Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tasting room in your living room

Tasting room visits are big business; they're play time for grownups.

A new San Francisco company is betting on the idea that a tasting room visit is so much fun that people will want to do it in their own homes. And they're betting that you won't want to have any friends over.

Tasting Room will ship you a box with 6 miniature 50 ml bottles of wines and a very short description of each. The idea is that you will enjoy the tasting so much that it's entertainment on its own.

As a guy who tastes wine all the time, I had mixed feelings about it. There are wine tasting groups all over this country, where people get together with friends and open several bottles. They've sprung up organically, like book clubs, and work similarly. Somebody says, "Next week we're tasting Alto Adige wines," and everybody brings one.

Can a private company improve on that communal experience?

The answer depends on how much you like tasting with your friends. The Tasting Room is more commercial and by necessity more private.

The wine arrived in good condition. The bottles are cute. And I do like tasting wine.

There are two big downsides.

1) The boxes are pricey: the Grgich Hills sampler they sent me was $34.25 including taxes and shipping (note to FTC -- I didn't pay!) That's a lot for 300 ml total of wine -- the equivalent of $85 a bottle for a 750 ml bottle. Only one of the six samples in the bottle sells for that much. I did get a coupon for free shipping for my next order, which would cut the price by $6.95.

2) A 50 ml pour is fine for one person, adequate for two, and unbearably small for four. (By comparison, a standard restaurant glass pour is about 140 ml.)

The size problem means Tasting is either a couples or a solitary experience. But there may be some utility for it in anniversaries, date night, etc.

My wife, who sees me open a half-dozen regular-sized bottles for tasting all the time, was far more excited about the Tasting Room box. She loved the cute bottles. She took photos, she took notes. It was as if the tiny bottles brought the experience to a human scale she could enjoy.

The wines come with a pretty little information sheet that in this case actually gave one or two useful notes, such as where the vineyards are. (PR word I'm tired of: "nestled," as in "nestled in the northern tip of Napa Valley.")

You can buy wines at a slight discount from the Tasting Room site. It's always a treat to taste Grgich's Chardonnays, and for us the 2007 Grgich Hills Napa Valley Chardonnay ($36) was the pick of the crop: toasty yet balanced, with vibrant fruit.

Would I have rather just had a bottle of it? Possibly, but my wife preferred tasting little drips of 6 different wines, and since she's closer to being a normal wine consumer than I am, her experience is more valid. She enjoyed the experience just as the company intended. As for me, I mixed the Cab and the Merlot just to see if I'd like them better together (I did) -- something I only occasionally do with full-sized bottles.

I thought I might mock the concept, but instead find myself telling you its proper use: as a couples' night thing, a fun event for a weekend. But keep in mind that the sampler contains only about two glasses of wine total. That might not keep you busy even as long as a real tasting room visit. But what the heck, it is date night, right?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Nancy Pelosi doesn't oppose HR 5034

I emailed my House representative about HR 5034, the beer distributors' bill in which they essentially try to overthrow the Supreme Court decision allowing direct shipping, and have their way with compliant state legislatures.

As my House rep is Nancy Pelosi, who owns a vineyard, I expected her to line up with all the producers opposing the bill: the Wine Institute, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and the Kentucky Distillers Association are just three big names. For more about the bill, click here.

I was disappointed. Here's my letter; below is her response.

Dear Congressperson Pelosi:

I hope you will oppose HR 5034, the anti-consumer bill that would make it difficult for small wineries and breweries to get their products to consumers.

I know beer distributors are large contributors to political campaigns, but I hope you will find ways to raise money without providing such an obvious payoff.

This bill benefits nobody but beer, wine and spirits distributors. It is bad for consumers and small businesses and does not help local communities or governments in any way.

Those who support it will be demonstrating for anyone paying attention that their vote is for sale. As you are my representative, I hope you will show the integrity that this district expects.


W. Blake Gray

I got this response by email

May 24, 2010

Dear Mr. Gray:

Thank you for contacting me about H.R. 5034, the Comprehensive Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness Act. I appreciate hearing from you on this issue.

H.R. 5034, introduced by Representative Bill Delahunt (D-MA), would recognize that alcohol is different from other consumer products and that it should be regulated by the States according to the laws thereof.. On April 15, 2010, this bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. No further action has been taken. Please be assured I will keep your comments under consideration should H.R. 5034 come before the 111th Congress.

Thank you again for contacting me on this important issue. I hope you will continue to communicate with me on matters of concern to you. For more information on this or other issues affecting our city and our nation, please visit my website at or sign up to receive e-mail updates at

Nancy Pelosi

Member of Congress

Please do not reply to this e-mail because this mailbox is unattended.

Now, to be fair to Pelosi, what she's saying is that it's in committee and she hasn't had to make any decision. She's not for it or against it yet because she doesn't have to be.

