The industry

Now that American consumers have embraced rosé wines as a legitimate drink not just for girls and sissies, and practically every winery on the planet that makes red wine is also turning out rosé to cash in on the trend — bleeding off some of that first-press juice before too much skin contact — an inevitable backlash is occurring. Popping up on social media are posts and comments asserting not only that “Rosé Sucks!” — in addition to the die-hards who insist that “Derrick Rose Sucks!”– but that the category itself is a trash wine, an afterthought not worthy of consideration to people who drink “real” wine. Leaving aside the issue of Derrick Rose, those of us who love rosé wines know that our exemplars are far from trashy afterthoughts, but totally real wines that offer style, elegance, grace, refreshment and complexity — and a great deal of pleasure.

The actual problem, I think, isn’t that rosé wines suck, but that, in the broad scheme of the vinous realm, most wine sucks. Looky here, friends, the wines that receive most of the attention and praise, the wines that consumers and collectors alike search for avidly, the wines that receive the high scores from the slick magazines and young sommeliers wet their pants over to get onto their lists — these wines account for about five percent of the wine made in the world every year, 10 percent, if you want to be generous. The other 90 to 95 percent of the wine made in the world annually is basic plonk, designed to be gulped thoughtlessly while people work their way through a platter of nachos and scarf down a burger or a slice of pizza or a bowl of chili. Decent, perhaps, drinkable, harmless, bland, dull, innocuous, forgettable: the everyday quaff.

Unfortunately, many of these wines are an amalgam of de-acidifiers (or their opposite), oak chips, powdered tannin, color stabilizers and, oh right, grapes, all assembled in anonymous warehouses in industrial suburbs. Hardly wine at all, though you can slap a weird name and goofy label on it and Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Costco can sell it for $5 a bottle.

But what the hell, most products of human ingenuity, industry and sweaty brows suck, so why shouldn’t most wine? Most books are dreadful; most films and television programs are stupid; the music industry churns out enough garbage to clog our ears to the end of time yet manages to sleep the sleep of the just every night and rake in the dough. Art, architecture and design? Don’t get me started! And how often do we get someone to come in and perform a home repair job with competence and fairness?

Do you understand what I’m saying?

Mediocrity is the quotidian.

Why should the wine industry be any different? Oh, right, it’s swathed in a haze of romance and mystique, an aura which is, frankly, entirely fictitious. Very few people outside of tech CEOs and media giants can afford the “wine country life,” whether the environment is Napa Valley, Tuscany or Provence.

I’m tending far afield in riffing mode here, so getting back to the actual point: Don’t blame the mediocrity — the “sucky factor” — of wine in general on rosé wines in particular. There’s a lot of nasty sauvignon blanc and over-oaked chardonnay and cloyingly alcoholic cabernet sauvignon out there, and that’s at the ultra-premium level. I have nothing against well-made inexpensive wine, and when I come across one of those wines, I’ll promote it eagerly. I think, in fact, that there’s more honor in creating 10,000 cases of an authentic and essential 10-dollar wine than in creating 1,000 cases of a 100-dollar wine that tastes like every other 100-dollar wine. Chose your wines carefully, readers, and when you find some you like, grasp them to your bosoms with gratitude. Even rosé.

I received over the past few weeks email press releases from The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, announcing the opening of the application process for 30 fellowships for the conference that occurs February 16 to 19 in the Napa Valley. The symposium is a symposiumcollaboration among the Napa Valley Vintners; Meadowood, the fine resort; and the Culinary Institute of America. For 2016, under a new executive director, Julia Allenby, the SPWW shifts to an all-fellowship model from a fee-based model, meaning that for those who could not previously cover the cost of the symposium registration and fees as well as air travel and car rental, there would be a chance to attend on a competitive basis.

Here’s how the conference describes itself on its website:

The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, founded by Meadowood Napa Valley, the Napa Valley Vintners trade association and The Culinary Institute of America, draws top wine book authors and editors, wine magazine writers and critics, newspaper wine columnists, bloggers and other editorial wine content creators to Napa Valley to speak, listen, debate, explore themes prevalent in contemporary wine writing and network with their peers for four days. A combination of lectures, panel discussions, group and individual writing sessions, wine tasting and fine dining make the symposium an unmatched career enrichment opportunity for editorial wine, wine-food, and wine-travel writers.

The keynote address for next year’s event will be delivered by legendary author, the venerable Hugh Johnson. Also on the faculty will be Eric Asimov, chief wine critic for The New York Times; Ray Isle, executive wine editor for Food and Wine magazine; and Jay McInerney, novelist and wine columnist for Town & Country magazine, as well as other noted writers and sommeliers.

You’re thinking: “Sounds like fun! Let’s all go!”

Not so fast, my friend. As they say in television credit card commercials and gift promotions, restrictions apply. And notice, in the paragraph quoted above, the word “editorial,” used twice. That’s important.

