The Pandemic Gets Real

The Russian River Brewing Company has canceled its 2021 Pliny the Younger release event. Their super-hopped India Pale Ale is brewed only once a year and is available for only a couple weeks. (Pliny the Elder IPA is on the brewpub’s menu year round.)

Last year’s release attracted beer aficionados from forty-seven states and fourteen countries. Every February, intrepid beer drinkers wait for hours in blocks-long lines outside the brewery in downtown Santa Rosa for a ration of the celebrated brew. (Russian River Brewing opened a second, larger brewpub in nearby Windsor in late 2019.)

The Sonoma County Economic Development Board estimates the two-week Pliny the Younger event brought $5.1 million into the local economy last year.
The two Russian River brewpubs have been closed for indoor drinking and eating since March. Husband-and-wife owners Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo think it very unlikely that they will be able to host even outdoor dining by February 2021. Even if COVID-19 is under control by then, February weather in Sonoma County is typically not welcoming to outdoor seating.

Pliny the Younger will still be brewed. Most will be bottled this time. A few kegs will be set aside for local brewpubs who have been loyal customers in past years. The bottled beer can be purchased online beginning late January, but will be shipped only within California. The Cilurzos are working on a web site robust enough to handle the expected traffic. They also want to block Internet bots from buying cases and reselling them through online beer-trading forums. Last year, 510-milliliter Pliny the Younger bottles that sold for $10 turned up online for as much as $120 a bottle.

Turkey Tales

The COVID pandemic has affected everything else, so of course it will have an impact on Thanksgiving dinner. Family gatherings will be small, intimate affairs. Smaller gatherings mean less demand for twenty-four-pound turkeys. Supermarkets are ordering more small turkeys, more hens and fewer toms. Growers are slaughtering their birds earlier.

Does this mean distributors’ freezers will be filled with unsold twenty-pound birds? Taking the Wayback Machine to 1953, we see ten railroad cars filled with 260 tons of frozen turkeys the Swanson Company had not been able to sell by Thanksgiving. Refrigeration only worked when the cars were moving. The train rumbled back and forth between Swanson’s headquarters in Nebraska and the East Coast while executives figured out what to do.

The solution was to put slices of turkey on partitioned aluminum trays along with sweet potatoes and cornbread stuffing. Thus was born the TV Dinner. In the first full year of production, Swanson sold ten million frozen dinners, turkey, beef, chicken and others. The company’s timing was good; by 1954, sixty-four percent of American homes had television. (A decade later, it was ninety percent, in time for the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.)

If a frozen holiday dinner is not appealing, Williams-Sonoma is taking orders for Willie Bird free-range turkeys. Prices start at $139.95 plus shipping.

During my twenty years in Santa Rosa, planning a turkey feast usually included a short drive to the Willie Bird store. Willie Bird’s farm was in the hills behind the store. Family-owned for four generations, Willie Bird was woven into Sonoma County life. The county fair or farmer’s markets or most other outdoor events typically included Willie Bird’s barbecue, grilling drumsticks. Willie Bird’s restaurant was a mainstay in Santa Rosa for years.

Diestel Family Ranch, also in California, purchased Willie Bird this past summer. The new owner says the Willie Bird name will continue. The restaurant was sold last year and now operates as “The Bird.”

The Bundy Chronicles

Remember Cliven Bundy and his boy Ammon? They faced off with the Bureau of Land Management—the other B.L.M.—in 2014 because they didn’t want to pay rent for federal land. They said their livestock should graze for free, that U.S. taxpayers should subsidize their ranching business. When B.L.M. came to impound Bundy’s cattle, they recruited the right-wing Oath Keepers “militia” to join them in a stand-off with the B.L.M.

On the second day of 2016, Ammon led an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. The takeover was to support father-and-son arsonists Dwight and Steve Hammond. They had been convicted of torching more than a hundred acres of federal grazing land to get rid of juniper and sagebrush, so more grass for their grazing cattle would grow. (They were recently pardoned by the current occupant of the White House.)

The months-long occupation resulted in property damage totaling millions of dollars to the Refuge’s headquarters.

Since that time, Ammon has distinguished himself by declaring the Mormon church had been infiltrated by socialists, globalists and environmentalists. He has criticized the current president’s immigration policy regarding Central Americans seeking asylum, expressed support for Black Lives Matter and said the United States is like Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

During August of 2020, he led mask-less demonstrations at the Idaho state capitol protesting COVID 19 restrictions and disrupted legislative sessions. State police handcuffed him to a chair and wheeled him out.

Last week Ammon Bundy attended his son’s high-school football game, but was refused admission because he was not wearing a mask. Watching the game from behind the end zone, he refused to comply with requirement to wear a mask on school property. When he wouldn’t leave, the game was cancelled at half time. “I don’t give two shits what you have to say, you’ve ruined it for everybody!” a woman told him on her way out.

