Thursday, April 28, 2016

Parker's 100 point wines don't sell out anymore

Robert Parker's 100 pointers aren't special anymore
Last week Drinks Business ran a story titled "Still buying opportunities among 100-pointers?" The POV was that wine lovers (mainly British) should scoop up these underpriced gems from Bordeaux, some of which are apparently available for under US $200 per bottle if you buy a case.

It's amusing to read this story, which seems to be written with a straightforward acceptance that Robert Parker's 100-point wines are wines most people might want, and no real examination of the massive increase in the number of "perfect" wines. It's like there's a 100-point faucet, naturally made of new French oak.

Consider these two sentences:

With Parker now departed from the Bordeaux-scoring scene, the drinks business recently asked if greater ‘cult’ status for his 100-point wines beckoned?

With so many wines not breaking through the £5,000 barrier yet, clearly demand is not high enough and volume is too high to maintain higher price points.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Marijuana-infused wine tasting notes

Marijuana is like chocolate: it's great after wine, or before wine, or possibly even instead of wine, but not so much in wine.

I learned this recently when I finally had the chance to taste one of California's most legendary illegal products: marijuana-infused wine.

A winery which I won't name opened a bottle of high-quality estate-grown Pinot Noir infused with what the winemaker said was high-quality medical marijuana. (I believe it was OG Kush, but sorry, I don't remember for sure.)

I felt lucky. Though pot-infused wines did spark a well-read story in The Daily Beast, this is precisely the sort of wine experience that wineries don't normally invite journalists to share, just because I might blog about it. Prophecy!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Good crabcakes and Bad Decisions in Baltimore

Crabcakes at Faidley's in Baltimore
I stopped by my hometown for a too-infrequent visit last week and discovered an outstanding cocktail bar with an interesting concept.

Bad Decisions' cocktail menu is handwritten in an elementary-school notebook. There's only one; if somebody else is looking at it, you have to wait. It seems like it could be a gimmick, but it's not: these are real recipes -- I saw one bartender follow it for an apparently unfamiliar drink -- of cocktails both classic and creative.

Over several nights of visits (the bar is in Fells Point, near many downtown hotels including mine), I ordered a couple things off the menu but then went o-makase, which worked out fine. Bad Decisions is almost the perfect cocktail bar: unpretentious like most of Baltimore, but also exacting in execution and a fan of small-production East Coast whiskies and other unique ingredients.

It's packed like the rest of Fells Point during Friday and Saturday night primetime, but during weekdays I had nice chats with the bartenders. It would be perfect if the kitchen were open late. Fortunately the 68-year-old Sip and Bite diner is only a couple blocks away, and it's open all night and -- being in Baltimore -- has surprisingly decent crabcakes.
When ordering steamed crabs, get the biggest ones available

Those aren't the crabcakes of the headline, though. Don't let the high-end hotels mislead you about crabcakes at fancy restaurants. For the real thing, head to Lexington Market during the day for a crabcake at Faidley's, probably made by that woman in the photo up top for the last who knows how many years. Yes, it's in the Wire, which got the food scene in Baltimore right.

What wine does one drink with crabcakes, or steamed crabs? Most locals have beer. I usually have ice tea (or water at Faidley's) because the wine options at places with great crabs are pretty limited. Once I had a bottle of terrific Australian Riesling with a dozen; more often bubbly is my go-to. I wonder what Robert Parker drinks with crabs. Kistler, maybe? Well, that's his decision.

Me, when I'm next in Baltimore, I will continue to make Bad Decisions.

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

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hamilton tickets, wine prices and validation

I saw "Hamilton" on Broadway last week. Lots of people asked, "How did you get tickets?" The answer is simple: we paid the going rate on the official ticket resale site.

A friend who writes about financial news asked how much we paid, because she wants to see the show. I knew it was a bad idea to tell her, but I did so anyway, because the information could be useful to her.

After that she sent me a string of emails about how I spent too much money: I must be rich, I'm a big spender, how could it be worth it, others had gotten tickets last year cheaper. She criticized me for putting money in the pockets of scalpers -- which does suck -- when I could instead have given money to "support arts programs for poor kids in NYC." The coup de grรขce came when she wrote, "Did you see that Bernie (Sanders) got tix last night? He didn't pay the scalpers fee."

I sent her a shutdown email (hopefully) that read, "Please don't spend the rest of our relationship trying to invalidate my choice, which I am happy with. I am not Bernie." And naturally I got to thinking about validation and invalidation of wine purchases.

If you are reading this, you have spent more money on a bottle of wine than some of your friends or relatives think is sensible. Many people think that level is $20. So you have had to deal, at some time, with criticism of your financial choices.

