Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Parker is the new Bush

One morning at the Concours Mondial, I found myself sitting at a breakfast table full of European wine critics, defending Robert Parker.

I wouldn't call myself a Parker acolyte. But I respect his independence and his consistency, and it's not his fault that US consumers slavishly follow him; that's their choice. What wine critic -- or critic of anything -- doesn't want people to take his advice?

Anyway, it started with a German critic, who was head of Wilfred Wong's panel (Wilfred was sleeping in and had not yet started his daily assault on the smoked salmon.) This guy insisted that Parker was corrupt; that his ratings were for sale.

I disagreed. Like anyone who knows their subjects personally, Parker probably has winemakers he likes. But Parker famously buys his own wines and has written relatively poor reviews of many wines made by people he likes. Moreover, the Wine Advocate supports itself by subscriptions, not advertising, unlike SOME OTHER prominent ratings organizations I won't mention today.

Then the German critic, joined by now by a Ukranian and a Belgian, said Parker knows nothing about wine. Again I disagreed -- it might have been true when he started more than 30 years ago, but how could that be true today? I've tasted with Parker; the guy understands viticulture and winemaking and the difference in barrel manufacture. How could he not, after 30 years of working in the field?

By now we had a crowd, and I felt under siege. "Parker has no ability to taste differences in wine" -- that was the next charge. Crazy. The man has one of the most consistent palates in the world. (The crowd of European critics audibly huffed.) I don't necessarily agree with it, but like any critic, he's entitled to his preferences.

"But he's ruining wine," somebody said. At this point I completely waved the flag, saying, "Parker is a great man. He has done tremendous good for the world of wine. I agree that consumers shouldn't just blindly buy everything he recommends. But Parker made wine accessible to millions of people."

The German said, "But it's unhealthy that all Americans feel like they have to follow Parker." I said you can't lump all Americans together on anything; there's a huge anti-Parker backlash, and even one critic who's trying to make a name for herself writing books about how she saved the world from Parker. I mentioned her name, but none of them knew it. Which, since that seems to be her whole shtick, is just as well.

That's when I realized Parker is the new Bush. For the last 8 years, I hated discussing US politics with Europeans. Now, I'm happy to do so -- but I have to end up defending Robert Parker. This wasn't why I came to Europe, but what the hell, I'm a proud American.

Which is why eventually I threw out the line -- yes, I really said this -- "Our President's blacker than yours."

The Ukranian wasn't listening. He was staring intently at me. He asked, "Is Parker your friend?"

He is not; while I have attended events with him, I've tried many times to get a one-on-one interview with him and he won't do it. But that's no reason to hate the man.

The Ukranian said, "Parker has no friends in the wine world." As if that matters.

I said I doubt that that's true; that Parker famously loves a little steakhouse in Maryland and that many winemakers have told me of pleasant meals they've had with him there.

"These are not friends," the Ukranian said. I paused. Maybe he's right; winemakers want something from him. But I insisted that some people I know like Parker.

"Who are his friends? Give me their names now!" the Ukranian said, like a KGB agent in a Bond flick. At that, I was creeped out, and soon excused myself.

But not before I turned over one name: Dr. Jay Miller. I've never met Miller, but if anyone reading this knows him, you might want to warn him to watch out for Eastern Europeans carrying umbrellas.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Where's the gold?

Europe's leading wine competition, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, is over. Myself and more than 100 other judges have tasted and rated thousands of wines.

So which wines won gold medals? We don't know. We might know next week.

This is very unusual for a wine competition. Usually, medals are decided by judges sitting around a table arguing (or "negotiating" if you prefer.) A unanimous vote for a gold is a double-gold. Two golds and one "no medal" is a silver. That sort of thing. You defend your choices, you hear other judges' reasoning, and you all learn something.

This competition is very different. My panel had almost no discussion of the wines. We each filled out an individual scoresheet for each wine in 10 categories, signed it, and turned it in.

There's a back room, allegedly full of statisticians, that will calculate the results, adjusting for individual tasters' tendencies, and announce the medals later.

