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 eRobertParker.com) 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.

Robert Haas is 2009 California Mid-State Fair Wine Industry Person of the Year

Robert_Haas_Vineyard On Thursday night, my father was awarded 2009 Wine Industry Person of the Year by the California Mid-State Fair.  It was a really nice presentation, with my dad's introduction given by Steve Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines.  He was previously committed to a dinner in Vermont, so I accepted the award in his place.  There was good symmetry, as the son of last year's recipient (Jerry Lohr) presented the award to the son of this year's recipient.

In his generous introduction, Steve Lohr spoke about my dad's career, which has spanned more than 50 years in the wine business as a retailer, an importer, a wholesaler, and now, with Tablas Creek, as a vintner.  He has had tremendous impact on how Americans buy, drink, and think about wine, and has had an even greater impact on Paso Robles and the rest of the Central Coast.  I wrote about his varied career (which I still think is under-appreciated) on the occasion of his eightieth birthday a few years ago, so I won't repeat that here, but I do want to reflect a little on his impact on the local community.

  • At the time when he and the Perrins together decided to buy property in Paso Robles, it was on no one's list of up-and-coming California wine regions.  Monterey, Santa Barbara, the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino, even Lodi were thought of as more compelling regions to explore.  Now, Paso is the third-largest (after Napa and Sonoma) and fastest-growing wine region in California, and has more wineries than all of Santa Barbara County.  I don't think it's possible to overstate the importance for the Paso Robles area of the decision that my dad and the Perrins made to choose Paso Robles for their project after looking all over California.
  • In 1989, no Paso Robles winery was producing any Rhone variety, and the total footprint of Rhone varieties in the AVA was just a couple of acres of Syrah.  Now, nearly 90% of Paso Robles wineries produce at least one wine from Rhone varieties, and the Paso Robles AVA is the largest home in California to nearly every major Rhone variety (including Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc).
  • The decision to import new cuttings of Rhone varieties, and to then make these cuttings available for sale to other producers, changed the face of the Rhone Rangers movement in California.  There were only six Rhone grape varieties in California (Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Cinsaut, Viognier and Marsanne) and Mourvedre, Grenache and Cinsaut had mediocre reputations due to the inferior clones that were here.  The decision that he and the Perrins made to accept a five-year delay in their planting to bring vines in through a USDA-mandated quarantine and then, even more importantly, to make these clones available to other interested vineyards, gave the Rhone Ranger movement a critical boost at a time when its membership included only a few early pioneers.  We believed that getting these clones in more widespread circulation would help us (in classic "rising tide lifts all the boats" manner).  The fact that this prediction has turned out to be true should not obscure how extraordinary and generous this decision was.
  • When we decided in 1989 that we would follow the lead of the Beaucastel estate and farm our vineyard organically, there were only a handful of vineyards being farmed organically in California (Paul Dolan's experiments with organic viticulture at Fetzer had just begun in 1986).  None of these organic vineyards were in Paso Robles, and the consensus of the major American viticultural universities was that farming grapes organically was pointless and difficult.  Yet we were convinced that organic viticulture was an essential element of our effort to express the place in which our grapes were grown.  The movement toward organic (and even biodynamic)viticulture is now widespread among the best vineyards of California.
  • Similarly, we decided that we would ferment with native yeasts, use a minimum of new oak and age our red wines in 1200-gallon foudres.  Using native yeasts was unusual (enology professors tended to call it "Russian roulette"), new oak was in fashion, and foudres were unheard of in California.  We had to import ours on container ships from France.  Now, all three practices have gained dramatically in popularity, as California winemakers have come around to the Old World goal of elevating the expression of terroir to paramount importance.

In addition to these far-seeing decisions that he helped make at the beginning of the Tablas Creek project, he has made a point of working to unify and promote the Paso Robles wine growing region.  At the time when the PRVGA (Paso Robles Vintners & Growers Association) was weak in the early years of this decade, he resisted calls to split off and form an association of westside-only wineries, and instead made sure that Tablas Creek participated (and continues to participate) fully in the region's local and national promotional efforts.  When a Paso Robles Westside AVA petition was introduced, he recognized it as a mistake and began rallying opposition to put together a more comprehensive proposal of AVA's for the Paso Robles region.  He serves on the board of the Paso Robles AVA committee, and has consistently been willing to donate his own time and resources in the push to have our viticultural designations be meaningful and scientifically-based.