Here are the rules for applying for a fellowship to next year’s symposium, again, from the organization’s website:

Please note that attendance is limited to professional editorial writers and editors on wine, wine and food, and wine and travel. Public relations and marketing personnel, winery owners and employees and other non editorial people cannot complete registration. Qualified registrants must demonstrate two paid, published byline articles or similar paid writing in the 12 months prior to registering.

And: Attending writers and editors must be professionals who can demonstrate their active working status.

In other words, if you write about wine for a personal blog, you’re not professional. If you provide editorial content, as the phrase goes, submitting articles for acceptance or on assignment for print or online entities, undergo vetting by an editor or publisher and get paid for your efforts, then you are considered professional. The implication is clear. “Citizen bloggers” need not apply.

Well, perhaps that’s not completely the case.

I asked Jim Gordon, director of content for the symposium, what the relationship between the organization and bloggers was. Gordon is well-known in California and beyond as editor of the industry magazine Wines & Vines and as a contributing editor of Wine Enthusiast.

Here is his reply:

Bloggers are encouraged to apply just as self-employed writers and authors are encouraged to apply too. In the fellowship process we are emphasizing the writers’ professional status, and this will be weighed along with quality of writing submitted and letters of reference, etc. A blogger who has no revenue stream from their blog, and does not do other types of paid editorial writing won’t score very high on the professional scale, but bloggers with subscribers and/or ad revenue, etc. are professional writers in our view and very welcome to apply.

It has always been a symposium for professional wine writers, not beginners or would-be professionals. The goal going forward is to make it an even higher level forum where wine, wine-food, and wine-travel writers and editors can learn, network and discuss issues important in wine writing and publishing.

So, it seems that independent bloggers can submit applications to the SPWW, but, as Gordon candidly points out, they will be considered pretty far down the aspirational ladder. And you can’t fudge the requirement to submit “two paid, published byline articles or similar paid writing in the 12 months prior to registering.” I wonder how many bloggers derive revenue from their efforts; I certainly don’t, and I rarely write about wine or the wine industry for established editorial entities. On the other hand, I have been writing about and reviewing wine since 1984, first for a nationally distributed newspaper column as a full-time journalist — back when I was a professional! — and since 2004 online, when, apparently, I reverted back to amateur status.

Still, I encourage my colleagues in the blogging game to go to and give it a try. The deadline is November 1.

Recently I posted to my Facebook page a question that asked why people, especially in public relations and marketing, will write, for example, “So-and-so currently resides in Atlanta” instead of “So-and-so lives in Atlanta.” My contention is that “currently resides” is phony formal and pretentious, an attempt to inflate a small and ordinary claim by large rhetoric. Any book on grammar and writing will tell you that the best prose is simple and direct.

One of my Facebook friends who works in PR responded to my post, saying: “Being in PR it really is the way PR people talk and write. There is a certain format we use and have been shown since day one. It might not be traditional or ideal but it is very universal in PR!!”

To which my response is that PR needs to go back to school.

If you do an internet search on “principles of good public relations,” you will come up with entries like “10 Principles of Public Relations” or “7” or “6” or a distillation down to “5 Principles of Effective Public Relations.” Interestingly enough, many of these lists don’t overlap a great deal, but the basics elements remain the same: Know your client. Tell a compelling story. Tell the truth. Know the target audience. Stay on good terms with the media. Keep it simple.

These are all excellent suggestions or tenets to follow, but not one of the articles I encountered mentioned these important factors, which I see violated every day: Write well. Don’t exaggerate. Don’t pontificate. Don’t condescend. And, to reiterate: Write well, not just grammatically but idiomatically correct, and don’t succumb so damned blithely to the temptation of language fads and fashions. Fowler, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage — I’m following the 1944 edition that belonged to my former father-in-law Ed Harrison (1917-2015) that he acquired while serving in the Army Air Corp in World War II — mentions what he calls “Illiteracies” and “Illogicalities,” the negligent little blips and common mistakes in language and writing that call attention to the inexact thinking of the writer and that — more important — detract from the effectiveness and believability of the message. Yes, truly, PR and marketing persons, the medium is the message, and the more wayward, faddish, “cool,” sophomoric and hyperbolic a press release is, no matter how sincere the author, the faster I will delete it.

Tell me that your client “takes the art and alchemy of winemaking to unparalleled heights” and I will deep-six it faster than a duck on a June bug.

Tell me that your client “possesses a passion for exceeding perfection beyond all expectations,” and I will hook that press release off the stage.

Tell me that your client “literally created a nationwide buzz with this unique Moscato blend, now trending in sophisticated cocktail venues,” and you are completely out of luck in my book. I mean, please, who the hell do you think you’re talking to?

I realize that press releases are often composed by interns or recent hires at PR and marketing agencies, but age and inexperience don’t necessary demand writing like a 12-year-old. Someone needs to be responsible.

And, since the subject is wine, all you writers of press releases need to know the spelling of grape varieties and how various wines are blended and the differences among wine regions in this country and abroad, and please, for the love of god, Montresor, include the prices of the wines.

