National Geographic: No More Juice in The Camera

logoI was saddened to learn of layoffs this week at The National Geographic Society as Rupert Murdoch’s takeover went into effect. Although staffers had been promised that no changes in direction would take place, a number of the magazine’s most senior and award-winning writers and photographers have been terminated, and cuts have taken place at the National Geographic (cable) Channel as well. About 9% of the Society’s 2000 employees have been pink-slipped in all departments, and buyout offers are in place for others.

To be honest, I have not subscribed to NatGeo for a very long time; a subscription was given to me as a gift when I was young, and I continued it for a number of years. But even though I was not a regular reader, I had always held the magazine, and more recently the cable channel, in the highest regard, due to their superb photography, thorough and educational writing, and stellar production values. In a world where anyone with a camera phone and a PC can call herself a “photo-journalist,” NatGeo set the bar, and they set it very high.

My attachment to National Geographic became more personal in about 1990 (the exact year escapes me) when I hired award-winning NatGeo photographer Dewitt Jones to be the keynote speaker at my company’s annual retreat, held in Las Vegas that particular year. These outings were equal parts fun and business, and always included an outside speaker to help us expand our creative horizons (our company was an advertising agency). I believe I paid more to hire Mr. Jones than I paid for the entire rest of the trip, but the investment was well worth the cost.


From Dewitt’s website; he has since turned the presentation into a short film.

His presentation was titled “Is there juice in your camera?” Dewitt told us of a chance encounter he had with a 5-year-old boy who held a toy camera that was actually a juice box. When the boy squeezed the camera, he could take a sip of juice. Although cobwebs now cloud my memory of his entire presentation, Jones worked this analogy into a story of looking beyond the obvious visual answer and finding a more dramatic and creative way to achieve a desired result. In our case, the subject was creative problem solving, but the analogy worked well for many facets of life where one’s passion can be harnessed to do powerful things. Naturally, Jones incorporated amazing photographs (and the stories behind them) into this presentation, often showing the first few shots he would take of a scene and then the final, published “wow moment.”

It was compelling stuff, and my team was motivated. After his presentation, I split everyone into small groups, handed them a disposable camera (hey, it was 1990!) and a list of photo subjects and sent them off with “juice” to go take the most creative shots they could get from a list I provided. They had the afternoon to complete the list and then turn in the photos to be developed. The next day we retrieved the photos and teams presented their efforts to much laughter and amusement, and prizes were awarded.

In August of 2014 we held an agency reunion dinner, and it was heartwarming to hear team members recall this particular guest speaker and their memories of the event some 24 years later.

The point of the walk down memory lane is to explain why the cuts at National Geographic had such an emotional impact on me. I am a journalist at heart, and it has been painful to witness the demise of professional writing as technology has accelerated. What passes as “journalism” or “news” these days is pathetic. As newspapers and magazines have become supplanted as sources of information, so many good writers have lost not only their ability to make a living, but the opportunity to inform, educate and inspire us. They have been replaced by freelancers who work for pennies to craft crap that fills online pages that deliver ads to the masses. It appalls me to think that people work all day at Buzzfeed to create lists of “ten things you should or shouldn’t do” that become “content” on websites that millions of people click on just so the host website can deliver ten ads to unsuspecting readers.

I could go on with the rant but my complaints are nothing new. It saddens me to see one of the last bastions of editorial and photographic excellence lose so much of the juice that made it special.



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How Uber Ratings Work for Passengers and Drivers

uberPeople who have hailed an Uber car at least once know that they must rate their driver on a scale of 1-5 stars at the end of the ride, or before they are allowed to order a subsequent ride. Drivers, conversely, must rate the passenger before being allowed to accept the next ride request. This system, built into the Uber passenger and driver apps, ensures that ratings are collected on each and every Uber ride.

After more than 300 trips as an Uber driver, I have come to realize that most passengers have little or no idea how those ratings work and what they mean in terms of the quality of service that riders receive.

Most passengers understand that drivers rate them, but a passenger usually does not know what his or her cumulative rating is. The only ways to find out are to email Uber and ask, or the passenger may ask a driver to tell them. Most of my guests tell me that they have no idea what their rating is, and a few ask me to look it up. I have not yet had reason to say no, because all of my riders have had ratings above 4.0, as far as I know. (I do not always look.)

Ideally, passengers who follow the basic code of Uber conduct (enter the correct pick-up location in the app, be ready to go when the driver arrives, don’t eat or drink in the car, be polite, don’t leave junk behind, and don’t throw up in the car) receive a rating of 5. If any of those items are not followed, chances are great the driver will knock the rating down by a point or more.

