Thoughts On The Napa Earthquake

Carneros highway break, Elise NerloveEarly Sunday morning the earth ruptured about 15 miles from my home. I was awake when the quake hit. It was twenty seconds of increasingly violent shaking that had me racing to the back of the house to get everyone under the doorways. Then it was over.

I was in the lab at UC Davis during the Morgan Hill event. I felt the building sway and worried a little that the gas cylinders next to me were clanging around but otherwise had no idea of the extent of the devastation suffered near the epicenter.

I was driving down the Silverado Trail when the Loma Prieta quake hit. It punted my truck into the oncoming lane. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic (though perhaps they might have been pushed off the road by the same shockwave) but I was mildly alarmed that the announcer on the radio station I was listening to had time to say “what was that…?” before the signal turned to static.

But this was the strongest quake I have experienced, the first one where I felt fear for the lives of my family and friends. I’m forever grateful that nobody died, or was seriously injured. Given the damage that we saw in some of the barrel cellars… Broken Barrel, image by Carole Meredith …it is just very damned lucky that this quake hit at 3:20am on a Sunday morning, and not at 3:20pm on a workday. A full barrel weighs 600 lb. and has steel-reinforced sharp edges at both ends. People working in those cellars that suffered the kind of damage we’ve seen in images like the one above would have been maimed or killed.

Sunday wasn’t over before the punditry in media started hyperventilating. One that got my attention was an article in the Sacramento Bee, crying that the quake should be a “wake-up call” for the Napa Valley wine industry. Quoting Tom Rockwell, a seismologist at UC San Diego,

“…this could have been a much larger earthquake. What I mean by a wake-up call is I think it’s important for the industry up there to realize they do have an active fault that goes up the valley. It could produce earthquakes that are even larger than this.”

My first thought was “brilliant analysis, Mr. armchair quarterback 520 miles away.” I’ve been through the planning and permitting process for several wineries, and seismic risk is always taken into consideration. The West Napa Fault — the likely focus of the rupture — is identified as a zone of special investigation according to the provisions of the Alquist- Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act of 1972. ABAG West Napa Fault shaking map This shaking intensity prediction map for the West Napa Fault provided by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) is evidence that anyone applying to build a structure in Napa likely doesn’t need a wake-up call when it comes to seismic risk.

Corison Winery in St. Helena was well out of the zone of most intense shaking, but like many of us winemaker Cathy Corison felt the quake, and posted on Twitter @cathycorison to reassure friends and family: Cathy Corison I was at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars when Loma Prieta hit, and our barrel stacks — like those at Corison — didn’t budge. Contrast this with barrels Steve Matthiasson @matthiassonwine had stored at one of the facilities in the damage zone: Matthiasson So yes, maybe the wine industry does need a wake-up call. Not a general wake-up regarding seismic risks, but a very specific call to stack our barrels more safely.

I spoke with Chris Cotrell (@FineWineSpecilst) — Morgan Peterson’s assistant @BedrockWineCo — after the quake and he said he’s never been more relieved that they switched to 4-barrel racks from the 2-barrel steel racks most commonly used in the industry. Even these 2-barrel racks can be constructed to enhance earthquake safety. It should concern all of us in the wine cellar that these features are not incorporated into our work environment.

In the meantime, friends and neighbors continue to clean up, pull their lives together, and get back to harvest. Napa schools are open today, and most grocery stores are cleaned up and re-stocking. But over a hundred buildings and counting are being red-tagged as uninhabitable. Some of our friends and neighbors have lost much and some of them are among those with the least wherewithal to rebuild. Like some of my friends I made a cash donation to Community Action Napa Valley (canv.org) and am taking a big bag of non-perishable items over to their food distribution center today.

Right after I get back from sampling a vineyard. After all, there’s grapes to be picked — earthquake or no.

ALL Wines Deserve A Level Playing Field

ElBanditoAlice Feiring and I don’t often agree, but today she put up a lament on the exclusion of wines she loves by “quality panels” in Canada and South Africa that I sympathize with completely.

The brilliant label pictured (love how they have used the bar code!) graces a wine that is unusual. Because it is unusual, tasters on the South Africa Wine & Spirit Board rejected it and thus the producer is not allowed to export the wine. Regardless of the fact that the wine has an international fan base, because the tasters on the SAW&SB didn’t like it, the producer is being restricted in his ability to sell it.

