I was given some rather vague marching orders when asked to talk to you.1 Something something something about what was interesting to me about the Napa Valley. (Pregnant silence….)
You should probably know that I’m not really from around here, I’m from Santa Cruz—and there is no shortage of baggage that comes with that appellation. Surf’s up, dude, and just what kind of Cigare are you smoking? But for me, coming to this part of the world is a bit like traveling to another planet. Maybe Planet Wine Hollywood?
What I’d like to talk to you about, in fact, is the state of the wine industry, at least as I see it, and maybe reflect a bit on what the future might hold for us all.
I’m sure it hasn’t escaped any of you that the California wine industry is in a rather parlous state these days. There is no longer as much good-natured competition among neighboring colleagues; the discourse is dominated instead by rather grim zero-sum calculations, as we each vie for a diminuendoing slice of the pie. We are competing now with winemakers and wineries from all around the world, large and small—from sheep-loving Kiwis; with militarily-efficient Chilean operations; with the artisanal, vowel-challenged winemakers in Slovenia and other parts of Eastern Europe; and with of course the opportunistic virtual wineries or “negoce” businesses—those creatures-of-a-day brands that are predicated on sourcing wine in bulk, (well below the cost of its production) and selling it on the principle that one person’s misfortune is another’s opportunity.
Meanwhile, up on the higher end, it does appear that every high net worth individual—be he rock star, aging professional athlete, plastic surgeon or periodontist, dot.com windfall millionaire or billionaire—has simultaneously decided that he (it usually is a he, because the wine business is largely dominated by male hormones) needs to have a second life, a new avatar, as it were, as a winemaker or winery owner. Maybe this phenomenon accrues because we live too much in the cult of celebrity; most of us don’t have the chops to become great actors or great chefs, but winemaking…you buy some grapes, hire the best consultants that money can buy, and suddenly you’re a winemaker—or God forbid, a vigneron.
I submit to you that the tragic downfall of the California wine industry is largely a function of its great success in recent years. In an earlier, simpler day, people gravitated to the industry because they loved the life of a grape-grower or winemaker, and they had no illusions about making either a large or small fortune in the wine business—simply being part of the business was thrill enough. Winemakers would typically say things like, “I make wines to please myself; I really don’t care if people don’t like them. %#@* ’em, I’ll just drink ’em myself.” These days, the wine business has become a real business. There is more capital investment needed than ever before, not least because land prices, especially in these parts, are staggeringly expensive. And so as a result, essentially nobody says, “I’ll drink it myself” anymore. The wine’s just too darn expensive to drink it oneself.
What is really more troubling to me is that at least at the super-premium level, winemakers have become even more dependent on the killer wine score from Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator. As a consequence, they have become far more risk-averse, and rather tragically, many wines—especially, dare I say, some from around these parts—are beginning to taste more or less the same, seemingly all following a certain stylistic prescription.
I am acquainted with a man named Leo McCloskey—a nice enough fellow whom I used to know when he lived in Santa Cruz. He operates a company in Sonoma called Enologix, which purports to help its clients make wines that will get higher point scores. Note: not wines that are more distinctive. Not wines that are somehow more expressive of their particular terroir. Rather, using models that are reverse-engineered from Wine Spectator and Robert Parker palates, they guarantee wines that will squarely hit certain stylistic parameters and will therefore be “successful.”
This is not a happy outcome; it’s oenvil, as I’ve characterized it—and is not a sustainable model for the future of the wine business. That this particular opulent, overripe style is also essentially undrinkable—at least more than a glass of it is, for me—is also somewhat troubling.
As far as the staggering amount of competition out there, I’m sure it’s not lost on you that far more effort is needed these days to sell a bottle of wine than ever before. Whether this sort of competition is “healthy” is anyone’s guess, but for now it’s just a fact of life, like the weather, and I don’t imagine this weather is going to change any time soon. I’d venture that there are currently perhaps twice as many wineries or wine labels in the brandscape than can actually carry on a sustainable, profitable existence. The larger end of small, as well as “mid-sized” wineries—I’m not even sure what that term means anymore—are particularly vulnerable to challenges in distribution, and by extension, in sales and profitability. They’re too big to be desirable in virtue of their scarcity, and too small to have the marketing clout to make much of an impression on your lot.
