Tablas Creek is in Vogue!

No, literally.  We're in Vogue Magazine, at least the online version Vogue Daily, in an Earth Day-themed article called The Green List.  Somewhat more affordable than the $100 repairative moisturizer from an organic farm in Vermont, the vacation in a sustainably-sourced villa in Vietnam, or the beautiful geode-and-responsibly-mined-diamond earrings is the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel, tied in a pretty cotton-fiber gift tag.


We don't much post press here on the blog (there's a page for that on our Web site: Tablas Creek In the News) but this was so much fun that I thought I should.  A gift to impress the eco-conscious hostess... how nice! Thank you to Peter Zitz from our most excellent New York distributor Michael Skurnik Wines for suggesting Tablas Creek to the editor, and for sending us the link.

Tablas Creek is a 2010 "Best Winery Blog" finalist!

WBA_Finalist_2010 I'm proud to announce that Tablas Creek has again been named a finalist for "Best Winery Blog" at the 2010 Wine Blog Awards.  These awards were created four years ago by the tireless Tom Wark (whose blog Fermentation is a daily must-read for anyone in the wine community) to recognize the growing importance of the blogging community on the world of wine and were this year handed over to the nonprofit OpenWine Consortium.  The awards (which in past years were called the American Wine Blog Awards) have been opened up to this year to any English-language blog in the world.

As in previous years, your votes will help determine the winners; in the final tally, 50% of the weighting comes from voting by the public, and 50% from the votes of the panel of eleven expert judges (whose names are typically revealed after the awards are announced) who culled all the nominations into the five finalists in each category.  So please vote!

The most interesting part of the process for me is always discovering the blogs I wasn't aware of.  The Best Winery Blog finalists include two other winery blogs I consider must-reads (4488: A Ridge Blog and Twisted Oak's El Bloggio Torcido and two that I didn't yet know (Bonny Doon's Been Doon So Long and Quevedo Port).  How did I not know that Randall Grahm was blogging? 

I am particularly proud that Tablas Creek is the only repeat finalist from the 2009 Best Winery Blog category.

You can browse the list of finalists, or if you know who you like, you can vote here.  Voting ends Sunday, May 30th.

Whither inexpensive, artisanal California wine?

In early March I was interviewed by Jordan Mackay for an article in the New York Times called "Local Versions of Europe's Everyday Wines".  In it, Jordan explored why so few California winemakers were attempting to make inexpensive but artisanal wines that can compete with the basic regional wines of France. This seems to be a topic of broader interest among wine writers; Jon Bonné wrote a similar article (“California’s Côtes du Rhone”) in the San Francisco Chronicle last year.  I caught up with Jon at this past weekend’s Rhone Rangers tasting, and our conversation wandered to this topic.  He suggested that smaller California wineries are only now focusing their attention on making wines in this $10 to $20 category, but that with the market hungry for these sorts of wines, the category will grow.  I think he's right, and that as long as winemakers can find older vineyards of less-fashionable varietals, we'll see growth. Still, there are structural issues with the economics of grape growing in California that will inhibit the production of these wines – even if the market rewards those that are produced.

We recently considered whether our own cost structure could support adding a vineyard that would either allow greater production of our Cotes de Tablas wines (our least expensive wines, around $25 retail) or produce grapes to sell at the going rate for top vineyards in our area.  This prospective vineyard was beautiful – 20 acres on a mountaintop near the summit of Peachy Canyon Road, five miles south-east of Tablas Creek – and it was clear to us that it will make a great vineyard.  But, as we did the math, we couldn't make it come out to break-even either in selling the grapes or in making more Cotes de Tablas. 

Here's how the math works, using Tablas Creek's costs and production from 2008 (a fairly average year for us).  Our 2008 vineyard expenses (between labor and benefits, depreciation, taxes, materials, fuel & maintenance, utilities, licenses and fees) were $612,313, and we harvested 262 tons of grapes off our 95 producing acres.  So, our cost of producing each ton was $2,337 and our yield 2.75 tons per acre.  Our cost of grape production, not counting interest on our land or improvements, was $6,427 per acre.

The owner of the 20-acre property was asking around $1 million for those 20 plantable acres.  A 30-year mortgage on $1 million at 5.75% would require about $70,000 in payments per year.  Planting costs in an irrigated, trellised vineyard are typically about $30,000 per acre.  Head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyards are notably less expensive (around $4,500 per acre) but yields are typically lower and the vineyard may take an extra year or two to come into production.  Assuming that we financed the planting costs, we'd add another $42,000 in finance payments each year ($6,300 if we chose to head-prune and dry farm).  Total financing costs of $112,000 per year, divided by 20 acres, comes to $5,600 per acre, though planting head-pruned, dry-farmed could reduce that to about $3,800 per acre.