I’ll confess to a sense of ambivalence when I write about what used to be called Kendall-Jackson and is now Jackson Family Wines. After all, this is the company — let’s call it an empire — that was launched, in 1982, with the Kendall-Jackson Vintners’ Reserve Chardonnay 1980, a wine that did not change how America drank chardonnay but confirmed its secret and terrific yen for a ripe, fruity, slightly sweet white. Proprietor Jess Jackson, an attorney and horse-racing enthusiast, bought an 80-acre pear and walnut orchard in Lakeport, Calif., with his first wife in 1974 as a getaway from San Francisco, planted grapes and sold them to wineries including Fetzer. When an order from that winery fell through, the opportunity to make some chardonnay arose, with, apparently, a mistake in fermentation leaving the wine with a touch of residual sugar. Bingo! Selling at $4.50 a bottle, the first Kendall-Jackson Vintners’ Reserve Chardonnay created a niche and a craving in the wine-consuming habits of American consumers.

Jess Jackson died in 2011, at the age of 81. The company is still closely held by the family, with Jackson’s widow, Barbara Banke, as chairman.

Soon after the winery produced its first vintage in 1982, Jackson started acquiring properties. In 1988, for example, he bought Edmeades Vineyards in Mendocino. In 1994, he purchased Robert Pepi, the winery and vineyards. (Pepi cannot use his name on labels now and makes cabernets under his Eponymous label.) The year 2006 saw Jackson in high acquisition mode; within two months that summer, he took in Robert Pecota and Murphy-Goode and then for $97 million purchased Legacy Estates, which owned Freemark Abbey, Arrowood and Byron, a purchase that included winery facilities, brands, inventory and vineyards, all of these brought under the Kendall-Jackson umbrella.

In fact, let’s go ahead and list the labels and brands that fall under Jackson Family Wines’ broad banner.

The top of the line is the Spire Collection, consisting of Anakota (Knights Valley); Arcanum (Tuscany); Capensis (Western Cape, South Africa); Capture (Sonoma County); Cardinale (Napa Valley); Cyneth (Napa Valley); Chateau Lessegue (Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux); Chateau Vignot (Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux); Galerie (Napa Valley); Hickinbotham (McLaren Vale, South Australia); La Jota Vineyard (Napa Valley); Lokoya (Napa Valley); Maggy Hawk (Mendocino County); Mt. Brave (Napa Valley); Verite (Sonoma County);Windracer (Russian River Valley, Sonoma County). I have tasted wines from 12 of these 16 estates, and they are impressive in every sense.

Also under the Jackson Family Wines rubric but not included in the Spire Collection, are Champ de Reves and Edmeades (Mendocino); Carmel Road (Monterey); Atalon and Freemark Abbey (Napa Valley); Byron and Cambria (Santa Barbara County); in Sonoma County, Arrowood, Carneros Hills, Hartford Family, La Crema, Matanzas Creek, Murphy-Goode, Stonestreet, Silver Palm and the recently acquired Siduri; and in Oregon, Gran Moraine, founded in 2014.

Kendall-Jackson is now a brand inherent in the Jackson Family Wines stable, and it too is divided into a roster of labels and categories that includes K-J Avant (three wines); Vintners’ Reserve (10 wines); Grand Reserve (eight wines); Jackson Estate (eight wines); and Stature (two wines). Yes, just under the Kendall-Jackson label are 31 wines. Stonestreet offers 17 wines, primarily single-vineyard chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon: Murphy-Goode produces 19 wines, including chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. You get the point. Add all the brands and labels together, from the heights of the august and costly Cardinale and Verite down to the common denominator of its least expensive offerings, and the company oversees the production, at many levels and price-points, of close to 100 different wines each year. That’s a lot of territory to cover, geographically, varietally and stylistically, but the gratifying fact is that, while of course variations in quality and style inevitably exist, the diverse range of wines tends to be consistently and thoughtfully well-made, with my ratings typically ranging from Very Good+ to, in a few instances, Exceptional.

That assessment is not the same as saying that all of these brands, labels and wines seem absolutely necessary. No winery or group of wineries can be all things to all people, and at prices, say, between $18 and $30, the line-up of Jackson Family Wines might be competing with itself, though I suppose that marketers and strategists take that aspect of the business into consideration.

In the rarefied echelon of the Spire Collection, where prices rise to a dramatic $250 a bottle for Cardinale, the competition is the realm of California’s famous and highly sought-after cult cabernet sauvignons. Certainly the wines from Cardinale, Cyneth, La Jota, Lakoya and Mt. Brave in Napa Valley and Anakota and Verite in Sonoma display the remarkable detail, depth and dimension and the capacity for long-aging that great wines must evince. I have tasted a number of the Spire Collection wines in the past, and in March spent a day in Napa Valley and a day in Sonoma County tasting the most recent vintages of these labels, as well as the sauvignon blanc wines of Galerie, the pinot noirs of Maggy Hawk and the chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons of Stonestreet. In a few days, I’ll post an assessment of these individual wineries that fall under the rubric of the Spire Collection.

