What Were They Thinking

I received some wine samples from Freemark Abbey not long ago, and I thought, “Gosh, how nice to hear from this venerable Napa Valley winery,” and then I remembered that Freemark Abbey is owned by Kendall-Jackson. Same thing happened with Matanzas Creek and Murphy-Goode. Other labels owned by the Jackson Family Wines division include La Crema, Stonestreet, Byron, Lakoya, Verite, La Jota, Edmeades and Cambria. Kendall-Jackson itself, which started producing the well-known Vintner’s Reserve line with chardonnay in 1982, has several tiers of labels to accommodate many price points. Though at 5.5 million cases a year in 2009 (according to San Francisco Business Times), K-J doesn’t compete with Diageo, Gallo, The Wine Group or Constellation, the company makes and sells a hell of a lot of wine.

So why does billionaire owner Jess Jackson — or to be realistic, his marketing honchos — need more labels?

Just released are two wines in the new Jackson Hills label, intended to fit between the K-J Grand Reserve and Highland Estates tiers. The basic label, the ubiquitous Vintner’s Reserve line, consists of 11 wines priced between $14 and $18. The Grand Reserve roster includes 14 wines that cost from $15 to $25. The limited edition Highland Estates label offers 16 wines priced from $30 to $75. Obviously there was a crying need for a niche right there between the $15 to $25 range and the $30 to $75 sequence, and the Jackson Hills label is it.

Another new label from Jackson Family Wines is Acre, a line that focuses on grapes from the Central Coast, a vast “appellation” — it covers seven counties south of San Francisco — about as useful as two left arms on an infielder. Since the Acre Chardonnay 2008, for example, derives completely from Los Alamos Valley in Santa Barbara County, why not label it Santa Barbara instead of Central Coast? The narrower the appellation, the more impressive it is (though not necessarily a better wine). In terms of price — $16 — the Acre wines seem redundant; they fall smack in the middle of the Vintner’s Reserve line-up. All right, so I’m skeptical about American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) — or AOCs in France — that encompass extensive geographical realms, though the Central Coast is distinguished by proximity to the Pacific and its morning fogs and by its inland mountain ranges, but saying that chardonnays from Monterey and San Luis Obispo share a “Central Coast character” is disingenuous. As far as usefulness is concerned, of course the Central Coast designation serves a purpose when grapes from more than one county go into a wine.

So, how are these new wines in the Jackson empire?

With the exception of the Jackson Hills Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara County, they’re not particularly compelling, or, to put the case another way, I don’t recommend them with much confidence.

The Jackson Hills Chardonnay 2008, Santa Barbara County, is a clean and bright chardonnay fashioned in an expansively fruity style that’s neither tropical nor too oaky. Typical pineapple and grapefruit flavors are set into a fairly opulent texture deftly balanced by bracing acidity and keen limestone-like minerality. The wine is quite dry, moderately spicy and a little austere on the finish. Does it sound familiar? Yes, this is an exemplar of a specific style of California chardonnay, tasty, sleek, sensually satisfying and undemanding. Very Good+. About $25.

A bigger deal is the Jackson Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, from Knights Valley, the northern section of Sonoma County noted for cabernet production. How big a deal is it? So big that it feels as if woody tannins and dusty oak are sifting through your teeth. This wine is very intense, very concentrated, and if there’s fruit in there somewhere — and there must be, right? isn’t that the point? — I couldn’t find it. I whomped the cork back in the bottle and left this wine to try the next morning; rising fresh from my guileless repose, I was greeted by a mouthful of austere and astringent tannins. Perhaps I simply disagree totally with the way this wine was made, but it gets no nod from me. About $40.

Nothing quite so drastic mars the three Acre wines that I tried; their flaw is to be merely ordinary and free of varietal quality. (Well, the chardonnay is pretty darned flawed.) The Acre label was launched in May 2009 by White Rocket Wine Co., a division that Kendall-Jackson created in Oct. 2006 to create and market “fun” brands aimed at a younger generation of wine consumers; several existing labels, such as Tin Roof, Camelot and Pepi, were shifted to White Rocket, which was based in Napa. I say was because White Rocket was absorbed by Jackson Family Wines in August 2009 and some staff members were laid-off. Other “fun” labels developed by White Rocket included AutoMoto, Dog House, French Maid, Geode, Horse Play and so on.