In theory, this system might be good. I posted two days ago that I like the fact that the system encourages a much wider points range than most of us are used to, which I think accurately represents the experience of wine.

But I can't help wondering how exactly these scores will be adjusted. If I hate a whole category -- Hungarian reds was one -- does that mean for the two wines I liked best, my scores will be moved up to gold medal status, even if I think none were deserving?

In practice, I think transparency is important. The judges will be scattered about the globe by the time the results come out. If some rustic, rough Chilean Carmenere gets a gold, I'll have to assume the other judges liked it a whole lot. But I won't be sure. And since I'm supposed to be one of the decision makers, that's not a good situation.


I have a mea culpa to give to a producer of one ice wine I misunderstood, and I'll deliver it here as soon as I learn if I mistakenly prevented it from getting a medal. Before that, though, here's a different mea culpa:

The following would be entirely too boastful for a print publication, but hopefully will be only mildly egotistical for a blog.

I was the only American in my judging group: we had an Italian, a Belgian, a Spaniard and the head of our panel was from Bordeaux. Today I was called "the American" a number of times, and not in a good way. But not to worry, fellow Americans, I held up our end.

Our first group of wines was clearly barrel-fermented Chardonnay -- clearly to me, anyway. I liked them; I liked some of them a lot. The Bordeaux guy said they were Entre Deux Mers (a Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon-based wine from HIS REGION) and was neutral to them. The Belgian disliked them, saying -- incredibly to me -- they had "too much acidity" (A European tells an American this?) He speculated that they were Eastern European. I advocated for my favorites, saying they were very well-balanced wines, nicely made, using expensive French oak, and that's when they started calling me The American.

Peace reigned for three groups of wines. But then the last group were very rustic, and I hated all but one. I thought they were bretty and unpleasant and declared that I wouldn't drink a glass of them. The other 4 judges said they were Syrahs, and that I didn't appreciate the characteristics of Syrah. Wine after wine, one judge picked up my scoresheet and said, "The American doesn't like this one either. You're tough."

Here's the braggart part: That first group of whites? They were white Burgundies, some of them Premier Crus.

That group of rustic reds? Chilean Carmeneres.

How do you say "nyah nyah" in Flemish?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Changing the rules for scoring wines

Why should all wines score between 80 and 100 points? Is there really that little difference?

The Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, Europe's leading wine competition, challenges that assumption this year with its judging system.

In my first year as a judge, I have decided to follow the system as it's intended, After one day, my scores ranged from 55 to 98, which is probably an accurate statistical representation of the difference between a bad Chilean Merlot and a good top-tier vintage Champagne – two categories I actually tasted.

But most of the judges I talked to are not following the Concours system as it's intended. Instead, they're giving each wine a score in the range they're accustomed to -- generally, 80 to 100 – and then messing with the system to make the score fit.

The results will be interesting. On the whole, my scores are turning out far lower than my colleagues', even though in discussing the wines, my opinions are about as generous as theirs.

However, I'm counting on the statistical bureau the Concours is working with, which is supposed to adjust each individual taster's scores based on our general tendencies. In other words, if my 78 is akin to every other judge's 85, which would be enough for a silver medal, the wine would get my vote for a silver.

If that's confusing, I blame jet lag – it's 9 hours later here and the bloody Hilton hotel charges 17 Euros for Internet access (I blame Paris Hilton's profligacy for this greed) – so I'm sipping a cafe con leche at a nearby Novotel hotel that has free wifi in the lounge.

I'm also wondering if the Concours will invite me back to be a judge because competitions exist to award medals, and if I were the only judge here, there wouldn't be many. Fortunately, that's not the case. It's a thrill to taste in a giant convention hall in Valencia, Spain with about 100 of the leading tasters of Europe. I ate breakfast with the leading wine critic in Argentina. It's a great atmosphere here, very international. And I really like the idea of what they're trying to accomplish with this scoring system.

Here's the deal: Each wine is judged in 10 different categories – but we have only 5 choices within each of those categories. In other words, for each category, like Aromatic Intensity, we have to put an X in one of 5 boxes (Very good, good, average, bad, very bad).