Dear Readers: A few days ago I posted an entry to BiggerThanYourHead that brought the number of posts since its beginning in December 2006 to 1,500. That’s an average of 187 posts each year or slightly more than 15 per month. Perhaps it’s time to step back and get a little perspective.

Last week, Jonathan Cristaldi posted to an amusing and educational essay titled “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine (That Nobody Wants to Talk About),” an exercise that received quite a bit of comment on Facebook and on other people’s blogs. In his prefactory remarks, Cristaldi mentions among “sinister forces at play” in the wine world the “in-fighting among critics and bloggers.” Does such “in-fighting” exist, with its implications of envy, rivalry and hurt feelings? If it does, I hadn’t noticed, but perhaps I am isolated in my Slough of Despond here in what’s called the Mid-South.

One of the “10 Dirty Secrets of Wine” in the piece is “Wine Critics are not necessarily more qualified than bloggers.” Not necessarily more qualified. The point I take from this statement is that typically wine critics are regarded as more qualified than bloggers, but surely these loaded terms require definition. I assume that a wine “critic” is a person employed by a newspaper or magazine or online entity who is paid for his or her efforts, hence a “professional.” A wine “blogger” on the other hand is anyone who establishes a blog or has a blog designed and set up and then writes whatever he or she desires about wine, hence an amateur. The Federal Trade Commission certainly adheres to this view. That regulatory body made effective on December 1, 2009, a ruling that bloggers must disclose the source of products they review and whether those products were samples. (Didn’t know that, youngsters?) That stipulation does not apply to writers who review for print media, the assumption being that newspapers and magazines undergo editorial control that somehow makes the process more trustworthy and legitimate.

The distinction between professional and amateur is irksome. The widely held belief is that one is professional if you get paid for what you’re doing, while amateurs perform out of interest, involvement or love (as the word implies) without regular financial compensation. A professional can also be a person who is certified by an overseeing board or entity, having passed certain tests and qualifying procedures; amateurs typically lack such credentials. Yet since reviewing wine or being a wine critic, whether for a print journal or online, tends toward matters of taste and subjectivity, just as reviewing books or music or theater does, notions of who is professional and who is amateur become more tenuous. The real criteria rest in knowledge and experience, sensitivity and imagination and the ability to transform physical and emotional sensations, as well as history and geography, into evocative language.

How does one achieve such a state? Through constant reading and tasting and writing, through seeking out opportunities to experience a wide range of wines through regions and vintages, through travel, if possible, and visits to the home turf where grapes are grown and wine is made. The “professionals” who write for print outlets may possess all sorts of qualifications, but they are not infallible nor do they always display particular artistry or articulateness in their expression; the same may be said of many bloggers. As far as consumers are concerned, they need to find writers or critics or bloggers whose voices they admire and can engage with, whose intellects they find amenable and whose palates they trust. I started writing about wine in a newspaper column in 1984, before many of the marketing and PR people who send me press releases and samples were born, and I continued that weekly, nationally-distributed column for 20 years (and was a full-time reporter and critic). Did that make me a professional? And when I left the newspaper and launched myself online, did I decline from being a professional to being an amateur?

Those issues are ancient history, however, and wine-blogging and critiquing are about the here and now, as each vintage succeeds the one before, and producers around the world watch the weather and the climate for the minute (or dramatic) changes that make each year and harvest different. The issue I really want to approach is my own motivation for adhering to an avocation that takes up a good deal of time and space and produces little material reward except — and this is a big “except” — for the wine samples I receive and the occasional sponsored trip that I go on. My Readers are thinking, “Those should be reasons enough,” and indeed I don’t discount them, but there are other aspects.

Most important is the wine itself — a uniquely complex and evocative beverage and a perpetual reminder of our connection to the earth and its seasons — and the ability to follow producers and wines from year to year. One of the most gratifying factors in this endeavor is the contact I have with new, small wineries that send me their products for review. Next is the responsibility to My Readers, bless their hearts, who depend on me for honest and fair assessments of wines and for supporting historical, geographical and technical information, which to me is an essential part of writing about wine. Then there are the friendships I have made and that I treasure in many moments of tasting wine and food and sharing knowledge and experience and stories of travel and adventure.

Lord knows how many mass tastings I have attended over 30 years, those trade events where journalists carry a glass in one hand and a notebook in the other and move from table to table, producer to producer and swirl-sniff-sip-spit their way through a hundred wines. Not the best way to taste wine, but sometimes such events are the only way to be exposed to a broad range of products. Then there are the weekend mornings when I stand in the kitchen and taste through a dozen cabernets or pinot noirs or rieslings. My favorite way to experience wine though is with dinner at home, when LL and I sit down with a wine that I have held back and open it and take a sniff and taste and look at each other and whisper, “Holy crap, that’s good.”

You see, friends, we’re all amateurs.

