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A Blow to the Stomach - SF Chronicle to End Standalone Food Section?

food and wine

Update: According to a KQED report, SF Chronicle Managing Editor Audrey Cooper is vehemently, semi-denying the NY Times' story. In essence, she says changes are coming but that details in the NY Times article aren't correct and that the Chronicle is committed to food coverage. That said, my own understanding is that the Times story was accurate as and when written.

The New York Times has reported that the San Francisco Chronicle will soon cease publication of its dedicated food and wine section. The news is based on leaks from concerned—and anonymous—Chronicle staffers. The paper itself has not made a public announcement.

According to the report, Chronicle editors and writers will be retained but their work will be folded into a new section—the name Artisan has been floated—that will include other content as well. (Artisan? Will the section include local glassblowers and leather workers too?) Neither will there be a separate building housing both food/wine staff, test kitchen, wine cellar, etc. Recipe testing will cease.

It’s easy to rationalize this move. Real estate in San Francisco is crazy expensive. I suppose we can use “untested recipes,” (if recipes continue to be printed at all). Nobody is losing their job (yet). On the other hand, this is a gut-punch to the Northern California—and, frankly, national—food scene. It’s also a move that is likely to be a catalyst for others.

Why Would the Chronicle Close their Food & Wine Section?

Historically, newspapers have derived their revenue from four sources: subscriptions, news-stand sales, classified ads and traditional in-content ads. The first two, sales of newspapers, help defray printing costs but don’t keep the lights on. As has been well-chronicled, sales of classified ads have been pillaged by online services such as Craig’s List and eBay. This has had a huge impact on newspapers, resulting in fewer pages, staff layoffs and some papers ceasing publication entirely. (For more on this progression, check out the blog Newspaper Death Watch)

As newspapers (and magazines) have lost some of their relevance, due to increased availability of free content online and the newspapers self-inflicted down-sizing wounds, print has become a less compelling ad buy and revenues continue to decline there. There’s no sign of this turning around, nor is there a clearly successful new business model for papers to pursue. (Joel Brinkley had an interesting proposal at SFGate in 2008, but it didn’t go anywhere.)

The lack of willing advertisers may be especially acute in the food and wine segment. Wineries, aside from the big brands, have never been big advertisers. Beer and hard liquor companies do pony up, but they often prefer ad placement within other lifestyle sections such as sports and entertainment. Non-chain restaurants aren’t big advertisers either and they too have been hard hit by the economy, because the increasing divide between have’s and have not’s substantially reduces the number of people with disposable income to spend on restaurant dining.

So, without a study looking closely at newspaper readership by section and related subscription decision-making, cutting costs on Food and Wine may seem a logical and harmless step. There’s not much ad revenue. It’s a big cost-center. The Chronicle can sell the real estate or at least decrease related expenses. However, I suspect the impact will be greater than management hopes.

Why Closure of the Chronicle Food & Wine Section Is Bad for Everyone Concerned

First, the Chronicle’s Food and Wine section is one of the parts—perhaps the only part— of the newspaper that makes it truly unique. We can, and probably do, get local news elsewhere. These days, news that’s in the paper isn’t news anymore, it’s just a recap. Online sources are immediate, if of dubious accuracy. With apologies to the paper’s excellent sports writers, we have ESPN, Fox Sports and numerous online sources for sports coverage which are also more timely. Sections such as Auto and Real Estate do drive classified and other ads, but are of interest to readers only when we’re in the market to buy or sell. They don’t generate on-going readership.

In contrast, the food section with it’s multiple James Beard Award-winning coverage and heavy focus on the internationally-important Bay Area food/wine scene is a reader magnet. No other publication covers Northern California restaurants, food producers and wineries with the combination of frequency, reach, variety, depth of analysis and love. The food section is the only reason why I, and many of my friends, maintain a subscription to the paper. It’s also the only thing that draws me to SFGate. Even if there’s not a huge call by advertisers for space in the Food section, to my mind it is that section which keeps readers in the family and feeds eyeballs to other sections.

Even if most of the writers remain, lack of a dedicated section signals minimized commitment and independence. Column inches for food and wine are sure to decline. Local subscriptions and news-stand sales will take a big hit. National attention will be lost. Relevance to advertisers will decrease. More cuts will be necessary. And, eventually, there is nothing.