Wines that tasters on Ontario, Canada’s Vintners Quality Alliance panel don’t care for are denied a substantial tax break that other wines produced in the province receive – making the economics of production and distribution that much more challenging. Alice and other fans of these wines are rightfully outraged.

Laws that dictate what can and can’t be in a wine, and laws that insist that the label on a wine bottle accurately reflects what is in the bottle (at whatever level of detail is deemed appropriate, and enforceable) are desirable, and protect the producer as well as the consumer.

But laws that empower tastemakers to impose economic sanctions on wines that don’t fit some arbitrary “taste” standard are abhorrent. As Eric Asimov has said: “…distinctive wines will always be at least somewhat divisive.”

The ONLY criterion that should determine whether a wine producer gets to market their wine in any way they choose, wherever they choose, is this: if just one consumer is willing to buy a second bottle – with the only context for their decision being that a friend recommended the wine, or Alice Feiring, or Eric Asimov, or the awesome somm at the table of their favorite restaurant.

Stop Calling Wine “Juice”

Master Somm Juice TastingI admit it’s a pet peeve of mine. I acknowledge that there are more important things going on in the world of wine, like the current schmoozing at IPNC, or maybe the lack of diversity on wine writer panels at the recent blogger conference. But please, I implore everyone! For the love of God stop referring to wine as “juice”!

It’s Infantile

Toddlers drink juice. Wine is an adult beverage. When one refers to wine as “juice” in public it sounds like baby talk, and may — in truth — violate the industry’s voluntary guidelines on promoting underage drinking. Think about it.

It’s Derogatory

As slang, all other connotations of “juice” are negative. Money and influence, likely gained in an unsavory manner. Steroids. Spunk, jism, baby batter, semen. Stop it. And it is an unfortunate fact that “juice” is an apt descriptor for some wines that people reading this post may find easy to sell but wouldn’t be caught dead drinking themselves.

It’s Exclusionary

I’ll allow that industry insiders — the bro’s, the dudes and dudettes who sling this stuff for a living — use the term amongst themselves with reasonable impunity, and sometimes a nod and a wink to irony. Get it? Insiders — otherwise known to outsiders as “douchebags” — use the term. Insiders? — stop using it in public. Outsiders? — stop using it at all.

It’s Inaccurate

At the end of the day juice is to wine as fetus is to baby. As milk is to cheese. As bricks are to houses. People don’t confuse these other things, or use one word to refer to the other.

And in other news…

On a more serious note, obviously if I haven’t posted anything here since May 16th there is something else taking up all my time and attention. Premature to report, but news is coming. Until then I am throwing out random bits and little fits @jkellyca on Twitter

2014 Bloom Progress

May 15, 2014 Syrah 100 May 15th and we are at the end of a string of near-100° days — a pattern that has set in for the time being here in the North Bay: 3-4 hot days followed by 3-4 cooler, “normal” days. The picture above illustrates the start of bloom in the Syrah at our Estate vineyard. I also noticed a few flowers in the Roussanne and the Cabernet. No flowers yet in the Tannat, while the Mourvèdre and the Counoise look to be weeks away yet.

All the cane-pruned blocks of Pinot are in full bloom, though I don’t see any set and beginning of berry sizing in any of them. I speculate that the heat is holding back development a little. About half of the clusters in the cordon-pruned Pinot are in flower, compared to none five days ago. The big surprise for me was to see that about half of the clusters in the Grenache are flowering:
May 15, 2014 Grenache As my daughter would say, comically and with a full understanding of how silly it sounds when others say it (thankfully!) “that’s totes cray-cray!

Flowering — The Real Start To Vintage 2014

May 10, 2014 PN90 flowering Today I’m calling flowering in all the cane-pruned Pinot Noir at the Estate vineyard. It surprised me to see that the heritage Pinot selections including the Pinot Liébault (Haynes selection) are ahead of the Dijon clone Pinot 943. The 943 is usually the earliest ripening clone on the site.

I found a couple flowers in the cordon-pruned clone 777 but I couldn’t find a flower in the older cordon blocks (Pinot clones 115 and 667) that has lost a cap yet. The Viognier has also started to bloom, but the Roussanne is still closed tight — as are the Tannat and all the Rhône varieties.