I guess I was hoping for a little more commitment than that from a vineyard owner who represents the most wine-loving city in America. I'm just so naive.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Binge drinking leads to multiple sex partners

Hey college boys: Did you know that binge drinking increases your chance of having multiple sex partners?

This tip comes courtesy of Dr. Jeffrey DeSimone from the economics department of the University of Texas at Arlington, who analyzed data from a survey the CDC sent to college students in 1995. The study was published in the Journal of Wine Economics (but is apparently not viewable online, sorry.)

DeSimone set out to learn if binge drinking -- which he defines as 5 drinks in two hours or less -- leads to more sex. He seems to have wanted to be a moralistic nag. But he has provided a useful road map for 20-year-olds wondering if tequila shots are going to get them to the promised land.

Binge drinking apparently does not help the population as a whole get laid, though it does help certain groups, notably people working their way through school. Anybody working 10 hours or more per week while in college is more likely to have sex if they binge drink than if they don't.

Looking at the data, it seems to me that female students are more likely to have sex overall if they binge drink than if they don't. DeSimone did not draw this conclusion; it's a major point, and I'm sure he had his reasons. However, he does say that females are more likely to have multiple sex partners as their body weight rises.

Freshmen are less likely to have sex overall whether or not they binge drink; sorry guys. Wait 'til you're 20; that's when sex becomes more likely than not.

DeSimone tried to tease out whether binge drinking leads to "risky sex," which he defined by lack of condom use and multiple partners within 3 months.

Turns out that it does for many groups. The effect is strongest for non-Hispanic whites in 4-year schools. I like this data a lot. This study has the aroma of prissy social engineering: we've got to stop these kids from drinking and having unprotected sex with the whole dorm. Usually moralizers start throwing around "welfare mothers" as coded language to let us know it's also a race issue. But here we can see that it's the yuppie stereotype -- white, 4-year-college students, not living with their parents -- who are sleeping around.

And I say: Bully for them. It's their bodies, they can share as they like, though the condom use bit is a little troubling. Perhaps vodka makers can start including condoms as giveaways.

Speaking of which, this study should cause celebration in the offices of Brown-Forman and Diageo and all the other major booze purveyors. They can't exactly release a statement saying: "Brown-Forman is pleased to announce that Jack Daniel's, when used immoderately, has been proven to increase the number of sex partners for working white college students." But isn't that exactly what all liquor advertisements promise?

Unfortunately, the effect starts to drop off at age 24, which makes intuitive sense as that's when binge drinking goes from a novelty event with friends to an unattractive lifestyle choice.

But if you're 21 and in a 4-year-school, you might want to consider having another drink. And another. Thanks for the study, bro.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Are you drinking a wine, or a brand?

Rosenblum Cellars turned from winery into a brand this week, as its owner Diageo announced that it's closing the Rosenblum winery in Alameda.

The move was inevitable after Kent Rosenblum sold the winery to Diageo in 2008. The reason a big company like Diageo buys a winery in the first place is not to make small lots of single-vineyard Zinfandel -- Rosenblum has already cut back on those. No, it's to sell a million cases of Rosenblum Vintners Cuvee Zinfandel in grocery stores around the country.

There's nothing wrong with that; it's the model for success in the U.S. wine business, and I'm never going to tell a company to not make money. And Diageo makes better mass-market wine than some companies: its Provenance brand is particularly good.

But as a wine lover, I don't want to drink a wine made by buying cheap grapes in the Central Valley, adding Mega Purple for color and reducing the alcohol to cut the tax bill.

Yet that's what sells, and not just because it's cheap. You can buy a good, honest red wine from Spain or Portugal or Argentina for the same price as one of these generic "brands."

Why do U.S. consumers want "brand" wines?

There's an analogy to food. Wines like Turning Leaf are like Taco Bell, while Rosenblum is turning into Applebee's. People like the assurance of a familiar name. In many parts of the country, Taco Bell and Applebee's will drive Mary's Local Diner out of business.

I'm a bad American; I have never eaten at Applebee's. I like comfort food, but I want to know that it's made in the kitchen from local ingredients, not prepared in a factory somewhere, freeze dried and microwaved in the back. I'm willing to accept variability in my food in pursuit of that locally cooked experience.

If you feel the same way, you have to think about whether you want to buy mass-produced factory wine brands, or try something less uniform, even if you're not sure exactly how it's going to taste.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Does Oregon Pinot Noir improve with age?

Does Oregon Pinot Noir improve with age?

Luisa Ponzi just tasted 35 vintages of her family's wines, and the evidence is incomplete. The climate may have been perfectly Burgundian 35 years ago, but back then not many Oregonians knew what they were doing.

Ponzi's father Dick was one of the first to plant Pinot in the beaver state, founding his estate vineyard in 1970, five years after David Lett planted the state's first Pinot at Eyrie Vineyards.