So, our total costs (in financing and expenses) per acre per year would be something like $12,000 ($10,200 if we chose to dry farm). Could we expect to recoup our farming costs?  If we sold grapes, probably not. The top vineyards in our area charge between $3,000 and $4,500 per ton for grapes.  At our yields (2.75 tons per acre in 2008) we could expect between and $8,250 and $12,375 in grape revenue per year.  If instead we chose to dry-farm, we felt it was unreasonable to expect more than 2 tons per acre, so even at $4,500 per ton, we wouldn't cover our $10,200 annual farming cost.

Would the financial picture look better if we used the extra production to make more of our Cotes de Tablas?  Not really.  We'd typically sell the wine for $150/case into the wholesale market, allowing for the distributor's and the retailer's markup.  Our vineyard costs come to about $73/case ($4,363 cost per ton calculated at 60 cases per ton).  The crush and winemaking costs (based on our 2008 Cotes de Tablas) add another $44/case, and the bottling costs (bottles, labels, capsules and labor) $20/case.  That totals $137/case in cost of production, not counting costs of overhead or to sell the wine.

It's worth noting that the assumptions above are for a vineyard that is financed 100%. But any money that is paid up front rather than financed incurs opportunity costs roughly equivalent to financing costs. These opportunity costs represent the lost profits from not having invested this money elsewhere.

Our net decision was an easy one.  We didn't buy the additional property.

So, for what sort of proprietor would such a property make sense?  It would work for a producer who built a winery and tasting room and sold much or all of the production direct.  They would have to be willing to put $3 million or more into the project (between land, planting, vineyard improvement and winery), but the higher margins in direct sales make it a viable proposition after that.  Or a savvy investor in land might take a chance, given that the price of prime vineyard land here is almost certain to appreciate.  Someone who bought it and covered most of their annual costs through selling grapes could come out ahead given that in a dozen years it might sell for double what it's worth now.

In the calculations above, you can see how large a portion of the annual expenses the initial investments in land and planting represent.  And I think that these costs are the real reason why most wine reviewers think that Europe enjoys a competitive advantage in the $10-$20 price category.  There is so much old vineyard planted in all the traditional wine-producing countries that a winemaker can find inexpensive grapes from older vines on vineyards long since bought and paid for.

Will that ever be possible in California, where most vineyards have to be planted from scratch, on land that is often in demand for development and therefore more expensive?  We'll see some growth, I'm sure, as long a it's still possible to find overlooked older vineyards.  But the numbers above shed some light on why small California producers, working with similar economies of scale and similar restrictions on mechanization, tend not to aim their wines at the under-$20 portion of the market.

One from the Vaults: a September 1988 Wine Spectator article on Robert Haas

WS88_cover I was back in Vermont last week visiting my sister and my new nephew, and spent the night in my old room in the house I grew up in.  I was browsing through old papers late one night when I uncovered a 1988 issue of the Wine Spectator in which there was a wonderful six-page article by Mort Hochstein on my dad's career as an importer.  I hadn't read this article in years, and the Spectator's online archives don't go back that far.  The article was titled "Have Palate, Will Travel" and traces my dad's career in wine from its beginnings at his father's shop (M. Lehmann, in Manhattan) through his early travels to France in the 1950s, his eventual decision to found an importing business, and his move to Vermont in the early 1970s.


I've written about his career before, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, so I'm not going to enumerate his many impacts on how Americans drink, buy, and think about wine, but there were a few things that struck me about the article.

First was the affection with which his fellow importers and suppliers talk about him in the article.  One story I particularly liked was told by his friend, writer Alexis Bespaloff.  He recalled the end of a long day of prospecting in the Rhone:

"It was November 1963 and we'd been tasting in the Rhône.  We came back to our hotel after 10 one night.  The restaurant was closed and we were lucky to find a café where we could get a bowl of soup.  We returned to the hotel and went upstairs and Haas sat on his bed in a bare, cold, unheated room with just a single exposed light bulb overhead, dropped one shoe and said, 'You know, Alex, my friends in New York think I have a glamorous life.'"

Second was the degree to which he was already an institution in the 1980's.  The writer of the article, Mort Hochstein, pointed out

"Though widely known and respected in the trade in Europe and the United States, few American wine lovers have had any contact with him other than the perception that the phrase "Robert Haas Selection" on a bottle represents quality."