A single low score won’t hurt a rider’s overall rating much, but multiple low scores can give a rider a below average rating. What does this mean for the rider? First let me explain how the system works:

When a driver receives a pick-up request, he has 15 seconds to accept it before the ride is offered to another driver. In those 15 seconds, drivers have to quickly assess whether they want to accept the ride or not (drivers are required to accept 80% of the rides they are offered.) The only information drivers receive in that short period of time is the passenger’s location. Drivers are NOT told where the rider wants to go, much to most peoples’ surprise, until the passenger is in the car and the “Start Trip” button is pressed. A driver may reject a request if the pick-up location is far away (I sometimes decline requests to pick up in Sonoma, 40 minutes away, because I may only get a 5 minute ride out of it).

If a driver accepts the ride request in those 15 seconds, then he is told the passenger’s name, and can see their rating.

If the driver looks at the phone and sees that “Joe” has a low rating, the driver will sometimes immediately cancel the ride through the app and not continue to the pick-up location. No reason is given to the passenger; Joe just receives a message that the driver has canceled the ride, and Joe must start over. Joe has no idea that he has been rejected due to his low rating.

To date, I have yet to decline a ride solely based on a rider’s rating. However, I have given low scores to riders who eat or drink in my car, are not at the location they entered on the app, or were rude (either to me or, in one case, to his wife.)

Now, what about driver ratings?

What almost no passengers seem to know is that drivers must maintain an average rating of 4.6 stars or they get booted out of the system and are required to take a remediation class from Uber. Yes, you read that right—4.6. Seems like a very high bar, doesn’t it? Now of course, a driver’s rating is based on at least a hundred rides, so a few low scores are not going to adversely affect any particular driver. But I have talked to many passengers who have no idea that this threshold exists. And many of these passengers rate drivers like my old Silicon Valley employers did: namely, most drivers get a 3 rating if they show up and do their job as expected. A few get 4’s if they do something really remarkable. And maybe 1% get 5’s if they go way above and beyond.

In Uber’s way of thinking, if a driver does everything just as expected, the rider should award him with a 5 rating, not a 3. This can complicate life for a driver if too many passengers use the corporate way of grading. Having learned the hard way early on, many drivers, including myself, do everything we can to exceed our passengers’ Uber expectations. In my case, I jump out and open doors for my riders both at pick-up and drop-off (if safe), and ask the passengers if they have a particular type of music they would like to hear from my Sirius radio. I often carry bottled water in the warmer months and will offer it to passengers on a longer ride. I keep my car clean, dress well, and offer pleasant conversation and Napa Valley insights if appropriate.

In the long run, the rating system helps assure passengers they will get a decent driver and car. If your driver is late, surly, has a dirty car, plays the music too loud, gets lost or takes a longer route than necessary, then by all means rate him low. If enough passengers do that, a rider won’t be around too long. But just remember, the driver will rate you also. So do your best to be a passenger deserving of a high score.uber

If your Uber ride goes off just as expected, even if it’s nothing flashy, don’t hesitate to give the driver 5 stars. It’s the same reason I give 5 stars to almost all my passengers, even if they aren’t the most personable people I have ever met.

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Harvest 2015: Chaos on the Crush Pad

New empty barrels sit beside lasy tear's full barrels at White Rock Vineyards.

New empty barrels sit beside last year’s full barrels at White Rock Vineyards.

Traditionally, September and October are when the Napa Valley grape harvest is in full swing. The Valley comes alive during that time; the roads choked with trucks hauling tons of grapes in those ubiquitous white bins. The air is ripe with the smell of fermenting grapes, and wine club members fill the hotels and restaurants as they gather to attend one of the countless winery release parties and harvest events. It’s a heady time, to be sure, for both locals and visitors. But this year, the tourists who arrive from mid-September on may find they missed the party.

Harvest has come early this year. Way early.

Thanks to Mother Nature, the normal harvest schedules have been accelerated by about a month. While some pundits and newspaper reporters have attributed this to the ongoing drought, others, including winemaker Cathy Corison, argue that is not exactly the case. While California is indeed in the throes of a four-year drought, the Napa Valley actually received plenty of rain last winter, although in just a few concentrated storms. The true problem was that the month of January was rain-free and warmer than usual, which meant the vines started growing earlier than normal. Since bud break happened a month early, it makes perfect sense that harvest has to also happen a month earlier than expected. It wasn’t just a lack of rainfall, per se.