The estate vineyard he chose didn't turn out to be great Pinot Noir terroir; there's more Pinot Gris there now. Most of the best Pinot Noir vineyards in Oregon are now at higher elevation. But that wasn't what Dick and Nancy Ponzi were looking for.

"They were looking for a nice piece of property with good soil that wasn't too far from Portland," Luisa Ponzi said. "They were raising a family and they wanted to be part of the cultural scene, even though there were maybe three restaurants in Portland at the time. And they thought Portland was where they would sell the wine."

Dick Ponzi, an engineer, had no winemaking background. He absorbed some lessons from visiting Burgundy, but in the early days he also did things his daughter chuckles at now, mostly involving beating up the grapes in the winery. "It wasn't until the '90s that they figured out gentle handling, that Pinot couldn't be handled like Cabernet," Luisa says.

However, in the vineyard Dick Ponzi was way ahead of his time. He farmed organically and Ponzi Vineyards still only buys fruit from growers who are organic or certified sustainable. He never sprayed anything other than sulfur, instead using his three kids as field hands.

"There was a lot of hoeing when I was young," Luisa said, in a quote that sounds even better out of context.

Ponzi Vineyards is unusual in that it's a European-style family winery, albeit only in the second generation. Just as in Burgundy, one kid stepped up to learn winemaking, and that was Luisa. Her brother Michel is director of operations; her sister Maria is director of sales and marketing. Luisa is the one with the purple hands.

Moreover, she learned winemaking the Burgundy way, studying at the technical school in Beaune and working as a harvest hand in Burgundy and Italy.

She came back to Oregon in '93 and Dick Ponzi put her in charge right away. She tried different oak barrels and switched to native yeast. She experimented with temperature control -- Dick Ponzi had long used none.

"I did a lot of experiments he'd done," Luisa says. "He'd walk by and roll his eyes. He must have thought, 'You gotta do it.' I thought I had to change the world, but I came to find out he was doing things pretty well."

One big difference she made is picking the grapes riper, though not actually later. Because of global warming, Pinot ripens in Oregon more than a month before it did in the 1970s, Luisa says. Even though he was a fanatic about picking early to maintain acidity, Dick Ponzi often picked in late October. Luisa gets higher sugar levels now in mid September.

Luisa tasted the 35 vintages of Ponzi Pinot Noir with some fellow Oregon winemakers; a week later she opened some of the best wines from that tasting for journalists. She included only two of Dick Ponzi's wines: a 1979 and a 1988. She said that while some of the others were pleasant, they tasted more like old wine than mature Pinot Noir.

I would say that was true of the 1979 Ponzi Oregon Pinot Noir, the first Ponzi wine mentioned in the New York Times. But I liked the 1988 Ponzi Willamette Valley Pinot Noir a lot. It had a complex nose that smelled like warm soil with cherry and some smoked meat, good cherry fruit and nice chewy tannins that gave it structure. It may be an aberration, but it was drinking very well after 22 years, and seemed as if it would last another few.

Luisa Ponzi's first two wines at the helm, the 1993 and 1994 Ponzi Reserve Pinot Noirs, were both drinking very well. The '93 had lovely cranberry and cherry fruit, notes of coffee and rose petal, and a very long finish. The '94 was slightly bigger bodied but its elegant tannins, ripe fruit, and baking spice notes made it one of the best wines of the evening.

My favorite wine of the night was the 1998 Ponzi Abetina Vineyard Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. This vineyard is an important element in Ponzi's Reserve Pinot Noir and is only made as a single-vineyard bottling in certain vintages. It's intense, with blueberry and cherry fruit and a strong root-beer note, as well as a spicy finish. I understood the other two vineyards from the Reserve better by their absence from this wine, because I tasted some cranberry notes in every wine but this one.

Luisa Ponzi has built a new winery with modern temperature controls, she now picks later to get riper fruit, and she drops fruit to get lower crop levels. I wouldn't say the result is exactly a New World style; these Pinots are not big like many in California, but they are smooth, ripe and seamless. The rough edges are gone from the 2002, 2006 and 2007 Ponzi Reserve Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs, and I wonder what that means for their eventual aging, the topic of the evening.

It's interesting to contrast the '07 Reserve against Ponzi's regular 2007 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Autumn was so wet that Luisa Ponzi hired helicopters to fly above the vines to dry them. The regular '07 tastes a little underripe to me, whereas the '07 Reserve is rich and ripe with fruit tending to blueberry; a much easier wine to enjoy, but lacking a bit in complexity. Somewhere in between the two wines might be the perfect Pinot.

A big advantage that Ponzi has over many wineries is that because it is family owned, Luisa has the rest of her winemaking life to experiment. She poured a nice 2009 Arneis -- refreshing yellow grapefruit character -- about which she says, "I've been making it for 17 years and I'm just figuring it out."

That was true of Oregon Pinot Noir until recently, and it's fair to say that when compared to Burgundy, it's still true. Keep in mind that the oldest vines in the state are only about 45 years old.