Now, 22 years later, my dad has added to his achievements as an importer and a distributor the foundation of Tablas Creek and the importation and distribution of high quality Rhone grapevine clones around the United States. He has also played an important role in the advancement of organic viticulture and the elevation of the Paso Robles region to the forefront of California wine. It is not a surprise that he was the first American elected president of the largely French Académie Internationale du Vin in 2000.

The last thing that struck me from reading the magazine was how young and unformed the California wine industry was at that time.  There is an article by Norm Roby promoting Kistler as the next "heavy hitter" in Chardonnay.  It's bizarre for me to think of Kistler as the new kid on the block.  Other wineries meriting mention whose building permits had newly been approved included Screaming Eagle and Sinskey. Terry Robards penned an opinion piece called "The Case for Red Zinfandel".  That the Wine Spectator needed to sound the alarm that "the majority of Zinfandel consumers do not even know there is such a thing as red Zinfandel" strikes me as being from another age.  And perhaps the greatest indication of the youth of the industry was the faces featured in the announcement for the 1988 California Wine Experience, which included a collection of American wine writing talent unlikely to be found in the same building today: Dan Berger, Anthony Dias Blue, Michael Broadbent, James Laube, Harvey Steiman, and, yes, Robert Parker.


For those interested, I scanned a PDF of the article which can be accessed here.

Tablas Creek on "A Long Pour: Fifty-Two Weeks with California Wine"

I have noticed a backlash recently among writers passionate about wine against what might be termed the tyranny of the tasting note.  In the view of these writers, the stilted language and the inherent subjectivity of the wine review is a distraction from the real business of telling a story about the people and the places which make up the world of wine.  [One great example, quoted in a recent piece on Steve Heimoff's blog, was of writer Rod Smith, who in response to a question about what he thought about the wines in a group wine tasting, replied "I don’t review wines. I write about them".]  And I understand this clearly: there is only so much writing you can do about flavors of berries, oak and minerals.  And this is without getting into the whole debate about scoring wine.

Whether in response to the fustiness of the traditional wine review, or just a greater interest in the how and the why of wine rather than the what, I've had the pleasure to speak to several writers recently who weren't particularly interested in writing about the wines of Tablas Creek, but about the soul.  One such writer is Wayne Kelterer, who a few months back started the blog "A Long Pour: Fifty-Two Weeks with California Wine".  On this blog, he profiles one winery each week.  The profiles are done on-site, incorporate his excellent photography, and include an in-depth interview with a principal or winemaker at each winery.  I think that the care that he takes on these pieces is evident in the results.


Tablas Creek is fortunate to be the profiled winery this week, and in the profile Wayne includes a transcript of what might be the longest, most in-depth interview I've ever had published.  If you're interested in not just where we are now, but how we got here and where we think we're going, then it's a must-read.

So, go read it: Tablas Creek: The Long Road to Success

Tasting the wines in the spring 2010 wine club shipment

Each spring and fall, we send out six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  With each shipment we include a little update from our wine club director, an order form, and, of course, production and tasting notes for the six wines in the club shipment.  As these wines are typically unreleased, most of them do not yet have a Web page, and for me it's often one of my first opportunities to taste these wines after bottling.  It's always exciting, and the rest of the staff typically joins me as we see, in effect, what's next.  I thought it would be fun to share what I found.


In the order in which we'll be pouring them at our March 6th club shipment tasting event:


  • Production notes: Grenache Blanc continues shine in California’s Central Coast. Most of our production goes into our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc each year, but in 2008 we reserved a small (565 case) lot for our wine club. It had a very long fermentation (in a mix of stainless steel and foudre) that didn’t finish until nearly a year after harvest. It was bottled in September 2009.
  • Tasting notes: A clean nose of mineral, green apple, grapefruit and pear, with flavors that begin bright with lemon and lime, then broaden in the mid-palate before re-tightening on the finish with a lingering character of green apple skin and wet rocks. Drink in the next two to three years.
  • Press: Tanzer's I.W.C. 89 points (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 565 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
  • Production notes: 2008’s relatively cool growing season produced wines of medium body, tremendous elegance, and expressive varietal character. The 2008 Roussanne was fermented 40% in oak (mostly old, neutral barrels), 20% in foudre, and 40% in stainless steel. The wine was blended in July and bottled in September 2009.
  • Tasting notes: An expressive nose of beeswax, lacquered wood, and white flowers, with a powerful spiciness emerging with air. The mouth is juicy yet still restrained, with flavors of peaches and cream. The finish is more mineral, very clean, with almond, pear, honey and chamomile notes. Enjoy now or over the next 4-6 years.
  • Press: Parker 90-92 (8/09); Tanzer's IWC 90 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 720 cases
  • List Price: $27 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
ROSÉ 2009
  • Production notes: The 2009 Rosé reflects the generally tiny crop in 2009, and the particular shortage of Mourvèdre.  We were worried that given the extreme concentration of the Mourvèdre, using as much as we typically do (60% in most vintages) would produce a wine too dark and structured.  So, we reduced the Mourvèdre to 46% and increased Grenache (39%) and Counoise (15%). We left the grapes on their skins for just under two days before drawing off the juice and completing the fermentation in stainless steel. The wine was bottled in January 2010.
  • Tasting notes: Cranberry in color, with an explosive nose of sour cherry, cranberry, Christmas spices and orange zest.  The mouth is incredibly juicy with flavors of maraschino cherry, sour strawberry and apple. Mouth-watering acidity on the long, dry finish cleans up the wine's richness. Drink now through the end of 2011.
  • Quantity Produced: 640 cases
  • List Price: $27.00 VINsider Price: $21.60
  • More at
  • Production notes: The 2007 Grenache, like the 2007 vintage, is big yet balanced, with powerful aromas and flavors, and should benefit from short-term cellaring. The wine was blended in June 2008, aged in foudre, and bottled in March 2009. 10% Syrah gives the wine firmness and a touch of mineral on the finish.
  • Tasting notes: A powerful nose of mint, boysenberry, and licorice. Vibrantly fruity on the palate with unusually dark tones for Grenache: black cherry, blueberry and black raspberry, followed by a long finish with some chalky tannins that cut the wine’s richness. We suggest you hold this wine for 1-2 years and drink for the next decade.
  • Press: Parker 92 (8/09), Wine Spectator 92 (12/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 750 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28
  • More at
SYRAH 2007
  • Production notes: The powerful 2007 vintage produced our most intense Syrah ever. Aged in a combination of 1200-gallon foudres and small new Dargaud & Jaegle 60-gallon pieces, we blend our Syrah for a balance of fruit, mineral, and spice, and add 10% Grenache for its signature acidity and openness. The wine was blended in August 2008, aged in a single foudre and bottled in March 2009.
  • Tasting notes: A deep, dark nose of ink, soy and iodine, with a little oak and black fruit sneaking through. The mouth shows mineral, blackberry, iron and spice, with beautiful tannins and length. This is a wine for the long term; hold for 3-5 years, and then drink for another fifteen.
  • Press: Parker 92 (8/09); Tanzer’s IWC 91 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 685 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28
  • More at
  • Production notes: The 2007 Panoplie is a wine of incredible lushness and power. As always, Panoplie is selected from lots in the cellar chosen for their balance, richness, and concentration. The components (60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, and 10% Syrah) were blended in July 2008 and aged in foudre before bottling in July of 2009.
  • Tasting notes: Dense purple-red in color. A dark, meaty nose with aromas of sweet earth, plums and nutmeg. Explosive in the mouth, with flavors of currant, plum, cocoa powder and red licorice, finishing drier and powerfully tannic. Hold, if possible, until 2015, and drink for two decades after that.
  • Press: Parker 96-98 (8/09); Tanzer's IWC 95 (11/09)
  • Quantity Produced: 540 cases
  • List Price: $95 VINsider Price: $76
  • More at

More details on the shipment are available online for anyone interested:  A few final thoughts are below. 

First, these 2007's are built for the long haul.  I wouldn't touch the Syrah for several years, and the Grenache seems to me to be likely to benefit from a year or two of aging.  Surprisingly, it was the Panoplie, of the three, that was the most giving right now.  That's one of the things that we love about Mourvedre: it has loads of chewy tannin and can be aged beautifully, but doesn't have the hardness when young that most similarly-structured varietals have.

Second, I'm really coming to love the elegance of the 2008's.  The 2008 whites show medium body, sparkling acidities, very pretty fruit flavors and spot-on varietal character.  I think that the wines are already showing beautifully, even with varieties like Roussanne that are typically structure-bound at this age.  I'm not sure I'd recommend laying these whites down (though their exquisite balance suggests they could be) but for drinking right now I'm not sure we've ever made a more appealing vintage.