Today was a windy day. We have started to put up the canopy catch wires, but I still saw a couple shoots that the wind had popped out of their sockets. May 10, 2014 PN667 shoot breakage

"Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics" – It Was Ever Thus…

What kind of lab is this? Credit: Syd MeadAs a consumer, or as a producer, how badly do you really want to know what is in your wine? Would you stop buying (or making) a wine you really liked if you found that it didn’t “stack up” against others in areas that had nothing to do with aroma, flavor, value, or age-worthiness? As a producer, do you change the way you make a successful wine in reaction to some arbitrary praise for a different style? Who would you trust to make those determinations? Inquiring minds want to know.

In early April Alice Feiring tweeted a link to a press release by a lab proclaiming that their in-house testing of over 450 top-selling white wines in the US revealed that one in three of them have levels of lead or arsenic above the level allowed in drinking water under the Clean Water Act.

Oooh I’m so scared…

In fact I am not scared at all, though that seems to be the intent of the press release. Here’s why.

The action level the EPA lists for lead in drinking water is 15ppb (a part per billion is a microgram per liter in liquid or per kilogram in a solid) and for arsenic it is 10ppb. The low levels allowed for both of these metals in drinking water are based not only on their toxicity but mostly on the volumes likely to be consumed by children, not adults.

By contrast, in a letter to the TTB the director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in the FDA stated:

“The Health Hazard Evaluation Board (HHEB) determined that the daily intake of table wine containing 150ppb or less of lead is likely to pose no more than a minimal risk to the adult population, including women of childbearing age.”

Note that the concentration beneath concern by the HHEB is over ten times the action level for lead in drinking water. The director then goes on in the letter to propose that the action level for lead in table wine should be 300ppb.

There is no mention in the Code of Federal Regulations of a limit for arsenic in table wine. The FDA is currently engaged in rule making which proposes an action level of 10ppb in apple juice — the same level as in the standard for drinking water.

Given that this 10ppb arsenic proposal is based on the fact that children drink a lot of apple juice (as well as water), it would be unsurprising to me if the HHEB was to suggest that a level of arsenic in wine of ten times the drinking water standard would be “likely to pose no more than a minimal risk to the adult population.”

Levels Of Lead & Arsenic In Other Foods

It’s long been known that plants accumulate these metals (and others) from the environment. For example, lead levels in lettuce grown next to highways (where the soil is contaminated with decades of accumulation from burning leaded gasoline) have been measured at up to 1.5ppm (1,500ppb) — over 100 times the drinking water standard.

The FDA has measured levels of arsenic in rice (which tends, more so than other grains, to accumulate the naturally occurring metal from the water it is grown in) — especially brown rice — of up to 700ppb, or over 70 times the drinking water standard.

But that’s not really the point. Concerns over toxicity or toxic effects pivot on the serving size and frequency of ingestion. Even the most determined hypochondriac must recognize that drinking enough wine to reach even mildly toxic levels of lead and/or arsenic is likely to result in negative health consequences due to excessive alcohol consumption that far exceed the damage caused by the exposure to these metals.

Which leads back to the question: what is the point of the press release by this lab, warning of levels of these metals in wine that exceed drinking water standards? Assume that the purpose of the press release was to generate media attention for the new business with a scary headline — the tactic appears to have failed. Today I can find no online references to the “1 in 3 wines tested”” headline, and it appears the lab has even removed the press release from their website (though the original tweet is still up).

Perhaps they don’t have much faith in their methodology. I certainly have questions about their performance. This lab claims that their current accuracy/precision is ±20% — a level of uncertainty that was not good enough for me or for my clients when I managed a wine services laboratory in the late 1990s.

In a Twitter exchange with this lab I asked if they had ISO certification and the answer was “we have started the process.” However, I know from experience that the process can take well over a year, and that ±20% on analytical results won’t be acceptable analytical accuracy/precision to the accrediting agency.

In a further Twitter exchange with the lab, they declined to state where they are getting their startup capital, and would not respond to a request regarding their business model — i.e. how they plan to make money after they burn through their startup funding.

What Is The Agenda Here?

