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    Published on: August 21, 2008

    Now available on iTunes…

    To hear Kevin Coupe’s weekly radio commentary, click on the “MNB Radio” icon on the left hand side of the home page, or just go to:

    Hi, I’m Kevin Coupe, and this is MorningNewsBeat Radio, brought to you by Webstop, experts in the art of retail website design services.

    One of the things that is most important in business is to have an accurate sense of who you are and what your company does. Sure, it is important to have dreams and aspirations, but it is equally important to know where the flaws are. Somebody once said to Michael Sansolo and me that as people grow their various businesses, “it is important not to breathe your own exhaust.”

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because of a retailer that I know that isn’t as good as he thinks he is. He’s very good, but he and his stores don't walk on water…and sometimes I get the feeling that he’s forgotten that simple truth. Sometimes the produce isn’t as fresh as advertised, sometimes the employees are surly and uninformed, and sometimes the prepared meals are mediocre. Not always, but sometimes. And enough so that there ought to be some warning bells going off somewhere.

    Which makes me think about breathing one’s own exhaust.

    The hard truth is that it is the criticisms that you get from shoppers – even the irate complaints that seem to make no rational sense – that help you learn. Do you have a way of accumulating complaints, whether through a suggestion box at your front end or via email? How much attention do you pay to notes and emails? Do you answer every one? (The retailer I have in mind does not. I know, because I’ve tested it numerous times, signing my wife’s maiden name.) And there ought to be a firm rule about how long it takes to answer every question or comment. No exceptions.

    The thing is, even the best of us sometimes lose touch with reality. I became aware of this recently when Mrs. Content Guy and I were was chatting with someone, and that person, for a reason that I cannot remember, asked me how tall I am.

    Now, I’m five-eight-and-three-quarters. But at some point, many years ago, probably because of a girl somewhere, I rounded that up to five-nine. Over time, I sort of forgot how tall I was, and started telling people that I was five-nine-and-three-quarters. And then I rounded that up to five-ten.

    During that recent conversation, asked how tall I was, I rounded it up again…and suddenly I was “almost five-eleven.”

    I said it, and Mrs. Content Guy gave me one of those looks that only a wife can give a husband after 25 years of marriage, and said, ‘You are such a moron. You’re not five-eleven.” At which point I realized what I’d done over the years.

    Needless to say, this became an immediate source of amusement for my wife and kids. The joke around my house is that if I live long enough, I’ll be six-three.

    I was breathing my own exhaust, and I choked on it.

    Memo to retailers, even to the best of you, the ones who may be reading and believing your own press clippings. Take a deep breath, and get real.

    You’ll only be better for the experience.

    For MorningNewsBeat Radio, I’m Kevin Coupe.

    KC's View:

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    Good column in Advertising Age by Jennifer Maxwell-muir in which she suggests that a kind of “green fatigue” is sweeping the nation, as people find that the surfeit of information, options, hype and fear about the future of the planet is making them almost paralyzed about making choices and exhausted from trying to examine all the information at hand.

    And, she writes: “There also is growing uncertainty about the effectiveness of personal actions, despite the truest of intentions. People are so bombarded by ‘helpful’ advice that they're becoming consumed with anxiety over making the right decision. Local or organic? Carpool or green tags? Bath or shower? The choices are endless. And just when you think you're making the right one, such as using Nalgene as refillable water bottles, you find out that's not right either. Now you've got another thing to worry about: BPA.”

    And so, Maxwell-muir suggests steps for how to avoid “eco-fatigue,” which include:

    • “Be remarkable,” and make sure your green product solves a specific and significant consumer problem while working or tasting better than anything else in the market.

    • “Be green because it is something you value, not as a marketing gimmick.”

    • “Make it fun and engaging,” because boring green products often end up being just boring product failures. There’s no reason, she suggests, that a green product can't be “well-designed, smell beautiful and work well.” And if it can’t…well, then maybe the product shouldn’t exist.

    • “Partner with an established nonprofit,” because such alliances can create something bigger than just a green product; it can tap into a movement and make consumers part of the solution.