Jim Barrett, founder of Chateau Montelena, deserves all the praise he has received in the tributes and obituaries published in magazines and newspapers and online since his death on March 14 at the age of 86. A successful attorney with a particular vision about what chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines should be, in 1969 he acquired a long-abandoned Gothic-style winery built in 1882 near Calistoga, in the northern part of Napa Valley, worked to restore the building and the property’s vineyards and, while the estate vines were too young to produce viable grapes, sought reliable vineyards as sources. The event that brought Chateau Montelena and California (and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) to the astonished attention of the wine world was the famous or infamous Paris Tasting of 1976, organized by Englishman Steven Spurrier, at which Montelena’s Chardonnay 1973 — notice that the wines was a blend of grapes from Napa Valley and Alexander Valley — and the Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 placed first in competition with the best of white Burgundy and red Bordeaux. Though there has been been a great deal of controversy over the scoring methodology of the ’76 “Judgment of Paris,” the fact remains that, in this blind tasting with prestigious judges from the French wine, restaurant and publishing industries, the California wines involved performed extremely well, gratifying Americans, when the news came out, and embarrassing the French.

I have read many of the notices of Barrett’s death, and they refer, consistently, to his chardonnay that won the Paris Tasting. In the sense that he owned Chateau Montelena and was its guiding spirit, that assessment is correct. Only one writer that I have seen, though, S. Irene Virbila of the Los Angeles Times, noted the fact that the historic Chateau Montelena Chardonnay 1973 was made by Mike Grgich, and that by rights the wine should properly be referred to as his chardonnay. I don’t mean to denigrate or diminish Jim Barrett’s accomplishment in shaping Chateau Montelena nor that of his son Bo Barrett, who became winemaker with the vintage of 1982 (and became CEO of Montelena at his father’s death). I’m a fan of the Montelena wines and their combination of power and elegance, and I look forward to tasting and writing about them with every vintage. However, the neglect of Grgich’s contribution in this area reflects a general neglect in the media of winemakers below the celebrity level. It’s symptomatic of this issue that Grgich was also ignored in the movie Bottle Shock (2008, directed by Randall Miller), which purported to tell the story of Montelena and the ’76 Paris Tasting, but actually sensationalized it. Of course Grgich went on to partner with Austin Hills to establish what is now the venerable Grgich Hills Estate.

My point is that I receive press releases many times a day from marketing firms and wineries that extol the virtues of new releases and the glorious histories and geographies of the wineries, the wisdom and passion of their owners and proprietors, urging me to accept samples for review, but never mentioning the name of the winemaker. Isn’t that like publicizing a book without naming the author or a movie without mentioning the director?

In line with giving credit where credit is due, I try to be consistent in giving credit for the images used on this blog. So, the image of Mike Grgich is from; the photo of Jim Barrett (at top) and the label of the Montelena Chardonnay 1973 are so ubiquitous, however, that’s it’s difficult to tell whence they originated.

The term “small batch” originated in Kentucky’s bourbon industry as a way of indicating that a particular item was limited in production and generally received some sort of special treatment in the way of types of barrels, length of aging and selection of ingredients. Perhaps the classic or best-known roster of small batch bourbons consists of the quartet of Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek (my favorite), from Beam Global Spirits and Wines Inc.; equally well-regarded are Blanton’s from Eagle Trace Distillery and Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve, but mentioning these products doesn’t begin to indicate the number of small batch and single-barrel bourbons and other limited edition whiskeys available, a number that increases every year. The success of these products — for which no real or official definition exists — seems to be fueled by clever marketing toward male and female Millennial consumers and their abiding interest in all things handmade, artisan-like and privileged or for older spirits devotees for whom single-malt Scotch has become too expensive. Not that small batch bourbon is cheap.

So popular is the notion of “small batch” and its implications of craft and care and specialness that the term has spread into or been hijacked by products in many other areas. As My Readers can see in the accompanying images, “small batch” now applies to soy sauce, tonic and fish sauce, and these are only the items that we happen to have on hand. The problem with the nomenclature of exclusivity, including “small batch,” “artisan,” “craft,” “green” and others, is that they are defined in the most nebulous manner or not at all and that their use has become so widespread as to render them meaningless. Such labels have become mere counters or status indicators in our vast marketplace’s tyranny of choice.

The situation is similar in the American wine industry, in which labeling lingo like “reserve,” “old vines,” “limited production” and a variety of other terms proliferate and are entirely unregulated; I mean, what does “Vintner’s Reserve” mean? No producers in California, of course, want more federal interference with labeling or vineyard and winery practices, yet wouldn’t consumers benefit if they knew that for a particular Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon meant 1,000 cases as opposed to a “regular” bottling of 20,000 cases or that “Old Vines” actually meant that a wine was produced from a vineyard where the vines were planted in 1919? Without some sort of indication, terms like “reserve” and “old vines” are as meaningless as “green” or “artisan” on a box of “gourmet” crackers.