Ignoring the implied — and mistaken — assumption in the press release that table wines should be held to the same standards for these metals as drinking water, there is the question of how the levels of lead and arsenic in wine compare to levels found in other foods. The lab does not say what absolute levels they found in the 450+ wines they analyzed, so it is impossible for an educated and concerned consumer to assess the risk. Without the actual statistics, according to the axiom: perhaps we are left only with lies and damn lies as the other possibilities.

This lab is attempting to establish itself as an arbiter of which wines are “healthier” than others on a range of metrics. Rather than provide actual levels of “unhealthy” components in wines in the context of the range of levels of these same components found in comparable serving sizes of other foods, they claim they are using a proprietary algorithm to weight the levels they measure — however accurately, or inaccurately — by non-transparent and therefore arbitrary criteria in order to generate a one-to-five-star “ranking” for individual wines. While Federal law prohibits wine producers from making health claims about their products, third parties such as this lab are, surprisingly, exempt from this injunction.

Much has been written about mandatory composition/nutrition labels on wines, and I’ve written before about the realities and pitfalls surrounding these proposals. While I do have reservations, I generally support the right of interested consumers to know what they are paying to put in their bodies:

Mrs Winslow's Baby Killer

How would you know this contains morphine, alcohol, soda ash and ammonia?

If the people running this lab were more transparent about their funding, their business model, their weighting algorithm and their overall agenda, it’s likely I would be inclined to support their mission. As it is, I have a lot of unanswered questions, mostly regarding the potential for this lab’s activities to result in both direct and indirect coercion of producers: either a pay-to-play scenario, or a requirement to defend our products against specious or spurious claims of “unhealthiness.”

Since the lab was unwilling to provide information, I forwarded these concerns to the Wine Institute, and apparently the legal and technical teams there share them. Here’s their reply to my inquiry:

Wine Institute’s Technical Advisory Committee has been monitoring [this lab] for several months now to determine their direction, intent and purpose. We agree with your assessment that [this lab] has the potential to leverage their web presence and immunity from TTB therapeutic claims provisions to coerce industry members. At this point, we are actively monitoring their website to see if any of their statements rise to the level of a legally actionable claim for defamation, unfair business practice, or false representation.

In light of this uncertainty, Walter White has good advice for everyone involved in this issue for the time being: Heisenberg As this develops I’m soliciting my producer friends and acquaintances on what they think about a third party ranking their wines on arbitrary scales of “healthiness.” I’m wondering what consumers think of this as well: believable? Helpful? Inquiring minds want to know.

Another Big Crop Year?

Apr 14, 2014 PN-CVSWe are having a run of lovely, mild, quiet weather just now: day/night temperatures in the mid- to high-70s/mid-40s, morning coastal low clouds and fog burning off by midday, light breezes. This weather is predicted to last through the weekend, with just the hint of possibility of a rainy front pushing through at the 10-day forecast limit.

Walking through the vineyard yesterday I was struck by how fruitful our Pinot is looking just now. The cluster primordia (seen in the photo above, more in my Twitter/Instagram streams) in the young-vine cane-pruned blocks are enormous, with wings on wings in some cases, mostly two clusters per shoot, and frequently two shoots per bud. It looks like 2012 and 2013 all over again.

A large crop three years in a row would be unprecedented in my experience. I’m <ahem> “interested” to see if the cumulative effect of the past two heavy crops and the very dry conditions December-February lead to massive flowering failure — somehow “worried” is simultaneously too strong and too weak to describe how I really feel.

The Syrah and Tannat are not looking anywhere near as fructiferous as the Pinot at this time, but they are several weeks behind — and the Syrah especially has fooled me before, with the crop ending up much heavier than early-season cluster evaluation led me to expect. I am surprised at how far along the Grenache is this year. At this time its development appears to be between that of the Pinot and the Syrah. Grenache primordia counts are low but they look to end up as really big clusters.

No surprise to me that the Counoise is barely budded out at this time. What really IS a surprise is that the Mourvèdre is behind the Counoise, with only 20% of vines showing even a hint of green. Up to now the Mourvèdre at the Estate has budded out between the Syrah and the Grenache. My only conjecture is that it has been delayed by the dry winter, as the Mourvèdre block is planted on our shallowest soil with the lowest water-holding capacity. I have no idea what this weird timing of bud emergence may mean for either the Grenache or the Mourvèdre this year.

