Road Trip: Art Pilgrimage – Marfa TX light, ruins, re-purposed buildings Pt. 2

A former supermarket?

A former supermarket?

It was a running joke among those of us who wrote on the arts for The Santa Fe New Mexican. Every profile on an artist we ran seem to open with, “the light spoke to me….It was the light that drew me…..”

Always with the light-some artist’s ecstatic response to the New Mexico version of it.

But the joke’s on me because I experienced a displacement of time and space in reaction to the light in Marfa the first night I was there.

“Putain,” I thought as I sat in the courtyard of the Paisano Hotel. It feels like Paris that night we ate outside at 10 PM. But that was northern Europe. June.

But it’s January. 6 PM Central Time. Here…now…it’s still light. Here’s a film from the courtyard of the hotel showing what the light looked like.



Something was off. I couldn’t square the time with the light. I know Marfa has aerial phenomena- the Marfa Lights. ( American Spirits-Marfa Lights-why not) A viewing area exists about 8 miles out of town.  But this was different there was something in the air- like a vortex- my normal perceptions were skewed.

Metior red band for a new world. Mixed media on canvas.

Metior: red band for a new world. Mixed media on canvas. Image size 9″ x 12″.

One person I asked about my condition said, “It’s because we should be in Mountain Time like Santa Fe.” I knew Marfa was in the Central zone but my eyes and this feeling – I got nothing out of this answer. Couldn’t wrap my brain around it.

But the displacement fueled my curiosity – the natural armor of perception was compromised-  for the remainder of my stay I was le flaneur –  I crisscrossed the town center for the next few days in search of hidden places, unexpected locations and encounters with locals -anything the town had to offer.

I did finally get a scientific explanation for what I was experiencing- from my server at Stellina, one of the watering holes in town..

See more about Stellina  here:


When the nearby MacDonald Observatory was being built the time zone here in this part of West Texas was changed – at the scientists’ request – from Mountain Time to Central Time so the researchers in Chicago and Austin could share data in real time with the observations made at the observatory. So the sun and  light weren’t  lying – the clock was.

 Marfa has a number of great legacy structures from the 40s, 50s and 60s that have, are or will be re-purposed.

Inside an old warehouse next to the tracks that formerly stored wool-not it houses sculptures out of mangled car parts by John Chamerlin

Inside an old warehouse next to the tracks it formerly stored wool-now it houses sculptures out of mangled car parts by John Chamberlin

marfa dark bld.

marfa to be

These, along with projects by big name architects  are the kinds of structures I appreciate on my business trips -you can find them everywhere…Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Los Angeles… reminders of our country’s industrial past- some getting new life with TLC. .

Marfa also has a number of ruins-mostly in the form of adobe buildings returning to the earth.

Ruins outside of town.

Ruins outside of town.

An adobe building in pretty good shape by Marfa standards.

An adobe building in pretty good shape by Marfa standards.

Pretty much says everything about the attention adobe gets here.

Pretty much says everything about the attention adobe gets here.


The woman I met from Colorado who had some knowledge of the area told me the adobe building tradition is dormant here. Marfa isn’t Santa Fe. There are some parallels to the way Santa Fe was a few decades ago before it got the national attention it enjoys today.  The video below reminds me of what it was like in Santa Fe-in the barrio near downtown.


marfa adobe street houses

 I didn’t see any adobe structures being refurbished in Marfa.

The buildings most in demand for re-purposing are the older warehouses and structures from the 40s and 50s.

Store front for Ranch Candy

Store front for Ranch Candy

Marfa Ballroom-exhibition space

Marfa Ballroom-exhibition space

marfa church gallery marfa altar

The light, the buildings, the feeling I got here leads me to believe this could be a good spot for a structure I’ve wanted to see built for some time. More about this in another post.

This is the Prada store located about 35 miles north of Marfa near Valentine, TX...a small group of houses. This is an art project that Prada cooperated with and supplied product for. It's never open.

This is the Prada store located about 35 miles north of Marfa near Valentine, TX…a small cluster  of houses. This is an art project that Prada cooperated with and supplied product for. It’s never open.

The photograph above – grabbed from the web- shows the store sitting within an area carved out from the surrounding ranch land.

I wanted to take a photo too and measure the building outside,  look inside -but I didn’t see it on my way in as I’d taken a different route. But on my way out…about 6:30 AM I passed it. I wouldn’t have seen it at that hour were it not for a couple of people setting up a tripod and getting ready to shoot it at sunrise. I barely saw them in the dark while they were moving around the center of the road.

What I saw in passing….on this road at this hour at that speed…:.


Dean Balsamo



Sensing my travel-starved state, our friend said, “Marfa.” And that was that. Several days later I took a solo pilgrimage- a road trip- to Marfa in West Texas.

You could describe it as the “biggest little art town,” in the country given the people who make the trek there- national/international artists, gallerists and collectors, celebrities like Beyoncé film makers and those who seek unadulterated art experiences like me.

It’s about 7 ½ hours from my home in Santa Fe,  3 from El Paso, 7 from Dallas and 6 hours from Austin.  It takes an act of will and a true believer’s fervor to get there.

marfa map

But like all the best holy spots rekindling of faith can occur, visions and maybe cures.  My experience touched on all of these things. I came away loving this part of Texas, feeling rejuvenated and creatively inspired. The desert air and 75 degree weather was ok too.

While films have been made here- Giant (w/James Dean) and There Will Be Blood – visual arts of a more minimal nature pioneered by the great American artist Donald Judd dominate parts of the landscape, as well as, various galleries.

The place fed my creativity. I worked on a script and some other writing, walked around the areas bordering the main street taking photos of the classic 40-60’s buildings being re-purposed , toured Judd’s spaces around town and met some friendly people .

Here are some of the Judd’s concrete sculptures sitting on the land surrounding the old German POW camp he bought decades ago and turned into the working exhibition grounds for his and the work of contemporaries he admired.

MARFA JUDD CONCRETE TWOOne of a number of concrete pieces by Donal Judd on the grounds of an old German POW camp he bought in Marfa decades ago.

MARFA JUDD CONCRETE ONEThere are a number of buildings on this land-you can see part of one in the background. The German POW’s were housed there, now they’re filled with Judd and other artists’ work.