Zester Daily and a new model for food and wine journalism

Earlier this fall, I was approached by Corie Brown to contribute an opinion piece to the new food and wine Web site Zester Daily.  Corie was an editor and the wine columnist at the Los Angeles Times before they eliminated her department in 2008, and in her capacity there I found that she brought a journalistic intensity to the wine stories that in other hands often become puff pieces.  I was sorry to hear that the Times had made the decision that it did, but it's just one more bit in a mountain of evidence that newspapers are in trouble.

Enter Zester Daily, which Corie co-founded and for which she serves as General Manager.  It's a cooperative site with 25 contributors from around the world of food and wine, including experts on cooking, gastronomy, health, wine, spirits, gardening and media, as well as writers focusing on the food traditions of different regions around the country.  Their home page is below:


The contributors are noted in their fields; their wine team consists of Patrick Comiskey (Wine & Spirits, L.A. Times, and many other publications), Jordan Mackay (San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Food & Wine, and many others) and Corie herself.  The articles are more serious in their conception and execution than is typical for food and wine blogs.  In fact, they're better thought of as articles than blogs as I learned when I submitted my piece on sustainability in the world of wine.  I thought the piece was a good one, but Zester Daily editor Robin Rauzi (also an ex-editor at the Los Angeles Times) turned the piece inside-out.  Nearly every sentence was changed, the piece was reordered and tightened, and the cumulative effect made a much clearer and more powerful article.  It was my first experience being professionally edited, and it was humbling.  I regained a small measure of pride by making some small additional changes, and adding a new paragraph that I thought was needed, and having her accept them as presented.  You can read the resulting article "The Dirt on Sustainability" at the Zester Daily site.

I think that the concept of Zester is an appealing one, and a possible model for food and wine journalism in an era where few newspapers can support full-time journalists.  They're not limiting themselves to strictly writing about cooking, or food --  they expect to address everything from politics to the environment through the prism of food and wine. 

But does it work?  It's a free site, supported by ad revenue rather than subscriptions, and from what I've read, non-search online advertising revenue is hard to come by.  I asked Robin whether it could replace the food and wine journalism jobs that are being lost around the country, and her response was interesting.  She pointed out that Salon began an online food section and The Atlantic launched the Atlantic Food Channel after Gourmet shut its doors, and that interest is growing, not contracting, around the topics of food and wine.  If a company can create a destination for these educated, affluent readers, it will be appealing to advertisers. 

Zester Daily is a site where the contributors share any revenues that the site produces.  So, it will succeed or fail on the collective talents of its creative team, and its ability to publicize and create excitement around these talents.  It probably won't replace the full-time jobs that so many print journalists have lost, but Robin points out that it wasn't designed to do so.  It was designed to allow talented writers to share their thoughts, their work, and their audience, and hopefully provide an outlet, and a little income, for writers who are working on other projects at the same time.

The bottom line: Zester's success in keeping its writers will be determined by its revenues, and its revenues will be determined by its readership.  I hope it works; it has the potential to be a unique and valuable contributor to the world of food and wine.  Please check it out, and I invite your comments here to share what you thought.

The Rhone Report and the appeal of wine criticism by varietal

Last week, Jeb Dunnuck published the second issue of The Rhone Report, which he describes as a newsletter "dedicated to the wines and grapes of the Rhone Valley".  Issue #2 is a tremendous undertaking, with 72 pages of articles, reviews, and tasting notes.  The bulk of the issue is devoted to California's Rhone Rangers (like Tablas Creek) in which he writes up notes from 88 producers.  In his first issue earlier this year, he tackled current releases from the Southern Rhone.

Amazingly, this remarkable report is (so far) free.  Even more amazingly, it's not done by a wine professional; while Jeb has worked in one of Colorado's top wine shops in the past, he's a software engineer by trade and has produced The Rhone Report in his spare time.

The time when a single reviewer could cover all the world's important wines is finished; the world of wine is so diverse, and growing so fast, that even the world's most respected (and branded) wine reviewers have taken on assistants to help share the load.  Robert Parker now only personally reviews wines from California, Bordeaux and the Rhone for The Wine Advocate, and has added five reviewers who cover the rest of the world.  At Tablas Creek, we last saw Steve Tanzer himself in 2006; we have seen his assistant Josh Raynolds -- a remarkable taster in his own right -- the past three years, and Tanzer has recently added a third expert to the International Wine Cellar.    Magazines like the Wine Spectator (ten, divided by region and varietal) and the Wine Enthusiast (six, divided by region) have long had a stable of reviewers to handle the incredible diversity of the world of wine.  The Spectator, at this point, has three reviewers just to handle the submissions of California wines!

