Everything Changes

Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only thing that is constant is change.” People change. Tastes change. Everything changes.

My wife’s family’s Thanksgiving tradition included a lime Jell-O concoction that was infused with cocktail sauce and baby shrimp. If that weren’t enough to win you over, the gelatinous mixture was molded in the shape of a wriggling fish and placed at the center of the table so people might marvel at the spectacle.

Upon my first experience with this culinary oddity, my most pressing question was: “Do they really expect me to eat this?”

At the end of the table, my future wife’s father eyed me with a Trump-like glare as he urged me with a nod to take a serving. I sliced off a part of the reddish-green tail from the monstrosity and moved it to my plate, where it jiggled sickeningly. I glanced up at my fiancée, hoping for a look of encouragement. Instead, her expression was one of pity.

I took a bite and quickly reached for my napkin. “How’d you like it?” her father asked. His tone was that of a drill sergeant.

“I loved it?” I said, more like a question than a statement.

Later, he confided that he couldn’t stand the stuff—but if he had to eat it, then I had to eat it. That’s when I really came to appreciate his sense of humor. Traditions.

Since everything changes (happily, in this case), shrimp-flavored Jell-O has been replaced with organic kale and twice-baked tofu. And when I look across the table at my daughter’s boyfriend, I try to give him the same hard look my father-in-law gave me more than 30 years ago. What does this have to do with wine or the vineyard? Hold your horses, I’ll get to that. But first, here’s a little more about change.

For years, the New York Times has raved about Thomas Keller’s restaurant, The French Laundry in Yountville. When Keller opened a version of his famous eating establishment called Per Se in New York City, the Times gave it four stars. But because everything changes, in January 2016, Per Se received a crushing two-star review from the Times, the reviewer asking the question, “Is Per Se worth the time and money?” The answer, apparently, was “No.”

That first glowing review had effects: More people came to the restaurant, and the mystery and allure of Keller’s culinary proclivities were raised to near-godlike levels. A few years later, the luster is lost from that once-shiny Big Apple gem, and I feel certain that, after this last review many diners and reviewers will be on to the next new restaurant.

So how does all this relate to wine? As of this writing, oil prices have dropped to less than $30 per barrel, and commodity prices are also dropping. Historically when this happens, lots of people rush out to replant their vineyards because the cost of doing so is low. Couple this with the skyrocketing price of grapes and wine—especially the most currently popular varieties—and predictions are that vineyard replanting is likely to continue at a breakneck pace for the foreseeable future.

Now, if you’re a winemaker or vineyard owner, you might be thinking, “Hey, I can make a ton of money if I just make more of what’s popular today.”

But if you do, then I recommend you remember Heraclitus. Everything changes.

As you think about what the future might hold for Wine Country, it’s important to consider current trends. Consumers are leaning toward red blends, obscure varietals and dryer white wines. There’s also a new breed of winemaker out there that’s pushing past what’s been a recipe for success in the recent past. Of course, we must learn from the past and appreciate the excellent work that’s led us to become the world-class winemaking region we’ve become. But if history is any indication of the future, what we can expect is fickle consumers, increased scrutiny and continually raised expectations. Are all these things challenging to deal with? Ask Keller.

As of today, Northern California Wine Country is still considered relatively innovative and focused on providing excellent quality wines—and there are literally thousands of people working every day to keep it that way. But we should all keep that recent Per Se review in the back of our minds. Unless we keep pushing forward with unceasing effort, execution and integrity, the shine rubs right off, and what remains underneath could look a lot like a quivering, shrimp-infused Jell-O molded into the shape of a dead fish—dated, unappetizing and stale.


Originally published in the Northbay Biz magazine, March 2016 Issue