Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How to become a scuba diver: 7 steps to enjoying the ocean

From the dive deck of the MV Febrina in Papua New Guinea
My wife and I like to go scuba diving on vacation. In the right places, being underwater is like spending an hour in heaven. It's so peaceful, and colorful, and you can have experiences like the time I danced with a dolphin, one of the greatest moments of my life.

Often I talk to people who are interested in scuba diving but haven't taken the plunge. Or worse, they tried a single "experience dive" at a resort and didn't like it.

Fun facts about scuba diving:

* You don't have to be a good swimmer (I'm not). You don't need to be an athlete either, but you do need to be in reasonable health.

* You don't have to own any equipment

* Diving can be expensive, but I've had great dives in some countries for $25 each -- not bad for an hour underwater

"Get me away from these divers!" Courtesy Leisure Pro
* Sharks are afraid of you and the noise you make breathing underwater. After you've been diving a while, you'll find yourself chasing sharks, not the other way around. And last year we enjoyed swimming right in the middle of big schools of barracuda.

* In fact, the most dangerous things underwater are passive -- mostly stuff with pointy spines. Don't touch the wildlife, listen to your dive guide, and you'll be fine.

Media coverage of scuba diving is significantly weaker than coverage of wine. Magazines are subsidized by ads from equipment makers and resorts, and their articles reflect that. Most intro-to-scuba articles are overly technical, and none that I've seen are candid about where the best diving is, either because they're written by novices ("I just got certified and it's great!") or they don't want to offend advertisers.

So here are my 7 simple steps for not just becoming a scuba diver, but loving life underwater.

1) Sign up for a 5-day certification class in a beautiful, warm vacation spot

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

United Airlines brought back free wine and beer because it had to

Food on United international, in coach. Photo Jonathan Bourne
United Airlines quietly brought back free wine and beer on international flights earlier this year. It's a good sign that civilization is still possible in the United States.

United did not do this for philosophical reasons, not the way Qantas and Air New Zealand serve their country's wines because it's the right thing to do. United wouldn't give you free toilet paper if they thought they could get away with it; in fact, United has beta-tested that idea.

No, United had to bring back free beer and wine on flights to Europe and Asia because Europeans and Asians consider it part of a meal. This cultural difference was costing the U.S. airlines business. First Delta brought back free wine, than American Airlines. United was the last holdout.

Almost every American, even those who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, is willing to accept alcohol being classified as a luxury product, because that's what our culture teaches us.

Friday, September 11, 2015

10 observations about the Finger Lakes

A typical Finger Lakes winery. Good news: Wines are quite good. Bad news: They also sell, and burn, patchouli incense. We had to take wines outside to smell them.
1. The red wines are better than expected
The two most-planted red vinifera grapes are Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. In warm vintages, both make pretty good wines: very Old World style and suitable for fans of varietal typicity and elegance.

2. The Rieslings are, as a group, more disappointing than they should be
Riesling is crucial to the Finger Lakes because there are more than 800 acres of it; the second-most planted vinifera grape is Chardonnay, with only about 350 acres. And the very best wines are Riesling. Unfortunately, many producers seem to do everything they can to hide their Riesling's acidity, but freshness should be a Finger Lakes Riesling's birthright. 

3. The region is a long way behind California in wine tourism
Some wineries will tell you that's not a bug, it's a feature: they're charming, they're in barns, they don't have that California slickness. Sorry folks, you're drawing from the exact same customer pool as Sonoma County and you really could up your game. I'm not even talking about Napa Valley. Put together a trade delegation to, say, Paso Robles. Visit wineries at random and see how nice their tasting rooms are and how welcoming and informed their tasting room staffs are. In the Finger Lakes, I went to a place that offered pours in tiny plastic thimbles -- picture the cup that comes atop a bottle of cough syrup, only smaller -- from bottles that had been open at room temperature for who knows how many days. And this place, inside a major tourist attraction, is called the Finger Lakes Wine Center. If it was Napa Valley, the vintners would sue them to stop using the name.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

What's it like to be a harvest intern? All cleaning, with lots of water

P prefers to remain anonymous, but this is his foot
Today I'm running a guest post by P., who is working this summer as a harvest intern in Napa Valley. It's quite evocative and if he weren't going to be a winemaker, he'd be a pretty good writer.