    And, Maxwell-muir writes, it is important to move beyond green: “Green is a fad. Sustainability is continual improvement. If you're only looking at energy consumption, you're just scratching the tip of the iceberg. Businesses that endorse a ‘triple-bottom-line’ approach -- Organic Valley Farms, New Belgium and Clif Bar, to name a few – also address their affect on society in their communities. Environment is the third leg of the stool, but without the other two, you wouldn't have a place to sit.”

    KC's View:
    Boy, does she have this right. Excellent piece, excellent conclusions.

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    CNN reports that a new study by the University of Copenhagen suggests that organic foods contain no more nutrients than foods raised using traditional methods.

    According to the story, “Researchers studied five different crops -- carrots, kale, mature peas, apples and potatoes -- which were cultivated both organically (without pesticides) and conventionally (with the use of pesticides) and found that there was no higher level of trace elements in the food grown organically.

    The conclusions are seen as supporting the notion that buying and eating organic foods is a “lifestyle choice,” not an option with implications for health and nutrition. Indeed, CNN notes that there also is a debate raging among academics and scientists about whether organic agriculture is better for the environment than traditional agriculture. Both debates – nutrition and environment – seems aimed at slowing the growth of the organic food movement, which has been faster than the traditional food industry over the past few years.

    However, CNN also offers this caveat about the University of Copenhagen study: “It should be noted that the study does not make conclusions about the comparative levels of pesticides or chemicals in conventionally and organically grown food or the health effects of consuming such chemicals.”

    KC's View:
    I’m not sure how you do a study about the nutritional quality of organic vs. traditional foods and not examine pesticide and chemical levels. That seems like sort of going halfway…

    Once again this is going to be a scientific debate that is going to confuse some consumers, while others are going to continue buying organic food products because they have belief sets about the environmental and nutritional superiority of these items.

    I have to admit that common sense suggests to me that the University of Copenhagen study isn’t quite right – that products grown with fewer chemicals and pesticides by their very nature must be healthier for people and the planet. (And it makes me wonder exactly who funded the study.)

    And as for buying organic products being a lifestyle choice…exactly what is the problem with that? Isn’t wanting to eat better, purer products that have less of a negative impact on the environment a perfectly acceptable lifestyle choice?

    Some of these people make me nuts.

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that “in the latest effort to tailor ads to specific consumers, marketers are starting to personalize in-store promotions based on products the consumer recently picked off a shelf or purchased -- and in the near future, based on what the shopper looks like.

    “Dunkin’ Donuts,” the story goes on, “is among the first marketers in the U.S. to begin testing the technologies, at two locations in Buffalo, N.Y. People ordering a coffee in the morning can see ads at the cash register promoting the chain's hash browns or breakfast sandwiches. At the pick-up counter, customers see ads prompting them to return for a coffee break in the afternoon and try an oven-toasted pizza.

    “In a separate test, Procter & Gamble is placing radio-frequency identification tags on products at a Metro Extra retail store in Germany so that when a customer pulls the product off the shelf, a digital screen at eye level changes its message. When a consumer picks out a shampoo for a particular type of hair, for instance, the screen recommends the most appropriate conditioner or other hair products.”

    There remains considerable debate about the efficacy of such programs, and much of it seems keyed to whether consumers will find such efforts to be intrusive; after all, these technologies don’t exist in a vacuum, and shoppers are constantly being bombarded with messages and sales pitches.

    KC's View:
    Where this really gets interesting, in a “Star Trek”/”Minority Report” sort of way, is when these companies start using things like facial recognition software to ascertain who the customer is and therefore better customize messages to those shoppers. There will, of course, be privacy issues…

    I’m not sure where the line is on all this. In all probability, nobody is going to know until the line has been crossed and we reach a point when diminishing returns converge with outraged shoppers.

    “Things are impossible until they’re not,” Jean-Luc Picard once said. Or will say. We seem to be rapidly getting to the point where almost nothing seems impossible.

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    The Tampa Bay Business Journal reports that Publix has opened its first stand-alone meal assembly store, called Apron’s Make-Ahead Meals, in Lithia, Florida.

    According to the story, “The Apron’s customers assemble meals using Publix ingredients and recipes. Customers prepay online for packages costing $59.99, $109.99, $134.99 or $189.99 when they register … to reserve a time and browse menu selections. The Apron’s has meal assembly stations where customers utilize ready-to-cook ingredients. The meals are then packaged and kept refrigerated until the session is complete.”