Anyway, the Acre Chardonnay 2008 is fermented half in oak and half in stainless steel, goes through full malolactic, ages four month in French oak sur lie with frequent stirring of the lees, and boy does it show. This is a very bright, boldly oaky and spicy chardonnay made in a style that does not marry its extremes; on the one hand, its vivid baked pineapple and grapefruit flavors grab your palate with succulent lusciousness, while on the other hand the excessive dryness and woody austerity sear your taste-buds. Unworkable; unbalanced; a Big No. About $16.

The Acre Merlot 2007 and Acre Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 are not unbalanced or unwieldy; they merely feel interchangeable. These truly are cross-county wines: The Merlot ’07 derives 72 percent from the small Hames Valley AVA in Monterey, 20 percent from San Benito County and 8 percent from San Luis Obispo; the blend is 80 percent merlot, 15 percent cabernet sauvignon, 5 percent petit sirah. The Cabernet Sauvignon ’07 originates from Raso Robles in San Luis Obispo (68%), San Benito (20%) and Monterey (12%). These geeky details may be tedious to peruse, but they indicate the level of thoughtfulness that went into assembling these two wines, though perhaps “assembled” isn’t the method we most seek in the wines we admire.

The problem is that these two reds feel more generic than individual. Each is quite brambly and berryish, bursting with spicy oak and etched with mocha; each is earthy and minerally, in the graphite-tinged area; each has a circumference of dusty, slightly charcoal-like tannins. The cabernet does offer a hint of black olive and cedar to differentiate it minutely from the merlot, but I don’t call that enough. I’ll give these Good+ and say that wines costing $16 should deliver more personality and dimension.

Now, not to be a complete curmudgeon, I’ll say that I was delighted with the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Summation 2009, California. Introduced to the line-up last year for the 2008 vintage, this wine is perfect for sipping throughout the summer into the fall. It contains a smorgasbord of grapes — sauvignon blanc (33%), viognier (27%), chardonnay (15%), semillon (9%), roussanne (6%), pinot blanc (6%), riesling (2%) and muscat canelli (2%) — from five counties dominated by Lake (63%) with major contributions from Mendocino (23%) and Santa Barbara (21%). The result is a winning and very pretty wine that offers a seductive bouquet of jasmine and honeysuckle, pear and lychee, with hints of almond and just-mown hay. The wine is quite crisp and refreshing, with cheeky acidity to tantalize the palate and lovely flavors of roasted lemon, melon and pear imbued with quince and cloves and an energizing element of chalky limestone. The finish is dry and limestony and brings in a bracing touch of grapefruit bitterness. This would drink nicely with grilled fish and seafood or summery salads and pastas. Very Good+. About $17.

In fact, it seems to me that the most reliable wines for the regular consumer in the extensive Kendall-Jackson line-up are the Vintner’s Reserve wines, that ones that started the whole dance back in 1982. They may not always be exciting, but they are true to their originator’s philosophy and their grape varieties and they generally taste real.

Will it really help sell wines from Russian River Valley or Alexander Valley if labels for wines from those appellations are required by law to state “Sonoma County” as well as the region?

The trade group Sonoma County Vintners is proposing such a law for so-called “conjunctive labeling” to the state legislature, on the model of a similar law passed in the 1980s for Napa Valley. The idea is to raise recognition for the county as a winemaking region; in other words, this law would be all about marketing. As Tom Wark eloquently points out in his post on this subject on his blog Fermentation, wineries in any of the county’s 13 distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) may append the words “Sonoma County” to their regional designation if they want do, but they may also choose not to; most of them, it seems, do not. After all, labeling practices are in the hands of the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), which sets the regulations for wine labeling and geographical matters. Why should local authorities try to trump the feds and add even more rules to a complicated business?

And why would a producer in Russian River Valley or Dry Creek Valley not want to have the term “Sonoma County” added to a wine’s front label?