It’s a funny place in a good way. I pulled into the Paisano Hotel on the main street in town and the only people I see walking are a couple of back packer-looking types with a camera staring at the Victorian influenced city hall building.

marfa paisano hotelThe Paisano Hotel in Marfa where I stayed.

But this isn’t a hippy town like Sebastopol or Cotati in Cali. The art over lay and location in the scrub of West Texas gives it a different feel.

There’s sort of quiet buzz here. You catch people at the hotel looking at one another or in Stellina, the hipster’s watering hole/ restaurant that appears to be the place where many of the visitors come as well as the local art movers and shakers gather.

It’s in an old building’s store front space. Common tables line the sides facing an elongated oval bar in the center of the room. The bearded server said this about the owner/chief: “She’s self-taught.” That’s Marfa I thought.

marfa building with stellina

Stellina the place I ate in one night is located in the storefront underneath the balcony seen in the photo.

marfa steillina with caption sketch use

One morning I searched for 20 minutes trying to  find Do Your Own Thing Coffee. Had I not read something about it’s unlikely location-in what looks like an old lumber and tool supply yard I never would have found it.

Here are some pictures of its surroundings and of the shack that houses the café.

MARFA DO YOUR OWN THING PIXThis the outside of Do Your Own Thing Coffee-sort of the closest thing to a “hippy” spot. Inside they have a wood burning stove for cool mornings.

MARFA DO YOUR OWH THING DOGI sat outside in the early morning sun and  spoke with a woman  who was from Denver. She bought ½ acre of land within the town so she had hook up for water and paid $75K. She’s building some kind of living/exhibition space she hopes to host various events.

If you go out of town some that same 75K will get you five acres.

I got the impression from talking to some people and observing the town that there are a number of people there who have money and are buying places to live there sometimes and have some sort of business. Whether they actually need to make money to maintain their places is another story.

I didn’t really realize why I went to Marfa until I came back. But I’ve been thinking of a project for a few years now-a building project called Heaven Sighting Device-that I feel could work there. More about that a later post.

marfa truck stop with note in tx I took sort of a  back way down there…south of Carlsbad, NM I went through 50 miles of oil country. All I saw was scrub and pumping oil wells and had to share the two lane road with huge tractor trailers and large pickup trucks all working the oil fields till you hit  I-10. This truck stop I sketched from memory was Mad Max like…an Airstream and various tents set up here and there. The whole time I was going through the area I thought I was looking at something secret. It reminded me of growing up in California during the 50’s and 60’s and our road trips to the desert where we’d see pumping oil wells and just appreciate them as objects of wonder. They were fascinating. Always had and always will have -a fascination with industrial processes and the tools/machinery making them possible.

Dean Balsamo


Metior: A Southwestern Sky. Mixed media on canvas by the author.

Metior: A Southwestern Sky. Mixed media on canvas by the author.

Last week two national magazines –GQ and Bloomberg Businessweek-came out with articles referencing the growing popularity of  LSD micro-dosing and other bio-hacks for enhanced work performance and more productive daily lives. These practices have gained critical mass in the Silicon Valley and its spokes in Seattle/Portland/Austin/NYC so their influence is amplified that much more.

It’s no accident that the momentum for the psychedelic-and other substance- fueled bio-hack strategies  emanate from the Valley because substances that alter our mental chemistry….magic mushrooms, salvia, peyote, DMT alcohol….have always been allied with the religions of their times.

Today, objects from the technological cults are fetishized.  Their shaman-geniuses venerated. God is found in algorithmic details.  And our lives experience miracles as a result.

The Bloomberg Businessweek article is an expanded review of A Really Good Day – a book by Ayelet Waldman a former “federal public defender,” now writer who documents her 30 day experience with LSD microdosing over a 30 day period.

The article says, “Waldman’s problems….mood swings…anxiety …were relatively ordinary.”

However the paragraph goes on to say that she got worried. Worried- that the onset of menopause would compound these challenges.  The article says she worried that they “threatened to disrupt her marriage and livelihood.”

She was inspired to try the regime after reading Bay Area psychedelic proponent Dr. James Fadiman’s book from 2011 outlining the 30 day schedule, taking 10 micrograms worth of LSD every three days. This dose is well below the standard threshold for hallucinating. The idea is to take enough to experience more clarity and enhanced productivity but not the over-powering hallucinogen episode.

The GQ piece has an experiential flavor to it (like Maureen Dowd writing about her cannabis experience in CO earlier this year) as the author Josh Dean also try’s Dr. Fadiman’s microdosing schedule on himself while also examining other bio-hacking approaches popular among West Coast techies and executives.

While the author says he didn’t experience any particular expanded feeling of clarity-though he reports more lucid dreaming-he ends the article saying he wants to continue with this strategy.

As it stands now, the microdosing approach is driven by a millennial mindset it’s a measured strategy. Small doses. It’s not about “dropping acid.”  This isn’t about setting up situations where the participant risks at least temporary obliteration of the personality.

No one is looking to escape. This is supposed to be about fine tuning and enhancing the person’s connection with performance.

However one incident recounted in the GQ article concerns the experience of a microdosing practitioner who reported nothing happened when he did the recommended 10 mg. Which is what the author himself said about his experiences.

But in this case the user raised his dosage to 25mg and this appears to have had some real results as he reports: “I realized at the sales meeting that I never cared about the stupid product we were selling, so I went home.”

Okay now we’re beginning to touch on the more traditional effects of LSD-the kind that old hippies can relate to.  And probably the likes of Henry Luce founder of Time Magazine who along with his wife was taking LSD in the early 60s. She was actually quoted saying LSD shouldn’t be given to the masses, but kept for the elites. But Leary, Alpert and the CIA of course had other ideas.

Gary Grant was another experiencer during this time. And if stories-like the one headlined below in a small magazine from the 90’s- are true- even John Kennedy was experienced.

Steamshovel Press-a small title from the 1990s

Steamshovel Press-a small title from the 1990s

Again comparing the millennial LSD use to the 60s several things stand out. For instance the focus. The people who are bio-hacking with LSD and other products which include mixing prescription medicines with other substances according to the imagination of the practitioner are focused on a systematic redesigning of their personalities….on the fly.

But these aren’t the hippies of old. We’re not talking about blotter acid or the orange barrels of yesterday providing unexpected shocks to the kundalini.

No. Today’s pioneers aren’t interested in mystical experiences that risk obliterating the psyche or tearing down the personality. And they’re not, like the 60s, going out and seeking gurus or ashrams to join.

