Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What people, critics hate in wine back-label copy

Did you know people hate to see the word "red" used to describe red wine?

Last month a Harvard psychology PhD candidate, Mark Allen Thornton, published the most interesting blog post on wine so far this year. Thornton is not a wine blogger. His parents are both wine microbiologists at Fresno State, so he's smart enough to do something more lucrative with his time than write about wine.

Thornton compared the text written on the back label of wines to ratings by critics (Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate) and the general public, as represented by Wine.com community ratings.

His main conclusion was interesting enough: nobody likes wines that have the word "pasta" on the back label. This makes sense, because wine companies have peddled their leftover tanks of red wine as "pasta reds" for years. If you see "pasta" on a back label, avoid it.

But there's so much cool data in Thornton's post. I thought it would be a big deal, but I haven't seen any follow-ups, so I'm going to summarize some of the most interesting points. People responsible for writing wine back labels, pay attention.

1) As Thornton points out, nobody -- critics or people -- likes food pairings of any kind. I'm not surprised at this; the extremely specific pairings given by food magazines ("serve this wine with lightly grilled cod with a beurre blanc sauce") give me hives. But there's probably something deeper going on. If the label has to talk about food, possibly the wine just isn't that good. Also, see point 3 below.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Recycled wine barrels and other goodies

Wine barrel kitchen island and stool
My downstairs neighbor sells stuff on the Internet. Her main product is a wool leg warmer; she sells them as fast as she can knit them. But she has a great eye for other people's discards. Her husband found a wine barrel on the street and called her and she said, "I can sell that." Turns out somebody paid $120 for it, not including shipping, within 24 hours. For something she found on the street. Wow.

She told me this story the same day I agreed to write this sponsored post for Uncommon Goods, and it makes me feel good about doing it, because the items I find the coolest in the company's catalog are the goods made from recycled barrels. Maybe I should have asked for review samples instead of money: there's a couple of things here I'd like to have.

I love the wine barrel kitchen island above, for example. Unfortunately my kitchen isn't big enough to accommodate it, and yes I'm being paid to write this, but come on, that's cool.

The one I should have asked for is the recycled wine barrel side table ($380) at left. I'd be happy to have that. You can find both of those items in the "wine decor" section here. There's also an interesting recycled wine bottle platter -- a squashed wine bottle that you can serve cheese on -- for $16.99.

There's also a huge selection of glassware, which can be a fragile subject among wine lovers. I'm neutral to most of it, but the "major scale musical wine glasses" are intriguing. There are lines printed on the glasses that correspond to an A major scale. Fill the glass with wine to the line marked "F#," rub a wet finger around the rim, and the glass is supposed to play that musical note. How long would it take to master a piece of music played on wine glasses? Buy the glasses here and start practicing.

This is a sponsored post. Duh.
And what can you play on this glassware, other than "Smoke on the Water" and the theme from the Adam West "Batman" show?

It turns out A major is the simplest key for violins, and students often start with it. Beethoven wrote his Symphony No. 7 in it; Mozart used it for three concertos and a symphony. German poet Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart said A major is suitable for "declarations of innocent love, ... hope of seeing one's beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God." That's exactly what I want my wine glasses to sound like when rubbed with a wet finger!

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Will the market notice if Robert Parker's palate declines?

The Lion in Winter: Robert Parker, by Sam Chin/Wall Street Journal
Robert Parker says he's never going to retire. Emperor of Wine for Life. Bully for him.

I thought Parker would one day walk away from the "critic" part of his job, maybe to write a memoir. Parker works hard and always has; it's how he got to be the most powerful critic in the world.

He's not going to taste and rate Bordeaux barrel samples* anymore. But Parker said, "I have no intention of retiring. I will die on the road, or keel over in some winery. Retirement is a formula for death."

* Will the Bordelais stop making a special "RP" sample bottle, and give his replacement the actual wine?

He might be right. However, I'm never popular for bringing this up, but biologically, he is already past his peak as a critic.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Wine under $10 sucks. Should we care?

Earlier this year we learned from the Wine Market Council that men in their 20s aren't drinking much wine for two reasons: 1) they're broke, and 2) craft beer and cider are more interesting under $10.