However, all categories are not created equal, nor are the points awarded in a linear fashion.

Aromatic Quality is important: A top score is worth 16 points, middle 12 points, and a very bad wine still gets 8 points. Persistence is not as important; scores range from 8 points down to 4.

The upshot is that the lowest possible score is 40, but only if a wine is visually flawed. We were encouraged to give each wine the top visual score unless it actually has flaws like being cloudy, and I'm OK with that, so realistically the lowest possible score is 52. I came close to going that low on a few wines today that I really hated.

Has Wine Spectator ever given a 58? Has Parker? And yet, doesn't that really represent the experience of wine?

If Lanson Gold Label Brut Champagne 1998 is a 98, and I think I'm in ecstasy just smelling it, isn't it fair to say that a red wine from Crete that smells and tastes nasty should score in the 50s, not the 70s as most contemporary publications would put it?

My problem with following the scale is that our group of five tasters (I'm the only non-European) got very lucky because we drew the Tete de Cuvee Champagnes, and I gave several of them scores around 95. They deserved the scores – these are great wines – but that might mean my other scores will not be adjusted upward. Therefore, the high 70s I doled out to Sicilian reds and Argentinian whites that didn't thrill me could mean those wines won't get any medals at all – not even the “thanks for entering” silver that most wine competitions hand out to unflawed but unexciting wines.

Truth be told, I like that idea too. If all competitions had rigorous standards, gold medals would be really meaningful.

Nonetheless I feel sorry for the producers whose wines ended up in my category. I'm not trying to change the world or anything. I'm just trying, uncharacteristically, to follow the rules. And hoping that doing so doesn't make me persona non grata next year.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Here's what our book's going to look like

The publisher for our Japanese-language wine book sent a sales sheet today. This is what the company's sales staff will use to peddle the product to bookshops.

Just thought you might enjoy a quick look. The book is due out in June. I'll be doing a Japanese-language media tour of some kind for it, so hopefully by then I can remember how to say "malolactic fermentation" in Japanese.

Fortunately, Japanese has only one word for delicious: "oishii." I anticipate using that a lot.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wines of Portugal observations

Of the worlds' major wine producing countries, Portugal is the most mysterious. We all know something about Port, less about Madeira, and we mostly acknowledge that they make pretty good table whites out of grapes nobody else uses.

But they do some stuff that seems downright weird in the increasingly homogenous wine world, like growing grapevines on trees and selling white wine that may or may not be fizzy.

Wines of Portugal brought 38 producers to San Francisco last week for a trade tasting. A few general observations:

* Portuguese whites are mostly thirst-quenching, simple and good value. I found only one that I adored (more on that later), but very few I disliked. Most would be great quaffers on a hot day.

* Alvarinho (better known as Albarino in Spain) seems clearly the best white wine grape. I also liked wines made from Arinto, which makes crisp, fresh-tasting whites.

* All the best red wines are field blends; that's how they do it there. Mostly they are made of the same grapes that make up Port -- Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz and Touriga Franca.

* New World winemaking has hit Portugal, but not yet with complete success. I'm sure there are a few fine blockbuster reds available, but I didn't taste them.

* Red wines that have labels clearly designed for export tended to be very simple. The reds I liked best tended to have non-flashy labels, essentially focusing on the name of the wine.

* Madeira is a fabulous value in a dessert wine. As with Port, it's not necessary to overspend on vintage Madeira because the 10-year-aged Madeiras are often just as delicious.

While I tended to prefer the non-New World wines, my favorite white wine from this tasting was very modern: Quinta Lagoalva de Cima Ribatejano Arinto & Chardonnay 2008 ($14).

Winemaker Diogo de Braganca Campilho was at the event, and he told me of a very unusual technique for this wine: He keeps Chardonnay lees frozen for two years to add to the barrels during malolactic fermentation. In other words, this wine is made from 2008 grapes with 2006 Chardonnay lees.

