Friday, August 19, 2016

A better cocktail shaker, thanks to another product's Kickstarter

The old and the new
We got a heavy metal cocktail shaker as a wedding present, because you know how important cocktails are to a marriage. I've been using it for years and we are still married, so it must be working.

Recently I was offered a chance to try the Shaker 33, which its makers tout as "the best cocktail shaker since Prohibition." It looks exactly like a wine-preservation canister I tried out three years ago called the Savino, and that's because it is essentially a repurposing of the design.

I didn't love the Savino, though people on Amazon seem to like it.* It didn't seem to preserve wine any better than just sticking a cork back in the bottle, or, even better, rescrewing the screwcap.

(* For people who think ratings are dead, this is the first sentence of the first Amazon Savino review: "My husband and I typically buy low-cost but highly rated wine, sometimes spending a lot but more often buying 88+ rated wines (Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator rated) that cost less than $12 at Costco.")

Founder Scott Tavenner got $85,005 to bring the Savino to life. For a small business, that's not too much to ask. He got another $30,844 to repurpose it into the Shaker 33. Again, not a hell of a lot of money in the scheme of things (though backers on the Facebook page are complaining that they don't yet have their shakers.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Fresno State can't keep wine professors

For decades California has had two great wine-teaching universities: UC Davis and Fresno State. Davis is more famous internationally because of its research program, but Fresno State has long been praised as a school with plenty of hands-on winemaking experience for students.

Now, however, Fresno State's Department of Viticulture and Enology is in turmoil.

James Kennedy, who had been chair of the department, left for a job with Constellation Brands last year, and the job has still not been filled though the university says on its website that it's now taking applications.

Kennedy, a California native and expert on tannin chemistry, came from the Australian Wine Research Institute after the previous chair, Robert Wample, left to be a viticulture consultant.

"It is heartbreaking," said a source with knowledge of the situation. "Jim Kennedy was an amazing catch for CSUF, and the regents failed to appreciate and empower him, driving him to the private sector same as his predecessor, Bob Wample."

Monday, August 8, 2016

Rombauer Chardonnay: Accept no imitation (though my friend Myles did)

From Replica Wines' website
Last month I wrote a story about Replica Wines, a Colorado company that claims to have reverse-engineered the formula for several popular wines.

Replica liked the story, apparently so much that you might see my verdict of the company's imitation of Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay on a shelf talker. (Read the story here.) The company wanted me to try its new imitation of Rombauer Chardonnay, called Retrofit, so it sent me the wine, along with a bottle of Rombauer.

I learned something about the way ordinary consumers buy wine, because there's an interesting twist after the blind taste test.

For Replica's versions of K-J and The Prisoner, I invited a professional food writer to blind taste with me. For Rombauer, I asked a friend who drinks wine but is a non-connoisseur: he doesn't know the grapes that go into Burgundy, for example. It seemed appropriate because Rombauer is one of the most beloved wines by non-connoisseurs.

I set up the tasting the same way as the previous blind taste-off.

Monday, August 1, 2016

From the CIA to Blue Nun: The life story of Peter Sichel

This is not Peter Sichel, not even in disguise
Peter Sichel's life is like a novel. It's like Forrest Gump if Gump were smart.

A German-born Jew who fled the Nazis, barely getting out of Vichy-era France, Sichel returned to Germany as a station head for the CIA. His espionage work led him to life as a pampered spy in Hong Kong before he gave up the spy biz because he didn't like what the CIA had evolved into.

Sichel's book, "The Secrets of My Life: Vintner, Prisoner, Soldier, Spy" is three-quarters done before he gets into the wine trade, but once there, it is also eventful. He entered a corrupt world of wine sales in New York and Bordeaux -- ironically, coming from the CIA, he comes off as a bit of a goody two-shoes -- before marketing the massive international success that still haunts German wine, Blue Nun.

It's a compelling autobiography, and it's also instructive for why so many wine books are boring.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Democrat or Republican? The politics of California wine country

Very few people in the wine business want to talk about politics. It's bad business, because they want to sell wine to both Republicans and Democrats.

I love to talk about politics, and I've been talking to people in California wine country for a long time. But I'm not about to bust anybody for conversations they may have thought were off the record. People could get fired if their name were to show up in a blog post supporting a candidate -- any candidate. I'm not Donald Trump; I don't wake up in the morning hoping to say, "You're fired."

So this post is about generalities, not specific people.


The wine industry cares more about immigration than most, and on the whole is very pro-immigration. The industry cares about environmental regulations, but there is no unified stance: plenty of people are disdainful of the government's ability to write sensible laws. Everybody would come together to fight more sin taxes on alcohol, but the powerful distribution arm of the wine industry likes red-tape regulations on distribution and sales, and so do some of the largest wineries because they realize it gives them an advantage.


The overwhelming majority of winemakers in California are Democrats. This makes sense, as they are scientists. Because of this, the media and to a lesser extent the public gets the sense that the California wine industry is strongly Democratic -- something Napa Valley Vintners would not like you to believe, as Republicans buy a lot of expensive Cabernet. In the media, we exalt winemakers, often too much (yes, me too.) Statistically, winemakers don't have that many votes, nor do they donate much money. Maybe the wine industry does lean Democratic, because California does in general, but it's not a landslide. Read on.


This is the most complicated and interesting category.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How I order wine/How most people order wine

How I order wine:

First I try to determine how many bottles of wine we'll drink as a group. If it's just my wife and myself, it's either one bottle or wines by the glass. But in a group of four, it's probably at least two bottles, unless one of us is a teetotaller like the Republican Presidential ticket. In that case we just drink the Kool-Aid.

But seriously: when dining with most people, we get about one bottle per two diners. I don't think about ordering duplicate bottles unless it's a group of more than six.

I read the wine list and wait until the table has decided what food we're having. I ask for the sommelier. I wait 10 minutes. If it's any longer than that, I just order.

The sommelier arrives and says, "Do you have any questions about the wine list?" Every fucking time. Every single motherfucking time. But usually no, I don't have any questions about the wine list. I mean, I'd like to know what your markup is. Maybe what font it's printed in. Did you type it yourself or cut and paste? Maybe in sommelier school they tell them to open with that inane question. Am I missing something? Do lots of people have questions about the wine list? Like, "What was your inspiration for the Pinot Grigios on page 3?"

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Wine-pairing challenge: Chicago dogs

I don't usually like absurd food-wine pairing stories (what wine goes with ramen? what wine goes with Swedish fish?) but this actually happened this week: I was offered a wine-pairing challenge, and I accepted.

My friend Liz lives in Oakland near Berkeley. But she sides with the Berkeleyites: she doesn't have a TV. And naturally she's not from Berkeley; nobody is. She's a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, which means this is her best year ever.

Seriously, Cubs fans, who even needs television? Since its debut at the 1939 New York World's Fair, television has not shown the Cubs celebrating a championship. Bad TV! In fact, radio, which goes back to 1916, hasn't handled one either. The last Cubs title was announced, literally, by men climbing tall buildings holding signs.

But Liz wanted a TV this week because she wanted to watch the All-Star Game, with the National League fielding an all-Cubs infield. Rather than fly to San Diego, which she considered, or buy a set and hook it up to Dish Network, she opted for the cheaper alternative of coming to my house with a Chicago dog assembly kit she ordered from Vienna Beef in Chicago.

An ordinary hot dog is not a difficult wine pairing. It's sausage: wine goes with sausage. Mustard and onions, no problem. (Adults should not put ketchup on a hot dog.) Cheese and chili, fine. Sauerkraut -- I was recently in Alsace, we can work with that.

But a Chicago dog is a Level 5 Wine Pairing Catastrophe.