I think it's inevitable that having multiple reviewers housed under the same roof will lead to inconsistencies.  One reviewer's 92-point wine will be another reviewer's 85-point wine, as each reviewer naturally has a style of wine they find most compelling.  And panel tastings are not the answer, as exceptional wines are not typically wines that appeal to every palate.

The advantages of a single reviewer who covers wines from the entire world are obvious: that a consumer can calibrate his or her preferences with those of the reviewer, and then follow that reviewer on his or her journeys through different regions and different grapes.  But given the impossibility in this day and age of one reviewer covering the entire world of wine, it's worth considering what the best way is to break up the wine world into manageable portions while minimizing inconsistency.

Enter the world of varietal-specific wine criticism.  There are now several wine reviewers who publish reports focused on one region, or on one family of grape varieties.  Probably the best known, and most successful, of these reviewers is Alan Meadows of Burghound, who has published his report dedicated to the wines of Burgundy (and their expatriate cousins) since 2001.  His expertise in the notoriously complex world of Burgundy has developed to the point that I recently had an industry veteran tell me that his reviews move the Burgundy market more than those of Parker, Tanzer or the Spectator.  Antonio Galloni made a similar name for himself with the Piedmont Report (now a part of starting in 2004 before being hired by Robert Parker in 2006 to cover Italy for the Wine Advocate.  In both cases, the reviewers were non-professionals who turned a passion for wines from a particular region into a second career.  These regions also had the advantage of both being under-served, at the time, by the most important reviewers of the day. 

It seems to me that a reviewer who focuses on wines from a family of grapes comes closer to the experience that wine consumers have than one who focuses exclusively on region.  [Of course, it's worth acknowledging that for many European regions, place and varietal are inseparable.]  Someone might more reasonably expect the same standards be applied to a Syrah from California as to a Syrah from Hermitage.  Or a Roussanne from Washington as a Roussanne from Chateauneuf du Pape.  And I think that consumers tend to think that way.  A lover of Syrah is likely familiar with the wines from both regions.  I've always found it a shortcoming that the reviewers of Tablas Creek's wines from the Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast are not responsible for reviewing (and may not have much familiarity with) Beaucastel.

Varietal-specific reviewing makes sense if the shared character of the same grape grown in different areas is more salient than that of different grapes grown in the same area.  And I think that it does.  Comparing a Cabernet from Paso Robles and a Viognier from Paso Robles using the same criteria may not be like comparing apples and oranges, but it does at least seem to be on that continuum.  A Grenache can of course receive reflections from the place in which it is grown, or the winemaker who grows it, but it is still a Grenache.  And a reviewer who chooses to specialize in a particular family of grapes can safely be assumed to be an enthusiast for that grape (after all, who would want to spend a significant time tasting, say, Chenin Blanc if they can't stand the grape?).  So, you're freed from the possible conflict of a reviewer disliking a wine because of the inherent character of the varietal.

Will The Rhone Report take its place alongside Burghound and the Piedmont Report?  I'm not sure.  It seems unlikely, for instance, that anyone is going to make a living writing the "Bordeaux Blotter" when Robert Parker has been the acknowledged expert on Bordeaux for three decades.  And Parker has been largely responsible for the elevation of the Rhone Valley (and, more recently, the Rhone Ranger movement in California) to the forefront of the world of fine wine.  So, there isn't really a void that Jeb is filling.  Parker, in his August 2009 report on the Rhone Rangers, himself reviewed 488 wines from 117 producers.  But Jeb's contributions are still a welcome addition to the world of Rhone wines, and I hope that he continues.

Even if, in the long run, his success means that the Rhone Report won't remain free.  But while it is, go check it out.

Tablas Creek on Native Food and Wine

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Kevin Lynch and Amber Share of Native Food and Wine, a relatively new Web blog dedicated to food and wines of place.  Kevin and Amber describe their site as a place where they "examine how local and regional ingredients define a place and how people around the world respond, sustain and enjoy themselves in their respective environments".


The site is beautiful, with gorgeous photography and detailed articles on topics as diverse as Cultiva Coffee, the Santa Monica Farmer's Market, tamales, and about wine grapes.  They don't try to post daily, but their more-or-less weekly articles tackle topics in greater depth than a typical blog, and are researched and supported with rigor more typical of old-media newsletters (think an Art of Eating article that comes every week or so, for free).

