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Friday Fishwrap: tourism fights, Napa warming and Madonna!


Finding the right balance between tourism in wine country, while protecting the privacy of residents, is never easy, especially in California, where these things always tend to get politicized and people get passionate on both sides.

I remember the brouhaha over the Napa Valley Wine Train, the tasting room ordinances, the protesters in Knights Valley upset with the late Jess Jackson’s plans there, even the worries of the remote Anderson Valleyites that their rural back country is being developed too fast.

Now, down in the gorgeous Santa Ynez Valley, there’s another ruckus, this time concerning the plans of the Larner family to “develop a winery, convert a structure into a tasting room, and host a series of special events,” according to this article in the local paper. [Note: Monica Larner, a member of that family, is the Italian editor for Wine Enthusiast, and a good friend.]

I don’t see these issues as either/or propositions. Surely it’s possible to allow wineries to do a little expansion, while taking the fears of neighbors into consideration. Each side has to give a little to get a little. It’s the American way.

* * *

I’ve been arguing for years that Napa Valley is not getting warmer, nor is coastal California as a whole [“coastal” defined as about 40-50 miles from the shoreline and inland]. Actually, it’s getting colder. We just went through another bizarrely chilly, wet Spring and Summer in 2011, the seventh year in a row that threw vintners a curveball. So it’s puzzling to me to see yet another story on how Napa must learn to adapt to global warming, this one from NPR’s website on Nov. 3.

It quotes Andy Walker, probably the most respected viticultural scientist in California; he’s at U.C Davis. Prof. Walker doesn’t actually make the statement that Napa is warming up. That’s implied by the writer. He does mention varieties like Barbera and Nero d’Avola that could do well in a warmer climate, but I would suggest that Napa Valley is not the place to plant them, even if they were marketable, which they’re not. Napa Valley rolled the dice on Cabernet and Bordeaux reds, and it’s worked quite well, wouldn’t you agree? Don’t mess with success, as the old saying goes. Where I would look to plant these warmer climate varieties, as well as other southern Mediterranean varieties including the Port grapes, is in hot areas like Temecula, which have tried to compete, unsuccessfully, in the continental climate sweepstakes of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. They might as well try something different. Napa Valley will continue to produce some of the greatest Cabernets in the world for the rest of the 21st century (barring some unpredictable catastrophe). If I were growing grapes in Napa, I wouldn’t lose any sleep worrying about whether I should rebud the Tokalon Vineyard to Barbera.

* * *

Smirnoff’s Nightlife Exchange Project is a fascinating instance of how to run a wildly successful social media campaign to promote an alcoholic beverage. So successful, in fact, that you could use it as the poster child for what 99.9% of wineries will never be able to do, and hence of little informational use to them.

Yes, if you can hire Madonna as a collaborator, it’s easy to generate 1.8 billion online impressions across six continents. (Memo to Madonna: Will you help to promote If not, I’ll ask Lady Gaga. Beyonce already turned me down.) But I can’t agree with Michelle Klein, Smirnoff’s digital expert, that there’s a take home lesson in Smirnoff’s campaign for anyone besides big corporate companies like Smirnoff. She talks about “linking digital and physical engagement” as the “sweet spot for marketers.” Well, of course ordinary people are going to vie for the chance to dance with Madonna on her next tour! That’s their reward for being one of those “impressions.” But how is an ordinary winery supposed to link the digital experience with a physical engagement, in quite the same way? Says Klein of the campaign: “It’s about people…It’s the spirit of a team that loves to take risks that makes it happen…the magic comes from the content that the consumer generates.” What does that mean for the average winery, which barely has the time much less the budget to lure consumers to their websites, Facebook page or Twitter feed? If I’m running a family winery and want to jump more deeply into social media, I read Klein’s statement and go, “Duh! What the heck does that mean to me?” Take risks? Spirit? Magic? Forget the gobbletygook, just tell me what to do!

Friday Fishwrap


Beringer to Latinos: Buenas dias!

It’s always been a matter of concern to me that wine consumption in America is overwhelmingly by white people. Ethics aside, if wine is only being enjoyed by Caucasians it’s bad business practice. In California, whites are already less than half the population. Why don’t more Blacks, Asians and Latinos drink? Cultural reasons, is why. Black people like to drink, but their alcoholic beverages of choice tend to be cognac and mixed drinks. Asians seem to prefer beer and rice wine, if they drink alcohol at all. Latinos, too, like beer and liquor.

The wine industry has been very bad at reaching out to these communities. Partly it’s because the industry has no coordinated marketing effort. It’s also relatively poor, compared to the beer and spirits industries. And maybe the wine industry didn’t want to seem like it was pandering to specific ethnicities, the way certain brandies do in Black communities with billboards that are frankly sexual in tone.

It’s nice to see that wineries like Beringer at least are finally starting to take Latinos seriously.

Another blast at critics

This time it’s from blogger Craig Camp, who reminds us again that wine “is indeed a social event, it’s what should be for dinner not ‘fodder for criticism.'” Wine and food should be about sharing and socializing, not scoring. “Critics rank wines and taste wines against each other, which is a cruel thing to do to wine of subtlety and grace.”

Well, of course there’s truth in that statement. Reviewing wine does reduce it somewhat to the status of a Miss America beauty pageant. But I don’t see why enjoying wine with friends, on the one hand, and critiquing it are mutually exclusive. A person can fit both comfortably into his life. Besides, millions of people enjoy reading wine reviews. They’re a helpful way to choose which wine to buy. And remember too that it’s not entirely true that “Critics rank wines and taste wines against each other” exclusively. I do do that, but I also write articles and books about wine, so I’m an educator, not just a critic. I think we critics are often easy targets for a kind of anti-elitist bashing that is a form of elitism in itself. Still, I commend Craig for reminding us that “Wine appreciation is about appreciating wine, more accurately about appreciating life.” True dat!

