Wednesday, April 8, 2020

New video: Winegrower Chad Melville

I could say, "in the latest Intoxicating Conversation with W. Blake Gray," but in fact this is the first one I recorded, last month.

Chad Melville, head winegrower at Melville Winery in the well-regarded Pinot Noir appellation Sta. Rita Hills, joins me to talk about why it's essential for wineries and vineyards to stay open, even during a pandemic.

Chad gives us an extremely practical lesson in planting grapevines, whether on their own roots (which he does, even though the dreaded vine killer phylloxera is present in Santa Barbara County) or on American rootstock.

We also learn about what happens if you leave a wine on the lees while the lees get stinky.


Because it's the first video recorded, I haven't learned to smile yet (arguably I still haven't.) But we did have the advantage of recording a prior take on which the video cut out because Chad tried to take the computer outside to show the rootstock. This is the only one of these videos where I have done a second take. It worked out for the best; we were both less nervous on this one. On the first one, we were talking too fast, talking over each other ... but on this one, we look like Zoom professionals. Right? (Don't answer that.)



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Monday, April 6, 2020

New video: Wine PR professional Katherine Jarvis

These are tricky times for people in the marketing and publicity business. Wineries gotta sell wine, and publicists are part of the ecosystem of selling wine. But, how can they strike the right tone in reaching out to media and the general public during a pandemic?

Today Katherine Jarvis, owner of Jarvis Communications in Los Angeles, joins me for an Intoxicating Conversation with W. Blake Gray.

Katherine and I talk not just about publicity during the pandemic, but how the world of wine PR works, both from her side and from mine.

One thing I have learned while writing about wine is that, while for some people wine PR is a step on a ladder, the dedicated professionals are wine lovers first; it's why they do it.

I gotta confess I'm releasing this video into the world with a little trepidation, because there are a number of really excellent wine PR people I could have asked to do it. Now I understand a little about how Katherine must feel when she has a story to pitch: how can I play favorites?


Katherine told me after the video that she had never heard her own voice recorded before. She has always been behind the scenes. I hadn't even considered that. Me, I'm a Z-list at best celebrity, but I have been on radio dozens of times and I've been on TV in four countries.

Funny story that we don't talk about in the video: NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, sent a limo for me once to come to the studio in Harajuku, Tokyo, to talk about Christmas in America, in Japanese of course. Well, I can do that, I thought. I was all ready to talk about Christmas lights and baking cookies and presents under the tree, etc. Then the red light went on -- we were live -- and the host said, "We have here Blake Gray who is an expert on Christmas in New York, and he's going to talk about the preparations going on in New York right now." I have never been to New York for Christmas! And Japanese is not my first language. I don't remember what I said -- Macy's window, Times Square, homeless people with a coating of gray snow, I really don't remember -- but somehow I got through it. Hopefully I didn't do that to Katherine. But you be the judge.





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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

New video: Schramsberg's Hugh Davies

Schramsberg Vineyards President Hugh Davies joins me for an Intoxicating Conversation with W. Blake Gray, and this time it's literally true because we have two bottles open.

Schramsberg has a track record as the best U.S. producer of top-quality sparkling wine; I have been a fan for years.

The story of Hugh's parents Jack and Jamie Davies is very much the story of modern Napa Valley: they bought an abandoned winery on Diamond Mountain in the 1960s to make premium sparkling wine, and eventually discovered that while their land is special terroir, it's not great for sparkling wine grapes.

Among other things, Hugh and I talk about drinking, and selling, sparkling wine during a pandemic. We compare glassware and talk about how California has a flavor profile for sparkling wine that might be more approachable for many American drinkers than that of Champagne. I am not knocking Champagne; my wife and I just opened a bottle of that earlier this week. But U.S. sparkling wine has its own unique charms.

There's no blooper reel for these Intoxicating Conversations so here's a blooper confession. These conversations are unedited: we just power through whatever happens. In part this is because I am not a power user of the technology. When Hugh and I started the meeting, I couldn't hear him. He could hear me, but I couldn't hear him at all. He found a younger person at the winery (always a good idea when you have a technology problem) and she fiddled with many things on the computer, but still I couldn't hear.