A typical harvest season starts quietly in August. During that month, sparkling wine grapes are harvested by the few wineries that make bubbles. Meanwhile, at all the other wineries, workers spend the month bottling the previous vintage’s wines and shipping them off to storage. Then they spend many hours cleaning and prepping the newly-emptied barrels and tanks for re-use when the grapes are harvested in September. New barrels (“new oak”) are also delivered during August, and also have to be prepped to receive juice. Come September, most of the cooler grape types (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and others) start coming in to the winery. Most Cabernet grapes will normally hang until October. So there is a nice, easy controlled rhythm in the valley from August through October.

But this year is different. And for some wineries, this accelerated timetable has created some chaotic conditions on the crush pad.

The early harvest saw sparkling grapes being processed as early as July 22nd, the earliest date on record. The wineries that normally harvest in early September began to realize that things would be happening earlier than usual, and that presented timing challenges. Rather than bottling a month before harvest, this year’s accelerated schedule meant that wineries would be bottling, cleaning and harvesting almost simultaneously.

A visit to White Rock Vineyards in Napa last week revealed that they were bottling last year’s wines, cleaning out the old barrels, accepting a new shipment of barrels and processing some early Chardonnay fruit on the same day. Over in Sonoma and up in Santa Rosa, respectively, Patz & Hall and Pisoni wineries were alternating days of bottling and cleaning with days of processing newly-picked grapes. For wineries with small staffs, this can create even more stress and longer hours than usual during the time-sensitive harvest period.

While some Cabernet grapes are coming off the vines now, most will be harvested in September, assuming the weather stays cooperative. Yields will be lower than in the past three years, owing to cool growing conditions early in the season which resulted in uneven flowering and fruit set. Due to this, most vineyards dropped a lot of fruit early to allow the remaining clusters to ripen fully. Also, after the last three vintages which yielded more tonnage than normal, many vintners have chosen to not over-tax their vines for a fourth straight year and will be happy with a smaller but nicely-concentrated crop.

So while the Napa Valley is busy with activity now, one can expect things to really be in full swing in early September when the Cabernet grapes start rolling in. The silver lining to all this may be, for this year anyway, that the vintners will be able to relax and enjoy the harvest parties with their wine club members in October.




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Starmont: A “New” Carneros Winery Worth A Visit

starmont_winery_1_20131125_1346039348Yesterday afternoon we visited Starmont, a “new” winery in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley that I predict will become an instant hit due to its combination of location, ambience, and delicious affordable wines.

Although the building and property have been in place since the late 2000s, the winery did not open to the public for direct sales until late last month (July, 2015). It seems the economic crisis of 2008 hit just as the winery was getting ready to open, and it was too much of a hardship for the owners to go direct at the time. Instead, they focused on wine production for distribution, and also sold many of their grapes to their sister winery, Merryvale, located in St. Helena.


The patio and grounds are dog-friendly!

Now, with the wine economy in full gear again, the owners felt it was time to reach out to the direct market and open the winery to tours and tastings. While reservations are required for the daily estate hike and barrel tasting, no reservations are necessary if you just want to drop in, which is what we did, with our dachshund Sadie, late on a Saturday afternoon. (Yes, they are dog-friendly!)

Situated just to the south and west of the towering Butler Bridge off highway 29, the Starmont winery is located at the end of Stanly Lane, which is accessible from highway 121 off of 29. The modern visitor center is very open air, and is surrounded by a sea of vineyards. This cool climate gets some lovely afternoon breezes from the San Pablo Bay, making it a comfortable place to sit outside and sip their wines, as compared to the blistering heat you might find this time of year up valley.

Being Carneros, the winery produces wines that thrive in these cooler conditions. Along with the usual suspects of Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they also produce several other wines, including a Merlot, a Cabernet (which I did not taste), a Viognier and a really nice Syrah, which is made in the Côte-Rôtie style (meaning that it has some Viognier blended in with the Syrah.)


Estate label (l) and Signature label (r)

Commensurate with the opening of the new tasting facility, Starmont has introduced two new label designs for its wines. The label with the S wrapped around a star is for their distribution wines, and the label without the S-star is for their Limited and Estate wines. Both labels still feature the distinctive shape of their building.

The 5 distribution wines, produced in large volumes, are referred to as “Starmont Signature Wines” and range in price from $19 to $29 retail. Yes, you read that right.


The price list; tastings are $20 and $35

The “Limited and Estate Wines,” which are made in much smaller production lots and only available through the winery, range from $19 to $55. Yes, you also read that right. The tasty Syrah I mentioned above, for example, is only $45, but only 50 cases were produced.