This seems to be a relatively recent response-mirroring the growth of Silicon Valley’s technological influence over our society because throughout the 1990s there were a number of small magazines with a psychedelic focus that still carried the spiritual/conscious raising memes developed in the first onrush of LSD use. See examples below.

The title says everything about this magazine focus.

The title says everything about this magazine’s focus.

Another title from the 90s with legacy focus on psychedelics

Another title from the 90s with legacy focus on psychedelics


Given that the technological sphere is providing the context for much of today’s bio-hacking it’s only natural for the devotees to read the body/mind complex as code to be manipulated and then refocused on specific projects having to do with optimizing their productivity.

No one’s dropping acid to bust out of the system or escape The Man. No. Today’s pioneers are interested in integrating their hopefully heightened experiences with the technological work focused culture they’re immersed in.

And maybe that’s just the way the evolution of ideas goes. What starts outside of the larger system eventually makes its way in towards its center.

One day people will do this with the company’s blessing in certain quarters. It’ll be like Mad Men and their drinks-something to spur creativity. Not for everyone in every industry of course.

But it seems perfectly aligned with the kinds of brain cells needed to communicate with the  gods delivering technological inspiration from the future.

                                                                                                              dean balsamo



Krishna and Gopi Girls by Jodianna. Collage and mixed media on board. 16″ x 16″ x 1.5″ $650 including shipping. More information:

Indian Gurus, Personal Care Products, and the Three Power Points.

“Now all tie-wearing people are sweating. They realize loincloth-wearing people can do many things,” says Baba Ramdev, “unpaid ambassador,” for Patanjali Ayurved the biggest of the various guru-associated Indian companies taking market share from Unilever, Colgate and Dabur in the personal care category.

Last week Bloomberg Businessweek had a fascinating article about the surprising and formidable challenge home-grown, guru-fronted companies like Pantanjali have given the large multinational companies who dominate this industry in India.

Unilever has seen its market share in personal care fall at least 5% over the last few years. Stolen from them by companies associated with various gurus like Ravi Shankar, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh and Jaggi Vasudev.

We’re not talking about Sri Aurobindo Ashram or Sai Baba’s incense. Or Rudy’s bread. We’re talking about a billion dollar company in Patanjali’s case with a CEO, childhood friend of the guru, who is India’s 48th richest person.  This is a company that expects to grow its revenue from the present 1.5 billion and 1.2% of India’s personal care category to over 7 billion while capturing up to 35% of the market for Indian honey, Ayurveda medicines and ghee…in three years.

Unilever understands they have something they need to address in the Indian market as their CFO has said of Pantanjali, a company “which everybody has been following with a lot of interest-incredible branding created there.”

And a VP at IIFL Holdings says, “These ayurvedic product sellers are posing a threat to Indian and global players as the product has gained mass appeal,” noting also that profit margins have shrunk as the big companies are forced to address the competition  from the guru companies. And that’s because among other things, “it has made the existing players enlarge their marketing budgets greatly to try and protect their turf.”

All of the established companies facing competition from the Ayurveda-guru companies are rushing Ayurveda lines to market. Coalgate’s come out a line of toothpaste incorporating neem, clove and other traditional herbs and Unilever’s got its Haman soap and a version of the famous Brahmi Oil, a greenish coconut oil based hair treatment infused with traditional herbs


We used to get the latter in an Indian grocery in the East Village, off of 6th where all the Indian restaurants are. It’s got an herbal scent and it is…oily. Good for luster says traditional Ayurveda.

But while this is a great story about capitalism and competition and the power of the “little” guy to disrupt the Indian marketplace, this is not a straight forward story about marketing and the brand.

It’s hard for me to believe Bloomberg and the executives from the large companies quoted in this article don’t see what’s underlying this story.  It’ epic.

They may not want to publicly delve into the powerful complex of ideas fueling the incredible potential for the guru companies- because they may not have a real solution to neutralize the threat. They’re spending more money to counter the home grown Indian guru companies but they’re also continuing to lose market share to them. Not exactly a winning strategy, nor one they like explaining to their investors.

It doesn’t seem like the large companies can stop the babas invading their monopolistic turf because the momentum fueling the guru companies is fed by a unique blend of three of the most important movements-ideas -affecting the planet at this time:

  1. Nativist/Populist thinking and movements.
  2. The desire for natural and pure personal care products/foods/lifestyle.
  3. Religious/spiritual fervor-the realm of the zealot.

Here’s the picture designed for the Bloomberg article. There’s that quote about the loin cloth people and its author Baba Ramdev pictured.


He’s outspoken with nativist sentiments. “Why shouldn’t our country’s money stay here and be used for this country’s service?” But guess what, and this should feel familiar, his outspokenness and determination to act on his words have made Patanjali Ayurved the most powerful of the guru-companies.

In a way his focus on Indian products by Indians for India echo’s Gandhi. Also the current Prime Minister has added his voice to supporting Indian products.

In the early aughts I was a regular reader of Hinduism Today a magazine focused on the traditional practice of Hinduism. But they weren’t talking about yoga-most people’s brush with Hinduism in the West. The magazine preaches traditional Hindu life and does its part to keep the flame alive all over the world. They make no excuses for believing Hinduism is the only authentic path to keep India true to itself. Its message is delivered with a side of nativism.

This pride in all things India easily lends itself to the movement for pure, healthy, natural products. Traditional Indian cuisine and it’s affinity with Ayurveda practice is already a given. India’s natural products are totally in line with the West’s desire for organic, natural foods and body care. This area is a no brainer for the guru companies who already are aligned through their Yoga and spiritual ashrams. No doubt this desire has been helped by contact with all the western practioners and visitors already committed to a natural lifestyle.

And while products along these lines have always been available-even in the west-ashram-driven businesses  like Sri Sri Ayurveda are now using mass media, point of sales advertising and online marketing. They’ve even drafted Olympic silver medalist P.V. Sindhu as spokesman. I would suggest that the marketing of India’s legacy natural food products is just in its beginning phase with larger campaigns around natural product offerings set to take even more share from multi-national companies who presently dominate the Indian market. The guru’s emphasis on marketing milk, ghee, honey will pull all kinds of other natural Indian products into the guru companies plans.