The grapes are all from the Ribatejo district near Lisbon, a wealthy area because the soil is so fertile (not the case all over the country). That said, the district has not generally been considered one of the best for wine for the same reason: yields are high, and lots of sun leads to relatively high alcohol levels. Campilho felt the need to innovate -- Chardonnay is still unusual in Portugal -- and to me, his experiment really paid off.

His Arino-Chardonnay mix is a full-flavored wine, well-balanced and interesting, with lots of fruit, and you don't notice the 100% malolactic fermentation except in the smooth mouthfeel. I tasted white peach and also red apple and floral notes. At $14, this wine is a steal. Downside: It's not currently available in California.

If you want something more traditional, check out the delicious Aveleda Alvarinho Vinho Verde 2007, which tastes green and fresh, like its Spanish cousin. Vinho Verdes that say "Alvarinho" tend to taste more like the grape than the style.

This post is getting long so I'll get to reds and Madeiras tomorrow. Below are my unedited tasting notes for the whites. No picking on me for typos!

Loios Alentejano (white) 2008
Made from Rabo de Ovelha, Roupeiro. Tastes very green, fresh and bright. Aromas and flavors of green mango, green plum, some green apple. Refreshing. 88
Marques de Borba Alentejo (white) 2008
Made from Arinto, Roabo de Ovelha, Roupeiro. Fresh and crisp, minerally, white peach and pear notes. 87
Aveleda Alvarinho Vinho Verde 2007
Very green aroma: green plum, Granny Smith apple. Medium body, full-flavored. Refreshing, closer to its Spanish cousin Albarino than to traditional VInho Verde. 89
Casal Garcia Vinho Verde NV
Made from Pederna, Loureiro, Trajadura and Azal. Crisp, refreshing: Peachy and simple, with a light fizz. 87
Quinta da Aveleda Vinho Verde 2007
Made from Loureiro, Trajadura and Alvarinho. An estate wine. Bright, light and peachy: larger on the palate than the NV. Very slightly fizzy. 87
EA Alentejano (white) 2008, Foral de Evora Alentejo (white) 2007, Cartuxa Alentejo (white) 2007
All from the same company, I tasted an unpleasant cementy note on each. Pass.
Herdade dos Grous White Alentejano 2008
Antao Vaz, Arinto, Roupeiro. Crisp and simple, refresing: pear with lemon juice. Medium body. 87
Herdade dos Grous White Reserve Alentejano 2007
Antao Vaz, Verdelho, Viognier. I can taste an oak board in this. Pass.
Campolargo Arinto Bairrada 2008.
Barrel-fermented. Like drinking Sherry -- salty, sea air, a little crusty wood. Interesting, might be a good oyster wine. 87
Campolargo Entre Il Santos Branco Bairrada 2008
Sauvignon Blanc, Bical. Crisp, simple -- a mouth rinse, nothing more. 85
Grilos Dao 2008 white
Malvasia Fina, Cerceal, Encruzado. LIght and simple -- a mouth rinse, but OK for that. 85
Quinta da Alorna Arintho 2008
Arinto. Good acidity, a fresh green apple taste with hint of lychee. Lightly fizzy. 86
Castello d'Alba Vinhas Velhas Douro 2006 (white)
Made from Codega. Barrel-fermented. Fresh up front, then toasty. Peach and even red berries. Lite-medium body. Long finish that's a little woody. 89
Herdade da Malhadinha Nova Antao Vaz Alentejano 2008
Tastes barrel-fermented, but indistinctive. A little golden apple, woody finish. 85
Monte da Peceguina Alentejano (white) 2007
Salty. Charmless. Pass.
Espirito Lagoalva Ribatejano (white) 2008
Alvarinho, Arinto, Fernao Pires, Sauvignon Blanc, Verdelho. Decent fruit and minerality, but bitter on finish. Pass
Quinta Lagoalva de Cima Arinto & Chardonnay 2008
50% Arinto, 50% Chardonnay. Full-flavored wine: white peach, sweet red apple, floral notes, good minerality, balance and mouthfeel. Interesting, lots of fruit, don't notice the malo. 92
Porca de Murca Reserva Douro (white) 2007
Boal, Verdelho, Cerceal, Moscatel. Medium-full body but all fruit: super-ripe peach and pair, some minerality. 89

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Leonard Cohen, Green Day and wine prices

Last night I had a concert-shopping experience that had me thinking about how top-end wines are priced.

