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Philosophy & rants

Pirate Wines Are Better Than Natural Wines

a tongue-in-cheek, slightly sexist artistic rendering of the pirate life

I’ve always liked pirates.

Not the plundering, raping, murdering barbarity of pirates. Not the horrible death in battle on the high seas or the ignominious death hanging at the end of a rope in port if captured.

No, what I’ve always liked about pirates is the idea of living outside the system, ignoring the rules, not caring or having to care what others think, being master of one’s fate — however dire and brief that fate may be — and embracing whatever comes.

I like wines that have engaging stories.

There is a lot of wine out there. Every drop of it has a story behind it — some of those stories are more engaging, more compelling to me than others. This was driven home for me, again, when recently Elaine Brown posted the latest in a long line of apologia for “natural” wines. Elaine’s well-crafted post did what I think may be the best job I have seen in defining the boundary conditions within which “natural” wines exist. It also reminded me that my indifference to some wines is largely due to their boring stories.

I’m bored with “natural” wine.

Elaine points out in her piece that the natural wine movement centers in Europe. Some growers there engage in jihad (a legitimate struggle for a principle or belief) against regulatory bureaucracies forcing them to commit what they consider to be environmental damage by requiring all growers to spray certain pesticides on their vineyards. That was, and is, interesting to me. It stopped being interesting when this jihadi movement spawned a mindset that confuses doing less in the cellar with environmental justice, particularly outside of Europe where there are no bureaucracies to struggle against.

To me, the choice of how much or how little to do with the grapes and wine in production is only interesting to the degree that those choices make demonstrably more satisfying wines. Refusing to use SO2 or other additives does not necessarily lead to a better product, therefore eschewing those practices — either out of ideological devotion to a flawed conception of environmental justice, or in a cynical play to sell more wine — is done in the name of crafting a particular narrative. That narrative, that story, obviously resonates with some consumers, critics, and media. But I don’t find it at all compelling.

It bothers me not at all that “natural” lacks a concrete, statutory definition when it comes to wine and other foods. I have no problem with the Potter Stewart-like approach to defining “natural” as “I know it when I see it.” What I do have a problem with is what I perceive as a smug arrogance in the presumption that “natural” practice — in the sense of avoiding additives for the sake of avoiding additives — in production yields wine that is dogmatically “better” than wine made with more thought and devotion to hedonic reward. I recognize that this is a personal failing, but I’m bored with that presumption of superiority, and I’m bored with the sameness of the stories it spawns.

All my friends are pirates.

Every winemaker I know and like has the soul of a pirate. So do I. We chart our own courses, mostly independent of trends or fashion. Not one of us describes ourselves as a maker of “natural” wines, though some or all of what we do might fit within the boundaries Elaine articulated so well in her post. We grow or buy grapes that are farmed sustainably, organically, biodynamically – the best damn grapes we can find and afford. When it comes to cellar practice we understand and respect tradition, but we thumb our noses at convention for its own sake. We take risks, try new things. We make wines we want to drink.

Like all pirates, we appear devil-may-care but actually practice a rigorous discipline because it’s necessary to stay alive. Every one of us is a commercial winemaker, because we have to be to stay in business (dilettantes can’t be pirates).

We all have some swash to our buckle, and we wink while we raise a middle finger to dogma and authority. We work really hard, and we play just as hard. We take no prisoners, and if we use some cultured yeast on one lot, some SO2 on another, a bit of new oak here, or a touch of Mega Purple there we don’t judge each other over it and we sure as hell don’t give a crap what the consumer or critic thinks about it. All we care about is if we are proud of the outcome and can find some buyers who like it as much as we do. And we tell way better and more diverse stories — stories of adventure, passion, and personality.

Pirate wines are the best wines.

I’m not the guy who wants to harsh anybody’s buzz. If you like box wines or what the “natural” devotees disparagingly call “industrial” wines, have at it. If you like your wines big-butted, flabby, over-ripe, over-extracted, over-sweet, over-oaked, and over-priced — it’s your money (and your hangover) and you’re entitled to enjoy it. If you like “natural” wines because you like how they taste, more power to you.

If you like your “natural” wines because you don’t really care how they taste so long as they meet some standard of ideological purity, self-righteousness, and simplicity — awesome, but kindly zip it when it comes to wines that don’t meet those standards (though by all means feel free to discuss and disparage other wines among like-minded cognoscenti, but thanks, no, I don’t want the secret password to get into your clubhouse).

But you should take it to heart when I say, trust me — the best wines with the most interesting stories are out there, and they are pirate wines, made by people with pirate souls. And they are more natural than wines that call themselves “natural”.

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 ( 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 that I sympathize with completely on the exclusion of wines she loves by “quality panels” in Canada and South Africa.

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

"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.

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.”
…{uncritical softball Q&A}…
“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.

Are Winemakers “Bad” Tasters?

