Wednesday, October 22, 2014

David Ramey Q&A: "Alcohol level is not a political decision"

David and Carla Ramey met at a winemaker dinner
David Ramey has been a major figure in California wine for several decades. After graduating from UC Davis, he did a stint at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux and worked at Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus Estate and Rudd Estate before going out on his own with Ramey Wine Cellars in 2002. I think of him as a Chardonnay specialist, making wines with the generosity of California fruit yet without going overboard. But he has also spent a lot of his career making Cabernet. My wife and I met David and his wife Carla for lunch at Bistro Ralph, their favorite Healdsburg restaurant, and talked over a delicious bottle of 2005 Ramey Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay.

How did you first get into wine?

I was doing an inter-campus visitation from UC Santa Cruz to UC Berkeley. I rented a room from a woman who had a home in the El Cerrito Hills. She led a salon of international people. We had wine in a room with a spectacular view. I grew up as an only child in a house with two parents who didn't talk much. Dinner was at 6 o'clock and was over in 20 minutes. When I discovered wine could turn dinner into a 3-hour conversation, I was moved.

How did you get into the wine industry?

I was on my way to what I thought was (a job) teaching English for two years in Colombia. I was driving through Mexico. I thought, when I'm done (teaching English), what am I going to do with that? I said to myself, Why not make wine? It makes people happy. It's an aesthetic statement. It's not harmful to the environment. This was 1974. In Santa Cruz we were quite eco-conscious. I broke a piñata in Mexico on Christmas Day. Two weeks later I was back at San Jose State in Chemistry 1-A. It took 4 1/2 years to go from Chemistry 1-A to an MS in enology at UC Davis.

Where did you go from there?

Because I hadn't taught in Colombia, I wanted to work overseas, especially in France, because those were the grapes we worked with in California. It's such an odd twist of fate that in Sonoma County with all the Italian families, we ended up making all these French varieties. I opted for Bordeaux. I wrote 14 letters and got seven replies: six no's and one yes from Christian Moueix. So I went to work for him. After I left Bordeaux I worked at a factory in Australia, Lindeman's, where we made bag-in-a-box "Riesling." There wasn't a drop of Riesling in it. It was 50 percent Sultana and 37 percent Shiraz. They had all that old-vine Shiraz that they didn't know what to do with. They carboned it, they pressed it off as white, and then we charcoaled it. Stripped all the color out.

Monday, October 20, 2014

What soda makers think San Franciscans look like

Proposition E would put a 2 cents per ounce tax on sugary soft drinks if San Francisco voters pass it in November. The American Beverage Association -- mostly Coke, Pepsi and their distributors -- has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign against it.

San Francisco and its hordes of sex-crazed liberal junkies are popular demons for GOP campaigns every two years. Here, we get a look not at the San Franciscan the rest of the country is afraid of, but the image they think we will most relate to: A real San Franciscan, envisioned by a Coke executive in Georgia.

Man, I gotta go buy more lipstick.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.
All my election endorsements are here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

"American Wine Story:" Boring documentary without a plot

Wine doesn't make a great documentary subject. You can't capture the feeling of drinking an amazing wine on film, and in talking about it, you risk sounding like someone describing an orgasm.

That's not what makes "American Wine Story," released this week for sale online, dull. First-time director David Baker exhibits a frequent problem of people trying to chronicle the lives of winemakers: he's too nice, and so are they.

The best films -- the best stories in any medium -- require conflict and strong characters. "American Wine Story" avoids any conflict, and while it's filled with strong, interesting people, it doesn't capture their personalities.

It's a sign of the way the wine industry works that at this point, I feel the need to apologize for this review. I would just ignore the film, as writers usually do about boring wines, if it weren't for the uniformly positive press "American Wine Story" has received to date. Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator called it "fascinating, gritty and ultimately bittersweet." Gritty? It's all tinkly piano soundtrack and people talking about how much they love wine. If that sounds like a good time, stop reading and go watch it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Winemakers are paid less than HR managers

"This wine has an excellent bouquet and a long finish. It's a credit to the winery's human resources director."

Who's the most important employee at a winery? You might think it's the winemaker or vineyard manager. But they're not paid like it.

Wine Business Monthly released its annual salary survey in its October issue, and I was struck by how many people are paid more than the winemaker.

Here's a chart of average salaries from U.S. wineries of all sizes:

Monday, October 13, 2014

Endorsements for November 2014 San Francisco election

After a dull June primary in California, November has a lot of interesting decisions, and I'm here to help you make them.

I read the endorsements from the Los Angeles Times, which did a fine job on statewide races, as well as the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle, which was even weaker than usual. This is a problem for local races and ballot initiatives, many of which the Chronicle simply didn't cover. As always, the leftist San Francisco Bay Guardian weekly did the most thorough job.

Bad news update: These were the last endorsements the Guardian will ever do, because the paper was shut down by ownership on Oct. 14. 

I also read the endorsements of the local Democratic, Republican and Green parties, and the profiles listed by candidates on the crappy new Smart Voter site. In some cases (you'll see) it still felt inadequate.