Not that, as in Europe, such notions as “reserve” such be regulated precisely, but neither is it sufficient that labels offer such vague reassurance as “Our Reserve Cabernet is strictly limited in production” or “Our Old Vine Zinfandel was made from our historic and heritage vineyards in Sonoma Valley.” Posh! Just tell us how limited that production was or how old those vines are. It’s that simple. I don’t think we need state or federal rulings that a reserve wine must be limited to a certain number of cases and aged according to a determined regimen or that “old vine” must mean older than 50 years, as long as producers tell us what the details are. And that goes for “small batch” bourbon, soy sauce and tonic too. Any term that’s imprecise or used as esthetic, ethical or moral coding is just a marketing tool intended to impress, coerce or confuse the consumer.
So, how “small batch” is a small batch bourbon? Beam’s Knob Creek is produced in about 200,000 cases annually, compared to Jim Beam, which totals about 6 million cases. Some 160,000 cases of Woodford Reserve were made in 2010; Jack Daniels comes in at nearly 10 million cases. It took a considerable amount of time on Google to find these figures. Small batch whiskeys made by smaller distilleries may be much more limited.

You’ll notice that the soy sauce pictured above, made in Louisville by the Bluegrass Soy Sauce Co., is not only “small batch” but “microbrewed” and “single barrel.” The wraparound label indicates that the bottle sitting on the desk next to me is No. 89 from batch 340-10. In terms of soy sauce, this attention to minutiae is either inspiring or precious, but we still don’t know how small this “small batch” is.

.. and here are a few of them, in no particular order, so don’t over-analyze.

When will wineries and importers stop introducing variations of moscato — Pink Moscato! Blush Moscato! Marilyn Moscato! — as if they were ahead of the curve and not on the caboose of a trend? I’m not dissing moscato per se; a young electrician at the house yesterday told me that his favorite wine was the moscato at Olive Garden, and who am I to quarrel if that’s what he enjoys? The beef here is with the marketing of moscato as if the launch of some winery’s White Zin Moscato or Purple Passion Moscato represented great strides not only in the wine industry but in the tastes and cultural aspirations of all Americans. And I really don’t think it’s a good idea for Clairette de Die, the lightly sparkling white wine from east of the town of Valence, in the southern Rhone Valley, to market itself in the United States as “French Moscato Bubbly.” I mean, please …

When will producers of and zealots for so-called “natural wines” lose their holier-than-thou attitude? Grapes are natural; wine is artifact.
Why don’t my fellow wine bloggers understand that writing critical and even negative reviews and commentary is necessary for balance and credibility, as well as a test of and goad to producers, importers and marketers? I once heard a prominent writer about wine (this was on a train from Milan to Verona, long before blogging was a gleam in anyone’s eye) say to his acolytes, “I never write anything negative about California wine. The industry needs all the help it can get.” Friends, you don’t help an industry by soft-pedaling its flaws and deficiencies; you help by pointing them out and opening the path to improvement. At WBC12 a few months ago, a blogger said to me, “Life is too short to write about bad wine.” My reply was, “Life is too short for my readers to drink bad wine.”

Why does California reduce wines like pinot grigio to their lowest common denominator? Is the idea that Americans will drink anything bland and innocuous as long as it’s crisp and tingly and especially if they’re sitting in a bar? Was that question rhetorical? Certainly Italy turns out and exports masses of bland innocuous pinot grigios; does that mean that scores of wineries in California must produce similarly characterless pinot grigios to capture market share? Are they that cynical? Was that a trick question? (I’m happy to add that a handful of wineries in California and Oregon turn out excellent pinot grigio or pinot gris wines.)

Will writers and marketers ever stop calling zinfandel the “all-American grape”? Oops, this just in: Fortuitously I received an email press release that offers these words: a Sonoma County Zinfandel representing the robust flavor of America’s most famous indigenous grape. And this: Zinfandel is our most prized American heritage grape. I won’t out the person who wrote these words or at least sent them to me, but the email came from Nike Communications on behalf of Joel Peterson, who must be thrilled, and Ravenswood. For the last time people, do your research! The zinfandel grape is as European as chardonnay, pinot noir and alicante bouschet.
Am I the only one who thinks that $750 for a currently released bottle of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon is a tad overweening? I’m referring to the releases of 2009 for the Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Each is firmly ensconced among the elite ranks of the most highly sought-after Napa Valley cult cabernets, and the CEOs, multinational lawyers and powerful media moguls and agents who collect such wines (and have places secured on the wineries’ coveted waiting lists) don’t give a flying fuck about the price or my quibbles. One could argue that $750 for a bottle of Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate is pocket change compared to prices for top-rated chateaux of Bordeaux for 2009 such as Mouton Rothschild ($1,106 per bottle), Lafite-Rothschild ($1,552) or, a true eye-opener, Petrus ($4,053); these are average prices from Collectors have been screaming (haha) about the cynically inflated prices of their favorite Bordeaux wines, even in so-so years, for at least a decade. On the other hand, those prestigious, if not legendary properties and many others in the regions of Bordeaux possess track records of excellence (with fluctuations, of course, sometimes dire) going back 200 or more years. The first vintage of Screaming Eagle was 1992; the first vintage of Harlan Estate, the 1990, was released in 1996. Perhaps we need to wait 20 or 30 years to see how these wines fare and if they’re worth the price.

