Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The perils of cheap Pinot Noir: notes from PinotFest

Ross Cobb makes some of the most elegant Pinots in California
PinotFest is one of the best annual wine tastings in San Francisco, with current-release Pinots Noir from throughout the West Coast, but usually I don't take a lot of notes. I'm too easily distracted: too many people I want to talk to. Usually I taste some Pinots I'm interested in, chat with a few folks, eat some duck gizzards (?? every year they serve these) and go on my way.

This year, after I had tasted about a half-dozen Pinots, I was thinking, wow, the West Coast is really doing great things with this grape. These are outstanding, terroir-driven, lively, pretty, not overdone wines that I wish I could spend an entire evening with.

Then I ran into a sommelier and wine instructor I have known for years, and she was shaking her head. "These wines are depressing," she said. "So much oak. So over the top."

How could we differ so completely?

It turns out to be a class issue, and a conundrum in talking about California and Oregon Pinot Noir.

Friday, December 1, 2017

NIMBY wine wars erupt over a funeral at a California winery

The Disunited States sucks right now. I'm saying this as a guy who wrote my Thanksgiving wine column for Palate Press about how we should all just get along.

Then I took a look at the comments on this story about a winemaker's funeral in Santa Barbara County. There's something really wrong with this country, and this story and the comments encapsulate it.

First, the setup. Winemaker Seth Kunin died unexpectedly last month of a heart attack at age 50. Patrick Comiskey wrote a nice obit of Kunin for the LA Times. Kunin was a beloved guy in the chummy Santa Barbara winemaking scene.

Naturally, people who worked with him wanted to hold a memorial service. Larner Vineyard offered to host it. This was a great location because Larner Vineyard has for years sold its grapes to young winemakers just starting out, thus helping to foster that community.

Larner Vineyard had fought with neighbors when it wanted to open a winery and tasting room. I am not taking a position on this. Santa Barbara County can be very NIMBY*, but I have driven on Ballard Canyon Road to Larner Vineyard and it does require attentiveness. That said, the permit was issued; the vineyard and winery are open (albeit not for drop-in tasting). And earlier this month, more than a year after the zoning decision, the memorial service was scheduled.

(* Not In My Back Yard; people who don't generally oppose development but don't want it next to them)

Knowing how popular Kunin was, the Larners hired traffic attendants to staff the memorial service. The service was popular enough that the parking lot filled and about a dozen cars had to park out on the road. Not an ideal situation on Ballard Canyon Road, but there were parking attendants, and it was not exactly a wine-release party.

Someone anonymously filed a complaint with the county, claiming the Larners violated their winery permit by hosting a big event that caused traffic disruptions. The Larners counter that it wasn't an event for commercial purposes. The county will investigate.

Why I'm writing this blog post: the aggressive, nasty tone of the comments from one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. People who live in Santa Ynez Valley, in or around Ballard Canyon, they live in paradise. And they're in California: they should be doing yoga, smoking soon-to-be legal weed and coexisting.

Instead, here are a few snippets:

"I am disgusted that this HAG would stoop so low."

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 shows the chaos of vino

Courtesy Wine Enthusiast
After I wrote last month about Wine & Spirits' top 100 wineries, and last week about Wine Spectator's top 100 wines, I got a comment from Jim Gordon,  one of the critics at Wine Enthusiast, saying essentially, "Hey, what about us?"*

Wine Enthusiast often gets left out of discussions of wine media, which used to irk its longtime California critic Steve Heimoff. In the print era, I'm sorry Steve, but the Enthusiast did seem minor-league, like a company created to sell accessories that also had a magazine. It didn't have the pompous importance of the Spectator or the enophile seriousness of Wine & Spirits.

That latter description is still true, and has become a plus. Wine Enthusiast's short cheerful stories are made for iPhone consumption. And after Heimoff moved on, the Enthusiast upgraded its California critics, splitting the state between two well-respected writers, Gordon and Virginie Boone. I really should take the Enthusiast more seriously even though it doesn't take itself too seriously.

So I decided to take Gordon up on his implied challenge and take a look at Wine Enthusiast's Top 100 wines.

I couldn't make sense of the list. It was too lacking in focus. I put the list aside for a few days, rubbed my eyes and looked at it again. Still pretty weird.

Maybe I have an understanding now, and maybe I don't, but here's what I think.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Drink WWII occupation booze today: Organic shochu made from cassava and taro

Island booze
Japanese consider drinking an essential part of culture, which as far as I'm concerned is proof of how civilized they are. During WWII, they went to great lengths to provide booze for their soldiers. For example, one of the highlights of diving in Chuuk Lagoon is seeing all the sake bottles that still rest inside the Japanese destroyers sunk there by the U.S. Navy. (You can, and we did, swim in through the torpedo hole and then walk up the stairs through the submerged ship -- if you bring your own air.)