Two tastings are available: The Starmont Carneros Tasting (four Signature/distribution wines and the Estate Pinot Noir for $20 a flight) and the Starmont Single Vineyard Tasting (Rosé, Viognier, Estate Chardonnay, Estate Pinot and Estate Syrah for $35 a flight). We had one of each so we could try all the wines. As a wine writer, they comped our tasting, although I tried to dissuade them from doing so. (I never want to feel obligated to write a nice review just because I was comped.) However, we ended up purchasing a case of wine anyway, so in the end the point was moot. I decided to write about the winery due to it being new, and a great alternative to many of the high-priced wineries in the valley.


Outdoor seating, and tasting room in the rear of photo


Cornhole on the lawn!

A suggestion for those of you electing to visit is this: If you go as a group of 4 people, buy three different bottles of their wine (less than the cost of 4 tastings) and sit on the patio, soak in the breeze and the classic rock music playing on the speakers, and enjoy the Carneros experience! On the patio they even have couches and fire pits, which will be great as the weather gets cooler. They have lovely seating areas inside and outside, a laid-back vibe, and even Cornhole stations set up on the lawn. This is a great winery to visit as your last stop of the day due to its location at the south end of the Napa Valley and its proximity to the highway back to the bay area.tasting room


Posted in Napa, Uncategorized, Wine | 1 Comment

My Secret Life As An Uber Driver

uber2It’s time to confess: for the past six weeks I have been driving for Uber here in the Napa Valley. Up to this point only a handful of people have been in on this little secret, but it ‘s finally to the point where I want to share this interesting new endeavor and relate some of my experiences and opinions.

Over the next couple of weeks I will write a few blog posts about different aspects of my Uber life. There is far too much to communicate in a single post, and I learn or observe new things every day, so I will want to keep it current. My hope is that you will find these writings to be educational and maybe even humorous. If you have any questions about Uber, and how it works, let me know and I will be happy to answer them. It has been interesting to me that many Uber riders do not fully understand how the system works, so I am happy to share what I know.

Before I go much further, I want to say this: I am having a blast! This has exceeded my expectations about how much fun I could have driving around in my car for several hours a day. The experience is also teaching me what makes some people very successful in the customer service industry, while others fail miserably.

For those of you who have yet to experience Uber personally, Uber is a point-to-point ride sharing service that is part of what is now being called “the sharing economy.” At Uber, a person like me can turn his personal car into a taxicab, for all intents and purposes. A rider requests a ride using his smartphone, and is immediately paired with a driver in the area, who is also logged on to an app on his smartphone. A map guides the driver to the rider’s location, at which time the fare officially begins. The driver then takes the rider to the desired location, using a navigation map provided by the driver’s smartphone app. At the completion of the ride, the rider exits, the driver marks the ride as completed, and the fare is calculated and automatically charged to the rider’s pre-supplied debit or credit card. No cash changes hands, unless the rider wants to offer a tip in cash. The driver and the rider must rate each other on a scale of 1-5 stars before either can take a subsequent ride. The total fare (based on time plus distance, and any surge fees for low-supply/high-demand situations) is split thusly: the first dollar goes to Uber for a rider fee, then Uber takes 25% of the remaining fare and I get 75%. Uber calculates my fares each day, in real-time, and deposits my earnings into my bank account every Thursday.

There is a little more to it than that, which I will cover over time in my posts, but that is the simplistic explanation of how this works.

To complete this first blog post, I want to mention why I decided to abandon my never-ending pursuit of “all things wine” in favor of driving tourists around the Napa Valley. Since moving to Napa a little over four years ago, I have come to realize that the valley is not about wine; it is about hospitality. People here, whether in the wine business or not, want to share their bounty and good fortune with locals and visitors alike. Sure, there are always exceptions to this theory, but it never ceases to amaze me how generous and giving the people of the Napa Valley are with whatever they have.

I mentioned this to a passenger yesterday and he practically jumped out of my back seat and said “Yes! I agree with you 100%!” So, for me, driving for Uber (in Napa, anyway) is my way of sharing my home with visitors from around the world. I thoroughly enjoy being an “Ambassador for the Valley,” as another passenger referred to me just this morning. Because I know about the history of the valley, how wine is made, the economics of the industry, and personally know so many of its players, I am a really good tour guide for my guests. So much so, that several have hired me to be their guide for the day (all through Uber, of course). So this has become a way for me to amuse, delight and educate my guests, to the extent they are interested in that. And it is more fun than I ever thought it would be.

I will share more about the experience, my opinions of Uber, my observations on riders and much more in the coming weeks. And as I stated before, please let me know if you have any questions about Uber and how it works.

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