Then I realized I had the volume on my own computer off. Ooops! The woman gave me a look like Billie Eilish at the Oscars. Well, no harm done, and Hugh and I had our conversation.

If you're interested in the wines we enjoy during the conversation, it's Schramsberg J Schram Brut 2010 (buy it here) and J. Davies Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (buy it here).

I hope you are enjoying these conversations. More are on the way!



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Monday, March 30, 2020

New video: Rob McMillan talks about the future of the wine industry

In the latest edition of Intoxicating Conversation with W. Blake Gray, I welcome Rob McMillan, one of the leading experts on the business of wine, to talk about how the wine industry is and will be affected by the pandemic.

Rob is Executive Vice President of Silicon Valley Bank's Wine Division, and he is well known for his annual State of the Wine Industry presentations.

So much has changed since he gave his last presentation in January that I thought it was time for an update.

Rob and I talk about the trends we see already, such as wine shipments and certain types of retail sales being up, as well as the impact of the disastrous situation for restaurants. We also talk about the availability of labor, and whether many wineries will be sale when this pandemic finally eases.

I was hoping for these completely unedited conversations to be roughly 25 minutes; that's the email I'm sending to potential guests. I wasn't watching the clock so I have to give Rob the credit: precisely 25 minutes. That's the kind of precision one expects from Rob McMillan. And good conversation too.

I have more of these conversations recorded so you might want to subscribe to my Youtube channel.

Take it away, Rob! Your background is nicer than mine. (That probably is true on multiple levels.)


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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Thank You Heitz, you are so generous! Please don't call me anymore

Many companies are stepping up to help their community during this pandemic. Some are doing it quietly.

Not Heitz Cellar. Its PR firm called me at 6:30 am on Wednesday after I said I wasn't interested in giving it publicity for its charity.

Well, you win, Heitz. How can I resist the entreaties of a company generous enough to not fire anyone in the FIRST TWO DAYS of Napa County's lockdown. Heitz is still open for business on the Internet, selling wines at $250 a bottle. But the company wants praise for not canning its tasting room staff at the first opportunity. 

Thank you, Heitz! Thank you for not firing anybody this week! You're so great!

Let me back up a bit and tell you how this started.

Like everyone on the planet, I have been deluged by emails lately from businesses telling me about the steps they're taking about the pandemic. Nearly all are worthless corporate speak and I'm not responding to them.

Heitz's email of Mar. 20 was arrogant, but I ignored it like all the others. Let me post it here in its entirety, since that's what they want.


Wednesday, March 25, 2020

New video series: Intoxicating Conversation With W. Blake Gray

Conversation brings us together. The further we feel apart, the more we need a connection.

Today I launch a new video series: Intoxicating Conversation With W. Blake Gray

People need entertainment. Many crave information about wine, or whisky, or cannabis, and of course not just those. But you can get information in print. For conversation, just two people talking, wherever it goes, you need video.

And I believe that now more than ever, we need conversation. We need connection.

I'm speaking pretty ambitiously for a novice video journalist. I've been a print and online journalist since university, specializing in wine, spirits and cannabis for the last 16 years. I might have a face for radio and a voice for newspaper. Plus, I realized recently I probably won't be able to get a haircut for months.

Whatever. It's time for this.

Wine draws interesting people. Winemakers, the good ones, are a cross of scientist and artist. Farming wine grapes isn't like producing any other fruit. I've had so many intoxicating conversations regarding it, many with the guests you'll see in this series.

I was sheepish about asking my inaugural guest, Laura Catena, to do this. She's busy running harvest at her family's winery in Argentina, Catena Zapata, from her home in San Francisco, where she is stuck for the time being because Argentina has closed its borders.

But Laura was my dream first guest, so I asked anyway. And my dream came true: she agreed right away.