My grape broker emailed me this morning: “Buyers are in a holding pattern currently because crop has potential again. If everything sets this year, at this point it is looking very similar to last year’s record breaking crop.” The word on the street is that La Crema (owned by Jackson Family Wines, producing 850,000 cases annually) does not plan to renew contracts this year for Pinot here in the North Coast — they are reportedly shifting focus to Oregon — which means there will be that much extra Pinot on the market.

Part of me is hoping for a massive flowering failure. Everywhere else.

Rites of Spring

Mar 14, 2014 View From TopHere we are, a few days into spring, and the vineyard is still looking pretty bare, while the vines in Carneros already have a couple inches of growth on them. The crew finished pruning and tying at our Estate vineyard about a week ago.

The young, cane-pruned Pinot next to the highway has started to pop (this is in the clone 91 “Pommard”): Mar 14, 2014 PN91 …but the rest of the block is still barely woolly. It used to be that the Tannat at the top of the slope was my “canary in the coal mine” indicating budbreak was imminent:

Mar 14, 2014 Tannat Old VineMar 14, 2014 Tannat Young Vine

…but only one vine up the hill — the young, cane-pruned replacement on the right — has popped, while the older vines in the rest of the block look like the vine on the left.

As a matter of course, our cane-pruned vines are trained to two canes and two renewal spurs (double-Guyot pruning) which looks like this older vine of Pinot clone 943: Mar 14, 2014 PN943 Double Guyot This pruning works well for our Dijon clones and the young vines of the heritage selection Pinots — the vines are well-balanced between crop and canopy. However over the last couple vintages we have discovered that the Haynes selection of Pinot (which we think may be a mutation known as Pinot Liébault) is more vigorous than the other Pinot Noir selections at the vineyard. We have decided we need to set an extra cane to help dissipate this vigor, meaning we had to stretch a new fruit wire to support the extra wood, as seen below:
Mar 14, 2014 PN-HVS 3-canesWe’ll see if this works for us. If the crop load ends up too heavy for the site, we will treat the third cane as a “kicker” and remove it after berry sizing and before veraison.

Endings & New Beginnings

There seem to be an unusual number of changes happening around here right now, big and small, that leave me unsettled. Bob Cabral is leaving Williams Selyem to do who knows what. I met Bob way back when he was winemaker at Alderbrook and his wife worked with me at Vinquiry.

Steve Heimhoff suddenly announced that he is leaving Wine Enthusiast to go to work for Jackson Family Wines as director of communications and wine education. Steve has been working as an independent wine reviewer for nearly as long as I have been in the industry — for Spectator from 1989 and then Enthusiast from 1994.

Then came the news that Wilfred Wong is leaving BevMo to go to work in PR for wine.com. I can remember when Wilfred started at BevMo — it was 1995 — but it seemed that he had become a fixture there.

Then there’s little things, like the closing after 18 years of Hot Shots, my favorite independent drive-through coffee stand in Sonoma, which will become a Dutch Bros. coffee outlet. It’s going to be interesting to see what the local cadre of finger waggers has to say about the rampant proliferation of coffee chains in our town (first Starbucks, and then Peet’s and now THIS outrage! where will it all end!?), now that they have lost on limiting hotel size, regulating winery tasting rooms and painting ice cream store doors pink.

Maybe I’m still unsettled by the news that a close older family member took a hard fall a couple weeks ago. Or maybe it was the hit-and-run driver that rammed into my car from behind at a stop light the other day. Maybe I’m unsettled by the annual pre-tax-day worries that my business and personal finances are teetering on the verge of insolvency.

Even good news can have an unsettling effect. I’m very happy, but also inexplicably on edge that three good friends are about to have babies. What could be unsettling about that?

I find it curiously disturbing that, nearly a decade and a half after the failure and bankruptcy of the Mobius Painter winery project that was slated to be built on land adjacent to our Estate vineyard, the parcel has finally been purchased by our neighbors on either side of it (Annadel Estate Winery and Novavine grapevine nursery) for a joint development.