“The Tasting Panel” magazine is one of those small wine publications that boosts its circulation by sending free copies to wineries and other trade outlets. Otherwise I would have missed this gem of a column by editor-in-chief Anthony Dias Blue:

Why Are Most Winemakers Terrible Tasters?

Some years ago, I called out a certain large winery about their wines, which were consistently overwhelmed with vegetal flavors. The winemaker couldn’t understand what I was talking about. To him, the wines tasted exactly the way they were supposed to taste. He had become cellar blind.

Winemakers seem obsessed with flaws. Clearly, many American winemakers have been taught in their university courses to put each wine through a rigorous check list of defects. They are adept at breaking a wine into many pieces. This obsessive attention to detail can obscure the view of the wine as a whole… to miss the individuality and character of a wine. The wine completely without flaws is going to be a wine without character, an innocuous, boring and totally forgettable wine.

When I became director of the San Francisco Competition one of my first official acts was to nicely but firmly tell all winemaker judges to stay home.

Then, paradoxically and apparently without irony, ADB finishes his piece with:

Winemakers, listen up. Go out there and taste other wines, a lot of other wines. Maybe someday you’ll get to be a judge and, more important, it’s sure to make your own wines better.

Tony, Tony, Tony… where to start? First off, I’m going to dismiss the assertion that a wine without flaws is always, by definition, “a wine without character, an innocuous, boring and totally forgettable.” This apologia—that there is a distinction between flaws and faults, and that the former are forgivable in certain wines while the latter are not—seems to be making the rounds just now in the various media. This is hogwash. There is no distinction. And while flaws/faults can be tolerated at certain levels (levels which vary from taster to taster and flaw to flaw) they are never to be celebrated.

Secondly, it is a winemaker’s job to say: “I am making this wine to taste like THIS, not like THAT.” Every winemaker does this—each of us has an archetype, an ur-form, an ideal that informs and inspires the profile of each wine we choose to make. This is not “cellar blindness”, it’s conviction.

Third, again, it is our job to be able to thoroughly deconstruct any wine and identify flaws. Any winemaker that can’t do this doesn’t deserve the title. And the ability to do this is a prerequisite natural talent—not something “taught in university courses.” Some winemakers choose to intersect professionally with wine only in this mode, but every one I know (and that is a considerable number) in their personal relationship with wine appreciates the whole, and understands individuality and character—perhaps on a level a mere wine judge can only dream of.

And that leads to my final point. It was Anthony’s exhortation that “maybe someday you’ll get to be a judge” that I found utterly risible, in that it’s ridiculousness had me nearly falling off my chair with laughter. Anthony seems have to have forgotten something. The Right StuffIn the world of wine, us winemakers are the astronauts. We are the ones with the training, the skills, the talent, the intuition, the guts—the right stuff—to fly this thing. Guys like Anthony are the ground crew: indispensable, talented, specialized. We couldn’t do what we do without them. But we don’t aspire to do what they do.

No, I think it’s Anthony and his like in the ground crew that need to get out more. They have fallen into the same sort of complacent trap exhibited by Howard Chua-Eoan in the misogynistic bit of dross he recently penned for TIME Magazine, “13 Gods Of Food“. In her exquisite riposte, chef Amanda Cohen notes:

One thing we all have to keep in mind when reading these pieces… is that Mr. Chua-Eoan can only include what he knows and, like most editors, he spends so much time typing that he can’t get out into the world like the rest of us and see what’s actually going on. Instead, he’s trapped in a bubble, going to the same parties again and again, seeing the same chefs over and over, fighting for gift bags at the same events as all the other food editors.

Mr. Chua-Eoan can’t get out into restaurants like us normal people and meet chefs on his own… [he] is not so lucky. He has to meet chefs at special events which, as we all know, have their own problems inviting women. It’s a human centipede out there and instead of criticizing we should all just count ourselves lucky our mouths aren’t stitched to some event organizer’s anus.

I don’t have the same level of disdain for wine editors that Chef Cohen apparently has for their counterparts in food media, but her point about “the bubble” is as real in our industry as it is in hers. I believe that folks in the wine media simply can’t get out enough to know what is really going on.

Anthony Dias Blue’s view of winemakers and their tasting modes are clearly based on just a few anecdotes. According to the frequently mis-quoted UC Berkeley political scientist Raymond Wolfinger, anecdotes ARE data—but only when you have enough anecdotes. As my fellow winemaker (and excellent taster) Tyler Thomas commented when I pointed out ADB’s column to him, statistical certainty is dependent on sample size.

But really, I do get it that it’s a lot of work acquiring an adequate sample size to understand how winemakers actually taste wine in the wild. It’s just so much easier for guys like Anthony Dias Blue to create an under-informed, simpleminded fiction. And their readers will never know how they are being misled.

I “Must” Do WHAT?

Rubs Me The Wrong WayThis past Thursday, W. Blake Gray put up an interview with Clark Smith he titled “Winemakers Must Come Clean”. Maybe it’s because I’m running on little sleep and a lot of stress, but this just rubbed me the wrong way. There’s are many things I HAVE to do over the next couple of months (and into the future) but “come clean” is not one of them.