I wanted to see Leonard Cohen at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. The show wasn't sold out, but the remaining tickets were $176 each, which is more than I wanted to pay for a concert.

I tried buying a ticket from people with extras; there was a little knot of "miracle seekers" outside. I was offering $80 for a ticket and it was the highest cash offer in the group. But several people walked in with their extra ticket unsold rather than take the cash.

Coincidentally, Green Day was playing a one-shot concert a block away at the Fox Theatre. Unlike Cohen, that show had been announced just the day before and had sold out in minutes, at $50 per ticket. About 20 minutes after Cohen started playing, I wandered over to the Fox to see if I could get in.

Sure enough, within 5 minutes somebody sold me a Green Day ticket at face value: $50 (thank you, Ian from Berkeley). He was actually grateful to get the money and couldn't believe it when I bought him a beer.

Now here's the thing: why was Leonard Cohen $176 (more than that to sit close up), and Green Day $50? Why is, for example, Screaming Eagle $750 and Siduri Sonatera Pinot Noir $50?

People who buy the more expensive product want to believe that it costs more because it's either more exclusive, better, or both. But is it really?

Chateau Margaux, $440 pre-arrival at K&L, is widely available -- tens of thousands of cases are made. Parker rated it a 92; Spectator gave it 92 to 94. A good wine, but not a great wine, and not at all exclusive.

Just for comparison, I noticed that K&L has Altamura Napa Valley Cabernet, a more limited product, for $70. Parker gave it 95; Spectator gave it 93. Is the Margaux better? Possibly, but not empirically or demonstrably.

Back to my concert analogy. Let's compare Green Day and Leonard Cohen concert tickets for a moment.

Leonard Cohen: Hasn't toured in several years, but he's doing 3 shows in a fairly large venue, so tickets are available, and in fact didn't sell out. Great songwriter; hard to say he's at the height of his powers, though.

Green Day: Hasn't toured in several years. Doing a series of small shows in small venues, leaking information about them to the fan base just before each show. Tickets are selling out immediately. Good songwriters whose last album was as good as any; young and energetic enough that they may well be at the peak of their career. This individual show, in which they opened by playing their entire new album straight through, was so unique that they had t-shirts and posters printed to commemorate it.

So what made Leonard Cohen tickets worth more than three times what Green Day tickets were worth? It's marketing. The Cohen crowd was older and more affluent looking; you can charge what your audience will pay. And you need to make them feel that what they're paying for is worth it, which means the illusion of exclusivity. In the case of Cohen tickets, the concert went on several "members-only" presales before tickets were available to the general public. You could walk up at showtime and buy a ticket, but the people who spent $350 each for front-orchestra tickets months ago had no way of knowing that.

Think about that when you're buying expensive wine. What are you really paying for? Is it quality? Is it exclusivity? Or is it the illusion of exclusivity?

I'm thinking about it because, while I enjoyed Green Day, I still want to see Leonard Cohen ... and tickets for tonight are still available. Pricing decisions aren't any easier for the consumer than they are for the producer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thank the taxman for well-balanced wines

Many of us are not loving the IRS today. I lost a bunch of money last year -- and still had to write the government a big check. Arrgggh. At least it's going somewhere worthwhile, to hedge-fund traders and the like. Arrggh.

Anyway, wine lovers should be grateful to the taxman for one thing: introducing the average wine drinker to the concept of a well-balanced wine.

Here's why. US tax law requires wineries to pay a slightly higher rate on wines over 14 percent alcohol.

The law doesn't affect superpremium wines one bit, as wineries just pass along the cost. At 50 cents a gallon, the tax turns out to be about 10 cents higher on a 750 ml bottle. For wines over $15 retail, that's no reason to harvest early or use an expensive alcohol-reduction system.