In addition, he has been very active in the local community, involving Tablas Creek as major sponsors of the arts, including Festival Mozaic, the Paderewski Festival, and the Foundation for the Performing Arts Center.  He serves on the board of this last organization, and patrons of the PAC will enjoy some major changes this year (including wines from some of the region's best wineries at the performances) as a part of the $50,000 in new support he coordinated from the Paso Robles wine community.

There is something fitting about the fact that my dad was not there to receive his award.  By the time we learned of the award, he had already committed to a dinner at Hemingway's Restaurant in Killington, Vermont, and so asked me to accept the award in his stead.  It seems appropriate that, at age 82, my dad would have a work commitment that would keep him from receiving a lifetime achievement award.  His acceptance speech, which I delivered for him, is below:

I am honored and pleased to accept this award voted by fellow members of the Paso Robles wine community. Thank you.

And what a great and growing wine community this is! I feel privileged to live and work in this mixed agricultural setting with its rural atmosphere with its fine California weather, earthquakes and all.

I am often asked if our venture at Tablas Creek in partnership with our good friends, the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel, is the realization of a dream. Actually, it was more of an itch than a dream. For many years while selecting and marketing other peoples’ wine I had been tempted by the idea of owning vineyard and making wine.

However, it took until 1985 and our and the Perrins’ confidence in California, its climates and soils, and the inspiration of Roederer’s vineyard and winery investment in Mendocino, for me to scratch that itch and say to myself. “We can do that.”

We then started to look for a California property that would be suitable for growing Rhône variety grapes. After spending several years stalking the state looking for high pH soils with a Mediterranean climate we ended up in 1990 with 120 acres of pasture in Adelaida and a long term lease for another 30 acres from our neighbor Alan Ramage. Needless to say to those of you who know the area, we did end up with calcareous clay soils with a vengeance. We had to rip before we could plant.

We then brought in cuttings from France, went through the USDA indexing program, started a nursery to multiply and graft, and began to get some grafted vines in the ground in 1996. We now have about 100 acres planted with another 15 to go.

Of course, the Paso Robles wine community grew along with us. When we got here there were some 17 wineries producing. Now, there are over 200. Thanks to a spirit of community cooperation and endeavor, great soils and climate and excellent work by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, Paso Robles has become one of the prime AVAs of California.

What a great place to be! Thank you again.

Anchoring Bias (AKA Follow the Leader) in Community Tasting Notes

As more wineries focus marketing attention on new media such as blogs, social networking sites, and online bulletin boards I've begun to see some suggestions that the age of the all-powerful wine critic is ending.  I have my doubts as to that (of course, I also have doubts that the wine critic was ever all-powerful in the first place) but if a critic is going to be made obsolete, it is not by bloggers, or by bulletin boards, or by people posting wine tasting notes on Twitter.  It will be community tasting notes sites like CellarTracker.  With nearly 1,000,000 free wine reviews written by its users, CellarTracker is already a must-read for wine lovers and for wineries.  I check the listing of Tablas Creek reviews daily to see what people are saying, and to try to catch any trends that come up.  It's also a great tool to investigate what people are drinking on particular days (as I wrote about last Thanksgiving).

I've also been impressed with the degree to which CellarTracker has started to move from self-proclaimed wine geeks into the mainstream.  It boasts over 80,000 active users who have used its cellar management software to log over 13,000,000 bottles into the site.  I recently spent two days in Orange County, during which I hosted a tasting at the Wine Lab and a wine dinner at Sage on the Coast (read a nice writeup on the blog Mad Mary's Musings on Wine & Food).  At both events, I had attendees talk to me enthusiastically about their experiences on CellarTracker.  If you want independent confirmation, CellarTracker was recently judged the most valuable wine-specific social network in a comprehensive report published by the wine marketing company Vintank.

One of the selling points of community tasting notes sites is their integrity.  With so many users, the chance to purposefully influence scores is nearly nonexistent, and by summarizing reviews across different palates any individual taster's quirks are averaged out.  At least, that's the theory.  Up until now, there really haven't been any community tasting notes sites like CellarTracker except, well, CellarTracker, against which we can test the idea that there might be structural bias.

