Monday, August 3, 2015

Tasting notes: a silly game that could be fun

Most people are not aware of the battle at the margins of oneophilia over tasting notes. They've seen tasting notes, realize they're inherently silly, and don't care that wine critics less important than Robert Parker don't like the way he uses the language.

A new board game demonstrates that silly tasting notes can also be fun.

The New Yorker skipped into this issue last week with an elegant argument against trying to describe flavors. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out one of my best articles, in which I interviewed linguists about how the words we use to describe wine change our experience of it, and how those words do not translate across cultures.

But nobody is making tasting notes go away. They have escaped oenophilia and are swimming around U.S. culture. Cafes describe coffees as tasting like apricot and elderflower liqueur, and I know exactly how non-wine aficionados feel about wine tasting notes because I have never, ever tasted apricot in a cup of hot coffee.

If you can't eliminate something, best to enjoy it. That's the purpose of Read Between the Wines, a new drinking and overwriting game that, if one can remove one's disapproving frown for an evening, might actually be a good time.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Go to Greece! No worries for tourists, and you're actually helping

A frappe on the beach, in the shade, with a nice cool breeze. What crisis?
Last week I was in Greece as part of a press trip to Peloponnese wine country. When I told people I was going, a lot of folks cautioned me to be careful, and everyone was curious about what it's like there right now.

The short answer is: as great for tourism as always.

In vacation areas, including every beach we went by, all the restaurants were open and doing good business.

Rooftop restaurant with a view in Athens
Nobody in the world understands seafront restaurants as well as the Greeks: tables on the sand, under canopies for shade, kitchen across the street, plates of hot and cold appetizers, refreshing white wines and/or bottles of ouzo with an ice bucket.

Athens seemed to have more closed shops than the last time I was there three years ago. And people were waiting in line outside of every ATM.

But the majority of businesses are open. Grocery stores are well-stocked. Bars and restaurants seem to be doing OK. I'm told locals are spending less when they go out, but they are still going out.

We stayed near Syntagma Square, the site of most protests, but unfortunately there was no protest while I was there.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New York restaurant wine market, explained

Photo courtesy Ryan Fischer
New York city's wine market is arguably the best in the world, with an island full of wealthy people and no allegiance to any region or country. It's also insular and myopic and to outsiders can look like a bunch of people trying to answer the question, "How can I be more hip than you?"

I spent some time on a bus recently with Levi Dalton, Manhattan sommelier, Eater NY editor and host of the "I'll Drink to That" podcast. Levi shared with me some theories about the New York wine market that I, as an outsider, found fascinating, and which I haven't read in one place before, though he has discussed them on his podcast.

Levi cautioned me that other outsiders (I live in California, which is where New Yorkers come to complain about the bagels and pizza) have embarrassed themselves trying to write about the New York wine market, but I assured him that not only would I put this in my own words and in several cases go further than he did; I would tell readers that any mistakes in this post are his, not mine.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Sileni turns down the volume of its Sauvignon Blanc

Sileni Nano comes with its own cup
Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most popular wines in the U.S., but not necessarily with sommeliers. It can be a caricature of itself. The challenge in New Zealand is not to make a wine with strong flavors, but to keep them in balance.

Sileni Estates makes two Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs for the U.S. market, and uses two different methods to add complexity and -- how can I put this nicely -- turn down that grassy lawn character that can scream at you from across the table.

Sileni also makes the best designed one-cup wine product I've ever seen -- and the Sauvignon Blanc in it is also pretty good. The fairly large cup allows you to drink without fear of spillage, and there's no metal in it, which means you can get it past metal detectors to drink in a ballpark or concert hall, or safely bring it to Magneto in prison.

When I agreed to do a sponsored post for Sileni, I thought, hey, a writer's gotta eat. I did not, honestly, expect that I would end up eating dinner with their two Sauvignon Blancs twice. But that's exactly what happened. I would have a glass of "The Straits" Reserve Sauvignon Blanc beside me as I type this, if the bottle weren't empty, which is the highest praise in my house. You'd be astounded by how much expensive wine we pour down the drain. But not this.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015

New York City firefighter wins Napa Valley Wine Train / Diablo Valley hotel prize

Chris Ewen and his fiancee Bridget
I used a random number generator to pick the winner of last week's giveaway on the blog, of a free trip on the Napa Valley Wine Train for two with a free night in a Diablo Valley hotel.