I didn't leave the tasting convinced one way or the other about the ageworthiness of Oregon Pinots. The '93 and '94 are good harbingers, but Ponzi's style has changed since then, and I believe that is true of many Oregon wineries.

One also has to ask whether it matters if Oregon Pinot improves with age, as most people today are struggling with the corkscrew on the way home from the store (unless they've bought one of Ponzi's screwcapped wines.) The '88, '93, '94 and '98 wines I tasted all showed the benefit of aging, but the many missing vintages hinted at the pitfalls.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wine lovers: It's time to email Congress

I have been ignoring HR 5034, beer wholesalers' attempt at ensuring state monopolies, because I thought it's so obviously a bad bill for American consumers that it will never pass.

I was right about it being a bad bill. Nobody benefits from this bill -- nobody -- except beer, wine and liquor distributors. Consumers lose, wineries lose. It's a classic product of corruption, the sort of law you expect in a third-world country where the president's brother owns the company that benefits. Whether you're a Tea Party tax hater or a Code Pink peacenik, it's a bill that's easy to hate.

I was wrong about it having no chance. As of May 13, the bill has garnered 85 co-sponsors in the House, Democrats and Republicans both. The reason is that beer distributors pour money on the House like a 4-year-old pours syrup on pancakes. It's an election year, so your House member needs cash to make TV commercials about how he's not one of those Washington insiders.

So it's time for all of us who drink wine, beer, cocktails, anything with alcohol in it, to email our House representative and tell them, "We don't want this."

As usual, Tom Wark has done the best summary of this bill, and it's here. In a nutshell, HR 5034 would make it more difficult for small wineries and breweries to get their products to consumers.

Its impact would differ by state, and would be much worse in states where the legislature is more corrupt (New York) or more anti-alcohol (Pennsylvania). But by making life more difficult for small wineries, it would threaten their existence, and if you're a wine lover in any state, you don't want that.

Here's a nifty site for contacting your House member by email. Just put in your home address and your house rep's and senators' email links pop up.

If you want to see if your representative has already thanked the beer distributors for their cash by co-sponsoring the bill, here's a map of the corrupt 85, which I hope will be updated.

And here is a short sample email. I have sent this to my Congressperson, Nancy Pelosi, who -- as a wine lover -- will hopefully vote against the bill. But Pelosi is a pragmatist: Democratic incumbents as well as Republicans need cash for November, and the beer distributors are standing there with an open checkbook. We can't trust her, or any member of Congress, to do what's best for consumers if we're not paying attention.

Dear Congressperson Pelosi:

I hope you will oppose HR 5034, the anti-consumer bill that would make it difficult for small wineries and breweries to get their products to consumers.

I know beer distributors are large contributors to political campaigns, but I hope you will find ways to raise money without providing such an obvious payoff.

This bill benefits nobody but beer, wine and spirits distributors. It is bad for consumers and small businesses and does not help local communities or governments in any way.

Those who support it will be demonstrating for anyone paying attention that their vote is for sale. As you are my representative, I hope you will show the integrity that this district expects.


W. Blake Gray

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

23 years of Le Cigare Volant

Randall Grahm is always interesting, sometimes at the expense of his wines.

I confess I hadn't had a bottle of his Rhone blend Le Cigare Volant in several years before being invited to a 23-year vertical of the wine recently (officially it was 25 years, but the '07 and '08 were barrel samples.)

At the dinner, Grahm told us about an interesting new vineyard project, which I have a story about today on Palate Press. This, though, is about the wines.

This was unlike most vertical tastings, where you get a sense of a vineyard because the wines all come from the same place.

Grahm has used, by my count, 31 different vineyards from 11 different counties in Le Cigare Volant -- the wine he calls Bonny Doon's "spiritual center." Not one vineyard provided grapes to every vintage, though Besson Vineyard in Gilroy -- a town better known for garlic -- came close, as a source of Grenache from 1984 to 2006.

Then there are grape choices. Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah have been the main grapes, but he has also used five others, although 3 appeared in only one vintage each. And while GSM are often blended together in both France and Australia, they are three very different grapes: Grenache delivers bright fruit, Mourvedre is earthy and funky, Syrah tends toward bold masculine flavors. As the ratio changes between them, you could taste the different characters in ascendancy.

What I learned was an evolution not of a vineyard, but of Grahm and Bonny Doon.

Like a rock and roll band, Grahm was brilliant right out of the gate before he really knew what he was doing. Then he learned the industry and got a little business-cynical, and it showed up in lower quality wines. Eventually he listened to his inner voice and brought the quality back up again, but he has yet to recapture, let alone surpass, the greatness of the first two wines. Johnny Cash eventually did, so there's hope for Grahm yet.

Here's a rundown of the wines.