The spiritual/yoga aspect really seals the deal for various baba aligned companies when you consider the zealot-like devotion to the babas. The religious fervor is a marketer’s dream but without the spiritual practice/yoga schools these gurus command all multi-nationals can do is dream about what it would be like to have brand loyalty like this.

For instance with nearly 10,000 stores selling only its products built on top of its existing franchised yoga studios it’s no wonder Patanjali sales have exploded and allowed them to become such a powerful force in the Indian marketplace.  This (and other guru companies using similar strategies) company appears unstoppable in the near future as their store count expands-taking advantage of more existing land around its yoga centers. They’re able to cut out all kinds of expenses around marketing  further increasing their margins. Patanjali believes they have enough space to expand for the next three years in this manner.

While these companies are not going to drive the multi-nationals out of the country, they are certainly going to make life more difficult for them. And considering the blend of powerful forces behind the home-grown Indian baba companies there’s little the large ones can do to combat them- not when it comes to the kinds of emotional/spiritual energies they have behind them.


(detail) from collage/mixed media work by Jodianna.

Contact the author for more info.  505.570.7325



Wine, Millennials, and Algorithms

A couple of weeks ago Bloomberg Businessweek ran an article about Verve Wine, a new e-commerce site with 1000 bottles for sale and a new way to help consumers discover wines they might not otherwise come across without guidance. But not just any consumers- this new approach is scaled to millennials.

According to the article, Verve’s founder Dustin Wilson  one of only 230 master sommeliers in the world,  “ is targeting millennials who now drink almost half the wine consumed in the U.S. and are more likely to trust an algorithm than a human using incomprehensible adjectives.”

Like Vinfusion, another new approach whose aim is to make it easier for us to enjoy wine- featured in The Economist – (see my comments on it here)

Verve also addresses the suddenly pressing need to by- pass the traditional language of wine in order to give the consumer more useful tools they can relate to for discovering wines they’re not familiar with-and of course drive more sales for those selling wine.

It took me a little time to warm up to Verve’s premise because the attack on the traditional language of wine, railing against its “mystique” and “this high end snooty thing,”  that the respective articles in these magazines take- gives the impression they’re using the same prepared talking points to dismantle the usual criteria with.

But what kind of “incomprehensible adjectives” used to describe wine are we talking about?

In a random search on the web the site Wine Folly came up. They list 40 common adjectives used to describe wine along with their accepted meaning in wine circles.

Some of the examples include:


The word Crisp with wine is more often used to describe a white wine. A crisp wine is most likely simple but goes really well with a porch swing on a hot day.


Sommeliers and wine experts cringe when they hear this term while the rest of us delight. Jam is delicious and it is part of the PB&J experience. In wine, jammy indicates a wine with a cooked berry sweetness that is syrupy and often is used to describe American wines like zinfandel, grenache, cabernet franc and Australian shiraz…don’t be a hater.


When a wine writer pairs down his lengthy description of flavors and characteristics of a wine into one word, he uses dense. Dense is favored for use in bold red wines such as cabernet sauvignon, Côtes du Rhône and Brunello di Montalcino but usually isn’t a positive characteristic in other wines because it implies that wine is handicapped.

While the different words describe the complexities and nuance of various wines they aren’t from an alien tongue. This is the language of wine-now go out and speak it. You read, you sample you note and repeat.

This scenario reminds me of screen writing. There are those who will take endless courses, keep buying books on the topic and take all kinds of webinars on the subject. But what do the successful pros like ‘David Mamet or Brian Koppelman recommend?  Reading Scripts, watching films and writing. That’s the formula.

As society takes on more of the millennial world view do we have to wonder if everything will be about taking the highs and lows, the mistakes and the discoveries, the disappointment and the joys out of cultivating a love for wine (or anything else).

In the case of Vinfusion, the machine highlighted in The Economist article   The traditional language is not only gutted but the actual cultivation  methods –the art to blending -is totally dismissed as well- giving the final product something of the nature of “swill.”

Thankfully Verve doesn’t get rid of all the language of wine. They use a smattering of terms like acidity, alcohol level, and tannin level in their evaluation of your tastes to come up with wines that give a structural form to your tastes as in this example from their press release:


These are the legacy descriptions Verve uses but shifts the emphasis from the more subjective approach to wine adjectives to terms which focus on the structure of the wine.

This approach has everything to do with the founder Dustin Wilson. He has good pedigree having been the head of wine procurement for Eleven Madison Park, a famous restaurant in Manhattan, as well as, the star of a documentary called Somm-tracing his path to master sommelier.

And unusual for an e-commerce startup- Verve actually has a shop in Manhattan where consumers are encouraged to come in for a sit down with an onsite sommelier who, after conducting a Q & A with you about your tastes-will then feed the answers to the “custom software” which will spit out recommendations for you.

From the Verve website:

Coming Soon

Verve Wine is a new place to buy wine online. We curate delicious wines that are thoughtfully and carefully produced from around the world, and deliver them to your door. We will also have a flagship shop in NYC where we’ll host wine tastings, classes and events.

Since there’s only one brick n’ mortar location online users will have to make do with a form they fill out online and submit to the algorithm-driven program to find the best wine selections for them.

But to my mind there’s something of a bubble – an insular feeling about the parameters he’s sketched out to reach millennials.

The whole idea of having a physical location where millennials or anyone else is going to come in and do a consultation seems to be at cross purposes with the stated purpose of this approach in which Wilson says consuming wine, “has become more about camaraderie than having this thing on a pedestal.”  Doesn’t the physical store and the way they go about trying to expand your tastes in this manner imply a gallery type situation-a “pedestal?”

I don’t know many millennials who would consider taking this route with their wine purchasing. And when you consider the fact that most of the wines on their site sell between “$25-$50” it becomes even harder to imagine millennials flocking to this site.

Special occasions… maybe. And maybe Verve will be used for educational purposes-something like the showrooming that takes place with physical stores. But most avid wine drinkers are not spending this much for daily wine consumption.  I would suggest that $7-$10 is more likely with $10 to $20 the average for more well off consumers.

While I do think Verve is on to something –they haven’t opened yet-getting enough traffic to both their store and their online site is going to be interesting to watch. I think it’s going to be an uphill battle.

And that’s because there are already so many upscale grocers like Whole Foods, New Seasons, Central Market in TX, and Kroger’s Main & Vine carrying fine wines why would most people spend time online or in the Verve shop when they can just as easily go into one of these stores and peruse the selections and usually get help with staff in the department.