Laura is very impressive. For 30 years, she was an emergency room physician in San Francisco, specializing in emergency care for children. At the same time, she was helping her father run the family winery. Catena Zapata makes a lot of excellent wines. But I think its strength in the US was having Laura living here. Amazingly, she sometimes found free time from her medical duties AND raising children to jet off and do tastings for sommeliers, journalists and wine lovers. She's scientifically minded, and she's also a positive person who enjoys life.

At the end of last year she quit her ER job to focus on the winery; she talks about it in the video. You or I might think, wow, great timing. I'll let her tell you what she thinks.

As for the rest of the series, I'll do my best. 頑張ります. (To see more, subscribe to my Youtube channel.)

Here goes: Intoxicating Conversation With W. Blake Gray: Laura Catena, ER doctor and winery managing director



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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Wine, the corona virus, and the wisdom of George W. Bush

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush encouraged Americans not to be afraid to go on with their lives, including going shopping. He was immediately mocked for it, and still was years later. Here's a ridiculous piece from Time magazine in 2009, on the last day of his presidency, that says he should instead have called for sacrifice.

But he wasn't wrong.

There are now adult Americans who don't remember the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The destruction of the World Trade Center wasn't the only terrorist attack that autumn. Just a week later letters filled with weaponized anthrax spores were mailed to lawmakers and journalists. CNN and Fox News were competing to see which could be more hysterical. People were convinced that every shopping mall was a target. Bush wanted Americans to keep living life and not bring down the economy, which was the terrorists' objective.

He was mocked because our politics were the same as now. Half the country (including me) hated Bush, and that half, as now, included all the smartest and most interesting writers and commentators. "Going shopping" wasn't a serious enough response for a serious crisis and proved Bush was in over his head, was the argument. Then as now, it was nearly impossible to acknowledge when somebody on the other side of the political divide actually got something right.

Bush was right. We needed to spend money so that our consumer-based economy wouldn't collapse, so that people wouldn't lose their jobs and bring about an economic depression. We also needed a military response, and unfortunately he didn't get that right. But he was right about the shopping: It was one small thing that every American could to support our way of life.

I'm among the half of Americans who cheered out loud when Bush's helicopter carried him away from the White House in 2009. If you had told me that a scant 10 years later I would miss him I would have laughed in your face. But here we are.

The wine industry is going to be hurt very badly by the corona virus pandemic. It's not alone: almost every industry other than the hand sanitizer business is going to be hurt.

People are already staying home, which is sensible. But many restaurants will fail because of this. Ordering food delivered won't help them as much because they don't make as much money on it. Many restaurants survive on the margins they make by overcharging us for wine. And ordering food delivered won't help restaurant servers who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Restaurants failing is bad for wine.

Wine tourism is plummeting along with every other kind of tourism. Many wineries are dependent on sales from their tasting room. Some won't survive without it. Wine-country businesses like hotels and local transportation will suffer.

But, you say, people will drink wine at home.

Exactly!

Here is what you can do to help the wine industry fight through the looming recession: Keep buying wine.

This is true for most industries. But wine is more vulnerable than most. Vineyards take four years to develop and land prices are high. Distribution is complicated -- in parts of the country you still can't buy wine online -- and is skewed against small wineries, who large distributors would rather not carry. US wine importers are hurting because of the tariffs imposed from our trade war with the EU.

In 2008, after the last major recession (Bush was right about a few things but not about the costly Iraq war or about leaving the mortgage crisis untouched and festering), Americans kept drinking wine, but they spent a lot less on it. People started looking for good $10 wines again, which tends to help only the largest companies.

This will probably happen again as the pandemic leads to an economic slowdown. I'm not going to tell you to keep buying $300 Cabernets; you really can find wine just as good for $35 (but not for $10).

What I urge you to do is to buy wine mindfully. In hard times, each bottle you buy will support someone, whether it's publicly-traded Constellation Brands or that small winery you visited on vacation years ago where the staff was really nice to you. You can support a grocery store chain, or you can support your local wine shop, which is seeing fewer customers. You can support LVMH or the economy of a vulnerable country like Greece or South Africa.

This is the best thing you can do for the wine industry. Keep shopping, and shop with a purpose.

There's an expression I like to use: "Life is too short to drink bad wine." It's more true now than ever.

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