Thursday, September 30, 2010

Freeloading from Robert Mondavi Winery

Robert Mondavi was a great promoter, an ambitious guy who financed expensive art-food-and-wine events.

After going to a $98 prix fixe restaurant on Constellation Brands' dime Tuesday, and leaving with a test tube full of dirt, I can say that the corporation is trying to uphold Mondavi's PR legacy.

The event was billed as "A Taste of Place," and it was essentially a launch party for Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007.

At least, that's what I think the wine is called; I never actually saw the bottle. In fact, I wasn't going to blog about the event at all, because I only got about 210 seconds to chat with Mondavi Director of Winemaking Genevieve Janssens (right). And the tasting conditions sucked and I don't know for sure what I was drinking and I really can't say anything definitive about the wines based on the very expensive event.

But I was describing the event to another PR person today who was laughing hysterically -- and wishing she had Constellation's budget -- so I figured, what the heck, I'll share it with my readers. I can't be potentially setting new first-amendment precedent every day, you know.

So here's the deal. Outdoors at Saison restaurant (normal menu price, $98; not one Mondavi wine on the list), there were three booths. We were told to do the activities in order.

At the first booth, two severe-looking older women mixed two kinds of farm dirt with water in wine glasses into a frothy mud, which we were invited to nose like wine. It smelled like mud. I know there are variations of mud, and both of these were distinctive; one was loamier. But still, mud.

We tasted a snap pea grown in one type of mud, and cheese from sheep that grazed on grass grown in the other. The women told us that we should taste the connection between the pea and the mud, and between the cheese and the mud.

I tried, really I did. I smelled the mud, then bit the pea. Then I chewed on the pea while sniffing the mud. Ditto the cheese. Some of the other writers* said, "Yes, I get it!"

(*Who were these other writers? I'll get to that.)

I announced my atheism on this issue: I tasted no relationship, and I said so. The women frowned at me and I took a slight step backward, also backpedaling verbally. I apologized that if perhaps we could do a horizontal snap pea tasting alongside the different muds, that would really teach me something.

And it might -- about mud and snap peas. I didn't add that. One woman's frown finally softened and I sheepishly backed away.

On to the next booth: we tasted recently dried To Kalon Cabernet grapes while smelling To Kalon dirt. I suppose it's an attempt at conditioning -- taste To Kalon Cab, imagine the smell of dirt. But it didn't have an immediate effect. I washed out the flavor of tannic dried grape by grabbing a spoonful of American sturgeon caviar from a passing waiter.

Then I moved on to the last booth, where the winemaker Janssens was animatedly explaining the different vineyard blocks at To Kalon. This was quite interesting to me and was why I came, but I couldn't really hear her and non-wine writers had questions I wasn't interested in, so I didn't linger.

Now about those other writers: You can't get the A-list to come to events with other wine writers. I've never rubbed elbows with Robert Parker or a Wine Advocate writer. Only occasionally do I run into a Wine Spectator writer at a wine event, and never one of their top-billed people. Steve Heimoff is about the biggest name you see at these things in San Francisco, and he was there. So were a few of my other colleagues in wine writing.

But I also ran into a local music critic, though there was no music. There were a few food bloggers I had met and some I hadn't. The way wine PR works, you have to fill out an invite list, and at a certain point it doesn't matter if the person doesn't know cabernet from cabaret; you can tell your client he works at a local publication, and that's good enough.

One could also argue that this is the kind of broad-brush PR that Robert Mondavi did. If somebody writes about architecture, but they're inclined favorably toward your brand, perhaps they'll slip in a mention.

The down side is, if you're serious about reviewing wine, these events aren't so useful. I'll be curious to see what Steve writes. I know I tasted an absolutely great Sauvignon Blanc that had a label I didn't recognize. Somebody told me it was "the I block," or maybe "the eye block"; I didn't get to hold the bottle in my hands, and I don't know the vintage. I really liked it but Robert Mondavi Winery spent thousands of dollars in part to get me, a guy who writes about wine, to an event with a wine I really liked, yet I don't know what it was.