It’s hard to compete with say going into Trader Joe’s with a bottle you bought there and telling them, “This just doesn’t work for me,” and having Traders just take it back no questions asked.

This personal connection is what  I feel in the end allows grocers with well thought out wine selections to excel-taking what they can from Verve’s approach and incorporating it into their own cultivation of wine consumers. They already have the platform and traffic they’re only limited by their imagination.


Chocolate: edibles leading the way for higher growth in the cannabis industry.

Chocolate: edibles leading the way for higher growth in the cannabis industry.

The Economist Corner:  The Elites go all in for Cannabis

In what strikes me as an “a ha” moment The Economist  takes a serious look at the growing cannabis industry with the article Pot of Gold, America’s cannabis industry prepares for new highs.

Any doubts about where the Economist stands on cannabis are erased with the statement they end the article with: ” Colorado offers a tantalizing glimpse of the future: there are more cannabis dispensaries in the state than there are Starbucks coffee outlets”

“Tantalizing.” Hm. This piece appears after both the British Medical Journal and The Global Commission on Drug Policy (which includes Sir Richard Branson on its board) recently called for the legalization of “illicit” drugs.

The Economist labels the fed’s reluctance to legalize cannabis across the board as “dispiriting,” and then speculates about the prospects for the future . What will the President Elect’s administration  do about cannabis. Will they keep it way it is now? Get tough? No one knows.

Considering his statements about state’s rights, not to mention more pressing matters related to the various things the President Elect brought up during his campaign, it doesn’t appear that stopping the  cannabis roll-out would be a high priority. We’ll see if less regulations will allow banks to move forward in the industry.

At this point as the Economist says, about 60% of the population is already living in areas where cannabis can be legally consumed- with at least 32 million people using cannabis.

This article’s a good primer on the business prospects for the industry. They quote a principal with Privateer Holdings, a private equity company whose focus is on the cannabis industry saying, “It’s not often you see an industry and you know the inevitability of it.”

He’s right of course. But there are still a few hurdles to overcome before the industry explodes like observers expect it too. For one thing banks are not into making loans too or handling money for companies that actually grow and “touch” the plant.

The cannabis companies that do grow distribute and sell in their own stores can’t operate across state lines. And they can’t take the usual deductions on taxes-which reduces margins and is especially hard on the smaller operations.  But none of these things are slowing the rate of new companies entering the cannabis industry.

What I like about this article is that it discusses some of the opportunities for companies that don’t actually handle the cannabis itself- similar to what I did in previous posts on Colorado Cannabis stores see:

For instance the article mentions Kush Bottles in CA which is able navigate the maze of laws surrounding packaging for the industry. The piece also mentions Scotts Miracle Gro and its attempts to appeal to cannabis growers who are looking for great yields.

The piece also discusses some of the strategies cannabis companies use to address the varied demands of the industry-which The Economist compares to “traditional consumer businesses.”

But for me some of the most important points in this article are about the future-in terms of products and services- and for some even investment strategies.

In particular the article discusses the elephant in the room: cigarette makers. They’ve got the experience in dealing with complex regulations, data from their research into e-cigarettes and of course the money.

The latter means that companies like Native Root and LivWell  in Colorado-between them these two have over 30 stores -would be prime targets for buy outs from cigarette producers like R.J. Reynolds.  So it’s easy to envision well-funded companies forming with a specific exit strategy designed to capitalize on the investments cigarette companies will be making in the future.

The ma and pa stores that initially opened up the industry are already in decline as the chains that have sprung up are better capitalized and more attuned to the direction of the market. Take the store I saw in Pueblo, CO, it was focused on the actual bud itself rather than edibles and other non-smoking cannabis products. It felt old fashioned with its large mason jars on simple shelves behind the counter whereas the stores in Boulder were slick and featured all kinds of other cannabis products. And had more assertive people at the counters. Demographics matter.

The market share for cannabis buds to be smoked is going down not up.  The latest figures show that the sales of bud have fallen from 68% to 57% over the last year or so.   Instead as The Economist says, “the processed versions of cannabis,”… tinctures and edibles…., “are on the rise.”

Chocolates, lollipops, biscuits and other food –like substances represent the future. These are the high trending products in the cannabis industry.  In Colorado there’s even a food truck that specializes in offering an edibles menu.  And then there are the gatherings happening in OR and CO that feature cannabis infused gourmet meals that participants pay a set fee to attend- which involve both eating foods with cannabis and smoking in the traditional way.

Over the last few weeks I’ve sent several articles about these kinds of dinners to my brother, a five star chief who lives in NYC-suggesting he explore this area.

With both CA and MA along with a couple of other states having just approved recreational cannabis critical mass just got a boost- the momentum’s there.

And while the biggest profits come from touching the cannabis-there are other entry points into this industry…and room to invent more..anyone who provides services and products to grocery stores and other retail concerns could find opportunities if they’re willing to deal with the exacting laws around cannabis regulation.

Purists are going to deride the corporate nature of the industry. It doesn’t look like that can be stopped.  But they might put their efforts into lobbying states and  the Feds about the inalienable right of the individual to cultivate their own plants if they desire..

One special note: today marks the 53rd anniversary of JFK’s passing.



A close up of the Bloomberg article lead in.

A close up of the Bloomberg article lead in.  illustration by Andi Burnett

American Spirit and The Spirit of Memory

Although you hear plenty of stories about great companies that started in someone’s garage it’s comparatively rare for any of us to actually be involved at that stage. But in the case of the American Spirit tobacco company I was involved with the garage stage.

Memories -the early 80’s -my first few years in Santa Fe- appeared when I read the article Nature’s Cancer Sticks in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek. This lengthy piece goes into the history of the brand’s founding and evolution over the last couple of decades -in providing the context behind a pending class action complaint against  its present owner RJ Reynolds for advertising “in a false and misleading manner.”

As Bloomberg notes this is the brand’s “bar mitzvah,” it’s coming of age moment in light of the way all the big brands have been attacked over the years. And as Bloomberg notes what’s really amazing here is not the specific issue of the truth in advertising but how well the marketing for the brand has done.

In contrast to an industry that’s seen a 17% decline in sales since 2009 Natural American Spirit has seen an 86% rise in sales during the same period.