Well, not entirely nothing. There will still be food and wine blogs. Ironically though, those sources—many inspired by the passion and excellent writing of the Chronicle’s staff—have helped decrease the relevance of newspapers but don’t have a sustainable business model either. Given that, how many will be long-lived, let alone full-time, allowing their authors to develop the analytical, research and writing chops to approach the quality we already have in San Francisco’s local paper. More likely, there will be a churn of enthusiastic but short-term efforts, gradually over-taken in quantity by sites focused on paid advertorial. That may be worse than nothing.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013. Photo by Fred Swan. Content and trademarks of the SF Chronicle are the property of the SF Chronicle. All rights reserved.

New Pinot Noir and Cabernet Releases from Sojourn Cellars

Sojourn Cellars consistently produces top-quality Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon wines from North Coast sites. Most of the releases are vineyard-designates, but there are some fine appellation blends as well. Winemaker Erich Bradley delivers a style that’s rich and deeply flavorful, yet well-balanced and pretty rather than bruising. The grapes for the wines below were 100% de-stemmed, then fermented with native yeast in open-top tanks. I tasted the unfined, unfiltered wines blind in flights including other producers.

2011 Sojourn Cellars Pinot Noir Campbell Ranch Vineyard Sonoma Coast, 175 cases - $59
This is the first release from Campbell Ranch for Sojourn. The vineyard is located in the near Annapolis (in the coastal mountains northeast of Sea Ranch) on the northern Sonoma coast. The clone 115 and 777 grapes came from blocks worked by star vineyard-manager Ulises Valdez.

Uniquely attractive aromas and flavors of wild raspberry and blueberry are dusted with forest spice which reflects both the “true Sonoma Coast” site, nestled amongst redwoods, and the cool 2011 vintage. The medium+ body and moderate tannins of fine grain and chalk are just right and the wine is ready-to-drink now but will easily age for seven years or so. 13.8% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2011 Sojourn Cellars Pinot Noir Wohler Vineyard Russian River Valley, 525 cases - $48
Wohler's youthful vines—re-planted on Goldridge loam near Forestville less than 10 years ago—have delivered bold aromas and flavors of wild cherry, dark berries and spice which are consistent from first sniff all the way through the lengthy finish. Moderate tannins of talc frame this medium+ body wine. Delicious now but best 2015 - 2020. 14.2% alcohol. Highly Recommended

PINOT Ridgetop 112011 Sojourn Cellars Pinot Noir Ridgetop Vineyard Sonoma Coast, 275 cases - $59
The Ridgetop Vineyard is sited similarly to Campbell Ranch—in the mountains near Annapolis, surrounded by redwoods—and is also managed by Ulises Valdez. Ridgetop is higher though, approximately 1,110 feet vs. 750, and features a jumble of soils.

Sojourn’s Ridgetop Vineyard bottling of 115, 667, and 777 clone Pinot Noir is dark ruby in the glass with bold aromas of ripe red cherry, brown spice and supporting notes of flowers and forest spice. The full-bodied palate holds beautiful and intense tangy red fruit flavors framed by slightly drying, fine-grained and chalky tannins. Powerful, pretty, balanced and long. Drink now through 2023. Very Highly Recommended

2010 Sojourn Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Proprietary Cuvee Napa Valley, 150 cases - $95
Sojourn’s Proprietary Cuvee is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon but includes fruit from three different vineyards, including Beckstoffer George III in Rutherford. The wine was aged in French oak, 75% new, for about 18 months.

The nose of this opaque, full-bodied wine bursts with black currant jam, currant leaf and licorice with side notes of pine. Loads of chalky tannins balance notable acidity and persistent, mouth-filling flavors of mocha, black cherry and dark spice (especially clove and allspice). Very Highly Recommended

Sojourn Cellars is located in a small, re-purposed house just off the square in downtown Sonoma. They are on my short list of must-visit tasting rooms in the area. The hourly tastings are by appointment and limited to 10 people. Sojourn wines are sold primarily direct to consumer via a mailing list.

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Disclosures: The FTC has tightened its guidelines with respect to online ads, reviews, blogs, etc. in response to people who are passing paid ads off as personal recommendations or who accept samples of expensive hard goods in exchange for reviews. My lengthy disclosure here is meant to address those guidelines.