Why do wineries send me samples of Big Deal, limited edition wines with beautifully designed and printed information sheets and histories of the properties and the people involved and full-color images of gorgeous vineyard landscapes and their striking contemporary multimillion dollar wineries and tasting rooms, all this information enclosed in an embossed folder made from the sort of heavy, incised paper that popes employ for official pronouncements, but they don’t include the price of the wine?
Why do producers in emerging or suddenly popular vineyard regions think that by throwing their indigenous grapes or traditional wines into French barriques they will create greatness measured on some spurious international scale (or catering to some mythical “American palate”), when they should be happy with the charming and authentic wines they were making? Take the grüner veltliner grape, which (primarily) in Austria turns out completely delightful, spicy, racy, nicely nuanced white wines of undoubted appeal at reasonable prices, I mean about $16 to $25. Were these goals enough for the Austrian winemakers? Nooooooooo, they had to put their grüner veltliner wines in French oak barrels to pump up the character, to, um, deepen the depth, to broaden the scope, and they jacked up prices to $50, $60 and $75 a bottle. Did they make great wines? Of course not. They eliminated all the qualities that made grüner veltliner wines desirable in the first place and produced bad imitations of bad California chardonnays.
Sources of the question mark images: 1.; 2.; 3.; 4.; 5.; 6.; 7.; 8.

The Wine Bloggers’ Conference that I attended last month in Portland was my first. Will I attend next year’s conference in Penticton, British Columbia? My feelings are ambivalent, but today I want to put forth the argument that I should be the keynote speaker for WBC13, in which case, of course, I would certainly participate.

(And a brief aside to the WBC organizers: There cannot be two keynote speakers at an event, as there were, so to speak, this year. The keynote speech is the grand introduction to or the grand climax of a conference or convention. All speeches that occur before or after the keynote speech are simply speeches and ought to be billed in some other fashion.)

Why should I be the keynote speaker for WBC13?

First, because I’m an active blogger who tries righteously to post four or five times a week, though I don’t always attain that goal. In 2011, I posted 196 times, which equals one post every 1.8 days. Keynote speakers for previous Wine Blogger Conferences included Eric Asimov and Jancis Robinson, both estimable writers and judges of wine, and, I’ll admit, far more famous than I am, but hardly active bloggers. This year’s relevant keynote speech was given by Randall Grahm, controversial and outspoken owner and winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyards. (The irrelevant “other” keynote speaker was Rex Pickett — you remember Sideways — whose event I skipped and later was congratulated for doing so by many of my wine blogging colleagues.) Grahm’s talk was entertaining, funny, informative, personal and, finally, just profound enough for the audience to take something important away with them. In other words, exactly what a keynote speech should be, and I applauded along with the rest of the room. (Here’s a link to the speech.)

The problem is that Grahm posts to his blog, Been Doon So Long, so infrequently that last year he entered only six posts; I know, he’s busy running a winery and making wine, but my point is that as keynote speaker for WBC13, I would share with my audience the similar blogging experiences of finding time to deal with the wine samples, finding time to taste the wine, finding time to write and post, finding time to walk the dogs and exercise and run errands and make a living outside of blogging and haul all those bottles out to the street for the garbage truck and not feel guilty for not posting often enough.

Second, I bring to wine blogging a history that’s almost unique in our little kingdom. What I mean is that I started writing about wine in 1984, before some wine bloggers or other participants in WBC12 — as several sweetly reminded me — were born, as in “Wow, you started writing about wine before I was born!” I wrote a weekly print column for 20 years, one that was distributed to newspapers around by country by the Scripps-Howard newswire. When the column ended (not my choice), I launched in December 2004 a magazine-format website,; my blog,, came in December 2006, and for a while I ran both the website and the blog, but that was a hell of a lot of work, so I dissolved the website in April 2008.

Based on my 28 years experience as a journalist, wine writer, freelance writer and blogger, what would I tell my audience at WBC13?

<>I would say, Revel in the spontaneous and improvisatory nature of blogging, but at the same time remember that professionalism counts. Good spelling, grammar, punctuation, word order, sentence structure mark the difference between the serious writer — or the writer who can be taken seriously — and the hit-and-miss amateur.

<>I would say, Don’t merely be a wine-blogger, but be a person who writes about wine on a blog. Not many degrees may separate those concepts, but they are significant indicators of intention and accomplishment.

<>I would say, O.K., however spontaneous or improvisatory you want to be, because after all this is the Internet and that, you may say, is the whole point, and all questions of grammar, spelling and so on aside, be accurate — in terms of history, geography, tradition, names, brands, grapes, personalities — get it right. Write, for example, that Chablis is made from sauvignon blanc grapes or that Santa Ynez is near Santa Cruz, and it will be difficult for you to be taken seriously as a wine writer, either by readers or wineries.

