Thursday, April 23, 2015

Wine events teach the wrong things about wine

ZAP. Courtesy Alder Yarrow/Vinography.
When people pay $75 to go to a wine tasting, what do they do?

They taste as many wines as they can, mostly without food. They bounce from this Pinot Noir to that Zinfandel to that Cabernet Sauvignon. They don't have an entire glass, or even half a glass, of anything.

They crowd around the table of the wine with the highest price, fighting to get their glass poured into.

Maybe they learn to describe wines using Ann Noble's aroma wheel. Maybe they learn a producer or two that they like, more because of a personable pourer than the quality of the wine.

We like to think that wine tastings are a great way to teach people about wine. But what messages do they really send?

* You can understand any wine in a sip or two

* Drink 'til you can't take any more, then drink more

* More expensive wine is more desirable

* Wine isn't food. It exists in its own universe.

If wine producers don't like these messages, they need to consider the way their wine is presented at events.

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A lesson from Japan for U.S. restaurant wine lists

Yoshizumi. We drank local and loved it
Sake could be nearly as complicated to choose from a list as wine. But in Japan, it's easier to order than beer.

Most restaurants, even fine ones, have only a few sakes on the list. We stayed in a terrific gourmet ryokan in Izu-kogen that had only four sakes, and one was sold out. You could choose Yoshizumi (the local small-production sake they recommended), a cheaper alternative, or an expensive famous label (Kubota Manju, which is a heck of a sake.) We chose the local brew, which is of course what they want; the idea is that it goes with the local ingredients.

One Tokyo restaurant we went to, Teppen, specializes in sake, and it had three pages of sakes -- but two pages listed 3 sakes each with extensive descriptions (including a photo of the brewmaster and a description of his philosophy), and one listed 9 with shorter descriptions. All told, it had 15 sakes from different regions, at different price levels. While not the longest list in Japan, it's more extensive than at 99% of other restaurants.

California restaurants have been taking culinary cues from Japan for years, in ingredients, technique, and even actual dishes. Twenty years ago it was sushi; now there's a ramen craze. I wonder if there's something U.S. restaurants can learn for their wine lists from Japan's sake choice philosophy.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Wine articles I can't win an award for, and an apology

I spent a couple hours narrowing down my choices to apply for an online writing award, only to learn that the organizers changed the required publication dates. NOOOO! So I had to go back and read everything decent I wrote from the past year. That's a lot of looking at a pair of eyeglasses I don't even wear anymore.

One thing I learned is, I owe you blog readers an apology.

I haven't put most of my best work on here in two years. Some bloggers run a post telling readers about every little article that runs anywhere, but I haven't bothered to do that*. Geez, if I only read this blog, I'd think, how the hell did this guy win an award?

* I post links to most articles on my Facebook page, but that's a little more intimate space.

Ultimately I did think one post I published here in the last two years might be award-worthy. I'm sorry I haven't given you my best work. Thank you for reading anyway.

If I win an award, I'll share with you what my submissions were. In the meantime, here are my runners-up from the last year: five articles from my gig as California Editor at Wine Searcher that I didn't end up submitting. I think they're all pretty good, but I had to make choices.

The 5 Best California Syrahs

No Stone Unturned At Cayuse Vineyards

Red Mountain: The unsung hero of Washington Cabernet

Richness Brings Reward for Rombauer Wines (I really like this one but could imagine judges saying, "We can't reward a guy who writes about Rombauer.")

Saxum's Justin Smith Keeps Paso Robles Cool

And here were what I thought were my 4 best articles published online between April 2013 and April 2014: two from Wine Searcher, two from my monthly column at Palate Press. They're in alphabetical order, but it's serendipitous because I'd like you to read the last one last.

Boutari's Yannis Voyatzis is a very serious man (I hate the original headline, which I did not write)

I'll Have Some Roussillon, Hold the Rivesaltes

The Science of Bubbles

Wine, Oil and Family: The 3 Stories of James Ontiveros


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

Friday, April 10, 2015

The next big thing in American wine: cheap, rich, smooth Tempranillo?

I got the $3-a-bottle Tempranillo blues
In January I went to a seminar of "flying winemakers" at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium. I had forgotten it until last week, when I was throwing out some old notebooks and rediscovered a good story I had ignored for bigger news.

The big news from Unified was the first downbeat forecast for the California wine industry in several years. I also reported on a technical seminar on how to lower alcohol in wine, which was interesting because it wasn't a bunch of critics whining; it was a group of vignerons trying to reach a market they acknowledge exists.

As a story, the "flying winemaker" seminar was all over the globe. Consultant Nick Goldschmidt told us Syrah is in decline worldwide, not the market but the vine itself, as it faces some mysterious malady. He said the 3-tier system in the U.S. is actually protecting U.S. consumers from the huge discounting that he says "is destroying the UK market." He thinks the future of viticulture, because of climate change, is in Canada and southern Chile. And while we're now talking about different metals in wine, Goldschmidt said in January that China has rejected more than 300 wines for import for being too high in iron.

Kerry Damskey told us about making wine in India: some interesting technical stuff, such as yeast conversion rates aren't as high, so that grapes picked at 25 brix only yield 13% alcohol.

But the story I skipped over, because it made my skin crawl, was from Matthew Parish, a New Zealand native who worked at Constellation, was director of winemaking at Treasury Wine Estates, and now works at Naked Wines.

My timing is good for this post: Naked Wines was sold today for $100 millon. So clearly Parish knows what he's doing.

That said, one of the first things I have written in my notebook about his presentation is, "This is horrible.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Mad Crush: Fine memoir about a year as a cellar rat

Wine inspires a lot of "one year documentary" projects, and frankly, most of them are dull.

It seems like a good idea to follow a winemaker, or a vineyard, or a crop, for an entire year. But it's not. Most of the action of winemaking happens in the crush, the roughly three-month period in which grapes are harvested and fermented. The other nine months of the year include a lot of essential work, but racking, bottling, filling out label approval forms ... yawn.

Part of the success of Sean Christopher Weir's book "The Mad Crush" is that, as the title implies, he concentrates not on a year at a winery, but a single crush season. He arrives in late July, just in time to prepare. And he leaves in mid-November, writing, "It was hard to believe, but there was nothing else to be done."


Monday, April 6, 2015

Drought ends the tastiest asparagus: is Zinfandel next?

Ordinary asparagus from Zuckerman Family Farm. Courtesy Summer Tomato
Though we buy from the same farm, Los Angeles Times food editor Russ Parsons and I have opposing tastes in asparagus. Parsons likes extra-thick jumbo asparagus from Zuckerman Farm, which he steams and dresses with olive oil and lemon juice.

I like Zuckerman's extra-thin asparagus, which I either pan-fry, steam or grill for less than a minute -- sometimes less than 30 seconds -- so that it's still crisp. I eat it either with salt (sometimes smoked salt), black bean sauce or fried garlic, and I like to make the whole batch at once so I can eat the crisp cold leftovers.

To me, the extra-thin asparagus has more flavor and better texture. I cannot stand mushy asparagus, the way I was served it as a kid. I didn't think I could ever like asparagus until somebody else ordered a revelatory dish of crisp, cold, super-garlicky asparagus at dim sum at Ton Kiang. For a year I would only eat asparagus there, until I discovered Zuckerman Farm's extra-thin.

Now, because of California's ongoing drought, I may never have it again. What's more, the asparagus experience makes me worry about old-vine Zinfandel.
 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

California wine's greatest strength: California consumers

Rarely do wine critics write appreciatively about the most important sector of the wine industry: people who buy and drink wine.

When wine writers broach the subject, it's usually with some resentment. "Why don't these stupid Chardonnay drinkers buy more Trousseau Gris?" or "People pay too much for Napa Cabernet."

In fact, California consumers are the reason the California wine industry is so strong.

California wines are popular all over the U.S., and if wine drinkers in Texas or Illinois were to suddenly buy half as much California wine, it would hurt. But it wouldn't be devastating, because California wineries are fortunate to have a local audience that is both appreciative and demanding. England has recently rediscovered California wine, and that's nice, but Londoners are fickle: when they decide Slovakian wines are the next trend, California's wine industry won't even notice.

California consumers follow the three rules for people who want to improve an industry's product: we seek, demand and reward quality.