They recently posted the article California's Rhone on their Tablas Creek visit.  In addition to a detailed foray into the history of the idea of terroir, a thoughtful comparison of California and France, and a dozen gorgeous photographs, they posted the below video that is assembled from our conversations.  But don't just watch this here... go read the article, and subscribe to their RSS feed.

A Response to Michael Pollan: It's Cool in the Kitchen Now

This past Sunday, Michael Pollan contributed a fascinating article to the New York Times Magazine called "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch" in which he tied together the rise of cooking shows on television and decline of cooking as an everyday part of life.  The basic facts on which he bases his conclusions are that the amount of time that Americans spend in food preparation has dropped about 40% in the last four decades, and that the number of takeout meals has nearly doubled in the last 25 years, while television shows about cooking and eating have proliferated enormously, particularly since the foundation of the Food Network in 1993.

Pollan regards this as (yet another) sign that we are losing the battle with the food processing industry and builds a case that this loss of cooking skill can has contributed to all manner of unhealthy behavior by encouraging unhealthy eating, overconsumption of high-fat dishes, loss of family cohesion and the family meal, and the triumph of the food processing business.

What he does not address in this article is the promising trends that are developing simultaneously, in many cases in response to the same stimuli that he proposes.  I would submit that you can make a different argument that casts the changes in America's relationship with food and cooking over the last half-century (well, three decades; I agree with him that much was lost and not much gained in the 50's and 60's) in a much more positive light.

Note that while I disagree with many of the contentions of this article, I tend to agree wholeheartedly with his aims.  I thought that his open letter to the next "Farmer in Chief" from last October was one of the most compelling arguments I've ever read for a comprehensive revision of America's food policy.  But in this Sunday's article, I think he wandered off course.

For all human history, until fifty or so years ago, every family had to process its raw foodstuffs before they would be edible, unless they had the means to hire or compel someone else to do so.  But just because cooking was time-consuming did not inherently make it valuable or valued.  In my parents' generation -- though thankfully my parents were exceptions, both excellent cooks, and my mom, particularly, an avid cook and gardener who loved to share her own love of food -- cooking was generally considered drudge work.  (I'm thinking of the 1960's and 1970's, which Pollan offers as a contrast to today.)  Yes, most households had someone, usually a woman, who cooked every day, but American culture showed comparatively little excitement about food.  Lots of my friends grew up in families where they ate the traditional "a meat, a potato, and a vegetable" for each dinner, but the menu was relatively unvaried and preparation never done as a family.  Now, at least in the experience of my circle of friends, cooking, even if done less than every night, is celebrated... often undertaken together as a couple or with and for friends, and the range of foods that are prepared is exponentially greater than a generation ago.  Perhaps having been freed from having to cook every night has reinvigorated (many) Americans' joy of cooking.

Another positive trend is the rise of farmer's markets.  There are now, according to the USDA, nearly 4900 farmer's markets in the United States, up 71% from the year 2000.  The customers who patronize these markets are not doing so because they are more convenient or less expensive than their local supermarkets; farmer's markets have become both a social opportunity for community members and a chance to support local, particularly organic, agriculture.  This support helps shape the new food system for which Pollan is the country's most eloquent spokesperson, and would be impossible without the community of food-lovers in whose ranks I have found cooking shows' most avid audience.

In large part due to the increased societal focus on eating locally-grown produce, our supermarkets have made real strides toward bringing in more food that is locally produced and more appealing options.  When I was growing up, supermarkets had two types of apples: green and red.  The greens were probably Granny Smith, and the reds perhaps Macintosh, but in general you didn't know.  Now, in the fall, our local Albertson's has a dozen different varieties of apples, and publicizes where each was grown.  Same thing with tomatoes.  The idea that a supermarket should have heirloom tomatoes in addition to the pale red ones with the texture (and taste) of styrofoam is a relatively new, and promising, development.  Plus, I've noticed that just in the last year, both our major national supermarket chains (Albertson's and VONS) have started putting little "local" tags up next to produce that is grown within a few hours of here.  It's entirely possible that this produce that was grown in the Salinas Valley was shipped to Boise (where Albertson's is headquartered) and back, eliminating the environmental and freshness benefits of eating locally and making the note purely marketing, but that they feel it is important to put it up at all is to my mind a positive development.