Clark is plumping his new book, “Postmodern Winemaking”. In his interview with Blake, Clark asserts:

“Almost everybody uses technology, but they want to be seen as on the artisanal side. That’s why we all ‘do the minimum,’ whatever the hell that is. It’s an illusion, and we’ve worked very hard to create it. I’m offering an alternative that we just be straight with people.”

Clark Smith is an interesting guy. I’ve known him nearly 30 years—I taught him biochemistry lab when he was studying at UC Davis, and he hired me for my first winery job at R.H. Phillips in 1987. Clark has always been a strong advocate of technology in winemaking (he’s built a couple business on it) and he’s never lacked for an opinion.

Clark has long been a proponent of interventionist methods for improving mediocre wines made from average grapes—which means the target market for his approach represents most of the wine made in the world. Technology IS good, and we can thank numerous technological improvements—some with Clark’s fingerprints all over them—for the fact that industrial wines have never been better.

But I take issue with the disconnect in his statement:

I’m offering an alternative that we just be straight with people.”

This statement supposes a “we” that doesn’t exist. A lot of wines really ARE made with very little input of recently developed technology—Clark’s all inclusive “we” is false. In fact, most wines are made without these technological interventions.

But beyond that, I object to the implication that “we” are not being straight with our customers if we don’t trumpet how “we” are using technology in our winemaking. And Blake Gray’s “must come clean” headline not only plays into the implication, it further implies that by not touting the technological solutions sometimes used in some winemaking, all winemakers are engaging in sordidly deceiving our customers.

If a winemaker is careful and lucky, most modern winemaking technology is unnecessary. Flash détente, centrifugation or filtration, micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, spinning cone, velcorin—every one of these processes is like a medical procedure, and using them is an explicit admission that something went wrong and needs to be fixed. In the barely-controlled chaos of industrial wine production, things go wrong all the time and these tools and procedures are absolutely necessary.

But just because these tools and procedures can rescue a bad situation does not mean they make better wine when things are going well. I have tasted the results over the years, and I have concluded—as a scientist who has done the duo-trio/triangle tastings and run the stats, as well as a winemaker—that wines made with these methods do not taste as good as wines made without them. The same goes for Clark’s absurd contention that oak alternative/extract flavor is as good as new barrel.

One of the commenters on Blake’s piece noted:

“If Mr. Clark’s methods ensured the best possible wine is produced, the world would be beating a path to his door.”

In other words—we aren’t stupid—if these technological procedures really did make the best wine, every one of us would be using them all the time. Clark is a smart guy, but his insistence that “we” are deluding ourselves about the inherent superiority of traditional methods and the actual utility of these new technologies would be insulting if it weren’t so laughable.

And the same goes for the assertion that “we” must “come clean” about using these technologies. If our customers cared, we would. Our marketing people would insist on it. When I have a customer who wants the nitty-gritty details of how I made the wine in their glass, I give it to them honestly. But every one of us in this industry knows that the VAST majority of people who buy and hopefully enjoy our product have zero interest in knowing how it is made. What they care about is that it tastes good, and that the taste validates their decision to have spent the amount of money they did.

It serves Clark Smith’s agenda to legitimize these technological tools. But it is overly self-serving to imply that “we” are all using these tools all the time, and lying about it to our customers. That is a “fake-troversy.” Blake Gray is hardly the first journalist to sell an article based on a fake-troversy, and I’m not critical of that. It just rubbed me the wrong way.

In a couple of months, when I can get some time, I won’t be so grumpy. I can chill out, and get someone to rub me the right way. Rubbing Me The Right Way

Clone vs. Site: Which Is More Important?

Yesterday my friend Daniel Dycus recounted a conversation he had the other day with a certified sommelier. Daniel told this fellow he thought grape clone was at least as important as site in determining the characteristics of a wine. The somm told Daniel that he would “sound like an idiot if he said that to someone who knows anything about wine.” Well, Daniel was not sounding like an idiot, because this somm doesn’t know diddly about clones, at the very least.

Simply put, in my experience, clone often trumps site—especially when it comes to Pinot Noir. For example we recently had the experience of moving cuttings from a vineyard in Napa Valley (near Coombsville) to our vineyard in Sonoma Valley (near Santa Rosa). Different soil, different climate, different rootstock, different vine spacing, different trellising, different farming—and yet the wine we have made from this block is recognizably more similar to the wine we made from the older Coombsville site than it is to the wine we make from the Dijon clones of Pinot grown at our site. For that matter, there are reproducible differences between the wines we make from the Dijon clones we grow at our site, differences that I recognize in wines made from the same clones grown at other sites.

That Daniel’s somm friend gets it so wrong is emblematic of a larger issue: a total misconstruction by the supposed cognoscenti of what is meant by terroir. This somm along with scads and scads of other “experts” has been taught that terroir is all about location, location, location. It’s not, and never has been, even in Burgundy.