Sonoma County encompasses 13 growing regions (AVAs) that total about 60,300 acres of vines. Theoretically, the different official areas — “official” because they are determined and recognized by the federal government — display distinct enough characteristics to justify their existence, for example, Russian River Valley with its low-lying riverine topography and propensity to morning fog; the warmer Alexander Valley; gently rolling Chalk Hill, with its soil of volcanic ash. The implication (or hope) is that each distinct AVA contributes unique elements of geography and climate to the formation of a wine’s style and character.

“Sonoma County,” on the other hand, is such a broad category that its most legitimate function is as a generic geographic indicator, a way of saying, “This wine was made in a certain county in Northern California.” Such a condition is not necessarily pejorative, especially for inexpensive or moderately-priced wines whose grapes may be blended from several smaller AVAs, of which there are many examples. The point is that there is not an identifiable “Sonoma County” character that can be ascribed to a wine.

If, however, a producer is making prestige-level wines from smaller AVAs with the intention of reflecting the specific influence of that soil and micro-climate in the wine, then adding the term “Sonoma County” to the front label is not merely redundant but distracting. That front label is the billboard, the “Hollywood” sign of a wine bottle; it’s the field where producers state what they think is most important and immediately recognizable about their wines.

Being curious about how many wineries or producers in Sonoma County actually use the “Sonoma County” terms on the front label as well as a smaller AVA, I looked through the review sample rack and refrigerator for examples, and here’s what I came up:

Those That Do Not Mention Sonoma County on the Front Label
<>Frei Brothers Reserve Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, Northern Sonoma. (The largely useless Northern Sonoma AVA encompasses all of Sonoma County except for the Sonoma Valley and Carneros appellations. It was created in 1985 — and amended in 1986 and 1990 — after a campaign by E & J Gallo. Frei Brothers is a Gallo brand.)

<>Terlato Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Sausal Private Reserve Zinfandel 2007, Alexander Valley.

<>Benovia Bella Una Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Dry Creek Vineyard The Mariner Meritage 2006, Dry Creek Valley. (Sonoma County stated on back label.)

<>Benziger Signaterra Three Block 2006, Sonoma Valley.

<>La Crema Pinot Noir 2008, Sonoma Coast.

<>Davis Bynum Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Louis M. Martini Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Alexander Valley. (Yeah, I know, why do I still have this wine?)

<>Respite Reichel Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley.

<>Gundlach Bundschu Rhinefarm Vineyard Merlot 2005, Sonoma Valley.

<>EnRoute Les Pommiers Pinot Noir 2008, Russian River Valley.

<>Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Alexander Valley. (Not a review sample, of course; I bought this at an auction. Perhaps I should drink it with tonight’s pizza.)

<>Thumbprint Cellars Westside Vineyard Chardonnay 2007, Russian River Valley.

<>Hook & Ladder “Third Alarm” Reserve Chardonnay 2003, Russian River Valley. (Why do I still have this wine, too?)

Those That Mention Sonoma County on the Front Label as Well as a Distinct Appellation
<>Murphy-Goode Merlot 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.

<>Matanzas Creek Merlot 2006, Bennett Valley, Sonoma County.

<>Rodney Strong Brothers Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County.

Admittedly this is an anecdotal survey with a plus/minus factor of probably 10,000 percent, but it also speaks pretty clearly; 14 wineries use the specific appellation name without adding Sonoma County, while three do. Yet according to an article by Kevin McCallum in The [Santa Rosa] Press Democrat, “Eight of the county’s nine wine and grape trade groups say they would support a law that would require wines made from local grapes to feature Sonoma County on the label.” The ninth trade group, that of Russian River Valley, is also considered a shoo-in.

What the hell, readers? I mean, I won’t even speculate on the motivations behind these bewildering votes, because I can’t fathom it.

And as I look at other wine labels of bottles clustered about me in phalanxes of rectitude, I can’t help noting that most of them to do not include a broader county designation in addition to a specific appellation. Right at hand are two bottles of wine from Heller Estate that say, “Carmel Valley, California,” but don’t mention Monterey County. Similarly, bottles of vineyard designated pinot noir from Lucienne say “Santa Lucia Highlands,” without mentioning Monterey County. Here’s an Easton Zinfandel 2006 from Fiddletown that doesn’t mention Amador County. And so on.

The exception to these examples, as I mentioned earlier, is Napa Valley, but notice that the legal requirement doesn’t insist on including the term Napa County. Yes, Napa County is also a designated AVA — it’s slightly larger than Napa Valley — and wineries could use the term if they wanted to. I’m sure you have noticed that almost no one does. I mean, who wants to be known as a producer of Napa County wines?

Map of Sonoma County AVAs from sonomainspring.com.

We ate at a popular local restaurant last night, one that probably falls into the “casual/fine dining” category. The place is well-designed and comfortable, a little clubby; there are white table-cloths and napkins; the menu is varied and fairly expensive; the wine list is good; waiters wear pin-striped shirts and white aprons. Our waiter annoyed the crap out of me by consistently addressing our table as “guys,” as in “Are you guys ready to order?” and “Do you guys need anything?” This locution was particularly annoying because our table consisted on one man (me) and five women; I mean, we weren’t a bunch of guys scarfing down Bud Lite and chicken wings in a sports bar. Restaurant owners and managers! Remember that waiters and the manner in which they relate to patrons help set the tone for the establishment!

Anyway, what I really wanted to mention though was this: I brought two bottles of wine to the restaurant, first checking online to be sure they weren’t on the wine list. These were the Morgan Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007, Santa Lucia Highlands, and a Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, Alexander Valley. When I take wine to a restaurant, I always buy a bottle or two from the list, in this case a bottle of the Fritz Sauvignon Blanc 2009, Russian River Valley, and a glass of the King Estate Pinot Gris 2008, Oregon. We only drank the Morgan Pinot Noir, so I set the Silver Oak aside.

Now, here’s the kicker; I promise that after decades of dining out and frequently taking wine to restaurants, I had never heard this. When the waiter brought the check, he said, “I only charged you one corkage fee since we didn’t open the other bottle.”

Say wha’? Was I supposed to feel special that we didn’t get charged corkage for a bottle of wine that wasn’t opened? Come on, the corkage fee doesn’t start the moment you walk in the door with the bottle; it’s the opening of the bottle that results in the fee.

I mean it wasn’t a big deal, but it was startling.

You know F.K.’s Laws of Blogging, right?

1. Be honest.
2. Be fair.
3. Don’t be an asshole.

Well, honestly, I don’t want to be an asshole, but how can people be so abjectly ignorant of language, especially the language and vocabulary of their field?

There’s a recipe in the March 2010 issue of Bon Appetit, a magazine we cook from sometimes, that calls for a bag of frozen shelled edamame, “unthawed.”

Where are the freaking editors?

The word is “thaw,” past tense or predicate adjective, “thawed.”

“Unthawed” is a folk locution, a back-formation based on the mistaken notion that transforming an entity from one state to another requires “un-ing” it. Not so. Frozen is frozen; the act of unfreezing something, a TV dinner, a bag of edamame, a game hen, is “thawing.”

“Unthawing,” theoretically, would mean “freezing,” as in, “Man, it’s so cold outside that my hands are totally unthawed!”


Which came first, the wine or the marketing campaign?

In my career writing about wine, I have received, along with wine, of course, the usual and the odd assortment of devices from marketing and PR people. These include corkscrews and foil cutters, little notebooks with pens, packets of spices and jars of condiments and, back in the 1990s, when this was the rage for some reason, dried-up pieces of grapevines and sacks of dirt; now that’s what terroir is all about.

Rarely, however, have I been on the receiving end of as strange a perk as I was granted last week, along with four wines with a new label, Tempra Tantrum, from Bodegas Osborne. Depicted in the whimsical image here, this alien-looking creature, reaching out a hand of friendship to the aloof feline, is a webcam with which I and my similarly lucky winewriting colleagues are encouraged to “create web videos of your wine tastings, with Tempra Tantrum as your first post!” Fat chance of that, unfortunately. The cover letter, purporting to be from vintner Rocío Alonso-Allende Osborne, a member of the sixth generation to run the family business, founded in 1772, goes on to say, “I hope he” — the webcam, which she names Toñito — “inspires many moments of self-expression and I hope you enjoy these wines which are an expression of my life.”