Working vintage as a harvest intern or cellar hand is always good fun. That being said, four harvests in, I’m starting to get a little jaded. “Oh yes, this wine is very special because of our ‘X' terroir and careful treatment of the wines using ‘bla bla bla’ barrels and techniques."

I come from a culture where not many people get into the wine industry – think accounting, engineering or finance as being your typical upper-middle class route. I am lucky having parents who indulged me in my studies of viticulture and enology. “Viticulture” I said, as I tried to justify my choice of subject, “that’s farming. At least I’ll learn how to feed the world, right?”

Yes, if feeding the world and ending famine could only be done with $200 Napa Cabs.

After four years of schooling, with some very intense biochemistry and organic chemistry that seem to make kids rethink wine science being "easy," apparently I am an "indispensable asset to any winery" that hires me, or so I’ve been told.

So what does one do in a winery, intern or eitherwise?

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Why don't wine companies boast about sales like movie companies?

Is it a good movie? Doesn't really matter, does it?
Every Monday, entertainment sections around the U.S. run stories about the films that made the most money over the weekend. They're more common than film reviews, and have become reviews of a sort themselves.

A film, no matter how poorly plotted, is a success if it sells enough tickets. No matter how delightful it is, a film comes in for mockery if its opening weekend doesn't measure up.

Were these stories in the business section, I wouldn't raise an eyebrow.* But they're not: they run alongside features about music or sports or food.

* I cannot actually raise an eyebrow anyway.

They are the ultimate triumph of capitalist conformity. They tell us what other people are watching.

As you can tell I'm not a big fan of this style of film coverage. But I did recently get to wondering why wine isn't covered the same way.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Loud people in wineries or Wine Trains: A socially dangerous dilemma

The view from the dining car on the Napa Valley Wine Train
I probably shouldn't touch the story of the Napa Valley Wine Train kicking off a group of black women last week after staff warned them about making too much noise.

Who was wrong? It's easy to jump to conclusions, as most of the Internet already has, but to paraphrase Bill James, I wasn't there, and you weren't there either.

It is worth noting that this incident is a problem that most wineries face at tasting rooms: different expectations of what the wine tasting experience should be.

One of the ejected women, Lisa Johnson, perfectly encapsulated the dilemma in this snippet (with an apparent misspelling) from the San Francisco Chronicle story that went viral:
According to Johnson, one of the women in the same car told the group “this isn’t a bar.”

“And we though (sic), um, yes it is,” Johnson said.
There you have two women on the Wine Train, one of whom (Johnson) thinks drinking wine is an occasion to be celebrated. It's a party by definition. And the other (unnamed) thinks drinking wine is  a different activity from drinking beer or vodka tonics. It's an act of reflective appreciation.

Before I go too far into this, I want to point out -- dangerously for my own rep on social media -- that the divide between these two groups may not be so much about race as about gender.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

SF Giants' manager, announcers surprise Jordan winemaker Rob Davis

Jordan winemaker Rob Davis, center, at his surprise party with Mike Krukow, left, and Bruce Bochy
Surprise! When Jordan Winery winemaker Rob Davis came in from the first day of his 40th harvest on Monday, he had a few guests waiting for him, including his friends Bruce Bochy, manager of the San Francisco Giants, and Giants announcers Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper.

Forty harvests for an American winemaker at one winery is exceptional. Paul Draper has been in charge of winemaking at Ridge Vineyards since 1969. Mike Grgich, now 92 years old, will oversee his 40th harvest at Grgich Hills next year. Peter Mondavi, who turns 101 in October, still goes to work at Charles Krug, where he was put in charge of the winemaking in the 1950s.

But it has been a long time since these great men stood over a tank and did a punchdown. Davis, the only winemaker Jordan has ever had, is still fit enough to compete in triathlons at age 61. He was out in a Chardonnay vineyard Monday before sunrise, worked in the winery processing the grapes all morning, and if he knew more than 30 people would be waiting to surprise him, he hid it well.