    In addition, the store features a program that allows customers to simply buy preassembled meals without all the trouble of cooking.

    KC's View:
    I have to admit that I have trouble getting a handle on the meal assembly business. While I tend to think that it sounds like an interesting niche that could work in the right locations and with the right demographic (which I’d guess skews elderly, but who knows?), there are people who tell me that this trend is so last year.

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    The public relations department at Ahold-owned Stop & Shop is having a good morning today…

    The Boston Globe this morning has a piece by its technology columnist, Hiawatha Bray, in which he describes Stop & Shop as “the most geeked-out shopping experience in America.” (That’s a good thing.)

    Bray writes: “Many of Stop & Shop's 376 stores feature a variety of digital devices that let customers weigh their own veggies, order deli meats by using a video touch screen, and pay their bills without human assistance. Many other retailers, like Stop & Shop's main Boston-area rival, Shaw's Supermarkets Inc., offer self-checkout. But Stop & Shop has gone further than any of its rivals to automate our trips to the grocery.

    “The company has quietly deployed the technology in dozens of locations since 2005. Now, it will plug the gadgets into many more stores over the next year, as part of a major face lift.”

    Bray writes that “after years as a faithful Shaw's customer, I switched to the Stop & Shop in Quincy because its grocery tech gets me in and out of the store so much faster. Besides, it's cool.

    “Especially the device at the heart of the Stop & Shop system, the Scan It personal scanner. Shaped like a bar of soap with a pistol grip, the Scan It has been deployed in about 90 Stop & Shops, the first large-scale deployment of the system anywhere in the world.

    “Scan It is a lot sleeker and simpler than the first personal scanners introduced by Stop & Shop in 2005. The old device, called Shopping Buddy, was about as big and heavy as a laptop computer and overburdened with features shoppers didn't need, like a digital map of the store or games to keep children occupied while their parents shopped … The new version, introduced last year, keeps things simple. You activate it by scanning a Stop & Shop ‘loyalty card,’ the kind you may already use to get discounts on various items. Now just walk the aisles. When you pick an item, aim the Scan It at the barcode and press a button. The device tracks each selection and the total price of your purchases.

    “The do-it-yourself strategy also applies to items that aren't scanner-friendly, like deli meats and vegetables. You can use a touch-screen computer to place deli orders; when your corned beef is ready, Scan It flashes you a message. For produce, scales calculate the correct price when you punch in a four-digit code for each item. Out pops a barcoded sticker.”

    Meanwhile, as Bray waxes rhapsodic about the technology-driven shopping experience at Stop & Shop, the company also is gaining notices from a number of papers today about it new logo.

    As the Hartford Courant reports, “Goodbye red light, green light. Hello fruit slices? Stop & Shop is shelving its decades-old logo and replacing it with one that's composed of yellow, red, purple and green wedges. The company's decades-old logo resembles a traffic light; the new logo's symbolism is less defined … (and) will begin appearing in Stop & Shop's 376 stores on Friday.”

    Giant/Landover, which is part of Ahold and is run by Stop & Shop, also is unveiling a new and similar logo…

    KC's View:
    Mimosas for everyone in Stop & Shop’s communications department. Or take ‘em out for a nice big lunch. There are good days and bad days, and they just had a good day.

    However, because I can’t help myself…

    I would point out that there are a lot of people out there who suggest that Giant’s declining fortunes in the DC-Baltimore area can be attributed to less of a local focus than the company used to have. Now, with logos that are virtually identical, the connection between Stop & Shop and Giant is even stronger and the lessening of local control seems more evident.

    The questions will be these: Has “Giant” become just a name in the DC area? Has it stopped representing a brand with any sort of compelling local resonance?

    And I suspect that there will be those who will say that this has happened already, and the that confluence of new logos simply confirms something that happened a long time ago, and that saddens people for whom the word “Giant” had real meaning.

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    • The San Antonio Business Journal reports that Walmart and Tesoro Corp. have decided to close 42 Mirastar gas stations that have been operating at Walmart stores around the country. The decision leaves 32 other Walmart locations where Tesoro will continue to operate gas stations. No reason was given for the move, other than Tesoro saying that it was a “business decision.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    USA Today reports this morning that “federal officials say fresh jalapeno and serrano peppers from Mexico pose a salmonella risk, but the peppers are still selling in the U.S. and for much less than their U.S. rivals. Buyers tend to be small Hispanic grocers and mom and pop restaurants, while big supermarkets and restaurants shun the Mexican supply, distributors say.”