1984: 72% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 3% Mourvedre, 1200 cases
The first vintage of Le Cigare Volant was the best wine of the night, and I'm glad because Grahm said the 6-litre bottle he brought was the last bottle of any size that he had.
Grahm started making Le Cigare Volant based on the old-vine Grenache from Gilroy. In 1982, Grahm had leased space from Josh Jensen at Calera to ferment some Grenache.
"It smelled like raspberries. I thought, 'This is good'," he said. "I ended up blending Cabernet to it and screwing it up."
It wouldn't be the last time. Had Grahm maintained Le Cigare Volant as a 1200-case Grenache-based wine, it might today be considered one of America's greatest. You'll see from the stats that he started tinkering with a successful formula within just two years.
Grahm said '84 was a difficult vintage, and the Grenache didn't ripen as much as he wanted. Perhaps that's why it aged so well.
The last night of this wine's life was superb: pretty on the nose, with strong licorice notes along with raspberry, black cherry, earth and fresh herbs. The mouthfeel was sensuous, the raspberry fruit was delightful, and the strong anise/licorice notes kept it interesting throughout the long finish. I thanked this wine for letting me drink it. 98

1985: 77% Grenache, 18% Syrah, 5% Mourvedre 1450 cases
Grahm discovered Contra Costa County Mourvedre for this vintage (the '84 Mourvedre was from San Martin), and it has played a role in every vintage since. It gives the wine a much rougher, earthier character than the pretty 1984, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
We drank this out of a 12-litre bottle that some very happy waiters must have been able to finish. It was my second-favorite wine of the night: Medium-bodied, with darker cherry fruit, some earthiness and a bit of sun-dried tomato on the nose, and an elegant, medium-long finish. 94

1986: 86.7% Grenache, 10.5% Mourvedre, 2% Syrah, 0.8% Cinsault 1600 cases
We drank this out of a 750 ml bottle and it was oxidized. Done and gone.

1987: 38.5% Mourvedre, 35.8% Grenache, 25.7% Syrah 2400 cases
A big upswing in Contra Costa County Mourvedre supported the 50% jump in production. This wine has more oomph than the previous ones, but still has elegant raspberry fruit. In fact, it smelled like Grenache: bright and lively. 94

1988: 54% Mourvedre, 39% Grenache, 7% Syrah 2400 cases
This is the first wine that really has the Mourvedre character out front: funky, earthy, savory and sweaty. The black cherry fruit built with air; I liked it more the more time I spent with it, and probably would have enjoyed it a lot had it not been on the table with superior older wines. 90

1989: 44.6% Grenache, 43.2% Mourvedre, 12.2% Syrah 3200 cases
Another 33% jump in production size, and the quality drop is noticeable. The palate was nice, with raspberry fruit, savory notes and a gentle mouthfeel. But the peppery, closed, alcoholic nose kept it from being a winner. 87

1990: 42.6% Grenache, 38.7% Mourvedre, 18.7% Syrah 3600 cases
Here's a shift in gears in taste; I wonder if people noticed at the time? This is the first spicy wine, perhaps from the additional Syrah vineyards, but that's not a bad thing. The fruit is ripe cherry, with a molasses note on the finish. 89

1991: 45% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 24% Syrah, 7% Cinsault 3800 cases
Grahm was into spiciness in the early '90s. This one ripples with black pepper and cinnamon, while the Grenache character comes through in the raspberry fruit. Nice long finish. 92

1992: 45.7% Mourvedre, 30.7% Grenache, 11.9% Syrah, 11.7% Cinsault 4000 cases
The production is edging up, Grahm's getting busy, and you can see the impact here. There's nothing wrong with this wine, but there's no complexity: it's like cherry juice, bright but simple. 88

1993: 36.9% Mourvedre, 25.9% Syrah, 23% Grenache, 13.5% Cinsault, 0.7% Charbono 4200 cases
This wine did not age well: it's earthy, with some black currant and violet fruit. Not dead, but not exciting. Note the high percentage of Cinsault. 85

1994: 41.5% Grenache, 33.2% Mourvedre, 24.7% Syrah, 0.6% Cinsault 5488 cases
Production jumps again by nearly 30%, but this wine from a good vintage could handle it. The body is much fuller than previous wines, but there's nice ripe, rich raspberry fruit, with some star anise on the finish. Grahm prefers Old World wines, but this one's pretty New World, and was better without food. 91

1995: 45.5% Syrah, 36% Mourvedre, 17.6% Grenache, 0.9% Roussanne 6000 cases
Beginning of the dark ages. Note the not coincidental jump in percentage of Syrah -- a grape better suited for New World type wines.
"Part of that was greed on my part in making more Cigare," Grahm said. "But also I switched from large tanks to barrels. I ignored the wisdom of the Old World. Larger tanks keep their freshness better."
Unpleasant drying tannins made me sorry to taste this wine. NR (not rated, because I didn't like it enough)

1996: 49.8% Syrah, 34.5% Grenache, 8.2% Cinsault, 7.5% Mourvedre 7312 cases
Another 20% increase in production. Smells like Port that was left open. NR

1997 40.2% Grenache, 34.5% Syrah, 13.6% Cinsault, 6.7% Mourvedre 3812 cases
Grahm started using wood chips and organoleptic tannins. "In my Sorcerer's Apprentice-like frenzy to improve matters, maybe some things just got worse," he says. The worst decision was to use plastic "corks," which turned out to be terrible long-term because they start to fail after just a couple of years. This wine smelled like rubber and plum chewing gum. NR

1998 49% Grenache, 37% Syrah, 14% Mourvedre 4684 cases
This vintage also was cursed by plastic closures, but we tasted it from a 1.5-litre with a real cork, and it was drinkable, tasting of plum liqueur with a raw-meat low note. Not bad considering the context. 87

1999 36% Mourvedre, 34% Syrah, 30% Grenache 4541 cases
Grahm apparently got religion about non-interventionist winemaking in 2000, which makes this the most manipulated wine of the whole vertical: he added what he calls "an absolutely lethal dose of organoleptic tannin," and also says it was the year before he got serious about improving his grape sourcing.
I expected it to be awful. A purist would hate it on principle. But it wasn't bad at all: black cherry and plum, violet notes, some spiciness. I believe Grahm had finally mastered all the high-tech winemaking tricks he misemployed in the 1990s, ironically just before backing away from them. 90

2000: 39% Grenache, 32% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 1% Viognier 5914 cases
Grahm moved to screwcaps, which requires an adjustment in winemaking because they allow no oxygen at all. He didn't realize that yet. This wine was very reductive on the nose, smelling like earth and sulfur and little else. The bright cherry fruit on the palate made me wonder how the wine would have tasted after decanting for 12 hours. 86

2001: 34% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 27% Mourvedre, 2% Viognier 5424 cases
Grahm wrote, "The critics never cared for the 2001, but it is one of my favorite Cigares." He likes a slight mineral note on the nose. The fruit is bright cherry and pleasant. I'm with neither Grahm nor the critics. 87

2002: 36% Mourvedre, 34% Syrah, 22% Grenache, 7% Cinsault, 1% Counoise 4965 cases
For me this is the best Cigare of the '00s, and the first of the good wines that might still be hanging around in a few readers' cellars. This is a dark, savory wine -- very Mourvedre-like -- with black plum fruit, licorice and smoked ham notes and an earthy, funky aroma. 91

2003 35% Mourvedre, 32% Syrah, 26% Grenache, 7% Cinsault 6579 cases
The aroma of this wine was a turn-off; it smells cheap, like cherry Lif-Savrs. I like the darker black plum fruit on the palate and the rush of acidity at the end, but this was a step down for me. 86

2004: 38% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre, 8% Carignane, 7% Cinsault 5828 cases
Finally the Grenache character makes a comeback, probably helped by the discovery of some old-vine Carignane from Contra Costa County. This wine is pretty, with raspberry fruit, violet notes and an elegant mouthfeel. It's a throwback, in a good way. It's interesting because Grahm says the wine stunk during fermentation and he added copper sulfate just before bottling to try to prevent it from stinking in the bottle; it must have worked.
If you want to imagine what the mid-'80s Cigares were like, this is the closest to them. 91

2005: 50% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, 3% Carignane, 1% Cinsault 2641 cases
If you want to know where Grahm is going with Le Cigare Volant, then try this one, because he loves it: He wrote, "The '05 is just plain wonderful."
This is a very savory wine; it reminded me of Swedish salted black licorice, with notes of black plum and floral hints. There's also a grilled lamb note to it. I respect this wine, which is muy macho, but I prefer the prettier, more elegant Cigares, and I feel mournful that we won't get more of those save by accident. 89

2006: 43.6% Syrah, 43.5% Grenache, 11.7% Cinsault, 1.1% Mourvedre, 0.1% Carignane 4646 cases
This wine was reductive, mushroomy at best, sulphuric at worst. I confess I didn't give it the chance to improve with air. NR

Monday, May 10, 2010

Wine is always priced just right

“I had a $100 wine once. It wasn’t that good at all. I wish he hadn’t wasted all that money.”

An acquaintance told me that recently. As it turns out, that’s what every American believes -- although the numbers change for each person, according to a wine marketing guru I had the pleasure of dining with last week.

Research has shown that American wine drinkers all have a price point where they feel comfortable, whether it’s $5 a bottle, $25 or $125. And at every price point, Americans think cheaper wines are crap, while more expensive wines are a waste of money.

It doesn’t matter where the price point is. People who buy $5 bottles of wine think $3 wine is crap, while people who buy $50 bottles of wine think $100 bottles of wine are a waste of money.