It’s not hard to understand as the brand garnered its critical mass at the same time as the natural health movement was picking up real steam. Whole Foods even carried the brand for a number of years in its early days. And when you factor in the celebrity endorsement of American Spirit by the likes of Sean Penn and Gwyneth Paltrow plus all the hipsters it’s not hard to understand the allure and its translation into sales.

According to the article the fact that cigarette manufacturers can legally use over 500 different additives in their brands makes no difference-it’s the smoke itself-not the additives that makes smoking tobacco a health risk.

That’s not what my friend from that time- the late Robert Marion-one of the founders of American Spirit told me when he started the company.  It was the additives he said. If those studying tobacco risks weren’t talking about what happens when you burn these different chemicals in the tobacco than they weren’t presenting a true picture of the differences between his American Spirit approach and the standard industry practice.

I became a true believer while being part of the flotsam jetsam of friends and followers who so often surround a startup in its early days. I would go over to Robert’s garage and unpack 50 gallon barrel sized containers of tobacco that had been shredded (by the RJ Reynold’s facilities in NC) for packing into the pouches the company first began selling their tobacco in before they got into cigarettes.

To me it was obvious there was a difference. You saw it in the way American Spirit burned. It would go out after a moment while Camels and all other brands would continue to burn down.

Drum tobacco was one brand he signaled out as a perfect example of what he was talking about. “Drum has anti-freeze in it, that’s what keeps it moist.” I liked Drum at the time. I’d gotten used to it when I lived in Montreal in the 1970’s. There my artist and pirate friends would use it to roll their splifs  Euro style.

But I saw the difference with the American Spirit. Unlike Drum it didn’t stay moist. In fact it dried out very quickly so that as you rolled a cigarette it would be falling all over the place instead of allowing itself to be rolled like Drum.

Except for a call in the mid-80’s I fell out of contact with Robert as we’d moved to NYC for a few years before returning out west.

It was during the time in New York that I had to explore different options for my smoking needs as American Spirit had no distribution at the time out of the state of New Mexico. Even the Gem Spa-the famous newsstand and tobacco store in the East Village where we lived-didn’t carry them.


But the meme about additive free had taken hold. I couldn’t go back to Drum or Bugler and certainly none of the typical American brands.

What I ended up doing was buying foreign brands from Turkey and Egypt and occasionally some from Germany that used Turkish tobacco.  My reasoning was-and this is Robert talking- these countries couldn’t afford to use all the different additives nor did their traditional cultivation and manufacturing rely on them.


Occasionally I smoked Galois and Gitane-the dark tobacco made cigarettes favored by the French working man-but they just end being too harsh and probably laced with additives.

I did the burn test and found that the tobacco from the Middle East didn’t keep burning if you put a cigarette down. And the boxes themselves were beautifully packaged. I found some the other day and posted them here. Sometimes I can’t believe what I was spending on a pack of these in those days.  1986 in NYC I was paying $4.00 and more per pack of my Egyptian smokes. But they were sublime. So smooth. In fact one brand’s cigarettes were 4” long with half of it hollow-like a cigarette holder of old-so that the smoke arrived in your mouth like a breath..

They did have a pungent air. People around me would often  describe them as smelling like “ dung” burning.  Once during a stay in San Francisco-when you could still smoke in cafes-I was asked by the manager of a café in North Beach to put my Turkish cigarette out since people were complaining about the smell. But the smell was a “scent” to me and I never had a problem with them-the smoke was too good.

My favorites

My favorites-they had gold tips

But as attacks against smoking ramped up and higher duties (in addition to taxes) were added to foreign cigarettes they began disappearing from stores around the country. The foreign companies just weren’t making enough money in this country to justify selling them here while paying the increased duties.  So all those beloved brands like you see pictured  are no longer available.

And as they all were labeled “for Export Only,”  I’ve never found them overseas-not even in Cairo.

That said, one thing that will never go up in smoke are my recollections and admiration for some people who tried to bring a better quality experience to a habit that’s been a part of human culture for thousands of years.

R.I.P. Robert Marion.


THE ECONOMIST CORNER: Social Engineering and the Enjoyment of Wine

The Vinfusion machine. The future of drinking wine?

The Vinfusion machine. The future of drinking wine?

The Economist Corner: Social Engineering and the enjoyment of wine.

I felt like screaming. No it wasn’t about the election it was about wine-and the ugly shadow side to the  kind of social engineering The Economist preaches with all those wonderful virtues like “human dignity, nobleness, freedom,” it loves to promote in the context of its weekly survey of current events.

In an article about Vinfusion, “a wine blending machine that lets drinkers craft a glass specifically to their personal palate,” they pin this hope that: “the snobbery and mystique surrounding wine-whether blended in the vineyard or the restaurant-may disappear for good.”

What are they talking about? They’re extolling the virtues of a machine that basically takes a paint by number’s approach to the ancient art of wine cultivation and blending. In doing so they negate everything that’s made the art of creating and drinking wine what it is in the pages of human history and culture.

. The company that created this hybrid mechanical/digital machine says they did all kinds of research and narrowed people’s basic appreciation for the taste of wine down to four main generic types: A pinot and merlot from Chile, a shiraz from Australia and a Muscat-because of its sweetness-from France.

These four wines, which sit in vessels connected to the machine, are then blended together by the consumer using digital sliders on a screen allowing her to choose between extremes of “light” and “full bodied, soft” to “fiery” and “sweet” to “dry.” None of the usual kinds of adjectives used by those with an appreciation for wine are used.

There’s no mention of years associated with these wines or alcohol content or any other information concerning their origins etc.

In my opinion the final result is “swill.” The reductionist approach taken here is even more disturbing because The Economist is supposed to be representing the highest values of Western Civilization yet they support this paltry excuse for wine appreciation.

It’s a slap in the face to their core readership-all those people who have taken the time, spent the money, and otherwise educated themselves in the art of cultivating, collecting and drinking wine.

After reading the article I was reminded of Boardwalk Empire where, along with questions about which competitor should be eliminated next, one of the big questions was about product and the two main options. The distributors like Steve Buscemi and others could chose the real thing-Irish Whiskey, Canadian Mist etc. or go the way of regional concoctions mixing who knows what for the rubes and their new jack providers.

This invention is sacrilegious. I half-way expect Dionysus to smite the author. Is there any excuse for The Economist to support stripping wine of all its cultural, religious and social history just to please some hypothetical sensitive consumer who feels self-conscious about his lack of wine knowledge?