    • The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is saying that food prices are expected to increase by between five and six percent this year, the biggest rise in two decades and at least a percentage point higher than projected just a month ago. An increase of between four and five percent is expected to occur again next year, according to the USDA.

    USA Today writes that high fuel and food prices seem to be “nibbling away at the high growth rates long enjoyed by organic and natural food makers and sellers. Sales growth has slowed but remains strong because of the loyalty of core organic buyers, some industry executives say. They also say new customers are tougher to attract, given that organics can cost 10% to 50% more than non-organic rivals.”

    In some cases, executives say, customers are being more specific about their choices – picking organic options in categories that they assign greater importance to, but moving to traditional food items in other grocery, less important grocery segments.

    • The New York Times this morning reports that some companies, having spent a lot of time shutting down brands that they saw as being in decline or not part of their core businesses, now are looking to those discarded icons as possible engines for new growth. Why? “It can cost significantly less to bring back a brand — or restore the luster to a faded one — than to develop a new product, because spending huge sums to generate awareness is not necessary,” the Times writes.

    Among the names that are seen as re-emerging from obscurity: Hydrox cookies, Eagle snacks, and Postum.

    • As expected, Tesco has sold 13 of its UK properties for the equivalent of $1.2 billion (US), and will lease the buildings back to continue operating as stores. The real estate represents 2.4 percent of its UK store portfolio, and was sold to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, PRUPIM, LaSalle Investment Management and Canada Life.

    • Winn-Dixie has announced that it has become a member of Topco Associates for procurement of its private label products.

    KC's View:

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    • BJ’s Wholesale Club reports that its second quarter net sales, which exclude membership fee revenue, rose 17.9 percent to $2.65 billion from $2.25 billion. Same-store sales were up 15.5 percent, including an 8.1 percent contribution from sales of gasoline. Membership fees and other revenue rose to $48.1 million from $46.8 million.

    Q2 profit was $36.5 million, up from $36.3 million, a year earlier.

    • Longs Drug Stores, about to be acquired by CVS Caremark, said that its second quarter earnings were $27.5 million, compared to $26.6 million in last year's second quarter.

    Q2 sales were $1.33 billion in revenue, up from $1.27 billion in the same period last year, on same-store sales that were off 1.1 percent.

    KC's View:

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    • Food Lion announced that Mark Messier, the company’s vice president of retail services, has been promoted to the role of vice president of U.S. Supply Chain for Delhaize Group, Food Lion’s parent company.

    Greg Finchum, who has been serving as Food Lion’s director of Retail Labor and Standards, is being promoted to succeed Messier as vice president of Retail Services.

    KC's View:

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    Responding to yesterday’s piece about how small coffee shops no longer are as concerned about competition from Starbucks as they used to be, MNB-fave Glen Terbeek wrote:

    Retailers should never get bigger than the local market. When will they learn. There is no reason why a large retailer can't run itself as a collection of small "market modules" (like many independents, ) which are supported by the power of a central organization for non market related functions (i e buying, accounting, logistics, etc). In other words, the local market modules drive the business, not the other way around.

    History shows that very few large retailers made it very long, being run centrally. After all the central guys making the decisions can't have any sense of local markets' needs, I would guess they don't even know where the stores are.

    If any retailer is a local experience, it is a coffee shop. If Starbucks has any chance of being successful long term, they better start going local in a hurry. Forget all of the central marketing gimmicks, let the local market module management do what makes sense to maximize the potential of each store, just like a good independent does!


    In my commentary on this story yesterday, I wrote, in part:

    What really must hurt Howard Schultz is the way one independent dismisses the company: as the “McDonald’s of coffee.” That certainly wasn't the dream…and I’m not even sure it is a fair assessment of the reality.

    But it is a kind of creative marginalization.

    I don't know how Starbucks could have done things differently. Once you get to be a certain size, there are realities that have to be factored into the business. Maybe, at a certain size, a “hand crafted” product that creates a level of intimacy with the consumer just isn’t as possible anymore.

