Q&A with Jon Bonné, Wine Editor, San Francisco Chronicle

Jon Bonné is The San Francisco Chronicle’s wine editor, responsible for the paper’s wine and spirits coverage and the annual Top 100 Wines list. Before coming to The Chronicle, Bonné was lifestyle editor and wine columnist for MSNBC.com and lived in New York. His work has earned him two James Beard awards and multiple awards from the Association of Food Journalists. Previously Bonné was wine columnist for Seattle Magazine and has written about wine for Food & Wine, Decanter, Saveur, and the Art of Eating. He has also reported for The New York Times, Court TV, and National Public Radio, and is working on a book about California wine. 

What wine varieties would you like to see the public embrace more fully?

So many Italian white varieties should be better known. Vermentino could be a star in California. Ribolla Gialla. Friulano. Grechetto. Timorasso. Ditto Portuguese varieties, but we’re much earlier on the curve. What else? Grenache. It’s everything that people claim to want in red wine, and it doesn’t have Syrah’s years of baggage. For that matter, let’s add Grenache Blanc to the list. It’s remarkably user-friendly.

Much has been written and debated concerning the 100 point rating scale. Some say it empowers consumers, others claim it distorts wine prices, while still others say it has actually changes the quality of wines being produced. What do you see as the pluses and minuses, if any, of the 100 point rating system?

What I think is irrelevant. It’s a fact of life right now. Consumers desired a system to rank wines, a few publications stepped up with 100 points, and the concept took. I finally succumbed to using 100 points for my personal tasting notes because it was more comparatively relevant, and precise, than the endless series of decimal points and hash marks and brain twisters I attempted to use along the way. The bigger question is this: Will the 100-point system be relevant 10 years from now? It’s a system that was essentially created by, and for, Boomers. As their role in the market diminishes, I doubt subsequent generations will care much if a wine got a 94. They want authenticity and context.

Rising wine alcohol levels in U.S. and foreign wines are a hot topic these days in wine circles. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Not to poke holes in the red balloons of the high-alcohol apologists, but the alcohol discussion is here to stay. Consumers care. Wine buyers care. More and more frequently, winemakers care. That became evident when we decided in April to start printing alcohol levels with our reviews. I think that alcohol is an imperfect way to judge a wine. But it does give you a good sense of a winemaker’s intentions. There are relatively few grapes that manifest higher alcohols in a balanced state; Grenache, for instance, can pull off 15 percent in some regions. But as the alcohol conversation has evolved into a discussion of balance, I think it’s important to differentiate “balance” as a legitimate idea from an excuse to use overripe grapes. Balance, for instance, cannot exist in a wine that requires an acid addition or reverse osmosis. It’s never a good idea to set arbitrary rules for acceptable alcohol levels. But the conversation about alcohol is obscuring the conversation we’re not having, which is about the many other problematic winemaking issues that have become standard practice. When we finally start having a useful discussion about those things, the alcohol discussion will taper away.

Your paper and others have capitalized on the public’s fascination with wine, its mystique and allure. The average consumer still feels intimidated by wine and wine-speak. Are publications like the Chronicle partly responsible for the prevalent feeling among consumers that wine is somehow beyond their comprehension?

If we’re going point fingers at the idea that wine is pretentious, let’s start with the spread of overpriced, mass-produced wine sold as an aspirational luxury. I’ll borrow a phrase from a conversation with a fellow writer a few days ago: You write up to your audience, not down. If sportswriters had to explain a two-point conversion every time they mentioned it, we’d all die of boredom. That’s not an excuse to fall into jargon. But there is no shortage of amateur wine criticism out there that doesn’t contribute to the conversation.

Is the role of the sommelier over rated?

The risk among sommeliers nowadays is that the job becomes a vehicle for collecting a bunch of lapel pins and initials after your name. But a sommelier can play such a crucial part in a restaurant. What’s their job? To build a great collection of wine, and then share it with customers. They’re there to delight us and hopefully educate us a little bit along the way. They’re there to create special moments. Can hubris interfere with that? Sure. But let’s not let a few egoists ruin the amazing sommelier culture that this country now enjoys.

The Chronicle’s Wine Competition has been a major force in wine competitions and winning a prominent medal here is hugely important. Do wine competitions truly offer any value to the wineries (other than bragging rights) and more importantly, to the consumer?

That’s a better question for wineries and consumers. I’m more concerned with the value of my editorial recommendations.

What is the biggest concern that your readers have as it relates to wine, ordering wine or buying wine?

They want value for their money.

Do wine writers, wine magazines and wine blogs commit a disservice to consumers by over-rhapsodizing about intricacies in wine most consumers don’t care about? (yeast strains, volatile acidity, clone selection, etc.) Or is the minutia about wine nonetheless important to their wine understanding and enjoyment?

There are always writers who can’t see the forest for the trees. If anything, the problem is usually the opposite: too much writing that can’t properly explain these details or why they matter. People should always be striving to learn more about what makes wine great, why they like what they drink. But successful education is about providing context. If we spend all day talking about black cherry and cedar, we’re doing nothing to explain the timelessness of wine.

It seems as if the wine industry is going the way of the economy in that wine prices increasingly show a financial disparity; the wealthy can afford a $100 Cab, while most consumers are dolling out $10 for another Cab. With so many wines on the market from every corner of the globe, can the wine industry as a whole sustain itself in the long run?

Of course. There will be a shakeout at some point, as there always is. But people love wine - far more now than 20 years ago. The challenge for the California industry is to start making great, honest wines at $12 or $15. That’s the real competition from the rest of the world.

What is the best part of your job?

Winemakers are some of the most interesting, most cultured, most thoughtful people in the world. I get to talk to them every day. What’s not to love about that?