Live! From Houston! It’s a road warrior

 

On the road again, this time in Houston, a town I have family roots in but can’t claim to know at all. They have a beautiful skyline but apparently the collapse in oil prices has hit it hard. I’m staying at The Houstonian, which I’m told used to be George H.W. Bush’s estate, and I must say, the grounds are pretty fancy and my room is great. The temperature on arrival was 103 with 70% humidity; I’m glad I don’t have to do manual labor out there! I was tired after a long day; those seats on United seem to get more cramped with every flight. Fortunately I was sitting next to a cool dude, a young Louisianan who had flown to San Francisco for the Marathon, so we were able to chat about running, which I don’t really do much anymore but in my heyday, wow, I was pretty good, my best performance ever having been coming in fourth in Bridge to Bridge in my age group (40s), which if you know that race is nothing to sneeze at.

My host here is young Zach White, a regional sales manager for Jackson Family Wines. I love meeting these young road warriors. This life of selling wine isn’t for everyone, but the ones who have chosen it are really into it. I’m a big fan of Alexander the Great, the way he inspired his troops to march with him halfway around the world, through deserts and inhospitable mountains, always meeting hostile tribes whom they had to fight. Why did those men follow Alexander to the ends of the earth? Because he inspired them, gave them something to believe in—not just gold and treasure, but the spirit of achievement. It’s the same with these sales guys. The work is hard, brutal; endless driving, schmoozing. Zach was telling me some of the stories about how he won certain accounts through sheer persistence. He did things when many others would have given up. I can relate to that: I got my first wine writing job, at Wine Spectator, the same way. I refused to accept “no” for an answer. I banged at their door every day until, finally, they said yes. That’s why I’m a big believer in the American Dream. You can pretty much accomplish anything you want—but it won’t be handed to you on a silver platter. You have to work your guts out to get it.

Anyhow, from Houston it’s on to Fort Worth and Austin. Like I said, I have deep roots in Texas, on my mother’s side, so it’s a delight to be down here. I was telling Zach how, when my Texas and Oklahoma uncles used to visit us in New York, their drink of choice was “bourbon and branchwater.” Zach is big on bourbon but had never heard the term “branchwater.” I didn’t know what it meant either, so we Googled it. “Branchwater” is simply “still” water as opposed to seltzer. I don’t know why my uncles called it “branchwater” and not just “water,” but I love that, it’s so poetic. I’m sure there’s a story somewhere but I like to think it has to do with the South’s love of romance and evocative language. Doesn’t “branchwater” sound ever so much more romantic than “water”?

So it’s off to bed in my hotel room, with a half bottle of Veuve Cliquot and some charcuterie and crab cakes from the restaurant. All is good. I hope your night and day are pleasant.

On the road in “everybody’s favorite city,” San Francisco

 

Spent a delightful and as always an educational day yesterday accompanying some of our Sales people to a couple San Francisco restaurants. I always look forward to these trips, because they are sheer adventure. You never know what you’re going to get.

We went first to a small eastern Mediterranean place in the Mission District, Tawla, which has been getting huge press lately. It’s on Valencia at Duboce, a neighborhood that’s been undergoing a lot of pressure lately due to gentrification. But you know what? I was hanging out there 35 years ago, and it hasn’t changed that much! Still gritty, with (let us say) an interesting local street population. The somm was a guy who’s worked at a lot of Michelin restaurants but, he explained, wanted something smaller, where he could have a more creative, curated wine list.

Then it was on to Perbacco, a great place I’ve always enjoyed. We had lunch there (amazing pasta) with the somm from Flatiron, the new wine shop in the Palace Hotel. Then onto Scoma’s.

Now, if you don’t know Scoma’s, it’s one of the mainstays of Fisherman’s Wharf. As I told the wine guy, who’s been there for 20 years, he’s probably served several generations of my family over the decades.

Each of these places and people was totally different. But each is part of the mosaic that makes up San Francisco. Although I’ve lived in Oakland for close to 30 years, I lived in San Francisco for a decade prior to that, and I still love going there. It’s only 3 subway stops away from my place, so it’s easy; driving and parking in S.F. is a total nightmare. Everybody gripes about housing prices in the City, but when I moved there, in 1979, everybody was griping then about the same thing! As I suppose they were in the 1940s. So the more things change… I think San Francisco is fundamentally unalterable, and I mean that in a good way. You can bend it, stretch it, but you can’t break it. It’s the old Barbary Coast: a little bit nice, a little bit naughty, and heart-achingly beautiful.

You know, some people have asked me if it’s not odd for me to have gone from being a wine critic to working for a wine company. My answer is always the same: not at all. I’ve always been a bit of an iconoclast (if that’s not already obvious) and I still am. I didn’t fit into a neat, tidy little package as a wine critic, and I don’t fit into a neat, tidy package working for Jackson Family Wines. The most important thing to me, in the intellectual sense, is honesty. I don’t lie well, I don’t spin well, it’s hard for me to hide my feelings (as my Facebook friends and Twitter followers no doubt are aware). When I meet people at restaurants and wine stores on these sales trips, I act exactly the same as I would at a cocktail party: put on a smile, try to engage, find things in common to talk about. If the people want to talk about the wines, I’m down with that, and the Jackson sales people I’m with often know more about the technical details than I do; together, we can answer any question (almost).

But from these trips I’ve learned something I really didn’t understand when I was a wine critic, and that’s the value of relationships. Wine critics don’t need to establish relationships in the industry. They can, of course (and we all do), but the essence of being a wine critic is that you’re a loner. I was a bit of a loner as a critic. You have to be; you have to keep your emotional distance from people whose wines you might have to trash. In sales, it’s different, and I truly enjoy making these connections. People are fabulous treasure troves to dig through, to discover who they are, where they’re coming from, what makes them smile. Which makes me look forward to next week, when I’ll be in Texas, from which I hope to be able to blog every day.