The review above reflects my personal experience with the product. It is not a paid ad, nor do I accept ads or compensation for reviews from wine producers. Reviews may cover products that I have purchased, received as samples, or tried under other circumstances I consider to be good tasting conditions. Receiving a product as a sample does not obligate me to review it positively (or at all) and I do not consider samples to be compensation or “free wine.” I have purchased plenty of wine over the years and have more of that than I can drink. Samples are opened for review purposes, not added to my personal cellar or taken to restaurants.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Fervor versus Flavors

Many people don’t like wine writing which includes detailed descriptors, particularly long lists of flavors and aromas. I get that. Casual wine drinkers may be alienated because they’re not able to perceive as many things. And organoleptic notes about dry reds can be dry reads. Much more engrossing are anecdotes about having fun with wine and friends, or snapshots of enthusiastic fist-pumps triggered by an exciting wine.

2010 - A year plenty of Hopes
Photo: Jesus Solana

But writing that a particular wine makes the author feel a certain way and/or do a happy dance tells me more about the scribe than the wine. It may be very enjoyable reading. He or she may be a fascinating, engaging person. Such an article may help sell the wine but, if I’m trying to figure out which wine to buy based upon my own palate, it’s useless. A wine one writer finds “scintillating” may be only mildly interesting to me. They might groove to levels of tannin or acidity that set your teeth on edge.

Wine is almost infinitely complicated. [I read recently that the world of flavors includes at least 4,000 different molecules. Some experts suggest three-quarters of those can be found in wine.] That can be intimidating. But, in seeking to avoid the boring, confusing and overly technical, one needn’t run to the opposite end of the spectrum, arguing to eschew wine descriptors for emotional references. Human moods are even more changeable, inconsistent and inscrutable than wine. And our emotional response to wine is driven by much more than what’s in our mouth.

“Don’t think, feel
Ain’t no big deal
Just make it real and don’t think, feel.
It don’t take plans to clap your hands
When it feels nice just don’t think twice”
     –Robert Maxwell & Neil Diamond

Studies have shown our perception of a wine is affected substantially by our expectations, the attitude we bring to the tasting, the environment we’re in and the people with whom we share the experience. The odds of you smelling maraschino cherry in a particular wine as I do are much greater than the likelihood of that we’ll have an identical emotional reaction to that wine. A particular wine may bring joy to me but, as a descriptor, “joy” doesn’t bring a particular wine to mind.

Along with my wine writing, teaching and tour-leading, I judge wines. Part of that process is group conversation about individual wines. Judges often talk about the emotions and personal recollections a given wine evokes. There’s value in this. It helps me understand that judge and their frame of reference with respect to the wine. It sometimes broadens my view of the wine. But, in my experience, there’s less than a 50–50 chance the wine conjures the same feelings in me.

Wine, of course, is for drinking. Great bottles generate “in the moment,” emotional—and sometimes visceral—reactions. The ability to generate such responses separates wine from the ranks of other tasty beverages. We don’t want to diminish those feelings by thinking too much. Yet there’s also fun to be had in discussing wine with our friends, discovering additional nuances in the sharing. These conversations can also add greater depth to our sentiment, making it more memorable.

To have these discussions, or to simply give others a sense of what they might expect to taste in a wine, we need a common vocabulary. Without that there is no discussion. Descriptions of flavors and textures provide more concrete points of reference than emotional descriptors.

Drink wine. Enjoy it. Emote. Do your happy dance. But it’s okay to think about wine too, even to talk—and write—about it. When you do, don’t limit yourself. Embrace all the words of wine, whether they be emotional, experiential, textural or gustatory.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

Update: Missing Articles on NorCalWine

Update: There's no clear progress on resolving the issue, but I'm going to start posting new material regardless.

Due to back-end database issues caused by hacker/spammers, NorCalWine.com was down for an extended period today. It is back up now, running from a back up. However, that back up is one week old. All of the articles posted after October 23 are missing for the moment. I apologize for any inconvenience.

I will have the situation resolved as soon as possible. However, there is likely to be no change or updates until Tuesday. I hope to know by then whether or not the missing content can simply be restored or if I need to recreate it manually. In the meantime, I'll be generating fresh content for November. I will begin posting that as soon as the situation is stable.

Cheers,

Fred

Thoughts on the Inaugural Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA Tasting

The Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA was officially established less than two years ago. The Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak Winegrowers association held their first group trade tasting Monday at AQ restaurant in San Francisco. Nine wineries poured a total of eighteen wines. Some of the producers are resident in the AVA, some have vineyards there and others merely buy fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon dominated the grape varieties, but there were others—particularly from Imagery.

As one might expect with a new AVA, and a new organization of wineries, there isn’t yet a consistent style or sense of place from one producer to the next. The best wines of the tasting were made by winemakers well-known for their achievements in other regions, Denis and May-Britt Malbec and Thomas Brown. Some new AVAs give birth to close collaboration between producers with a sharing of best practices that lifts not just mindshare for the AVA but also wine quality. It will be interesting to see if that occurs here.

The Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA is small, 4,570 total acres with less than 5% planted to vines. The region is distinguished by its high altitude and meager soils that result in long, steady growing seasons and vines which work hard for their nutrients.

pine mountain vineyard view
A vineyard in the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA.
Photo: Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak Winegrowers

I found two common threads among the Cabernet Sauvignon offerings. First, the wines tended to show both red and black fruit. I suspect this is a function of location and altitude. Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak sits 1,600 to 3,000 feet above the warm Alexander Valley floor. Thus the new AVA stays between 5 degrees and 9 degrees cooler during the day but doesn’t experience as extreme a diurnal shift. The steady, moderate temps allow some of those red fruit characteristics to remain. But the growing season is long enough and the area generally warm so that black berry flavors are also evident. Only one wine was clearly under-ripe and none were dominated by over-ripe fruit.

The other thing the red wines had in common—including most of the non-Cabernet Sauvignon—was structure. Tannins were consistently medium+ with dual textures: light grain and grippy, light chalk. In the best wines, that profile was an ideal match for the density of the fruit. More often, the concentration of fruit wasn’t up to the task and those tannins, though not aggressive, were dominant.

Preferred Wines from the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA

Revelation-detailThe 2009 Capture Revelation (93% Cabernet Sauvignon with the balance Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot) earned my top score of the day. It offered dark berries, chocolate, black currant and brushy herb on the nose. The wine is medium+ in body with powerful flavors that neatly balance the medium+, light-grained tannins. 13.9% alc., $140. Highly Recommended+

The 2009 Capture Harmonie is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with 13% Merlot and 7% Cabernet Franc. The flavors are an attractive a mix of berries—black, red and huckle—but less concentrated than in the Revelation. Body is medium+ with light-grained tannins. 13.9% alc., $120. Recommended+

The 2011 Capture Chardonnay Ma Vie Carol presents ripe pear and baking spice on the nose. Those are joined on the palate by fresh pineapple and there’s a crispness to the pear. It’s just full-bodied and a little juicy with a medium+ finish. $48. Recommended

Note: Winemaker Denis Malbec (formerly of Chateau Latour, now Kapscandy, Sodaro Estate, Notre Vin, Blankiet Estate) left Capture this July. The new winemaker is viticulturalist Glenn Alexander.

The 2010 Ampere Cabernet Sauvignon crafted by Thomas Rivers Brown (Schrader, Outpost, Rivers Marie, Jones Family, Black Sears, Revana, Hestan, Chiarello, Aloft, etc.) provides wild blackberry and dusty dark spice aromas and flavors with medium+ body. The medium+ tannins are light-grained and chalky with grip. The wine is soon-to-be released at about $69. I’d give it a year or two in the cellar.  Recommended

One of the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA’s most prominent vineyard holders is the Benziger Family. They have about 11 different varieties planted on 30 acres and release wines such as Tempranillo, Malbec and Lagrein through their Imagery Estate Winery in Sonoma Valley. The 2010 Imagery Estate Wow Oui is a fun-loving white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Muscat. The nose speaks right up with aromas of grapefruit, gooseberry, white flowers, peach and spice. The palate is dryish with medium+ body and flavors that cheerfully match the nose. There’s some juiciness to the palate and the finish is clean. Note to self: remake Green Acres with Scarlett Johansson as a Southern belle who moves to a vineyard in New Zealand. Recommended

Full List of Attending Wineries

Ampere
Arbios Cellars
Bergeron
Capture
Francis Ford Coppola Winery
Imagery Estate
Miro Cellars
Respite Wines
Treasure Island Wines

Beyond Wine

AQ’s executive chef-owner, Mark Liberman, focuses on fresh and local. The signature dish of the AVA tasting was both—a juicy, flavorful wild boar slider slathered with tangy sauce. The boar had been a resident of the AVA until four days ago when he encountered a hunter. I’ve not dined at AQ but I like the rustic ambience and loved the slider.

Another non-wine product available for sampling was the certified-organic, extra-virgin olive oil from Split Rock Springs Ranch. You could use it for salads but it has a richness and gently grassy aroma that’s ideal for dipping or drizzling over pasta. Soft, freshly sliced French bread was an excellent foil, highlighting the buttery mouthfeel and flavors (green olive flesh, grass and lightly peppery finish).

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. Capture Revelation photo: Capture. All rights reserved.