Monday, September 18, 2017

Napa Cabernet, Yellow Tail and the anchoring effect

Why do many people believe a run-of-the-mill Napa Cabernet is a bargain at $35, while a single-vineyard Victoria Shiraz is expensive at the same price? The answer is a psychological phenomena known as the anchoring effect.

I'm reading the fascinating book "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, which explains, among other things, how our intuition affects our judgment in ways we don't consciously realize.

The anchoring effect is well-established through repeated studies around the world. You will protest that it does not affect you: so did many of the subjects to whom it was proven that it did affect them.

What it means is that if you are shown a number, even a completely random one, and then asked to estimate another number, you will be strongly affected by the number you were shown. 

Before I get to an obvious wine-price corollary, here's a fascinating study of German judges that demonstrates the idea. "German judges with an average of more than 15 years experience on the bench were asked to read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, and then asked to roll dice that were loaded so that every roll resulted in either 3 or 9," Kahneman writes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

China wine market update: Cheaper wines taking over

Thanks to consumption by young people -- including teenagers -- China's wine market is bouncing back from the 2013 government crackdown on conspicuous consumption by bureaucrats.

It has also changed immensely in a short time, mainly because of who is buying wine now: 45% of Chinese wine drinkers are under 30 years old. Sales of expensive wines continue to slide, while unlike in the U.S., the greatest sales growth is in the cheapest price ranges.

I learned this and more because I had the good fortune to attend a seminar put on for Wines of Argentina by two Chinese wine experts: Dorian Tang of the importer ASC Fine Wines, and Karla Wang of Lady Penguin, a successful social-media wine site, wine club and wine importer.

Karla Wang (left) and Dorian Tang

Here are a few key points from the presentation.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Tiki pioneer Trader Vic's still makes a fine Mai Tai

Your grandparents may have gone to Trader Vic's for a taste of Polynesia, but now that tiki bars are mildly trendy, Trader Vic's is down to two U.S. locations: one just east of San Francisco, and the other in Atlanta.

However, Trader Vic's is big in the Middle East. Of its 18 locations internationally, 11 are in the Middle East, including several in countries where drinking alcohol is, in theory, prohibited. You might think this is a hurdle for a restaurant chain that made its name with powerful rum-based cocktails, but in fact, that's the appeal.

Trader Vic's has 6 locations in hotels in the United Arab Emirates, where alcohol is allowed only in hotels. It also has restaurants in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar, where drinking is limited in similar ways; locals can go get their buzz on, and then return to piety. There is a Trader Vic's in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but it serves only alcohol-free "mocktails."

"When we started the concept, in the (19)40s and '50s, you couldn't get to places like you can now,"  Trader Vic's director of beverages Nicholas Ascenzo told me. "People came to Trader Vic's for something exotic. Now you can fly to Polynesia. But in the Middle East, they don't go to Hawaii and the South Pacific, so we are still exotic."

Monday, August 28, 2017

Retsina's grapes find an artisanal use

Vassilis Papagiannakos and his temperature-controlled tanks
Savatiano is the most-planted grape in Greece, yet also one of the least known. It's the main grape of Retsina, the traditional resin-flavored that is a rite of passage for wine drinkers. As Japanese say about climbing Mt. Fuji, a wise man will try Retsina, but only a fool will try it twice.

Retsina is the type of wine people drank in antiquity. Without refrigeration, they used resin to seal wine in amphoras; the taste of resin masked subpar wine. The Greek wine industry stayed technologically far behind the rest of the world until the 1990s, which kept Retsina on the menu. Now, Greece is making exciting wines from Assyrtiko and Xinomavro and other grapes, but there are growers all over central Greece with big vineyards of Savatiano and a disappearing market for the wine they used to make with it.

Vassilis Papagiannakos is one such vintner. His family owns 100 acres of vineyards mainly planted with 60 to 70 year old Savatiano vines. His solution was to release varietal dry Savatianos: no resin, just the grape itself. They were groundbreaking in his region, and at first his neighbors thought he was making adulterated wine, which is ironic.

I spoke with Papagiannakos last week by Skype. He turned his computer around to show me that he lives by the ocean. Yeah, yeah.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The best sakes on the market: results from the US National Sake Appraisal

Before tasting 352 sakes in a day (see below)
Here's one way in which Japanese sake is better than wine: the floor is higher. You may never taste really terrible wines today* because gatekeepers like shop owners and sommeliers keep them out, but objectively bad wines exist and anyone who judges wine competitions knows it.

(* Pipe down, natural wine haters. Some people like them.)

I was one of 10 judges earlier this month at the US National Sake Appraisal in Honolulu. We tasted 381 sakes, all of them commercially available (this is not the case with most sake competitions in Japan.) I wrote for Palate Press about an important trend I discovered -- that Daiginjos are getting sweeter and Junmais are getting drier. Here I want to highlight a few of the outstanding sakes we tasted, and where you can buy them.

First of all, here is the competition results page. You'll note that unlike with wine competitions, even the sakes that did not win an award are listed, so you don't have to ask if we tasted your favorite.

From that list, the two Benten Junmais that finished first and third in the category were a revelation: outstanding and a great example of the impact of different rice strains, because the nicknames (Dewanosato and Tsuyahime) are names of the types of rice. The bad news is that neither of these sakes is currently available in the US. Sorry. Good news is that a longtime personal favorite of mine, Dewazakura Dewasansan Yamagata Junmai Ginjo, took third place in the Ginjo category and is widely available for about $36; buy it here.

My own notes on sakes I tasted during the competition aren't very good because tasting 352 on day 1 was overwhelming. I gave 9 of those sakes the highest possible score, but some didn't make the medal round because other judges didn't like them as much (I think I liked drier sakes than the average judge), and honestly, some sakes I didn't like quite as much the next day on retaste.

Here are some sakes I singled out with extremely high scores on both tastings:

Monday, August 14, 2017

Is rosé still cool? You be the judge

(Baby: What are you looking at?)

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

What's next for Anchor Distilling?

One of Anchor Distilling's most popular imports
Anchor Brewing Company was sold last week to Japan's Sapporo Brewing Co. for $85 million. But Anchor Distilling was not part of the deal.

I was surprised to learn Anchor Distilling is actually more profitable now than Anchor's much better known beers. The beer-based reason for the sale has been covered well by other sites, notably the San Francisco Chronicle. I called Anchor Distilling President and CEO Dennis Carr to learn more about what the newly independent spirits company will do next.

The answer turns out to have international implications, starting in London.

A brief background on Anchor Distilling: It was founded in 1993 as an offshoot of the brewery. It opened with two locally made products -- Junipero Gin and Old Potrero Rye -- that were as ahead of their time in the craft booze movement as Anchor Steam beer once was. It has expanded its business immensely by importing and selling craft spirits made in other countries, including bartender favorites like the Tempus Fugit spirits and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur (and the cherries.)

In 2010, the entire Anchor business was sold to former Skyy Vodka execs Tony Foglio and Keith Greggor. They sold the beer business last week and Carr said they took on the famous London-based beverage merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd as a partner for the distillery business.

Now Anchor Distilling has to look for a new building, but Carr said the distillery's 50 employees nationwide are expected to move with them.

The Gray Report: I was shocked to learn the distilling business is more profitable than the beer.

Dennis Carr: The beer category has become a crowded category. Premium spirits have been on the rise. These trends have been going on for the last two or three years. At this point, the spirits business is larger than the beer business.

TGR: Where are you planning to relocate?