Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Master Sommelier-run winery that stays under the radar

In the slow summer months before harvest, Greg Harrington's to-do list is short
Why isn't Gramercy Cellars more famous? I can't understand it. Look at all the boxes it checks:

🍷 Founded by a Master Sommelier, Greg Harrington, who ran wine programs in famous restaurants for Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck

🍷 Well-reviewed, food-friendly wines that usually make "state's best" lists

🍷 Almost no new oak, so the fruit shines, and not too high in alcohol

🍷 8000 cases a year, so the wines are widely available

🍷 Only two wines are over $60

When I visited Walla Walla, Washington in June I didn't think there was much need for a Gramercy Cellars story. I figured everyone knew already: Some of the most sommelier-friendly Rhone-style wines made in the U.S.

Then I started poking around the Internet and discovered that, while the wines keep getting favorable reviews, little else has been written about the winery since just after it opened. This story has been hiding in plain sight.

In 1996, Harrington became the youngest American to pass the Master Sommelier exam, at the age of 26. He founded Gramercy Cellars in 2005. He says that four years ago, tasting his older vintages encouraged him to change some of his winemaking techniques.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Unique wine made from grapes growing wild in a riverbed

Winemaker Christian Sepulveda checks out the nearly ripe wild grapes he'll use for País Salvaje
One of the most interesting wines I've had this year comes from wild grapevines climbing up tree trunks over a river. And that's just part of its appeal.

The wine is Bouchon País Salvaje 2017 from Maule Valley in Chile. It's available in the U.S. for under $25, and I guarantee you will find no wine in this price range with a more compelling history. Plus it's complex and delicious.

The winery owner is progressive-thinking, and hired one of the best young winemakers in Chile. Many of Bouchon's wines are worth checking out, especially their series of "Granito" wines designed to highlight the effect of granite soils.

But the País Salvaje is unique in the world: a commercial wine (albeit only 5000 bottles per year) from wild grapes. Probably the wine shouldn't exist, because the grapevines shouldn't exist.

"We had this patrimonial variety there for many years," says Julio Bouchon. "We didn't give it the attention it deserves."

Nobody did.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Buying tea in China reminded me of being a novice wine drinker

These are the tea dealers I ultimately bought from. Look at all those tea discs behind them! It's all vintage, and all pricey.
I haven't been a novice wine buyer in a long time, but I re-experienced the self-doubt when I tried to buy tea in Beijing.

Beijing's tea market, Maliandao, is overwhelming. We went into a large building with several dozen shops, all stuffed with scores of teas, because that seemed manageable. Both sides of the street approaching the building, one of several, are lined with tea vendors. Is a free-standing shop better? Who knows?

Fortunately I was only interested in two kinds of tea: aged pu-erh, which draws more tea geeks than any other type, and a specific white tea (yue guang bai) that a friend told me is good. So I was like a wine shopper looking only for, say, Riesling and Cabernet.

I wasn't sure I would buy aged pu-erh because it's expensive: a single 400g disc of 20 year old tea costs at least $200 and often much more. I like pu-erh because I order it at dim sum, but I've never had the high-end version. It was a rare opportunity to get a great tea but I feared buying the wrong thing.

My friend Jonathan, a food writer and tea geek (and author of this book), gave me advice beforehand, including an age-range sweet spot (6 to 14 years old) but not a price estimate, which proved to be an issue.

I decided to get the white tea first, because it's cheaper and thus the price of failure is lower. But just choosing a shop was challenging. I did so by instinct: I liked the look of one man more than his neighbors.

When buying tea, you will taste a lot of tea: I was wired afterward.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Endorsements for the June 2018 election in San Francisco, California

Gavin Newsom at his other job. Courtesy SF Chronicle
We should talk more broadly about politics in this country. Instead, most of our "political" discussions have deteriorated into the kind of name-calling you see between fans of rival sports teams.

This is why I give endorsements for every election. I tell you who/what I'm going to vote for and why. I encourage all of you who have any online forum -- Twitter, Instagram, whatever -- to also tell us how you're voting on local issues, rather than parrot national outrage posts that may have been written in Moscow.

In making city endorsements, I triangulated between the centrist San Francisco Chronicle and the leftist San Francisco Bay Guardian (click on the publication names to read their endorsements directly.) I want to salute Tim Redmond, longtime Guardian editor, for continuing to put in the hard work of interviewing candidates and carefully investigating ballot measures even though the print publication has ceased to be.

For state races I also read the endorsements of the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee; both are generally centrist publications. And I read various candidates' Wikipedia pages (some linked below), news stories about ballot propositions, etc.

Your first stop outside this post should be Voter's Edge California, a nonpolitical site which will show you what is on your specific ballot and where to find your polling place. In the November election that site will have lots of useful information provided by the candidates themselves, but as of this writing it's still a little sparse. That's a shame because many of the races will be decided in June.