Seagulls in the Pandemic

Major League Baseball teams are playing sixty-game schedules for the 2020 season. Games are played in empty ball parks, no spectators in attendance.

The San Francisco Giants, and many other teams, are filling the ball park seats with life-size photograph cutouts. For $99, a Giants fan can have a photo representation of her or his self occupying a seat in the grandstand. A purchaser has the option of requesting a seat near a famous Giant (Willie Mays or Willie McCovey, anyone?) or other Bay Area celebrity (Jerry Rice or Jerry Garcia, for examples).

Every other year, fans attending San Francisco Giants night games at PacBell SBC AT&T Oracle Park could always count on the late-inning arrival of hungry seagulls swooping around just above the ball field, anxious for the crowd to leave so they could attack the left-behind food detritus.

No more. The gulls quickly realized no fans means no food and that presumedly are looking elsewhere for gourmet gull food. With no live people or birds, Giants management has done the only sensible thing. High up in the bleachers are cutouts of seagulls. No word on how the birds paid their $99, though.

So far, the Giants appear to be in little danger of playing more than sixty games. Sixteen teams will be in the post-season playoffs; not likely, the Giants will be one of those sixteen.

Doing Business in the Pandemic

“The market has seismically changed.”

We are at the edge of a full-on depression thanks to COVID-19 virus and our government’s mis-handling of it. Many businesses, restaurants in particular, will not reopen. Some will, but maybe not for long under the new social-distancing reality. “Non-essential” businesses are gasping for air, trying to stay afloat. Highly-leveraged companies such as J. Crew and Hertz are trying to save themselves through bankruptcy protection.

Newspapers, already struggling in the new media landscape, are suffocating from even less income as shuttered businesses stop buying advertising.

Some operations are doing well. Supermarkets’ sales are up. Walmart and Target are enjoying increased business. Amazon is overwhelming landfills with packaging material and is getting closer to becoming the only place we can buy anything. The Amazon overlord may also be the owner of the last operating newspaper.

It probably surprises no one that alcohol sales are up. Sequestered people are drinking more. Alcohol-delivery sales have increased five-fold. That’s good news for the spirits trade. But not for the entire industry. The big guys are doing well; the small producers, not so much. Sales for craft distillers and brewers have fallen precipitously. We may be drinking more, but we’re drinking the cheap stuff. One example: Anheuser-Busch is selling a lot more of its Bud Light “beer.” The local craft brewer is reckoning how to stay solvent.

As a craft-distillery owner put it: “There’s a difference between feel-good booze and pandemic booze. Craft distillers make lovely spirits meant for savoring and sharing with friends. If you’re unemployed or don’t know where your next paycheck is coming from, craft is perceived as a little bit of luxury.”

Support your local craft producer

National brands also have the advantage with beverage distributors. The small guys have little leverage. The nationals can pay for premium placement on liquor store websites and shelves. In the retail business, it’s known as a “slotting fee” and is normal practice for a new product to get shelf space. (In Alan Freed’s era, it was called “payola” and earned him a Congressional investigation and a ruined career.)

The wholesaler has a stranglehold on distribution. In many states producers are not allowed to sell directly to the consumer. Now-archaic post-Prohibition laws mandate a three-tier system: distiller or brewer to distributor to retailer.

Restaurants were an important outlet for craft producers. Now that is gone and is unlikely to come back as it was.

A new world is evolving. We don’t yet know what it will look like.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Let’s take a ride in the Wayback Machine. Forty years ago, we saw incessant news reports about Mt. St. Helens, kind of like the non-stop COVID-19 reporting today. For months the mountain had been bulging, and expelling steam and ash almost daily.

Scientists said there was imminent danger and the area should be closed off. Washington-state authorities agreed and put a quarantine in effect, blocking access into the danger zone. Right away noise began about infringing on people’s constitutional rights and the damage to tourism and the economy. The mountain’s burping was the new normal and nothing more was going to happen. (This was the era before patriots paraded in camouflage outfits and brandished combat weaponry.)

Interviews with one crusty old-timer, named Harry Truman, who lived on the mountain and said he wasn’t leaving, were a regular feature on the nightly news. According to Truman’s niece, “He thought (the volcano) would just go straight up and that somebody would be able to come and get him.”

Pressure to reopen the area increased. Officials met to discuss what action to take. Scientists expected reaffirmation of the closures and were surprised that the discussions were about plans to reopen the area. Five days later Mt. St. Helens blew. Mr. Truman and fifty-six other people died. Most died from thermal burns or inhaling hot ash. According to some estimates the death toll may be higher, that many unknown victims were swallowed by the debris flow.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.