read newspapers, and I trust them, believe it or not (I mean the news part, not the editorial pages of propagandists like the Wall Street Journal). In my current job, and even beyond it, I’m routinely reminded of the scurry to get publicity for your brand—any publicity, anywhere, so long as it’s generally positive. Winery executives have given up on trying to determine, with any precision, the return-on-investment of publicity. They wish they could, of course, but in the meantime, they’re happy with anything they can get. And yet, they no longer know how to get exposure, or even whom to approach for it.

You’d think that this “revoltin’ development” (T.V. fans from the 1950s, do you know who said that?) would mean the end of traditional P.R., which seems stymied at every turn. But P.R. is even more important than ever. Publicists are in demand, especially if they can demonstrate a grasp of new media. Like soothsayers of old, or necromancers who could divine messages from the gods through the intestines of a sheep, publicists today appeal to the utter confusion of winery proprietors, who have neither the time nor the personal inclination to master these arcane fields. In that sense, if you asked me how a winery should find and hire a reputable public relations expert to turn to for advice, my answer would be the same as Alan Goldfarb’s concerning bloggers: “Proceed at your own peril.”

BREAKING NEWS

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