I didn't write these endorsements as click bait, but I might as well start with my most surprising pick.

Kevin DeLeon
US Senator: Kevin DeLeon

At age 84, Dianne Feinstein is the oldest member of the Senate. Her age isn't a competence issue, but her views haven't evolved as California's have, and she has become unrepresentative of what Democrats here want. Example: she was a strong opponent of legal cannabis her entire career until LAST MONTH when it occurred to her that it's an election issue. In 2016 she said that her time on the state parole board convinced her that cannabis was a gateway drug and she campaigned against its legalization.

That's just one example. I could list others, but just take a look at this chart. Feinstein supports Donald Trump's agenda much more than she should: she is second of every Democrat in the Senate in oversupporting Trump.

Do you want a California Democratic Senator to support Trump's agenda? I do not.

DeLeon is easily the best of the many candidates who probably won't get the votes to replace her. The Southern California native was president of the State Senate for four years, and he authored important bills on renewable energy. Look through his positions; he represents current California political views. Feinstein does not.

US House, District 12: Nancy Pelosi

I'm not a huge fan of Pelosi remaining in the house party leadership role. Not only is she a great political tool for Republicans running for office, she says impeachment is off the table. What? Before Mueller's even done? But she has no credible local opposition for her House seat. At least with her in office San Francisco's representative will be powerful.

(Endorsements continue after the jump)

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wine grapes from the Biblical era resurface in a Palestinian fruit market

Table grapes from a vineyard near Hebron. I shot this from a car. Who knows what ancient varieties may be there?
If you are a fan of unusual grape varieties, the Israeli winery Recanati has a couple of wines for you. Their story is, literally, epic: centuries spent in hiding until Israeli-Palestinian cooperation brought them back. The ancient white wine has been available for four years; the ancient red is just coming on the market this year.

Marawi and Bittuni are ancient grapes that disappeared from wine production during the centuries that Israel was ruled by Muslims. Wine was important in the Biblical era, and there is plenty of archeological evidence of wine production in the Holy Land. But in the modern era, until Edmond Rothschild restarted wine production in the 1880s, the area was a viticultural desert.

Rothschild brought the best-regarded French grapes at the time, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and the Jewish community made generally lousy wines with them for decades, before and after the founding of the state of Israel. Cab and Merlot aren't well-suited for the Mediterranean heat of the low-lying areas where they were planted.

Much of the best terroir is in the West Bank
Israeli wine has been on a resurgence for about two decades, led mainly by growers planting in higher-elevation, cooler areas. (Complicating things, many of these areas are in Palestinian territory.) Everyone understood that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are believed to have originated in the 1700s in France from natural crossings in vineyards, were not the grapes of the Bible. Most people just assumed that the grapes behind sage advice like "Use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities" (1 Timothy 5:23) were lost to time.

Dr. Shivi Drori at Ariel University thought he knew how to find them.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

What is Jimmy Butler drinking to celebrate the Minnesota Timberwolves making the playoffs?

I love that he's specific. Not just "wine," or "good wine." Butler knew exactly the bottle he was going to open.

For those of you not following the NBA, Minnesota had not made the playoffs since 2004, the longest stretch of no-postseason play in a league where more than half the teams make the playoffs. The Wolves faced Denver on Wednesday in the final game of the regular season, with the winner going to the playoffs and the loser staying home. The Wolves won in overtime. Congratulations Minnesota! You earned that fine bottle of wine.

If you want to enjoy the same wine as Butler, you can buy it here. It's not cheap, but neither are NBA playoff tickets.

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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The evolution of Napa Valley in a series of glasses at Charles Krug

Peter Mondavi Jr. last week
Few wineries in the United States can give you the taste of history, for better and worse, like Charles Krug.

It's all there: the world-class wine made in California before outsiders realized it was possible; the hardship wrought by a bitter lawsuit between brothers; the slow rebuilding of vineyard sources; the modern move toward ever-riper wines.

I attended a vertical tasting of Charles Krug's top wine, Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, last week at the winery. The experience was fascinating partly for the wines themselves -- some were so delicious that I lingered behind to finish my tasting portion -- and partly for the glimpse at Napa Valley history. The Mondavi family's history has been entwined with Napa Valley's since 1943, when Cesare and Rosa Mondavi assented to their son Robert's ambition and bought Charles Krug. So let's go through the wines in chronological order, the way we tasted them, for a history lesson.

(Note: Three of these wines will be available to the public in June. Charles Krug is planning to do a limited-release of a three-pack including the '74, '91 and '03. I don't know what the price will be, but I do know these wines will be worth having. Here's the winery's contact info.)

1964: Brothers Robert and Peter Mondavi were not getting along, and had not been for a while. Robert, the marketing wizard, was chafing to do greater things that would prove Napa Valley was a world-class wine region. Peter, the winemaker, just wanted to make decent wine and have his brother sell it.