As a wine critic in America, an important part of my role is validation. Few ordinary people have confidence in their wine selections. When I write articles, I nudge folks to try wines I like that I think they'll like. But it's best done with positivity, unless you're a really mean person, because people's choices represent who they are. I don't have any emotional investment in the burger I had for lunch the other day so if you tell me the restaurant sucks, fine. But if you tell me my favorite restaurant sucks, you are talking not just about the restaurant, but about me and my capacity to make intelligent decisions.

You suck.

Sorry, that was for my friend. Anyway, being invalidated on an expensive purchase reminded me of people who spend $300 for wines I wouldn't personally drink. If they ask me if I consider a current-release wine which costs that much money to be good value, I can honestly answer "no" -- I don't think any current-release wine is worth $300. To me. But if they tell me, I really like Harlan Estate, what do you think? It's just mean to invalidate them. It's personal.

I might try to steer them to try something I like that's a lot cheaper, but the language is important: "Harlan's a great wine. But if you want to try a Napa estate Cabernet that I like on a night when you don't feel like busting open one of those precious bottles, try Smith-Madrone. Or Robert Sinskey SLD. Or if you want to spend more but not Harlan level, Shafer Hillside Select. Just for a change of pace."

My friend's response to me was a great reminder not to say, "That wine you love is a waste of money." Because "Hamilton" was really good, and I am not sorry.

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

Monday, April 4, 2016

TTB responds faster to the quest for accurate alcohol labeling

It took 2 1/2 months for my initial query to the TTB about inaccurate alcohol levels on wine labels to get a form letter response. But a followup took only five days, which might set some sort of government speed record.

I don't want to get overly excited here: it's not like the U.S government is suddenly changing its policy on wine labels to no longer be less accurate than most of the civilized world. But the response I got this morning from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) came directly to my email, and appears to have been written by a person, rather than cut and pasted from a menu.

The background: U.S. law currently allows the alcohol percentage on a wine label to be inaccurate by as much as 1.5%. The EU and Argentina require the label to be accurate within 0.5%. Obviously this is better for consumers: we want to know how much alcohol we're drinking. You can read my initial letter to the TTB here, and the initial response I received here.

Will the TTB take my request seriously? We can't rule out the possibility. It is the TTB's job to regulate alcohol for the benefit of consumers, not the industry. And its current rules on alcohol levels on wine labels were written in a different era, when wineries did not have today's technology to quickly and accurately determine how much alcohol is in a bottle of wine. Printing technology also has advanced. In Argentina, wineries stamp the alcohol level on the label late in the production process. There's no reason U.S. wineries can't do this.

Let's see what happens next!

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

TTB responds to open letter on alcohol levels in wine

In January I posted an open letter to the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau, asking the agency to require wineries to give more accurate information to consumers about alcohol percentage.

U.S. law allows inaccurate label information about alcohol that would be illegal in most of the world. I argued that the U.S. wine industry is deliberately and systematically understating the amount of alcohol in wine, and U.S. law is allowing it to happen. You can read the letter here.

I sent the letter to the TTB on its site, and this morning I got a response! I had to create a secure TTB email account because the response is encrypted. How exciting! I am the recipient of important government information! Maybe the TTB is looking at my argument and wants to hear more? Or maybe it will just thank me for my input?

Here is the entirety of what a TTB Technical Advisor wrote. My entire email was included in the body of the email below it; I have truncated that part because you can read it elsewhere.

THAT took two and a half months to write?

OK, fine, I sent the same letter to the address listed in the secure, encrypted email. Let's follow the U.S. Government in action!

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

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The British (bubblies) are coming! Should you believe the hype?

Please don't Tea Party our wine! (photo courtesy Brian J. Cantwell/Seattle Times)
There are a lot of British wine writers and not a lot of British wines. So British sparkling wines have had a ton(ne) of loving coverage in a language closely related to ours.

The question those of us across the pond have wondered is, how good are these wines?

British sparkling wines have been harder to get in California than Croatian Teran, which has been on the wine list in at least three restaurants in my neighborhood. I think I had a sip of Nyetimber -- that's one of the better-known British sparkling wines -- out of a coffee mug in another writer's room somewhere in Europe once, but I don't really remember it.

So I did not pretend to have a stiff upper lip when offered the opportunity to taste the first two bubblies that England is exporting to our shores. Send 'em! A legend come alive: It will be like tasting the Loch Ness Monster!

Yet I was a little nervous. What if, after every British authority assured us they are as good as Champagne except they're better and they're British, I didn't like these wines? Would I get bitch-slapped by Jamie Goode? Would Jancis Robinson, the world's best spitter, put Montrachet in my eye from sniper's distance?