Japan occupied what is now the island nation of Palau until they were dislodged in one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War, at Pelileu island, about an hour by speedboat south of Palau's main island, Koror. People still visit Pelileu to see the war remnants, such as the impressive cave structures the Japanese built beneath the island. While we were there, our fellow guests at Dolphin Bay Resort, a retired U.S. Marine and his military historian brother, found two Japanese bayonets in one of these caves, more than 70 years after the battle. (They turned them in to the local history museum.)

The greater attraction of Pelileu, however, is the scuba diving, which is up there with the very best in the world. We were wowed by it more than 20 years ago, and this year we were happy to visit again and stay with the same innkeepers, local expert Godwin and his Japanese wife Mayumi.

In fact, as in Hawaii, Japan may have lost the war but it has more or less won the island anyway. Most Americans don't know about the great diving in Pelileu, which is better than anywhere in the Caribbean. But Japanese know: there are direct flights from Tokyo to Koror. Mayumi told us Japanese tourism has fallen off in the last few years as non-diving Chinese tourists have flooded the island for the snorkeling, which also must be world-class as the light-blue water is so clear and there are astonishing schools of colorful tropical fish. But there is still plenty of Japanese-tourism infrastructure, which always means reliably clean rooms, and in this case also meant uniquely delicious shochu.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Alcohol percentages of Wine Spectator's Top 10 wines of 2017

Congratulations to fire-struck Napa Valley, which got some good news this week with a big honor for this vineyard
Wine Spectator releases its annual Top 100 Wines this week. The list often signals something about the high-end wine market: Does the Spectator think its readers should drink more Syrah? (Yes, apparently.) Has Pinot Noir arrived with Spectator readers? (Definitely not.)

I wanted to see if the much-reported backlash against high-alcohol wines has hit the offices of the Spectator, which for years was a bastion of the same old names boosting fruit bombs. I don't want to overly pick on the Spectator: I find its ratings more restrained and useful than those of the Wine Advocate, which probably can't do a Top 10 because it would have to sort through all its 100-point scores and announce that some wines are less perfect than other perfect wines. I like that the Spectator does a Top 100. I just thought I'd see if there's a pattern.

There might be, but without comparing to previous year's Spectator lists, I can't be sure. First, here is the alcohol percentage data, which of course Spectator does not provide:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Duty-free bubbly turns amazing the second day! Also, shark dentistry

Artists' rendering. I don't take diving photos anymore
At home, I would never have noticed the astonishing second-day deliciousness of a mass-market sparkling wine. The wine was blah the first day so, spoiled as I am, I would have poured whatever was left down the drain.

But we were not at home. We were in Pelileu, an island in the south of Palau known to most as the site of a long and particularly bloody WWII battle, and to us as the base for some of the world's best scuba diving. There's not much on Pelileu other than rusted tanks and leftover armaments and palm trees and biting insects. But underwater, we saw a shark dentistry.

Above a certain knob of coral in the German Channel, small cleaner wrasse fish await clients, in this case gray reef sharks and white tip reef sharks. The fish eat the parasites off of larger fish in a mutually beneficial relationship. Cleaner wrasse are common but I've never seen anything like the shark dentistry before.

The sharks queued up, waiting for their turn, swimming in place as well as they could, because sharks cannot stop moving. When their turn commenced, they swam over the coral knob and opened wide, sometimes rearing up nearly vertical against the current. The small wrasse swam into their mouth, among their teeth, in their gills. The sharks tolerated this treatment much better than I do my own visits to my dentist. They must have liked it because some of them, when their turn was up, swam to the back of the queue to wait another turn. I've been diving more than 500 times all over the world, but I've never seen sharks wait in line before.

I digress. This post is really about amazing second-day wine.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Men and women don't actually have different taste in wine

Portra Images via Getty Images
Most people, including savvy wine industry folks, take it for granted that men and women have different taste in wine. Not just labels -- the wine itself.

A few of the stereotypes:

* Women like lighter, sweeter wines, especially white wines

* Men like bolder wines, especially red wines

* Women like pink wines (because as Drew Barrymore will tell you, girls like pink)

* Men like older wines and more prestigious wines.

I have read countless articles that accept these stereotypes as fact, and I know at least one writer/broadcaster who has made a good career out of stating these things as fact, even though she does not herself drink like the girly-girls she panders to.

Turns out, they don't either. In fact, according to a brilliant new study published in the Journal of Wine Economics, there is no difference in wine preferences between men and women.