I’m even a little nervous that the Weather Service is forecasting rain for Tuesday and again Friday, as we need to get our first sulfur application on the vineyard and dig out some slumped water channels that led to unwanted flooding in the last storm.

This brings me back to the one pure good thing that is not unsettling of itself: the vineyard. No matter what changes are in store for me this year — and I’m certain there will be many — the vineyard is a constant. Sure as the sun rises (which it is doing as I put the finishing touches on this piece) the regular annual rhythms of the vineyard will march on. I’m on my way there shortly to walk and check out the progress of budbreak and become, myself, for a moment, a participant with a small part of the rites of spring.

Geography Lesson On Our Labels

mandatory textThe other day our friend and client Marcel showed up with labels for his 2012 Rosé of Pinot Noir, which Kyle and I helped him apply by hand to all 64 cases he made from extra juice recovered from the fruit off our Haynes selection block at the Estate vineyard (it’s delicious wine, by the way).

Since this is the first wine we have labeled in 2014, it’s the first where we have been required to include the “Sonoma County” designation on the label, mandated by AB 1798, or risk losing our production license.

And we have not gone halfway with this, inviting confusion by doing something so vague as putting “Estate Vineyard, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County” on our front label (can’t you just see the consumer scratching their head looking at such a label? “Which is it? Valley or County? I’m SO confused!”).

Nope — as you can see above, we have stated in a clear, all caps, sans-serif type that is the mandatory 2mm high:
“SONOMA VALLEY IS LOCATED IN SONOMA COUNTY” Nothing ambiguous about that — the consumer is enlightened, rather than confused. This is every bit as important for the consumer to know as that my wines contain sulfites, and that there are risks associated with drinking too much alcohol.

SO MANY AVAs In Sonoma County! What Is The Consumer To Make Of This Mess?

At this time there are 15 different geographically/climatologically sensible appellations — approved viticultural areas (AVAs) — that have been recognized by the Federal Tax & Trade Bureau for indicating the origin of wines made from grapes grown in the area indicated by lines on the map as “Sonoma County.” (Not to be outdone, Napa County has at least 16 AVAs, though it is only 45% the size of Sonoma County.)

Just over half of the members of the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission — two marketing organizations representing less than half of the wine producers and grape growers in the Sonoma portion of District 3 (*) — believe that it is VERY IMPORTANT that consumers be constantly reminded that these sensible appellations are all inside the lines on the map that delineate District 3, um… I mean, Sonoma County. Because, you know… Napa Valley. QED.

(*)NOTE: “District 3” is the commodity grape crop pricing district defined by the California Agricultural Statistics Service, which includes Sonoma and Marin Counties. Poor little Marin County — producers using grapes grown there are allowed to use “Marin County” on the label, but the underdog has no AVAs of its own. It’s only allowed to share either the Central Coast AVA or North Coast AVA with a bunch of other Counties. I feel sorry for it.

But wouldn’t it be exciting if the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission were to set aside their holier-than-thou prejudices against Marin County, extend the hand of friendship and equality to the producers and growers there, and rename themselves the District 3 Vintners and the District 3 Winegrape Commission?

Just IMAGINE the marketing clout to be gained by riding on the coattails of an internationally successful book and movie franchise! Never mind that District 3 of the fictional Panem is a dystopic slave state specializing in the manufacture of technology for the Capitol. Maybe we could get Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson to be our spokespeople! Now there’s an idea that’s catching fire! catching fireBut I digress…

What Does Sonoma County Conjunctive Labeling Really Mean?

We have been assured by something like a quarter of the producers and growers in the County who are wiser and more far-sighted than the rest of us that it is in ALL of our best interests to put “Sonoma County” on all our labels, that conjunctive labeling will “build brand equity” and “ensure that consumers understand where they are.” Heck they even have one bought-and-paid for demographic survey by a third-rate pollster to back up their assertion that consumers WANT conjunctive labeling (or, well, maybe, at least… it doesn’t exactly hurt consumer perception, and never mind that the results could be interpreted entirely differently).

Let’s suppose for a moment that this law was not pushed as a self-serving prop for a couple of largely irrelevant marketing entities. If we suppose that, then the alternative explanation for conjunctive labeling is that Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission patronizingly and condescendingly believe that consumers are largely stupid, and ineducable. 15 is this many

Doing Our Part — Gung Ho! Gung Ho! Gung Ho!