Recently, I've had growing suspicions that a different sort of bias creeps into community tasting notes sites.  I've termed this "follow the leader" bias, although my wife (who is a social psychologist) tells me that the correct psychology term is "anchoring".  Anchoring describes the tendency toward implicitly basing future judgments off of an initially suggested reference point.

With community tasting notes sites, the anchoring tendency is set by the probability that users check the notes of a wine they're about to open.  Once they do, particularly if the reviews note some flaw, the natural tendency is to expect to see (or at least look for the possibility of) the flaw that is mentioned.  I've noticed in the past that we have one reviewer on CellarTracker who regularly complains about the perception of alcohol on our white wines that are based on Roussanne.  It doesn't seem to matter that the wines are often quite low in alcohol by California standards (between 13.0% and 14.5%).  The taster appears to think that Roussanne, which does have a petrol character, just tastes high in alcohol.  And the next several reviews often mention an alcoholic character to the wine that was not present in the previous reviews.  Usually, someone dissents after a time and then the reviews gradually stop mentioning this character.

Still, when there is only one major community tasting notes site, it's always possible that trends in reviews can be explained by the wine going through a particular stage, and in fact that's one of the reasons I check CellarTracker so regularly: to see if any of our wines appear to be going into a closed stage, or if one may be coming out.  But, with the recent advent of a second viable community tasting notes site it's possible to cross-reference the reviews of a given wine.  The second site is VinCellar, a new free cellar management system created by the wine retailer and auction house Vinfolio. With about 23,000 tasting notes entered, its database is a small fraction of the size of CellarTracker's, but still large enough to make some interesting comparisons.

The wine which highlighted, for me, the possibility of an anchoring bias in community tasting notes sites was our 2007 Vermentino.  Vermentino typically makes crisp, citrusy wines relatively light in body with pronounced mineral signatures and low alcohols.  The 2007 vintage, though, was incredibly lush, and produced wines (both reds and whites) with very rich mouthfeel and unusually intense flavors.  For most grape varieties, this was a good thing, and I am convinced that our Esprit de Beaucastels from 2007 are the best red and white wines we've yet made.  For Vermentino, however, it produced an unusual wine which people tended to have strong reactions to.  Some loved it for its spice and saffron aromas and its rich mouthfeel; others found the aromas (which were spiced somewhat differently from most Vermentinos) offputting.  We got a handful of complaints from club members, and replaced the wine for anyone who wasn't happy with it, and also some kudos from members who thought it was the best Vermentino we'd ever done.  I just opened a bottle as I was finishing this post and thought it was delicious.  But look at the reviews of the wine on CellarTracker and VinCellar and it looks like we made two totally different wines.

Cellartracker reviews of 2007 Vermentino (average score: 83 points in 13 notes)
VinCellar reviews of 2007 Vermentino (average score:90 points in 7 notes)

This is why I cringe when I see a negative review posted on CellarTracker.  It takes a reviewer who is strong in his or her convictions to post a review that is knowingly contradictory to a string of very different reviews, and the suggestion of a flaw per force encourages other tasters to taste the wine looking for that flaw.  If I am right, it should be possible to shortcut this cycle by posting a review that contradicts a negative (or positive) review, which would free future reviewers to just use their own judgment.  Of course, to test my hypothesis, it would be necessary to subvert the integrity of these sites, which I am not suggesting.  But it's worth worrying, as the sites begin to have an impact on the mainstream wine market, that wineries, importers or other interested parties might try to "seed" the reviews with positive ones to encourage future reviewers to follow their lead.  It's probably also worth considering how someone might rebut or correct a negative review.  Other community review sites do this; for example yelp.com allows a business's owner to make a comment on a review if he or she wants.

Of course, there have been similar biases with the major reviewers for decades.  Often a writer like Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator (the two reviewers with the broadest reach in the market) can set a baseline for a wine.  But I think it's in many ways easier to understand that the review of a professional, however eminent, is just one person's take on the wine, and that you, as a consumer, are welcome to disagree, than it is to distance oneself from the cumulative reviews of other consumers.