Cooking (and food) is much more multicultural than it has ever been before.  It is striking how quickly this change has happened.  I have a book of recipes that my mom produced for me when I first moved into my own apartment.  It contained a few dozen family favorites, including some recipes from Craig Claiborne's wonderful The Chinese Cookbook (published in 1976).  In these recipes, ingredients like ginger, soy sauce, and bamboo shoots are marked with an asterisk that notes that they are "available in Chinese markets and by mail order".  That these relatively commonplace items would be so rare as to require a footnote underlines how much more diverse American food is than it was just one generation ago.  Paso Robles, a town of 30,000 people with little non-Hispanic ethnic population, has four Japanese restaurants, a Thai restaurant and three Chinese restaurants.  We had an Indian restaurant until it closed a few years ago.  These restaurants are patronized by local residents.  The increased accessibility of food from an ever-wider collection of non-native cultures has dramatically changed American tastes.  No home chef could be expected to learn food preparations from dozens of different cultures in order to be able to enjoy the culture's food.  I'm not convinced this is a negative.

There is a greater focus than ever on food quality, at least at the high end.  Zagat's, Michelin, and a host of newer online services provide increased information on restaurants' quality, and patrons of these restaurants have very high standards.  It's only logical that as consumers develop higher standards, they will begin to apply these home standards to their home dining.  Pollan acknowledges that American culture has begun to celebrate food, but he calls this phenomenon the "fetishization" of food and lays much of the blame at the feet of unrealistic food preparation dramas like Iron Chef.  I don't see it as pernicious.  First, I don't see the rise of the foodie culture as a result of television cooking shows, but rather the interest in cooking shows as a natural outgrowth of our increased interest in and knowledge about food, combined with a peculiarly American fascination with competition.  And, even if they can somehow be correlated, I don't think that it's possible to convincingly argue a causal link between increased watching of cooking shows and the decline of cooking.

Pollan mentions in passing gender roles in food preparation (mostly with respect to the differences in average food preparation time between families with two working parents and those with a stay-at-home mom) but does not address the positive aspects of the changes in cooking's gender roles over the last few decades.  In my circle of friends, it's as likely that the husband/boyfriend will be the primary cook as the wife/girlfriend.  The ability to cook is seen as a point of pride for men.  The relative leveling of societal expectations about gender and food preparation ability has opened up another half of the population to the skills and wonders of cooking.  Even if these men don't choose to cook every day, their added enthusiasm for and understanding of what it takes to make good food has played an important role in elevating cooking from chore to shared pleasure.

How does this tie into wine?  Wine is a beverage that is generally enjoyed with food and with other people... and generally not with fast food or on-the-go.  Cultures that drink wine tend to be healthier and live longer than those who drink beer or liquor.  And, over the period that Pollan discusses, wine has become a much more integral part of the American lifestyle.  Since 1960, American wine consumption has increased from 163 million gallons per year (less than one gallon per person) to 753 million gallons per year (about 2.5 gallons per person).  And consumption in the United States is continuing to grow, projected to rise 20% in the next five years, which will make us the largest consuming nation of wine in the world.  At the same time, beer sales have stagnated or declined slightly in recent years.  I wrote a blog post last fall on American wine consumption and production trends in which I asserted that consumption trends all pointed to wine becoming a greater and greater part of American culture.  I think that these trends are being reinforced by the proliferation of wineries all over the country and the increased proximity that most of the American populace has to wine-producing regions.  Increased wine consumption should continue to play a role in the promotion of a healthy relationship with food and eating.

I am not arguing that all the developments are positive.  I think that it is incontrovertible that there are portions of the American populace, particularly at the lowest income levels, who are very poorly served by the current food distribution system.  The ubiquity of fast food has negative consequences for our waistlines and our food system.  It is a travesty that in many inner-city neighborhoods, supermarkets will not open, leaving residents with only convenience stores and fast food outlets for their daily food.  And the shift of the American population from essentially rural to essentially urban and suburban in the last hundred years has dramatically cut people's understanding of where food comes from and how it is grown.

I'm also not sure the extent to which the changes that I see have pentrated outside of my own demographic (essentially college-educated, liberal, generation X and Y).  I'm sure that it also varies by ethnic group and income level.  But, whether they have migrated throughout the culture yet or not (I suspect not) movements have to start somewhere.

In conclusion, I feel that Pollan paints only half a picture.  If we're cooking less often (but enjoying it more), eating more diverse foods (some of which we'll eventually attempt to make) and focusing increasingly on from where our food comes and how it has been processed (whether we're cooking it or not) we are contributing to a better agricultural system and more diverse and interesting society.  This society will be, if it is not already, more aware of the links between food and health, and of the impacts of our food policies on our food systems.  And if cooking is becoming cool and chefs are becoming celebrities at the same time?  Every movement needs its mascots.