I always hate it when a winemaker writes that his or her wines “are an expression of my life,” because then I have to say something like, “Erk” or “Gack,” because, in this case, the Tempra Tantrum wines aren’t very good and are certainly not as good as the Solaz wines produced by Osborne at the same property, Malpica de Tajo, in the vast, flat wine region called Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, not far from Toledo. Not that the Solaz wines are great; they’re pretty rustic and forthright, but they offer a sort of bruised-knuckle integrity and individuality that these Tempra Tantrum wines — the coy name is unendurable — cannot hope to emulate.

Each of the four Tempra Tantrum blends contains 60 percent tempranillo — get the joke now? — with 40 percent of something else: merlot, shiraz (as they say), grenache and cabernet sauvignon. The first impression is of dusty, bubble-gum-ish, basic Beaujolais-like fruity blandness. I found little of the typical tempranillo character of dried red and black fruit and spice, dried flowers and orange rind. The temp/merlot blend is the most generic; the temp/cabernet blend a little drier and slightly more muscular; the temp/grenache blend a little ‘darker” and spicier and slightly more austere; the temp/shiraz blend moderately characterful. None exhibits qualities that would compel you to drink it, and all are far from displaying, as the back labels put it, “the passion, flavor, style and emotion that embodies modern Spain,” subject/verb agreement error included free of charge. Nor are the wines notably, again quoting the back label, “vibrant, plush and in a word — sexy.” Sexy, I would say, least of all.

This conjunction of mediocre wine and ardently senseless marketing too often defines the relationship between wine and consumer in today’s global situation. I receive many new cute, goofy labels every year that raise the question: Which came first, the wine or the discussions about how to name and market the wine before the grapes were even harvested (or, in some cases, purchased)? And that question leads to another: Are consumers so naive, not to say gullible, that they will actually purchase a wine based on its supposedly witty name and its promise of “passion, flavor, style and emotion,” all for $10? Or do they give a damn?

I, for one, would support a ban on the word “passion” from wine labels. I am a-weary, weary of reading squibs like, “This wine reflects my family’s passion for excellence and our passionate attachment to the land that our ancestors so passionately believed in with all their hearts and minds.” Just make the wine, Jack, and make it well and sell it at a decent price. Other than that, shut the fuck up.

The Tempra Tantrum wines are imported by Underdog Wine Merchants, Livermore, Cal. They were supplied as samples for review, along with the webcam mentioned above.

Q. You are on record as despising Twitter, Facebook and other social-networking devices, yet you recently signed up for Twitter. Que pasa?

A. I signed on to Twitter because everyone said that I should use it as a marketing tool to bring traffic to this blog. More traffic may lead to more advertising. No, wait, make that some advertising, any advertising, at least something more than Google ads, which I assume that everyone regards as annoying to the point of invisibility. Those Google ads net me all of $100 annually. Whoa, bring up that Wells-Fargo armored truck now!

Q. And has Twitter brought you more traffic?

A. Not noticeably. Of course I only have 34 followers, so I guess it will take time, you know, slowly building the Irresistible Momentum of a Force of Nature.

Q. We notice that you aren’t following anyone on Twitter. Pour quoi?

A. I tried that for a few weeks, but found the suffocating inanity intolerable. It’s amazing what intelligent, college-educated people will reveal about themselves or the trivialities they so breathlessly report. It’s like reading a Freudian treatise on the madness of crowds via telegraph.

Q. On another subject, do you accept wine samples for review?

A. Let me say this about that. The whole reviewing apparatus — wine, books, music CDs (what’s left of them), household products — depends on review samples. Rare is the publication or writer who possesses the fiduciary prowess to afford paying for the items he or she reviews. Probably 80 percent of he wines I review come as samples from wineries, producers, importers and wholesalers; some of these are sent with prior notice, some I solicit, to fit into a particular theme or post, but most just arrive at the door. Another 10 percent I encounter at trade tastings or similar events, and the remaining five percent I buy.

