Thursday, December 30, 2010

Simple sparkling wine advice: drink more, worry less

It's never too early for bubbly
This week every wine writer in the world is advising you on sparkling wines -- top Champagnes, best values, offbeat oddities, safe choices.

I'm going to take a different, more straightforward approach.

Good sparkling wine costs more than good still wine because it requires more effort. The wine is fermented twice; once in a tank or barrel, and again in the bottle to produce the bubbles.

So unlike still wine, which Fred Franzia proved can sometimes be produced drinkably for as little as $2 a bottle, there's a lower limit to how much you can pay for bubbly and not expect to get swill.

What is that lower limit? About $10 for Prosecco, which is made more cheaply -- essentially carbonated like soda pop -- and about $15 for everything else.

So that's my simple advice: Spend at least that much.

If you think you don't like sparkling wine -- or you think it gives you a headache -- you almost certainly have only been drinking the cheap stuff. I can't count the number of people for whom I've had the pleasure to pour their first glass of good sparkling wine. It's a mind-opening experience; bubbly really does make life better.

But you don't have to spend $200 on a bottle of Cristal to experience this (although Cristal really is delicious).

However, you do have to resign yourself to spending $15 a bottle (nothing against Prosecco, which is a fun wine, but it is to good sparkling wine what Velveeta is to cheddar.)

I have in the past recommended specific bottles -- I had an article on this topic in Decanter this year* -- and every other wine writer in the world is doing just that. But having recently seen grocery stores full of Cook's and Andre and Asti Spumante, I think it's less important to send people on a single-bottle hunt, and more important to stress the basics.

(*Decanter keeps ratings behind a pay wall, but I will reveal that I recommended 2 Schramsbergs, 2 Gloria Ferrers, a J and a Roederer Estate.)

So spend at least $15; $20-$25 is better still.

I would buy, literally, any Champagne and not worry about it. Seriously. If it's actually from France's Champagne region, give it a shot. I'm saying this because I asked myself this question: Would I rather order a glass of my least-favorite Champagne brand, or a glass of a recommended Cava or Prosecco? For me, it's the former.

Or I would buy any of these fine American brands:

Domaine Carneros
Gloria Ferrer

And just don't worry about it. Drink more bubbly. There's a joke about oral sex that really should apply to Champagne or top-level American sparkling wine: Last night I had the worst glass of bubbly I had all year. It was terrific.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A World Without Sparkling Wine

I tossed and turned. I passed a bar where people gathered to drink sullenly.

I passed a wedding, a solemn affair where the betrothed promised to do what was necessary to maintain the species. The bride grimaced.

I arrived at a dinner party. The host greeted me at the door with a firm handshake and a shot of Bourbon. I downed it.

Inside, the guests were staring down at the table. "What's going on here?" I asked.

"It's Greg's birthday. We're waiting for the serving of the birthday cocktails."

Oh. I turned to look at the television. Another ship had not survived the christening ritual of being shot at with a 21-gun salute. No wonder our export economy is suffering.

Feeling stuffy, I went into the kitchen where the hostess was busy muddling.

"I'm sorry I'm a little late with these," she said.

It's OK, I told her, and grabbed a pestle to help. Had she been to our neighbor's baby shower?

She had. Another sad affair, with all the women crying at the end, she said. Although the Cosmos had been perfectly fine.

I might have something to celebrate soon, I said. My book proposal looked like it had found a home.

"Do you want a chocolate fountain, or should we rent the bouncy house?" she replied.

"No, this is really special for me," I said. "I want to open a really expensive Cabernet and drink it until I pass out on the couch. No wait … maybe I'll open several and a group of us can gather and compare tasting notes."

She clapped me on the back. "There's the spirit," she said. We carried the cocktails in to the crowd.

I suggested a toast. "To what," my friend asked, puzzled. "Let us take a sip of this cocktail in memory of the people we once loved who are no longer with us," I said. We drank solemnly.

Chopin was playing softly in the background. The hostess tried to get some conversation going. "So what do you think of this latest embargo imposed by the European Fascists' Union?"

"It's all Hitler's fault. If only Germany had had some motivation to use its army to invade France back when the world was strong enough to resist them. Instead, the Nazi party was smart, they husbanded their resources and eventually they were able to buy what they couldn't have conquered."

"Oh, let's talk more about politics," one of my friends said. "It's the most fun thing you can do at a dinner party, except perhaps talking about religion."

I sipped my cocktail. It was strong, but it had a slight fizz from the club soda. Or … could it be …

I woke up sweating. A world without sparkling wine! What a nightmare.

I ran into my fridge to the bottle of Domaine Carneros Brut Rose I hadn't finished last night … but it was EMPTY. AIIIIIIEEEEEEE!


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Drinking wine in the real word: a visit to Florida

Most of my friends in the San Francisco area are involved in food and wine in some way. Even those who aren't are passionate about it.

So it's an interesting wakeup call to leave this gourmet-obsessed bubble and visit other parts of America. In this case, I went to a heavy wine-consuming state, Florida. In 2007, Floridians drank 4.09 gallons per person, compared to 4.53 gallons in California. Florida is not Kansas (1.34 gallons per capita); wine is sold in grocery stores and available at most restaurants, even cheap ones.

It's fair to say that the average Floridian is more comfortable with wine, and more knowledgeable, than the average American. Which made my experiences there all the more illuminating.

Stone crab season had just started, so we went to Crabby Bill's, a chain restaurant, to enjoy some claws. Crabby Bill's has an extensive cocktail list and a fair amount of beer. I asked the waitress for a wine list, and she pointed to a two-sided cardboard advertisement on our table for a Merlot I've forgotten. I said I wanted a white wine, and she grabbed a similar advertisement from a nearby table. Apparently these were the only wines in the restaurant. The white was St. Francis Sonoma County Chardonnay; I ordered it for $26 (it's about $12 in stores) and was glad to have it. While it was probably chosen randomly by the restaurant's wine distributor, it was a good pairing with crab.

My friend told the waitress, "he works in wine." She asked, "Is Blackstone a good wine?" How do you answer that? I said, "It's OK, but I think Ravenswood is a better brand for the same price." She nodded and thanked me for the information. (And Joel Peterson, you can thank me later.)

Now, before you start commenting, "You can't judge Florida by Crabby Bill's, you cultural imperialist," let me add that I went to Bern's Steakhouse, which still has probably America's finest wine list, and sommelier Brad Dixon went 1-for-2 in finding me some great, reasonably priced older wines to go with our ribeye (loved an '88 Beaune; not so high on an '82 Haut Medoc). I was impressed by the wine list at Datz, a Tampa deli where my favorite dish was the chili-cheese dog. And I visited a few wine shops, both small and large.

There are good wines to be had in Florida, and people who know about them. But the culture of wine overall is much closer to the Crabby Bill's experience than the Bern's experience.

In fact, my best wine shop experience was not at Bern's neglected-looking wine shop, but at the massive Total Wine chain on Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. Store employees were constantly at hand, constantly cheerful and helpful, and I didn't hear one wrong or misleading thing about wine, whether we asked about the 2005 Meursault or the strawberry-flavored White Zinfandel. I even got to sample some decent Champagne and Sauternes, which took the edge off of pre-Christmas traffic.

I can see why Total has been successful there; they weren't standoffish at all, and some smaller shops were intimidating; they reminded me of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. And I got that intimidated feel from a number of my Florida friends. The overall wine culture in Florida doesn't seem to be one of open invitation and experimentation, but rather of a cloistered club that requires study. Is that wine for most of America?

It's also not a culture of splurging. Most restaurant wines sell for under $30 a bottle, and retail for under $15. People I told that I spent $63 for a 1988 Burgundy at Bern's thought I was crazy to spend that much money on a bottle of wine. Some asked me what a $100 bottle of wine tastes like. How do you answer that?

Restaurant staffs also don't have the level of training you'd hope for. I was in a small seafood restaurant near the beach, which had a reasonable wine list (we got Chateau Ste Michelle Riesling for $26), when a new shipment came in. The bartenders trying to put away the wine were talking out loud about a kind of wine they'd never heard of before. I offered my assistance. Turns out it was a Lodi Viognier, de-alced down to 13.5%; a very nice pairing for grilled white-flesh fish, which was exactly what I was eating. I told them, "Viognier is a grape, like Chardonnay. It tends to taste like apples. You should tell people this wine tastes a little like apples, is maybe a little floral, and will be great with fish." They, and the servers, were grateful. Then I realized I hadn't been asking for wine advice when I ordered, and maybe I should try it.

You can probably guess what every server from then on said: "This wine is very popular." Nobody (Bern's excluded) told me what a wine might taste like, or whether it was good with the dish, or anything about the region. That was a huuuge difference from San Francisco, where the busboy will tell you about his favorite Muscadet to have with oysters.

Yet there were so many positives. Most mid-range places had several wines by the glass. Generally the whites were stronger than the reds, which makes sense considering Florida's climate.

That said, I don't know if the average person cares at all about even the basic whites-with-fish theory (yeah, I know, Pinot Noir with salmon, reds with a fish if the sauce is hearty enough, spare me).

One of my friends has given up meat, so she ordered seafood in parchment at Bern's, and we had a dozen oysters. I insisted that we not drink the Bordeaux they had just opened with the oysters, and she rebelled, pointing to other tables that were drinking red with fish. She said, "They're enjoying it." And I'm sure they were. I wasn't going to go over to their table and say "stop having that Joseph Phelps Insignia with oysters." I did order a glass of Kabinett Riesling and had her try them side by side with the seafood, and I made a convert to basic food-and-wine pairing right there.

But it did remind me of how most Americans relate to wine. Neighboring tables full of people were enjoying a special splurge at a temple to wine. So they ordered expensive, new vintage (nobody near us had anything older than 2006), highly rated red wines, regardless of the food they were having. It was James Suckling's dream: "I'm 93 points on that." Forget context, forget pairing.

And yet -- my friend was right, they WERE having a good time. Or at least they seemed to be. Although I noticed that the table right next to us only drank half of their Insignia.

When I was introduced to people as some sort of wine expert, inevitably I was asked, "What's your favorite wine?" How do you answer that? Eventually I figured I would give them some knowledge they could use soon -- Dec. 31 is right around the corner -- and started saying, "I really like American sparkling wines, like Gruet and Schramsberg and Gloria Ferrer and Scharffenberger. I think they're much better value than Champagne, and taste better than Prosecco or Cava." Which I believe.

I hope they listened, because every grocery store has cases of the worst sparkling wines lined up at the entrance and by the cash registers: Asti Spumante, Andre, Cook's, all that crap. No wonder Americans don't like sparkling wine! They're told they must drink it once a year and when they do, it's lousy. I ordered a glass of bubbly several times (I do that everywhere anyway) and occasionally was asked what I was celebrating. Life! Tuesday!

Anyway, this isn't a serious survey, just a list of anecdotes, but I feel re-energized to re-enter some of the online arguments I get into about wine. The online wine community can get preachy about native yeast and unfiltered wines and alcohol content, etc. None of that stuff came up when I was in Florida. I cannot imagine asking the waitress at Crabby Bill's if she knew if the Chardonnay on the advertising flier was made using native yeast.

So it was great to visit, and drink and enjoy some of the mass-market wines we never see on wine lists here. But it's also great to be back in our little gourmet bubble, although I'm already missing black beans and yellow rice. If anybody knows a good source for that out here, please let me know.

Oh, and I would like to apologize to the farmers in Madeira 100 years ago who made the 1910 Barbeito Madeira Sercial that I ordered by the glass ($50) in Bern's dessert room. I knocked it over and spilled half of it onto the menu, and when I tried to lick it off, my wife took the menu away from me. The tragedy!

Fortunately, my glass was half full.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Rosenblum tasting notes: a tease

Buy a half-case or more of wine on line and get 1/2 off shipping with code "blake43"
Rosenblum Cellars winemaker John Kane
I'm not sure how many of my readers know I write a monthly column for Wine Review Online, an online-only wine magazine published by Robert Whitley.

WRO's business model is to let you read columns for free, while the wine reviews sit behind a pay wall. A big part of its appeal is that the columnists are all well-established wine writers, including a former editor of mine, Linda Murphy. The idea is that you (or somebody) will pay to read a database of reviews after you read the interesting writing we produce.

WRO isn't the only site to charge for wine reviews: Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate, the big names, charge for access to their databases. A big difference is that WRO has no print component at all. We also have no Robert Parker and no James Laube, for better and worse. There would be no point in competing with them to find the biggest Cabernets in the world (good luck with that, Mr. Suckling); perhaps we are a worthwhile alternative for people who want something more and/or different. If you try to use those guys to find a good Riesling or Burgundy or Tokaji Aszu, you're going to overpay for inferior products because it's just not what they're good at. The idea is that somewhere on the strong WRO roster will be somebody who knows what they're talking about on many types and styles of wine.

My own style of reviewing there usually involves writing about wineries and regions whose people and story I find compelling, much as I do here, except with a greater focus on the wines themselves. I like to think I can objectively evaluate any wine -- hence the fact that I had Big House White from a 3-liter box with Thanksgiving dinner because I thought it was perfect for it. But I enjoy a bottle a lot more when there's a tale behind it.

So I thought I would give you a little taste of what's behind the pay wall at Wine Review Online, with a couple of reviews that accompanied my column last week on Rosenblum Cellars. You can read that column here.

That column came about because I like to think I'm open-minded. I had been picking on Rosenblum Cellars in tiny ways on this blog for a while after they were bought by Diageo, using them as an example of a winery that had turned into a brand. Their winemaker, John Kane, one of the few holdovers from the days of Kent Rosenblum, wanted a chance to respond, so I gave it to him. We tasted wines together and talked about the changes. And I ultimately decided to give the column to WRO, rather than run it here, because I wanted to add my reviews to its database.

But that also meant that my blog readers who have seen me sniping at Rosenblum Cellars can't see what I think of Kane's wines. So I'm going to run a couple of my reviews here, two good and one less so, to show you the kind of stuff behind the pay wall at Wine Review Online. Perhaps a subscription is a great Christmas gift?

Note: Below is my original copy. If they read better on Wine Review Online, it is because they have been edited by the estimable Michael Franz.

Rosenblum Carla's Reserve Contra Costa County Zinfandel 2007 ($35)
This used to be a vineyard designate; now it's a "reserve." Why? K-Mart bought half the vineyard to build a parking lot, and Rosenblum, which has access to the neighboring vineyard, is hedging its future by changing the name now. Try this now; the blackberry fruit is so juicy that I felt like I could taste the blackberry seeds. Great acidity and nice savory notes of toasted almond and sea salt, with a hint of slate in the aroma. 15.6% alcohol. Screw K-Mart. Shop smart; shop S-Mart. 92

Rosenblum "Heritage Clones" California Petite Sirah 2007 ($18)
Blackberry fruit that barely outweighs a meaty, gamy character with notes of black pepper, graphite and black licorice. A wild child. 14.8% alcohol. 92 (Buy it here)

Rosenblum Maggie's Reserve Sonoma Valley Zinfandel 2007 ($45)

Cofermented with 2.5% whole cluster Semillon, an interesting technique that leads to a layered wine -- black currant, toast, alcohol -- that comes across as disjointed. 15.8% alcohol. 87

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Port tastes better when stomped by feet

Alistair and Gillyanne Robertson at Quinta de Vargellas
When Port magnate Alistair Robertson got his hands on an additional brand, Croft, in 2001, he knew immediately the first technical improvement to make.

He brought back foot-treading.

Crushing Port grapes the traditional way, by foot, is the key to quality, says Robertson, chairman of Taylor Fladgate.

"Feet are better than machines because they're soft," Robertson says. "You don't want any of the seeds crushed. The padding of the feet is the perfect size. It's the best possible way."

The Croft workers weren't used to treading, so at first they resisted. They have since given in, swayed by being paid several hours of overtime, but they do the job without music, which makes it a lot different from the nightly bacchanal at Robertson's best winery, Quinta de Vargellas.

The Douro Valley is appealing for hikers
Robertson invited me to Portugal's Douro Valley during harvest season to get my legs -- and everything else -- dirty by pitching in to foot-tread some grapes. How could I resist?

As a guest, I spent my day lazing on the slow train from Oporto, while my soon-to-be coworkers were busy harvesting the grapes we would crush. They put in a long day -- 8 hours picking, 4 hours treading.

I was having a cocktail when they started the most important part of treading: the first two hours, called "the cut," when most of the skins are broken and the juice released. During this time, the treaders march methodically back and forth across the granite "lagar" that holds the grapes like a search team looking for a needle in a grape stack.

Then the keyboard player arrives, everybody takes a slug of brandy, and the mood lightens as everyone's clothing darkens.

"There's a song they sing: 'Liberty, liberty, now my feet are my own'," Robertson says.

By the time they let guests like me in the lagar, it's a rollicking, messy party. The keyboardist is pumping the rhythm, folks are dancing, everyone's purple and there aren't many inhibitions. One local woman followed me around and pulled my shorts down at every opportunity. Perhaps it's a local custom.
I'm 6-feet tall, and the juice did not quite reach up to my knees. The grape soup wasn't as warm as I expected because wineries add sulphur to the mix to prevent fermentation for the first two days.

Fortunately, harvest nights in Douro Valley are still quite warm, because one would get plenty wet even if one's fellow treaders weren't splashing and smearing grape must on each other.

While dancing around in grape juice, it's hard to believe there's any real scientific basis to believe it makes better Port. But apparently even the unpredictability of amorous drunks' movements helps the process, says winemaker David Guimaraens.

This machine can't  replace feet
Port is made from several different varieties of indigenous grapes. In the past, they were all planted helter-skelter in the vineyards. In the last 15 years, science has come to the Douro Valley in a big way, and new plantings tend to be in blocks which are best for each particular variety. This means that they come to the lagar in batches that the foot-treaders must blend together.

"Nowadays it's possible to have a whole lagar full of (grape variety) Touriga Nacional," Guimaraens says. "But it's actually better to crush them together. They marry sooner."

Rapid blending is important because Port is made differently from table wine. The grapes are only allowed to ferment for three days, and then alcohol is added to kill the yeast and stop the fermentation. The unfermented grape sugar is the reason Port wines are sweet.

"It's very important to move the juice," Guimaraens says.

I'm glad to have played my part, and to have kept my shorts on -- most of the time.

Tasting notes for some of the best wines I didn't tread on:

Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage 2004
Excellent complexity, with notes of cherries and dried plums and raisin flavors that intensify on the finish. 93 points.

Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny
A great balance between fruit flavors and the caramel/nut flavors of oxidation. Think dried cherries, prunes and raisin cookies. Good acidity keeps it rolling. One of my favorites for holiday drinking. 94 points

Taylor Fladgate 40 Year Old Tawny
A great contemplative wine, with all the primary fruit gone and delicious secondary flavors: hazelnut, cocoa, Nutella and creme brulee crust. The extremely long finish would be wonderful while watching a fire crackle. 95 points

Quinta de Vargellas 2008
It must be the foot-treading: Layers of flavor, mostly fruits like fresh and dried plums and cherries, that reveal themselves over an extremely long finish. Outstanding now, so it's very tempting to rob the cradle. 98 points

Fonseca 10 Year Old Tawny
The best 10-year-old in Taylor's portfolio, this wine has nice raisin and dried plum flavors  and some hazelnut on the long finish. 92 points.

Fonseca 2007 Vintage Port
Well-balanced favors of dried red plum and sugar beets. Seamless, with a finish that's not overly sweet. 93 points

Fonseca 20 Year Old Tawny
More potent than the Taylor Fladgate, with strong golden raisin and raisin cookie flavors. Rich texture and oomph for those seeking it. 91 points
The Douro Valley

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chardonnay vs. the world

Chardonnay is planted all over the world. Should it be?

Most wine writers would say no, but the American public disagrees. Who’s right?

Chardonnay is always undercovered by the wine press. It’s easily America’s favorite wine, accounting for 1 in every 5 bottles sold in the United States. But it probably accounts for less than 1 of every 25 stories about wine.

Part of that is familiarity, and part is contempt. Pitching a freelance story about Chardonnay is just about impossible; editors will say “we covered Chardonnay earlier this year.” It’s easier to sell an article about dry Hungarian Furmint or sweet wines from Georgia. Who has anything new to say about America’s favorite wine?

But there’s also contempt from the knowledgeable about Chardonnay’s kudzu-like takeover of the world’s vineyards. It’s like phylloxera; it escaped its home in Burgundy and has caused the uprooting of native vines in Greece, Portugal, Italy, Spain -- basically, any country where grape farmers are trying to make a living.

I can’t tell you how many wine writers and editors complain about the travesty of Greek or Italian Chardonnay. But we don’t own vineyards there.

While I’d rather drink Assyrtiko or Falanghina, I don’t believe we have the right to tell people in other countries that they must preserve their native grapes as a non-profit living world heritage. And Kendall-Jackson* probably sells more Chardonnay in an hour than all the Assyrtiko and Falanghina consumed in a year. So why wouldn’t farmers around the world want a piece of the action?

However, if I felt truly helpless in the face of the large American market, I wouldn’t write about wine -- or movies, or books, or politics, or anything else. All writers are evangelists at some level. Even those who try to stick to the outmoded AP “he said, she said” style evangelize through the issues they choose to cover.

I want to see Americans drink more Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc -- not to mention Grenache Blanc and Verdejo. I want the great Midwest to stop using “Chardonnay” as a synonym for “white wine” the way Atlanta natives call even orange soda a “Coke.”

* (A PR person recently told me of a focus group that found young African-American women in Chicago using "Kendall-Jackson" as a synonym for wine. Good marketing, K-J! I haven't verified this anywhere else, but if you've heard it, let me know.)

More importantly, I want to see the right grapes planted in the right places. Arinto is in the hot parts of Portugal for a reason. And that applies at home too. Chardonnay can be fantastic in cool coastal regions like Willamette Valley and Russian River Valley and Mendocino County.

Yet most of our domestic Chardonnay comes from places like Modesto and Fresno and is nearly a laboratory product: dealcoholized to save tax money, given a vanilla flavor from teabags full of oak chips, and often blended with small amounts of more flavorful varieties like Muscat to give it more fruit and floral notes. If you're spending $7.99 for a California appellation Chardonnay, that's most likely what you're getting.

We could produce white wines that cheap from California's Central Valley from hot-weather grapes that would thrive there; Portugal's Arinto comes to mind, or Italy's Greco. Probably the best bet for a great cheap domestic white would be to blend grapes and take advantage of the strengths of each.

But who's going to buy it? More importantly, who's going to sell it?

While we're all writing about the great Greek white selection at some tiny wine shop, across the street at Wines R Us the staff is treating the California appellation Chardonnay, without much media love, in the way distributors love best: "Stack 'em high and watch 'em fly."

As a group, the wine media has been fighting Chardonnay's domination. I googled the exact phrase "alternative to Chardonnay" and came up with 60,000 hits. You know what? That story ain't working. People who like Chardonnay don't want an alternative to Chardonnay, and people who are open to other whites don't need to be talked down to like that.

I think we're going about this the wrong way. Instead of writing about Chardonnay less, we should write about it more. That's counterintuitive, but hear me out.

For one thing, we should write about Chardonnay more because we need to sell more newspapers and magazines. But this isn't just about giving the people what they want.

Chardonnay lovers don't click on stories about Sauvignon Blanc. They don't click on stories about "alternatives to Chardonnay." They click on stories about Chardonnay.

The way to reach them is to write enthusiastic stories about Chardonnay from places where it's good. Leave off the idea that only the word "Burgundian" is praise; celebrate the great Chardonnays from Marlborough, New Zealand, for example.

And explain why Chardonnay from there is good: the weather is cool, the grapes develop good flavors without too much sugar, you can get wines that are buttery if you like or more pristine if you prefer.

Somewhere in the context of that article, you can contrast them to the Chardonnays from South Eastern Australia or California's Central Valley. That's a teaching moment. The message is that by itself, "Chardonnay" is not a seal of approval.

The Chardonnay market in the US is always going to be different from other countries because many here drink it not with dinner, but as a cocktail. Americans as a mass are always going to prefer more body, less acidity and more sweetness than Europeans for this reason. If people don't care about food matching, it's pointless to go on about it.

But that's no reason for evangelists like me to give up. I don't want people to give up Chardonnay. I love a good Chardonnay. Puligny-Montrachet, a region in Burgundy where Chardonnay is the only allowed white grape, is the source of white wines I'd want with my last meal.

What I want is for Chardonnay to take a more proper place on US wine lists and stores -- not as the default choice, but just one of many great choices.

To get there, I think we need to praise Chardonnay, not bury it.

Monday, December 13, 2010

White wine from Pinot Noir

Want to stump your wine geek friends? Pour them a glass of the wine at right and ask them to identify it. Tell them it's a major variety they've had many times.

I could have taken 100 guesses and would not have come up with Pinot Noir.

Adam Lee is one of our generation's great thinker/winemakers; a guy who has enough energy to make fine single-vineyard Pinot Noirs (under the Siduri label) and Syrahs from up and down the West Coast and also write a steady stream of cogent criticism in comments on the foolish writing about wine he sees on the Internet.

I say "thinker/winemaker" because this wine is an intellectual pleasure; it answers a question that people (like me) who love Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine have wondered. What if you pressed Pinot Noir quickly and took the juice from the skins fast enough to make a white wine?

In theory, you could make a white wine from any grape. But rarely do you see it done, mainly because it's not usually the best use of red grapes. I tried a white wine made from Syrah earlier this year that was interesting, but not as successful as this.

Lee uses fruit mostly from a section of an Oregon vineyard that ripens slower than its neighboring vines. The grapes are pressed whole-cluster as soon as they get to the winery. The juice is left to settle for a day, then drained into a combination of neutral oak barrels and stainless steel, where it ferments. He allows some of the batches to go through malolactic fermentation. It ages for a few months before being bottled in the spring.

If I tried this blind, my first guess would have been unoaked Chardonnay, and then I might have guessed Viognier. Lee was surprised when I told him that; he thinks it's more like Marsanne or Roussanne. I didn't find it to be quite as full-bodied as those, although making a rich white to stand up to heartier foods was one of his objectives. That said, I can't believe he had any greater objective than to have some fun making a unique wine.

What I think is most interesting is the fruit flavors: I got Asian pear and guava, which I never taste in Pinot Noir. No cherry, no cranberry, no raspberry. So do all those red fruit flavors come not from the juice, but the skins? Perhaps. It's not just a wine; it's a lesson in wine chemistry.

This is the third vintage Lee has made of this wine, so he has found a market for it; Siduri and Novy wines tend to draw the wine-geek crowd to start with. I highly recommend it for Pinot Noir fans. It's like looking at your lover's X-rays.

Novy Blanc de Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2009 ($24)
The color is medium yellow with the slightest hint of orange. The aroma is delicate, with notes of guava skin, white peach, Asian pair and floral hints. It's not as delicate on the palate, with flavors of Asian pear and guava skin. Medium-bodied, with a satisfying mouthfeel; 13.9% alcohol. I don't know if this has the gravitas to be a great wine, but it's certainly a good one, even if it weren't a fascinating curiosity. 500 cases. 90 points.


Bonus link: Here's an interesting post from Jeannie Cho Lee about what she thinks Hong Kong restaurants should provide in wine service. It's not her point to tell people outside HK what the wine scene there is like, but you can get a great picture anyway. Most interesting point -- Red Bordeaux is the emperor, which is strange because Burgundy, red or white, would be a much better match with most of the food.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tobacco cocktail: Drink and a smoke, all in one

Jonathan Sandoval
Recently in Mexico City I found myself at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Condesa. Bartender Jonathan Sandoval had just taken part in a competition, and I asked him to make me the drink he entered.

Immediately he reached for a cigarette. And the next thing I knew, he was crumbling it into my cocktail.

The drink is called "D.F. Irreverente." I didn't get the exact proportions; it was kinda loud, and I got the impression he was freestyling it anyway. But I did note the ingredients:

D.F. Irreverente
D.F. Irreverente

Tobacco from one cigarette
2 oz Bacardi white rum
Large pour fresh pineapple juice
Simple syrup

Shake with ice and strain
Garnish with chile-spiced pineapple slice

Straining the drink removes the tobacco. Sandoval (who was surprised and pleased to learn he has an overweight namesake on the San Francisco Giants) says the tobacco gives both a flavorful tang and a slight nicotine buzz to the drink.

I can't say for sure if my buzz was particularly different. I'm not a smoker, so it didn't satisfy a craving; fortunately it didn't create one either. I will say that I partied somewhat longer than usual that night, so if you want to give credit to the nicotine and not the exotic atmosphere, it's possible.

But I'm burying the lead: the drink was quite tasty. Fresh pineapple juice makes a huge difference.

For an additional fun fact about pineapple juice -- for adults only -- you may click here. Please don't say you weren't warned.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Prisoner, bondage and niche marketing

The fetishist's favorite
Many people in the wine world are constantly surprised (and jealous) at the success of The Prisoner, which is basically a $35 version of Gallo Hearty Burgundy.

I don't mean to insult The Prisoner. The Gallos know what they're doing, and until ZAP made Zinfandel popular, they had access to some of the same great old Zinfandel vineyards that Prisoner winemaker Dave Phinney buys fruit from today.

But what really is the difference?

Both wines are blends of fruit; Gallo's is superior in that they farm some of the vineyards themselves, while The Prisoner is superior in that at least 85% of the juice comes from Napa Valley.

The taste profile is different. Gallo Hearty Burgundy is going for a lighter, food-friendlier style. The Prisoner uses oak chips and tannic varieties like Cabernet to make it heavier and more New World.

The Prisoner is Zinfandel-based, whereas Gallo Hearty Burgundy uses whatever red grapes can be had.

The Prisoner is $35; Gallo Hearty Burgundy is $4.

James Laube likes The Prisoner, while I'll bet he hasn't tasted Gallo Hearty Burgundy in decades. So that's a big difference.

But we're still talking about a New World red blend that, at $35, is not cheap. It's not appreciably better  than 100 other $35 New World reds (even using Laube's ratings), and its taste profile is artificially created, not a product of terroir. So why does it have so many fans?

I think we're all ignoring something that makes people uncomfortable: the bondage community.

Living in San Francisco, I'm reminded every year how large the bondage community is during the Folsom Street Fair. Men fly in from around the country to parade around in leather restraints as each others' slaves. I used to go to watch the spectacle every year, but you know, if you're not really into men wearing nothing but bicycle chains paying someone to spank them, you lose interest after a while.

The Machine pays a visit to Brian Wilson
But I read Dan Savage. It's not just gay men who are into bondage: there are plenty of straight men and some straight women who enjoy bondage play. Apparently it's one of the most popular and organized of all sexual fetishes; that's why it's "the bondage community." claims to have 2.3 million members -- and that's not even counting Brian Wilson's neighbor "The Machine."

Let's face it; if your personal life revolved around dressing up like Wilson's friend, why wouldn't you want to drink "The Prisoner"? Or perhaps be forced to drink it?

When you finish wincing, consider the possibilities. There are hundreds of small wineries struggling to peddle their wine in this economy. Perhaps all they have to do is find the right fetish community and advertise it on the label.

And you wonder why Barefoot Cellars sells so well ...

Monday, December 6, 2010

Top wine movies on DVD

Wine generally doesn't play well on the big screen. It's OK as a prop, but screenwriters tend to get humorless about wine in a way that they don't about bourbon.

A few years ago I did an irreverent list of my top 10 wine movies. For those, I chose any films I could get my hands on, and watched several on bootleg VHS tapes I bought on the Internet.

With Christmas coming up, I thought I'd update and pare the list to enjoyable wine movies you can buy on Amazon.

The great thing about these is that, unlike wine, you can cheaply and easily ship them to your friends. Or, if you haven't seen any of these, order one for yourself, pour yourself a glass of righteous red, and have a home movie night.

Bottle Shock (2009)

This movie about Americans winning the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 isn't historically accurate -- Jim and Bo Barrett did not solve their discussions in a boxing ring -- but it is fun, and it captures a rural Napa Valley that we'll never see again. (How? By being shot in still-rural parts of Sonoma County). Plus, I can't believe how cheap the DVD is.

Sideways (2005)
The movie that ruined Pinot Noir. Before this intelligent film about men behaving badly, Pinot was the wine of geeks like the character Miles. Now, everybody wants to drink "Pinot Noir;" they just don't want that light-bodied stuff. I got a $75 Pinot the other day that is 15.8% alcohol, and this movie is to blame. It's still fun, though, and a great look at Santa Barbara wine country.

French Kiss (2003)
A romantic comedy that holds up after multiple viewings. Meg Ryan plays a repressed American who flies to Paris to pursue the man who broke off their engagement and soon finds herself stranded. Naturally she runs into Kevin Kline, who owns a vineyard. I love this exchange:
Ryan: "A bold wine with a hint of sophistication and lacking in pretension. (Pause.) Actually I was just talking about myself."
Kline: "You are not wrong. Wine is like people. The wine takes all the influences in life all around it, it absorbs them and it gets its personality."
Apparently the single-movie DVD is out of print, but that's a great price on a 2-film package with a movie I haven't seen.

Gigi (1958)
Yesterday's 9-Oscar-winning musical is today's pedophilia: this is about a rich Parisian considering hiring a 15-year-old to be his mistress. Fortunately, Leslie Caron was actually 26. And I love the musical number, "The Night They Invented Champagne." And check it out -- it's old enough that you can get it as part of a 4-movie package for less than $15 with another great wine movie, Casablanca. Here's looking at your Christmas present, kid.

Notorious (1946)
Speaking of perversity and Champagne; the highlight of this Alfred Hitchcock film is a tense scene where guests drinking bubbly too rapidly at a party might lead to Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman being killed by Nazis. Not only that, Nazi-hater Hitchcock actually shows some sympathy for the devils. One of Hitchcock's best films; still suspenseful today.

The Parent Trap (1998)
In Lindsay Lohan's film debut, she plays twins separated at birth. One was raised in Napa Valley at Staglin Family Vineyards (under an assumed name), and she learns to judge everything by its aroma -- even her grandpa. Charming kids' flick that's not all that accurate about wine, but does have great exteriors. The rare wine movie that's for the whole family.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Jews, wine and Berkeley politics: an old Chronicle story

I really need to learn to let these things go.
Writing about Israeli wines this week in Food & Wine magazine, and correcting some of my own online mistakes, reminded me of the first time I wrote about kosher wine, and a politically inspired correction by a surprisingly spineless San Francisco Chronicle that I'm still pissed off about.

There are plenty of Jewish wine writers, but I'm not one. Yet in early 2005 The Chronicle gave me the nearly annual assignment of writing about wine for Passover.

Most writers would probably have given the story the distant, respectful treatment, figuring non-Jews weren't going to read it anyway. I'm not particularly proud today of the way I used "South Park" to jazz it up; the concept of using outrageousness to get non-Jews to read it was better than the execution. But I'm not ashamed of The Chronicle story either.

Food editor Miriam Morgan warned me when I got the assignment that we would get more than the usual number of angry letters, so I had to be beyond reproach. An outsider would be amazed at the vitriol sent to Chronicle Food & Wine. Vegans are the most mean-spirited; maybe they're not getting enough protein to control their emotions. Immigrant haters protest ethnic recipes. And random wackos  go off on things like a martini recipe different from theirs. Read the comments on Michael Bauer's blog and you'll get a taste.

But even more than recipes involving rabbits (they're a renewable resource, people), if you want to inflame the Chronicle readership, the way to do it is to support Israel.

Support for Palestinian liberation, and hatred of Israel, is probably stronger in Berkeley than anywhere else in the US. My story wasn't about Israel; most of it was about kosher wineries in California, and Israeli wine played only a small part. But Miriam reminded me every single day that the story was going to be picked apart word-by-word by people who couldn't care less about wine.

I spoke to rabbis, Jewish food experts and academics. I was super careful, and the story was edited with even more than the usual pre-downsizing care. I guess playing myself as Eric Cartman was a way of showing defiance from a story we were all uncommonly nervous about.

The story didn't turn out to be the problem.

As part of the package, my colleagues and I tasted 80 kosher wines and recommended our favorites. (I also did a sidebar comparing Manischewitz and Mogen David and was shocked by how nasty the most popular American passover wine tastes.)

We didn't have any bright ideas for art; fear of controversy vetoed everything we came up with (I'm still amazed I got away with such cheeky writing). So we chose the least controversial possible cover shot: a group of kosher bottles we recommended. Dull, but safe. Or so we thought.

Craig Lee, a great food photographer, shot the bottles. I gave him the bottles we liked -- from several different countries -- without any orders as to which to use. Visually, he liked a shot with three wines from Golan Heights Winery, which then as now made some of the most delicious kosher wines.

I didn't write the cutline, but saw it before publication and didn't object. It read: "Golan Heights Winery in Israel makes Moscato and Riesling wines recommended by The Chronicle tasting panel, plus higher-end wines under the brand name Yarden."

Sure enough, we got some lengthy, angry letters from Palestinians in Berkeley. But they weren't complaining about my 3-page story (still today, I'm proud that it turned out to be bulletproof). They objected to that 26-word cutline.

Because Golan Heights Winery, they said, is not in Israel.

Their position was that the Golan Heights is occupied land, and thus not Israel. The whole Chronicle Food & Wine staff lined up against this. Our policy was to use the official US government-approved label information. On the label, these wines said, "Produce of Israel." Our position was that the letter writers needed to complain to the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which approves every label on every alcoholic beverage sold in the US.)

I don't know who in Chronicle upper management caved in to the pressure of a few Berkeley activists, but here's the correction they ran -- which also went into my file, because corrections count against a writer, not that that matters anymore. Golan Heights Winery is NOT in Israel, according to the Chronicle.

Funny, when I visited the winery earlier this year I did so on a bus from Tel Aviv, and I didn't have to cross any borders. But what do I know? I'm not a Berkeley activist.

You can see from this link that even now, five years later, The Chronicle still maintains that Golan Heights Winery isn't in Israel. Contrast that to the way my story in Food & Wine handles its location. Golan Heights is "occupied," but it's "in the country." That's a realistic depiction of a large modern winemaking facility which isn't going to be packed up and moved.

To tell you the truth, Golan Heights head winemaker Victor Schoenfeld got weary of me asking him again and again about the political situation and not about winemaking, a fair complaint considering his winery was the leader in Israel's quality revolution and still makes some of the country's best wines. I was still feeling burned from the Chronicle correction of 5 years ago and didn't want to bring the black cloud of Berkeley zealotry to the offices of Food & Wine magazine.

Part of the reason I'm lifting the curtain on this old inside-newspaper story is to tell you something about how the Middle East is covered in the Bay Area. My story was an apolitical piece about wine and appeared in the Wine section, yet it made everyone who worked on it nervous and it made Chronicle upper management capitulate to outside pressure.

Keep that in mind the next time you read any news features from, er, occupied territory. Oh, and happy Hannukah to you folks there in Syria.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A rarity: vintage-dated sake

Katsutaro Honda holds "Garden of Eternity"
(Today is sake day! Read this story here and a non-related sake story at Palate Press.)

Most sake is not vintage-dated. Breweries don't want vintage variation; they strive for the same taste every year. They also don't want consumers turning up their noses at sake that has been gathering dust on the shelf.

In most cases, I recommend that you do exactly that, because 95% of sakes go downhill after about a year.

This is about an exception: Chiyonosono "Garden of Eternity" Junmai Daiginjo ($80) from Kumamoto prefecture.

Brewery chairman Katsutaro Honda is so pleased with the effect aging has on this sake that he started sealing bottles of it with corks 25 years ago.

"I used (cork) to play with," he said. "Everyone said, 'What are you doing?' "

Honda already bottle-aged Chiyonosono far longer than the industry average, so it was a natural progression. He wondered: What would a top-class sake taste like if you sealed the bottle with a cork and cellared it for 15 years?
Warm Kumamoto is generally shochu country

I had the experience recently, because Honda gave me a bottle of his Junmai Daiginjo from 1995. Sadly, I wish I had gotten to it a decade ago. There were some interesting walnut and white flower flavors, but overall it was too much like plaster and library paste.

Honda's aware that there's a limit to its potential. On his daughter's 20th birthday earlier this year he opened a bottle of 20-year-old Junmai Daiginjo to less than universal acclaim. "It was challenging," he said.

That's a big contrast from the 2007 Chiyonosono Junmai Daiginjo, a lovely sake with wine-like notes of peach, apricot and fresh flowers, yet a very sake-like creamy finish. Most sakes from 2007 would go down my drain; this one disappeared fairly rapidly down my gullet.

Kumamoto Castle is the region's main attraction
Why does this one age better? The sake has better acidity than some. In a blow against localism, Honda credits the use of Yamada nishiki rice from distant Hyogo prefecture (though the main ingredient in sake -- water -- is local, of course). They're careful to avoid air exposure during production and bottling. But they're not really sure.

The difference age makes is striking, though. I tasted tank samples of unreleased year-old Chiyonosono Junmai Daiginjo, and it was astringent and beery, albeit with appealing green melon and cocoa character. It's interesting that as it ages, at least for a couple years, the sake seems to taste younger.

The Junmai Daiginjo was easily my favorite sake from the 114-year-old family brewery. But I credit him for challenging my way of thinking about nigori sake, also regarding bottle age.

Nigori sake is crazily popular in the US because it's sweet and milky; it's the White Zinfandel of sake. I tend to think of it exactly that way. I liked it when I didn't know much about sake, and have graduated from it.

When I tasted Arabashiri Nama Junmai Ginjo Nigori, I was shocked. It's quite acidic, citrusy and light-bodied. Imagine picking up a glass of milk that tastes like a tank sample of Sancerre. I didn't know how to react to it, and couldn't imagine what somebody expecting a sweet, gooey sake would think.

"The nigori sake you can buy in the United States is not real nigori," Honda said. "Nigori sake has a little natural CO2. If time passes, this will go away. The taste will change. For us, nigori is seasonal. Only in early spring, we sell this sake. Big breweries sell nigori sake throughout the year."

Honda was too polite to elaborate on that last bit. But think about that the next time you consider ordering nigori: it's like buying a carton of shelf-stabilized, unrefrigerated milk. There's room for that product. But not in my glass.

"Garden of Eternity," though, is welcome anytime, although "Garden of Less Than A Decade" might be even better.

(Looking for an easy intro to buying sake in a restaurant? I got you covered.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Drinking booze in Egypt: an old travel story

After tasting Israeli wines I made a detour to visit Wadi Rum in Jordan.
My trip to Israel earlier this year was all about wine. When my article about Israeli wines finally appeared in Food & Wine magazine, it made me nostalgic about my first trip to Israel, 20 years ago.

I had quit a great job as a newspaper sports columnist, sold all my stuff and was traveling around the world for a year, living out of a backpack.

I hadn't planned to visit Israel. I had a round-the-world ticket on Pan Am (never got to spend the frequent-flier mileage), but Pan Am didn't fly to the Middle East. Besides, I'm not Jewish and all I knew about Israel was that Arabs threw rocks at soldiers who shot at them. Didn't seem like a good time.

I was hanging out in Athens, having a bad time because all of Greece was on strike. Almost everything was closed, there was no public transit, and walking 10 miles to look at ruins before walking back again in 90 degree weather gets old fast.

The star is supposed to mark the actual birthplace of Jesus.
An Israeli in my hostel, Assaf, and I spent a long day walking to some ruins together. He insisted that if I was interested in history, ruins, culture, religion, basically anything at all, I should visit Israel. Jerusalem is the center of culture for Jews, Muslims and Christians. You can see the place Jesus was born, and where he died. What were Greek ruins compared to all that?

He had a point, and backpack travel is all about flexibility. We lugged our backpacks to a ferry terminal and booked cheap tickets on the deck for a 3-day trip to Haifa.

A lot of Israelis were on board; they shared their food with me, which was nice because all I brought was canned dolmades. A shiphand threw away my threadbare towel because he thought it was garbage, which is how I ended up traveling for the next few months with an official Israeli Army towel (no logo, which was just as well).

I spent a week on a big industrial kibbutz called Yagur, which convinced me that Communism will never work because people there greedily hoarded even communal items which were not in short supply, like freshly harvested cucumbers. Most of the other kibbutz volunteers were 17-year-old Americans sent by their Jewish parents to have a life-changing religious experience, which they were doing by partying as loudly as they could in the dorms every night. I found myself defending the dorkiest of them from bullying and hanging out with the few other volunteers over 20. I had thought about spending a month on the kibbutz, but after a week I'd had enough.

I moved into one of the greatest hostels I ever stayed in, in Jerusalem, for 10 shekels a night (this was $5 then), including endless tea, cheap white bread and jam for breakfast, and deep political conversation at any hour. Local college students would come in and take us on impromptu tours.

I won't go into detail on the magnificence of Jerusalem, but Assaf was right: I've now been to more than 50 countries, and there is no more awe-inspiring city in the world. If you like to travel, you really need to visit.

The Old City was tense in 1990 -- way more tense than on my visit this year. One of the two times in my life that I've lied about my nationality came when I turned a corner into what seemed like a dead end and suddenly Palestinians emerged from doorways. I was surrounded by more than 20 men, shorter than I, in dress shirts and ties and looking very serious. One stepped forward and said, "What country are you from?" I said, "I'm from Canada, eh?" (in my fright, I channeled Bob & Doug McKenzie)  The leader said, "You must leave here now." They opened a pathway for me to walk away, and I did.

I drank some Israeli wine in 1990, but it wasn't very good. I remember it being sweet and sloppily made, which is why the high quality of wines I tasted when I visited this year was such a pleasant shock. (Many Americans still think Israeli wine tastes like it did then. Read my Food & Wine article.)

I spent about a week in Jerusalem and then decided to visit Egypt. A bus direct to Cairo cost $17 US, so off I went.

I hated Cairo. The museums are great, with mummys piled floor-to-ceiling, even in the hallways. The pyramids and the Sphinx are awesome. But everything else is unpleasant. The food is lousy, the noise and traffic are unbearable, and everybody sees you as a giant leaky money bag.

But often capitol cities are the worst part of a country (ever been to Jakarta?) I shared a pyramid tour with an American couple in my cheap hotel -- we were extorted by a camel driver, who refused to show us how to get off the foul-tempered camels until we paid up -- and we decided to see another part of Egypt. We picked Alexandria, known for being low-key.

What a great decision. Alexandria has a fantastic history but no obvious tourist sites, so it's really off the beaten path. We rented the top floor of a 12-story hotel -- five bedrooms, three baths -- for $11 total per night, breakfast for three included. We had balconies on all four sides, and were close to the Mediterranean on the north. And the hotel people were so nice; they helped us visit wherever we wanted, and nobody had their palms out as they had in Cairo.

Check out perhaps my favorite travel photo ever. That's me in the green shirt. An entire elementary school rushed to cheer for us when they heard three Americans were in town. I daresay it's different now, but in 1990 Alexandria was a great place to be from the USA.

We were sitting on the balcony at sunset and one of us observed that the only way Alexandria would be more perfect would be if we could get some booze, so we could enjoy a drink before dinner. Bad Egyptian beer is widely available in tourist districts in Cairo, but there aren't really any tourist districts in Alexandria. So we decided to ask the helpful people at the hotel.

If they were disappointed in us, they hid it well. They told us to go to a nearby drugstore and ask. So we did.

The druggist, when asked if we could buy some alcohol, immediately frowned. "Not here. You go around back. Around there," he said, pointing to a dark alley that in 2010 I probably wouldn't enter. He then shut the store door, closed the curtain and threw up a sign in Arabic that must have said "Closed," although I guess "Infidels around back" was also possible.

He had a tiny window to the shop in the back alley. He asked, not pleasantly, what we wanted. We said, "What do you have?" He said, "I have alcohol. What do you want?" The couple got beer, but I said, "What else do you have?" which is how I ended up with a 750 ml bottle of brandy.

The brandy wasn't very good, but three of us finished it easily. So we were back the next afternoon, and we got exactly the same treatment. This time I got orange liqueur, which was horrible. Awful. Imagine crushed-up orange-flavor kids' aspirin with booze in it. We drank it anyway. Did I ever claim I was a discerning drinker? Not in Alexandria at sunset.

I wish I had seen some sort of product list. We stayed a week -- Alexandria was mellow, we were eating well, and man, that balcony with breakfast for less than $4 a day each was hard to beat. Every night we drank something different. The coffee liqueur was probably the least horrible. Only once did we get something so awful we couldn't choke it down; I thought it might be absinthe, but my American woman friend -- a nurse -- said she thought it might be paregoric.

I lost contact with that couple; travel friendships are so intense, yet so short-lived. Earlier this year, I spent an afternoon with a guy I met at Kibbutz Yagur who found me on Facebook, and that was fantastic. He is the only person I've ever seen again from my visit to Israel and Egypt in 1990.

But I think about that balcony and those sunsets and that horrible-tasting booze all the time.

As a wine writer, I get a lot of free wines to sample. I drink only the ones I like, and pour the wines I don't like down the drain. Visiting friends are often shocked by this. They're used to drinking an open bottle whether they like it or not. But I don't have to, not now.

Once in a while, after I've rejected a wine, somebody asks me, "Are there any circumstances under which you would drink this?" They expect me to say, "If I'm thirsty," or "If I'm on death row," or something like that.

My answer is often, "If I were sitting on a balcony in Alexandria, Egypt at sunset, I would drink this. And it would taste fantastic."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Christmas gift guide for wine lovers

Purchase 6 or more bottles of French wine and get 50% off shipping with promo code "blake53"
In "The Devil Wears Prada," the fictitious editor based on Vogue's Anna Wintour gives everyone on her huge Christmas list a bottle of wine.

You really can't ask for a better endorsement of wine as a Christmas gift. Here's a woman who can give scarves, unisex t-shirts, or anything stylish at all -- and she chooses wine.

Of course, she has an army of starving, ambitious women to shop and ship for her. You don't. I'm going to try to simplify your task with suggestions at every price level.

First, consider the basics of a great Christmas gift:
1) Something the recipient will use and enjoy
2) Something he/she wouldn't buy himself
3) Something surprising and fun

Re Point #1: Don't overspend! Most people will NOT open a $50 bottle of wine; they'll think it's too good to drink and will store it inappropriately as a trophy. Obviously there are exceptions, but save money by knowing your audience. $25 per bottle is the limit for what I would spend on anyone who doesn't drink wine at home more than twice a week.
A related point: I'm not a fan of wine gadgets, which rear their useless head at this time every year. There are some great wine accessories, but they're not really gadgets. No wine lover ever has enough glassware; decanters are nice; and if you're spending big bucks, everyone should have a wine fridge. More on this below.

Point #2 means that daily-use supermarket wines are no more exciting than any other product you can buy from the supermarket. Don't spend more than necessary, but do look for something that's not available everywhere.

On point #3: it's cool to expand people's horizons; give some dry Riesling to a Chardonnay lover. But there are limits; you're not going to turn a committed Cabernet drinker into a Blaufrankisch fan with one bottle. Still, it's worth attempting to rock their world, especially at $20 and under, where they're most likely to give something new a shot.

Here are some thoughts at different levels of spending.

$10: The key here is to get something interesting. Portugal and Spain are good sources of interesting wines under $10. From Portugal, I'm a huge fan of Vinho Verde. From Spain, try Marques de Riscal, red or white. For something outside the mainstream, consider a bottle of Fino or Oloroso Sherry, which has the advantage of lasting for more than a night or two after it's opened.
Alternately, one of the few wine gadgets that everyone should have are wine charms: little doohickeys that you attach to the bottom of a wine glass, so you can identify whose glass is whose.

$20: This is THE sweet spot for wine gifts. It's enough money to get a good bottle, but not so expensive that the recipient won't open it.
My top recommendation is for people who visit winery tasting rooms. Buy a case of a wine in this price range that you like, and give a bottle to 9 of your best friends (keep 3 for yourself). This says something wonderful about you: that you were thinking of them and went to some trouble to get a great gift at the source. Moreover, you can taste the wine first and learn its story; it's the best way to personalize a gift.
That's not an option for everyone. So here's the backup plan: A bottle of good domestic bubbly. Everyone should drink more bubbly but most people don't buy it for themselves. Roederer Estate, Scharffenberger, Gloria Ferrer and Gruet all give good value in this price range.

$40-$50: At this price level, I think about bottles that will last more than one night.
Madeira is a great choice because it's indestructible; your friend can open the bottle Dec. 25 and next Christmas, the wine will still be good. The Rare Wine Co.'s historic series is good value.
Tawny Port for me is best at 20 years old, and that's right in this price range. It won't last as long as Madeira, but it should stay delicious for a month or two at least.
It's also a good level to start thinking about spirits. A nice bottle of artisanal Bourbon or Reposado Tequila makes a great gift for somebody who enjoys sipping an occasional nightcap.
And don't forget glassware. You can get 6 good wine glasses from Cost Plus for less than this. Wine lovers always need glassware.

$100: It's rare for me to give someone a single bottle of wine this expensive. I would have to know the person and their tastes. But if I did, I would try to give them a single-vineyard Burgundy or tete-de-cuvee sparkling wine.
You might also consider a themed three-pack, such as three different Pinot Noirs from the same producer.
My number one choice in this price range is probably an upscale Scotch: an 18-year-old, such as Glenlivet Nadurra, should cost a little less than this.

$200 or more: Everyone should have a wine refrigerator; it's a lot more valuable than a case of wine.  Without one, you're at the mercy of the weather, because temperature variation is bad for wine aging, and a single day over 80 degrees can kill your wine.
I have three coolers myself: a 100 bottle unit that cost $1000, a 54-bottle unit that cost $500, and the 21-bottle Air & Water cooler, which at $220 is about as cheap as these things get. The last was sent to me to review; I wanted to see if it would make a good gift.
The short answer is that it would. It has weaknesses: the racks won't accommodate some of today's fat wine bottles, and the "on" lights are so bright that I have to keep paper taped over them.
But the pluses are its low cost, small footprint, quiet operation and light weight. My wife, who could drown standing up in a pool's shallow end, can lift and move it by herself. It's a great gift for somebody who's just starting to get into wine, particularly for apartment dwellers with limited space. Recent college graduates, perhaps?

$500: Rather than a single bottle of wine, consider a hand-blown decanter. Eisch makes some beautiful ones; you could get hand-blown glasses to go with it.
You could also see about a wine from your recipient's birth year. Madeira would be my first choice because it ages so well and would last for a couple years after opening; vintage Port is another good option. That said, the last time I had a bottle from my own birth year, it was a birthday gift, it was a Lopez de Heredia red, and it was magnificent.

$1000: Hire a private chef to cater a meal at your friend's house.
Or, buy a 6-pack of age-worthy wine. Know your audience: it's easy for me to say fine Burgundy, but most folks who receive gifts in this price range would much prefer a 6-pack of well-regarded Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.
A gift certificate for a top B&B in wine country is a great gift if you know your recipients will travel there.

$10,000: For this amount of money (plus travel expenses) I will come to your house and sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" while pouring you and your guests a wine I personally select for its deliciousness.

$20,000: Same as $10,000, without the singing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dry Riesling is a family tradition at Müller-Catoir

My column for Wine Review Online this month is about how global warming is affecting two different German regions, the Pfalz and the Mosel.

This is a column bonus, an extended interview with Martin Franzen, winemaker for the excellent Pfalz winery Müller-Catoir, which makes some of the best dry Rieslings I tried.

"Dry wines were never under 60% at this estate," Franzen said. "But we sold only off-dry wines in America in the '80s and '90s.

"Germany has started to produce outstanding dry wines. We have reached a level that didn't exist in the '80s and '90s. Climate change helped us. It wasn't possible to vinify dry Rieslings at this quality in the '80s. The climate was too cold and it wasn't possible to get the structure we can today."

Something that's not obvious about German wine, unless you follow the writings of Terry Thiese, is how many people there are committed to terroir-driven, low-intervention winemaking. This is also a recent development.

"In Germany we lost the philosophy of terroir in the '60s and '70s," Franzen said. "We didn't work in such detail in the vineyards, and we didn't pay as much attention to the good vineyards."

Why? Franzen blames the bad post-World War II economy, which led to a focus on cutting costs and increasing production. This is what brought the world Blue Nun.

"We have recovered the things our grandfathers knew," Franzen said. "The biggest technology changes we've made are to be able to press and work in the cellar like in the 19th century. We've changed to smaller tanks. We also reconstructed our cellar with traditional 1000-litre wooden barrels. With these barrels you don't need special temperature control."

Franzen doesn't have to research in books to find out how his grandfather made wine: his family owns a tiny winery in the Mosel region.

"I learned a lot from my father, who made Rieslings that were very much on the point and were not so easy to understand, but that aged very well," Franzen said. "My father had an oak press over 100 years old. He had some oak barrels and nothing else at all. He made wine with no pumping. His tradition was maceration, one day. He learned it from his father, and it makes the best Riesling. No temperature control. These are Rieslings that show well after four or five years."

"In the Mosel region, my father made dry wines in the '70s. He made over 50% dry wines. He knew that you had to use the best grapes for the dry wines. Normally in the Mosel, the best grapes are used for the residual sugar wines. But if you want to make a dry wine in the Mosel, you have to use the best grapes. Here (in the Pfalz) it's possible to make a dry wine with other grapes. There's a little bit lower acidity."

"We work here with a modern press but the philosophy and the treatment of the grapes is the same. My father didn't have modern education and he didn't know about it, but he felt it."

But not everything is back to the past. Franzen has farmed organically, uncertified, for the last several years because he believes it gives him better quality.

"We work more in the vineyards today. In the past we didn't make this 'green harvest'. We are outside more now. We select more."

Franzen let me taste a trivia question (I hope he's right, because I don't have access to all of Robert Parker's scores). The question is: what was the first German wine to get 100 points from Parker?

The answer: A TBA (trockenbeerenauslese) made from Rieslaner, a hybrid of Riesling and Sylvaner that actually has more acidity than Riesling. I liked it, but I liked the winery's dry Rieslings much more; unlike the TBA, a special-occasion wine, they're superb, complex wines that would sit well on the table at practically any meal. Parker's 100-point wines are rarely the winery's best. (I'd love to share my own scores of the wines with you, but that's what Wine Review Online is paying me for.)

What I really wanted to taste was one of his father's wines: the winery name is, of course, Franzen. But his father is retired and he didn't have any on hand.

"He is 78, and I didn't come home to make wine. We had to close the winery. That's the modern times."

And yet, sometimes the past is modern again.

(Read the Wine Review Online column here.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Vintage charts for California are worthless

Vintage charts make a lot of sense for Bordeaux, and to a lesser extent for much of Europe. But for California, they're worse than worthless. Here's why.

The idea of a vintage chart comes from English aficionados trying to get a handle on which French wines to collect. And in France, they're still important, even though Frank Prial of the New York Times declared them dead a decade ago.

But California is not France. Magazines that breathlessly talk about the '07 California Cabernets -- and decry the 2010 wines before any have been released -- are at best mindlessly wasting space, and at worst misleading their readers.

There's not a single vintage in California over the last decade I would avoid, and not a single vintage I would rush out to buy either. It all depends on the winery -- and that's completely unlike France.

It's not just because French weather is unpredictable year-to-year. In France, many regions are planted with grapes that won't ripen in poor years. So a bad year really is a bad year, with many wines that aren't (or shouldn't be) released.

Moreover, very good years in France are strikingly universal. When I visited Bordeaux in 2009, every winery's 2005 tasted better than every winery's 2004 and 2006. It was amazing how consistent this was. And every winery's 2003 was noticeably overripe. I don't need to know anything about two Bordeaux wineries to know how to choose between a 2004 Chateau Mysterio and 2005 Chateau Beret on a wine list.

This simply isn't the case in California for two main reasons: 1) The weather isn't as extreme here. We don't get much spring hail and summer rain. 2) Very few grapes are actually planted in marginal areas.

As a subset of point 2, consider this: the main variety covered in vintage charts is Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Napa Valley is not Bordeaux -- it's hot, dry and sunny. In the few areas that aren't, notably Carneros, vineyards have mostly grafted their Cab over to Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Most Napa Valley Cab vineyards aren't at risk of not ripening, even in an unusually cool year like 2010. They might not get ultra-ripe this year, but that's exactly why I think 2010 will be an exceptional year from some Napa producers.

Sure, there are Pinot Noir grapes out on the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts that won't ripen this year. I'm getting tweets every day now from people worried about grapes in fringe vineyards.

But more than 99% of the grapes in California are planted in areas comfortably warm enough to ripen -- even in a year like this. Do you think Lodi Zinfandel and Paso Robles Syrah aren't going to ripen?

This is why California vintage charts are worse than worthless. They're a shorthand that will convince some consumers to avoid perfectly good wines while creating artificial interest in other wines that aren't any better. To me, bad information is worse than no information.

Let me try an analogy. Suppose you're at the DVD shop and you have a chart that says all movies with George Clooney are good while all movies with Kevin Bacon are mediocre -- that's a fair approximation of what wine vintage charts say. So you pass up "Frost/Nixon" and "Mystic River" and instead rent "The Men Who Stare At Goats." Your loss.

I believe vintage charts exist for the same reason that every Valentine's Day we're subjected to a barrage of stories about pairing wines with chocolate. Editors like to schedule certain types of stories to fill out a calendar. The Bordeaux vintage report matters, and this is America, so let's do a California vintage report. And since we have these reports from every year, let's put them in an easily portable format with our publication's name on it.

Let me ask you this: When was the last year California had a year so bad that many wines weren't released? I'll tell you -- 1998.

I was one of many writers who panned that vintage when it came out. And I was wrong.

The '98s that are still around are drinking great; the '97s -- a universally lauded vintage -- are mostly dead. One of the few times that back-to-back California vintages were really different, and the media got it wrong. We did so because we didn't recognize the age-worthiness of the tighter, more tannic '98s, and we thought the sexier '97s were more exciting. But we were wrong, and you shouldn't trust us on this issue any more.

So I'm going to go out on a limb and predict this very unpredictable 2010 vintage for Napa Valley Cabernets: Most good wineries will make good wines. Some will make great wines. Some will inexplicably -- or explicably -- not be up to snuff. Amazingly, this is exactly the same as 2009 and 2008 and 2007.

If you want "drink/hold" recommendations, you have to know the style of the winery, because Corison wines will outlast Shafer wines no matter what vintage they're from. That has nothing to do with quality or point scores, because Shafer makes good wines in the full-bodied style. But how can a vintage chart that combines the two give good recommendations on either?

So throw away your California vintage charts, folks, unless you really enjoyed "The Men Who Stare At Goats."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Blog Writing 101: How to self-edit

Yesterday I posted a poorly written item. I screwed up an interesting interview with an NFL player-turned-winemaker by refusing to self-edit.

I had two different stories, and should have written it that way. Instead, I threw everything together.

Today I'm posting this meta-post to show others the error of my ways, hopefully so you can avoid the same mistakes.

Here are three links:
Original post: The meandering brain dump
Rewrite #1: The question story
Rewrite #2: The winemaker profile

Now, how did I get from the lousy original post to the rewrites?

It didn't take long -- less than 15 minutes (not counting time needed to write this). I added almost no copy; it's all subtraction.

If you're taking Writing for Social Media or a similar course, and want to delve into it, look at some of the things I took out.

I took out redundancies. Why say the same thing twice? Or again and again?

I took out my pretended fear at the interview subject hitting me. In real life, if an ex-NFL player hit me, I would get back up on my knees and thank God for securing my financial future before shopping around for a lawyer.

Moreover, it undermines my online persona. Am I a coward? Maybe in real life, but I don't usually play one on the Internet.

I wrote a bad lead to the original post; the story is not about Buddy Ryan. Terry Hoage worships him, so he's worth including, but I probably lost half my readers with the first sentence.

I took out NFL minutiae, such as the years Hoage played for each different team. It's visually distracting, particularly that early in the story. And this is not an NFL blog.

One thing I did add was a link to Hoage's website. That should be de rigueur; I just forgot.

Hoage's question was the whole reason I wrote the post, but I took forever to get to it. And then, while I'm happy enough with my own answer to it, I didn't give my readers a real chance to answer it. Ending away from the question is a conversation killer on a post that was supposed to be a conversation starter.

If I had it to do over again, I could run just the question post -- that's the stronger post about wine, and this is a wine blog. I could also run both posts on separate days.

For me, though, the best solution would have been to cross-pollinate on multiple online platforms. I could have offered an expanded football player-turned-winemaker post to Wine Review Online or Palate Press, and used the shorter question post on my own blog as a way to plug the other site.

So I blew a good posting opportunity. At least I've created a teaching opportunity.

Did anyone learn anything from this?