Friday, October 28, 2016

Ernest Vineyards shows how to make land-loving wines without the land

Todd Gottula and Erin Brooks
Start with the wines. They're earnest: fresh-tasting, balanced, complex Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the Sonoma Coast. There's an oil painting on the label of an old man smoking a pipe, and it gives you the impression of a salt-of-the-earth farmer, as do the wines. These are vineyard-driven wines and it seems like they must be made by someone who loves the land.

At first glance, the back story doesn't fit. They're tech people, the couple behind Ernest Vineyards. Newcomers to the wine industry. They don't own any vineyards. In fact, they live in San Francisco, from where one still runs a software company.

But if you break bread with Todd Gottula and Erin Brooks, you learn the back story fits much better than it seems. They are wine lovers, land lovers and farm lovers, and their wines are a passion project.

It was surprisingly hard, over a meal at their favorite local restaurant Bar Agricole, to get them to drink their own wines.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"Is a $100 wine better?"

I got this question from a couple of older civilians who say they like wine, but could never imagine spending that much money on it.

Here's the answer I gave: "It depends on the $100 wine. They are not all the same, not at all. A lot of wineries just charge more for reputation. And wine varies a lot. We all have personal preferences. There might be a $100 wine that somebody thinks is terrific but that I'm bored by.

It also depends on why the wine costs $100. Is it a new wine that costs $100 on release? Then I think it's less likely to be worth it to you. But if you're spending $100 for a wine that has aged for some years, then it might be worth it for the unique experience.

I am willing to spend $100 on wines that I think are both interesting and delicious. Maybe it comes from some special vineyard and they don't make very much of it and scarcity is the reason it's expensive."

Her: "But what does a $100 wine taste like to make it worth it?" (she and her husband look at me skeptically)

Me: "For me, a $100 wine should have complexity, meaning I taste a lot of different flavors in it; balance (which I didn't define but should have); and a long finish. A long finish means that you continue to taste it long after you sipped it. For me it's probably the best thing about a great wine.

But to find a wine like that, you can't just buy any $100 wine. You need advice from somebody who has tasted the wine. It's best to go to a good wine shop, maybe try some cheaper wines to see if you agree with their judgments. Or you can ask a sommelier at a restaurant you trust. All $100 wines are not the same. But some of them are worth it, yes."

Here's the answer I should have given: "Not for you ma'am."

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

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Global warming and cocktails force Cognac to evolve

Patrice Pinet
Earlier this week I tasted a $3500 Cognac. That's a kind of evolution -- crazy prices at the highest end -- but it's not the evolution I'm talking about.

Master blender Patrice Pinet has been with Courvoisier since 1989. He came to San Francisco this week to pour Cognac for sommeliers who aren't selling as much of it as in the past, and made time to talk with me about how global warming and the cocktail revolution are affecting the spirit.

Unlike most distilled spirits, Cognac is a brandy made from wine, which means its source ingredient is sensitive to global warming.

In the 1800s, Cognac was made mostly from Folle Blanche grapes, which are high-acid and aromatic, but these were mostly replaced after phylloxera by more dependable but less interesting Ugni Blanc, an import from Italy (where it's called Trebbiano.)

Now, however, the Ugni Blanc is ripening too quickly. Pinet said average grape harvests are three weeks earlier than 30 years ago. This presents a problem California wine fans will understand: too often the sugars develop ahead of the flavors.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Endorsements for San Francisco, California election of November 2016

Marijuana legalization is one of this election's most important propositions
I always make electoral endorsements because we should talk more, and with more civility, about our political choices, particularly local ones. This is the worst election I've ever done this for but that has nothing to do with the easy choice at the top of the ballot. We have an unwieldy 17 state ballot propositions and 24 city proposals.

I'll get right to the endorsements after long-awaited praise for the San Francisco Chronicle, my former employer. I've been complaining for years about the Chronicle's effort level on endorsements but this year, finally, it did a great job, interviewing all the top candidates and using its resources to investigate all the propositions. I don't agree with all of its choices, but the Chronicle put in the work and its recommendations are here.

As always, I am grateful to the very liberal San Francisco Bay Guardian, which now rises from the dead only to do its always well-researched endorsements. They are here.

Now on to my endorsements, which are brief at the top on the obvious ones. You can read more about those elsewhere.

US President

Hillary Clinton

US Senate

Kamala Harris

US House of Representatives, District 12

Nancy Pelosi

Jane Kim
California State Senate District 11

Jane Kim

Her opponent Scott Wiener is better financed, and not a terrible choice, but he takes a lot of wrong-headed positions and has run a relentlessly negative campaign. Kim is more representative of San Francisco values.

California State Assembly District 17

David Chiu 

I don't love him but he's just better qualified than the opposition.

San Francisco County Superior Court Judge, Office 7

Victor Hwang

Hwang has worked as both a prosecutor for 7 years in San Francisco and, before that, as a public defender for 4 years in Los Angeles. He is the better qualified candidate and has the great majority of endorsements, including a large number of endorsements from judges.

San Francisco Community College Board

Amy Bacharach, Rafael Mandelman, Alex Randolph, Shanell Williams

I hate voting for this board.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Bourbon history untangled in new book

As Bourbon is hot, Fred Minnick is writing books about it with military precision. His latest, "Bourbon: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of an American Whiskey" is his third in the last three years. It's his most ambitious and authoritative yet, and it leads me to wonder what he's going to do for an encore.

With this book, Minnick has tried to write the definitive history of America's domestic spirit. That approach bogs it down in the beginning, as he spends the opening chapter of the book trying to answer an unanswerable question, namely who is the father of bourbon (spoiler: nobody). I had the book sitting around for a few weeks and it took me several false starts to get past that part.

Fortunately, what begins as a fairly academic history takes off at the coming of Prohibition, at which point it becomes a page-turner.

The politics of distillation immediately before and during Prohibition are fascinating.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Donald Trump, sommelier

Welcome to the restaurant. It's a great restaurant, the best restaurant, and we have all the best wines here. All the best. This is a great wine list and I've gotten a lot of credit for it.

Who's going to order at this table? Is there a man you can reach by cell phone? No? Well, that's fine, that's why I'm here. I want you to be very happy. I'll get you the best wine, the finest wine. I drink the best wines all the time, and believe me, a lot of women really like my wines. Really like them.

I think you should start off with Champagne. We call it Champagne but it's really just wine with bubbles in it. A lot of people don't know this, but the best Champagnes, the very best, they're all from the USA. We have top people working on putting the bubbles into them, really top people. Some of our Champagnes have 20 or 30 times as many bubbles as that stuff from France. Maybe 40 times. I have real pride in American know-how. We're keeping these Champagne companies from going overseas. Keeping those Champagne jobs in Virginia. And we're going to bring more Champagne jobs to Ohio, to Michigan, to Florida. We are. We can put bubbles in wine in these states Barack Obama ruined. I've been to Michigan, and let me tell you, it's a smoking cesspit of dangerous criminals, but we're going to make it great again.

You don't want Champagne? Really? Are you sure you don't want to check with your husbands?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Some facts for the Wine Advocate's sake investigation

Last week I published a blog post detailing the curious appearance of a wine exporter called The Taste of Sake that offered all 78 sakes rated 90 points or above by The Wine Advocate, and nothing else. You can read that blog post here.

Since I published that post The Taste of Sake website has been taken down, which is also curious. Fortunately I took the precaution of saving its pages in PDF format. If you want to take a look, they are here.

Wine Advocate Editor-in-Chief Lisa Perrotti-Brown posted the following comment on that first blog post:

W. Blake Gray, In the event that you have not yet seen this response, I thought I would post it here. This has also appeared on our Bulletin Board:
“We are investigating the facts behind these allegations. I will make clear however that Liwen Hao was hired specifically to review Asian wines and sake, because we feel there is a small but growing international interest in these beverages. He did not just taste 78 sakes, he tasted a few hundred, and they did not just come from one company. He shortlisted 78 of the sakes that came in at 90 points or above for his first report, because these were the ones he believed would be of international interest. We made no secret of the fact that we would be publishing a sake report and Liwen was in Japan tasting with brewers for a couple of weeks in April, which must have created a good deal of local interest. So I’m not surprised that an opportunistic company was set up to take advantage in increased international interest in sake as a result of the report. I’m also not surprised that the newly established company decided to offer the 78 sakes we reviewed. What we need to establish is if that company had access to any of the sake notes or scores prior to publication, which is a situation we take the utmost measures to avoid. Even the suggestion that this could have happened is a matter we take very seriously.”

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW, Editor-in-Chief, Robert Parker Wine Advocate

Subsequently, some readers of the original blog post have come forward with some facts to help Ms. Perrotti-Brown in her investigation.

Here is what I have been able to verify (many of the links confirming the information are in Japanese):