Sometimes there's karma. The winner is Chris Ewen, a New York City firefighter.

Chris is 35, lives on Long Island and works in Manhattan. He told me by e-mail, "I started getting really into wine a couple years ago. Been to Napa a while back but didn't really know what I was doing or where to go."

Chris says he's not sure when he'll get to California to claim his prize, but he hopes to travel with his fiancee Bridget.

Chris chose Ovid as the winery he'd like to visit. "I can't afford the wines but the tasting room and view looked spectacular," he said. Ovid informed me today that they would be happy to host Chris and his guest. Yay! Chris also gave me a second choice of Napa Valley winery, Shafer Vineyards, and they also offered him a tasting. Nice people, the Shafers.

Now that's an amazing two days in the Napa Valley: The Napa Valley Wine Train (which is a lot of fun), Ovid and Shafer, with a night at a Diablo Valley hotel in between. Thanks to Diablo Valley hotels, Ovid and Shafer for offering the prizes, and congratulations to Chris for winning!

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

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Constellation bets $315 million that vineyards don't matter in wine

Sweet-tasting Meiomi has rapidly become one of America's favorite beverages with "Pinot Noir" on the label. More than 7 million bottles were sold in 2014. As the grapes are bought relatively cheaply  all over coastal California, and the wine sells for $20 a bottle, it's clearly a nicely profitable item.

That's why Constellation bought Meiomi this week. But is a wine brand, by itself, with no other assets -- no vineyards, no winery -- really worth $315 million?

Are American wine drinkers really that stupid?

For a little perspective, last month The Wine Group bought Benziger for $90 million. Benziger makes only about 20% as much wine as Meiomi, but the purchase came with two wineries and an 85-acre estate vineyard. The Wine Group thinks Sonoma County vineyards are valuable.

In May, Gallo spent an undisclosed amount to buy 642 acres of vineyards in Napa Valley, and two months earlier Gallo bought J Vineyards & Winery, which came with 300 acres of vineyards in Sonoma County. Gallo thinks Napa and Sonoma vineyards are valuable. Jackson Family Wines is buying vineyards all over Oregon because it thinks Oregon Pinot Noir is valuable.

Meanwhile, Constellation thinks Americans don't care where their wines come from. And in fact, Constellation plans to make Meiomi at different wine factories all over California.

Constellation's directors are not stupid, or bad businessmen. Its stock is up about 40% over the last 7 months, and that has not been achieved by farming.


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Free ride! The Gray Report gives away a Napa Valley Wine Train / Diablo Valley hotel package

Hey readers, how would you like to ride the Napa Valley Wine Train for free -- with a free hotel room!

One lucky reader is going to win a free package for 2: a value of up to $500! Plus, you can arrange the trip on a day that's convenient for you.

Diablo Valley is sponsoring a promotion to put itself more firmly on the tourist map. It's about a 35-mile drive from Concord, where the hotels in this package are, to the city of Napa, where the train is. So even though Diablo Valley is in between San Francisco and Napa, which has its advantages, staying there is not most people's first idea when planning a Wine Country holiday.

This summer, Diablo Valley hotels created an amazing deal to lure more guests: A free trip for 2 on the Wine Train as a bonus for a single night's paid stay, for the first 15 people to book it. Giving one away to one of my readers is a way to publicize that deal.
The view from the dining car

This free package includes:
* One night's stay, free, for 2 people (one room) at one of 8 Diablo Valley hotels
* One ticket for 2 people, free, on the Napa Valley Wine Train, for the lunch or dinner package ($129 value per person), the Grgich Hills tour package ($179 value per person), or the Valley First Winery tour package ($179 value per person)

Not included:
* Transportation between Diablo Valley and Napa (possible by paid van, but your own car is preferable)
* Transportation between your home and Diablo Valley
* Anything else (don't get greedy)

I rode on the Napa Valley Wine Train in 2010 and had a great time, even though I expected to mock it. I wrote about that voyage in detail and you can read about it here.

But what you want to know is, how do I score the free tickets?