    Every once in a while, I’ll get an email questioning the time and space I devote to Starbucks. But this is an evolving story that continues to fascinate me, and I’m surprised when people don't see the relevancy. Maybe it is because I’m running a little independent, hand-crafted business here that is designed to create a level of intimacy with the reader…and I like to think of my nominal competition as the McDonald’s of the news business.

    One MNB user found this all too much to take:

    Being called the McDonald’s of coffee would be a compliment—unfortunately the reference was to the number of comparable stores not the coffee quality. The reality is that McDonald’s coffee tastes great and is less than a third of the price—of course one does not have to wait for a line of folks giving orders to a person to add stuff to coffee in an attempt to make it taste better; as Starbucks does, then charge you more for the fix. What a deal! Compare McDonald’s Share Value and growth with Starbucks—get it yet? Independent coffee houses are growing and Starbucks—well—isn’t.

    So that is what you call “Hand Crafted”?? Earth to Kevin –Earth to Kevin –Starbucks is the coffee that a vast majority of US consumers will not drink because it does not taste good. The “hand crafting” as you call is an attempt to make bad tasting coffee a bit more palatable. Intimacy???—“don’t worry honey I can make this bad coffee taste better—I‘ll add cream, caramel and butterscotch and you’ll never know it is coffee”. “This is going to take a few minutes so for those in line make sure you tell the chemist how you want me to cover flavor of this burnt, acid brew and have your wallet or purse open. That is not intimacy that is food chemistry—the intimacy is supposed to be the quiet coffee shop where you can sit and ponder life. Guess what? , that is not working either—

    Take all those who order Starbucks coffee with 2 or more added ingredients and give the same coffee straight. I know the outcome –do you?—watch out for the splatter as the coffee hits the floor.

    Do not give yourself too much credit—most professionals I know in the news business know good coffee, drink it black and it sure isn’t Starbucks. Those who do not know good coffee shop at Starbucks.

    You are obviously an "affected", insecure consumer, a follower--wanting to fit in. Therapy might help but probably not.

    Well, I guess we’ve established two things.

    This person doesn’t like Starbucks. And doesn’t like me.

    On the continuing saga of Nebraska Beef, which apparently continues to churn out meat even though it has been implicated in almost every part of the E. coli-related recall of more than a million pounds of beef, one MNB user wrote:

    My personal take on this -- Sounds like a good subject for John Grisham’s next book. Corruption, greed, immorality, unethical when looked up in the new dictionaries will have Nebraska Beef’s name added and cross-referenced. It is disgusting to me that the company is still in business, not to mention the WASTE of meat that could’ve fed so many people.

    I am happy to report that my favorite local grocer (Festival Foods) assures me their meat comes from a “high end” meat processing operation in Nebraska but NOT Nebraska beef. Any time I’ve contacted them they’ve been very open, honest and prompt with their answers whether it is about produce, meat, gluten-free food, request to carry a product I couldn’t find - anything! They are simply the best! As a side note, they were ahead of the game with the canvass bags and have been giving a $.05 (per bag) discount for quite a while now if you bring their paper bags back and use them again. They also installed a cart-washing system quite a while ago and have “wipes” at the door if you want to assure yourself the handle of the cart is clean. My point is, all the things others may consider a new concept have been going on here for some time, at least with this particular grocer.

    Come visit. You’ll be impressed. You could tour Lambeau Field too.

    I will. (As for Lambeau, didn’t a legendary quarterback play there until recently?)

    Also regarding the Nebraska Beef, one MNB user wrote:

    Gil Favor and Roudy Yates must be turning over in their graves when they see what’s happening to their beef and the citizens of Nebraska must be so proud of how their leaders have spent their tax money!

    I read that and I got chills…

    Finally, regarding programming and ads targeted at kids, I wrote yesterday:

    As a parent, I’m appalled by what I see on television sometimes. I would love to see a return to the “family hour,” in which the stuff shown on television between 8 pm and 9 pm is a lot tamer than some of the stuff shown now. This isn’t censorship – something I am completely against. But it is common sense and good taste.

    To which one MNB user responded:

    So it's "not censorship" as long as everybody voluntarily agrees with your "common sense" and "good taste"?

    Well, to be honest, I’m perfectly at ease with that set of criteria. Though I can understand if not everybody feels the same way. (But if not me, who would be better?)

    Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I don't think common sense and censorship are the same thing.

    KC's View:

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    Today’s New York Times has a story about how a small number of colleges and universities are actually giving incoming students a present - a new iPhone. (The school provides the hardware, while the kids – or their parents – have to pay the monthly charges.) While some professors fear that this will better enable students to tune out of boring class lectures, the Times notes that “the always-on Internet devices raise some novel possibilities, like tracking where students congregate. With far less controversy, colleges could send messages about canceled classes, delayed buses, campus crises or just the cafeteria menu.

    “While schools emphasize its usefulness — online research in class and instant polling of students, for example — a big part of the attraction is, undoubtedly, that the iPhone is cool and a hit with students. Basking in the aura of a cutting-edge product could just help a university foster a cutting-edge reputation.”

    Now, as the father of two college students and a daughter about to start high school, I have several observations about this, my first reaction was that I’d prefer lower tuitions to marketing gimmicks like this one…especially since most kids already have cell phones. But iPhones aren’t that expensive, the schools are probably all getting a break, and if it helps keep my kids safe and informed, I’m okay with that.

    Having pondered it further, I actually have decided that I have less sympathy for the professors who worry that the students might tune them out. I actually think it is a teacher’s job to educate students in a way that doesn’t allow them to tune out – to be engaging and compelling, to encourage higher-level thinking, that makes them part of the experience rather than just an observer. There are way too many teachers out there who, having gotten tenure, think that the hard part is over…

    I was reading the other day an essay by someone who reflected that, as a teacher, his biggest challenge is that “I keep getting older, but the students all stay the same age.” I read that, and I immediately thought that he had a rare privilege, being constantly exposed to young and passionate minds that haven't yet been corrupted. This is something to be treasured, not diminished.

    Give the kids the iPhones. And, then, when they are in the classroom, make sure that they never have a reason to look at them.

    BTW, the Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Microsoft, tired of being smacked around by Apple in those Mac vs. PC commercials, is about to launch a new $300 million advertising campaign…and at least $10 million of that money will go to one of its new spokesmen, Jerry Seinfeld.

    Now, I love Seinfeld. Not just his series, but his humor. Seinfeld’s concert tour documentary, “Comedian,” is a classic. His Superman commercials for American Express were terrific. And I’m sure he can bring some pizzazz to Microsoft.

    But the first thing that flashed through my brain when I saw the story was that, on the old “Seinfeld” series, there used to be a computer on a desk in the back of Jerry’s apartment.

    And it was a Mac.

    Here in the US, there is an ongoing debate about what commercials ought to be allowed to run on television programs aimed at kids.

    But in France, they’ve taken it one step farther.

    According to the Associated Press the French broadcasting authority “has banned French channels from airing TV shows aimed at children under 3 years old, to shield them from developmental risks it says television viewing poses at that age.” Cable channels specifically targeted at kids that age won’t be allowed to be developed by French producers the government also has ordered that “cable operators that air foreign channels with programs for babies to broadcast warning messages to parents. The messages will read: ‘Watching television can slow the development of children under 3, even when it involves channels aimed specifically at them’.”

    No word on what will happen to French parents who plop their toddlers down in front of the TV set. I’m thinking guillotine, but maybe the government has something less drastic in mind…

    There are band-aids and there are cures. According to new research from the IHL Group, the economic stimulus package that was passed by the US Congress and signed into law by President Bush, putting $92 billion in extra cash into the pockets of Americans stressed out by higher prices for practically everything, was little more than a band-aid.

    In fact, the research shows that close to 144 percent of that money “was swallowed up by higher fuel and food prices in the past year,” according to IHL, which said that “for the twelve months ending August 1st, consumer prices for fuel and food increased $132.4 billion, and stimulus checks have been used for debt reduction and other necessities instead of discretionary spending, according to recent analysis.”

    The only good news, IHL suggests, is that fuel prices have declined a bit in recent days, which may give Americans more money to spend during the back-to-school season.

    However, while I would never suggest that Americans not spend what needs to be spent to outfit and prepare their kids for school, it would be rank foolishness for people to start thinking that declining gas prices mean that things are going back to the way they used to be.