Assuming that conjunctive labeling has been made the law of the land because consumers need to be condescended to educated, we have followed both the letter and the spirit of the law with our geographical statement. I can only hope that my fellow vintners can come up with something as forthright and creative, and that consumers actually appreciate our efforts.

Oh, The Stories Wine Writers Write

reblogged from Nick Miller's TumblrI’ve noticed a “thing” trending recently — a bunch of stories in wine-related media (and showing up on my various social media timelines) featuring young couples launching new wine brands, often making wines from non-mainstream varieties. “Young couple starts winery” is not a particularly original storyline, but the thing about the couples featured in these recent pieces is that they — like the couple in the pic above (who do not own a winery, BTW) — are RIDICULOUSLY photogenic. Which can’t possibly hurt the marketability of these stories.

This storyline is part of a larger genre of shopworn but easy-to-sell “interest” bits, including: “guy makes cubic dollars in private equity/tech/real estate, buys vineyard, builds ‘world-class destination winery’, hires famous consulting winemaker and viticulturist, releases $200+/bottle Cabernet” and — a variation on the ridiculously photogenic couple theme — “hipster somm pairs with rebel urban winemaker to produce wines that cut against the grain of the ‘international’ style” (some trendy facial hair mandatory in accompanying photos) and “winegrower eschews technology, converts vineyard to biodynamic practice, produces ‘natural’ wine” — which must include at least one photo intended to depict rugged individualism: rough clothes, 1,000-yard stare, vineyard dog, rented sheep among the vines, and a cow horn with a handful of poo.

Then there’s the ever-reliable, if somewhat more rare, interest piece formula: “rock star/celebrity ‘makes’ wine!” and the even more rare: “who knew/isn’t it awesome that ‘people of color’ can be winegrowers too?” I’ve got a few ideas on what the next formulaic “interest” tropes might be that wine writers pursue to bore entertain us: winemaking politicians, and winemaking people with disabilities (the former arguably being a subset of the latter).

Writing From The Other Circles Of Hell:
Lists & Pairings

The interest pieces are not that difficult. The writer likely is working off a press release with stock photos. They may have met the featured player(s) at a wine-themed event, or on a junket, and exchanged a few words. The writer might follow up with a phone interview, and even may go so far as to taste some wines and make a few notes to add that little bit of je ne sais quoi to the piece they are putting together.

But the writer has to do some real work to put together a list: “20 Top-Scoring Wines Of 2013!” or “15 Best Wines Under $15!” pieces might require as much as several hours of browsing on WineSearcher and note-taking. Or perhaps the writer could troll their stack of press releases and stock photos for something like “The 5 Coolest Wineries in Ohio!” or “The 10 Most Ridiculously Photogenic Winemakers Under 30!” Writers who also happen to be tasters and critics could go back through their own notes to pull out “My Top 10 Wine Discoveries Of The Year!” or “The Single Best Grüner Veltliner Money Can Buy!” or “My Thoughts On The 50 Red Burgundies Tasted On My Last Visit!”

Even more work is necessary to produce a pairing article. The writer might actually have to taste pairings to write about the “best” wine to go with beef/fish/chicken/pork, or with a particular style of cuisine. Or perhaps they could just read through a sampling of the thousands of articles that have already been written on this subject, and synthesize an “original” piece. But there is no way to do an original piece on which wines to pair with things like breakfast cereal, Girl Scout cookies, or chocolate-covered popcorn, without actually tasting those pairings — and that strikes me as work above and beyond the call.

I can see where this is going: “Best Wine And Toothpaste Pairings” perhaps, or maybe something along the lines of “Which Scotch Pairs Best With 2008 Pinot Noirs From The North Coast?” or “The Best Colorado Wines To Pair With The Best Colorado Dutchie!” Better yet, lets see some creativity in combining the list article with the pairing article — surely someone can do “10 Best Franciacortas Under $8 to Pair With Funyuns!” The possibilities are mind-numbingly ridiculous endless.

Wine “Journalism”

No doubt about it that there are stories to be reported in the wine world: business and marketing trends, acquisitions, mergers, management changes, deaths, weather, government regulation, and so forth — enough to keep at least a platoon of writers gainfully employed.