For small producers, the scale that might actually work is the true no-frills, micro-model, with very few employees and, through wit and or particularly good karma, the ability to produce wines that a) are truly distinctive, and b) have the ability to communicate that true uniqueness to the end user. Alas, the combination of these two skill sets is not often found in the same set of chromosomes.
There was a famous Harvard Business Review paper published in 2004 about how one can find success in business in times of extreme competition. The postulate was that success can really only come if you are capable of finding “blue ocean,” i.e. delivering a product or service that is so utterly differentiated and superior to that of your competition, that you essentially have no competitors. In the world of wine production, it is my most tenacious belief that, despite occasional evidence to the contrary, producing a distinctive vin de terroir is the only lasting way that a wine producer will ever be able to find blue ocean—a truly sustainable niche. In other words, chasing scores by changing your winemaking practices to favor a particular à la mode style may offer short-term success, but in the end, is a fool’s game. Winemaking trix are for kids, and we must grow up.
But to the question of the real value of terroir: I’ve written before that vins de terroir are more interesting than composed or confected wines—vins d’effort—because they somehow manage to reflect the deep complexity of nature itself. Maybe we grasp their depth—if, that is, we are paying attention—similarly to how we grasp the depth, intelligence, and sensitivity of an individual we might meet. We look for affect and expression, responsiveness, some evidence that they are switched on, connected. Maybe we look for something analogous in wine—movement or change, the ability to evolve, even as we experience it; these wines have a real presence (at a minimum), and maybe even something like a rudimentary consciousness. At least that’s how it seems to me.
But you’re probably not so interested in these wooly philosophical musings, and so perhaps some concrete examples of what is lately most interesting to me these days, in my own personal quest for a vin de terroir, could be germane. I’ll get to that, but I’m also still determined to give you the larger philosophical context. Please bear with me.
I recently had dinner with my best friend from high school, a psychiatrist, as it turns out. I talked about how challenging the wine business had become, and he somewhat facetiously—though not entirely facetiously—suggested that I consider peddling my wares (presumably virtually) in the virtual world on a site called Farmville. There, participants act as if they are growing various virtual crops, bringing them to virtual market and attempting to operate a virtual profitable enterprise and so forth. (Note: this is actually more or less what I’m trying to do in real life.) The model for monetizing this business is that the site provides the opportunity for participants to “upgrade” to a better virtual tractor by spending non-virtual, i.e. “real” dollars in Farmville. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by explaining that the solution he was proposing was essentially a great part of what I see as our current problems, namely the inability to differentiate between actions with consequences in the real world, and actions that simply make us feel slightly better about what we are doing. This is a conundrum maybe worth considering here in quasi-virtual “wine country.”
The digital world is incredibly rich and powerful, as far as the opportunity it provides us to connect with people. I’ve experienced this myself. But a wholly virtual world also carries with it a certain implicit danger, which is that by participating in it, we may at a certain point lose the ability to differentiate between the really real and the virtually real. It is certainly beyond the scope of these remarks to comment on whether the formation of “virtual relationships” ultimately erodes our ability to form “real” relationships, but I do believe that the world we live in right now is beginning to offer us something like a forking path. On one fork: the opportunity to embrace the truly real (a very scary proposition, I might add). On the other: the opportunity to allow something like pernicious irreality to gradually, imperceptibly seep into our belief systems.
Granted, delusional thinking has always been with us, but it seems more prevalent than it has ever been. In the wine business, this fantasy may be something like:
“My domestic Pinot is every bit as good as Romanée-Conti—blind tasters (or critics) tell me so;” or,
“My ‘Meritage’ just smokes Cheval Blanc;” or,
“If I could just figure out how to get a certain influential wine writer to like my wine, my depletion issues will be solved;” or
“If I could just figure out how to get millennials to purchase my wine, my business will be saved;” or
“If I could just get my distributor to return my phone calls, my business will be saved;” or
“If I could just figure out how to master social media and sell all of my wine on-line, I will be poised for success.”