But in the "fighting varietal" category, where wines are actually getting cheaper lately (remember when $4 bottles of wine were a rarity?), every 10 cents counts. If you closely examine a bottle of $4.99 wine, you'll notice that the glass is lighter than more expensive bottles, the capsule is thinner, and the label may not have 4-color reproduction. All of these moves save a few pennies.

Major wine companies used to harvest their grapes early enough to have sugar levels low enough to come in under 14 percent alcohol. There's a big problem with that, though -- most cheap wines come from the hot Central Valley, and harvesting grapes early enough to have subdued alcohol levels means the wines won't have the big, bold fruit flavors consumers love now.

Thus big companies now use alcohol-reduction systems, such as removing some alcohol by osmosis, to bring the total alcohol level under 14 percent, while still providing big fruit flavors.

Wine purists sometimes complain about these wines as being manipulated, but wine purists have no business buying corporate wines anyway. They're for the supermarket shopper who doesn't care about wine ratings and just wants something tasty with her dinner. And they're valuable to the industry, because today's uncritical shopper might become tomorrow's obsessive collector. Even if she doesn't, she's still buying wine and keeping the industry rolling and people in it employed.

I believe entry-level wines today are better than at any time in history because of the advance of wine technology, much of it having to do with hygiene. But reduced-alcohol wines are also a plus. If people drank unmanipulated Central Valley Cabernet, they would think one of two things: wine tastes sour and bitter, or wine sure does make you drunk fast. Given the current taste trends, it would probably be the latter, and that would change the entire experience of wine.

Instead, even wines like Two Buck Chuck, with their subdued 12.5 percent alcohol, teach beginning drinkers the joys of a wine that goes with dinner, rather than overpowering it. We can thank the taxman for this. It doesn't make up for redistributing money from a poor schlub like me to the executives at General Motors. But at least it's something.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

5 questions for Darrell Corti

Last weekend I visited Darrell Corti, owner of Corti Bros. in Sacramento. Corti is in the Vintners Hall of Fame because of his keen palate and because he was an early champion -- and sales outlet -- for unknown California wineries that were making great wine.

I'd never been to Corti Bros. before and was impressed with their selection of obscure gourmet items like hand-kneaded sugar, yuzu kosho (pepper paste), and the flat round croxetti pasta I'm eating for lunch today. Darrell can talk knowledgeably about all these things, but I chose to ask my five questions about wine.

WBG: What one wine in your store would you suggest any wine lover try?
Darrell Corti: Isole e Olena Chianti Classico. This wine is the only property whose wine we have bought every vintage. Their first vintage was in 1975, we bought it in 1978, and every vintage since. Even in terrible vintages like 1992, it was still excellent. Antinori declassified all their top wines in 1992. But (Isole e Olena) put everything they grown into the Chianti Classico -- Cabernet, Sangiovese, Syrah. It turned out to be an excellent wine.

WBG: What's your best cheap wine right now?
Darrell Corti: Gazela Vinho Verde ($5.99). Vinho verde is called verde because it's young wine, not mature wine. I like this because it's cheap. There are more important Vinho Verdes. There are single-varietal Vinho Verdes made only from Alvarinho, which this is not. This does have some Alvarinho in it. But it's very light, it's fragrant, the wine is delicious. We can't make wines like this normally. It's made by Sogrape (the big company behind Mateus). When people taste this wine, they're amzaed by it. They ask, "Why haven't we had a wine like this before?"

Vinho Verde is not a vintage wine. They keep making it as an ongoing blend. The biggest problem they have is that the vines are grown very high up. It rains a lot, and in order to protect the clusters from rot they grow them high. Traditionally they grew them on trees. But the grapes never got ripe. The wines had a light fizziness to them because fermentation wasn't finished. The Portuguese liked them. The English on vacation in Portugal during the summer liked them. They have a savory quality that makes them deliciously refreshing on a hot day. But they were terrible to drink in the wintertime because they were too sharp. (But modern Vinho Verde has more sophisticated winemaking techniques.) Some do still have a slight fizz, some don't. The really traditional ones should have it. You can't tell from the bottle.

(Bonus picks: Darrell's runner-up cheapies were Pierre Spar Alsace One 2007, Borsao 2007 and Don Silvestre Mendoza Malbec 2008).