<>I would say, Be skeptical. Once your blog achieves some healthy measure of readership or reputation, you’ll be inundated by information and narratives designed to persuade you to like a product, to mention a product, to trade a link for your (free) content. Ignore them all except the ones that politely say something like, “We’d like you to try our wine. If you have any feedback, we’d appreciate it.” Remember that even the text on the back label of a bottle of wine is a form of marketing, so why would you quote such a thing in your review? Sure, it’s exciting to get the attention of wineries, importers and PR and marketing agencies, and while it’s necessary (and sometimes a pleasure) to work with them, remember that they’re all trying to sell you something.

<>I would say, Be critical, by which I don’t mean negative but discriminating, thoughtful, disinterested, judicial — all of these qualities based on knowledge, experience and extensive tasting — but when it’s necessary to be negative in tone and judgment, be that too. “Life Is Too Short to Drink Bad Wine” goes the placard we see in many retail stores, but my motto is “Life Is Too Short for My Readers to Drink Bad Wine,” so when I get a bad one, I tell them about it. It’s fine to be enthusiastic, but temper your enthusiasm with taste and tact.

<>Finally, I would conclude my keynote address for WBC13 with a recitation of Fredric’s Three Rules for Blogging and Life, and I would ask the assembled bloggers, writers, journalists and others in the trade to repeat after me, like a gospel call and response:

1. Be honest!
Be honest!!
2. Be fair!
Be fair!!
(General hilarity, applause, cheers and acclaim.)

In the New York Times recently, dance critic Gia Kourlas wrote of a young ballet dancer that “[her] lifts were daring, twisty things without being crass.” In what manner could a dancer’s movements be crass, since ballet we think of as the epitome of elegance and grace? By being overstated or emphatic or by being extended beyond the logical necessity of the physical or narrative arc; by calling attention to themselves at the expense of the entire range of motion and delivery; by sentimentalizing or sensationalizing the aura of the dance through slickness and complacency and ego.

These characteristics of what might comprise crassness in ballet amount to a definition of vulgarity, and they can be applied to a multitude of materials, objects and concepts other than dance. The Chrysler Building, for example, is elegant and graceful; a 10,000-square-foot imitation of a Loire Valley chateau plunked down on a small lot in an old suburban neighborhood is vulgar. Mad Men, for all its soap opera drama, is elegantly and cogently written and presented; the so-called “reality shows,” the Jersey Shores and American Idols and the Kardashians and endless knock-offs, take vulgarity to steroidal impact. Among recent movies, Winter’s Bone, for instance, stands out for the elegance and economy of its story-telling, its sense of truth-in-narrative and acting; all the latest revved-up, computer-generated, violent and witless comic book and super-hero films and the obscene amounts of money that go into the production and marketing of these spectacular behemoths represent a peak moment in the vulgarity of American movie-making and culture .

And wine?

Yes, wine can also be vulgar, by which I mean a wine whose treatment sensationalizes a grape’s aspects instead of allowing them a natural and authentic expression; a wine whose inherent character is obliterated by the ego of its winemaker and manipulator; a wine whose making bends it out of proportion to its — to borrow from the first paragraph — logical necessity, range and delivery.

A zinfandel or cabernet sauvignon or syrah/shiraz wine whose super-ripe grapes and high alcohol content, say, 15.5 or 16 percent, manifest themselves as cloying, jammy sweetness and a hot, unbalanced finish — to which we could add bouquet-and-flavor trashing toasty new oak — is decidedly an example of vulgarity. A chardonnay, pumped up like a be-drugged athlete with barrel fermentation, aging in high-toast barrels and malolactic fermentation so that it turns out tasting like pineapple custard, roasted marshmallows, guava cream and marzipan — quoting the approving descriptions in a well-known wine publication — is another example of the vulgarization of an unsuspecting grape that can’t fight back.

Uncomplicated grapes whose primary purpose is to provide diversion and delight — thinking of Austria’s gruner veltliner — are vulgarized, let’s say it, perverted by a similar process and sold for $50 and $60 and $75 a bottle. You would think that European winemakers might know better than to throw an avalanche of new oak at a basically decent charming wine in an attempt to elicit a measure of specious “greatness” from it; all that effort produces is an imitation of bad California chardonnay.

Give me, then, a wine that’s spare and elegant and lithe; a wine whose well-considered time in oak, if it even needs such treatment, provides support and suppleness and shades of nuance; a wine that honors the nature and potential of the grape or grapes from which it was made and, if possible, the place where those grapes grew; a wine that is not burdened and overwhelmed by inessential technical prowess; give me, above all, delight and daring, confidence and authenticity with a little risk and individuality, like that ballerina who knows the steps and the movements, all the classical requirements, by heart yet invests her performance with added spirit, those “twisty things” that lift her into otherworldly beauty.

Ballerina image from; Kim Kardashian image from

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