It almost feels like this article is a plant-a favor to some friend of The Economist-free publicity for their product along the lines of the way museums will cater to their directors by mounting shows of artists collected by their board members in order to drive up the value of their personal holdings.

There are alternatives though to this senseless trashing of wine’s legacy attributes. I saw one in action earlier this year on a business trip to Seattle. There’s a small French restaurant on an alley near Pike’s Place that I like to go to. This particular night I sat at the bar for dinner. About half way through my meal a couple of gentleman sit down next to me.

Space Needle Seattle

Space Needle Seattle

One of them, lanky, 40’s, a smooth talker- from LA was taking his larger, younger colleague from CT on a business trip from what I could gather. Smooth talker and I began conversing and I learned he had a French wife. We spoke a little in French. Then a little while later I heard him engage the younger French proprietor in conversation in French.

Then I saw the owner appear with a device that had a long needle like end to it. Smooth Talker had really wanted a glass from a more rare French wine that was sold only by the bottle. But the owner took this object and plunged the end through the cork without opening the bottle which allowed him to draw a single glass of wine for Smooth Talker.

The whole event became a ritual. There was a desire, a negotiation to satisfy the desire, a solution and satisfaction-an event that expressed the essential art of our connection and reverence for wine.  I’ll take this essential human connection with this gift from the gods over the reductionist swill anytime.


Billie, vintage record.

Billie, vintage record.

A Vinyl Perspective-including a look at Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters.

Vinyl just won’t die. Last year’s sales were the best since 1988, rising 32% to 418 million with this year on track to surpass it.

Magazines have been taking note of the industry this year.  Forbes from which the information above is taken, Bloomberg Businessweek and others have all had features on vinyl’s resurgence. For instance news about pressing plants here in the US having a hard time keeping with demand came from a Bloomberg article. Also Classic Rock isn’t the sole driver of sales-with Millennials the new force in the market-vinyl’s success across genres is growing.

What’s more- the industry’s growth is extending beyond just collecting. Over the last few years pop up venues dedicated to playing vinyl on great sound systems for groups of people who gather to drink, hang out and listen to records began appearing around the globe. Now Listening Clubs are opening especially in London that offer regular nights-with “menus” of up-coming selections for listening. From what I can tell this movement seems to be driven by people in their late 40’s/early 50’s.

Urban Outfitters correctly foresaw the younger demographics behind vinyl’s surge year ago as they’ve had dedicated vinyl sections in all their stores for at least a decade. Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods are the favorite retailers these vinyl articles like to name check. From Forbes:

“Meanwhile, vinyl is no longer solely the domain of independent record stores. It’s quickly becoming ubiquitous in retail stores everywhere. Chains like… , Urban Outfitters and even Whole Foods   now carry albums.”

But while named Whole Foods only has vinyl in select locations in Southern California- Venice, Ventura and Downtown LA-the Arts District area..

Whole Foods Downtown LA. A "static" set.

Whole Foods Downtown LA. A “static” set.


This past spring, while still working with the magazine distributor, I did an informal survey for the company of some of the Whole Foods locations in preparation for our proposal to do the vinyl sets in their stores.

This, and the fact I was  familiar with the Urban Outfitters set plus a vinyl listener already- inspired me to do some field notes on vinyl and how’s it merchandised.

Urban Outfitters-vinyl wall

Urban Outfitters-vinyl wall

                                                                                                                                                         Looking at the photos here of the Urban Outfitters and Whole Foods approaches it’s easy to see UO understands more about merchandising vinyl.  Looking at their wall fixture display you can see they’re  making use of the record’s sensual packaging-treating the covers like magazines-full facings, plan-o-grammed,  categories are  labeled-making use of everything at their disposal to draw the eye.

Urban Outfitters-med. shot of vinyl area.

Urban Outfitters-med. shot of vinyl area.

       Even the lighting whose powerful contribution is often either ignored or one of the last things retailers look at-is working pretty well in the Urban Outfitter’s case.

What Urban Outfitters understands here is, setting the stage for visual merchandising to do what it does best: set up visual ques.

Compare this to the static Whole Foods approach in the downtown LA store. Sitting on a small fixture next to elevator-it looks like a set piece you’d find in a furniture retailer where they create rooms.

Whole Foods -wine and vinyl-just have put them together with a listening night.

Whole Foods -wine and vinyl-just have put them together with a listening night.

        Going around the side is more of the same. Some wine merchandised along with some more records. But there’s nothing compelling here. No signage, no particular lighting, no energy to the set.

  In doing field notes for my surveys several ideas came to mind that I feel would help anyone wishing to sell vinyl-do it better.

A vinyl island

A vinyl island idea


in-store sketch doing survey.

in-store sketch doing survey.

 Some specific ideas along these lines are listed below.

In doing field notes for my surveys several ideas came to mind that I feel would help anyone wishing to sell vinyl-do it better.

  • POP UP Listening Nights-like mentioned above. Energize your vinyl areas by getting people to come in and-listen. Why couldn’t Whole Foods have a night or two a week –serve beer and wine-have a live dj playing vinyl-preferably on some of the Crosley turntables they’re selling. The same goes for Urban Outfitters-especially as now they’ll be putting in pizza restaurants in select stores-as a result of purchasing a pizza chain not long ago. If they’ll have beer and wine-it seems like a perfect thing to try.
  • Vintage Records. None of the articles I’ve seen mention the trade in vintage records. This is huge market with dedicated stores and gatherings catering to the market where older records are in demand. Why couldn’t either of these retailers do something around vintage? Have a dedicated buyer who would select and manage. It would sort of be like Buffalo Exchange. Or conversely hold vintage days-where people wishing to sell vintage could come and sell-with the retailer getting a percentage or just do it in an effort to stimulate a connection-a buzz with your clientele.
  • Lighting: More spots, more overhead direct lighting and neon signage that draw attention to the space.
  • In Urban’s case, why not move the book tables adjacent to the record area-they go hand in hand creating an opportunity for piggy backed purchases/add ons.
  • As seen here, both retailers-following some of the suggestions above could also work more with “island” displays. Set out on their own and allowing customers to walk around them will drive more sales just as in grocery stores islands have been known to work well for higher end cosmetics for instance.

If technology is a product of humans turning themselves inside out-then vinyl’s connection with recording and transmitting human culture must be our hearts and souls. We all have associations and moments connected with vinyl:

My parents making us dance with them post-martinis -Sinatra blasting.