WBG: Famously, you refused to sell non-fortified wines over 14% alcohol. Do you still maintain that stance?
Darrell Corti: We won't taste wines over 14.5% alcohol. You can find some wines here above that. But they're wines that are supposed to be like that. Amarone, for example. I told a writer once, I have my over-14.5% alcohol section. It's called Port and Madeira. Every time someone wants to talk about this, if it's a customer, they say thank you. Wine writers, that's another story.

WBG: Show me a really special spirit that you carry.

Darrell opens a locked case and takes out a bottle of 1977 Hine Cognac ($218).
Darrell Corti: We are the only ones in California who go out and buy barrels of it. This is Cognac uncolored and uncut. It was landed in the UK in 1980 and bottled in 2000. They mature it in the UK because it's cooler there and very damp. It's traditional to mature the Cognac in England. The best places to age Cognac are damp because when it's dry, the water evaporates first. When it's wet, the alcohol evaporates, leaving the water. This becomes a very different Cognac, very fragrant.

We used to mature our own barrels of Scotch, but we don't anymore. There's too much competition.

WBG: What are the most unique wines you have here?

Darrell Corti: Romanian wines. They sell extremely well for us. There are a lot of Romanians in Sacramento, and they drink their own wines. These are grape varieties we know nothing about. Jancis Robinson two years ago wrote that she finally came across a grape variety that she had never heard of before: Busuioaca de Bohotin. We have it here. Feteasca Neagra, Grasa de Cotnari -- we know nothing about these grapes. Do you want to try them with lunch?

WBG: Hell yes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

How many hours does it take to visit a wine region?

I'm feeling a little guilty today because, like a Republican congressman, all I said yesterday was "No."

In two weeks I'm heading to Valencia, Spain as a judge for this year's Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, Europe's leading wine competition. It's always exciting to taste at an event like this that's open to wines from throughout the world -- that's the best way to discover great new things happening in countries you weren't paying enough attention to.

As at most competitions, you taste wine in the morning and sleep it off -- er, engage in activities -- in the afternoon.

On the first afternoon, there's a tour organized to the nearby Utiel-Requena wine region. I'm not very familiar with the wines, most of which are made from a grape, Bobal, that's hardly used at all outside the region. So naturally I'm curious.

So why did I say "no"? Because like the S.S. Minnow, it's a Three Hour Tour.

That's too short and too long at the same time. It's too long because, selfishly, I know I'll be tired after flying in from California the night before and tasting wine all morning. That said, sometimes you have to drink a lot of cafe cortado and suck it up.

The larger problem is that it's too short. You figure that from any city to the closest vineyards has to be an hour in the van each way. That leaves only one hour to view the region. What can you see in an hour? If you had one hour in Napa Valley, how would you spend it? (Don't say at the basement bar at Martini House.) More importantly, would it give you any feeling for what the region is like?

Think about it: If you had one hour to show a guest something about your favorite wine region, what would you show them? Would you drive up Spring Mountain or up to Rockpile? Maybe the restored winery at Ruby Hill? Would you spend 20 minutes tasting wine?

My dream hour would be spent one-on-one chatting with one interesting winemaker, because it takes at least that long to get to know anyone. But how likely is that on the S.S. Minnow?

Yet I feel guilty. My dreams will be haunted by untasted Utiel-Requena wines -- and an empty van seat -- for the next couple of weeks.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Rias Baixas invades Rioja

European wine region residents tend to be provincial drinkers, and why not? In many cases the local food and wine developed in tandem for centuries, which is one reason seasides with plenty of fish on the menu tend to make good white wines and landlocked areas tend to specialize in reds.

You can learn something from the wines that locals drink when they're not buying the regional wines.

A great example is that all over Australia, the only non-Aussie wine on the list is usually New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, which shows that even a country as justifiably proud of its wide range of great wines recognizes that there's one thing it doesn't do well, and its chillier neighbor does.

Last night, tapas bar-hopping in Logrono, the largest city in Rioja, I tried to pay attention to what the locals were drinking. Obviously, most of the time it's the local red wine, and with reds of this quality, that's a good choice.

In fact, in most places, the locals just order by the quality level, not brand, and the bar pours the particular brand that they carry. Example: you say, “crianza” and you get a wine aged a minimum of one year in barrel and one more year in the bottle -- this is a popular way here to order a glass.

What struck me was the available white wines, as often as not, were not the locally made Viura-based wines, but instead were Albarinos from Rias Baixas.

I'm not sure why that is. Viura seems to be improving in quality and foreign respect as well. When feremented in stainless steel, it tends to be crisp and refreshing, if simple, but potentially a great partner for anchovies, olives and peppers on a toothpick (a very popular tapas here). It's also very affordable. So why are Albarinos so popular now? They're great wines, but so are red Ribera del Dueros and Priorats, and you don't see those here.

My only theory is that the locals feel like nobody can make better red wine, but Albarino is giving them a taste profile they're not getting from the local whites.

In fact, the best Viura I tasted here – the best I've ever had -- was the 2006 Artadi Vinas de Gain Rioja blanca, a wine that was just created with the 2005 vintage. Artadi makes it from 50-year-old vines and ferments it in new oak barrels for one month. It could pass for Chablis with its toastiness, excellent balance, minerally aromas, floral notes and green apple fruit. But you can't find it in Spain – all 500 cases went to the US.

Perhaps that's one more reason for the influx of Rias Baixas Albarino in Rioja: maybe the best Rioja Viuras are going elsewhere, either the US or seaside Spain. Maybe I need to head to a beach resort for a week or so to find out.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Rioja uses technology for smoothness, not power

In California, whenever I hear of a winery marshaling the very latest in technology and sparing no expense in the vineyard, the result seems to be a big-bodied, powerful, intense, concentrated wine.

It's interesting to visit new wineries in Spain that use the same painstaking attention to detail with a different goal in mind: smooth mouthfeel.

Today I visited Baigorri and Roda, two trendy, architecturally amazing Rioja bodegas with seemingly unlimited resources.

Baigorri technical director Simon Arina Robles is so thorough that he triple-filters all the water that enters the winery, in part to remove calcium – just because hard water deposits on freshly cleaned tanks might affect the taste of a wine.

Roda director general Agustin Santolaya is so exacting about his winery's two (occasionally three) annual releases that he has 28 different vineyards each year, from which he chooses only the best 17 to be fermented at Roda (the rest are sold off), and then after the 17 separate “wines” are individually made – all the way through barrel aging -- he sells off several before blending the remainder into either Roda or Roda1.

When I hear about that type of spare-no-expense winemaking, because I live in California, I expect yet another rich, voluptuous, full-bodied wine destined to get high ratings and be collected and admired, but rarely drunk with dinner.

But that's not the goal in Rioja. Roda export manager Gonzalo Lainez, also one of the 6 tasters who decides which wines make the cut, said over and over, “We want to produce a modern wine with a smooth palate.”
Gonzalo Lainez

By “modern” Lainez means “fruit-driven.” But the more important adjective there is “smooth.”

The best of these luxury wines are so silky and easy to drink that the glasses empty almost without thought, even at a professional tasting. Put a plate of delicious pata negra ham, cheese and bread along with them and it's paradise – if you like wines of elegance.

Ironically, the delightful Roda is cheaper than Roda1 because the latter has more dark-fruit character, higher alcohol and more power than Roda – and thus has more value on the export market. Yet smoothness is still more important than power, and you can taste the difference that emphasis makes.

Similarly, at Baigorri, the Reserva is so smooth you can imagine European royalty drinks it, but to satisfy the New World cult market, there's a higher-priced “Baigorri de Garage” (ironic because the clean-lined, stunning Inaki Aspiazu-designed winery is about as far from a garage as possible) with higher alcohol, darker fruit and more noticeable oak. Yet here also, smoothness is still the main goal.

It's great to see technology used in pursuit of something other than concentration, richness and power.

What if a winery decided to use all of the most innovative winemaking techniques available to pursue, say, complexity? Sign me up for the mailing list.