But I have a special place in my heart for a particular genre of wine journalism I call the “agenda” piece. Some writers apparently can’t seem to help themselves from 1) seeing an article — usually in a scientific journal — they don’t have the expertise to fully understand, 2) spinning up their misunderstanding through a personal agenda, and 3) producing a piece generally intended to scare the under-informed reader. From carbon footprint to water use to pesticides to nutritional labeling to sulfites in wine — and plenty more — a lot of misinformation gets slung around, agenda-driven drivel that wants debunking.

I give the agenda pieces credit for some substance. I take stronger issue with other formulae masquerading as journalism that are largely substance-free. One of these is the faux-outrage piece, which the internet is especially good at perpetuating. It goes something like this, usually with two or more participants writing successive pieces on the same topic:

“Did you hear the outrageous thing so-and-so said? How do you feel about that?”
“I’m completely outraged! What do you think about so-and-so being outraged at that?”
“It’s absolutely outrageous!”

…and on and on in a never-ending circle. I suppose it is possible to feign interest in the original outrage for a few moments, but for the love of gods it gets boring really quickly.

Another example of substance-free journalism is the unpaid infomercial. Any wine-related product can be plumped through the vehicle of an “interview” with the producer, inventor, or PR person. I’m especially fond of the logrolling form where one author tacitly endorses another, which goes a bit like this:

“Hey folks, So-and-So has written a book titled ‘Blah!’ So tell me, So-and-So, what is ‘Blah’ about?”
“It’s about blah-de-blah-de-blah. Please buy it.”
“Would you mind if I lobbed you a couple uncritical softball questions about the opinions you expressed in ‘Blah’?”
“I’d be very happy to answer uncritical softball questions! Please buy my book.”
……
“So there you have it, folks. So-and-So has written ‘Blah’ and answered my uncritical softball questions about the content of the book! Thanks for talking with me about your ground-breaking opus.”
“You’re welcome! Please buy my book.”

I mean in all seriousness — this is not journalism, it’s infotainment. And not particularly engaging infotainment at that. George Orwell may have said: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” William Randolph Hearst said: “…all else is advertising.”

Another empty zombie that wine writers keep feeding brains to is the “wine writing is dead” theme. In fact, I do have some sympathy for the writers who are making column-inches by repeating this theme — but how many more articles do we have to endure on this topic? I don’t happen to agree that writing itself is dead, but I will admit I think that maybe the demands for content have caused some writers to at least go a bit numb from the shoulders up.

Attempting Originality While Constrained By Cliché

I could go on listing the lame story lines wine writers are subjecting readers to (um… “natural” wine, anyone?), but I’m starting to bore myself — and by now I’m sure all three of my regular readers are sick of what probably seems like kvetching. But the direction I’m going with this is not complaint. This is a pep talk — one I often give to myself.

As a winegrower, I have a deep understanding of the demands of repetition in practice, and of the emotional toll that this can take on the creative mind. Every year I do more or less the same things in the vineyard and the winery, somewhat constrained by caution and tradition. It can be frustrating. I remind myself of the wise words of Judy Rodgers, who came out of Alice Waters’ kitchen to open Zuni Café: “You’re better off making the same recipe six times than constantly trying new ones. You’ll do it differently each time, and probably make it better.” So yes I’m doing the same thing over and over while at the same time working to perfect it — like a golf swing.

At the same time, I am always on guard that while I’m busy “doing it differently each time” any changes I make are thought through and warranted. Nothing should be attempted just for the sake of doing something different. It is possible to confuse novelty with originality, but nobody worth your effort is fooled.

“The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.” — Kurt Vonnegut

By statistical definition, half of the winegrowers in the world are below average. The same is true of wine writers. However, a strong institutional memory in winegrowing assures that the average is always improving. Does the same sort of institutional memory exist in the world of wine writing? From my perspective I see no evidence that there does.

In all honesty when I read much of what shows up in wine media today what I see is a cry for help:

“I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.” – Stevie Smith

So you writers get out there and do better! Stop playing the “write-by-numbers” game. You may write something you regret, but write so that you have actually chosen what to regret. At least for the first draft, “[w]rite like no-one will ever read what you’re doing.”

Otherwise, nobody will read what you are doing.