I’m not sure if this last delusional thought is entirely delusional, but regardless, the list goes on and on.
Which brings me to the meat of my message, and perhaps the larger lesson to be learned:
I honestly don’t believe that there are any silver bullets, any recipes for success, including the evil ones that Mr. McCloskey is peddling, and as I said, that kind of “success” is, I believe, as fleeting as a passing cloud. What I’m suggesting is that real success in the wine business simply may lie in making real wine, and of course having the ability to communicate about this real wine you have somehow achieved. In this era of the illusory, of the virtual, of the half- or three-quarters baked, the real shines as brightly as a diamond.
Now, bear in mind that for most of my career as a winemaker, I’ve lived something like a virtual existence. Yeah, I’ve done my share of cellar work, though not so much lately, and I’m of course always present at the blending bench. I do also still visit the vineyards that supply us grapes—usually to complain about some error of omission or commission, and generally too late to effect any real positive outcome. In truth, Bonny Doon wines have traditionally been created by one sort of winemaking legerdemain or another—we’ll throw some of this stuff in, and maybe some of that. I might toss in some sort of cute trick I learned kicking around southern France, where there is no shortage of cuteness in winemaking. And in truth, it has—or had—worked out reasonably well; customers couldn’t seem to get enough of the flashy, clever labels.
However, this is no longer acceptable to me. I am now possessed of a deep thirst for the real, for wine that comes from a place. And I firmly believe that to be able to express that sense of place, one needs to be thoroughly present. For me personally, this will require some non-trivial psychic and spiritual retooling, but I am up for it; it is the only path forward for me.
At Bonny Doon, we’re presently into some pretty esoteric practices—some on the drawing board, and some being implemented even as we speak. We’re growing some of our grapes from seeds, creating a vineyard of vast genetic diversity and potentially great complexity. (We can talk about why this may be a particularly brilliant idea—or not.) We’re aging some of the wines in glass demijohns, which, while strictly speaking is a form of legerdemain, is still incredibly cool. I’m very keen on experimenting with aging wine in amphorae, especially if we can fashion the vessels from clay collected at our new property in San Juan Bautista.
We’re also learning how to produce a material called bio-char, essentially a form of activated charcoal, and mixing it with compost and incorporating it into the soil. Bio-char dramatically enhances the microbial life of the soil, which is in fact the real repository of terroir. Also, and non-trivially, the use of bio-char is a carbon-negative process, taking carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil, and maybe helping to do a small part to reverse global climate change. Our new vineyard in San Juan Bautista will not look much like a conventional vineyard. I am completely dedicated to the idea of establishing true biological diversity in the vineyard through the plantation of a real polyculture—fruit and nut trees, flowering shrubs and aromatic herbs interplanted among the vines—in order to foster a balanced and truly sustainable ecosystem. I’m hopeful that with these practices we may well be able to farm our new vineyard without irrigation and produce wines filled with life and expressive of the place where they are grown.
Maybe it is a bit paradoxical, but embracing the real, as I have said, does not mean gritting one’s teeth and hoping for the best. Embracing the real requires the realization that one must look deep within oneself to find an imaginative path toward success, maybe one that has never been attempted before. It is the understanding that there is no longer any way at all to “play it safe.” There is only risk. In other words, maybe I am utterly deluding myself to imagine that we might produce something like an authentic vin de terroir by growing grapes from seeds, dry-farmed, in an area where there have never been grapes before. But, we will just have to see now, won’t we?
When I first thought about giving this talk, I wasn’t really sure what kind of good information I might offer to you, a group of wholesalers. So, I will only tell you this: hang on to the suppliers who are doing or attempting to do something real. Add real value to what they have to offer. Make your portfolios as coherent as they can possibly be; let them stand for something. Lastly, try to find the joy that is still present in this very challenging business that we share.
- These remarks were delivered at the annual meeting of Ohio wine and beer distributors, held February 18, 2011, in Napa Valley. [↩]