The numbers reflected what most restaurant diners have realized for some time.

The night before I heard some of these stats for the first time, I was staying in Sacramento for the big Unified trade show. I didn't feel like a fancy meal so I went to Broderick Roadhouse for its pretty good burger. I'm a wine lover; I prefer a glass of red wine with my burger. Their wines by the glass, all for less than $10, were corporate and boring. Instead, I had a pint of a locally made apple-pomegranate cider that the server was enthusiastic about; the fruit is all organic and he had met the producers. And it cost $7.

You've had this experience, right? A glass of interesting wine costs $15 now, and might be from a country you've never visited, while you can get a quirky, artisanal beer made in your neighborhood for $8. It's not enough to make me a beer drinker, but I understand what 20-something men are thinking.

And it's not just in restaurants.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What causes red-wine headaches? A new theory

Nobody knows for sure what causes red-wine headaches. I heard an intriguing theory last month while interviewing a chemist-turned-winemaker, and it fits the facts as we know them.

Here's what we know:

* Many people get headaches from red wine, but not white wine

* Sulfites are not to blame. Some people are allergic to sulfites, but headaches are not an allergy symptom, and besides, white wines have more sulfites on average than red wines.

* Some people report that they don't get headaches when drinking red wine in Europe, but they do in the US.

* Some doctors say the first thing you should consider is the alcohol itself, as it can cause headaches. Because alcohol level is such an emotional issue these days, that's an appealing theory, but I have always gotten comments from people who say they can drink vodka (40% alcohol) without headaches, but not Zinfandel (15-17% alcohol). 

* There has never been a conclusive medical study about red-wine headaches and you won't find a reputable doctor anywhere who can tell you exactly what the cause is. All we have is speculation.

Which leads me to Chris Howell's theory.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Wine needs a Pliny the Younger

This week, beer fans from around the country are driving to Santa Rosa, CA and waiting in line 8 hours to buy a single pint of beer.

That beer is Pliny the Younger. Maybe it's a great beer; maybe there are better beers. What strikes me about the story is this: it's probably the most cultish drink in the world. Who waits in line 8 hours to drink any wine or whiskey?

And it costs $4.75.

No wonder men in their 20s prefer craft beer to wine, a development that has the Wine Market Council a little anxious about the future.

All of the world's most-sought wines are out of reach of not just 20-somethings, but all middle-class wine lovers. It doesn't make economic sense for a wine lover to drink first-growth Bordeaux or Domaine Romanée Conti or Screaming Eagle, and this has been the case for more than a decade. There are many wine lovers in their mid-30s who have never tasted, and will never taste, what are considered the top wines in the world.

DRC co-owner Aubert de Villaine recently whined to Wine Searcher that he doesn't like being in the category of a luxury product, and even "Romanée-Conti [the most exalted cuvée] should be at a price where consumers buy it and drink it."

Hey buddy, put your wine where your mouth is. You want people to have a chance to drink DRC? How hard would it be for you to work out a deal with a wine bar to do something like Pliny the Younger: to sell 10 cases of wine that people could have for $20 a glass, if they are willing to wait in line for it? You could do it once a year in a different city each time. Imagine the worldwide anticipation -- and the excitement of ordinary wine lovers.

Nobody in the wine industry does this. But they should. It wouldn't hurt the bottom line. We're talking about 10 cases. Many wineries donate that much wine to charity auctions, where it stays safely in the hands of the 1%. How about donating some to middle-class wine lovers?

Such an event would be huge news in the mainstream media. Food for thought.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

Friday, February 6, 2015

News: TTB to approve AVA that will change the image of Oregon

Cayuse Vineyard's Christophe Baron. These are, literally, The Rocks of Milton-Freewater
The U.S. government will announce approval of a new wine region on Monday, according to the man who wrote the petition. And while it's geologically simple to understand, legally it's the most complicated AVA yet.

Moreover, the geologist who wrote the petition says it will forever change the image of Oregon wine.

The region is The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater. It's most famous currently as the home of Cayuse Vineyards, which produces some of the most-sought wines in the Pacific Northwest. Bet you thought Cayuse was in Washington, because that's where its mailing address is. But it isn't, and neither is Milton-Freewater.