Q. That being the case, would you state your policy about accepting samples and reviewing the wines for this blog?

A. Of course I will. Let’s practice full disclosure. As I said in the previous entry, yes, I accept wine samples for review, but I accept them on no assumption on the part of whoever sent the sample that I will give a positive review or even any review at all. While it gives me great joy to recommend wines to my readers and share my enthusiasm with them, I am obligated, both by conscience and professional considerations, to dole out negative notices when necessary. I also reserve the right to make fun of, parody or downright deride — without being a total asshole — press releases that are badly written, deficient, vain, pompous and utterly fantastical. You would be amazed how many press releases embody all of those fatal flaws.

Q. On another subject entirely, is it true that when you were a child in Rochester N.Y., you and your older brother were a Cossack-dancing team and you performed on local television?

A. Yes.

Cool question mark image from verticalmeasures.com. Cossack-dancing kid from Koeppel Family Archives.

There are two problems with the new guidelines issued this week by the Federal Trade Commission that stipulate that bloggers and other new media writers disclose the sources of the products they review, i.e. if they were free samples. And no, that particular rule isn’t one of the problems. Many wine bloggers already post disclaimers so that readers know that wines being reviewed were sent from wineries or importers or their representatives in hopes of a mention of some kind, preferably positive. And many wine bloggers make it clear that wineries from which they receive samples should have no expectation as to whether a review will be positive or negative or even if the wine will be reviewed at all; that’s exactly as it should be.

No, the first problem, as Tom Wark pointed out eloquently on his blog Fermentation yesterday, is that the FTC’s new disclosure rules do not apply to “traditional” print media because they, presumably, exercise more editorial control over their material and coverage than the rank amateurs of the blogosphere. So publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits, which receive untold thousands of bottles of wine free every year, do not need to disclose that fact to their readers, while a first-time wine blogger, who might feel grateful for a few review samples, must do so. This is a situation for which the phrase “The Double Standard Stinks” was invented.

The second problem is that the drafters of the new FTC guidelines don’t seem to know a hawk from a handsaw when it comes to the difference between a review and an endorsement. The report expresses the principle this way:

“For example, a blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an ‘endorsement’ within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be ‘endorsements,’ as are postings by participants in network marketing programs.”

Obviously the FTC equates positive reviews with “endorsements,” as if bloggers were celebrity basketball players on billboards being paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to put the force of their internationally known, outsize personalities at the service of athletic shoes and energy drinks. (If only, right?)

A review or critique of anything — book, musical recording, an art exhibition or theatrical performance, a product such as an automobile or a dishwasher, or a bottle of wine — is (or should be) an assessment and evaluation based on knowledge, experience and judgment. For the reader, the benefit lies in the information and analysis upon which to base a decision, to go see that play, to read that book, to purchase that bottle of wine. This result is not the same as an endorsement, in which a celebrity is paid to mouth words conceived by a copy-writer from a marketing or public relations firm. A review is not an advertisement or press release for the object or performance or entity in question.

Yet, annoyingly, the new FTC guidelines refer, again and again, to reviews on blogs as endorsements and to companies that supply products to bloggers for review as advertisers. The case seems devastatingly clear: If I were sent a review copy of a book by a publisher and wrote a review that was published in a print journal or newspaper, the FTC would regard it as a review; if I wrote that review, however, and placed it on my blog, it would be regarded by the FTC as an endorsement for the book, going on the supposition that my blog lacks traditional “editorial responsibility.” And notice, in the quotation from the guidelines above, that the bigger the audience for the blog, the more likely that a review will be considered an endorsement. This is the sort of obtuse reasoning from which Circles of Hell are fashioned.

It’s possible that these guidelines — only a small portion of the 81-page document that focuses primarily on television and magazine advertising — were deemed necessary by the FTC because of the bloggers who review a variety of mainly household products only in a positive manner. Well-known examples of these are the “mommy bloggers” Katja Presnal at skimbacolifestyle.com and Christine Young of FromDatestoDiapers.com. As Tim Arango wrote yesterday in The New York Times about Christine Young, “If she doesn’t like a product, she simply won’t write about it.”

