No Weather In Napa, Instead A Restaurant Report 

I love to walk in the evening when it is just getting dark. The lights come on in the houses and I can see people preparing dinner. Very little blue glow from TVs. The light is gold coming from the houses and the people are in their kitchens. Eating is big in Napa.

I sensed a kindred spirit when Parker Hall told me about a friend of his who lives near downtown.  He also walks in the evening, and his ritual is to count the people in the restaurants, "Morimoto was busy. Uva about 15." Parker filmed a cooking demo for the local public access station this afternoon and at the end he included a "Restaurant Report" from his friend.  Only in Napa.

Parker told me this story over dinner with his wife Janet. We had a fresh salad with fuji apples and carrots dressed with his secret (or it should be, but he shares everything) green dressing and enchiladas that were so deeply, roundly and richly flavored with ancho chile steeped in beef stock I'm not likely to forget them soon. 

He cooks for his friends, so don't be a stranger. Get on his Park Hall Comfort Takeout email list for your own enchilada fix. 


Toast: A Wine Label, More Than Just A Pretty Face (from the Vacaville Reporter)

Far Niente Cabernet labelThis column was first published in the Vacaville Reporter on January 15, 2013

Fifty items in 50 minutes -- that's a typical trip to the grocery store. Convenient, yes. Fast, sure. But choosing wine in the supermarket has all the charm of online dating.

Yet grocery sales account for 40 percent of the wine sold in the U.S., which means the mighty wine label needs to tell its story in nine-square inches of paper or less.

Wine marketers and label designers create mental cues, most of them unconscious, that tell the consumer what to expect.

"I am a luxury, I will impress your boss," or "I am an everyday wine, it's Monday, pick me up," and "I am French, ma chérie d'amour!" Creating a label so compelling that it is chosen over the thousands of other bottles of wine on a shelf, it is no wonder that wine-label design must be an exacting art.

Most wineries approach their wine labels, or "trade dress," which includes all aspects of the bottle's appearance, as an ongoing process. Trade dress brings to mind a bottle wearing a dress (I once bought a hula skirt for a wine bottle-- yes they sell such things), but I digress.

According to Jim Caudill, the director of public relations and hospitality at the Hess Collection, wine marketers believe labels and related trade dress need constant care, with regular updates to reflect evolving market tastes. The Hess Select brand was recently refreshed with brighter colors to appeal to younger consumers without alienating their core customers.

"We're constantly absorbing insights and information as we interact with consumers, getting feedback from retailers, our distributor partners, often directly from consumers we talk with at events all around the country," said Caudill.

Given that consumers (would you believe 75 percent!) sometimes can't remember the name of the wine they like, icons on wine labels serve as useful mnemonics. Thus everything from kangaroos to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, all make an appearance.

A friend once recommended an inexpensive syrah, saying "I can't remember the name, but it has a rooster on the label." That sounded simple enough. But gazing at the Safeway syrahs, I wondered, "Which rooster?" I think there were five.

My favorite wine label does not have a rooster on it. An artist who was originally commissioned to create a stained-glass piece for the winery owner’s home designed it. According to Rachelle Newbold, Far Niente Winery's communication coordinator, the label has changed very little since its original vintage in 1979. Framed in gold foil is a pen and ink drawing of the historic winery and vineyards, with the Mayacamas mountains in the background.

Clustered around the drawing are water-colored grapevines in an art-nouveau style. It reminds me of a Tiffany window and the sumptuousness of the label's craftsmanship suggests an equally rich and artistic wine inside.

Far Niente comes from the Italian saying, "dolce far niente," the sweetness of doing nothing, a reminder to take a breath and smell the wine.

A wine label's work is never done. The bottle sits on our table as we drink, melding in our memories the flavors, the food and the friends.

And perhaps, when the party is over, it remains on the counter, too beautiful to throw away. 