Don't misunderstand all this snark. My life is great, and events like this are a big reason. I had a $98 meal, and it was good, particularly the Sonoma lamb roasted with vadovan spices. That was served with the new release Cab and a 1996 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which the sommelier decanted into lab beakers; very cool. Not many of the music and lifestyle writers were interested in this older wine so I had a bunch of it, so much that my yuzu ice cream melted and I had to keep shooing away waiters from whisking it away. I had so much that I don't remember how much I had. Whoever made the Reserve Cab at Robert Mondavi in 1996, that was some good winemaking.

Was it Janssens? I don't know, I wasted my 210 precious seconds asking her about dirt, not her resume. Silly me.

Here's what I did learn:
* The Mondavi portion of To Kalon vineyard has seven different types of dirt, while she said Andy Beckstoffer's portion has only one. "That's how we get diversity and complexity," Janssens said.
* To Kalon is great because it's well-drained. It's on a 5% slope toward the river. "The roots go very deep to get their nutrients," Janssens said.
* Merlot and Malbec don't do well on To Kalon because it's too dry for them. This is Cabernet Sauvignon country. Sauvignon Blanc might be even better, but Constellation has torn out some great old blocks of it because Cabernet generates more income. Sigh. (but who can blame them?)
* Janssens, who is French, believes To Kalon is the equivalent of a first-growth Bordeaux vineyard because "every year, no matter how the weather is, you have great wine. To me, that's a first growth."

Time's up!

We left with a tubeful of dirt from To Kalon vineyard. I'm just about to dig into, believe it or not, some snap peas from my local Chinese delivery place. Perhaps I'll open it and see if I can smell a connection.


Jim Caudill said...

Snarkmeister, so prepare to hear from the Organization of Severe Looking Older Women, you just never learn, do you? Great read, as always. It's like opening an Xmas present with every post.

W. Blake Gray said...

Do you think Severe Looking Older Women counts as a class for legal purposes? Dammit, my attorney's going to kill me ...

Cabfrancophile said...

Interesting they have you compare cheese to snap peas for different soil types. Clearly we're dealing with the most pernicious PR types as opposed to scientific minds. You can't change two variables and hope to learn much about one variable or the other.

Or maybe they really believed that such a comparison is logical. That's an even scarier thought!

Steve Heimoff said...

I think you missed the fact that the winery is trying to figure out new and interesting ways to promote itself and its wines to a new generation. Nothing like this event has ever been done before. It was a little quirky, but give Mondavi and Genevieve credit for trying something new. They will learn from whatever didn't work and make it better next time. As for Constellation's budget, a smaller winery could have done this at a SOMA club and it would have been just as interesting for me.

W. Blake Gray said...

Steve: Thanks for not making me wait to find out what you're going to say.

Dude, though, as a writer you know you're making a huuuuge leap to say anything that's outside the article is something I missed. I don't do that to you.

Anonymous said...

Next year they are going to have you smell the fertilizer and then see if you can smell Barnyard in the wine.

Hey Steve, smell my finger.

W. Blake Gray said...

No Anonymous Comments Slamming Steve Heimoff! Go pick on him on his own blog:

Anonymous said...

You are becoming a very cranky asshole. Who are you going to attack next week, Mother Teresa?

Portland Charcuterie Project said...

Sounds like an interesting ( and not in a totally great way.. but not a bad way ) event.

Occasionally, a winery here in the Willamette Valley will do something like that at one of their cellar club event ( "smell the dirt, smell this food, smell the wine.. get the connection" ) but personally, as a wine buyer, I'd just rather taste the wine, nibble on some food, and have time to speak with the winemaking team.

As to that anonymous comment.. he may be on to something.. with all the wineglasses Steve's fingers have been dipped in, I"m sure they're a wonder to smell :-)


Anonymous said...

Dear Blake,

I appreciate your directness and honesty. I can see by the last few sentences of your posting, that you took away the messages that we were trying to relate about To Kalon. As I mentioned at the event, I would love to continue our conversation with a glass of Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 which was the star of the evening.

Let me know when you can join me at the winery to walk To Kalon and taste wines.

Genevieve Janssens

W. Blake Gray said...

Genevieve: You were so interesting that my greatest regret was not to have had more time to chat with you. I do hope we can rectify that.

I'm glad you noticed my sly "tell the actual story with plenty of detail while being snarky as hell" writing technique. You're trying to educate, but I'm also trying to entertain. And, yeah, that's really how I saw it.

Anon: I think it might have been Don Drysdale, who, when asked if he would throw at Mother Teresa, said, "Only if she was crowding the plate."

Charmion said...

Gloria Allred. Gloria Allred. Gloria Allred. Did you encounter an illegal alien on the drive to Saison's, and if so, did you or did you not give any money, and was it reported or did you fail to report your donation to Fearless Leader in Moscow?

Tish said...

This really was hilarious... AND insightful. I really did learn something about To Kalon; the bullet points at the end very clearly conveyed good info to readers like me, who were not there and do care about what Robert Mondavi Winery is up to.

Did they pour any Sauv Blanc from To Kalon? I'd be curious as to why Genevieve Janssens thinks the specialness of the site works for Cab and SB... and if they ever tried planting anything else there?

By the way, Take Steve's defense of the Robert Mondavi PR machine with a grain of salt (or dirt?). It would be bad form for him to do anything but gush about a RMW PR event given that Genevieve Janssens has already been named the WE Magazine 2010 "Wine Star" Winemaker of the Year. Those same PR folks will be ponying up some big bucks (and likely some more To Kalon) for the black tie event they will be attending with Steve and crew in NYC in January.

The simple truth is: PR is part of the wine media game. And good writers find original ways of dealing with that. Nice job.

Unknown said...

Well, I have nothing clever to say and I certainly don't have anything insulting to say. Love this blog post and am so glad I discovered your blog. You're a fun and talented writer covering some of my favorite subjects, like wine and sake. I'll be back!

Erika Szymanski said...

Oh, heck, I'm a geek and I'm going to go back to the utility of the dirt-food sensory analysis notion (even if I also feel compelled to comment on your eloquently anal writing style.)

In a class called "Sensory Analysis of Dairy Products," students taste milk from cows grazed on different grasses grown in different soils. The grass is usually the focus, not the soil, but the point is the same. Milk is a (relatively) unprocessed product versus cheese (or yogurt, ice cream, ect.) Human techniques and microbial modifications don't get in the way of discriminating milks related to different grasses/soils.

Such would also be true for snap peas and for grapes. On the other hand, all sorts of other variables begin to alter flavors once you turn that milk into cheese, those peas into soup, or those grapes into wine. Sure, the difference is still there -- ever had "grassy" cheese? -- but it's a heck of a lot harder to discern.

Sooooooo...if Mondavi really wanted to make their point more clearly, perhaps they should have had you highfalutin folks sip milk. But who wants to drink milk at a wine tasting (even if it would have given those nouveaux americains at Saison a chance to make ultra-gourmet chocolate chip cookies.

W. Blake Gray said...

Tish and Donna: Thank you. (BTW, Tish, did you read Steve's own post on the event? Your point puts it in perspective.)

Erika: Um, thank you, I think. I mean, thank you for pointing out that milk would be more likely to show the terroir than cheese. As for "eloquently anal," well, yesterday a friend told me I had an "understated arrogance." It must be my week for complex, um, compliments?

Tish said...

Yes, Blake, did read Steve's post. I find it interesting that his puff posts attract a lot less in the way of comments. His not mentioning the "Wine Star" award seems a purposeful lack of disclosure.

By the way, in the pantheon of dirt-y tales, I once heard Becky Wasserman, the renowned importer, say that she once actually tasted the soils of various Burgundy villages. I think in her case the dirt was dry, not in mud form. What I really remember is her getting a great lauch by adding that she didn't swallow. Can't make this stuff up!

Erika Szymanski said...

For the record, "eloquently anal" is most certainly a complement, at least coming from a perpetual grad student. Just like the dirt tasting, its all about context, right?

Anonymous said...

WOW is all I can say after reading this. Behind all of the negativity, it seems you liked the wines. I once visited RMW and had an incredible experience learning about To Kalon and tasting the wines. The sauvignon blanc you mentioned is I-Block; I purchased a bottle of it last summer on premise. Check out Nick Passmore's review just out today:

--Cheers from NYC!

Eric Hall said...

That was a interesting read, thanks..

But am I the ONLY person who does not like any dirt taste or smell in my wines?