Barefoot girls on the grass in white gauze dresses whirling incense at the Griffith Park Be-In.

The dude with the 4’ high speakers and a couple of decks we saw -scratching- on a random corner in Bed-Sty as we headed to that artist’s studio….that maniac  with the cane leaping and  darting between cars as a dj spun Egyptian House on the sidewalk off Talaat Harb that first night in Cairo.

And maybe that’s because The Record combines so many sensual ques for our psyches. It’s scale and medium hits all the bases when it comes to our appreciation of culture and our tribe within it.

Dean Balsamo


The Economist Halloween Cover?

The Economist Halloween Cover?

The Economist Corner: Comments on Private Equity, The Markets and Specialty Grocers.

This is one of those weeks when The Economist and its hybrid reporting/policy suggesting approach is overflowing with meaty articles.

Besides an in-depth dig at Putin’s Russia, The Economist does both an opinion piece and longer article examining the power the private equity industry has come to wield.

For instance Carlyle, through all the companies they own, is the second largest employer in the country-after Walmart-with 725,000 employees-while several other private equity companies are also near the top in this regard.

The Economist laments the fact that the ultra-wealthy are choosing private equity instruments for investing instead of the stock market which has seen listed companies shrink from 7,000 in the late 90’s to 4,000 today. IPOS this year are estimated to be 50-75% less than 10 years ago.

As the magazine says, “Public companies are out of fashion. They need to be revived.” To tell you the truth as a retail investor in the market this article made me feel like a “chump,” to use the old fashioned term.

On one hand The Economist says something must be done to get the cash back into the markets. “Public Markets are inclusive and deep; they should provide capital efficiently (meaning inexpensively and intelligently) and should as a result be the best solution for both companies and investors. They should thus outperform the competition.”…..

But then The Economist goes into so much detail about how the private equity firms work-how focused they are compared to the public companies- and how that focus drives the much higher returns the private equity industry sees compared to Wall Street you begin to wonder why anyone with large sums to invest would do it with Wall Street.

Let’s see…. if it’s a decision between banking on all the “shoulds” The Economist feels –should… be happening- or  taking the profits that the focus and higher returns private equity is delivering right now……is there really going to be much of a decision process in making a choice?

After you weigh the various challenges publicly traded companies  face-like more public and government scrutiny, “quarterly capitalism” or the activist investors, and all the red tape involved in being public it’s not hard to understand given the polarized nature of today’s society-why more and more investors and companies are shying away from public offerings. Politicians during this cycle have routinely signaled out Wall Street for beating up.

Plus start-ups, because of their technological basis need less money to get off the ground-companies like Uber have even invented industries and have done so quickly without the need for the kinds of funds on the scale Wall Street is traditionally used for.

In addition private equity, unlike public companies- can take advantage of tax laws which allow them to load up on debt and in doing do so reduce the taxable income they’re subject to. Both Clinton and Trump have said they want to address this private equity industry advantage.

This article appeared just as the Whole Foods problem with hepatitis A was announced in Detroit last week. And this followed a Supermarket News interview with a Wall Street analyst who specializes in grocery in which he expressed his skepticism about Whole Food’s ability to recapture the reputation and profits it once enjoyed. Yes margins are still good but as many have been pointing out there’s a lot more competition from others carrying organic and natural foods-and at lower prices which is not only affecting same store comps but causing Whole Foods to be reactive rather than lead the pack.

The analyst’s thoughts aside I found myself wondering whether going public was really the best thing for Whole Foods and other formerly private companies like The Fresh Market and Wild Oats in its day. Having worked with these companies over the years in their pre and post private days, I’ve come to believe that these companies compromised their focus-the very element now driving the success private equity companies are experiencing.

Ask yourself what does Whole Foods stand for these days? The “whole paycheck” meme, rather than the high quality experience which made them the benchmark for upscale/specialty retailers, is more often associated with them these days-a product of the increased scrutiny that came with being a public company.

Is chasing lower demographics with the lower priced and serviced stores in Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans in addition to 365 which are designed to deliver a lower priced experience-while reducing the elements that helped build their reputation in the first place- really playing to the strengths that made them such a powerhouse?

The Fresh Market was never the same after it went public- while delivering a nice payload to the founders in the process. Is their new, 1 stop shopping reformulation really going to work now that they’re competing directly with so many others with years of experience in this regard?

Wild Oats seemed to change overnight bringing in big guns from mainstream grocers to run their operation and in the process turning off many of the venders who had been serving them loyally for years as suddenly there were demands for slotting fees and a host of other requests mimicking what public companies elsewhere do-which in hindsight seemed like approaches designed to prepare the company for a sale rather than improve  it.

One has to wonder whether going public is always in the best interests of grocers with their own unique identity and culture. Look at Trader Joes, Aldi, Lidl, H.E.B in TX-all privately held companies showing no signs of being off message. Without the challenges plaguing publicly-held companies they’re free to go about doing what they do-and doing it profitably without the short-term mentality investors from the Markets bring.

If you’re Elon Musk you have the type of personality that can take a more free-form approach to running public companies and deal with the heat from investors and financial experts without seeming to compromise their mission-but he’s the exception.

In the end it seems to me that it’s the specific focus-the company’s mission and culture-that the decision on whether to stay private or go public should be evaluated against.

Private equity seems to be a good match for New Seasons, Metropolitan Market and Bristol Farms-the Endeavour held companies-which continue to be on point with their traditional focus.

Haggen’s melt down appears to be an anomaly in the private equity area. You could see it was going to be a disaster early on. But in this case it’s likely their owners-a private equity firm out of Florida still made money on the deal as no doubt they did what many other private firms do-load on the debit from the acquisition and use it to lower their taxable income.

But when it comes to upscale/specialty grocers the most important consideration-like the private equity industry- may be focus.

This more niche-orientated approach is fundamental to the success of private equity and it may be the most important aspect for an upscale/specialty grocer to look at when it considers going public. Will they compromise their focus going public?

As The Economist admits, it may be quite a while before the challenges arising from the nature of being a public company can be mollified. Until then they admit, it looks like private equity may remain the best choice for wealthy investors. And it may  still be the best option for specialty/upscale grocers who find themselves wanting to raise money without sacrificing their mission focus, their unique identity, in the process.

Dean Balsamo