From the road: Portland Oregon

 

Up here in Portland, Oregon, a town I haven’t really spent much time in, and I must, what a cool place. Of course it helps that the weather has been so beautiful—much better than in Northern California, where the past week has been dismal and cold. The neighborhood they call the Pearl District reminds me of parts of Baltimore, where I was two weeks ago, and also the area of San Francisco around the Barbary Coast: old brick buildings (fortunately seismically retrofitted!) that have been rehabbed and loved back to their exciting historical roots, making them great places to live and work. We had dinner at Paragon Restaurant & Bar, in the heart of the Pearl. With the warm night, the ‘hood was swarming with life, and I swear, there were ten bars and cafés on every block. Portland clearly is a town that loves to eat and drink! Young, too. But, as I discovered from talking with some locals, they are experiencing the same difficulties with rising housing prices as is happening up and down the Pacific Coast, from Vancouver to La Jolla, although rents and home prices aren’t anywhere near what they are in San Francisco and, increasingly, Oakland.

Anyhow, I could live up here! The Pearl is exactly the kind of neighborhood I’ve always lived in: inner city-urban, densely packed, with old buildings and lots of stuff going on.

* * *

Why do some people call “Parkerization” a dirty word?

They do, you know, as a symbol for wines that are overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated.” With Parker’s recent retirement from reviewing Bordeaux, the topic of Parkerization has re-arisen. For instance, in this reporting by Yahoo, they refer to his “his preference for predominantly wood flavours, strong tannins and high alcohol content.” Well, naturally, nobody wants wines that are over-anything, whether it’s oak, alcohol, blown, manipulated or priced; and certainly there are plenty of those kinds of wines. But let it not be forgotten that there’s a Good Twin to the Evil Twin of Parkerization: too many wines pre-Parker were thin and boring and, quite frankly, not well made. Parker dragged sometimes reluctant wineries into modern times, forcing them to clean up their acts and actually get the grapes to ripen correctly so that they tasted good. He doesn’t get enough praise for that—people fasten on the excesses and thus end up throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

* * *

Well, tomorrow (Tuesday, today as you read this) it’s off on a whirlwind visit to Seattle that will be over so fast, I won’t even have time to see my family up there. The temperature is supposed to be in the mid-80s, which I personally love, but really, seems pretty hot considering we’re halfway to the Aleutians. They tell me the Pacific Northwest has been very rainy lately, but also very warm: Global warming, I should think. Then, after Seattle, it’s another whirlwind trip to L.A. and back home—and to Gus—on Friday. I’ll try to blog everyday this week but with this schedule, don’t blame me if my posts seem a little slapdash—like this one.

Are Millennials killing CA wine? NY Post says for sure

 

The New York Post long has been famous for its outrageous headlines: “Obama Beats Weiner,” “A-Hole” (about A-Rod’s steroid scandal), “Cloak and Shag Her “ (the Gen. Petraeus love affair). Now they have this tasty little tag, “Millennials are ruining the American wine industry,” and if you don’t feel compelled to read the actual article, you’re not a real wino!

After all, Millennials have been perceived to be the holy grail of the wine industry for years. Every winery wants a piece of the Millennial action; nobody cares about Boomers anymore—we practically have one foot in the grave–it’s all about the generation born between the early 1980s to about 2001, who within ten years will be “the largest fine wine consumer demographic in the U.S.”

So why are they suddenly villains?

Because “We’re training Millennials to drink foreign wine,” explains Rob McMillan, one of the best-known wine economic forecasters in California. The “We,” in this case, seems to be the collective industry, including media and Internet-based retailers, who apparently have convinced 30-somethings that wines from abroad are better buys than domestic wines. “[H]ow do we brand American wines?” McMillan asks. “We have to be able to say something more than price.”

What would that “more” be, besides an ineffective appeal to patriotism? Not clear. McMillan’s full report, the Silicon Valley Bank State of the Wine Industry 2016, details the major factors impacting Millennials’ economic and cultural outlook: “the digital world,” of course; “the Great Recession,” and a generally bleak outlook concerning their future prospects. Millennials do “not have the same financial environment to push [wine] spending compared to the baby boomer and Gen X cohorts.” They are “more value conscious [and] greener than Baby Boomers,” facing “significant headwinds” in their ability to spend money. They also, unfortunately from a winery point of view, “are inclined to substitute craft beer and spirits for wine.” Nonetheless, and despite this dreary prospect, McMillan writes, Millennials “are the future fine wine consumers.”

So what’s a wine marketer to do?

Well, the report doesn’t come right out and make “do this” reccos. But reading between the lines, there are some things wineries can to do take advantage of certain Millennial trends. One is to experiment with “blends” rather than varietals, and this is a trend I think is here to stay. Another is to be very cognizant of label design; Millennials “select a wine based on its label…they look for personality and originality.” The report also cites a study suggesting that Millennials “prefer fruity or semi-sweet wines,” which no doubt explains the success of something like Meiomi; but the report also acknowledges that, as they mature, Millennials, like their baby boomer predecessors, are likely to “migrate to wine that [is] more complex” and, presumably, drier. And, of course, Millennials also are prime targets for direct-to-consumer sales, which have been sharply up over traditional retail outlets this past year.

All that aside, don’t look to the Silicon Valley report for a set list on how to increase sales to Millennials. No such list exists, nor can it. Every winery has to figure it out alone. The report ends on an up note: “we are quite confident the industry will find creative ways to overcome and succeed”; but this rah-rah will be of little relief to wineries struggling to figure out how to sell wine to the elusive, fickle, always unpredictable Millennial. And don’t blame the Millennials. They’re just doing their thing, as do we all.