Does anyone care about Bordeaux anymore?

Mike Veseth had an interesting post the other day called “Is Bordeaux still relevent?” He wrote, “Relevant to those of us in the United States, I mean. It used to define fine wine, but now we don’t seem to buy much of it – the momentum’s shifted to Asia. It’s just another ‘brand’ to many Americans, and not one that is especially successful.”

I completely agree. Nobody I know is particularly interested in Bordeaux. Oh, the Napa winemakers are (to the extent they can afford it), and some über collectors are. But few others. Most of the cool restaurants I go to don’t even have Bordeaux on their wine lists anymore, or, if they do, it’s just for a token. Just as well. We Americans were mesmerized by Bordeaux for a few centuries. But time marches on.

Friday Fishwrap


Newsom Says He’s Ready for Life as a Wine Clerk

The Gav was forced to drop out of the Guv’s race after his fundraising efforts pooped, despite a ballyhooed Facebook presence (his thousands of friends include moi). Now, in this sympathetic article by the normally ascerbic Maureen Dowd, The Gav sounds almost wistful, after the trauma of seeing his political life — which those of us who’ve watched him forever know was his abiding passion — go down the tubes. “This is it. God bless. It was fun while it lasted,” he is quoted as saying of politics, adding that, “In a couple of years, you’ll see me as the clerk of a wine store.”

First of all, don’t believe for a second that Dah Mayor is giving up on politics. Not in his dna. He lives and breathes the hurdy-gurdy life of political office, and no matter what he says, there’s still a Governor’s or Senator’s seat (or an Oval Office) he dreams of. But if by chance elected office isn’t in his karma, he’ll have an easy time finding a wine store to clerk at, since he owns a bunch of them through his PlumpJack group. I can still see The Gav working the register at the first PlumpJack wine store, on Fillmore Street. He was a good clerk, friendly, smiling and attentive to his customers’ wants. It’s hard to imagine him peddling wine now that he’s had a taste of the big time. But maybe.

Don’t try spitting after the first 500

This is a first-person account of a guy’s first experience judging at a monster wine tasting, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Never mind that it’s eloquent testimony to the futility and inherent contradictions of such massive events, whose findings must be viewed with the utmost suspicion. I’ve blogged endlessly on the limitations of big competitions. What caught my eye was the author’s confession: As he began tasting the 544 wines, he had an epiphany: “I was finally going to have to learn how to spit.”

My embarrassing little secret: I, too, have never learned to properly spit.

I’ve tried to hide it for years, out of shame. I’m sure that lots of people noticed, and had the decency not to say anything. Bigtime critic whose scores can make or break a wine, but how does he spit? Like a girl. Either I expectorate back into my glass (eeewww) and dump it someplace, or I have to bend over and lean into the drain on the winery floor and let the stuff gurgle out from between my lips. Messy, stupid looking. I just never got the hang of ejecting a straight, strong, steady stream of wine through the air and having it hit its target like an arrow into the bull’s eye. I can’t whistle, either. Are the two related? But not being able to spit is the only thing I’m embarrassed about in my job. Everthing else is, well — as Oded Shakked would say — da kine.

Reserve? No, thanks, I’ll take the regular

Bill Daley has a nice Q&A with Randall Grahm in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune (another endangered newspaper, which reminds me: Did you see the other day that Media News, which owns practically all the newspapers in the Bay Area besides the Chronicle, filed for bankruptcy?). In addition to all the interestingly robust things Randall said was this sentiment: “Oak does not make everything taste better; generally one is better off passing on the special ‘reserve’ selections.”

True, true, true, true, true. I’ve found this to be so over and over in my career. Several times each week a winery will send me a “regular” and a “reserve” bottling and, almost invariably, I’ll give a higher score to the regular. The conceit behind a reserve seems to be to let the grapes get much riper than for the regular (or extract the hell out of them), then plaster as much new oak as you can on the wine. The result? Thicker, heavier, duller, and you get to pay an extra $10 or $20. Caveat emptor.

Snob wine magazines go head-to-head. Will they clobber themselves to death?

La Revue du Vin de France, a top French wine zine, announced it’s going international, in an effort to combat Decanter and Wine Spectator. Bring it on! RdV is a pretty technical publication; their Feb. issue has articles on “Oxidation of white Burgundy” and “Carbon balance: challenges in the wine estates,” which don’t exactly sound consumer-friendly to me. Nor has RdV shown that it has any appreciation of California wines, which account for about 70-80% of all wines sold in America. I went through their 2009 archives and couldn’t find a single article on a non-French wine. I suppose there may be a market for this, but not in America. Not really. But bon chance, Revue du Vin people!

Steve in New York

I’m off to The Big Apple Sunday for Wine Enthusiast’s annual Wine Star Awards, surely one of the most glamorous wine events of the year. In my tuxedo, I’ll be shmoozing with an amazing cast of true legends: Ted Baseler, Roger Trinchero, Gary Vaynerchuk, Scott McLeod, Leonardo LoCascio, Harvey Chaplin, Claudio Rizzoli, Robert Hill Smith and Josh Wesson, among other award winners. What a wonderful night this has become. My boss, Adam Strum, stood by it for years, and look what a success it is. It’s been my pleasure to contribute my small part.

I’ll try to post something before coming home next Thursday, but we’re pretty busy around the clock, and I may not be able to. Check in. In the meantime, stay happy, be healthy, eat good food and drink good wine.

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