Do you see yourself here? I do, even though my price-comfort range is wider than most people’s because I taste so much wine. There are only a few wines under about $9 that I don’t consider plonk (Vinho Verde is the major exception). I’m not sure what my upper limit is, because I get to taste expensive wines all the time, and some of them are great. Yet I was on the Sine Qua Non mailing list for a while, but dropped off because I realized that savvy purchasing would get me wines I liked as well for much less money.

This price-classification turns the traditional 4 P’s of marketing -- price, product, promotion and placement -- on its head.

With most products, the product itself is the most important thing. If you buy Crest toothpaste, you’ll stick with it even if Pepsodent is 25 cents cheaper; maybe even if it’s a dollar cheaper.

But few wine consumers are brand-loyal. If someone’s favorite Argentine Malbec is $10.99 and there’s one from the same region for $9.99 next to it, he’ll try the cheaper one. But if there’s also one for $6.99, he’s likely to sneer at it as plonk.

The exceptions to the absence of brand loyalty tend to be drinkers of the cheapest wines. Beringer White Zinfandel fans feel about Sutter Home White Zin the way Ford buyers feel about Chevys. And Almaden and Carlo Rossi drinkers are also very loyal: they’ve find their drink, and they’re sticking with it.

We wine lovers don’t often think of Carlo Rossi drinkers as part of our gang, but they are: only 61% of American adults drink any wine at all, ever.

Moreover, 80% of American wine consumption comes from just 17% of the population. As wine sales are continuing unabated throughout the Great Recession, that means some of us are doing a whole lot of consuming to keep the wine industry afloat.

Moreover, because many of us are not brand-loyal, we’re spreading our support around. Aren’t we generous? Just don’t try selling us any of that half-price plonk or those overpriced ripoffs. We know the best wines are all priced just right.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Soave, rico

Here's complete disclosure: I'm in Spain, where I'm drinking liters of great wine, yet I just spent half an hour searching through my tasting notes for an Italian wine I liked recently.

Why? My advertising deal with Wine Chateau (check out the display ad on the upper right), gives my readers a shipping discount, but the Internet wine discounter chooses the words the discount links to. This month, those words are "Italian wine."

I can write anything I want -- I could go easily go into a dissertation on Rueda -- but the words "Italian wine" would look pretty strange in an article discussing the relative merits of Verdejo, Viura and Sauvignon Blanc (Hint: Get the Verdejo. More on that later.)

Fortunately, last month I tried Inama's Soaves and was favorably surprised by what Stefano Inama is doing in a region I had long associated with relatively characterless whites.

I first opened his Inama Soave Classico 2008 ($17) when I was having a big platter of sashimi but felt like wine rather than sake. It didn't disappoint: it was crisp and lively, with good stone fruit, and was a great palate cleanser.

He also makes an Inama Vigneti di Foscarino Soave Classico 2007 ($26) from old Garganega vines on top of Mount Foscarino that's intense, with aromas of pineapple and gravel, and flavors of pungent passion fruit, a medium-weight mouthfeel, and vibrant acidity. This wine surprised me, as I didn't think Soave got this intense; shows what I know about Soave. I'm glad I didn't open this wine with sashimi. I had it with clam pasta, and it was just fine.

Both wines are available from Wine Chateau, and my readers get a shipping discount on any wines at all, whether or not it's Italian wine - Get 1/2 off shipping of 6 or more bottles with coupon code "blake29".

As the cool counter-cultural bands I used to see at bars around my university said, don't forget to tip your waitress.

(Further disclosure, courtesy of the FTC: The wines arrived as free samples, unexpected and unrequested. But I'm not getting any compensation for writing any of this, other than keeping my advertiser -- who really does have good prices -- happy. If you think even big newspapers don't do that these days, I've got some mortgage-based securities I'd like to sell you.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Wine and immigration

Picking grapes is hard work. There’s some skill involved, as I learned when I tried it myself. But mainly, it’s back-breaking labor and it pays poorly.

You won’t find many Americans picking wine grapes, or harvesting any other kind of fruit or vegetable. The California wine industry needs hundreds of itinerant workers, mostly Mexican, to get the grapes off the vine and into the wineries.

This is not unique to the US. In Spain, many harvest workers are from Poland. In Israel, grape pickers come from Thailand. Nobody wants to pick grapes for a living unless they’re economically desperate.

The immigration debate mostly ignores the realities of harvest work that have changed little since John Steinbeck wrote “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1939. Then, California grape growers took advantage of displaced Dust Bowl refugees to get other Americans cheap grapes. Americans were horrified by the conditions depicted in the book and film, but didn't volunteer to pay more for grapes. It took the United Farm Workers union several strikes to get labor-protection laws that made the job more humane.

Not coincidentally, grape growers starting hiring more illegal immigrants not long after, and grape prices stayed low.

There aren’t as many illegal pickers in Napa and Sonoma Counties as you might think. Grapes fetch a premium there and wages are good enough to attract permanent residents -- though not good enough in most cases for them to live outside of dormitories.