    Lower gas prices are a tease. Nothing more. They’ll go back up again, and probably higher than they were, because Americans’ tolerance for high fuel prices will have been expanded a bit.

    What really has to be expanded is the nation’s energy policy. Everything needs to be on the table – drilling, solar, wind…everything. But we need to develop a real strategy, not just tactics to get votes.

    But as a country, we’ll only develop such a strategy when we, as consumers and citizens, start thinking the same way. If we think about the recent hard times as a blip on the radar, and not an indication of the hard realities that will face us for years to come, then we are destined to make the same mistakes all over again.

    And speaking of mistakes…

    I was fascinated to read in the Wall Street Journal this week that the city of San Francisco is being prevented from expanding its bicycle lane system by, in essence, one gadfly who believes that these efforts are being run by anti-automobile extremists, and who is demanding that an environmental impact study be done before the system is expanded. His reasoning? More bike lanes will lead to more traffic jams because the same number of cars will be trying to get through the city via fewer open car lanes. Hence, more pollution.

    In a perverse sort of way, this almost makes sense…though one could argue that the point of expanding the bike lane system would be to get people to stop driving their cars and use either bicycles or mass transportation. In fact, if you had any real sense, that’s exactly what you'd argue.

    It is both unbelievable and utterly believable that one guy could have such an impact. And somehow it figures that this guy is from San Francisco, a place that was once described as “49 square miles surrounded by reality.”

    I highly recommend that you see “Bottle Shock,” the new movie about the so-called Judgment of Paris – when, in 1976, for the first time wines from California were compared to French wines in a blind taste test. It isn’t giving anything away to say that the results shook the wine world down to its roots.

    Heading the wonderful cast is Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier, a British wine merchant who is having trouble breaking into the French wine establishment. He is very much an outsider yearning to be accepted, and he decides to visit the Napa Valley – then very much in its winemaking infancy – and sponsor a blind tasting that he believes will embellish the French sense of wine superiority and gain him some friends on the inside.

    When he gets to California, though, he finds the unexpected – really, really good wines. Among them is a Chardonnay made by Chateau Montelena, which is run by Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a lawyer who has decided to indulge his passion for the grape, and his son Bo (Chris Pine), a hippie who is more interested in girls and beer than in making a commitment to the business.

    “Bottle Shock” meanders a bit, but never unpleasantly, as the camera lingers over the sun-kissed Napa vineyards and the interesting characters who work there – especially Freddy Rodriguez as Gustavo Brambila, an Hispanic worker who is secretly making his own wine while working for the Barretts; and the gorgeous Rachael Taylor, who plays an intern with more than a passing interest in wine, Bo and Gustavo. I suspect it’ll also teach you something about winemaking and the history of Napa, but the lessons go down as easily as a cool, crisp Sauvignon Blanc on a warm summer evening.

    Mostly, “Bottle Shock” is about outsiders yearning to be accepted for their passions in a world that often is more interested in tradition; almost everybody in the movie is on the outside peering in. It is a lovely movie, funny and touching and when it is over, if you’re anything like me, you’ll head to the nearest wine bar to try something new, something different.

    One other note: watch Chris Pine carefully, and you’ll see hints of charm, arrogance and mischievousness – all of which should serve him well next year when he appears as the young James T. Kirk in the new “Star Trek” movie that traces the early days o the characters many of us have loved for more than four decades.

    May I recommend a couple of nice wines, in keeping with this theme?

    The 2006 Ceuso Scurati Bianco, which is a blend of Grecanico, Grillo and Chardonnay, and is terrific with everything from seafood to scrambled eggs.

    The 2006 Jackson-Triggs Vidal Icewine, which is rich and bold with flavors of papaya and mango…a wonderful after dinner drink.


    KC's View:

    Published on: August 21, 2008

    This marks the last MorningNewsBeat for August, as I embark on what has become a tradition around here – taking off the week before what is celebrated in the US as Labor Day, the first Monday in September. I’m actually extending the vacation by one day so I can drive my son to college in Ohio tomorrow, an indulgence that I hope you will allow me.

    I’ll be back on Tuesday, September 2…with news, opinions and with any luck some movie and wine reviews with which to begin the autumn.

    Have a great final week of the summer…and I’ll see you soon…after a few final days enjoying warm summer breezes, French wine and cheeses…


    KC's View: