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    Published on: July 27, 2012

    by Kevin Coupe

    PORTLAND, Ore. -- Longtime readers of MNB will know that I have howled at the moon from time to time about the shift by many wine manufacturers to screw top bottles, and away from traditional cork. I resisted and resisted, but finally was worn down by the arguments that cork was endangered and that corked bottles too likely to suffer taint. I continued to believe that the sound of a cork being removed from a wine bottle is among the most romantic sounds on earth, but grudgingly accepted the notion that, like so many things, realities of the modern world were taking their inevitable toll.

    But not so fast.

    Yesterday, I had coffee with Patrick Spencer, executive director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance (CFCA), and he tells a very different story.

    Spencer told me something I did not know about cork - that when it is removed from trees, it is essentially unraveled from the trunk, doing absolutely no damage to the tree, which actually gets stronger from the process. And then, the tree re-grows the cork "wrapper," and in nine years it is ready to be unraveled again. (Think of a sheep being shorn of its wool, and then being allowed to grow new wool, which allows it to get bigger and stronger in the process.) "In every other forest," Spencer said, "we go in and clean out the trees. With cork, we actually leave the trees."

    He told me that, in fact, cork forests are extremely important to the environmental sustainability of a number of Mediterranean basin countries - nations like Spain and Portugal and Italy - and that, in fact, "there is enough cork in existence today to close all wine bottles produced in the world, for the next 100 years."

    Not exactly a shortage.

    Now, Spencer concedes that the companies making screw top bottles and plastic enclosures have been largely successful at convincing the world that cork was endangered and that alternatives needed to be found, and he said that this competition actually has forced cork farmers and manufacturers to clean up their act, to be better stewards of their product, and even be more price competitive than they were when there was no other game in town.

    Today, he told me, taint from compromised cork is at an all-time low, some wineries are converting back to cork (reversing a decade-long trend), but that much work remains to be done to convince people that rather than being unsustainable and endangered, cork in fact is the better environmental choice and a boon to biodiversity.

    The CFCA has made a lot of progress in the few short years since it was founded; Whole Foods has partnered with it to recycle used corks at many of its US locations. And some wineries are using a logo designed by the CFCA to identify bottles as using real cork, and not plastic substitutes.

    This was all fascinating to me. I'm no scientist, but the arguments seem persuasive ... you can check them, as I will continue to, at the CFCA website. (I'm willing to bet you'll be blown away by the pictures of workers unraveling cork of a tree.)

    Meanwhile, I'm re-evaluating my grudging acceptance of alternative wine closures.

    Time to once again begin howling at the moon.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 27, 2012

    The National Grocers Association (NGA) said yesterday that its Board of Directors has voted unanimously to oppose "the proposed interchange fee settlement agreement in the antitrust litigation by merchants against Visa, MasterCard, and their member banks.  NGA is a named plaintiff and class representative in the lawsuit In Re Interchange Fee and Merchant Discount Antitrust Litigation."

    In doing so, NGA is siding with the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), Walmart, and Target, all of which have stated their opposition to the terms of the proposed settlement.

    According to NGA, "The proposed settlement agreement terms would curtail the opportunity for merchants to reform the monopolistic fees and rules set by Visa, MasterCard, and their banks by requiring merchants to broadly waive their rights to take future action against the card companies.  While the proposed agreement does provide merchants with the ability to pass along some costs of accepting cards, it only does so under almost ten pages of burdensome restrictions imposed and enforced by Visa and MasterCard, making it unlikely that many of NGA's members will be able to make this provision workable. 
    "In addition, the provision for cost of acceptance charges does little-to-nothing for grocers who are keenly sensitive to the backlash consumers exhibited to bank fees, and how consumer reactions could particularly affect the ultra-competitive supermarket industry."

    "NGA joined the lawsuit on behalf of its independent retail grocer members over seven years ago to bring about real reform of the anticompetitive credit card swipe fee system.  This proposed settlement agreement fails in this regard by allowing Visa and MasterCard to continue their dominant anticompetitive practices," said NGA President/CEO Peter Larkin.  "Meanwhile, merchants and consumers will continue to pay exorbitant swipe fees with no hope of reform.  NGA's members are also concerned about Visa and MasterCard's ability to use their dominance to prevent emerging and innovative lower cost payment options."
    KC's View:
    I could be totally wrong about this, but I have a feeling that this settlement is a dead issue. The opposition forces are coalescing, and I think they are making a persuasive argument.

    Published on: July 27, 2012

    The Financial Times reports that Tesco has cut about 50 jobs from the Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market headquarters in Southern California, as it continues to scale back new store openings to stanch the flow of red ink from its US division.

    In a statement, Tesco said: "In April we said we are taking a more cautious approach to expanding Fresh & Easy, focusing on getting existing stores to profitability. Our central cost base should reflect that more cautious approach. With great regret, this means that we have to make redundancies at Fresh & Easy headquarters in California. This is not with a view to a sale or closure of the business. We remain committed to reach profitability and these changes are about helping to achieve that."

    It is projected that Fresh & Easy will reach profitability by february 2014, a year later than its most recent projection.
    KC's View:
    Somehow, that whole "this is not with a view to a sale or closure of the business" line doesn't ring out with the same degree of credibility and certainty that it used to.

    I have to believe that if Walmart - or any other company, for that matter - walked up to Tesco CEO Philip Clarke with a checkbook and a willingness to deal, he'd be ready to listen.

    Published on: July 27, 2012

    US Rep. Edward Markey and Rep. Barney Frank, both Democrats from Massachusetts, have introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act, said to "address the growing problem of seafood fraud. If passed, the bill would help stop seafood fraud by requiring full traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S., ensuring that consumers can follow their seafood from boat to plate," according to Oceana, the international advocacy group that endorsed the legislation.

    The Boston Globe reports that "the bill would require fish packers, supermarkets, and restaurants to provide details about all seafood, including the scientific name, the market name, and the geographic region where the fish was caught. The proposed legislation also calls for greater cooperation between the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration so they share more information about seafood substitution, create a public list of mislabeling offenders, and avoid conducting duplicate inspections at seafood plants."

    The Globe also notes that the legislation is being introduced "nearly a year after a Globe report revealed widespread seafood substitution in restaurants across Massachusetts. Results of the five-month investigation published last fall found nearly half of the fish tested at 134 restaurants and supermarkets was mislabeled. In many cases, less desirable and cheaper species took the place of fresh local fish."
    KC's View:
    My default position is to support traceability and transparency, and to believe that organizations that oppose it risk being seen as having something to hide, or not putting consumer interests first.

    Published on: July 27, 2012

    The New York Post reports that the Westside Market on Manhattan's Upper West Side has unveiled what it is calling a "Man Isle," a place where men can get pretty much everything they need within a couple of feet of shelf space.

    Included in the "everything men need" list, according to the story, are beer, barbecue sauce, chips, steak sauce and condoms.

    The Post writes that CEO George Zoitas and COO Ian Joskowitz "were inspired to create the manspace — conveniently located right next to the beer section — after reading an ESPN study showing 31 percent of men are shopping for their families, up from 14 percent in the 1980s. So the duo called some bros over to their man cave — a small office on the store’s second floor — and started jotting down ideas for what they call 'The Man Isle'."

    "Guys don’t like taking lists when they go shopping,” Zoitas says. “This helps them remember what they need."
    KC's View:
    This is pretty finny and obviously a good attention-getter ... though I have to admit that I have a slight issue with them appearing to cater to every possible stereotype about men in their selection.

    Published on: July 27, 2012

    Advertising Age reports that Barry Diller, chairman of IAC/InterActiveCorp (IACI), said Wednesday that it is inevitable that longtime weekly newsmagazine Newsweek will go digital only, and that plans for the beginning of that shift will be announced as early as September.

    "The transition to online from hard print will take place," Diller said. "We're examining all of our options."
    KC's View:
    hifting Newsweek to become an online only presence will be a good first step for IAC/InterActiveCorp., which essentially acquired the magazine in 2011. The next step - and the most important one - will be to make the damned thing readable. Because over the past two years, it has become, IMHO, a badly designed, and only occasionally interesting shell of its former self.

    Published on: July 27, 2012

    Gourmet Retailer reports that HEB's Central Market is up with a new website described as "digital playground with interactive content, expert how-to advice and culinary inspiration for those passionate about food."

    “We’ve created a really fun, dynamic space to make our customers’ mouths water,” Cory Basso, group vice president of marketing and advertising for HEB, tells Gourmet Retailer. “This is not your typical grocery store website – we wanted to extend the personalized experience of shopping in our stores to online. We’ve created easy access to weekly specials, recipes, entertaining inspiration and our cooking school. It reads like a foodie’s paradise full of ideas and news.”
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 27, 2012

    ...with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary...

    • yesterday reported a second quarter profit of $7 million, down from $191 million during the same period a year ago, on sales that were up 29 percent to $12.83 billion.

    The Seattle Times reports that "Amazon is plowing most of its money back into things like new technology, digital content and distribution centers. It has announced plans for 18 new warehouses this year, with a third of those already completed. Amazon reported 69,100 employees worldwide at the end of June, up from 65,600 three months earlier."

    World domination comes at a cost. I think more highly of a company where the money is being invested in the future than one where "cutting our way to prosperity" seems to be the rule, except of course when it comes to retention bonuses for the top execs. But that's just me.

    • Whole Foods said yesterday that its third quarter profit was $116.8 million, up 32 percent from the same quarter last year. Total sales for the quarter rose 14 percent to $2.7 billion, with same-store sales up 8.2 percent.

    • Starbucks yesterday said that its fiscal third quarter earnings rose 19 percent from a year ago, to $333.1 million, on revenue that was up 13 percent to $3.3 billion. Analysts, who wanted more, quite naturally were disappointed, which was reflected in the company's share price, which went down more than 10 percent.

    Wasn't it just last week that Apple's quarterly profits were up 20 percent, and the stock tanked? Somebody should make these folks do what we used to do to our kids whenever they wanted something but didn't get it - sing them a chorus of "You Can't Always get What You Want." Oy.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 27, 2012

    • Procter & Gamble has named Laura Becker, a 22-year company veteran who most recently was finance director for Global Feminine Care, to be the new head of its Connect+Develop program, leading P&G’s global business development group.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 27, 2012

    I think we got through yesterday's MNB without a single mention of Supervalu or retention bonuses. Today, not so much.

    One MNB user wrote:

    I worked for SV for over twenty years.  The comment about "Trojan Horse" is right on.  It became apparent with the first quarterly meeting he held with the employees. It is interesting to note the bonuses that were handed out.  It's pretty ironic because two years ago our bonuses were taken away and it was explained to us that "studies show that bonuses don't generate any additional performance".  Stupidvalu seems to fit well.

    From another reader:

    It's frustrating that in America today we are more aware of corporate greed, more connected and able to share that information with one another, and yet we do little to affect any change.  Possibly because most of us feel that if we boycott Best Buy or stores in the Supervalu stores we end up hurting the frontline employees while their greedy masters in the ivory tower walk away unscathed and ready for a month long trip to an island paradise.

    It's a shame that an issue that all your readers seem so consistently unified on never materializes into something we can take forward and make our voices known on.

    Occupy that our only option?

    And another MNB user chimed in:

    It’s odd that SUPERVALU and Best Buy feel the need to maintain their top management with retention bonuses and stock options when it’s the same group of executives who got these companies where they are today.

    And yet another reader offered:

    One writer asked, "How do [the executives at Super Valu] sleep at night?" They sleep very well between silk their sheets. Abstract everything until all that's left is numbers. Employees, just a number, make it smaller. Work for front line employees. Just a number. Make the number of hours smaller. See it's easy.

    We were singing the praises of Shake Shack the other day, and one MNB user agreed:

    My Shake Shack experience last week at the 8th Ave location was extraordinary. It was 90 degrees and very humid at 2pm when I stood in a long line outside their door. An employee came outside with a tray of full sized lemonades, iced teas and half/half and handed them out to everyone in line. Besides the great food and service the buzz inside was awesome. Got to love those guys.

    Yesterday, MNB took note of a Wall Street Journal report that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is saying that the "record-setting drought scorching the Midwest" is likely to result in food price increases of three to four percent next year, with poultry, beef and milk prices "expected to rise more quickly than historical averages."

    I commented, with my tongue firmly in cheek:

    Good thing that global warming is a myth. Because if it were real, we'd be screwed.

    MNB user Jeff Reinartz responded:

    Oh, brother, we have a drought one year and suddenly it's humankind's fault? Quick, bankrupt the coal industry! The only time I ever hear anybody crying "global warming!" is when circumstances conveniently support their premise. I never heard a word about it last summer. It's just the latest crisis created so our heroes in Washington can legislate a "solution," read "tax."

    Can we please stop blaming every weather anomaly on global warming, or climate change, or meteorologic transformation, or whatever the lack of any evidence of human-caused warming has caused us to change its name to now?

    You're right, of course. It is just the one drought. Absolutely nothing else has happened in terms of climate shifts that would suggest anything profound is happening, and mankind hasn't done anything in terms of the environment that would suggest any possible impact on the climate.

    I was being silly.

    And now, once more into the breach, dear friends...

    Not surprisingly, we got a lot of emails responding to yesterday's story about elected officials in both Chicago and Boston saying that they would deny Chick-fil-A permits to build stores in their cities because they object to the CEO's stated opposition to gay marriage.

    In the meantime, the mayor of San Francisco has essentially staked out the same position.

    I have been transparent about my opinion that a) Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy was taking a calculated risk - and not a necessary one - in expressing his personal feelings, and b) I disagree with him on the issue, and would not eat at a Chick-fil-A because of it. However, when it came to the Boston and Chicago situations, I took a somewhat different position:

    I've made my position clear on this issue, but I do have to say that I am uncomfortable with governments denying zoning and building permits because of the political/cultural beliefs of a private citizen and corporation. If he obeys the law, pays his taxes and follows all the rules, then he ought to be able to open fast food outlets in places where they are allowed.

    If a Chicago alderman and the mayor of Chicago don't want to eat there, that's their right. If they want to organize or participate in a boycott, that's also their right. But blocking a perfectly legal business from operating because of an owner's political/cultural beliefs ... well, that's one step farther than I think they should go.

    As I said above, there was a lot of email on this.

    People who agreed with my original commentary disagreed with me on this one. And people who thought I was way off base originally wrote in to say things like:

    I believe this might be the first time I have agreed with your views/opinions concerning Chick-fil-A. There might be hope for you after all.

    Don't count on it.

    I have to be honest here. I know I fueled this by posting the story, but I'm not going to post all the emails I got because many of them rehash positions already taken and explored here. But there are a few that I'd like to offer...

    One MNB user wrote:

    I guess since I'm one of those that Dan Cathy would bar equal rights to, I disagree with you on your views on how political leaders are reacting to his request to set up shops in their jurisdictions.

    Why in the world shouldn't governmental leaders let the stated social position of a business leader be factored into the decisions they make according to how it would make their constituents feel about that business in their neighborhood?  He could've always said "no comment" when asked the question!  The fact that he's a business leader of a retail chain and feels the need to publicize his stance on a social issue means he made his own choice and should live with how it might impact his business.  Period.

    Y'know, I've never been discriminated against, at least not because of my color, my gender, or my sexual orientation. At least, not that I know of. And so I think it is important for me to remember that since I don't know what it feels like to be discriminated against, to not have all the civil rights that other people have, I have to be careful about my opinions in such matters.

    Your point is well taken.

    MNB user Amy Longsworth wrote:

    I hear you on the fact that they pay taxes, obey laws, etc.  But don't you think that as a society we should aim higher and can do better than compliance?  We have progressed from the days of bigotry and discrimination against blacks, women, etc., not merely by changing laws, but through individual and public actions of acceptance, inclusion, and symbolic leadership.  Wouldn't it feel wrong to you if Cathy said he was "guilty as charged" for being publicly anti-black?  Or would you say that's fine, as long as he pays his taxes?

    No, I wouldn't. Good point.

    And from another reader:

    I don't see how Boston and Chicago differ from any community that decides it doesn't want a Walmart in their neighborhood -- even though Walmart follows all the laws and rules. If they simply don't want a business -- whether it's because of the traffic it generates or the bigoted views its CEO espouses -- that's their right. It's not only free speech -- it's the constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. If I feel aggrieved by the chicken guy, I have the right to oppose a store in my neighborhood.

    An elected public official who refuses to respect my concern (and that of my neighbors) risks losing our votes in the next election. That's our right, too.


    On the other side of the ledger...

    MNB user Wilson R. Naughton wrote:

    You wrote the Dan Cathy has to "deal with the consequences".  I think what people are failing to realize is that there are more important things in Dan Cathy's life then profit from chicken sandwiches. He stands for absolute truth, a strong conviction and morality.  He already deals with the consequences and narrow minded in his stance to honor God and family on Sunday and not open his stores.  He doesn't care about selling you chicken, but he does care about honoring God and setting a strong moral compass for his employees. Chicken is secondary!  I do agree with you that government would be going too far to deny private citizen and corporations,  that obey the laws of the land, pays taxes and follow the rules, the right to open businesses where they are allowed.   Aren't Mayor Emanuel and Ald Moreno being discriminatory in their views? I will continue to eat at Chic-fil-A!

    There were a lot of emails along these lines.

    Finally, it was good to know that someone was enjoying the show, as MNB user Scott Simon wrote:

    I am catching on MNBs from last week and Friday’s commentary regarding Chick fil- A is the most entertaining and thought provoking discussion I have read in some time. MNB continues to be a must read!

    Can't ask for more than that.

    Now, with the full knowledge that I'm unlikely to convince anybody of anything, let me address a couple of these issues...

    To me, there's no comparison between Chicago and Boston denying Chick-fil-A a right to build because of what the CEO said and cities denying Walmart the right to build because they don't want big box stores. In the first case, politicians are being intolerant on a CEO's cultural/political views; in the second, they are saying that a specific kind of commercial development is not in synch with the broader view of how an area is zoned or should be developed. I think cities and towns are perfectly within their rights to do the latter. (On the other hand, if people want to deny Walmart a permit because they don't like the way it treats employees or vendors, that's a different story. It is more political/cultural, but still, I think, different from not liking the political/cultural views of the CEO.)

    As for people who think that elected officials are within their rights to reflect the opinions of their citizenry, it would be my humble opinion that intolerance is unacceptable, whether from a liberal who wants to punish a conservative CEO, or a conservative who wants to deny civil rights to gay people. And that's what I believe we are talking about here - civil rights. Not religious rights, or religious freedom. Just civil rights. (Note to the writer above: See? There really isn't any hope for me.)

    I don't agree with what the CEO of Chick-fil-A said about gay marriage, but let's be clear. He didn't say he would not hire gay people. He did not say he would not serve them. He just said that he - and his privately held company - oppose the notion of gay marriage because they believe in the Biblical definition of marriage.

    Now, I can disagree with that. (I can say that the Bible supports a lot of things that I object to, like the subjugation of women or the putting to death of people who work on the Sabbath.) And I can decide to eat or not eat at his restaurants based on that position, or to support or not a support a boycott. But Dan Cathy's statement is only a position - he hasn't suggested anything illegal. In fact, in the case of Chicago, he is saying he is against something that is not legal in the state of Illinois. For this his company is going to be denied a building permit?

    It seems to me that elected officials have a responsibility to the law, not just to the people who elect them. Sometimes those two things can be tough to balance. (I'm glad I don't have to make a decision. I just get to talk about it. Actually governing is a lot harder.) But I think the mayors of Chicago and Boston and San Francisco would have been on higher moral ground if they had said, "We profoundly disagree with Dan Cathy's position. We believe that he will find our cities inhospitable to what we view as intolerance. But precisely because we refuse to be as intolerant as he is, and because we espouse a kind of inclusion that he seems unable or unwilling to accept, he is welcome to come here and try to do business." And then, at least in the case of Illinois and California, go out and work like hell to make gay marriage legal.

    As far as I'm concerned, at this moment there is a lot of pandering going on. Politicians and public figures on the right are doing it to their base, and politicians and public figures on the left are doing to their base. In doing so, and staking out positions on either side of this issue, they are all actually promoting intolerance instead of trying to find a reasonable center where people of good faith and decent values can find agreement and common ground, and at least be civil to each other in areas where they cannot. (I am really sick to death of the suggestion that people who are in favor of gay marriage don't have a strong moral compass, or want to dishonor the family, or are somehow incapable of having a relationship with God.)

    I'm fed up with the whole damned argument.
    KC's View:

    Published on: July 27, 2012

    Thanks to all those who showed up at my "MNB Parties in Portlandia" event earlier this week. (At right, you'll see a picture of just some of those who came by.)

    There was one thing I was struck by - the total devotion almost all these folks have to the Pacific Northwest. A number of folks told me that at various times in their careers, they'd had the opportunity to go elsewhere. Sometimes they did, but they returned. And sometimes, they just stayed, because they cannot imagine living anywhere else.

    Boy, do I get that.

    This place just gets in your blood.

    I've been a Starbucks addict for a long time,but I got seduced away this week by the Stumptown Coffee Roasters, a fabulous place on Third and Pine, where they have the most amazing coffee and a laid back vibe that I've found to be totally captivating. I've developed this routine - I go jogging in the morning on the Westside Riverwalk, then go back to the apartment up by Portland State for a shower and change, and then pull on my backpack (I never used one until I got here) and walk down to Stumptown, where I drink coffee and read or correct papers from my students.

    It's heaven.

    Last night, I had an amazing dinner at a place called Pok Pok on the city's east side. We started with Chicken Wings served in Vietnamese Fish Sauce, which were sweet and spicy and absolutely phenomenal. We then moved on to lightly fried catfish medallions served over noodles, and then spicy boar collar meat that was rubbed with garlic and served in this amazing knock-your-socks off sauce. Unbelievable. I washed it down with an ale called As Sweet As Pacific from the Good Life Brewing Co. in Bend, Oregon, that was absolutely perfect.

    For dessert, we had ice cream from Salt & Straw, this incredibly popular spot that serves all sorts of off-the-wall concoctions. My choice was Chevre Ice Cream with Marionberry Habanero Jam ... and let me tell you, it was extraordinary.

    I get shivers just thinking about it.

    Onto other things...

    I loved The Dark Knight Rises. Loved it. I've never been able to warm up the Marvel superhero movies, because they just seem so inconsequential to me. But The Dark Night Rises is filled with consequence, as director Christopher Nolan completes the trilogy of Batman movies he started with Batman Begins.

    I don't want to overstate the issue here; in the end, it is still about a guy who battles criminals while wearing a cape and rodent mask. But there is no question that Batman is an important part of American mythology, and Nolan is deeply aware of it.

    Ironically, I think, The Dark Knight Rises isn't really about Batman at all. it is really about Bruce Wayne, played with tortured excellence by Christian Bale. The movie is about despair and redemption, about pain and survival, and ultimately about paying the price for the decisions you make in life.

    Operatic at times, the movie never drags in the almost three hours that it takes to unfold. It is exciting, well-paced, nicely acted (especially by Anne Hathaway and Michael Caine, who is one of those actors who makes any movie better just by being in it), and a fitting conclusion to what I think has been an extraordinary series of movies that transcend the genre.

    The reboot of The Amazing Spider-Man, on the other hand, just seems like a trifle when compared to The Dark Night Rises. To me, despite some nice performances and production values, there just seems like no reason for it to exist other than to make money for the studio. I feel like we've seen it before and will see it again, and I just don't care.

    As much as I loved Midnight In Paris, I have to admit that Woody Allen's new movie, To Rome With Love, is a disappointment. Rather than seeming cinematic, it feels like he has adapted four different short story ideas for the screen, and they somehow don't gel. I liked some of the performances - especially Alec Baldwin, Judy Davis, and Allen himself - but it just didn't work for me.

    That said, I love the idea that even in his seventies, Woody Allen continues to make a movie a year. There are hits and misses, but it is the work ethic and constancy that I most admire.

    That's it for this week. have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

    Fins Up!
    KC's View: