Sparkling Darlings for the New Year

The marketing mavens behind Certs breath mints once ran a campaign predicated on the product?s peculiar tendency to spark in the dark, when bit with a modicum of force. The spots successfully knitted one?s fresh breath and dimming the lights with the promise of sexual congress (like most advertising). They also provided a perfect visual for what it?s often like sipping a sparkling wine. Indeed, there is a bit of a spark in sparking wine (and, with any luck, the wine?s aphrodisiacal qualities won?t be false advertising).

Traditionally, of course, New Year?s Eve is fine time for sparkling wine, so I suggest beginning twenty-aught-nine with more ?pop? than ?bang? with a dazzler from Mendocino County.

Roderer Estate (or ?Rodererrrr? as I?ve heard it pronounced at the Fig after a few) is nestled above Booneville off Hwy 128 and fine place to stop when avoiding vehicular manslaughter from tourists motoring heedlessly toward the coast. The Anderson Valley brut cuvee has all the immediate intensity of biting into a green apple or perhaps sticking one?s tongue on a nine-volt battery. For those who have played guitar in a rock band and needed a fresh battery for the wah-wah pedal mid-gig, the affirming jolt on the tip of one?s tongue is a tremendously satisfying experience. Ditto this mid-priced sparkling, which finishes the experience with a hint of marzipan dipped in?? ginger ale.

Gloria Ferrer?s Blanc de Noir should change its name to ?Sonoma?s mother?s milk? for the succor it provides the soul. I suspect one could heal a wound by pouring this wine on it.? And when I?m old and enfeebled and again gumming a bottle, the blanc de noir will be in it. This time of year, one can hardly change rooms without having a glass of this heavenly nectar pushed into one?s willing hand. A relatively dry wine ? the bubbles dance on the palate like a silver spoon faintly dusted with Pez candy, but is neither metallic nor sweet. Moreover, this is one of the more affordable wines in Gloria Ferrer?s canon, so it should fill your refrigerator?s vegetable drawers (my kind of cellar).

If you’re as lucky as I hope to be on New Year?s Eve ? forget the mints ? there is nothing sexier than kissing someone whose lips last touched sparkling wine. Mwah!

Sebastiani Deep Throat Says Winery Sold

As a tribute to W. Mark Felt. Sr., the Watergate informant otherwise known as Deep Throat who died yesterday in Sonoma County, this journalist would like to introduce Big Gulp, his very own informant, who leaked that Los Olivos-based Foley Wine Group, has purchased Sonoma?s Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery.

The property was originally planted by Franciscan missionaries in 1825 and later acquired by patriarch Samuele Sebastiani in 1904, who steadily grew the venture into a family empire, replete with sibling rivalries worthy of Falcon Crest. Big Gulp (yep, fresh out of good porno names) could not confirm a purchase price, but did relay that the news came during a company holiday party, which he derided as a ?caddy swim,? a reference to a scene in the film Caddy Shack in which lowly golf caddies were permitted a brief respite in the country club pool.

After bottles of wine and salamis were distributed to staffers, CEO Richard Cuneo announced that, pending due diligence, the sale of Sebastiani will be complete come mid-January. The winery joins a portfolio that also boasts Foley?s Firestone Vineyard (known as much for its scion Andrew Firestone?s turn on the reality show The Bachelor as its wine) and Napa-based Merus, whose logo is an ?M? upon which a graphic designer has scribbled in anguished red.

Cuneo characterized the acquisition as positive for all parties and suggested that few, if any, personnel changes will occur. This bodes well for Big Gulp and his friends in the media who depend on his employee discount on wines like the one served Pope Benedict at last April?s papal visit to the White House.

The sale of Sebastiani follows rumors that at least two?beverage behemoths attempted to purchase the winery. Allegedly, these were Gallo and Diageo, which I personally think should merge and become ?Galileo,? a fitting name for a company that inspires one to peer through the bottom of a glass tilted toward the night sky (and no pesky popes to put one under house arrest for heliocentrism).

Brand Slam

If you pop a cork of bubbly in the Champagne region, of France, it’s champagne. Do the same anywhere else and it’s “sparkling wine.” Why? Because the French are vigilant about the brand identity of one of their most popular exports. And yes, a region can be a brand. So can people. Like Oprah. If Oprah started putting her name on sparkling wine and it subsequently became used as a generic for all sparkling wine, her lawyers would come knocking.

“What are you drinking?”

“You mean sparkling wine?”

“Okay, I’m cheap.”

“When you say ‘Oprah’ when you mean sparkling wine, you’re violating a trademark.”

“I could be violating a birthmark. Think about it.”

“We’d rather not, Mr. Howell.”

“That was awkward, wasn’t it? Really, I meant benchmark. You guys still here? Guys?”