Now I’m not telling my Fellow Wine-Bloggers to pick out a bottle of wine and kick it in the teeth just for fun, but I will say that giving only positive reviews does not build credibility or a reputation for objectivity. In fact, writing only positive reviews creates the impression that all you’re doing is, yes, endorsing products without engaging a balancing critical sensibility. And providing negative or even not wholly positive reviews is a boon for your readers; doesn’t it make as much sense to warn them away from mediocrity as to extol what is superior?

The FTC guidelines for bloggers take effect on Dec. 1, though the enterprise is fraught with ambiguity. If I write a post in which I review 12 wines, must I include a disclaimer for each wine or a blanket disclaimer for the post? Or is it all right to include a permanent disclaimer for the blog that covers all posts and all wines? The FTC hasn’t made that clear. What is clear is that in the next few months the sort of confusion and consternation that leads to lawsuits will reign.

Here’s the text on the back label of the Lost Angel Petite Sirah 2006, Central Coast, “cellared and bottled” by Sapphire Brands in Paso Robles:

Legend has it, an angel came down from the sky to explore the garden of earthly delights and lost her way. Tired of searching, she created her own paradise in the region now known as Paso Robles. So happy with her utopia on earth, a tear of joy fell from her eyes and landed in the rich fertile soil. From that tear a vine grew reaching for the stars, trying to show the angel her way home.

Well, legend has it that astronauts did not walk on the moon, that Barack Obama is an illegal alien and that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is an operative for the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. I mean, really, don’t insult my intelligence with this crap. This isn’t “marketing”; it’s complete sentimental inanity. Please tell me, My Readers, that you would not read this hoo-hah on a back label and think, “Awww, how sweet, I think I’ll buy this wine,” which by the way, is about as generic as red wine gets and is no bargain at about $13, the price I paid.

Lost Angel is a label from EOS Estate Winery, which should know better.

… to be here tonight speaking about our elevation to DOCG status, the highest honor that can be bestowed on an Italian wine. Yes, thank you, thank you, give it up for the little guy! Ha, ha! O.K., whew, thanks! I mean it! You’re great! You’re wonderful! Ha, ha! Yeah!

O.K., so, what does this all mean?

Take a look at the chart projected behind me. Uh, Guido, the chart? O.K., Italian technology, it’s the best, right? I mean, the trains run on time.

Anyway, you see there, straight north of Venice is Conegliano and straight west of that town is Valdobbiadene and in the region, Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene, is the best Prosecco produced. And we’re so pleased, so pleased, you cannot imagine, to have the coveted Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita bestowed upon this region of beautiful and historic authenticity. We worked, we waited, we prayed, we petitioned Luca Zaia, the Minister of Agriculture, a native son of Veneto, and now it is here. With this elevation from plain D.O.C status to D.O.C.G, we join the sacred ranks of only 45 other wines in Italy, including such notable wines as Chianti, Gavi, Bardolino Superiore and Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Yes, we have arrived and we’re here to stay!

And in order to combat the shameless pirating of the Prosecco name, to thwart the assault on our authenticity, the government has generously bestowed a Prosecco D.O.C on eight provinces, all the way to Trieste, where nobody is actually making Prosecco, but who knows, they might want to some day! I mean, we’re owed! In Champagne, they’re adding 2,500 acres to the official vineyard sites, so why shouldn’t we add most of northeastern Italy. My grandmother has always wanted to grow Prosecco grapes and now she has her chance, and what’s good for Grandmama, well, it’s good for Italy!

Anyway, you’re a great crowd, I love you, really. Enjoy the Prosecco the waiters are passing out to your tables now, and remember, as our greatest poet, the venerable Dante wrote:

If you’re just passing time,
Prosecco is your wine.

Thank you, thank you, and God bless!

Sometimes it almost doesn’t pay to read the press material that comes with wine, or the back label, for that matter. For example, the back labels of Layer Cake wines carry this little story:

My old grandfather made and enjoyed wine for 80 years. He told me the soil in which vines lived were a layer cake. He said the wine, if properly made, was like a great layer cake, fruit, mocha and chocolate, hints of spice and rich, always rich. “Never pass up a layer cake,” he would say. I have always loved those words.

Subject-verb agreement error aside, thank god the old duffer didn’t say, “My boy, wine is like a bowl of Count Chocula, rich, chocolatey, milky. Never pass up a bowl of Count Chocula.” The effect is pretty much the same. Gramps was prescient about one thing: The wines of Layer Cake — motto: “One Hundred Percent Pure” — are certainly “rich, always rich.” The problem is that wine, “if properly made,” has more going for it than richness, a necessity that seems to have eluded the producers of Layer Cake Shiraz 2008, South Australia. The Layer Cake label is owned by, as he is inevitably defined, “Napa based wine visionary Jayson Woodbridge.”

Layer Cake Shiraz 2008 is described on the press sheet as “a pure fruit bomb.” How embarrassingly ’90s, yet how true. The wine is very rich, plummy and jammy, a concoction, it feels like, of blackberry preserves infused with port and so laden with boysenberry that it could be mistaken for an over-ripe, warm-climate zinfandel. True to the “layer cake” concept, the wine is packed with mocha and chocolate and, after a few minutes, actually smells like chocolate cake with brandied black cherries decorated with candied lavender and violets. The finish brings in a whiff of Bazooka Bubble Gum, rhubarb and dried cranberry. The texture is, not surprisingly, dense, chewy and almost viscous; it’s the old velvet fist in the velvet glove technique. I know that this immoderately fruity, structureless fashion is popular in some quarters — Wine Enthusiast gave this wine’s ’07 version 90 points — but I found it undrinkable. About $15.

The “Winemaker’s Notes” for the Layer Cake Shiraz 2008 list as among the wine’s virtues, “No added acid, no American oak.” Actually, this is a wine that could use more acid structure to give it some backbone, but what’s interesting is the “no American oak” admonition. When did American oak become the Big Boogieman, especially in Australia, where the use of American oak, cheaper than French, is widespread? American oak, judiciously used, as with Ridge zinfandels, brings its own desirable qualities to the table.

Not to be too much of a jerk about this, but after tasting the over-the-top Layer Cake Shiraz 2008, I needed a more rational style of shiraz (remember, that’s the syrah grape), so I turned to the Robert Oatley Shiraz 2007, from Australia’s Mudgee region, 162 miles northwest of Sydney, in New South Wales. Oatley was the owner of the well-known Rosemount winery in Hunter Valley before selling in 2001 to Southcorp, which was taken over by Fosters in 2005.

With the Robert Oakley Shiraz 2007, one feels the structure as well as the fruit with every sip. Briery and brambly black currents, black cherries and plums are permeated by smoky potpourri and bitter chocolate — bitter chocolate being intense and austere, not sweet or enveloping — with touches of wild blueberry. The grounding in oak is definitely there, from 12 months in a combination of French and American barrels, but it’s neither toasty nor tinged with vanilla; the word we want is “rigor,” and that quality is provided not only by wood but by dry, slightly chewy tannins and vibrant acidity. In other words, the wine offers sensuous appeal but also the satisfaction of a balanced and essential structure. Excellent. About $20.

To be honest — that’s moi! — I did enjoy the Layer Cake Primitivo a.k.a. Zinfandel 2007, from Italy’s Puglia region. While its opening salvo is ripe, plummy, juicy and jammy, bursting with spice and toasty oak, and its blackberry, currant and blueberry flavors are lavishly washed with smoke, lavender and licorice, and you’re thinking, “Man, this is wearing me out,” the wine pulls up a strain of walnut shell, a foresty layer of briers and brambles, a hint of tarry minerals that lend some balancing restraint and a bit of austerity to the finish. Whew! Very Good+. About $15.

Layer Cake wines are imported by Vintage Point, Sonoma, Cal. Robert Oatley wines are imported by Oatley Wines, Petaluma, Cal.

Count Chocula is, of course, a registered trademark of General Mills.

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