But as a nation, we would not produce many under-$10 bottles of wine without illegal immigrant pickers.

You probably expect me to launch into another attack on the new Arizona immigration law. But I’m not going to. I understand why Arizonans wanted this law, which basically just allows local cops to ask people for their papers.
The East Coast media’s hysterical overreaction to the law annoys me more than the law itself, because it’s typical of the polarized immigration debate in this country.

We have just two widely held positions on immigration: The left says, “These undocumented people are already here. Let’s give them a hug and a green card and access to the same services as citizens.” And the right says, “These criminals are undermining us. Let’s kick them all out, and maybe imprison them first as punishment.”*

* (The cost of imprisonment will apparently be paid from the same red-letter-day, it-doesn’t-really-count budget as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Good thing that money is unlimited!)

Now the Arizona law is being discussed from the same entrenched positions. The East Coast media -- you don’t see a lot of truckloads of border-jumpers in Boston -- is beating a drum for a boycott of Arizona Diamondbacks games, while the Rush Limbaugh types want everyone with a Spanish accent tossed in a prison camp in the desert, where they’ll be forced to wear pink underpants.

What we need -- and haven’t had -- is a rational, apolitical discussion of immigration. And grape picking is as good a place to start as any.

I am a huge advocate of legal immigration. This is a nation of immigrants, and unless your last name is Running Horse, your ancestors were immigrants too. Immigrants are the reason for our vitality; they come in hungry and eager to prove themselves, and have for generations. Whether it’s computer science or fusion cuisine, it’s hard to name an area of our national economy that has not been enriched by first-generation immigrants.

We need more immigrants, millions more. But they should be legal. They should be subject to our laws and welcome to our privileges. They should apply and be chosen. They should have traceable IDs, not stolen identities.

They should be willing to wait their turn for legal entry -- which they’re not currently doing because of our ridiculous immigration policies.

The reason Central Americans are paying Mexicans thousands of dollars to transport them across a hostile border is because of our need. If we didn’t need them, we wouldn’t hire them, and they wouldn’t come. But we do need them, so they stream over the border like air rushing into a vacuum.

Back to grape picking for a moment. Why would somebody from Michoacan risk crossing the border if there was no work picking grapes in Fresno? If Americans would do the work, he would not come, because he would lose money on the trip. But we won’t, and he will.

However, because of our irrational immigration system, he can’t get car insurance, so if he hits somebody, they’re screwed. He can’t get health insurance, so if he gets cut with a machete, he has to use the emergency room and we pay for it. People on the right complain about the symptoms. People on the left want to pay the bills and give him a hug and a green card. Nobody addresses the cause.

We need more immigrants! We need to acknowledge that, and set up a rational system that will stop rewarding lawbreakers. If a law-abiding man from Michoacan were to apply at the US Embassy in Mexico City for a visa to pick grapes, they would laugh in his face. So what’s he to do: break the law, or stay home? That’s the choice we give the workers we need.

Much of my disgust with the liberal media on this issue comes from having been a legal immigrant myself, and being married to a legal immigrant today. Do you know how much more difficult it is to become a legal immigrant since 9/11? You don’t, do you? I don’t blame you: the media isn’t interested in the issue. And that is a huge part of the problem.

When newspapers write stories about immigration, they are inevitably sob stories about some lawbreaker: somebody who has been in the country illegally for 15 years and is about to be deported because of a misdemeanor. We’re supposed to weep for this person. I’ve been to more than 40 countries, have lived in three, and have never overstayed a visa, so I have little sympathy for the usually pathetic excuses. No wonder conservative talk show hosts mock these stories.

But that guy in South Korea with an engineering degree who’s been on a waiting list for five years for a visa, and hasn’t come because he’s the type who obeys laws? There’s never a story about him. Liberals don’t care because he’s not an illegal immigrant. Conservatives don’t care because they don’t want more immigrants anyway. So he waits and waits while less law-abiding people jump the line.

Back to grape pickers: We need a category of visas for guest workers; fruit pickers are a perfect example. They should permit multiple entries and be renewable. If someone keeps coming -- and going back on time -- for 5 years without any criminal activity, they should be able to get a higher level of green card.

Most guest worker proposals I’ve seen have a time limit, after which they’re not allowed to return. That’s silly. Guest workers should be treated like probationary workers in a company. If they’re good at picking fruit, they are hard workers by definition, and they will be good for this nation.

If conservatives don’t like it, I suggest they get out to California and pick grapes, even for one day. Just because anybody can do a job doesn’t mean anybody will do it.

For my parting shot, I want everybody who has a position on this issue to tell me the average amount you spend for a bottle of wine. If it’s over $20, then it can be harvested by permanent fulltime workers. Hopefully everybody who thinks the Arizona immigration law is a good idea is spending this much money on wine.

If your average wine costs $10 or less, you are encouraging the illegal immigrant labor flow. You need to be against the Arizona law. Are you?