Amazon Wine: One Inch, One Second

Screen shot of Amazon's wine storeFollowing with interest Amazon's entry, after two earlier aborts, into the online wine marketplace, this quote in Advertising Age struck me:

"The self has become the screen; the onlycopy truly detectable is price, ounces and a logo," It is even more imperative in the online-shopping experience, as brand are condensed to a one-inch image." (Terri Goldstein, Goldstein Group)

When the "story" is so central to selling wine, and when, presumeably, wineries team up with Amazon to extend their reach, how is that story communicated in one inch and one second of a viewer's attention?  


Does your logo bring to mind a flushing toilet?

Uhboy.  The UC logo folks must have a giant and collective migrane right now.

 I can't say I liked it or "got it," especially the disappearing "C". Now that it's been dubbed a flushing toilet, I'm unlikely to see it as anything else.

 Perpetually loading computer icon? Can you hear me grinding my teeth?

Bottom line, logo changes are perilous, especially when there are so many smart,  vocal, social-media using stakeholders--234,464 of them. I'm surprised there wasn't more student engagement in the design process. Maybe there was- if so, that's the first message I would have sent when unvieling the new look.



Toast: Grandfather's Book Opens Door to Past (Vacaville Reporter)

Note: This was my column published in the Vacaville Reporter on 11/6/12 and the Vallejo Times Herald November 11/7/12.

No one enjoys the guilty pleasure of a season's worth of TV consumed over a weekend as much as I do. I was halfway through the first season of "Boardwalk Empire," the HBO series about Atlantic City bootlegger Nucky Thompson, when a genuine artifact from Prohibition arrived in my mail.

It was a book, "The Complete Wine Book," by Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel, that had once belonged to my grandfather. He died before I knew him, so this connection in the form of a wine book is a treasure. A personal treasure for sure, but it is also a historical gem, because it was published in 1934, months after Prohibition was repealed. It gives the reader a firsthand account of what it was like to be a wine lover at a time when drinking wine was not allowed. Maybe I should say that, legally, it was not allowed, there were loopholes.

People who made wine at home, either because of old-world tradition or new-found necessity, were permitted to make up to 2,000 gallons a year. During Prohibition, the amount of California acreage planted to wine grapes actually increased in order to supply these home winemakers. Yet Schoonmaker and Marvel bemoan the state of domestic viticulture at that time.

The problem was that in order to stay in business during Prohibition, grape growers were forced to uproot their tastier varieties, which were thin-skinned and didn't travel well, for heartier grapes that made inferior wine, which, according to the authors, were the alicante bouschet, zinfandel and petite sirah. I strenuously disagree with their condemnation of zinfandel and petite sirah, but I digress.

It takes about four years for a grapevine to produce a marketable crop, and even longer to age a wine. After repeal, even if grape growers had immediately replanted the better varieties, Americans would have to wait years for good domestic wine.

"To expect of American vineyards any real quantity of fine wine before 1940 or 1945 would be to expect a large-scale repetition of the Miracle of Cana," wrote Schoonmaker and Marvel.

They were also upset with grape growers appropriating the names of French localities such as Chablis, Burgundy and Champagne for California wines.

Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson "There is no indication that California wine would ever be considered as good as European wine. To attempt to maintain, as Mr. William R. Hearst, a loyal Californian, does with laudable, if mistaken, patriotism, that under these conditions the wines of California are 'just as good as those of France, if not better,' is even more ridiculous."

However, the authors were optimistic about the future of California wine, recognizing the ingenuity of California grape growers.

As evidence, they cite a product that may be the most inventive packaged good of the 20th century, the grape block. It was a brick of dried grapes, seeds and pulp, for making "juice," with explicit instructions of what not to do. Don't add sugar or yeast or keep in a dark place, otherwise your juice might ferment and turn to wine, cautions the grape brick label. This marvel of marketing speaks volumes about the eventual demise of Prohibition and ultimate success of California wine, something on which I'm sure my grandfather, Schoonmaker and Marvel and Nucky Thompson could all agree.

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