Election endorsements are a tradition at the Gray Report, and I urge other bloggers reading this -- whether your normal topic is food, fashion or feet -- to do them. The more that ordinary people talk about politics, the less extreme and more pragmatic our choices become.

Governor: Jerry Brown

He has done a good job. No reason to change.

Lt. Governor: Gavin Newsom

He hasn't done much, but there isn't much to do in this job. His opponent is the former state Republican Party chairman, a right-winger ordered up from central casting. Thus it's not a hard choice for anyone in either party.

Secretary of State: Pete Peterson

The secretary of state's job is to oversee elections. The LA Times makes a good case for the Republican candidate Peterson, writing, "As executive director of Pepperdine University's Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership, he's spent the last several years training government officials on how to use technology to communicate with the public and how to get citizens to participate in civic decision-making." California hasn't elected a Republican state official since 2006, so the Democrat, termed-out California legislator Alex Padilla, is the favorite.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My wines of August

People who say "you can never be too rich or too thin" have never read Stephen King. I'm here to tell you that you can also have too many wines.

For about a year, I got out of the habit of reviewing wines at home. If you read this blog, you know that wine reviews in a vacuum aren't my raison d'être. I like telling stories, and if I can tell a story about a bottle, I like to do it. I don't really like just posting tasting notes.

However, people don't strike you from their mailing lists for wine samples just because you don't post tasting notes for a while. During my year of not-really-reviewing wines, I probably averaged opening 50 wine samples a month at home, but that was just searching for something to drink. This was not a fast enough pace. By early August, the ocean of wine in the small apartment I share with my wife consumed three wine refrigerators, two closets and much of a hallway. I realized I had to start opening more than 100 bottles a month, just to make headway.

I haven't been very professional with my tasting notes for the last year. I got samples, I opened them, I drank them and maybe I tweeted about them if I loved them. That's how I like to drink wine: I'd rather have one bottle of wine I really love and drink it all the way through. Yet every night I did this, I felt guilty.

In August the guilt got to me, and I decided I needed to start clearing some of my backlog of samples. So I opened more wine and took more tasting notes. And then I had another conundrum: What to do with them? Because the problem is, when I post tasting notes, I'll get more samples. It's like Disney's Fantasia: I'll never keep up.

So with these notes, I send a plea to producers and importers: I'm not looking for more wine samples (unless I ask for a specific story, like this one.)  I'm not organized in how I taste, and I might never open your bottle. It's probably a waste of money to send it to me. I'm posting these this month, but I'm not planning to post any notes next month.

But I don't have the stories of these wines, and they were my favorites. And I do want to tell you some wines I loved, so ...

Peñalolen Casablanca Valley Cabernet Franc 2010 ($18 on Wine Searcher)
14.3% alcohol. Imported by Global Vineyard Importers
Very Franc-y, with fresh herb notes and red plum. Not as lean as a Loire version, but that should make it more appealing to a wider audience without losing the integrity of the variety. With food, this Chilean wine is a real winner: well-balanced, good freshness, and the herb note adds interest. I loved this more the more I drank it, and it was excellent 2 days later. One of my favorite wines of the month, and a great value. 93 points
I was surprised to find the 2009 in the New York Times Wine Club.

Stéphane Aviron Beaujolais-Villages 2012 ($13 on Wine Searcher)
13% alcohol. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons
There's a mini-story here: I tasted three 2012 Beaujolais-Villages and liked all three, which I don't usually do. So maybe it was a great vintage for entry-level Beaujolais, but I can't say after just three wines. This was my favorite: Fresh red plum flavor with more length and body than some in this category. The savoriness and freshness really shine with food. 91 points.

Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages 2012 ($10 on Wine Searcher)
12.5% alcohol. Imported by Kobrand
Nice freshness, good cranberry fruit, lively. An excellent representation of entry-level Beaujolais: it's red, and will go with anything; it's fruity; it's light-bodied but not without substance. Not a lot of complexity, but that's not what one seeks here. Bravo for delivering what the appellation promises. 90 points

Next, the holy Grail, cheap Pinot Noir ...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Berentzen Wild Cherry Liqueur: Play that funky music, German boys

I'm typing this post from a lowball liquor and packaged food convention where I'm not really supposed to be ... it's a long story. At the next couch, two people are preparing a bid for industrial vacuum-packed rotisserie chicken. There are sooo many bottles of scary-looking hooch designed for 99-cent stores. For "Sandman" readers, it's like walking through the production backstage of an alcoholic's nightmare.

There's nothing here I want to drink other than coffee and water. But back home, I still have half a bottle of Berentzen Wild Cherry Liqueur sent to me as a sample, and this seems the perfect time to write about it, because I can remember the flavor, and that will sustain me.

Berentzen has been around longer than the United States, making liquor in Germany since 1758. The company was in the Berentzen family for more than 200 years before going public in 1994.

The company claims it created a
nightmarenew type of spirit in 1976, when it blended grain spirit with apple juice. If this ended up evolving into the Appletini, they've got a lot to answer for.