Companies want their products to be ubiquitous and spend millions on marketing and positioning to get there. However, at a certain level of ubiquity, your product’s name can become shorthand for all products in its category. This is why Kleenex takes ads out in Writer’s Digest Magazine pleading with authors to have their characters blow their noses with tissue paper when they mean tissue paper and Kleenex when they mean Kleenex. How many times have you Xeroxed your butt? Millions, I know. Xerox loves it when you use a Xerox machine to “Xerox” your butt, but not when you’re merely photocopying your butt. Having your brand name become a verb is only good when that verb occurs with your product. Like Googling. You can google only at Google – which is genius. And if you’ve been following the news, you would know that no one has ever committed an act of Yahooing, which, I believe, is still illegal in the South.

That said, there are times when brand owners overreach when defending the sanctity of their brands in the market. Like the country of Portugal. Apparently, if it’s not from Portugal, it’s not port – it’s dessert wine. At least according to the European Union. Now, port is not a region in Portugal. It’s an abbreviation. The EU doesn’t care, they want their member country to be happy and have made it a legal issue – if your dessert wine isn’t made in the country of Portugal, it cannot bear the four-letter abbreviation of port. Now, stateside, we have agencies that have to enforce these laws for reasons of international commerce. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has to approve every label of every wine or spirit sold in our country. Consequently, local producers of port have been put in something of a situation. Some, like Peltier Station Winery in Lodi, however, have found a work-around. They simply called their winery’s 2004 zinfandel dessert wine a “USB Port” and feature the iconic digital device plug design on its label. This gimmick has landed the USB Port in magazines, blogs and Web sites worldwide. Moreover, it’s started an examination of how much dominion a region can have in terms of defending a brand identity.

Last year, an article in the Press Democrat described how our wee town of Sonoma had become a “brand” name. The article also explored why the Sonoma name has been plastered on products that have little to no relationship with the town or even the county. Sonoma is known for its wine – not a GMC truck, cigarettes or a gated community in Florida – all of which use the name Sonoma. I’m from Sonoma, but I’ve never smoked a Sonoma while driving a Sonoma on my way to a gated community in Florida. There really is one – you can Yahoo it. And I’m not even going to touch “Sonoma Valley,” the Crabtree & Evelyn Eau de Toilette Perfume. I hear it smells like the Xerox machine.

A Toast to Prohibition

Today, Dec. 5, should be declared a local holiday. No, it is not “a date that shall live in infamy,” nor is it the day “Happiness is a Warm Gun” became sadly ironic for the man who sang it (those dark days are Dec. 7 and Dec. 8, respectively). This, the 339th day of the year, marks the 75th anniversary of the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition. Pop a cork – it’s not that often the government returns a right it has wronged, let alone a right revoked with a constitutional amendment. In this case, the 18th Amendment, otherwise known as the Volstead Act, named for Andrew Volstead, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee (though it was penned by Wayne Wheeler and the Anti-Saloon League – a name, were it not for Wikipedia, I’d assume was a 1960s psychedelic band).

For help imagining Prohibition-era Sonoma, take a peek into Plaza Liquors, which recently emptied its shelves of the demon-water due to a licensing ballyhoo that somehow involved a sting or police, or better, Sting and the Police, which means live music is indeed thriving on the square.
From 1920 to 1933, the powers-that-were enforced a national moratorium on booze, which led to oceans of bathtub gin, the invention of the speakeasy and the inevitable rise of the mob (though a romanticized version of the mob has done good by those Hollywood artists whose names end in a vowel, generally, the Mafia is considered a bad thing – no offense Coppola, Pacino, DeNiro, Gandolfini, etc.). And locally, Prohibition led to the devastation of our wine industry. Prior to the amendment, there were 256 wineries in Sonoma County, but by its repeal, fewer than 50 wineries remained. Not until this year, have winery numbers finally crept back to their pre-Prohibition peak. Yes, Sonoma Valley wine was once an endangered species; now one can’t throw a tasting without hitting a negociant (just a wee jab for those who recall the brawl). Continue reading “A Toast to Prohibition”

Menage a Trois at Whole Foods

A few years ago, Brand Autopsy?s John Moore blogged The Ten Winning Ways of Whole Foods Market in the competitive grocery market, um, market. Point No. 4 was dubbed ?Food as Theater,? in which Moore observed, ??WFM celebrates food like it is a theatrical production.? This simile is especially evident in the wine aisle here in Sonoma, CA, which, thanks to a recent corporate mandate to produce handwritten wine and food pairing suggestions for every bottle on every shelf, is an ensemble cast replete with one-liners.

It?s as if Ionesco tagged up the bottles up with post-its. Many of the suggested pairings teeter on theater of the absurd ? sure, a 2005 Mayo Family Winery zinfandel and a ?pulled chicken sandwich,? stands for reason ? but the notion of pairing a wine with ?a visit from your father? is a wonderfully abstract. Of course, the suggested pairing for the 2007 Folie a Deux ?Menage a Trois? California Red Wine is a favorite. The card simply reads ?Try with two of your friends.? It?s particularly resonant since the winery?s name literally means ?a madness shared by two? in French (love those guys), hence the pun of the wine?s title and the inevitable pairing.? The store?s public relations liaison credits the pairing to wine specialist Kerri Cook and specialty team leader Ian Sharpe (yes, I cared enough to call).? My suggested toast for their suggested pairing: ?Bottoms up!? What, too cheeky?

Threes company.
Three’s company.