In any case, it seems clear to me that it's worth looking in a bit more detail at how sites like CellarTracker can start to influence the perceptions of their users, and starting to reflect on what biases might be present in this new --  and increasingly powerful -- forum.

Tablas Creek is a "Best Winery Blog" Finalist!

Blog_awards_2009 I'm proud to announce that Tablas Creek has again been named a finalist for "Best Winery Blog" at the 2009 American Wine Blog Awards.  These awards, created and administered by the tireless Tom Wark (whose blog Fermentation is a daily must-read for anyone in the wine community) are in their third year, and recognize the growing importance of the blogging community on the world wine.

As in previous years, your votes determine the winners; in the final tally, 70% of the weighting comes from voting by the public, and 30% from the votes of the panel of experts who culled all the nominations into the four finalists in each category.  So please vote!

The most interesting thing to me is always discovering blogs I wasn't aware of.  You can read the complete list of finalists, with links to the finalists' blogs, or if you know who you like, you can vote here.  Voting ends Wednesday, March 4th.

Announcing the 2009 American Wine Blog Awards

Wine_blog_awards_2009 Tom Wark, on his blog Fermentation, has announced that nominations are open for the 2009 American Wine Blog Awards.  We were proud to win the 2008 Best Winery Blog, and I am hoping that we will be competitive in this category again.  But, regardless of how we do, these awards are a terrific chance to see what's new and compelling in the world of wine blogging.

So, go ahead... browse over to Fermentation.  Nominate anyone you think is doing extraordinary work.  And come back regularly over the next month to read about the finalists and vote for the winners.  The votes of the public account for 70% of the total weighting in tallying the results.

Valentine's Day Wine (AKA Wine for Chocolate): Sunset Magazine says Vin de Paille "Sacrerouge"

I don't normally post on this blog about press that we receive (although we do post it on our Web site at http://www.tablascreek.com/InTheNews.html) but every now and then we get a piece of press so cool I can't resist.  This one was even better because it was unexpected.

In their February issue, Sunset Magazine published their "Lover's guide to wine" with suggestions for wines and foods that will (in their words) "jump-start your evening".  Even better, they featured our Vin de Paille "Sacrerouge", the 100% Mourvedre dessert wine that we make occasionally from grapes dried on straw in our greenhouses.  It is a lush, beautiful wine (Robert Parker called it "kinky") and we've always thought it a great pairing with or instead of Valentine's Day chocolates.

Sunset took it one step further, calling it "bottled seduction" and suggests "gulp it, pour it over yourself, surrender sense to it".   In a serendipitous twist, it has been our featured wine this January, and so is 15% cheaper the rest of this week than it will be at any other time.  So, what are you waiting for?  Read the article or order some.


Tablas Creek on "Adam the Wine Guy"

Google alerts can be is an incredibly powerful tool.  If you don't yet have one set up to track news and blog posts about your business, you're probably nowhere near the first person to find out what other people are saying about you in public forums.  I've had lots of different people ask me what (paid) clipping service I use to stay on top of the press about Tablas Creek... when the reality is that I'm just using Google alerts and reading the food and wine magazines that come through the winery.

Mostly, the alerts I get let me know about writers and Web sites I'm already familiar with, although I would not otherwise have found out so soon about a Tablas Creek-related post.  Every now and then, though, I get an alert that points me to a site that I should really have been aware of but wasn't.  Such was the case on Monday, when I got an alert to a video post about the Tablas Creek 2004 Cotes de Tablas Blanc by Adam the Wine Guy.  Adam is Adam Leemon, who I knew as sommelier at Dolce Enoteca in Los Angeles.  His biography since then sounds fun, with stints as sommelier to the stars, appearances on TV and radio, and consulting gigs helping put together some of Los Angeles' top wine lists.

Two forays I didn't know about were his Web site (www.adamthewineguy.com) and his blog (adamthewineguy.blogspot.com).  On his blog he posts a different interactive video wine tasting each day, along the lines of what Gary Vaynerchuk has done with so much success with Wine Library TV.  Anyway, in this Monday's episode, Adam posts a video tasting of the 2004 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  I thought it was a nice example of how easy (and powerful) it can be to integrate video into the creation of a blog persona.